Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Neoliberal University, Penn, and Flying by Philly

Let’s begin with the flyleaf from a fictive schoolboy’s geography textbook:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

Joyce offers us a spatial imaginary constituted by nested scales. If Stephen’s namesake, the old artificer, built wings to enable him to jump scales and fly from Crete to the world, Joyce’s Dedalus scales up as if ascending a ladder. Some rungs appear to have been knocked out (e.g., Ireland is not nested in the British Empire but jumps into Europe), but the ladder remains largely intact. One effect of this imaginative nesting of spatial scales is a multiform localization that diminishes as one scales up: personal names give way to institutional names give way to proper names give way to common names. Each named scale corresponds to a distinct social and institutional form. These nested forms conduct Stephen’s imagination; they mediate his relationship to the world, generating relations of responsibility, of debt, of guilt. Portrait of the Artist is, in many ways, a novel about unlearning this imaginary of nested scales. Thus we find Stephen, at the end of his Bildung, declaring, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.” His solution to this ensnaring is Daedalian: “I shall try to fly by those nets.” Nets, or nests, those nested scales he had described as a schoolboy? Our young man will jump scales, leaping from Dublin to Europe, to what passed as “the world.” Biographical diachrony encourages us to see this movement as freeing; with Stephen, we shout, “Welcome, O life!” But what if we read these two relations to space—the schoolboy’s nested scales and the university’s scholar’s scale jumping—synchronically? What might we gain from thinking together, in a single moment of social time, the schoolchild’s and the university student’s spatial imagination? We would gain insight, I think, into how the spatial imaginary promoted by today’s neoliberal university promotes an irresponsible relation to the spaces in which the university is in fact embedded.

Where, for example, is the University of Pennsylvania? The postal address of the English Department shows the scales in which the university is nested. Abstracting from this address, we get a sequence of scales that mirrors the spatial imaginary of young Stephen:

Christopher Taylor
Department of English
University of Pennsylvania
United States of America

Every job application I sent off involved me, in some manner, reinscribing the university—and myself—within these nested scales. To get to me, letters need to move through the U.S., Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia; each scalar mediation localizes me, places me within that space. Yet, this postal perception of space is discontinuous with the modalities by which the university produces lived and imagined relations to space. We might locate Penn, in a formal cartographic sense, within Philadelphia or even Pennsylvania; institutionally, however, Penn has been disembedding itself from the pesky scales that get between it and the world. Like the university student Stephen, Penn tries scale jumping, “fly[ing] by” Philadelphia in order to directly access the world.

How does it attempt flying by Philly? On one hand, the university has committed itself to a process of hyperlocalization—it is committed to becoming an autonomous locale. This happens through naming (“University City”), through property ownership (Penn is only growing), and through providing quasi-public “services” (a private police force). It happens through differentially treating residents of “University City”: when the racist curfew laws were passed, incoming Penn students who arrived during the summer who were under 18 were ensured that they would not be targets of enforcement. We see, then, the emergence of a kind of University Citizenship, one that interacts unevenly with the bundle of rights and expectations accorded to everyone in public space. Jurisdictions are becoming mixed, rules are unevenly enforced, and the protocols of enforcement are not formal and abstract but stick to particularized bodies. Neoliberal universities’ privatization of governance results in the neofeudalization of the city.

On the other hand, this process of hyperlocalization has its dialectical counterpart in processes of scalar separation. There is quite literally a western boundary to University City: if you cross 50th Street, you won’t see any more Penn security, nor will the university provide incentives to employees to get them to buy houses. If you cross 50th Street, you’ll be in Philadelphia. Moreover—and this is the thing motivating my critique right now, and which will bring us back to the schoolchild—Penn doesn’t pay taxes, nor does it any longer pay a “voluntary contribution” in the form of PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) contributions to Philadelphia. In effect, Penn is so institutionally and imaginatively separated from Philadelphia that it can choose the precise modality of its interaction with the city and its inhabitants. It can voluntarily give a paltry sum to the city coffers, it can voluntarily build a charter school in West Philly, it can voluntarily criminalize black youth in the neighborhood—or it can choose not to participate in Philadelphia life. Meanwhile, city residents living in University City have no meaningful way of shaping the decisions that Penn makes with regards to their neighborhoods or Philadelphia more broadly. They’re decision-takers.

Democracy begins with the co-recognition of one’s heteronomous co-belonging in a given space. It emerges out of a condition of fundamental non-choice, out of the simple fact that one is there-with. With a deliberative democrat at the helm, Penn has undertaken ludicrously anti-democratic policies—policies that rethink the “there” of Penn in order to hide from view the non-Penn people whom it is constitutively “with.” This capacity to dissolve the ties of withness, to absolve oneself from responsibility to one’s given locale, is a mark of neofeudal sovereignty. Penn is flying by Philadelphia, leaping into the areality of global capital. There’s no democracy there. And it is this undemocratic disposition that our neoliberal universities are instilling in our students. Our students fly by nested localities; they jump from the university to the world. As I said in a Daily Pennsylvanian interview last fall, it is unsurprising that so few Penn students participated in Occupy Philly—they don’t live in Philly, they live at Penn.

Occupying Penn would entail making Penn institutionally occupy Philly. To do so, we might adopt the perspective of nested scales delineated by Stephen—not Stephen, the cosmopolitan university student, but Stephen the schoolboy. We’ve read our Massey and our Sassen; we know that global capital has scrambled scales and that nested imaginaries never made much sense, anyhow. But this schoolchild’s epistemology of space can provide the basis for the polemical demand that Penn recognize itself as a co-sharer in the city, and act accordingly. And it’s the Philadelphia schoolchild who might stand to benefit, most of all, from such recognition. The school district of Philadelphia is about to undergo another round of neoliberalization and restructuring—66 schools to be closed by 2017, the wholesale layoff of service union employees, and so on. This is being passed off as a fiscal necessity. As Daniel Denvir has written, the budgetary crisis could be resolved (thereby removing justification for the move to restructure and privatize) if Penn could be made to pay. Penn’s anti-democratic decision to fly by Philadelphia is helping to perpetuate a social logic in which the urban poor will never have access to the cosmopolitan university culture—a culture that currently teaches students, first and foremost, to unlearn social responsibilities that inhere to the simple fact of being-there-with. The commodity of social-spatial irresponsibility is expensive. Against the sophisticated analytics that posit scrambled scales and that provide an alibi for local indifference, we might discover a politics of spatial re-embedding in the seemingly naïve spatial ladder of the schoolchild. We might craft nets to catch neoliberal institutions as they try flying by us into the non-world of capitalism.

Christopher Taylor
Department of English
University of Pennsylvania

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