In this conversation, feminist studies and black studies scholar Nick Mitchell and Undercommoner Zach Schwartz-Weinstein discuss a range of topics: the politics of criticality; the labor politics of black studies and ethnic studies; the absorptive quality of the university’s administration of difference; the work of fantasy in academic labor; the origins of adjunctification and casualization; Black Lives Matter’s transformation into a campus-based movement; and how to denaturalize the political economy of the university.
Zach: So Thank you for sending along that essay, and thanks for agreeing to talk with me – I’m really excited about having this conversation be part of the Undercommoning Project.
Nick: Sure! My pleasure
Zach: I really enjoyed reading both the “curricular objects” piece and the Critical Ethnic Studies piece again.
I guess if we could start out by you telling our theoretical listeners about — well, I guess from reading both of these pieces, one of your major scholarly interests seems to be the politics of institutionalization and disciplinarity. It seems like you’re reading it both as a form of capture but also as constitutive of the very conditions by which particular forms and fields of knowledge are shaped. I’m wondering how you became interested in that topic, and what your own history or genealogy of your approach to this topic is.
Nick: A couple things happened. I started grad school in 2005. So, a little over 10 years ago, and in the course of me being in graduate school, especially me being in graduate school in California, things just went wild – we had the financial crisis that played out more or less right in the middle of while I was studying for my PhD, and I was involved, to a certain extent, in the campus struggles in the UC system, especially in Santa Cruz, where I was studying for my PhD. I was living in Oakland at the time, so I was able to get involved with struggles at Berkeley as well. Along with that, I was also doing work, to a certain extent, in prison abolitionist organizations that were trying to think about — especially with regard to questions of state funding and institutional investments — what the relationships between the university and California’s investment in the prison system were.
“Social movements have been critical in the transformation of the university but the university also has incredible flexibility to, if not absorb than to outmaneuver those very movements through their contradictions”
At the same time, I started doing my PhD with the expectation that I was going to write on the discursive production of black masculinity in hip hop visual cultures, and realized pretty quickly that that wasn’t getting at the questions that felt urgent to me at the time. So I had some really good training, some really good comrades, that encouraged me to get deeply involved in studying the history of the field that made my study possible, and at the same time using that as an occasion to engage with the constitution of the university as the site that was making my own study possible. Two quarters of my six years in graduate school, I didn’t teach. The first quarter, I think it was my first year, my task was just to go into the library, I think the e187 section, which is how the Dewey Decimal System classifies black studies, and just try and read everything — to get a real immersion in what was where in the history of the field. Doing that gave me a deep appreciation of the amount of work that had gone into everything — the amount of sweat and tears and time.
Simultaneously, the constant struggles with the university to transform the labor conditions of graduate students contributed to the urgency of trying to think about what the contributions were of inhabiting the university at the moment, but also to think about when our movements were successful and when our movements weren’t successful how those successes and failures had to do with our own position in relation to the university. If nothing else, it gave me a real appreciation for both the extent and the degree to which social movements had been critical in the transformation of the university, but also to the ability of the university to respond — the university’s incredible flexibility to, if not absorb, to find inroads through the languages, through the demands, through the positioning and through the contradictions of social movements, and in some ways outmaneuver those very movements through those contradictions. Just inhabiting the university at the moment of that real complexity was really the foundation of the theories and projects that I’ve been involved with since.
Absorption, recuperation, criticality
Zach: it’s really interesting to hear you talk about the way that this project emerged from its own particular set of struggles, because it seems to me one that’s very attentive both to the longer duree of struggles over university resources and extra-university resources but also does have a lot to say about more contemporary moments. So, I wrote down a ton of question which fill up a page and a half of a google doc, and I’m a little worried that they’re all the same question. Hopefully we can kind of work through them and maybe have some kind of useful conversation will come out of them, but, uh, I’m warning you, I guess!
So I guess I wanted to start out by talking about the piece that you recently published in the Critical Ethnic Studies journal, which is a keywords piece on the Critical Ethnic Studies Intellectual. I think it’s a really powerful essay, and it gave me a lot to think through, and I think one of the most provocative aspects of it is the way you tackle “the material, discursive, and psychic forms that undergird a certain confidence that it is through knowledge that racial justice in one measure or another can be done.” You outline a series of fantasies that surround and constitute the intellectual. I’m wondering if you could talk about what you see as at stake in these fantasies, what work these fantasies of criticality and critique themselves do.
