The Alienation of the Intelligentsia

I mentioned I would attempt a second post on my reservations about the persuasiveness of Lyotard’s “report on knowledge”; hopefully this intersects with some of points raised by Steven in his post on ‘the mercantalization of knowledge’ and by Allan in his post ‘Performance and Production; Command and Control’ (which develops his criticisms of Lyotard’s use of the term performativitiy from his first post).

In responding to Allan’s claims about the conflation of ‘performatives’ (from the language game of speech acts) and ‘performativity’ (from the language game of cybernetics, although Allan rightly questions the adequacy of this concept), I suggested a broader distinction in The Postmodern Condition between knowledge as Learning and knowledge as Competency. (Perhaps it would be possible to generalize this distinction, such as that between the known and know-how, or between doctrinal teachings and wisdom, for example, or even between the Halachah and the Haggadah in Judaism (Walter Benjamin writes: ‘the Haggadah, the name Jews have given to the rabbinical stories and anecdotes that serve to explicate and confirm the teachings – the Halachah’; ‘Wisdom is thus characterized as an attribute of tradition; it is truth in haggadic consistency’.)

One of the questions that needs to be addressed, following on from The Postmodern Condition, is the extent to which the transmission involved in education is simply that of the known (Learning) or is also related to know-how (Competency). Higher education, particularly at doctoral level, still teaches the latter along the lines of something like an older apprenticeship model (e.g. between doctoral student and supervisor), although this is being gradually replaced with skills training that seek to transmit the competency of know-how precisely as the content of learning (something known).

For Lyotard, I argued, the shift in the pragmatic legitimacy of Scientific knowledge involves a deflation of Competency from the socializing experience of the Grand Narratives of history to the  technocratic experience of the Little Narratives of cybernetic systems: a paradigm shift from storytelling to efficiency.  Allan has convincingly criticized the deflation of cybernetic “performativity” to that of “control” in his last post; I would add that I think this is part of a much broader distrust of technology that pre-dates cybernetics but gets taken up into that debate. I agree with Allan that the persuasiveness of Lyotard’s claims are dependent on us agreeing with this distrust and – towards the end of the post – I raise some objections as to why technology might be a red herring here.

Near the beginning of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard lays out what the dominance of new forms of technology upon knowledge entails:

We may thus expect a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with regard to the “knower,” at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete…

This picks up on the transformation of Learning (in education, specifically Science in its broadest sense of disciplinary knowledge) with the deflation of the Competency that legitimates it (socializing narratives reduced to instrumental efficiency). Bildung, of course, is the great socializing narrative of modern education: the acquisition of content (teachings) involves the formation of character (intellectual, social, political, and civic competency).

Lyotard continues:

The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to valorized in new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its “use-value”.’ (pp.4-5)

In the course of this paragraph, Lyotard makes an implicit move from “exteriorization” (an ostensibly neutral term) to “alienation” (a more negative term) and then on to “mercantilization” in the following paragraphs. According to Marx (especially in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and in a much more restricted economic sense in Capital), the relationship between producers and the commodities they produce is one of alienation or estrangement (Entfremdung):  workers are alienated from the value of the commodities they produce, since they work not for the goods they produce (which belong to the corporation in order to sold on the market) but for the wages they receive. Crudely put, the commodity is produced not primarily for its “use-value” (the sensual qualities that satisfy a human need), since neither the worker nor the corporation enjoy that use, but for its “exchange-value” (the supersensual quantity it can be exchanged for profit).

Lyotard goes on to describe ‘knowledge in the form of an informational commodity’ as a process of ‘the mercantilization of knowledge’ (p.5). As Steven points out, Lyotard’s prediction that the circulation of informational commodities via multinational corporations will undermine the privilege of nation-states over Learning is open to debate. The most obvious examples would be the emergence of multinational educational corporations, whose existence is presaged in the growth of overseas campuses by brand-name universities (the University of Westminster was recently in the news over its campus in Uzbekistan) and of international educational chains (such as the recently-collapsed Swedish company JB Education which until recently ran several Free Schools in England). That the creation of markets in education still require quite forceful intervention by nation-states implies a problem with Lyotard’s analysis of the postmodern condition, as Steven’s example makes clear.

