Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics


I find the invitation to respond to the text on the university after September 11th, written by David William Cohen, Michael D. Kennedy, and Kathleen Canning, is an invitation to engage in conversation that has a sense of the provisional and a sense of the therapeutic. [1] A sense of the provisional because the meaning of such an event for life in universities is not self-evident—despite the rhetoric of the world having changed after September 11th, universities have repeatedly faced such challenges both in the United States and the rest of the world—so the proclamation raises a puzzle. A sense of the therapeutic not as psychological healing but in the challenge of asking what a redemptive reading of such an event might mean. This paper is written to join this conversation—it is nothing more but nothing less, either.

On the challenges of September 11th to the university, Cohen, Kennedy, and Canning (see their paper in this volume) state the following. "After September 11, 2001, the precious qualities that had affirmed the university as a space that could be both of and in the world was marked as the openness and worldliness of the university, and the values associated with the cultivation of broadly shared communities of learning, had become heresies." Has this sense of malaise come about after the events of September 11th,Page  134 or is it part of the enduring conditions of the university as an institution of the modern nation state? I will argue here that the tense relation between the university as a site of freedom and as a site located within the institutions of the market and the state is part of its constitution—one that requires constant address. This tension, I submit, cannot be resolved once and for all.

The rest of the paper is organized as follows. In the first section, I revisit Kant's formulation on the conflict of faculties taking my education from Jacques Derrida and Hent de Vries's discussion of the same text. [2] Specifically, I ask, whether the formulation of the space of the university as a sacred space represents the fantasy that within the confines of the university we can somehow escape the human conditions of knowing. Assuming that the university cannot escape (or fully escape) the fact that it is part of the institutional set up of the nation state, the second section asks: how the proclamation of states of exception that have become prominent after September 11th serve to limit criticism? In the third section, I turn my attention to the everyday life of universities and argue that tropes of danger, unfinished nations, and security concerns spill into policies and programs of universities instituting forms of censorship that often go unnoticed. In the final section of the paper I shall address questions of responsibility—how are we to understand the relation between curiosity and freedom on the one hand, and the constraints placed on knowledge on behalf of the needs of the nation state on the other? My reflections are formed by my experiences in Indian and North American universities but also by pictures of what it is to take seriously the human conditions of knowing. [3]