Review: Imperial University, Introduction

Chatterjee, Piya, and, Maira, Sunaina. (2014). “The Imperial University: Race, War, and the Nation-State.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University (pp. 1-50). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

What does it mean to run a university ‘normally,’ when that which normalizes is antithetical to the very nature of the university? This is the question Chatterjee and Maira aim to answer in the opening chapter of their edited volume on the imperial university (2014). For these latter, the said university is characterized by multiple binaries, including: the protesting students (joined by faculty members) and the storm troopers, and certain faculty member’s paradoxical insider-and-outsider positions as members of the privileged tenured professoriate whose research and teaching material is critical in nature. With responses to the War on Terror and the Occupy movement having repercussions for the academe (i.e. the downsizing of universities and the cutting of critically-engaged faculty) in the form of a military-prison-industrial complex, the authors highlight four overlapping areas particular to academic repression in the imperial university: imperial cartographies (the racial construction of the state, the practices of the military, and the ideologies pertaining to civilizational superiority), academic containment (the regulation of that which is allowable and warranted to express in national culture), manifest knowledges (the concepts and politics that undergird social understandings of it is freedom, democracy, and citizenship entail), and heresies and freedoms (the undermining of academic freedoms by neoliberal practices).

A topic of great debate in class discussions was that apropos of the word ‘imperialism.’ What was meant by the term? Is the term essential to the construction of the university as we know it (i.e. if the system of imperialism external to the university were eliminated, would the institution change?)? Is the term ‘imperialism’ specific to the US, or can it be seen as a global phenomenon? Does the lack of definition of the term constitute a weakness, or strength, of the chapter? Should the term be unpacked, or has the chapter instead produced a discombobulated mess that must be packaged into a ‘whole’ identifiable as ‘imperialism’? Does a term other than ‘imperialism’ exist which could better represent what is taking place in US universities? Much like an ethnography that does not aim to answer the world’s questions, but rather pushes the ethnographer and those reading the ethnography to question those categories that have been created and reified over time, one might then say that this chapter, and specifically its liberal use of the term ‘imperialism,’ gives the reader not answers to the complex phenomenon that is the current state of the university, but rather the tools to ask new questions about how ‘business as usual’ is maintained in the academe.

An interesting point raised in class was that of the omission of factors internal to the university in maintaining it as a military-prison-industrial complex – for instance, the omission of those forces within the university that demand research be conducted in a certain way. At face value, neglecting those forces within the university might appear to be counterproductive to the project of understanding that which creates the imperial university. But what would one accomplish by exploring those factors internal to the university? One might say that such an endeavour would lead to a greater focus on those things within the university itself, rather than on the university proper. In this chapter, where the authors present the external factors impacting the imperial university – the military, the prisons, and the corporate world – one might say a panoptical-type point-of-view has been taken, whereby these external institutions have their gaze fixated on the university, but the university itself cannot see these institutions. In so doing, then, the university is brought to the foreground and the institutions acting upon it are pushed into the background. Thus, it becomes easier to depict the university as normally ‘peaceful’ (2014: 2, 12), mainly because those factors acting on the university are hidden (but are brought to light in this chapter). Here, one might say that an understanding of the imperial university must focus on those things external to the university, precisely because these are easily hidden from the establishment itself, which thereby facilitates the process of using the university as a central point of study.

Looking at those factors internal to the university, however, might lead to further exploration of not only the practices therein, but also the individuals that make up the university, thus shifting the focus away from the establishment that is the university to the individuals constituting the institution. Here, one would no longer have, so to speak, an ‘anthropology of anthropology’ (or an anthropology of academia), but rather something of an ‘auto-ethnography,’ or even an ‘oral history.’ Interestingly, this raises another interesting question about the process of anthropologizing anthropology: most notably, what kind of methodology should be used? Here is a topic that could have been explored in some depth by the authors.


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