Academia & The Last Man

A central problem in the philosophy of education—whether it is known or unknown—is the lack of an adequate framework for understanding the contemporary university. This essay aims to provide a fundamental characterization of the present-day academy, this towards the end of unconcealing the inner logic of academia, something increasingly necessary for understanding the status of knowledge today.

At issue is that a great number of commentators seem to presuppose just what a university is or should be while leaving the question totally open-ended. What’s more, many scholars appear to be referencing antiquated and even totally obsolete models as the basis for analysis. When the credentialed experts are seen not only appealing to some mythic educational past but even going to great lengths to portray today’s university in rather flattering terms, we might take that as invitation to think more deeply. And it’s exactly against these sorts of trends that we should employ a strict academic realism. The claim is that when viewed through a proper lens, the true character of the contemporary university begins to show itself.

Before offering an alternative model, I do want to give a slight overview of what’s going on in the literature and otherwise. From across the political spectrum we can identify a few main themes subjected to pretty rancorous critique, and yet few commentators seem to connect it all together. From the right we see tracts against political correctness, identity struggle, moral relativism and, of course, the discussion of tenured radicals. And from the left we have critiques of corporatization, commercialization, privitization, in a word, neoliberalism and falling under this also academic labor issues, adjunctification, student loan indenture, and so forth. At the level of network news—whatever that means—and social media discourse (same question), the university is sometimes labeled a hotbed of Marxism—and even postmodern Neo-Marxism as you may be aware. I wondered if a more comprehensive analysis was possible, in fact, one that might explain the whole.

Just for starters it appears that in the contemporary academy—against the university of the 1960s and 70s—that the influence of Marx has waned (even if his citations haven’t). We don’t exactly see students dropping out to join trade unions as in generations past, although this isn’t to say the revolution can’t happen in the future. The view is that much of the emancipatory potential of Marx and of Freud have been digested and reterritorialized by liberal capital and the Gramscian march subjected to a war of attrition—basically ruthless neoliberal selection pressures exerted throughout the academy. Long story short, the idea is that the key to understanding the university no longer really hinges on Marx.

The claim I want to make is that the contemporary university system can be most comprehensively understood as Inverted Platonism. And while the term immediately brings Nietzsche to mind, the attempted overcoming of Plato as well as philosophy in general has been a dominant theme across the academy. This has manifestly been the case in the sciences and social sciences stretching even from Aristotle, to Francis Bacon, the radical enlighteners, to Auguste Comte and the positivists, and more recently from Karl Popper all the way to the current crop of scientists. This might be even more true in the humanities and posthumanities with the influence of Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Rorty, Quine, Wittgenstein etc., and broad commitments to nominalism, antiessentialism, emotivism, and perspectivism.

What I mean by Inverted Platonism, I’ll now seek to clarify drawing from Heidegger’s lecture course on Nietzsche, Volume 1, Will to Power as Art: “To overturn Platonism thus means to reverse the standard relation […]. When the inversion is fully executed, the sensuous becomes Being proper i.e., the true, i.e., Truth. The true is the senuous. That is what positivism teaches.”

Of course, we should note that Nietzsche is not quite finished: after overturning Platonism he strives to escape positivism, a maneuver that requires a full “metamorphosis of man” (in Heidegger’s phrase).

Nevertheless, with Inverted Platonism we have the:

Sensuous over the Ideal

The decertification of morality

And, if lacking Nietzsche’s commitment to overcoming, we’re left with an axiological vaccum.

What’s more, the commitment to the sensuous is not JUST the dominant theme of the natural sciences but also found in historical materialism, as well as many postmodern theoretical formations. Thus, the model of Inverted Platonism has an uncanny ability to bring together such diverse views as postivism, poststructuralism, critical rationalism, model dependent realism, deconstruction, and basically every other dominant theme in academic fashion—science, social science, & humanities—under one roof.

So what are the implications of this, if, in fact, true?

