(Para) academia: “Beware all ye who enter here!”

“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.”

―     Henry Miller,  Tropic of Cancer    

Fabio Cunctator of hyper-tiling posted an interesting and personal piece on  ‘para-academic practices’. After reflecting on Pierre Hadot’s reconstruction of the history of ancient philosophy, he “enthusiastically agreed with his indictment of late medieval and, mainly, modern ‘academic’ philosophy” and the need to return to the ‘streets’ where the praxis of philosophy would rejoin the life of humanity. But in a bewildering moment of despair he confesses that “I decided to leave academic philosophy altogether, tired with the self-referential and pretentious debates I heard around me. That didn’t work out very well after all.” It’s in that last minimalist statement of his failure outside the academy that is the guiding thread of his moralist diatribe.

(Before I begin I want to be explicit: what I see in Fabio is a figure of the embattled academic in the University today. If it seems to be a satirical portrayal below, I am doing it not as a personal affront to Fabio himself, but that he seems to represent an aspect of the academic world that feels threatened by change and the historical process that is transforming our world day by day through the New medias.)

He tells us that in an “…ideal academic world, someone like me should not have been accepted for a PhD in the first place, for much higher standards of acquaintance with the philosophical tradition and of production of original (my emphasis) thought should be required.” I remember old Harold Bloom once remarking that the “great Originals never were original”. This whole need for authority and priority seems questionable. Many of the great philosophers themselves took years to transform their thoughts into something uniquely their own, stamped with their own mark.

Next he admits that those that finally get passed the gatekeepers should be given the great freedom to follow their conceptual thoughts wherever they lead:

 This sort of gatekeeping would not mean deficit of intellectual freedom: those qualified enough to enter academia should be left total freedom to follow their own interest. Much of the dynamics which we are well-accustomed to and we are fond of denouncing — academic factions, fashions, clientelism, narrow-mindedness and conservativism — are fuelled by legions of lesser philosophers needing to buttress their intellectual paucity with alternative ways of self-defense. This pruned academia would feed back knowledge into society exclusively through open-access publishing, free internet-delivered lecture courses, and special programs aimed to inform and engage the public.”

Why should we institute such a gatekeeper policy? A “pruned” academy? And, most of all, would this be a retroactive pursuit? Would all those deemed unworthy of their current academic status lose their PhD’s? What type of new tyranny of the academy is this, anyway? Who are these Gatekeepers? What is it he really wants? Very simple he tells us: “I would enforce an even stricter gatekeeping: the academic market is oversaturated because, for profit’s sake, Universities have been giving away, for the last several decades, Ph.Ds to people that, frankly, didn’t deserve them…”.  Really? Why ridicule others for their degree of success? Such denigration, what does that tell us about his gatekeeping policies? Just who would gain entry into this elite circle; and, more, who would get kicked out of its pristine sanctum?

He even tells us that this new “pruned academia would feed back knowledge into society exclusively through open-access publishing, free internet-delivered lecture courses, and special programs aimed to inform and engage the public.” Nice. How gracious.  Is Fabio becoming a new Plato for our age, envisioning new Republics where only those elite few – with the academic know-how and caliber of mind – will gain the right to sit within the closed circle of academic success?

He goes on to ask:

“Is this a Kantian utopia of academic freedom? Perhaps, but nothing we don’t already have the resources, today, to bring into reality. I will repeat this: I take the deliverance of free education to be a core duty of any society, on par with free healthcare. But would you want to be cured by a self-taught doctor?”

Yet, he doesn’t stop there. No. Now we discover that philosophy is serious business? Tell that to Nietzsche…  For Fabio at least philosophy “is not about what is interesting, nor about what is cool or hip. It’s about having the intellectual responsibility of identifying what is important to make sense of for the sake of the expansion of knowledge.” Ah! The expansion of knowledge, eh! That old saw. Let’s all contribute to the grand encyclopedic consilience of science and knowledge.

Next we find it is no longer good to be of cool and hip, instead we get the philosopher as Conceptual Engineer:

“…conceptual engineering must be constrained by its input (avoiding vague references to some kind of intellectual intuition on the state of things) and by its goal (to feed back into a broader explanatory project). All too often free from such scruples, the recent recovery of talk of objective reality has given free rein to a new wave of speculative theorizing which — allegedly about such a reality – expresses, at every step of the way, little more than the author’s narcissistic pleasure in ranting against human narcissism.”

Look out world the academy is watching you, the Gatekeepers are at the Gates, a new sign is situated above their heads (one that Dante himself endorsed long ago):

“Abandon all hope ye who enter here!”