Nick: Well, the first thing I’d say is the terms the essay tries to sketch out, especially in thinking critically about the way that we think and talk about and perform critique, especially in the contemporary university, have to do with a set of conversations, and a set of works that have come out pretty recently. I’m thinking here certainly about Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons, I’m thinking about Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons, I’m thinking of course about Timothy Brennan’s important work in Wars of Position and his recent books, especially the one on Vico and Hegel – Borrowed Lights. And also Rita Felski’s recent book The Limits of Critique is something that I’m in conversation with but not necessarily in agreement with. So, what a lot of those works are pushing towards is reconsideration, at least, of the politics of critique.
I was invited to contribute a keyword to the inaugural issue of the Critical Ethnic Studies journal. I was present at the conference in Riverside in 2013 – critical ethnic studies and the future of genocide — and when I was writing that essay, I was just about to enter into a tenure track job at UC Riverside, so really the epicenter of this turn toward critical ethnic studies, which has been crucial in trying to reinvigorate the project of ethnic studies to try and confront the ways in which ethnic studies has in some ways become very complicit or comfortable with its positioning within liberal multiculturalist institutions – the same institutions that ethnic studies, at least in its inaugural moment, we imagine, was against.
“I am not convinced that, in its inaugural moment of student-led social movements, ethnic studies had the oppositionality to the dominant logics of the university that we would, today, find it convenient today to imagine…”
I am, in the first instance, not the most convinced that, at least turning back to the historical record, that the oppositionality we would want to imagine ethnic studies having had in its inaugural moment, in the student-led social movements that were demanding it, was as opposed to the dominant logics of the university as it might be convenient to imagine that it was nowadays. And of course, we make our own historicities and we call on that history in order to try and animate the movements that we want to build today. So even if I think that’s not entirely accurate, I am definitely in step with so much of what the effort to reanimate ethnic studies through a turn toward criticality or critical ethnic studies would like to do, to embrace a radical, transformative, anticapitalist ethnic studies that imagines its aim as foremost being a critique of the dominant structuring logics and the historicities not only of the university but of global civil society writ large, whether it’s slavery, settler colonialism, global war, heteropatriarchy, genocide. Those languages are very important to my work.
And, at the same time, I think that what I want to do, and what I think that my contribution and the way that I approach my scholarship and activism pushes me to think, “what’s the investment in criticality, and what’s also motivating it beyond our own desires?” Part of what I wanted to get to there is these kinds of fantasies that we invest in, that make it so we can keep on going to work every day. It’s not easy to keep doing this work that’s extremely extractive in the university, to keep on imagining, and keep on imagining that we’re building momentum towards the movements that we want to build. Sometimes fantasy is the space where all the contradictions of our work can get resolved. It’s a psychic form through which all of these contradictions are playing out in particular. So thinking about the historicities of the kinds of fantasies that animate the critical work, and especially the critical turn in ethnic studies — where it all comes from is largely what’s at stake in that piece. First and foremost, the question for me is ‘what does fantasy crowd out?’ The fantasy of ethnic studies intellectualism.
My scholarship and activism pushes me to think, “what’s motivating our investment in criticality beyond our own desires?” What kinds of fantasies make it so we can keep on going to work every day and keep on imagining that we’re building momentum towards the movements that we want?.
And, just to back up for a second again, the reason that the essay focuses on the intellectual is that — rather than making pronouncements about the social world at the level of abstraction, which a lot of recent critical ethnic studies work has done, how do we make sense of the actual practitioner? The person who’s actually being inserted into the practice of critical ethnic studies?
So much of the fantasy I was thinking about had to do with the idea of criticality — criticality as an opportunity for renewal, criticality as an opportunity for communing with the version of the past that we imagine ourselves as in step with. Criticality as returning to the insurgent force of social movements that constituted ethnic studies. Just in the historical representation of the ethnic studies movements of the past, there’s already a kind of fantasy playing out. Some people will call it nostalgia. Nostalgia is certainly one way of representing it. I think in that piece I say that the dominant indication of the inaugural social movement that fought for ethnic studies often looks much more like family romance, like we could choose our own genealogy, choose our parents, rather than history. What brought ethnic studies into the university was not only social movements; it was the university itself, and that university was one that became in the course of engagement with social movements, incredibly adept in the absorption, rearticulation, and rerouting of activist desires into forms of institutionalization. By this I mean not only programs and departments, but schemas of labor, labor practices, and other social forms that were easily conformed with the transforming university that students were demanding in the context of ethnic studies. One of the arguments that I make in my book is that it’s actually an early form of university casualization that made black studies possible.
