Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics
Mundane Heresies from a Not So-Sacred Place
Fernando Coronil


I want to thank the authors of the position paper, "Sacred Spaces and Heretical Knowledge: National Universities and Global Publics," for producing such a thought-provoking and timely essay, and Michael Kennedy for inviting me to participate in this symposium. I celebrate the paper's intention to subject universities in the United States to critical self-reflection. If self-reflection is an essential responsibility of critical intellectuals, it is more so during these urgent times, when this country has declared an endless global war against terrorism, and there are growing pressures to place public discussion, including research and debate within the universities, at the service of constraining patriotic ideals. For me, one of the greatest merits of this paper is that it encourages us to be attentive to these pressures and to defend the university as a place for independent research and thinking, free from societal pressures, as a "sacred place."

My comments will center on the paper itself, but I have also benefited from the interventions provided by seminar participants. My own response to this exemplary dialogical document is also dialogical, reflecting my own internal dialogue among my multiple selves—a colleague as well as a friend of the paper's authors and their comrade in many ventures here and abroad, aPage  112 "Michigan" anthropologist and historian but also a Venezuelan anthropologist and historian with deep roots in Latin America. Just in the last few months I have been involved in research and teaching in universities in Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela and have shared concerns with Latin Americans from all our countries about the future of our universities and our nations. My comments about the role of universities in this country are therefore very much colored by my experiences in Latin America.

The paper's basic argument is that in the last decades U.S. universities had emerged as global centers of independent thinking, but that after September 11, 2001, such freedom of inquiry and concern with global issues are being constrained by the pressure to defend narrow national interests. As a result, knowledge that was once produced in these protected spaces under the sign of global, universal concerns, runs the risk now of being marked as heretical knowledge. The paper's force comes from its sense of urgency and commitment to counter this danger. Perhaps in order to highlight this sense of danger, it draws a sharp dichotomy about the character of the university before and after September 11, 2001. Let me quote the paper at some length:

By the late twentieth century the American university had emerged as a critical and powerful site of research learning on the broader world. Global engagement promised a new kind of intellectual space in which the national grounding of the university would be superseded by a new worldly resonance. Through the international circulation of scholars and students, the global flow of ideas and circuit of scholarly collaborations, and the redefinition of academic missions themselves, the university's commitment to academic freedom implied a new sacred space in which scholarship would know no national boundary. Knowledge of and from the wider world brought in the American university through research, reproduced in scholarship, and disseminated through training, seemed without limit or constraint. After September 11, 2001, however, the precious qualities that had affirmed the university as a space that could be of and in the world, were marked as heretical...Page  113now the openness and worldliness of the university, and the values associated with the cultivation of broadly shared communities of learning, had become heresies.

I share the paper's concern with the global responsibility of U.S. universities as well as its perception that the current crisis intensifies pressures to make them serve narrow rather than universal interests. Yet, in the critical spirit of this paper, from this "sacred place," I am going to be heretical and question both the paper's conception of the American university as a sacred space and the argument that its character has radically changed after September 11, 2001. My argument is not so much that universities in this country have not occupied a sacred space, but that the sacred, in any society, is never sacred in the ways it appears to be. Revealing the hard cultural work through which societies create "sacred spaces" is part of the critical work we do as intellectuals. Understanding how certain spaces are set apart from mundane concerns helps discern not just the nature of these spaces, but the nature and transformations of the society within which they evolve. Thus, while I agree that the role of the university has changed after September 11, I have a different understanding of this change. My heresy, therefore, comes from a mundane place—from an attempt to place the university in the world—thus my title, "Mundane heresies from a not so-sacred place."

To some extent, in saying this I'm only wearing my rather mundane anthropological hat and pronouncing an anthropological commonplace. From Durkheim, Van Gennep, and Mauss, we have learned to see the sacred in relation to the profane, and to understand the social taxonomies and rituals through which they are mutually constituted in different societies. Anthropologists have produced detailed ethnographies that show the arduous cultural work through which in different societies the sacred and the profane are related to each other and are often made to appear as separate spheres. While respecting theological complexities beyond their analytical competence, anthropologists have shown that the sacred is not constituted by an inherent essence, but precisely by its articulation with the mundane through careful rituals and cultural work. For the sacred to appear as inherently sacred, as an autonomous sphere, anthropologists have also shown that this cultural work must conceal its own operations. The key insight here is not that the sacred is not so, but that it can only be so byPage  114 mystifying its links with the mundane.

The university in the United States occupies an ambivalent and ambiguous relation to its nation and to the world. The university is part of national society; it is financed and regulated by it; it trains its students for jobs in the market, both national and global. But at the same time, it is set apart from society; it presents itself as an independent space that transcends its partisans and mundane concerns, a space for research and reflection on issues of transcendental and general significance. Presenting the university as a space of independent critical reflection, as a separate space from society reveals one side of an important landscape, a truth that is powerfully highlighted in the document we are discussing. We must cherish and defend this truth. But this manner of presenting the university also obscures the other side—its location within a particular social context and its intimate links with other institutions. We must also recognize and examine this truth. In this case, if we are to treat the university as a sacred place, self-critical reflexivity entails seeing the sacred and the secular in relation to each other, and thus questioning the conceit through which the sacred appears as separate from the mundane, and its specific manifestations take the form of autonomous and universal contents.

