Issue 1, 2017

The promise of modernity’s drone-assisted conquest of air space is far from uncomplicated. As unmanned air vehicles become more ubiquitous, with implementations ranging from intelligence-gathering and covert military attacks to cultural production and everyday logistics, this special issue of Krisis captures the technical, aesthetic, economic, psychic, and political challenges facing the rise of the drone. 

To invoke and provoke the everyday, Rob Stone opens the issue by bringing home the unease of displaced technologies through sonic imagination and biomimicry. Moving from patterned cacophonies to discursive shifts, Øyvind Vågnes evaluates the role of euphemism in shaping public perception of the so-called War On Terror. Alex Edney-Browne’s article tackles the prominent image of the drone operator as PlayStation killer head-on by questioning the assumption that the virtualization of violence yields a decrease in empathy, argues that mediation can also constitute feelings of proximity and stimulate peer-recognition. Halbe Kuipers’ article reflects on the metaphysical and ethical implications of image-making when drones participate in filmic world-making. A 2015 debate transcript follows, in which Krisis’s own Eva Sancho Rodriguez moderates a discussion between Willem Schinkel and Rogier van Reekum.  The issue ends with two book reviews: Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand  on Grégoire Chamayous’s A Theory of the Drone and Tobias Burgers  on Ian Shaw’s Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance.

The image is a fragment of Ruben Pater’s Drone Survival Guide

Dronedeutung: een tafelgesprek op festival Drift

Naar aanleiding van het komende Dronedeutung-nummer verzorgde Krisis in 2015 tijdens Drift een tafelgesprek: De chaos tegemoet. Drift is een wijsgerig festival dat jaarlijks georganiseerd wordt door filosofiestudenten in Amsterdam. Onder leiding van redactielid Eva Sancho Rodriguez duidden Willem Schinkel en Rogier van Reekum het fenomeen drone.

Willem Schinkel: Mijn interesse in drones heeft te maken met surveillance en de gevolgen van drones voor wat oorlog is. Ik heb het eigenlijk alleen maar over vliegende drones en meestal ook over bewapende drones. Specifiek ben ik geïnteresseerd in de manier waarop drones bijdragen aan de verandering in een mens zien. De fantasie om op afstand bommen te gooien is niet een heel recente. In de Eerste Wereldoorlog heeft men daar al mee geëxperimenteerd, maar die pogingen zijn allemaal gecrasht. Tegenwoordig zijn dergelijke fantasieën professioneler, en zijn het eigenlijk geen fantasieën meer. Bij General Atomics kan je een Reaper-drone kopen voor ongeveer 40 miljoen dollar, meen ik. Nederland heeft er net vier van aangeschaft. Die zijn vooralsnog onbewapend, maar daar gaan zonder problemen zogenaamde Hellfire-missiles op. Deze drones storten trouwens vaak neer; één op de drie schijnt nog steeds uit zichzelf neer te storten. Voor Nederland belooft dat heel wat … vliegen vooral in de buurt van Amsterdam [gelach]. Het punt is natuurlijk dat ze alleen elders op de wereld vliegen. Daar ga ik het over hebben.

Om nu te begrijpen wat er gebeurt als we de wereld observeren met onbemande vliegtuigen, is het aardig om de geschiedenis van de mechanisering van het zien te begrijpen. Deze geschiedenis begint eeuwen terug, maar specifiek met betrekking tot robots vind ik het volgende interessant. De eerste robot komt uit een Weens toneelstuk uit 1920 van de gebroeders Čapek, dat Rossums Universal-Robots heet, afgeleid van het Tsjechische robota dat slaaf betekent. Dit toneelstuk speelt eigenlijk met de omkering daarvan. De robots worden in eerste instantie door de industrie ingezet, vervolgens krijgen zij bewustzijn en daarna domineren zij de mens. Dat is een thema dat nog steeds bestaat. Het idee dat alles wat bewustzijn krijgt, meteen wil domineren en overheersen, is op zich vreemd. Het thema komt bijvoorbeeld ook sterk naar voren in de context van het Bauhaus. De Bauhausexperimenten hadden betrekking op de vermenging van kunst, technologie en leven. Daar was het idee dat het zien algoritmisch uitdrukbaar is in de vorm van logische patronen die door mens-machinekoppelingen in de ruimte tot stand komen.

Deze twintigste-eeuwse culturele achtergronden gaan vooraf aan de manier waarop wij tegenwoordig via drones de wereld observeren. Een decor van Xanti Schawinksy op het Black Mountain College in de Verenigde Staten, waar velen van het Bauhaus heengegaan zijn nadat de nazi’s aan de macht kwamen, toont het rationele calculeerbare oog in de lucht, volledig losgemaakt van een lichaam. Dit oog bestrijkt alle domeinen van het leven. Dat is denk ik een adequate omschrijving van de toestand waarin we ons tegenwoordig bevinden. Het zien van drones is zeer vernetwerkt en gedistribueerd. Allerlei verschillende locaties (in de VS, Europa, het Midden-Oosten en Zuid-Korea) en de verbindingen daartussen zijn nodig om überhaupt de wereld waar te nemen vanuit een drone. Dus het is eigenlijk verkeerd om te zeggen dat een drone de wereld waarneemt. Daar is een compleet netwerk van actoren, van verschillende plaatsen voor nodig, en dáár vindt dat zicht plaats. Dat zicht komt tot stand door een heel netwerk van selectie, interpretatie, overleg en is dus niet een soort objectief oog in de lucht, maar een systeem of netwerk dat tot objectiviteit besluit. Heel specifiek gaat het tegenwoordig in de Verenigde Staten, het land met de meest geavanceerde systemen hiervoor, om programma’s met namen als Gorgon Stare of Argus; allemaal verschrikkelijke namen, wat op zich ook veelzeggend is natuurlijk.

Het model van monitoring passen we steeds vaker op onszelf toe. We hebben nauwe feedbackkoppelingen met het monitoren van ons eigen leven. Een recent voorbeeld is een vader wiens achtjarige dochter alleen naar school wilde lopen. Dat is in de Verenigde Staten überhaupt al een heel ding, maar deze vader besloot haar te volgen met een drone. Interessant daarin is dat op het moment dat haar iets overkomt, de vader helemaal niets kan doen. Hij kan alleen zien dat ze meegenomen wordt, of dat ze aangereden wordt. Daar ging het hem om, want hij zegt letterlijk: ‘it was kind of a thing just to keep an eye, just to make sure she was looking both ways, let her know that daddy is always watching’. Dat laatste is misschien wel het allerergste. Een soort god-complex, maar dat is iets wat we tegenwoordig allemaal in zekere mate hebben. Interessant is dat er een soort training van het zien van de dochter plaatsvindt. De vader wil via zijn gedistribueerde oog kijken of zij wel alle kanten opkijkt. De manier waarop hij er altijd voor zijn dochter is, is door altijd in afwezigheid mee te kijken. Drones dragen op deze manier bij aan een andere vormgeving van onze meest primaire relaties.

Maar hoe zien we de ander hiermee? De badge die drone-operators in de Verenigde Staten die met de Reaper-drone werken op hun kleren dragen, spreekt niet direct de wens uit de ander als mens te zien die iets van ons vraagt; het zijn niet echt levinasianen. Dat spreekt ook uit de taal: Reaper, dat komt van Grim Reaper, Predator, Gorgon Stare, Hellfire missiles, Global Hawk. Die taal moet iets duidelijk maken. Maar veel politieker wordt het als je naar de badge kijkt van de afdeling bij het Amerikaanse leger die uit sensor-operators bestaat. Daarop staat ‘no country too sovereign’, wat wijst op een heel sterk geopolitiek effect van drones. Drones hebben geen respect voor grenzen. Ze zijn typisch voor een vorm van hedendaags imperialisme, dat zij mede mogelijk maken. ‘No country too sovereign’ is een imperialistische uitspraak, een praktische waarheid, omdat drones relatief gemakkelijk opereren onder de soevereiniteit van andere staten, maar vooral omdat die staten zwakker zijn dan de Verenigde Staten. Vorig jaar nog zei Joseph Votel, hoofd Joint Special Operations Command in de Verenigde Staten: ‘we want to be everywhere, know everything and we want to predict what happens next’. Dat is gewoon imperialisme.

