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polemos, universitas Arrow vol 4 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 1, 2005


Polemos, Universitas

Brett Neilson & Angela Mitropoulos


Qui que vous soyez, ô législateurs, si j'eusse découvert qu'on pensait à m'assujettir,
j'aurais fui une patrie malheureuse, et je vous eusse accablé de maledictions

(Whoever you are, legislators, if I found you were trying to subject me, I would have fled this unhappy country and covered you in maledictions.)

—Saint-Just, The Spirit of the Revolution
and the Consitution of France

1. In discussions of the so-called 'culture wars', it is often the case that 'war' here implies the intrusion of polemic into the otherwise routinely civil exchanges of the universities or 'the public sphere', as distinct from war—polemos —as such. This notion of the 'public sphere'—most memorably announced in the work of Jürgen Habermas (1989)—bears a striking resemblance to a 'gentleman's club', an idyllic space of polite conversation in which there are no real conflicts because consensus on the fundamentals has already been achieved, more or less. In its actual functioning, agreement on 'the fundamentals' supposes a prior exclusion or suppression which installs a liberal hegemony as the only form of politics and communication. In contemporary society, the terms of this exclusion are increasingly complex, ranging from a sense that what presents itself as the public sphere is simply not worth taking part in to the realisation that its actual workings prevent meaningful participation in wider life. Nevertheless, in the case of the 'culture wars', the resort to force, threatened or actual—which is to say, polemos—begins to condition the actions and impressions of those who produce what passes for 'public culture'. And, as the 'culture wars' become an instance of war as such, an idealised, nostalgic and singular version of the 'public sphere' has been reasserted. This reassertion has occurred both in the process of imposing that hegemony and due to a perception that civic engagement in this 'public sphere' may bring with it minimal protections against the violence of polemos.

2. It has long been recognised that any given 'public sphere' is formed by that which is regularly dispatched to the 'private realm', either by dint of censorship or commercial decisions about, say, what to publish or not. This is leaving aside the complicated interplay of gender, class and public authority—among other things—which molds notions of civic exchange. But today, people's experiences of public connection and/or disconnection are shaped within a complex media environment, characterised by a multiplication of communicative channels within an expanding range of significant media. This includes the proliferation of 'alternative media' sites, and online journals, but also networks all along the political spectrum. In this context, the role of the 'mainstream media' is becoming unclear. Certainly in Australia—where there exists a degree of homogeneity in press, radio and television comparable only to those countries often denounced as totalitarian—these media continue to play a significant role in configuring both 'publics' as well as any 'public sphere'. But their impact upon individuals and institutions varies, partly because they are not the only social agents involved in regulating the relations between public and private.

3. In the case of the universities, these relations are increasingly shaped by the commercial imperative to market degrees as well as to maximise 'external' income through industry-sponsored research. As a result, the scope for making public what happens inside universities is curtailed. Those who work in the universities must sign contracts to ensure they cannot bring their employer 'into disrepute'. They must also agree not to speak publicly about matters that do not fall into their supposed area of expertise. These stipulations, written into the labour contract, undoubtedly serve to establish as well as police the borders between public and private. In practice, however, they are often adjusted to suit the purposes of public relations, niche marketing, whistle blowing, maximization of productivity, etc. For instance, a doctoral graduate may continue to publish outside the academy and then, on the basis of the funding that accrues to publication, be offered a university affiliation (paid or unpaid). Research conducted with industry may produce data or knowledge that remains the private intellectual property of the partner organisation. The lines between public and private shift with time and in the detail. Indeed, the devices of exclusion are intimately wedded to processes of incorporation.

4. This is not to deny that universities participate in the wider construction of social hierarchies that effectively restrict entry. Yet insofar as the contemporary university continues to labour under the protocols of access and the requirements of mass education, it opens out to a mass intellectuality that both prompts internal transformations—e.g. the rise of studies programs and research consortiums above traditional disciplines—and occasions top-down management strategies that often push coalface workloads to the max. Even so, given that students are increasingly preoccupied not just with studies but also with mostly casual, precarious work outside the universities in order to survive, the political counterweight of a politicised student movement has largely disappeared, or at least become mostly restricted to those with family wealth, which is much the same thing.

