Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Autonomous Global University

As a part of the Edu-factory initiative on understanding transformations in the modern university (see previous post), the Vidya Ashram collective contributed the following write-up on the idea of an autonomous global university (the participants in this round of discussion were asked to reflect on the idea of such a university). Entire contribution is below.

Knowledge Against Society

Twentieth century has been a century of knowledge production. It has also been a century of unprecedented violence. The knowledge that we produce is eventually turned against ourselves and against the whole society. While this was also true of the modern university, knowledge society that is in the making now seems to be singularly designed to appropriate knowledge and turn it against the producers of knowledge in the service of global capital and global machineries of violence.

The university in the modern era was the prime location of knowledge production, which claimed to take society out of the darkness of ignorance into enlightenment and from a regime of scarcity to a condition of abundance. While the university did produce a great deal of knowledge the motion of this knowledge was such that it ended up being a handmaiden of profit and domination. On account of its' sole authority in knowledge production, the university became complicit in suppression of society's knowledge. The bargain that the university made offered a space of pure enquiry, of knowledge for knowledge's sake, of pursuit of knowledge without interference from power. The university defended this privilege as much as it could. Now this privilege is being withdrawn.

The university has undergone major transformations in the twentieth century. A massive expansion of university has been going on. Millions have access to higher education. Protocols of knowledge production in the university have been challenged from various directions. Women, blacks, erstwhile colonized, workers, rebels – all have challenged the higher education scenario in the world. But along with these processes of democratization of knowledge, a parallel movement of militarisation and industrialization of knowledge production was ushered in with the Manhattan project. These two processes, of democratization and militarisation/industrialization, seem to have come to a head in the 1960s which saw numerous student actions on campuses across the world.

Now the global order is reinventing itself. In the information age, there is not going to be a privileged set of knowledge producers who will be allowed an autonomous space, a safe haven to explore and invent. Knowledge will be harnessed from the whole cultural field and subjected to regimes of cognitive measurement, knowledge management, and information enclosures.

Hierarchies of Knowledge and Labour

Exploitation of labour was the hallmark of industrial society. Exploitation of knowledge is now being added to exploitation of labour to build the foundations of a new capitalist system. Knowledge from all locations – university, internet, religions, ordinary life – are sought to be harnessed and exploited in the service of the building of this 'knowledge society'. Technologies of virtuality play an essential role in this management of knowledge. Living knowledge and its exploitation is essential ingredient of the new production systems unlike the earlier systems which depended on knowledge embodied in machines and routines. These developments open the way for a self-awareness of workers as bearers and producers of knowledge. There is no contradiction between knowledge and labour, nor is there a gulf between 'knowledgeable bodies' and 'labouring bodies'. Such contradictions stem from the division between mental and physical labour – a relic of the earlier industrial civilization. However, it is now perhaps the time to foreground human being as an epistemic being.

The category of labour as it was constituted in the older capitalist system and as deployed even by socialist and communist ideologies of workers' emancipation implies a hierarchy of labour in society – intellectual labour, industrial labour, women's labour, artisanal labour, agricultural labour, primitive labour, the idler and so on. It seems to us that this labour hierarchy is implicitly constructed on the basis of the knowledge hierarchy among the various kinds of knowledge that exist in society. University knowledge and modern science and technology occupied the space of knowledge while women's knowledge, farmers' knowledge, artisan's knowledge, tribal's knowledge were considered a product of habit or accident if not expressions of pure superstition. We reject such descriptions and the resulting hierarchy. Even in the modern era, such knowledge in society that we call lokvidya has played an important role in the survival of the people whose knowledge traditions these constitute.

If we grant that there is no hierarchy among various locations of knowledge in society and that all kinds of knowledge have a role to play in the reconstruction of society, grounds for non-hierarchical solidarities across many boundaries is prepared. Moreover, epistemic recognition of lokvidya opens us to a vast realm of living knowledge traditions in society as forms of autonomous knowledge activity. This also creates the condition for people to see their own knowledge traditions as sources of strength, and not only as means of survival.

Unlike the industrial society, the knowledge society does recognize lokvidya. But lokvidya is recognized only in order to benefit economically from it. In fact, the relation that knowledge society constructs with any knowledge is essentially one of economic exploitation. Knowledge society is built on the integration of any knowledge by economic exploitation.

Autonomous Global University (AGU)

Edufactory Collective's proposal of the formation of AGU is a bold idea. It has the potential to project a transformative perspective on knowledge society. We support its formation.

To say that AGU is autonomous is to say that the knowledge activity of such a university is free from political interference, economic pressures and military requirements. This requires that it has a political and ideological significance of its own.

Autonomy in the context of knowledge in this age of corporatisation means above all regulation of knowledge activities by epistemic norms derived from knowledge activity outside the market. Knowledge activity outside the market relates to a large part of knowledge in society, lokvidya and various cultural, political and other expressions and representations which are consciously kept autonomous.

Autonomous Global University (AGU) is not just another site of knowledge production. It is a site of cooperation among knowledge producers and a site of non-cooperation with the global regime of knowledge. It is a university in so far as its stock activity is knowledge activity. We can perhaps think of it as a union of networks and organizations. Of necessity, it will operate mainly through the virtual realm. But it is composed of acts of resistance and acts of organization on the ground.

AGU values all kinds of labour and all kinds of knowledge equally. AGU looks at knowledge as a means of reconstruction of society and individuals. AGU looks at knowledge as means of liberation, livelihood, culture. AGU thus works for the recognition and representation of all forms of knowledge in society. AGU seeks to step out on the periphery of time and gaze into the future. It seeks to build an imagination of the future society which is not just a variant of global capitalism. Through its activities it seeks to create idioms of global emancipatory transformations.

