Monday, May 23, 2005

Management and humanism

I'm finally reading Christopher Newfield's Ivy and Industry, a book that, given its subtitle (Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980) and its intersection with my own book project, I should have read sooner. It's been out about a year and a half, and somehow the whole new job thing kept me from noticing it. Thanks to A.H., a colleague at my new job, for pointing out to me that I needed to read it.

I've encountered Newfield's work before in Chalk Lines: his chapter in that book ("Recapturing Academic Business") impressed me in demonstrating that, unlike some critics of management discourse, he actually knew something about that discourse. But it also struck me as somewhat suspect in its rather middle-of-the-road approach to reform. His major point in that article is that managerial discouse is not monolithic, that management struggles over "downsizing" vs. "empowering," and that academics who oppose the corporatization of higher education need to grab hold of empowering models to offer as alternatives to the downsizing models that seem to dominate higher education. In other words, he argues that "We should not just critique but redefine academic business" (71).

Well, I agree, actually, but there's still something about that article that bothered me, and that nagging feeling continues as I read the book, which continues this basic argument. There's more, of course: in the book, his goal is to demonstrate that the research university has never been without corporate sponsorship (which is certainly true), so the idea that corporate influence over the university is something new is just ill-informed. Moreover, the humanities, he argues, came to adapt themselves to rather than to oppose the managerial. He locates this "managerial humanism" in such works as T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," in which--contra K. Burke--"the poem emerges not from the poet's symbolic action, but from the withholding of that action" (153) and in the ideology of the New Criticism, which viewed poetry as an effective way to manage the emotions. Newfield cites an article called "The Affective Fallacy," in which critics Wimsatt and Beardsley claim that "Poetry is a way of fixing emotions" (qtd. in Newfield 155).

For Newfield, this dominant managerialism inhibits creativity by taking away agency. Even creativity, under this model, proceeds from containment rather than from "freedom."

So, yeah, maybe you can see why I'm a little tentative. He's really, unapologetically, all about humanism. But he wants to understand humanism not as something monolithic (he considers even poststructuralism to be a kind of anti-humanist humanism--now there's something to spend a few hours getting your brain around), but as a site of struggle. He re-defines it as "a theory of American middle-class possibilities under industrial capitalism" (12).

I have to say, that is interesting. Humanism becomes a way of theorizing the conditions of possibility for action by the PMC in the current economic system (though I wouldn't call the current economic systeme industrial capitalism). Still, though, I've been steeped in poststructuralism too long to really make that shift with much comfort. Need to think about it some more.
I've almost but not quite finished the book. More later, then.

No comments: