Cynicism, Faith, and the University
Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism, “all higher values devalue themselves”, applies particularly to the social institutions of Late Modernity. It means, really, loss of faith. Cynicism and cynical reason reflect this loss of confidence or faith in the purposes of the Modern Era — purposes for which the social institutions stood watch. As Nietzsche well understood, cynical reason was just another form of nihilism, and is also implied in what Jean Gebser calls “the deficient mode” of the mental-rational consciousness, or what Stuart Ewen calls “rational modernism”.
The pre-eminent instituion of the Modern Era was the university. The university was the very embodiment of the “civilising mission” — the purposes and self-understanding — of the mental-rational consciousness and its liberal values. For all practical purposes, “logico-mathematical mind” and “mental-rational consciousness structure” are equivalent expressions. The university was this embodied. So, the fate of the Modern Era and the fate of the University are very much the same issue. But the University’s sense of purpose, function, and self-understanding has changed dramatically. It has succumbed to the same cynicism and nihilistic tendencies evident in other modern institutions. It’s a prime example of Nietzsche’s description of how “all higher values devalue themselves”, including therewith the self-negation of the consciousness structure of modern man.
This is very perilous, because it bears on something Walter Benjamin once observed in the 30s: that mankind’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Benjamin is very right in that.
When I first entered the university, a course in either logic or mathematics was mandatory. Logic, of course, represents the ideal of the mental-rational consciousness, and the course was promoted in terms of “mental self-defence” rather than the art of persuasion. Examples of unreason and the illogical were often drawn from the practices of advertising and propaganda. Morale at the university was still pretty high then, and its sense of mission and purpose still very evident. Yet, a few years later, when I returned to do graduate work, the cynicism was palpable, particularly amongst the faculty.
The university had, in a very short time, been co-opted by corporate values — had succumbed to the temptations of endowments, sponsored and branded chairs and departments, and managerialism. (The process was adequately described by James B. Twitchell in his Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc, and Museumworld). The self-contradictions, schizophrenia and cognitive dissonance of the university (which has led many to refer to it, instead, as the “multiversity”) is exemplifed best by the fact that, although logic as mental-self defence was still taught, the university also began teaching business and marketing courses in how to defeat logic and mental defences. Persuasion, and not mental self-defence, is what the corporate ethos wanted.
The current Pope Francis once remarked that “duplicity is the currency of the day”, and in the case of the university it’s become quite evident. I recall enrolling in what was billed as an advanced course in social psychology only to discover that “social psychology” meant only consumer motivational research — consumer psychographics. The university was playing a double game — on the one hand promoting the principles of reason and simultaneously how to defeat reason, using, of course, the most “rational” methods.
That’s why we are required to discern between “reason” and “rationality”, and between the whole and the mere totality of things. The university seems to have forgotten this, and that is why it now must resort to “branding” and the masquerade of “perception management” itself — to cast a veil over it’s self-contradictions — self-contradictions which become self-negations. The university is now the home of cynical reason. And it shows in the mood on the campus, and also amongst faculty. Twitchell’s own approach of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” has been lambasted by others, in fact, as being “cynical”.
If the university is no longer coherent, and in that sense, no longer “fit for purpose” inasmuch as it has lost faith in itself and its own purposes, and has surrendered its “civilising mission” to others, it is branding and the corporation that have taken up this “civilising mission”, and that’s what allows us to speak of a “corporatocracy” at all. And that’s ultimately the meaning of “marketing 3.0” and “holistic branding”. The university is no longer the guiding institution of the Modern Age. It has negated itself.
In the university’s “cognitive dissonance” and apparent schizophrenia in this respect (and it’s also evident in the mass media more generally) you see a contradiction here between the Enlightenment (and the centrality of the Cartesian cogito) and the “new principle” that “perception is reality”, yet it seems incapable of reconciling its past mission with this new principle, and as a consequence has lost the leadership of the Era, just as much as State and Church.
We have to get a handle on “perception is reality” if we aren’t to become enslaved by it.