notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

Stay in the shadows/Cheer at the gallows/This is a round up/This is a low flying panic attack

Radiohead. 2016. Burn the Witch.

ONE: showing-up as the limit of our educational hopes

Years ago I wrote the following about our relationship to the University.

I wonder if the University’s functions now are being redesigned so that they reproduce a sense of anxiety as a permanent state of exception inside teams and individuals. I wonder whether the focus on productive labour, on the socially necessary labour time of abstract academic work, and the entrepreneurial turn across higher education, each create an atmosphere of anxiety. I wonder whether the reproduction of an ambiance of anxiety is a co-operative endeavour that emerges from inside the University as a means of production that is governed by metrics, data and debt, and out of which value is scraped through the alienation of time. This reminds me of persistent inferiority and internalised responsibility, and of the shock doctrine that recalibrates what is possible.

Are defence or refusal possibilities inside the University as an anxiety machine? What is the psychic impact of: alienated labour; the disciplining of academic labour; the cognitive dissonance inherent in the contradictions of abstract/concrete labour; the rule of money? How do we learn to self-care as opposed to self-harm inside the University? One of the ways in which self-care might emerge is in looking at who is pushing back against financialisation and alienation, be that in casualised labour, or trades union anti-casualisation strategies, or through a precariat charter, or in actions like 3cosas, or in post-graduates for fair pay. These are not organisations of those with tenure, but they force us to consider both the university as anxiety/performativity machine and the idea of making opposition public, as an association of the dispossessed or impacted. They reignite the concrete/abstract relationship between higher education and the public.

Did we hope that these things would pass, and that we would not end-up being recast over-and-over inside the university as an ever-expanding site for the consumption of our educational souls and the re-production of their domination over our pedagogical possibilities? I wonder if we simply hoped that the global crises of social reproduction that we face on a daily basis would somehow not infect the university. That somehow the distilled class hatred of the HE White Paper, with its relentless focus on the rule of money, on elites, on a degree as a token of bourgeois, elitist consumption and position, on the deconstruction of higher learning as services to be commodified and purchased, would not come to pass. That somehow we would find the collective will to stitch the university back into the context and form and content of those crises, so that we could find meaningful responses to the brutality of austerity, to the brutal circulation of refugees, to the ideological brutality of Prevent and Islamophobia, and our on-going inability to care enough about environmental degradation.

And we have failed to find the collective will. We somehow felt that it was enough to be spared the rod. Or that even if we were not to be spared taking our place in the brutal execution of austerity, then we could at least find spaces for self-care as opposed to self-harm. That we could still show-up for our students or for each other, or maybe even, at a push, for ourselves.

TWO: the university as machinic whole

And all the time are revealed global narratives that bear witness to the machine-like qualities of the university as it morphs and re-morphs into something that is beyond our control. Something that is beyond our imagination. Our working lives reimagined as exchangeable or tradable services. Our working lives broken down through workload plans and performance management, so that our everyday activities can be monitored and measured, and then flung back into the machine, in order that the machine can be repurposed. Our turnaround times for assessments; our loading for preparation; our scholarly outputs; our annual teaching loads; our key performance targets; our national student survey data; our teaching excellence; our casualised contracts; our adjunct status; our educational everything; and more.

So that the university becomes a site for the ever more efficient consumption, or purchase and distribution, of societal hopes and desires. The rule of money ensures that that the university can only expand based upon the control of flows of energy that underpin these hopes and desires. So that the productive futures of our students and their families depend upon the efficient and maximised production of value, recomposed as future earnings or employability. Where the production of value is a fusion of, first, humanity made productive and efficient, and second, renewed capital infrastructure, so that the space and time of the university can be made to operate as a self-regulating and machine-like, capital-sink.

And we are reminded that in The Grundrisse, Marx wrote:

Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. (What holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse.)

The creation of a system of higher education intensifies the context and reality of teaching and learning, in order to drive efficiency and productivity. More technology; more efficient processes; more metrics; more performance management; less trust in the unprogrammable human; more trust in the programmable and knowable data; more. And the generation of a market through competition will ensure the domination of constant capital and infrastructure, and the power of organisational development and technology. These will ensure that the constant innovation in the motive parts of the machine determine the on-going extraction and circulation of surpluses. The machine will demand the on-going alienation of the general intellect from us, and we willingly offer this up, in the hope that we can be spared the worst.

