Demonstrating Academic Worth
As we struggle over the future of academia, merely exposing the truth – that all that is public is melting into air – is not enough. We will have to develop new ways of demonstrating academic worth. Simply showing to the public that universities are being destroyed is not enough. As everyone and anything is fitted into regimes of indebtedness and thereby subject to programs of austerity, calls to protect ‘our university’ appear hopelessly particularistic. If public expenditures must be cut – as they must within the political economy of what Wolfgang Streeck calls the consolidation state (Streeck 2015) – highly privileged sectors of the educational industry can hardly be exempted. It is, I think, a mistake to assume that publics under such a regime will be persuaded by accounts of the destruction of academia that focus on the problems academics are faced with. Most people are not academics, and have no interest in becoming academics. They have meagre means of realising why they ought to care about them. It is however equally mistaken to conclude that academic worth must therefore be conceived and articulated from the position of the non-academic outsiders – as if to imagine oneself in the position of a consuming audience and thus sense what the others might desire from us. Just as outsiders have little sense of why they should care about the destruction of academia, they have also little sense of what would, alternatively, be worthwhile about academic work. Instead of presuming to know what the public wants and catering to such – often very regressive – aims, I propose to think about alternative modes of academic worth from the inside out. I will propose the concept of demonstration as a name for this kind of public value. While the question of demonstration opens a field of issues about ways in which publics can be engaged, I want to pitch my questioning at the level of method and inquiry. If we – academics – ourselves cannot support alternative demonstrations of academic worth at the scale of our own inquiries, we have no business persuading others – taxpayers, students and other publics – of this worth. That is, if we choose not to cynically deceive our clients. So how do we envision academic worth and what alternative might we have?
Between a rock and a hard place
More often than not academic worth is envisioned in two different ways. First, there is the vision of a knowledge economy. Under this rubric, the entire world of academic practice is thought to ‘add value’ to something that is often called ‘the economy’ or, in a more generous sense, ‘society’. However, the vision of a knowledge economy is far more radical than the mere commodification of academic labour. It is not that universities are being transformed into factories that ought to bring its products to market, although that is sometimes part of it. The university, particularly its late 19th and 20th century instantiations, was always located at the cross roads of specific supplies and demands. The factory-market metaphor is too shallow. Universities can be coupled to many fields other than ‘the market’ or ‘the economy’ and nonetheless be turned into ‘knowledge economies’.
What the vision of the knowledge economy proposes is the invention of value metrics that can be attached to anything that moves – workers, papers, patents, departments, schools – and thereby allows players to coordinate their strategies. The neoliberalisation of academia is not the introduction of market discipline from the outside but the proliferation of capitalist controls within academic labouring. Even if academic workers are not forced to ‘increase production’ or ‘valorise’ their work in terms of ‘economic’ output or ‘industrial’ yields, they may nonetheless begin to control themselves, others and their work in relation to generalised metrics of value: citations, awards, recognitions, career opportunities, patents, grants, titles, publications, attention, compliments, notoriety. In Marxist terms, we control ourselves and others through a fetishisation of value.
Now, we may take on a cynical outlook and say that, objectively, fields of knowledge production differentiate and are differentiated through one value and one value alone: the academic capital called ‘Reputation’ (Bourdieu 1988). If such a cynical outlook represents ‘objectivism’, the vision of the knowledge economy is precisely its opposite: subjectivism. We are not asked to recognise the objectivity of academic production, in which case it would still make sense to demonstrate the falsity of such an analysis. Rather, we are asked to perceive academic work as a field of opportunities for acquiring academic esteem. Or, as Richard Rorty aptly put it: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” (1979: 176). The invention of quantified performance indicators are but one deliberate tool in such a pedagogy of entrepreneurialism. The more radical idea behind them is that we approach our practices as so many opportunities to profit from our competitors’ informational lags. We are living in Gary Becker’s wet dreams. Thus, any method of outwitting one’s colleagues is granted as long as one scores points in the fetishized metrics of value, however vaguely defined, and all the better if one doesn’t actually believe in them.[i]
Like all forms of capitalism (Boltanksi and Chiapello 2005), the knowledge economy lacks practical criteria of its own and can only be sustained through the exploitation of that which still resists it. Only as long as my colleagues pretend to actually believe in metrics of value can I get away with outwitting them in whatever it is “added value” demands of us without the illusion of “academic expertise” being unmasked as the mere manipulation of other people’s anticipations. Whether those other people are industry executives, policy-makers, citizens, journalists, victims, venture capitalists, academic managers, stock brokers or my very own colleagues is not all that relevant. Even if the metrics of value refer to measures of value assumed to be internal to science – truth, validity, reliability, replicability, etc. – we are already compelled and compel others to keep up appearances.
Demonstrating worth in the knowledge economy basically means impressing as many people as possible of the idea that what I am doing is impressive or, better yet, will be immensely impressive in the future. The knowledge economy is prone to alternate between booms and busts, between academic celebrity and scandals of foul play. But who cares as long as the wheels keep rolling? The knowledge economy is not capable of demonstrating worth other than through Public Relations.
The second vision of academic worth comes in the form of a representist democracy. Here, academia exists in service of the citizenry. This vision conceives of the university as yet another domain of privilege and authority that is opened up to public accountability and legitimation. It envisions a past of ivory towers and professorial dogmatism in order to project a future of public deliberation and fairness. While it may be highly suspect of the truth-claims made by science, biased as it is towards the concerns of insiders, it also glorifies the academic capacity to settle disputes. It envisions the university as the place where true tests of veracity can be made and scepticism reigns unobstructed. The problem is not authoritative truth claims as such, but academic isolation and scholasticism that distort settlements of disputes. The vision of a representist democracy proposes to redirect the consensus-procedures of academic communities to public disputes. Academics are thus asked to take on some of the work that parliament does in representative democracies: figuring out what can be done about public problems. This means that academics should stop resolving their collegial quarrels – scholastic, theoretical, detached, indulgent – and get to work on public dilemmas. Academics ought to translate ideological cleavages into competing truth-claims and test their truthfulness with the best research available. In this view, academia provides a curious kind of discourse, composed of facts and nothing but facts, which enables citizens to speak truth to power. The entire academic community becomes the citizenry’s army in its on-going battle against false consciousness.
The pinnacle of this assault on idolatry and received wisdom is given by the idea of ‘evidence-based policy’. It is not just that ‘fact free politics’ ought to be combated and that the efficacy of public policy ought to be ascertained. The vision of representist democracy seeks to interlink civic representation to the representativity of causal claims. What is tested in the randomised controlled trials of evidence-based policy evaluation is not merely the causal efficacy of policy measures – if they really work – but the question of whether those measures and their effects can be generalised to the civic population – if they work for all in equal measure. Evidence for causal efficacy is generated precisely by testing whether or not a measure is effective for the citizenry-as-a-whole. In other words, each citizen is given an equal right to governmental efficacy. Facts become more factual insofar as they are, or can become, equally effective for all citizens. Even the most impractical research pursuits are to be justified in view of this civic-popular receptivity. Research is about facts and facts are precisely those truths that can be generalised and applied to all citizens.
The vision of a representist democracy is presentist in a double sense. First, it envisions the citizenry to be a homogenous and well-delineated entity: the population. The citizenry is always already present and identical. Of course, effects appear to contradict each other, they are not the same for everyone as they only take effect in the particular circumstances of each unique person. By inventing stable dimensions of difference – demographics – that count for everyone in equal measure, research may nonetheless represent the undivided citizenry to itself. Non-generalizable differences do not count. Such research designs enables democracy to reach behind the veil of ignorance and represent effects in relation to a citizenry-without-differences, but only by assuming that the citizenry is a finite set with well-defined characteristics. Thus: What is fair is factual and what is factual is fair.
Second, the facts revealed in this way are considered causal mechanisms out there in reality. Contradicting them is useless as they are present nonetheless. This way of speaking the truth depends on a curious bifurcation. On the one hand, there is the order of ‘free opinion’ in which anything can be uttered for whatever reason. Here, contradiction reigns supreme. On the other hand, there is the order of ‘unfree facts’ in which contradiction is futile. Now, of course, in a democracy one cannot be forced to speak the truth. It is entirely up to us to exercise our freedom of speech. In this vision: Either we speak the truth, by submitting our opinions to the laws of nature, or our speech is merely expressive and, thus, nothing more than the fact of being uttered. Either disputes are about factual efficacies, resolvable through validated evidence, or they are themselves facts and their resolution becomes a matter of causally effecting them in the right way. Democratic politics is either the scientific resolution of competing efficacy claims – managerialism – or the effective manipulation of non-truthful discord – managerialism.
