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Rikke Toft Nørgård

The defiant university: places of resistance and spaces for transgression in higher education

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When thinking about the purpose of the university, we often think about such things as knowledge, critical thinking, new ideas, rigorous science, scholarly development, and recently also employability, productivity, and academic citizenship. However, the future university might carry an equally important, but perhaps more disturbing purpose within it – that of resistance, transgression, and otherness. In other words, the purpose of the university might be the ability and will to push against standardization of education and thinking, to make room for different people and voices, to embrace otherness, strangeness and things that seem intelligible and of no use at first glance. But nurturing this not-yet-ness of our thinking, doing and being is at the heart of the university, partially through an insistence on careful listening to and for otherness, on creating room for seeming non-sense, and on revolting against limiting or oppressing hegemonies. In On Resistance: A philosophy of Defiance (2013) Howard Caygill calls attention to the importance of resisting and defying the urge for conformity, appropriation and consistency within every system of power. This is however not easily done as Henry Jenks points out in Transgression (2003), given that the ‘systematization’ and ‘ordering’ of thinking going on in institutions such as the university, pushes back and demands loyalty, agreement and shared ‘norms’ and ‘values’. In a productive struggle between revolt and systematization in thinking at the university new ideas, innovative viewpoints and radical advances are nurtured.

Unfortunately, looking across the higher education landscape today resistance and defiance are often suppressed as unproductive or even dangerous by the university itself. The university has become afraid and concerned with its own financial and political survival and, thus, absorbed in delivering clear comprehensible and evident proofs of its worth to society. In the face of neoliberalism and the political endorsement of the ‘Mode 2-university’ we might ask what is the fate of the future university and the people within it when an anxious university eradicates its places of resistance and spaces of transgression? What happens when room for and tolerance with revolting thinking, wicked ideas and transgressive actions is diminishing? Is there any hope for the university to offer itself as an open ethical room for staff and students living there in ways that are welcoming to the Other and resistant to the conformity of the Same (Levinas, 1999)?

Importantly, here, resistance and transgression does not entail a breaking down or demolition of the university, knowledge or HE practice, but rather, an acknowledgement and insistence on the inclusion of other forms, voices, and rooms for thinking. Consequently, boundaries are needed to ensure ethical and meaningful education – the purpose of HE is also an insistence on universal ethical imperatives and academic virtues as Nixon attests in Towards the Virtuous University: The moral bases of academic practice (2008). Transgressive thinking and defiant behavior in HE does not deny limits or boundaries, rather it engages them through dialogue to complete them. As such, transgression is not the same as disorder, and resistance not the same as riot, but the insistence on breaking into new territory, on caring for otherness, and on revolting against marginalization and exclusion of thinking into comfortable familiarity (Jenks, 2003). Thus, the university creating places of resistance and spaces for transgression, is also the university that dares to insist on being an ethical, caring and democratic university.

For the future university to keep on thinking, it must include and embrace unsettled and heterotopic spaces for transgression and caring places for resistance in the form of revolt as ‘a commitment to freedom’ and ‘an invitation to alterity’ (Jenks, 2003). It is a purposeful offering of places and spaces where people can gather, experiment, explore, and think in radical democratic ways along the lines described by Jacques Ranciére’s Hatred of Democracy (2005). Taken together, such a conceptualization of the purpose of the university is an invitation for staff and students to dare to be thinking on the other side of the known through reinserting possibilities for revolt, in a dissident thinking that haunts established knowledge hegemonies, constantly unsettling the already settled (Kristeva, 1996). In this view, the university must establish itself as vibrant matter that never allows thinking to sediment or become instrumental tools in the service of society. Here, the university must reclaim itself as a place of resistance and a space for transgression – as what Kristeva (1998) calls a ‘space of life’ that comes into being as an affectionate place through allowing and embracing defiance and revolt. Such a notion of the purpose of the university entails a university capable of defiance and able to resist the pressure for uniformity and consensus-seeking in thinking. It is a purposeful university unafraid and daring and insisting on staying polyphonic and heterotopic in both mood and mode. Even when its rationale, purpose, and worth is questioned as intelligible, valuable, viable, or reasonable it will strive to foster and promote Otherness of both knowing, doing, and being through nurturing and harboring what Kristeva (1998) and Peters (2016) call dissident thought. That is, thinking that aims at critical questioning, unruly subversion and transgression of hegemonies.

Explicating the purpose of the university through the lens of a philosophy of resistance and transgression, we see the place of the future university as a place for vibrant and vital defiance and as offering spaces of revolting and revolutionary disturbance. It is, however, not a violent or belligerent university as some of the narrower understandings of transgression, revolt and resistance might suggest – but a call for a university of care and affection for the Other and seemingly non-sensical. The future university rises from the mongrel collective, the polyphonic voice, the heterotopic space, and the ethical transgression. It is not the sole virtuous trumpet calling the world but rather a cacophony of torn trumpets singing the ethical song of revolting Otherness. Can such a howl of torn trumpets make itself heard in a world overcome with trumpism, neoliberalism, fake news and the alt-right? Is there any place and space for the university to be defiant through insisting on doing philosophy through embracing Otherness? And can the future university simultaneously be a non-violent, affectionate, and caring place of resistance and space for transgression without losing its dangerousness, disorderliness, and disobedience? This paper offers thinking on what a future university that promotes places of resistance and spaces of transgression might bring about as it contests the lazy, marketable, useful university that has accidently dulled its own thinking through becoming opportunistic, utilitarian, and afraid of its own future.
Original languageEnglish
Publication yearOct 2017
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017
EventThe Purpose of the Future University: Philosophy of Higher Education Conference - Aarhus University , Aarhus, Denmark
Duration: 6 Nov 20178 Nov 2017


ConferenceThe Purpose of the Future University
LocationAarhus University
Internet address

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