Institutions are hybrids of corporeal and incorporeal machines. Being can be roughly divided into corporeal and incorporeal machines, with further subdivisions on each side and a variety of combinations between them. The distinction, however, is paradoxical. Just as Freud said that both hysteria and obsession are subspecies of hysteria, both corporeal and incorporeal machines are subspecies of corporeal machines. In short, every incorporeal machines requires a body to exist. Shakespeare’s Hamlet requires the paper upon which it is printed, the computer data banks within which it is stored, the neurons that retain it, or the sonic-bodies and physical bodies in which the play is realized through the voice of actors and their embodied movements. What makes an incorporeal machine incorporeal is not that it is without a body, but that it is iterable, or capable of being instantiated in a variety of mediums. Hamlet can be instantiated on paper, in a film, on stage, on a computer screen, on neurons, etc. It is still Hamlet in all of these mediums, though the medium, of course, can significantly transform the nature of the play. Here, for example, we might think of the variations of Beethoven’s Ninth in A Clockwork Orange. While the score is the Ninth in each of versions, the instruments and technologies that produce these sonic bodies in these instances transform the music in a variety of ways. There is both an identity and a difference here. We are affected differently by the synthesizer version of the Ninth than the symphonic version. The music produces subtly different affective and even signifying responses.
The corporeal dimension of an institution– a school, prison, hospital, government agency, library, etc. –is the architecture, place, or site in which it is housed. It is literally brick, mortar, glass, wood, and wires configured in a particular way. One will object that an institution like The New Centre has no building or site because it is online. Alternatively, one could argue that it is purely incorporeal. There are two ways of approaching this issue; both of which are valid. First it can be noted that virtual institutions still need a site to exist. They must have a web address, links, paths, a website, etc. This is both an architecture and a geography. The web design or configuration is its architecture, whereas its placement on the web through links and search engines is its geography. Neither are without consequence and both generate real constraints and affordances. We are all familiar with websites that are difficult to navigate and that affectively impact us in a variety of ways. Script can be too small or large. Color choices can be hard on the eyes. Programming can be used that limits the technologies that can access it. I can’t use About.com on my smart phone because it’s set up in such a way that I’m unable to navigate it. It’s as if it’s a building without doors or windows. I see that it’s there. I can navigate to it. But once there I can go no further. I have the wrong key. The architecture makes a difference. The geography makes a difference as well. A website can be a dim object by virtue of being difficult to find due to a paucity of links or a name that is shared by many other websites. Perhaps there is a website entitled “X-factor” that explores the paradoxes and antinomies that haunt thought. Whenever one searches for it a variety of porn websites come up and because the website is devoted to a rather specialized philosophical interest it doesn’t appear high in Google searches because few people visit it. Such a website is like a remote city, beyond a desert, difficult to traverse mountain range, swamp, or turbulent river.
The point is that the corporeal dimensions of institutional machines, virtual or material, matters. The architecture and geography of a machine matter. Foucault illustrated this point brilliantly in Discipline & Punish with the panopticon. The panopticon disciplines not by virtue of the inmates internalizing a set of symbolic rules and prohibitions, but by virtue of its physical architecture. The arrangement of space functions as a machine that disciplines the inmates, generating a particular type of subjectivity. Some of the most inspired pages of Discipline & Punish are not about the panopticon per se, but rather about how the arrangement of desks in a classroom, beds in a barrack, the assembly line in a factory, etc., function as machines acting on human bodies in a variety of ways. The configuration of hallways define the traffic of people getting from one point to another. Here a bottleneck will occur. There time will be structured according to the paths one must follow to get to their destination. Some people will be brought together while others will be separated as a result of these paths. The color of paint will affect mood and thought. The presence and absence of windows will have a similar affect. The architecture of a building exercises its own power, its own gravity, that machines bodies, affects, and movements. Teaching in an online forum, even where webcams are used, is profoundly different than teaching in a physical classroom. Such is the corporeal dimension of institutions.