The Birth of the Adjunct
There’s a really direct history that gets us there. At San Francisco State, before the student strike where the Third World Liberation Front joined with the — I always get confused — at Yale the BSA, at San Francisco state, it was the BSU, the Black Student Union — so the Third World Liberation Front and the Black Student Union joined to demand a college of ethnic studies. The TWLF demanded 50 faculty positions. The Black Student Union demanded 20 faculty positions among other major demands. The BSU wanted across the board admission of all black students who applied to San Francisco State.
If we want to claim the radicality of the social and liberatory vision that emerged out the struggles of the late-60s we also need, simultaneously, to attend to the labor practices that emerged in that moment and that made it possible. If we’re thinking about the history of university casualization, this is a cycle that actually inaugurates it.
But the forms of study that make that possible emerge through an experimental college at San Francisco state that was institutionalized partly because of the intensely exploitative labor conditions that existed for San Francisco state faculty. There were professors there who were teaching 5-5 loads. One of the ways the San Francisco state administration responded to this glut of students for whom they needed classes was to institute an experimental college in which students could teach their own classes. All of the sudden, the university is extracting teaching labor from student populations. All of the sudden you have students who are paying fees – not necessarily tuition, to provide teaching labor for the university. If we’re thinking about the history of university casualization, this is a cycle that actually inaugurates it. So if we want to claim the radicality of the social vision and the liberatory vision that emerged out of that moment we also need, simultaneously, to attend to the labor practices that emerged in that moment and that made it possible. The forms of fantasy want to have one part of that history – the fantasies of that moment want the radicality without attending to the materiality of the labor practices that make it possible.
Another argument the book makes is that in this moment you see a major shift in the category of the adjunct. By the mid to late 60s the adjunct was still, not uniformly, but generally, kind of an honorific term. It was a term that acknowledged someone who had a form of expertise that the university desired, but who was employed elsewhere – who had a kind of full time employment elsewhere. But the university was acknowledging their specialization within a field, and therefore wanted to employ them and to use that expertise to benefit the student population, generally speaking. But the category of the adjunct becomes productive differently, in the context of trying to staff these emerging black studies, and, by the end of the 60s, women’s studies programs, where, by the turn of the seventies, there’s a full-fledged form of casualization that is being articulated through the adjuncts when university administrators realize it’s useful, particularly to be able to en masse hire people to be in these programs.
But also – this is how the administration is imagining that they can politically outmaneuver the student movements when there’s no longer the kind of large scale articulated force of student social movements, or when the political economy of universities has either pushed student activists out or graduated them (because graduated is a major term in the political economy of the university but one that masks it at the same time) it can either not rehire those same people who have been hired into the programs or fire them, as San Francisco state president (In the UC system the heads of different campuses are chancellors and at SFSC it was the president) so SFSC president Hayakawa, when the black studies faculty submitted their budget 20 minutes late, I believe in 1970, he just fired the entire department! They had no recourse. They weren’t tenure-track faculty. They had no structural recourse to protections. And then he just reconstituted black studies under his own vision.
Thinking about the specific kinds of labor conditions that were articulated within the institutionalization of black studies offers a different way of understanding that moment of emerging. But, because it doesn’t conform to the momentum and the shape of the desire that we ask when we’re fantasizing – when we want the past as a resource, it tends to get crowded out. My interest is in trying to embrace those contradictory moments to see what sense we can make of them when we think about what those movements signified in a fuller sense.
Zach: That’s really interesting – and my own research into very contingently related histories at other universities during the same time period confirms the same timeline of casualization. As you were talking about criticality, I was reminded of Moten and Harney’s line – I think they say that the critical intellectual is the privatization of the social through the professionalization of negligence, which is I think also what you’re building on, which is an incredibly provocative but generative analysis of what work universities do.
