How free is academia? An Interview with Christoph Brunner

2021-05-03 Freedom is on everyone's lips. What does freedom mean with regard to academia, is everyone repressed who feels repressed, and to what extent do power structures play a role? Christoph Brunner, assistant professor of cultural theory, in an interview.

Christoph Brunner, assistant professor of cultural theory at the Institute of Philosophy and Art Studies. ©Leuphana
Christoph Brunner, assistant professor of cultural theory at the Institute of Philosophy and Art Studies.
Freedom is a central topic in public discourse these days, for example in the debate about to what extent the state should be permitted to interfere with civil liberties in the course of fighting a pandemic. Is social freedom in danger?
That depends on where you stand. When you read such statements or hear them on TV, you should always check who exactly is saying them and under what conditions and from what position (of power) the person is speaking.
Nevertheless, academia seems to be affected by this as well: recently, a national "Network Academic Freedom" was founded.
In the specific case of the Network Academic Freedom, a group of university members (by the way, the majority of them male tenured professors) engage in a discourse that counters allegedly ideological attacks in the name of freedom of teaching and research. Without any valid evidence, a pseudo debate is being set off here, which, in my opinion, only serves the purpose to preserve the prevailing power structures in academia - in the guise of the inviolability of research and teaching. In doing so, the network fails to recognise both its own historically grown privileges and the basis of any serious scholarship: critical self-reflection and curiosity about the other and the unknown. This curiosity poses the question of the genealogy of the concept of freedom, its use, its constant differentiation and scrutiny in the face of the present.
What do you mean by "critical self-reflection"?
Many people find themselves in situations of repression because of their faith, origin, appearance, gender or political convictions. For them, freedom is an existential and not an ideational good. This semester, a lecture series on ‘Politics of Repression - Strategies and Resistances in Scholarship’ will be held in cooperation with the universities of Hanover, Göttingen, Bremen, Oldenburg and the Scholars at Risk Network. The scholars speaking at these lectures have to deal with considerable repression and life-threatening situations in their academic work. For me, positions like these can help us turn a glorified concept of freedom in the Network Academic Freedom upside down and back on its feet. The debate on freedom in academia in Germany does not sufficiently think outside the box, that is, beyond its national horizon. By the way, together with my colleague Andrea Kretschmann, we are organising a lecture series on „Freedom. Access denied?“ for the coming winter semester.
How is science repressed?

There is a whole toolkit of strategies, tactics and instruments. These are mostly about structural, institutionalised and redundant forms of power, which are not implemented instantaneously, but rather gradually and by way of structural modifications.

Please give an example.

For example, the expulsion of gender studies from Hungarian universities by the Orban government. Recently, the boards of trustees at all Hungarian universities were re-staffed with people close to Fidesz who cannot be voted out of office. In Brazil, similar changes are currently happening, with university administrators being appointed from a central position and by political functionaries from Bolsonaro's entourage, rather than through public tenders. Or the new university law amendment, with which the Kurz government is trying to ban Austrian university senates from any participation in the appointment of new rectors.

But no one was really dismissed at these places anyway.

Unfortunately, this is not exactly true: In Turkey, dozens of alleged critics of the Erdoğan regime were recently expelled from universities. It is true, however, that it usually takes a long time before heads really roll. In most cases, such effects are not even intended or necessary. Repression is much more about fear, intimidation and an increasingly spreading paranoia that often leads to self-censorship. Baffling about this process is the fact that similar forms of censorship are criticised as part of the threat discourse of the Network Academic Freedom. However, here too, the distortion of a, in my opinion, completely  justified critique of historical power structures and their reproduction persists. The accusation of gender or post-colonial studies, among others, being pseudo-sciences is not only perpetuates a typical normative Western concept of science, but also demands freedom for oneself while denying it to other positions.

The fact that freedom is denied to other positions is, after all, also an accusation against "cancel culture".
The term "cancel culture" further reinforces this inequality. All current debates on "cancel culture" are a kind of fundamental criticism with the aim of silencing an unwelcome position. In defaming serious and well-founded criticism as "cancel culture", practices of domination are perpetuated that have privileged certain parts of humanity for centuries - first and foremost the white, Western European, heterosexual male. In my opinion, this is the central repression of academia, which must be abolished in its historical development and institutionalised form.
In the context of the "cancel culture" debate, the term "ideology" is often mentioned, usually only to describe the position of the other side. Is there still any potential in the concept; is it perhaps possible to render it useful again?
For me, ideology is a concept for the analysis of power that tries to grasp the intersection of attitudes, discourses, institutions and practices in their comprehensive assertiveness. Ideology is therefore not simply a disposition or opinion, but a structural phenomenon. The concept of ideology is usually linked to the concept of truth. This is also evident in the debate on academic freedom. It is often assumed that one only has to somehow free the consciousness from ideology in order to be able to separate the true from the false and thus put a distorted reality into perspective. I think such a concept of ideology is not sufficient to understand the complexity of current cultural power relations.
Sometimes gender studies or sustainability studies are also accused of being normative and ideological.

Yes, indeed, the accusation of being ideological in the sense of a false consciousness has been raised, among others, against gender studies, calling it unscientific. This happens from a position of institutionalised security that legitimises itself qua existence, including its disciplinary categories, concepts, and forms of communication. Out of this nexus of relations, concepts of freedom and knowledge emerge, which pretend to be universalistic, but are anything but universal once they are taken outside the Western episteme.

But wouldn't it be much more convenient to leave things as they are?

Counter-question: Wouldn’ it be legitimate to ask how freedom and knowledge become "different", if the centres of their power are replaced by a multitude of self-questioning perspectives? This does not, as Alan Sokal once claimed, mean "anything goes", but it rather means an understanding of science that is very much power-sensitive and operates out of historical consciousness, and precisely because of this is able to tread the path of its own transformation. And, of course: transformation is uncomfortable.  

Thank you very much for the interview!

Politics of Repression

In cooperation with the University of Hanover and other universities, Christoph Brunner is organising the lecture series "Politics of Repression - Strategies and Resistances in Scholarship" in the summer semester of 2021. The series on repressed, persecuted and oppressed scholars worldwide is intended to stimulate reflection, provide insights into the academic reality of researchers and initiate a change in thinking.

Here you can find the series schedule as well as the lecture by Flavia Meireles taking place at Leuphana.