In the liberal spirit of recent definitions of the word entrepreneur, I apply to myself the same label (now gimme some money, BriRo). The definition of “solv[ing] significant problems” authorizes me to do so, as I myself am trying to correct a huge one that currently besets the Macalester community: that of entrepreneurialism.
The way I see it, we need to be honest with ourselves before we undertake projects of the gravity of gutting (or butchering or mangling) the library to make space for “entrepreneurship.” The falsity of the definition—or lack of one—of entrepreneurialism authorizes our reconsidering the usefulness or even desirability of the project. I say the lack of definition, because, unlike Ryan Reiling’s letter that claims “what entrepreneurship means at Macalester is entirely up to you; it is up to us,” the word’s definition is certainly not up for discussion, if the unilateral decision to desecrate among the most hallowed of campus spaces is any indication.
Entrepreneurs do operate based off a set of principles, which one can find on any entrepreneurship-themed course’s syllabus or on the Mac website. Pet concepts like the “lean start-up” take for their premise the necessity of: efficiency, the diffusion of market-like patterns of social organization, and the repurposing of public spaces for private uses (e.g., what the Cadre of Entrepreneurs is trying to do to the library). It is an obvious feint to try to repackage “entrepreneurialism” as a beneficent force, when so often the culture of the self-starter serves to displace capital from the hands of those people who are supposedly “helped” by the ideology into the hands of privileged, elite bodies (see, for example, the application of de Soto Polar’s theory that financializing non-private land would create “more wealth” for poor Latin Americans; it didn’t). We must own up to what is really meant by the term rather than appeal to some wishy-washy notion of an invisible hand-like force for social progress.
This being said, the new entrepreneurial space on campus is likely to be pretty underwhelming. A friend of mine remarked that they will probably end up sticking some chairs in a room and slapping a placard on it (like the current space in Markim, which is wildly unpopular, from what I understand). But the really offensive part of this whole entrepreneurialism craze is its glorification of the individual. Entrepreneurialism relies less upon the intellectual rigor and self-effacement of other disciplines than it does on one’s ability to sell oneself, on who has the best sales pitch for their project that purports to solve a host of enormous systemic social “problems.” It’s hard to think that gutting the library to clear space for sales pitches doesn’t depreciate the unique form of thought the written word stimulates. Books require us to be humble, to efface ourselves before the possibility that we don’t know something. Entrepreneurialism (what it really means, not the plethora of contradictions attached to the term) relies on a fixed method that prizes cost-efficacy and rewards efficiency, as manifested in streamlining how we know things and in making this reductive knowledge an occasion to make money. For social entrepreneurship often enough takes the projected outcome of a given project as a self-evident truth and then works backward to see this “truth” (such as the naturalness of outcomes produced by markets) realized.
Which brings me to an essential point: the “truth” of the entrepreneur is often little more than noise. There have been concerns expressed in past op-eds about how the new entrepreneurial space will affect other floors of the library. Although there probably will not be a Wu-Tang-style ruckus in perpetual go-mode on the second floor of the library, the noise pollution of our intellectual space is all too offensive. The library, as it is, is an intellectual and physical open space for various ideas and alternative visions of the world and how it works (or should work). The library as entrepreneurial space is sure to permit entry only to those who subscribe to the inherent goodness of market-based solutions and other such dogmas, despite the false “openness” of the running definition. Entrepreneurialism requires us to always be producing something, to always be selling ourselves, despite not even knowing who we really are. (Trying to answer this question, of course, is one of the purposes of reading.) Start-up culture is the intellect’s restless leg syndrome: mindless jockeying for no reason other than to show oneself to be a “self-starter” capable of happily joining an ass-backward economy, rather than an explorer of the worlds of arcane, esoteric, and just plain different ways of thinking offered by the reams of literature and photography that currently occupy the second floor. Why not expand this world?
As a school full of purported progressives, it is our duty not just to “think differently,” a euphemism that often signifies trying for the same result with different methods, but instead to act and live in contradiction of our times. And these are times that tell us that to continuously produce, to always act out of a purportedly fixed human nature that requires we consume more and more. In comparison to this, thinking is a radical act; it is to humble ourselves before the vastness of what we don’t know and to take issue with what is forcibly ascribed to us as people. Such is the pleasure and adventure of learning. Instead, it appears that we as a community have come to fear not what we don’t know, but that we don’t know—and for this we have opted to enshrine a philosophy premised on efficiently exacting our half-truths on others. My plea is that we at the very least acknowledge what it is that we do, rather than go on pretending that our new entrepreneurial space represents a continuation of the library’s current values.