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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Saturday, July 21, 2018

What does Renaissance literature have to do with Critical University Studies?

by Lizzie Swann
Faculty of English
University of Cambridge

As a scholar of the former, with a growing interest in the latter, this is a question I’ve asked myself a few times over the past year or so. On the one hand, most of my days are spent reading, thinking, and writing about topics that are likely to seem highly esoteric to most people outside of my discipline, and probably to some within it, too.  In the past month, for example, I’ve been working on an essay about early scientific experiments into what were called ‘self-shining’ substances (such as phosphorus), and how these experiments informed metaphors of light in contemporary poetry. On the other hand, as part of the British Academy Early Career Network on Critical University Studies, under the dynamic, astute, and generous leadership of Alison Wood at the University of Cambridge, I have begun, slowly, to familiarize myself with the administrative and financial processes, and political policies and ideologies, which underpin universities in the twenty-first century.

For the most part, I’ve been inclined to see these two sets of interests as absolutely distinct. Renaissance culture is a long-standing fascination, nourished by brilliant teachers, mentors, and colleagues. Critical University Studies is a more recent pursuit, prompted by a desire to know more about how the institutions in which I expect to spend my professional life actually function, about what kind of conditions of work I might expect, and about the different kinds of role I might take on. It also came from a desire to understand how higher education is perceived outside the academy itself, and how I might best justify the work that I do to people who are suspicious of it – people like the taxi driver who, after asking what I do for a living, asked in belligerent tones, ‘what’s the point of that, then?’

Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve been mistaken in seeing my research on Renaissance literature and history on the one hand, and my interest in Critical University Studies on the other, as separable and distinct – and whether this error, if that’s what it is, reflects a broader fallacy within Critical University Studies itself. In particular, it seems to me that CUS has tended to focus on broad social, economic, political, and institutional forces at the expense of sustained engagement with the passions and preoccupations that drive the research and teaching of particular individuals. Another way to put this is to say that it treats ‘the university’ as an institutional entity that is separable from the specifics of the work that takes place there. CUS seems to presume that an individual’s conditions of work have little or no bearing on the content of that work. So whether you’re working in a permanent position, or a short-term, teaching-intensive fellowship, may have a bearing on whether or not you manage to finish and publish that article on (say) the dissemination of Romanesque architecture in early medieval Europe, or the psychology of high-altitude climbers – but it will have little bearing on the content or argument of that article.

To me, this seems implausible: surely an individual’s conditions of work, and their feelings and thoughts about those conditions, will influence the kind of research they do, and therefore the kinds of knowledge they produce? In my own case, I’m sure that my current position as an ECR on an interdisciplinary collaborative project in the humanities has influenced, consciously or unconsciously, the work I do. Much of my current research, for instance, focuses on identifying points of contact, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between the different modes of knowing that we have come to associate with ‘the humanities’ and ‘the sciences’. My interest in this topic is, inevitably, driven by lots of different factors – but not least amongst them, I think, is that it provides a way to reflect, indirectly, on the hierarchical disciplinary structure of the twenty-first century university, and on my place (as someone who works in the ‘soft’ humanities rather than the ‘hard’ sciences) within that structure. In other words: I wonder if my desire to understand the historical commonalities between the humanities and the sciences is driven, in part, by an ancillary desire to recuperate some status for the humanities today, in a period when their value and worth can seem uncertain? This is, of course, a personal example, but I think there’s a broader question here about how the entity of the twenty-first century university – the subject of Critical University Studies – shapes the kinds of knowledge we pursue and produce within the parameters of our specific disciplines.

Another, less personal example, for instance, might be the pan-disciplinary surge of interest in materiality within the humanities and social sciences across the course of the last couple of decades. At risk of sweeping generalization, this material turn has been characterized by its affinities with a whole range of theoretical and critical ‘isms’ – most obviously constructivism, feminism, Marxism, and posthumanism – and consequently by its investment in breaking down subject / object binaries. To take just one somewhat arbitrary example from my own field: Will Fisher has argued for the fluidity of sexual and gender identities in the early modern period by exploring how clothing and prosthetic objects were used to ‘stage’ such identities.1 Here, sexual identity is not an irreducible psychic core, but a contingent material construct.

What relation might this kind of research, and the ‘material turn’ more generally, bear to broader social, political, and economic shifts over the course of the last few decades – most pertinently here, the much-decried neo-liberalisation of the university? An article by the literary critic David Hawkes points towards an answer here. For Hawkes, ‘the material turn’ is riven by an internal contradiction. The ‘insistence on the “materiality” of the human subject’ that is so characteristic of the material turn, Hawkes argues, ‘chimes perfectly with market ideology.’2 Despite this, however, ‘most materialist critics… still consider themselves, in some indefinable sense, of the political Left’ – and hence obliged to resist market ideology. As a result, new materialist critics:
…find themselves torn between their politics and their epistemology. On the one hand they claim that… the subject is an object, that it is material. On the other, they usually declare at least a nominal opposition to the economic system whose most conspicuous ideological effects are, precisely, the objectification of the subject and the subjectification of objects.3
In other words: despite its radical, emancipatory, leftist-ish rhetoric, the ‘material turn’ actually engages in precisely the kind of commodity fetishism that characterises neoliberalism, collapsing the social and spiritual into the material and economic.

