The word ‘university’ is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium,(Latin: universtas, ‘a whole’) which roughly means ‘community of teachers and scholars’. The term ‘university’ was first used in the 14th century. But, as we know from history, there existed well-established universities much before the 14th century, including Nalanda University. Certainly, the term ‘university’ may not have been used, for example, Nalanda university was known as Nalanda Mahavihara. That is to say, the transition from ‘Mahavihara’ to ‘University’ and thousands of similar transition from different regional terms to the singular term ‘university’ might have transformed the idea of the university itself. That is why we need to interpret the term ‘university’ itself in various ways. A few are presented here:
First interpretation would be, broadly speaking, from a ‘modern’ perspective, where the term ‘University’ can be divided as ‘Uni’ + ‘Verse’, a singular abstract space where knowledge is produced and spread in a rhythmic pattern. Here, the idea of the university will be always above the level of local pre-modern social elements. A University is a space for the abstract universal social group like teachers, scholars, students etc. In the space of the University, modern social groups exist as just students, neither as Dalits nor Brahmin etc. Here, more often than not, the job of the university is closer to the role of the civil society. Where civil society/university will serve as a complement to the state. University will produce knowledge that would either stabilize the state or will limit the critics to the state. The ‘modern’ university plays the role of the universal agent in every local society, whose purpose is to modernize the society and transform it. They will also provide the critique of the state/society but their critical agency would be always ideologically the ‘modern’.
The second interpretation would come from the critique of ‘modernity’ itself, what can be said as, ‘Postmodern perspective’. Here, the term ‘uni’, into university, would be taken in a negative sense. This is a kind of the killing of all the different ‘particulars’ for the ‘singular’ project. University will play the role of homogenization of various heterogeneous, diverse and different societies. University and its space completely miss-out the concreteness and reality of society and always try to impose the knowledge. What Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of The Oppressed, would say Bank-deposit knowledge system. Where, knowledge is not produced to solve the problem, but, to accumulate the knowledge itself. And, accumulation of knowledge provides the hierarchical relationship in university spaces. This accumulation of knowledge also divides society into inferior and superior domains. Where, inferior domain is the object of study to the superior domain, but the subjective role of the inferior domain will never be allowed. Broadly speaking, we can say that inferior and superior domains of society are political and civil society respectively if we use Chatterjee’s terms. However, political society is just a subset of the inferior domain as there is also, according to Chatterjee, a marginalized society which is neither political nor civil society but treated as inferior.
Now, one can see the changes, in the postmodern age, in the age of identitarian or communitarian politics, the sacrosanct and institutional space of university in particular and civil society, in general, has come under suspicion. In recent days, universities and its institutional spaces are frequently under question for being casteist, sexist, racist and for, all other kinds of discriminatory attitudes. Certainly, these questions are coming from post-positivism perspectives. Now, it has become clear that abstractness can’t be completely apolitical or value-neutral. The very process of abstraction itself coming from one/some particular values, but it claims its truth as universal through militant practice that effectuates it. That is to say, the modern university and its production of knowledge are based on violent absolute truth. But, the rise of identitarian and communitarian force and its concrete truth has challenged the ‘emptiness’ of universal truth.
Now, even in the university campus, people are not just abstract categories- students, teachers, scholars, etc – but they also exist with their social reality, with concrete identity. They have expectations of the university, not only of providing abstract knowledge and making them aware of it but to solve their real social problem. We can also call this an expectation of, in Paulo Freire terms, problem-solving knowledge system. There is a high demand, from postmodernist categories- identitarian groups, for transition in knowledge system. That is why conflicting relations between institutions and these new forces have become common these days. This is not just against formal institutions but also against the institutionalized or established powerful groups, who represents the modern and abstract categories. For example- Conflicting relations between BAPSA and JNU institutions and between BAPSA and Established Left organizations like AISA, AISF, DSF, SFI etc. At the one hand, JNU institutions are exposed as being casteist, sexist by these post-modernist categories like BAPSA, Pinjra Tod etc, on the other hand, the modern categories like AISA, SFI and all try to reduce these attackers to a pre-modern politics. Where the ‘modern’ groups blame the new forces as having become a danger to the institution itself. On the other side, these new forces will agree that they have become a danger to this modern established institution which, for them, is just a complement to the state, an agency of homogenization, an example of hierarchical knowledge system for hierarchical social order.
