From many disciplines we hear, although not unequivocally, about the collapse of the modern university, its consummation, its end. This prediction about the exhaustion of the university equally applies to politics. The collapse of the modern university and modern politics are inseparable so long as the modern categorial architecture of the university coincides with that of politics. The collapse of the national modern university, the state, and ideology are inseparable. (Thayer 77).
The first edition of this book in Spanish was indeed an event–it was a thoroughly unusual book that made us all discover a new territory for thought. It is only upon reading this second edition, in Brett Leraul’s excellent translation (not yet published, but hopefully forthcoming; his Introduction is also excellent, as it places the book contextually in efficient and informative ways), and so many years later, that I have come to understand the extent of its influence on me, on my own personal development. But this is neither here nor there–a private matter. It has become if not a commonplace at least rather customary today to critique the university–there is an entire new field out there called Critical University Studies, with massive reading lists one can consult, for instance, in a Northwestern University or a Duke University Press website. And this Critical University Studies development is an excellent example of the university crisis that Thayer endeavored to name and investigate in the 1990s–not because it reflects on the crisis, but because it is itself directly (in general: I do not mean to be unkind to the best writers on it) a second-order example of the crisis, a catastrophic monster without substance, mostly a proliferation of symptoms without a body. Contemporary Critical University Studies is a manifestation of university malaise plagued with contradictions and inanity–as indeed one could have predicted in 1996 had one been enough of a visionary then, on the basis of a reading of Thayer’s book. But he was the visionary, not his readers. His book already foresees the structural impossibilities of pontificating “universitarily,” as the translator has it, on the limits of the university.
The point is that in 1996 a number of people were beginning to sound the alarm–look at Bill Readings’s famous book on the damage wrought by the criterion of excellence on neoliberal grounds or at Jacques Derrida´s lengthy troubled disquisitions on the university, which in retrospect can be seen to be excessively complacent–, but it was Willy Thayer who articulated an argument that went beyond alarmism and right into signifying an epochal end for the institution. I think events have proven him right. There is no possible recovery of the ideals and expectations of the Humboldtian university. What we have now is for the most part a wasteland populated by desert nomads and bedouins at best, when it has not been given over to mere ressentiment in the Nietzschean sense. Perhaps the Chilean neoliberal laboratory was only an early manifestation of an implacable logic that would consummate the epochal ending and subsume the planet as a whole. What is interesting is that, in the 1996 edition, in the context of the hopes and hidden promises of an end to the Pinochet dictatorship and the Chilean escena de avanzada, Thayer’s book could still be read as the indictment of a state of affairs that was temporally marked and would give rise to better, in the sense of more democratic, times. The traces of that possibility are still legible in the second edition, but now something has been superimposed on them: the ravages of time have continued their labor of annihilation and nothing has come to offer itself as the possibility of some dialectical leap into a brighter future.
Not that the publication of Thayer’s second edition in translation will mitigate the state of affairs, but at least it might give some pause to the self-appointed reformers and well-wishers. Indeed it might be that Thayer’s book will come to be recognized as the little Tasmanian devil in the flourishing (but paradoxically also at the same time withering) field of university discourse today. I could put it this way: every writer in the field of Critical University Studies, and a fortiori every professional academic, needs to come to terms with the challenges Thayer’s book produces even if they are to flounder on the attempt. The Tasmanian devil will not be quietly shooed out of the living room, not without some disruption in the furniture (and perhaps the loss of one or two toes).
The central realization (hence, much more than an intuition) of the book is that the modern university, understood in a very precise sense as the Kantian university, is dead. If Kant was able to question the limits of sovereignty through the production of a critical apparatus that would create a margin for contestation, a margin for distance, a margin for critique, by reinstituting the labor of the so-called Faculty of Philosophy over the merely programmatic faculties (Law, Theology, Medicine, and so forth), that critical possibility of university discourse founded modernity as such even as it was itself a reflection of it. The modern university thus becomes the very impugnation of the saturation of the field of the real by technical knowledges. Thayer’s writing deploys experimentally in order to continue an agonizing Kantian strategy: it is dazzling in its adventurousness, starting with Thayer’s refusal to follow conventional chronologies or linear narratives. The impressionistic accumulation of experiential observation on today’s university discourse against the background of the monetarization of knowledge–which today is no longer “knowledge” in the classic sense but merely market-legitimizing technical skills, even at the level of basic research–sets the ground for an analysis that will not conceal its ultimately despairing horizon. The so-called “non-modern crisis” refers to the fact that modernity comes to its epochal end in and through the very exhaustion of the Kantian critical project. “We are not dealing with a conceptual crisis faced with the eruption of a new, substitute university categorization, the emergence and repositioning of one discourse upon the demise of another. Instead, we are dealing with the crisis of discourse, with the categorial full stop. For the same reason, it is a crisis of philosophy that cannot be controlled or regulated by discourse, at least not by a philosophical discourse that would be able to speak about the university. We lack the categories for analyzing the event of the crisis of the categories, including the category of ‘crisis’ that runs throughout this text” (67).
