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Diacritics 31.3 (2001) 15-29

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Globality, Organization, Class

Samuel Weber


Although one could hardly imagine a topic more far-ranging than "Theory, Globalization, and the Remains of the University," it can be argued that it does not range far enough. Or perhaps ranges too far. For the questions suggested by this concatenation of terms cannot be limited to the fate or future of "theory" in whatever will remain of the "university" in a globalized world. And yet it is no doubt significant that "theory" leads the parade—significant but also perhaps part of the problem. For not just etymology links "theory" to notions such as detached contemplation, spectatorship, and appropriation through vision. The history and practice that have been associated with this term continue, even today, to be indebted to the dualist paradigm of an underlying subject—today reformulated as "agent" or "position"—confronting and comprehending an ob-ject. And yet, if we are still discussing "theory," here and today, it is by virtue of a series of texts that have persistently and powerfully questioned the subject-object paradigm that has dominated theoretical discourse at least since Descartes, and sought to elaborate alternatives to it. Those alternatives have almost always involved a reflection upon language as the medium of a practice that is no longer "theoretical" in the traditional sense, because it no longer works within the parameters of the subject-object model of cognition and truth. From Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, de Man, and Derrida, the subject-object model of cognition has been reinterpreted as an effect of the medium of language, a medium that articulates itself through the reading, writing, and repetition of texts, understood as concatenations of significance that both respond to and address an irreducible alterity.

The "university" has always occupied an equivocal position with respect to this "linguistic" problematization of the subject-object model of cognition and truth: not only because "the university" as such has never existed—not at least as the singular universal implied by the definite article—but even more, because of the traditional claim of universities to serve as places where universally valid cognition is both transmitted and produced. In this sense, notions such as "the globalization of the university" simply continue the universalizing claims built into universities and promoted by them in order to justify their social existence and dependency.

The very notion, or rather figure, implied in the notion of "globalization" tends to strengthen such universalism. Coming after the struggle between Communist and Capitalist camps in the Cold War, "Globalization" stresses that there is no place left on the "globe" where the capitalist system, its values, its power, and way of life can be contested. The "globe" is all there is, and despite its diversity, it is to have a single future, prolongation of the prevailing relation of forces. Globalization is thus the successor to the notion of "One World," itself a recent offshoot of the "universal history" that was the Enlightenment heir of the Christian eschatological narrative. [End Page 15]

But the university has also been one of the few places in modern society where such universalizing and homogenizing tendencies have also been reflected, reworked, and criticized, if not resisted. Thus, if the names mentioned above have any credence at all in the English-speaking world, it is in large part by virtue of its universities, which have extended a certain hospitality to their writings. Like all hospitality, however, that of the universities has rarely been a neutral one. There, as elsewhere, writings are admitted as legitimate "objects" of study only under the double condition, first, of being linked to "proper names," and second, of being received and validated by existing disciplines. In short, writings are received for study in universities on the condition that they be certified as proper "theoretical objects" for "theoretical subjects" defined and validated through their appurtenance to the existing academic division of labor. This division of labor founds its disciplines in the subject-object model of cognition and of truth.

This is why the hermeneutic and poststructuralist turn (back) to language as a signifying medium rather than...