Category Archives: Politics

a quick note about corporatization of universities, museums, etc. . . .

As both Matt Yglesias and Atrios have pointed out, we seem to be living in an era when the ethical norms surrounding the conduct of business have reached all-time lows, and where all sorts of bad practices can be rationalized with principles like “profit maximization” or “shareholder value.”  In essence, the marketplace is the place where everyone steals everyone else’s lunch, and where everyone must guard against their neighbor.  Not a very productive arrangement, is it?

What I’ve noticed is that even in the face of widespread disapproval of such predatory, unaccountable behavior, the elites who run public entities like public universities and museums still insist on using this rhetoric to justify their decisions.

So what does a public university look like when it’s run for the purposes of “profit maximization” or “shareholder value,” to the point where Presidents or Boards are supposedly obligated to choose these kinds of values over the more traditional missions of the university, like the “pursuit of knowledge,” the “liberal arts” or even “educational effectiveness”?

It means that enrollments must always be maximized, “profitable” fields favored over the “unprofitable ones,” and the distinctions between the “non-profit” and “for-profit” institutions erased. This set of drastic changes is what the combined faculty, students, and alumni at UVA successfully protested against, and have beaten back, at least at this time.  (And Siva Vaidhyanathan deserves enormous credit for his public role as an inclusive advocate for higher education at UVA)

It also seems to me that if the historical practices of the “for-profits” are any guide, any university run under these principles of maximization will quickly, and necessarily, begin to engage in duplicitous behavior: students will be promised one kind of education, and provided something very different.  These schools’ profit-margin derives not from reputation, but from their ability to capture the most vulnerable students and educate them as cheaply–and as superficially–as possible. And the universities that do not care to run themselves this way will be competing with those who do.

In my view, what happened at UVA suggests the benefits of faculty publicly aligning their interests with those of their students, their parents, and especially, their institutions’ alumni.  This made the BOV’s claim to represent the “public’s” supposed desire for “efficiency” and “strategic dynamism” risible, and it revealed the isolation of the Dragas faction of the Board from the rest of the university community.

There will always be multiple claims upon “the public,” and multiple claims to speak “for the public,” and faculty can help groups like students and alumni recognize how their own needs are being ignored in the drive to ever-greater efficiency.  This seems to me the best lesson to take from the recent events at UVA.


rector dragas consults with her pr firm about the future of higher education . . . .

You know, she has a surprisingly deep voice in this video.


extraction economy

[aerial image of wastes from Moncks, S.C. coal power plant, 2009, from J. Henry Fair, Industrial Scars; for more info, visit]

As I was reading about the UVA debacle over President Teresa Sullivan’s firing, which apparently involved a “hostile takeover” of the university by its business school, its Board, and Goldman Sachs, I kept thinking that we are reaching (have reached?) the limits of the one-time alliance between financial elites and public universities.

Once upon a time, universities could view (or depict) these relationships as at least an exchange in which the legitimacy of cultural capital was bestowed upon donors for their philanthropic, disinterested, financial support.  And to the extent that boards and their members allowed universities, their administrations and faculty, the independence to pursue their mission, this arrangement could work, in many institutions (including my own).

In the wake of continued state and federal disinvestment in public higher ed, however, the smiles and handshakes have faded away at certain schools, and it now seems that at least some of these boards, and some portion of the bankers and businessmen and -women who populate them– consider our public universities their property, or better yet, another group of businesses for them to take over, extract the value, and discard. (And we should not neglect the role of state governors in promoting this kind of cronyism between university boards and the corporate community)

An exasperated UVA professor attempts to spell out the consequences of this university-as-business metaphor:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

One of the details that has slipped out from the post-mortems for Sullivan was that she was unwilling to make certain changes related to online education.  My suspicion, which is echoed by a historian and alumna who has done her own investigations, is that the distance ed issue is not just about eliminating tenure and the normative classroom-based, face to face model for instruction, though those clearly align nicely with other right-wing prescriptions for higher ed.

No, the management jargon of “strategic dynamism” may very well simply describe how private companies (perhaps even Goldman Sachs’ own Education Management Corporation) plan to capture public instructional funds that otherwise would have gone to teachers and students and face to face instruction.  It is just another form of asset-stripping.  This is the beauty of the instructional outsourcing model that many lower-tier schools have already adopted, and which flagship schools like UVA, Berkeley are now getting pressured to adopt.  And this is the Extraction Economy as it works in the field of public higher education.

