Studying Through the Undercommons – An Interview with Stefano Harney & Fred Moten (by Stevphen Shukaitis)

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have collaborated on various projects over the past fifteen years, including a number of essays on the conditions of academic labor. Drawing from the black radical tradition, autonomist and postcolonial theory, they have elaborated an approach to politics that is more concerned with the less socially visible aspects of organization and interaction. Currently they are working on a book entitled the undercommons: fugitive planning & black study that will be released by Minor Compositions / Autonomedia in Spring 2013 [Update: it was released and you can read it here]. As part of that project Stevphen Shukaitis conducted several interviews with them to give an overview of their work and approach. This interview is an excerpt for ClassWarU from their conversation.

Stevphen: Preparing for the interview I resorted to a typically web 2.0 approach of asking on Facebook what questions I should ask. I sent some of these to you. One question that seemed quite interesting was whether it was possible to be part of the undercommons and not study, or whether the undercommons includes, or could include, university workers and forms of affective labor which are not immediately pedagogical

Fred: A couple people seem to be reticent about the term ‘study,’ but is there a way to be in the undercommons that isn’t intellectual? Is there a way of being intellectual that isn’t social? When I think about the way we were using the term ‘study,’ I think we were committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal – being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory – there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities was already there. These activities aren’t ennobled by the fact that we now say, ‘oh, if you did these things in a certain way, you could be said to be have been studying.’ To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice. What’s important is to recognize that that has been the case – because that recognition allows you to access a whole, varied, alternative history of thought.

What I also want to say about that question is that it strikes me as being overly concerned with the rightness and legitimacy of the term. It’s not so much that I want to say, ‘oh, he or she didn’t understand what we meant by study.’ It’s more like, ‘okay, well, if that terms bothers you, you can use another term.’ You can say, ‘my understanding of study doesn’t work for what it is that I think I want to get from what you guys are saying.’ So, that person then has to have some kind of complicated paleonymic relation to that term. They have to situate themselves in some kind of appositional relation to that term; they have to take some of it, take something from it, and make their own way away from it. What I would say would be, insofar as you are now in what might be called a dissident relation, you are precisely involved in what it is that I think of as study.

So if the question is, ‘does it have to include ‘study’?’, my first response is: okay, you don’t understand what we mean by study. And then my second response is: but it’s okay that you don’t understand what we mean by study, because you’re going to do something else now. So, my first response was to be kinda correct and say, ‘by study we mean this. The thing that I think that you want from what we’re saying is precisely what it is that we mean by study.’ And I’m gonna say, ‘you seem to have a problem with study. How can you have a problem with study? If you truly understood what study is, you would know that it is this sort of sociality. That’s all that it is.’  But, then I would say, that’s like being kind of an asshole. That’s sort of taking this guy to task for not having a properly reverent, adequate understanding of the term – and what I’m saying is that it’s precisely his misunderstanding of, his active refusal to understand, the term that is an extension of study. Just keep pushing it. I will always think of his or her tendency to want to avoid or to disavow study as an act of study. But, if he or she doesn’t think about it that way, that’s okay.

Stefano: At the same time, I’m happy for us to say more about study. I don’t think it’s a question of being completely passive about it and saying, ‘do what you want.’ There are reasons why we felt that we had to pursue these terms, and one of the key reasons – which Fred’s already talked about – is our feeling that it was important to stress that study is already going on, including when you walk into a classroom and before you think you start a class, by the way. This is equally the case with planning. If you were to think of the way we use ‘policy,’ as something like thinking for others, both because you think others can’t think and also because you somehow think that you can think, which is the other part of thinking that there’s something wrong with someone else – thinking that you’ve fixed yourself somehow, and therefore that gives you the right to say someone else needs fixing, and policy becomes that way. If planning is the opposite of that, if it’s to say that, ‘look, it’s not that people aren’t thinking for themselves, acting for themselves together in concert in these different ways. It’s just it’s not showing up for you because you’ve corrected yourself in this particular way where they always look wrong for you and where therefore you try to deploy policy against them. But, the very deployment of that policy is the biggest symptom that there’s something you’re not getting in thinking that you need to do that – and it seems to me, really, the same with study.’ I think it’s also fine for people not to use it or to find something else. But, equally, I think that the point about study is that there is an aspect to it where it’s about saying that intellectual life is already there at work around us. When I think of study, I’m as likely to think about nurses in the smoking room as I am about the university. I mean it really doesn’t have anything to do with the university to me, other than that, as Laura Harris says, the university is this incredible gathering of resources. So, when you’re thinking, it’s nice to have books.

