In the film Horse Feathers (1932), professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) conducts an interesting academic act: the auction of the institution. The mallet that symbolizes academic power transforms into a market indicator. Wagstaff`s project is summarized in one objective: make the Huxley College soccer team win the championship. He hires two mafia men, Chico and Harpo Marx, who become the operators that take the University to the media market of big stadiums and multitudes.
From then on it is an epilogue: the coveted widow Conney Bailey, that eternal student that swarms among students and professors, is finally seduced by the father-president who, at the end of the film, marries her in a curious ménage à quatre (along with Chico and Harpo).
Horse Feathers genially summarizes the metamorphosis of the university during the last century in three figures: entertainment, mafia and incest. We recognize the fact that the role of the wise man disappears forever. When the out-going president asks Wagstaff for a moderate speech, he humiliates the president and sends him home to his wife. The act of knowing becomes an impossibility. Knowledge loses its authority as well as the one who portrays it.
This first element of the mutation of the university institution, the spectacle, produces its own agenda and list of priorities: newspaper publicity is more important to a professor than academic research in his field of study. Likewise, we seek an image of the university to fit popular taste. Knowledge, in any event, while framed in news media, will never be news. A new type of censorship rises, based on what is now excluded from the university, that is, disciplines that were previously called pure (philosophy, mathematics, humanities, sciences in general). The university-market simply doesn`t consider this type of activity tenable.
The second element that summarizes Groucho Marx`s criticism of the university is the progressive intervention of the mafia element. Focused on the market, this new university needs to connect to the world of advertising, and adopt its rules. Wagstaff is, therefore, the epitome of an autocrat whose decisions are the result of his personal desire. He doesn`t answer to anyone. Therefore, when his assistants approach him in an obvious attitude of flattery, it is not to help the decision process, but to remain on the institutional payroll.
Another important element is Wagstaffs blood relationship. His son, Widow Bailey`s lover, is also one of the star players on the soccer team. This blood relationship makes the mafia element evident. Wagstaff tries to seduce his son”s girlfriend who, in turn, tries to obtain information about the game to leak to the leaders of the opposing team. While the son is deceived by his lover and his father, the mafia men hired by Wagstaff to rig the results joyfully join the club of the widow`s seducers.
The mafia nature of the film clearly drives this new university to a third element: incest. When I speak of incest, I do not refer to sexual relations between ascendants and descendents. I mean a certain group of circumstances and characteristics that surround an incestuous event. For example: hiding from the external world, lack of free flow of information, and keeping secrets. Here, academic life has become a pantomime in which each one acts, in the dramatic sense, from a position of un-represented knowledge.
Wagstaff has retained the delinquent corpus of the university from which his son is excluded. The widow is a remainder of the University, what Nietzsche would call a “lead,” a result of a chain reaction, when the university metaphor has crystallized and it can no longer move chemically or physically to another element, when it has arrived to its end in evolution, transforming into a lead object. It is interesting to acknowledge that the disappearance of Wagstaffs son as the widow`s lover represents the infertility of the pattern imposed by the University”s new rationality.
Horse Feathers is about the crystallization of an advertising model; a spectacle university that deserts the place of knowledge, in which the professor`s role cannot be represented, mafia influences university practices that end in parricide, an incestuous model imposes silence and a new censorship inside the institution, and the institution`s symbolic disappearance turns it into a self-devoured university, incapable of reproduction.
Lawyer and Philosopher
University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
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