Academia as a Society of Control

Foucault’s analysis of the classic disciplinary site highlighted the domain-specific rules and mechanisms that encourage self-monitoring. When the aura of bureaucratic control is extended by digital technology and forms cybernetic feedback loops, we arrive at Deleuze’s notion of “societies of control.” Viewing academia through this interpretive lens can help illuminate both the prevailing academic logic and its ideological underpinnings.

Every level of academia is now awash in a barrage of data, constant social reputation updating mechanisms and optimization metrics. “Total quality management,” a vague desire to implement the latest Six Sigma-style Agile fad or add to the 360-degree performance assessment process operating at the cyclic rate. And as soon as US News & World Report spits out some new metric, a legion of zombie bureaucrats start scrambling to trick it out once again. Productivity metrics, publish or perish, peer-review rigging and citation rings, everything points to ceaseless productivity.

As Deleuze notes: “[…] just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination. Which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation.” Thus far we’ve had Enron and Harvard, Berkeley and Biotech, Columbia and the Financial Crisis (Inside Job). More recently we’ve had leading researchers taking money from foreign governments, spending time on islands with certain hedge fund billionaires, and found taking undisclosed payments for writing deregulatory papers, and so forth.

This is not to mention the near total command over a students’ future by way of the student loan-sharking racket. The student’s consciousness is thus seized, molded, imprinted, and shaped by a hollow corporate ethos. The end result is the phenomenon discussed both by Deleuze and by Mark Fisher, that sees students “boasting of being strangely motivated”—even when applying for unpaid internships.

The increasingly corporatized and commercialized US university has collapsed a place of moral self-cultivation and emergenced as a loose network of vocational training centers. Further, what’s more, the university has increasingly become a nexus where the society of spectacle meets the cult of celebrity. College and university campuses have become marquis conduits of the culture industry—culminating in the sociological analysis of reality television.

As Adorno and Horkheimer put it:“The fusion of culture and entertainment is brought about today not only by the debasement of culture but equally by the compulsory intellectualization of amusement.” They continue: “Amusement itself has become an ideal, taking the place of the higher values it eradicates from the masses by repeating them in an even more stereotyped form than the advertising slogans paid for by private interests.” I want to claim that this emergent fusion of culture and entertainment spoken of by Horkheimer & Adorno has become de rigueur in the US university system.

Less than ten years ago Rutgers—the 8th oldest university in the US—hosted “Snooki” of Jersey Shore fame to liven things up a bit. While this says something by itself, it turns out that the University ended up paying Snooki more to speak than Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate! As Deleuze writes: “If the most idiotic television game shows are so successful, it’s because they express the corporate situation with great precision.” Considering various course listings offered in the past decade or so seem to align with this point: “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” (Skidmore College) “What if Harry Potter is Real” (Appalachian State), “Alien Sex” (Rochester University), “Zombies in Popular Media” (Columbia College in Illinois), “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” (University of South Carolina). Many other examples suggest the university is increasingly emerging as a site of edutainment with an emphasis on customer satisfaction via professional business marketing campaigns and click-bait advertising tactics.

In his work “Education and Experience,” John Dewey claimed that “collateral learning” plays an important role in shaping the “enduring attitudes” of the student. In this vein, a recent study by Purdue University revealed only 4 percent of their university computing resources were being used for academic purposes. Recall that Marshall McLuhan’s dictum was that “the medium is the message.” In US colleges and universities, it increasingly seems that the “message” tends to involve mindless entertainment. This also might be one way to make sense of the overall political situation.

Recently, Inside Higher Ed announced that a coterie of scholars from universities such as Stanford and Georgetown, were a conducting “computational textual analysis” of The Baby Sitters Club, ostensibly seeking to do an ideological unmasking of underlying presuppositions in the work. I believe that another ideological unmasking can done that poses even more radical emancipatory potential: the ideology to be “unmasked” here is the one that entails college professors reading The Baby Sitters Club while the university morally collapses. The objection is that while you can logically justify much of the above research (which you can absolutely do), no one can justify bourgeois academics teaching reality television to largely well-to-do students while surrounding communities happen to be in shambles.

The entertainment comes to reference the consumption, the consumption reinforces the entertainment, and the “education” becomes a form of both luxury amusement as well as conspicuous consumption. This is all perhaps the surest way to firm up the interests of global technocapital at the heart of neoliberalism. Due to issues like the above, our educational system, as Martha Nussbaum put it, risks: “producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves […].” I’d say we’re rewiring the brains of our students to crave endless dopaminergic stimulation—thus creating a class of zombie super-consumers—many of whom happen to be sacrificing huge blocks of their future wages for what is basically an initiation into the “global petty bourgeoisie.”

The question arises as to vectors of escape from the present milieu. This, I claim, is what is already occurring. Academia is being decoded, deterritorialized, circumvented by communities across the digital intellectual semiosphere. This calls for celebration and lament. How will we educate for democracy? And can we preserve some form of substantive reason? As outer portions of the Ivory Tower collapse, and those we call “wise” are busy reading The Baby Sitters Club, we should consider the diagnosis offered by Deleuze in Postscript:

There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

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