5. Here, 'the fundamentals' around which any manifest consensus in 'the public sphere' is arranged are none other than tacit, but increasingly explicit, agreements to produce more, circulate (i.e. network) harder, innovate and customise, to approach communicative interactions as one might enter any marketplace. In other words and for all the reasons alluded to above, there is no single public sphere, even if it is possible to talk about a hegemonic form of communication whose assertion as the public sphere is a crucial moment in the imposition and assumption of that hegemony. Take the legislation currently making its way through at least ten states in the USA, which decrees the kind of 'academic freedom' that remains free for as long as it trains 'creative individuals and productive citizens' (Florida House Bill n.837, Student and Faculty Academic Freedom in Postsecondary Education ). Opponents of the legislation have described it as the New McCarthyism, which in many ways it is. But such laws do not explicitly censor dissenting views. Rather, they impose a form of communication, training and ethos that mitigates against challenges to those particular forms of communication, training, etc. noted above.

6. It should go without saying that academic labour is a form of abstract labour that is itself a commodity. As wage labour, academic work presupposes a modern economic system that mandates an indifference toward concrete differences between this or that work. It does not matter whether one produces brand x or brand y—what matters is that one produces something which might circulate as a commodity. This is so even where the imperative to innovate, by now de rigueur in the university as in the wider post-fordist economy, means that the ability to shift between tasks is valued more highly than the ability to perform any single task. Such indifference is nevertheless harshly delimited by the imposition—violent if need be—of a formal, global homogeneity. For if abstract labour is indifferent to content, this indifference is both commanded and delimited—first by removing the possibility of labouring and living other than by recourse to wage labour and, secondly, by way of the imposition of rules of relation, such as measure, exchange and procedure. The ostensible 'past' of what Marx called 'primitive accumulation' (and the bloody legislation that accompanied it), is not simply an historical precondition, but a logical and persistent one.

7. 'There is a devil of difference,' wrote Marx, 'between barbarians who are fit by nature to be used for anything, and civilized people who apply themselves to everything' (Marx, 1993: 105). And so, it is not surprising that the pressure for the university worker to apply him/herself to an ever-changing, manifold range of tasks coincides with a renewed rhetoric of the university's civilising mission. Here, the 'creative individual and productive citizen' implies a person who can be entrusted with the responsibility of managing their own exploitation, entering into the labour contract freely , as it were. The 'barbarian', on the other hand, is figured as naturally predisposed—deemed 'fit by nature'—to systems of slavery and the use of force, suppression, and violence. It is thus not surprising that the previous incarnation of the culture wars—the 'history wars'— gravitated around the question of 'developmental genocide'.

8. Nick Dyer-Witheford's analysis of 'Academia Inc' (2004)—indicative of more recent accounts of the university—is accurate, to a point. According to him, 'the universities of advanced capitalism have been metamorphosed, the shell of the ivory tower broken, and higher education firmly entrained to market-driven economic growth [and] the development of high-technology industries'.   He goes on to argue, however, that the era of mass education—or mass intellectuality—provides both the decisive and inevitable conduit of opposition to such processes. But while it is necessary to reflect on these significant changes, it is nevertheless crucial to acknowledge that these processes do not function within the vacuum of a North American, European and Australian axis shorn of its colonial aspects and global position.

9. Today, the culture wars position the university within a wider battlefield in which the polemos is no longer imagined as a clash of civilisations but as a recommencement of the moral crusade of civilisation against barbarism. Today's crusade is not principally waged against those classically impugned as barbarians beyond the gates, but rather against what are perceived to be simultaneously internal and global threats. According to George W. Bush, the 'great divide in our time' is 'not between religions or cultures, but between civilization and barbarism' (2001). Such declarations, crucial as they are to the conduct of asymmetrical war, are as conventional as they are injurious. For the ascription of barbarism is redolent not only with stadial conceptions of universal history but also with the correlate notion of a social contract that ostensibly distinguishes the civilised society from a war-like state (Neilson, 1999).

