Against Value – 23.2.2012

University of Sheffield

Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern
Professor Tim Etchells
Emile Bojesen
and more… followed by discussion

Thursday 23rd February, 2012
7.15 pm
St George’s Church
Free Entry
All are welcome

The current crisis in higher education has required a spirited defence
of the value of the arts and humanities. Likely this defence has not
been sufficient to the task.

Last year, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of
Sheffield staged an event that aimed to articulate, discuss and defend
“The Value of the Arts and Humanities”. We heard about many ways of
valuing and reasons to value an arts and humanities education from a
newspaper columnist, a politician, a businessman, a Higher Education
administrator, and an academic critic of Higher Education policy.

This event does not offer a defence. It has not been curated to answer
the denigration of the value of the arts and humanities with a
palatable restatement of their virtues. This event offers a counter
proposition: that the task of the arts and humanities, both in their
creative and educative aspects, is to contest, to challenge, to
question, to undermine, to satirise, to offend, to violate, to
deconstruct, to degenerate, to critique, to undo, or to suspend
dominant and dominating assumptions of value. The purpose of the arts
and humanities, the purpose of the university, is to think against

Inspired by the exploits of Dada artists refusing the discourse of
reason during the First World War, by the critique of audit cultures,
and of the damaging instrumentalisation of education, this event has
been curated to ask, if not answer, the following: Who owns value? For
whom does value speak? Does value arrest thinking?

The event will hopefully prove the start of a different conversation
about strategies of resistance that channel the resentment and anger of
students and scholars and inspire some of the following: patience and
slow thinking, happiness, negativity, indeterminacy, doubt, punk,
ambivalence, failure, dissonant thinking, dissident imaginations.

Please address any questions to Dr Sam Ladkin at and/or Dr Bob Mckay at


Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern

Tim Etchells


What follows is a brief response to the event, The Value of the Arts
and Humanities, as sent to the participants, followed by brief

“As far as I know, nobody has ever founded a university against reason”
– Jacques Derrida, on the “unconditional freedom” of the university.

“Thus Euro-Americans frequently present knowledge to themselves as
though a condition were its reflexivity: one knows things because one
can reflect on why and how one knows.”
– Marilyn Strathern

The name of that is of course money,
and the absurd trust in value is the pattern of
bond and contract and interest – just where
the names are exactly equivalent to the trust
given to them.
Here then is the purity of
pragmatic function:
we give the name of
our selves to our needs.
We want what we are.
– J.H. Prynne, “Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self”

“Competition generally raises quality”
–       Lord Browne, BP


Justification for education, in particular post-secondary education,
and more specifically justification for post-secondary education in the
arts and humanities, relies on two primary measures: economic benefits
to costs; and value as determined by the discourse of the humanities.
This holds true for the ways in which the arts are justified
politically in the UK. What justification do the arts and humanities
require? Are the arts and humanities, or should the arts and
humanities, be fundamentally opposed to value?

Three responses:

The authority of value: Who has the right to determine value, and for
whom do such values speak? The ever-increasing desire to re-affirm
already magnified hierarchies is at odds with principles of knowledge.
Knowledge works laterally, passed person to person, as much belonging
to the receiver as the giver. It is fundamentally, therefore, generous,
a generosity that is being too easily conscripted into economic models
of accumulation.

The teleology of education: The end-point of education (knowledge)
cannot (must not?) be determined in advance. In part this is a response
to the psychology of commodification and rule by audit. The first is
the expectation that knowledge, too, might prostrate itself for
consumption. Instead should knowledge be understood as in some sense
intractable, finally unknowable. The world provides infinite resistance
to the presumption of a totalizing comprehensibility. The second is
that knowledge should be set against the ever more prevalent logic of
audit cultures.

The teleology of values of audit cultures – closing the loop between
policy (aims) and audit (outcomes) – operates as a feedback loop
against what Marilyn Strathern describes as an “open-ended and
ambiguous enquiry in the most serious sense”. The audit presumes
self-knowledge as the determinant of knowledge. The critique of audit
cultures is the knowledge that a defence of values academics generally
hold dear, trust, “responsibility, opennness about outcomes and
widening of access” (3), might best be achieved by working precisely
against the auditing of those values.

Dada: Dada includes a hugely various set of affiliations amongst
artists and writers working in the first half of the twentieth century.
It was forged in the crisis of the Great War, and was international in
scope. It can be described as an expatriation of people, ideas, and
even the premises of art and language from nationalist and “civilized”
values. Dada’s protest was not only against a system of value, but was
also a refusal to participate within the methodology, the rationality,
that underpinned that system. How might art making today, and forms of
argument, similarly have to refuse to participate on the ground
belonging to a system of values as well as to the values themselves?

4 thoughts on “Against Value – 23.2.2012

  1. “What costs humanity very dearly no doubt is to believe that one can have done in history with a general essence of Man, on the pretext that it represents only a Hauptgespenst, arch-ghost, but also – to still believe, no doubt, in the capital ghost. To believe in as do the credulous and dogmatic. Between the two beliefs, as always, the way remains narrow.”

    Derrida (1994) “What is ideology’ in “Specters of Marx”

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