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From the Public University to the Common University

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on 1/2/14

For many decades, “public university” is the watchword that organizes activism around the need for its “defense” and the dispute for its content. Especially during the 1990s, the university’s public space was the object of internal and external attacks to turn it into a pure service provider and submit it to the paradigm of the corporation.

However, the legacy of many generations of political and intellectual work has known how to “defend itself” against misuse and has managed to – in good part – safeguard itself from capture by the kingdom of merchandise that establishes the value of lives and academic trajectories, ideas and knowledges, as it would with any other object. The “defense” that seeks to keep the university away from private profit is bound to be continuous and sustain its “public” condition anew, always liable to be lost. The organizing notion of the post-reform Latin American university:“autonomy.” refers to the institutional condition that not only is affirmed as self-governance, but also as the productive power [potencia] of dislocated knowledges [saberes] of the empire of merchandise and as king of critique faced with the “dismantling” of languages, knowledges [saberes] and experiences reluctant to be reduced to a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Without detriment to this safeguard of the university, confronted with a reactionary progressivism that not only empties knowledge of its social orientation, but also destroys the memories, histories, hesitations specific to the form of life dedicated to study, ‘nonproductivity,’ the taste for speculation and uncertain adventures of knowledge that is the spirit of what we call “research,” it is necessary to add to its “defense” a plural appropriation that effectively converts it into a common good. The conquest of the common necessarily takes place over the defense of the public, but it inscribes there the construction of the university as “incubator” of new social relations. And it gives new meaning, without renouncing it, to the notion of autonomy.

According to the meaning given here, autonomy is not indifference, self-referentiality or autism, but rather articulation, intervention, opening to the not university, heterogeneous construction, political and cognitive convergence with social movements, hospitality towards popular knowledges [saberes], the common formation of counter-hegemonic networks. Not solitary closure but rather heterogeneous solidarity; “extension in the opposite direction” – following Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s expression – that incorporates knowledges [saberes] and ideas conceived in other places to compose an interpretation of the world and a conversation over everything at the greatest distance possible from the heteronomy of capital and the market.

The “common university” that results from this “heterogeneous autonomy” does not ignore the implementation of public policies originating from the state, in those cases or institutional initiatives that can be considered forms of counterpower and the creation of equality. Meanwhile it activates its critical power [potencia], which is another mode of not disengaging from the state and not abandoning it in its weaknesses to the onslaught of the powers that exceed it, when equality and counterpower are not what orients the dispute over the law and state decisions, but rather tolerance to – or the direct promotion of – forms of accumulation that cause social or environmental degradation (agribusinesses, mega-mining, genetically modified seeds…) under a unilateral and immediatist developmentalism stripped of the wisdom of the consequences.

How to think of the common between the university and social movements? Also: what is common between the difference sciences and different social movements? This question does not propose the discovery of what distinct things have in common, but rather an exploration of what the different can in common. Thus, the common is not the already given of what is available but rather the effect of a will of encounter – or of the opening to the randomness of encounters –, of a work, of a conquest together of actions and notions that precipitate a political convergence, in other words: The common is the achievement of a self-transformation that moves the involved identities through the joint elaboration of difference and the creation of the new.

The common university and social movements (that with a little bit of forcing we could also call “common movements”) are proposed as laboratories of new freedoms and new equalities; as the experimentation of alternative social relations that dismantle the current separation of knowledge [saber] and the sense of knowing in favor of the generation of counter-hegemonic communities capable of bringing together the search for knowledges and the desire for transformation; capable of constituting a network for the interchange of ideas and circulation of meanings, and a convergence of the joint empowerment [potenciamiento] that does not occur without work and the creation of new institutions oriented toward hosting a conversation between different ways of speaking and interpreting the world.

When it is produced, this newness is not the effect of a summation of untouched entities but an interpenetration: social movements’ hospitality toward science and the knowledge produced in the university (the school of political education Florestán Fernandes of Brazil’s Landless Movement is one example) and conversely, the inclusion – in the strong sense of the word – of non-university knowledges [saberes] in the university as an institutional culture that considers and promotes extension in the opposite direction.

The conquest of the common requires an effort of translation – in the strict sense of transduction: to carry from one side to another – in which (as when something is carried from one language to another) something is always lost in order to gain a lot. In this sense, translation is not equivalent to an immediate application of knowledges [saberes] coming from one side nor to the passive reception of experiences, but an activity of comprehension and transformation. That activity, politics in the strict sense, is bound to be endless due to the constitutive opacity of the common, that is not something prior to that which it belongs nor a burden, but rather an emancipatory dimension to come that does not succumb to the illusions of transparency.

Originally in Spanish: http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/universidad/10-216094-2013-03-19.html

 

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