Pithouse letter

29 April 2010

Dear Michael Driscoll, Waqar Ahmad, Margaret House & Ed Esche,

This morning, as I sheltered from the rain under the cosy eves of the Politics Department at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in South Africa, there was only one topic of conversation amongst my colleagues and the group of graduate students taking their coffee and smoke break. That was, of course, your decision to close the Philosophy Department at Middlesex. My university sits in the poorest province of a country descending into an ever more brutal and malicious politics of power and plunder. But today it was your attack on the things that matter and not the militarisation of  our police, news of more activists driven from their shacks by a party militia or another corruption scandal that was at the centre of our collective attention.

The fact that you have so wholly abandoned any conception of the academic vocation and any attempt to value what is good, beautiful and true above the brute logic of money makes you the enemies of anyone, anywhere in the world, who values the academic vocation, the pursuit of philosophy as an end in itself or any aspiration to a life of the mind that extends beyond the purely instrumental calculus of profit or loss – a calculus that, more often than not, ascribes excellent to profit when in fact profit often flows from complicity with domination and the dogmas in which is disguises itself.

Last night I wrote to my colleagues and comrades around the world – professors, poets, writers and activists scattered from South Africa, to the Congo, Brazil, India, Greece, Turkey and the US and the UK – encouraging them to take swift and firm action against your decision. I have no doubt that there are many others around the world who have written similar letters. I have no doubt that action will be taken from around the world.

When the University of California in Santa Barbara tried to act against William Robinson last year they were defeated by a global campaign to defend an academic under attack from a management ruthless and cowardly in equal measure. You too may be defeated. I will certainly contribute what little I can, from far away, to your defeat.

Every day crimes are perpetrated against people and against society in the name of profit and loss. Most of these crimes are organised through modes of action that have long ago, and often with considerable violence, secured their public legitimacy. Many of these crimes are perpetrated against people whose lives and struggles do not easily transcend the local and which simply do not count in any elite public sphere. The academy has not been fully subordinated to the market and it is, at least in England, an international project. Neither you nor the World Bank nor the accountants to whom you have given control of your university may know how to value genuine scholarship but there are many in elite publics that do. You have made a fundamental miscalculation if you think that your attack will pass as easily as an eviction in Lagos or Delhi or Johannesburg aimed at ‘unlocking the value’ of a piece of land on which people have made their lives.

People are equal but our collective projects – political, artistic, philosophical, pedagogical – are not. Philosophy, like politics, like art, is a delicate thing. Making a career as an academic philosopher is easy and something that has no particular value outside of the value of it being a job like any other. But making an intervention in thought – an intervention that becomes part of the reservoir from which people draw to think about justice, beauty and truth is another thing altogether. There is individual brilliance scattered here and there. Sometimes it is strong enough to survive in isolation, sometimes it can create networks that transcend institutions and flourish that way. But it is at its strongest when it is a collaborative project rooted in daily exchange. Your attempt to destroy what has been built at Middlesex is an attempt to destroy an extraordinary department – certainly the best place to study continental philosophy in English – and a crucial node in a global network.

The resistance that you will encounter will be significant.

Richard Pithouse
Politics Department,
Rhodes University
South Africa

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