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.