It may be argued that since most political work is carried out in terms of a society's cosmology, the task of demystification inhibits political work. But a politics of universal or "pluriversal" emancipation requires attending to the relations of power and interest that present the partial as the universal, the particular as the general.

If we question the radical separation of the sacred and secular, if we examine the intimate links between the university, the market, and the state, I believe we are better prepared to observe the changing role of the university after September 11, 2001. By placing the university within its social and historical context, I think we can recognize changes that are now taking place, but also significant continuities. It is by understanding these continuities that we may also grasp what is new and discern ruptures and transformations.

In order to support this point, I want to focus on two emblematic elements presented in the paper. The first is a date, September 11, 2001. The second is a name, the "American university."

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September 11: Pluralizing History

As I indicated before, the paper is organized around the notion that the aftermath of September 11, 2001 has entailed a change in the nature of the American university, affecting its capacity to stand as an independent center for global thinking and research.

In my view, presenting September 11, 2001 as a rupture or radical change in the role of the U.S. university misrepresents the changing role of the university in this country. If we pluralize September 11, if we transport ourselves to another September 11 three decades earlier, we may get a different view of the changes taking place now. In Chile, September 11 also stands as a landmark. That day in 1973 there took place an attack from airplanes also against an emblematic building leading to many deaths, but this time the attack was against a presidential palace, el Palacio de la Moneda, with the support of the U.S. government. At that time, a president elected by constitutional means died battling in defense of his principles and his nation. Salvador Allende sought to redefine the course of Chilean history, including transforming not only the economy and social relations, but also the role of the universities as centers of learning and training of citizens for the nation.

One consequence of this dramatic rupture was the establishment in Chile of a monstrous dictatorship, supported by the government of the United States and many U.S. scholars. Through the extensive use of state violence and terror, the Pinochet regime treated the opposition to its regime as a cancer that had to be violently removed from the social body, killing several thousand people. With the support of experts from the University of Chicago, it established a new economic model of development that has come to be hegemonic in the rest of Latin America and the world: the dismantling of the protectionist state and the development of a free market in financial flows, capital, goods and services, but of course not of labor, which remained confined to the domestic economy and the heavily repressed civil society. The Chilean dictatorship, like other dictatorships and repressive regimes in Latin America, redefined the universities, expelling or killing scholars and students, transforming research agendas, and leading to a massive exodus of professors and students to other countries.

At the global level, the generalization of a neoliberal framework has led to widening gap between the rich and the poor not only within, but alsoPage  116 between nations. After World War II, through decolonizing struggles and modernizing programs, many countries of the so-called Third World sought to develop their economies, diversify their productive structures, and promote educational institutions. As the Gubelkian report has shown, throughout the nineteenth century most academic knowledge was produced by five countries: France, England, Germany, the United States, and Italy. The push towards modernization after World War II included efforts to develop strong national universities in nations previously colonized by these countries.

September 11, 1973 marked a shift in global patterns of economic and intellectual production. The emerging international order resulting from neoliberal globalization has concentrated academic power in Western centers and weakened the universities and research centers of the South. From World War II to the early 1970s there were many flourishing centers of research and education in the South; after 1973, many of these centers have been weakened or dismantled.

Of course, other factors played into this change. 1973 was also the year of the oil shock, when a group of primary product exporters sought to change the terms of international trade by increasing the price of their basic export product. In a perverse historical twist, petrodollars ignited not national development in these countries, but a massive reorganization of the world economy, the concentration of economic power in flexible transnational corporations, and the creation of a massive debt structure that has trapped vast financial resources of both oil exporting and oil consuming nations from the South. This burden continues to affect most nations of the South. The recent crisis in Argentina illustrates a general situation. A country previously known for the excellence of its universities, Argentina has faced an intense erosion of its system of higher education. As in other nations from the South, its libraries have cut down subscriptions. Professors have been fired or have had to take several jobs outside academia in order to survive; thousands have left the country. Money for research has been drastically reduced. In most countries from the South, programs and institutions to promote local development of technology, such as the CONACIT in Mexico and the CONICIT in Venezuela, have been dismantled or significantly reoriented towards less ambitious goals.

More than ever before, the production of knowledge—from basic research in the hard sciences, to technological transformation in professional disciplines,Page  117 to advances in the social sciences and the humanities—is concentrated in metropolitan centers. I have read recently somewhere that over ninety percent of global basic and technological research is now being carried out in the United States. That much of this knowledge is produced by diasporic intellectuals coming from the South, that their presence often enriches the work and expands the agendas of these universities, confirms the centrality of metropolitan universities as global centers of learning and research. In the new international division of academic knowledge, metropolitan centers appear increasingly as producers of knowledge and universities in the South as consumers. Even when universities in the South manage to produce innovative knowledge, whether in the hard sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities, it is typically the case that this knowledge is marginalized or is defined as "local" knowledge; regardless of its intrinsic merits, it seldom becomes part of the canon, and to do so it must circulate in English and be legitimated by metropolitan centers.