The Augustinian reformation is at hand… The Conceptual Engineers of the Future are lining up in their white smocks, ready to enter the Church of Philosophical Engineering…  dang, just when things were getting exciting, too! Oh well let the gatekeepers wander their ivory towers keeping count with the staid and safe. Serious business, indeed!

I’ll live outside the gates for now and enjoy the speculative hells. Those cold wet streets seem like heaven to me! What’s sad is that academics everywhere seem to feel threatened by the New Medias that are slowly infringing on their authority and priority. It’s as if the University and its academic representatives are all closing in even as they supposedly want to open up their locks, but those locks have gatekeepers holding the keys to all this open-access and freedom of information. But who will control the Gatekeepers? Peer-review and the need to conform to certain standards puts a damper on most creativity, and forces most intellectuals to play it safe rather than explore dangerous ideas. So where is creativity in this process? Will their still be room for the radical and uncontrollable eccentricity of the isolate or solitaire? Are will these rabid solitaires go the way of Spinoza: be anathematized by the community gatekeepers?

The rabbit’s out of the hat, guys and gals…. and she isn’t going to go back in anytime soon. But most of all why this lockdown of philosophers to institutions? Why the need to stipulate some bogus academic exercise in quality control? The only quality control that has ever worked is the democratic world of actual theory and practice… those that do not qualify will not last, their ideas, concepts, notions, will go the way of all those that have vanished into the history of discourse: paths not to be taken… roads to nowhere… blips on the zero screen of life

6 thoughts on “(Para) academia: “Beware all ye who enter here!”

  1. with a few well endowed exceptions the humanities sides of the academies are crumbling zombies as we speak, a side-effect of a post WW2 economic bubble that has burst, I say we get ahead of the curve and drop the academic and embrace the para, welcome to the town beyond the gown…

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  2. Just to provide another perspective, “gatekeeping” happens plenty on the outside of the academic walls too. Even with the new media there are those who are considered outcasts simply because of personal vendettas held against them. I know a few very good philosophers who are censored on blogs or who are intentionally ignored when they shouldn’t be, even on the outside of academic walls. Still, their thought “gets through” and is recognized simply because it’s good work. And that’s what remains rather than self hype.

    In my case, like you, I enjoy the “wet streets” outside – and while I am on the “inside” of the academy so to speak and do hold a Ph.D., I, too, deal with the crass and pedantic moralizing of insider-outsider mentalities. However, being treated as an outsider, on the outside, has actually *helped* me in many cases, whether simply for who I choose to associate with, or interview, of whatever. Maybe “strange alliances” would be a good way to put it. But being an “underdog” who can stand up to the gatekeepers, the bullies, those who clutch spots, is a role that I can actually embrace. It’s a role those on the outside have to assume too.

    In any case, I am agreeing with your point but would like to extend your analysis to the outside as well. From my perspective on the outside, I am not going away anytime soon in the community of speculative realism, or in online philosophy, though there certainly are those who like to see me gone. Not going to happen. While they fret about clutching spots and self aggrandizement and hype – which just comes off as internet sleaze – I would like to think of myself as doing real philosophical work with meaning for me personally in a productive way, and not just for hype, narcissism, etc. etc. You get the point.

    To close, like you, the “speculative hells” are where I grow and thrive.

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    • Yea, I understand Leon… I feel for you! I guess I’ve always had thick skin in that regard, and being both an iconoclast and autodidact I have been outspoken about aspects of these academic elitists. Having risen to the top of my own profession as a so to speak guru in software development, I’ve always felt that the world of literature, philosophy, history, art, etc…. are not something that should be bound to some academic specialism.

      The idea of knowledge as some grand project, something that guides all our philosophical livelihoods like some deep seated Kantian moral imperative seems a little out of place in the liberal arts. But what seems more heinous is the idea of enforcing others into some political mold, forcing philosophers to tow the line of some party affiliation of academic peership or else… I’m too much of a renegade. Of course that’s always gotten me in trouble, but to me it is the eccentrics, the iconoclasts, the individuals who go their own way, who actually say no to the specialists… who say, I want to think something else… the have actually invented the philosophical project. Socrates was killed for not giving in to the political machine of his own day… of keeping true to his own self. Maybe we should all follow the voice of the daimon inside…

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      • it does raise some interesting questions about whether one can overcome the tyranny of the means (and the just plain mean) to organize people into new resistances and affordances or if the best that one can do is to try and cultivate one’s psyche in the midst of forces beyond individual control.

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