Overturning Platonism has thus transformed the university into a simulacrum of Plato’s model for education, just inverted. Foremost is that the notion of virtue is replaced by market valuation. Technocratic meritocracy is the necessary result and Plato’s philosopher kings are replaced by professional bureaucrats—managers with a seeming mandate towards the eradication of all high values. The Republic’s “Noble Lie”—that some people possess precious metals in their souls—even finds its counterpart in the ignoble lie of the contemporary university: “that student loans will set you free.” And just as Plato’s censorship was a natural extension of his teaching on virtue, we could reasonably expect to see the same vis a vis Inverted Platonism, thus accounting for cancel culture. And finally we see the full flowering of the hollow corporate ethos as administrators increasingly try to “run the university like general motors,” committing themselves to an eternally recurring corporate nihilism. The university has thus become the most elaborate justification for power in human history, a legitimation mechanism of unparalleled scale dedicated to producing precisely what Nietzsche called “The Last Man.”

Who is The Last Man or The Last Human Being? This is the one who does not overcome but is overtaken, by such desires as for comfortable self-preservation, honor in fashionable circles & the pleasures attending wealth. Both a “laughingstock and an embarrassment” they only destroy rather than build. And, what’s more, the last human being has a particular sort of conceit: “And what do they call that which makes them proud? Education, they call it, it distinguishes them from goatherds.”

Just as Plato started the academy dedicated to philosophy and therefore justice, the rise of Postivism, the decertification of morality and the spread of technoeconomic optimism have seemingly destined us for what Habermas called a “rationally totalitarian society.” At the same time, the abyss has been open at least since Nietzsche’s exploding of the Kantian system—and, at least according to the perspective of Inverted Platonism, there can be no source of external light. Hence, the Academy has become akin to the Cave.

To philosophize after this calamity, at least for those still of good faith, thus requires one to enter into the university and literally help drag academics out to the light. This is the task of Academiology, all irony aside, which is basically both the apex and the absolute nadir in the philosophy of education. And what this means for the student, the figure of the academic, and for greater society will be discussed going forward, with the aim of achieving even fuller disclosure of the meaning of the contemporary university beyond that.


What is Academiology?

Academiology seeks to unconceal the inner logic of the academy as well as the scope of its effects on our world. The claim is that prior analyses, such as those by Weber, Veblen, Bourdieu, Readings, et al., can be extended through critical distance, potentially opening new forms of world access. In the knowledge economy, just such an investigation may be crucial for any larger inquiry into the status of knowledge today.

Academiology seeks to provide a phenomenological account of the academic habitus, a hermenutics of academic consciousness, and a complete ideological unmasking and disclosure of the academic qua academic. Placing the academic subject under a critical lens, Academiology seeks to interrogate the whole of the academic enterprise including the legitimacy of academic authority itself.

While some academics and independent thinkers have attempted to resist neoliberal capture and commercialization via Critical University Studies (CUS), Academiology radically deviates in terms of its aims, deference and venue. Academiology seeks to hold a mirror to the “academic gaze,” exposing manifold epistemic vulnerabilities and contributing to a more theoretically robust discourse. Curating ideas from across the political spectrum, the idea is to aggressively and unrelentingly wield them against corruption—i.e., putting academia “in the dock.” To achieve the fulfillment of critical theory, raised within manicured ivy walls, we now seek its culmination outside of crumbling ivory towers and into the emergent digital intellectual semiosphere.

Academiology offers many potential trajectories for analysis: the military-industrial complex, the nexus between research and global technocapital, government complicity with high finance, student loan indenture, the emerging underclass of academic adjuncts, and so on. Such an interrogation stands to teach us how academia went from the scenic groves of Hekademos to a commercial network of vocational training centers dominated by corporations and managed by professional bureaucrats.


Academia as a Society of Control

Foucault’s analysis of the classic disciplinary site highlighted the domain-specific rules and mechanisms that encourage self-monitoring. When the aura of bureaucratic control is extended by digital technology and forms cybernetic feedback loops, we arrive at Deleuze’s notion of “societies of control.” Viewing academia through this interpretive lens can help illuminate both the prevailing academic logic and its ideological underpinnings.

Every level of academia is now awash in a barrage of data, constant social reputation updating mechanisms and optimization metrics. “Total quality management,” a vague desire to implement the latest Six Sigma-style Agile fad or add to the 360-degree performance assessment process operating at the cyclic rate. And as soon as US News & World Report spits out some new metric, a legion of zombie bureaucrats start scrambling to trick it out once again. Productivity metrics, publish or perish, peer-review rigging and citation rings, everything points to ceaseless productivity.

