governing academic labour: on the circuit of impact

ONE. Coercion through signalisation and dressage

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault writes of emergent military tactics focused upon the co-operation and the accumulation and co-ordination of co-operative, productive forces that Marx sees inside the factory.

Hence, the need to find a whole calculated practice of individual and collective dispositions, movements of groups or isolated elements, changes of position, of movement from one disposition to another; in short, the need to invent a machinery whose principle would no longer be the mobile or immobile mass, but a geometry of divisible segments whose basic unity was the mobile soldier with his rifle. The same problems arose when it was a question of constituting a productive force whose effect had to be superior to the sum of the elementary forces that composed it (p. 163).

Thus, the machinery of capitalism is constructed co-operatively to maximise the articulation or productive capacity and capability of the elementary parts from which it is composed. “Discipline is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 164). Foucault argues that this is done in three ways (pp. 164-7).

  1. The individual body becomes an element that can be placed, moved or articulated on others, so that its space-time co-ordination, rather than its humanity (courage, faith, hope, whatever), become fundamental.
  2. The chronological series (such as the circulation of production or money) that discipline must combine in order to form a composite time are also part of the machinery. The times of each element must be adjusted so that the maximum quantity of forces can be extracted and combined for an optimum outcome, or impact. “There is not a single moment of life from which cannot extract forces, providing one knows how to differentiate it and combine it with others” (p. 165).
  3. The carefully measured combination of forces requires a precise system of command. The productive activity of the disciplined individual must be punctuated and sustained by the injunctions of those in power, which are internalised and do not need explanation. Here signalisation and dressage are critical, so that obedience is reproduced.

This then leads to four characteristics of individuality: cellular (distribution in space); organic (encoded in activities); genetic (in the accumulation of time); and combinatory (through the composition of forces). The outcomes of this disciplinary process are: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. This then enables a qualitative shift in the accumulation of outcomes, whether they are framed as money, value, impact, or more importantly power. This is the tension between the social contract and the desire of social groups for autonomy, and the disciplinary, militarised dream of subordination through coercion and through perpetual forms of training to docility.

TWO. Neoliberalism, pedagogy and power

This focus on power connects to John Holloway’s argument in How to Change the World Without Taking Power that “The hierarchisation of struggle is a hierarchisation of our lives and thus a hierarchisation of ourselves.” What drives an alternative is the negation of hierarchical power within

a society in which power relations are dissolved. You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.

Holloway notes:

For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

I remembered this as I read Jehu tweet that:

Neoliberalism is not at all concerned about markets, but about concentration of power.

And that

Imposing a neoliberal regime on Mexico is just actually concentration of Mexico’s resources in Washington’s hands.

And that

This has nothing at all to do with “freeing markets from state control”, but freeing the productive forces from the Mexico state’s control.

And that

Every state tries to control its economy. For Washington, however, the world market is its economy.

This is about the production, circulation and accumulation of power, with the market as a lever to that end. This is less a project about marketisation and financialisation than it is about those tactics of signalisation and dressage that underscore the reproduction of power-over the world. Holloways argues that we cannot live in ignorance of the power relations that discipline our lives through the perpetual forms of activity and training, especially inside and through higher education, which coerce us. He argues for the positive creativity that emerges from the negativity of critique and from our “refusal of capital”, through the direct and active production of an alternative pedagogical terrain focused on doing rather than preparation for capitalist work. The recuperation of doing, as opposed to capitalist labour, and the development of our shared power-to create the world, rather than simply to maximise profit is central to this project. Critical here is a focus on power that is produced from processes which signal and that enforce dressage, by recalibrating the work of individuals co-operatively.

THREE. On the production and circulation of impact

Inside the University, impact signals compulsion that is itself self-harming behaviour, and then enforces dressage in the name of power. This point was made at Governing Academic Life by Michael Power, in his focus on the role of impact in acting as a form of governance over academic labour. He argued that impact was an open and public closure of what can be discussed and produced, in order that a governance/command structure for value production could be imposed. Here metrics and investment interact to forms a circuit of capital rooted in academic production, with that productive power of research being disciplined through signalisation that then imposes a form of dressage.

Power then argued that the really existing practices that emerged from the institutional recalibration around impact catalysed knowledge transfer and exchange, policies around public engagement and the co-option of the public by the private, the impact of impact on future earnings, and the use of data and analytics to drive future investment. Effectively the latter forms a complementary, data-driven disciplinary layer to the proposed credit default swaps and derivatives in student loans that drive the incorporation of higher education inside the circuits of transnational capital. For Power, these innovations then promised to deliver new dimensions of academic performance, which are revealed as: cellular (distribution in academic space, like the classroom and archive); organic (encoded in academic activities like research and scholarship); genetic (in the accumulation of academic time inside-and-beyond the university); and combinatory (through the composition of forces inside and through universities as associations of capitals). The outcomes of this disciplinary process are the production and accumulation of power over academic labour that is realised: through tables of performance that coerce competition; prescribing the movements of academics through data-driven investments and strategies for enterprise, like the Future Earnings and Employment Record; imposing exercises like knowledge transfer and exchange; and arranging tactics like the REF or the NSS. Thus, impact accounting is a new vector of managerial control of academic activity.

One critical point that Power made was about the way in which the terrain of research was shifting, in part driven by processes of financialisation across higher education. He argued that the circuit of research/impact inside the productive forces of the University was shifting from:

Research – Impact – Research

in which a research idea was measured and quantified for impact to underscore further research, to a point where impact was the catalyst for the circulation of research. Thus, systemically the cycle was shifting so that the circuit of research (production) was forced to align with the circuit of impact (money/finance). Critical here is the realisation of the circuit as:

Impact – Research – Impact or even Impact – Research – Impact’

This connects to Marx’s argument about the circulation of commodities in Volume 1 of Capital.

