The Picnic Managers: Prasanta Chakravarty

This is a guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY.

Writing in the Encounter, September 1961, Edward Shils characterizes the Indian student in the following terms:

“Your curiosity, idle or ordered, takes you to an Indian university or college. You walk across the dusty sun-stuck grounds or through damp, dark corridors and past malodorous lavatories; and you see clumps of boys, chirruping like birds, an occasional pair walking hand in hand, sometimes a little knot of girls in pigtails. They look extraordinarily childlike, with all the melting tenderness of children, terribly shy, soft-eyed, gentle, fragile, and very quick to smile…Their voices are low and soft, their movements light, elastic, lamb-like. If one of them, darting about in the suddenly ignited outburst of a boyish prank, nearly collides with you, he aplogises with timorous embarrassment. If you ask one of them where to find a certain professor or the head of a particular department, he will go far out of his way to lead you to the right place, and you will be impressed by his shyness and deferentiality. When he has delivered you to your destination, and you thank him, he will say something like ‘Not to mention’ and will turn and dash off as light-footedly as a young deer.”

Though this portrayal might look like a paternal, approving gesture from the liberal sociologist, he is actually quite censorious about what he calls the non-attachment of the Indian student and lack of a Weberian vocational ethic in the Indian mindset. This self-sacrificial withdrawal from routine preparation for a life of adult responsibility also reflects upon a lack of research mentality in the academia. The Indian student, Shils says, is more of a sadhu without a cause and less a philistine even when he indulges in bouts of rebellion and indiscipline. In short, Shils laments the partial modernization of the higher academic space in India.

Needless to say, that prototype has changed quite dramatically. The children of the so-called post-disciplinary, knowledge society are neither philistines—which ought to be a compliment even as that lonely, abandoned community valiantly fights the civilizing hordes of Hebraic knights and bishops—nor self-abnegating sadhus.  We are increasingly left instead to deal with a flock of pedagogues and students who peddle precocious mediocrity and semi-corporate bureaucracy, neither enamored to further the humanist/Kantian disinterested scholarship, nor in actively intervening in transformative social or democratic causes. The knowledge society, especially in its social science incarnation, stands for the abandoning of both action and contemplation. It prefers to work through ad hocism and periodic tactical moves instead, since it finds academic imagination alien and antagonistic to its temperament. And it spreads such grandstanding in the name of interdisciplinary research initiatives and radicalizing the academic milieu. But the most ironic predicament is that this knowledge society cannot, and does not, even fully partake in the exchange of knowledge for individual interest and corporatization of education, a universe which it champions otherwise.

There is a unique contradiction in the way new knowledge society initiatives in higher education operate and unless that is resolved, the whole endeavor will end up breeding fresh configurations of governmentality—make-ups that the movers of such change ostensibly sought to overcome in the first place. I am referring to a chasm between the idea of democracy, an ideal that inherently ought to resist disciplinarian structures and the idea of academic capitalism, which thrives on centralization of knowledge and on pragmatic procedures and accounting. While the long nineteenth century patrons of knowledge, Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘state nobility’ with ‘cultural capital,’ neither had any serious investment in democracy, except for a certain universalist claim of knowledge, nor had any impetus to produce a managerial class of problem solvers, the new centers of learning professedly seeks to radicalize the society by doing both these exercises at the same time. The onus therefore lies with these new post-Fordist managers to come up with a way to resolve this opposition built into the very notion of knowledge society.

One would recall the ideal of pastoral care in liberal arts colleges being targeted by Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California multiversity system, in the early nineteen sixties in the name of professional/vocational training—ausbildung. The educational institute was supposed to service the economic needs of the society and produce technological expertise. This was the time when natural theology and moral value of knowledge was targeted by the mass social order, which urged specialization and discipline through a research university. Kerr sought to forge a pact between university and the society. Kerr’s multiversity welcomed disciplinary experts that would produce an active and responsible citizenry—away from Kantian disinterestedness.

That pact between knowledge and state stands fundamentally disturbed today. So, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam presses for “a combination triangle consisting of progressiveness of industry, technology push and governmental deregularisation status.” Such a plateau is marked by some basic variables. First, university will no longer dominate the field of knowledge production. Second, the idea of research is no more producing know-how for the state but for providing base data and certain behavioral details to the industry. Research is based upon the pragmatics of problem solving for the user—which is supposedly the society, but actually the new age client. In addition, research is primarily undertaken to generate finance for the institute’s survival and only secondarily for academic purposes, if at all. Third, a fragmentation of knowledge—through projects—whereby new ad hoc managers define their domain of applied operation. Agency and knowledge must be decoupled. Consequently, the idea of organic intellectual is jettisoned.