I’m also wondering – building of off that – and maybe I’m getting ahead of myself because I have a question I want to ask later about politics and “what is to be done” – I’m wondering (how) might Critical Ethnic Studies and folks working within it engage the university as a site of labor and as the fantastic/phantasmic commodity that their intellectual labor produces. What possibilities does this argument create for critical ethnic studies as a field-in-the-early-stages-of-defining-itself-as-a-field, and for allied fields?
The labor of ethnic studies
Nick: I’m already getting at some of the terms that — for many good reasons, I think that in Ethnic Studies scholarship writ large just don’t get emphasized to the same kind of extent. I’m just finishing right now a graduate course called “feminist ethnic studies and the university.” One of the things I was trying to emphasize in that class was the irreducibility of labor without capitulating to a highly reductive form of old-school economic determinism. It’s also the reason why when you ask about fantasy, I go to labor, because I think that one of the reasons why fantasy is able to capture the force that it does, both in terms of inspiring us to try and build new intellectual-academic movements, while also as a term that seems to signify something labor isn’t. It’s one way in which the academic conditions of the labor environment get played out.
I would love to see a re-invigorated field-wide emphasis in ethnic studies on questions of labor while being attentive to histories of thinking about labor movements and without necessarily letting the dominant ways in which the subjectivities within labor history have been articulated predetermine the terms by which that inquiry would take shape.
I would love to see a re-invigorated field-wide emphasis in ethnic studies on questions of labor while both being attentive to histories of thinking about labor movements without necessarily letting the dominant ways in which the subjectivities within labor history have been articulated predetermine the terms by which that inquiry would take shape. I think one of the reasons I do that is just because I think it’s a useful thing to do when you’re engaging with graduate students. I think it’s particularly problematic to train graduate students in ethnic studies without training them in a way that allows them to theorize the institution that, ostensibly, they’re going to be entering into. Especially if you’re going to teach them to embrace the movements that made the field they’re going to be entering into as professionals possible.
So I think in that way it would be kind of a really important critical occasion to think about what would it mean to rearticulate some of our epistemological frameworks and theoretical frameworks in ethnic studies, not just in such a way that we can add labor to them, but [taking into account instead] how we’re already engaging with questions in which labor is at the center, but not articulated in a way that allows us to form political mobilization around them and think about different political coalitions that can emerge through and in relation to them. This, again, is where my formation is showing. I think workplace level organization is often times something that we’re doing but not necessarily understanding that we’re doing [it] at that level or thinking about the depth or the ways in which that might allow us to connect with other people who are working within the institution. I think the graduate student movements in the UC system have been pretty good at being able to do this, but I would just like to see it play out in scholarship a little bit more. I see the resources there. I see the thinking. It’s there.
I would certainly like to see, in the academy, people’s labor politics being more directly confronted. I have had, and people I know have had, rather horrific experiences with academic intellectuals who are considered radical, but their practical relationship to labor is not seen as an actual test of their radicality. That, to me, seems like an actual political failure.
And I just think in the critical pivot in ethnic studies, there’s a real opportunity to build a framework that can reinvigorate social movements in ways [we] haven’t necessarily been doing, or that aren’t necessarily visible within their present articulation. That’s one general framework within which I think this work can be done. I also think it would be, given certain experiences that people I know have had working in the field, I would certainly like to see, in the academy, people’s labor politics being more directly confronted. I have had, and people I know have had, rather horrific experiences with academic intellectuals who are considered radical, but their practical relationship to labor is not seen as an actual test of their radicality. That, to me, seems like an actual political failure. When people’s actual, on-the-ground labor politics is not one of the ways that we’re testing whether we think their scholarship is radical, then we have an actual epistemological divide and contradiction between what we think is radical scholarship and the very conditions that make it possible. So, having different ways of testing that, and having different ways of making it visible within the available-to-us scholarly frameworks, I think, is really urgent.
Zach: Yeah, I’ve certainly had similar experiences, and I think maybe one of the lessons of the wave of graduate employee labor struggles that stretched from late 80s and early 90s through the Brown Decision and the NYU Strike was the failure of the radical faculty member to step outside the managerial logic of the university. And I can cite personal examples.
Nick: I’m sure you can!
Zach: And I think it’s also important to be talking about labor, and labor in the university in, for lack of a better term, an intersectional way, in a moment when this kind of zombie class determinism seems on the march in the public sphere in a way that’s kind of puzzling, but that seems to reassert itself whenever some more radical understanding of how labor is inserted into other social phenomena is put forward, that under the sign of radicalism, or sometimes even under the sign of reaction, class gets held up in a way that wants to discipline those other forms.
