‘Creative’ Functionalism and Continental Philosophy at Middlesex

1 Aug
By Paula Gilligan
On May 10th, 2010, the management of Middlesex University in England shut down its Philosophy Department. This act provoked a spate of letters in the newspapers. Now, while the general attack on the Humanities in the United Kingdom has been going on for some time, –for a good many years before the credit crunch, as any lecturer in non-English languages will testify– the events in Middlesex are interesting because of what they tell us about the current state of the academy, and about what the Government and the elite classes regard as its purpose.

The man behind the closure, one Ed Esche, the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, said that this department made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the University. As the Department and its students mounted their defence online, more details emerged as to what the management regarded as a ‘measurable contribution’. The University’s financial statements are its charter and they tell us that the institution’s aim is making money. Middlesex operates like a feudal shire–each Department is required to pay a tithe of 55% of their ‘income’ to the ‘Centre’–the Department of Philosophy’s sin was that it only managed 53%. Humanities academics, foolishly harbouring the hope that success on the Research Assessment Exercise will keep them safe, can get cold comfort from this event. The department’s significant ‘esteem’ (‘impact’s’ precursor in the RAE) in the fields of continental and radical philosophy has undoubtedly delivered a tidy return in research income in the past for the University. [1]

On the surface, the Middlesex management’s actions suggest a functionalism, which appears to offer a dose of hard realism to the ‘sherry-sipping’ denizens of this ivory-tower of humanities scholarship. The management said that the number of BA philosophy students the Department attracts is ‘unsustainably low’.  There were two types of arguments against Middlesex’s apparent utilitarianism in the letters and articles on the subject. The main defence, and, I believe, the most dangerous one for the Humanities, pits this type of functionalism, represented as hard and austere (and associated with science, technology, and business), against the soft and yielding human arts, who are, it would appear, in need of protection. The defence of arts and humanities enquiry has traditionally been driven by a defence of culture itself–or at least the prevailing understanding of culture. This is, apparently, done in the public interest, in order to contribute to a ‘civilized’ (but oddly not civil) society. This other function of ‘public culture’, as it is constructed by the knowledge economy, leads us to the role of the arts and the humanities in the generation of capital and in the generation of spaces for social elites. This economy is constructed as somehow separate but equal to the knowledge economy: this is the ‘creative economy’. [2]
We can see this creative economy in action when we look at what Middlesex offers. Middlesex University does not do science–it embraces the arts–or at least the ‘creative’ arts. The University website is full of images of creative activity, and boasts of a new arts observatory.  Its news includes numerous listings of awards given for artistic endeavour. Not a trace of the old polytechnic commitment to small to medium enterprise education and to the regional and social remit is left. Its business programs are laced with modules specialising in ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’.The creative economy positions Humanities scholars in three ways. The first is to act as an advocate of the arts as public goods and for the public good–but this is based on particular understandings of culture as an ‘antidote’ to the uncouth tendencies of untrammeled capitalism.  The second is to ‘educate’ students, rearticulated as consumers/clients for cultural consumption, by exposing them to ‘culture’.  Thirdly, the humanities scholar offers a form of quality assurance for the arts consumer. A lot of the polemic around ‘the arts and the humanities’ are saturated with elite Eurocentric understandings of culture as ‘the best that is thought and said’, and a return to aestheticism and formalism. The words ‘soul’ and civilisation’ crop up a lot. The defence of the Humanities is invariably linked to the defence of the ‘Arts’. We are seen to have common cause, united against the scientists, who are ‘winning’. We need to start questioning this assumption.
Although grateful for the intervention of arts academics outside their own university, the staff and students of the Department of Philosophy, we can guess, were perhaps more aware of this problematic relationship with the ‘creative’ arts than the blogs reveal. They made no attempt to defend the Department on these grounds. Rather they used hard facts, an arsenal which includes data, figures, projections, to expose the lies embedded in such managerial ‘functionalism’–the biggest lie being that ‘income-generating activities’ bring in income to the University where teaching does not. [3]  Still the Department remains closed. Such functionalism, when not openly exposed as the sham it is, eventually reveals its own shortcomings when qualifications and degree programs are no longer fit for purpose, just as functionalist buildings are not fit to live in-but that is not important. As Henri Lefebvre comments, ‘the real purpose of ‘functionalism’ is that it eliminates critical thought’. [4]
