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Undercommons/Exodus/Presence/Institutions: Some Ideas and Language from Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

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from Jack Halberstam’s introduction to The Undercommons

Honestly, probably don’t even read this post — it’s mostly just notes I took when viewing/listening to the video. And most of it is just transcribing. Spend your time reading THIS (by Moten & Harney) and watching the video below, I say. Then you’ll have the fuller context and your own experience of the interesting stuff I didn’t pluck out to include here. There’s so much to think about. (I am still figuring out most of what I think about all of this, what I might do with it. Honestly, the act of transcribing/typing has been helpful to me.)

The video was hosted HERE — at “FUC” — “a weekly online series that hosts conversations around labor, labor movements, de-commodified knowledge, and the future of the university and higher education. It is facilitated by rent-burdened graduate students at the University of California in solidarity with the COLA movement.”

 

From early in the video, some reflections on The Undercommons (which I am currently reading for the first time) from Harney & Moten–

Moten emphasizes: “The Undercommons is not a book about the university.”

–not meant a disavowal or scolding, but a way of “recognizing that if the dream of the subversive or critical or fugitive intellectual is to rise above their complicity with the institution, there is no individualized path for any such rising above, and so the answer really isn’t to rise above complicity but to try to practice and activate an alternative radical complicity, which is again about shared practice rather than individual roles.” (Moten)

“trying to find more radical form of complicity—where, rather than imagining we can extract ourselves individually from the university, we build up an increasing number of unseen accomplices who are there with us in the university and who undermine any steady ability of the university to characterize, affix us, and to frame us, because somehow it’s not just you. Seen or unseen, others are there. Others are in some sort of conspiracy without a plot inside the university. And then at the same time, we know that we can only leave together, because whatever wealth we have, whatever means of production we have, we only hold those in common.” (Harney)

*

“We’re trying to understand the relationship between abolition and exodus.” (Moten)

(maybe also between exodus and presence?)

*

A concrete thing that might be done: detach universities from local police departments, abolish university police departments.

But, Moten asks, what if it turns out that faculty and administration do more policing at the university than the campus police or town/city police do?

So let’s not be police in our classrooms. With our “policies,” say.

Harney adds a list of other institutions – the “artist” as institution, the “professor” as institution, “the subject/individual” as institution – that need to be abolished.

Abolishing the individual/subject kind of blows my mind. But I do find myself wondering about the institution of myself lately. What my self (my roles, my subjectivity?) has institutionalized.

*

Moten, responding to a question about what practices are possible for folks in the university to enact, towards abolition/exodus.

“I’ll do the wrong thing and answer the question.”

“For those of us who are teaching, we should stop grading, and we should stop giving assignments. Just that, on the most basic level right there. Stop doing the administrative work of the university. Radically detach the credentializing function of the university, which is a front for finance capital, and detach the intellectual and social and aesthetic work that we would like to do with one another in the hope and in the recognition that doing that collective intellectual social and aesthetic work will actually be a practice of exodus, gathering, and presencing against the grain of the already-existing institution.”

“The correct response to the question… is not to answer it – but to say let’s continually ask that question with and of and for one another in every gathering that we are engaged in and let every class be a class on that, let that be the curriculum, let that be the occasion and the content of our gathering, and let the form and practice of our gathering emerge from the continual asking of that question.”

*

“Our daily work is the work of reforming a completely unworkable system.”  (Harney)

Got me thinking about this notion that by just showing up and cooperating, we are re-forming, minute by minute, action by action, the institution.

*

Moten asks, in re-framing another question, “How do we comport ourselves towards the enemy when the enemy is us?”

(a question meant not to induce paralysis, but rather movement)

*

Moten, responding to a questioner in a way that models for me how I’d like to respond to students in the classes I teach — “I hope that you feel that the dissatisfactory nature of our response is actually a tribute to the depth of your question rather than an attempt to avoid it, and if it’s dissatisfactory, it’s just ‘cause we don’t know no better, but we’re thinking about it now along with you.”

and

“Your question messed me up….I appreciate you for that…..I’ve got some thinking to do.”

*

Moten is interested in the potential of Zoom classes to potentially buck the credentialing function of classes:

“The university guards access to my class because they’re guarding access to the mechanism which produces the credential. They don’t give a fuck about the “experience.” Right? So what I like about Zoom is I can let anybody up in there, if they want to come. And what’s interesting will be when the university starts to try to take our teaching and turn that into their intellectual property. They’ve already done that with research, particularly with regard to the sciences.”

What use might be made, Moten wonders, if we distinguish between the “credential-buyers” and the folks who “just want to talk about Plato that day.” Momentarily setting aside the fact that he doesn’t really support the credentialing function in any way, Moten wonders if the class should be free for the ones who want to talk about Plato and that the credential-buyers should pay for the credential credits.

This idea of seeing more clearly that credentialing is separate from “the experience” (?) of study/learning together is a big & helpful one for me.

*

I am still reading & listening & thinking, so….more to come? Maybe here? Maybe a separate post?

 

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