Nick: And also — I don’t know if I’m at the place where I actually come out as the person who writes the low end theory blog, but I guess I’m there now. One of the things that I was trying to write about when I was writing in relation to the Occupy movement was the importance of not allowing the zombie class determinism — not implicitly accepting its terms in antiracist movement building. Because one of the unfortunate outcomes of that can be the way that antiracist social movements symptomatically imagine class — ultimately affirm class determinism — by understanding class as something that is white. Allowing the category of class to lose all of its critical purchase. And I continue to think it has extremely important critical purchase, but only if we don’t, from the outset, allow it to be a whitened category.
One of the things that’s at stake for me, and one of the real tests for me, in thinking about what’s the value of these critical turns within the fields in which I work is — it’s not only not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but also to really think politically about what’s available in these modalities of analysis that if we don’t allow them to be co-opted, or to be — if we don’t accept the terms on which they’re reinscribed through the dominant. In some ways, that contradiction led to the demise of so much of the momentum, at least on the Occupy Oakland front, because we couldn’t find a way to have a conversation about it, because the terms of the discussion, the terms of the dialogue, already presumed a certain racialized division between class and race that once it was accepted, was already over. Thinking about how to strategize around that is incredibly urgent and incredibly difficult, I continue to find.
Curricular Objects and the politics of Antiracism
Zach: Yeah, absolutely. So I guess with the time remaining, we should talk about the curricular objects piece a little bit, and one of the ways I wanted to transition was to think about the parallels – because you’re talking in that piece about the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of women’s studies, and the way that it’s phrased in opposition to how black studies became a discipline. One of the most powerful things you do in that piece for me is framing the tension between “women of color” as a political subject, and “women of color” or “minority women” as a curricular object, which gets used to build women’s studies in a way that winds up buttressing racial liberalism in a kind of antiracist racism in ways that I think are really insightful – your read of it is really insightful and really provocative. Are there parallels between that moment in the sixties and seventies, and the one we’re in now (in the struggles that ethnic studies as a field is going through at the moment)?
Nick: Well, first of all, no historians would really call me a historian. I’m a bad one in the sense that I think that so many of my present political concerns are ones that I work out by turning to historical questions.
When I was writing the curricular objects piece, and the curricular objects piece, I should mention, for folks who’ll be listening to this — it’s not out, it’s been rejected twice from different journals. They want no part at all of it. [laughs.] I got one good readers’ report, so thank you to whomever anonymous reader who made some suggestions for it, but I also think that it’s intended to be a little bit provocative [laughs] because of the argument that is attempting to push against a prevailing tendency that is still very much with us today to invoke the language of women of color as a kind of uncompromised form of political subjectivity, and sometimes to use it as a vanguard of criticality. So, something about the animating conditions of that, to make it a little bit clearer.
The emergence of the term “women of color” says a lot about the institutional interests and needs of certain institutionally-privileged white women at the time in consolidating women’s studies as a field and also in investing, for reasons very good and also very problematic, women’s studies with antiracist credentials.
Part of it also goes back to the movement history of Occupy that I was just talking about, where I think I got myself into trouble with the people of color caucus for saying some things, and also what I thought were some of the uninterrogated class politics going on in that field. What the piece does is talk about the emergence of the category “women of color” through a lens that imagines that “women of color” does not simply have a genealogy of pure oppositionality, but is not in fact the autonomous self-naming, self-determining embraced category of women of color. In fact, its emergence says a lot about the institutional interests and needs of certain institutionally-privileged white women at the time in consolidating women’s studies as a field and also in investing, for reasons very good and also very problematic, women’s studies with antiracist credentials.
I was interested – and this is sort of a continued tendency that’s also in the Critical Ethnic Studies piece – in how these terms whose radicality is oftentimes taken for granted especially in the corners of the left that I consider my comrades as being located in is taken without too much question. What I was trying to do in “Curricular Objects” was just to mess with the confidence that animates those kinds of invocations of “women of color.” The lesson to be learned there that’s sort of alive to the present is we have this term “women of color” that’s often presented as inherently political or inherently radical, but there’s nothing beyond appropriation, and there’s nothing that gets established in the university, beyond curricularity or otherwise, that’s had the lifespan that women of color has, that is not in some way the outcome of a compromise with institutional liberalism. And that’s not a damning thing. It’s not a damning thing, but it’s a problem that we have to contend with. And so acting as if it’s not is not going to get us anywhere, and often it inures us to certain weaknesses in our politics or our analytical habits that we don’t have to have and that I think we would do well to learn from. [Learning from them] might offer different strategies, different angles of analysis, different forms of political imagination, might open up onto different political coalitions, or, they might open up questions that we already thought were solved.
