Covid-XX and the idea of the University

Yesterday, I spoke at a DMU Education Research seminar. The slides and the paper upon which I based my talk are available here.

I made a subsequent recording of my presentation, which can be accessed here. Please note that this is an hour-long. It is overlong. I apologise. One day, I will learn.

Anyway, following the session, I copied the text chat/questions, and I have pasted those with my responses below.

Peace and love.


Q: Another metaphor – panopticon?

A: yes, potentially. In particular, in relation to the reality that our relations of production are estranged and separated during the pandemic, as we all work at home or in our offices, mediated by screens and through masks. It becomes easier for institutions and networks/associations to monitor us against particular modes of performance and behaviours. It is easier for those institutions to measure us against norms that are morphed and shift through the pandemic, but which are always shaped through dominant perspectives. The Panopticon in all its forms, managed in the image of white men with no or limited caring responsibilities and symbolic access to means of production, reinforces what Foucault argued were signalisation and dressage.

Q: It would be interesting to hear more on alternative that you did not want to talk. I still wonder what suggestion you have for alternative. Actually, what alternative do you propose at the face of covid-19? If you do have then how and with what means to utilise to materialise that alternative?

A: I am not interested in finding alternatives or utopias or blueprints. I am interested less in the future, and more in the present, and in a focus upon both questioning and moving or mobilising. I like the idea of “asking, we walk” or preguntando caminamos. I like the idea that we make our own history and our own paths through collective dialogue and questioning, and that this demands engagement with alternative ways of knowing the world and doing or making the world, and therefore being in the world. I am against the idea that white men with privilege define alternatives.

Q: Can you say something about the university and the State, perhaps the university as an expression of State hopelessness?

A: Marx and Engels argued that the state is an organising committee for the bourgeoisie, which emerged as a governance and regulatory power following the Treaty of Westphalia, and that there is no reason why it should be seen as transhistorical. Mariana Mazzucato has argued extensively about the ways in which the state creates an infrastructure for capital. I see a deep interrelationship between capitalist institutions, be they State-funded, cooperative, governed as charities or companies limited by guarantee, or whatever, the State that creates the terrain from which the universal value can expand, and how we feel about our lives and their possibilities. So, yes, in my argument the university is an expression of a wider state of hopelessness, and in response, I want to discuss intellectual work at the level of society. I want to discuss the potential for mass intellectuality at the level of society. I want to discuss how we liberate our ways of knowing and doing, in order to respect the ways in which we have built the world and how that building has been co-opted and taken from us. This enables us to see how hopeless things are, and not to outsource solutions to boffins, or wonks or the State, but instead to see our own agency at the level of society. I want us to dissolve the institution and its hopelessness into the fabric of society.

Q: Yep, to that need to move beyond both capitalism and the nation state – and the need to appreciate the positioning of the university as an institution within that state-corporate nexus?

A: yes – there is a need to understand the relationship between value and value-production, institutions of the state, corporate forms, and transnational organisations. Then, there is a need to engage with our own individual and collective agency, in order to enable/imagine the potential for new forces and relations of production, beyond the universe of value. This agency is historical, but it must be now.

Q: You paint a very gloomy picture and I wonder what you would say to our younger colleagues and those just entering the profession as to what they can do to remain positive about themselves and their work and their relationships with students?

A: you should try living with me. It must be awful. I would say I am sorry that it is constructed in this way with these pathological cultures and these methodological ways of working. I would say seek solidarity inside the institution, and look to make common cause, whilst keeping yourself safe. This means the ability to put food on the table and pay rent, without overworking and becoming ill. Social reproduction, values, humanity, dignity are so important and need to be protected. I would say try to find ways to limit the necessary labour of the bureaucracy of the institution, in order to widen your freedom for the work that energises you, potentially in relation to public engagement, your particular field/discipline, classroom-based engagement. I would say try to find ways of making your work useful in society, rather than valuable in the market.

Q: It seems to me that the concept of value is at the heart of this discussion, but value is almost always in the eye of the beholder. Our students and their future employers will inevitably define value differently, as will we. What I struggle with at present is the tendency for too many universities to destroy their value proposition by tactics that damage institutional reputations that took decades to build. The damage is caused in several ways that include reducing course entry requirements (for fee income) and making it harder to find time or resources for research. Can we spend more time exploring the nature of our value as academics? I guess we’d all feel less hopeless if we felt more valuable.

A: my problem is that the concept of values defined specifically in relation to capitalism, in terms of being a productive worker from whom surplus-value can be extracted. This is an exploitative arrangement, and it denies the ways in which we might mediate our lives directly between us as different individuals who share a common humanity. Instead, value enforces second-order mediations, like the market, divisions of labour and so on. Too often, value is defined in relation to excellence, satisfaction, money, impact and so on. I would say that we need to discuss whether the institutions inside which we live our fit-for-purpose, in engaging with intersecting crises, which materially affect people’s ability to live. As part of that we can discuss value or values, but we need to play on our terrain and build a narrative around our needs.

Q: We are so privileged, and we work so hard to get here, surely we greatly value the university and all that accrues to us through it. While we need to be guarded against the dreadful concerns and threats and that you very eloquently outline and explain, surely there are more reasons to be cheerful. 😎

A: there are so many contradictions that flow through the institution – it is beautiful and it is damaging, it enables and disables, it is a labour of love and it causes us ill-being, we see work intensification and precarious employment and at the same time many of us gain promotion and tenure. All labour is exploitative, and it tends to expropriate many lives, and extract resources from across the globe. My own take is that a limited number of our global society are able to access that privilege, which is made scarce and commodified, and the status of those roles and their appearance as high-status, reinforces exploitation, expropriation and extraction. At issue is, what is to be done? The reasons to be cheerful that I see are the potential for revealing hopelessness and sitting with it, in terms of the lived experiences of those who are denied privilege. From there, we might discuss mutuality, dignity and solidarity.

Comment: I agree that we are very privileged to be able to earn a living discussing and analysing in detail the subjects we care about with young (usually) and enthusiastic learners. Those of us who do research love the feeling of generating new knowledge that benefits mankind. However both our teaching and research are always under attack from micromanagers and bureaucrats who seem to insist on measuring and counting it all. Theirs (the micromanagers) is a hopeless task but they expect us all to join them in it. We must resist, for the sake of our students and our own humanity.

Q: The university and education are part of the superstructure supporting the dominant ideology of capitalism, in this sense, it is what Malcolm X suggested the chicken coming home to roost. Unis have been a place of privilege and actually within that excluded groups. The market has always been oppressive the minoritized have always know that, it is not unexpected that the mode of production turns it focus to HE and I am wondering if people are feeling oppressed by it and clutching at straws for hope. We all become the petty bourgeoise even if they don’t want to admit it and display false consciousness.

In the end it is our humanity and inter personal relationships that cannot be marketized everything else will.

A: thank you. Here, I returned to the idea that alienating conditions have been experienced differentially, but now the experiences of those of the periphery are being generalised amongst those with privilege and status. The system seeks to colonise all of our lives, and to make our lives, hopes, cares, relationships unliveable by commodifying them, or by squeezing out the time we have to develop them. Hope, if such thing exists, is an act of love for ourselves and each other, which recognises the asymmetrical relations we have to the autonomy of capital.

Q: Cussed = the pedagogy of arsiness 😉 Much needed form of such?

A: Mike Neary once asked that our struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become. In this, we need different strategies.

Q: Diane Fassel wrote in 1990 “Everywhere I go it seems people are killing themselves with work, busyness, rushing, caring, and rescuing. Work addiction is a modern epidemic and it is sweeping our land.” Doesn’t sound like much has changed in 30 years (if not longer). Matthew Fox addressed the potential to reinvent work – back in 1994; Frederic Laloux with “Reinventing Organizaions” in 2014; and many other. As you’ve mentioned this stuff goes back well further into the past, yet we’re highly resistant to any change. Do you think the same conversations today be heard in 2060 (if we don’t kill each other in the mean time)?