I’ll leave the final word to blogger Atrios, who introduced me (far too late, I admit) to the very useful concept of the extraction economy a few months ago:

We’re basically in an extraction economy right now, where the real money is in finding points to siphon off all of the income that people generate. Unregulated utility monopolies, rapacious health insurance companies and the medical industry generally, and of course Big Finance, are all devoted to increasing the slice of your life that they can steal from you, fair and square.

So here we are.  What shall we do about it?


[thanks to RS for the links]

UPDATE: The WaPo has published an anonymously sourced piece that explains the rationale used by Rector Dragas to fire Sullivan, which focuses solely on Sullivan’s refusal to eliminate departments like German and the Classics.  This seems farfetched to me, but no matter.  No one who thought this might be a bad idea, or a violation of existing governance or state law, was quoted.

money quote

“If the Left is going to launch a realistic offensive in the United States, it can only happen, it seems to me, if we start taking this notion of self-creation seriously, and understand that no one is going to look at members of caste-like, self-reproducing elites that try to monopolize the power to determine what’s important in human life, and accept them as genuine agents of human liberation.”–David Graeber, “Preface: Spring 2005″ (h/t Zunguzungu’s Tumblr)


the politics of accountability: between the right and a hard place

At some point, I’d like to take on some more 18th-centuryish topics, but I noticed this week that the issues Laura and I have been discussing about accountability have been turning up in the presidential race.  [Warning: very little eighteenth-century content in what follows]

I would say that these discussions are occurring because accountability is the language both parties adopt when they want to politicize higher ed for their own partisan ends.  However, their uses of this language are not symmetrical.  The Right uses accountability to advance its culture war strategy against its ideological enemies and against reality itself, while what’s his name, our current post-post-Partisan Democratic President, uses it as part of his usual triangulation strategy against the constituencies that helped vote him into office (cf. Rahm Emanuel on the GM rescue: “F@ck the UAW”).

It’s not a surprise when we see Rick Santorum saying

The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn’t one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?”

And, of course, for Santorum, Obama’s calling for all children to receive college education is a form of “snobbery,” and a veiled attempt to destroy the religious beliefs of students.  Anti-intellectualism is just one of the ways that the right wing traditionally does its version of class politics, even as we see teachers (both K-12 and higher ed, along with other public workers) getting downsized, pauperized and demonized across the country. But to some extent, this kind of attack seems very familiar to us, even when we see massive amounts of Koch money bankrolling it.

This brings me to the soggy birthday cake of ravished hopes that Obama brought with him to the University of Michigan this week, where relatively unimpoverished, undespairing students were delighted to hear that help was on the way, in the form of more work-study hours (yay, xeroxing!), more student loans, and lots and lots of accountability measures to punish universities that teach poor and working-class students.  And I’m glad that there was no mention of for-profit institutions or declining state contributions to universities, because those would just make people angrier and more partisan than they already are.

As someone who shares Laura’s hope that discussions of higher education policy become more reflective, and more effectively engaged with reality, on both sides, I’m sympathetic to her suggestion that academics think more analytically about accountability.  We do need to recognize that accountability is not an isolated aspect of our work, but something that permeates our multiple roles as scholars, teachers, and (sometime) public intellectuals.  But I do believe that part of the anger we display every time this issue comes up comes from our sense of accountability’s duplicity and hidden agendas in the wider political context.

It’s not that different than this example of Matt Damon getting irritated at being asked leading questions by an interviewer who just loves the idea of job insecurity for other people:

So how to respond to the whole context of accountability?  And what kinds of accountability can we call upon to alert the public to the dismantling of public higher education?


“friends who imagined a nation”

–I admit I was put off by this subtitle in Ophelia Field’s fine 2008 trade book on the Kit-Cat club.  This is a shame, because it is a superbly written “group biography” of these figures, with plenty of original research behind it.

I also think that her choice of the group biography format was wise, given the nature of the sources she was dealing with:

The Club’s authors seldom wrote autobiographically, and when they did, they rarely described interior worlds or private feelings.  In this sense however, a group biography is an apt form for a book about the Kit-Cats: they believed creative forces came from the ‘commerce’ or ‘intercourse’ between men’s minds, as opposed to later beliefs in subconscious, individual sources of creativity. They believed  that their Club was more, in other words, than the sum of its parts (xvii).

This switch in focus seems particularly helpful for gaining insight into “creative lives unprejudiced by the Romantic cult of the artist, which still holds us largely in its thrall” (xvi).  And I’d argue that this might be a fruitful way to approach other aspects of this period’s writing, politics, and cultural life more generally.

