Ruins & Vestiges
Andrew McNamara
Today, most people in the arts only resort to general appeals to the concept of culture when they are forced to—that is, when applying for a grant or a funding application. Only then, in the most pragmatic of circumstances, does one require some broad, maybe even universal, legitimatising criterion. Yet, much as one is forced to come up with such a criterion, I would again postulate wildly and say that a common response is that any such definition, as much as it forced out by the circumstance, is in itself forced. One cannot make broad claims about improving mankind, of adding to the universal creative spirit, of promoting the cultivation of the human soul, and still keep a straight face.

This does not mean, however, that people everywhere are giving up on art. What is interesting about this situation is its twofold dimension. Everywhere writers, artists, critics, companies and curators feel the old verities of cultural legitimacy are slipping away and that they can no longer be defended with confidence. At the same time, people engage in art in ever-greater numbers and feel they can get on with things (making art, producing drama, composing, and performing) without the aid of any overriding principles of legitimation.

This can become a major difficulty, though, when the State itself fails to recognise the justification for culture, but also retreats from funding the arts—except of course when it does so in the name of cultural-tourism or such a vague adjunct of socio-economic development. What happens when the state withdraws from the idea of culture? This proposition has been examined by Bill Readings in his book, The University in Ruins.1 Readings is primarily discussing the plight of contemporary universities—the arts and humanities in particular—where the effects of this withdrawal from the idea of culture is felt most starkly. His analysis does, however, throw up intriguing questions for contemporary art. The traditional ideas that generated and drove the university as a concept have all fallen into disrepair. The university as an institution, Readings argues, is "no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as a producer, protector and inculcator of an idea of national culture". This role has diminished along with the relative decline of the nation-state as a constituent element of the capitalist economy. The two are linked—the university no longer reproduces a national culture because the nation-state itself declines in significance as the "prime instance of the reproduction of capital around the world". In short, there’s nothing to reproduce. As a consequence, both the university and culture have a more tenuous relation to the public sphere.

The key story of Readings’s book is one of how liberal education has lost its organising centre, the idea of culture as its object, both as its origin and goal. The modern university has had three organizing ideas: the Kantian concept of reason, the Humboldtian idea of culture, and today the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence. For Fichte, and many of the German Idealists, the university attempted to inculcate the faculty of critical judgement. We should not be tempted to look back on this with rose-coloured glasses though—this critical capacity had its own imposed limits for its ideological orientation was the nation-state. Culture, at once, acted as a form of restraining order on unruly behaviour and helped reproduce national values. The modern university was based on the model developed by Humboldt at the University of Berlin. Culture had a central, unifying function for this institution. Readings explains its development this way:

That this should happen in Germany is, of course, implicit with the emergence of German nationhood. Under the rubric of culture, the University is assigned the dual task of research and teaching, respectively the production and inculcation of national self-knowledge. As such, it becomes the institution charged with watching over the spiritual life of the people of the rational state, reconciling ethnic tradition and statist rationality. The University, in other words, is identified as the institution that will give reason to the common life of the people, while preserving their traditions and avoiding the bloody, destructive example of the French Revolution. This, I argue, is the decisive role accorded to the modern university to the present.

Literature, of course, was accorded a central role here and the tradition of national literature enabled students to learn "what it is to be French, or English, or German".

These conceptions had been decisive, that is, until the present. The present is different. Where you find the de-legitimation of culture, you find universities reworking their identity as they attempt to become transnational bureaucratic corporations. In other words, the university aligns itself along the model of the corporation; it begins to refer to students as customers and trumpets its "client services"; its key figure is the administrator; and its generalised logic is that of accountability. Readings captures this mood wonderfully well: "University mission statements, like their publicity brochures, share two distinctive features nowadays. On the one hand, they all claim that theirs is a unique educational institution. On the other hand, they all go on to describe this uniqueness in exactly the same way".

This one, same way is the one way street of accountability—the university must pursue excellence. This term is its new rhetorical catch-cry, "excellence". The intriguing aspect of this accountability is that it has general applicability, which is good for the managerial class, but it is empty. Value equates solely with efficiency, accountability purely with accounting. The task of inculcating critical judgement is passť. The universities around the world herald the value of excellence, yet it is an empty criterion. It flattens all considerations into one standard. As Readings asks acutely: "How long does it take to become educated? The standard can apply whatever way one wishes to apply the model of accountability:

…excellence is not a fixed standard of judgement but a qualifier whose meaning is fixed in relation to something else. An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane.

