The first shall be last. This, I guess, is part of a series of pieces written about the University. I haven’t got around to posting it here before but, if we are to obey the directives of the fiendish overlord Chronos, this should go before this and this. Heady times it twas too.
The student is a derelict wearing a top hat. The 9-5 in paid employment involves a closure of possibilities. The crushing weight of a future of mind-numbing and back-breaking repetition. Head down, bum up. The Student, on the other hand, is free to contemplate the broad expanse of possible futures, worlds other than the existing one, life that has not been pre-compressed by capital’s codec. We tip our hats to passers by but fail to notice that our topcoat is in tatters, our cummerbund covered in filth. The words of students and members of the Situationist International, written in 1966, gender bias aside, still ring true:
At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of “economic life.” But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our society of abundance, he is still a pauper. 80% of students come from income groups well above the working class, yet 90% have less money than the meanest laborer. Student poverty is an anachronism, a throw-back from an earlier age of capitalism; it does not share in the new poverties of the spectacular societies; it has yet to attain the new poverty of the new proletariat.
Wedded to this economic poverty, and exacerbated by the fracturing of consciousness across the lines of the possible and the actual, is the poverty of status, the misery of hierarchical subordination. Everywhere the student is policed by the overlookers, bailiffs, border agents, and shop persons of knowledge. The student dutifully and dotingly learns to mimic the mannerisms and opinions of the master: cultural capital to compliment the knowledge commodity, sold! to the highest bidder. 10 years of this and the ape can finally speak. Albeit, in a very basic and rudimentary fashion.
Not only is this set-up humiliating and degrading to students, it turns professors into bad people too. Like the Stanford Prison Experiment of ’71 the guarders of knowledge conform to three basic types: the tough but fair type, a close observer, adherent and proponent of institutional rules and manners; the ‘good guys’ who do little favours for the inmates, a flash of recognition here, a due date extended there; And finally, about a third who are ‘hostile, arbitrary and inventive in their forms of student humiliation.’ All have an interest in the preservation of the existing hierarchy: congealed in paycheck comfort and plugged into that other economy, power and prestige (prison sex remains a reliable privilege of tenure.) The obverse of this twin currency, often replete with Cuban cigar and faux Castro cap, is the paralysing fear of loss and the hamster wheel of perpetual publication.
Yet surely it is all worth it in the end. No price is too high to pay for the rites and rituals that teach how to act radically and how to change the world. Sadly, the worst mistake a student can make when learning to impersonate the master, is to miss the point that the serious tone and radical gestures are not, after all, to be taken seriously. Take the recent attack on higher education. The tripling of fees in a scarcely veiled move to make universities the exclusive preserve of the privileged few, immediately following the demand that academic staff act as border agents and anti-terror snoops, was only enough to elicit the two day performance of picket-line parodies scattered around the UK. The Russian art group Voina drew a giant penis on a drawbridge that erected to face the old offices of the KGB. In the UK we have something of a reversal: Alfie Meadows, the son of an Academic, was severely beaten by police, suffering near-fatal brain injury, as he attempted to leave a protest. Much interest and anger was summoned from a number of public intellectuals. In a “fuck you” that dwarfs that of Voina’s, and with the added footnote “go and write a book about it then”, the police have recently decided to charge Alfie with violent disorder. The Russian authorities arrested a number of the members of Voina. We have yet to see Britain’s academic left do anything to the metropolitan police.
The relation between theory and practice is schizophrenic at best. Deleuze has been of more use to the Israeli military than the student movement. Where the university itself is concerned, the real fight is between the students and the representative lackeys of the neo-liberal elite – upper management. It is a disgrace that we continue to let these people run our universities. However, academic staff remain an intermediary class. True, with the closure of departments we see their number being hurled back down into the proletariat. Yet, it is the academics’ interest in the persistence of the status quo – the prison guards at Stanford were sad the experiment had been brought to a close prematurely – that inclines us to take a Luxembourgian position: when the fighting is done and dusted, the petit bourgeoisie will always be found to have been on the side of the ruling elites.
The university is toothless, demented, two-faced, emaciated, certainly it has lost control of its bowels: once emptied of content it is forced to dance to the music of the market, belly laughs from Capital as it decides whether or not to throw penny’s at the lurching corpse. The advance of terminal, structural and mental illness means that the university is incapable of defending itself from further degradation. It is past the point where consent forms might be signed in sound mind, and a trip taken to dignitas. The student, being the only properly revolutionary subject of the university, must carry the burden of the loving child and tenderly hold a pillow over the ailing and exhausted university’s face. So that it might at least die with some dignity; so that energies may be released for the creation of a new covenant of knowledge and a new community of learning.