Three-D Issue 21: Terminal Thinking: Corporate University and Creativity

Jason LeeJason Lee
University of Derby

Lee i1

Through the use of cultural theory and popular culture, creative writing and recent higher education history, in this article I ask is it possible to actually think and be ‘innovative’ in a corporate university, and examine the current issues at stake in Higher Education through a personal lens. In Lacanian terms ‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think’ (Eagleton 6). Kierkegaard claimed, ‘the particular cannot be thought’ (Eagleton 164). For Wittgensteinian, thought is caught in grammatical functions, or is merely a grammatical function. Spinoza, an influence on Wittgenstein, viewed thought as part of God. There is an interesting paradox here, one of three main paradoxes, in terms of transgression and God as Law; if all that is expressed or thought is in essence part of a union with God there is no limit, nothing surpasses it. John Henry Newman may have liked this idea, but the problem lies deeper when considering what a university might be. Newman, caught up in the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism, in part 1 of his Idea of a University comments on how the university has always been seen as a threat, because of an emphasis on in-utility, part of the charge being their ‘remoteness from the occupations and duties of life’.

It is as if universities could and should remain outside the prevailing ideology. I use the phrase the ‘limit of thought’, but further limitations to thinking would be more accurate. Bataille, the godless-father of transgression, claimed to think, short of joking is dodging existence. In thinking, everything is suspended and life is put off until later, from postponement to postponement. This forms part of another paradox of what I call ‘terminal thinking’. If we want to be even more didactic, the true nature of thought is to reflect on the problems provoked by the state and society. Or, in Žižek’s words, to ‘discern a problem in the very way we perceive such problems’ (Žižek 411).

Globally, the commercialisation of education is often thought of as the hegemonic thrust, or absorption, from America. This influence I shall return to in my creative conclusion, but none of this is straightforward. For example, consider the thinking of former President of Princeton, William Bowen, from his Romanes lecture delivered in 2000 at Oxford. Bowen’s concern was that universities would be so ‘bemused’ by the market that they would lose their essential purpose. This includes creating knowledge of every kind and work that ‘either has no immediate market value or may even threaten some commercial end.’ He lists a whole load of attributes that are beyond ‘price’.

After yet another economic meltdown, ethics as a discipline is all the rage, and yet ethics in terms of the social agenda is negated. The current attack is part of what Tony Judt once called ‘the social question’. Are we addressing social problems by promoting the collective good and protecting educational spheres, deepening knowledge and agency, or are we fearful of bucking the trend towards corporate culture and bowing our heads and by doing so giving up?

Lee i2During my time at Warwick one of the bars was known as the airport, or airport lounge, a consumer led term if ever there was one. Here I saw nostalgia acts, such as Suzy Quatro, as well as legends like Roy Harper, and Debbie Harry. Politically, things shifted at this moment. Rosa’s bar, named after revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, was renamed Rolf’s in 1989, after Australian comic entertainer Rolf Harris, who in 2013 was charged with numerous account of sexual assault. Politics was a joke and British John Major epitomised this in many Steve Bell cartoons, with his pants on the outside, like a loser Superman.

This was and is not just a nostalgia moment, given the ongoing relevance of the 1970 book Warwick University Ltd. Industry, Management and the Universities, edited by E.P. Thompson, produced in just a week. Here Thompson refers to the Avenger girls dressed in black leather gear promoting the Rootes industry that had a hold on the university. There was, to quote Thompson, a ‘soft white underbelly – swinging ‘classless’ hedonism, conspicuous sexual display, and an open celebration of money’. This would have shocked the nonconformist mill-owners and Quaker bankers of the first Industrial Revolution (14).

News of Warwick as the business university spread, with stories of spying and corruption, and protests breaking out at a dozen other universities. Warwick was a prototype for fusing higher education with industrial capitalism. From 11 February 1970, academics and students at Warwick went head to head with Rootes, directors of Courtaulds, Hawker Siddeley and Barclays Bank, subordination to industry influencing University councils and negating freedom of thought. Warwick received six fold the money as the private sector, so the university became a safe bet (41). Thompson mocks some student activism, like the right to daub paint over buildings, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh being the favourite (44). Academics bemoan students’ lack of activism today, forgetting attacks on representatives of corporate culture, including McDonalds.

Warwick has its airport lounge; the terminal in this context is supposed to lead somewhere. There was a movement from the political to the popular. Naively it could be argued an obsession with celebrity now reached its zenith. As Thomas a Kempis writes in The Imitation of Christ, we should not be obsessed with far off destinations, in terms of the destination from the terminal, or perhaps even in metaphysics, because this is vanity, telling others about these places, and not some existential inner-shift that is paramount. Change your thoughts, and you change your world. Of course, existentialism has alienation as its background, as does much ethical theory.