The incorporeal dimension of institutions consists of rules, procedures, missions, goals, and categories that determine how things are done, what is sanctioned and unsanctioned, what the institution is for, what offices and titles there are, etc. A rule or norm is a machine both for judging action and producing action. Categories are machines for sorting and grouping people, actions, and entities. “Patients with ebola must be placed here, treated according to these procedures, and segregated from these people.” Here it becomes clear as to why virtual corporeal machines like webpages should be distinguished from incorporeal machines. To be sure, the webpage is only possible based on a set of symbolic systems that are incorporeal nature (programming code and procedures of coding). These, of course, are normative systems of their own like categorization systems at a hospital determine where patients are placed, how they are treated, who can relate to who, etc.; but the program produced by a code is more akin to the architecture of a physical building by virtue of how it affords and constrains our ability to navigate the website, than a set of norms, policies, categories, and procedures. These latter incorporeal machines act on bodies differently than architecture.
The incorporeal and corporeal dimension of institutional machines can be deeply at odds with one another. At the incorporeal level, early Quaker prisons in Philadelphia had a mission of compassion that believed in rehabilitation rather than punishment. Criminality, they argued, was the result of a moral and spiritual failing that could be rectified through proper mechanic techniques. This theory, of course, is its own incorporeal machine, defining both how actions are perceived or interpreted, but also how to act with respect to criminals. However, the architecture of these prisons was anything but compassionate. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in sparse rooms with little to no view of the outside world, and were required to remain silent. The idea was that such an architecture, the machinism of such rooms, would create a space where prisoners could reflect on their sins and come to correct their ways. In reality, this machine tended to engender madness and poor health. The corporeal machine produced effects different than those aimed at by the incorporeal machine of the mission.
The functional output of a machine can be quite different than what the machine intends. In graduate school I had a teaching fellowship that required me to attend a class every two weeks that discussed pedagogy. At those meetings we would spend a great deal of time discussing paideia, or pedagogical techniques (an incorporeal machine) for the formation of ethical and civic minded people embodying the ideals of the liberal arts. Roughly this was the Jesuit mission, which is in many respects a commendable and beautiful vision. However, while this was our mission, while this is what we aimed to produce through our pedagogical practice, we can ask if this is how our courses actually functioned. From an Althusserian perspective, one might bracket this mission and instead wonder whether the communication, writing, and reading techniques we were teaching were in fact contributing to the reproduction of the conditions of production under neoliberal capitalism, creating graduates suited for the middle management and administrative class. In teaching Pedagogy of the Oppressed our aim might be emancipation and the production of a form of subjectivity attentive to injustice and fighting against injustice.
However, we might simply be teaching our students skills to function as agents of that oppressive system. For example, as we teach our students the intricacies of Friere, we likely demand that they write grammatically, coherently, and that they develop strong arguments. These seem like innocent normative requirements. However, what is presupposed in order-words demanding grammar? Linguistics suggests that grammar is a cultural convention, and, in particular, a cultural convention tied to privilege; whether it be the privilege of a particular class or ethnicity. Linguistics has taught us that there are different cultural conventions surrounding grammar and composition and that what we call “ungrammatical language” might very well instead be a different grammar. Deleuze and Guattari do a good job illustrating this thesis in their poorly understood concept of “minor literature”. If this is true, our call for grammar is not as innocent as it sounds. The incorporeal machine of grammar is now a site of power relations and we are defending a particular form of privilege. There is the content of a teaching (Friere, Foucault, Butler, etc), and then there is the form of a teaching (the privileged ethnic, class, and gender codes we are unconsciously transmitting and that function to reproduce social relations of a particular kind). We might be pragmatic and claim that we are merely giving students the tools they need to succeed in the real world, yet in doing so aren’t we merely reinforcing that system of privilege rather than challenging it?
