Militancy, Antagonism, and Power: Rethinking Intellectual Labor, Relocating the University

Here is the expanded version of a co-written talk presented at the 2015 MLA Subconference. Thanks to the organizers, my wonderful co-panelists, and the incredibly vibrant follow-up conversation.

“What was once the factory is now the university.” This is the premise the opens the Edu-factory Collective’s Towards a Global Autonomous University–it is also the premise upon which the collective was formed. Co-founded by Gigi Roggero, the collective’s work functions as a road-block to the demands of academic labor. It critiques the foundations upon which academic labor is organized and opposes the hierarchy that commands academic publication. The collective’s conceptual work, forefronted by Roggero’s thought in particular, explains the importance of these interventions.

The number of ways in which in the university is now the factory are perhaps too many to list: increased demand for productivity, an increase in working hours without an increase in pay, the rapid proliferation of contingent positions, and the production of a highly skilled but also an under/unemployed population of workers are perhaps the most recognizable in this list. These and more are addressed in Towards a Global Autonomous University, but they are also enduring sites of struggle. Especially in the US, academics have yet to recognize and mobilize against these issues en masse.

On the side of theory, Roggero’s work offers both a politics and conceptual mechanics that address these issues. Beyond his work with the Edu-factory collective, Roggero develops two concepts that situate the ‘university is now the factory’ claim above: living knowledge and living labor. We will begin with living labor. Opposed to dead labor–labor captured and exploited by capital–Roggero theorizes living labor as a common, identity-building mode of production that leads to the production of knowledge in both physical and cognitive contexts. Stated differently, living labor accounts for the production of culture itself. Living knowledge follows from the concept of living labor–it refers to the ways in which cultures circulate, change, and thrive through its practice. Most importantly, living knowledge is non-commodified; it is a mode of producing knowledge about oneself and the world that is opposed to or yet to be captured by capital. Here, Roggero claims, “When we speak of liv­ing knowl­edge, we are try­ing to iden­tify the new com­po­si­tion of liv­ing labor, and the social­iza­tion of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. This is an ambiva­lent process: knowl­edge is what is pro­duced in com­mon by liv­ing labor, and also what cap­i­tal exploits; it is the pos­si­bil­ity of the auton­omy of social coop­er­a­tion, and it is what cap­i­tal cap­tures and val­orizes.”

The tension that Roggero describes here is recognizable–it is a logic we can identify from Ranciere (The Nights of Labor) to Berlant (affective labor in Cruel Optimism) to Bifo (The Soul at Work). What he adds is a novel politicization of academic labor. Following the quote above, Roggero claims that: “In this ambiva­lent process, knowl­edge becomes a cen­tral bat­tle­field: the com­mon doesn’t exist in nature, but has to be produced.” The question that guides our inquiry here is therefore politically oriented: what does it mean to think the sites and practices of knowledge production in and as a battlefield? What might this mean for the university?

We agree with the premise from which such theorization springs: production of subjectivity is essential to formulating Marxist politics today, but to do so, we must shift our focus away from the factory floor. Such a shift is a result of transformations in the capitalist mode of production, which now include knowledge-centered production such as the capitalization of cognition and generalized proletarianization. Roggero’s focus on the university in particular magnifies the newest intersection of subjectivity and knowledge: the equation of higher education with the production of the entrepeneurial subject. We agree even more strongly that the production of subjectivity takes on an antagonistic mode through which alternative forms of life may emerge. What we remain ambivalent about is subjectivity itself. As such, we do not embrace or reject these new subjective categories, we work to problematize them.

Our contribution is the concrete. We do so by connecting neoliberalization and subjectivation – as Roggero does – but at the level of production rather than at the level of abstraction. We find that this connection hereto remains too figural, and to the detriment of the rich situatedness and particularly found in Roggero’s book. Where Autonomist thinkers such as Hardt, Negri (the multitude), and Lazzarato (the indebted man) theorize subjectivity through an abstract figural subject, we look to particularize these figures. In this paper, we work to specify ‘the adjunct’ as a concrete form of precarity as it re-poses the relation of resistance to subjectivity in a crystallized figure of cognitive labor. To do so, we begin with the specificity of the concrete situation of precariousness that Roggero cites as the impetus for his work, continue by theorizing why he fails to crystallize precarious labor in ‘the adjunct’, and end by reconfiguring ‘the adjunct’ at the intersection of three terms: militancy, antagonism, and power.

