Revisiting the wonderful, System and Structure: Essays in Communication
and Exchange, by Anthony Wilden (2nd ed., Tavistock, 1980, lvii-lviii), I came across the following passage in his introduction – at once illuminating, inspiring and troubling:
“The definition if effective dissent as necessarily being of a higher logical type should not be confused with contemporary moralizing about transcending (physical) violence by non-violence – a shopworn formula which it would be impossible to sustain if its supporters gave even a minimal consideration to the nature and the extent of institutionalized violence in the family, in society, and in the university itself. The position taken on violence by most academics is in effect an essentially rhetorical one. It is a position that fits well with the general refusal to recognize the actual violence of the ‘rational’ which, when you have power on your side, is simply devastating for its targets in the real. The most immediately obvious examples of such violence are collective and institutionalized racism, sexism, and – why is there no similar epithet for oppression by class? These and other exploitative ‘-isms’ are neither accidental nor psychological in their origins; and the academic discourse, sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, continues to reproduce them.
“Every course in the university is fraught with potential violence against the student. Every faculty member is a potential executioner, not simply because of his or her personal characteristics, although these are certainly involved, but because of the traditions of the institution and the way it is actually organized. The controlling power the predominantly digitalized discourse over attitudes is awesome. Too often one sees students simply stopped dead in their tracks by the facile manipulation of a few well-worn labels by the appropriate guardian. I suggest therefore that the first line of defense against the violence of the rhetoric of the establishment is to learn something about rhetoric. And that means to learn something about communication. But a line of defense is not enough; the victims must take the offensive. What is required – at this admittedly minimal level – is a GUERILLA RHETORIC. And, for a guerrilla rhetoric, you must know what your enemy knows, why and how he knows it, and how to contest him on any ground.”
Illuminating because, as so often in Wilden’s writing, he cuts to a truth with an eloquence and accuracy the rest of us (me for certain) can only be in awe of. This was written in the mid-1970s but still sounds as fresh today, and as relevant, as it must have done then. Inspiring, because we are confronted with depressingly similar problems today, in society at large as well as the university, and need to find ways to address them. Institutional violence of the type identified by Wilden 40 years ago seems not to have diminished in the intervening period, despite the efforts of so many enlightened people, not least Wilden himself. But finally troubling because the effective ‘guerilla rhetoric’ Wilden put so much faith in seems elusive or, worse, ineffective. Universities have, after all, been peddling critical and reflexive approaches to knowledge – inspired by thinkers of Wilden’s generation and before – for a long time now, long enough for us to ‘know what the enemy knows’. Now that the space for open and critical thought in the university (and all its emergent variants) seems to be contracting once again, one cannot help but wonder whether the enemy (which in this instance I take to be Euro-American patriarchal capital) learned the radical lessons of the 1970s only too well. Indeed, with the encroaching marketization of higher education, ‘he’ seems to be contesting us on ground that we once thought our own.