A: I do not know. However, precisely because the intersection of crises is making the world unliveable, we need to discuss our work and our intellectual engagement in society, in relation to a collapse in the nitrogen cycle, climate forcing, austerity governance, the pandemic, or whatever. This feels hopeless, and indeed, inside capitalist social relations, it is hopeless, but new ways of existing or new paths are opening. We need to believe that we have the power to make those paths together.

Comment: I help my students by reflecting the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work then step back. The only path to serenity… He who clings to his work creates nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”

Comment: It is the humanity we need to hold on to totally agree…. our humanity as staff and students

Comment: I came across this: carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/public-policy-and-the-infrastructure-of-kindness-in-scotland can universities be ‘kind’?

Comment: I felt less hopeless by engaging in the hopelessness of it all.


slides for Covid-19 and the idea of the University

My slides for tomorrow’s Education Research seminar at DMU are available below from my Slideshare.

Drawing upon my recently published article in Postdigital Science and Education, on The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the End of the End of History, I am presenting the first in a new series of Education Research Webinars.

Date/time: Wednesday 28 October, 2020, 1.30-2.30pm

Access: via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, https://eu.bbcollab.com/guest/f5220dae6a104f46bae508215ef4a844

Abstract
The University is being explicitly restructured for the production, circulation and accumulation of value, materialised in the form of rents and surpluses on operating activities. The pace of restructuring is affected by the interplay between financial crisis and Covid-19, through which the public value of the University is continually questioned. In this conjuncture of crises that affect the body of the institution and the bodies of its labourers, the desires of Capital trump human needs. The structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures as forms, cultures as pathologies, and activities as methodologies enacts scarring. However, the visibility of scars has led to a reawakening of politics inside and beyond the University. The idea that History had ended because there is no alternative to capitalism or its political horizon, is in question. Instead, the political content of the University has reasserted itself at the end of The End of History. In this presentation, the idea that the University at The End of History has become a hopeless space, unable both to fulfil the desires of those who labour within it for a good life and to contribute solutions to socio-economic and socio-environmental ruptures, is developed dialectically. This enables us to consider the potential for reimagining intellectual work as a movement of sensuous human activity in the world, rather than being commodified for value.


COVID-19 and the idea of the University

Drawing upon my recently published article in Postdigital Science and Education, on The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the End of the End of History, I am presenting the first in a new series of Education Research Webinars.

Date/time: Wednesday 28 October, 2020, 1.30-2.30pm

Access: via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, https://eu.bbcollab.com/guest/f5220dae6a104f46bae508215ef4a844

Abstract
The University is being explicitly restructured for the production, circulation and accumulation of value, materialised in the form of rents and surpluses on operating activities. The pace of restructuring is affected by the interplay between financial crisis and Covid-19, through which the public value of the University is continually questioned. In this conjuncture of crises that affect the body of the institution and the bodies of its labourers, the desires of Capital trump human needs. The structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures as forms, cultures as pathologies, and activities as methodologies enacts scarring. However, the visibility of scars has led to a reawakening of politics inside and beyond the University. The idea that History had ended because there is no alternative to capitalism or its political horizon, is in question. Instead, the political content of the University has reasserted itself at the end of The End of History. In this presentation, the idea that the University at The End of History has become a hopeless space, unable both to fulfil the desires of those who labour within it for a good life and to contribute solutions to socio-economic and socio-environmental ruptures, is developed dialectically. This enables us to consider the potential for reimagining intellectual work as a movement of sensuous human activity in the world, rather than being commodified for value.


Praktyka Teoretyczna: Has the University become surplus to requirements?

With Krystian Szadkowski from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, I am working on an article for a Special Issue of Praktyka Teoretyczna on Latency of the crisis: globalization, subjectivity, and resistance.

Our proposed article is entitled: Has the University become surplus to requirements? Or is another university possible?

Abstract

The University has become a place that has no socially-useful role beyond the reproduction of capital. In the context of globalisation and unifying sublation processes that are driven by transnational capital, it has become an anti-human project, grounded in narratives of human capital, productivity and value-for-money. It has become a place of suspended time, grappling to make sense of, and align with, a landscape of unrealised and unrealisable promises, which are amplified by growing economic inequality and precarity. It is a space that sits uneasily against a terrain that demands entrepreneurial engagement with flexibility, risk-taking, efficiency and human capital, whilst at the same time working to annihilate the value of labour-power that cannot drive innovation in commodity production.