Fred: Of course the smoking room is an incredible gathering of resources too.

Stefano: Yes. So, I just don’t think of study and the university with that kind of connection – even though originally we were writing about what we knew, and that’s why the undercommons first came out in relationship to the university. I don’t see the undercommons as having any necessary relationship to the university. And, given the fact that, to me, the undercommons is a kind of comportment or ongoing experiment with and as the general antagonism, a kind of way of being with others, it’s almost impossible that it could be matched up with particular institutional life. It would obviously be cut through in different kinds of ways and in different spaces and times.

Fred: Studying is not limited to the university. It’s not held or contained within the university. Study has a relation to the university, but only insofar as the university is not necessarily excluded from the undercommons that it tries so hard to exclude.

Stevphen: The particular question you’re responding to was asked by Zach Schwartz-Weinstein on the history of non-instructional academic labor, which brings me to what I wanted to ask. I understand there’s a much broader and deeper understanding of study that you’re working on. But, your work started in the 1990s from looking at particular conditions of academic labor. So this is a question of how the broader conception of study fits into the more specific conditions of academic labor you’re talking about. You’re talking about how certain kinds of academic labor pre-empt collectivity or, almost because they encourage a very individualistic investment in the labor, they pre-empt that sort of broader project from emerging. So, is this something that is very particular to academic labor or is this something that is more general to forms of labor that require this investment? I guess, mostly it’s: how do you understand the relation between the specific forms of class composition of academic labor and broader patterns? I think it’s easy for the specific to be conflated with the more general kind.

Fred: 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 not conducive to study – how the conditions under which academic laborers labor actually precludes or prevents study, makes 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 romanticization 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.

Stefano: Yes that was one side of what was bothering us. Then, the other side of it was that there was this way in which it looked like the university – and the way that one worked in the university – was where study was supposed to happen. So, it meant that, on the one hand, you had some graduate students appearing to disavow study and, on the other hand, you had many academics who claimed to be monopolizing study or to be at the heart of study – and this for me meant that, first of all, study itself was becoming, as Fred says, almost impossible in the university. It was the one thing you couldn’t do in the university because of, not just the kinds of positions of people, but also because of the administration of the university. But, secondly, it meant that it was impossible to recognize study beyond the university or to acknowledge this incredible history of study that has gone on outside the university and continues to go on beyond it.

That said, probably there was something – I don’t know about for Fred, but I needed to work through a little bit – that I was an academic worker and I needed to position myself in a way that moved beyond its restrictions. But the other thing was that there are certain ways in which that academic model of preventing study has been generalized. So, it’s no longer just in the university that study is prevented. Because the one true knowledge transfer from the university has its peculiar labor process. They successfully managed to transfer the academic labor process to the private firm, so that everybody thinks that they’re an academic, everybody thinks that they’re a student – so, these kind of twenty-four hour identities. People propose the model of the artist or entrepreneur but no, this is too individual; capitalism still has a labour process. The university is a kind of factory line, a kind of labour process perfect for reintroducing a version of absolute surplus value back into the work day by trying to fashion work into this model which we associate with the university. And when we look closely at what was really going on in the university, what was really transferred, it was precisely everything but study, or rather a kind of regime that had become expert in closing down study while performing intellectual work. So, the other reason to stay with the university is not just for a certain set of resources or because the teaching space is still relatively if unevenly open, and not just because somehow study still goes on in its undercommons, but because there is this peculiar labor process model there that’s being exported, that’s being generalized in so-called creative industries and other places, and which is deployed expertly against study.  This is something Paolo Do has tracked in Asia too where the expansion of the university means an expansion of this baleful labour process into the societies where it expands.