As Deleuze notes: “[…] just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination. Which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation.” Thus far we’ve had Enron and Harvard, Berkeley and Biotech, Columbia and the Financial Crisis (Inside Job). More recently we’ve had leading researchers taking money from foreign governments, spending time on islands with certain hedge fund billionaires, and found taking undisclosed payments for writing deregulatory papers, and so forth.

This is not to mention the near total command over a students’ future by way of the student loan-sharking racket. The student’s consciousness is thus seized, molded, imprinted, and shaped by a hollow corporate ethos. The end result is the phenomenon discussed both by Deleuze and by Mark Fisher, that sees students “boasting of being strangely motivated”—even when applying for unpaid internships.

The increasingly corporatized and commercialized US university has collapsed a place of moral self-cultivation and emergenced as a loose network of vocational training centers. Further, what’s more, the university has increasingly become a nexus where the society of spectacle meets the cult of celebrity. College and university campuses have become marquis conduits of the culture industry—culminating in the sociological analysis of reality television.

As Adorno and Horkheimer put it:“The fusion of culture and entertainment is brought about today not only by the debasement of culture but equally by the compulsory intellectualization of amusement.” They continue: “Amusement itself has become an ideal, taking the place of the higher values it eradicates from the masses by repeating them in an even more stereotyped form than the advertising slogans paid for by private interests.” I want to claim that this emergent fusion of culture and entertainment spoken of by Horkheimer & Adorno has become de rigueur in the US university system.

Less than ten years ago Rutgers—the 8th oldest university in the US—hosted “Snooki” of Jersey Shore fame to liven things up a bit. While this says something by itself, it turns out that the University ended up paying Snooki more to speak than Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate! As Deleuze writes: “If the most idiotic television game shows are so successful, it’s because they express the corporate situation with great precision.” Considering various course listings offered in the past decade or so seem to align with this point: “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” (Skidmore College) “What if Harry Potter is Real” (Appalachian State), “Alien Sex” (Rochester University), “Zombies in Popular Media” (Columbia College in Illinois), “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” (University of South Carolina). Many other examples suggest the university is increasingly emerging as a site of edutainment with an emphasis on customer satisfaction via professional business marketing campaigns and click-bait advertising tactics.

In his work “Education and Experience,” John Dewey claimed that “collateral learning” plays an important role in shaping the “enduring attitudes” of the student. In this vein, a recent study by Purdue University revealed only 4 percent of their university computing resources were being used for academic purposes. Recall that Marshall McLuhan’s dictum was that “the medium is the message.” In US colleges and universities, it increasingly seems that the “message” tends to involve mindless entertainment. This also might be one way to make sense of the overall political situation.

Recently, Inside Higher Ed announced that a coterie of scholars from universities such as Stanford and Georgetown, were a conducting “computational textual analysis” of The Baby Sitters Club, ostensibly seeking to do an ideological unmasking of underlying presuppositions in the work. I believe that another ideological unmasking can done that poses even more radical emancipatory potential: the ideology to be “unmasked” here is the one that entails college professors reading The Baby Sitters Club while the university morally collapses. The objection is that while you can logically justify much of the above research (which you can absolutely do), no one can justify bourgeois academics teaching reality television to largely well-to-do students while surrounding communities happen to be in shambles.

The entertainment comes to reference the consumption, the consumption reinforces the entertainment, and the “education” becomes a form of both luxury amusement as well as conspicuous consumption. This is all perhaps the surest way to firm up the interests of global technocapital at the heart of neoliberalism. Due to issues like the above, our educational system, as Martha Nussbaum put it, risks: “producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves […].” I’d say we’re rewiring the brains of our students to crave endless dopaminergic stimulation—thus creating a class of zombie super-consumers—many of whom happen to be sacrificing huge blocks of their future wages for what is basically an initiation into the “global petty bourgeoisie.”

The question arises as to vectors of escape from the present milieu. This, I claim, is what is already occurring. Academia is being decoded, deterritorialized, circumvented by communities across the digital intellectual semiosphere. This calls for celebration and lament. How will we educate for democracy? And can we preserve some form of substantive reason? As outer portions of the Ivory Tower collapse, and those we call “wise” are busy reading The Baby Sitters Club, we should consider the diagnosis offered by Deleuze in Postscript:

There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”