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Simon During’s Humanities
Drawing on the history of ideas, the institutional history of the university, and the study of religion and secularity, the essays in this series are essential reading for anyone hoping to understand the peculiar situation of humanities scholarship now, at once ubiquitous and marginalized.
Kantorowicz was by no means alone in his refusal to sign. Across the UC system, another 36 tenured professors lost their jobs alongside him. As it turned out, California’s Supreme Court overturned the sackings. By then it didn’t matter much for Kantorowicz. He had already found a job at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Looking back, this incident may seem trivial enough: just another display of Cold War paranoia, just another demonstration of supine conciliation on the part of university authorities.
But we shouldn’t let Kantorowicz’s firing fall out of institutional memory. If anything, his act has become more rather than less significant, because, paradoxically, the reasons he gave for his refusal were so peculiar, so out of touch. They were remote from ordinary ways of thinking about the professoriate’s role and status then. They are even more remote now. This very remoteness can suggest new ways for professors to relate to the university system today, as it becomes unmoored from centuries-old traditions and legitimations and as the empire of obsolescence expands.
In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal primarily to the notion of “academic freedom” as articulated by John Dewey and others earlier in the century. Nor did he refuse to sign because he was any kind of leftist. To the contrary, he was (as he put it in the pamphlet he wrote about the affair) a “conservative” who, as a volunteer fighter against the Munich 1919 uprising, had actually killed Communists.
His reasons appealed to a different conceptual or institutional tradition than any acknowledged either in modern politics or by modern academic administration. He believed that a professor is “entrusted with” an office in a particular “body corporate,” or corpus mysticum, i.e., a university. That status was defined in medieval Europe when universities were established as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium — as bodies made up of students and professors and nobody else.
As a corporation, the university had a particular legal status. It could not be identified with the sum of its members; it was rather a disembodied entity, permanent and immortal. What enabled the scholar to participate in the university was professorial office, which endowed its bearer with “dignity.” Dignity, thus conceived, is not a personal comportment but a quality essential to office. Or rather: In a permanent, mystical institution, dignity fuses office to the private personality, as Kantorowicz put it in his most famous book, The King’s Two Bodies (1957).
In refusing to sign the loyalty oath, Kantorowicz did not appeal to “academic freedom.”
As a corpus mysticum, the university is a corporation in a different sense than the modern business enterprise. Because students and professors were the embodied corpus mysticum, regents or janitors, for instance, do not themselves belong to the university proper. They are attached outsiders. Janitors, for instance, merely keep the campus clean. Regents ensure that formal university procedures as mandated by the state are observed. But as members of the university’s body corporate, professors were not employees at all.
In other words, for Kantorowicz, a professorship was a public trust. No one had control over professors. No one measured their performance. The dignity of the professorial office called upon its bearers to act according to their “conscience,” which was held to be inseparable from the professor’s “genuine duties as member of the academic body corporate.” Furthermore, dignity required them to enact their conscience with “passion” and “love.” It involved a willingness to sacrifice their embodied self for the sake of the office: a concept of sacrifice whose historical origins included God’s sacrifice of Christ’s humanity.
Kantorowicz’s gesture came from somewhere else: from Germany circa 1900, and from the lessons he had absorbed from the George-Kreis (the group of acolytes around the poet Stefan George) and its commitment to a “Secret Germany,” supposedly more spiritual, timeless, noble, and real than any actual Germany. In a Frankfurt University lecture he had bravely given against the Nazis in 1933, just before exiling himself, Kantorowicz had expressed his belief in this Secret Germany, in which the poet and the thinker held something like monarchical dignity. His refusal to sign the loyalty oath in 1950 repeated this act of defiance.
Kantorowicz’s beliefs were inherited from medieval thought and practice, to which he devoted his scholarly career. His research was dedicated to showing how the dignity of office, in being simultaneously material and spiritual, was originally attributed to the Roman emperors, then took a Christological turn (because Christ is both divine and human, disembodied and embodied) and, under the aegis of Latin Christianity, was transferred to a sequence of institutionalized offices or positions: the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, the knight, the priest, the lawyer, the professor, and the poet.
It is not hard to understand why Kantorowicz might have been attracted to this quasi-mystical way of thinking. As a secular, queer Jew with aristocratic pretensions and from a rich family, he found the sheer disembodiedness of categories like “dignity” and “office” attractive. After all, such categories did not involve race. In many ways this kind of recondite conservatism was a conceptually and imaginatively more powerful way of protecting oneself against anti-Semitism than universalizing progressivisms such as Communism.
