Jacques Derrida opens his 1983 essay “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils” with an odd question: “Today, how can we not speak of the university?” Derrida, as he quickly goes on to explain, phrases his question in the negative for two reasons. First, it has become a practical impossibility “to dissociate the work we do [in universities], within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work.” Nearly forty years on, such “reflection” has only intensified, if not bled over, quite unproductively, into a series of polemics. The second reason for putting the question in the negative is to initiate a discussion about the university that can steer clear of “bottomless pits” and other paths blocked by conceptual unclarity, adherence to dogmatic modes of thought, or, to bring Derrida into our day, the political/epistemological/moral dead end of the culture war. 

While there has been excellent scholarship about the modern university in recent years (see my interview with Christopher Newfield), there has also been a struggle to thread the needle between policy-focused analyses and hoary intellectual histories that “recite the [humanist] credo” (to cite Chad Wellmon, another excellent scholar of the university). In Knowledge Worlds Reinhold Martin has written a refreshingly novel reflection on the modern university, one that revivifies many of the topics that have grown stale in the policy/humanist credo dialectic. As Martin explains below, he is interested “not about ideals in the absolute or abstract sense, but about the practices of learning and thinking that are enabled by things like libraries and classrooms, as well as by campuses in general.” Knowledge Worlds is a media history of the modern university that takes us from the origins of the idea of the corporation as a person in the ecclesiastical colleges of the northeast to the repositories of the neoliberal turn in Stanford’s Hoover library. Along the way Martin assembles a truly fascinating archive or materials big and small – form the card catalogue and seminar table to the techno-poetic infrastructures of the military-industrial complex – and submits them to a relentlessly dialectical logic.

Reinhold Martin is a Professor of Architecture at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, from which he directs the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. As you will see below, it is always fun to talk to an architect about something like the university, because they take metaphors literally and ground the highest ideals in the most basic materials of stone, brick, and acoustically absorbent plaster. We discuss the university as utopia, dialectics of silence and voice, and the unexpected directions that a media history of the university takes an investigator of the modern university.

Michael Schapira: It seems like a natural place to start is to think of your own personal history at universities. As you explore in the book, a lot of people’s relationships towards universities are mediated by feelings of affection. Was there anything in your educational background that was guiding you or found its way into the book in unexpected ways?

Reinhold Martin: Yes, for sure. Some of which I suppose is conscious and some of which is surely unconscious. When I entered college I probably couldn’t have imagined writing a book like this, or really any book, because I was studying to be an architect at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Rensselaer does indeed appear in the book, in dialectical relation with the traditional liberal arts and ecclesiastical colleges, as representative of polytechnic and engineering education. There we find two approaches to the question of meaning (symbolic, social, artistic, etc.) in relation to capital and its instruments, which in the early to mid-19th century were those of industry and hence included the design of machines. In some ways, engineering also runs in the background of my more general attempt to characterize liberal education relationally. Rather than stand in and of themselves, forms of education that on the surface might seem quite distinct from the liberal arts, the humanities, and their traditions converge on common problems, like the problem of meaning in relation to machines.

This perspective probably does have something to do with my experience as a student in a polytechnic, but also as an architect, because that was how I was first trained before eventually backing into the humanities. It’s a longer story, but I spent time in London studying at the Architectural Association, which is a specialized architectural academy where I first started doing theory in the way we understand it in an interdisciplinary sense. Then at Princeton as a graduate student I studied architectural history and theory. Princeton also appears in the book, but in a different way, not at the graduate but at the undergraduate level, because anybody who has done anything at Princeton understands the importance of the college as a concept, as a fundraising instrument, and as an instrument of social reproduction. Columbia College is comparable in many ways, but arguably has a different relationship to the research university than that of Princeton, even though they reflect similar societal tendencies.

The second question I have is the flipside of this, which is how we also accumulate utopian visions of the university as we move through them. I was struck by the mention of your father’s experience in the Preface, at “the fleetingly utopian Baltic University in postwar Hamburg.” I taught in Russia just before the pandemic and had several colleagues from the European University in St. Petersburg, who ended up finishing their degrees in Finland when it was shut down for a bit. They were carrying the idea of the university in their head, just as seems like the case with your father. You do a material history, but spring boarding off of the Edward Said comment (of “the American university generally being for its academic staff and some of its students the last remaining utopia”) and your father’s history, is there also a utopian aspect to the book?