10. History attests that such a social arrangement has never prevented war—no more so than today when war itself has become preventative and the armed export of democracy has emerged as the talisman of civilisation. In 1850, Robert Montaigne wrote: 'We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason: but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them'. Walter Benjamin went a step further in declaring that there 'is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.' At stake now, however, is not simply the observation that barbarism is the repressed content of civilisation, but the fact that war has become increasingly constitutive of the socio-political realm, which orders itself ever more rigorously in accordance with military logics and exigencies.

11. The growing presence of war in society is perhaps most evident in the increasing number of technologies, such as the internet, that have insinuated themselves in daily life (and even acquired the patina of a peaceful development and liberty of communication), despite their military origins. War today can no longer be restricted to military activities. In their 1999 book, Unrestricted Warfare —famous for its prediction of the 911 attacks—Chinese air force senior colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiansui describe the current tendency for war to become generalised—that is, for war to be conducted not only through military but also non-military means. Their list of forms of non-military warfare, proliferating alongside non-war military actions, is extensive and importantly includes culture war (described as 'leading cultural trends along in order to assimilate those with different views') alongside activities such as financial war, ecological war, and technological war (1999: 55). With the generalisation of warfare throughout society, the university is one of many institutions that becomes implicated in the organisation and rationalisation of force and coercion. The analytical paradigm, which analyses of the university such as those of Dyer-Witheford's rely upon, implicitly relegates this violence to an earlier phase of capitalism, as an accomplished fact. But on the contrary, today the culture war is precisely a war , part of the unfolding logic of conflict that extends across the globe.

Poisoned Missiles

12. Let us then turn the most recent episode in the culture wars. Until recently, the University of Sydney was to host a conference called 'Physiognomy of Origin'. This was the second conference in Sydney to explicitly delve into the political and theoretical crosscurrents between Australia and Italy that appeared, by turns, in the student movement of the late 1980s and, subsequently, the alter-globalisation campaigns (such as the World Economic Forum in 2000) and against the internment camps (such as Woomera2002). The first conference was the 'Italian Effect: Radical Politics, Biopolitics, Cultural Subversion' held at the University of Sydney in September 2004 (for selected papers see Goddard and Neilson, 2005). Keynote speakers at the 'Physiognomy of Origin' conference were Adriana Cavarero and Antonio Negri, who were to open a discussion on the resurgent questions of embodiment, biology and potentiality.

13. These topics are, as it turns out, quite central to what transpired. While such questions might appear, at first glance, to be posed in an obscure philosophical idiom, in hindsight it may be worth asking whether this obscurity is perhaps as much a function of the esoteric conventions of disciplinary practice as it is a kind of self-managed encryption of politics during wartime—a hesitancy toward what is at stake and what might be put at stake in openly articulating what is at stake, as it were. Yet even as this aspect should not be overstated as a factor in the planning of this conference, fear has nevertheless become a diffuse yet tangible—if for the most part privately discussed—feature of work in the universities, and indeed work (and unemployment) more generally. Along with the many instances of funding decisions, contract negotiations, intensified competitions and job losses (threatened and substantiated) that give shape to this fear on a daily basis, the social dispersion of this fear requires somewhat more visible displays of public power, which is to say: examples .

14. And so, in the Sydney Sun-Herald in January, Miranda Devine denounced the University of Sydney for inviting the 'suspected terrorist mastermind Antonio Negri' rather than offering students 'intellectual enlightenment' (30 January, 2005). Keith Windschuttle elaborated on that viewpoint in The Australian newspaper, arguing that 'education in the humanities was once supposed to be a civilising experience' and repeating the accusation of 'terrorist' against Negri. He concluded his case against free speech in this instance by insisting that universities should not 'accommodate people with so little concern for civilised values' (16 March, 2005). An editorial published in The Australian on 24 March, 2005 echoed Windschuttle, stating: 'Having long ago substituted "critique" for reason, and even after everything that has happened during the past 3 ½ years, the intellectuals cannot grasp that the West and its democratic values are under attack from an insidious new fascism.' It is an irony that, in 1971, Australian Security Intelligence (ASIO) spies similarly maligned the then leftist Windschuttle, whom they reported as giving 'the impression of being a violent revolutionary' (See Syson, 2003).