Demonstrating worth is a matter of civic servicing. Research is done in the name of the citizenry, at its behest and pleasure. It is a service to the public as each citizen is granted the right to equally effective government. It is also a servicing of the public as each civic utterance is judged to be either a statement of fact or the fact of statement. Research is not so much a public good as it is in the public’s good. This good is mainly sanitary. The house of democracy is cleansed of wasteful contradictions by academic clean-up. The vision is of a representist democracy capable of sanitising the public sphere in which academics appear as little more than experts in effective house-keeping, aids to the managers of the manor.
Neither of the two visions available today – the knowledge economy or the representist democracy – can accommodate an adequate discussion about what it means to demonstrate academic worth. The knowledge economy effectively destroys the bonds that keep academic practitioners together and proposes that we exploit our residual fidelity to metrics of value, whatever they may be for the moment, as a way of keeping the show on the road. The representist democracy provides a rational basis for democratic politics – facts – only by reducing this politics itself to a series of facts called ‘causes’ and ‘opinions’. These visions are, in crucial ways, opposed to each other. While the first decouples science from anything other than what, currently, counts as value, the second fixes science into the role of service provider. What the latter fixes, the former seeks to break free from. What the former exploits, the latter seeks to redistribute. It is not uncommon, however, to encounter both visions in some kind of anxious embrace. It can be proposed, for instance, that it is in the public’s good to construct a knowledge economy, a market-place of ideas, a global competition for the best and the brightest. In short: to strive for the one thing everyone must believe in…Innovation. Conversely, it can be proposed that specifically civic metrics of value are what ought to occupy the strategic agendas of academic entrepreneurs – that public expenditures in academia can only be sustained if ‘social value’ can be demonstrated. Moreover, these two proposals are easily connected into an evocative loop: it is in the public’s good to construct a knowledge economy and this knowledge economy is best expressed in metrics of civic interest. The addition of value is to be evidence-based and well-based evidence is that which adds value. In this way, a presentist belief in the facts-as-they-are, and an entrepreneurial unbelief in value-as-it-is-counted, can be tightly coupled together to compose a new spirit of academic capitalism. What Niels Bohr said of superstition – that it works even if you don’t believe in it – is now true of academic practice itself.
The monstrosity of experimental activism
There are always alternatives. One such alternative is envisioned by what I’d call a monstrous alliance of experimental activism. This is a monstrous alliance because experimentalists and activists are, in many ways, at odds with each other. I have in mind here two tendencies in counter-hegemonic practices that seek to contest the new spirit of academic capitalism in two different ways. These two tendencies – experimentalism and activism – can be defined by explicating their mutual discordances.
To the frustration of activists, the experimentalists maintain that there is always hope, always new ways of doing things, always possibilities for tinkering with the existing order. Experimentalists think the solution is change, the making of new relations. To the fatigue of experimentalists, the activists hold that there is no time to waste, actions needs to be taken sooner not later, and an unreserved partiality to the dominated, the outsiders, the subaltern, the downtrodden and stigmatised is to be promoted and sustained. Activists think change is the solution, the dissolution of old structures. While experimentalists believe in action, they do not believe in any priority of ‘the cause’. And while activists believe in creativity, they do not believe in moderation. Activists tend to renounce experimentalism as ‘liberal’. Experimentalists tend to placate activism as ‘unproductive’. Yet, there is also an alliance in the making.
What brings both tendencies together, I want to argue, is a vision of academia in which research – instead of any truth-procedure as such – is life. Both already accept what ethnomethodology proclaims: that we ought to do methodical research into methods. Research is taken to be a specific folding back of life’s methods onto its procession. Life acts methodically and it is this aspect of living – how things are done – that academics seek to attend to and, in a sense, demonstrate. Both activists and experimentalists share a reflexive vision of method as they take it to be inextricably entangled with, what Stengers calls, an ecology of practices (2010). Thus, their common enemy is a positivist/presentist position that seeks to uncouple inquiry from its ecology by way of methodological terror – ‘The’ scientific method – or epistemological common sense – black boxes of all kinds. Experimentalists and activists advocate entanglement to be the very reason for doing academic work and cannot help but take inquiry itself to be a reason to be alive. Science is a calling, a biography more than a career. What would it mean to demonstrate worth if it entails the methodical inquiry into the methods of being alive?
