News From the Outside World

Benjamin Geer on Autonomous Universities


Benjamin Geer (photographed with a friend in Cairo) is a computer hacker and Indymedia enthusiast who decided the only way to really take part in a progressive world politics was to learn other languages — really “other” ones, like Arabic. He is also part of the edu-factory dialogue. Here is one of his most incisive contributions on the notion of autonomy.

On 10/02/2008, an edu-factory participant wrote:
> On knowledge production – well it has a certain range of meanings in
> the current world – tied up with certain notions of value etc…

If you want to talk about academic work as a social phenomenon, and
about how it could become more autonomous, I think you absolutely need
a sociology of knowledge production, one that deliberately breaks with
everyday understandings of academia. Otherwise you’ll fall into the
trap of taking those understandings for granted, and reproducing the
very problems you want to solve. You and I, who are part of academia,
need a reflexive critical understanding of what we are doing (and
could or should be doing) when we produce papers, talks, or messages
on this mailing list. Moreover, we need a shared language for talking
about what we’re doing.

I like Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of intellectuals and academia. The
intellectual field is an arena of power relations and conflict, in
which people occupy hierarchical positions. Those positions are
defined by the possession of cultural capital (e.g. knowledge that is
rewarded with diplomas and recognition) and symbolic capital (the
ability to be seen as the disinterested representative of a legitimate
principle). With symbolic capital comes symbolic power, the ability
to do symbolic violence, e.g. to excommunicate others. These forms of
capital are not reducible to economic capital, but they can be
converted into economic capital and vice versa, at the expense of
labour. Different sub-groups of intellectuals compete with each other
to change the rules of the field in their own favour, by making
different types of cultural capital appear more legitimate. The more
cultural capital you’re required to have in order to participate in
the field, the more autonomous the field is from the larger field of
power. A relatively autonomous field is not one in which the
participants are disinterested; that would be impossible. Rather, a
relatively autonomous field is one in which you can’t simply pay cash
to have your article published in the most prestigious journal;
instead, you can advance your interests only by convincing your peers
that your ideas solve problems that they care about, and you can do
this only if you possess enough of the cultural capital that is
recognised as legitimate within the field. That’s why autonomy is a
prerequisite for scientific revolutions and for critical attacks on
economic and political power.

> But it is worth asking what is/why thought,? what is/why knowledge?
> in the context of an autonomous uni.

I think we need to ask: how can we increase the autonomy of the
intellectual field? How can an “autonomous university” be made more
autonomous than any ordinary university? How will the legitimacy of
cultural capital be recognised? In an ordinary university, it’s
recognised by acts of consecration such as the granting of diplomas
and the writing of letters of recommendation, and it requires the
physical presence of the student and (in many countries) the paying of
university fees. The intellectual labour performed by the student
transforms economic capital in the form of fees, plus whatever
cultural capital the student acquired previously, into the specific
form of cultural capital recognised in academia.

This was my reason for bringing up free software a while ago. If you
follow developments on the Linux kernel development mailing list, as I
used to do, you notice that the participants in Linux kernel
development are geographically widely dispersed. There are no fees
for participation; anyone can submit a patch. The economic barrier to
entry (the cost of a cheap second-hand computer and an Internet
connection) is lower than university fees in many countries, but a
high level of cultural capital is required (the technical knowledge
needed for solving problems in operating system kernel development).
There is a clear hierarchy of roles, in which each subsystem has a
“maintainer” (i.e. manager), and Linus Torvalds oversees the
maintainers, acting mainly as an arbitrator in conflicts. Developers
improve their positions in the field by getting their patches accepted
(which is analogous to academics getting their articles published),
and this often involves prevailing in disagreements with other
developers who have opposing views. The maintainers act as judges in
these conflicts, but it is in their interest to choose solutions that
have a broad consensus in order to maximise the participation of
skilled developers. The maintainers themselves are chosen from among
the most successful participants.

The field of Linux kernel development looks very autonomous to me. A
few years ago, I watched as IBM, one of the biggest companies in the
computer industry, spent what must have been considerable funds to
develop a much-needed overhaul of a key Linux subsystem (POSIX
threads). Some developers strongly objected to IBM’s approach, and
Ulrich Drepper, an employee of Red Hat (a much smaller company),
developed a different overhaul of the same subsystem, solving the same
problems in a way that raised fewer objections. When it became clear
that Drepper’s approach was winning the argument, IBM politely
acknowledged defeat and abandoned their project:

So when we talk about an autonomous university, I think it means:

1. Low economic barriers to participation. This means not only that
there are no entrance fees, but that you can participate wherever you
are in the world, without having to cross political borders or be
lucky enough to live in a rich country.

2. High barriers to participation in the form of cultural capital.

3. A system of advancement in which higher positions are assigned to
those who are most successful at convincing their peers of the
usefulness of their ideas.

> (Diversity refers to the grammars, form etc not to the content.

I think the concept of “diversity” tends to reject certain criteria of
inclusion and exclusion, the better to mask the reality and power of
other criteria. There is no such thing as unlimited diversity,
unlimited inclusion. The question is, what criteria do you want?
Different grammars can coexist, but what relationships should exist
between them? Specifically, what social practices will mediate
between them and maintain those relationships?

> ( but it began to get very wordy and
> I already think I talk too much)

On the contrary, I think we need more specifics.

Benjamin Geer
Postgraduate student
Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London

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