Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs–Final Fragment

After a long interruption, I am resuming work on this blog. The post below is the last of three in a series under the same general title—the last of three “Fragments” of “Shattering Wholes.”

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            Every critique of the present has its right only as a mediated illumination of the knowledge of future necessities. All fixation on grievances clouds vision into the essential; it lacks what alone supports critiques: the capacity to differentiate that arises from dedication to something not yet real—that is, present at hand—but therefore all the more originally having the rank of what already is.

— Heidegger, Überlegungen VI, §113 (GA 94)

Only one who has once overcome contempt for others has no further need to feel superior in order to be great—which is to say to be, and let others fall where and how they may.

— Heidegger, Überlegungen VI, §140 (GA 94)

Last fall, on Saturday, November 29, 2014, memorial services in Colorado commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre. On that date in 1864 a large body of Colorado Territory militia under the command of Col. John Chivington, who was also a Methodist preacher, slaughtered around 160 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians, mostly women and children, and then mutilated their corpses for fleshly souvenirs–including vulvas, breasts, and penises to be flown atop flags and pennants as the butchers rode away celebrating their glorious victory.

In addition, on the same day as the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, another event also took place. That day, November 29, 2014, was the day on which an Egyptian court formally dismissed all charges against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring.

The two events of the Sand Creek Massacre, on the one hand, and the official exoneration of Mubarak, on the other, are separated in time by a century and one-half. Nevertheless, those two events are connected in telling ways, ways much more important than the trivial fact that they both took place on the same day of the same month, though 150 years apart. Above all, the two events, the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 and the exoneration of Mubarak 150 years later, both embody efforts by powers that be to secure their power.   Both are examples of power “circling the wagons,” as it were, to protect itself.

That image of “circling the wagons” derives, of course, more from the time of the Sand Creek Massacre than from the much more recent times of Mubarak. It comes from what is in effect dominant US culture’s sanctioned narrative of the westward expansion of the United States in fulfillment of its supposed “Manifest Destiny.” That is the narrative in accordance with which the United States was divinely destined to spread itself from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the whole expanse of North America between Mexico and Canada–or at least what the United States left of them, especially Mexico, after that expansion.

The story of the Sand Creek Massacre is granted a place within that larger narrative. It is usually a small place, as befits what is presented in the meta-narrative as an unfortunately regrettable exception to the generally glorious story of US exceptionalism.

In that broader story, waves of fabled wagon trains carried intrepid settler-families west during the 19th century, across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, to the western edge of California and the Pacific Northwest, fulfilling the United States’ self-proclaimed destiny. As those wagons rolled west, they were subject to attacks by Indians presumptuous enough to resist the fulfillment of that very destiny, no matter how manifest it might have been to those who proclaimed and enacted it. To repel such attacks and overcome such resistance, the westward tending settler-trekkers would “circle the wagons,” as the story goes. They would thereby create a wall of protection for themselves, a wall behind which they could stand to use their massively superior killing technology to mow down the unfriendly “savages” who dared to attack them as invaders.

The 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre was marked not only by various memorial services—especially but not exclusively in Colorado, where the massacre occurred—but also by various official apologies pertaining to the atrocities performed at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. To start with the most publicized example, on Wednesday, December 3, four days after the anniversary of the massacre itself, during a memorial ceremony at the State Capital, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper became, according to his own office, the first Colorado governor to issue an official public apology for the butchery that had occurred at Sand Creek a century and a half before.

Just the other day as I am writing this, a court in South Carolina voided the conviction of the “Friendship 9,” who publicly broke South Carolina’s Jim Crow laws back in 1961 by daring to sit at a lunch-counter designated “Whites only,” and the prosecutor officially apologized for what had been officially done to them back then. Carolina thereby apologized for a wrong it had committed only forty-four years before, which compares favorably with the one-hundred-and-fifty years it took Colorado to apologize for the butchery it inflicted on 160 or so innocent American Indians at Sand Creek in 1864, which took place only a little less than one hundred years before the butchery of justice in the case of the Friendship 9. If those figures are any indication of general human progress, and if the rate of such improvement can be presumed to remain steady across time and countries, then perhaps we can hope that it will take only about 24 years for Egypt to apologize for its whitewashing last November 29 of Mubarak’s various butcheries.

At any rate, no official Egyptian apology for the wrong whereby Egypt officially dismissed all charges against Mubarak can be expected until the officiating power in Egypt feels safe and secure enough to issue it. That, in turn, will only come once the conditions that triggered the commission of the original wrong in the first place have ceased to exist. That is, only once everything that was in play in the Arab spring in 2011 that threatened to subvert Egyptian officialdom has withered away in one fashion or another, will it then be safe for official Egypt to admit to its official wrong, and officially apologize for it.

To put the point generally and simply, it is only when such apologies no longer cost anything to the entities that, through their representative mouthpieces, make them, that they will be made at all. Such official apologies are made, as a rule, only when they no longer really accomplish anything. Or rather, all they really accomplish is further to solidify the coercive power that is apologizing for its own past abuses—to help circle the wagons ever more tightly, as it were.

