The Judith Butler Affair

The two universities

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The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that there is not one, but two universities. The two are related but still entirely different.

The first university is the formal university. It is made up of students, academics and staff, offices and administrative infrastructure, but also the entitlements associated with all this — job titles, research grants, social hierarchies. In the formal university you have a career, there is power and money to be fought over and privileges to be distributed.

The second university is the university of the spirit. This is the university in which the intellectual activity takes place. This is where you think, read, write and discuss. In the university of the spirit there is no infrastructure, no entitlements, no resources, no careers and hence nothing to fight over. This is a realm of freedom and equality. Or rather, the only thing that matters here is the better argument, the better research.

I’m strongly in favor of quotas for women in the formal university. I think titles, research grants and office space should be shared equally between women and men. Divide the power and the privileges 50/50, why not?  But I’m equally opposed to quotas being imposed on the university of the spirit. No outsiders should be able to dictate how we think, read, teach and discuss.

Ever since my cancer I’ve tried to have as little as possible to do with the formal university. I don’t want to get involved in fights over careers and job titles; I don’t want to apply for research funding and distribute patronage. These are all earthly matters and a waste of time. Time for me, for us all, is limited. All I want to do is to read and write and teach. I want to work full-time in the university of the spirit.

My grandfather, who was a vicar in the Church of Sweden, liked to quote Saint Paul: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” My grandfather was a missionary of sorts in the far north of Sweden and he cared little for the official career paths of the Church. He was also a republican. There could not have been many vicars in the Church of Sweden in the 1930s who were opposed to the idea of monarchy. Perhaps he was the only one. My grandfather did not work in the formal Church he worked only in the Church of the spirit.

5 Comments

  1. There libertarian/conservative Swedish political (student) organization known as Fria Moderata Studentförbundet (FMS) has the following motto: “Där argumenten är viktigare än åsikterna, där debatten är viktigare än besluten och där det intellektuella utbytet är viktigare än det strategiska”. Or Google translated: “Where the arguments are more important than the opinions, where the debate is more important than the decisions and where the intellectual exchange is more important than the strategic.”. Maybe Swedish politics could gain from having a leftist equivalent that would be just as academically honorable.

    1. Marco, I really like that (and well translated by Google). That’s exactly the point. My political opinions are leftist (broadly understood) but the intellectual activities in which we engage are infinitely more important that my opinions. If we can’t protect what we do from outside interference we lose everything, including the very rationale for a university.

      Nice quote! I will use it.

      Erik

  2. That’s a really good way of putting it, Erik. I have been thinking about something similar ever since I read the first post of yours on this affair. The quota makes sense, for instance, in a parliament, because it is about who has access to power, who has voice, who can shape the discussion. But it makes much less sense as a formal criterion in terms of what is there to be discussed. The students in your class are there, they are given the voice, they can participate and discuss, and can perhaps come to a shared understanding (or at least elements of it) that has some authority for them. Instead of using administrative measures to shape what should count as authority both at the beginning and at the end of the discussion. What I see in the latter case is that out of a mistaken sense of taking power back from an oppressive discourse, what actually happens is the giving up of personal intellectual responsibility, personal agency, in favour of being the spokespersons of an authority external to the community of discussion, which is precisely the opposite of what should happen at universities.

    1. Victor, yes, yes. Well put too. This is how it would work in a normal world and if Swedish academics weren’t such conformists. Quotas for women make a lot of sense in lot’s of places. Personally I’m strongly in favor of 100% quotas for women in the military and in banking too. Everywhere where men constantly screw up.

      thanks for thinking with me on this, I’m much obliged,

      Erik

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