Academic freedom = cloistered freedom of speech and therefore thought. Academia, institutionalized as higher Education, is the singular, prime, and symbolic location of freedom in its most concrete, explicit form. As the requirement for modernity to justify itself as Progress, it is provided a space where thought is expected to be protected from political and social incursions. At the same time, following the medieval heritage, it embodies the fundamental and binary social division of labor of mind over matter. Namely, the aim is to give those symbolically representing the mind the power of officialdom to make consequential judgments about those representing the matter of society–ourselves.
The sign that capital and its social order are in serious trouble is that the cloister has now been stripped of its freedom, or rather, beginning in the 70s, it has abandoned its autonomy by an internal revolution. This anticipated its service to the changing social order, deeply in need of ideological support. The sixties showed that the center of revolt would henceforth be this bastion of free thinking. At the same time it was clear that capital needed precisely what it alone could supply, a trained, postindustrial working class, which meant that the academy would have to expand beyond the elite professional-managerial class that had a stake in power. This would require bringing in some of the common herd, those outside the tradition of class privilege, who had previously fueled the antiwar movement, and that was a risky situation.
The convergence of revolt potential and new blood required a radical transformation, and the academy, endowed with the task of reproducing the social order through Education, adapted to it, begining in the late sixties. The new generation of academics came up with a way of thinking, inspired by French thinkers, which would eventually be called simply Theory. It would turn academics, regarded socially as intellectuals (the free mind and Reason) into univocal and explicit ideological defenders of the social order, despite their appearance as critics. Instead of attacking the social order they would aim in a direction the liberal establishment was already committed to, targeting racism, sexism and homophobia. These were certainly contradictions to the equality ideal of democracy, but did not touch the social order per se. When decades later, the summer of 2020, Theory burst its academic hothouse confinement and appeared in street protests and riots, it found an echo in political power –the achievement of Foucault’s “knowledge is power,” one of its prime tenets. As a result, the advance of capitalist social relations, although still shaky, is more secure than it would have been otherwise.
An amazing reversal has taken place over the past fifty years: the term Critical Theory, which Marxists originated who were opposed to both Stalinism and advanced capitalism. This has become the title (along with Critical Race Theory) for an ideology not only useful for the survival of capitalism but as doctrinaire and intolerant as Stalinism ever was.
The other result of the ideological realignment of academia is that public acts of authentic freedom, independent of any reward or credentialing, have been put outside the door, hidden and detached from the system of social legitimation. This applies to any art or expressed thought that lacks career motivation, for career orientation is the first step to legitimation. Previously the social order institutions allowed a space for freedom within official culture, a prime example of which was Jazz and then sixties Free Jazz); this was not noblesse oblige but necessary so that “freedom” could be co-opted ideologically during the Cold War period. At least by the eighties, such freedom was being denied cultural recognition and replaced by a simulacrum–free jazz, classic jazz, and the rest of managed art. Now that the process is complete, it is impossible for the institutions (media, venues, etc.) to turn around and welcome those playing freely outside the door. They have continued to explore beyond sixties music and its imitators, and for them to be publicly acknowledged would destabilize the established musician hierarchy. This would not happen anyway, since instead of waiting for the flattery and bribes of cultural significance, the free players have been enjoying their freedom and have a stake in it. Their freedom is doubled; not only are they free to make whatever noise they’re inclined to, as were the sixties musicians, but they’re also socially free of institutional management and the role of entertainer-producer of consumed articles.
Apart from its output, academia has all along been the officially-designated simulacrum of freedom, a fake version of absolutely free inquiry. It has always followed trends internal to its membership and useful for personal advancement. Now under political censorship it is no longer even a fake. Despite many works of inspired critique, its freedom was already conditional. Academics have been in the business of producing statements of Knowledge under the sign of scientific principles, which over time were extended from the natural sciences to the humanities. Science calls for verification by peers, which has worked well for the empirical, natural sciences, where meritocratic credentialing can be calculated and objective. New theories can be proven to advance over older ones.