Wat we niet moeten doen bij het denken over dit soort dingen is de drones naturaliseren door ze te begrijpen als een volgende stap in de technologie, zoals pijl- en boogschieten ook al betekent dat je op afstand te werk gaat, en dat dat is hoe technologie werkt. We moeten ook niet technodeterministisch denken; drones zijn onnauwkeurig, ondanks alle precisieretoriek die het leger naar voren brengt. Als je de transcripten leest van drone-operators die gruwelijke fouten maken, dan zeggen zij bij het zien van kinderen dat zij oud genoeg zijn om een rifle te dragen. Tegelijkertijd, als blijkt dat ze driejarige kinderen vermoord hebben, zeggen zij dat zij dat niet konden zien op de korrelige beelden. We moeten dus absoluut niet technodeterministisch denken, noch techno-optimistisch, noch pessimistisch: we moeten drones politiseren. We moeten in eerste instantie de vraag stellen: hoe wordt een mens überhaupt zichtbaar? Als dit de manier is waarop we naar mensen kijken en op basis waarvan we besluiten wie we aanvallen, wat betekent dat dan voor hoe we mensen eigenlijk zien? We moeten ook vragen naar de locus van beslissingen. Vroeger was er sprake van een heldere chain of command. Nu is het zo dat de nerds die bepaalde algoritmes maken de drones medebesturen. Algoritmes nemen heel belangrijke beslissingen, terwijl dat volledig uit het publieke oog verdwenen is; we hebben daar geen politiek zicht op. Ook moeten we het hebben over de imperialistische houding, over de asymmetrie in de wereld en over het feit dat dat op een dag naar ons terugkomt. Er zijn al pogingen van terroristen geweest om met drones aanvallen in het westen te plegen en mijn gok is dat dat binnen tien jaar ook absoluut gebeurt, en dat dat soort aanvallen heel lastig aan te pakken zijn.

In Afghanistan leven dorpelingen onder een constant regime van angst voor drones. Toen een Reaper-drone was neergestort, zoals deze dus nogal eens doen, besloten zij de drone te stenigen. Bij het zien van de video-opnamen daarvan kreeg ik een beetje medelijden met de drone; de gebeurtenis speelt enorm sterk in op de mens-machinerelatie. De drone ligt daar blind en hulpeloos voor die mensen en wordt gestenigd. Dat is een hele rare emotie, waarvan ik nog niet helemaal zeker weet wat ik ermee moet. Maar ik denk dat op het moment dat we compassie met de drone kunnen krijgen, we ook misschien ergens zijn. Dat gevoel moeten we filosofisch duiden.

Rogier van Reekum: Ik ben redactielid van Krisis en één van de mensen die heeft nagedacht over wat we als tijdschrift willen met het thema van drones. Een van de redenen waarom de redactie dacht dat drones tot de verbeelding spreken, is omdat ze een belofte van de moderniteit lijken in te willigen. De moderniteit heeft veel verschillende betekenissen, maar één daarvan is de fantasie van een voortdurende verdere verfijning van de controle over de omgeving via technische middelen. Drones lijken daar een volgende stap in te beloven.

Lange tijd was het luchtruim onbenaderbaar, we hadden alleen piloten – een hele selecte groep mensen, durfallen, bijzondere mensen, specialistisch getraind – die het luchtruim konden penetreren. Drones lijken democratisering te beloven: een democratische toegang via technische middelen tot het luchtruim. Drones openen het luchtruim ook voor dagelijks gebruik, zoals de snelwegen voor het gebruik van de auto het land open hebben gebroken. Drones lijken net zo’n soort fantasie van de toekomst of belofte van de moderniteit in te willigen. Dat resoneert met wat Willem Schinkel net heeft gezegd: hebben we het alleen over een inwilliging van de belofte van het penetreren van het luchtruim, of ook over een kolonisering van dat luchtruim? Dat wil zeggen, gaat het veroveren van het luchtruim gepaard met asymmetrie, met imperialisme, met allerlei consequenties, met partijen die daar verder in zijn en partijen die daar de consequenties van merken.

Mijn eigen onderzoek richt zich op de visualisering van migratie. Nu is het zo dat een partij zoals Frontex, de Europese grensbewakingsorganisatie, tests doet en zo nu en dan dronetechnologie gebruikt, onder andere in Griekenland. Specifieker vindt dat niet in Griekenland, maar boven Griekenland plaats. Eén van de interessante dingen die je daar ziet, is dat de kolonisering van het luchtruim plotseling heel erg veel te maken krijgt met het domineren van het aardoppervlak. Daarmee wordt iets opnieuw belangrijk, dat lange tijd minder belangrijk was: de categorie van terrein. Lang was ruimte als territorium erg belangrijk, zoals je die bijvoorbeeld op een kaart ziet. Dronetechnologie maakt ruimte in termen van terrein weer veel belangrijker, omdat vanuit het zicht van een drone belangrijker is waar je je in termen van terrein bevindt en in hoeverre vervolgens geïntervenieerd kan worden aan de hand van ofwel wat een drone kan doen ofwel de hoeveelheid intelligence die via drones vergaard wordt. Dat wordt bijvoorbeeld duidelijk uit het gebruik van drones in de grenscontrole of in de collateral damage van ‘aanslagen’ die gepleegd worden door de Amerikaanse oorlogsmachine. Als je je dicht bij iemand bevindt die geselecteerd is om omgelegd te worden, dan word je daarmee niet vanwege een bepaalde status, maar simpelweg omdat je je in termen van terrein dicht bij iemand bevindt, plotseling gekwalificeerd als collateral damage. Daarmee worden andere eigenschappen dan nationaliteit belangrijk, in dit geval terrein. Dat is iets dat interessant is aan wat drones doen.

Eva Sancho Rodriguez: Voordat we aan het tafelgesprek beginnen, laten we een kort fragment zien van de documentaire Unseen War. James Bridle, een kunstenaar-activist, en Noortje Marres, filosoof en mediawetenschapper bij Goldsmith’s, praten hier over het meest gevonden dronebeeld via Google Images, een beeld dat we waarschijnlijk allemaal voor ons zien wanneer we aan drones denken. Maar juist dit beeld is gemaakt door een hobbyist in een 3D-modelleringsprogramma waar hij wat bergen achter heeft gephotoshopt. James Bridle vertelt dat dus zelfs het ‘zichtbare’ van de drones een illusie is. Maar volgens Noortje Marres weten we dondersgoed wat drones zijn. Er zijn ontzettend veel initiatieven, platforms, organisaties en informatie over drones, wat ze doen, wat hun impact is en wat de consequenties zijn. We hebben heel veel informatie, maar we denken dat deze niets zichtbaar maakt omdat ze niet effectief lijkt te zijn. Marres suggereert dat zichtbaarheid en onverschilligheid met elkaar verward worden.

Een eerste vraag aan jullie is naar aanleiding van de opmerking dat we heel veel informatie over drones hebben en er allerlei vormen van activisme zijn om die informatie zichtbaar te maken. Tegelijkertijd is het zo dat surveillancetechnologie er altijd in één keer is. Denken jullie dat wat er nu rondom drones gebeurt in het zichtbaar maken ervan anders zal zijn qua het wel of niet delibereren over wat voor surveillancetechnologie we hebben?

Rogier van Reekum: Ik heb het gevoel dat drones een hoog magnetrongehalte hebben. Wat ik daarmee bedoel is het inwilligen van de belofte van de moderniteit. Eind jaren tachtig heerste zo’n gevoel rondom de magnetron. Dat zou een fantastisch nieuw keukenapparaat zijn, maar bleek een stom ding waarmee je af en toe iets opwarmt. Ook rondom de drone hangt aan de ene kant de suggestie van een enorme technologische revolutie, maar tegelijkertijd kan het in datzelfde narratief van moderne vooruitgang van de technologie gepresenteerd worden. Dan is het gewoon de volgende logische stap, eigenlijk niets nieuws, maar slechts een middel om mensen in de gaten te kunnen houden. Dat we mensen in de gaten willen houden, is eigenlijk een heel aparte blik op technologie. Aan de ene kant willigt het allerlei fantastische verlangens in en tegelijkertijd is het een volgende logische stap van een proces dat al loopt. Dat maakt het politiseren ervan moeilijk.