Apart from the subtitle’s awkward half-allusion to Benedict Anderson, my chief hesitation lies in that bald, unqualified term “friends.”  Why couldn’t we use a term like “elites”?  Or “Whigs”? Or “Party Functionaries?” For this group, at any rate, it seems like any definition of “friends” would include meanings like this.

Without denying the familial, affective, and intimate dimension of this era’s “politics of dependence” (Thompson), how do we square these two impulses at work in elite interactions?  And do elites, even when they socialize with one another (and of course they do socialize with one another), really consider themselves as friends rather than fellow insiders with a common interest in power?


Today’s Eighteenth Century

Tita Chico continues the discussion:

In the 2008 edition of Profession, William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin, scholars whose work is grounded in the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies, advise literary critics to stop doing cultural studies altogether. Their primary complaint is that the term “culture” connotes two ideas that emerged concurrently in the late eighteenth century, both the notion that every society has a culture and the understanding that culture more narrowly means high culture, not just any art form. For them, this “historic doubling” (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 102) produces an incoherence that negatively implicates cultural studies, forcing practitioners both to dispense with disciplinary logic to accommodate the broad meaning of culture and also, contradictorily, to revert back to the disciplines in their most traditional forms to analyze great art. Given the double-bind they imagine, the only solution, in their view, is to stop the practice altogether. Long before the emergence of cultural studies, however, the field of eighteenth-century British literary studies in particular had been shaped by what might be called “culture,” “historicism,” or even “background.” The historicizing tendency is evident, for instance, in footnotes to Gulliver’s Travels that narrow the satire to a specific political allegory (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 22 n. 1; 36, n.1) as well as in the work of critics such as F. R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks, who would not ordinarily be associated with contextualizing (Norris, “Pope among the Formalists,” 141). Given the field’s persistent, if uneasy, relation to these references, Warner and Siskin’s complaint posits an opposition that, in effect, undermines the important ways cultural studies over the past twenty years has opened up topics, texts, and methodologies for consideration – and a flexibility and capaciousness – that have, in turn, strengthened the field. Their message also obscures the genealogy of today’s eighteenth century, an archive and an epistemology that have been made available because of the questions and concerns that cultural studies raise.

When cultural studies began to emerge in the academy during the late 1980s and 1990s, eighteenth-century literary studies was buffeted by the recovery of forgotten texts and by explicitly theoretical work that called “attention to the resistance to contemporary theory that has largely characterized the study of eighteenth-century English literature” (Nussbaum and Brown, 1). The conceptual reframing of “early modern” that often accompanied the moniker of “cultural studies” at this time likewise offered a loose boundary to think beyond the confines of the traditional eighteenth century. Cultural studies scholarship opened up the canon, extended the boundaries, re-conceived historical difference, and produced political criticism.  In its most hopeful manifestation, cultural studies asked literary scholars to look at different things–to take the literary critical eye to examine the formal features of materials that were beyond the normative bounds of the literary and, in so doing, to look at them differently. If the field of eighteenth-century literary studies has long engaged with “culture,” then cultural studies has given many scholars concerned with eighteenth-century literature an opportunity to reflect upon these texts’ relation to history and other contemporary artifacts per se, and to grapple with and deepen the various intellectual and political legacies of the theory wars.

Even as cultural studies began to make these kinds of inroads into how eighteenth-century literature was studied and taught, there were various forms of resistance to its practice and findings. One year (2004), the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Cultural Studies Caucus featured a panel of scholars voicing their fatigue with political criticism and hoping that scholarship might just focus on art again. The next year (2005) showcased critics who firmly advocated for political criticism, a conversation that led, in part, to a special issue of Philological Quarterly edited by Rajani Sudan, entitled “Rethinking New Formalism.” While the arguments back and forth can be productive, the significant difference today is that these debates now take place within a much more fraught and tenuous economic environment for higher education in which almost every unit on campus is under budgetary – and, at times, political – siege. As it turned out, the year that Warner and Siskin published their cease-and-desist message happened to be the same year that the worst economic crisis in the US since the 1930s began. Why does the concurrence of the call to stop cultural studies and the economic contractions convulsing through institutions of higher education matter? If this recession “threatens to be not so much a period of retrenchment followed by recovery as an opening onto a thoroughgoing transformation of the postsecondary system” (Porter), then it is even more incumbent to articulate and to advocate for the field’s pedagogical and scholarly work, and that economic entrenchment not be allowed to be repackaged as an intellectual principle.

