The University in Uncertain Times: Toward a New Form of Life?

by Sanzhar Akayev (Moscow, Russia)

Contemporary universities occupy an important yet peculiar place in our societies, serving as intersections of various intellectual, scientific, and economic practices that are tied together by a dual normative vision. This vision, familiar to those who have passed through the gates of higher education, dictates that the University (with a capital “U”) is a unique institution fundamentally committed to the production and transmission of knowledge. One can hardly argue against this imperative—after all, nowhere is knowledge produced more attentively and thoroughly, and nowhere are the traditions of teaching more refined and long-standing, than at universities that follow the “Western” tradition. However, due to recent cataclysms in the academic sphere incited by the pandemic, the second element of this vision has been deeply shaken and thrown into question. As classes moved online and in-person communication on campus gradually ceased, thereby halting the usual flow of higher education, many were quick to pronounce the temporary—or even definitive—death of university life.

Giorgio Agamben’s controversial and widely discussed “Requiem for the Students” provides a telling account of these theoretical diagnoses.1 In his essay, Agamben claims that “part of the technological barbarism that we are currently living through is the cancellation of sensory experience, as well as the loss of the gaze, now permanently imprisoned in a spectral screen.” More importantly, disillusioned with technology, he predicts “the end of being a student as a form of life.” But what makes student life (or university life) a form of life? Is it merely the physical presence in classrooms and on campuses that creates the possibility of “studying and listening to lectures,” exchanging opinions, forming study groups, and forging friendships?

To conceive of the University as a separate and unique form of life (one that is now in danger of disappearing), we first need to understand what constitutes a “form of life” as such and differentiate it from the closely related concept of “form-of-life.” These two concepts lie at the heart of Agamben’s philosophy, yet they remain somewhat vague. In Agamben’s account, “forms of life” are simply various ways of life conceptualized as “socio-juridical identities”—i.e., professions, callings, roles, etc.2 In this sense, our social life includes “multifarious forms of life” that do not cohere into something unitary and stem from the naked life in the constant state of exception that constitutes the political order of modernity.

In contrast, for Agamben, a “form-of-life” is “a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate something such as naked life. A life that cannot be separated from its form is a life for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself.”3 It is a life—human life—in which all its processes are “never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power (potenza).”4 Human beings, Agamben argues, are beings of power who can explore and actualize endless possibilities that are open to them, and what is at stake in our living is happiness—our lives are “painfully assigned to happiness.”5 Thus, the form-of-life is always a political life, since collective striving for happiness is often taken to be an essential part of politics (at least since Aristotle).

This crucial striving, however, is not available to us here and now. What stands between us and happiness is political power (potere), a power that “always founds itself—in the last instance—on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of the forms of life.”6 This political power is what stops different forms of life from cohering into one form-of-life. From the standpoint of Agamben’s philosophical project, this power is inextricably linked to the perpetuation and exacerbation of naked life, of the control over bodies and use of bodies that occurs in the constant state of exception,7 which is the hidden basis of our political condition.8 Thus, to merge life and its form to the point of their complete indistinction in the search for happiness means to establish a form-of-life that is free from (traditional) sovereign power and from naked, alienated life itself. For this reason, a truly political life which aims toward happiness and blurs the distinction between human life and its form “is thinkable only starting with the emancipation from such a division [between life and form-of-life], with the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty.”9

Here we come to the point at which the vision of student life as a form of life presented by Agamben needs to be re-evaluated. Agamben’s concept of form-of-life clearly clashes with actual academic practices that constitute contemporary universities, for the exodus from sovereignty, the deactivation of sovereignty in the form-of-life, presupposes the condition of freedom from political power (in the sense of potere), achieved by a messianic overcoming of our contemporary politics. It is messianic in the sense of transcending the conventional political processes centered on sovereignty and converting our political life into a collective search for happiness that would ultimately make happiness possible for humanity as a whole. In other words, this imagined exodus relies on a freedom that can be established only on the truly political grounds of “non-sovereignty,” grounds that, according to Hannah Arendt, are as rare as they are miraculous.10

