Vignette: October 2019

Seema Amin | Published: 00:00, Nov 05,2019 | Updated: 00:32, Nov 05,2019


The boundaries of the state should be the boundaries of the university

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, 1937, qtd in Why Universities Matter


THERE was a joke on the table, rather long-faced, only sensible in the corners of a certain man’s eyes. ‘Freedom of thought,’ he said, ‘Chapter 42, Minima Moralia.’

The man’s name, you may have guessed, was Theodor. The place, however, mind, was not Frankfurt; the country, not Germany. And the two great wars, between which the named philosopher had prevailed, had been reduced, at present, to no more than daytime discussion of that obscure classical subject: History. Those gathered in the university dining hall this night, erstwhile, were taking part in a somber but illuminated affair, each set of candles reflecting the eyes of the Indian horned-owl who stood guard atop the far Eastern wall, and whose lights merged in the glass table.

At the other end, directly beneath its gaze, the host, a certain Sir, who had recently discovered the joy of the portmanteau, through the combination of old and new buzzwords into a single buzzing ‘hot’ term, was seated. In emphatic English, tinged with a slight Indian rhythm, different from the full-bodied consonance of the Bengali-accented version of the others, or, for that matter, the German-slant of the guest, he spoke:

‘…that is what is needed, Theodor, at our universities to save, literally, the children. We must compound the modifier ‘critical’ onto the modifier ‘mukto.’ Can any of you young men and women, the future of the nation, rise to the task. Grab it while it’s still hot.’

Critical Mukto. Thinking Chinta? Thinkta? Criticalukto? No…The sounds of intense note-taking resolved the unasked question, even as the gentleman, the sole white man among them, intervened:

‘What on earth do you mean by this term, critical thinking? This is exactly what has happened to concepts as the unity of thought is broken down and separated, we get such terminology.’ Adorno seemed adamant. A certain confusion prevailed — the more confusion, the scarcer the commodity of that sparkling quality: ‘The Clear’. Was he obfuscating?

‘Is critical thinking not mukto chinta, sir? Should we use the either/or to clarify this?’ But Adorno continued unphased.

‘If I might continue, I would like to first elaborate,’ and, clearing the throat, he did, ‘The separation of the only two elements whose unity comprises the life of philosophy, reflection and speculation, stems from suppression by science…Speculation is hit hard from the outset by the separation from reflection.’

At this point, a young man in a black shirt, with four white letters across the university insignia, interrupted:

‘Science? Sir, science?’And it became clear the young man’s shirt had the letters ‘E’ for engineering, and possibly B — while the motto beneath it ran ‘proud to be eccentric.’

‘Pseudo — he means pseudo, bhai.’ A girl shushed him. Another one asked:

 ‘…speculation is hit hard…It either degrades into the compliant parroting of traditional philosophical schemes or degenerates, in its distance from facts which have been rendered blind, into the babble of a non-binding private world view. Not content with this, the scientific enterprise incorporates speculation into itself.’ The corners of his eyes, twinkled, as he continued, ‘And that other word is even more obscure. My chapter is called Freedom of Thought. Not, ‘freethinking,’ but the whole point, in any case, is to dismantle the notion that there is such a thing as a free thought. ‘

‘Sir, can we say then, as in Adelaide, where some of us are going or there, as in Melbourne, or even there, as in the US of A, whence many of you took your borrowed graduation caps and gowns, that the new system of university management, following the late 1930s, with its corporate structure of line management, and commodified objectives and subjects, with its Human Resource Cell, and its endless innovations of form, i.e. tech, is an extension, at the level of the university, of your idea on how knowledge has been separated in fields like Psychiatry or Philosophy?’ A young man to the left of the host, and opposite Adorno, had spoken.

Adorno, recognising a know-it-all, when he saw one, smiled benevolently:

‘In deed, young man, I see you’ve read the book Why Universities Matter published in 2000, a collection of essays that will greatly elucidate you on why universities flatter, and that intellectual servility and bankruptcy is no more than the cherry on the top of intellectual homage to ‘thought’, that is nothing more than a product of his alienation from thinking. In fact, from being itself.

‘But how is this accomplished, the reduction of so-called though and fundamental inquiry? Through the ‘jargon of management? Accountability, performance indicators, appraisal, efficiency’? Or by acknowledging the boundaries of the state?’ The youth quoted from his book.

Here some of the red t-shirts smiled, though grimacing; erstwhile, the night looked out from its startled moon. An owl presided over the clock, which said, 11 pm. October.

‘… this was published after my death, but I do remember the future, sometimes. However, however, this ‘new’ system you are talking about, was taking over a system, as you have implied, that itself had its problems: learning managed towards national and military goals, whereas now, we bemoan market instrumentalisation. Even military funding has been helpful for some research, mind you, but as you say, the boundaries of these institutions are not really lines, are they. They are moving frontiers.’

The host of the programme, that man with the singular accent, inserted, ‘I see.’

‘Critical Thinking is Objective Five in our World-Bank funded Quality Education Project...’ This came from a young man with rather long hair.

‘What is the cost, again, from our latest estimates?’ This was the host, suddenly anxious.

‘Mukto Chinta costs, well, the cost of your internet broadband and WiFi.’ This from the sardonic long-haired youth.

