On the non-sense of an abstracted higher education

There is a chapter in Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia, in which he argued that the processes of industrialisation that underpinned Stalin’s five-year plans were used to recalibrate the world so that two plus two could be said to equal five. Lyons argues that in the apparent social and economic scarcity, enforced ideologically through production in a (State) capitalist system, a war mentality emerges that forces the pace of life for production. In this space, collectivised efficiency in economic production becomes the compelling motive, and one that was reinforced culturally, every single day and in every single act.

Optimism ran amuck. Every new statistical success gave another justification for the coercive policies by which it was achieved. Every setback was another stimulus to the same policies. The slogan “The Five Year Plan in Four Years” was advanced, and the magic symbols “5-in-4″ and “2 + 2 = 5″ were posted and shouted throughout the land.”

The preliminary triumphs which evoked the slogan 2 + 2 = 5 were in many ways disastrous. They corroborated the taskmasters’ inherited conviction that any miracles could be worked through the sorcery of naked force.

For Lyons this was catastrophic in its implications for everyday life and for everyday sociability. A meaningful life is all but ended, as existence is structured around work to the point where even our very connection to our humanity and those of other human beings is mediated technologically or stripped from us as a commodity. Our very humanity is scrubbed out of our pores through the dehumanisation of labour and ideology, as we are told that there is no alternative.

But under the roar of industrialization life was increasingly muted. The modest indulgences of the year before seemed long, long ago and rather incredible. A full meal became life’s central preoccupation for the mass of the population. Overhead the heavy artillery thundered and spat fire; in the trenches of everyday existence people stepped cautiously, doused their lights and spoke in whispers. The laconic announcements of executions lost their power to interest, let alone move people.

And for Lyons, this was the nature of power viewed through the lens of scarcity rather than of humanity and humane values viewed as abundance. This was the triumph of a social life rooted in the accumulation of value, where the market, planning, efficiency, the collectivised individual and the individual collectivised, were mechanisms for the circulation and expansion of power. In this space, socialisation becomes an abstracted form of psychosis.

The communist millennium seemed to a few faithful just over the horizon—but they were the few who wielded the power of the state and could enforce their distortions upon a sixth part of the globe. It was a mood which stopped at nothing to attain its objectives.

The production of everyday life defined, legislated and regulated, in order to reproduce power for the few. The organising principles for this life, culturally, politically, legally structured and reproduced in every single moment of every single day, in order to make the abstract definition and domination of a particular worldview, our collective, everyday, concrete reality.

And Orwell echoed this dystopian logic; this despairing logic; the logic of anti-hope and anti-humanism; the logic that is their power-to reproduce the world in order to maintain their power-to reproduce the world; the logic of scarcity and not abundance; the logic of the use of technology and information to create a harmonious society.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?

And I feel this as cognitive dissonance every single day. When I am told that our work and our everyday needs to focus on finding ways to help staff to monitor and intervene in learning. To monitor and intervene in learning. Like it’s a dispute. Or a technique. Or a piece of fine-tuning. When I read that education might help us in “determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society”. The recalibration of labour inside education as an industry, rooted in the production of value, and through corporate paradigms that are defined around scarcity of resources and the reiteration of intervention and monitoring, so that students and academics can bear their individuated roles as entrepreneurs. The self-harming, entrepreneurial behaviour rooted in scarcity and the expansion of value, and the forgetting of values.

And all the while this drip-feeds itself into my social life. What feels like a desperate attempt to cling on to an abstract perception of normal. What we hoped and believed might come to pass. To make #learnervoice, #edtech, #highered, #digitalliteracy, #yourhashtaghere, more than normal. To make #whatever matter. To make #whatever count. For it to be more than #meh, because our educational labour might set us free, if only we worked hard enough and raised enough debt and accepted that their past and their present foreclosed on our future. And never to question what #whatever counts for, when all sociability forces us to conform or be monitored and intervened. And never to question what is the point exactly of a hegemonic view of #highered in the face of #savegaza. Never to push for an alternative, counter-narrative of #highered, which might be made less abstract because of the concrete reality of #savegaza.

So I read of a new Project that “aims to inspire young girls to enter male dominated careers, by featuring women who can act as role models alongside neat news stories and other features”, whilst I recognise that this just leaves us feeling depleted because “True solidarity cannot pay lip service to feminist, de-colonial, anti-racist projects while maintaining individual investments in a system that works for only the most privileged bodies”. And I wonder if this the best that we can do? To prepare our lives for better or more efficient work through #whatever? And here I feel a deep echo of what Josh Ellis describes as being broken-hearted.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?

This feels like the worst kind of dissonance. Two worlds set apart as abstract and concrete, as value and values, revealed as a deeply-held grief that I always knew was in my heart, but that has ruptured so that no amount of papering over can hide the fact. That I get up and do the things that the totalitarian system demands of me, in order to exist, because trying not to is overwhelmingly marginalising. Because I see that 2+2 equals something. But what? And this totalitarianism morphs and flows into every crevice of life, attempting to reassemble not just my labour, but my humanity, and my friendship, courage, fidelity, respect, dignity, solidarity, faith, love, into a structure that accumulates power-over. This is the destruction of how I view my concrete world through its abstraction inside capitalist work; the attempt to hold in place the reality that our hegemonic view of #whatever trumps our actual ability to save Gaza or Aleppo, or to close Gitmo, or to understand the oil and gas implications of the Ukraine, or to address fears about the leaking of methane from under the Arctic. This is the world in which the power of the rule of value can be used to try to intimidate academics to remain silent. Because hegemonic narratives reinforced as power-over, force us to self-harm in our silence. The abstraction of everyday life under the rule of value makes us complicit in the destruction of our collective concrete world.

And we witness and reproduce this everyday in the reality that we cannot save anything really, and anyway there is a cricket Test Match to play, and a Commonwealth to game, and because we must have #lightsout for the war to end all wars. And if only social life could be more efficient because there is not enough to go around, unless we continually expand the abstracted way that we view the world. And dominate others in the process. And deny the concrete reality of our relationships. So that, as Tiqqun wrote in the cybernetic hypothesis, this becomes “the most consequential anti-humanism, which pushes to maintain the general order of things, all the while bragging that it has transcended the human.”

And so all we are left with is the kettle or lamentation or accepting, as Winston Smith must in 1984, that 2+2=5.

Unconsciously, he traces “2+2=5″ in the dust on the table, and thinks of Julia. They saw each other once after being released, purely by chance. He followed her on her walk, always a few feet behind. Eventually she stopped and he put his arm around her waist, but felt revulsion at the thought of making love to her. She did not respond; her body felt rigid and lifeless. They sat down on a bench with some distance between them. After some time, she told him, “I betrayed you.” He told her the same. They agreed, through a distant conversation, that there are some things they can do to you that make you think and care only about yourself. After that, it is impossible to ever feel the same way towards one who you loved.

A scarcity of value, or an abundance of love? Josh Ellis writes that

I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.

The constancy of the destruction of our concrete world in the face of our enforced and enclosed abstracted lives for work, make those lives “increasingly muted”. How is it possible to become for ourselves, as opposed to being for the abstract destruction of our concrete selves in the countless self-harming activities we witness and reproduce and ignore every single day? How is it possible to end these culturally-acceptable self-harming acts, every, single day? How do we refuse the reduction of our humanity to just another commodity in the market, or to #whatever? How is it possible to make sense of an abstracted #highered in the face of the concrete reality of #savegaza?


One Response to On the non-sense of an abstracted higher education

  1. Pingback: Building Sustainable Societies: sustainable education | Richard Hall's Space

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