Interestingly, similar kinds of changes one can observe in civil society itself. For example, earlier Jantar Mantar was a known space for modern categories, civil or the ‘superior’ society, who were demonstrating there in very civilized and modern styles in terms of law and rights etc. But, recently the same place was captured by Tamil Nadu farmers- political or ‘inferior’ society itself, who were not protesting in a ‘civilized’ manner, instead, they were on strike in a rough way but that was their reality and concreteness. That dirty and rough life is their reality. So, one can say that this is a kind of de-civilization of civil society or institutional space but one can’t ignore that this is what their painful residues of modernity (kinds of problems that belong from pre-modern times but as a remainder or residues of the process called modernity). One more example we can observe from Jantar Mantar itself. There was a protest by Mewati Samaj, just after few days of ‘Not in my name’, where the Muslim community from Mewat was protesting against the brutal killing of Junaid Khan. There were not saying like the civil society that there is nothing to hate in my name, we all are equal human beings beyond our religious and caste identity, we all are citizens of same constitutions, that really sounds good but neither true nor forceful. Junaid was killed because of his name, his equal citizenship was limited to the abstract constitution. At the concrete reality level, they were never equal. So, Mewati Samaj was not talking about abstract constitutional rules but was demanding justice for their painful residues of modernity itself. We can say that broadly speaking, the modern project of civilization, starting from civil society to political society, itself has been getting reversed into de-civilization of civil society, by making political society as an independent subject.
We should really welcome these changes but should not celebrate it. We should welcome these forces because, it was earlier non-existant and according to Alain Badiou, every non-existing thing brings new truth to the human subject. The human subject is a truth process which always has fidelity/love to add new non-existing truth into its subjectivation. According to Badiou, truth always emerged with the immanent break from the existing subject. The break is immanent because break does not happen in a vacuum but it is a supplementary process, a process of subjectivation.
And, we should not celebrate these new forces because celebration will again make this group absolute and immortal and will stop further truth-process, that is to say, further subjectivation. For example, the group of dalit forces must be welcomed, but this group itself must not become a rigid category or fix subject. People generally give the argument that we need a fix political subject to get an objective truth – emancipation. This can’t be true because groups are not natural, this is the exploitative power that had forced them to be categories of sameness. Badiou says, ‘same is not what is but what comes to be’. We can see there are not a single or two natural things that are completely similar to each-other including twin brothers or sisters, including any two leaves of the same tree.
This means that differences are our natural and intrinsic characteristics. This is the sameness that was established through power. Nietzsche would say this is through torture every civilization has come into existence. That is why we can easily find differences within any social group because their homogenization project is still incomplete. Immortalization of any group might come against the universal homogenization project but its internal homogenization process will continue, where again, within that group, any exploitative subgroup will divert or high-jack the objective end – emancipation. The subgroup will never let the group collapsed, which had come into existence through the exploitative power of sameness. Thus they will try to present this particular group as immortal and absolute universal category.
And, again, this category of universal will come from one particular group, that is to say, ‘universal-as-imposed’. We need to come out of this empty universalism and objective absolute truth. According to Badiou, the truth is always a process of subjectivation. Truth is not absolute but a process which comes into appearance with every supplemental event (an event which can supplement any new truth into it). The continuous infinite addition of events into subjectivation process will lead towards universality. Universality is not objective truth, but subjective truth process. That is to say, universality is not ‘universal-as-imposed’ from one particular over everywhere, but ‘universalizing-in-itself’ through encountering with every infinite particular and subsequently with becoming subject/ subjectivation. Particulars are open for subjectivation process and universal is always becoming through this continuous truth process.
The third interpretation would be from, what we can call, ‘Badiou’s perspective’. Here, the term ‘uni’ would mean singularity and ‘verse’ would mean in a very conceptual sense, where we can find that every verse is completely open to interpretation. That is to say, the verse is a process of subjectivation, where every interpreter interprets it in his/her own way and add some new meanings to it. Similarly, the university is a space for truth production. And, the truth is not fixed and repetitive. That is to say, instead of producing knowledge based on objective absolute truth, the university should construct her own problems. University is first and foremost this: the invention of new problems. As Lacan puts it, ‘truth is what makes a hole in knowledge’. That is to say, the break with the established knowledge to invent new problems is the process of truth. For example, the invention of the proletariat class was the invention of new problems/ new truth.
The university is a space for the singular truth process in which different social elements will participate and encounter with established elements and will come out with new truth and this singular truth process will continue infinitely.
In JNU, the left was dominant for a long time but just outside the JNU campus Munirika village is an extreme example of conservative forces. So, we need to understand that power is always opposite to the truth. Power always derives from the violent conversion of truth into absolute fix truth, which legitimizes its power and that further stops the emergence of new truth. That is why we should separate the space of truth process from power politics. In this way, maintaining distance with power, the university can continue inventing new problems and new solutions, which would further provide alternatives to established structures.
