The Knowledge Industry

Academic knowledge is entirely reducible to the endogenous dynamic of the capitalist mode of production.

The Knowledge Industry

In the autumn of 2000 the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, famously called for the removal of two statues of Victorian generals from Trafalgar Square. The article provides a history of the sculpture and space at this landmark location in the British capital, an intensely contested and fluid site that has been constantly redrawn and rebuilt, its statues installed and removed (most recently contemporary sculptures have been temporarily sited on the ‘fourth’ plinth and the square has been redeveloped). The commemorative role of its statuary is considered through Freud’s analysis of monuments as ‘mnemic symbols’ and the tripartite relations between memorials, metropolitan spaces and the subject. The square and its monuments offer a site for reflection on how the past, never uncontested and always conflicted, haunts the present. Framed by Jacques Derrida’s thinking on haunting from Spectres of Marx (1994), the essay contemplates what the dead have to say to the living and on what the past imposes (and has already imposed) on the future.

Deborah Cherry, “Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire,” Art History 29:4 (September 2006).

The production of academic knowledge in forms such as books, periodicals, conferences, and symposia is unquestionably a form of overproduction. In a sector such as art history, theory and criticism, the sheer volume of products is overwhelming. The experience of knowledge under the conditions of its current production is, paradoxically, an experience that cannot process what it experiences. The upshot is quite peculiar: the products embodying knowledge are not met with reception. Knowledge production is increasingly designed so as not to be received.

At its most general level, the knowledge industry is the complex system of social relations that animates the production, reproduction, circulation, distribution and, crucially, experience of products that society believes embody the norms of relevant knowledge at a given moment in time. Today, both the fruits of academic knowledge production and their producers are conditioned by systems of institutions such as higher education and publishing houses. These conditional forces are intensified due to the expansion of the potential market for the works, thanks to the theoretically broader readership of a globalized capitalist system.

The rather strange second life of “continental theorists” in countries like the US is a good example of this expansion. To be a “French theorist”—which, regardless of the concrete realities or struggles of those theorists, is a particular manifestation of the academic-subject—is to be a personification of an American branding system internal to the academic knowledge industry, one that confers more potent symbolic capital. The power of this branding is not something that occurs outside the process of producing objects like books. Forms of branding are immanent to their products, mediating determinations that constitute their particular status.

This means that “theory” does not name a particular intellectual effort based on the problem of establishing a set of conceptual and methodological standards of a particular object. Rather, theory is the name of a mode of knowledge production that can be recognized by the social system in which works circulate. Thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault are increasingly understood as producers of unique concepts (différance, pharmakon, bodies without organs, lines of flight, subjectivation, governmentality, etc.) and not as offering particular modes of thought that intervene in established intellectual disciplines, such as philosophy or history. The market imperative to produce generalized difference, which objectively undercuts concepts meant to particularize difference, falls in line with the miasmic spread of social amnesia, which blocks the possibility of integrating history into our assessment of the conditions of the present.

The pattern of the knowledge industry is inherently idealist: the production of new concepts and descriptions generates the social illusion and corresponding worry that conditions are constantly changing and eluding our grasp, when in fact the basic laws of social motion and structures of domination in capitalism have retained a bleak continuity.

This idealism can be perceived in the endless formation of novel concepts. A novel concept is the expression of the formal individuation of an academic intellectual laborer within capitalist competition. A new concept marks the author off as an agent that has added an ostensibly new quality to the academic knowledge industry. It also allows us to perceive the pressures and consequences of productivity immanent to knowledge production: an author must produce a new concept instead of rethinking and problematizing what already intellectually exists—what would, in language from another world, be called critique. What appears at first blush as a new quality to a field of discourse is, in reality, the quantitative addition to a system of production mediated by the capitalist logic of expansion and accumulation.

The novel concept, like any reified object, is produced with an eye to export. Use and reification converge when concepts such as “technological reproducibility,” “the gaze of the other,” “bare life,” or “the distribution of the sensible” are used to develop new approaches to understanding artistic phenomena. Intellectual and citational practices of contemporary modes of art history reproduce and reconstitute old approaches by new means. Polymorphous conceptuality is institutional conservatism in reverse, and scholarly radicalism is the surest preserve of academic constancy.

In addition to this compulsion to novelty, institutionalized knowledge production must also achieve a machine-like quality. Although “success” in the precarious academic job market is subject to the basic nepotism and networking that pervades all industries, the knowledge industry at the structural level pressures its agents of production to work ever more quickly to maintain the symbolic capital of a particular institution. The acceleration of intellectual production re-temporalizes thought, reducing it to the temporal order of capitalism—that is, to the time of ceaseless expansion and accumulation by the valorization processes of capital. Knowledge production is, in other words, governed by the capitalist economy of time. Any other modes of temporalization—especially ones that are decisively slower—are enemies. The breakdown of the tenure system and corresponding intensification of competition is reflected in the radicalization of these tendencies of the knowledge industry.

Our exposition of the knowledge industry stems from the conviction that, first and foremost, academic knowledge production is not outside the endogenous dynamic of the capitalist mode of production and, more importantly, that it is marked by that social formation and its development. The problem for knowledge production is the extent to which thought critically comprehends the mediation of capitalist society. Such critical knowledge would necessitate a suspension of intellectual production since, instead of tackling a particular phenomenon, thought would have to engage the very conditions of its possibility in a specific form. For us, today, this form is that of academic knowledge production.

Hammam Aldouri teaches at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.

Scott Jenkins cleans houses in Philadelphia.