Foucault, “specific intellectuals” and the university

foucault.jpgFoucault distinguishes between two figures of intellectuals, correspondent to an historical rupture. The one, is the spokesman of the universal, in the capacity of “master of truth and justice”. The other, a “specific” intellectual emerging after WWII, one who has learned to combine theory and practice, the expert situated in specific contexts, and therefore aware of specific struggles (all quotes below from M. Foucault, Truth and Power. In Paul Rabinow (ed) 1984. Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Book).

On the “universal intellectual

(67) “For a long period, the “left” intellectual spoke and was acknowledged the right of speaking in the capacity of master of truth and justice. He was heard, or purported to make himself heard, as the spokesman of the universal. To be an intellectual meant something like being the consciousness/conscience of us all.”

In traditional Marxism,

“Just as the proletariat, by the necessity of its historical situation, is the bearer of the universal (but its immediate, unreflected bearer, barely conscious of itself as such), so the intellectual, through his moral, theoretical, and political choice, aspires to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form. The intellectual is thus taken as (68) the clear, individual figure of a universality whose obscure, collective form is embodied in the proletariat.”

This figure, has been supplanted by another one, the “specific” intellectual as opposed to the “universal” intellectual. This, according to Foucault, has emerged since the Second World War, but intuitively, I would suggest, has found much development from the 1970s.

(68) “A new mode of the ‘connection between theory and practice’ has been established. Intellectuals have become used to working, not in the modality of the ‘universal,’ the ‘exemplary,’ the ‘just-and-true-for-all,’ but within specific sectors, at the precise points where their own conditions of life or work situate them (housing, the hospital, the asylum, the laboratory, the university, family, and sexual relations). “This has undoubtedly given them a much more immediate and concrete awareness of struggles. And they have met here with problems which are specific, ‘nonuniversal,’ and often different from those of the proletariat or the masses. And yet I believe intellectuals have actually been drawn closer to the proletariat and the masses, for two reasons. Firstly, because it has been a question of real, material, everyday struggles, and secondly because they have often been confronted, albeit in a different form, by the same adversary as the proletariat, namely, the multinational corporations, the judicial and police apparatuses, the property speculators, etc.”

We should add that in the modern context, especially university, this “proletarianisation” is predicated not so much on pays and remuneration that lags behind other sectors (which is in any case a fact), but on the fact that the production of knowledge of these specific intellectuals is increasingly subjected to measure of things, of activity, that is pervasive in any other sector dominated by competition and profit motive (see De Angelis and Harvie paper among others on this for example) The measure of things of the social force we call capital.

For Foucualt, this figure of specific intellectual, is politically significant, since it opens up the possibility to re-articulation field of actions (”categories” says Foucualt, perhaps hesitantly). Universities, play a central role in this re-articulation, as these are “privileged points of intersection”, they act as “exchangers”, or, we would say today, “hubs”. To illustrate, he invites us to reflects on the changed role of “writing”:

(68) “The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciosuness, a free subject, he was counterpoised to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the state or capital — technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual’s specific activity begun to serve as the basis for politicization, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark off the intellectual, has disappeared. And it has become possible to develop lateral connections across different forms of knowledge and from one focus of politicization to another. Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicization of intellectuals. This process explains how, even as the writer tends to disappear as (69) a figurehead, the university and the academic emerge, if not as principal elements, at least as ‘exchangers,’ priviledged points of intersection. If the universities and education have become politically ultrasensitive areas, this is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power effects as centers in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”

Foucault was writing here in the mid 1970s, a time in which university crises across Europe and the USA was also associated with generalised revolt through society (and not only student revolt) and the collapse of the specific form of governance experiment it is known as Keynesianism. It is interesting to think through the above passage in light of a quarter of a century of neoliberal reforms and imposition of capital measure into academia, the introduction of managerialism, the rearticulation of business and higher education. Universities have become hubs, “privileged points of intersection” that act as “exchangers”, among intellectual figures (whether “formed” –i.e. staff — or in formation — i.e. students) of the specific type. But what is interesting here, is that these hubs have taken shapes that reproduce struggles over a type of measure that in the world at large is universal, capital’s measure. This is an important point to keep in mind, and that is that the end (or demise) of the universal intellectual, did not coincide with the end of a measure of doing things that aspires to be universal and all pervasive, the one promoted and reproduced by capitalist markets. Hence the specific intellectuals who are problematising the mode of production of their specific knowledge and the business measures these are subjected to, find in these hubs a privileged context for the production of commons across specificities, in that these hubs are a) unique microcosms of the world at large, with its social relations of struggle and hierarchies reproduced by capital measuring processes (from migrant undocumented cleaners of toilets and lecture halls and underpaid precarious form of knowledge labour, to managers and CEO; from wage hierarchy, to business-customer relations); b) spaces in which to launch the exploration of patterns of recomposition that overflow outside of the university by challenging the business modes of interaction with the outside world that specific intellectuals are required to subordinate to. The key question: how and on what basis to re-configure and re-articulate the universe of specific practices of which specific intellectuals are some types of “experts”? What is needed is not a new universal intellectual, but a process of universalisation or, better, of “commoning” of value practices that stand clearly and unequivocally as other than the value practices of capital. And here is the limitation of the specific intellectual, recognised quite clearly by Foucault.

(71) “Now, the specific intellectual encounters certain obstacles and faces certain dangers. The dangers of remaining at the level of conjunctural struggles, pressing demands restricted to specific sectors. the risk of letting himself be manipulated by the political parties or trade union apparatuses which control these local struggles. Above all, the risk of being unable to develop these struggles for lack of a global strategy or outside support; the risk, too, of not being followed, or only by very limited group.”

But these limitations exist only to the extent common grounds are not developed, only to the extent specific aspects of each realm of competence, action and struggle are left unproblematised with respect to the universal character of their articulation by capital. If the intellectual is not the “bearer of universal values”, but rather “the person occupying a specific position”, it is also the case that her “specificity is linked, in a society like ours, to the general functioning of an apparatus of truth.” (73) And the apparatus of truth for capital, is the order of things reproducing what it values. (We should actually be talking about regime of value, but here there is no space).

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