There are practical problems are real as the university is not working in a utopian space. That is why the university needs some combating power to save her autonomy where truth process can work freely. But, one should not get confused between combating power and structural power. Where structural power comes only from established or existing structure, combating power can come from non-existing but existable structures. One always expects a combating role from student unions against the fascist forces like VCs and others. One might also expect from them the representative role for student issues. But one can never see the absolute solution of any particular social problems into them. There is a limitation with student unions. That is to say, student union should not take the responsibility to lead the whole nation/ society against the government, this kind of role limits a university to the role of the civil society only, which is the other side of the coin of established structures.
Instead, student unions are supposed to make sure that the university can work freely for the truth process. Obviously, here the work of the university is not limited to the production of knowledge and teaching process but the whole process of invention of new problems and new truth that would certainly include the campus politics. But campus politics should not be confused with power politics, instead, it should be a source where new problems can be invented. Politics is in itself a truth process, which is not limited to the electoral system. Campus electoral system should not be understood as campus politics. Campus politics should not be about to elect but to make campus active, interactive and talkative for ideas and problems. So, all the group of students who believe in truth as a process and university as an infinite truth procedural space should come together in a temporal electoral system to keep out those conservative forces who try to resist the changes itself. Here, again, in the electoral system, one should not participate through the party or ideological alliances like the left union in JNU, it should be directly group of students who want to protect the idea of the university as truth process.
However, campus electoral system can’t be completely isolated from campus politics, where the invention of new problems might demand representation in the campus electoral system itself. The group of students, who participates in campus electoral system, to continue the truth process of the university, should always make way for the new problem/truth. Only in this way the campus politics can continue the invention of new problems/new truth and all the time the new group should be given the representative role to make it visible, that university is the space for the invention of new truth.
One can question that the new group will not be able to fight against the resisting/ conservative forces. Yes, this may be true but only as far as the other existing forces will try to establish themselves. For example, dominant Left groups in JNU always proclaimed themselves as the only representative of #save JNU. It might be little believable, if not true, but only if they don’t back the new forces, only if they become obstacles of the invention of truth, only if they want the establishment of their own truth. No one will say that Marxist-Leninist ideology was not the truth. It was the same invention of new truth. October revolution was one of the most important truths of the last century. Similarly, the Cultural Revolution was an invention of the new set of problems with the new set of solutions. But it does not mean that it was last truth, it was not absolute and immortal truth. If one believes that Marxist-Leninist/ Maoist ideas can be resurrected, they might be completely right.
There would be space for every group in campus politics, there would be open space for resurrection and invention but they should not be given place in campus electoral system or representative role as far as it is not resurrected, because visible and representative space of university needs to declare that it has fidelity/love for the invention of new problems/new truth. A university space and its campus politics might produce the new construction of problem through the resurrection of early 20th-century event that would incorporate the truth of postmodern or identitarian problems. But, they can’t completely ignore the same force by claiming themselves as the only protector of modern institutions against conservative forces. It was true that modern categories were new inventory problems or truth, who encountered with pre-modern forces, but at the same time these new truth- painful residues of modernity -have also come out of the encountering process with modern forces. This is the latest temporal truth which should always be open for encountering process with new non-existing or resurrectable forces to produce next supplemental event/truth. Practically speaking, one would say the established left in JNU and in other university campuses will never give space to any new forces in campus electoral system, then, it should be considered as the same as resisting forces like conservative forces who resist truth process. That is why all the students who want truth process continue must keep them also out.) Truth process is the only way through which university will become live subject. This is the only hope from the university that will resurrect it as a subject to truth-process. The university must need to get rid of the dead jobs of civil society, ‘dead’ because it has no capability to radically change the structure itself. The university is for inventing the impossible and making impossible possible.
1. Badiou, Alain; 2003, SAINT PAUL: The Foundation of Universalism. Translated by Ray Brassier; Stanford University Press: California.
2. Badiou, Alain & Slavoj Zizeck; 2009, Philosophy in the present. Edited by Peter Engelmann, translated by Peter Thomas & Alberto Toscano; Polity Press: Cambridge and Malden.
3. Badiou, Alain; 2001, Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil. Translated by Peter Hallward, Verso: London, New York.
4. Bartlett, A.J. & Justin Clemen; 2010, Alain Badiou: Key Concepts. Acumen Press: Durham.
5. Chatterjee, Partha; 2004, The Politics of the Governed. Columbia University Press: New York.
6. Freire, Paulo; 1970, Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Continuum Press: London & New York.
Vishal Verma is pursuing MA from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi and is interested in Critical theory, Students Politics and Social Movements.