15. As it happened, before Windschuttle's article had even appeared, Negri had withdrawn due to ill health. And the conference, whose financial viability was premised on the calculation of celebrity and audience, was called off until Negri might attend or some form of the event could take place. The University of Sydney nevertheless responded by withdrawing funding for any future version of the conference. Negri answered the accusations made in Windschuttle's article in detail, describing it as 'a scandalous and vulgar act of historical revisionism'. Accused by Devine and Windschuttle of heading the Red Brigades, Negri pointed out that he 'never had anything to do with the Red Brigades, neither as leader, member, nor sympathiser' (Negri, 2005). Conference organisers challenged what they regarded as 'the politics of fear and imputation'. Other responses included an article by Jonathon Roffe (2005) defending Negri's standing as a philosopher and challenging Windschuttle's purported adherence to 'traditional intellectual virtues' given the facts relating to Negri's imprisonment. Roffe in particular relied on notions of a singular public sphere, arguing that 'renouncing the public sphere, or attacking it [...] is a greater part of the activity of terrorism'. Moreover, Negri's US coauthor, Michael Hardt, appeared on Radio National's Late Night Live , detailing the historical record while also noting that the controversy related more to current local and national circumstances than to the political history of Italy in the 1970s. While Dirk Moses (2005), whose book, Genocide and Settler Society , Windschuttle also attacked in the article, astutely and wryly noted, 'Plainly, the stakes are high—no less than the survival of western civilisation itself.'

16. Yet, it is no surprise that Windschuttle begins his homily to the university as a civilising institution with a tribute to Charles Badham. Badham was a prominent lecturer at Sydney University in the late 1880s. For him, the emerging universities at the time were to 'assume the role of the Church in colonial society' (Melleuish, 1995). Universities, he argued, should be assigned the task of provisioning the colonial adventure with a metaphysical prerogative and missionary enthusiasm, converting the savage continent into a civilisation with, among other things, the force of reason. And while it is ironic—in at least two senses we can think of—that Windschuttle's academic hero repudiated the waging of disputes with 'poisoned missiles', it is above all the figure of the 'savage' who stands condemned by Badham, functioning as the ever-ready legitimation of any actually discourteous (or violent) ostracism exercised by those who insist, as a matter of belonging, on their own civility (Badham, 1890: 60).

17. Therefore it is not merely a question of whether the accusations made against Negri are verifiable. It is simple to prove that they are not—as simple as showing that no children were thrown overboard, or that there were no WMD's in Iraq which provided the pretext for war, or that those interned in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib or Baxter have never been charged with or found guilty of any crime. Such accusations are defamatory fragments, whose purpose is to legitimate a war and policies in which every form of violence—from torture, to extrajudicial and indefinite internment, to vilification and censorship—against those designated as 'enemy combatants', 'terrorists' or 'illegal non-citizens' is made habitual and impossible to bring to account. The accusation is sufficient. It is widely believed because barbarism has already been retrospectively ascribed. This is the physiognomy of civilisation, a doctrine of pre-emptive war justified through the simultaneously biopolitical and missionary motif of the 'barbarian'.

18. The structure of this rationalisation is the normative foundation of Australian—indeed all colonial—politics and the increasingly routine alibi for official acts of violence and suppression. Windschuttle is possibly quite accurate in describing Australia as a 'branch of Roman civilisation' (2000). For it is Roman Law that bequeathed to the British Empire, and its colonial outposts, the juridical figure of homo sacer , the legal inscription of a life which can be taken with impunity, the paradoxical simultaneity of the sacred and sacrificial (Agamben, 1998). Consider here not only the lives of those interned at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Baxter—to name but a few of the growing number of internment camps around the world. Consider also those who died while in police custody or during police pursuits, and whose deaths sparked recent riots at Palm Island, Redfern and Macquarie Fields.