Stevphen: Connected to another point you make, when we start talking about ‘students as co-workers,’ would that be to sort of disavow the disavowal of study? In writing on academic labor you talk about how academics cannot acknowledge their students as co-workers because this would pose a problem. So, what would it mean to acknowledge that co-laboring process, not just within the university itself but more generally?

Stefano: I might not put that the same way today as how we were putting it at that time. I felt like we were involved more in an internal critique around academic labor than I feel connected to now. It’s not that I’d be running away from it, but I sort of felt we needed to do it so that we didn’t feel like we needed to keep doing it. Instead of putting it that way, I might say, there’s a kind of fear in the university around something like amateurism – immaturity, pre-maturity, not graduating, not being ready somehow – and the student represents that at certain moments. And supposedly our job with the student is to help them overcome this so they can get credits and graduate. Today it’s sort of that moment that’s more interesting to me, because that’s a moment where your pre-maturity, your immaturity, your not-being-ready, is also kind of an openness to being affected by others, dispossessed and possessed by others. But, of course, in the university, what they’re trying to do is get rid of that, so you can be a fully self-determined individual ready for work, or as Paolo Virno says, ready to display that you are ready for work. So, to me, it’s less about the student as co-worker, though it’s undoubtedly true that students do a lot of the work, and much more about the student, as Denise Ferreira da Silva would say, as an example of an affected body. And of course the professors, just like the philosophers that Denise is talking about, the professors freak out at that student, while at the same time it’s the thing they work on, it’s a necessary point in the production cycle for them. They’re trying to remove anything that feels like that kind of affection between bodies and to produce self-determined individuals. Entering with the student at that moment, at that affective level, is the part that interests me a bit more now than, say, entering with them as the worker, though I don’t think that’s wrong. It just seems to me less than what could happen.

Fred: I think, looking back at those earlier pieces, that we just kept pushing ahead, and kept moving, but that the movement was predicated on us trying to think about where we were at the time. These are the conditions under which we live and operate, and we need to try to think about that. There’s something wrong going on, let’s think about how it is and why it is that things aren’t the way we’d like them to be – and we just basically had the temerity to believe that our desire for some other mode of being in the world had to be connected to our attempt to understand the way that we were living and the conditions under which we were living at that moment. In other words, and to me this is a kind of crucial thing: I wasn’t thinking about trying to help somebody. I wasn’t thinking about the university as a kind of exalted place in which being there is a mark of a certain kind of privilege, and that the proper way to deal with or to acknowledge that privilege was to take this wisdom or to take these resources that I had access to and to try to distribute them in a more equitable way to the poor people who didn’t have the relation to the university that we did. Me, I never thought about it that way. I was just always like: the university is fucked up. It’s fucked up over here. Why is it fucked up? Why is it that shit ain’t the way it should be here? Yeah, there’s some stuff here, but obviously there’s stuff in other places too. The point is: it’s fucked up here, how can we think about it in a way to help us organize ourselves to make it better here? We were trying to understand this problematic of our own alienation from our capacity to study – the exploitation of our capacity to study that was manifest as a set of academic products. That’s what we were trying to understand. And it struck us that this is what workers who are also thinkers have always been trying to understand. How come we can’t be together and think together in a way that feels good, the way it should feel good? For most of our colleagues and students, however much you want to blur that distinction, that question is the hardest question to get people to consider. Everybody is pissed off all the time and feels bad, but very seldom do you enter into a conversation where people are going, ‘why is it that this doesn’t feel good to us?’ There are lots of people who are pissed and who don’t feel good, but it seems hard for people to ask, collectively, ‘why doesn’t this feel good?’ I love poetry, but why doesn’t reading, thinking, and writing about poetry in this context feel good? To my mind, that’s the question that we started trying to ask.

Stevphen: It’s especially hard to ask that question in England where the assumption is that everyone’s miserable and very polite about it anyways.

