The university is supposedly in crisis: a shift from research and teaching to management and PR, from professors to adjuncts and other temporary staff, too many students, too much tuition, too many sad biographies. The reserve army of academic labor is driven into precarity, while the lucky few with tenure are driven to a burn-out. The Humboldtian model of the university is giving way to the neoliberal model. In the former, the university served to cultivate a critical populace; in the latter, it is a machine that turns knowledge into lines on a CV. The university has moved from a place of Bildung to a place of Ausbildung: knowledge becomes a commodity, an attribute, a predicate whose transfer is certified by a title or degree.
The Humboldtian model distinguishes itself from its predecessors on two points: the coincidence of research and teaching in the figure of the professor, and state funding, which guaranteed a degree of autonomy not present in educational institutions of a clerical or vocational bent. Needless to say, nostalgia is pointless: the Humboldtian University was a bastion of exclusionism and nationalism. But there is another reason this model should hardly serve as an ideal. The public sphere that emerged in the 19th century allowed critique to freely circulate as long as it did not cross the threshold from word to gesture. The university was one of the sites that fostered critique while simultaneously containing it. As Friedrich II declared, twenty-five years before Fichte, Humboldt and Schleiermacher started corresponding about their new university: “You are allowed to think as much as you want and on whatever topic you wish; as long as you obey!”
It is important to fight for free education, and to guard the free spaces that still exist within the university. But why should our attempts to build spaces of critical thought not continue outside the university’s walls? It is not hard to create spaces that are more stimulating than the average seminar room, and rather than transform the institution from within, we might take whatever value that institution represents for us and try to nurture it outside. In every civilization, there are places that mirror its dominant institutions while contesting, inverting, and critically reflecting on them; Foucault called these sites heterotopias. To create a heterotopic university is not to oppose learning, but to liberate learning from its subjection to the imperatives that have come to dominate the neoliberal university.
Critique itself is also supposed to be in crisis. This crisis was first diagnosed in the 1960s, when consumption and mass media were seen to have displaced any critical attitude. The student movement of ‘68 was assimilated to a new form of capitalism, in which generalized competition and precarity served to exacerbate critique’s neutralization. In today’s Europe, where the institutions that traditionally served to channel critique (the unions, the communist parties, and now the labour parties) are in the process of disintegration, the domain of critique is occupied by the right: the most efficacious forms of anti-establishment thought are practiced by the new populist parties. Indeed, a critique separated from its material embeddedness easily turns into resentment.
But perhaps the fate of critique was sealed when it was reduced to the realm of words, enclosed in seminar rooms, trapped in newspapers, and – in the most extreme case – temporally limited in demonstrations or insurgencies. To draw lines between life and words or between normality and rupture is to act as if life in itself is not political. These lines are not simply erased, and we are not proposing a life without alienation. However, one can work against the capitalist separation of manual and intellectual labor, of theory and practice, of ownership and use. Power can ignore words, or resist them, or bend them to its aims, but a form-of-life in which the oppositions that sustain the status quo are suspended is always an affront: a lived critique.
If there is some idealism in this notion, we hope it is a productive idealism, in the most material sense.