Willem Schinkel: Wat het politiseren van drones vooral moeilijk maakt is dat drones een ultieme vorm van asymmetrische oorlogsvoering vertegenwoordigen in de zin dat je eigen soldaten geen risico lopen. Waar Amerika sinds Vietnam enorme problemen mee gehad heeft, zijn de zogenaamde body bags die naar huis komen. Op het moment dat je een wapen hebt waarbij dat risico niet bestaat, loop je heel dat secundaire risicomanagement uit de weg. Tegelijkertijd is er geen enkele democratische noodzaak om te controleren wat een overheid doet met zijn wapens, omdat je nooit ziet wie een been verloren heeft en er nooit iemand is die niet meer terugkomt, want je medesoldaten zitten naast je in de woestijn in Nevada andere mensen te vermoorden. Op dat moment verlies je eigenlijk alle interesse; oorlogsvoeren wordt iets dat we kunnen tolereren omdat we nooit te maken hebben met bekenden die ineens dood zijn.

Eva Sancho Rodriguez: Tegelijkertijd is het zo dat we nieuwsberichten op Nu.nl kunnen lezen over drones. Wat mij oprecht verbaast, is dat er bijvoorbeeld weerstand geweest is tegen de introductie van Google Glass. Dat werden al snel glassholes genoemd. Die magnetrontechnologie is mislukt en de ontwikkeling daarvan is stopgezet. We weten wellicht ergens in ons achterhoofd wat drones betekenen, ondanks het euforische aspect ervan. Wat maakt nu dat de ene technologie stukloopt en de andere omarmd wordt?

Willem Schinkel: Het is heel belangrijk dat we het hebben over ‘Dronedeutung’, maar we hebben het niet altijd over hetzelfde fenomeen. Waar ik het met name over heb, zijn weaponized drones die in de oorlogsvoering gebruikt worden. Dat is iets heel anders dan de drones die je op Bol.com voor 150 euro kunt kopen. Die vind ik ook wel leuk; ik ben nerd genoeg om die drones grappig te vinden. Waarom drones in de Verenigde Staten, en niet alleen daar (Israël is de grootste exporteur van gewapende drones in de wereld) zo populair zijn, is omdat er voor miljoenen bij het Amerikaanse Congres gelobbyd is door heel machtige bedrijven. Op dit moment trainen alle afdelingen van het Amerikaanse leger gezamenlijk meer drone- dan gewone piloten. Het Amerikaanse leger is zich dus volledig anders in gaan stellen. Recent stond er een bijdrage in NRC Handelsblad van een zeer schimmige club; lui die vinden dat we meer in defensie moeten investeren in Nederland. Die club bestaat uit ex-VVD’ers, CDA’ers en ex-PvdA’ers, en zij noemden ook heel subtiel ‘onbemande systemen’ waar we in moeten investeren. Daar schuilt een enorme macht en een enorm economisch belang achter, dat iets heel anders is dan die kleine drones die we gewoon ‘voor de leuk’ hebben. Overigens zijn Google en Facebook bezig met drones die internet vanuit de ruimte kunnen verspreiden. Amazon wil drones om pakjes te bezorgen. Er is dus een heel palet aan opties, waarbij je iedere keer specifiek moet kijken wat aantrekkelijk is voor wie.

Eva Sancho Rodriguez: Tijd voor vragen of opmerkingen uit de zaal. [Vraag vanuit het publiek] De vraag gaat over de manier waarop bestuurders van militaire drones enerzijds ruimtelijk ver weg van hun slachtoffers zitten, maar anderzijds heel dichtbij zijn. Zij kunnen alles van het dagelijks leven van hun slachtoffers zien door middel van camera’s, maar zijn tegelijkertijd heel ver weg.

Willem Schinkel: Dat is iets wat vaak gezegd wordt en ik denk dat het ten dele waar is, maar ook ten dele onwaar. Voor zover het waar is, moeten we daar heel erg mee oppassen. Dronepiloten zijn heel dicht bij hun slachtoffers omdat zij inderdaad uren achtereen dezelfde personen bekijken, maar zijn ook ver weg, omdat ze die personen helemaal niet goed kunnen zien. Ze kunnen bijvoorbeeld geen gezichten onderscheiden. Wanneer zie je een mens? Heb je daarvoor een gezicht nodig of niet? Ik noemde Levinas net grappend, maar het is de vraag wat je precies ziet als je zo’n korrelig beeld hebt – want die beelden zijn korrelig. Dat dronepiloten alles heel scherp zien, is een illusie. Anderzijds zien ze bijvoorbeeld mensen bidden, en denken dan terroristen te zien, want terroristen zouden bidden voordat zij iets doen. Dat is een letterlijk voorbeeld van een paar jaar terug, waarbij meer dan twintig mensen opgeblazen werden omdat ze gingen bidden. Recent is ook naar voren gekomen dat drone-operators meer last hebben van post-traumatic stress disorders dan reguliere piloten en zelfs soldaten in het veld. Daar moeten we heel erg mee oppassen. Misschien is het waar, maar anderzijds is het ook een manier om drone-operators tot soldaat te maken. Dat zegt ook Grégoire Chamayou in zijn recente boek. Om het beroep eervol te maken, lopen dronepiloten ook in een uniform, hebben zij een badge, en doen zij allemaal alsof ze soldaatje zijn, maar dat is ook een manier om hen te normaliseren.

Rogier van Reekum: Het is ook belangrijk je te realiseren dat veel van de drones die bijvoorbeeld in Pakistan, Jemen of dat soort plekken opereren, vliegen vanaf vliegvelden in Saudi-Arabië. Vanuit Nevada is er een infrastructuur nodig om dit soort dingen te kunnen doen. Dat veronderstelt een Amerikaans imperium, een overleg tussen Saudi-Arabië en de Verenigde Staten, allemaal zaken om die nabijheid en afstandelijkheid te organiseren. Die infrastructuur moet je ook meenemen in de bepaling wat veraf is, en wat dichtbij.

Willem Schinkel: Om bijvoorbeeld een Reaper-drone te vliegen en daarmee te surveilleren, heb je mensen nodig die in Nevada drone-operator zijn. Daar zitten sensor operators bij, meerdere mensen die meekijken. In Florida zitten mensen die alle data heel specifiek analyseren op intelligence. Vervolgens hebben ze teams in bijvoorbeeld Afghanistan. De vraag is: wie ziet? Als je communicatietranscripten terugleest, blijkt dat het zien zich vormt in overleg, en dat er besluiten genomen worden die uiteindelijk leiden tot aanslagen. Stel dat Rogier van Reekum doelwit is van een drone-attack. Als ik bij hem in de buurt sta, ben ik niet collateral damage. Ik ben een military aged male die direct betrokken is omdát ik in zijn buurt ben. Dat is per implicatie de manier waarop ik gezien word. De vraag daarbij blijft steeds wat zien eigenlijk is. Daarbij moeten we niet te snel denken aan het binoculaire proces waar we zelf dagelijks mee bezig zijn.

[Vraag uit publiek, onverstaanbaar]

Willem Schinkel: Er wordt gewerkt aan systemen die niet meer hoeven te landen en voortdurend bijgevuld kunnen worden. Soms hebben drones ook een eigen wil. Een aantal jaren terug opereerde Ierland op een vredesmissie ergens in Afrika een drone waarmee zij het contact kwijtraakten. Die drone dacht toen op eigen houtje naar Ierland terug te keren, maar had daar helemaal niet genoeg brandstof voor, dus is hij ergens halverwege neergestort. Dat komt wel in de buurt van wat je zegt. De vraag is of drones zo complex kunnen worden dat zij zelfbewustzijn krijgen, dat zij zelf besluiten kunnen nemen. Dan zou je kunnen hopen dat de drones besluiten iets beters te doen dan mensen afknallen, en besluiten andere drones af te gaan knallen. [gelach]

Opmerking uit publiek: Ik zag een filmpje van een Pakistaans meisje van een jaar of zes, dat het had over de heldere hemel. Als er geen bewolking is, dan zouden er geen drones komen en hoefde zij niet bang te zijn vanuit de lucht neergeschoten te worden. Het andere element van zien en gezien worden, is dat de houding van mensen in relatie tot de lucht boven hun hoofd verandert.

Willem Schinkel: Dat klopt. Mensen passen zich aan aan de kennis geobserveerd te worden. Dat problematiseert de aanname dat je door boven mensen te vliegen kan zien wat ze doen, want zij passen zich aan. In Afghanistan hielden stamhoofden vroeger, tot een paar jaar terug, buiten overleg. Dat doen ze niet meer, omdat ze weten dat aan de andere kant van de wereld mensen zouden kunnen denken, dat ze een terroristische aanslag beramen. Zij passen zich aan en gaan vaker naar binnen. Daaruit concluderen de Amerikanen dat ze secretive bezig zijn, want ze zijn de hele tijd binnen. Dus willen de Amerikanen microvehicles, drones die eruitzien als vogeltjes of als insecten. Die kunnen door een raam naar binnen, vliegen voor je hoofd en schieten je dwars door je hoofd heen. Er vindt een permanent spel van actie en reactie ten opzichte van surveillance plaats, terwijl de surveillance aangepast wordt aan de werkelijkheid die het zelf veranderd heeft. Dat laat zien dat de werkelijkheid niet door de surveillance gerepresenteerd wordt.