Implicitly underwriting Warner and Siskin’s work, as well as that of others, may be a concern for preservation, perhaps in response to material and political conditions that threaten obsolescence (Warner and Siskin, “Stopping,” 105; Siskin and Warner, Enlightenment, 1-12; Rosenthal; Latour, 232). At this time, there is much work to be done to demarcate and identify the intellectual work that literary scholars do, though arguably the trope of the humanities in crisis has circulated for more than a century. When a friendly and curious colleague from the sciences asks why graduate students are reading Robinson Crusoe, “a book they all should have read years ago,” the question incorrectly presumes that the reading of literary critics is just like all other reading and that the meaning of a literary text is easily decipherable and ultimately transhistorical. The answer to such a question must convey the knowledge production of literary studies writ large as well as the specificity of today’s eighteenth century. Reading as literary critics means re-reading with ever greater insight and nuance, developing and refining the skills of close reading and attending to much more than the adventure story that the scientist remembers having read as a child. Reading also means doing so in concert with related texts, no matter how that relation might be defined, through the lens of today’s eighteenth century. Together, these models of reading allow for an illumination of how, for example, the afterlife of Robinson Crusoe as a recurring myth of Western individualism and colonialism in fact overshadows the uneasy and uneven global order through which Robinson navigates.

Setting aside their provocation, Warner and Siskin make a helpful point that the “culture” of “cultural studies” is an under-theorized term that, in practice, stands as “the Teflon category. We fret over it—everyone complaining at one time or another that it doesn’t quite do the job—but the complaints don’t stick because it’s so easy to use. We simply don’t know what we would do without it” (Warner and Siskin, 104). Extending their logic, “culture” in “cultural studies” can be a catch-all term that almost mystically has the evidentiary status of a truth claim, though the specificity of that status may not be fully articulated; as a result, it is important to reconsider how the term “culture” functions in eighteenth-century literary studies. How, for example, does the word “culture” suggest, but perhaps not fully explore, particular domains of knowledge and experience? How are these related to – or in tension with – literary practices?  What happens, moreover, when agents and actors are imagined in specific relation to claims about culture? The point of these questions is not to dispense with cultural studies per se, in large part because of the radical work that it has provided, pedagogically, intellectually, and institutionally.  The literary criticism characterized here has brought with it innovations in how we study literature and who matters enough to have a voice, whether this is in the eighteenth-century archive or on the faculty and in the student body of the modern university. Cultural studies has the potential to open up institutions to forms of difference that can deepen our thought and practices. Literary criticism that perceives and articulates these forms of difference can show more nuanced relationships and yield ever more powerful and pertinent analyses.

To stop cultural studies, then, is to yield to obsolescence, an idea that, of course, took root in the eighteenth century along with its twin, novelty. Both of these likewise opened a Pandora’s box of criticism qua criticism that arguably has produced this putative impasse in the first place (Latour, 232). So while it may be novel to argue for obsolescence from within the field at the same moment that higher education and intellectual work are being challenged from without, the more productive route is to consider the eighteenth century as an archive that promises a way forward. This is an understanding of the Enlightenment as a theoretical-historical concept that simultaneously calls for radical change as well as harbors appeals to the ideals of humanism. Today’s eighteenth-century archive is, as Derrida acknowledges, “at once institutive and conservative,” it catalogues anew and it preserves (Derrida, 9). Today’s eighteenth century builds upon and extends the cultural studies model with its multiplicity of voices, texts, and concerns, known through and by the material conditions of their production and interpretation. Today’s eighteenth century also encourages scholars to see beyond the traditional markers of the field, whether those divisions are defined chronologically or regionally. These efforts –whether regarding, say, sensory perception, poetry, or politics– draw from the expansiveness of earlier iterations of cultural studies and share, at the core, a commitment to mimesis, the object of literary interpretation. Thus the knowledge making of literary critics is not exclusively about the discovery of new texts and new things, or merely re-enacting an epistemology that vacillates between novelty and obsolescence. The work of literary critics is more accurately, if difficultly, concerned with unraveling these histories of representation, pushing ourselves to think hard about what is represented when, how, and by whom — arguably, the central tenets of a cultural studies approach–even when the answers to and satisfaction with those questions change over time.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print. 

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-48. Print.

Norris, Christopher. “Pope among the Formalists: Textual Politics and ‘The Rape of the Lock.’” Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry. Ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1987. 134-61. Print.

Nussbaum, Felicity and Laura Brown, eds. The New 18th Century: Theory, Politics, Literature. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. Print.

