Saturday, May 28, 2016

the problem of academic labor

Here are two moments from “The General Antagonism: a conversation with Stevphen Shukaitis” in which Fred Moten and Stefano Harney talk about their book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013). They mean “study” as a social activity that can take place anywhere, any kind of informal intellectual exchange, not necessarily confined to an institution. This is Moten talking about academic labor and study:

“When I think now about the question or problem of academic labor, I think about it in this way: that part of what I’m interested in is how the conditions of academic labor have become unconducive to study – how the conditions under which academic laborers labor actually preclude or prevent study, make study difficult if not impossible. When I was involved in labor organizing as a graduate student, with the Association of Graduate Student Employees at the University of California Berkeley I was frustrated with the way that sometimes graduate student investment in thinking about themselves as workers was predicated on the notion that workers don’t study. But this was more than just a romanticisation of authentic work and a disavowal of our own ‘inauthenticity’ as workers. It was that our image of ourselves as academic laborers actually acceded to the ways in which the conditions of academic labor prevented study. We actually signed on to the prevention of study as a social activity even while we were engaging in, and enjoying, organizing as a social activity. It’s like we were organizing for the right to more fully embed ourselves in isolation. It never felt like we studied (in) the way we organized, and we never approached a whole bunch of other modes of study that were either too much on the surface of, or too far underneath, the university. I think we never recognized that the most insidious, vicious, brutal aspect of the conditions of our labor was that it regulated and suppressed study.” (113-14)

. . .

“The prophet is the one who tells the brutal truth, who has the capacity to see the absolute brutality of the already-existing and to point it out and to tell that truth, but also to see the other way, to see what it could be. That double-sense, that double-capacity: to see what’s right in front of you and to see through that to what’s up ahead of you. One of the ways in which academic labor has become sclerotic, let’s say, is precisely because it imagines that the primary mode, specifically of a certain kind of left academic labor, is a kind of clear-eyed seeing of what’s actually going on right now – and that the work is reducible to that. Or, another way to put it is that, insofar as that’s what one conceives the work to be, one is only really doing the work when the work is absolutely in the absence of play, where play would be conceived of as pretending, as seeing what could be, as fantasy.” (131)

We labor to escape. We want to play to free the self, which is an isolation enforced by our capitalist, temp-work cities. To escape these conditions, we have to find a way to play, or study. As Moten suggests, to play/study, to feel our way through together, is to allow for prophecy, to allow for freedom. For another world to come. Can you imagine a labor movement that was also a poetry movement?

Here is Raoul Vaneigem from The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967):

“Revolution ceases to exist from the moment one must sacrifice oneself for it. From the moment one must lose oneself in it and fetishize it. Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society. The call for sacrifice in such a context is a death knell . . .

When rebels start believing that they are fighting for a higher good the authoritarian principle is bolstered. Humanity has never been short of justifications for giving up the human. In fact some people possess a veritable reflex of submission, an irrational terror of freedom; this masochism is everywhere visible in everyday life. With what galling ease we give up a wish, a passion, the most essential parts of ourselves. With what passivity, what inertia, we accept living or acting for something, or rather some thing — a word whose dead weight seems to prevail everywhere. It is hard to be oneself, so we give up readily, seizing on whatever pretext we can: love of children, of reading, of artichokes, etc, etc. The wish for a remedy evaporates in face of the abstract generality of the ill.

And yet the impulse to freedom also knows how to make use of pretexts. Even a strike for higher wages or a riot in the streets can awaken the carnival spirit. As I write, thousands of workers around the world are downing tools or picking up guns, ostensibly in obedience to directives or principles, but actually, at the profoundest level, in response to their passionate desire to change their lives. The unstated agenda of every insurrectionary movement is the transformation of the world and the reinvention of life. No theorist formulates these demands; rather, they are the sole foundation of poetic creativity. Revolution is made every day despite, and indeed in opposition to the specialists of revolution. This revolution is nameless, like everything that springs from lived experience. Its explosive integrity is forged continuously in the everyday clandestinity of acts and dreams.” (Chapter 12, “Sacrifice”)

And here is Audre Lorde from her essay “Uses of the Erotic” (1978):

“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need--the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.”

. . .

“The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects - born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

. . .

“The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy, in the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, harkening to its deepest rhythms so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, or examining an idea.

That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”