Oh yes. I’m with Said in that and many other respects. I present the university as he did in a qualified manner, as potentially the last remaining utopia, but in suspension, or, as I wrote in a previous book, Utopia’s Ghost, in “spectral” form. That was a book about architecture, and this book is about institutions, their past, and their future, about constantly deferred and interrupted possibility and achievement, as well as the damage that has been done historically. It is not about ideals in the absolute or abstract sense, but about the practices of learning and thinking that are enabled by things like libraries and classrooms, as well as by campuses in general. A dialectic of utopia and dystopia, or of utopia and its antithesis, is quite consciously in play throughout the book.

Any utopian program or any attempt to address the structural contradictions of a society needs to begin in some sense at the threshold, at the margins, if not entirely from the outside of that society. As Foucault used to say, it must be “heterotopic.” In some ways we could also describe universities as the ultimate heterotopias, or “other spaces” that are not entirely antithetical to the hegemonic priorities of the society, but are rather at the same time removed from those. That has been my own experience, especially because I entered the classical academy, so to speak from the outside, from a professional school while at the same time, with architecture, bringing along many classical traditions from day one.

My father passed away as I was finishing the book, so it’s dedicated to his memory, but also to my son who is just starting college today. There is of course something personal here, but also historical. My father was a displaced person from Estonia. At the beginning of the Second World War, as the two eastern powers converged on the Baltic countries—the army of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s army. His stories were always about being caught in between these two forces as a teenager who had just graduated from high school, a Reaalkool, which is a bit different from the German Realschulen and more like a Gymnasium, in Tallinn. Had it not been for the war, I think he probably would have been an academic. Instead, along with thousands of other Estonians he fled conscription or the gulag, moving through several camps across Eastern Europe and Germany, and eventually wound up after the war outside of Hamburg in a former Luftwaffe barracks that had been turned into a university, called the Baltic University. I knew a little bit about this from his stories, but it was only when an Estonian filmmaker, Helga Merits, decided to make a film about this that I started learning more from him and eventually from her.

It’s an amazing thing. There were many displaced academics among the refugees from the three Baltic countries, and with the help of the British and Americans – who had their agendas, of course – they got together to form a university. My father was one of the first matriculants – Merits found his transcripts. It’s a story of being caught in the middle of everything, in the ashes and amid the damage, at 19 or 20, and considering what could be. He studied classical subjects: archaeology, philosophy, literature, etc. But after a brief period all of that changed, the refugees were relocated to different parts of the world, and he wound up in New York.

It’s hard to make a shift from that fascinating story, but as you’ve said you have a different background, coming from architecture and then eventually having this strong theory element and backing your way into the humanities. There has been a real upsurge in writing about the University, and Columbia has been a hub for this –  with Andrew Delbanco, Mark Taylor, Jonathan Cole, and all these folks. Coming from a slightly different disciplinary location, I was wondering where you saw this book interfacing with this broader, mostly humanities-based critical university studies literature.

I don’t know if this response will translate, but when I arrived at Columbia in 1997 to teach at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, the computer store was in the basement of Philosophy Hall. It’s in that spirit that I wrote this book: from the basement of the university – metaphorically speaking, but also quite literally, from the basement of the great monuments to liberal learning that I have had the privilege to care for together with my colleagues. In the sense hinted at by that computer store, this is first a media history of universities, as I explain in the Preface. One of the individuals I happened to meet at the time was Friedrich Kittler, the media philosopher, who was at some point a visitor in Columbia’s German department. I had read his work and decided to get in touch with him. He was very funny. He was surprised, and said “How is it that you know me? Nobody here seems to know me.” That had to do with Princeton and studying critical theory with some folks in the German department there. I had wonderful conversations with Kittler, not about the university per se, but about media and its relationship with architecture. There are traces of these in my first book, which I was working on at the time, on corporate architecture and media with a special concentration on cybernetics. Echoes of those conversations remain in this book.

Knowledge Worlds is different, though, from the work of many intellectual historians, and from the work of those public thinkers you mention, who for various reasons, whether in their own careers or from the disciplines in which they work, have taken up the modern university as a subject and object of study. I did not really set out to write a history of the university, and in particular not a history of the ideas that circulate and are developed in universities. In fact, you’ll find very few ideas discussed in this book.

I sought instead to write a history of what you might need in order to have an idea. It may be that you need a library. You might even need a computer. This of course is a controversial proposition, and readers of the book will see that I by no means take a hardline materialist position in the Kittlerian sense, or in any kind of technologically determinist mode. But I’m interested about what was in that basement at Columbia in 1997 such that philosophy could be done upstairs, in Philosophy Hall. The relation is a complex one; it is neither deterministic nor simply metaphorical, and I consider quite a few up and down, over and under, positional relationships, or topologies, in order to understand it.

