Saturday, December 26, 2015

Profile 2016

The world is changing. At this end of the year, with Christmas coming up and a New Year just around the corner, I feel a need to gain some perspective on what is happening all around us, and how it is affecting our very ways of thinking, our very ways of living, our very conceptions of what is possible, our very expectations of where we are going, and most importantly, our very ways of imagining where we should be going.
The reflections that follow have had a long gestation period. For years now, the realization has been slowly dawning upon me that we are living in extraordinary times of irreversible transformation for which there is no historical precedent. We are entering uncharted territory and have no script to predict, or even begin to understand, what might be ahead of us. Of course, as a historian I know very well that the world has always been changing: creative innovation is the rule, stasis is an illusion, and unheard-of events may happen any time. That’s how it has always been. But something larger is happening now. Until rather recently I still felt that as an academic and intellectual, I was playing my little part in a great story that might be described (for better or worse) as the story of “Western Culture” – and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t last. Let me hasten to add that I don’t mean this in a provincial manner: I’ve always been extremely interested in the rest of the world, in different cultures and different ways of life, because I’m a curious person who likes to look beyond the boundaries of his familiar world. Nevertheless, my identity and guiding values have been formed by the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of Europe. That has always been my world.
And now it is changing. In my darker moods I fear that very soon – sooner than I used to consider possible – a time may come when (to paraphrase Galadriel at the opening of the Lord of the Rings movie) much that is of great value will be lost forever, because “no one will live who still remembers it”. Yes, I feel a bit like the Elves… Increasingly, I fear that the culture that I love and care for is disintegrating and vanishing around me, and the leaves are falling. Winter is coming.

I don’t mean to stay with such a dark and pessimistic mood. Towards the end of this text I will be looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. But first I want to take a few steps back to try and gain some perspective. What are the essential changes happening around us, that might explain my feelings of decline and loss?

1. The Reign of Neoliberalism

Firstly we have seen the global ascendency of what, for lack of a better word, I will call neoliberal capitalism. I don’t mean to go into any deep analysis here, because I think most of us have a pretty good idea of what it is. Since the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s, slowly but surely our minds have been taken over by the idea that everything in the world can be described in terms of “markets”, and that the only ultimate values are economic values. The result is a systematic reversal of the normal relation between means and ends. We used to think that money was the means to achieve desirable ends: you obviously needed money to create good systems of healthcare, you needed money to create good institutions of learning, and so on. Money was a means that served non-economic ends that we valued in and for themselves. That logic has been reversed. Healthcare and education (to stay with those examples) are now defined as products on a market. As such, they are no longer desirable ends that are considered intrinsically valuable, just for what they are, but have become the means to achieve a new and different end: that of maximizing profit. Healthcare and education are now sold for money. The internal logic of this system says that we do not really care that much whether people are actually healthy or well educated: what counts is whether they are buying healthcare or education, at minimal costs and for maximum profit. In short, health and knowledge are no longer basic values. The only true value left is monetary or economic value.
We are seeing this dynamic everywhere, including, of course, the universities. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and kick-started by the most extreme right-wing government in Dutch history (Rutte I), I watched it spiraling wholly out of control. Like many of my colleagues, I began to feel that if I was still doing my work (trying to teach my students something real, trying to focus on content, trying to keep my eye on the ball), I was doing so not thanks to the University system but in spite of it. The institution had been turned into a factory, designed to produce a product for profit: although administrators and politicians keep invoking “excellence” and emphasizing the need for “quality” in education, the truth is that (like everywhere else in the neoliberal economy) quality has become irrelevant to how the system works. It recognizes only quantifiable data that lend themselves to statistical analysis and can be translated into economic and financial terms. As a result, universities are no longer institutions devoted to “higher learning”: they are now running on an operating system that subverts the very ends (goals, objectives) they were once supposed to be promoting. Last year, at the University of Amsterdam, students and staff revolted against the systemic financialization and corporatization of the academy. They occupied the administrative center of the Faculty of Humanities, and after they got expelled, they occupied the Maagdenhuis, the University’s administrative center. Similar protests are happening at other universities around the world, and I very much hope that these grassroots revolutions will have a positive effect. However, I’m afraid that real and lasting change will prove to be impossible as long as neoliberal capitalism remains in place as the operating system of higher learning in Europe. An upgrade of that system is not enough. On the contrary: by perfecting its functionality even further, we will only make matters worse. We need a new operating system grounded in the very principle that is anathema to the current one: that quality in education and research cannot be quantified and translated into financial terms, but is an irreducible core value entirely independent of (and incommensurable with) the logic of economic calculation.