We take issue with a certain autonomist Marxist use of abstraction. Many of Hardt and Negri’s abstractions, such as “Empire,” remain frustratingly ambiguous. Of particular concern is their figure of living labor, “the Multitude,” whose ephemeral nature is a consistent point of critique (Laclau, Critchley, Tiqqun, etc.). Our criticism is not limited to Autonomist Marxism – abstraction is incredibly popular with many contemporary Marxist theorists (Endnotes, Toscano, others). We instead side with Harry Cleaver and others in the autonomist tradition who prefer to “read Capital politically” (Reading Capital Politically). Cleaver suggests three categories of reading Marx’s Capital: political economic readings, philosophical readings, and political readings (23-31). His claim is that both political economic and philosophical readings begin their analysis from the inner-workings of capital. The greatest risk of both approaches, he argues, is that they ignore the actual struggles of the working class (31-58). To read Capital politically is to strategically study the historical development of working-class power. The focus of such a political reading it to identify class-based political interventions (58-59). In this regard, the Edu-Factory project offers a refreshing response grounded in concrete struggles.

Our study focuses on the adjunct. The adjunct is a subject produced within a pre-existing battlefield. That battlefield is the university-as-factory. The development of the university is quite long – the historical university stretches back nearly two millennium, and significant aspects of the university still appeal to its feudal structure. Roggero’s concept of the university as the inheritor of the factory places it within the relatively recent development of post-Fordism. His periodization follows other similar Marxist critiques of the university, namely Bill Reading’s philosophical University in Ruins. In it, Readings presents the university in three moments: one, the modern University of Great Ideas that was known most for the minds it produced, such as Kant and Hegel; second, the late nineteenth century’s National University of land grant institutions, highlight disciplined to produce the mass citizen; and third, the postmodern University of Excellence that began with the incursion of capitalism in the 1970s to simply produce profits. Reading’s holds up the new university president-as-CEO as the figure par excellence of the postmodern university because he “moves effortlessly from lecture halls, to sports stadium, to the executive lounge” (54-55). To read the university politically, however, we would suggest that the adjunct as its most important new product.

Our central finding emerges from a contradiction central to the neoliberal university – that it produces subjects obligated to perform types of labor that are not recognized, let alone remunerated. This contradiction is especially apparent to adjuncts. Adjuncts are hired simply to teach. I, for example, am currently working under a “100% teaching” contract. An exclusive focus on teaching was also true for numerous faculty in a different era. My co-author Matt works at a small liberal arts college that has senior faculty have who published little, and some not at all. Further, publication is now a requirement for tenure and promotion in addition to a 4/4 teaching load at his institution, where just two years ago research and publication were not a significant factor. Simply stated, demand for production has increased rapidly and unevenly.

Our contribution, then, is that publication is exploitation. We hold that publication is a particularization of the Marxist concept of exploitation. It is isomorphic to other forms of capitalist work, in that: it is a commodity that costs less than its worth, it is silently compelled, it is necessary for social reproduction, and it establishes a general condition for a whole class of subjects. This raises a series of questions: do adjuncts do research? Why would adjuncts research – for personal pleasure, for professional advancement? What is the purpose of research at the university if there are people with PhDs that are not expected to publish regularly? (We could ask the same questions about service.)

To refocus on adjunct labor, the question of publication as exploitation is perhaps the most nefarious. In Roggero’s terms, if the university is now the factory, publication is a commanding metric of productivity at every level of education (R1, R1, SLAC, etc.). But for the adjunct, publication is the enemy of living labor and living knowledge. First, publication does not result in economic stability or promotion at an adjunct’s current institution(s). It contributes to the prevailing fantasy of ‘publishing one’s way in.’ In an economic climate where one has little control over one’s job prospects, publication has emerged as a form of ‘cruel optimism:’ it is a form of labor that one can control (until it is handed over to a journal), but one that exists solely in an entrepreneurial mode. Second, publication that differs from this entrepreneurial mode is often considered illegitimate (SIDE NOTE: Anne Helen Petersen, former Whitman VAP now Buzzfeed reporter, might be a good example here). If one is not publishing in top-tier journals or in the style that top-tier journals recognize, then one’s labor is effectively “wasted.”

Both conditions point to the enduring character of the adjunct’s precarity. On the one hand, the adjunct can produce academic work the refuses the entrepreneurial mode that commands academic labor. However, she does so at the risk of losing her careers prospects and livelihood. On the other, she can accept the entrepreneurial mode that commands academic labor and perform the kinds of research necessary to be considered for tenure track employment. However, she does so at the risk of losing her careers prospects and livelihood.

