The sense that there are two sides to the relationship between
individuals and institutions is a peculiarly Western phenomenon,
grounded on the historical circumstances of the dissolution of the
archaic empires of the Middle East. The two strands of the Western
synthesis, the Hebrew and the Greek, are founded on liberation from
the social order exemplified by dynastic Egypt in which institution
and sacred are inseparable and private values are wholly subordinated
to public. The market exchange system that has spread throughout the
world grew up under the sign of the Cross, that most
anti-institutional of symbols.
Many Humanities faculty have based their careers on denouncing one
or the other Western institution, if only that of "capitalism"
itself. Back in the sixties, the university was regularly the focus
of such denunciations. But over the years, the students have become
professors, and the simple fact that, within the not-very-stringent
limits of budgetary considerations, the university's personnel
process is dominated by the faculty themselves has removed their
institution from the spotlight of criticism. Radicals are rarely
denied tenure for their radicalism; the opposite is far more likely.
Hence the intellectual class has come to believe that, unlike the
"real world" that rewards members of "hegemonic" at the expense of
"subaltern" groups, the university grants its rewards to the truly
deserving. Our intellectual elite's unflinching condemnation of the
rest of society allows it to accept the largesse of the educational
system in good conscience.
By a strange irony, I too adopted a version of this attitude.
However critical my view of the academic profession as a whole, I
thought of UCLA as an oasis within the boundaries of which I could
expect to be judged "on my own merits." I often wrote in these
Chronicles about the profession's increasing mimeticism, all
the while continuing to assume that this could not affect my
relationship with my local institution. Experience has now taught me
not merely that this reassuring sentiment was false, but that it
reflected a dangerous dependency on institutional judgment. There
comes a time when one must liberate oneself from the tutelage of even
the most benign of institutions. Although I have never been required
overtly to compromise my intellectual integrity, it is ultimately
compromising to expect that this or any institution will judge one's
work on "merits" other than those that contribute to its current
value in the marketplace.
To say that the world of ideas is a marketplace like any other is
not to condemn thinkers to slavery to the latest fashions. Markets
operate on many time-scales at once. Following short-term trends is a
recipe for short-term success; new ideas, in academic life as in the
business world, often take time to prove their value.
We are fortunate to be blessed with universities that allow us
such freedom to do research and teach courses in areas of our own
choosing. Without the Western university system, neither Generative
Anthropology itself nor the thought that led up to it would likely
have emerged. But it is one thing to be grateful to an institution
for affording us the means of elaborating our ideas and another to
depend on that institution for assurance that these ideas are of
value. Institutional tolerance is already a godsend--and far more
than history gives us the right to expect.
Disappointments are often blessings in disguise; in relieving us
of false hopes, they give us the opportunity to free ourselves for an
instant from the power of mimesis. I hope I will be able to put this
opportunity to good use, and that my readers too may find this lesson
a salutary one.
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