The Logic of Competent Democracy

One key argument of the new quasi-managerial approach in social science research and education is the actual involvement of users in production, dissemination and exchange of knowledge. The citizenship argument is not disavowed but is modified in order to highlight a kind of cultural and technological citizenry that the society produces. We are supposed to be in the business of fostering democracy.

In this context, a former colleague once egged me to name a single public/academic figure who could claim to be beyond the tentacles of the market. Taken by surprise, I began thinking real fast, randomly running names in my mind—from G. N. Devy to Shankar Guha Niyogi—no, somehow an immaculate and pristine platform could not be established. And then I began to reflect on my quotidian existence and about my teachers: individuals who chaperoned me through the intricacies of the Chartist movement or teased out layer by layer, in its full sublimity, Lear’s utter abjection and madness in the topsy-turvy heath, relativizing and dismantling the idea of power and kingship itself. No, surely Ernesto Laclau or Sukanta Chaudhuri would also pay a visit to the local greengrocer before boarding on to the bus for their respective universities. An ever smiling visage of an acquaintance flashed past: Balaidada, who had simply and undemonstratively spurned a tenured position at a prestigious US institute and now, keeps on touring the interiors of Bengal and Assam with a traveling drama troupe. Many of you have always known such losers—but may be they also occasionally play the winning game in their heart. And then I thought of Gandhi being pilloried by a host of his interlocutors for hobnobbing with the business class. I thought of telling my colleague that one is always aware of one’s complicity and yet keeps ajar a tiny ventilator, a wicket gate, for evading the order of the day. That gate leads to an otherwise useless and nonsense space, but that very uselessness ought to be a cause for concern for the ushers of discipline, as any official having to deal with the nuisance of heresy and sedition have always recognized. There is a lucid difference between engaging with and accepting the strands of domination and hierarchy.

But expectedly, at their best the ushers fear chaos in vagrancy and detect unproductivity in such listlessness. The logic of late capital is rather a natural disposition to the knowledge society. And this trust in fair play and equal access in the market informs the actors to believe in a merger of regions and geo-political constellations, circumventing the nation. They underscore new scapes of flows and circulation—capital, human and intellectual—as the foundational basis of this brave new world. Naturally such a position refrains from bearing out the full logic of labor and production, as also of any classical system of education.  It systematically removes the scholar, the activist and the manual worker from the scheme of things—superfluous visigoths all.

One cannot miss the typical nouveau European dimension of this beast, in its imagination. Unlike the blunt US bludgeoning machine, the new structures of education are more insidious and glossy. Notice for instance, the very rubric: knowledge society, which serves a double purpose. It accents its supposed distance from the information society—so marking the investment in human and social capital and resources and in multiple technology growth engines. It also immediately engrosses a lot many well meaning liberals and the undecided do-gooders within the ambit, those waiting to discover a mitigating succor in the very naming. Besides, the promoters typically do not emphasize competition, but international cooperation instead, creating an arena of social opportunities for the creative class, a bizarre neologism for this skilled and competent breed of workers.  Needless to say, it is highly quixotic to think the hierarchies in the global market will melt away and tiers of skilled social science workers will cooperatively engage in a hunky-dory shared universe. We are right now witnessing colluding governments and free marketers siphoning off liquidity from second and third tier capitalist nations and from all sorts of social safety net mechanisms within each nation, in order to resuscitate machinations of pure greed. Already applied workers from certain geo-political locations are discovering that some of their co-workers are more equal than others—and in that game at least, the color and texture of one’s passport is quite important. These—succeeding tiers—in turn vie for the pie in the food chain, playing the regional satrap (National University of Singapore or Lingnan University in Hong Kong are such large regional service providers, though smaller research centres play a more cutthroat game)—selectively channeling varieties of knowledge bases, expertise and of course grant money, if privy—to be doled out to the friendly, subordinate institutions and human capital.

A reigning mantra of our time is of course synergizing multiple disciplines and expertise. But to what end such convergence? Mainly to ensure customer care and competitive edge. Let me elaborate. The knowledge society in a way thrives on the naturalistic argument that there ought to be an enabling, master discipline that would construct and harness the so called inter or post disciplinary apparatus. Sometimes it is technology; in other times cultural or developmental studies provide a unified cause and effect understanding of the socius in order to be tailor made, digestable for client application. Francis Bacon used an ur version of such a naturalist idea of unity in conceiving nature and society in early modern Europe.  Interdisciplinarity becomes another name for an organizing principle, replacing the old disciplinary hegemony. The original idea of convergence stressed non-reductionism—that the conceptual and methodological fecundity in various disciplines could be fruitfully used for analytical purposes. A post-disciplinary society directs us to a different kind of interdisciplinarity: that of problem framing, problem setting and problem perception. Interdisciplinarity is a functional fundament that will solve issues for the scientific-technological society. Social science will be outsourced to provide behavioral and cultural data for lay people, politicians and stakeholders. Hence, the need to synergize research with projects.