We innovate. We manage our own performance. We offer up new efficiencies. We over-produce research and knowledge exchange or transfer. We are impactful. We do not protest the loans, or the new providers, or the reduction of educational faith and hope to commodities, or the reduction of our assessment to the machine or the learning analytics. We do not go into occupation of the terms of the struggle or the site of the struggle. We sit and hope that they do it to Julia.

And again we are reminded that in The Grundrisse, Marx wrote:

No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing [Naturgegenstand] as middle link between the object [Objekt] and himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth.

This is the systematic conversion of our work into the definite functions of the machine. So that our work as students, or professors, or professional services staff, or adjuncts, and our work as researchers or teachers or students, and our work as managers or admissions staff or on open days, and on and on, are sites for the generation of new pieces of apparatus; new parts of the machinic whole. A machinic whole designed to be productive and to generate surplus, and inside which the generation of educational hope and faith and possibility are desires that can be reduced to means of production.

THREE: higher education and the machining of desires through anxiety

And the persistent re-production of the machine enables those desires to be machined. And the machining of those desires, the re-working of those desires, is made possible through anxiety. The anxiety that is both ours and of our students. And the terrain for this is widened because the machine is infrastructure and constant capital but it is also our culture and our language and our pedagogy and our curriculum and our very, educational breath. As Virno states:

the so-called ‘second-generation autonomous labour’ and the procedural operations of radically innovated factories such as Fiat in Melfi show how the relation between knowledge and production is articulated in the linguistic cooperation of men and women and their concrete acting in concert, rather than being exhausted in the system of machinery.

It is our concrete acting in concert that is needed, wanted, desired by the machine. So we remember that in Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari wrote how

There are no desiring-machines that exist outside the social machines that they form on a large scale; and no social machines without the desiring machines that inhabit them on a small scale.

That the desires we internalise from the machine are the machine’s own desires for efficiency and mindfulness and resilience. The machine’s projected desires for production and productivity and intensity, internalised by us, so that our desires are alienated and disfigured. So that we have impact or excellence. That the social desires projected into our students, for elite consumption and competition and educational positionality or comparability, for future earnings and employability, recalibrate our own desires as well as our students’ own.

Our desires situated within a field of desire recalibrated by the market. So that our higher education is disfigured through competition. So that our place in it becomes unknowable beyond the measurement of the market. And our recognition of this disfiguring is the site of our anxiety, just as we hoped that by becoming complicit with it we might save ourselves from the worst of it. Yet all along we are subordinated to the machine’s desire for our anxiety. For The Institute for Precarious Consciousness:

Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

The lynchpin of our subordination: my availability for my students; my teaching preparation; my relationship to my precariously-employed peers; my turnaround times; my willingness to sit on committees; my NSS scores; my TEF scores; my REF scores; my on-line presence; my impact; my scholarly outputs; my innovation; my everything. My desperate everything, including the subordination of life to work, as a means for the internalised production of anxiety that will help me to re-produce the desires of the machine for productivity and intensity.

Anxiety, alienation, desire, competition, subordination. A machinic whole.

FOUR: on academic luddism

And we recognise the damage that this does to us, as we are stripped of our educational connection to our students or our precariously-employed peers, or to our partners in other, soon-to-be-competitor institutions. The Institute for Precarious Consciousness recognise “the breakdown of all the coordinates of connectedness in a setting of constant danger, in order to produce a collapse of personality.” To struggle against this stripping-away is anxiety-inducing as we resist where we think we have limited agency. Or else it leads us towards dissociation, as we deny we have any power so we may as well exist elsewhere (behind our metrics). Or else it leads towards micro-management of our everyday experiences, so that we feel we can exert some control: at least I can negotiate the limits of my own [impact/excellence/data-driven] exploitation.

And in Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari wrote of the conflicted nature of desire. That our own, concrete educational desires, for emancipation, are subsumed and disfigured by the abstracted desires of the machine. That recognising that the true liberation of our concrete desires, against their bastardisation as data about future earnings, employability and enterprise, requires that we rethink our re-production of the machine, and its anxious control.

If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive; there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors. Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence — desire, not left-wing holidays! — and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised.