‘It is not so much that this Conceptual Tool comes as such, but of course it is a systems approach, and the process of modification it triggers, of all concepts, all words, of the boundaries of knowledge, i.e. the boundaries of the university, makes us beg the question, why not. Why not Mukto Critiquing?’ The Benglish of the host of the dinner rang hollow, for all its hopeful buzz.

‘What about free thinking, sir, have you not heard of this either?’ The young man changed the subject, returning attention to our philosopher.

‘Surely, he’s heard of it in Facebook.’ One of his mates insisted.

 ‘My theory is not called freethinking, it is not a portmanteau. Freedom-of-Thought…,’ he continued the elocution, ‘expounds the notion that science has led to the suppression of philosophy through the separation of speculation and reflection, in others words this seeming freedom is nothing but the reduction, dimunition, degradation of thought…it’s like this endless reiteration and circulation of the notion, in our classrooms, of the word hegemony. If we had actually thought the word, could we be where we are now? When the thinker’s sense of self ends in ‘Bangla’ and begins in ‘Hindi’, that little word hardly gets a ‘reflection’ in the mirror of our selves.’

‘So we are not free, sir?’

‘Do you feel free, young lady?’  Quipped a rather beautiful middle-aged woman, seated somewhere between the two gentlemen, who appeared to be some kind of Students Activities Dean.

‘Ma’am, I believe I am free to speak about being free. And as such, I’d like to please start a seminar on The Critical…’

No you can’t, this came from the Owl presiding over the occasion.


The Critical Cri—




The host of the event clapped his hands, as though to adjudicate between parties, and the Owl’s monosyllabic soul receded into the darkness:

‘That will be all, Chancellor and President of the University, if you don’t mind.’

‘Young lady, would you please let me know, what is affecting your mental health, so to speak, and obscuring your thoughts?’ The Dean of Student Activities now scrutinised the wrought girl, who was shaking, and the glass table beneath her doubling her face-down stance.

‘The TV, sir. It is the TV. The Facebook sir, it is the Facebook. River erosions. Man-made. These broken legs. Footage of Abrar carried, like a wife in a hand-made carriage of hands…over, and over, and over, again. Oh yes, and I’ve forgotten...’

‘You can speak of CT and MC. Yes you can,’ and the host put down his palms on the glass.

‘Yes but I was saying—’

‘NO, free, you are free. Just remember.’ The host repeated.

‘Yes but he was saying—’ 

‘CT M—Stop. No more.’

The host gestured an apology to Adorno, who remained silent; he was still in awe of the Great Owl’s comings and goings.

Another student, just then, raised his slightly bandaged arms, speaking to the host, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind, I’d like to clarify, how can you use Facts without Reflection? How is this possible?’

‘A fact that is pure speculation cannot take distance from the real, the object, nor can it conceptualise its reality.’ Adorno clarified

‘So, for example, sir, I have been harassed, beaten, threatened and my followers tortured, since I was elected head of the Students’ Union. Is this a fact?’

‘Of course, young man.’

Nervous energy and rustling of napkins, hisses and ‘shushes’. But the man, continued:

‘Then what part is speculation, what part reflection, of this, my condition?’

Shooo, shooo.

‘Speculation is the part that associates, and wonders; reflection, from a certain ‘objective’ distance, grounds the facts in that speculation, and resolves to ‘think’ its basis, process, consequences, possibilities.’ An older student had spoken.

‘I am impressed. Thank you. Yes…there are many possible analogies to this process of thought and it’s so called broken freedom.’

The student continued, turning now to the host, in his high chaise:

‘So for example, sir, you are writing a book on the great deeds of our Supreme Chancellor and Owl, including poverty alleviation in rural areas, terror alleviation in urban dens, etc…Clear words for such clear servility!’ This time the host was embarrassed. But, Adorno seemed flushed with a different emotion:

‘What they are doing, young man, is showing you the meaning of intellectual bankruptcy. For example, you, a man on scholarship in this great engineering institute, the very height of poverty alleviation, are being driven into terror in your dorm: the two ‘successes’ derive just one statistic from you: the intensity of your reality easily overrides any data gathered by a lazy public servant on a sunny day.’ Adorno continued, ‘But if we did gather data…using you as the rate of success…what would we find?’

And the Owl, out there, as if out of the very walls of the great hall, hooted: ‘Chinta koro, chinta koro.’

And even more mystically, the man intoned, from the annals of his own words:

‘Instead of comprehending the facts, behind which others are barricaded, it hurriedly throws together whatever it can grab from them, rushing off to play so uncritically with apochryphal cognitions, with a couple isolated and hypostatised categories, and with itself, that it is easily disposed of by referring to the unyielding facts. It is precisely the critical element which is lost in the apparently independent thought. The insistence on the secret of the world hidden beneath the shell, which dares not explain how it relates to the shell, only reconfirms through such abstemiousness the thought that there must be good reasons for that shell, which one ought to accept without question. Between the pleasure of emptiness and the lie of plenitude, the ruling condition of the spirit [Geistes: mind] permits no third option.’ And with this bit of direct self-plagiarism, a silence dropped like weird weather, hot dew, over the table.

The audience, each an island smiling at itself, gathered their own thoughts. Some, half-tattered in the ragged interiors of those chairs, others, waiting for the garbage man to pick up the discarded and ruined fragments, half-thoughts, half-questions, half-answers, that had once, speculated on this, the tenth month of the year.


Seema Amin is a writer and lecturer.

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