Eva Sancho Rodriguez: Dank jullie wel voor jullie aandacht en vragen, dank aan onze twee sprekers en aan de organisatie van Drift voor de uitnodiging.

 

 

The Pedagogy of Law and its First Mover

Wanting to have the cake and eat it may be a trait of scholars in the Critical Theory tradition. Illustrative of this is the following quote from Brunkhorst’s manuscript:

“To explain the take-off of the social evolution I will combine the Hegelian notion of negation with Luhmann’s idea of communicative variation, Marx [sic, WS] concept of class-struggle, and Habermas [sic, WS] assumption that normative validity claims are unavoidable once Alter understands a symbolic expression of Ego.” (Brunkhorst 2013, 8).

Although this sentence seems to have disappeared from the final version of the book, it does very accurately describe what happens in the book. And I actually like this a lot. I want to be convinced, and so I’m going to problematize the effort Brunkhorst undertakes somewhat. This band of four men, Hegel, Luhmann, Marx and Habermas, is no doubt easiest to deconstruct – that is, to take apart and to reconstruct anew from the inside – by focusing on the role of Luhmann. For having your cake and eating it too here seems to mean to speak of the system of law, of its evolution also, in terms of its mechanisms of variation, selection and retention or stabilization, and to yet combine this with a conception of a normative driver of evolution that is related to class struggle. Quite simply, this is impossible. On the one hand, having your cake and eating it too is an inability to choose, and maybe it’s just being greedy, or being a miser. Maybe it’s part of the universalistic claims typical of Critical Theory. But on the other hand, having your cake and eating it is a paradox, which is a very Luhmannian figure of thought. I’m going to take it as such, and I’ll continue to like it. And, to have said this as well, I want to admire the brightness of the analysis in Brunkhorst’s book.

So I’ll interpret the main problem Brunkhorst’s book struggles with as the problem of combining an evolutionary perspective with a normative perspective. I’ll first take on the role of the Luhmannian critic. Then I’ll try to step away from that somewhat, and present a few issues from more esoteric angles. Let me first say though, that I struggle with this myself, and I know that many colleagues do as well. As for the systems-theory point of view, one cannot easily escape from the hold it has on one. As soon as one starts to combine it with other elements, critical elements for instance, troubles ensue. And from the perspective of critical theory, the potential gains are obvious – they lie in a much more consistent conception of system and environment – but the losses are immense because they lie in the normative core of the theory, which basically threatens to get jettisoned. The feeling one gets with Luhmann is that he already ate all the cake there is. What’s left are crumbs, and so, at best, we appear to be ‘after virtue’, to borrow Macintyre’s terms.

Luhmann on law, norms and evolution

Let’s start from Luhmann’s lapidary statement that “Die Gesellschaft ist, zum Glück, keine moralische Tatsache” (Luhmann 1987, 318). It indicates right away that social evolution cannot – at least in Luhmann’s view – be moralized. That is to say that social evolution never entails a driving role of normative claims, and neither does it result in some form of normative learning that is not internally induced. Likewise, under conditions of functional differentiation, the codes of functional subsystems are morally indifferent. There is no congruency between what is true and what is good, between what is powerful and what is good, or between what is lawful and what is good. The world is definitely unplatonic, hence not a unity but functionally differentiated. Even the unity of the world appears many times in many systems and in equally many ways – and when it appears, it always appears as the unity of the difference between system and environment. So I’m starting off with some hardcore Luhmania here. I have no illusion of teaching Brunkhorst anything here, but I’m laying it out in order to highlight the tensions in his approach. Fundamentally, Luhmann’s conception boils down to the incongruence between law and morality, or between law and universal reason, or between law and anything it considers environment. That means there may be legal revolutions, or at least legal evolution, but what is legal has no bearing whatsoever on what is normatively good beyond the realm of law.

Moreover, norms do not codify the system of law, and hence they do not make up the core of its self-organization. Any functional subsystem that operates on the basis of a specific medium and code does not operate through a normative code, nor can a normative code – under conditions of functional differentiation – be a functional equivalent of the codes of subsystems. Secondarily, certainly, one can normatively ground legal, political or economic action. But primarily such action is grounded by systemic codes that are normatively indifferent (cf. Luhmann 1993, 85). Therefore, Brunkhorst’s thesis that social evolution is driven by normative claims, argument or dissensus seems hard to maintain. It can be maintained, but only as one contingent take on social evolution that must then give up on connecting with the primary form of modern differentiation. In other words, norms are not social supermedia. At the level of subsystems, such as the legal system, norms are replaced by forms as drivers of autopoiesis, and hence ultimately of evolution – forms such as the binary code of law, lawful/unlawful.

Luhmann in fact takes issue with the very notion of normative ‘learning’ in any other form than an internally induced learning (Luhmann 1993, 81). To connect normative learning to externalities, such as class struggle, seems to me to have effects akin to efforts at turning the hermeneutic circle into a spiral upwards towards better, more universalized understanding. For Luhmann, on the other hand, norms are expectations that are kept even when they are disappointed. That is, norms are primarily ways of not learning. Likewise and relatedly, Luhmann says of values: “unsolvable problems par excellence are today called ‘values’.” (Luhmann 1994, 19). Where Brunkhorst emphasizes normative learning, Luhmann considers norms as ways of not learning. One can argue, of course, that there are ways of learning in this not learning, but this would not exist as externally induced, and it is certainly hard to maintain that learning not to learn is a driver instead of a consequence of social evolution. Likewise, norms only function internally in the system of law. The legal system can refer cognitively to its environment, but not normatively (Luhmann 1993: 85).

In a sense, evolution in Luhmann’s terms is nothing other than the possibility of social systems to ignore expectations – including normative ones – in order to produce variation, and the temporalized restabilization of new variations. In that sense, the normative plays a role in evolution only insofar as it exists in a range of variation and can be selectively ignored. Most generally, social evolution is a process of demoralization, in which neither morality, nor values, nor norms are a source of integration. Rather, evolutionary complexity entails the heightening of implausibilities.

This provides some background for the main issues I would like to highlight.

The problem of social evolution

A crucial issue concerns Brunkhorst’s conceptualization of evolution. He distinguishes between evolutionary adaptation to a system’s environment, and to evolutionary constraints on such adaptation. Given the above, the question is how norms, or anything normative, could ever be a constraint on cognitive evolution? Because evolution concerns the primary differentiation of society, which is evidently not normatively supercoded, this seems altogether unlikely.

But in my view, this conception of evolution is problematic in a more fundamental respect. In one particular sense that I wish to highlight, it marks a decisive break, although I don’t believe this is made explicit in Brunkhorst’s book, with Luhmann’s conception of social evolution, and it makes it harder yet to perform the balancing act between Hegel, Luhmann, Marx and Habermas. Brunkhorst says, for instance, that

“…modern law is not only the result of morally neutralized, gradual evolutionary adaptation of social systems to their environment (and hence of the cognitive learning of social systems which do not care about their negative externalities), but also the outcome of class struggle and revolutionary change (and hence of normative learning processes of social groups who demand rights for the victims of history, but with ambivalent effects).” (Brunkhorst 2014, 2-3).

Throughout the book, Brunkhorst refers to evolution in the cognitive sense as a form of adaptation. But this is not at all how social systems relate to their environment. In fact, one uses a biological, organism-centered conception of evolution when adaptation is central. Evolution of social systems does not occur through adaptation, but through the maintenance of the incongruence between system and environment by means of irritation. Crucial to this is the relative degree of complexity between system and environment. The autopoiesis of social systems prevents them from ‘adapting’ to their environment. Their evolution is internally triggered by irritation from a self-induced environment, and it does not constitute adaptation because social systems do not thrive by adaptation to their environment, but by incongruence with their environment. In such an evolutionary perspective, there can be no question of linear – or quasi-linear – development (Luhmann 1994, 7).