Fred: But, that’s the insidious thing, this naturalization of misery, the belief that intellectual work requires alienation and immobility and that the ensuing pain and nausea is a kind of badge of honor, a kind of stripe you can apply to your academic robe or something. Enjoyment is suspect, untrustworthy, a mark of illegitimate privilege or of some kind of sissified refusal to look squarely into the fucked-up face of things which is, evidently, only something you can do in isolation. It’s just about not being cut off like that; to study the general antagonism from within the general antagonism. My favorite movie is The Shoes of the Fisherman and I want to be like this character in it named Father Telemond. He believed in the world. Like Deleuze. I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world in the world and I want to be in that. And I plan to stay a believer, like Curtis Mayfield. But that’s beyond me, and even beyond me and Stefano, and out into the world, the other thing, the other world, the joyful noise of the scattered, scatted eschaton, the undercommon refusal of the academy of misery.

Stefano: About seven years ago I moved from the US to the UK, from a university system where graduate students taught on an industrial scale, to a more semi-feudal system with a lot of precarious adjuncts instead. But then I got connected with comrades suffering through the Baronial systems of Italy and elsewhere in Southern Europe, and if they wanted to study they had to leave the university, at least strategically. That opened up another question for me, which was when you leave the university to study, in what way do you have to continue to recognize that you’re not leaving the place of study and making a new place, but entering a whole other world where study is already going on beyond the university? I felt I ought to have some way to be able to see that world, to feel that world, to sense it, and to enter into it, to join the study already going on in different informal ways, unforming, informing ways. When I speak about a speculative practice, something I learnt by working with the performance artist Valentina Desideri, I am speaking about walking through study, and not just studying by walking with others. A speculative practice is study in movement for me, to walk with others and to talk about ideas, but also what to eat, an old movie, a passing dog, or a new love, is also to speak in the midst of something, to interrupt the other kinds of study that might be going on, or might have just paused, that we pass through, that we may even been invited to join, this study across bodies, across space, across things, this is study as a speculative practice, when the situated practice of seminar room or squatted space moves out to encounter study in general.

Fred: It’s funny, this ubiquity of policy making, the constant deputization of academic laborers into the apparatuses of police power. And they are like night riders, paddy rollers, everybody’s on patrol, trying to capture the ones who are trying to get out – especially themselves, trying to capture their own fugitivity. That’s actually the first place at which policy is directed. I think that a huge part of it has to do simply with, let’s call it, a certain reduction of intellectual life – to reduce study into critique, and then at the same time, a really, really horrific, brutal reduction of critique to debunking, which operates under the the general assumption that naturalized academic misery loves company in its isolation, like some kind of warped communal alienation in which people are tied together not by blood or a common language but by the bad feeling they compete over. And so, what ends up happening is you get a whole lot of people who, as Stefano was suggesting, spend a whole lot of time thinking about stuff that they don’t want to do, thinking about stuff that they don’t want to be, rather than beginning with, and acting out, what they want.

I get so annoyed with a certain kind of discourse around that kind of weird narcissism – that double-edged coin of the narcissism of academic labor – in which you naturalize your misery on one side of the coin, and then on the other side of the coin, you completely accede to the notion of your absolute privilege. So, on the one hand, you wake up every day being miserable and saying, ‘this is the way it is.’ And on the other hand, you wake up everyday saying, ‘look how privileged I am to be here. And look at all the poor people who aren’t privileged to be here.’ One of the deleterious, negative effects of that particular kind of narcissism is that it doesn’t acknowledge the ways in which one of the cool things about the university (I’m not saying this is the only place where this happens, but it is a place where this happens) is that every day that you go into your classroom, you have a chance not to issue the call to order, and then to see what happens. And the goddamn president of the university is not going to knock on your door talking about, ‘how come you didn’t issue the call to order?’

Stevphen: Agreed on that.Another thing I want to ask you about is, over the past few years there’s been another revival or proliferation of kinds of alternative education projects, things like Edu-factory to free schools and all sorts of free universities. What they all were struck by is sort of, when you leave the institution, why do people want to imagine what they’re doing in terms of the institution anyways? The limit of the conception of collectivity is another institution.

