The dead zones of the imagination in higher education

In his recent book on bureaucracy, David Graeber often turns to higher education to furnish examples of the broader tendency he describes. I thought this was a particularly vivid passage worth reproducing:

The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.

The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavour. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy pg 134

His claim is an empirical one: ever greater tracts of time are consumed by activities other than scholarship. This in turn has obvious implications for scholarship. Dead zones of the imagination can increasingly be found in our universities.


  1. Reblogged this on odbite światło and commented:
    Wygląda na to, że wątek korpouni rozrasta się niepomiernie (czy kogoś to dziwi?). Chociaż przytoczony przez Marka Carrigana fragment z książki Davida Graebera dotyczy nauk społecznych, nie mogę oprzeć się wrażeniu, że równie dobrze opisuje całość academii, w tym również bliskie nam zakątki. Coraz częściej “martwe strefy wyobraźni” wydają mi się oczywistym opisem sytuacji – wszystko zaczyna być w academii martwe: nowe budynki, ujednolicone godziny zajęć dla calego Wydziału, konieczność planowania z rocznym wyprzedzeniem, nawet uczelniane bufety, zwłaszcza uczelniane tablice ogłoszeń, na których widnieją przewidywalne plakaty o przewidywalnych ewentach. Wspominałam o tym pisząc co nieco o skromnej próbie prowadzenia kursu w formie projektu.

  2. Graeber’s description is very apposite Mark and certainly ‘connects’. He is right to suggest that universities are not the best places where fundamental, original social theory can easily develop! Social theorists tend to need other ‘primary’ alibis aligned with institutional strategic objectives and research funding body priorities etc. Social theory in any deep sense is (now) a kind of hobby. Most social theory circulates as a set of empirical recontextualisations: i.e. using parts of one language to do a job that could just as easily be done in another: it inevitably disappoints.

    Much of the paperwork in university life may well be about PR and selling, but to me it feels essentially like ‘alibi production’. It has taken me a long time to come round to applying Garfinkel’s concepts of accountability and warranting more generally. It used to seem to me absurd (in Garfinkel’s own famous example) that the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Centre was not really best designed to prevent suicides, in his analysis, but about producing alibis about its role in such cases when called on to do so (and yes, providing acceptable warrants for its continued funding!).

    1. That’s really interesting, Jeff. That’s what Graeber points at in the book without saying it explicitly and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about – paperwork that requires you to sign that you’ve read & understood all manner of university policies that I have actually read (morbid fascination makes me do a lot of things) but I suspect most haven’t & either way these are long documents written in an impenetrable and opaque language. You’re required to complete the form, you can’t complete the form unless you sign you’ve read & understand the policies but the policies are incomprehensible in parts and no help is on offer to ensure you’ve understood them. Does this count as alibi production?

  3. Hi Mark, yes indeed it does count as alibi production! In my institution I have been ‘strongly instructed’ to take 2 online modules: one in health&safety and the other ‘appraisal training’ – both have ‘exams’ at the end. So ticking the box to agree to having read information is becoming more involved!!

    Although, oddly, the obvious place to install yet another redundant alibi process has not been grasped by universities to odd effect. I mean the rise of ‘Ethics’ committees to scrutinise research proposals before institutional blessing can be given seems to me to be an odd reversal of the trend towards gaining the agreement of the ‘focal subject’ to endless indemnity warrants. I never heard of a case where an institution was actually sued by a respondent in an interview for being ‘upset’ by the questions etc. and yet we now have this bizarre situation where, in social science, a committee must decide in advance of an empirical situation what might happen in it. Since we have spent the best part of 100 years exploring the unintended consequences of social activity I wonder how it is that a committee, under the auspices of something they refer to as ‘ethics’, obtains insights into future events? Anyway, it seemed to me that the obvious thing to do would be to shift the warrant to the respondent in social research i.e. before they participate give them a long impenetrable document to read and tick and sign before proceeding. This seems to work in medicine before ‘procedures’ where the focal subject signs an indemnifying agreement. How long would an ‘ethics committee’ need to sit in advance of medical procedures to bottom all possible outcomes? I think that the participant’s consent (which we also elicit) in social research is actually called into question by the existence of ethics committees and their warranting discourses. The latter could become a rich resource in any claim by the plaintiff.

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