What follows is an excerpt from an ongoing conversation between Stefano Harney and Full Stop editors Michael Schapira and Jesse Montgomery. Stefano, as will become evident below, is a real maverick — a free traveller on a host of righteous intellectual and affective registers. He is perhaps best known for The Undercommons, an absolutely essential work on the contemporary university (and much, much more) co-written with Fred Moten. But an Internet search will show interests pushing in all kinds of exciting directions — from study to infrastructure, from cultures of finance to leisure, from public administration to the metroversity.
Jesse Montgomery: It seems fair to say that with the election of Donald Trump much of what we took to be a familiar, if not totally stable, political landscape is vanishing pretty quickly. The amount of unthinkable stuff that has happened in the last week [Editors note: this question was posed during the first week of the Trump administration, but chances are it still applies if you are reading this during any point in the Trump administration] is shocking and the pace at which it’s happening seems to preclude any sort of appropriate emotional response aside from a big amorphous dread in which it’s difficult to find your bearings. One of the many developments people in the University here are worried about is the proposed elimination of the NEA and the NEH, and while I am depressed at the prospect of halted research and grants disappearing, it’s even more unsettling to think that big, relatively uncontroversial supports like that can disappear so easily: that the very arena in which politically important struggles about what types of work and research should be recognized or funded could just be taken off the table. It really makes you aware of how much of the stable, established, even conservative structures of academia exist based on the goodwill of those with power. The undercommons doesn’t look like the NEA or the NEH, of course, but I wonder how its relationship to the University might change or alter as we enter this period of what’s likely to be more intense funding cuts and marginalization of “non-productive” thought and so forth. Any thoughts on the undercommons in an era where the stable structures it is defined against might be entering a period of upheaval?
Stefano Harney: I guess I hold to the old-fashioned idea of our contemporary, Frederick Douglass, that power never conceded anything without a fight. We won the NEA and NEH. Now we’re losing them, and much else too, in this fight. But then I was thinking, thanks to your question, Jesse, that given their pale qualities maybe the question for us is: did we really win them by fighting for them, or did we get them, as consolation prizes, for fighting some other battle, maybe fighting another battle to a stalemate? In other words, if we fight for what were just concessions, are we distracted from our own battle plan? There is as little point in demanding something of this president as of the last. Not only because we will not get it, but because it is probably not what we want. We get sucked into policy. But the university, the NEA and the NEH, these institutions are just the enervating compromise, the residue of a past battle. Preserving them has the perverse effect of weakening us. These are just settlements we have to reject in our ongoing war against democratic despotism, which is of course the ongoing war against us.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about democratic despotism in ‘The African Roots of War,’ published in 1915. The current US regime could be said to be the realization of this trajectory of democratic despotism. Du Bois was very specific about democratic despotism. He observed capitalists in the United States and Europe offering a compact with their white working classes, offering a share, however meager, in the nation’s wealth. This share would be extracted from black and brown peoples living in the nation, but excluded from this pact, and through imperialism, shares would be extracted from what Du Bois called the black, brown, and yellow peoples throughout the globe. Democratic despotism was a cross-class alliance based on the color line. Through this agreement, governments could function as ‘democracies.’ Indeed participation in a white democracy was part of what being offered as part of the stabilization package. The modern university is a phenomenon of this agreement sealed along the color line. Thus I would say the undercommons remains the moving violation of that agreement.
I have a friend called Jonathan Pincus. He’s a very smart Marxist development economist, and recently he turned his attention to the development and future of universities around the world. He points out that the deal between the capitalist classes and the nation-state is fraying. One effect of this is that the capitalist classes do not want to pay for universities that serve a national purpose anymore, whether that purpose is producing research, training labour, or preserving national culture and identity. They only want to pay for universities to educate their children — that is, teach them the etiquette of the capitalist classes — and their children go to Princeton or Oxford, or wherever. But their children certainly do not go to Rutgers-Newark nor UC-Riverside, never mind state colleges, small private colleges, and numerous other regional universities. As Jonathan notes universities like Princeton already cater to a global, not national, capitalist class. They are flourishing. The question this raises for me is not whether the vast number of colleges and universities outside the attention of the global capitalist classes will continue to be funded. They won’t, except where vestiges of the white middle class can effectively threaten legislatures to give their kids and not Latino, Black, Asian, and Indigenous kids, the remaining bits of this system. But what can we do, together with the rest of these kids, with these abandoned factories of knowledge? That’s what interests me. How can we occupy them once they are discarded?