Related to that, people who read the book would be interested in how you are making connections between radically different institutions. For example, there is a chapter that links Bryn Mawr, Vassar, and Tuskegee. You are building these very creative archives that you can then do really interesting work with. How do some of these come together?

This is not explicit, but the lineage in which I work includes Walter Benjamin, who speaks of constellating archival fragments. I don’t consider my work strictly Benjaminian, but the idea here is that of constellating details. Most of the examples I choose, like the ones you are referring to, do not tell the entire story or even summarize the history of a single institution. Instead, each chapter is built out of fragments, like the stone at Bryn Mawr, the brick at Vassar, and the brick again, but of a very different sort, at Tuskegee. I do this to explain what are essentially dialectical relations, which are also mutually dependent relations among institutions and among the social classes and groups they serve and represent.

For example, the industrial brick at Vassar connects that institution with the industrial elites in the Northeast, whose daughters were now able to study there in order to participate, in some still subordinate way, in the process of governing that society, typically through the domestic arts. Certain possibilities were opened up, despite paternalistic intentions. That paternalism took a different form at Bryn Mawr. It was not entirely distinct but nonetheless different and, I argue, had to do with an identification with the Gothic – Bryn Mawr is one of the first Collegiate Gothic campuses.  There, stone was asked to play a symbolic role. Not to signify as such, but to establish the grounds for signification as the material basis out of which Gothic ornaments were carved. Although Vassar’s main building does have some stone ornamentation too, the important difference for me was the way in which the problem of meaning was mediated through these different materials, and then differently again at Tuskegee. In all cases, what mattered most about brick was that it was not stone. Progressive as they were, both of the Northern examples were in tension with the racial and class contradictions at Tuskegee, which was itself internally fraught. Tuskegee is not simply representative of Black vocational education in the South. It was strictly speaking an alternative, part of a debate, the other side of which was represented by W.E.B. Du Bois’s commitment to liberal learning rather than vocation as the pathway to equality. 

In the Introduction I try to explain how this cascade of relationships – which can seem somewhat fractal and difficult to constellate and hold together – can be understood if we allow dialectical reasoning to open up at every moment to its own internal tensions and contradictions, with no overarching synthesis, only what I call a “dialectic of dialectics.” In these particular cases, the dialectical tensions have to do with class, race, and gender. These three dimensions are at times in consonant and at other times dissonant, all of which can be described in dialectical terms. I did consciously choose three examples, two of which belong to the same tradition, and one that seems to come from a very different place. I could also have added a case like Fisk, for example, where Du Bois’s project was more legible. In its place, I chose some of the reports on education that Du Bois wrote in his early career, which represent certain tensions within what is now understood as the HBCU tradition.

As you say, there is no one overarching theme that runs throughout the book, and there is more of this unfolding of different dialectical relationships. But there is the theme of the boundary that keeps coming up over and over again. Is that just a convenient way to do the kind a dialectical work that you’re doing, to see where the boundary floats at different times?

Yes and no. To have a contradiction or antithesis you need two things as well as something like a boundary or a meaningful distinction between them. I explain this at a couple of different points in the book, describing it schematically in one case and more theoretically in another. The first is in the Prologue, where I describe Thomas Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello and its dumbwaiter. There, a certain kind of boundary, between upstairs and downstairs, master and slave, is reproduced infrastructurally through the act of demanding and serving wine via the dumbwaiter, such that the enslaved persons who built and maintained Monticello did not need to enter the room and thus overhear or interrupt the conversation taking place in the learned, Habermasian public sphere above.

An analogous but not identical relation appears in more theoretical terms in the chapter on “The Dialectic of the University,” which again moves along several axes. One axis concerns the Great Books program at the University of Chicago and to some extent at Columbia. There I refer directly to the Hegelian dialectic of lordship and bondage. In both cases – in the case of the dumbwaiter more materially, and in the other more conceptually – I highlight the chain that binds two unequal terms. Chains, as Hegel pointed out, do complex dialectical work. Actual chains are instruments of oppression, as are those ropes used in the dumbwaiter to move bottles of wine up and down. The dumbwaiters above maintained the enslavement below. Those who served weren’t just denominated as slaves legally. The masters needed certain technologies to reproduce that enslavement at every moment in someone’s life. And so these relations of subordination and domination, of inside and outside, these prepositional, topological relationships, are technical practices. They’re practiced in dining rooms but also in a very different way in classrooms, where the social relations are dramatically different, and the chain is less literal but no less infrastructural. The argument in the chapter on Great Books is that certain types of hierarchies, as well as attempts to dissolve those hierarchies, appear in the dialectic of the lecture and the seminar. For example, the theological authority of the speaker at the lectern in Chicago hearing their own voice reverberating around them is consolidated acoustically. That authority finds its partner in the quasi-conversational nature of the Great Books seminar or reading group, where the structure of authority is to some extent dissimulated, or displaced, into what Chicago president and Great Books advocate Robert Hutchins called a “great conversation.” Out of this mass-cultural Socratic conversation comes the Western canon, which is nothing more or less than a printed list of books.

