University as an Intellectual Asylum
Asylum today means both sanctuary from violence or oppression, but also a place of incarceration. The term originates from ancient Greek, where solun meant seizure, so asolun meant freedom from being seized. Medieval churches or monasteries were places of asylum from persecution, but in the transition to modern times other asylums sprung up where the sick, the insane and the criminal were detained, often permanently. Contemporary camps, detention centres and other forms of internment express this tragic irony by warehousing asylum seekers and refugees.
Another key institution is the university, where, today, I teach sociology, covering media, culture, theory and more recently, unemployment and the welfare state. Every year a fresh group of youths who are coming of age, mixed with a few mature students, enter my classes. I put them through various tests, the sort of institutional educational disciplining described by Foucault, reshaping their subjectivity so that they ‘come of age’, generally by becoming sceptical, imaginative and knowledgeable. Elements of power and critique are involved; Bourdieusian games of cultural capital are played; Freire-style pedagogy of the oppressed hovers closely. For them, the institution is a form of testing and experimentation which will transform them, much like other educational asylums.
Then they leave and I must stay with my colleagues, who have doctorates, publications, research projects and networks. Officially, we are the pinnacle (or local plateau) of academic achievement. Alternatively, we are the real inmates of the university, incarcerated within it.
The University is our Intellectual Asylum. We can go home, but we cannot really leave, because, despite all the jargon about outreach, multiple stake-holders and real-world applications, we are generally quite useless outside the institution.
Implicitly, we came to the university seeking refuge from utilitarianism, functionality, market logics, banality, tradition, conformity, consumerism, capitalism, patriarchy or the racial state. Perhaps our lives weren’t threatened, but the life of the mind that we develop while we are here could not be sustained outside its hallowed walls.
Scholarly excellence has led to a sort of dependence on the university; specialisation in academia and little else renders us reliant on this asylum for our income and our identity. The winners of the intellectual game are rewarded financially, but cannot really leave the game.
Beyond our income, our identity is reliant on the institution; in the digital era anyone can see what you write, where you publish it and how frequently you are cited. Publication is a panopticon. Keeping a foothold in this game, not to mention chasing rainbows for the crock of gold called research funding, requires that we dedicate our lives to academia or fall behind.
Of course, many of us scorn certain forms of academic research, especially in this era of academic over-production, so that many papers are never cited, and celebrity theorists become magnets for all references. But, no matter what we most abhor in academia, there’s almost certainly someone somewhere who despises us in turn. The notion that much of this is an insiders’ game, written in impenetrable jargon, with miniscule stakes, in an unending clamour is a philistine argument, from which intellectuals seek asylum. Yet without philistinism, we should all consider if there is anyone who would find our ideas meaningful, howsoever communicated, if we did not have colleagues to impress and students to confuse.
In this era of academic precarity, thousands of other intellectuals are working very hard to win the lottery of tenure, clamouring to be incarcerated in this Intellectual Asylum. Yet, the presence of this large precariat who desire tenure does not mean that the prize is not a trap.
According to Foucault’s analysis of institutions, the sequestration of a certain population to a disciplinary apparatus has certain consequences for the rest of society. For the ill to be quarantined, the health of the whole population must be checked, monitored, managed and promoted. So too, the insane, the dying, the criminal and so forth. Sure, prisons may fail to rehabilitate, but these failures are accompanied by the persistent attempt to redesign them, and by the disciplining of the rest of the population.
What are the consequences of institutionalising the intellectuals?
Warehousing intellectual debates as ‘merely’ academic implies that the rest of society can ignore all complexities. So, politicians, policy makers, journalists and others can proceed without perplexity, thinking – ‘Never mind the scholarly debates, what does the research say? Is it true or false?’
After the intellectuals are rounded up and shut up in academia exploring their own strange symptoms, things are simple, perhaps banal – or should we say ‘pragmatic’? The imaginary ‘real world’ is a stark and barren place. Like a population purged of lepers, the public sphere separated from intellectuals expels much as ‘merely academic’.
Debate is limited to a few tawdry models: Quasi-scientific discussion of the ‘evidence’, with emphasis on data without reflection on theoretical assumptions; Critical thinking wherein basic logic and negative doubt are the only tools; Imitative accusations that the other is ideological or hegemonic. Our intellectual traditions are reduced to a series of tricks, mainly rhetorical, that any social media junkie or Donald Trump can easily master.
Within the Intellectual Asylum we are advised to translate ourselves for the modern public sphere, to make ourselves relevant or be excluded from the public sphere. If we are to shout out from the Ivory tower, we shout into the empty void we left after us.
By seeking refuge among the special pantheon who can speak our strange jargon and appreciate and envy our esoteric musings, we have – individually, incrementally – contributed to sequestering intellectual life into a store-house, mothballed until someone needs us. That moment is clearly marked by the announcement of competitive funding for research, so that intellectuals can be utile, though usually along well-trammelled lines.
The contemporary educational state makes good use of its intellectual asylums. Science is made popular. History is made relevant. Philosophy is made accessible. Yet, after these brief public forays, the intellectuals are locked up in their refuge again, glad that the pantomime of communication is over.
Nowadays, policy makers, politicians and public figures have Ph.Ds. There are MA courses in ‘doing stuff’, and an increasingly large proportion of the population have a BA at least. Yet, this ‘diploma disease’ does less to breach than reinforce the sequestration of intellectual life, making knowledge a tool for technical tasks, maybe dragged into political struggles, but ultimately separate from life itself, which is, somehow, simple.
Indeed, the sequestration of intellectual life also infects scholars, many of whom take academic life as absurd work and declare their indifference to it. Ordinary life, real life is somehow divorced from and superior to the life of the mind. Even self-hating intellectuals, however, will rarely spurn an opportunity to publish something.
Of course, this is also the era of the engaged scholar, the public sociologist, the activist researcher and such like. Such caped or gowned crusaders react to injustice and inequality, although no camp has a monopoly on critique; liberals and socialists and all political persuasions have their pet intellectuals. We cannot presume that the cacophony of critique will be resolved by debate and enlightenment, a ship which sailed centuries ago. Rather, we should notice that these forays generally involve downplaying theory, discarding complexity and rendering knowledge useful to a de-intellectualised politics.
Following Foucault, the point is not to decry the present, still less to cherish the past nostalgically, whether it be Ancient Greece, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Nor should we yet despair a different future. Instead, the aim is to rethink our contemporary conditions. Recognising ourselves as refugees in an intellectual asylum, and considering the wider consequences is merely a beginning, a diagnosis.