The University and its Discontents

by Adam Sitze

Today the university is the object of critique from almost every conceivable angle. One side blames it for infantilizing students with overprotectiveness (accusing the university, in effect, of being a suffocating mother). Another side accuses it of indoctrinating students with dogmas designed to destroy faith in American democracy (renewing, in the process, ancient hysterias about teachers who corrupt the youth of the nation).  Yet another side holds it responsible for fomenting polarization and division. College students themselves report record levels of depression and anxiety, while increasing numbers of their peers choose not to enroll in college at all. Those who study the matter, meanwhile, seem to agree that the corporatization of the university has left it undone, corrupt, dying out, and altogether dark.

In short, discontent abounds. But psychoanalysis teaches us that today’s frustrations are always also, in some circuitous way, residues of yesterday’s wishes. Accordingly, one very important task today is to think with clarity about what desires might have given rise to the institution of the university in the first place.

Were we to recover those desires, to rediscover or reanimate them, we might find ourselves better equipped to stand at a critical distance from our contemporary moment—this odd present in which dissatisfaction with the university binds together discourses about the university that otherwise have almost nothing in common (and that indeed, in political terms, are bitterly opposed to one another).

In other words, we might find ourselves better able to understand how it is that the language of melancholic destitution—characterized by bitterly harsh reproaches against self and world, by claims that self and world alike are worthless, impoverished, rotten, and morally despicable—currently prevails as the de facto meta-language for the institution as such.

Obviously, this isn’t a question a blog-post can settle. But it might be a question a blog-post can open, in conversation with readers who understand and value psychoanalysis. Here are three hypotheses intended to serve as a means to that end:

  1. The problem is not the university in ruins, but the ruins in the university.

The melancholic turn in university studies began, more or less, in 1997, with the posthumous publication of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins. Readings’s thesis was that the university, which had tied its fortunes to the nation-state, now shared its fate: the dissolution of the one heralded the dissolution of the other. Under conditions of globalization, Readings argued, the university was no longer really a university, but a transnational corporation.

But first: what exactly is a university? Writing in an underappreciated 1950 text, the medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz provided a good working answer:

According to the oldest definitions, which run back to the thirteenth century, “The University” is the universitas magistrorum et scholarium, “The Body Corporate of Masters and Students.” Teachers and students together are the University regardless of the existence of gardens and buildings, or care-takers of gardens and buildings. One can envisage a university without a single gardener or janitor, without a single secretary, and even—a bewitching mirage—without a single Regent.  The constant and essence of a university is always the body of teachers and students. (1950, 16 [emphasis in original])

In just the same way that “Supreme Court judges are the Court” and “ministers together with the faithful are the Church,” Kantorowicz argued, “the professors together with the students are the University” (1950, 16 [emphasis in original]).

To some readers, Kantorowicz’s portrait of the relation between students and professors as a Body Corporate—a corporation—will seem nothing more than an intriguing relic from an irrelevant past. Whatever the medieval university may or may not have been, these readers might say, it has no relation to today’s unprecedented problems and predicaments.

Psychoanalysis says otherwise. Forgetting, as Freud reminds us in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), is not the same as the complete annihilation of a memory-trace (Gedächtnisspur). In the psyche, nothing that has once been imprinted can disappear altogether. If the unconscious were a city, then the ruins (Ruinen) of its dilapidated buildings would coexist with its new and restored buildings. Moreover, those ruins sometimes rise again in unanticipated, often distorted forms.

Our own recent experience seems to contain a return of this sort. In the terrible spring of 2020, a question suddenly emerged: How might the university survive under conditions of indefinite pandemic? The consensus that emerged was clear and decisive: Begin by preserving the relationship between teachers and students.

Not every consequence of this decision was praiseworthy. And, of course, not every college survived. But the consensus itself is instructive. Why is it that, in a situation of triage, there was near-universal agreement that what most needed saving was Kantorowicz’s “Body Corporate”? Why did this archaic and seemingly irrelevant conception of the university come to govern contemporary opinion so quickly and so effectively?

Medieval universities protected their corporate autonomy by moving from one city to another. The contemporary university protected its existence by moving the relationship between professors and students online. Are these two “moves” entirely unrelated? Or might the one be the memory-trace of the other?

  1. The psychoanalytic study of pedagogy—the study of the transferential relationship between students and professors—is the study of the university itself.

The psychoanalytic tradition is rich with meditations on the theme of pedagogy. Understanding teaching by analogy to the intersubjective dynamics of transference, contemporary psychoanalysis suggests that the pedagogical relationship involves not a one-way transmission of expertise, information, and skills, but a two-way, interpersonal dialogue, with many of the same twists and turns of unspoken—usually unconscious—desires, fantasies, and anxieties. Epistemophilia—the desire-to-know, the love of gaining and acquiring knowledge—works in mysterious ways. Psychoanalysis gives us terms, concepts, and techniques that allow us to remain awake and alive to its many vicissitudes.