It is clear, then, that student life before the pandemic cannot be thought of as form-of-life. But it can be thought of as one of those social identities that had a certain “form” and, in the end, could serve as one of the bases for the future form-of-life to come. The only problem with this outlook is that student life (or university life in general) has never been unitary in itself. Modern universities have always existed in a contingent manner, merging various norms, ideas, and structures into unique composite entities with different visions of communal life aimed at obtaining knowledge and truth. And they were always dependent, at least to some extent, on the fundamental political phenomena of modernity—hence, for instance, Michel Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge which delineates the hidden instrumentality of our knowledge and its crucial role in the formation of the so-called “regimes of truth” that define the societal conventions of normalcy and deviancy.

Old-fashioned views that criticize modern academic practices while tracing the essence of the university to its deep medieval roots11 (such as the image of a corpus mysticum brought together by the intellectual, as well as spatial, affinity of its members) may be enthralling, especially if they come in an esoteric guise. Even so, such views often posit a non-existent historical continuity and project it onto the past in order to re-define the present. The heterogeneous history of universities does not allow for such redefining. There is, I believe, no established tradition of the “university par excellence” for us to draw upon, no unitary form of student life to take as an ideal. In this regard, history does not teach us anything explicitly—and this is especially true if the current state of our societies can indeed be described as a de facto state of exception, further exacerbated by recent developments in public health. These exceptional times call for the intensification of thought: Agamben, for instance, directly points to thought as “the nexus that constitutes the forms of life in an inseparable context as form-of-life.”This call incites us to glimpse not into the past, but the future. And even if thinking the future is indeed a futile endeavor, a reflection on our normative vision of contemporary universities still needs to take place.

Engaging in such a reflection, one can hardly deny that the ongoing pandemic is a dire event which hinders our ability to meet and talk in person—but it can only hinder it so much. By now it is clear that strong (albeit small) communities can be maintained or even built without direct in-person communication. Despite the obvious burdens of online education, students were never barred from searching for new meanings and bases for their collective striving for knowledge. As it happens, thought does not require physical interaction as one of its necessary preconditions. Traditions of teaching, scholarly dialogue, and friendship fostered in academic communities cannot be disrupted so easily and so swiftly, and they lived on through all the tribulations of this trying time. To put it in Agamben’s terms, we, as members of academic communities, actually never lost the possibility of thinking together about possible paths to happiness and envisioning the form-of-life to come. In 2021, “every day is a day for critical thought and ‘today’—where this signifies the arrival and duration of the coronavirus pandemic—is no different.”13

Indeed, rather than accentuating the “physical” in-person side of university life and thereby fetishizing the changes brought about by COVID-19, we should instead reflect on the two fundamental goals that, I think, are rightfully ascribed to universities today, namely the cultivation of knowledge and its transmission to new generations. Despite the constant turmoil of higher education, these two goals still persist and define our academic life. Thus, the most important part of student life pertains to a domain altogether different from the one bound by spatial limitations. To search for a university life that would contribute to the formation of form-of-life means to search for constellations of academic inquiry and critique (explored by students and professors alike) that would actively reshape the complex relationship between knowledge and sovereign power, between university and “the city.” It means, first and foremost, to search for theoretical pathways that are subversive enough to disentangle—or at least grasp clearly—the complex bundle of bureaucratic structures, neoliberal economic demands, and socio-ethical practices that defines contemporary universities.