As a result, the higher education sector in the global North faces structural issues that are realised in stagnating wages, a huge increase in the reserve army of labour, growing precarity and diminishing security, the unbundling of functions like teaching and research, an acceleration in proposed delivery times for degrees, and so on. In the everyday existence of academics, ill-being and mental distress are allied with recurrent and overwork. Moreover, people who identify or who are identified as black, female, disabled, queer, indigenous, are likely to be differentially impacted.

Thus, the University appears devoid of hope, and this reflects its inability to respond meaningfully with crises that erupt from the contradictions of capital, including that between capital and climate. Yet in its maintenance of business-as-usual, the University remains shaped as a tactical response to these contradictions. It is emblematic of the crisis and precarization in the lifeworld of contemporary society, precisely because the University’s subsumption for value production has been made visible. This changes the very idea of the University, and what it means to work inside the Academy, such that it is reorganised around surplus: surplus wealth; surplus labour; surplus time; and people surplus to requirements. In this, there is no space for collective politics or democracy, and in fact the University has become a key site for reproducing the separation of polity and economy as a mode of control.

This article pivots around the bureaucratic university’s desire for surplus, and its relationship to the everyday, academic reality of feeling surplus to requirements. In defining the contours of this contradiction, inside the normalisation of political economic crisis, we question whether there still exists space for an academic method or mode of subjectivation. This is an important moment in testing the possibilities for a horizon of hope, against what feels like the inevitability of hopelessness. It is important to recognise that the academic precarity accelerated by the ongoing instrumentalisation of prestige, and of status distribution mechanisms across higher education, which enables capital to regulate it through competition at institutional, national and global scale.

Moreover, the competitive norms are implemented in the University in the North are further imposed on the South and the East, and prevent non-Northern modes of knowing and doing to circulate. In engaging with political economic and socio-environmental crises, we question whether the University is able to go beyond such blockages, and whether the dialectical method is still useful. Here, we also critique the ability of the University in the global North to bring itself into relations with the epistemological sensibilities of the South and the East, which can treat other ways of seeing and praxis with dignity and respect.

Thus, in engaging with the contradictions grounded in the production of surpluses, the article closes by asking whether academics and students can define a counter-cartography of the University in the global North? Such a process of producing a counter-cartography seeks to refuse dominant, white, male, ableist, straight and non-indigenous norms, and instead offers dialogue around the reproduction of alternative lifeworlds. In grappling with the idea of surplus, and the everyday and structural ways in which its production are made manifest, we seek to ask whether another universities possible?


New book project: The hopeless university

In other, exciting news, I have agreed with Mayfly books, based in Leicester, to produce a new monograph on academic life. Mayfly are extending their work on critical university studies, and have also published Ansgar Allen’s The Cynical Educator and Toni Ruuska’s Capitalism, Higher Education and Ecological Crisis. Mayfly also publishes the journal ephemera: theory and politics in organization.

Working with Mayfly is important because I am particularly interested in supporting radical publishing houses that are open, or that resist the subsumption of academic work by corporate publishers. Transparent, democratic engagement is very important to me, and in my role is something I can help celebrate and support. It is why I have been a trustee of the Open Library of Humanities.

Anyway, the book has the working title:

The hopeless university: intellectual work at the end of the end of history

The book will integrate some thinking I have been doing since the publication of The Alienated Academic. I guess its starting point is that I want to tell my story beginning from the last story I told. So, it continues to develop some of the common themes I play around with, including: hopelessness and helplessness inside the University; University as an anxiety machine; the almost overwhelming sense of Weltschmerz felt inside educational institutions; the University predicated upon alienated academic labour-power; and, the University as an abject space, unable to engage meaningfully with crises of social reproduction. It asks whether it is possible to refuse the University as is, as a trans-historical space that can only exist for capital?

