Quantify & Select: A Critical and Panoramic Report on the Intercontinental Academia Seminar

by Julia Buenaventura

In this first of two modules, the Intercontinental Academia was in fact a 13-day seminar that comprised two collective conferences, seventeen individual conferences and one roundtable, in addition to six open discussion encounters. The conferences dealt with two major themes: on one hand, time, which was the main axis of the seminar and was addressed from the viewpoints of physics, biology and anthropology, among other areas; on the other, the university as an institution.

The participants, in turn, comprised several groups: first, the lecturers, most of whom were over 40, held doctorates and had a long history of research; second, the young scholars, a group of thirtyish university professors with ongoing doctorates and study projects; third, a group of four reporters in charge of drafting critical essays about the event (I among them); finally, a group of four visual reporters.

Overall, as I saw it, the lectures – some more, some less – adhered to a common denominator: the quantification of the world, or of the objects of study, and the use of statistics as a key tool in various disciplines. Thus, the history of the universe itself became a matter of measurements, of knowing its age in years, of quantifying galaxies. Physicists, chemists and biologists exposed their knowledge through numbers, or more specifically through means and averages: how many hours one sleeps, how many mice displayed such behavior, and so on. Similarly, those who spoke about education or the university as an institution also resorted to numbers, in the form of ratios and comparisons, to present an overview of the various academic bodies and of the society with which they interact – e.g., how many illiterates, how many graduates, how many papers etc.

“How many” was a major component in the lectures of the guest professors, confirming a current trend towards knowledge that can be conveyed through numbers – which always seem like goals and are, therefore, unquestionable. That is to say, the lectures – many of them profoundly valuable – revealed a perceptible interest in passing on knowledge by means of numbers, to which today’s academy seems unwaveringly dedicated.

Intercontinental Academia Highlights

So I will also use this very same tool to expose some aspects of the group of scholars that discussed time, the young researchers. As I noted, these were thirteen professors from leading universities, who age hovered around 30, having been born between 1974 and 1984. Four of them were from Brazil, three from Germany, two from Japan, one from England, one from the United States, one from China and, finally, one from Finland.

The branches of knowledge, in turn, were somewhat particular, with seven researchers associated with biology, neurology or the behavioral sciences (that systematically observe the behavior of people or animals), four dedicated to the history of art or literature, one historian and one mathematician. Finally, it is worth noting that the group consisted of eleven men and two women.

I’d like to make two observations with regard to this state of affairs. Firstly, the group was a heterogeneous assemblage that enabled conversations and discussions from dissimilar points of view: we learned how a historian, a biologist or a mathematician understands the passage of time, or what temporality might mean for someone who works with aesthetic objects or with biological bodies. In short, the seminar was open to many possibilities. And, indeed, there were some interesting discussions, specifically one about whether time is way of learning about the tangible world or a property of the world itself – leading inevitably to the old and fascinating dispute over the existence of time.

This opportunity to establish an interdisciplinary discussion was fantastic, and truly urgent in an increasingly specialized academic world, where specialization has almost upended the project of “university” itself – a word that shares its etymology with “universe” and “universal”, i.e., that which although being many still remains one. In sum, taken to the extreme, specialization has blocked the possibility of non-reductive knowledge, of knowledge capable of embracing the whole world. This no longer implies a union of scholars, but rather that each one, seeing things from their perspective, attempts to understand the whole. Or as Tolstoy said, it is by describing your village that you will describe the world. The Intercontinental Academia was a clear attempt to redeem the basic project of a university that, although divided, is capable of containing the universe in each of its branches and, above all, in the dialogue between them.

Second comment. The configuration of this particular group of scholars serves as a roadmap to establish two points. On one hand, seeing where the congress was organized, it was clear that most of the participants would come from Brazil, Japan and Germany; on the other, the remaining participants came from countries with very strong economies: European Union, United States and China. In short, it is meaningful that there were no Hispanics or Arabs or Africans etc. In other words, the excluded did not attend the congress, which is a real pity when discussing time, or working time, or historical time, or physical time, or planetary time, or time as territory. Furthermore, the ratio of women was alarmingly low, as pointed out by one of the participants in the opening session.

Arguably, the exclusion of the excluded presumed a vacuum of political discussion, evident in the questions of investigators, whose inquires ended up being overly broad – “What is time?”, “How is it perceived?”, “How is it conceptualized?” and “How is it used?” –, making it impossible to work on these issues from one’s own position or field of expertise. More specifically, those questions skipped over the ultimate, fundamental discussion, of whether or not time exists. That is, the questions took for granted that time exists, even though this is a problematic issue; I have seen things that move in time and that grown old in their course, but I have never held a single particle of time in my hands. In brief, from my point of view, Tolstoy’s recommendation was laid aside, and the world was described before anyone described the village. Admittedly, the second part of this story is still on hold, so let’s see what happens when the thirteen young researchers meet again in Nagoya, Japan, to continue this dispute.