The simplest form of the circulation of commodities is C-M-C, the transformation of commodities into money, and the change of the money back again into commodities; or selling in order to buy. But alongside of this form we find another specifically different form: M-C-M, the transformation of money into commodities, and the change of commodities back again into money; or buying in order to sell. Money that circulates in the latter manner is thereby transformed into, becomes capital, and is already potentially capital.

Now let us examine the circuit M-C-M a little closer. It consists, like the other, of two antithetical phases. In the first phase, M-C, or the purchase, the money is changed into a commodity. In the second phase, C-M, or the sale, the commodity is changed back again into money. The combination of these two phases constitutes the single movement whereby money is exchanged for a commodity, and the same commodity is again exchanged for money; whereby a commodity is bought in order to be sold, or, neglecting the distinction in form between buying and selling, whereby a commodity is bought with money, and then money is bought with a commodity. [2] The result, in which the phases of the process vanish, is the exchange of money for money, M-M. If I purchase 2,000 lbs. of cotton for £100, and resell the 2,000 lbs. of cotton for £110, I have, in fact, exchanged £100 for £110, money for money.

Now it is evident that the circuit M-C-M would be absurd and without meaning if the intention were to exchange by this means two equal sums of money, £100 for £100. The miser’s plan would be far simpler and surer; he sticks to his £100 instead of exposing it to the dangers of circulation. And yet, whether the merchant who has paid £100 for his cotton sells it for £110, or lets it go for £100, or even £50, his money has, at all events, gone through a characteristic and original movement, quite different in kind from that which it goes through in the hands of the peasant who sells corn, and with the money thus set free buys clothes. We have therefore to examine first the distinguishing characteristics of the forms of the circuits M-C-M and C-M-C, and in doing this the real difference that underlies the mere difference of form will reveal itself.

What, however, first and foremost distinguishes the circuit C-M-C from the circuit M-C-M, is the inverted order of succession of the two phases. The simple circulation of commodities begins with a sale and ends with a purchase, while the circulation of money as capital begins with a purchase and ends with a sale. In the one case both the starting-point and the goal are commodities, in the other they are money. In the first form the movement is brought about by the intervention of money, in the second by that of a commodity.

In simple circulation, C-M-C, the value of commodities attained at the most a form independent of their use-values, i.e., the form of money; but that same value now in the circulation M-C-M, or the circulation of capital, suddenly presents itself as an independent substance, endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own, in which money and commodities are mere forms which it assumes and casts off in turn. Nay, more: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it enters now, so to say, into private relations with itself. It differentiates itself as original value from itself as surplus-value; as the father differentiates himself from himself qua the son, yet both are one and of one age: for only by the surplus-value of £10 does the £100 originally advanced become capital, and so soon as this takes place, so soon as the son, and by the son, the father, is begotten, so soon does their difference vanish, and they again become one, £110.

Value therefore now becomes value in process, money in process, and, as such, capital. It comes out of circulation, enters into it again, preserves and multiplies itself within its circuit, comes back out of it with expanded bulk, and begins the same round ever afresh. [14] M-M’, money which begets money, such is the description of Capital from the mouths of its first interpreters, the Mercantilists.

This final point is critical in our understanding of how the impact agenda, as a form of universal equivalent in academic practice, might become a form of power over academic labour. Through the attempts to start and end with impact, managerial control signals the forms of practice that are acceptable and also attempt to overcome the barriers to the accumulation of impact as it is realised in money, value and/or power. These barriers are reproduced and presented by academic labour’s intransigence in its cellular, organic, genetic, and combinatory characteristics, rooted in the humanity of co-operation rather than the inhumanity of coercive competition for value. Thus, systemically we see imposed: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. In an ideal world, such performance management would underscore the circuit of academic research in the form:

Impact – Impact’

Here, we would witness the constitution of a productive force whose effect would be superior to the sum of the elementary forces that composed it. This would be an overcoming of academic labour. It’s abolition rather than its governance, in the name of power. Yet power-over depends on the subjugation of living labour and the production/accumulation of value. This is a critical, systemic tension: the need for power-over labour, at the same time that its abolition is demanded. As I note elsewhere on the domination of merchants in higher education:

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students [society] to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power [and produce new forms of sociability]. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

I am left with some questions.

  • How might we use the circuit of impact, and the productive power of research, especially where it is connected to the pedagogic power of student-as-producer, to reveal the face of power?
  • How do we reveal the humanity of doing as a pedagogical act of resistance?
  • How might we reassert the role of production against the imperative for a circuit of Impact-Impact’ that works to negates research as an autonomous activity?
  • How might we reveal the tendency of finance capital to reduce the impact agenda to power-over living labour through dead labour incorporated in the circuit of impact?
  • How might we overcome the signalisation and dressage that forces academic self-harm?

NOTE: as Michael Power spoke about academic researchers as “impactees”, Andrew Mcgettigan noted that they/we might also be the “impacted.” In the process of trying to find spaces to refuse our objectification and alienation, the latter might offer a more grounded way of overcoming impact. In particular, the notion of being impacted is an act of doing that is against our subjecticity or our being. It reveals their power over our potential subjectivity. This is critically and qualitatively different to the alienating internalisation that emerges from our performativity as impactees. Describing the ways in which we are impacted  might offer a way into a radical subjectivity that is rooted in the production of new forms of critical knowledge in everyday life. Here we might coalesce alternatives to the ideological and material conditions of domination that crystallised from the crisis, in particular where those alternatives emerge around the creation of democratic, open, research co-operatives. Whether this can happen inside the University, public or not, is increasingly problematic.


One Response to governing academic labour: on the circuit of impact

  1. Pingback: Notes on the University as anxiety machine | Richard Hall's Space

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