So that’s the major stakes of the piece for me. I don’t know if that gets to the heart of the question, but it’s sort of operating in the background implicitly. I think it just goes back to what, for me, is an abiding concern about antiracism: that there’s no inherent revolutionary value in antiracism by itself. That antiracism is such a complicated and varied historical phenomenon, and this is something that I think that Jodi Melamed of course argues to a brilliant extent. It’s something that one of my continued antagonists, but one of the figures I find both the most frustrating and fascinating in the Black radical tradition, Adolph Reed, is always kind of pushing up against.
There’s no inherent revolutionary value in antiracism by itself.
But I would have to say, some of his writings, especially his writings in the 80s on the black revolution are, I would say, indispensable to thinking some of these questions, and got to questions that people in ethnic studies today are resuscitating as “cutting edge.” He was saying them in ‘79. The way that he does his politics I have all sorts of questions about. I do not share every conclusion with him, but when Adolph Reed writes, I read what he writes. There’s no inherency to antiracism because the meaty […] historical phenomenon that it embodies accommodates so much of the political spectrum that to say that one is antiracist oftentimes today says nothing. And so to be very explicit about what we mean by antiracism, and to put content to that, and to put questions of what we mean when we say antiracist to the test and to think critically and reflectively on them rather than allowing antiracism on its own to be a term that can signify some transparently left value, I think, is a problem.
I think it’s important today that activists pretty much across the board all want to imagine themselves as antiracists – i think that is generally great, but… If we want to actually learn something, if we want to create more rigorous politics, let’s actually get into what that means as a historical phenomenon.
Black Lives Matter’s Promise and Contradictions
Zach: Absolutely. So that kind of dovetails into my next question which is how or whether you see a similar logic of antiracism, official or otherwise, at work in the contemporary institutional framing and response to the movement against racialized police violence and what kinds of relations of force, what kinds of fields of power/knowledge are being produced through this contemporary moment of struggle and cooptation.
Nick: I think I would have gotten myself into trouble with Black Lives Matter in a way similar to how I got into trouble with Occupy, but I think that Black Lives Matter today is in some ways more interesting to me than what I found interesting or frustrating about Occupy. Especially because, from the start, having to do with the ways black lives matter has emerged through alternatives to traditional forms, especially within the context of black politics — traditional forms of institutionalized leadership. And so, the fact that you’ve got a movement at which queer black women, queer black gender non-conforming folks have been really at the heart of, I think is extremely important, and is not something I could have anticipated. It’s something I think is super, super, super exciting. I think it’s great.
BLM is a movement at which queer black women, queer black gender non-conforming folks have been really at the heart. I think is extremely important, and is not something I could have anticipated. I think the real question on the movement end is “what is the vision of success.” What is the interpretation of the origins of policing? Of police violence? What solutions does it call for? What movement strategies does it open onto? Who is the movement linking up with?
Then, at the same time, some of the problems with the history of black leadership still make themselves felt: the class constitution of the leadership, the ways in which police violence as an issue can often be extracted from larger structural questions. I think the real question on the movement end is “what is the vision of success.” What is the interpretation of the origins of policing? Of police violence? What solutions does it call for? What movement strategies does it open onto? Who is the movement linking up with? In general, movements against police violence have a structure that puts into place a certain kind of, if not leadership, spokesmanship: certain people being positioned as the people who speak for black people. I think, as always, it’s important to be critical of this. Who emerges as the leaders? What questions come to the forefront?
The unexpected turn of BLM recently toward the campus movement — and the folks both in Robin Kelley’s recent essay in the Boston Review and the folks responding to it have said this better than I can. The unexpected turn both raises a really important moment for that movement to expand in ways no one might have anticipated in the Ferguson moment but that I would love to see, and… both a deeper analysis of… what does it mean to say that this is the same as the Ferguson moment? Is it the same thing as the Ferguson moment?