Porter, Catherine. From the President, “(Re)Defining Productivity,” Reprinted from the Winter 2009 MLA Newsletter. Weblog entry. Accessed 24 April 2011.


Rosenthal, Laura J. “The Perils and Pleasures of Legitimacy.”  Paper presented at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference, January 8, 2011. Revised and expanded as “Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities.” Weblog entry. The Long 18th. January 27, 2011. April 1, 2011. (URL: ). A fuller version is forthcoming in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.

Siskin, Clifford and William B. Warner, eds. This Is Enlightenment. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010. Print.

Sudan, Rajan, ed. “Rethinking New Formalism,” special issue of Philological Quarterly 86:3 (Summer 2007). Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. Second edition. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961. Print.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.


This was the Foucault quote I always wanted to use in my Cynicism book, but couldn’t find at the time.  Insert this between pages 212-13, and discuss:

I do not think that there is anything that is functionally–by its very nature–absolutely liberating.  Liberty is a practice.  So there may, in fact, always be a number of projects whose aim is to modify some constraints, to loosen, or even to break them, but none of these projects can, simply by its nature, assure that people will have liberty automatically, that it will be established by the project itself.  The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them.  This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around.  Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because “liberty” is what must be exercised.”–(from the interview “Space, Knowledge, and Power,” in the Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, 245).


citizens of the world, unite!

[image from Liz Gasperini, "Normal and Productive Bodies"]

Some time ago I decided that the eighteenth-century standoff between cosmopolitans and nationalists was more than a one-time event.  No, it was a recurring ideological narrative, perhaps a meme, with a distressing tendency to end the same way every time, with the political defeat of the cosmopolitans and reformists.  And globalization or no globalization, it doesn’t seem as if the nation-state is going away any time soon.

So it didn’t surprise me to see Barack Obama, who has been presenting himself as the Candidate of Uplift, drawing on this kind of language (hedged of course with assurances of his patriotism) on his Berlin trip.  Nor did it surprise me that loads of people reacted with outrage.   (what else could they say?)   What I am interested in is whether the usual “Burkean” accusations against Obama of foreignness, effeminacy, and treasonous lack of attachments will work this time.  It’s certainly worked in the past.

[Bonus: for those blessed with a classical education, I'm providing a link to Diogenes the Cynic's Myspace page.  And those able to take some strong language should tune into his good friend Bill Hicks' YouTube video on "patriotism," conveniently embedded on that page.]


UPDATE: Oops, it looks like Obama’s speeches in front of 200, 000 people have been buried underneath the truckload of trash that McCain dumped on his head this past week.  Obama’s response has been to call McCain and his camp “cynical” but not “racist.”

Whew, glad that’s been cleared up.  Karl Rove and his friends might as well give up right now and go home.  And everybody knows how rhetorically effective it is to accuse your opponents of cynicism, at least in a general election.


Jonathan Swift visits London, Paris, and (of course) New York


[Bust of Swift from St. Patrick\'s Cathedral, Dublin]As one of the governors of the city’s hackney coaches, carts, and carriages, [Swift] enjoyed preferential treatment by the coachmen of Dublin, but this pleasure, along with his delight in evening walking, had to be curtailed because of dizziness. Swift nevertheless continued to regard the liberty of St Patrick’s (a precinct independent of the archbishop’s administration) as a little world under his own absolute control. (Clive Probyn, ODNB, “Jonathan Swift”) (image from Sacred Destinations Travel Guide)


It’s funny how much we associate Swift with cities, but these are never major cities, at least not in his own mind.  The Journal to Stella has some superb descriptions of London, and apparently there was an intended trip to France (and, I presume, Paris) in 1727 that was scotched because of George I’s death and Stella’s final decline. 

Throughout Swift’s writings, satirical and otherwise, we can always recognize his rage at his displacement from the centers of power and authority, as well as his resentment at not being where he was supposed to be.  Dublin is not London.  No wonder that Said wrote about Swift with such solicitude for his “exile,” which was a fate chosen for him and a role he consciously assumed.  There were two equal and contradictory desires, to return to the center to receive his due, but also to stay where he was and exercise power and authority on his own terms.

But how easy is it to imagine Swift in the role of Addison or Prior, as a successful politician, courtier, diplomat who just happened to be major writer?  When I read Swift on the abuses of power, his ridicule carries an unmistakable whiff of frustrated desire, an aftertaste of sour grapes along with his disavowals.  In his impersonations of the stupid and the powerful, he works with what is almost a sympathetic identification with their banality, as if to say, “this is what I might have become.”  For Swift, the pain of exclusion provides his insights into the workings of power.