Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition

nostalgia for the modern bureaucracy

I'm in Binghamton NY for the SUNY Council of Writing conference where Kurt Spellmeyer gave the plenary talk last night and discussed the possibility of a new humanities. It's a subject that interests me, and I share his concerns regarding many of the issues he identifies. However some of his argument was curious to me.

In the neoliberal age of deregulation and privitization I suppose it is not surprising, though perhaps ironic, that a self-described hippie like Spellmeyer would speak nostalgically for the modern state bureaucracy. After all it is big government that has provided us with a social safety net, and, of course, what could be a better example of the modern bureaucratic institution than the university itself? Spellmeyer suggested that bureaucratic compartmentalization has protected, perhaps unintentionally, a valuable diversity of intellectual practices in the academy. However, culturally we clearly dislike bureaucracy. Spellmeyer argued that our mistrust of bureacracy can be traced back to the Reformation and the Protestant rejection of any kind of mediation. As he said (and I paraphrase) when contemporary Evangelical Christian conservatives seek to dismantle the federal government, they are acting out of their theology. In response, Spellmeyer looks to protect that modern bureaucracy and argues that the humanities can provide a perspective to the many unhappy people in America for why we should.

There's no doubt we've seen a lot of deregulation and privitization. However we have also seen increasing regulation in some areas, in higher education for example, as well as in intellectual property/copyright. We also see bureacracy marching along strongly in the military and the penal system, though I suppose we have seen some privitizing there as well. In fact, really we've seen government and business in bed with one another for a long time: military-industrial complex, Teapot Dome scandal anyone? Was the yellow journalism of the Spanish-American War so different from the embedded journalism of Iraq part deux? The Bush adminstration wasn't the first to invent casus bellum. In other words, we shouldn't overly idealize the bureaucracy. Still perhaps Spellmeyer's point is that democratic bureacracies offer at least some limited way for the representation of citizens, and from the Moderist perspective they are perfectible. In this respect the "new humanities" in the title of Spellmeyer's talk seem to me to be very much the old humanities: a belief in Modern humans and their ability to perfect society through rational discourse, logic, critical thinking, education, and civic rhetoric.

My talk, later today, goes in the opposite direction. Like Spellmeyer, I can observe that the world has changed dramatically since the 60s when hippies were railing against "the man." Unlike Spellmeyer though, I don't believe that a return to modern state bureaucracy is necessarily the right answer. That doesn't mean, by the way, that I think we can just allow big pharma to go wild or polluters to monitor themselves. But do we really imagine that the modern state bureaucracy does these things well now? Has ever done such things well? Or that it can be perfected? 

I make an admittedly provocative claim in my talk, where I will say that, in the coming century, the modern human and all its dreams for a modern ideal society with its technoscientific domination of nature, and most importantly, human nature. will make as much sense as the divine right of kings or the great chain of being. I'm hardly the first person to make that argument, but it clearly runs against the grain of Spellmeyer's argument as well as the general sentiment of the humanities, which is understandably a culturally conservative enterprise. Still, as many are quick to observe, the humanities have demonstrated an ability to invent some unique ways of seeing, some unusual theories, so perhaps there is a role for us to play in trying to imagine a new mode of object relations. 

Spellmeyer ended his talk with what I think was almost a throwaway line, saying the he believes that technology cannot make change but only reify existing power relations. It's a strange argument from someone who wants to believe in bureaucracy (which is obviously technocratic), but especially is bizarre for a compositionist who also wants to argue that writing is one of the most important things that college students learn. What is writing if not a technology?!? Sigh. I'm sure that "technology" here was a reference to digital-information technologies, and maybe even specifically to the role that social media has played in recent political events. And while I am not the technophile who believes technology will make a perfect modern state (that's explicitly what I am rejecting here), I think it is seriously misguided to believe that technologies are unwitting servants of some spectral ideological force, neoliberal or otherwise. In fact, a better understanding of the operation of such technologies may be exactly what we need to figure out how to move beyond both the modern bureacracy and the neoliberal marketplace. 


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