Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Academia in the End Times: Repetition/s Conference, Ljubljana

My time at the Repetition/s conference in Ljubljana was defined by frustration. I strive to be the first to admit I am an idiot - not only unqualified for academia, but barely qualified for contemporary life. Not only do I know that I know the Socretian nothing, but I also understand, with a growing sense of desperation, the consequences of that lack. I am occupied in a practice of attempting to concretely formulate our contemporary situation - but the building of this position is in many ways without firm ontological foundation, rendered flimsy by the sheer speed and elusiveness of life today - theory included. Metaphysical objects shift from feverish clarity to total uncertainty before I can grasp them - concrete will set, only to turn to straw, preceding the collapse of the entire house: the ignorance of the event just past colliding spectacularly with the impending disaster of the future.

So attending a conference on Performance Philosophy is in many ways my natural state of confusion. The combination of lecture, performance, and lecture-performance across the various locations of Ljubljana, the City Museum, the Filozofska Fakulteta and the Dance Theatre, provides a more than adequate complex layering of realities to complicate my subjective experience to the point of posthumanist nausea. There is something nicely comforting, in a violent way, about the over-saturation of information present at such an event, as well as the total ontological despair - as one academic expressed to me, 20 minutes is simply not enough time to formulate any concrete position in presenting a paper, a crisis which repeats itself through various arguments - each of them experiencing a kind of Freudian castration just at the crucial moment where they might actually say something.

Photo: Aufhebung/Repetition/s

But there are some points which, despite the slipperiness of my positions, acknowledged doubts and even self-branded idiocy, I will nevertheless claim. The whiteness and euro-centrism of the Repetition/s conference are two symptoms of, and causes of, the ongoing crisis of academia and public accountability. This should be protested against, I claim, as a means of taking responsibility through its concrete formulation and being rendered visible. The ripples heading through academia are particularly disturbing in our current context. Mingling among the safe, white intellectual community of Ljubljana, supported theoretically by its euro-centric psychoanalytic foundation, you would hardly think there was a mobility crisis occurring in Europe. You could forget, in the fantasy of specific details of Lacan and Hegel, that proto-fascist, and openly fascist groups are on the rise in Europe, the United States, the UK and Australia - that Austria may yet elect a president whose party was founded by the former Nazi Agriculture Minister. In the midst of just one paper engaging in post-colonial discourse, an absence of black perspectives, and an unwillingness to expose one's own positions to any counter-discourse, it is easy to see the failure of academia today, and its problems in public communication. The absence of encounter between ideas and people within the community bodes poorly for its ability to relate outside its sphere.

Paradoxically, such communication is, or perhaps was, a hallmark of the Ljubljana School - the principles upon which the conference is founded - since its inception in the 1970s. Surely the most powerful function of any academic community historically has been contained in its relationship with, and creation of, a public - and this is the very function which is disappearing today. It is through this public role - and not the mythologised genius of the individual - that ideas take hold and formulate social change, preventing a stagnation of non-working systems. It is clear that the normal means by which these have been distributed and communicated is disappearing - a key victim of neoliberalism and funding cuts, and its impact on critical culture in Europe and elsewhere has been profound. The resulting effect on critical culture is - to put it simply and with adequate vulgarity - profoundly fucked, with the resultant effects on fascism, community integration, and in particular, the distribution of philosophical ideas into society being catastrophic for our collective capacity to formulate and respond. We have no answer to a situation like the sudden rise in numbers of people claiming refugee protection in Europe, precisely because we are no longer capable of formulating the question.

Go to a conference today, and one receives a clear case in point. The same young academic who privately expresses doubt and fear about the transformative power of theory will jump at the opportunity to meet that career-making famous professor, as though their life depended on it. (Which, let's face it, it now does). Conversations are punctuated - not with the exchange of ideas and challenging positions - but with synergising of careers and contacts. Posturing and unfounded claims abound, as academics duck and weave around the undermining of authority that constitutes defending a position, preserving the capital of their own authority at the expense of a culture of critique. The attempt is not to engage in the frivolity and difficulty of public debate - quite the opposite, it is to avoid this, and embark on a quest to develop oneself as a sole bearer of authoritative knowledge, at the expense of competitors and of the strength of the discourse itself. All of which builds an air of cynicism which repeats the public's own fear of free expression and thought, and which, fundamentally, operate against the critical principles of academia itself - the sharing and dissemination of information, and the act of shared learning through discourse.