Nor is the employment of the term "excellence" limited to academic disciplines within the University. For instance, Jonathan Culler has informed me that the Cornell University Parking Services recently received an award for "excellence in parking". What this meant was that they had achieved a remarkable level of efficiency in restricting motor vehicle access. As he pointed out, excellence could just as well have meant making people’s lives easier by increasing the number of parking spaces available to faculty. The issue here is not the merits of either option but the fact that excellence can function equally well as an evaluative criterion on either side of the issue of what constitutes "excellence in parking", because excellence has no content to call its own. Whether it is a matter of increasing the number of cars on campus (in the interests of employee efficiency—fewer minutes wasted in walking) or decreasing the number of cars (in the interest of the environment) is indifferent; the efforts of parking officials can be described in terms of excellence in both instances. Its very lack of reference allows excellence to function as a principle of translatability between radically different idioms: parking services and research grants can each be excellent, and their excellence is not dependent on any specific qualities or effects that they share.

We could label this the "car-park" model of assessment, in which apples and oranges are equated, as are boats and planes, and each can be "excellent" whether there is more or less of them, or one or the other. "Excellence" today is a corporatist catchword, but it is becoming a thoroughly pervasive mode of evaluation. Readings argues, by contrast, that the truly complicated questions are philosophical in nature and that means that they "are systematically incapable of producing cognitive certainty or definitive answers. Such questions will necessarily give rise to further debate, for they are radically at odds with the logic of quantification". These are questions of the order of: how long does it take to become educated? Is quantity the best measure of the significance of library holdings? Is knowledge simply to be reproduced from the warehouse, or is it something to be produced in teaching? And while we’re on it, we could ask whether the conjoining of art and politics leads to fresh insight into the politics of the political or to another moralism in the name of "politics".

What have Readings’s arguments about universities today to do with contemporary art? After all, in contemporary art it would be no great shock to say that culture no longer embodies the ideals of the state. If Readings is correct, however, then the state has nothing at stake in the idea of culture today. Yet, of course, various state institutions play a major role in producing contemporary art in its many guises: Perspecta, the Biennales, the Asia-Pacific Triennial—all are reviews and surveys that aim to define what is contemporary art practice. Reading provides no specific insight into this paradox, but his analysis does provide interesting challenges in the face of the decline of culture as a regulatory or communal ideal. Readings refuses the solace of nostalgia; he also avoids petty recrimination about the plight of the contemporary university and doom about the fate of culture. He is not blind to the limitations of the university as an institution in its past. In fact, it is the awareness of these limitations that proves instructive today.

Readings argues for an "institutional pragmatism"—he wishes to "make an argument for the tactical use of the space of the University, while recognizing that space as a historical anachronism". Following Samuel Weber’s work on institutions, he states that we should not seek the comfort of either the notion of "the perfect institution" or the ideal hope of "the potential absence of all institutions". He is not so pragmatic though as to accept the corporatist model of "excellence", but instead insists upon the "philosophical separation of the notions of accountability and accounting". To dwell in the ruins of old regulatory ideals requires inventive responses because the conceptual space of culture and of the university is now rather empty. Today it is filled only by an empty criterion, "excellence", which has no content—as Readings is continually reminding—it is neither true nor false, neither ignorant or conscious.

As a counter to excellence, Readings proposes "thought". Now this proposal should not automatically be limited to the university—it can apply, and serve as a category of validation for art and cultural activity as well. In fact, this might alert us to where art and pure ("mis-" or "unguided") research possess their strongest affinities. For the category of thought is as equally self-reflexive and as empty as excellence. Yet thought takes itself as a question without resorting to economic validation. It conforms more to an economy of waste than to the restricted economy of calculation. It is therefore open to the non-calculable; it is a non-productive labour that only shows up on the balance sheets precisely as waste.

