Reading Thrift’s article on “the cultural circuit of capital” reminded me of a long article by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times on 2/10/2008 called “Universities Rush to Set Up Outposts Abroad.” This article updates the conversation of culture industries and capitalism to embrace the Middle East and the ways these logics are playing out in that part of the world with a war in progress. With NYU receiving a 50 million dollar gift from the United Arab Emirates for merely considering setting up a campus there, and many other American universities in talks with Qatar and other countries, there seems to be a drive to, as Thrift points out, “produce new, more appropriate kinds of subjects, what we might call ‘souls’ that fit contemporary and especially future systems of accumulation” (3). This is framed not simply an issue of creating a culture of conspicuous consumption and production, but equally importantly, making it clear to the world that we still have something to teach them and they better listen up.
Interestingly, the universities in question in no way pretend that they are going overseas in order to give the rest of the world a chance at an American education, or to make the world a better place. Instead, they have seemingly embraced their position as industries, with head offices and offshore factories. They do educate, but usually only in English, and the quality is always questionable. The number of students who have shown an interest, met the academic requirements, speak English, and can pay the tuition is much smaller than many of the universities assumed and it is uncertain how well Thrift’s Singapore construct works once it is implemented in other places at other times.
These universities seem to think of these outposts more as advertising for their main universities than as alternative first tier education centers: “Overseas programs can help American universities raise their profile, build international relationships, attract top research talent who, in turn, may attract grants and produce patents, and gain access to a new pool of union-paying students, just as the number of college-age Americans is about to decline.” I read this as saying that American universities are using these facilities as signposts, to tell the world that Michigan State and Yale still matter.
What I find most disturbing about this trend is that Americans seem terribly worried about how this will effect their tax-base, and whether this spread of “American know-how” will hurt “American competitiveness.” This suggests a very different view on cultural capital as not circuitous, but instead just a straight line, heading from us to them, whoever they might be. While Thrift assumes that Singapore is interested in creating cultural ties with the United States so as to increase its economic ties with us as well, Americans now seem to think that the Middle East wants to create cultural ties in order to make us obsolete. They will instead use what we have taught them to work with China, Russia, or one of the other various superpowers that continually crop up. I can’t really get too worked up about this dilemma, but I think it is worth pointing out that when talking about the cultural circuits of capital, one can no longer simply use geography the size of a city or a nation as a model, as these circuits are inherently global and of worldly concern.
For more: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/education/10global.html?_r=1&fta=y&oref=slogin