The term ‘terminal thinking’ relates to Giroux’s themes, such those expounded in Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism. Giroux notes, teachers have been forced to become semi-robotic, and the curriculum will soon be ‘teacher proof’. For example, in Florida legislation was passed where only facts, not interpretation, can be taught; in Arizona a ban on ethnic studies because it is seen as divisive (126). There is a loss of autonomy and critical engagement in primary and secondary schools seeping into university education.

Today, what were once known as schools are transformed into police encampments with dozens of police vehicles and students passing by detectors, and objects such as ipods, phones and food confiscated, even if a student needs them for medical reasons (128). Four decades earlier, Thomas Szasz, using the thinking of Jacques Barzun and Ortega y Gasset, attacked the educational system, along with the psychiatric system, for being concerned with social adjustment, not the intellect. He confirmed it was insane to manipulate the young ‘into a semblance of the harmonious committee, in accordance with the statistics of child development’ through lulling people into the notion that the best identity was no identity (Szasz 159).

To paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman, the strange sovereignty of the market is that it has neither legislative nor executive agencies, nor actual law courts. The market is more sovereign than political sovereigns, as it allows for no appeal procedures. This reign of the market, for Giroux, is the reign of the zombie economy, voodoo economics and obscene violence played out through global militarisation. Financial investors, who receive and play with the wealth of universities, may have no qualms about investments.

Working this year on an HEA funded project on ethics, I discovered the University of Derby does not have an ethical investment policy. The People and Planet Green League concerns student action on world poverty and the environment. In this era of cuts and a rampant competitive market, some universities, including York and Cambridge, have published their Ethical Investment Policy. Ethics can be a selling point, at the point of investing profit, or at the end of working with students to hone projects. These should be not be separated.

Lee i3We can forget the popularity of Twilight and True Blood when we consider the unthinking nature of corporate zombie hyper-violence. To quote Giroux, ‘Death-dealing zombie politicians and their acolytes support modes of corporate and militarized governance through which entire populations now become redundant, disposable, or criminalized’ (32). We find a series of attacks on rights and justice itself. In the USA torture, kidnappings, secret prisons, and illegal domestic spying are the norm, habeas corpus a thing of the past. In the UK there is a loud call to be set apart from continental Europe and yet it was only due to the UK being accountable to the European Court of Human Rights that torture was de-legitimised.

Who is the victim in all this and why do we need one? Badiou has rejected the ethics of the Other, believing that bogus humanitarian victimage has displaced politics. For Eaglteon, the other great displacement bears the name of culture (Eagleton 266). Interestingly in this context of the ‘terminal’, or the ‘waiting lounge’, for Badiou there is a ‘tourist’s fascination’ with moral and cultural diversity. Multiculturalism only tolerates the ‘good’ other, so it is of the imaginary, failing to respect the difference of those who fail to respect its own differences (Eagleton 267). Inside the true terminal, or dome, there can be no difference. From Stephen King’s novel on the dome to The Simpsons movie, the dome is pre-eminent in recent fictions, for the fear and reality is that only this trap will save us. This has resonance with eco-criticism, for we are now trapped in our own polluting atmosphere.

For Alain de Boton, the terminal is a peaceful place for thought, akin to a temple, the multiple television screens representing freedom. This is despite the dystopia presented in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The ‘terminal’ is a good metaphor for the paralyzed brain, or the terminal process of thinking, an end point, unable or unwilling to move outside, or beyond the implications of ideology. This metaphor reminds us that the university to some is always a transit-zone, a limbo leading maybe elsewhere, rather than an identity in and of itself. If it does not exist for and in and of itself, however, then it does not exist at all. Thinking in and of itself becomes anathematised.

To build on Newman, the university is constructed as something outside all zones, and of no zone, a terminal with no destination, as in the protected zone in the film 28 Weeks Later. Films, such as Up in the Air staring George Clooney, deglamourize air travel in particular, by indicating that this homogeneity is linked to hetero-normativity, and the blanding, rather than the branding, of the world. This is not just about sexuality. As Jason Edwards puts it,

…if questions of normative sexual definition are central to both the smooth running of patriarchal capitalism and to fascist and imperialist ideologies, the exploration, destabilisation, critique and overturning of such definitions might be one of the surest ways to challenge discriminations on the grounds of gender and sexuality and also to bring about an end to other kinds of economic, for which read class and ethnic, oppressions and to prevent further genocides. (45)

Lee i4The migrant, or alien, as we see in The Man Who Fell to Earth, is the key figure of the twentieth century. Going into the atrium at Derby University as an alien, with no concept of how sexuality might dictate gender, or otherwise, we might be fooled into thinking this mini-shopping centre and market was the entrance to an airport, as if the North, East and South Tower were lifts to higher levels, and part of intergalactic travel. This leads us to the question of travel, movement and the consumption of knowledge and desire.

