Letters – Issue 38

Giving postmodernism a chance

Books may be disappointing, more so reviews, especially from the viewpoint of the reviewed. Alastair Shaw last year reviewed a collection I edited, entitled Cultural Politics and the University, along with Soleh Maani’s Investing in Minds (October 1998 issue). His single, somewhat obsessive, focus for the review was whether or not these books contributed to the debate over the Tertiary Review of higher education in New Zealand. While it is true that the words “Tertiary Review” do appear in the blurb and in the text, my collection was designed to investigate questions of cultural politics. Indeed, the words “cultural politics” appear in the title, and nowhere in the book is it stated that the aim of the collection is to debate the Tertiary Review. In fact, this would be difficult, given that most chapters were written before the Green Paper appeared.

In the blurb on the back cover I do say, as Shaw points out, that the contributors “in the year of the Tertiary Review” investigate the question of cultural politics of the university against the background of neo-liberal reforms to tertiary education. If that statement can be judged to be seriously misleading about the contents, I, rather than my contributors, must take responsibility.  The real focus for the collection is cultural politics and this is the theme that my various contributors address: the role of intellectuals (Bruce Jesson); political correctness (Timothy Luke); globalisation of tertiary education (Jane Kelsey); the managerialist language of NZQA (Nicholas Tarling); the curriculum issue of  “great books” (Peter Roberts); the post-colonial challenge to the academy (Paul Spoonley); history and sovereignty (Andrew Sharp); the status of Maori women in the academy (Linda Tuhiwai Smith); and the cultural politics surrounding the concept of “the post-industrial society” (myself). The collection advertises itself as addressing questions of cultural politics in relation to the university and, I would submit, the contributors squarely confront this theme, albeit in different ways. Shaw reviews Cultural Politics on the basis of a criterion that was not the primary focus or aim, thus allowing his own obsession to cloud his judgement.

I would also like to take the opportunity to correct a factual error and to indulge my own pet academic obsession. First, Shaw incorrectly states that the collection is based upon Auckland University’s Winter Lecture Series in 1995. In fact, it was based upon a winter seminar series hosted by the School of Education, as the first sentence of the Preface and Acknowledgements clearly indicates.

Secondly, I cannot let Shaw’s intellectual prejudices go unnoticed. The review is an opportunity for Shaw to slag off “postmodernism” with the same zeal and lack of philosophical understanding that (unfortunately) characterises the wider debate both in New Zealand and in the English-speaking world. An example:

Peters … pontificates about his favourite fellow post-modernists Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. It is hard to see how these theorists fit into the debate on the Tertiary Review.

Would it be too much to ask him to pay attention to the argument? Both Derrida and Lyotard have written extensively on the university – the Kantian foundation of the modern university, the commodification of knowledge, the logic of performativity – and both have been involved in hands-on reform and in the setting up of the International College of Philosophy. Lyotard, as a teacher at Nanterre and subsequently at the experimental campus of the University of Paris at Vincennes, was heavily involved in the attempt to rethink French Universities. This reform of French universities was to be buried by Gaullist emphases on performativity.  But why should we expect a product of our university system to know these things, or to have read anything of Derrida or Lyotard, before venturing an ill-informed opinion?

As it happens, I believe contemporary French thought, inspired by Nietzsche, provides, perhaps, the clearest and most critical account of the modern university, and has much to offer on the future of our cultural institutions. Such work is both relevant and significant for New Zealand’s Tertiary Review, not only in terms of the analysis and critique of marketisation policies but also in terms of the logic of performativity and the analysis of the so-called “knowledge society”. Perhaps Shaw should actually go to the trouble of reading Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition?

Michael Peters


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