In a sense, if this were other movements, and there were other populations who had stepped into this moment, we might call it appropriative, in fact, but partly because we don’t generally in the US Left, when we talk about black politics have a reflex way of thinking about “what is the class constitution of the kind of movements that conduct antiracism,” it’s very easy to imagine that movements that are taking place on college campuses are the same thing as movements where poor and working class people, many of whom don’t necessarily have the same institutional access to universities, many of whom do, but many of whom do not have the same kind of institutional access to universities go out in the streets and refuse to go home.
I think actually being able to embrace the complexity of what’s happened in that shift, especially in the shift from Ferguson to understanding Black Lives Matter as part of a movement that’s going on on college campuses, it raises a different set of contradictions.
I think actually being able to embrace the complexity of what’s happened in that shift, especially in the shift from Ferguson to understanding Black Lives Matter as part of a movement that’s going on on college campuses, it raises a different set of contradictions. It’s one that we can expect to see, of course, within any given movement, but one that if we don’t have the right kinds of lenses and we don’t ask the right kinds of questions, then contradictions that are there and are consequential in the way these movements play out don’t become visible to us.
There’s a question as to whether there might be something appropriative happening with the anti-police violence movement, but there’s also the question of whether there’s already something appropriative happening — and that’s not to say that everything appropriative is bad. I think the developments that happened on campus this fall were amazing. The university of North Carolina students’ demands are unbelievable. [This conversation occurred prior to the Duke occupation.]
One of the best articulations of campus student demands — I think they’re more radical than the SF State demands from the sixties! — especially in the context of neoliberalism. The student demands that were made by the Third World Liberation Front and the Black Student Union were not fundamentally at odds with the form of Keynesianism that was present within the US military liberalism of the time. The UNC demands are fully at odds with the educational logic of neoliberalism. So even if you imagine this movement as an appropriative one, then I think it might actually allow us to also come to terms with the radical inflections of the demands that are actually being articulated in ways that we might otherwise not appreciate – the different contours of the struggles playing out.
Denaturalizing the Political Economy of the University
Zach: Last question: You draw, particularly in the Critical Ethnic Studies piece, on Moten and Harney’s Undercommons essay in what I think are really interesting and exciting ways, and you’re careful to frame your critique of the oppositionality of ethnic studies as an additive one — we can’t just do this, we also have to do this. I’m wondering where this leaves a formulation – where your critique of these disciplinary formations and intellectual formations, even radical intellectual formations as themselves always historically — I shouldn’t say always – you’re very historically specific with your account whether or not you or historians want to call you a historian, but I’m wondering where this leaves a formation like the undercommons – (I have to ask this because we’re the undercommoning project.) I’m wondering if that’s a term that has meaning for you, if that’s a useful way of understanding a scholarly collectivity to which you feel allegiance or you think is a useful political frame. And the other way of asking this is the “what is to be done” question, the question of the ways subjects of the university, within or beyond it, respond to or resist its discipline – the question about whether there’s a beyond to critique, and is that a useful question for you.
Nick: So I don’t think that Moten and Harney would take it as a slight to say that I don’t think I always understand what the undercommons is. And I think their refusal to define it as such is part of its generativity. It’s a necessary part of its generativity. It’s also part of what can be frustrating about it. And, you know, that’s what we work with. The part that’s more of a historian in me – i joke sometimes that to critical theorists, I’m a historian, to historians, I’m a critical theorist — the part of of me that’s a historian wants a “who,” — who do we mean when we’re talking about the undercommons. But I also embrace the generativity of the formulation – especially because I think the question of who is part of the logic that even people who find something animating in the term can find different fronts of struggle available to them that are extremely important.
As someone who occupies a tenure track position in a university, for me to say “I’m in it, but not of it” can feel a little bit disingenuous. It almost feels like, “I get to have my cake, I get to take home my paycheck, and also to claim that I am not part of the dominant logic of the institution, that it does not articulate itself through me.” Of course it does!