I want to think through the re-emergence of engagement with ideas of hope, and their relationship to progressive politics and horizons of educational possibility. In part, I do this because I believe the current situation to be hopeless. I have written about this here. Or you could also read the chapter on Weltschmerz in The Alienated Academic. Or check out some of my other writing here.

So, the structure will focus upon: terrains of hopelessness; hopeless struggle; forms and structures of hopelessness; cultures and pathologies of hopelessness; practices and methodologies of hopelessness; hopeful despair; and the potential for hope at the end of the end of history.

I have shamelessly stolen the idea of the end of the end of history from the guys at Aufhebungabunga: The global politics podcast at the end of the End of History. From a left perspective. The idea of the end of the end of history exposes the fraud at the heart of narratives of the end of history, and of the inevitable, timeless, transhistorical victory of capitalism. This is a narrative generated from a North Atlantic context, which lays out space-time as a capitalist entity, and forecloses on all possible historical, material futures. No new history of struggle or resistance can emerge, precisely because all such struggles and resistances are subsumed as Capital, and its institutions re-purpose all of social life in the name of value, production, profit and surplus. In this subsumption of social life, the University is a critical node precisely because it provides a constant funnelling of individuals into a normalised existence framed by debt and work. In this way, it is hopeless to imagine any other form of historical and material existence beyond the freedom offered through an individual’s sale of labour power in the free market. Beyond the institutions of capitalist society, life has limited meaning.

Yet, in analysing the place of the University at the end of history, we note that it is situated inside a terrain of global, socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which have been amplified during the ongoing secular crisis of capitalism. Once more, capitalism as a means of social organisation is under threat from ruptures both inside and outside of work, grounded in intersectional, temporal and geographical injustices that erupt from points of labour and points where labour touches society. A range of indigenous resistances, struggles grounded in race, gender, disability and class, emergent revolts against toxic ecological policies, resistance to economic and political populism, each place the institutions of capital in stark opposition to the everyday, lived experiences of individuals and communities struggling for life. The historical and material realities of existence, of social reproduction, of struggle, have returned with a vengeance.

So, the plan for the book is predicated upon the following precepts. This is its current direction of travel. Although I have some Hegel and Marcuse to read first, alongside a bunch of stuff on rage, courage, justice, faith, and solidarity movements that are indigenous, identity-driven and intersectional. I have to revisit some stuff on hope too…

  1. The University has become a place that has no socially-useful role beyond the reproduction of capital, and has become an anti-human project devoid of hope. It projects and protects a condition that is irredeemable. It is hopeless in all senses, and this reflects its inability to respond meaningfully with crises that erupt from the contradictions of capital, including that between capital and climate. Yet in its maintenance of business-as-usual, the University remains shaped as a tactical response to these contradictions.
  2. The book describes and analyses this position against the terrain of higher education (HE) in the global North. It does so in relation to the ways in which the University has been re-engineered in relation to the law of value. This process of subsumption situates the University inside a transnational geography of accumulation. This changes the very idea of the University, and what it means to work inside the Academy, such that they are emptied of political, democratic content, and instead reorganised around surplus. The University has become a key site for reproducing the separation of polity and economy.
  3. The fixation on surplus, efficiency, enterprise, excellence, impact, and so on reinforces a turn away from intellectual practice as a use-value for individuals, such that it has a focus upon the creation of commodities that have exchange-value. This relentless process can only be met by hopeless struggles inside the University, or a retreat into helplessness by academics and students, in the face of authoritarian performance management.
  4. These hopeless struggles are analysed in terms of: first, forms of hopelessness imposed by institutional structures: second, the diseased, pathological hopelessness that the University represents through its normalisation of cultures of ill-being, overwork and privilege; and third, the methodological, process-based hopelessness engendered by everyday academic practices that are enforced by toxic managerialism.
  5. Emerging from an analysis of the intersection of these forms, pathologies and methodologies of hopelessness is a moment of hopeful despair, grounded in the ability of labour to awaken to its predicament both inside a crisis-driven institution, and at the level of society. In this way, the book calls for the dissolution, dismantling or detonation of institutions that engender hopelessness and helplessness, including the University.
  6. The book closes with a discussion of the idea of hope, and its intersection with institutions of formal HE or informal higher learning, at the end of the end of history. The realisation of the impossibility of recovering stable forms of capitalist accumulation, the collapse of socio-environmental systems, widespread forms and structures of inequality and inequity, and the rise of political and economic populism, have foreclosed upon our collective inability to imagine that another world is possible. We are no longer living at the end of history. Rather we need to imagine the idea of the intellectual work at the end of the end of history.
  7. Therefore, the book addresses the following questions. How have we been betrayed by the University? In this sense, what is the University not capable of becoming, being, knowing and doing? Can mapping the University as an anxious, abject, hopeless space, distorted and exploited by Capital, enable us to define a counter-cartography? Is another education possible?

