The toxic tendency of the corporate university

Stiegler highlights that the university is part of, and mirrors society. He offers a specific conception of the role of the university as trying to constitute a community (‘academic internation’) in a society that is based upon immediate exchange with technological programmes, but within which we can find traces of transindividuation. The university’s responsibility consists in the invention and cultivation of spiritual technics which, in turn, create the conditions in which the university can provide support for knowledge of how to live and of what makes life worth living (2015:155).

For Stiegler, education is ‘an ordinary form of culture, of otium’ (Stiegler 2011a:100) and the vocation of the university is to form, through academic disciplines, (deep) attention or reason, as well as a capacity to reason, to combat the scarcity of attention induced by the industry (2015a:151-152; 171). As reason constitutes the production of desire, by implication, the university must also create new forms of desire – that is, a desire for knowledge. However, since Plato, education has been seen as a struggle against ‘the poisonous effects of the pharmakon that is writing’ (2015a:159-160) based on the fallacious logic of a separation between the human and technics, and a forgetting of Epimetheus. Shaped by this separation and despite it having always been pharmacological, the university has failed to think the pharmakon and, by implication, has not been concerned with the therapeutic possibilities of technics.

Through neoliberal policies, the university’s ethical contribution to society has been placed in a precarious position, having been influenced by, and complicit with the reproduction of systems of domination manifested through the industry and the state. While the industry has taken advantage of technology for their own interest, as a state of fact, the university has surrendered to the declaration of economic war by the financial sector on a global scale (Stiegler 2015a:178), becoming corporatised. The corporate university, thus, is sovereign and holds power in its capacity as a proxy for the state and the industry, contributing to the commodification of knowledge and the provision of training which proletarianises the next generations (2015a:169). It follows that academics’ potential of resisting and inventing counter-forces to the financial industry has become increasingly limited (2015a:168-169). Lacking knowledge, proletarianised teaching staff are unable to engage with, teach and scrutinise new technologies (2016:12).

In addition to the proletarianisation of consumers in society, theoretical knowledge is also under attack (Stiegler 2015a:45; 174), leading to an absence of thought and the delegation of cognitive capacities to programming algorithms, meaning that secondary retentions (anamnesic memory) have been short-circuited at an intense speed, bypassing anamnesis. Knowledge, through the industry and cognitive technosciences is transformed into calculable information to be exploited, leaving no time for reflection (2015a:189; 2014c:15; 2015b:134). As the default of our origin as humans is prosthetic (as a lack), it is through prosthetics that we can put anything into question; prosthetics can, at the same, open up or close possibilities for questioning.

Imagining a future university’s responsibilities to the civil society

The university ‘can work only under pharmacological conditions’ (Stiegler 2015a:156) which are the basis for the creation and transmission of knowledge. We find that academic freedom is always ‘conditional’ for it rests upon the pharmacological conditions of society which, in its turn, provides the university with the tools it needs to flourish. So, given that the conditions of the university are ‘radically extra-academic’, Stiegler proposes partnerships and peaceful alliances with the civil society (2015a:170; 207-212). Through a democratic and mutual relationship we can look into the future and attach ourselves to objects of desire, that is, transitional objects which demand active inheritance. This could heal the addiction of the consumer without object who can no longer attach themselves to the object of the law, to adopt it and transform it, to make life worth living (2012; 2011b:151; 2013:64-65).

Stiegler (following Husserl), makes distinctions between primary retentions (as perception, on the moment) and secondary retentions (what has become memory). Additionally, he introduces the term ‘tertiary retentions’ which are in effect technics (2015a:157): exteriorised memory (mnemotechnics) or any artefact on the basis of which we can create further retentions. We inherit transitional objects on the basis of, and through tertiary retentions. The artefact itself should be studied, for imagination is ‘constituted’ through transitional artefacts which in turn are part of the pharmacological condition of the university (2011b:151). Thus, we must ‘rethink the pharmakon as a weapon’, as a way for inventing new tertiary retentions and prosthetics which can be adopted as therapeutic pharmaka (2015a:74; 184). This entails struggling against proletarianisation, the destruction of cognitive functions and the short-circuiting of reason (2015a:171). Positively, it means pursuing a new (industrial) future characterised by a new relationship between the university and the industry, in which the university would be an active participant (2015a:171; 181).

Stiegler argues, in disagreement with Derrida, that mere ‘resistance’ and deconstruction always come too late. Instead, invention, the pharmakon, and dialogue are more radical attempts at combating corporate ‘innovation’ (Stiegler 2015a:170). Therapeutic inventions (tertiary retentions and transitional objects) would constitute the basis for secondary retentions and protentions, and collective and psychosocial individuation, forming pre-individual funds to be inherited, transmitted and adopted collectively and publicly (2011a:112). These retentions are organological, emerging through academic disciplines (2011a:113; 2015a:164).