What exactly is a degree; the holding pen that Tony Blair dreamt of when he declared he wanted half of the UK population to go to university? People get into debt, so they have to pay it off, guaranteeing a conformist labour force. Not necessarily; but you do have to start a new life. This process therefore works way beyond the confines of the university. Tony Blair wanted fifty per cent of people to go to university. Following a kind of futuristic theme played out in Minority Report he also wanted those in families that indicated anti-social behaviour to have some form of intervention, drug or otherwise, like genetic engineering, before the age of five. By anti-social read anyone resistant to the state, or status quo, thus, every element of life can be observed and manipulated into conformity, funding the global military complex, oligarchs and financiers. Far from being a wild conspiracy theory, the leader of the most prestigious ethics organisation in the UK holds identical beliefs to these.

At the centre of this is biotechnology. Technology is often viewed as an orginary phenotype. I analysed this in relation to paedophilia in two books, where the police and media construct the myth of the monstrous techno-pedophilia, at one with the machine always one step ahead (Lee, 2005, 2009). Humans within this paradigm have been overtaken. But there is no one definition of the human, or what it means to be human.

Freedom comes with many traps, echoing the dome already mentioned. The more there is so-called open access to universal public space through technology the more this is privatised, this virtual world monopolistically controlled (Žižek). In manufacturing industries machines have replaced humans so will universities remain outside this paradigm? I have mentioned Giroux’s point about semi-robotic teachers. Charlie Brown’s robot teacher sums this up. Once you have recorded and uploaded all your lectures, then all is needed is for someone to update them. Radical inspirational thinking in the process of teaching is eliminated. On top of this, various key bogus terms here are ones such as the ‘creative and cultural industries’, where far from what the French etymology implies, innovation, the German industrial meaning is superimposed. Once again, content and thought that might change anything is dematerialised.

So far novelist Jeff Noon’s post-digital world of debris has not come about, but the digital world has transcended the human. This brings us back to the key philosopher Levinas, whose work relates to Kierkegaard’s. All forms of the communal are considered ‘bad faith’ and ‘false consciousness’, as if the more one sheds ones identity the more one stands naked before God (Eagleton 167). So is the future non-human? Despite the anti-Oedipus notion of Deleuze and Guattari that desire is a machine, and all identity is machine like, without the human other there is indeed no identity. And, I would argue, no thinking. Interestingly, for Eagleton, Deleuze ‘regards material process itself as a boundless flow of creativity, of which individual lives are no more than a perishable product. Actuality is consequently downgraded in the name of the virtual or potential, which is nothing less than the whole infinite continuum of time’ (Eagleton 269).

It is not the machine that cuts us off but basic language, cutting us off from reality by the very medium (language) which is supposed to throw it open to us (89). This is the very essence of knowledge, for our emancipation is our self-estrangement. Words never express what we want them to express. Any intelligent creative writing student can tell you this. This moves us into the direction of the origin of language, within which we think, if we are allowed.

Lee i6Culture may be antithetical to communication and identity; think for example of languages disappearing due to the predominance of English in audio-visual forms. I began with brief references to Spinoza, Wittgenstein, and Lacan, who all look at identity and language. There are a number of theories concerning the relationship between words and sounds, including the synesthetic theory (ST theory). The well-known onomatopoeic theory held that the link between word and sound was arbitrary and merely occurred through repeated associations. We understand this through learning another language. But the ST theory states the link is non-arbitrary and grounded in the true resemblance of words and sound in a more abstract mental space. What is the evidence?

Anthropologist Brent Berlin pointed out that the Huambisa tribe of Peru have over thirty different names for thirty bird species and an equal number for fish. If you were to jumble up these sixty names and give them to someone from a completely different sociolinguistic background, such as a Chinese peasant, and ask him to classify the names into two groups, one for birds, one for fishes, you would find the results would be a success level well above the chance level, even though his language has no resemblance to Peruvian. This is remarkable.

