Law & Critique: “Life is not simply fact” – aesthetics, atmosphere & the neoliberal university

by | 30 Apr 2019

What should we understand under neoliberalism in the context of the university? Anderson (2016:735) argues that neoliberalism should not be seen as something ‘singular, coherent … with a simple origin point. … New hybrids are formed as neoliberal styles of reasoning and techniques encounter diverse political-economic forms and logics of governing’ (2016, p. 735). He warns that we should not rely on neoliberalism as a catch phrase to capture anything. He explains his own use of ‘neoliberal affects’ as firstly referring to atmospheres that influence neoliberal reason and secondly referring to the ‘structures of feeling’ that ‘accompany the translation of neoliberal reason into policies and projects’ (2016, p. 736).

Anderson’s comment about the relation between neoliberalism and everyday life (or as he calls it ‘contemporary affective life’) is significant for the purpose of engagement with the neoliberal university. He explains this connection as ‘a commonly felt and identifiable mood’ (2016, p. 736). As done also by others, he links neoliberalism with the present form of capitalism. He quotes Hall and O’Shea, who highlight ‘the individualisation of everyone’; ‘the privatisation of public troubles’ and ‘the requirement to make competitive choices at every turn’ as ‘structural consequences’ of neoliberalism (2016, p. 737). What is most troublesome is the extent to which neoliberalism becomes ‘common-sense’. Even though this neoliberal common-sense is ‘incoherent’ and ‘contradictory’ on the one hand, when it becomes ‘common-sense’ it ‘feels coherent and becomes intuitive’ (2016, p. 738). It is exactly this notion of common-sense that negates other epistemologies and ontologies. The university then, instead of being a space where multiple views and knowledges are celebrated, becomes a space where only a certain way of knowing, being and doing is recognised – the university becomes a very specific place of exclusion and limitation.

Thinking specifically about law faculties/ departments/ schools we should reiterate that law be seen and taught as a humanities discipline. Law faculties in South Africa (and probably faculties in many other parts of the world) have been going through a number of curriculum changes over the past two decades. In my experience the demands for the LLB degree and the law curriculum to be devoid of critical engagement and deep theory and to fulfil predominantly functionalist aims and objectives, are ever increasing. Those who share Douzinas and Gearey’s (2005) lamentation of law’s decline and impoverishment are scarce and getting scarcer.

How could a turn to atmosphere be helpful in the call for spatial and epistemic justice and for an understanding of law as a humanities discipline? Anderson explains how the word ‘atmosphere’ is used in everyday speech to refer to, for example, the atmosphere in a room, a street, a place of worship. For my purpose here, I want to think about the atmosphere at the neoliberal university. And, drawing on Anderson (2009, p. 78), to contemplate ‘how atmospheres may interrupt, perturb, haunt fixed persons, places or things’. Linking with Böhme, Anderson also regards atmosphere as something vague and indeterminate that at the same time can carry a singular quality. Atmospheres have an ‘unfinished quality’ and are in a constant process of transforming. ‘They are always being taken up and reworked in lived experience’ (2009, p. 79). Anderson notes the ‘classic affective qualities’ as the sublime, the tragic and the beautiful, but drawing on Dufrenne mentions also certain ‘minor atmospheres’, ‘grace, lightness and innocence’. He argues that atmospheres have a ‘characteristic spatial form’ (2009, p. 80). In addition to atmosphere, complexity and slowness (Cilliers 2005 & 2007) could also, if heeded enhance the possibility of justice in the neoliberal university.

What would a different aesthetic entail? At least it should be one that acknowledges bodily-presence, sensory experiences, complexity and the need to slow down, to step aside from counting, competitiveness and suffocation. This kind of aesthetic could influence the idea of the university as a public space, make it a space of inhabitance (Butler 2012) and could offer an alternative to present-day campuses. It could transform the curriculum, disclose opportunities for ideas and reflection and produce more than functionaries to further the machine. Crucially, it will enhance the world outside the university if graduates could contribute to a life-world that is not one of mere instrumentality. Imagine the possibilities for academic community and friendship if we realise that ‘life is not mere fact’.

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


—Anderson, Ben. 2009. Affective atmospheres. Emotion, space and society2: 77-81.
—Anderson, Ben. 2016. Neoliberal affects. Progress in Human Geography40(6): 734-753.
—Böhme, Gernot. 2017. Atmospheric architectures. The aesthetics of felt spaces.London: Bloomsbury.
—Butler, Chris. 2012. Henri Lefebvre. Spatial politics, everyday life and the right to the city.London: Routledge.
—Cilliers, Paul. 2005. Complexity, deconstruction and relativism. Theory, Culture & Society22: 255-267.
—Cilliers, Paul. 2007. On the importance of a certain slowness. Stability, memory and hysteria in complex systems. In Worldviews, science, and us: Philosophy and complexity, eds. Carlos Gershenson, Diederik Aerts, and Bruce Edmonds. ————World Scientific. 53-61.
—Douzinas, Costas and Adam Gearey. 2005. Critical jurisprudence.Oxford: Hart.


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