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More Moten & Harney: Two-Part Podcast “Revisiting The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion”

“Wildcat the Totality: Fred Moten and Stefano Harney Revisit The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion (Part 1)

“Give Away Your Home, Constantly:” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney Revisit The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion (Part 2)

As in my earlier post on Moten & Harney, I am mainly transcribing language and ideas from the podcast that I wanted to capture and study further. I am hoping that taking this step leads to the next step — some kind of synthesis & further reflection — and I am finding connections between the things discussed these podcasts (and The Undercommons) and other reading/thinking/talking I’m doing.

PART 1

Moten and Harney discuss critique versus study, & “wildcatting.” Reminding us that when they wrote The Undercommons, they were writing a book about “study,” not a book about the university. And particularly about certain kinds of Black study outside of institutionalization as Black Studies in the university.

They talk about the (American? primarily?) university as a place of violence –  a place that “has always been a structure for the regulation and incarceration of intellectual life – not for it to flourish.”

But at the same time, they note, “the brutal interdictions of intellectual life OUTSIDE of the university have been so intense, folks have fled to the university to seek refuge from that brutality.”

But they find that the notion of the university as refuge is ultimately false.

They examine the university as “a job, a place where people work,” and seek to understand the university better on those terms, but to do this (study) outside of academic labor — to move from “critique” to “study.”

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Tearing down statues of racists as “national plastic surgery.”

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The police are just policy by another name. This idea is one that has been really resonating with me over the past months as I have read/studied/considered police/prison defunding/abolition as connected to the university/classroom as a carceral space. And “policy” is, for me, a really clear way to see that connection, that carcerality. As in, policy is just police by another name.

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Solidarity is also fundamentally selflessness (not about that something that activates your SELF through some figure of the Other so that you can become more fully and completely who you are, the good person you were meant to be, etc…)

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I really liked the whole thread at the end about politics/candidates/voting – too much to transcribe here (I’m lazy I guess) — start around 45-50 minutes into the podcast and listen for yourself. Or, really, truly, just listen to the whole thing, both parts.

PART 2

Some issues and ideas Moten and Harney get into in this part — the destruction of the commons, the problematic of ownership, living on stolen land and “homelessness.”

MOTEN: “Homelessness is not the condition in which you ain’t got no place to stay. Homelessness is not the condition in which you ain’t got a house. Homelessness is the condition in which you share your house, literally. It’s the condition in which you give your house away, constantly, as a practice of hospitality . . . . home is where you give home away.”

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On study:

MOTEN: “The kind of thing that we do, which is reading and writing and talking about books, I think it’s important. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it’s a good thing to do, I think it’s important to try to imagine ever more radical ever less privatized ways to do that. But Black study is not reducable to reading and writing and talking about books. Reading and writing and talking about books is an irreducible part of Black study, but Black study is not reducable to reading and writing and talking about books.”

HARNEY – playing/listening to music together, watching sports together, dinner and conversation – all intellectual pursuits, all are potential Black study that don’t get counted by (university) Black Studies (discipline/institutions)

HARNEY: “It seems like a general condition in study that if it appears at first like a gentle and passive thing, that’s ‘cause we are trying to practice being gentle and passive. However, it’s also an immediately antagonistic thing, it’s that primary insurgency coming forth, and the way you know that is that no matter where you practice study (not equally, and yet it is the case), that someone will come after you to stop you. And that’s of course what we first discovered in the university, when we used to say, early on, “what’s the one thing you’re not allowed to do in a university?” and the answer was “study.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a risk of that seeming flippant with regard to trying to study in a prison. I’m not trying to equate them. I’m simply saying that although study is in many ways the practice of allowing people really to have the time to think about something and rehearse something, revise it together, sit and be with each other on and on and on, it does have this quality of allowing a kind of gentle flow of time to give you this space…it is nonetheless caught up in a struggle all the time to maintain itself. And if you don’t believe that, try studying, and very quickly you will see how many people come to your door to stop you: landlords, bosses, teachers, police, the water man. Whatever the case may be that you have had to struggle against in order to be there together. Study is a struggle.”

