The Soft Spot

Part of the problem in South Africa right now is that public universities all over a neoliberal world are paradoxically the most vulnerable part of an invulnerable system. This was even true in the 1960s, but it’s especially true now. They’re vulnerable because the invulnerable order that still provides them resources is far less interested in the university as a characteristic institution that defines its own modernity than it once was. Indeed, the global system as it manifests in postcolonial Africa has increasingly decided that signifying modernity is a low priority generally, that all the monuments and performances that mark it are less important than oil wells, mines, and providing land and people to development institutions so that the possibility of some eventual modernity can be studied. Above all, less important than some small fringe of people getting their cut of the action. The rest can sell oranges on the sidewalk or starve on their land as they will.

South Africa’s rulers still cling to the notion that they ought to have hospitals and universities and roads and affordable housing and arts funding and monuments, but it is a half-hearted clinging, the reflex of old habit rather than holding on to something dear and irreplaceable.

You can’t get at the president’s chicken coops or the minister’s elegant hotel room. There’s no way to occupy a Swiss bank account. The money’s being made far away or right under your nose, but it’s behind walls and razor wire. If you’re inside, you either need your little share to keep from drowning, or you’re getting your big share and have some payments to make on your BMW.

You can get at the university and not just because the people inside the walls are willing to push it outside and let it take its chances. You can get at it because the university’s own aspirations compel it to vulnerability. It is by nature and design a porous system. Not “open” but fissured, not without hierarchy but neither a highly hierarchical system. Students are regulated and governed, but they also must be present, speaking and consenting at the heart of the institution’s life, in its classrooms and buildings. The oil well can operate without anyone present but the workers and the managers. The Parliament can operate without citizens. But the university has to have students, and students cannot be made mute and compliant even in the most spoon-fed, lecture-driven, exam-assessed course.

The university has to have faculty, and even in the most neoliberal and managerial institution, it has to believe that faculty are its primary source of value, that their assent on some level to its operations is important. To undo that would require a new kind of institution: it is baked into the form as it appeared at the end of the 19th Century.

So the university is the soft spot, the place that can’t be hidden and can’t be behind walls. It is where those who are right to be furious at the poisoning of the commons are already gathered, the young whose inheritances are being stolen. It is the place that has to listen, however reluctantly and truculently, and it is the place that the powers-that-be will allow to be a site of turmoil, for a time. A march to the President’s farm is if nothing else a logistical nightmare even if one had tens of thousands ready to go, but it is also a place where there would be no hesitation before guns were fired and people died. The ministries are all behind high walls, and the guns would fire there too. The people ready to march and confront are already at university: it is readily at hand.

The problem is that the university, and all its possibilities for reform and transformation, is one of those inheritances. The problem is that the people behind the walls might be glad to be rid of it altogether. Ministers’ sons and daughters will still find their places at the LSE, the Sorbonne, Harvard.

The problem is that the university is fragile. The properties that make its managers at least hesitate to shoot, that at least act willing to consider negotiating, that allow it to be paralyzed for a time, that permit harsh critics to remain on staff or enrolled, are fragile. This is not the first time since 1950 that universities in the world have been pushed to breaking by an insistent politics of martyrdom, or used as the first target in a long struggle. When the furrows are salted enough, little will grow for generations to come. When the soft place becomes a hard one, that’s usually involved bringing academia inside the fortress: expelling students, firing staff, enforcing hierarchies, defining some knowledge and some ideas as forbidden. Think of universities in authoritarian states: they are there for show, not to fulfill their real mission. They are mausoleums. Maybe in this neoliberal moment, even hardening the university will be little more than a haphazard gesture of indifferent violence from an order that is increasingly without shame, and the real move will be to treat the university like Biafra: surround it and starve it. Dispense with it.

Struggle often uses at least the metaphors associated with military conflict. So think about wars and ask yourself what kind of war you’re in when a side that has an entirely just cause but that lacks the force to attack a well-defended enemy decides to attack the least-defended targets because it’s the only thing they can get at. Ask yourself what comes next in a war like that, and how often a war like that ends up achieving the aims of the just.

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2 Responses to The Soft Spot

  1. I came across your name while searching for memoirs about Africa. This may be slightly out of your area of expertise, but I have just completed a memoir about my experiences as an expat in Gabon, Equatorial Africa during the 1990s – a time of political upheaval, a murder and scandal at the U.S. embassy. From your bio on the Swarthmore page, it seems that this project might fit your interests – and maybe you’ll have time on your hands when you take a leave of absence? Sorry to contact you like this…
    I’m wondering if you might be interesting in reviewing my book before publication?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Send me an email at my Swarthmore address!

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