The Chicago example is so fascinating to me, with the material shift (literally) from the focus on the listener to the speaker. There a so many details like this in the book that grab your attention.

Another theme that comes up in one chapter in particular is the relationship between the corporation and the university. I was teaching earlier today and you hear students saying things like “the university is just a business.” They have a reduced understanding about what the university and what the corporation is, so I was wondering if you could speak a little more about how your previous work on the post-war U.S. corporation informed this work on universities, which stretches way back before the post-war period.

In my first book, I had written about corporate campuses and what I call the “topologies of knowledge” at places like IBM and Bell Labs, which borrowed from university models to establish the infrastructure of the military-industrial complex after the war. In a way this book is a prequel to all of that. Some of that post-war formation appears in the concluding chapters, which return to the relationship between the university and the military-industrial complex. But at the same time, it’s a supplement, a modification, and even sometimes a correction to the arguments in that earlier work – I’d like to think that as one grows intellectually one is capable of modifying or extending one’s ideas. In this case the problem of the corporation’s “soul” has become more prominent. It was already there in the work that I had done on human relations and the figure of the organization man, who is importantly a figure with a broken soul. This comes off very clearly in the film version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with Gregory Peck, who is the very epitome of white male patriarchy, but at the same time necessarily emotive. It struck me then, and strikes me now: Why is it necessary for corporate executives to express feeling? Another side note along these lines is the number of real estate developers who broke down in tears after 9/11, even as they were taking every possible advantage that they could of that tragedy to profit. The larger question of the emotional life of capital is one that I think the study of the arts and humanities should be able to render more vividly.

You see this in the first chapter and the last chapter of Knowledge Worlds – on corporate personhood on the one hand, and technopoesis, or the poetics of the military-industrial complex through the examples of MIT and Stanford on the other. In that sense, the book follows the corporation from beginning to end. I begin by posing a question, “Do corporations have souls?” through the figure of the corporate person. Who is this person? There is a whole literature in legal history and business history that delves into this, to which I refer in the text. The critique of corporate ideology has presupposed that this person is not real, and has sought to strip away the veil that presents the corporation as a benign and socially relevant or meaningful figure. This was certainly going on in the ecclesiastical colleges that were among the country’s first corporations. These were eleemosynary or what we would call today not-for-profit corporations, not commercial entities. Nevertheless, their logic anticipated that of many industrial corporations, including the need for affection. In the colleges the question is: How could it be that one loves an institution? After all, these are just institutions; they are corporate persons, not real ones. But I take that love for a supposedly fictional person seriously. I think it’s real. This is a method that I try to follow throughout – to take metaphors literally. When somebody says that they love their alma mater you have to believe them. But then you have to ask: How can this be and what does it mean? We all know that today it means fundraising – it means alumni associations and what in the critique of ideology we call interpellation, or “hailing.” The institution calls you in a fundraising email – “Hey, you there!” – and you respond. But as a committed Foucauldian and in some sense an Althusserian, I don’t think ideological interpellation or “discipline” fully explains this phenomenon. Corporate personhood is embodied performatively.

Where would athletics fit into this?

One day maybe I will do a chapter on stadiums. Sports, and especially the pathos of sports, for the players, alumni, student body, and community is incredibly important. Scholars like John Thelin touch on some of this, but intellectual historians tend to overlook extra-curricular activities in general and sports in particular as potentially structuring experiences for students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and the rest, experiences that reinforce the emotional bonds we’ve been discussing. I think discounting sports is a mistake. Stadiums are often memorial buildings, but they carry pathos in other ways as well. There is also the connection of the sports team with the military formation. I could have continued the section on civil war memorials, at the end of chapter on geometry, into the mass ornament of the stadium and its geometrical performances.