This distinction between adaptation and irritation has consequences for Brunkhorst’s conception of law as providing normative constraints on adaptive evolution. First of all, as I just said, there is no adaptive evolution. But secondly, even if one were to hold that there is, it is altogether hard to imagine how law could provide normative constraints on it. After all, this would mean that the system of law could interfere in other autopoietic systems, and that is fundamentally impossible in autopoietic systems. And for the same reason, it is hard to see how social evolution in the form of normative learning in law could be considered as externally triggered, namely by class struggle, which, as Brunkhorst literally says in his conclusion, ‘causes’ legal revolutions (Brunkhorst 2014, 464). For that would mean that class conflict directly interferes with law, in which case there is no functionally differentiated system of law. Luhmann (1993, 77) maintains that the system of law is normatively closed and cognitively open, but that still means it can be directly steered neither normatively nor cognitively – nor, for that matter, by class conflict. Class struggle here emerges as an equivalent to what musical innovation was for Plato, when he wrote in The Republic: “for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him; – he says that when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them” (Plato 2000, 93). For Luhmann, that too would be a quite impossible impingement of the system of art on the system of law. Let me summarize the points I’ve just made as the first two main problems I see:

1) Normative learning in law is construed as externally triggered, but normative learning can only be internally triggered, and anyhow social systems do not undergo direct external influence.
2) Law appears as a constraint upon its environment, which is considered here as an outside of the law, but social systems do not undergo direct external influence.

These issues come out of Brunkhorst’s, in my view problematic, use of adaptation as central to evolution, which is then constrained by normative learning.

The Kantian mindset

Let me now move on to a second set of problems of a less orthodox Luhmannian nature. These center around what Brunkhorst calls the ‘Kantian mindset’. This he relates to the role of normative dissensus, as well as to the role of rational argumentation and the forceless force of the better argument in social evolution. I find the role he accords to normative dissensus or conflict, as well as the role of the Kantian mindset in this, problematic.

If we, for starters, because it is the conceptual framework Brunkhorst uses, look at what Luhmann says about the evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection, and retention or stabilization then it immediately becomes clear that norms do not figure anywhere. Variation has to do with language and its potential for negation; selection has to do with codes, and not with norms as Brunkhorst seems to imply; and stabilization has to do with system differentiation (Luhmann 2005a, 188). The point is that communication itself gives rise to negation and thereby to variation and evolution. In Brunkhorst’s book there is a constant slippage from “communicative variation” to “dissent over normative expectations” (Brunkhorst 2014, 16). In contrast to this, Brunkhorst seems to want to identify a driver of social evolution that is itself quasi-external to social evolution. He says for instance that:

“…only interaction that generates argument and contest can explain how negative communication reaches such a large quantity that social evolution can and must take off.” (Brunkhorst 2014, 16-17).

I believe this is problematic in a number of ways. First of all, it assumes that social evolution can only take off after the occurrence of what is itself a complex evolutionary achievement, namely argumentative, normative contestation. So I would take issue with normative contestation as a precondition, when it occurs in a certain ‘quantity’, for social evolution. But more importantly, I would criticize the entire move to find an external, perhaps even universal, driver of social evolution. For this is, ultimately, the role Brunkhorst accords to the Kantian mindset. The Kantian mindset operates in his theory as a universal driver of social evolution. He allows that it develops in social evolution, but at the same time it is, albeit in perhaps rudimentary form but existing since the Axial Age, a precondition and driver of social evolution. What happens is that in the negative potential of communication, which drives evolution, he sneaks in the Habermasian features of rational argument and its forceless force, which moreover gain certain universality. The decisive move is the sneaking in of rationality. From that moment on, he can claim that social evolution provides normative constraints for cognitive evolution. And from that moment on, the Kantian mindset can assume its magical function of allowing us to have a cake and eat it. It is also how Brunkhorst can make the following slip:

“my main thesis is that of the co-evolution of cosmopolitan and national statehood. Throughout the evolution of modern law and politics, cosmopolitan state formation (…) has preceded and enabled particular and national state formation.” (Brunkhorst 2014, 7).

The slip is from ‘co-evolution’ to ‘cosmopolitan state formation has preceded…’ Because the Kantian mindset operates as First Mover in Brunkhorst’s theory, the cosmopolitan is not really a co-evolutionary achievement, but it can precede national state formation.
Most importantly, I would argue, normative dissensus, and ultimately what Brunkhorst calls the Kantian mindset, thus becomes a pre-evolutionary universal, which, en passant, divorces the take-off of social evolution from natural evolution, i.e., from the evolution of the capacities of language or communication more generally. So, in addition to my earlier two points, I’ll summarize my remarks on this issue in two further points:

3) Social evolution does not take off as a consequence of a certain quantity of normative argument and contest. Such contestation is itself a product of social evolution, which emerges out of the inherent drive to negation and variation of contingency in communication. Not rational argument, but communication is in the driver’s seat.
4) There is no external trigger to social evolution, other than, perhaps, natural evolution. In Brunkhorst’s book, the Kantian mindset functions as a pre-evolutionary universal. That is a lot of work to do for a mindset, even if it is a Kantian one that predates Kant by over 2000 years.

Let me venture a guess as to why the Kantian mindset plays this role of a First Mover in Brunkhorst’s theory. The effect it has is one of moralizing social evolution, and I would say that that is what provides critical theory with its task and raison d’être. On the first page of his book, he immediately comes clean as to the purpose of critical theory:

“Critical theory is about the paradox of reason within an unreasonable, brutish and random history. Methodologically, critical theory operates as an instrument to find the traces of reason and truth within a reality that as a whole is unreasonable and ‘untrue’.” (Brunkhorst 2014, 1).

I have to say I’m not such a fan of this type of gesture. It seems to me that it denies the rest of the world conscious access to that – namely Reason – to which it in the same move claims a monopoly on discovering. Now, inserting a Kantian mindset in between the three evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and stabilization as a universal driver of social evolution inserts just enough reason in the world for critical theory to have a job. And as a corollary consequence, the negation still appears in some form as the way toward the positive, which here appears as the normative. The situation is akin to the response to the marginalization of the subject in modern society according to Luhmann: “Das theoretisch marginalisierte Subjekt kehrt als normatives Postulat menschenfreundlicher Ausrichtung der Gesellschaft zurück oder es rächt sich durch ‘Kritik’.” (Luhmann 1981, 251). Instead, I would argue that the negation does not help universal reason to unfold through normative learning processes, but that it merely enhances the contingent.

Side comments

Let me end with some side comments, four in total, and perhaps admittedly somewhat esoteric to Brunkhorst’s concerns.

1) A first one has to do with an issue that runs through Brunkhorst’s argument and which I find interesting. The growth of the Kantian mindset can, I believe, be read as an alternative theory of secularization, in which the unfolding of reason through rational argumentation and the appending normative contestation grows out of initially religious developments and then, perhaps, evolutionarily frees itself from them. In many other approaches, including for instance Marcel Gauchet’s and Charles Taylor’s, the religious gives birth to the secular, but here, my question would be simply if, taken to its evolutionary logical extreme – if not end-point – this conception, unlike at least Taylor’s, means that religion in the end will turn out to be a Weberian ‘vanishing mediator’. Does this development of the Kantian mindset entail the slow but gradual disappearance of religion? Probably not, at least I don’t see this empirically confirmed, but I would be interested in Brunkhorst’s take on the issue.
2) A second comment concerns the contingency of Brunkhorst’s starting points. I have taken the route via Luhmann to deconstruct Brunkhorst’s approach, but what if we were to, for instance, take up Walter Benjamin’s perspective on law as laid out in Zur Kritik der Gewalt? In Benjaminian terms, the Kantian mindset operates as myth in Brunkhorst’s theory. And it remains locked in the vicious circle of instrumental language and law. The consequence is that it does not adequately grasp the violence of law in the way the exception continues to manifest itself in law. Empirically, there is much to be said for this (cf. Frankenberg 2010).
3) Third, Brunkhorst explicitly denies Eurocentrism. But really? These four white German men informing his theory, do they get him beyond Eurocentrism? Obviously, just because certain trends, such as modern international law, are global does not mean they are not Eurocentric or, more generally, hegemonic in various ways. I doubt whether Brunkhorst actually has the tools, in his approach, to be reflexive about his own position. In the end, this is all a very modern story, which claims universality. Many a postcolonial scholar might almost consider that a definition of Eurocentrism. No doubt Brunkhorst starts with the papal revolution and not with, say, the Code of Ur-Nammu or the Code of Hammurabi, because the latter did not yet constitute a differentiation from politics. But they did constitute written law, and as Luhmann says, law is extremely vulnerable to evolution already because it consists of text, which is loaded with the potential for negation and variation (Luhmann 2005b, 223).
4) Finally, when I try to take a wholly ‘external’ perspective, the entire focus on ‘constraints’ appears to divert attention away from what social evolution has meant in terms of natural evolution. A primary characteristic of what human world society does to the world is not to constrain anything. Brunkhorst focuses on constraints because his is an internalist focus within world society. But does that not draw attention away from the role of world society on a planetary scale? The only model that adequately describes the evolution of human world society is that of the plague. Is that, finally, and putting it evocatively, not something a critical theory would want to scrutinize, rather than the various internal normative constraints humans amuse themselves with, all the while eating away at the world in a richer sense of the word?