If Jonathan is right that most universities in the United States — to say nothing of many national universities in the Global South — are going to collapse or become private training facilities for corporations, then this is no doubt symptomatic of the endgame in democratic despotism, also evident in the current US regime, which is both its apogee and its epitaph. Democratic despotism worked on the premise that the self-owning subject — that is to say the white subject — by demonstrating self-ownership — that is to say racism, patriarchy, trans and homophobia — would be entitled to property ownership, to a settlement, the same as the capitalist class, only on a pathetic scale of participation. Not only is this deal increasingly not delivered, despite the persistence of self-owning pathologies amongst much of the white populations of the North, but indebtedness has thrown self-ownership into a parody of itself. And more than a just parody of its own impossible position, this indebtedness raises the spectre of a link to a possible way of living that features an ongoing and total critique of property and ownership, and an embrace of debt, blackness.
Michael Schapira: I had several students last semester who were majoring in “Supply Chain Management.” While I’m thrilled that they are taking a philosophy course I’m also a bit distressed about what this says about the modern university. (Christopher Newfield has recently argued that the “limited learning” of Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift is more about the colonization of good humanities and social science pedagogy by these “professionally oriented” majors then by some sort of dereliction of duty by professors and students.) The future supply chain managers made me think of the chapter on “Shipping and Logistics” in The Undercommons, and the fact that you work at a Management University. You and Fred Moten write, “Logistics is no longer content with diagrams or with flows, with calculations or with predictions. It wants to live in the concrete itself in space at once, time at once, form at once.” Privatization, financialization, and the proliferation of mechanisms to trap people in debt are all very apparent in the university and the world of work, but shipping is a far more expansive frame to look at current processes — its about motion and the countervailing logistical dream of concretizing and freezing motion, its about what is in and what is happening in the hold or the containers, it draws in islands and seedy ports and special economic zones. In addition to your writing you’ve also curated an art exhibition on, amongst other things, shipping. I’m curious where this concept came from for you, or what caused you (and Fred) to fix upon it as a theme?
As students of the black radical tradition, Fred and I were ‘taught’ the cardinal importance of what I might call the nautical event, living and learning it through music, literature, history, and intimately from family. This nautical event is the ongoing event, but also the event that stopped time and made a new kind of time. This nautical event bent topography and curved geography. It was an event of the elements, creating what Hortense Spillers called the oceanic. The nautical event was a quantum event. It was like a meteor shower rained down on the Bight of Benin, and it just kept raining, until the waves reached over all the earth and its peoples, and those particle waves changed things, and changed what things could be, and all of this would gather under the name of blackness. Fred and I work under the influence of Denise Ferreira Da Silva here, as elsewhere. She speaks about difference without separability and about entanglement in a way that becomes most available through this nautical event, through blackness. She adds that without separability, our ideas and practices of determinacy and sequentiality, which I’ve reduced to time and space here, also get called into question. Her work is rich and deep and I am still finding my way through this entangled world with her help. Shipping and the Shipped, the show at the Bergen triennial, owes much to her thought.
Fred and I were also thinking of Frank Wilderson’s work, and our title, ‘Fantasy in the Hold’ comes from his writings. His work is inescapable for me. And I was also reading Omise’eke Tinsley on the queer Atlantic. And Fred was reading M. NourbeSe Phillip. In other words, there was this confluence of what we were long taught, what we live with, and what we find in a moment, like brilliant sheet lightning, in the black radical tradition. Most recently I would direct you, if you are not already there, to Cristina Sharpe’s new work. I like the way she thinks about the oceanic, rendered by the nautical event, and how she thinks about this ongoing event as a kind of change in the very weather of life, first and foremost for black people, but even out of the storm, one is still in the weather. But I use the term nautical event in part to emphasize the satanic birth of the modern logistical, and of modern science put to work (others).
And so, to shift registers slightly from our thing to theirs, if you think about recent political battles coming out of the United States and its imperial decline, they could all be seen as logistical. So, I agree with you Michael that logistics can be a capacious category for understanding what they are doing, as well as what we are trying to do. The Black Snake winding through Dakota lands, the wall along the current border with Mexico, the ban directed at the seven Islamic countries the US has strategised to destroy and dominate, these are all about the movement of energy, goods, and labour, about ensuring control of the flows. So too the South China Sea ‘stand-off’ is a reaction to China’s ‘belt and road’ strategy — the Silk Road Belt and the Maritime Silk Road — China’s plan for connectivity, shipping, logistics across vast territory. The Maritime Silk Road is to run from Papua New Guinea to East Africa and the Silk Road Belt from the ports of Southern Italy and Greece through Turkey to Siberia. China is building this infrastructure as we write, all along these routes, in massive undertakings. Infrastructure is however only one aspect of logistics, or one dimension might be a better way to put it.
