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The Irvine 11, the Police, and the Autonomy of the University

[The Irvine 11. Image from latimes.com] [The Irvine 11. Image from latimes.com]

The recent conviction of ten University of California students of two misdemeanor counts of disrupting and conspiring to disrupt a speech given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on 8 February 2010, points to the stifling of free speech and academic work and inquiry in the university.

Three of the Irvine 11 are students at the University of California, Riverside, and two of these UCR students have been my own: Taher Herzallah and Shaheen Nassar. Both were studious, inquisitive, and engaged, modeling for others, in their behavior, what being a university student ought to be about. I will even say, if memory serves, that I may in fact have been interrupted by them, and by other students, on more than one occasion. Yet this interruption is neither negative nor privative: it does not prevent or hinder speech or thought, but it gives place to them. It is not that interruption stalls the university, but that there will have been no university without the interventions, provocations, and interruptions of our students.

The institution of the modern university has a complex history, but it emerges largely out of two broad events in culture: the persistence and morphing of the medieval European, Arabic and Latin, traditions of learning, and the changes that took place around the ideas of learning and education (in Greek, paedia) and culture (in German, Bildung) in the European Enlightenment. Perhaps the most important text about the institution of the modern university is one by Immanuel Kant entitled The Conflict of the Faculties (1798). What we would call today the humanities and social sciences, Kant called the faculty of philosophy, and he explains that this is the faculty “whose function is only to look after the interests of science” because “it may hold whatever propositions about science it finds good.”

Yet to think in this way is not simply to think freely. A thought that was simply free—without others, and without the sense that it already responds when it begins to think—would not be thought. The objects one receives, and their appearance as possible objects of study, belong to this aporia, and work in the university begins, if you will, in the unfree freedom it remarks. Teaching and writing in the university do not decide on an object in advance (i.e., the history of a country, the literary production of a poet), and then expound it to students (in teaching) and colleagues (in research). Rather, that object’s being what it is or is supposed to have been is persistently placed in question, and this is why Kant used the word “whatever” in the passage I cited above. This placing in question points to the freedom of the university, and of those who teach and learn in it. And it points to what the university most essentially is; it constantly interrupts itself to be itself and do what a university must do: produce insight without grounds of certainty.   

This is precisely what the Irvine 11 intended. They contested the speech of an ambassador, and one who has also been a university professor. In doing so they refused to frame their own ideas solely as a response to his. In contesting his speech they sought to reframe the grounds of debate, rather than to debate on terms set in advance by another. To do so, to place the very framing of the questions we ask in question, is to insist on the right to think in the way the university distinctly insists that thought must take place. The prosecution of UC students in a juridical proceeding criminalizes this act of thought, and it therefore disregards the autonomy and legitimacy of the university. It marks the intervention of the police and the judiciary into the university in a way that subordinates the university to those institutions, curtailing what Kant called the right of the faculty, if also of our students, to “hold whatever propositions about science it finds good.”

The case of the Irvine 11 surely points to more than what I gesture here: the institution and proliferation of Islamophobia and its relation to Orientalism and the history of racism in America, the question of Palestine and everything we continue to receive under the heading “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the state of Israel and its relation to American policy in the Middle East and North Africa, if also elsewhere, and more. But with all of this, the case of the Irvine 11 is also an event about the university. It remarks the increasing marginalization of the university institution in relation to others, indexing its deepening privatization, and pointing to its persisting capture by the logics and institutions of capital and the state.

There is no university without the interruption of the other—all of the others, without exception, and without end. The case of the Irvine 11 points to the urgency of this. We abandon it, and them, at the risk of ceding the university, of giving it away, marking our complicity with the erosion of an institution, and a way of thinking, that we need now perhaps more then ever.

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