Also, the emotional growls and shrieks of primates arise in the right hemisphere from the limbic system, where the emotion, behaviour, long term memory, motivation, olfaction occur, called the anterior cingulated. If a manual gesture were being echoed by orofacial movements, while the creature was simultaneously making emotional utterances, the result would be what we call words. This is the moment of language as we know it. So, ancient hominins had a built in, pre-existing mechanism for spontaneously translating gestures into words, making it easier to see how primitive gestural language could have evolved into speech (Ramachandran, 173). When there is no physical external other these become invented, often for the purpose of high-functioning, such as navigation, so multi-layered discourse that is benign can continue.

The modulating university is tied to machine culture, the ‘new magic’ as John Gray calls it, technology not just being a tool, but permanently corroding our ontology. For Geral Raunig there are 28 tendencies of the modulating university. I list here 15, some of Raunig’s with my own.

  1. Fabricating a system for striating all aspects of knowledge including time-tracking via administration which reduces and destroys that which is being measured.
  2. Students taking on the risks of the university as an economic enterprise.
  3. The University becoming an extension of school.
  4. The curriculum channelled into labour market needs.
  5. Permanent surveillance – no autonomy therefore no thought.
  6. The client-provider relationship producing a system of informers in both directions.
  7. The content being secondary when assessing research. Content in general being subservient to form.
  8. Wild and transversal writing tamed into the essay industry.
  9. The requirement of methodological self-reflection preeminent and any political position removed by students subjecting themselves to the fetish of the method. This bolsters the existing system of inclusion and exclusion.
  10. Business criteria absorbing all service agreements, timekeeping systems, bench-marking and quality management, the being an industry that prevents thought.
  11. The power of invention not only not fostered but actively repressed.
  12. Accreditation and external evaluation limiting content.
  13. With the state withdrawing being sold as greater autonomy heteronomization, corporatization and corporate branding.
  14. The university equals a terrain of economics and politics under the control process of economization.
  15. Translocally modulating universities a product of neo-colonial franchise arrangements and high fees a form of racist exclusion.

Lee i5Back in the airport lounge, you take a deep breath and wait, fiddling with your machine. The plane does not arrive; you are not allowed to be transported to a world beyond limit, or outside the dome, because your investment must have a result of a terminal, classified nature. Tickets need checking. The nineteenth century still looms. You will need to be processed into a class, a category and scanned, within a system of hierarchy that defines you, and others, placed in the caste system that capitalism thrives on.

If you are in Yokohama International Terminal, which sits under grass, but results in the opposite effect of a re-realized approach, where nature appears as a natural skin, cladding machinery, you might be reading about the maverick Dr Zac Busner in a Will Self novel who, whilst epitomising self-seeking ego also is the quintessence of change, which ironically is revolutionary. Coming back to the USA and UK paradigm we can only expect the following to occur more in the UK.

  • The University of California at Berkeley was sued over its Code of Conduct
  • A Western Nebraska Community College a professor was accused of inappropriate assignments
  • An Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor was accused of bullying
  • The University of Oregon was sued over gender bias

Playing devil’s advocate, is it such a bad thing that people have become accountable for their behaviour, or is this merely part of the ‘victim’ therapy culture many have become addicted to (Lee, 2010)?

Lee poemD.H. Lawrence was a prophet of nature. Our estrangement from nature, encapsulated in the Judaeo-Christian mythology as the ‘fall’, our transgression necessary for culture and identity, indicates nature cannot be tamed and, paradoxically, is the essence of culture. Perversely, the delusions of progress are our get out clause that allows us to go beyond the imposition of the limit of thought. The above poem touches on this, with references to my first book Mysticism, Mexico and English Literature, the work of Paul Muldoon, Elizabeth Bishop and of, course, DH Lawrence.


Bailey, Michael and Des Freedman, eds., The Assault on Universities – A Manifesto for Resistance (London: Pluto Press, 2011)

de Botton, Alain, The Art of Travel (London: Vintage, 2004)

Eagleton, Terry, Trouble With Strangers. A Study of Ethics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Edwards, Jason, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (London: Routledge, 2009)

Giroux, Henri, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011)

Gray, John, Straw Dogs. Thoughts on humans and other animals (London: Granta, 2002)

Lee, Jason, ed., Cultures of Addiction (New York: Cambria, 2010)

—, Celebrity, Pedophilia and Ideology in American Culture (New York:

Cambria, 2009)

—, Pervasive Perversions – paedophilia and child sexual abuse in

media/culture (London: Free Association Books, 2005)

Raunig, Gerald, Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010)

Szasz, Thomas, Ideology and Insanity (Middlesex: Penguin, 1970)

Thompson, E.P., ed., Warwick University Ltd. – Industry, Management and the Universities (Middlesex: Penguin, 1970)

Žižek, Slavoj, Living In The End Times (London: Verso, 2010)


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