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  • Dr Surendra Jondhale

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Mladen Dolar is a senior research fellow in the department of philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, and a writer on a huge array of cultural topics. Along with Slavoj Žižek and Rastko Močnik, he was one of the founders in the late 1970s of the association popularly known as the “Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis.” The aim of this group is to combine German idealist philosophy, theoretical Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis into an instrument for grappling with the contemporary world. Dolar’s works in English include Opera’s Second Death (co-authored with Slavoj Žižek and published in 2001) and A Voice and Nothing More (2006). His next book, The Riskiest Moment, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

I met Mladen Dolar for the first time in the autumn of 2013, when he was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. I attended both of the seminars he gave that quarter, one on the theme of philosophical materialism, and the other on the nature of avarice, which he co-taught with Eric Santner. Last autumn he returned to Chicago to give another class on “creaturely modernism” in Freud, Kafka and Beckett: it was then that the idea for this interview about the state of universities was hatched. It was conducted via email in the early months of 2018. —Ben Jeffery

Ben Jeffery: You’ve published a couple of things in the past year about the modern university and its troubles. I want to talk to you about how you see the relationship between universities and contemporary intellectual life more generally. But first of all I have what might seem like an odd question—would you describe yourself as an intellectual? I’m interested in the term itself. What does it mean to you? Is it something to be embraced?

Mladen Dolar: I am kind of fond of the term intellectual, I guess in an old-fashioned way. The term has its history, where one should consider the spread of the notion of the intelligentsia in nineteenth century Russia (and Poland) with its patriotic and also revolutionary undertones. It was established in the form we know it today during the Dreyfus affair in France (where intellectuals functioned as a synonym for those who stood up for Dreyfus). But its origin can be extended back to the eighteenth century and the era of the Enlightenment. People like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert and others were not designated as intellectuals, but collectively they established the model of independent critical thinkers that had the power to alter public opinion. Of course, the term has its flip side. It can designate ideologists who merely serve propaganda, defend their privileges and so forth. But I think the idea of an intellectual can maintain its value if one can make it carry the triple aspect of, first, the universal address not framed by academia; second, not being confined to expertise and the looming ascendency of experts; and third, maintaining the legacy of the Enlightenment. “Enlightenment” is another problematic term, needless to say. Yet one can only fight the bleak and even catastrophic sides of its legacy by means of Enlightenment itself—its own critical, subversive and universalist edge. Even Adorno and Foucault agree on that much. This is where the role of the intellectual can be worth maintaining.

BJ: So you would describe yourself as an intellectual?

MD: Reluctantly so. Reluctantly because the word functions in different ways in different social and geographical contexts. It carries a variety of connotations, so one would often have to add some caveat as to what in it is worth standing for.

BJ: Right, it does feel interestingly difficult to commit to in a wholehearted way. But I’m not so sure it’s only a matter of it being semantically vague. It’s not easy to know what an intellectual life looks like, if one thinks about it in a certain way. For example, you make your living as a philosophy professor. But in your writings on the topic of the university there’s obviously a—conflict might be too strong a word—but at the very least a real discomfort about how a life shaped by the academy relates to the spirit of an intellectual vocation. You can even see a trace of it in what you’ve already said here. Intellectuals are figures (potentially) who are engaged, vital, independent, challenging. Whereas academics are somehow not, or so the thought goes. I’m thinking of a line of Nietzsche’s where he says that scholars cannot give birth. Is all of this just a cliché, or is there more to it?

MD: Indeed, there is a discontent in academia. It’s not just a personal discomfort that many of us feel—although of course that’s also true—but a “structurally necessary” affect. As you say, I make my living as a philosophy professor. And the recent history of philosophy is a good way of apprehending the problem. This year it will be exactly two hundred years since Hegel came to occupy a professorial position at the (then newly established) Humboldt University in Berlin. This was a truly iconic moment: the “last metaphysician” meets the first instance of the modern university—and in principle philosophy was central to the whole institutional project. It was meant to assume the role of unifying all of the realms of human knowledge.

