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Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 41-50

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Reconfiguring the Humanities and the Social Sciences in the Age of the Global University


Grant Farred

Over the past decade and a half or so (longer, some might argue), the restructuring, “downsizing,” outsourcing, and intellectual reorganizing of universities has become a fact of life for academics, administrators, and general support staff in most parts of the globe. Academics have faced the prospect of losing the hard-won rights that accrue to tenure or seen tenure demands increased; administrators have found themselves in battles with university presidents, alumni associations, or the state (ever eager to reduce funding for public universities while increasing workload and academic demands); and janitorial staff have seen their jobs threatened or eliminated in the name of corporate efficiency. The restructuring of the postmodern university has brought with it an economic and intellectual vulnerability that all those employed by, in, or around the institution have had to accept as the new reality. Paradoxically, of course, at the precise moment when the university is being asked to mimic corporate organization, major U.S. businesses are showing themselves to be ineptly, inefficiently, and fraudulently run. Certainly universities do not want presidents like Kenneth Lay or structures of accountability like those at WorldCom, do they? The challenge now, of course, is for those within the universities to reimagine and reconfigure their institutions, since corporatization is, if not eclipsed, unquestionably—if only momentarily—on the moral (dare one say it?) defensive. [End Page 41]

The susceptibility to corporatization includes, however, not only the “streamlining” or “upgrading” of academic or bureaucratic functions in the university but the restructuring of academic curricula. The area most vulnerable to “cuts,” “layoffs,” and “reorganization” has been the humanities. In this Nepantla dossier academics from two universities, one “Southern” (a problematic designation since Argentina has a distinctly nonperipheral, antigeographical conception of national and intellectual self), the other “Northern” (though in truth arguably the most academically representative of the “New” American South), seek to understand how the humanities and the social sciences are being transformed in the age of the global university. “Globalization and the Humanities,” the August 2001 workshop in Buenos Aires, brought together scholars from the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (UTDT) and Duke University at a conjuncture when Argentina was hanging on the brink of what has since become the greatest economic collapse in its history. Against the backdrop of their discussions about the crisis facing the humanities, these academics from the “North” and the “South” engaged each other in uniquely perilous times.

Such geographical monikers quickly reveal their limitations, however, largely because some of the “Northern” intellectuals who participated in the workshop are diasporic figures who hail from the Southern hemisphere, and many of the “Southerners” were trained, and remain deeply attached to, their Northern centers of education—and the North in general, one could say. Succinctly phrased, the Buenos Aires gathering was one where labels were contingent and complicated, where boundaries were not only porous but sometimes entirely meaningless. Designation as “South” in one instance could be liquidated by “Northern” affiliation in the very next exchange. The markers are, however, accurate in that they shaped the very consciousness participants “dialectically shared” about the places they contemporaneously spoke from and, as is the case with the contributions of Ricardo Salvatore and Pablo Wright, the sites they spoke about in that moment of crisis. The “South” manifested itself as a geographical and ideological axis as well as a metaphorical and intellectual presence. The incipient upheaval that was about to wreak havoc on Argentine society, especially the middle class (which historically gives birth to the native intelligentsia), forced the participants—at the very least—to recognize context; more urgently expressed, the participants in the Buenos Aires workshop grappled with the difficulties, discrepant privileges, and problematic identities that accrue to their “Northern” and “Southern” habitations. [End Page 42]

This dossier suggests the complexity of these attachments, trajectories, and histories. Moreover, it gives a representative but not exhaustive sense of the debates, disagreements...


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