Another dimension of logistics is its unconscious. The dream of logistics, and you can find this in the academic journals, is the elimination of human time, the elimination of the slowness and error of human decision-making, actions, and indeed mere bodily presence. Now you might think this means replacing truck drivers with self-driving trucks running automated routes where algorithms recalculate constantly and link to fuel prices and inventory signals, all without people having to intervene, and you would be right. But interestingly the jobs that have already been replaced by the most important machine in logistics — the algorithm — are management jobs. It is just that most managers don’t know it yet, or can’t admit it. The algorithm begins by deskilling managers, reducing them to managing the algorithm’s implementation in the workplace. Once implemented, the algorithm replaces the manager as authority and decision-maker. Algorithms run the human resource department, the production department, finance department, inventory, marketing. The numbers are no longer set by individual managers. The targets are now set by the algorithms, algorithms that are in conversation with algorithms all over the planet, and especially with algorithms in the banking sector and in the markets. This is why I say that most managers have already been replaced by machines. They are just too dumb to know it. In this sense algorithms also represent an existential threat to ‘leadership.’ This is one reason we have so much contempt today for the leaders of our own organisations, whether museums, universities, government departments, or businesses. We know they work not only within the parameters of an algorithm but with its predictions and prescriptions. They are there only to implement and call it leadership.
But given that leadership is a kind of extreme demonstration of self-ownership proving itself entitled to extreme property ownership, logistics is so dangerous to leadership because it wants to do away with the very idea of command and control, with human time and decision-making, that is, with self-ownership at the systemic level. But logistics is not dangerous to us. Yes, of course, this logistics is killing us, but the idea of doing away with command and control, with self-ownership, is already in play in what Fred and I call logisticality, the disinheritance of the nautical event, the emergentcy capacity of the noughtical event. Dis abused by the very idea of property and ownership, of command of others and control of self, control of others and command of self, blackness moves by way of certain logisticality that seeks out a way of being together in difference without separability, without the possibility in other words, of command and control, decision-making, and leadership. Logisticality is the capacity to seek out what Nate Mackey calls the vibration society. This is the illegacy of those meteor waves.
Finally, one might object that logistics does not have much to say about something like police brutality, or as my friend Dylan Rodriguez would correct me, police, since police brutality is, as he says, redundant. But what Fred and I tried to suggest in our piece ‘Leave Our Mikes Alone’ is that the demand for access — intensified by logistical capitalism — also identifies the inaccessible as sabotage. Anyone who does not immediately open oneself fully to the police upon demand for access is a saboteur. But anti-black racism means it is impossible for black people to comply with this order for access since black people are by definition opaque to the police and to white supremacist society. Access kills, but not indiscriminately.
Jesse: Echoing the first part of Mike’s first question, most of my students study thinks like business, econ, and “Human and Organizational Development.” Like Mike, I enjoy teaching students who aren’t necessarily going to go on to study the humanities. It presents a certain set of challenges but also affords some real freedom because you’re less beholden to working within the parameters of your own discipline. You teach Strategic Management Education at Singapore Management University. Could you say a little about what your teaching looks like there and how your philosophical and theoretical commitments, which on the face might seem out of place at a school of Management, are present in the classroom?
So, what does this mean for the student who gets to a university and starts studying business, hoping to be accessed by today’s logistical capitalism? This is where both of your comments about teaching business majors and my own strange career in a business school come into focus. I could talk for hours about this, because it’s my job, and people can talk about their jobs for hours, though usually they are considered to know nothing about their own jobs. The first thing I feel like saying is: Michael, Jesse, it’s good to have you as colleagues and to be doing this together with you. I’d like to figure out how we could be more together in how we teach these students.