In the humanities, however, Theory considered the need for academics to relate their findings to empirical material a mistake, replacing focus on the material with theories about Theory. The central issue of credentialing became the individual’s political orientation, as if they were applying for membership in a political organization. This made the validation of academic knowledge circular and hermetic, and removed its knowledge statements from any possible verification, use or comprehension by outsiders. Free inquiry is then constrained by conditions, which is an obvious contradiction in terms, which makes its statements of dubious value. Yet as before, what comes from outside the cloister (extra ecclesiam) is not sanctioned as knowledge but untrustworthy lay opinion, which originates in the demos–ourselves.
This situation has a history. In a few sentences, beginning in the postwar fifties, independent intellectuals, who wrote for anyone curious and literate (ourselves, the public), were being deprived of a political audience and therefore their livelihood by anticommunism and the shift away from critical thinking in the midst of prosperity. Later called “public intellectuals,” they were forced indoors, confined to academia and given the role of discoverers and educators of Knowledge rather than stimulators of Thinking.
The split and antagonism between the free-floating, inquiring mind and the social order is potential and risky for any social order. In this case was warded off by a reward structure–prestige of the professoriat hierarchy, and later public celebrity status as pundits and high salaries for the winners. The potential friction between free inquiry and the social order has now been eliminated by the “soft” merger of the university-based woke movement, directly derived from Theory, and the political and institutional order (the Democratic Party, social media, corporations, billionaire philanthropy, and compulsory education). The social order, through its political and institutional elite, now owns “freedom,” but since freedom always finds a way—it is the very principle of modernity, the need for a “new” that is “different”—it is only displaced, outside the system of social control, hierarchy, and bribery of its former professional class.
Besides free inquiry, for the academy to become politicized it had to abandon its other birthright claim, Reason, which by definition is free to come to its own conclusions and is available to us all. Thus wokeness is free to ignore arguments against it, having the circularity of religious belief and now the authority of Power. The postmdern left’s attack on the Enlightenment tradition, in which fact and value are distinguished in order to validate truths, is not surprisingly also central to fundamentalist Christianity of the political right. This is a regression to premodern thinking and an advance at the same time. The modernist notion of linear progress has been replaced by a spiral, whereby the old recurs (the merger of fact and value, as in pre-Enlightenment religious cultures) but clothed as the new (dismissal of opponents as obsolete).
These notes are inspired by Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, p. 147-8, which is his immanent critique of Marxism. I first read this when it came out in translation in 1975 and am rereading it now with renewed interest for its contemporary applicability. Although the book mentions some of his more familiar themes, it has been buried under his works on simulation and hyperreality, which have been interpreted in a way that supports postmodern relativism and contemporary art, much to his chagrin. Also of value was Theory’s Empire, ed. Daphne Patai and Will Corral, 2004, an essay by Stephen Adam Schwartz, “Everyman as Ubermensch, the Culture of Cultural Studies,” p. 360
Otherwise, the writing is a brief summary of conclusions I reached over a summer of research, under the impact of the predominant-left movement and its mainstream absorption. It reflects earlier projects of mine, one of which is the transformation of late-modernist art music (sixties Free Jazz) into its postmodern simulacrum (today’s free jazz) and the survival underground in the US of free playing. That study (which includes other topics) is to be found in my book of 2017 The Free Musics (which I now offer to mail you at my cost plus postage). The second project has been the evolution of postmodern Theory as the extension of a branch of sixties New Left radicalism into a political movement in defense of the social order.
I was on the academic path to professorship until 1972, engaged in political activism, and then as a musician saw myself as expanding upon sixties Free Jazz. This has made me personally involved in these historical patterns and working to understand their relationship. My forthcoming book, Shaky Ground, besides being a re-writing of a private journal from the mid-90s, will include the results of this study and expand on it. Tentative publication Jan. 2021, and hopefully resuming touring soon thereafter.