Stefano: Yeah, I’ve been struggling with this myself, as I’ve been doing elaborations on this proposal for the School for Study that we’re thinking about doing in France. The first three times I did it, I was putting in all kinds of shit that didn’t really need to be there – that was a kind of recapitulation of the university in ways that didn’t have to happen. It was only in the last version, really after Denise had looked at it and said, ‘why is all this other stuff in here? What you’re really interested in is study, so why not just have it be a forum for study?’ And that’s when the name changed and that’s when we began to click on what we were gonna try to do with it. And it’s absolutely the case that, when you think you’re exiting the university, you’re not. You’re taking all this shit with you.

But also, Matteo Mandarini gave us this very interesting phrase. Tronti has this phrase where he says, ‘I work within and against the institution.’ So, the Queen Mary project was this within and against the institution project. But it’s also been elaborated in Precarious Ring stuff and other places as something that would also be known through co-research, something like ‘within and for.’ So, the within and against gets cut with a kind of with and for. When you move further out into an autonomous setting, where you get some free space and free time a little more easily, then, what you have to attend to is the shift, for me, between the within and against – which when you’re deep in the institution you spend a lot of time on it – and the with and for. And that changes a lot of shit. All those things are always in play. When I say ‘with and for,’ I mean studying with people rather than teaching them, and when I say ‘for,’ I mean studying with people in service of a project, which in this case I think we could just say is more study. So, that with and for, the reason we move into more autonomous situations is that it grows, and we spend less time in the antagonism of within and against.

Some people love the productivity of the antagonism. Personally, I don’t say it’s not productive, but the further I get to the with and for, the happier I am. But that’s a challenge, to remember that and to do it, and to learn how do it, if you spend a lot of time in the within and against, as we did. I’m only saying this to say, if I watch the migration of the Queen Mary collective project from the within and against towards the with and for that’s available to us by becoming this kind of School for Study that we’re talking about now, we have to study how to do that. We don’t necessarily know how to do that, and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that, because we’ve been inside so much. It’s not that you ever leave the within and against – I don’t care how far you squat. Obviously, there’s a shift in what becomes possible and where you can put your attention in different circumstances.

Stevphen: Perhaps that’s why the work both of you did of analyzing academic labor within a given position is necessary for the leaving, so when you leave you don’t bring some of the things with you.

Stefano: Well, at the personal level, and I started this morning saying this, and I still think it’s true hours later, I had to go through that academic labor shit, especially with Fred, in order to free myself in a million different ways, including getting more into this autonomous stuff. I only feel now that that’s had a full effect, that I can think free of all the shit that was in me through the labor process I was, and remain, immersed in. The first thing I made everyday when I went to university was myself, and the university these days is not necessarily the best place to make yourself.

Fred: I agree with that too. We were talking about how it was a way for us to understand who we were, and what was going on where we were – and to try to take more fully into account the necessity of understanding what your own conditions are. So, let’s say that in some ways, the academic labor stuff were attempts at location and locating, mapping some sort of terrain that you were within. And I think the later stuff is much more interested in trying to achieve a kind dislocation and a kind of dispersion – and, therefore, it claims a certain mobility. I agree with Stefano that, well I don’t know if we had to do that, but that’s where we got started. We could have got started in another way.
Stefano: Yeah, in a way, the undercommons is a kind of break, between locating ourselves and dislocating ourselves. What’s so enduring for us about the undercommons concept is that’s what it continues to do when it is encountered in new circumstances. People always say, ‘well, where the fuck is that.’ Even if you do that clever Marxist thing like, ‘oh it’s not a place, it’s a relation,’ people are like, ‘yeah, but where’s the relation.’ It has a continuing effect as a dislocation, and it always makes people feel a little uncomfortable about common. For me it was like the first freight that we hopped.

Fred: Yeah, it’s a dislocation. As our old friend Bubba Lopez would say, we started riding the blinds.


Stefano Harney is Professor of Strategic Management at Singapore Management University.  Fred Moten is the Helen L. Bevington Professor of Modern Poetry at Duke University.  They have written several pieces together, such as “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses” and “Debt and Study.”  Stevphen Shukaitis is Lecturer in Work & Organization at the University of Essex and the editor of Minor Compositions.