I would argue that the problem lies in another one of Lytord’s rhetorical moves (comparable to that Allan picks up on in relation to performatives and performativity): that from technological “exteriorization” to “mercantilization” via “alienation”. Alienation is primarily problematic for Marx because it involves the material exploitation of the worker to the benefit of the owner’s of the corporation; that is, the worker becomes a commodity to the extent he or she only possesses their labour power to be exchanged for wages, but this is a position of weakness that ultimately impoverishes the worker. (Admittedly, in his earlier writings Marx also expands on this alienation in non-economic terms as the alienation of the worker’s “species-being” but later Marxists, most notably Althusser, regarded this as an illegitimate form of humanism.)

The “postmodern” question is whether it is technological/cybernetic exteriorization itself that transforms knowledge (the informationization of knowledge into quantities of transmission, cf. especially n.14), with its rejection of the old pedagogic principle that ‘the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds,’ or the fact that this exteriorization permits the mercantilization of knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold, which leads to the domination of exchange-value over use-value. As with “performativity”, is it merely “exchangeability” that is the key issue here or “exchangeability” under the capitalist relations of the exchange of commodities (including human labour power) on the market?

One response is to blame technology itself (informationization) but this falls into the trap of missing how specific economic relations and priorities lead to the development and (mis)use of such technologies. I think the literary critic and educationalist F. R. Leavis is guilty of this when, in his essay on ‘Mass Civilization and Minority Culture’, he describes the “Americanization” of English culture and education in terms of the “machine”: the mass-production, standardization,  and levelling-down of culture which result from the mechanization of means over the capacity to discrimination ends (an earlier version of cybernetic efficiency). What Leavis is lamenting is the impoverishment of what Lyotard calls Learning as it is uncoupled from Competency. Leavis’ quotation from T. S. Eliot anticipates the contemporary condition that Lyotard defines as “postmodern”:

When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.

As I suggested in my last post, Lyotard sees this as a potential field of opportunity, as the very interdisciplinarity of knowledge and multiplication of meanings in The Posmodern Condition suggest. But writing on ‘The Culture Industry’ a decade or so after Leavis, the critical theorists T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer point out that:

Interested parties explain the culture industry in technological terms …No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest. A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself …This is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s economy.

Adorno and Horkheimer share with Leavis a concern about “instrumental reason” – the domination of means (technological efficiency, say) over ends (the human competency to choose values) – but they are clear that this is a function of the capitalist economy and not a law of technology itself. This is relevant when we think about the “exteriorization” of knowledge which Lyotard presents as the precondition for its “mercantilization”: there are ends involved in the prioritizing of such means (the performativity of efficiency) and these ends serve those who seek to profit from the imposition of such criteria (profit). As Allan rightly points out, this relates to a bureaucratic managerialism that increasingly dominates public institutions, including higher education, and which strives to make what it to some extent immeasurable (the outcomes of teaching and research) quantifiable, for reasons connected to the commodification of education (as public resources are withdrawn and private resources increased).

But if we agree with Adorno and Horkheimer, we adopt a modern (Marxist) analyses of recent developments in the field of knowledge production and not a postmodern one. On this basis, we might distinguish more carefully between the processes of “exteriorization” and “mercantilisation”, which Lyotard tends to subsume. Doing so raises some knotty questions. One difficult question is whether knowledge is already capable of being commodified (produced in exchange for wage-labour in order to be exchanged on the marketplace for a price) without  being exteriorized (in which case, is exteriorization necessarily the problem)? Conversely, can knowledge be exteriorized (recorded as information with the maximum capacity for transmission) without being commodified (in which case, is exteriorization itself necessarily a problem)?

Depending on how we answer these questions, we may have differing evaluations of the significance of more recent technological developments in education such as MOOCs or  Wikipedia. This returns us to that key distinction between Learning and Competency: whether the acquisition of Learning can be unproblematically dissociated from the cultivation (Bildung) of Competency, or, indeed, whether it ever really was so closely associated. If it is not technology that determines and transforms the relation between Learning and proclaimed Competency (exteriorization and performativity) but economic relations of production and consumption then Competency might always have been a politicized category in knowledge and specifically in education. That would suggest not some fundamental transformation from the modern to postmodern but – to quote Fredric Jameson – the latest stage in the cultural logic of late capitalism, one which now  comes to dissolve the means and relations of production for the intelligentsia, as it has done with all the facets of society it has already encountered. Perhaps this only feels like the end of the world/of modernity to intellectuals.



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