tisdag 9 april 2013

Of railway stations, universities and the curse of corporate ideals in free spaces

I am very fond of railway stations. Just as I like airports. There is something very democratic among travellers in those spaces, where everyone is there only to get to the next destination. At the same time, however, they are also places for contemplation and observation. We see each other in a different way there. We are stripped of our everyday roles and images, even though some do their best to uphold them. We are very (in a deep sense) human there and that, I like. Somehow it makes me feel less lonely in this strange and, for me at least, yet unresolved world.
A couple of days ago, I went to a meeting in Stockholm, as I do a couple of times a year. The train ride takes about three and a half hours, and I know the town well. I quite enjoy those trips, although I would never like to live there. When the meeting was done and I had a couple of hours to kill before returning, I decided to go back to the central station to get something to eat – there are a couple of places serving at least decent vegetarian meals there – and to read a good book (right now Frank Zappa’s hilarious autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book).  As I strolled around the ever expanding waiting hall, I noticed that something had changed. Practically all the benches where people used to sit, rest, read, talk to each other or observe were gone. The huge waiting hall was… empty. If I now wanted to sit and do those nice things, I had to go in to one of the many coffee shops that had been established along the sides of the hall. Or simply wander around in any of the many new shops selling stuff I don’t need. There had obviously been a change in the way that people were treated in this old, open building. They are no longer travellers or citizens. They are consumers. To sit and read, observe or talk do not render money, so away with the benches and put the people where they have to pay to sit. Then they can do whatever they are doing while waiting for trains. It is a striking picture of social development (or degradation). Social space has turned in to economic space. Thank you, Ronald Reagan (who started it all) and the subsequent non-thinkers of present Swedish politics. 

As I got on the train it struck me that I had not only seen a wrecked social space, I had seen a picture of Swedish universities – not least my own. Departments are seen as production units, students as consumers moulded to a marketplace of (un)employment and even the thought of ”free” research is opressed in the race for ”external funding”. A place where we once could read, observe, talk to each other, and see each other as human beings has been replaced by a system where intellectual space has turned into economic space. No benches are left to sit on.
My own university is extremely senitive to this development. Not only has it recently been re-organized so that it is now run more or less like a private corporation – all in the name of New Public Management. It has also been subjected to a large donation of research funds which is well on the way of killing every inch of free critical research in any of its faculties – not least in the arts and humanities faculty to which I belong. Suddenly the whole university is running like crazy for an, although ridiculously large, amount of money tied to ”research themes” dictated by ignorant corporate representatives without the slightest clue of how research is being done. Of course, critical (or ”free”) research is not what is sought for. Highly qualified researchers are used as marionettes in the pursue of further economic growth. Is that what we really need? It would have been a lot better if the absurd amount of money in this fund would be taken in by the tax system and then distributed to the Swedish universities to take care of without the muddling of corporate ignorance. This, of course, will not happen. It is too late. Instead I see good and capable colleagues nervously discussing how to "adjust" their research interests to fit requirements set by people who know very little, but have a hell of a lot of money. Somehow, the will of these people have been mixed up with the needs of society – there is of course no similarity there. It is just so sad.
Someday this system will crumble and break under its own weight. But not yet. As we wait for that to happen, is it possible to oppose, to stand beside all this? Of course. By not applying for their money. By focussing on ones own research, without letting others dictate the problems studied. By not running in the same direction as everybody else, just because management tells you to. By not believing the myth saying that ”this is the way it must be – the way it is”. Disobedience in these matters might bring some personal disadvantages, it might even lead some symbolic punishment. It is a hard system we have had imposed upon us. However, it would, above all, be a manifestation of integrity, and of belief in the value of free thought and critical research - in contemplation, talking, reading, observing. In order to do that we need somewhere free to sit. So, let us begin by carrying back the benches.