The argument is actually a toolkit for survival by employing second order utilitarian knowledge schemas, which actually is a form of domination—not just against conventional industrial, manual and agricultural work but also against all forms of critical thinking. A typical knowledge society dissertation or seminar-paper is more likely to be descriptive, trying to show the complex nature of the research problem. Cautious and shifty, it will refrain from taking a well-argued critical position, even for the market or for the networks of social circulation.

In fact, this knowledge society can ill afford to work with people seriously involved in their trade. The idea of cultural capital itself is a problem.  A historian doing needless archiving is an issue—things have to either discursive or utilitarian. A political scientist delving deeper into institutional workings or overtly engaging with daily structures of politics will not be looked upon too kindly. The study of aesthetics has always been undemocratic, a brooding elite preoccupation—and besides, it severely clashes with the idea of creativity that the knowledge society proposes. And philosophy? Let us not even get there.

This lowering of bar in criticality has a direct bearing upon less tangible aspects, say day-to-day functioning of a typical knowledge society institute. A new order breeds a kind of peculiar peer to peer exchange that is founded on a premature consensus on most issues. Solidarity becomes instrumental. Dissension inhibited. Time consuming democratic debates does not serve any pragmatic purpose. Reflexivity is client determined and not publicly geared. Hence, the most telling sign of such a conniving, secretive pickle: a complete distancing from actual social/cultural issues of the day. The issues are complex and multilayered—reserve your judgment and play the game.

The Logic of Academic Capitalism

In case one decides to scan this inane but crafty logic of democracy in some form, chances are that one will be written off as a naysayer on the grounds of being needlessly political (read activism of some form) or for being a naïve and throwback dinosaur (read classicist/deep culuralist) or both. In either case, the allegation is that of missing the pragmatics of the situation altogether and leading oneself to a cul de sac. So, let us look from the reverse side of the telescope and evaluate how corporate these new social science knowledge workers actually are. In other words, how seriously do they take individual security and the maximization of happiness quotient?

Let us revisit the former President of India and Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India for a working idea of the composition of the core areas in the knowledge society. We have an interesting array from Dr. Kalam: information technology, bio-technology, space technology, weather forecast, disaster management, tele-medicine and tele-education, technologies to produce local native knowledge products, service sector and infotainment. Where is social science and humanities in the scheme of things then? As always, relegated to the back-burner, as a necessary aberration in the scheme of things. The only space left for social science is to scavenge its way through the rungs of knowledge society by acting as a tertiary support system to the real thing.

And it is this tertiary nature, albeit always put across with much fanfare as the real thing, that thwarts the beast’s being seriously corporate. One fundamental point to realize is that many of today’s managers in social science were yesterday’s supposed radicals. And they are still convinced that this whole affair is a logical step that builds upon their radicalism but are unsure about the means to achieve such a blossoming farmed out system. For one, owing to their Marxian or left liberal training, the so-called institution builders feel vaguely apologetic to own up this turn wholeheartedly. Even for those who are more upfront, more than a question of diffidence, it is hard for them to imagine true capitalism, because frankly speaking, they were never integral to it. Hence they are unable to make the jump from procedural bureaucracy to enjoying the fruits of capitalism, except at one remove. Rarely do you have a pragmatic social scientist who also has a degree in business management. So, you are left with a particularly diminutive, half-hearted version of lifestyle practice in the mushrooming research institutions. It shows up in curious manners—in the way language or sartorial imagination is communicated, let us say. Try as hard they may, it’s rarely chic. Rather the effort shows—and you a have garish, baroque parody of academic capitalism trumpeted rather.

The attitude has more serious implications. There is a lag in professionalism—most apparent in issues of strategy and governance in managing the firm— which is where the real test of applying corporate knowledge management practices in higher education lie.  One benchmark for strategic planning and decision making is to support decentralization. Typically in social science institutes, you pay lip service to decentralization and carry on with consolidating a few existing structures or foment new poles of power. Rotation of office in various positions and committees is vital for decentralization, often missing again.

Creating a learning organization requires working with other important fundamentals: foremost being creating internal and external portals to be overseen by an office of knowledge management—if that is the pivotal idea anyway. A portal for internal organization catalogs strategic plans, reports developed for external audiences, clear data definitions, presentations of executives and so forth. The external portal organization cover benchmark studies, environmental scans, competitor data, links to research groups, publications and presentations of executives. Periodic markets watch documenting key trends and their implications for both administration and research seems to be equally important.  To the social science bureaucrats, such updating in management techniques is still a distant dream.

