Essay: Jennifer Rutherfordon the critical university

Dreaming the Critical University: The Mirror or the Algorithm?

‘If I am my measure; I am already dead.’ The dream is not speaking to me, as such. Dreams don’t speak; they provoke — if you let them. They disentangle you from conventional perspective, shove you into seeing what you would rather not, pause the relentless getting on with getting on. That is what the dream did that morning in Canberra, when it shook me awake and worried me long into the day.

In the dream I was being assessed at assessing the competing merits of the mirror, and the algorithm. As I performed the assessment, a ‘they’ who remained shadowy and ill-defined, were also being assessed on the outcome of my assessment as another ‘they’ were assessed on their assessment of the assessors. It was unpleasant. I was volleying argument and counter argument back and forward with myself in a virtuoso display of academic argument: for the mirror against the algorithm, against the algorithm for the mirror. Despite my bravura performance I was boring even myself, as I pushed relentlessly on through a wasteland of argument. But I had to keep going, forward and back, forward and back, until I could feel myself doubling in the to and fro.

I was glad to wake up. My dreaming mind lends me out nightly to all manner of Kafkaesque dramas in need of a prop, so there was nothing particularly novel about this dream. Still, its terms were puzzling; mirror or algorithm? I wondered if it might mean something? That was the question that let the dream-logic in. If you don’t want to stop getting on with getting on, don’t ask that question, but I was in my morning state, adrift, vulnerable, not yet lassoed into the working day.

Some mornings, in those first moments of waking, I catch sight of myself bobbing on a far horizon; a child born into trouble and floundering to stay afloat. In those first moments of return I don’t know how she did it; how anyone does it. Dreams give you that through-line to a self, focused on the problem of being a self. There is no dodging singularity in a dream, even if a dream is never so crude as to represent that same self through the first-person singular. The dreaming mind stays fixed on the dilemmas, conundrums, foibles, disgraces, desires and inanities a self gets up to in trying to be itself. Dreams don’t allow the dodge of having unhooked one’s self from the myths of humanism, of individualism. It knows, in its own uncentred way, that there is a self that one is called to account for. So, what was I accounting for in the dream in all that academic show-offery?

Mirrors always make me think of M. For a moment I saw us again, hand in hand multiplying in a vast hall of mirrors but I wasn’t with M., I was in Canberra. The bright sunlight of a Canberra morning was licking around the curtain’s edge and I had work to do, so I shrugged off all thoughts of M., pulled myself out of the dream, and reached for my computer.

By serendipity, it opened to an essay on Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding with its portrait of a wedding couple meta-mimetically doubled by a small curved mirror so that in viewing the portrait you see the couple front-on, and at the same time see the back of their heads. I couldn’t help musing on what the Arnolfinis thought of the back of their heads portrayed for all history. I don’t like the back of my head. When a hairdresser holds a mirror up to me and says, ‘I’ll just show you the back of your head,’ I wince and turn away. So, I quickly clicked a link taking me away from the Arnolfini’s wedding to a book about mirrors by Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet.

Nobody, I read, had seen the back of their head or their whole selves clearly reflected until the Royal Saint Gobain company perfected the manufacture of large flat mirrors in the seventeenth century, thus enabling Louis XIV to see himself in his glorious entirety: ‘un roi, une foi, une loi.’ Those first mirrors caused a riot. It is impossible to imagine the world before the mirror, she writes: ‘How was the mirror’s upsetting of equilibrium, its emptiness and fullness, and its sense of being outside and inside first experienced?’ Wherever the full-length mirror travelled, stories appeared of husbands and wives seething with jealousy on seeing themselves standing in a mirror beside their spouses. Those first full-length mirrors forged an encounter with an unknown self in all its flaws. To recognise oneself in the mirror one had to become ‘the other of that other’. By the eighteenth century, mirrors had become ubiquitous household objects making us into ‘a society of reflections’ until, finally in the twentieth century, Lacan discovers we only have an I by virtue of the mirror. We begin in pieces and through the mirror project ourselves into its gift of a singular self.

