Critical pedagogy and the undercommons

Last year at Rethinking the University, John Conley argued that politically engaged pedagogy was a political alibi that the academic labor can’t afford to indulge in. Here, in a curious essay that has appeared in Social Text and also on interactivist, Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey argue something similar: that critical pedagogy is only the perfection of the university’s professionalizing tendencies.

…Critical education only attempts to perfect professional education. The professions constitute themselves in an opposition to the unregulated and the ignorant without acknowledging the unregulated, ignorant, unprofessional labor that goes on not opposite them but within them. But if professional education ever slips in its labor, ever reveals its condition of possibility to the professions it supports and reconstitutes, critical education is there to pick it up, and to tell it, never mind—it was just a bad dream, the ravings, the drawings of the mad. Because critical education is precisely there to tell professional education to rethink its relationship to its opposite—by which critical education means both itself and the unregulated, against which professional education is deployed. In other words, critical education arrives to support any faltering negligence, to be vigilant in its negligence, to be critically engaged in its negligence. It is more than an ally of professional education, it is its attempted completion.

The Undercommons might by contrast be understood as wary of critique, weary of it, and at the same time dedicated to the collectivity of its future, the collectivity that may come to be its future. The Undercommons in some ways tries to escape from critique and its degradation as university-consciousness and self-consciousness about university-consciousness, retreating, as Adrian Piper says, into the external world.

(“The university and the undercommons,” 2004: 106, 111)

A critical argument against criticality is, of course, something of a contradiction. The larger argument here has to do with trying to revitalize groups of unrecognized intellectual workers in the university – the Undercommons, they call it – and to refuse professionalization. They argue against critiques of the university as symptoms of the university’s narcissism, its involution, its obsessive patrols of its institutional boundaries.

To their credit, they are trying to understand critical inquiry in connection with the organization of academic labor. Somewhat less to their credit, the writing style is circuitous, as if they have internalized an exclusive intellectual vocabulary whose lack of clarity is (I fear) imagined as a refusal of the institution. On the contrary, their writing style is dominated by academic arabesques.

But I applaud their essay. I don’t know if a new alliance of the rejects of academia is a good strategy, and their analysis of the state’s role in professionalism is rather vague and ahistorical, and in general there’s something anti-empirical about this essay’s style that is unnerving, but I think that critiques of critical education deserve a great deal more attention than they get, in a moment when an empty model of critical thinking is often proposed as the primary justification for a liberal arts education.

One thought on “Critical pedagogy and the undercommons

  1. hi Eli,
    I missed this post before. I agree with John and the article, but as back when I first heard/read each I feel a sort of disconnect. As you know, my favorite parallel here is nursing. There is nothing radical per se about keeping people alive, making the dying comfortable, helping women give birth, etc. But those activities are none the less worthwhile. Ditto for teaching – I think if anything really matters in academic work it’s the teaching. Not as radical per se but as worthwhile. None of this is to say I buy into the blackmail of “your work really matters, give up your life…!” and so on (a similar think happens with nurses, actually), but rather that I find the choice of target a bit misplaced. To my mind, the idea that really needs demystifying is the idea that research and academic production other than teaching is often radical, and the thing that really needs restructuring is the role of research and non-teaching academic production. I think it’s no accident that the biggest names and highest paid folk are almost invariably researchers (second to deans and so on of course) rather than teachers. I also have a gut level feeling that the hierarchies around research and publishing go a long way in structuring and legitimating a lot of things about academic labor practices.

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