This is not the place to discuss in detail whether Hawkes is right or wrong (I do feel compelled to note briefly that, although I find his broad argument ingenious and cogent, I think it unfairly flattens the nuances of some of the individual works he discusses). It’s also worth noting that Hawkes elides the question of agency: the materialism of cultural studies ‘chimes’ with the market ideology of capitalism, but it’s not clear which party banged the gong. Are materialist critics to blame for their espousal of the very ideologies they are politically committed to resist (as Hawkes implies when he takes them to task), or are they, too, the tragic victims of a market ideology which, like a twenty-first century Midas, inexorably translates everything it touches – including literature departments – into the terms of economic value?

Personally, I’d be reluctant to remove individual agency entirely from the equation: scholars’ intellectual and theoretical passions and preoccupations are never purely a consequence of broader forces. For a start, people’s choices of research topics and arguments are undoubtedly driven by very personal factors, too – by life events, by instinctive affinities and interests, by emotion and curiosity. In any case, though, Hawkes’ article is a timely reminder that the question of how specific research projects and intellectual trends relate to the social, political, and economic conditions of their production demands much more consideration that it’s yet received, either within the specific disciplines themselves, or within Critical University Studies.

The flipside of this, of course, is that in thinking more closely about how broad socio-economic forces within the university shape the knowledge that is produced there, we might also come to see how research in a range of disciplines can have significant implications for our understanding of the purpose and functioning of the contemporary university. Christopher Newfield’s work provides one exemplar here. In his book Unmaking the Public University, Newfield has traced links between the prominence of Foucault in literary cultural studies, and the market decline of related disciplines. In attributing change to systems rather than individuals or groups, Newfield suggests, an American (mis)reading of Foucault supported a culture of political apathy within literary cultural studies, whereby attempts to intervene in and shape the market were seem as naïve or futile.4

This kind of syncretic thinking, however, is still relatively rare – and some of the onus for developing it should come not just from scholars who identify as Critical University Studies specialists, but also from those with a more traditional disciplinary identity. So perhaps part of the task of CUS is to encourage people working within traditional disciplinary parameters to reflect more on the relationship between the content of their work and the conditions of that work. To hypothesize: a firmly historical project on the development of more accurate ways of measuring time in the wake of the industrial revolution, and the consequences of this for workforces, for example, clearly has the potential to cast new light on the ethos of competitive overwork that characterises twenty-first century academia.

In other cases, we might use our research specialities in order to better theorize Critical University Studies itself. Recently, I’ve been pondering an issue that’s recurred a few times in our discussions within the British Academy Early Career Network on CUS – namely, the paradoxical position of Critical University Studies as a field which critiques the very institutions it also inhabits and, in part, helps to constitute.  This paradoxical position was, for instance, very much in evidence when Alison, as leader of the network, had to the reschedule a planned workshop due to the University and College Union strikes over pensions in February and March this year. In this case, withdrawing our labour for the university entailed deferring our critique of the university. With the strikers, scholars who work in the field of Critical University Studies are often fuelled by political outrage, and are deeply invested in activism – we are critical. But on the other, we’re trying to perform this transformative work from within and with the support of, universities as they currently are, with all their flaws – the very universities that our lives and livelihoods are so bound up on. So in a way, it can feel like we’re chipping away at the ground beneath our feet, or trying to see through the walls of a building that surrounds us.

How might we better understand, or perhaps even dissolve, this apparent conflict? Perhaps one way to do this is to think of it as a product of what the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have identified as the post-Romantic valorization of objectivity, which takes a subject’s involvement in the object of knowledge as a barrier to, rather than enabling condition of knowledge.5 Understanding – through the work of scholars such as Daston and Galison – the ways in which our categories of knowledge are themselves contingent historical constructs might then help us see our entanglement in the institutions that we want to critique not as a drawback, but as an opportunity.

To summarize: the two questions I’ve asked in this blog, then, are this. Firstly, how do the specific, substantive intellectual concerns of particular disciplines and works of scholarship reflect, contest, or contribute to the political and economic conditions that shape them? And secondly, conversely, how might specific, substantive research projects, within a range of disciplines and on a range of topics, help to shape and recreate both Critical University Studies, and the institutions that it is concerned with?

I don’t, of course, have definitive answers to these questions – but I hope they’ll be productive for discussion!


1 Will Fisher, Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
2 David Hawkes, ‘Materialism and Reification in Renaissance Studies,’ Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 4.2 (2004), 115.
3 Hawkes, ‘Materialism and Reification,’ 117.
4 Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2011), Chapter 9.
5 Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007).


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