Through Virno, we stretch this focus on desire by relating it to what has been taken from our public education and sequestered as private-property. This is re-imagination as a form of desiring activity that is against the State and against the market, that is against the enslaving of lives through competition, that is against the idea of what the university has become, and that is against intensity, impact, resilience, mindfulness, excellence, whatever.

the question is whether the peculiar public character of the intellect, which is today the technical requirement of the production process, can be the actual basis for a radically new form of democracy and public sphere that is the antithesis of the one pivoting on the state and on its ‘monopoly on political decision’. There are two distinct but interdependent sides to this question: on the one hand, the general intellect can affirm itself as an autonomous public sphere only if its bond to the production of commodities and wage labour is dissolved. On the other hand, the subversion of capitalist relations of production can only manifest itself through the institution of a public sphere outside the state and of a political community that hinges on the general intellect.

For The Institute for Precarious Consciousness this subversion is situated against anxiety:

what we now need is a machine for fighting anxiety – and this is something we do not yet have. If we see from within anxiety, we haven’t yet performed the “reversal of perspective” as the Situationists called it – seeing from the standpoint of desire instead of power. Today’s main forms of resistance still arise from the struggle against boredom, and, since boredom’s replacement by anxiety, have ceased to be effective.

Instead they argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

The goal is to produce the click — the moment at which the structural source of problems suddenly makes sense in relation to experiences. This click is which focuses and transforms anger. Greater understanding may in turn relieve psychological pressures, and make it easier to respond with anger instead of depression or anxiety. It might even be possible to encourage people into such groups by promoting them as a form of self-help — even though they reject the adjustment orientation of therapeutic and self-esteem building processes.

Above all, the process should establish new propositions about the sources of anxiety. These propositions can form a basis for new forms of struggle, new tactics, and the revival of active force from its current repression: a machine for fighting anxiety.

New propositions as a basis for new forms of struggle. And we remember that we might need to become academic luddites as a basis for a new form of struggle. That in order to overcome the loss of time and agency, and the stripping away of our curriculum-power and our educational intellect and our pedagogical capacities into the machine, we need to insert ourselves differently into the anxiety-machine. That we need to consider how we resist the subsumption of the university and of higher education further into the re-production of a system of alienation, precisely because it is a system of alienation, and not because our is privileged, skilled, crafted, abstracted work. This is a resistance of social rather than occupational displacement, precisely because the terrain of higher education has become a means for the re-production of specific, alienating desires across society.

We owe our publics and our society that much at least.

Thus, it is against what education is becoming, solely as a means to re-imagine what society might be, that we might strike. That we might strike to reclaim the parts of the machine that are socially-useful: the knowledge, the curriculum, the relationships, the technology, the language, the culture, and more. This is the reclamation of educational exchange-value as social use-value. Reclaiming and repurposing the parts of the machine that enable us to share our solidarity with other public workers who are being brutalised. That we might reclaim and repurpose the parts of the machine that enable us to provide solutions to global crises, rather than waiting for the market to act. That as a by-product or as a lever, we might refuse our abstracted labour where we can, as external examiners, or as reviewers for for-profit journals, or in working to rule, or wherever.

However, whilst these spaces inside the machine are a terrain for struggle, this also emerges from attempts to reclaim and to repurpose time. Slowing production and circulation and consumption time across a sector or across a society is a reminder of our humanity. It reminds us that our labour-power (and labour-time) is the source of all value. That exploited and dehumanised labour is the source of all value. As Marx argued, Capital’s desire to reduce labour-time is twinned with its desire to endless extract surplus value from that very labour as its source of power. It wishes to annihilate labour-time at exactly the moment that it desires to expand its potential for exploiting that labour-time. How then is this tension to be amplified inside the university and in solidarity actions across higher education and within society, without generating further levels of anxiety and performance and precarity? How do our struggles reclaim time from inside-and-across the terrain of higher education as a form of machine-breaking that repurposes the machine? For Marx, such struggles are rooted in the free development of individualities through associations that demonstrate the limited and limiting rule of value over our lives. They are rooted in pedagogies and curricula for association; in solidarity actions and solidarity economies; in co-operation and co-operative education.

The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.

Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high.

There is something here about our collective liberating of the forces of production; our revealing and recomposing our social relations; our recognition and reclamation of time as a pedagogical project. With our students and our peers, and beyond them into society. Of finding collective spaces and times, in order to generate forms of academic luddism. As a form of academic machine-breaking that reconnects and recombines the machinic whole with its social whole for a different purpose that is calibrated by a different time.

The question is then how? And maybe when?

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