Issue 2, 2016

This issue of Krisis discusses the critical theory of Hauke Brunkhorst. The focus is on two of his recent books: Critical Theory of Legal Revolutions and Das Doppelte Gesicht Europas. An introduction to the work of Brunkhorst is followed by critical contributions on both books by Tannelie Blom, Darryl Cressman, René Gabriëls , Matthew Hoye, Sjaak Koenis, Pieter Pekelharing,  Willem Schinkel and Ludek Stavinoha. Finally, this dossier finds its closure with Brunkhorst’s reply to his critics.    

In addition, this issue contains three articles. Lieke van der Veer analyses and evaluates forms of border-crossing and residency that are considered problematic. Jess Bier explores the documentary histories of Caribbean pirates and François Levrau intervenes in the ongoing debate about multiculturalism. Further, David Hollanders reviews David Graeber’s  The Utopia of Rules (2015) and Frieder Vogelmann reviews Daniel Zamora’s Critiquer Foucault (2014) as well as Mitchell Dean’s and Kaspar Villadsen’s State Phobia and Civil Society (2016).

Krisis is redesigned and equipped with a new website. However, with regard to the content nothing changed.  Krisis stays a platform for discussions in contemporary social, political and cultural thought, it seeks to make the work of classic authors relevant to current social and cultural problems, and upholds its function as a forum for current critical thought on public affairs.

Artwork by Frans Franssen – alkyd on wood- 43x19x18 cm, 2016. 

What Should Democracy Mean in the University

 The 2015 occupation, or, if one will, reappropriation, of university space in Amsterdam that started a national movement for a ‘New University’ in the Netherlands and that possibly (witness the LSE, the UAL, King’s College and others) inspired others internationally,[1] constituted a political event. It constituted a political event because, for some time, it forced a breach in the normalized but utterly empty discourse of excellence that has conquered universities in the last decades. Suddenly it became possible to say that too much emphasis had been put on efficiency (rendement), that universities had been run on the basis of an extremely thin legitimation that in fact amounted to a neoliberal ideology, and that many universities had undergone a process of financialization that had contributed to the promotion of efficiency and return-on-investment ideas and practices to the primary if not sole goal of the university. Suddenly also, administrators at the University of Amsterdam admitted that they agreed with many of the things put forward by the students, and they were ready to make concessions of various nature. However, administrators mostly promised to continue ‘discussion’ and ‘debate’, and the initial refusal by the students to engage in sublimating, normalizing and consensus-seeking discussion greatly enhanced the political space that had been opened. Suddenly, university politics did not mean bargaining. Suddenly it was about principled positions, and holding ground – literally, by occupying the space of first the Bungehuis and later the Maagdenhuis (seat of the administrative board of the University of Amsterdam).

And then came the faculty. Picking up on some of the demands of the students for an internal democratization of the university, ‘democratization’ became the main focal point of what was called ‘Rethink University of Amsterdam’ – a community of faculty from different departments and faculties. The internal democratization that became the main object of struggle for Rethink UvA, and for many other ‘Rethink’ communities around the Netherlands, entailed demands for elected administrators, participation in all crucial decision-making, and that the prerogative of such decision-making should be solely for faculty with input from students. And that, as far as I am concerned, closed down the political space forced open by the occupation of, primarily, the Maagdenhuis. This political space got filled with increasingly intricate procedural proposals. It turned out that what it was all really about was the governance model. The conception of democracy Rethink UvA espoused – and still holds onto – is a type of participatory democracy or, perhaps better, direct democracy, which was also in practice among the students that occupied the Maagdenhuis. It entailed a set of procedures known amongst others from Occupy Wall Street, and at its core is a model of democracy that is radically nonrepresentational but also radically consensus oriented. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, its model was not that of deliberative democracy (which assumes consensus about the reasonable limits of legitimate deliberation), but direct democracy, which hinges entirely, for instance in the format of the ‘general assembly’, on a form of immediate consensus.

The limits of internal democratization

With respect to these demands for internal democratization, I should like to make four points:

  1. First a rather practical point. Internal democratization along the lines suggested during the Maagdenhuis occupation is likely to lead to the articulation of special interests and of the greatest interests, and this will not necessarily be favourable for the humanities. This touches on the larger issue of representation or spokespersonship. For whom and on behalf of whom at their universities do ‘Rethink’ movements speak? Large faculties or departments such as economics, business administration and law, let alone the organizationally anomalous medical faculties, have shown (and are likely to show) very little interest in supporting the demands of protesters. Should democratization lead to referenda, elected officials and the like, this would most likely not end up in the interests of the current protesters. We have to face the fact that many – students and faculty – simply have no problems with the way things are going in Dutch universities. This became explicitly apparent in the show of support for the board of administrators at the University of Amsterdam in April 2015, but it also speaks from the silence of most of the faculty at Dutch universities. It remains a difficult task to convince them that they have it wrong without treating them as the docile clients of an ideological state apparatus (treating them thus is of course an option as well).
  2. Relatedly, the heavy focus on internal democratization smacks of a certain conservatism and an effort to safeguard academic (including professorial) privileges. These privileges mainly have to do with the fact that many in contemporary Dutch academia are publicly funded to perform in a context defined almost completely by internally defined goals, without any practical and consequential concerns of the role of the university in democracy at large. This not only becomes apparent due to the fact that the protests have so far lacked a convincing conception of the public uses of the university (I have made a modest proposal in Schinkel 2015), since – at best – 19th century conceptions such as Bildung have dominated the accounts of the protesters alongside what are often clichéd accounts of neoliberalism, according to which ‘the market takes over from the state’. A more interesting account of neoliberalism, also applied to academia, is given by Wendy Brown in her recent book Undoing the Demos. Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, where she argues (based on Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics) that neoliberalism constitutes a specific rationale – based on market principles – that is extended to non-market domains. And yet interestingly, a similar wish to preserve what exists becomes apparent in her book. According to Brown, liberal arts education has been crucial for democracy in the sense that it helped create an informed, educated public. This liberal arts type of education she then deems crucial to democracy at large: ‘a liberal arts education available to the many is essential to any modern democracy we could value (…) to preserve the kind of education that nourishes democratic culture and enables democratic rule, we require the knowledge that only a liberal arts education can provide’ (Brown 2015: 200). While I am overall sympathetic to Brown’s argument in Undoing the Demos, this type of argument about the democratic relevance of liberal arts education is simply unacceptable. Is she saying European countries, without a liberal arts tradition, have not been proper democracies? She might be right, but certainly not for the reason of not having liberal arts curricula. One could qualify her points on democracy and liberal arts as a form of US-centrism that comes with occupying a hegemonic position – which it certainly is – but beyond that one could say that here, too, a conservatism becomes apparent. In the US, one argues that liberal arts should be retained because it is crucial for democracy. In Europe, the exact opposite is argued: no liberal arts, but disciplinary education, because of its relevance for dmocracy. In both cases, an argument is made to preserve what exists. This idea of conservatism is also warranted in the case of the University of Amsterdam because up until the moment budget cuts came, no faculty protests appeared (exceptions were exactly that). For decades, the legitimation of being publicly funded at universities has been neglected precisely because the money kept coming – even though students have become increasingly indebted for more than 10 years now. But once faculty positions are at stake, hell is raised.
  3. The prevailing conception of ‘democracy’ in the protests is heavily focused on consensus, and it appears based on a neglect of the fundamentally violent dimension of any form of governing. In some respects, it bears remarkable resemblance to a D66-type of conception (D66 is a Dutch political party comparable to the UK’s LibDems), especially when it emphasizes political participation through referenda and elected officials. The history of the use of such instruments does not warrant the idea of revolutionary change (I will have a bit more to say on this in the next section). More importantly, though, the problem here lies in the effort towards ‘participation’ (in politics known as the half-hearted wish to ‘bridge the gap between citizens and politics’) and a form of consensus. Over against consensus and direct participation I would emphasize contestation and distance. Contestation actually allows one to formulate one’s ideals without the burden of sorting out complex practicalities. It allows one to retain a critical stance vis-à-vis administrators, and to have the possibility to vigorously contest what they do. Direct democracy, on the other hand, draws everybody into the process of decision-making, thereby losing the possibility of a critical stance. The very practical form of assembly used in the protests, with regular ‘temperature checks’ and waving hands, is utterly unconducive to articulating dissenting opinions, which means it not only undermines the democratic need to facilitate minorities, but it also digresses towards a conservative and inflexible position, with limited possibilities of openness to new ideas. The only circumstances in which drawing everybody into decision-making and the loss of a critical position would not matter constitute a situation in which direct democracy did not entail some form of, ultimately, violence, i.e., some form of decision-making that of necessity compromises and represses the wants, needs and hopes of some. Such a conception of the political at large is, quite simply, extremely dangerous because it can only accept minority positions as depoliticized procedural outcomes. And so even in the much more inconsequential context of university politics (all pathos aside), I would strongly argue against it.
  4. Finally, participation in all internal decision-making is characterized by a certain professional arrogance that is part of the larger, extremely simplified, frame of ‘professional versus manager’ that involves slogans like ‘the managers have taken over!’ Just because we as faculty work in universities does not mean we are best qualified to organize them. A similar mistake would be made by a patient telling the doctor she knows all about medicine, because she has a body. In some bygone age, perhaps, scholars could lay claim to a wide variety of combined expertise (Newton, for instance, was governor of the Mint), but in our time a profound and arrogant neglect of the complexities of organization and administration entails the suggestion that scholars might do it on the side. Now, crucially, by this I do not mean to suggest that existing administrators have done a fine job. On the contrary! And I’m very glad with the possibility of contesting what they have done, I’m just not so sure that such contestation is best served by forms of participation (inspraak) informed by either direct democracy or deliberative democracy. In fact, many of the griefs of faculty have to do with the fact that, in practice, they have become both professional and manager, which frustrates many because they feel their managerial duties keep them from their primary tasks, which for them are research and teaching (in that order). I agree that such a conflation of professionalism and managerialism is often unwanted, but I would insist that professionals need to reconsider their claims in knowing best how to run a university. Precisely when professionals are good at what they do, and do it indeed as a ‘profession’ in the Weberian sense of a Beruf, they tend (like managers) to be otherwise partial, biased and generally unfit for making decisions in the collective interest that, at times, will necessarily negatively impact their – in practice – narrowly conceived interests. Finally, I do not favour direct democracy in universities because, from the intellectual point of view of a scholarly professional, the everyday tasks of decision-making, organizing and administering are downright boring. So thanks but no thanks.