AGU looks at why our knowledge is turned against ourselves. It seeks to build solidarities across borders of the university and within the universities, solidarity of all bearers and producers of knowledge. It is not a bastion of creativity and production. It is an organ of dialogue, solidarity and organization. It seeks to organize the relatively empowered section of knowledge producers which are located in the university in order to challenge the global mechanisms of exploitation and violence. It seeks to expose the ways and means by which knowledge becomes an instrument of profit and a weapon against society. AGU seeks to emancipate knowledge from this condition.

For this purpose, AGU seeks to spread the virus of non-cooperation to all universities. We have read about the various auto-education intiatives in the earlier round of discussion - in Argentina, Europe, US, India - and about movements of students and precarious workers in Greece and other places. The various auto-education initiatives and movements at the borders of the university and within it can be read as acts of non-cooperation with the institutionalization of a new order of knowledge. This new order of knowledge exploits students, teachers and their knowledge for profit and control. These acts resist the enfeeblement and enslavement of knowledge producers and seek to liberate knowledge from the clutches of dons, managers, and rent seekers.

AGU seeks to link these acts of non-cooperation to create forums and launch activities that direct an uncompromising light on the prevailing order of things. By being a site of dialogues and translations, AGU seeks to sow the seeds of a social movement of knowledge, a Knowledge Satyagraha. Knowledge satyagraha means the insistence that knowledge activities be regulated by epistemic norms independent of the market, the insistence that knowledge be linked to values of truth and justice. 'Non-cooperation' and 'satyagraha' as forms of political action are legacies most notably of the non-violent mass movement against the British Empire during the Indian freedom struggle and the civil rights movement in the US.

AGU seeks to participate in a reconstruction of knowledge and initiate a reconstitution of university. It explores ways and means of building and instituting a new imagination of university that operates in an environment of knowledge abundance. It seeks to reinterpret and reorganize the vast amounts of knowledge that have been generated by the university so far. It challenges the prevailing institutionalized differentiations of knowledge like the one between the sciences and arts. It seeks to reinterpret human sciences by inscribing human being as an epistemic being at its core. It seeks to develop new principles of integration of knowledge.

We understand that the challenge of actualizing a vision like this is immense. All the tools available in the virtual realm – website, mailing list, wiki, blogs, social networking – will have to be configured and reconfigured. The relation between the virtual life and the ordinary life will also have to be reflected upon, since we are seeking to connect the two. The new institutional form of AGU will have to be elaborated further and its relation with other institutional forms defined. Since this is the first time we are discussing the construction of an autonomous global university, we felt we will try to articulate a possible vision for AGU, rather than try to work out all aspects of it.

Lokvidya And AGU

From the point of view of relationship with the market lokvidya activity may be divided into three parts:

First, lokvidya which has been co-opted by the global market often through the new techniques brought into existence by the Internet. Secondly, Lokvidya activity that operates on the margins of the market. This however contributes greatly to the creation of riches by its numbers and vastness. Household production of all types based both on artisanry and farming belong to this category. Thirdly, those lokvidya processes that have no immediate economic value attached to them and are therefore outside the market.

Globalisation has tried to construct trade routes and linkages for an economic exploitation of all such activity but what gets left out still constitutes large social reality at least in countries like India. A lot of work at home and in remote geographical areas is of this type. Women's work in the house which includes bringing up children, daily health care, balanced food, cooking, sanitation and cleanliness, decoration etc. is work of this type which is definitely based on a steady understanding and knowledge of human beings and their surroundings. To this category also belongs a large part of the activity of tribals and indigenous people in remote areas. They grow food on small plots of land to eat, make and repair implements of their use, build houses, and collect forest produce as food, medicine and fuel. Their life is split into two parts, one constituted of all these knowledge-based activities outside the market and other of work in the market as workers for wages. Similarly, almost all households, including often the very organized urban households too, have these two components, one of women's work outside the market and the other of men and women earning through the market.

So there is this huge expanse of activities of women and tribals and part of the activity of peasants and artisans which is outside the market and is based on their knowledge which is modified and upgraded regularly and is full of innovations. We would like to further explore and would like to invite others to explore what relevance this aspect of lokvidya can have in constructing an epistemic frame of reference which may provide the guidelines for knowledge activity of an autonomous university.

Vidya Ashram

We end with a brief introduction to some activities and plans of Vidya Ashram which bear an affinity with the initiative for the construction of an autonomous global university. Vidya Ashram was set up three years ago at Sarnath near Varanasi. Sarnath is the place where Buddha first expounded his philosophy of becoming.

Among other activities, we have organised a series of dialogues on Knowledge in Society in various fora associated with World Social Forum process during last four years. The dialogues were held at Hyderabad, Mumbai, Karachi, Delhi. We intend to take these dialogues to university, among computer professionals and generally among people. We hope that these dialogues will lead to the formation of a new academy. This academy, which might possibly be named the Lokvidya Academy, will seek to reconfigure relations between different kinds of knowledge in society and between knowledge and society.

Last year Vidya Ashram formed an Emancipation of Knowledge Forum. A group of 30 young men and women from the Sarnath region have joined to shape this forum. Attempts to extend it around Varanasi are going on. We hope that this forum can develop as a platform for various organizations and movements to come together to explore the political significance of the knowledge question which might lead to new radical forms of politics.

- Vidya Ashram
February 2008

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