But what happened? To give you the quick version, the figures who in fact presented the most far-reaching and radical modes of thought after Hegel—Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud—never entered the academic institution. In twentieth-century France, one can likewise consider the examples of Sartre, Beauvoir, Bataille, Blanchot and finally Lacan, all of them outside of academia (or very marginally involved with it). In Germany, Wittgenstein was essentially not an academic, despite his position at Cambridge. There is the paradoxical case of Heidegger, very much a professor, but who tried to establish a philosophy that would not be bound or reducible to the university discourse (with disastrous consequences). Obviously, this is only a very partial list. But the essential point is that the major breaks in the post-Hegelian philosophy, the crucial sources of our inspiration today, happened outside the university frame. This is not a series of biographical coincidences. There is an indispensable frontier of knowledge that could only be produced elsewhere.

One of the resulting predicaments is that as a professor working inside of academia I (along with many) try to introduce these figures into the syllabus, promote their lessons, encourage their ways of critical thought. But in doing so we run the tremendous risk of neutralizing them. Academia has ever so many ways to defuse the critical sting of knowledge while seemingly espousing it. Instead of thus promoting its subversive edge one rather enhances the institution and its role in maintaining the status quo. If the term “intellectual” can help us to see a path beyond this, that’s another one of the ways it might still be useful.

BJ: I take your point, but surely one of the objections that might be raised to all of this is that the notion of “subversive knowledge” can be understood in a whole host of different ways. Philosophy begins with the distinction between doxa and episteme, opinion versus proper knowledge. Socrates goes around trying to jolt people out of their forms of conventional thoughtlessness and so forth. In that respect it’s subversive by nature. But what you’re saying has a much more pointedly political ring to it—as though a real intellectual vocation necessarily goes together with an attack on the status quo. And why think that? One could argue that a reason for the terrible pressures being placed on the humanities at the moment is that over the last few decades there’s been an almost suicidal level of self-criticism coming from within the academy. Too much subversive knowledge, in other words.

MD: It’s true that philosophy always had the ambition of being subversive, insofar as it raised the claim to “true knowledge” as opposed to received opinion. Or to use the modern term, against ideology (in the widest sense, as that which frames our notions about what reality is, what subjects are, and so on). Philosophy by its basic mission is called upon to counteract the seemingly self-evident. But of course its history also testifies to the fact that this mission can easily turn into new kinds of ideology, its subversive edge can be co-opted and made ineffectual—or worse. However, this is a very long and convoluted story that we cannot really treat here.

What I had in mind is more limited (although related) and pertains to a certain experience of my generation. I arrived in Paris for the first time in June 1969. I missed the student revolts by a year. But still, even though it was a socialist country Yugoslavia had plenty of the same issues. In any case, those of us who entered academia in the aftermath of May ’68 could hardly fail to be profoundly influenced by it. The student revolts put the very institution of the university into question—its function and mission—and in fact they made the university into a key site of conflict about what postwar society should look like. One of the demands raised was precisely the inclusion of “subversive knowledge” within higher learning: Marxism and psychoanalysis to start with, to be followed by a host of new disciplines—feminist theory, gender studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, the list goes on. The ambition was “philosophical” in just the sense we’ve been talking about here. The aim was to make knowledge into something that would be a disruptive force, as opposed to the “ivory tower” of established academia or the claustrophobic notion of the university as a mere factory for producing qualified staff for the market and state.

In a way, these demands succeeded more brilliantly than anyone could have hoped for—but the truth is it was a mixed blessing. “Subversive knowledge” in its different aspects turned out to be far more amenable to the university discourse than any of us in 1968 might’ve guessed. Not only could it be rather easily integrated into the ivory tower, but it positively flourished in the guise of new academic disciplines, not seldom emulating the insidious patterns of the old ones, not seldom serving to alleviate the bad conscience of the conservative academic enterprise—now displaying its magnanimity in embracing the margins—and not seldom, once these new disciplines got their academic credentials, becoming equally boring.

