AGAINST THE LIMIT OF THE SOCIAL: COUNTERING PROGRESS'
The business of obscuring language is a mask behind which stands out the much greater business of plunder.
Though ostensibly "only" about ways to keep the SUNY system afloat in a "climate of constrained resources," the changes called for by the Board Trustees in the 1995 Rethinking SUNY document also make a substantial toward ending the social and human-rights reforms developed in higher on since the 1960s. According to the board,
Rethinking SUNY is respectfully submitted in...response to a call from the New York State Legislature requesting a "multi-year, comprehensive, system wide plan to increase cost efficiency." As appointed overseers of the State University of New York, the Board of Trustees has a continuing responsibility to assess its use of the state's investment and to seek positive changes to ensure that we are delivering the most effective services to the taxpayers and the students of the State university of New York. (RS, 1)
These "economic" changes are already being enacted on materially disadvantaged students and on SUNY workers in easily recognizable ways (such as departmental hiring freezes and cuts in Tuition Assistance Program [TAP] funding). Those affected by these measures are tirelessly organizing, retesting, speaking out, resisting. At the same time, these changes are being acted in more subtle ways on the level of mission and meaning and are slipping almost unnoticed into the expectations and critical frameworks of even the most radical educational consumers.
As Paul Lauter notes in an article entitled "Political Correctness and the Attack on American Colleges," the application of conservative fiscal strategies to all aspects of university administration is not limited to the UNY system. Lauter suggests that
current fiscal policies in higher education are, especially in public education, decisively eroding precisely those features of academic life that foster humane values alternative to those of "acquisitiveness" and "materialism," that the erosion of contemporary academic cultural authority is no accidental by-product of financial cut-backs and culture wars but one of their objectives. And further, that such a shift is a mark not of rational economic progress but of social ill-health.'
Lauter goes on to suggest that "The 'crisis' of the university we face may, in prove an opportunity not only to help renew the struggle for broadened access, but to debate the question of access to what?" (PC, 39). Though I nurse these same hopes in my own radical heart, I am becoming frustrated by e obstacles which prevent myself and my friends, students, and co-workers from recognizing these changes as changes and therefore from having the sort of informed dialogue that Lauter proposes. I am especially concerned with the lack of political dialogue and action among instructors. While the reasons for this "resistance to resistance" vary from individual to individual, they do indicate that the "great minds" of the university are equally subject to ideological individualism as are other Americans.
I do not mean this essay as a "call to action" in the traditional sense of a rallying or battle cry. Battle cries are sounding throughout the country n a host of frontiers, and they are better heard than read. I intend to suggest, through an analysis of the language and logic of laissez-faire capitalism, that the very ground on which we perceive this "battle" furthers a conservative agenda. I understand free market logic as a conflation of the social and the economic, and free market language as an appeal to "common sense" notions of individuality and competitive merit. This language and logic move toward a goal of progress informed by a very specific interpretation of unity so ingrained in our liberal democratic imaginary that it takes careful analytical, historical, and collaborative effort to recognize it as anything but natural, inevitable, "common sense." This effort is complicated by the fact that "traditional" radical forms of political action, such as the protest and rally, operate within the same teleology as does the free market. I believe that resistance is possible, but that it requires a frame of reference able to understand power in a complex way.
This essay works two texts/events against each other: the Rethinking SUNY document (which I have already introduced) and the rally and sit-in takeover of the Couper Administration Building at the SUNY Binghamton campus which began on October 16, 1996 and ended a week later. The rally was organized in protest against the administration-backed University Law enforcement Department (ULED) decision to pepper-spray students attempting to gain access to their Student Assembly meeting. In the same way at the Rethinking SUNY document has been consistently misread as only a text, the October 16 rally and sit-in has been misread as only an event. In fact, the texts/events are systemic, and further are part of the same system. By revealing the underlying logic and language informing both texts/events, I hope to begin a dialogue that could lead to more effective political tactics.
(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)