The new epoch of grammatisation allowed by the digital tertiary retentions surpasses national laws and disindividuates citizens due to it being controlled by the industry’s economic laws, but it also offers therapeutic possibilities (Stiegler 2015a:180). As such, Stiegler envisions the ‘internation’ as a transindividuating framework that would create a new kind of law and public space to disrupt and replace capitalist laws (2015a:178-179). The internation would take the form of alliances allowed by the digital, between academics as citizens, to commit to the promise of defending the academy and its disciplines (2015a:193-194). It would be based on qualitatively and spiritually new intergenerational and political relationships and partnerships to collectively oppose global oligarchs through, for instance, international strikes (2015a:181).

The university with pharmacological conditions (the academic sphere of the internation) would be concerned with producing new criteria and consistencies for retentions and protentions which, through metastabilisation (that is, dialogue and agreement) would become criteria for truth, destroying the industrial corruption of noetic life (2015a:162; 189; 2015c). No longer subject to the laws of the capitalist industry, they could form an economy of contribution which would foster collaborative invention and research for de-proletarianising futures (2015a:173; 188-195). In effect, open source platforms are already maintained by contributors seeking to individuate themselves and others by producing programming functions (not only data) which are public and free at the point of access. Retentions as metadata are also produced through social networks, digital note-taking and annotation. Although presently industrial and toxic, these constitute ‘new public spaces’ and hermeneutic communities which appear through transindividuation and collective secondary retentions (2015a:194-195; 2014c:9-16; 2013:97).

Through disciplinary dialogue the university can become a medium where therapeutic pharmaka counter society’s destruction of knowledge and hope by the market. The university must take part in new circuits of transindividuation by encouraging pharmacological, ethical and democratic thinking, and organological practice. The academic internation would thereby become a cosmopolitical node (2015a:215), ensuring a dialogic relationship between itself, its disciplines, and the civil society’s social struggles and movements. General organology (the co-evolution of the human, the social and the technical) allows for transdisciplinarity: tertiary retentions which sustain otium could be alternatives to the industrial and digital technologies, overcoming false oppositions between disciplines, i.e. social and human sciences (2014b; 2010). While a belief in a different future needs to be cultivated through academic disciplines and organological practice, this belief emerges when there is a will to believe (2011a:96; 2014c:7). The formation of new reason entails cultivating the will to interiorise new primary retentions, that is, noetic forms of global individuation of reference which digital media would adhere to (2015a:185; 213).

Otium and spirit as the explicit concern of the Humanities

The pharmacological condition of knowledge manifests itself as the co-constitutivity between thinking and stupidity, and it is the university’s scope to struggle against the lack of self-reflection both within itself and the civil society (Stiegler 2015a:47-48). In hyperindustrial societies, a distinction between the Humanities and the sciences has developed, concealing the pharmacology of knowledge. The Humanities, for instance, has been split and discretised into disciplinary discourses: social psychology, sociology, poetry, literature, philosophy. Derrida and Stiegler conceptualise the Humanities as the study of human beings as if they were souls or sentient beings who are able to reflect and desire. It is the Humanities that is concerned with engaging with spaces of resistance in the forms of art, literature, philosophy. These disciplines are autoreflective, evolving out of the evolution of technology and the economy, creating long circuits of transindividuation and trans-forming individuals (Stiegler 2011b:157).

The co-evolution of the sciences with and through new technologies (no longer in opposition, but in composition) has led to the rise of technoscience which, by itself, cannot raise or address ethical questions. Technoscience is more than simply the ‘applied science’ which Derrida is critical of: it represents the subjection of science to the conditions of the evolution of technology, and its related possibilities. The reification of knowledge within technology has co-opted the sciences which seek not simply to discover, but to intervene in, and modify, for instance, the human genome, to then claim patents for new operations (Stiegler 2007:41-42). So, societies’ becoming is denied, as we are required to adapt to technoscience.

Having become mechanistic and utilitarian, the sciences’ criteria of ‘efficiency’ feed into the Humanities, turning the latter to providing a general explanation of what humans are as pieces of matter (ignoring discussions of spirit and desire). Although the Humanities’ explicit concerns are elevation, otium and spirit, it has neglected the pharmakon. I contend that by following the metaphysical conceptualisation of the human as disembodied (but implicitly male) and separate from technics, the Humanities has also reproduced problematic essentialisations of femininity and masculinity, due to its failure to critique the sexist assumptions which permeate patriarchal scholarly works and myths, as well as the industry and the state.

It follows that the Humanities as it finds home in corporatised academic institutions has evolved in relationship to the fact that humans and their consciousness have been under the ubiquitous pressure of proletarianisation and the loss of retentions and protentions. However, it must be argued that the question of proletarianisation cannot be posed without an analysis of the desire, sensibility and aesthetics marked by capitalist and patriarchal violence which demand adaptation to poisonous tendencies. The hope for counteracting the Humanities’ inability to think the therapeutics of technics comes through a new Digital Humanities that would serve otium by developing new digital tertiary retentions.

By itself, the university has never been a driver of social change simply due to its allegiance to truth, because it does not have an interior, an essence. Instead, the socially-oriented research (otium) and teaching are forms of invention through struggles: the transindividuating practices of becoming which have occurred within, outside and in relation to the university have historically maintained and conferred its therapeutic tendencies. The emerging question is whether and the extent to which an arguably despiritualised civil society is still able to generate knowledge, feeling and an economy of spirit.