 2. Information Overkill

The second major change I observe in our world is information overkill. The information revolution has been gathering steam roughly since the early 1990s, in perfect parallel with the ascendency of neoliberal capitalism. Of course, the basic facts hardly need to be stated here: we all know how incredibly powerful the new information technologies are, how much we are benefiting from the miracles they accomplish, and how utterly dependent we have become on them. But while the benefits are very real (of course, like everybody else, I’m profiting from them every day and would hate to miss them) they come at a heavy price. In this case the problem is not the reversal of means and ends, but the ever-increasing impossibility of distinguishing between reliable, less reliable, and unreliable information. There is another way of saying this: it gets harder and harder for all of us to draw the crucial distinction between information and knowledge (in fact, I have found that more and more people respond with profound puzzlement to the very idea that there is a difference at all). We have unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, but just cannot tell anymore what is true and what is not. This goes even for highly specialized fields of knowledge. There was a time when I could gain a reasonably complete and accurate overview of the scholarly literature on a given topic; but nowadays I am overwhelmed, even in areas that I know very well, by a daily tsunami of publications online (which, by the way, almost inevitably tend to be given preference over offline materials, simply because it’s already far too much to handle anyway). Nobody can keep up anymore, and the situation is aggravated by the fact that traditional selection criteria no longer have much of a bearing on the actual quality of publications: truly excellent stuff appears online for free, while too much that makes it into peer-reviewed “top journals” is of unremarkable or even mediocre quality. This in itself can be explained largely through the two developments under discussion here. The impact of neoliberal capitalism on academic publishing means that selling the product (in this case: getting your stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal) has become much more important than the actual quality of that product. And moreover, authors need to anticipate what the market seems to want from them: if your work is too daring, original, or creative, too “out of the box”, that may lessen your chance of acceptance. As for the dynamics of information overkill, it results in journal editors and anonymous peer reviewers receiving far too many requests, resulting in hasty and superficial reviews, processed hastily and superficially by journal editors, who do not have the time either – all in the context of an increasingly impersonal bureaucratic machinery of editorial decision-making. As a result of all this, scholars are no longer working the way they used to work. The really good ones among us used to be studying a given topic thoroughly and systematically, attempting to get to the very bottom of things because we still felt there was a bottom to be reached. But that illusion is gone, and so we find ourselves “mining data” instead, or just cherry-picking more or less at random. Too often we feel we just don’t have the time for deep and concentrated study of just one particular source, or one particular scholar’s work. For what about all those countless other sources? What about all those other scholars whose work is still waiting in line to be read too? Are we sure we are reading the right article at this moment? Perhaps we should be reading one of all those countless others out there… But how should we choose? How can we possibly know which ones deserve our attention and which ones are just a waste of time, if we haven’t at least “scanned” them first? And so we keep “mining”, hastily and superficially; or otherwise we resign ourselves to the inevitable and just start picking selectively, more or less at random.