How is it possible to think in a university in which culture is no longer a regulatory ideal? How to think art without culture? How is it possible to evade the criterion of the calculable without falling back on the old ideas of legitimation of the university as well as art and culture? It would seem to leave one hanging in a kind of limbo or an impossible trajectory.

For Readings, this is where inventiveness, and critical vigilance become a permanent condition—it is akin to what Walter Benjamin characterised as taking the "state of emergency" to be a rule rather than the exception. The process of de-referentialisation that is occurring today opens up new spaces and breaks down existing structures of defence against thought. There are, however, no guidebooks to making the right decision or the right judgement. Dwelling in the ruins means trying to do what one can, while leaving space "for what we cannot envisage to emerge". There are no teleologies that can guarantee or justify what one does.

Two critical ramifications stem from this conclusion. First, one cannot claim the whole system, nor try to embody it. The prized presumptions of embodiment always presume some pure and transparent embodiment of the ideal one might wish to uphold. Issues of representation and reproduction come to the fore in this climate. In terms of what is to be reproduced, excellence, is an empty criterion that only seeks the reproduction of the system, the system without an idea. When one poses traditional questions such as: What, for example, does the university represent? Who represents it? What figure? The answer can only be that no one, no entity, no idea embodies that space. Today one must endeavour to make things happen within the possibilities of a system, yet without saying that such events are the true, real meaning of the system.

Second, Readings insists upon the value of dissensus over that of consensus. The aspiration for unity and harmony often amounts to a tacit, though coercive, convergence that disavows what is different to the norm. Dissensus recognises an intractable social bond, a dependency upon others rather than emancipation. It amounts to the recognition of difference and disputation without end. We need, for example, to think interdisciplinarity apart from the goals of mutual convergence.

From these ruminations interesting questions emerge: what does the survey exhibition held in the name of "art and politics" seek to represent? Do its institutional imperatives primarily work to replicate itself? Again, these questions can only be posed in advance as criteria to examine the effectiveness of the survey’s own self-defining catch-phrase. More importantly, Readings’s book prompts some further questioning of the political in art today. For example, the claim of the Other is held to be one of the most incisive political questions in contemporary art. Claims of alterity refer to a privileged marginality—that is, what is marginal to a presumed normative centre, some postulated status quo. Yet it is no longer that evident what this could be in contemporary art itself. It is rather a nominal term, a hypothetical centre, where one does not actually exist. The success, and legacy, of the avant-garde has been to dismantle such a normative centre such as an academy. What is left in its wake is something very similar to dissensus and an economy of waste. Moves to recuperation today are not simply found in the nostalgia for the academic, but also in the contemporary embodiment of alterity. It is discovered in the attempt to claim the marginal, to inhabit a secure politics. This is secured in figures that embody alterity and marginality to operate once more as pure transgressive figures. This is the position of guaranteed politics.

By contrast, how does one manage cultural waste? Distraction might serve as its Janus-faced emblem. A distracted activity is oriented around unforeseen connections; it is not conducive to function. It is, however, easily lost to idle entertainment and "lifestyle". As Eric Michaels commented a while back: lifestyles are "assemblages of commodified symbols, operating in concert as packages that can be bought, sold, traded, or lost". He contrasts "lifestyle" with culture—"a learned, inherited tradition"; something "your parents and grandparents taught you [which] didn’t offer much choice about membership".2 Membership of the club, "contemporary art", is similarly administered through the gateways of biennial or triennial reviews, but it does not form a tradition (this is not to say that there are no legacies and heritages which are pivotal to contemporary practice). It is our vivid testimony to the dissensus in contemporary art: we can pose questions about Perspecta’s priorities, choices, exclusions, etc., and these are never fully answered, or answerable. With and without a tradition, a distracted practice might amount to something barbed, something oblique, not readily consumed. It seeks connections distractedly. The unforeseen does not fall from the clouds, or emerge from pure, avant-garde invention; it comes with no guarantees, it cannot deliver a wondrous emancipation. It seeks instead the unforeseen, and yet to be acknowledged, in the tradition of triumphs and catastrophes we call the past.

Andrew McNamara

1. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Harvard University Press, 1996. All quotes from Readings unless otherwise noted.
2. Eric Michaels, ‘For a Cultural Future’, Bad Aboriginal Art, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994, pp. 120-1.