In the articles and the blogs, some commentators make oblique reference to the possibility that the Middlesex Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy’s left-leaning views may have led to the Department’s closure. [5]  The students say that the decision is ideological, but do not say more. Following the suspension of a number of student protestors and of three members of staff in June 2010, there are more open references to the issue of the future of critical thought in the blogs. A quick look at the EU calls for submissions tells us that the type of philosophy taught in this Department represents one European tradition that the EU super-state is not anxious to fund. The creative economy (to paraphrase Lefebvre), is a domain without limits but equally the domain of (free) critical thought is without limits. While we can concern ourselves (and do) with art which is truly free, we can, and must, critique the functionalism masquerading under the umbrella of ‘creative’. The aesthetic of this new functionalism is limitless, as it appropriates all ‘creativity’ into itself. The choice presented is stark–either we embrace the creative and knowledge economies with all that entails, and make a ‘measurable contribution’ or we leave the University to the creative classes and their managers. [6]  In the world of the creative economy, critique has become split off from ‘creativity’-arts research has become ‘practice-based’. Humanities-type research serves to quality enhance the conceptual and technological art preferred by the global art markets and to create a further barrier to access to this elite creative class. De Certeau’s famous question: ‘who is allowed to create?’ is forgotten. [7]  Critical theory is either fetishised or banished.
It is very tempting for Humanities Scholars to join the ‘creative classes’ as the EU research funding bodies understand them, but it is dishonest, and its advantages are short-lived, as the creative economy invariably calls on us to renounce free critical thought, which is seen to be negative and not ‘creative’. One of the suspended lecturers at the heart of the Middlesex protests, Christian Kerslake, has made a strong, unpopular, and brave stand in defence of an open, equal, and accessible quality undergraduate education in the humanities-a commitment to public education which requires real sacrifice from academics. If the field of the Humanities is to survive at all, it must start here, with the defence of our public remit–even if it means pulling away from our old relationships, painful as that will be, and finding new allies among the marginalized and the disenfranchised inside, and outside, the academy.Paula Gilligan is the Head of the  Department of Humanities at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, in Ireland, and co-ordinator of its Centre for Public Cultures. She teaches cultural theory, popular culture studies, the cinema and right-wing cultures in France, Ireland, and the US. Forthcoming publications include Ireland and French Cinema 1937-1977 (with Irish Academic Press).


  • [1] Building on its grade of 5 in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, in the 2008 RAE Middlesex was rated first in philosophy among post-1992 universities, with 65% of its research activity judged ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.
  • [2] ‘Even in narrow economic terms it must be wrong to neglect the importance of the creative economy and the importance of a rich and vibrant museums, galleries and cultural sector for tourism’. Letter to the The Observer, 28th of February 2010, signed by Prof Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and a number of other academics.
  • [3] The argument that they had only 12 students in the honours undergrad stream does not wash when you look at the numbers of postgraduate and fee-paying MA students in the Department’s Centre Research in Modern European Philosophy, not to mention the Department’s contribution to the undergrad programs of the rest of the School. There are currently 63 postgraduate students in the Centre: 48 MA students and 15 PhD students. 5 PhDs were awarded in 2009. See http://savemdxphil.com/2010/05/01/faq-on-the-financial-situation-of-philosophy-at-middlesex/.
  • [4] Henri Lefevbre, The Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, Translated by John Moore, London: Verso, 2002, pp. 189-195.
  • [6] In fact four of the lecturers have decamped to Kingston University, bringing the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) with them, and leaving two of their colleagues behind them.
  • [7] Michel De Certeau, Culture in the Plural, (Translated Tom Conley), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p.33.

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