the long shutdown: universities and the battle for democratic consciousness


The other night I was reading through some old journal entries and came upon this 2003 entry concerning the role of academia in relationship to the development of democratic consciousness.  I’m as committed to this set of statements as I ever was, and am both depressed and concerned over how much more urgent a project — and how much less likely to succeed in any immediate sense — this has all become over the last eight years.

Academy democracy: In the new issue of American Quarterly, Heinz Ickstadt discusses the role of American Studies within the context of the transnational university, touching on the problem of the loss of prestige and purpose in departments of the humanities.  The role of the Humanities should be, and always should have been, the production of democratic consciousness, by whatever means.  Reading, as a formal reality, is fundamental to this project.  The democratic project is untenable without the ability to imagine alterity, the ability to imagine subject positions different from one’s own.  The humanities must cultivate properly rational forms of thinking and argumentation (as against the imperialist bombast that passes for political discourse now), a democratic aesthetic, and a democratic consciousness that is the basis for the informed citizen/subject.  The humanities are being dismantled not because they serve no function, but because they serve no function in a society that is increasingly corporate and technocratic, and decreasingly democratic even as the notion of Democracy is becoming the metaphysical sign around which imperialism stakes its new claim.  Those of us in the humanities need to stop thinking of the university as a reflection of history, instead we must think of the university as a fulcrum point for the advancement of history.  It’s time to continue the democratic project by uniting, forming union, as a voice with social and political power so that we can guarantee a space for multiple and individualized voices that otherwise will disintegrate under the weight of rightest political domination.

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