A New Vision for Further and Higher Education

With Sol Gamsu, I have co-edited A New Vision for Further and Higher Education, published by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies. Launched at the recent UCU conference, the report is available from the CLASS website.

The abstract is as follows.

Our systems of further and higher education are no longer fit for purpose. After decades of marketisation and years of austerity cuts, recent high-profile strikes in the education sector signified a service at breaking point. But what to do? How do we pursue education, not as a commodity, but as ‘the practice of freedom’?

How can we dismantle the elitism of higher education, the degradation of further education and create a system that promotes the values of justice, hope and solidarity? There are no easy answers but this collection of essays hopes to start a conversation about how we move forward.

The report was discussed at a recent West London Socialist Educational Association meeting. A report of that meeting, entitled Education and Wandsworth Transformed, can be found here.


Paperback version of Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education

I’m really pleased that a paperback version of Joss Winn and my 2017 edited collection, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education is now available. This makes this important work on re-imagining HE much more accessible.

For more details on the book, including the key features and chapters see: https://bit.ly/2UaoI0G

For details on how to get hold of a copy, see: https://bit.ly/2toybqZ


Podcast episode seven and alienated knowledge production

Episode seven is up over on the podcast channel, I’ve been talking with John Coster about coffee, documentary media and the boundaries between us, with a particular focus upon academic work and public engagement.

I’ve also been speaking at Academics, Professionals and Publics: Changes in the Ecologies of Knowledge Work. My slides on alienated knowledge production are below. Next week, I will give a fuller write-up of this event, with my takeaways in terms of academic identity and the abolition of academic labour.


Slides for Bath Spa Presentation: The Alienated Academic

On Wednesday I’m presenting at Bath Spa in an open discussion of my book, The Alienated Academic.

The slides are appended below.

NOTE: I will only speak for 20 minutes but wanted to present a full slide-deck.


On authoritarian neoliberalism and poetic epistemology

Well, this is very exciting, and I have an article accepted for publication in Social Epistemology: a Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy that picks up on some work I have been doing previously on authoritarian neoliberalism (see presentations and notes from a BERA Special Interest Group symposium here and here). The article also attempts to maintain some momentum around academic labour, academic practice, knowledge formation and the critical terrain of decolonisation. In this, I explicitly connect to Audre Lorde’s work on life as a poetic existence.

The article should be out in the Spring.

Abstract

As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, increasingly encumbered by precarious employment, debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of autonomy beyond the sale of their labour-power. One heuristic for analysing this response is authoritarian neoliberalism, imposed as a means of enacting disciplinary practices in the name of the market with an anti-democratic rationale. This has a distinctly technocratic focus, rooted in techniques of performativity, including audits and assessments of teaching, research and scholarship, grounded in productivity, the management of time and value-creation. However, there are a range of intersectional and geographical responses to such an imposition, through which it is possible to describe alternatives to these architectures of subsumption. In particular, a second heuristic emerges which challenges the restructuring of the University in the global North, erupting from struggles for decolonisation. Here, Audre Lorde’s invocation to an integrated, poetic existence that situates bodies in places, and respects feelings and emotions as the site of epistemological development and understanding, underpins the possibility for dismantling hegemonic knowledge production. The article examines whether humanist narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse their alienated labour and to imagine that another world is possible.

Keywords: academic labour, authoritarian neoliberalism, decolonisation, poetic epistemology.

The references for the article are listed at the end of this blogpost.