There is a structural predicament to this and I guess this is what you referred to by “too much subversive knowledge.” Ultimately, the demand for knowledge that would address real social needs, rather than an academic sphere closed off from the external world, led to a university system ever more attuned to the exigencies of the market—to a quest for mass-produced, salable knowledge, assessed by utility and functionality. The reform that was massively implemented in Europe under the name of “Bologna” is an example of this.  So, on the one hand, we find an increasingly critical (and self-critical) academia and, on the other, the mounting pressures of the market. This antagonistic mixture gives rise to the deep frustration and isolation of the type of academic who would aspire to be an effective force in the world, particularly given the increasing cuts of funding worldwide.

BJ: Explain the term “university discourse.” It was coined by Lacan—and he meant it to describe something much more fundamental than just the way in which academics engage with one another.

MD: Lacan proposed his theory of the four discourses precisely at the historical juncture we’ve been discussing—in the aftermath of May ’68. It was intended as both a response to the crisis and an intervention into it. A “discourse” in this sense is what forms a social tie, providing the assumptions on which fundamental social interactions are based. For Lacan, the discourse of university provided the basis of modern societies and in many ways defined their demeanor. There’s much more to all this than I’m able to go into here, but for our purposes maybe the crucial issue is the historic transition from the discourse of the master (providing the symbolic basis of traditional domination) to the discourse of the university, which is placed under the banner of knowledge rather than the master. The claim in the latter case is that knowledge and knowledge alone—objective, impartially scrutinized, tested, proven or disproven—should guide modern societies in the name of science, rationality and progress. And the university is the essential site of its advance.

Let’s come back to Hegel entering the Humboldt University in 1818, the paradigm of the modern university. This event is deeply emblematic, as I’ve said. The old, medieval model of the university relied on authority, religion and tradition—knowledge was vouchsafed by master figures and ultimately by the authority of the Bible as the final ground. Whereas the modern university was founded on the idea of knowledge as an end in itself. “Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” As such, teachers and students are all meant to be part of the same community pursuing knowledge together, equally—researching. There is no final authority other than knowledge. There is no longer any such thing (or there shouldn’t be) as something that is true on the authority of the master or a tradition. This is what distinguishes the language of the master discourse from that of the university discourse.

But Lacan’s point was that this new discourse of knowledge also presents a disguised form of domination. In reality, it doesn’t depart from the underpinnings of mastery, but obfuscates them. What we end up with is the rule of a hidden authority (all the more intractable because it is hidden). One can see this on different levels. For example, one of Lacan’s maxims is: “Progress is the hypothesis of the Master.” There remains a master figure who decrees what constitutes progress, where and how we should progress, and so forth—all under the banner of the self-referential idea that progress must inevitably be made. Or consider the way that science has turned into the pervasive ideology of our times, not science as opposed to ideology, but science in its seeming neutrality as the major source and mover of ideology. Likewise, there is the phenomenon of experts providing the objective rationale for all kinds of highly ideological moves. One should always try to disentangle the “master signifier” (in Lacan’s terms) secretly underpinning the progress of knowledge and its alleged autonomous self-legislation. One can regard Lacan’s theory of the discourses as being in analogy with, or running parallel to, Foucault’s attempts to figure out the endemic relations between power and knowledge in their modern forms.

The irony is that the university discourse is at once the greatest promoter of knowledge and its progress, while also being an unparalleled tranquilizer and neutralizer of the same.

BJ: Is there any room for hope about the institution of the university, on this view? The critics inspired by ’68 and its aftermath must have remained invested in the idea of a university (or what a university could be) if they bothered to fight over it at all. Is that an investment we can still plausibly share? Perhaps what I’m asking is whether there’s space to imagine a university free of university discourse—or if we’re forced to think of it as an inevitably compromised institution, in the ways you’re describing.