To this end, one of the intuitions behind Agamben’s peculiar stance is of value—his critical Foucauldian outlook on the problem of (bio)power, an outlook which is directly related to the idea of freedom from sovereignty. In this view, as previously mentioned, one of the central features of a meaningful form-of-life is the deactivation of sovereign power, not the simple neglect of it. What is crucial is that the action of deactivation is still an action, that it presupposes a dynamic of competing forces that constantly try to overcome each other—as in Foucault’s famous analyses of power.14 In Foucault’s vision, the coercive force of power, aimed at the arbitrary subjectivation of individuals, is inevitably met by the antagonistic force of resistance that provides individuals with personal means of becoming subjects, and this dynamic itself cannot be imagined without this clash. For Foucault, to resist means to discover modes of subjectivation that are not subservient to power. As he notes in his final lecture course at the Collège de France, we should construct the aesthetics of our existence by turning to ethical practices of self and technologies of self that, in a way, make our life and its form unitary.15

One of these practices is the practice of “veridiction,” or parrhesia, which can be described as a courageous, free, critical, and highly risky act of truth-telling that stems from our inner duty to speak frankly.16 Borne out of the political institutions of the ancient Greek city-states and later appropriated by thinkers like Socrates and Plato, parrhesia was a special notion which represented a rare and demanding practice, one that, as Foucault argues, stood at the foundation of Western philosophy and intellectual culture. In contemporary societies, parrhesia—transformed yet not forgotten—provides us with glimmers of thought that go beyond the usual level of critique in a subversive act of transgression.

The main strength of this “fearless speech” lies in its ability to embody the processes of self-constitution available to the modern subject. By promoting the virtue of courageous truth-telling, parrhesia incites intellectual resistance to the more subtle ways by which power entices students and scholars (especially those in the humanities) to draw a distinction between their life and its form—between their private life outside of the university and their academic endeavors. In the context of our (post-)pandemic times, this distinction can take many different shapes. It can, for instance, state that student life which includes online classes is necessarily a life alienated from itself, separating real people from their digital personae. Before drawing such distinctions, we should at least attempt to engage in a creative reimagining of the student life in (not outside of) contemporary universities—a reimagining that can, perhaps, revitalize the intellectual practices of our academic communities.

Are universities capable of giving rise to a true form-of-life, one that engages in thinking and aspires to be free from sovereignty in the pursuit of its desired ends (be it happiness, truth, or simply knowledge)? Of course, it is a radical possibility—but in these uncertain times, to think radically may be the only option. Severe crises often disrupt our normative understanding of how our lives should be lived and what should constitute them, provoking a change in outlooks, views, and theoretical positions. Mourning student life (or university life in general), as if it were about to end, is hardly prudent. The global situation in which we find ourselves allows us to reflect on what we take to be the core values of higher education—and to understand where to point our gaze in the search for possibilities waiting to be actualized. One can recall here Friedrich Hölderlin’s famous verse: “But where there is danger, also grows the saving power.”17

1. Giorgio Agamben, “Requiem for the Students,” translated by D. Alan Dean, 23 May 2020 [19 October 2021].
2. Giorgio Agamben, “Form-of-life,” Means without End: Notes on Politics, translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 6.
3. Agamben, “Form-of-life,” 3-4.
4. Agamben, “Form-of-life,” 4.
5. Agamben, “Form-of-life,” 4.
6. Agamben, “Form-of-life,” 4.
7. See Carlo Salzani, “COVID-19 and State of Exception: Medicine, Politics, and the Epidemic State,” dePICTions 1 (2021) [19 October 2021].
8. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
9. Agamben, “Form-of-life,” 8.
10. Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?,” Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, London: Penguin, 2006, 142-170.
11. See, for instance, Simon During, “The Right-Wing Medievalist Who Refused the Loyalty Oath: On Ernst Kantorowicz, academic freedom, and ‘the secret university’,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 November 2020 [19 October 2021].
12. Agamben, “Form-of-life,” 9.
13. Iain MacKenzie, “What’s the Point of Critique, Today?,” dePICTions 1 (2021) [19 October 2021].
14. Michel Foucault, Power: The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, edited by James D. Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley, London: Penguin, 2019.
15. Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth (The Government of Self and Others II): Lectures at the Collège de France, 1983-1984, edited by Frédéric Gros, translated by Graham Burchell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
16. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1982-1983, edited by Arnold I. Davidson, translated by Graham Burchell, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
17. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Patmos,” Harper’s Magazine, translated by Scott Horton, 16 July 2007 [19 October 2021].