The Physiognomy of Civilisation

Until recently, Sydney University was to hold a conference called ‘Physiognomy of Origin’. Keynote speakers were Adrianna Cavarero and Antonio Negri, discussing the resurgent questions of embodiment, origin and potentiality — questions that are quite central to what transpired.

In January, Miranda Devine denounced Sydney University for inviting the ‘suspected terrorist mastermind Antonio Negri’ rather than offering ‘intellectual enlightenment’. Keith Windschuttle elaborated that viewpoint — ‘A university education in the humanities was once supposed to be a civilising experience’ — and repeated the accusation of ‘terrorist’ against Negri. He concluded his case against free speech by arguing that universities should not ‘accommodate people with so little concern for civilised values’. (It is an irony that in 1971, ASIO spies similarly vilified Windschuttle, whom they reported as giving ‘the impression of being a violent revolutionary’.) As it happened, prior to Windschuttle’s article, Negri had withdrawn due to ill-health. The conference, whose financial viability was premised on the calculation of celebrity and audience, was to be re-scheduled when Negri could attend. Sydney University nevertheless responded to Windschuttle’s attack by withdrawing funding for any future version of the event.

Negri responded in detail to Windschuttle’s article, describing it as ‘a scandalous and vulgar act of historical revisionism’. Other responses include a petition defending Negri’s standing as a philosopher and challenging Windschuttle’s purported adherence to ‘traditional intellectual virtues’ given the facts relating to Negri’s imprisonment.

But it isn’t merely a question of whether the accusations made against Negri (or Windschuttle) are verifiable. It is simple to prove that they are not — as simple as showing that no children were thrown overboard, or that there were no WMDs. One would hope that Windschuttle will come to see that such defamatory fragments, deployed to legitimate a war in which every form of violence — from torture, to extrajudicial and indefinite internment, to vilification — against those designated as ‘enemy combatants’, ‘terrorists’ and so on, is normalised and impossible to bring to account. The accusation is sufficient. It is widely believed because barbarism has already been attributed as an inherent disposition of foreign-ness. This is the physiognomy of ‘civilisation’.

Solidarity with Negri (and thousands of lesser-known individuals) cannot be based on the claim he that is civilised, and truly a philosopher. Such defenses allow the defamation to continue its work, leaving intact the rationalisation that there may indeed be barbarians against whom censorship, not to mention cluster bombs and internment camps, are necessary.

This latest episode in the culture wars should make clear that defending the apparently objective space of an ivory tower — whose recourse to a depoliticisation of knowledge marks the concealment of a politics, including the persistent funding of research into military technologies — will afford little more than cultural capital. Such an ivory tower has long ceased to exist anyway, not least because its increasing dependence on precarious and performance-assessed labour transfigures the actual practice of ‘academic freedom’. This obliges reflection on the actual existing unfreedoms that inhabit the contemporary university, and their relation to a war that is fought as much in the press and the classroom as on the fields of Muthana province.

By Angela Mitropoulos

Categorised: Against the Current

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