In a sense it is possible to say that Thayer’s book turns the Kantian project against itself. There was a hidden flaw, a fissure in the foundations of the Kantian edifice. Two hundred years later the fissure has itself become the edifice. No wonder then that the idea of a “non-modern university” that might itself be the precipitate of the critique of the critical project collapses as soon as it is articulated: “Our intention to theorize the current state of the university, in the sense of visualizing its invisible conditions of possibility, is characterized by our linguistic-categorial impotence” (68). Not a non-modern university, then, but rather an inchoate effort for an impossible step back that would enable the possibility of a discourse on university discourse that would not itself be consumed in advance by university rhetoric: there can be no theoretical autonomy from the university when speaking, or writing, about the university. The university has saturated the field of the real–hence its abysmal fissure. If in Kantian times a promise could be produced (“This inactuality, this misalignment between sovereign actuality and the Faculty of Philosophy’s temporality or untimeliness is the essential, evental conflict of the modern university as critical university” ), there is no longer an extant promise that does not exhaust itself into oblivion (“Into oblivion the questioning of the conditions of the present. Into oblivion the question of being” ).
The Kantian work that would inspire the creation of the University of Berlin in 1810 is anchored, as Thayer shows, in the Cartesian revolution. It is an updating and upgrading of the Cartesian universal subject of knowledge on the ruins of traditional, Christian metaphysics. At the same time, Descartes’ vanquishing of traditional metaphysics does not vanquish metaphysics. It is a substitution–one metaphysics for another, a fold in the fold. And the Kantian fold will inevitably reproduce the gesture. Through diverse historical and political mediations “German philosophical thought about the university surrounding the creation of the University of Berlin opposes the Cartesian tendency of knowledge toward its instrumental application; it confronts the operation of truth that functions practically and technically as the fruit of the ‘highest level of knowledge;’ it distances itself from the will to subordinate the speculative moment to practical and technical interests; it rejects subordinating the speculative principle to the knowledge and interests of the state” (113). From then on, and this is its properly “modern” or critical moment, “the state’s interest in truth must become an object of university’s analysis and not its commanding subject. The speculative essence of the German philosophical university is revealed in the strict obligation to reflect on instituted truth as the executive power of the state” (115). The preeminence of university discourse is claimed against any kind of master (or state) discourse. But, at the same time, and in a hidden way which might ultimately constitute the very fissure in the edifice, its unacknowledged metaphysical drift, the preeminence of university discourse becomes a state’s strategy. In other words, it is not that the modern university sets itself up as the antagonist of the sovereign master; it is rather that the sovereign master enables an antagonism it will never cease to control, as the originating “anecdote” in Kant´s The Conflict of the Faculties already reveals. This is modernity, and the essence of the modern university, which has now entered its period of epochal crisis through the terminal deployment of its hidden logic, not through its interruption.
Nietzsche’s prophecy regarding “a future . . . in which language will be unhinged from its university frame” (132) inaugurates an “exilic” intellectual condition and a first glimpse of a “non-university” to be set up against the “enlightened university” (140): a “genealogical Nietzschean university” to be opposed to the “critical reflective Kantian university” (144) is a first crack in the edifice of modern Enlightenment. It is in fact the crack that hosts the bedouins and nomads of the contemporary wasteland, but now without recourse to anything like the production of a Zarathustra, not to mention the idea of those who would follow Zarathustra as a transitional figure at the end of metaphysics. “For us,” Thayer says, the word “transition” “suggests . . . the weariness caused by asymptomatic illnesses that worsen over time, and that by the time we notice them have weakened as such that we lack the fortitude to treat them” (147). “If the ‘conflict’ or ‘class struggle’ between ‘physical-technical labor’ (physis) and ‘intellectual-critical labor’ (meta-physis) constituted the antagonistic axis of modern history, modern politics, and the modern university, then the end of that history-politics-university will come when that conflict is extinguished. In the Transition . . . this difference will be exhausted in the real subsumption of every conflict to finance capital. In the transition understood as the end of history, as the end of the social division of labor, capitalism will remain and difference, the unequal, will vanish” (152).
The book concludes with reflections on the contemporary Chilean moment and its projection on university discourse. It would be redundant for me to summarize it, as it is an involved narrative that must be read for itself. It is of course fitting for a book that has taken a long historical view to land in the concreteness of the present, which necessarily means a present bound to place. But the Chilean place is presented in the book as itself an atopic laboratory. The end of the university in “transitional” times is linked to a specific end of politics tied to the triumph of financial capitalism, itself the producer and consumer of the financial university, which in the US has been called and continues to call itself the university of excellence.
Against that excellence and its internal putrefaction Thayer’s book will serve as a revulsion, or as an operator of a necessary revulsion. Perhaps only for the sake of a new generation of exilic intellectuality that might hide the secret of the world, or not.