19. In all these instances, lives exist outside legal protection, deprived of any moral value—if not also legal status—and thereby laid bare to a fiercely normative and normalised violence. The right has shed its liberal mantra against 'political correctness' and adopted a moralising ethos very much like, but perhaps more punishing and rigid than, that described by Max Weber more than a hundred years ago (1985). There will be no accountability for the lives extinguished here, because such lives have already been relegated to a realm of 'non-value' according to the only measure of worth capitalism reckons with. A calculation stiffened by a born-again Protestantism in which the poor lack grace and those who disavow the 'vocation' of profit-making are sinners. That is, the sacralisation of the 'creative individual and productive citizen' alongside the sacrifice of the 'uncivilised'.

20. In reality, all workers are apt to be both compliantly self-managing and resistant, to varying degrees and depending on the strategies and freedoms available to them. Nevertheless, the figure of the 'barbarian' functions here as the persistent example to all of the loss of livelihood if not always of life—this is what the rise of precarious work entails (Mitropoulos, 2005). Indeed, despite Windschuttle's lament, universities have returned to the days of Badham, for whom it was 'one of the highest interests of the State, and of the solemn duties of its servants [i.e., lecturers], to see that our future citizens shall be trained to the great intellectual warfare necessary for the progress of all States, in a fashion worthy of the race from which we sprang' (1890: 72). Badham's easy recourse to the idiomatics of a civilising war—which is to say, the rationalisation of violence—is not quite as metaphoric as it would seem. It was not a metaphor in Badham's time. Nor is it a metaphor now.

On the street

21. The latest episode in the culture wars should make clear that defending the apparently objective space of an ivory tower—whose recourse to a depoliticisation of knowledge marks the concealment of a politics, including the funding of research into military technologies—will afford little more than the semblance of cultural capital, if not merely a compensatory metaphysics of an ivory tower as refuge. Indeed, overtures to an aristocratic detachment are strategically weak and politically isolationist, given that there are thousands outside the universities who are subjected to such attacks every day, but also because much of the polemical force against what remains of the universities' autonomy from the state (and from the state's enforcement of commercial imperatives) is founded on anti-elitist, populist rhetorics.

22. Moreover, such an ivory tower has long ceased to exist, if it ever did—not least because its increasing dependence on precarious labour transfigures the actual practice of 'academic freedom'. Besides, if the opening of the universities in the post-WWII period entailed a degree of mobility that included, for many, an escape from the regimented rhythms of the factory, the post-Dawkins/Nelson era of tertiary education is marked by the re-assertion of discipline with the instruments of debt, declining student incomes, casualised work and the speeded-up assembly-line of publication, innovation and measurable performance.

23. Therefore, recoiling from attacks into the presumed comforts of a purportedly disinterested academy will not furnish any kind of refuge. But more than this, the metaphysical aura of the ivory tower continues as a principal means of exploitation within the university. Here, unpaid and underpaid work, particularly by casualised researchers and tutors, is legitimated by the promise (or at least the hope) of future advancement and the assumption of an essential benevolence, as well as an illusory distance from the world of work, exploitation, as well as wars and violence. It is assumed, despite the overarching sway of copyright and commercial benefit, not to mention cultural capital, that the products of research are inclined to be socially benevolent and therefore created neither through exploitation nor prone to be exploitative.

24. It took less than a year for Badham to become critical of the actually-existing conditions of the university. He denounced particularly the tempo of 'cramming', even as he continued to idealise what the academy's role might be: 'I cannot conceal from myself the tendency [to turn the university] into a mere machinery for bringing out of the bowels of the earth the riches they contain, and turning them into marketable cash' (1890: 61). Yet, despite this 'industrialisation' of the academy, the management style in the universities today is more akin to feudal patronage: personalised and beneficent. Which can make for an affable working environment, but it also constructs a situation in which it is almost impossible for casual workers to challenge the terms of their employment. And, as contracted or tenured academic staff are increasingly transformed into the managers of a pool of casualised workers and, oftentimes, unpaid student labour, this means among other things that academic unions reflect 'an old-style craft unionism, a labour aristocracy that preserves workplace hierarchy' (Bousquet and Terranova, 2004: 76).

