The University of Spectacle

James Compton, Associate Professor, FIMS. OPENWIDE Volume 16 Issue 1

Associate Professor, FIMS

The University of the Spectacle was first published on the blog The tumblr’s name – 100 Days @ Western: The Alternative Listening Tour – was a response to President Amit Chakma’s declaration that he would embark on a 100-day listening tour in the wake of the so-called “Double-Dip” scandal. Revelations that Western’s Board of Governors had awarded President Chakma a double payment of his salary because he chose not to take a one-year administrative leave sparked a ferociously hot media scandal at a time of departmental austerity and layoffs across the university.

My “noah” offering was intended to draw attention to the core contradictions – political, social, economic and cultural – that led to the Chakmagate spectacle. Appearances can be deceiving, and I wanted to find a way to link the specificity of the everyday experience at Western to the broader social totality that is the root cause of the crisis.

My entry point was the concept of spectacle as theorized by mid-twentieth century French radical filmmaker Guy Debord. He was a leading member of the avant garde French Situationist movement. “Our ideas are in everyone’s mind” they wrote. As Greil Marcus points out the Situationists “meant that their ideas for a different world were in everyone’s mind as desires, but not yet as ideas. Their project was to expose the emptiness of everyday life in the modern world and make a link between desire and the idea real.”

The University of the Spectacle essay is an attempt to make visible the very real desires of students and faculty to change the material conditions of their scholarly lives using the Situationist style and method. The opening line is what the Situationists called a “detournement” (a repurposing of a cultural object to produce a subversive message) of the first lines from Debord’s treatise The Society of the Spectacle.


The whole life of those universities in which modern conditions of managerialism prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All scholarship that was once directly lived has become mere representation.

I am reminded of this sad state of affairs every time I walk on campus. As students, staff and faculty attempt to go about their scholarly lives we are confronted by gigantic Orwellian images. Replacing the single image of Big Brother, looking down upon us are businessmen in suits, C-list reality-TV celebrities, and other cheerleaders of ‘entrepreneurialism.’ “Be extraordinary” they command.

We are not expected to reply. The University of the Spectacle is not interested in dialogue; it is an enormous tautology: its means and ends are identical.

In the command to be extraordinary we find the core contradiction of the University of the Spectacle. To be extraordinary is to be different, to go beyond the usual or customary. And yet the banners represent the denial of difference. They are the endless repetition of the same – represented as difference.

The University of the Spectacle inverts the academy’s core values. Students and researchers of social work, English literature or visual arts will not find themselves in these images. No sociology will be committed. Indeed, all traces of scholarship have been removed. The utilitarian managerialism at the heart of the University of the Spectacle has no time for such activities. After all, where is the value-added proposition?

The University of the Spectacle negates the independent search for knowledge. In its false image is the university’s real material existence made manifest most concretely in the strategic budgeting process, otherwise known as Responsibility-centered Management (RCM).  Here we see the core contradiction repeat itself in a banal mantra lifted directly from the Harvard playbook: “Every tub must have its own bottom” (there’s always a central script that masquerades as individual administrative wit).  Tubs are faculties and schools responsible for their own bottom line, defined exclusively in monetary terms. Conspicuous by its absence is the academy’s core mission of teaching and research.

In the University of the Spectacle power is centralized in the Board of Governors and senior administration. Responsibility is decentralized and offloaded onto individual faculties, and schools who must compete among themselves in a zero-sum game for an ever shrinking portion of the budgetary pie. The model has led to a winner-takes-all mentality. Research and teaching that can be monetized and leveraged by private interests wins. Service to the public loses.

Separation is the alpha and omega of the University of the Spectacle. In its image we are united in what separates us, the university as spectacle. The utilitarian management system demands it. Be purple, be proud, be silent! This was the message delivered so clearly by well-heeled donors in the days leading to the non-confidence votes in Board Chair Chirag Shah and President Amit Chakma. Debate and critical inquiry are unwanted. Indeed, they are viewed as “reckless and divisive.”

The University of the Spectacle demands fealty to the brand. Communication is essentially one-way. Here we find its strength and weakness. The illusion of control is exercised through the monopolization of representation and brand management. A new logo, complete with Hellmuth, a custom-made sans serif font and a new shade of purple – Pantone 268 – give comfort to those who wish to command. But once the walls are breached panic spreads – literally.

The University of the Spectacle requires quiet compliance. The smooth efficiency of the utilitarian RCM machine cannot function if this is denied. Utilitarian managerialism strives to negate friction; a healthy scholarly community celebrates it. The Double Dip scandal has awakened the students, staff and faculty at Western. Where there was once silence, we find debate. Where there was once the repetitive thump of a rubber stamp, wielded from on high, we hear multiple calls for collegial governance.

Change is not only possible, it’s happening. Scholarship is being directly lived.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s