The Noble Critic of Online Education: Agamben and Techno-Fascism


Panel discussion hosted on June 23, 2006 in Second Life by the Berkman Center at Harvard University. Image by Flickr user John Lester (cc)

by Emile Bojesen and Ansgar Allen

Professors who switch to teaching online are the ‘perfect equivalent of the university teachers who in 1931 swore allegiance to the Fascist regime’. So says Giorgio Agamben, notorious this year for arguing against ‘the frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded emergency measures adopted against an alleged epidemic of coronavirus’ by the Italian state (an argument he later attempted to nuance). Agamben received his due, but will he be similarly excoriated for his most recent attack directed at the ‘new dictatorship of telematics’, that is to say, the move online?

What is striking about Agamben’s latest missive is how it bundles up the easy accusation of fascist complicity with culturally prominent and widely accepted educational sentiments. Repellent in the context of critical theory, his thought resonates with a particular strain of educational idealism.

Agamben displays a particularly elitist and fanciful vision of university life: a medieval model, as he recognises, of small student communities gathered together in study groups, eyeing one another up, greedily, as they look for intellectual companionship. Those who lament the supposedly poor experience of today’s student probably still have a similar vision of earnest co-study in mind.

We also find great emphasis on the ‘physical presence’ of the teacher, which is so important to the teaching relation, he claims. Agamben makes the case that, ‘Part of the technological barbarism that we are currently living through is the cancellation from life of any experience of the senses as well as the loss of the gaze, permanently imprisoned in a spectral screen.’

It is worth asking how institutions that already offer online courses for those who cannot gather in one place, and those whose lives do not fit the model of the resident, full-time student would be measured here. Still, many teachers have lamented, in recent weeks, that teaching remotely is not what they ‘signed up for’, that the beauty of teaching loses its attraction with the shift online, where close, interpersonal teaching relations take on a different flavour. Agamben appeals, once more, to ideals that will still resonate with many educators.

Nonetheless, Agamben’s invective against professors ‘who agree — as they are doing en masse — to submit to the new dictatorship of telematics’ will come across as absurd to those who actually do the work he ‘defends’. Not least because the idea that professors (like him) would be doing much of the teaching, whether on or offline, is impressively detached from the reality of contemporary universities, where the vast majority of the teaching is conducted by junior, precarious staff, who would not have their contracts renewed if they resisted a move online.

Given the so-called complicity of the professors, Agamben suggests that students ‘who truly love to study’ should revolt and form their own universities. But again, Agamben conveniently ignores the economic and cultural capital that the university still offers those who study there – an especially important feature for those coming from families who do not share his well-established privileges.

Of course, Agamben is right to note the deplorable condition of today’s universities. They have indeed ‘reached such a degree of corruption and specialist ignorance that it isn’t possible to mourn them’. But Agamben is rather too optimistic (and idealistic) when he suggests that the university has almost ceased to exist. While arguing that after ten centuries the university has finally reached a point where it ‘ends forever’, he fails to imagine an even darker prospect.

Worse than the prospect of it ending forever, is the continued existence of both the university he deplores and the university he seeks to preserve. The problem with today’s university is not its end, but that it grinds on, and carries forward all previous forms, including all fanciful notions of its purpose. This university continues, not as a fascist institution, but as a self-organising machine with its own internal dynamics, insatiable appetites and heavy inertia. This system will continue to support a diverse and conflicting array of social conceits, procedural inanities, and reactionary intellectual habits.

In such a system, which has no scruples, the socio-aesthetic elite-making process of ‘study’ can continue untouched as an ideal. Indeed, that ideal, Agamben’s ideal, and the ideal of many university academics, is, ironically, more likely to persist given the current threats to less well-established institutions with much more inclusive student bodies. Individual universities – smaller, more precarious, less swaggering organisations – may indeed cease trading, leaving the more prestigious and wealthy universities in place, transformed no doubt, but still seated, securely, in their conceit, not unlike the prestigious and wealthy professoriate they support. This group will be the most capable of absorbing the shock and avoiding collapse, justifying its existence not with the logic of fascism, but with the promise of its socially, economically, and politically ennobling presence.


About the Authors:

Emile Bojesen is the author, most recently, of Forms of Education: Rethinking Educational Experience Against and Outside the Humanist Legacy.

Ansgar Allen is the author, most recently, of Cynicism and Wretch.