MD: I am not arguing against the institution of the university as such—only against its ideological underpinnings. I’ve mentioned Foucault already, but what I have in mind could also be connected to Althusser’s claim that the school apparatus has become the key ideological instrument of the state in modern times. The conceptual frameworks are different (neither Foucault nor Lacan would promote “ideology” as a key concept, nor state for that matter) but one can see a common thrust in all of these attempts at a diagnosis. The danger is always in taking the production and transmission of knowledge as a neutral activity, disentangled from its ideological framework.

Let me take a quick detour in order to illustrate the idea of university discourse a little better. Science doesn’t figure on Lacan’s list of the four basic discourses. To be sure, science is always socially conditioned—but science per se doesn’t form a social tie, on his view. Indeed, it has a great deal of power to upset established norms. On the other hand, the notion of “university discourse” is meant to describe the manner in which science becomes socialized, so to speak. It refers to the way in which science is transmitted and distributed, made socially useful, assigned a place and a function, endowed with meaning and a narrative (of progress, benefit to humanity, etc.). We can conceptualize the difference between art and culture in a similar way. Art isn’t on Lacan’s list of the four discourses either. Why not? Precisely because all great artworks have the capacity to produce a break in the social fabric, to unsettle the horizon of established meaning and expectations. Such works of art are social products that nonetheless reach beyond their social and historical conditions. Whereas culture (to put it crudely) refers to the way in which art is transmitted, distributed, recuperated, functionalized, domesticated, appreciated and made available in certain ways.

In the end, the basic issue is how to preserve this “break value” in both science and art and to use them to try to establish a different kind of social bond than the ones that currently prevail, which largely support the neoliberal condition. This is an everyday struggle and I don’t have some overarching solution. I can only try to make us think collectively about a variety of strategies that one has to engage in, immediately. Perhaps I should also add that Lacan’s proposal was that “the discourse of analysis” would present a different kind of social bond and, even if limited, set up a model that would counteract the dominant social structures, present an antithesis to them, as it were. Unfortunately, this hope was rather bogged down by the cutthroat sectarianism of various agencies competing for his legacy, while the impact and significance of psychoanalysis has drastically diminished from the time of his death in 1981. So the problem remains the same: how to propose a new social tie that would allow a break to endure and have consequences.

BJ: Allow me to put the question differently. If you aren’t arguing against the institution of the university as such, what do you see in it that still inspires commitment?

MD: I have spent my career in the academic world, several decades and several thousands of students in many different countries. There are two ways of thinking about it, to my mind. In a general sense, I’ve been in this long enough to have witnessed firsthand all of the depressing issues we’ve been talking about: the decline of intellectual standards, the marginalization of critical thought, the mounting administrative pressures, the spread of senseless evaluation, the increasing market pressures and functionalization of universities. This indeed accounts for the growing despondency of so many working within academia. But at the same time it also creates a buildup of energy to fight for changes. One always works with particular student audiences. Throughout my career, I have encountered so many astute students with inspiring ideas. No matter the setting or the country or the differences between generations, there has always been the possibility of a serious intellectual exchange. I have stayed in contact with many ex-students: maybe I am deluding myself, but I think I have contributed to an intellectual network that reaches far beyond academia and its requirements. If the first aspect of my experience inspires gloom, then the second aspect inspires joy and hope for change, in small but not insignificant ways. But there is a lot to be done to encourage a collective will for something better. The university is not an institution to be abandoned. In the longer run, one would hope that the type of extramural networks I’ve described might even help to reform it—in part simply by sabotaging “university discourse” and showing academia for what it is: the site of a politics of knowledge.

Photo credit: Bruno Barbey, Magnum Photo

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This essay appears in issue 16 of The Point.
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  • Dr Surendra Jondhale

    Intellectually fascinating

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