The Hall of Mirrors crafted to reflect the glory of Louis XIV was the self-same hall of reflection that had reduplicated M. and I that morning, so again I flicked away from the mirror to the safety zone of the News of the Day, where I learnt that Notre Dame was burning. Forgetting all about mirrors and their unpalatable visions, I began instead to fret over the Rose Windows. Where they burning?  And what of the Stations of the Cross? Would they be lost too? But then it occurred to me that I had no idea whether Notre Dame had Stations of the Cross. What I was really fretting over was Van Eyck’s mirror which is encircled by images of the Stations of the Cross. Notre Dame burning had refracted me back into my dream and its question: the mirror or the algorithm? And I still hadn’t got up.

I realised then that riddling through the dream as it had ridden me through night and morning, was anxiety over the task I had set myself in Canberra, to write 26 essays, each one addressing a letter of the alphabet, each one reflecting on loss, each one splitting the self into a refraction of the world at large, each one mirroring the hidden spot, the dark zone, the back of the head. I envisaged the pages of these essays accumulating in inverse proportion to my dwindling authority. Their language, their subject, their discourse in short, was guaranteed to undermine me. They were insufficiently de-subjectivised, their mode of articulation anything but linear, and their objects difficult to identify. If I kept on writing them, I was at risk of becoming a self without a reflection, although it wouldn’t be an image I lacked, but a measure.

That is when it twigged. The I of the dream that seemed to be doubling in a knowledge-saturated debate over the mirror or the algorithm, was the I of the algorithm staring down its double in the mirror, or was it the I of the mirror looking back at its algorithm-double? What was it Lacan told the students at Vincennes? ‘You come here to turn yourselves into units of credit: you leave here stamped ‘Units of Credit.’ Versailles: Vincennes; the dream was playing typical dream-games with me and I had better catch up.

At Vincennes in 1968, students in the thrall of their revolution, demanded a critique of the university from Lacan who was then the grand master of French intellectual life. He told them they didn’t have a clue what a critical university was. Against their constant interjections that he deliver a direct path to destroying the university from within, or at least a direct mode of critiquing it, he elaborated the logic of a structure he called ‘the university discourse’. What they were seeking, he told them, was not a critical university: ‘What you, as revolutionaries, aspire to is a Master. You will have one.’ Instead of rushing to the street in revolt they needed to stop consenting to being knowledge’s thing.

A few more clicks and the internet delivered up Lacan’s ‘Impromptu at Vincennes’; that sensation again of something lost. How improbable the scene was now, of students heckling a lecturer for his failure to be politically engaged; the lecturer heckling the students in turn for their complicity in sustaining academic convention. In ‘the university discourse’, Lacan argued, knowledge appears to be the central function of the university but despite its appearance of always being open to critique, evaluation and challenge, it inevitably serves the Master.

The university discourse – ‘a structure beyond words’ – situates academics as the agents of knowledge endlessly chasing an illusory prestige and students as passive recipients of a pre-existing body of knowledge they have to weave their way into, in order to translate themselves into units of credit.  What is produced under the conventions of knowledge is an encounter with subjective loss and the surplus enjoyment gained from sacrificing oneself dutifully to the Master. Work! Keep on Working! But the crux of it is the de-subjectivised objective knowledge of ‘the university discourse’ has no place in it for either the (non-unitary) subjects that produce it, nor its objects. Lacan’s melancholic insight is that whatever prestige academics may appear to attain, they aren’t to be found in the Names held momentarily aloft, nor in the knowledge that fleetingly produces this Name, but in the experience of loss that defines its production.