Within the general formulation of the undercommons by Moten and Harney, I think you definitely see this again in the Kelley piece and the dossier responding to it in Boston Review: one of the moments of important, profound confusion comes in when they’re talking about their relationship to the university being “in, but not of,” it. For me, I think this is the one that continues to raise a lot of questions. Who can claim that, from what position? And again, I don’t know if what I imagine when I’m thinking of “in the university but not of it” is the same thing that they would be thinking, or is the same thing that Robin Kelley is thinking when he’s evoking it, and the other people do. Actually wrangling with the phrase is part of what I think is useful but also vexing in the struggle over it. Who is in it? Who is of it? And for whom does that distinction mean something meaningful? To be in it and not of it. Does that place a privilege on the political gesture of refusal? To whom is that gesture available? To whom is it recognizable? To whom is it useful? As someone who occupies a tenure track position in a university, for me to say “I’m in it, but not of it” can feel a little bit disingenuous. It almost feels like, “I get to have my cake, I get to take home my paycheck, and also to claim that I am not part of the dominant logic of the institution, that it does not articulate itself through me.” Of course it does!
I think that can be part of the same kind of fantasy structure that I want to push against a little bit. And at the same time, it certainly animates important thinking about our relationship to the university. I think that, “Yeah! Repurpose the university.” Thinking about what it means to steal it, what it means to steal from it, what it means to violate the university’s property claim is an extremely important political question. Stealing from it doesn’t simply mean taking things from it, but also thinking about how to use its spaces, the dominant property claim of the university, for work that it would expel from the field. And at the same time I also think that we can use the imagination that people bring to the university that is generated by the university, and also repurpose that.
So when I think about the undercommons not necessarily as an existing coalition or collectivity we can bring to bear, but as a set of questions about how to use the institution and how to refuse the ways in which the question of our relationship to the institution is given to us in advance, I think can be an extremely generative formulation. And at the same time, like anything, I think that we ask, what are the desires that this kind of collectivity and these kinds of questions are doing for us? What’s the work that they are doing on us? My relation to it isn’t markedly different from any of the field formations or the object formations or the conceptual questions that I tend to work with in general would be, at the end of the day.
Zach: Thanks so much, that was great! Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want to respond to or say?
Nick: I think it’s really important for folks to think about the political economy of the university, but to think about how we can denaturalize it — meaning thinking about how it naturalizes itself, through the terms of opportunity and achievement. The way I start out the class that I mentioned before – the feminist ethnic studies in the university class – I actually assign Marc Bousquet’s book – and the challenge that I present to students is, “this is not a book where feminism as an object of analysis, where race as an object of analysis are central, and the point of this class is to get us to a point where the stuff that Bousquet is talking about in this book becomes, unquestionably, the object of feminist and critical race analysis.” Let’s not leave those questions to the parts of the field where they’re unmarked.
I think it’s really important for folks to think about the political economy of the university, but to think about how we can denaturalize it — meaning thinking about how it naturalizes itself, through the terms of opportunity and achievement
I guess the thing that’s been animating me nowadays and that I forgot to talk about, in your question about the movement against police violence, is, well, I hope that the Left can do more nowadays, and I could talk all day about even the usefulness of the Left as a political abstraction. But what the left, however fictional, should imagine as part of its work nowadays is to think about the historical demand for black vanguardism. Which is to say: the demand, which is sometimes nostalgically embraced in present day scholarship, to imagine that black struggle is always already the forefront of Left struggle. I think there is oftentimes, even for people I consider my comrades, an unquestioned way in which this happens.
I think that sometimes its political effects can be really, really problematic in the sense that we don’t account for the historicity of the demand for black vanguardism being one where the only way in which black subjects imagine themselves to be heard is by saying that our liberation is everyone’s liberation. “Our liberation is everyone’s liberation, and therefore our demands for black freedom are the most radical.” The factuality of that kind of statement is less based on analysis of the given circumstances as much as on the reproduction of a kind of condition of black legibility. Its effects can be seen not only on the demands that are placed on black subjects to imagine themselves as the most radical, the forefront of the struggle, or, by contrast, as the most oppressed, but also in the inability of the Left to recognize certain forms of complicity with neoliberalism that articulate themselves as black radicalism. Being able to recognize, to historicize that, and to think critically about that, and to not be complicit with the form of racism that says that we don’t need to think when black people speak, I think is really important right now.
The unthinking relationship to black politics is problematic not only because it perpetuates a form of racism, but also because — and i’m going to use a term that I hate — it’s not also able to recognize the forms of really hard-won excellence that have come out of black politics. I’m seeing that continually as one of the most important questions that I want to keep asking of contemporary politics.
Zach: Seems like there are really important questions around commodification there too.
Nick: Yes, Absolutely.