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Other ideas/concepts explored in the podcast: “the surround,” indigeneity and its relation to Blackness, enclosure, settlement, destruction of the notion of sovereignty itself, and fugitivity

HARNEY: “The surround is a constant insurgency against sovereignty and everybody who participates in it . . . . there’s so much misunderstanding, especially in Afro-pessimism, about indigenous sovereignty, but that comes from putting things backwards, to imagining that sovereignty precedes the rebellion, and I think that’s just not right, just not correct, and that historically its not the experience of indigenous struggles. The experience of indigenous struggles is that one can find a home there, a fugitive home. That land is not “sovereign” in that sense, there’s not a fence there’s nothing permanent in that way about its ownership. The surround is also set as a constant broil against land in a way, a constant broil against settlement, which is not to say that it can’t take the form of home, or homelessness, in the way that we’ve been talking about it.”

I found it engaging to listen/think about this after reading and discussing Tuck & Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”

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Other topics and issues discussed as the podcast continues — abolition, non-reformist reforms, defunding of police, current uprising, and carceral policies generally.

I was interested to hear them discuss “fugitive planning” connected with recent/current protest movements (but/and which has been ongoing for a while – mutual aid, bail funds, community orgs, etc.) — self organized, insurgent work that is constantly calling out the police/policy (that’s where planning is going on all the time – in what we might take to be “unorganized” way – but that misapprehension might be the result of our own lack of study/understanding)

The idea that we have “policy” (public/visible/”rational”/”what folks want to see”) versus (fugitive) “planning” is one I want to study further.

Moten speaks of thinking more about solidarity – how it operates with policy (as opposed maybe to the refusal of policy).

MOTEN: “I can’t deny the very palpable shock to the system that occurs when you watch mainstream TV news taking seriously a debate about defunding the police. That’s a thing. I wasn’t expecting that any time this century. I don’t know what it means. I think that it can, it should, fill people with equal measure of exhilaration and dread. And that all has to be worked out in practice on the ground. One of the ways it gets worked out is in maybe trying to understand better, let’s say, what the difference is between the expression of solidarity or the expression of empathy and the PRACTICE of empathy, or the PRACTICE of solidarity.  And maybe what we might want to say would be that the expression of empathy the expression of solidarity manifests itself within the realm of policy, and the practice of solidarity and the practice of empathy, that manifests itself in the realm of planning. And maybe protest is a more general phenomenon which can contain but also move by way of the suppression of either of those modes. And at a certain point when the protests dwindle, which they must do, because protests don’t generate their own energy, right, they’re not self-generating energy fields, and  when that energy is expended, then we have to say, “okay what do we do now, where do we go now?”, not only to regenerate that energy but also to imagine the distribution and circulation of that energy within our own social field and not just as an expression either of solidarity or an expression event of conflict, let’s say, with the police or with policy. . . . For all the folks who really love that conflict, they don’t have to worry, ‘cause policy and the police, they ain’t going anywhere just yet, whether the shit is funded or not. But there always remains the question of “what are we going to do?” And it’s really important for us I think to try to get enough information to look really closely and think really deeply about what folks have been doing. Which is part of the reason why we adamantly refuse and resist, in general, the constant invitation to write something about the present crisis. ‘Cause we don’t fucking know that yet, but we’re trying to learn. We’re trying to think about it. And there’s always room for that learning and thinking. It doesn’t always have to manifest itself as an immediate response.”

FURTHER READING/STUDY

“The subprime and the beautiful,” in African Identities, Vol 11, 2013 – Issue 2: Cedric J. Robinson: Radical Historiography, Black Ontology, and Freedom

“Politics Surrounded” (Moten & Harney) South Atlantic Quarterly (2011) 110 (4): 985–988

“Fred Moten’s Radical Critique of the Present” (The New Yorker, 2018)

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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)

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

(maybe also between exodus and presence?)

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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)

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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.”

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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.

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