All this does not mean administrators should be unresponsive to the claims by faculty, or that universities should not first and foremost operate out of a shared substantial conception, formulated by faculty, of what universities are for. Quite the contrary, but I believe these claims and conceptions are better formulated and served when formulated at a distance from day-to-day administration.

Beyond academic capitalism and academic conservatism

Against my expose in the previous section, one might say that an internal democratization of the university is the precondition for the democratic, critical and emancipatory contributions universities make to the world at large – a goal to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. But that would mean that universities were not, on the whole, conservative institutions. And all the evidence points precisely in this direction. The impetus to protest at the time at which it occurred was always to a considerable degree conservative at the University of Amsterdam. A unique collusion of events gave rise to a movement that drew together important parts of the university. First there was the position of the humanities, threatened by budget cuts. Second, there was the top-down move towards a merger of the science faculties of the University of Amsterdam and the VU University (also in Amsterdam), which occurred mostly out of reasons exemplifying academic capitalism (efficiency, rankings etc.) and against the wishes of the majority of the students and the science faculty at the University of Amsterdam. In both cases, then, maintenance of the status quo was the preferred option by protesters. That this is typical of universities has been argued forcefully by Clark Kerr, president of the University of California form 1958 until 1967. In a later essay added to his book The Uses of the University, Kerr discusses the student protests of the 1960s. In those protests, he had an important but contested role as university administrator. Students hated him, and at one point he was called a ‘fascist’, but at the same time the FBI blacklisted him as a subversive liberal and he was fired under such pretenses by then governor of California Ronald Reagan. Looking back on the demands for what he calls ‘participatory democracy’, Kerr notes the conservatism these demands exemplified, and I quote him here because of the clarity of his account and the relevance it has in today’s context, even if what he calls participatory democracy may not be exactly what is proposed today:

‘It is ironic that participatory democracy, with its emphasis that all the ‘people’ should be consulted and all groups have a veto, which was supposed to result in more radical decisions, in more speedy and more responsive actions, has meant, instead, more veto groups, less action, more commitment to the status quo – the status quo is the only solution that cannot be vetoed.’ (Kerr 2001: 134)

Kerr’s larger point, however, is that calls for internal democratization were in the end merely another way in which a general conservatism typical of universities played out in the 1960s. Overall, he argues, universities are very, very slow to change, and this is largely due to the conservatism of faculty members with respect to their own positions. Historically, universities are indeed remarkably stable and longstanding institutions. As Kerr notes:

‘About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established since 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities.’ (Kerr 2001: 115)

As Guldi and Armitage have recently argued, this goes for the non-western world as well: ‘Historically, universities have been among the most resilient, enduring, and long-lasting institutions humans have created. Nalanda University in Bihar, India, was founded over 1500 years ago as a Buddhist institution and is now being revived again as a seat of learning’ (Guldi & Armitage 2014: 5). And so, as Clark Kerr concludes, ‘looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in their emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions’ (Kerr 2001: 115). Indeed, what Thomas Jefferson wrote about church and state in his plea for the founding of the University of Virginia seems to apply just as much to universities:

‘the tenants of which, finding themselves but too well in their present position, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpations, and monopolies of honors, wealth and power, and fear every change, as endangering the comforts they now hold.’ (Jefferson 1818: 12)

I would argue that current protests exemplify a longstanding conservatism and that, while the protests are just and admirable, this conservatism works counter to the establishment of really positive change. Many protesters, for instance, make it seem as if the contingent, historically evolved set of disciplines taught at universities today is God-given, written in stone, and that not a single thing might be changed in them. Of course, as protesters have rightly argued, any change should be backed up by a good story. This can’t be emphasized enough: policy-makers and politicians in The Hague have no tolerance for the type of arguments currently put forward. And for this reason alone, even though I can at some level agree with very many of these arguments, I believe a more seductive argument is needed. So let me posit here, for the sake of argument, that what is shared by protesters and administrators is that they – we in general – lack such a story beyond the types of conservatism discussed above. Even the complaints of protesters have remained largely unchanged. In 1967 Theodore Roszak could write:

‘And what are the imperatives our students would find inscribed upon their teachers’ lives? ‘Secure the grant!’ ‘Update the bibliography!’ ‘Publish or perish!’ The academic life may be busy and anxious, but it is the business and anxiety of careerist competition that fills it.’ (Roszak 1967: 12)

What we have, then, is on the one hand an academic capitalism that is – still – rightly contested, but unfortunately, it is contested by an academic conservatism that seeks administrative participation as a way to secure privileges. Unfortunately, for those implementing ever new forms of academic capitalism (let’s be clear on the fact that this happens, and on the detrimental effects it has), academic conservatism becomes a tool. Larry Summers, for instance, former President of Harvard and former US Treasury Secretary (as such responsible for the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act by adopting the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, paving the way for the credit crunch), said that universities ‘have the characteristics of a workers’ co-op. They expand slowly, they are not especially focused on those they serve, and they are run for the comfort of the faculty’ (The Economist 2015: 16). The sad thing is that he is half right. So far, what has mainly been marshalled against academic capitalism is an academic conservatism. What a sorry state this is for those who lack affiliation with either position!

I’m aware that my use of ‘conservatism’ is somewhat provocative here, and it is conceptually limited to the colloquial sense of wishing to preserve what exists (and so it has nothing per se to do with political conservatism). I use the concept precisely to point out the fact that, in nearly all the protests I witnessed firsthand, the past served as the reference point for the desired situation. Some golden age of the university was often assumed to have existed, and it was vaguely situated in the 19th or the 20th century – two centuries in which universities in both Europe and the US have been almost incomparably different. As noted above, the Dutch embrace of disciplinary education and the protests in Amsterdam against a ‘watered down’ interdisciplinary bachelor in the humanities are in exact accordance with the opposite claim for liberal arts voiced by Wendy Brown. What may well become visible in these discussions and protests is the truly very limited capacity of people to analyze the situation and context in which they have been raised and are enmeshed in, with all the interests such enmeshment brings with it. When I speak of conservatism here, it is intended to provoke three things: 1) a better historical awareness of the situation deemed desirable; 2) a rhetorically more convincing argument, since arguments-from-loss appear as resentment and have no political traction; 3) a conception of the university that is much less focused on internal democracy, and (as Wendy Brown does convincingly albeit with little specificity) much more geared towards specifying the university’s role in democracy at large.