My argument hinges on the term ‘demonstration’. It carries into the discussion a useful bundle of associations: acting, protesting, performing, proving, teaching, showing, testing, even impressing and, above all, wondering. Demonstration seems to be a practice that can move between all these registers. We may demonstrate worth in all of these senses and, crucially, none of them can be principally rejected. All of them count in experimental activism. What matters then is doing research and thereby demonstrating ways of living. This is where both the knowledge economy and the representist democracy falter. Both seek to marry the demonstrative efforts of academic practice to concerns that annul life into value-for-the-time-being or facts-without-responsibility. In contrast, demonstration is not the publication of the impressive or the presentation of the indisputable. Experimental activism is the always partial interruption of what is already the case by which the enduring actuality of non-necessity is demonstrated:
To demonstrate how acids do when we work with them this way; to demonstrate how political grievances do when you work with them that way; to demonstrate how archives do when we work with them another way; to constantly propose linkages and translations between the lab and the clinic, the argumentation and the debate, the test and the implement, academic imagination and public truth. In short, to demonstrate that common worlds can unfold from the merely apparent solipsism and very real loneliness of creative expertise and inquisitive dedication.
In an ecology of practices, academia and the work that goes on there become sites of hesitation, unfolding, recombination and monstrosities. Where the knowledge economy asks us, although not politely, to govern our inquisitive enterprises and the representist democracy offers us the role of service-providers, I want to imagine the university as a place where matters-at-hand acquire – always partial – non-necessity. If academic capitalism is the anxious necessity of lock-step relations in the ecology of practices, steered through values-anticipated or legitimated by causalities-proven, then academic worth revolves around the subversion of such idle necessity by methodically demonstrating how life does when we are doing it.
The university that not only harbours but would actually give experimental activists a home is a transgressive place, a utopia, as the very reason to do research is to constantly transgress the boundary between “academic” and “non-academic” practices, to break out of the home. The question of what this new university looks like can thus not be answered from the outside by way of a governance model, as if “democratisation” can be supplanted onto academia. Sure, we might choose to tolerate one or another of such “democratic” models when it is offered to us. The hard work of negotiating over such models is certainly not irrelevant. Yet, we should also work from the inside out and take seriously the responses this provokes from the people that are paid to rule us and allow us to work. To pretend to build – once and for all – the transgressive university that we think we want, is – I think – non-sense. The matter-at-hand is demonstration. We should demonstrate, from the inside out, how a methodological research into methods adds to our capacities to live in a greater variety of ways. We thereby always already remain at a distance from the value-metrics and self-evidences in any of the governance models that are offered to us.
ReferentiesBoltanski, L. and E. Chiapello (2005). ‘The new spirit of capitalism’, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 18, 3-4: 161-188.
Bourdieu, P. (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford University Press.
Rorty R. (1979). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press.
Streeck, W. (2015). ‘The rise of the European consolidation state’, MPIfG Discussion Paper 15/1. Available at:
Stengers, I. (2010). Cosmopolitics I. University of Minnesota Press.
(2011). ‘Comparison as a matter of concern’, Common Knowledge, 17, 1: 48-63.
[i] Although Isabelle Stengers also associates the knowledge economy too rigidly with the business interests of market and industry, she makes an important point: ‘I should add that what binds practitioners binds them just as long as it binds them (and no longer). Indeed the knowledge economy, so called, is in the process of destroying such bonds. Scientists, as they are directly mobilized by competing industrial interests, will no longer be mobilized by the duty to have their facts resisting their colleagues’ objections and compelling their colleagues’ agreement. Industrial interests do not need experimental reliability; they need claims that seem good enough for patenting, demonstrating promise, and stimulating the appetite of investors. Moreover, scientists under such conditions are bound to keep aspects of their work secret or to ignore questions the answer to which (given already existent patents) would be of no commercial interest.’ (2011: 54).
Rogier van Reekum is a postdoctoral researcher at the department of Sociology of Erasmus University Rotter-dam. He is part of the Monitoring Modernity project (ERC starting grant) supervised by Prof. dr. Willem Schinkel (see: www.monitoringmodernity.eu). Within the project he is conducting research into the visualisation of irregu-lar migration across Europe. Rogier wrote his dissertation at the AISSR (UvA) on public and political debates over Dutchness (1972-2008) and published on nationalism, place making, citizenship politics, immigration policy and education. He is editor at Sociologie and Krisis, journal for contemporary philosophy.