25. Notwithstanding the feudal benevolence of university management styles, from the viewpoint of many of its workers (including those expected to perform management functions at the expense of other activities), the academy is a palpable mill of discontent. More often than not, such dissatisfaction lacks any form of collective expression or application, tending merely to generate noise that is drowned out by the rhythm of work itself. As such, it frequently produces a longing for bygone times in which the university was supposedly not, as one well thumbed account from the 1990s would have it, in ruins (Readings, 1996). But if, in the heady years of the Clinton rush, it was possible to argue that global capitalism had derailed the university from its Herderian mission of guarding the national and official culture, it now seems impossible to deny that the university professional, even when he/she dons the mask of critical intellectual, maintains at best an ambiguous relation to the war-making and incarcerating activities of the state (See also Saltman and Gabbard, 2003 and Weber, 2005).

26. In diagnosing the condition of the contemporary university it is important to avoid all nostalgia. Not only because this can result in the celebration of an era in which the university was altogether a more closed institution but also because it can incite 'bad old days' lectures from currently powerful professors who seek to legitimate, or at least lessen contestation of, the present state of affairs. The truth is that many younger workers enter the university with full consciousness of its current limits and labour relations. Often, the choice to pursue a precarious existence in the academy is made despite an awareness of more remunerative, promising or secure positions in other sectors.

27. With respect to such decisions, it is possible to speak of an excess of passion (for study, research, teaching, writing, and so on) over rational economic calculation. (On this, see Aronowitz, 2000 and Roggero, 2005.) This excess , then, sometimes marks existing academic careers and areas of learning, particularly those involving theory that does not lend itself easily to practical or commercial outcomes. Such passion is, of course, double-edged, capable of both investment and divestment. On the one hand, it drives the system, making acceptable that which, in other circumstances, would be unacceptable. On the other hand, it produces a kind of irreducible autonomy that— while indispensable for the functioning of a system reliant in many ways on effective self-management—is nevertheless capable of rendering the worker's activity incompatible with both market and workplace.

28. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2004) point out that academic professionalism is now constituted by a non-choice between an antifoundationalist critique of the enlightenment ideals upon which the university is supposedly built and a foundationalist critique of the very professionalisation and compartmentalisation that appears to rob the university of this same enlightenment mission. Both choices have their dangers: the first allows specific elements in the state to further waylay the university to the immediate purposes of social reproduction (e.g., the establishment of 'teaching-only' institutions, vocationalism); the second reaffirms grand notions of the state-as-enlightenment that do not necessarily guard against the violence of its civilising missions.

29. Harney and Moten argue for refusing this non-choice through an un-professional recognition that the university is neither a site of enlightenment nor a place of refuge. This obliges an escape from the university (a being in it but not of it) that many, at least in the European context, have attempted to realise through the establishment of autonomous or do-it-yourself universities, many of which are presented in 'Teach Yourself Institutions' (2004). The question of how to carry out such an exodus from the university remains a key issue for any intellectual stance against the current war that is to be something more than a passing gesture. And, due to the peculiar and happenstance conditions of the contemporary academy, this must also be considered in relation to the transformative possibilities and limits surrounding mass intellectuality and the university.

30. If, until now, an excess of passion has served as an ostensibly non-coercive means to bind the worker to the system, there is no necessity which decrees that it cannot be otherwise, facilitating an exodus, a demand for another university, here and now. This means, as Berardi (2004) has argued, re-considering the meaning and history of 'autonomy' today, its implication as refusal and escape, but also its (post-fordist) mobilisation as self-managed exploitation following the failure of a particular kind of refusal that, by the early 1980s, had 'triggered capitalist deregulation'. This also means refusing the sway and dominion of the public-private couplet over understandings of 'the here and now'—which is to say, questioning its apparently exhaustive and self-evident configuration of a sense of space and the eternalised temporal arrangement of such. To the extent that the public-private couplet works to re-assert the virtue of a singular 'public sphere', in which inclusion is mandated upon pain of ostracism to a realm of private suffering or worse, there is no prospect of an escape from a system that—on the contrary and particularly in the case of apparent exclusions—'leaves no one in the margins of life' (Levinas, 2003: 52).  

