Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Causalities and appropriations

This article by Clive Kessler in The Australian is obviously a contribution to an ongoing discussion about other things, but it connects to an argument my thesis will probably make when I get around to my next chapter on the 1980s.

Professor Kessler says: "The neo-liberal ascendancy had to undermine the structures of intellectual authority that resided within the established disciplines. To prevail it had to disarm the capacity for effective intellectual critique they threatened to offer."

This is true, but in my mind he has his causality backwards.

The delegitimisation he describes as "post-1968" is emerging pre-68 but that is the right time. The authority over knowledge as hoarded by professors was reclaimed by students and this changed the character of knowledge itself, delegitimising university authority. This is the stuff I've been writing about lately.

Of course what happens later is that the language and ideas expounded by student movements of the 1960s and 1970s was appropriated by neo-liberal discourse in the 1980s. The postmodernism that had emerged did not cause this and neither did student-centred learning or student choice (not that Kessler attacks these, not his thing obviously). But they did all weaken the capacity of the university to assert the singular authority over truth that may have prevented some of the market forces arguments. But of course, even rather conservative academics in the 1960s thought professorial authority was too strong. These were good changes. They didn't cause the neo-liberal arguments but they were appropriated by them.

Much as I too sometimes long for an earlier sense of the unity of knowledge and the authority of expertise, trying to revive an obsolete authority by arguing with a 30-40 year-old movement isn't going to fix the problems neo-liberalism have left us with.

The short response to Kessler ought to be "get over it". And not just because being anti-postmodernist is oh-so 1990s and boring. But rather because postmodernism and a whole lot of other things didn't cause our problems, they were appropriated to create different ones. Lets deal with those problems directly, shall we?

1 comment:

M-H said...

Amazing how the Aus loves writers who pull in the furfee of 'evil postmodernism' to characterise much more complex situations. The case of Michael Noonan at QUT in 2007 is a case in point, as you can see in this article. I'm discussing this case in my thesis - still deconstructing the discourses in the whole case, which went on for months and brings up lots of the issues about the status of PhD students which came up in my presentation the other day.