Lacan saw ‘the university discourse’ as the structure underwriting the capitalist bureaucratic state, but today’s university has reimagined itself as the mirror of the capitalist economy. Even Lacan couldn’t have imagined the audacity of today’s Master strutting around naked as the day; nothing hidden there! Who in 1968 could have conceived of a world where academics are kept too busy to read and where knowledge has no relevance except insofar as it is measurable. And so I fall into telling myself again the story of how it is. The funny thing about this story is that we know it by heart but just keep telling the story in hand-wringing repetitions as we keep on working: —

There is no ‘content’ in the modern university management-system. Today’s ‘agents of knowledge’ have no intrinsic qualities other than their extrinsic measures. Nothing is hidden. The State makes explicit its demand that academics serve the economy and prove their worth in hard currency, yielding quantum with compound interest. Knowledge is produced for the good of the economy, and its value must increment in an ever-expanding economy of knowledge. What we know but mustn’t say (except in those hand-wringing stories we endlessly tell each other) is that as more is produced, less is read, as escalating demand eclipses the last vestiges of the desire to know.

The troubling by-products of knowledge’s past (those superfluities of minds run amok in a confusion of negativities, of being and not being and other absurd questions) are the waste-products of a system perfecting its sanitising mechanisms. That problem is solved by evaluating knowledge by the investment capital it earns prior to any knowledge it may excrete. Unbeknownst to itself, because it not a collective self of any great reflexivity, nor a self that sees itself as the other of its other, more machine than self, more zombie than machine, the modern university management system only knows the logic of correlationism.

Nothing is real in the university, a thing in itself, able to be captured, reflected, integrated or disintegrated unless it can be measured. The algorithm conflates meanings, merits, and endlessly slices fragments of miniscule thought into a measurable equivalence; the Order of the Same. It will measure similitude but not difference, resemblance but not otherness, faces perhaps, but never the back of the head. In this economy, existential threat redoubles but the mirror gives us no Other. The mirror’s doubling effect, its ambivalence, its matrix of symbolic play, its metaphors, myths and ambivalences, its integrating and disintegrating selves, through which we have lived these last three centuries are effaced.

I recall trying to explain this to a visiting academic from the United States. Very concerned, he suggested to my friend B., that I might be suffering from psychic trouble. ‘She keeps talking about points’ he said, ‘and keeps thinking someone is measuring her all the time’. After a few weeks at the university his concern for me had morphed into generalised astonishment. Everybody was talking about points. All conversation led to points. Points for publication, points for publishers, points for supervision, demerit points for tardy doctoral students, negative work-load points, ERA points, citation points, quality points. Coming from a university of the rich North he had never heard of a university being run this way and wondered if he had really fallen down, down, down: ‘[…] right through the earth! How funny it would seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! […] The antipathies […]’ As Alice says: ‘I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please ma’am is this New Zealand or Australia?’

On the far side of the mirror, Alice discovers a world where the ground is a chess-board under foot, where a Queen runs around sticking in little pegs here and there, where everyone talks in chorus and every word is measured at a thousand pounds a word, and everyone runs as fast as they can but never gets anywhere at all:

[…] they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’, but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she still had no breath left to say so.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seem to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’

Not that Alice had any idea of doing that. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried ‘faster! Faster!’, and dragged her along.

That morning in Canberra I did the points; again. The project of the 26 essays had delivered a research fellowship and a writing residency. It might conjure a defensive barricade of prestige, but it wouldn’t quantify because payment had only been in kind – accommodation, food, travel – that was zero for the algorithm. Thus far the essays had earnt five quantity points but published under the rubric of non-traditional research the quality point count was zero. Another zero for the algorithm. A book might save me but if I kept publishing the essays no publisher would publish the work, and if I didn’t publish the essays – I was dead in the water. There were 18 essays still to write; 18 zeros. That was a lot of zeros even for me. Only the algorithm could deliver me and before it my thing was nothing. As Marina Warner writes of the modern university management system: ‘Like the necromantic mirror of the Snow Queen, they swallow everything up and deaden it.’ Reflected in the algorithm I was a dead thing, shrunken, diminished, at most I was five points tall. Perhaps I could salami slice to make myself bigger… but no, I still had eighteen slices to go. I couldn’t slice myself any finer but maybe I could blow myself up with some puffery. I squinted into the mirror, drew a big breath, but that’s when I saw myself as vain as could be.