It seems to me that these two core developments are intimately related to four further new developments. These, too, are irreversibly changing our world at present. They might be seen as a second level built upon the first.

 a. Disempowerment

To begin with, we are witnessing a systematic disempowerment of citizens, resulting in a huge democratic deficit. Neoliberal capitalism has created a situation where international banks and corporations run by unelected CEOs and managers are much more powerful than national states, so that the results of democratic elections lose most of their relevance. Ordinary citizens feel in their guts that it doesn’t matter anymore what political party they vote for, because politicians have no other choice than pursuing “business as usual” anyway (see, for instance, the recent Greek Drama): what little power we used to have to determine our fate has been taken away from us. Deep resentment and frustration over this fact is then channeled towards convenient scapegoats such as “the immigrants” or “the Muslims”, diverting attention away from those who are actually responsible (for instance, although it is evident that the financial crisis is product of neoliberal capitalism, the Dutch neoliberal capitalists won the next election and remain in the driving seat!). This dynamics has been analyzed endlessly, but perhaps there has been less attention to the disempowering effects of the second element highlighted above: that of information overkill. Even where we still have something to choose, we no longer know what to choose, because we no longer know how to select reliable information from the staggering amounts of online disinformation, mythmaking, fear-mongering, propaganda, “spin”, and sheer nonsense. 

 b. Brain Change

A second and very different development could be described as brain change. The rise of information technology and its omnipresence in our daily lives – the fact that all of us are spending more and more of our lives gazing at computer screens or portable devices – means that we are using our brains to do things that are very different from what they used to be doing. We are continually training them to excel in those kinds of tasks that we need to handle our computers efficiently, but the flip side is that we are no longer training those skills that are needed for different but equally important tasks. We are especially good at switching our attention quickly from one thing to another, but we are losing our ability to concentrate on one single thing and stay concentrated for a long time. We are very good at “scanning” information quickly, but we are losing the ability of deep thinking and the sustained reflection required for converting data into actual knowledge. Having a lot of information available says absolutely nothing about how well we understand what that information really means. But such understanding requires muscles in the brain that are being trained less and less.  

c. Historical Amnesia

A third development I would describe as historical amnesia. For me, as a scholar in the Humanities, this one is particularly painful, because it undermines the very foundations of what my own work has always been about. Over the last decades, education reforms have been dominated by the idea that students need to learn skills rather than acquire knowledge: what you know is not so important, as long as you can find the information you need at the moment you need it. This educational philosophy is based upon a fundamental mistake. We have overlooked the fact that in the absence of knowledge, information becomes meaningless, and data selection (informed choice) becomes impossible. Having placed the cart before the horse, we find ourselves helpless in the face of information overkill. As for my second element, the logic of neoliberal market capitalism: within that context, historical knowledge has no practical utility or economic value and is reduced essentially to the status of a “hobby” (more specifically: a left-wing hobby, as right-wing politicians in my country like to add). It is perceived as an object of mere private interest or leisure activities, like going to the Opera, so why should society support it with taxpayers’ money? The results of these ideas have become obvious in recent years. In so far as we are still learning history at all, we tend to focus on isolated episodes from the modern and contemporary period (with World War II as an all-time favorite) and on social, political, and economic history. Ancient and pre-modern history is becoming irrelevant (“it’s all over, isn’t it?”); and most importantly, we are losing sight of the general storylines of Western cultural and intellectual history (not to mention non-Western history, in spite of all the talk about globalization). Over the last ten years or so, I have seen my students become ever more clueless whenever I referred to such things as “Late Antiquity”, “the Middle Ages”, “the Renaissance”, “the Scientific Revolution”, “the Enlightenment”, “Romanticism”, and so on and so forth. Most of them have only the vaguest ideas about when that was, what it all meant, where it all came from, and why they should care. In short, we are rapidly losing our sense of orientation in historical time. But if we no longer know where we come from, this means we cannot tell where we are; and as a result, we will finally lose our sense of who we are. This is because human beings are wired to define their identity through memory: individual amnesia means we no longer know who we are and what we’re all about, and historical amnesia does the same for society as large. We become clueless, disoriented, directionless.

