The university, the city and a different aesthetic


The public spaces in and around universities are typically designed to optimise the efficient movement of people between lecture halls, transport, living and recreational hubs. But are these spaces really public, and how do they support knowledge production? Noting the western and masculine nature of universities, Prof Karin van Marle reflects on the theme of knowledge and the liberation of knowledge within the space of the university.

The famous architect Le Corbusier in 1964
Photo: Joop van Bilsen, Anefo

The accessibility and character of universities are often determined by the urban structures within and around them. However, the world of planning and construction has been male-dominated for many centuries. In an article published in The Guardian in 2014, the following question was raised: “If women built cities, what would our urban landscape look like? Architect Fiona Scott lamented the extent to which the built-environment professions remain heavily male-dominated. Le Corbusier (1887–1965), a pioneer of modern architecture and urban planning, emphasised the idea that everyone should work to a human scale. However, he used a stylised human figure, the six-foot Modulor Man, to demonstrate the proportions needed for design. Only later, the attention shifted to advocating for more “family-friendly” spaces, women’s safety and female toilets. This was strengthened by initiatives such as the Women’s Design Service set up in London in 1984 as a worker’s co-operative.

Non-sexist spaces
In a classic 1980 essay ‘What would a non-sexist city be like?’ the American urbanist Dolores Hayden called for centres that could “transcend traditional definitions of home, neighbourhood, city and workplace”. Others have suggested that a woman-friendly city could be more porous, the divisions between home and work less rigid, so that domestic work is acknowledged as a productive activity, and household carers are less excluded from economic life. Urban planners say that the gender politics of planning has long been underplayed.

A view of the city from the University of Cape Town
Photo: landagent, Wikimedia Commons

Feminists such as Prof Tovi Fenster challenged the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the “right to the city”, arguing that the right to the city does not pay sufficient attention to patriarchal power relations. If the right to the city is concerned with everyday life, it goes without saying that everyone’s everyday life experiences should be taken into account. The right to the city involves also the right to appropriate urban space in the sense of the right to use, live in, play in, work in, represent, characterise and occupy urban space in a particular city as well as the right to participate in it. According to Fenster, Lefebvre’s right to the city refers to a public that is still to a great extent not open to, and accessible to, most women. We could extend this view to the university space.

In Relating narratives: Storytelling and selfhood (2000), Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero insisted on the importance of “who” rather than “what” someone is. Who someone is, can be revealed only by stories, she believes. Relating this to the university, it is important to look beyond the traditional, the masculine, achievements, aspirations and ambitions. Is any space in the current neoliberal university for a “who”, rather than a “what”, to develop and come to the fore?

Countering liberal power
I contend that a certain neoliberal aesthetic present within most South African universities continues and deepens epistemic, ontological and spatial violence and injustice. What could a different aesthetic, in particular, the notion of “new aesthetics” or one that pays attention to bodily presence, affect, complexity and slowness disclose? Could it counter or at the very least problematise neoliberal power by exposing its limits, its failure to respect and be fully just to the minds and hearts of all?

It is important to note the western and masculine nature of the university. In 2016, Ugandan academic Prof Mahmood Mamdani wrote, “[most universities] are local instantiations of a dominant academic model based on a Eurocentric epistemic canon.” The implication of a western canon is that it values only western/ masculine notions of the truth and rejects all other forms of knowledge. An important feature of many western epistemic traditions is their reliance on a certain division between “mind and world”, “reason and nature”, and on a detachment between the “knower” and the “known”.  This point does not speak only to epistemology, ways of knowing, but also ontology, ways of being. In 2016, Cameroonian philosopher Prof Achille Mbembe noted that the main problem of these forms of epistemology and ontology is that they become hegemonic and do not acknowledge other ways of understanding, being in and inhabiting the world.

Aesthetics can transform
I am concerned about the extent to which a certain neoliberal logic and rationality have become a kind of common sense at the university. Could a different aesthetic, one that acknowledges bodily presence, sensory experiences, complexity and the need to slow down, to step aside from counting, competitiveness and suffocation, challenge this logic? I argue for a kind of aesthetic that could influence the idea of the university as a public space, make it a space of inhabitance, where everyone could feel that they belong and could offer an alternative to some present-day campuses where one is allowed only if biometrics are captured; where interdicts reign.

My sense is that a different aesthetic could transform the curriculum, disclose opportunities for ideas and reflection and produce more than functionaries to further the machine. Crucially, it could enhance the world outside the university if graduates could contribute to a life-world that is not one of mere instrumentality. It could liberate knowledge and liberate those engaged in the production of knowledge.

Author: Karin van Marle, Professor, Department of Public Law, University of the Free State

A panoramic view of the University of Cape Town
Photo: Discott, Wikimedia Commons