Luhmann argues that every autopoietic system has this sort of intra-systemic dimension. Autopoietic systems are, above all, organized around maintaining themselves or enduring. This raises serious questions about academic political theory. Academia is an autopoietic system. As an autopoietic system, it aims to endure, reproduce itself, etc. It must engage in operations or procedures from moment to moment to do so. These operations consist in the production of students that eventually become scholars or professors, the writing of articles, the giving of conferences, the production of books and classes, etc. All of these are operations through which the academic system maintains itself across time. The horrifying consequence of this is that the reasons we might give for why we do what we do might (and often) have little to do with what’s actually taking place in system continuance. We say that our articles are designed to demolish capital, inequality, sexism, homophobia, climate disaster, etc., but if we look at how this system actually functions we suspect that the references here are only intra-systemic, that they are only addressing the choir or other academics, that they are only about maintaining that system, and that they never proliferate through the broader world. Indeed, our very style is often a big fuck you to the rest of the world as it requires expert knowledge to be comprehended, thereby insuring that it can have no impact on broader collectives to produce change. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that our talk about changing the world is a sort of alibi, a sort of rationalization, for a very different set of operations that are taking place. Just as the capitalist says he’s trying to benefit the world, the academic tries to say he’s trying to change the world when all he’s really doing is maintaining a particular operationally closed autopoietic system.
Bryant does a much better job summing up McKenzie Wark’s point about academia than I did yesterday.
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