 d. Evaporation of Values

 Which brings me to my fourth point. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, there’s no better way to describe it than as a fundamental evaporation of values. In a way, this brings me full circle, for I began by highlighting the fact that neoliberal capitalism recognizes no other values than those that lend themselves to economic calculation. The notion that something has value in and for itself – intrinsic quality, not measurable in terms of quantity – is literally impossible to consider or even imagine within the neoliberal/capitalist paradigm. It’s like asking a mechanic to take account of the color of a machine: he won’t see the point. He will tell you that it runs just as well, regardless of whether the cogwheels are painted green or blue. And he is right, of course. But colors do have value for us as human beings, and so do values. Color doesn’t matter to the machine, but it matters to us: we attach value to it. Now where will we get our values under conditions of historical amnesia? This is not a matter that can be figured out by “finding the right data, getting the right information”. Beyond some very basic values grounded in animal biology (e.g. “pleasure = good / pain = bad” – but even those can be reprogrammed, as anyone knows who has studied the history of martyrdom), we basically get them not from information but from culture and memory: values are literally “cultivated” from one generation to the next, on the basis of what is remembered. We used to pass on values derived from European culture, notably classical antiquity, Jewish and Christian religion, Enlightenment rationality, and modern science; but instead of living traditions, these have all become mere options of consumer choice, available to us as a bewildering mass of unassorted data that come without criteria or guidelines for selection and evaluation. Please note: none of this implies that values are necessarily good. For instance, Islamic State is currently cultivating a set of values that not just condone but actually advocate the murder, rape, and torture of “infidels”. But horrible as they may be, these are values, part of a much larger and functional valuation system for which these people are willing to sacrifice their lives. So we have no reason whatsoever to sentimentalize “values”; but we should recognize their incredible power of motivation, of bestowing a sense of meaning and direction, of telling people what things are worth living and dying for. What I’m claiming here is that our reigning paradigm of neoliberal capitalism combined with rampant information overkill and historical amnesia leaves us clueless in that regard. We are deeply insecure about our values, because neither “the market” nor “the data” can provide them. This makes us incredibly weak in the face of cultures or ideologies that know perfectly well why we are here and where we should be going.


So where should we be going, and why? I began by admitting that, these days, I often feel like the Elves. Winter is coming. But perhaps I’m too much wedded to the past. Perhaps I’m in a state of mourning, simply because I’m too much in love with European culture. In spite of all its horrors, crimes, and tragedies, I still love and admire it. I hold it dear for its incredible beauty, wisdom and – not in the last place – its profound ambivalences and never-ending struggles. At the end of the day, I prefer to see the history of Europe as a hero’s story, a story of how we have been trying to improve ourselves in spite of ourselves, setting ourselves goals that might be impossible to attain but that we tried to reach anyway - often at great cost to ourselves and to others. I don’t want to believe that this struggle has been pointless. 
So where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t presume to have the answer, and I surely cannot look into the future. I’m just trying to gain some perspective here. One thing seems clear to me: surely the only way forward is by setting our sails precisely towards what we are currently lacking. To discover what that is, we might ask ourselves what the two basic factors of neoliberal capitalism and information overkill share in common. It seems to me the answer is very simple: the absence of quality. Neoliberal capitalism is incapable of handling quality and therefore converts it into quantity; and the replacement of knowledge cultivation by information overkill requires that quality be sacrificed to data accumulation.
So what we need to do is ask ourselves the question that Robert Pirsig asked in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): what is quality? Don’t be fooled by appearances or first impressions: this is not just an abstract or philosophical question, suitable for polite discussion with a glass of red wine in the evening. It’s an existential pursuit, inseparable from the search for true values. If taken with full seriousness, and if deeply understood (and I don't pretend that I'm so successful in doing either, for it’s very hard to do) it will claim the whole of our lives and determine all that we do. We might ask this question explicitly, or just implicitly, perhaps using different terms, or expressing it through action rather than through words. But it will still be the pursuit of quality.

