Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How the university can recuperate itself

In my previous post I wrote about the question raised by Bernard Stiegler on the pervasive stupidity characterising global societies today, and the failure of universities to live up to their historical task under present circumstances. The latter amount to what Stiegler calls “hyperindustrial” society, that is, a society in which it is not only the workers who are proletarianised, but everyone who participates in the headlong rush to appropriate the externalising memory-machines offered to them by advanced technology, such as smartphones and the like.

As a result people have lost or are in the process of losing their savoir-faire or know-how (knowledge). They are losing their internal human memory, but also their savoir-vivre or knowledge of how to live a human life because of the success of the pop-culture industry as far as prescribing to them what lifestyle they must follow is concerned. (Think of celebrity culture: “How do the Kardashians live?”) Hence, instead of displaying the ability and will to reflect on and criticise this culture of consumer-conformity, this ability is encountered only intermittently across the world.

It is in this context that Stiegler believes the university to have failed, and to be failing, as can be seen in the fact that, as he argues in States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2015), neither in schools nor at universities do students acknowledge the knowledge of their teachers and professors any longer. The question is then: what can and should universities do to regain their former position as institutions of higher learning, where the archives of knowledge in various disciplines form the basis of teaching?

The first thing to realise is that no university or school can reclaim its proper role without taking seriously what it means to “think”. Most people would probably dismiss this statement with an exasperated grunt, saying to me, in my absence, that everyone knows what “thinking” means, or is. I would challenge that, as would Stiegler, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, and every philosopher who has ever taken it seriously. Going through all the conventional modes of everyday assertion, that the economy is looking grim, that Isis should be defeated, and so on, is not thinking in the sense that I mean here.

Thinking in the true sense is always “against the grain”. Heidegger used the striking metaphor of “forest paths” to distinguish conventional (non-)thinking from true thinking. Paths, made by woodcutters, would have to be painstakingly made, without damaging the forest, and by respecting the trees and underbrush by working around them, in contrast with a highway made through a forest by simply cutting everything down that stood in its designated way. The highway represents conventional (non-)thinking, of course, and it is not the university’s task to travel only on the highway; it is precisely its duty to teach students to think “against the grain”, exploring the forest while respecting it, or the nature of reality.

One could also put it differently, as Stiegler does (2015: location 5467, Kindle edition): “Reason is formed. Every human being is reason-able, but their capacity for reason must be formed. The formation or training of reason (Bildung) passes through disciplines. The disciplines through which reason is formed are themselves schools of thought. They emerge from a process of transindividuation in which the experiences of thinking of the individual researchers who have left their mark in the history of these disciplines constitute a body of knowledge shared and criticised by a community of peers, and recognised as such.

“Reason is the attentional form emerging from those processes of transindividuation that result in rational disciplines. In general terms, an attentional form is a way of articulating retentions and protentions [terms used by Husserl in his phenomenology of the structure of time-consciousness; BO]. The forms of knowledge deriving from the heritage in which a discipline of logos consists — such that this logos is formed in those potentially rational minds that schools address, from the elementary level to the doctoral level where it is transformed — are composed of such retentions [that is, what has been retained from the past history of the discipline; BO]. And the new forms of knowledge that a discipline seeks and aims at through its researchers (in graduate schools) are its protentions [that is, knowledge aimed at, and preparing for, the future; BO] — those protentions that it is possible to project on the basis of these retentions [even if they were to be questioned; BO].”

Stiegler identifies reason as an “attentional form”, which brings one to the crux of the matter concerning universities’ recuperation today. As he reminds one, the present age is known, paradoxically, as one of “the attention economy”, which should really be called “an attention dis-economy” (2015: location 5481). Why? Because, he proceeds to point out, the attention of students at school and university alike “seems to be exclusively captured and depleted by an industrial apparatus designed essentially for this purpose, which is the very reason it has been named the ‘attention economy’ ”.

This should not be unfamiliar to any parent, teacher or professor. To combat this “capture” of students’ attention by hyper-industrial technical apparatuses, some universities have banned the use of laptops in lecture rooms, while the non-use of smartphones in these locations goes without saying. And in Alone Together Sherry Turkle talks about children being so absorbed in their smartphones at the dinner table that conversation with them is impossible. Stiegler is not exaggerating, in other words.

For Stiegler the task facing universities is therefore closely tied up with what I mentioned earlier, namely posing the question anew, what it means to “think”, because thinking is clearly not involved in the hyper-(non-)attention required by the operation of the “external memory” digital machines of today. What is called thinking in philosophy is a very specific form of sustained attention, described well by René Descartes in the 17th century (in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind) when he showed that, in the search for truth, thinking is characterised by a “movement” from one “intuition” (into the meaning of a concept or the nature of something in experience, for example) to another by the rules of deductive or inferential (or inductive, for that matter) thinking — which clearly (and this is the point) requires sustained attention. Stiegler elaborates on thinking as follows (2015: location 5494):

“To think is to participate in the production of an attentional form. What must be thought today, however, and this is a trait specific to our age, is the fact that attention has become the major stake of a global economic war of unprecedented violence … and the fact that this war is taking place in schools. And it is a war against school itself insofar as schooling is first and foremost a struggle against the destruction of attention, and in general a struggle with minds insofar as they are capable of reasoning.”

The last sentence is important to note, lest one would jump to the conclusion that Stiegler is just another technophobe who can’t deal with advanced technics or doubts the rationality of the people who use it. Nothing is further from the truth. Since the publication of his first book (Technics and Time, Vol. 1), he has argued that one cannot conceive of humans except as being essentially technological beings, or creatures that are marked by their use of technical prostheses — it is no accident that language and technics developed together.

His concern with the present global situation, however, is that human beings (especially the young) are losing their ability to use technics critically, that is, without succumbing to the deleterious effects of allowing the technical apparatus (as a tool of the dominant economic system) to manipulate young minds by hijacking their attention. In fact, Stiegler champions the “critical intensification” of external memory technics — that is, using smartphones, tablets and laptops to enhance, instead of destroy, attention and thinking. This is his project, and universities are in the forefront of tackling this task, which would simultaneously entail the process of their recuperation (Stiegler 2015: location 5494).

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