This is maybe an annoying question to be ask in different circumstances, but people will often ask “how did people receive the book?” In this particular case it seems relevant because the book came out essentially at the moment that people left campuses and moved fully online. Have there been any interesting encounters with people reading the book at this particular moment, or has it caused you to think extend to reconsider some of the arguments?

There is a little note in the preface from March 1, 2020, when I handed the completed manuscript over to my generous colleagues at Columbia University Press. It was very clear that something was happening that spoke to and challenged the arguments in the book, about the relationship between the infrastructural media of learning and the larger society. Of course, we couldn’t have known then, and even now we don’t fully know what this has meant to the way we learn and teach. Almost immediately, I was asked about how this book translates to Zoom University, and I responded in one or two places. But I’ve deliberately not written a think piece about Zoom. There are enough of those already and some of them are very good. I don’t think I’d have anything special to say, but I do have some thoughts that are prompted by the book that probably will take a little more time to fully form. They have more to do with time than with space. The default has been to think about the problem spatially. We’ve left campus, we’re somewhere else, and these technologies both keep us apart and bring us together. We’re a little less articulate about the restructuring of time, of the different ways that time, the work schedule, but also the cadence of speech and many other temporalities have been subtly adjusted and modulated. That would be one way that I would think about it.

You might recognize for example that the clock at the University of Virginia appears basically at the midpoint of the chapter tracing the arc that runs from UVA to Columbia. Schedules appear in a number of places, too. For example in early student diaries at Vassar, where learning is scheduled and annotated. We have now rescheduled our lives – those of us who are in a position to do so. But the majority of the world and the majority of those in the society in which we live and work have not been in a position to do this. They’ve been forced to more or less maintain their regular schedules, and to deliver things on time, often literally. That’s one open-ended thought on how the book’s arguments could be extended to address our present crisis.

Given this theme of time, I want to ask one last question. In the Preface you said the book was both experimental and polemical, and in the polemical part you say that “the university must be saved.” One can certainly take a sour attitude towards universities and think about community relations – I live right near the University of Pennsylvania, and they don’t pay their fair share of taxes, graduate students are in a labor dispute at Columbia. There are a lot of problems you can attach to the university. But I wonder if you can elaborate a little more on what you mean by the polemical aspect of the book given the experience of living in the university today.

I say outright that the university must be defended, in principle but also in practice, against hostile forces that have actively sought to constrain the freedoms that are, in highly contradictory ways as you say, cultivated and practiced in university classrooms, libraries, laboratories, and other media environments. This assault runs across the board, from funding to academic speech, and it is not limited to the humanities. Look at the sustained corporate assault on climate science, for example.

At the same time, we caretakers of these institutions must recognize the depths of those contradictions and the ways in which me might consciously and unconsciously perpetuate various forms of exclusion, epistemic violence, and sometimes material violence. That is where what might seem abstract, like defining the university as a boundary problem, becomes very concrete. Boundaries are drawn in the admissions office and in the financial aid office, just as they are in the classroom in terms of what can and cannot be said, and what ought and ought not be said. Freedom, both freedom from and freedom to, the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn, are only really thinkable in the context of constraint. This was Hegel’s point about the chain in the tragedy of lordship and bondage that binds antagonists together.

We can think about this problem in terms of gates. The campus gate marks a contested boundary. I don’t think we should close it. It should remain open, but nor is it obvious that we should eliminate it, since the ability to close the gate as a protective measure, legally speaking, has been an important tool in providing sanctuary to those who have been made unwelcome elsewhere in our society, as well as in protecting academic freedom. I’m always touched but also troubled walking through the gate at Columbia, which both extends and cuts off a public street – 116th Street. All the problems that you’ve described about the relationship to our neighbors, to the community in Harlem and Washington Heights, are condensed into the very strange fact that a formerly public street, which is now owned by Columbia, runs through the campus as a pedestrian thoroughfare called College Walk. There is a gate, which usually remains open but can be closed. That open and closed relationship is what I am trying to characterize and offer as an object of critical reflection. To take another example, you could argue for abolishing the admissions office. But that comes with its own contradictions, at least in the current society. There are many other ways in which, to speak like an architect for a minute, we can test such boundaries in “plan,” meaning lateral relations, inside/outside, versus what architects call in “section,” meaning up and down, above and below. We must test, expose, and perhaps reconstruct all of these relations. But there is no such thing as a boundary without a passage, even if that boundary seems impassable. It’s in that spirit that I’ve tried to think about the university as something to be protected and looked after, and for that very reason, also as the object of our most unrelenting critique. After all, why would you bother criticizing something if you didn’t care about it?

Michael Schapira is an Interviews Editor at Full Stop.

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