So that is my suggestion for a light to guide us towards the exit of a long tunnel that, admittedly, I have been painting in very dark colors. Perhaps it’s not much, but it’s the best I have to offer. It is not an answer but a question – not a fixed goal to be reached, but an open path towards the future. If we stop asking this question – because we have lost interest or just don’t see the point – then I’m afraid it’s all over with us. But I don’t think that will happen. Even with “brain change” working against us, I have to believe that the search for quality is just too deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. Even with the daily attacks of hypnosis by the popular media, to which we are all exposed, human beings will keep looking for values and meaning – simply because we cannot help ourselves. So I guess that’s my message for the New Year: Stay awake! Let’s refuse to be fooled. Let’s not allow ourselves to be lulled into compliance with a meaningless world made of markets and data, for though it dominates the present, it literally has no future: nothing to strive or hope for. Let’s keep using our imagination to look for what’s real.


  1. Thank you, a great article, i was indeed doing the same thoughts recently. The decline seems irreversible right now but who know. Happy New Year.

  2. This is a fine article, and it articulates many things I've been vaguely thinking about as well. Habermas's "colonization of the lifeworld" by system seems to be almost complete. I have some guesses about what comes next, but they're not very hopeful.

  3. Thank you indeed for a finely-woven essay, Wouter. There are some, in ancient traditions such as the Sufi Way, who work on a much longer time scale and who still remember – but such precious heritages, too, are in danger of becoming distorted or forgotten: here in the West (because of consumerism and neoliberal capitalism) and also in their original homeland, the East (because of the rise of narrow-minded, intolerant and militant Islamism). Let's hope that there really is light at the end of the tunnel.

  4. With an echo of Etienne de LAmour's comment, may I suggest a visit to the website of ISHK (The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge)? I believe you will likely find yourself in good company there. Their "Human Journey" project takes a "wide and luminous view" of human history and its influences.

  5. s I read your comments about neo liberalism I realized I had encountered this mania for measurement well before Mrs. Thatcher arrived on the scene. In graduate school in the mid 60s I had strong reservations about the emphasis on measurability. It wasn't monetary units back then it was 'educational objectives' that had to specify 'observable behavior'. The very definition of learning was 'an observable change in behavior'. I was flabbergasted inwardly because I knew very well the most important things I had learned in life were inside me and invisible. There was a mania for measurement which I slowly realized derived from management in business as Robert McNamara's Management by Objectives came into the academic world. I dubbed it managerialism. And had many of the same objections you do to economic rationalism. But I think historically they are two stages of the same mistaken impulse when applied to education. It is a category mistake to try to measure the transmission of values in education and a double category mistake to then further reduce the measurability to monetary terms. To illustrate the difference between the two, you can quite correctly apply behavioral objectives to the task of learning Latin irregular verbs, but you are hard pressed to argue for having a Latin department at all under the strictures of Neo Liberalism. As you point out values like Quality are not actually measurable. And I don't think it stops there historically . The mania for measurement goes back to the hard sciences' success in the 19th century leading academic disciplines in the social sciences to imitate the hard sciences. The push for behavioral objectives that I encountered in the US in the 60s was in part driven by the hope that the gains seen in science and in manufacturing in the 19th century could be duplicated in Education. Ultimately, I think It goes back to the privileging of reason in the intellectual enlightenment. In any case you have noticed that Pirsig addresses this issue very directly in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with his discussion of Quality. If you haven't read it Pirsig's Lila he addresses the tendency of social sciences - specifically anthropology - to adopt the attitudes of the hard sciences so that the character Dusenberry in the novel is unable to get his PhD thesis about quite subjective relationships to the local Native Americans accepted at any American university. In any case nice to see these issues being addressed on the web. All I could manage was to grouse to a colleague over a beer.

  6. Thank you very much for this great essay.