What politics may be adequate to the problem at hand? We are inspired by contemporary projects for generating antagonism within the university. Unionization, protest, and abolitionism are all positive developments. Yet we are not looking for political reforms, especially a romance with the National University’s ideals of good citizenship, civic engagement, and public interest. It would also be an error to dismiss the micro-politics of university as wasted time (such as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten suggestion in the Undercommons to act “criminally” within the university).

Some autonomist feminists support institutional demands. Dalla Costa and James argue that demands are profoundly misunderstood (Subversion of the Community, footnote). They correctly condemn demands motivated by idealized abstractions, such as bourgeois right. For them, struggle is simply a matter of material force. They identify two power-functions of the demand: first, as a point of leverage; and second, as an index. As a point of leverage, a demand is a struggle over who gets to “command labor” – capital or self-management (Subversion) As an index, an institution measures the current intensity of antagonism. They say in summary that when a demand is met, “whether it is wages or canteens or free birth control,” that it “emerges and is in fact created in the struggle, and registers the degree of power that we reached in that struggle” (Subversion of the Community, footnote).

We have two proposals within the paradigm of antagonism and power. The first is the remuneration of publishing, and the is a radical re-valuation of publication itself. Each demands functions as both an index and a point of leverage.

As currently conceived, “university professors/lecturers are paid a salary to produce book” (Eve, quoted in Berlatsky, “What is the Point of Academic Books?”). Yet only those with a tenure-track contract are paid for such work. In this regard, we take a page from the “wages against housework” playbook – we demand full remuneration for all publication.

Indexically, the wage-relation indicates stratification within the university. The differences in contract – between grad students, adjuncts, tenured, etc – creates a clear divide between those whose publishing is compensated and those for whom it is not. This is nothing short of theft. Adjunct publication is naturalized as “for fun” or “on their own time,” in a way not dissimilar as the idealization of housework as simply part of feminine existence. This is how labor is silently compelled, stolen, and valorized by the capitalist university. It is even common for those who hold a tenure-track position to have published as a graduate student and also to have lectured for a time. All of the publication during that time is uncompensated labor.

As leverage, Silvia Federici outlines the two-part process of demanding a wage for previously uncompensated labor. The first step is recognition, but the ultimate goal is refusal. “To say that we want money for housework” she says, “is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it, both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity” (Wages Against Housework). Another way to say this is: it is only with the option of refusal that not-publishing is meaningful.

It is clear that “publish or perish” is undergoing a speedup like all other capitalist work. We must all struggle for a re-valorization of living labor. And in the first step against publication’s command over living labor, we agree with Federici, who demands that “From now on we want money for each moment of it, so that we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it” (Wages Against Housework).

Moving onto the second demand:
Publications are currently valued by venue, citation count, or impact. In professionalization documents, it is standard advice to submit an article “starting at the top,” with the top meaning the so-called flagship journal in the field.

Indexically, current publication valuation serves as a hierarchy. In the humanities and social sciences, the best articles are rarely the one in ‘top journals.’ And many top journals have become invite-only. The result is a system of prestige where A-journals are for tenure-track research faculty, and all the other journals are for grad student, adjuncts, and everyone else. This is at a time where online infrastructure has led to a flurry of new publishing activity. There is a truly a ‘crisis from below’ and politics calls for us to support it.

In terms of leverage, there should be a simultaneous struggle. On the one hand, there needs to be a redefinition of value. Some faculty fight in T&P to have every peer-reviewed publication count the same. And further extending the struggle, they work to expand the definition of peer-review beyond the calcified process of science journals – if the venue has a process for improving your work based on a peer’s review, it counts. Simultaneously, researchers should cross class boundaries. This process could follow in the footnotes of 1960’s Italian Worker’s Inquiry (Tronti, Worker’s Inquiry: A Genealogy) Tenured faculty could boycott A-journals, and they could coach junior colleagues on the tenure track in sabotage by publishing against prestige. Personnel committees could valorize living labor by redefining value, rewire the circuit by rewarding publishing in new venues, and wrest control from capitalist command by setting alternative metrics for T&P. Most importantly, editors already on in the inside at top journals can encourage infiltration – showcasing adjunct work rather than mediocre work by big-name scholars.

Where does living knowledge re-emerge in this system? That is the ultimate political question, and we will explore it further through our concept of the ‘autonomous university.’


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