At the governance front, the audit culture in social science is once again an ill digested mechanism. Instead of accountability, accounting is the order of the day. Consequently, administrative power becomes centralized in the hands of few senior managers who take decisions swiftly, since academic self-governance is not time efficient. Oversight committees are rarely enforced. While actual firms are now more like traditional universities—giving employees paid sabbaticals and other forms of training possibilities, social science research centers are divesting itself out of such options taking an extremely narrow view of productivity. Also, at-will contracts with the employees are a crucial cog of this subsidiary, dispensable scheme of things. Creating and nurturing second and third generation of scholars, based on plurality of interests, even for purely institutional logic is often absent or unsystematic.


Am I then suggesting that an increased quotient in both democracy and capitalism will resolve the issue? Far from it, I feel this attempt to bridge the two is foredoomed because processes of pluralistic cooperation and conflict resolution will tend to further a steady middlebrow, half-hearted approach that travesties both serious democracy and serious capitalism. It is interesting to note that one strand of the knowledge society project builds upon new social movements, arguing that effective social transformation could be achieved only simultaneously and en masse, across national and transnational space. This approach of doing social transformation—and I have tried to discuss the educational component—is one astute manouevere in economic liberalism. It is finally an endeavor in winning, in arriving, in reaching destinations. It does not demand; rather it requests for freedom and rights in order to justify an intensification of discipline and control. Its chief antagonist is a democratic imagination that builds up on affinity, mutual aid and non-coercive relationships and revels in the journey itself and in the travails of our unique and checkered particularities. And its no wonder that such steady mediocrity will abondon both labour and speculation in its wake. In his Lectures on the Method of Academic Study, way back in 1802, Friedrich Schelling eloquently reminded us that fear of serious speculation, the ostensible rush from the theoretical to the practical, brings about the same shallowness in action that it does in knowledge. Much later, Tagore echoed similar sentiments in his Totakahini.

One need not be righteous or sentimental about this whole affair. After all, most of us do all kinds of things for a living—making structural adjustments, and that is fine. I just wish we have a good laugh at ourselves time to time and not shamelessly valorize our mundane predicament. And keep the record straight for posterity. Since I have mentioned Laclau, one must end this note by one of his favorite party quips about Juan Peron’s Argentina. Peron’s driver asks him which way he should go. Peron replies: “Same as always – signal left and turn right.”

Select References:

Shils, Edward. “Indian Students: Sadhus Rather Than Philistines. Encounter 96, September 1961.

Abdul Kalam, A.P. J. “Dimensions of Knowledge Society” Address for the Shri D.M. Singhvi Memorial Lecture delivered at the IIC, October 4, 2001. New Delhi: IIC Quarterly, Monsoon, 2002: 39-49.

Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Cambridge, M.A: Harvard University Press, 2001 (first published 1963)

Day, Richard J.F. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2008

Jurgen Habermas. Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann, 1972.

Tivey, Leonard. The Politics of the Firm. Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1978.

3 thoughts on “The Picnic Managers: Prasanta Chakravarty”

  1. you are amazingly opaque. you don’t even know how to make a point. btw, do you really have a point? i doubt it. anyway, you show us why we should not take the “acdemic type” seriously. thanks for that.

  2. “We are increasingly left instead to deal with a flock of pedagogues and students who peddle precocious mediocrity and semi-corporate bureaucracy, neither enamored to further the humanist/Kantian disinterested scholarship, nor in actively intervening in transformative social or democratic causes.” I think this is the key to your essay – certainly an excellent illustration in little of everything that’s wrong with it. Who is ‘we’? Presumably an extension of you, and you identify yourself as one who is neither precocious nor mediocre. In other words, you’re exceptional but, ah-ah, not too much so, or too soon. You knew your place with YOUR teachers, how dare these “children of the knowledge society” transgress allowable amounts of cleverness? Incidentally, you’re blaming their objectionable (and mediocre!) precocity on the society that produced them, and which you maintain is paradigmatically different from the ’60s which formed you (but which, citing Shils, were equally objectionable for different reasons – in other words you’re nostalgic for a student who never was, except your exceptional self). Your poor students have little choice but to be INHERENTLY offensive to you, by your own characterisation of them. And this proceeds into your condemnation of them for not being enamored OF (not ‘to’) Kantian, humanist, disinterested scholarship – so, Professor, you don’t even respect them enough to learn what they DO believe in, but clump them into one many-headed entity, impute an ABSENCE of the same allegiances you have – and which you characterise as the “good” side with value-loaded language and little else, and – hang them. The muddled and, pardon me, whiny attack on students is not helping your cry for ‘rescuing the teaching of the Humanities’ because what you sound like you’re saying is ‘Rescue me from these students, who are not fit vessels for the great learning I am capable of imparting, but only to people who are suitably deferential and agree with me entirely on political issues’. This is really too long and I suspect pointless, but perhaps you should have a good hard think about how, PRECISELY, a student “peddles semi-corporate bureaucracy” in a system where you, who have all the rights and powers he doesn’t, feel voiceless.

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