A few cousin blogs have already mentioned Figure/Ground’s interview with Steven Shaviro, which I recommend for those interested in Whitehead, speculative realism, media theory, and other themes explored on this blog.

Shaviro has insightful things to say about Isabelle Stengers’ role in reviving an interest in Whitehead, Gilbert Simondon and his (and Whitehead’s) relevance for ecological thinking, and Francis Fukuyama’s neo-conservative critique of the academic tenure system.

On the latter:

[Question:] Francis Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. He believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion?

I think that Fukuyama’s assertion is altogether false, and indeed risible. I don’t know whether to ascribe his claim to honest ignorance or deliberate malice, but it must be one or the other. One of the most important reasons for tenure is precisely that it protects scholars, preserving them from the pressures of knee-jerk conformism and conservatism. It is indeed true that, to a certain extent, “younger untenured professors” are put in a position where they are forcibly made “fearful of taking intellectual risks.” But this need for caution and conservatism on the part of such younger scholars is precisely because they don’t (yet) have tenure!

Once scholars achieve tenure, they are much more free to go in new directions and strive beyond the boundaries of “their narrow subdiscipline.” To abolish tenure would be precisely to make the conformism and fear of risk that Fukuyama claims to deplore a universal condition — nobody would dare to be original any longer. In a university system without tenure, if you ever went beyond the limits of your “narrow subdiscipline,” you would lose your job. We would have an unconditional reign of the marketplace, which means that the only form of intellectual activity to be encouraged would be that of the star system in which a very small number of so- called “public intellectuals” would make huge amounts of money by pontificating via dubious overgeneralizations and simplistic political pronouncements — precisely in the manner that is exemplified by Fukuyama himself.

It is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst, to worry about tenure being “too costly”, either “financially” or “intellectually.” Universities want to get rid of tenure precisely so that they can replace professors with adjuncts who are much more poorly paid, and who are usually denied the benefits that permanent employees most often have. However, despite the mania for such cost-cutting among university administrators, in fact humanities departments like English and History make a lot of money for their institutions. Having researchers with relatively modest research budgets (compared to the physical and biological sciences), and who teach large numbers of students, is in fact an enormous bargain. If universities seek to maximize short-term profit even further, by deranged cost-cutting and austerity programs directed at destroying activities and functions that are in fact largely viable, this can only be a symptom of the out-of-control insanity of corporate culture today, and of its relentless extension into sectors of society (like universities) that used to be more or less free of it.

And on Whitehead:

[...] I think that Whitehead’s philosophy resonates quite strongly with a number of contemporary concerns. For one thing, the term “creativity,” which Whitehead pretty much invented, turns up everywhere these days (both for good and for ill). The way that Whitehead describes creativity and novelty, through selection, modification, and recombination of already-existing elements, seems almost like a blueprint for our contemporary aesthetic of sampling and remixing. And Whitehead’s understanding of processes and relations throughout the world, in a manner that is not necessarily human-centered, provides important resources for our current environmental and ecological concerns.

One other similarity between Whitehead and Simondon, which has not been sufficiently remarked, is their understanding of the dynamics of change. In a lot of environmental thought, as well as in thought about living organisms and other dynamic systems (including social systems), the focus has been on self-maintenance. We commonly hear about homeostasis, about autopoiesis (a biological concept in Maturana and Varela, extended to social systems by Luhmann), and about Spinoza’s notion of conatus (the tendency of every entity to strive to persist in being). These are important concepts, but I think that they have been overstated and applied too widely. Whitehead (with his notion of what he calls concresence) and Simondon (with his notion of individuation) both provide correctives to this: they both point to the ways that living things, and other complex systems, strive not only to persist, but also to change, to produce novelty, to become different from what they were before.


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Related posts:

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  2. Kauffman, Shaviro, Goodwin, et al.
  3. interview on Heidegger, deep ecology, moon-shots, & more
  4. Shaviro responds
  5. Take Back the Economy interview
  6. Society & Space interview