At issue is not the integrity of the individual mouthpieces through which the apology gets issued. For example, I have no reason to doubt the personal integrity of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (at least no reason aside from the fact that he is an elected official of an official state apparatus, which should always make one somewhat sceptical). I have even less reason to doubt the personal integrity of the prosecutor in South Carolina who officially apologized to the Friendship 9 the other day, and least reason of all to doubt that of the judge there who officially voided their convictions and expunged their records. I’m not quite as free of suspicion toward the members of the Egyptian court that dismissed the charges against Mubarak, but even in that case I am not interested in raising any issues of personal integrity. That is simply not my point.

My point, rather, is that we should institutionalize in ourselves suspicion against institutional apologies, and the institutions that sooner or later (most often later) issue such apologies for their own past institutional misbehavior.  We should never just trust an institution when it issues such an apology. Rather, such official apologies should give us even more reason to distrust the institutions issuing them.

Years ago, I used to warn students in my classes never to trust anyone who made a point of telling you how honest he was, since he was probably picking your pocket even while he spoke. That applies even more to institutions than to individuals, and most especially to institutions wielding coercive power of any sort.

Even if I trust Governor Hickenlooper personally, I do not trust the State of Colorado, that “authority” for which, as Governor, he spoke his recent official apology for the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. The State of Colorado has too much to gain, and nothing to lose, by issuing such an apology—too much to gain and too little to lose for me to take it at its word.

Nor was it only the State of Colorado that apologized recently for the role it played with regard to the Sand Creek Massacre. So did two universities. One of them (the University of Denver) is itself in Colorado. However, the other (Northwestern) is in Illinois. The University of Denver and Northwestern University both issued apologies pertaining to the Sand Creek Massacre because the two schools share a common founder: John C. Evans. Besides going around and founding institutions of higher education, John Evans also preceded John Hickenlooper in the Colorado Governor’s chair—though when Evans was Governor, Colorado was still a Territory, not yet a State. Evans, in fact, was Colorado Territorial Governor back when the Sand Creek Massacre occurred, and the Colorado troops that did all the massacring did so under his final authority. That particular buck stopped with him.

I personally know almost all the faculty members on the University of Denver (DU) committee that researched and wrote the report detailing Evan’s culpability in the massacre, his involvement in which led to the recent DU apology. Over the many years that I taught at DU, I worked with them. I respected and liked them. I still do. I have no doubt whatsoever about their personal integrity, their scholarship, or their ethical commitment. I have read their report, and find it to be a thorough, thoroughly admirable analysis.

Thus, toward the DU committee and their report, I feel no suspicion at all. I trust the committee. I do not, however, trust the University that commissioned their work, nor its pronouncement of regrets with regard to the massacre in which its founder had an important hand. The University has too much to gain, and nothing to lose, by issuing the committee’s report with its official imprimatur, and adding an expression of institutional chagrin at the University’s founder’s complicity in the Sand Creek Massacre.

To an extent, at least, universities are themselves coercive institutions. Even insofar as they are not, however, it was nevertheless to serve such institutions that the University first arose; and ever since it arose the University has continued to provide such service. The University exists for the sake of “authority,” that is, coercive power. We should therefore always be suspicious of universities and their proclamations, most especially when those proclamations tend to cast the University in a good light, as uttering apologies for old wrongs can easily do.

That the University has much to apologize for is a given. The University has committed wrongs aplenty to go around to all the diverse universities that are its individual class-members. There are, for example, many examples of collusion between the University and such more directly and obviously coercive institutions as the army and the police. Many instances have occurred during my own lifetime, and I will mention only a few of the most egregious.

In 1968 at the University of Nanterre, in the France of De Gaulle’s “Fifth Republic,” students went to the streets protesting the American war in Vietnam, French collusion with that war, especially through the University system itself, and in general the whole market-capitalist fabric that underlay such acts of official violence. What began with those protests at Nanterre soon enough culminated in the largest general strike anywhere ever, one that shut the whole of France down—but which has been glossed over since, in the officially sanctioned memory, as no more than a “student revolt,” one seeking to increase such individual liberties as what used to be called “free love,” in Paris in May ‘68.

Back at the beginning of that whole process, when the protesting students first took to the streets of Nanterre, authorities at the University there called out the cops. As Kristin Ross, an American professor of comparative literature, writes in her excellent study, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (University of Chicago Press, 2002, page 28): “The very presence of large numbers of police, called to Nanterre by a rector, Pierre Grappin, who had himself been active in the Resistance [to the Nazis during the German occupation of France in World War II], made the collusion between the university and the police visible to a new degree.”

Not to be outdone by their French counterparts, American University administrators soon followed Grappin’s suit, by calling in police or army to quell student protests at American universities. That included most famously the protests at Kent State University in Ohio in May of 1970, after Nixon and Kissinger unleashed the American bombing of Cambodia. Then Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes called in the Ohio Army National Guard, who soon killed four unarmed Kent State students and wounded nine others, permanently paralyzing one.