In this interpersonal field, professors and students aren’t simply embodied algorithms; unlike algorithms, professors and students can’t predict exactly where their inquiries will lead them. Because the desire-to-know is, first of all, a lack of knowledge, the best pedagogues figure out how to tarry with that lack—to preserve space in the classroom for the knowledge one can’t fully know. To put it a bit coyly (à la Lacan), there is no pedagogical relation. Between professors and students there is only miscommunication mediated by misunderstanding, a shell-game of personas that will become familiar only belatedly (if at all), with varying degrees of tragic or comic self-awareness.

But suppose Kantorowicz is right that the relationship between professors and students is the university, just as “ministers together with the faithful are the Church.” Wouldn’t it follow that psychoanalytic approaches to teaching have misrecognized, or more exactly displaced, their subject of analysis? That not teaching alone, but the essence and existence of the university itself—the “body of teacher and students”—is what we’re really talking about whenever we talk about pedagogy?

The history of the English word “pedagogy” itself supports this idea. Its earliest recorded usage, from 1571, is as a synonym for university itself: “a place of instruction; a school, a college; a university” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.). This usage is obsolete, almost entirely forgotten—and, for that same reason, psychoanalytically intriguing.

Suppose then that the intricate relationship we today call transference (or pedagogy) is something more than transference (or pedagogy). Suppose it is the very flesh of Kantorowicz’s Body Corporate—or, at the very least, the memory-trace of that Body. Wouldn’t that insight allow us to do something more than bitterly denounce the university in ruins? And wouldn’t psychoanalysis give us exactly the conceptual tools and practical techniques we need to reactivate the ruins in the university—to recover and reanimate the desire for a university, and to sustain that desire over time? Psychoanalysis in its Kleinian iteration, Julia Kristeva once wrote, is “the art of caring for the capacity for thought” (2004, 14). Can it also be the art of caring for the idea of a university?

  1. Before the critique of the corporatization of the university, the rediscovery of the University’s Two Bodies.

In 1957, Kantorowicz revisited the themes of his 1950 pamphlet in Chapter VII of his magnum opus, The King’s Two Bodies. There he showed, among other things, how the corporation as we know it today was modeled on the university—long before the contemporary university began modeling itself on the corporation.

Today’s university, to be sure, bears little resemblance to the guilds that emerged in the Middle Ages in places like Bologna and Paris. When we now think of the university, we don’t tend to think first of an intergenerational body comprised of students and teachers. Indeed, we’re strongly encouraged to think of worldly things: modern campuses, distinguished buildings, monuments, stadiums, famous alumni, bourgeoning endowments, and, above all, successful “brands”—corporate brands, like Apple or Berkshire Hathaway, that represent distinct personalities (which—thanks to a longstanding jurisprudence of corporate personhood—they are).

It’s these worldly things for which students and their families pay so much and for which so many of them go into crushing debtdebt that structures desire and thereby sustains what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls “cruel optimism.” This university exists to create nothing less than a debtor class that views it (or, rather, the “brand-name” degree it confers upon them) as the means by which to secure employment that pays enough to manage the debt that enabled them to attend this university in the first place. This is the corporate university that so many today love to hate.

But if Kantorowicz is right, then the university has not one but two bodies. One, the Body Corporate, consists in a desire-to-know that persists despite, through, in the midst of, and because of the passing of generations. It lives and dies, we might say, in the enigmatic non-relations—the miscommunications and misunderstandings, the twists and turns, the tragedies and comedies, the innumerable indirections—internal to the transferential relation. The other—the corporate university—is everything else: casing, supplement, capital, frame, excess.

From this perspective, the horror today is not that corporatization has attacked the university in the way that the Blob attacks Arborsville. It’s that the call is coming from inside the house. It’s that the corporate university is the uncanny double of the same medieval Body Corporate from which it historically emerges, upon which it is institutionally grafted, and whose living remnants it today parasitizes.

The difference is as subtle, but also as important, as that between Ego and Id. Without attending to this distinction, critiques of the corporate university will run the serious risk—one not unfamiliar to psychoanalysis—of treating the university’s originary form as if were, instead, a foreign object.

But, once we mistake interior for exterior, it becomes difficult to know what we want to protect or preserve at all. We may sense that the university is ruined, but we won’t be able to say exactly what it is that has been ruined. We may even vaguely sense the need to pose a counterintuitive question—what might it mean to want the university to be a corporation, even to defend it as a corporation?—that most of us won’t want to give voice to.

More likely, we’ll be tempted to conclude that today no question could be more unthinkable and unsayable, more deserving of censure. It might be more accurate, however, to say that today no wish is more dangerously incorporated as a melancholy too many of us share. And therefore that no problem could be more worthy of thought for those who care about what the university has become today, and still can become tomorrow.


Works cited

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1961. “Civilization and its Discontents [1930].” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927-1931): The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 57-146

Kantorowicz, Ernst. 1950. The Fundamental Issue: Documents and Marginal Notes on the University of California Loyalty Oath. San Francisco: Parker Print.

Kristeva, Julia. 2004. Melanie Klein. Tr. Ross Guberman. New York: Columbia University Press.