Looking into the mirror I knew myself lamentably, recalcitrantly, intransigently committed to the little voice piping out of that other in the mirror, the writing I, the outlier of the university management system. If I continued to see in that other the locus of that voice, to hold it precious and identify my I with its other, I was bound to disappear, because  the essays were about me bobbing around in the sea, the lost me, and all the lost things floating away from us, casting out further and further until we can’t even sense them anymore, or remember what it was we used to catch sight of even in just a glimmer, a ray of light hitting a plane and bouncing off it so that it became fleetingly, luminously, visible. These lost things did not, were not, ever going to measure up.

Was that what I was saying to that self in the mirror: Here, now, in this university system: I want to die?

Perhaps that was what M. was doing that day at Versailles when, hand in mine, he planned his demise. I had never seen M. look at himself in a mirror. Whatever occurred between himself and his image occurred behind closed doors. When we lay in the bath together against a mirrored wall he didn’t look, although there was nothing in the mirror to cause him dismay. Even naked in the bath, M. was as immaculate, composed, and discreet as a finely polished sentence. But that day at Versailles, I watched him stop and stare at himself in that grand hall of reflection. I didn’t know what he was planning in that room, in that moment, as he squeezed my hand. I should have known. He kept telling me in the night, in that very literal way of his: ‘I want to die.’ Whispering in the early hours of the morning, ‘I want to die,’ but that was M. the melodrama of the solitary utterance at odds in his aura of studied calm. A base note to underscore himself with lest his composure be confused with an acceptance of the unfolding present. ‘I want to die’, he would say, like Flaubert turning a sentence from lyricism to melancholy on the final beat.

When I look into the mirror, M. is there looking back at me, in the way a mirror shows you what you can’t see. But no reflection however fragmented, can ever recapture us as we were that morning splintering in a kaleidoscope of polished silver, those pieces of silvered glass reflecting us in dazzling distortions and duplications of refracted and multiplying selves, our two selves in play, hand in hand, in the time one of those selves had set as our limit.

And nobody was holding my hand now, squeezing it in sympathy as I pondered where the dream had taken me. Was I this self, emptied by an algorithm that has no interest in any singularity, not one iota of interest in fact, in anything irreducible to its contentless data. Or, was I this voice, this vanity I hold precious, that seemed to be saying, with M., ‘I want to die. If being is, as M. used to say, a question of dying and of writing forward into that death, then I had to stay with him, there in the mirror. I had to say: I am the other of that other, and thinking that, I took my hat off to him and the anger of years past, eased a little, because M., whatever his failings, was always that. The other of his other to the splintered mirror’s end.

And there it was; the nadir of the dream.  I was embarked on the kind of vanity project the algorithm was designed to stop. The vanity projects of Dons past whose sins we are forever doing penance for, those Rapunzels letting down their golden locks to beguile a passing princess, those Rumpelstiltskins spinning gold into dross, those Dark Queens scrying the mirror for their own glorious reflection. Thanks to the algorithm we have been delivered from such sins. Or will be, if we can only fashion ourselves so that the algorithm charts us reduced to its empty thing, rightly proportioned to fill the mirror’s emptiness with the fullness of its measure.

I clicked back to the mirror in The Arnolfini Wedding and saw Van Eyck’s elegant handwriting: ‘I was here’, inscribed above the mirror. Such vanity? This Master’s hand allowed me to see a lost world in intricate detail, each single hair of the dog, the intricate folds of knotted lace, the frayed threads of linen – not through the illusion of a transcendental and unitary self but in the dispersed intelligence dwelling in the most miniscule of strokes extracting the maximum of meaning.