Kantorowicz’s esoteric ideas influenced some of his students. The notion that poets held a noble office with a genealogy reaching back to antiquity, and were thus detached from contemporary society and the state, appealed immensely to a group of queer, young poets who were Kantorowicz’s admiring undergraduate followers. Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser formed the nucleus of what became known as the “Berkeley renaissance.” They also played a role in establishing what would later become the counter-culture.
Spicer’s academic career was impeded when he joined Kantorowicz in refusing to sign the loyalty oath. But Duncan transferred the passions of Kantorowicz’s ultraconservative recalcitrance to a later political moment of a very different kind, when he joined Berkeley’s free-speech movement in 1964. The movement was the campus’s first mass act of civil disobedience, and it introduced white America to that form of movement politics which we now associate with 1968. It also established Berkeley’s reputation as a hotbed of radicalism. It is worth remembering that the radical left’s insistence on autonomy, freedom, and something like personal dignity carries traces, via Kantorowicz, of an ultra-conservative political theology.
Boltanski supposes that an existential “unease” is primary to people because the future is radically uncertain and the unexpected always awaits us. The management of this uncertainty requires institutions to establish “security” by providing routinizing rules, protocols, and discourses. Such security also calls upon critique, motivated by the will continually to test and strengthen social institutions.
Just as Kantorowicz committed himself to tracing the conceptual duality of office, Boltanski regards institutions as simultaneously embodied and disembodied, agents in life as lived but also immortal, in the sense that their identity is separate from any material thing and they don’t die a natural death. Institutions, Boltanski says, following Kantorowicz, have “two bodies.”
As far as I am aware, Boltanski has not addressed the concept of the dignity of office. But there is a strong sense in his work that to avoid the anxiety of contingency — what they used to call Fortuna — we need to think of ourselves as bearers of offices in organizations that were here before us and will be here after us.
Today, we find it difficult to think of ourselves as anything other than embodied, even in our professional lives. As academics, our race, our ethnicity, our gender, and our sexual preferences organize our relationship to what we teach and research. From Kantorowicz’s point of view, that would be a kind of heresy.
The modern university has decided not to think of itself as a corpus mysticum indifferent to the private and embodied qualities of those who work in it, but radically to secularize itself by allowing professors’ personal moral and corporeal qualities to order it. It has swapped dignity for equity, we might say.
There is no going back on that, of course. The history that Kantorowicz reminded us of has come to an end. But a question remains: What are we to do with that history now? Do we, in a progressive spirit, just celebrate its passing? Or, in a Burkean conservative spirit, do we regret and resist the loss of its undeniable (I think) glamour and power?
Of course the corpus mysticum that Kantorowicz invoked never actually existed. Not when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II founded the first secular, public university in Naples in 1224. Not in Germany in 1933. Not in the U.S. in 1950. This means that the university as body corporate was a mystical body in two senses: It was legally established as a permanent, immortal, and thus spiritual corporation, but it was also just an idea, an imaginative construct.
When Kantorowicz refused to sign the loyalty oath in 1950, as when he resisted the Nazification of the German university system in 1933, he was insisting that we should not confuse what is actual with what is real. For him, what does not actually exist can be more real than what does. The actual university is prey to the needs of war, to the forces of management, to the pressures of ideology, to the demands of equity and identity, and so on, but the real university — the secret university — is not. Indeed, there may be moments when we have to sacrifice ourselves for what is real against what is actual.
Let me restate this idea less esoterically, à la Boltanski: The notion that our embodied, actual selves — our racialized, sexualized, managed, productive selves — need, on occasion, to be sacrificed for the corpus mysticum can never quite disappear, however secreted it may become. Without it, there is no “us” as professors at all, no us as members of an institution — the university — whose corporate status has allowed it to endure for centuries. In our times, the “secret university” is not the university that aims for more embodiment but for less, and it won’t quite die because it can’t, at least until the university both as an idea and as an institution itself disappears.
What might this mean in practice? From an idealistic perspective, accepting that the secret university survives means that we should be prepared to follow Kantorowicz’s example. We should be ready not just to stand against the forces that are transforming the corpus mysticum into the managed university but to sacrifice ourselves, if necessary, for the dignity of office. But more realistically (since of course most professors need their jobs to survive in the bourgeois world), the persistence of the secret university just means that we acknowledge the costs of betraying it — and accept ourselves, more or less dispiritedly, as participants in the real university’s endless break up.