Culture and the University as White, Male, Public Liberal Humanist Space

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With the public university in ruins, too often when radical researchers turn their attention to social networks, podcasts, AI deep-learning and so forth, their concern is with the neoliberal subjects we are transforming into with the help of such new era information technologies. By this they mean capitalist entrepreneurs of our own selves and lives, who are prepared to cope with the risks of being involved in higher education on an individual – rather than a collaborative or collective – basis. If a particular job, career or set of opportunities is not available to us it’s presented as our fault. It's because we haven’t promoted ourselves enough, or networked widely enough, or plain worked hard enough. Since 2009 salaries for academics in the UK have decreased almost 20 per cent, with a third already being on fixed term contracts, this figure rising to ‘almost half for teaching-only academics (44 per cent) and over two thirds (68 per cent) for research only staff’. Due to the pay and working conditions, 60 per cent say they are looking to leave the sector in the next few years. How long before more of us are encouraged by the demands of what I’ve called the uberfied university to decamp from the traditional systems of higher education teaching and publishing to set up as our own, precarious, solo media brands using software tools such as Substack? The latter enables writers to build an audience of subscribers to a free or paid-for newsletter. One can imagine scholars soon being placed in a position where they have to conform to the cult of personality by curating their whole world using photographs, videos, interviews and Q&As along with access to opportunities for chats and mentoring, much as many creatives are doing already through membership platforms such as Patreon. And that’s for those who can generate sufficient brand recognition to make this a feasible option. For the rest the future is likely to take the form of microworking: being paid small amounts to carry out short-term tasks that they bid for on online platforms, and that can’t yet be done by large language model AI.

Radical researchers pay rather less critical attention, however, to the particular configurations of subjectivity and the related information technologies – that is, printed-paper codex books and journal articles – we are changing from. As a result, an unmarked liberal humanist mode of academic personhood is inadvertently positioned as a desirable alternative to the digital subject of neoliberalism and its networked individualism. To put it in different words, a form of liberal humanism, along with the attendant concepts of the self-identical autonomous subject, the individual proprietorial author, originality, creativity and copyright, acts as something of a blind spot or datum point in much established research. Just as liberals regard liberalism as the only system of government that is true and valid for everyone independent of historico-cultural context (i.e., that which would be universally accepted by all reasonable persons if they had the freedom to choose), so the writing of commercially copyrighted, sequentially ordered, bound and printed-paper codex books and journal articles is a professional practice that is regarded as transcending the period and place in which it is employed. It’s a manner of operating that constitutes a pre-programmed mode of performance many academics adopt more or less passively in order to construct theoretical frameworks and draw conclusions. Hence the lack of care shown by even the most politically radical of thinkers for the collectivity and materiality of their own ways of working and thinking. The reason for this attachment to an umarked liberal humanist mode of academic personhood is quite simple: being the constitutive discourse of the West, liberal humanism is built into the very system of the Euro-Western university. As Christopher Newfield, President of the Modern Language Association, explains with regard to US higher education in The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, ‘a consensus version of university humanism has long consisted of five interwoven concepts: the free self, experiential knowledge, self-development, autonomous agency, and enjoyment.”’ What’s more, ‘university philosophers and administrators did not simply espouse these concepts as ideals but institutionalised them.’

The following response to this situation has its basis in four provocations or postulates. First, that these culture industry-dominated systems for the production of knowledge – the classic system of print culture associated with the development of the liberal humanist subject, and the newer system of platform capitalism and corporate social media by means of which we are encouraged to become neoliberal microentrepreneurs of our selves – are not so very different. Neoliberalism is not directly opposed to liberalism, after all; it’s a version of it, as its name, neo or new liberalism, suggests. Second, that the non-linear, zig-zagging process of shifting from analogue to digital media, Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, Dalí to DALL-E, provides us with a chance to raise the kind of questions – for our neoliberal and our liberal modes of being and doing – that we should surely have been addressing all along but haven’t because our liberal ideas of the rational human subject, the author and the book possess so much authority and power. Third, that it also creates an opportunity for us to take some of the tendencies associated with the change from the printed codex to electronic bitstreams of mediation and give them new inflections that are different to both neoliberalism and liberalism. Fourth, that we can only take this opportunity by paying close attention to how culture and the institution of the university is not just a white male public space, as Sara Ahmed has it, but a white male liberal humanist public space. Otherwise, we risk repeating its Euro-Western, white male liberal humanism even in our attempts to explore the radical new, anticapitalist, antiracist, antiheteropatriarchal forms that teaching, learning and research can take in the post-neoliberal academy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)(In-Press)
JournalNew Formations
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 18 Sept 2023


  • public knowledge
  • modernist
  • Euro-Western
  • social mobility
  • class
  • liberal
  • neoliberalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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