George Marcus on academic capitalism in the humanities

I’ve been reading some of the academic capitalism literature lately, since I’m writing about French images of capitalism in higher education. It turns out that, a few years ago, George Marcus offered an intriguing auto-ethnographic anecdote about the way that academic capitalism becomes standard even in seemingly very “critical” corners of the American humanities.

The case takes place at the University of California, Irvine, circa 2011, when its Critical Theory Institute was threatened with losing its funding.

The Critical Theory Institute (CTI) has been a well-funded ORU (Organized Research Unit) of UCI for many years. Originally, it was the home and forum of famous French theorists, such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard, in the United States, spending their winter quarters away from Paris in southern California. The present small self-selected membership of the CTI was recently notified, among several other ORUs, that it would not be renewed for support. The meeting I attended, of distinguished humanities scholars whose careers have been defined by the era of critical theory, as well as two anthropologists (me being one), was called to discuss what was to be done now, how to survive. These discussions continue, but the conversations on that day were a snapshot of ‘old school’ resistance attempting to understand, negotiate and navigate its way in academic capitalism. Aside from the defence of critical thinking and scholarship in and for itself (eloquently articulated especially by the younger professors), others quite freely embraced vocabularies of academic capitalism: what we had left to offer was a brand – how could we trade on it?

A local businessman offered to contribute to the Institute if it would offer a course for corporate and business personnel in ethics. This idea was seriously discussed. More successful grant winners among us tied every idea and theme that the group might take up to writing a proposal and getting funding for them in the terms by which trends in the humanities are being supported today (e.g., in the realm of digital communication). Respectable ideas are financially supported ideas. Appeals to interdisciplinary value would be made for contributions from deans. By the end of the meeting there were a number of ideas for piecing together funding to keep the Institute going in the near term; most of these involved, frankly, begging, at best, taxing. All were trading in the vocabularies of academic capitalism, toward its embedded philanthropic side. The other anthropologist and I remarked following the meeting how weird it had been.

The details here remain scanty, but I take it that the paradox is clear: it’s disconcerting if you think you are an academic who doesn’t practice “academic capitalism” and then it becomes clear that… actually, you do.

If anyone from the Institute stumbles across this post, I would be delighted to hear details about the aftermath of the story. As the Center still survives today, it seems apparent that some new funding sources were worked out.


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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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