That in turn set off waves of student protests at other universities across the country. Among them was what came to be known as “Woodstock West.” That took place at the same University of Denver that recently apologized for its founder’s culpability for the Sand Creek Massacre. In the spring of 1970, the spring of “Woodstock West,” then Chancellor Maurice Mitchell appealed to then Colorado Governor John Love, who called out the Colorado National Guard to rout the protesting DU students who, eschewing violence, had set up a shanty-town of protest on the DU campus–where I joined the faculty myself a little over two years later, returning to my native Colorado after three years being occupied elsewhere.

I began this current series of three posts—three “Fragments” under the same general title of “Shattering Wholes: Creatively Subverting the University and Other Mobs”—with a quote from an essay by Jean-Claude Milner about the University as an institution in service to coercive power, that power that lays claim to being the “authority” in charge of things at any given time. In his essay Milner does a nice job of pointing out how, as the identity of “authority” changes over time, the University undergoes a change in masters, as well as in how exactly it renders those masters service.

The University as we have come to know it first developed during the Middle Ages. At that time the University arose, as Milner points out, in order to produce more priests for the Christian Church, the authority of the day. Especially with its insistence on celibacy for the priesthood, the Church was constantly in need of more priests, and the job of the University was to provide them.

Then in the modern era, Milner explains, as the authority of the Church waned and came to be replaced by the modern nation-state, so did the needs of authority change. What it needed “more” of, was no longer priests. Instead, modern power needed more members of the bourgeoisie. So that became what the University turned out: good bourgeois citizens.

Today, however, things have changed once again. What contemporary authority needs more of today is no longer good bourgeois citizens. What authority needs more of today is broader—and emptier—than that. What the powers that be today need is ever more of what Milner aptly calls “agents of the market,” which above all means good consumers for the products that market markets.

So that is just what the University produces today: all sorts of obedient agents of the global consumer market. As Milner writes (L’Universal en éclats: Court traité politique 3, Verdier: 2013, page 104): “Sellers, buyers, producers, consumers form [what Freud called] a ‘natural mob [or “mass,” crowd,” “group”: all being possible as translations of the French foule, which Milner uses for Freud’s German term Masse, which is itself most often rendered my “group” in the standard English translation of Freud’s works].’ From now on, that is coextensive with the entirety of humanity. It dedicates itself to a constant growth. To that growth of a mob taken for natural, the artificial mob that is the University wishes to offer its assistance.”

Whichever presumably “natural” mob it may serve at a given time, the obviously “artificial” mob of the University turns all into one, both as assembly of persons and as system of knowledges—of all the “arts and sciences,” to use a term that began to become dated about three decades ago, at least at DU, where I spent almost all of my professorial career, and where the old “College of Arts and Sciences” was rendered defunct by the then-resident University authorities in the mid-1980s. Such turning into one of all persons and knowledges only befits the name of the institution charged with that task: University, from Latin unus, “one,” and versus, the past participle of the verb vertere, “to turn.”

Today, in service to the rulers of the global marketplace, the University turns everyone into a good consumer, and everything into a product to be consumed. That includes especially, turning all who attend its classes into good, never sated consumers of “information” and—first, last, and above all—faithful, lifelong “consumers of education,” to use the corporate-market jargon favored by up-to-date University administrators today.

At the very end of his classic, Masse und Macht, first published in German in 1960 and translated into English by Carol Stewart as Crowds and Power (London: Victor Gollancz, 1962), Elias Canetti, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981, writes this:

The system of commands is acknowledged everywhere. It is perhaps most articulate in armies, but there is scarcely any sphere of civilized life where commands do not reach and none of us they do not mark. Their threat of death is the coin of power, and here it is all too easy to add coin to coin and amass wealth. If we would master power [by which Canetti, as I read him, means “break its hold on us”] we must face command openly and boldly, and search for means to deprive it of its sting.

For those who are under the command of the University, as I was for my entire adult life until my recent retirement and elevation to emeritus professor status, the way to heed Canetti’s admonition—if anything, an admonition that calls for heeding even more loudly today than it did 55 years ago, when Canetti first issued it (or even just 21 years ago, when he died)—Milner points the way. It is the way of cheerful, apparently compliant subversion indicated in the quotation with which I began this three-fragment series, and by repeating which I will now end it. The lines come from page 114 of his L’Universal en éclats, which most appropriately means “The universal in pieces” (or “in fragments), in his essay called “De l’Université comme foule,” “On the University as mob”:

The University is not an alma mater, but a milk-cow.   Not just scoundrels can milk it. Neither to believe it, nor to believe in it, nor to serve it, but to serve oneself to it, should be the order of the day. To place in doubt, though it be only by detour, one, several, or all, facile universals—that program is not easy, and not without risk. But being wise doesn’t preclude being sly. It is possible for the wise to shatter the mass.

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