Curiosity-driven research: Does it exclude a market?

November 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Max Weber in Kyoto, Doshisha University Library (女田図, 361.23||W-34, 閉架(B1F))

Dear reader,

who entered “Durkheim Science as a vacation” in an unknown search engine: Your query has been redirected: My article on the subject quotes Weber, Max – not Durkheim, Émile. Because the former is the author of a great essay on the subject of “Science as a Vocation” – a sort of death drive for recognition. The irony of Weber is that as soon as you are recognized as a substantial contributor to science, you will be most likely … retired.

From the viewpoint of many scholars in Germany it is understandable that students now protest against the implementation of the Bologna reforms. Cramming knowledge of centuries into a couple of semesters leaves little space for personal development or even … curiosity. But going on strike, c’mon, is it really going to revive 1968? We have deadlines, too.

The pleasure of the few is happiness for the many

Already Friedrich Nietzsche lamented the state of the German university back in 1872 (Über die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten). In a conversation of a student and a philosopher-teacher, the student recalls:

“you used to say that no one would long for education if he knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people is and can be. And even this small number of truly educated is not really possible without the mass of others, who, against their nature, and determined only by a promising deception, get engaged in education.”

A double analogy at best. Many (the mass) adhere to an ideal of universal education. But for Nietzsche only a few (the truly educated) can attain that ideal. The mass follows an ideal brought down to a “national-economic” formula: “more knowledge and education, thus more production and in the end – more happiness.” If that is the rationale of education, personal development in a more liberal scheme will procure less happiness and less production. Dear reader, the path to less happiness will start with the right terms. And while some are quarreling with the terms, others are operating with factors.

Market accountability – where German and American universities differ

Nathan Rosenberg, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford, gave a lecture at the WZB in Berlin on the structural disparity of German and American universities. His basic assumption was that American higher education was “not a system” but rather an association of individual institutions. His three main points were: 1) research is heavily market oriented 2) graduate students are actively involved and recognized in research and 3) universities are a lot more “responsive” to demands from outside. He was bewildered by the ratio of students per professor in Germany and could not imagine how personal development of individual young researchers was possible under such conditions. A tacit voice from the audience replied: “It isn’t.” But above all he was making the claim that competition among universities for faculty, resources  and students was the driving force behind innovation. American universities are after all “economic institutions” who can manage their day-to-day affairs only on the basis of their interests from accumulated assets.

Stanford University, ⓒ A. Mager

A fellow doctoral student from the USC Annenberg School of Communication commented on a presentation he had seen on an eye-tracking software in Winterthur during a conference on Journalism Research in the Public Interest. The presenter was Sebastian Feuß from the University of Leipzig.  While Feuss presented his findings on the behavior of young people and their online reading/viewing habits in the interest of pure science, my fellow from the USC commented: “If I had that kind of equipment, I’d be a millionaire.” I wouldn’t doubt him. Descending into market orientation – whatever your market may be – is not a bad way to keep your research aligned with public interest. If you want to know a secret about the business world, it will be simple: “Keep the deadline!” Happiness galore.

For more articles which met deadlines, consider reading these:


Descriptive Excess: Jacques Racière’s take on the Reality Effect

September 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Politics of Sign and Space

Politics of Aesthetics

Given that the height of French structuralist criticism has long passed away (along with its most prolific writers) the review by Jacques Rancière at the Berlin Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) on September 21 was a welcome chance for a couple of hundreds of people to review the “politics of fiction” through an analysis of 18th and 19th century Realist literature.

Starting with Roland Barthes’ classic “The Reality Effect” (1968), Rancière attempts to recapture the political impact of Realist fiction through its radical dismissal of boundaries, of high and low, of subjecting parts to an overarching idea. The “descriptive excess” of Realism, in his words, does not conflate high art and the profane passions of every day life, but affirms that in democratic literature all elements play an equal part in the construction of the text. Invoking Borges’ criticism of Proust (“There are just too many pages in his work!”), Rancière underlines that what a appears as a representation in a Realist novel, actually dissolves representation by putting all signifiers on an equal level. The Real is produced as an effect of the text itself and is not supported by an external reality.

… in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity. (p.234)

(Roland Barthes “The Reality Effect” In: Dorothy J. Hale (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900–2000, London: Blackwell, pp. 230-234)

Rancière went on to point to the self-sufficiency of the realist description that self-consciously employs details and description to destabilize existing structures of power. By breaking the distinctions of class, of textual conventions, of conflating different media forms and images, Realist fiction does not so much produce reality as such, but offers “new possibilities of a sensory experience of equality”.

We might add a reference to the Constance School and Wolfgang Iser here to point to the democratic appeal of popular texts precisely because they need to be appropriated by a reader and are not in themselves meaningful.

Rancière has devoted a large part of his research to (re-) negotiations of space, of distribution and division in the legacy of Deleuze, and his more recent works summarize the “Politics of Aesthetics”. His defense of Realist fiction as a political art form might sound surprising. Whereas the Modernists rejected Realism on the grounds of its excessive logic of description, Rancière defends it. Realist fiction embodies a “self-contradiction of cause and effect” and follows a logic of addition (of details or images). Structuralists, Futurists, and Dadaists – in short the Modernist movement – on the other hand favored subtraction in painting, in writing and theater. Rancière emphasizes that Realist excess of description is an immanent criticism of cause and effect as a logical function of language itself. By placing signifiers on equal levels, Realism is the first truly democratic form of fiction and should not be dismissed as a mere representation. Without its representation, he contends, reality remains even more elusive.

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