Public Spectres

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Public Spectres

Shannon Jackson

While I remain daunted by the invitation to offer a point of view on historical conditions that change daily, I will offer some brief thoughts on the University’s place in an interdependent social vision for California and the material questions of how to support such imagining.

Let us recall the particular form of interdependent social imagining that defined public education in California. This great state made a compact with itself when it decided to use public monies to build the infrastructure of a Californian dream. At the university level, it created a system that educated students and cultivated researchers, allowing them to develop necessary skills and to take the intellectual risks on which economic and cultural mobility depend. Along the way, it flouted aristocratic logic by saying that research excellence was advanced rather than inhibited by a commitment to public access. At Berkeley, this means that we celebrate not only our record of Nobel Laureates, but also our record of Pell Grant recipients. California’s public compact came from a belief that some forms of social life—including education—needed to be tended by values other than those of the market. When my parents went to UC Berkeley in the fifties, they benefited from the education provided by this public logic; so did my uncles, and so did my cousins after them.

The compacts we make with ourselves can change, however, when our sense of who constitutes the “we” changes. As the venerable Richard Sennett (p.15) once wrote, publicness requires a willingness to imagine oneself spatially and temporally in relation to people we do not know and will very likely never know. It is no coincidence that Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man appeared a year before Proposition 13 passed. Whatever its immediate benefits in 1978, educators, parents, and students now feel the deteriorating effects of Proposition 13 with each passing year. In 2009, we find California deciding to save itself from an economic “crisis” by further undoing California’s infrastructure. This is not the first time that a market rationale was invoked to correct the effects of market excess. As 1929’s market-sell launched the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary argued for more of the same: “Liquidate labor, liquidate the stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” Perhaps the most insidious effect of Proposition 13 was its status as a propeller and symptom of a neoliberal logic of market-based individualism. This is the logic that eschews our relation to persons whom we do not know, promoting an individuated world where what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. Moreover, this neoliberal logic measures all dimensions of social life under a market rationale in which health, education, the arts, housing, the environment, etc. are subjected to processes of commodification that determines value by generated revenue. Inside such logic, the notion that some domains of social and cultural life should be sustained as public goods becomes increasingly unthinkable.

But even as we make arguments about California’s dependence upon the UC, a truly interdependent vision has to consider UC’s dependence upon a variety of other sectors as well. The University’s economic recipe has always relied upon a mixture of state support, grant funds, regular revenue, and donor money, along with student fees. With changes to that mixture—specifically a lowered state contribution and higher student fees—many of us fear that the UC’s public mission will be eroded. This concern seems even more virulent when revenue or “earned income” is cast as a solution to our research and educational operation. Research, lest we forget, is a series of unanswered questions that yield new insights precisely because they unfold unexpectedly, that is, because research is not conducted with profit or anything else as a predetermined goal. Furthermore, the creation and dissemination of a world-class liberal arts education to all classes of citizens is not a profit-making enterprise.

In my view, the revenue-based notion of “privatization” differs somewhat from a philanthropic notion of private donation. Long before 2009, UC’s fundraisers crafted a mixed language to address our mixed economy, asking donors to give in the name of UC’s public mission. This notion of “investing in public education” walks a fine line. It is a fine line that UC Berkeley walked with Doreen B. Townsend, with the Avenalis, and with scores of other private donors whose named endowed chairs support the research activity of professors whom I admire. The argument against the privatization of the university will be under-nuanced and misleading to citizens if we are not clear about this embedded position. As we distinguish between revenue-based notions of privatization and philanthropic notions of privatization, it is most important to notice that both liberal and neoliberal discourses are already with us, structuring our lives, saturating our language, wreaking havoc with our sense of internal consistency. This is what I understood Wendy Brown to mean at the September 23 teach-in when she said that privatization is already “in the house.” Before 2009, I had already been using a modest private endowment in the name of Garrett McEnerney to pay for core undergraduate courses and staff salaries that used to be paid by state money. This is to say that some form of privatization is “in my house.” And, whether you are a student who says you want to get your money’s worth, a scientist who is the CEO of a start-up, or a faculty member who has used the language of the market when “weighing competing offers,” it is in your house, too.

The point of this recognition is not to lambast the hypocrisy of individuals or to find new bad guys within the ranks of the good. It is, rather, to begin any discussion with a fundamental recognition of our contingency. In fact, it would be pretty hard to find a humanities faculty member at Berkeley who does not have some kind of interdependent relationship with Hoover’s treasury secretary (that would be Andrew Mellon). The critical humanities teach us that there is no pure position, that psychic allegiance is as mixed as the economies that we inhabit. It teaches us that it is precisely because of this impurity that we need to attend to the complexities of our predicaments with that much more care. It means asking ourselves to stay vigilant both about the source and the goals of our funding. In fact, if we lose our distinctively public character, we will no doubt lose stalwart supporters and alumni who believed in our university’s mission. Because private donation has supported core values of equal access, intellectual risk, and artistic imagining, I do not equate philanthropy with “privatization” tout court. That said, if our funding (whether philanthropic, regular revenue, grant supported, or state-derived) radically unbalances the playing field, then our ability to support the heterogeneous pursuits of a full-service liberal arts research university are put at risk. The great and diverse “we” that is the University of California will be threatened if our funding streams create more impulses to separate “mine” from “yours.”

The University, like other social institutions nationally and internationally, operates in a mixed economy; our ability to advance the core values of our mission—access, equality, critique, experimentation, democratic citizenship—will only come with an open investigation of how we are constrained and enabled by the private and public funding on which we already depend. With care and rigor, we will put ourselves at the forefront of a much larger international discussion on the future of the social. With care and rigor, we will contribute to that imagining by maintaining a research university in perpetual pursuit of the unanswered question.

Shannon Jackson is Chair and Professor of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies and Professor of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. She is currently working on a book entitled Social Works: The Infrastructural Politics of Performance.

This article can be found in the November/December 2009 newsletter.