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.



5 responses to “Cynicism, Faith, and the University”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I’m beginning to understand that the 1950s represented something of a turning point, for a number of reasons. Eisenhower’s warning about “the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial-congressional complex” (he had wanted to say “congressional” but was apparently dissuaded by his advisors) was paralleled by the growing integration of advertising agencies, media, corporation, and university into a “Communications Complex”, and there was just as much a “revolving door” in the communications complex as in Eisenhower’s complex. This period corresponds to “marketing 2.0” — the second wave.

    Martin Mayer’s Madison Avenue USA is a good description of this growing integration although he makes a few elementary mistakes of observation. That’s about all the book is good for, really, because Mayer completely fails to understand the meaning of it, and lacks any kind of sociological sense. Despite his protestations about his “neutrality”, and of being fair and objective, he’s obviously a partisan of “efficiency” and finds nothing terribly menacing about this integration, so he completely misunderstands the concerns of the critics.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    I should perhaps make plain that the question I’m currently attempting to find an answer to is how “holistic branding” or the creation of “branded behaviours” (marketing 3.0) differs from the “consumer engineering” (or human engineering) of the 30s, and Bernays’ “engineering of consent” in the 50s. Is it all one and the same or is there some kind of progression of technique here? “Same but different”? Just a different way of saying the same thing? Or is there really some essential difference between them? I’m hoping to get to the root of that, as it might be relevant to an estimation of the current state of consciousness.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Your narration of our maladies always stirs in me so many questions, why do we perceive and why do we conceptualize what we perceive and why are these processes push us to choose the preferable being we want to be and what is the decisive factors in distinguishing between the preferable from the non-preferable being and why there are attentive people and there are the unattentive and who put all these faculties and their extensions in us and why are these gifts mishandled by the humans and why the humans are easily deceived and enslaved and why the leaders who are supposed to be just and truthful in handling the affairs of the peoples turns into liars and oppressors and why all these types of aggression are present in our world from branded education to branded war and why all this hate and fear-momgering. Does all these aggression and mishandling go without account and is this cosmos has no purpose for its existence and the curtain will come down and that is that. What a bad narrative if the robbers and the generous end in the same hole. We have accused,defender, persecutor ,judges and juries and stupid who say god has the same. It is only this mundane life let us enjoy it and do not trust those who talk about pair and polarity and as there is here there is there.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Perception corresponds to consciousness AS being, while conception corresponds to consciousness OF being. It’s the consciousness OF being that allows us to choose different modes of being or modes of perception. Consciounsess AS corresponds to Being-A-Soul, Consciousness OF to Having-A-Soul or Having-A-World.

      As you might surmise, there is a close correspondence between this and between McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” modes of attention, and correspondingly to what Jill Bolte-Taylor discovered in her “Stroke of Insight”.
      In the past I’ve referred to consciousness AS as “awareness” proper, and consciousness OF as what we call “consciousness” proper. Consciousness AS is intentionality, Consciousness OF is reflexiveness of consciousness — the “mirroring” or extentionality, ie what we call “objectification”.

      The issue here is the “ceptual” — which means the “grasping” or “holding”. As the “per-ceptual”, there is no grasping or holding, rather the meaning of “flux”, or transience or passing through — the significance of the prefix “per”. As “con-ceptual” — of grasping or holding together (the meaning of “con-” or “com-” there is the notion of fixing or fixation or reification, or of patterning, Gestalt, and so on.

      Nietzsche, for example, says there is the self that DOES “I” and the self that SAYS “I”. This corresponds to the perceptual (or consciousness AS) and the conceptual (or consciousness OF). These correspond to the right and left brain modes of attention as highlighted in McGilchrist’s divided brain and in Bolte-Taylor. Both draw the distinction between perceiving and conceiving as being issues of the divided brain. The problem being that we have confused the issue of perception with that of conception. Rudolf Steiner, in his Philosophy of Freedom deals with that.

      Now, Descartes elevated Consciousness OF being (and the conceptual) over that of Consciousness AS being, when it’s exactly the opposite in fact. Thinking or “reflection” is secondary. So the world of abstraction (Consciousness OF) was made primary, and the world of experience (Consciousness AS) was made derivative or epiphenomenal or secondary. This is the problem, essentially, of the “mental-rational” functioning in “deficient mode” == not the abstracting, per se, but the presumption that the abstracting (or thinking) is foundational — ie, is Being. But that’s what’s called “the ivory tower” or building castles (or dungeons as it were) in the air.

      In this sense, too, Marx didn’t really understand his own philosophy of “historical materialism” or dialectical materialsm. That, too, is abstraction. But what he was trying to get at was the world of experience rather than the world of abstraction.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    Thank you Scott for the explanation, but do you think in our real functioning and our continual flow of meaning and expression we can be aware as to say this is As and this is Of or to say this is awareness proper and this is consciousness proper. Personally being in constant dialogue with myself and with my god I can not say that this is the left and this the right talking or these are gods flashes and these are mine. In all cases exploratory exchange is very beneficial. Thank you.

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