Here the ghost of the conference's absent 'anal father', Slavoj Žižek, appears. In Žižek we find the intellectual urgency, unafraid naive concreteness, and ability as a communicator to base level public lacking in such academic performances. Manifesting consistently in our papers through content, he seemed strangely absent in form - by which I mean the principles on which he founds his public persona, a certain type of over-earnest performative, a political imperative or compulsion to share, and the democratising effect of these. The use of a performative persona to efficiently animate concepts otherwise prohibited is effectively emancipatory - likewise, his unparalleled attempts to pragmatically insert concepts from Lacan, Hegel and Freud into political ontology, nominally executed as an impossible dream of a return to Communism, offer something profoundly more theoretically Marxist - notably, existing in the gap where critique of neoliberal capital and ideology would otherwise be.

In doing such, Žižek displays a consciousness that as many multi-volume books as he writes about Hegel, his most significant historical interventions are likely to be through his more accessible writing. The apparent idiocy of his formulations (various quotables, for example: "I will talk now about a film, maybe you know it... Kung Fu Panda") are driven by the innate knowledge that his work may well be irrelevant beyond a specific niche field, and a desire to make this not so, with mostly beneficial outcomes. For example, his perspective on Trump as a centrist liberal, on the surface a joke, is a singular analysis in its effectiveness at attacking the source of Trump's power - not through denunciation, in other words, but through a carefully-placed analysis: that Trump is a kind of moderate liberal who occasionally employs inflammatory rhetoric as a point of differentiation. This may or may not be a accurate formulation (I think it is), but it functions as a considered strategic intervention that follows Žižek's other lines of thought and public objectives. The principle is that times of clamour and noise call for analysis, and not aggression, and that contesting fascist claims (that foreigners are somehow less than human, for example) requires a simple analysis in order to reveal its unfounded nature. The best solution is, still, a specific argument, made well.

Such lessons appear not to be being followed. The cycle of evasion and over-convoluted positions performs its own evasion of public responsibility, in cohesion with the neoliberal agenda. Admittedly, we are being dictated to by some profound economic and cultural forces - but this only makes the situation more urgent. These problems must be quickly formulated - it is clear that a greater struggle is being lost to economic interest, and the tools we might have for operating against this - in particular the building of new intellectual communities - are forgotten. Our ability to discern what is 'not there', as well as what is there, being the basis for negation and dialectics, seems now limited to an increasingly marginalised critical left.

The role of performance at Repetition/s should have, in some way, revealed this - its rendering visible the constructed nature of ontologies, together with the stage as a metaphor for a mirror or double (in Artaud for example) providing tools for a critique of any posturing and evasion. Instead, one of the interesting challenges to emerge from Repetition/s was, I feel, precisely the opposite: it functioned to paradoxically reinforce the reality of the public intellectual, facilitating a kind of non-critical performance of authority. The remains a persistent challenge as Performance Philosophy seeks to establish itself as a key field - are the two components only there to reinforce each other, executing a kind of cultural and theoretical white-washing of one another - a reinforcement of their respective ontologies, as a means to avoid the need for defense or accountability? Does the ontological flimsiness of performance being supported by the authority of the philosopher simply excuse the former from its own existential crisis, sidestepping the more important doubt of the performer (a kind of 'to be, or not to be')? Does, likewise, the presence of acknowledged fabrication simply allow the philosopher to sidestep her own existential doubt - escaping on holiday from the potential irrelevance of their own practice?

Such questions were clear in Repetition/s, and are a matter of pressing urgency regarding the future of Performance Philosophy. The worst outcome would be a kind of reinforcement of the individualism, specialisation and instrumentalisation pervading academia under the guise of funding cuts, efficiency drives, and economic growth. As an emerging field, Performance Philosophy has the potential to operate against such forces, and to remodel itself into a practice which rigourously and critically exposes the ideological fabrications of today - to political effect. It should be clear that, among the context of shadows and theatre in the end times, such a field is an absolute necessity.

Repetition/s - 22-25th September, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.
I add my sincere thanks to the organisers of Repetition/s  for their work on the event: 

Gregor Moder (University of Ljubljana)
Bara Kolenc (University of Ljubljana)
Anna Street (University of Paris-Sorbonne)
Ben Hjorth (Monash University)

POSTSCRIPT: It has been pointed out to me that Žižek has made previous arguments in defence of Eurocentrism. I am here evoking him within a discussion of the public role of the intellectual or academic - and not to argue against Eurocentrism. 

Žižek's lecture on this subject at University of Zürich this year is available here.

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