That sensation again. I had wandered into outdated territory; the plasticity of the hand, the singularity of the voice, sounded all too like the idols of a contented humanism. Were these my choices or had I dreamt a false dichotomy? A muddied opposition. I remembered the muddy feeling of the dream; the sense of being doubled in mud and yet of having to press on. As I must, for the day was slipping away and I had to conserve at least the show of productivity, write ‘I was here’ in points, be for the algorithm, curtsey to the enterprise. Or, must I?

‘I am real!, said Alice, and began to cry.’

I twisted the mirror’s panes and dared myself to look at the unpalatable spot, the naked spot on the back of my head. Did I dare to be the other of that other?

Lacan had a point to make about style. For all his plays on mastery he refused to speak in the style of authority or to produce a knowledge commodifiable through the established protocols of knowledge. Allowing the play of metaphor and metonymy to muddy up the transparency of his speech was his way of refusing to be a singular, transcendental, illusory I, in the service of the Master. Style was his royal road to the critical university. Perhaps, back there at Vincennes, he was right when he told the students they needed to stop consenting to be knowledge’s thing.

That was the stubbornly stupid idea I kept coming back to when I finally got up that day in Canberra and got on with the work at hand. Keep working! At all cost keep on working! – the mantra of the modern university, the ethic under-writing all folkloric myths of progressivism. Keep on dutifully performing self-conserving acts of self-negation. Because if we stop one morning to follow the logic of a dream we might see the Other in the mirror; the one that is one’s measure. The one that is already dead. Perhaps the new conservatism governing scholarship has nothing to do with any intellectual body of ideas per se and more to do with collective acquiescence to the governance of knowledge. Perhaps what is hardest for a Humanities scholar to concede is that – shift them how you will – ideas have no currency in the current regime. Perhaps what is at stake requires more than an idea put to service in the way ideas are; to build careers, acquire tenure, augment symbolic authority, fight a fashionable war of words against imaginary foes. Perhaps what is required is that we stop telling the endlessly repeated story of what has happened to the university and start re-subjectivising the space of knowledge, claiming it as ours in a plurality of styles, forms and voices  – irreducible to the algorithm’s reductions. Un-thinkable as it is in these self-defended times, perhaps one might need to risk something.

That’s when I decided to write that girl afloat on a far horizon, a girl born into trouble. To write her in bits and pieces, fragmented into the 26 letters that are the medium of her habitus, her dwelling in language. If I write her fragmented, duplicated and parsed,  then those 26 letters might be the sea that floats me out of the university discourse and its false dichotomies into that other self, the lost one, the one that finds a glimmer of itself in a bigger measure of meaning-making. That other self that is not  the measure of all meaning but makes meaning in relation its others, that allows us to see the back-story and the huge vanitas of the front-story of the I, its illusions and diffractions, refractions and reflections,  a mise en abîme of doubles duplicating in a hall of mirrors. Writing that thing our current Knowledge systems foreclose, might be worth a little death if it brings a little life back into thing-dom. I decide I will have to write it and see. Radical act… to experiment with ideas in writing in a form the algorithm reduces to no-thing; to be in the place of that no-thing and make there. To be not data. To recall the Dadaists manifesto: DADA Il n’est rien. Data is nothing, No thing. Radical act.

This is an edited version of a paper delivered at Provocations #2: Scholarship is the New Conservative at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice in 6 September 2019.

Works Cited

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-Through the Looking Glass,Taylor and Francis: US, 2002,  p 24-25.
Jacques Lacan and Jeffrey Mehlman, “Impromptu at Vincennes”, October, Volume 40, 1987 pp 116-127.
Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet, The Mirror: A History, trans,Katherine H Jewett, Routledge: New York, London, 2002.
Marina Warner, ‘Learning My Lesson’, London Review of Books, Vol 37 No 6, 19 March 2015 pp 8-14.

Published February 6, 2020
Part of Provocations: Selected proceedings from the Provocations Symposium hosted by the J.M Coetzee Centre at the University of Adelaide. All Provocations essays →
Jennifer Rutherford

Jennifer Rutherford is the Director of the J.M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at...

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