Deepwater Impact

The simple fact that we are discussing “impact” proposals on the humanities and social sciences indicates a depressing failure of “impact” itself. Long after the contemporary academy has become bored with Foucauldian critiques of social control through assessment and quantitative metrics (let alone earlier Marxist attacks on reification), none of these insights has prevented the most basic inequities from being proposed as structuring norms. Why is it that the social policy malformations of neoliberal economics, long after organizing the wholesale bankruptcy of entire nations and societies, continue to push forward, like a managerial Deepwater Horizon besmirching the intellectual landscape with an unstoppable ooze of toxic slime?
In fact, the ideology of “impact” (as currently being discussed by HEFCE) contains a basic flaw: it destroys civic responsibility in the name of a “public” defined as an audience of selfish consumer desires. In the current proposals, impact is divorced from teaching. Thus individuals cannot be “impacted” as students, but only as consumers outside the university. What happens when the transmission of academic ideas is recognized only when separated from the academy (to wit, outside the sphere of production)?
The proposed indicators most appropriate for the humanities and social sciences are “cultural enrichment” and “improved social welfare, social cohesion, and national security”. The first is to be registered through “changes to public attitudes to. . .research (for example, as measured through surveys); enriched appreciation of heritage or culture (for example, as measured through surveys); audience/participation levels at public dissemination or engagement activities (exhibitions, broadcasts and so on); positive reviews or participant feedback on public dissemination or engagement activities” (REF impact pilot exercise, 23-4).[ref]Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), 2009, Annex G Draft ‘common menu’ of impact indicators in REF impact pilot exercise: Guidance on submissions, (Last accessed on May 2010).[/ref]What of cultural arguments that seek to deliver critical awareness about a dynamic unfolding world, rather than connoisseurship of an assumed homogenous, innocent past? HEFCE wants a happy public, a “positive” one that emerges with a satisfied digestion, rather than one troubled to think in unsettling ways about the kind of power that the contemporary dominance of corporatized media and politics enshrine.
The second indicator redefines welfare, not as Beveridgian assurances of health, education, housing, and employment, but solely as a matter of policing: pacification through “social cohesion” and the “application of new security technologies or practices”. Again, cultural commentary is meant here to provide strength through joy at a national unity. The public made cohesive through culture assents to and helps administer policing initiatives. From this perspective, Hamlet’s message is only that a citizen who questions the government enables foreign invasion. Come back Hannah Arendt, all is forgiven; where is the banalization of evil now?
The prejudices inherent in how the proposal’s keyword “equity” blots out concerns for social “equality”, and substitutes ownership for enfranchisement, ought to be self-evident. Contrast HEFCE’s proposals with a similar attempt to consider impact by the Research Quality and Accessibility Framework proposed by the Australian (Conservative) Government in 2004 (Changing Research Impacts, 5- 17).[ref]Jonathan Grant, Philipp-Bastian Brutscher, Susan Kirk, Linda Butler, Steven Wooding, Rand Europe, prepared for HEFCE, 2009, Capturing Research Impacts: A review of international practice, (Last accessed on May 2010).[/ref]There the proposed indicators include “increased cultural awareness” (rather than appreciation) and “change in procedures, behaviours, outlook, etc.” (thus affirming change, rather than enshrining conservation). Even these more moderate factors were found unacceptable. When the Australian Labour Party took government in 2007, they removed any consideration of impact from university funding (in stark contrast to the crypto-Tories of New Labour).
Since UK cultural impact is gauged by the proposal’s rote answer of “surveys”, the result will simply be a case of winner’s win, where the already privileged universities are predisposed to gain most. Because overworked academics have neither time nor resources to conduct audience response surveys or negotiate their research transmission with media outlets, the task will fall to university public relations departments. Hence wealthier universities will further monopolize public funds since these will be the ones most able to finance media flacks. Here is the poison pill of “impact” as it silently ensures the place of increasingly autonomous functionaries in the academy whose main purpose is not education, but oversight for the distribution of academic content, not as teaching flows, but market recognition. These managers have vested interests in sanding any rough edges down since cultural friction is unprofitable in HEFCE’s worldview.
The chief damage to higher education over the last decade or so has been the rise of a managerial elite, overpaid and fundamentally disconnected from institutional responsibility for their decisions or the actual practice of teaching. As education managers float between institutions in search of higher pay, they rarely stay around long enough to be held accountable for poor decision-making. The older ideal of an academic rooted within an institution and guided by civic dedication to the university as a place for considering future alternatives has been replaced with tactical short-termism, where managers need flash new programs and media attention for their next job application, regardless of the mid- to long-term costs of failure, which always fall on the actual constituents of the university: teachers and students. Dealing with public contention (or even ambiguity) is simply a distraction from their managerial careers.
It is easy for left academics to be seduced by a rhetoric of public consumption for our work, since most of us see theory and practice as intermingled. But the American case should stand as warning for British academics. For many years, Usonian scholars chased the mirage of being “public intellectuals”. Few realized, however, that this means depending on their institution to protect them from the onslaught of a rabid conservative media machine. When the dogs of reaction barked in the culture wars, though, American deans slunk away, fearing damage to their own managerial careers. Progressive scholars without the protective benefit of a strong Left were abandoned to fend for themselves against unfair odds, since the spectacular “public sphere” is never a level playing ground in the age of Fox News.
The lesson is clear: “impact” is the Trojan horse designed to institutionalize entrepreneurial interests that will be the “invisible hand” policing the British academy. Keep calm, carry on, and do not disturb the realm of accumulation.
Stephen Shapiro is author of How to Read Marx’s Capital (Pluto) and The Culture and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-system (Penn State). From October 2010, he will be a Professor in the University of Warwick’s Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies.

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