Brown, Cetinić et al, Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy

Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy

10 May 2010

Enemy of doxa, corrupter of youth, promulgator of discomfiting intuitions. That philosophy is unpalatable to the powers that be: this is not news to Socrates and his comrades.

Today it is no philosopher in particular, but philosophy itself that is ordered to drink the hemlock, sentenced to death for corrupting the capacity of what used to be called “the University” to turn greater profits. Philosophy is convicted of impiety before capital.

The present situation at Middlesex University makes the stakes excruciatingly clear. Even “excellence”—the preferred contemporary replacement for such antiquities as learning, knowledge, or thinking—is no longer enough. Even the “ranking” of a program is no matter, nor is its contribution to the reputation of the institution. Nor does it suffice that a program should sustain itself financially, or generate revenue. The operative question is simply: could more revenue be generated through its elimination? Could one, for example, restructure enrollment so as to swell Work Based Learning programs that draw lucrative funding from corporate sponsors? Could one get away with simply reallocating external grant funding already secured by the Center for Research in Modern European Philosophy (reportedly some £1 million through 2016) while eliminating the expense of actually running the Center? According to administrative logic, neither the international reputation of Middlesex Philosophy nor its financial solvency have any bearing upon the verdict that it makes “no measurable contribution” to the University. According to the calculus of greed and exploitation—the calculus of capital—philosophy at Middlesex, as Alex Williams rightly puts it, is worth more dead than alive.

What lessons are we to draw from this example? And what sort of a response might those lessons entail?

We might insist that philosophy is essential to the university—that only an institution which includes it answers to an acceptable vision of what the university should be. And we might then demand of wayward administrators the reversal of an “irrational” or “unethical” decision: the restoration of philosophy to its proper place at the core of any university worthy of the name. Or, on the other hand, we might find in the termination of philosophy the expression of an essential truth about the university’s role as a modern institution: to reproduce the relation between capital and labor—through the production of cultural capital when convenient, through the excision of cultural mediation when expedient.

The era of such expediency is everywhere upon us. Discussions of “The Crisis of the Humanities” proliferate at a dizzying pace. How can we proffer more compelling accounts of “what it is that we do” to administrators looking askance at abstruse investigations no longer even regarded as charming? Can we compete on a level playing field with the verifiable results of science and engineering by drawing up lists of our recent “discoveries”? Can we compete with the profit margins of private business schools embedded in public universities by insisting upon our invaluable contributions to civil society, our production of a thoughtful citizenry? How can we account for the worth of our teaching by metrics that calculate the value of programs according to higher, rather than lower, student/instructor ratios? How can we justify our existence, our form-of-life, in short, amid the unchecked reign of bureaucrats whose moral compass is neither the novel nor the Nicomachean Ethics but the consulting firm?

To its immeasurable credit, the response of Middlesex Philosophy offers an alternative to both indignant pleading and professionalized handwringing: concrete resistance.

The students, staff, and faculty at Middlesex have opted to intervene in “the crisis of the humanities” by taking a common space of thought and practice with the determination to hold it. What inspires is the escalation of their radicalism in response to administrative obstinacy. First they occupied a boardroom to protest the cancellation of a meeting, seeking a proper explanation for the closure of their program. The next day they took the entire building, demanding a reversal of the decision. Today a red and black flag flies over the barricaded Mansion House at Middlesex, and thinkers from around the UK and continental Europe are travelling to the occupied Trent Park campus to participate in an open program of art, philosophy, and politics events called Transversal Space.

This sequence is a prolegomena to any future philosophy.

We cannot rely upon the goodwill of administrators and their consulting firms to uphold the grand tradition of the Academy, nor to offer wild-life preserves for modes of critical reflection that assuredly do not serve the interests of their species. We will not secure “the future of the humanities” by the authority of the better argument nor through appeals to a higher good than goods. If the very capacity for philosophical activity is to survive, then by any means necessary we will have to make it unprofitable to destroy the time and space of resolutely unproductive thought. What Middlesex augurs is that the 21st century is a time in which the material conditions of any possible thinking will have to be constructed, expropriated, and defended by common force.

Kant’s project, at the core of critical modernity, was to banish dogmatism by accounting for the conditions of any possible understanding. But now it is not critical reflection but rather the dogmatic operations of capital that pose the question quid juris? to philosophy. To subject Kant’s critical idealism to a materialist inversion, today, is to recognize that the conditions of any possible philosophical reflection—reflection upon conditions of possible understanding, or anything else—will depend upon material powers of resistance, the construction of times, spaces, and forms of life capable of holding their own against the vacuity of philosophy’s erasure.

“The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The present crisis of the relation of philosophy to capital means that philosophers will have to change the world in order to interpret it. It is not that philosophy will be obviated by the real movement of history, the coming-into-being of communism, but rather that communization is now the pre-condition of any possible philosophy.

“In the sphere of this faculty you can determine either everything or nothing,” writes Kant in the preface to the Prolegomena. From California, to Puerto Rico, to London, to Zagreb, to Greece: We Want Everything.

Nathan Brown
University of California, Davis

Marija Cetinić
Comparative Literature
University of Southern California

Gopal Balakrishnan
History of Consciounsess
University of California, Santa Cruz
Aaron Benanav
University of California, Los Angeles

Jasper Bernes
University of California, Berkeley

Chris Chen
University of California, Berkeley

Joshua Clover
University of California, Davis

Maya Gonzalez
History of Consciousness
University of California, Santa Cruz

Timothy Kreiner
University of California, Davis

Laura Martin
University of California, Santa Cruz

Jason Smith
Art Center College of Design

Evan Calder Williams
University of California, Santa Cruz

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