Movements: Response to Paul Bowman’s Review of Rethinking the University

London: Duke University Press. ISBN: 0-8223-2919-0.

Simon Wortham

Paul Bowman’s review in general seems to me an earnest, thoroughly engaged and entirely even-handed treatment of my book. Much of what is written in the sections that summarise the overall argument of the project and explain the specific orientation of individual chapters becomes immediately recognisable as a careful exposition of what the book appears to be trying to do, and suggests a most patient reading on Bowman’s part. Given the strong popularity of the topic with which this project engages – a topic that has fuelled an array of articles, books and special issues of journals in recent times – it is especially heartening that the reviewer feels able to speak of the ‘novelty of the work’. However, the problems and concerns Bowman raises in conjunction with his reading of the book are, I think, articulated with a seriousness and rigour that itself calls for further dialogue or response. I would like therefore to reflect upon a few of Bowman’s criticisms and reservations, not merely to try to ‘correct’ certain misreadings or misapprehensions (as is often the case in these kinds of exchanges), but rather to reinhabit precisely some of those spaces of dispute, opposition, disorientation, or dissensus opened up by the review in order to indicate, in particular, my differing sense of the performative aspect or movement of the project.

To begin with, I am not sure whether Bowman is quite right to suggest that, in the first chapter of the book, I present Jameson’s ‘arguments’ concerning a number of paintings of shoes (which Jameson takes to illustrate the vast shift from high modernism to postmodernism) as merely ‘bad’. Obviously the tone of this reading is undeniably critical, but the real purpose of my comments regarding Jameson’s work relates to an attempt to suggest something more complicated than a simpleminded opposition between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ criticism. Indeed, it is this ‘something’ that might even be taken to facilitate the movement of the book itself. Bowman is right to say that I undertook a reading of parts of Jameson’s Postmodernism as prefatory to a reconsideration of the implications of Derrida’s treatment of footwear in ‘Mochlos’ and The Truth in Painting. In the instance of Van Gogh’s painting of shoes, I wanted to suggest that Derrida takes such footwear, and the reactions prompted by it, as strongly indicative of problems of institution. But the role played in this demonstration by a reading of Jameson was imagined somewhat differently by me than it was understood by Bowman: it was to show that the related ‘motifs’ of shoes, legs, walking or indeed the ‘step’ which crop up in the vicinity of a number of critical reflections on art and aesthetics in modernity set off peculiarly disoriented and, thereby, unmanageably plural effects that impose themselves not just on Jameson but also on Heidegger, on Schapiro and, indeed, on Derrida too – not least in a text (‘Restitutions’) that takes the form of a ‘polylogue’. Certainly I was trying to suggest that Derrida’s procedure deals with such finally unmanageable effects more productively than do some others, or that it assents to them more readily than others, but I don’t think this quite comes to the same thing as assuming an entirely ‘oppositional’ stance in relation to Jameson or, indeed, the taking of a position of ‘depth’ in regard to apparently less ‘clever’ and thereby necessarily more ‘superficial’ approaches. (In fact, in what follows, I hope it might become a little clearer why – despite being obviously more critical of some perspectives or trends than others – the approach of the book when considered in terms of its performative dimensions isn’t too easily reducible to a position or articulation of ‘opposition’ at any point.)

Second, Bowman worries that I pay scant attention to the ‘meaning’ of leverage as a term that is nevertheless sufficiently ‘key’ to warrant inclusion in the book’s subtitle. Here, it might be worth a long citation from the book itself. The following comes from the introduction, where I try to counter the obvious criticisms anyone might anticipate when writing a book on problems facing the university which – as part of its very project – resists the evident explanatory power of a social, historical, cultural or economic perspective or an ideological critique, so as to proceed instead from what might be called a more philosophical standpoint. I write:

Does this mean, however, that the project is inevitably divested of end-oriented or useful purpose? Is the chapter on Van Gogh’s shoes condemned to be read and discarded as just metaphorical because of the avowed impossibility of reference or literalism? Should the book really and truthfully be called Disorientation in the UniversityFiguratively Speaking? Or perhaps, really and truthfully, Leverage in the UniversityFiguratively Speaking?

Setting aside the contradiction already implicit in this question, I want to suggest that leverage can’t simply be shrugged off as just another metaphor demanding translation, interpretation or application for it to be useful. A lever is a tool or structure, one part or point of which is fixed while another exerts force against a body by utilising the pressure of that which resists it. On this definition, far from presenting itself as just another figurative device, the lever itself establishes the very conditions of metaphor. In a recent interview, discussed in more detail in chapter six, Derrida argues that to ‘relate to an object as such means to relate to it as if [my emphasis] you were dead’. The outcome of this impossible wish to grasp the truth or objectivity of an object is that the as such becomes shot through with the as if. The as if is therefore the supplement, the inexhaustible and incalculable remainder, that just cannot be left out or cashed out of the as such. Through its remorseless and unstinting play with the literal or referential, then, the analogical or figural cannot in the usual manner be thought simply to illuminate that which exists, literally, outside itself. Rather, the analogue offers an intralinguistic deixis or indication which, as Giorgio Agamben notes,’does not simply demonstrate an unnamed object, but above all the very instance of discourse, its taking place’. In an elementary way, analogies, figures, metaphors might thus be thought to be different from ‘conventional’ language, i.e. in its representational normativity. Yet, as Derrida demonstrates, they remain everywhere embedded in it as an essential and unavoidable feature of language itself: the as if is always the upshot of the as suchAs if thus survives as the irreducible supplement of language – that is, in an originary ‘relation’ to it. The metaphor hinges on fixed point (a reference point) only to exert force against the body which resists it (referential language) by means of that body’s own pressure.