It is difficult to know what to do here. If we don’t transmit these “order-words”, we are condemning our students to live lives at disadvantage. We don’t want that. However, in transmitting those order-words, we’re failing to challenge that unjust system of privilege that’s the problem in the first place. What sort of machine can we construct to navigate this Scylla and Charybdis? As educators, we’re caught in a machinic ecology that traps us in a system. Our educational institution, our educational machine, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but exists in a world of other social and economic machines that we must contend with. We wish to create revolutionary machines, revolutionary subjects, that fight injustice and oppression and refuse to simply internalize the majoritarian codes of the social system that we inhabit. Yet if those subjects do not bend to those majoritarian machines, the face joblessness, hunger, etc. How to navigate this? We create all sorts of critical revolutionary machines such as ideology critique, semiotics, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis, critical theory, etc. Advertising, media, and news agencies then hire our students who, in turn, use these revolutionary machines to pursue yet more power and profit.
The question here is what a true revolutionary machine might look like. The signifier “revolution” is not enough, for this signifier– itself a sort of machine –can function as a potent tool against revolution. What neoliberal does not today talk about innovation, bucking the system, departing from established power, and so on? Truth-procedures and subjective commitment (Badiou) to a revolutionary project– enthusiasm and heroism –are necessary components of revolutionary machines, but taken alone these don’t amount to much. We need good maps of how power is functioning (Foucault, Marx, Butler, Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari, etc) so as to know what our actions need to target and what alternatives we need to produce.
With the university, especially at the graduate level, the problems are daunting. From the student side of the equation, we have crushing debt and joblessness. We can create institutions that significantly reduce debt and render graduate education affordable, but then we encounter the question of whether what we’ve created is credible to the larger academic world, i.e., will credit and degrees translate into jobs? Here we encounter an additional wrinkle. If we do manage to create an institution that doesn’t create crushing debt (and therefore enslave graduates to the system of neoliberal capital as they must bow to that system to pay off their debt) and that creates credible degrees, aren’t we still within the orbit of the dominant system of power insofar as these jobs are presumably in the very system from which we were attempting to create a line of flight? On the labor side of the equation, we have a similar set of issues. First, we encounter the neo-liberalization of the university in the increasing ratio of adjuncts to full-time and tenured faculty. To maximize profit and minimize production costs, universities increasingly hire people on unlivable wages with no benefits. Increasingly, we produce more educators than the market can bear and because of the educational machine they’ve gone through (made at tremendous personal and financial cost) the educators these machines produce find that they are ill suited for anything else. Our graduates begin life in state of poverty, 6 – 10 years after their friends and family (due to the duration of their graduate education) and find themselves consigned to a bleak future. We thus might alleviate the debt situation, thereby generating some emancipation by virtue of not enslaving graduates to horrible jobs just to pay their loans, yet in producing more graduates we still face the issue of finding a job at all. What sort of institutions can we create to alleviate this problem? Badiouian commitment to the formation of a revolutionary institution is crucial, but if it doesn’t address these problems it’s not enough.
Here it’s instructive to compare the revolutionary university with Lacan’s revolutionary school. How do they differ? Lacan was excommunicated from the International Psychoanalytic Association in the early 60s. He resolves to create his own school. From the standpoint of the IPA, this looks like pure madness but it was a machine that worked. What’s the difference? The analysts that were produced by Lacan’s school could set up their own practices. With a university matters seem different. Graduates need to find their place in the broader existing university system and are therefore still shackled to the system from which they’re trying to escape.
What would a revolutionary academy be. It must, of course, have revolutionary aims; not just with respect to the academy itself, but with respect to the broader social world. At the level of its organization, it would have to have a different hierarchy than the existing one we find organized around administration, staff, tenured faculty, adjunct faculty, and students. Here we might think of Guattari’s La Borde. It would have to challenge the “star system” of the academy– while also honoring great accomplishments of thought and scholarship –refusing to restrict itself to, for example, the history of philosophy and masters, but rather functioning as a genuine site of new knowledge production rather than merely inherited tradition. Somehow the course would have to navigate between the transmission of existing knowledge and the creation of new knowledge. It would have to produce graduates that don’t simply reproduce the existing system of neoliberal capital and privilege, but that form new ways of life. Finally, it would have to navigate these issues of livability, of being able to find a sustainable place in the world when exiting the institution.