I think students who study business are in a sense very logistical. Whereas a student studying music or history must say how can I fit what I like to do into this economy, a business student says how can I fit the economy into me. The business student is immediately ready for interoperability, for being accessed, plugged in, traversed by flows, modulated, wherever necessary. These students are unmediated by an interest, such as anthropology, that has to be converted into the economic in an extra step of logistical effort. Now, the curious other side to this is that the business student is also often ‘the last Fordist.’ Even when Fordism ‘never was’ for that particular student or her family. By this I mean because it is impossible to be interested, really, in Human Organisation and Development (the way it is inevitably taught as an extension of logistical capitalism), students place their interests elsewhere, in a non-work sphere. Now this is not true for those upper middle class business students who are convinced business can deliver meaning for them (including through green business, social entrepreneurship and all the rest of the more sophisticated delusions). But amongst the average student taking business courses, I have found little illusion about why they are doing it, or what it is going to be like, even if they have hopes. I say all this to say the student taking philosophy in your class is probably there to take philosophy, as if in an old-fashioned division between work and leisure. I am personally happy to make my classes into places of leisure under these circumstances (or any). The real question I want to ask with you both is this: outside of the places Jonathan is talking about — the global universities responding to a global capitalist class — students are struggling. They are over-worked, over-taught, piled with requirements and internships, plagued by debt and psychological distress, and they are often the new welfare state for grandparents, kids, and disabled relatives. In other words, leisure is being made impossible for them and I think this means it is hard to ask them to take our classes with a kind of leisure. How can we organize with the students for leisure as a first step toward study?
Michael: Jesse and I owe you a response to this question, but we are currently on the level with these students and are having trouble, at least during this part of the semester, carving out a space of leisure. But I wanted to ask an unrelated, slightly inarticulate question. I mentioned at one point in our initial email conversation that I’m genuinely curious about the co-author phenomenon (Adorno & Horkheimer, Mouffe & Laclau, Hardt & Negri, etc.). I’m still curious about this, like the phenomenology of it versus any crude craft or process question, but I’m not quite sure how to ask it.
Actually, Michael, I also like to ask the question of how people write together. I always ask it when I find people writing together. In our case, we hung out together for fifteen years before we wrote anything down! But for us the transition to writing things down had two impulses. On the one hand, we were trying to understand our workplace, and we wrote a couple of early pieces about conditions of academic labour, one called the Academic Speed-Up, and another called Doing Academic Work. There was not much to them, but they did make us realize we could not consume ourselves with what the university was doing to us, to our colleagues, and to our students (to say nothing of our neighbours and neighbourhoods). We needed to focus on what we were doing and on what had long been done, study, black study. So we were impelled by black study, inspired by Edouard Glissant’s phrase, ‘the consent not to be a single being.’ We didn’t want to work or write by ourselves, to be individual authors, or voices, to be cited, acknowledged. We just wanted to go into debt. We had already asked for too much credit, because that is what the university wants you to do, and that is what we make students do, and that was asking all of us to hold ourselves in this impossible position of the self-determined person, or what we might call the usufructing self.
So the way we write is to lose that credit in conversation, jokes, over beers, in crowds of friends, with lovers, any way to get away from this impossibility and see what can come from this consent. And when I say any way, I mean it. We write in all kinds of ways and the only constant is losing the individuality and finding the sociality of our words and ideas. Our work emanates from our ensemble, and that’s about it. Sometimes I write something first, sometimes he does. Sometimes I add or comment, sometimes he might inlay my prose, sometimes we might extend each other’s sentences with commas and fragments, reversals and paradoxes, experimental phrasing and wording. In any case, we want as much to be less than two as more than two. Originality is our enemy, experimenting with what is already here is our friend(s).
This was the approach I tried to bring into the art world, while respecting what was already there, the forms of collaboration already at work, like the inspiring collectivities I have encountered, from Crater Invertido in Mexico to KUNCI in Indonesia. I don’t know that I have much insight into this world but I have had the chance to spend time with my friends through its support. And I am benefitting from people who are writing about the art world today, Max Haiven, for instance, Marina Vishmidt and Nora Sternfeld, some of the most interesting theory is coming out of this conjunction. Stevphen Shukaitis brings together psychographic drift with class composition analysis at one point in his new book. You don’t get that alchemy in studies of the creative industries! The importance of spending time together with your friends — a version of the leisure I want in my classroom — the art world is a place that has resources that can be liberated for that purpose. I witnessed this in the practice of Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, for instance. More than anyone else, the performance artist and dancer Valentina Desideri taught me this. Leisure, hanging out, as the ground for collective practice, as emergent, collective practice under constant revision, but also as the struggle against the time and unit measures, against the access, of logistical capitalism. Leisure as struggle. That was Michael Brown and his friends.
A second installment in this ongoing conversation can be found here.
Jesse Montgomery is an editor at Full Stop and a graduate student in the English department at Vanderbilt University.
Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at Hofstra University.
A version of this conversation originally appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly Issue #5. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.