Thursday, 10 January 2008

The nature of the social bond

Lyotard's report on knowledge has two chapters on the nature of the social bond, describing the differences in the role that knowledge has in relation to society from two different perspectives.

He says:

One can decide that the principal role of knowledge is as an indispensable element in the functioning of society, and act in accordance with that decision, only if one has already decided that society is a giant machine.

Lyotard, Postmod Condition, a report on knowledge, p.13

We can see by the fact that decision is mentioned 3 times in this passage that this is an important assumption on Lyotard's part. Some may contest this, but I don't personally and see it as a little peripheral, so will move on.

This was the passage I decided was representative of Lyotard's desciption of the modern perspective on the social bond. The idea that knowledge is indispensable to society has been central to lots of arguments for the significance of higher education - this person (Lachlan Brown) has said it was the view of Menzies, as well, which is probably true.

But key to this I think is the image (an image we can decide to adopt) of society as a machine. A machine has indispensable elements - cogs, often. This vision of society legitimises the university in itself, by positioning knowledge as an essential cog in its machinery. This is going to be important to be in the near future, as I look at the development of universities as research (rather than teaching) institutions in the Menzies period.

But the social bond is not always imagined as a societal machine - and there are plenty of bad things about doing so, so we should not mourn its loss too much. The emergence of postmodernity from the condition of modernity loosens the self-serving disciplinary legitimacy that universities and faculties had been exercising for a while. The postmodern perspective shows that there are no certainties in either knowledge or power. This then changes the entire academic project:

We know today that the limits the institution imposes on potential language "moves" are never established once and for all (even if they have been formally defined).

Rather, the limits are themselves the stakes and provisional results of language strategies, with, within the institution and without. Examples: Does the university have a place for language experiments...Can you tell stories in a cabinet meeting? ...The answers are clear: yes, if...

Reciprocally it can be said that the boundaries only stabilise when they cease to be stakes in the game.

So, the academic project shifts from one (in a period we can characterise as modernity) that functioned to continually legitimise itself to one (in a period we can characterise as postmodernity) that is all about continually delegitimising itself. This is important, and what (I assume will be) the next post is about. [Only 6 more bits of paper on the wall now, yay!]

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