The public tasks of the university

If we are to take seriously the problems that the protesters address – ‘academic capitalism’ is one way of phrasing these problems – but move beyond such conservative responses, we need to renew our understanding of the public tasks of the university. We have in common with administrators the neglect of those tasks when things went well. When trying to formulate them now, attempts are made to give substance to ‘autonomy’ for instance by emphasizing the importance of Bildung. But Bildung was a way of educating an administrative elite and of thereby securing a national culture. Aside from the fact that in an era of more than a thousand subdiscipines it is, in practice, an empty notion, it is a white, elitist conception untenable in an age of mass enrolment. Authors from the political left to the right discovered the obsoleteness of Bildung as an ideal in the 20th century. Gramsci noted with respect to the ‘humanistic programme of general culture’ that it was ‘doomed’ because it had been based ‘on the general and traditionally unquestioned prestige of a particular form of civilization’ (Gramsci 1971: 27) – a prestige no longer unquestioned. And in 1958, Helmuth Plessner explained the problematic situation of the Geisteswissenschaften (what else is new?) out of their obsoleteness now that the Humboldtian ideal had become outdated: ‘Die öffentlichen Institutionen des akademischen Praxis helfen also der geisteswissenschaftlichen Forschung und Lehre weniger als früher (…) In der Epoche des Massenstudiums kann es auch gar nicht anders sein. Humboldt hatte die vorindustrielle Gesellschaft mit ständischen Privilegien vor Augen, in der nur wenige studierten und der Bedarf an Natur- und Geisteswissenschaftlern überhaupt nicht zählte’ (Plessner 1985 [1958]: 170). In my view, whoever yells ‘Bildung’ in the current situation has no idea of what he or she is talking about – and this is typical of much current discussion: just because people work in universities, they think they know about universities; a fatal mistake many a social scientist will recognize from analysis in other domains as well. In effect, then, claims for autonomy and Bildung are often the guises under which a conservative clinging to privileges shows itself, perhaps not quite without false consciousness. Of philosophy, Jacques Derrida has said that it ‘clings to the privilege it exposes’ (Derrida 2002: 1-2; italics in original). We should, then, to paraphrase Derrida, undertake the effort to decapitalize elitist and overblown notions like Bildung.

Instead of focusing on internal democratization, we need a new and convincing, even a seductive narrative of the place of the university in democracy. What we need is a renewal of the public tasks of the university. That means we need a way of saying that democracy at large is helped by the existence of public universities. Neither state nor business are likely to have much interest in such a message. This is unfortunate, because democratic states should be more interested. One option would be to reverse the way in which the Dutch ‘science agenda’ is currently being formed. For a month, people can send in the questions they want scientists to answer through a web portal. That’s a bad way of making science public, because formulating questions is the hardest part even for scientists. More importantly it is a way of drawing the public in by keeping it at a distance. The reverse would be more interesting: have universities, faculties, and departments actively formulate the ways their work is relevant for publics – sometimes for publics that don’t even know they exist as a public. Have universities not merely ‘respond’ to a thing called ‘the public’, but let them make knowledge public by reflecting, always, on the public consequences of their work. Those building smart traffic algorithms might, helped by scholars from the social sciences and humanities, develop a view on the public benefits and dangers of their work (which decisions are tucked away in algorithms? Which options are off the democratic table in favour of technocratic management, such as ‘less traffic’?). Those working in financial economics should be engaged in debates with historians claiming their public uses lie in countering ‘short-termism’ (cf. Guldi & Armitage 2014). Such ‘views’ may be forms of dissensus, when scientists disagree. There’s nothing new in that (many a newspaper article has two scientists subscribing to opposing views), and it nourishes democracy. The question is, then, whether we can politicize science in democratic ways? Can we come up with ways to engage publics with the values at stake in our research and teaching? Mark Brown has argued for a democratization of science to the extent that scientific experts should be seen neither as technocrats nor as value-free but as representatives of specific publics (Brown 2009). Such are promising directions to take the current protests and struggles.

Let me end by briefly stating, for the sake of these struggles and without claiming exhaustiveness, what the public tasks of the university are as I see them. And let me add a few remarks on the consequences for the struggle over the university that I draw from them. They are fourfold:

  1. The provision of accessible education. This means no conservative reflexes about the ‘massification’ of the university. When higher vocational degrees are required even to work at the counter of the supermarket, it will not do to become exclusive. Likewise, we should stop investing in ‘excellent’ students. Politics should withdraw its claim to have a fixed percentage of students in honours tracks. Precisely these ‘excellent’ students are not the ones that need extra investing. We should also stop defining the contours of the university based on the choices of study of eighteen-year-olds. That we have done so up to now is a clear sign of a lack of idea of the university.
  2. The conduct of free inquiry. That means independence from state and market pressures. Since either one of these, often combined, fund research, this is of course quite impossible, but what I emphasize in it is the possibility of critique. Of course the very social sciences and humanities in favour of critique have abolished it for epistemological and other reasons, and of course ‘being critical’ has itself become a neoliberal value pur sang, but still, there should be critique that is more than ‘thinking out of the box’. But upholding free inquiry does not mean the conservative reflex of ‘autonomy’. It rather means reconstituting the role of the university in democracy as a whole.
  3. The provision of a knowledge archive. Universities have unique memory functions. But these should not be unchangeable. Ways of ‘publication’ – often in effect ‘privatization’ – should be reconsidered, and so should the set of disciplines offered. Without pleading for ‘interdisciplinarity’ as a way of imposing austerity, we need to consider whether the memory function of universities remains tenable with increasing disciplinary differentiation.
  4. The provision of public knowledge. This is perhaps the main challenge, especially for inward-looking discussions about internal democratization. The above remarks on the politicization of science pertain to the ways in which we might endeavor to make knowledge public, to thereby aid in the constitution of publics, and to thus give shape to a truly democratic function of the university. If we cannot find ways to do this, we will end up without convincing arguments for being publicly funded.

Coda

I’m writing this on an Apple machine, having just watched a BBC documentary on the disastrous working conditions in a Chinese Apple products assembly factory and the possibly worse conditions under which tin – essential ingredient for iPhones – is mined on the Indonesian island of Bangka. I’m struck by the outrage and anger I’ve witnessed in Amsterdam and elsewhere, which is inversely proportional to the apparent lack of anger I see the Chinese and Indonesian workers exhibit. Mostly, the Chinese appear too tired to be angry, and they fall asleep even during work. Many Indonesians have no choice but to risk their lives even in illegal tin mining. Meanwhile in Amsterdam and London hell appeared just around the corner. What is my point here? I think it’s this: our possible contribution – along with the contributions of journalists – to emancipatory politics lies in our efforts at connecting publics in the world. For instance, we may contribute, with knowledge of modes of production, the circulation of capital, the development of technology and the development and use of new materials, and the evolution of social movements, to the establishment of ways through which iPhone users are connected to iPhone workers other than the connections existing today. We might, in whatever limited ways, contribute to solidarity by helping constitute and connect people and publics. IPhone users and producers have a common interest in a dignified life, but as it stands, iPhone users are not connected. For that sort of contribution (and this is but one of very many examples), the type of democracy we need in our universities is not one of consensus, which is effectively a shield for conservatism, but one of contestation.

 

 

Issue 2, 2015: The New University

This issue of Krisis revolves around two figures, that of the pirate and the privateer. It explores their relevance to a critical understanding of the gobalized present. Defying any simple opposition, the relationship between them is simultaneously one of extreme proximity, in terms of practice, and great distance, in terms of their relation to sovereignty and the law. This results in an ambiguity that matches the economic networks in which they operate, then and now. For the pirate and privateer make their reappearance in the cracks opened up by nation states permanently recuperating from the centrifugal and deterritorializing forces of capital. From media pirates turned hacktivists to neo-privateers mooring their vessels in tax havens and SEZs, each contribution approaches engages these figures from a different angle: that of Agamben’s theory of sovereignty, Corporate Social Responsibility, anonymity and parametric politics, and many more.