In other words, leverage isn’t just a metaphor, but metaphor is (literally) a lever. From this point of view, it is inaccurate to say that this book on leverage merely speaks figuratively of the university; although it now becomes possible to see how, despite the apparent lack of end-oriented or conventionally useful purpose, the project might exert leverage.

Here it is suggested that the distinction between the ‘metaphorical’ and the ‘literal’ becomes confounded in any reflection on, or indeed application of, leverage itself. In this sense, it is difficult to imagine just how it would be possible to clarify, as Bowman puts it, ‘what “leverage” might possibly mean, whether it is “metaphor” or whether it is “literal”‘; although it is precisely as an effect of this very same confounded distinction that an opening might be imagined – as I try to suggest above – onto ‘what pragmatic form or logic it [i.e. leverage] might entail’. Proceeding on the basis of just this kind of understanding of the performative operations of leverage in the very movement of the book itself, over and above local enumerations or descriptions of ‘leverage’ as a quasi-concept (remembering we’ve just indicated how leverage always already exceeds any such conceptuality on its own part), it might then be possible to understand why I resisted any ‘explanatory note’ on the status of the ‘and’ that periodically couples such ‘terms’ as ‘orientation’ and ‘disorientation’ or ‘dis/orientation’ and ‘leverage’ or, indeed, ‘leverage’ and ‘deconstruction’. For what is ‘and’ if not a lever? I had hoped that the ‘and’ would be seen as doing some (perhaps errant) work that remained fundamentally not reducible to a description of its function or ‘status’.

Third, when reflecting on the book’s concern with ‘looking into the values which found, institute, or orient, a given academic set of preferences, economy, hierarchy or hegemony’, Bowman declares: ‘In short, a certain anxiety and irresolvable ambivalence and insecurity must surely attend or haunt one’s activities from the moment it has occurred that there is no natural or neutral choice, and that one must try to take responsibility for one’s decisions’. This point would not appear to be made just to wonder whether any decision or direction at all is potentialised by the kind of analyses the book undertakes. At times, Bowman seems to realise that the project entails a rethinking of the potentialities – and responsibilities – of academic life, work and effort along the lines of an actually rather affirmative logic which, notwithstanding, questions any decision as fully and finally decisive and any direction as a firm guarantor of eventual destination. Rather, the primary thrust of Bowman’s arguments here seems to concern questions regarding the orientation of the project itself, and the decisions involved in taking certain objects or texts for study, rather than others, so as to facilitate the direction or movement of the book itself. In one respect, it would appear correct to say that such questions hardly impose themselves at the level of self-reflection, at the moment the book gets under way. And, of course, any reflection on the orientation of orientation would presumably necessitate, in turn, further reflection on the orientation of the orientation of orientation. And so on. So that any such process of self-reflection or self-reflexivity where the question of orientation is concerned would proceed not just according to a (however unfinishable) circular logic or movement, but would eventuate in an unsteady and unpredictable pluralisation of not necessarily commensurable singularities, singular moments, instances, acts, texts, decisions, etc. This is not to say that any such reflections thereby become unavoidably self-regarding, pointless or unhelpful. Rather, when thought about in this way, instead of reaching or projecting ever backward to an ungraspable horizon or point of origin, they tend (if I can continue to risk the language of direction) to suggest an image or idea of propulsion forward or onward (though not in a crudely linear sense: a movement somewhere at least), via a proliferation of plural singularities whose destination is nevertheless shifted or re-mapped each time of asking. (In other words, a movement of leverage.) And I would claim that the very movement of my book – via a number of chapters that inflect and modify the work of leverage with each new instance or singular ‘object’ of study – actually tries to assent or submit to this tendency or propulsion. Which is why, at bottom, perhaps even despite appearances to the contrary, the book doesn’t really constitute itself or proceed or move on the basis of a more statically preconstituted positional or oppositional thinking at all. Although it is none the less true to say that the book – which like any other could not possibly be fluid beyond certain unavoidable limitations or minimal conditions of intelligibility associated with a variety of conventions of academic exposition – necessarily does assume some key canonical reference points, for example certain texts by Derrida. But as Bowman himself concedes: ‘One must start from where one is and what is there, or what imposes itself as the “there is” that should be analysed’. Furthermore, however, since ‘where one is’ can never truly impose itself as just a starting point, a point of departure, Bowman is right to note that, ‘Of course, it is never so simple a matter as rejecting the canonical when revaluing values’.

Finally, on a more minor note, looking again at the remarks which close my account of Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, a grammatical ambiguity seems to disorient the reception of my reading here. I was in fact trying to indicate that my own summary of the concerns of Readings’ book was ‘by no means exhaustive’, not that I necessarily judge Readings’ work itself to be partial, limited or incomplete. Readings’ book is an indispensable contribution to debates about higher education and academic life (as well as much else that crops up in the vicinity of these issues), which I believe it will be most difficult to finish with in the years to come (as my own writing, for better or worse, is beginning to show).