31. In the culture wars at a time of war, the autonomous 'force of reason' so beloved by quasi-Kantian understandings of the university—Badham, as well as Habermas— segues into the power of a militarised suasion in which, to borrow Levinas's words, 'the autonomous person [...] feels liable to be mobilised' (2003:52). To put this another way: any response to Badham's doctrine of the university as the mobilisation of intellectuality for war requires a quite different sense of autonomy to that given by a subject for whom autonomy is reducible to self-possession. For if the concept of 'self-valorisation' is ambivalently constituted by both a desire for refusal and a striving for 'self-possession', the latter retains only those aspects of valorisation which function as a prelude to calculation, exchange and self-management. Possession presupposes relating to one's self (one's potential) as if it were a thing to be managed by a disembodied, dispassionate reason. One possesses one's potential as a preliminary condition to its mobilisation on the market (or its recruitment for war as insurance against risk and domestication of that which is unforseeable in potentiality).

32. Moreover, this means challenging what it means to be public (or private) given not only that, as we noted previously, the devices of exclusion are fastened to processes of incorporation, but also because 'the public sphere' works according to a calculus of 'value' and 'non-value' operating in close tandem with the civilising mission. If, as Warren Montag has argued, Habermas's notion of 'the public sphere' depends, upon 'the ability of individuals to abstract themselves from their material circumstances and allow reason alone to decide their controversies' (2003), it nevertheless recalls a time when the horizon of communication was not quite so overwhelmed by the couplet of public-private (or inside-outside) as during a seemingly permanent war.

33. Habermas's 'public sphere' is not—for the most part and definitionally—counterposed to a 'private sphere' but to 'the street'. 'Laws passed under "the pressure of the street"', he writes, 'could hardly be understood any longer as embodying the reasonable consensus of publicly debating private persons' (1989: 147). 'The street' here is neither a private space nor an alternative public sphere. Rather it is a space where the liberal model of communication as exchange (in which ideas resemble nothing so much as commodities) falters - a space where the politeness of the 'gentleman's club' gives way to cognitive processes that cannot be separated from affects (such as anger, joy, or shame).

34. As Montag shows, Habermas's distinction between 'the street' and 'the public sphere' is, above all, a distinction between an embodied communication and a disembodied reason which, in turn, is founded not by reason, but by force (2003). Therefore, the excess of passion that in some cases attends work in the universities does not need to be folded back into a reprise of 'the public sphere' (or market) and its current services to a 'civilising war'. Rather, this excess might be reconceptualised as passionate communication, the kind of jostling and momentum that occurs in the street , and whose pleasures often lie in not always knowing where one is going in advance and, oftentimes, 'losing oneself' in the flow.

35. Therefore, because there are indeed alternatives to the sovereignty of 'the public sphere' and its exceptions, even in the culture wars at a time of war, solidarity with Negri—and thousands of lesser-known individuals—cannot proceed on the basis of insisting that they are civilised, truly a philosopher, one of 'us'. Such defenses allow the polemos to continue its work, leaving intact the rationalisation that there may indeed be barbarians against whom censorship, not to mention actually poisoned missiles carrying depleted uranium, cluster bombs and internment camps, are necessary. What must, at the very least, occur is a reflection on the really-existing unfreedoms that inhabit the contemporary university—not to mention 'the public sphere'—and their relation to a war that is fought as much in the press, classrooms and research laboratories as it is on the fields of Muthana province.


Brett Neilson is senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, where he is also a member of the Centre for Cultural Research. He is the author of Free Trade in the Bermuda Triangle and Other Tales of Counterglobalization. He was also on the organising committees for the Italian Effect and Physiognomy conferences. Email:

Angela Mitropoulos has written on border policing and class composition for various journals and magazines, including Borderlands. Email:


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