The "American University": Provincializing and Pluralizing the University

I have pluralized September 11 in order to draw a wider temporal arc within which to place changes taking place in universities in the United States after September 11, 2001. I now want to take as my second emblematic sign not a date, but a name: the "American university." The paper's subtitle is "National Universities and Global Publics." Yet, in fact, the only national universities considered in the paper are universities located in the United States, which are referred to as the "American university." Just as I sought to pluralize September 11, I think it is necessary to pluralize the notion of "national universities" so as to include the universities of other nations. At the same time, I think it is necessary to provincialize U.S. universities: they are not the "American university," but a large number of very different U.S. universities. If U.S. universities as a whole are indeed playing a global role today, it is necessary to examine why this is the case. Certainly, their centrality offers positive opportunities that never before existed, but also reveals profound inequalities in the structure of global education that we must address.

I share Elizabeth Jelin's discomfort with what she has identified as a paradox of the paper: while the U.S. university is represented in the paper as a university of the world, it is not adequately situated in the world, that is, in a terrain of reciprocities, but also of asymmetries. As she says, "there is no singlePage  118 reference to any 'other' being IN the world. Thus, what pervades the paper is a very self-focused notion of 'OF the world,' from a center that becomes identified with the whole, i.e., an imperial center."

Familiar with the view from imperial eyes, Latin Americans are particularly sensitive to the operations through which some places in the world are presented as its center, and we are turned into lower "others" or marginalized from history. From a Latin American perspective, the very notion of the "American university" to refer to U.S. universities is deeply problematical. Since I also share Elizabeth Jelin's discomfort with the use of this term, I quote again from her reaction to the paper: "The 'national' in the title and the permanent references to the 'American' university, provoke in me a strong reaction. The Americas include much more than the U.S., and there are multiple 'national' universities in the world—as there are nations." As Jelin says, this is not just narrowly semantic issue: "The problems with the way 'American' and "national' are used is not, in my view, only a choice that may not sound politically correct. I think it reflects deeper misunderstandings of the relationship between U.S. institutions and others, in other parts of the world."

This misunderstanding has multiple dimensions; redressing it requires hard work. I would like for us to pluralize "national universities," and also both to pluralize and to provincialize the "American university"—to treat it not just as the "U.S. university," but as many U.S. universities. U.S. universities are indeed plural, and allow for a plurality of positions within them. Universities in the U.S. have complex relations with transnational corporations, with the local and global market, with the U.S. government, with U.S. intelligence, with the military, with what once was called "the military-industrial complex." Their relationship with other national universities in the South (and in other parts of the world) has also been plural, ranging from exchanges based on equality and respect to those based on inequality and subjection. While there have been exemplary reciprocal exchanges between universities and scholars from the United States and the South, there have also been disturbing uses of universities and scholars in projects of surveillance, intelligence and destabilization. The ideal of respect for diversity and free scholarly exchanges has often been subverted by the imposition of political agendas and intellectual paradigms.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of really existing socialism, and the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, helped consolidate the global hegemony ofPage  119 U.S. universities. It is true that before September 11, 2001, U.S. universities—some U.S. universities, some programs within them—took advantage of this situation to promote more reciprocal and democratic relations in the world. But it is also true, as September 11, 1973 shows, that before and after September 11, 1973, and therefore before September 11, 2001, U.S. universities—some U.S. universities, some programs within them—were also implicated in sustaining a hierarchical and unequal world order. Knowledge is produced and circulates in fields of power. If we wish to produce what Edward Said has called "non-dominative" forms of knowledge, we must attend to the conditions under which knowledge is produced and distributed, as well as to their impact in countering or intensifying global inequality and inequity.

September 11, 2001 has indeed changed the national and global context within which U.S. universities function. Under these new conditions it is imperative to preserve the role of the university as a space of reflection about the nature and uses of knowledge. One can take better advantage of the liberating and democratizing possibilities offered by the global reach of U.S. universities if one understands the conditions of possibility that have made these universities so disturbingly central today.

Although it may seem paradoxical, in my view, a central task of a global university is to undo itself as a privileged center of knowledge, and promote instead a more democratic global structure of knowledge production. Universities may be seen as sacred spaces to the extent that fundamental questions about knowledge are not separated from questions about ethics, critical spaces where we ask not only about the facts of knowledge, but about their value. I hope that we may continue to ask, from this not so-sacred place, such basic questions as: What knowledge? For what ends? By whom? And for whom? And I also hope that when we ask these questions, we do not assume an imperial "we," but seek instead to create conditions that include as the subject asking the questions the same subject that is their object: humanity at large. The construction of a university as a sacred space of the world, in the world, must recognize its mundane position, its role in the world, and its responsibility to undo the privileges and inequalities that divide humanity against itself.