Poetic Resistance and the Classroom without Guarantees
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Poetic Resistance and the Classroom without Guarantees1

Capitalist imperialism is an effort to win the world for calculation

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak2

For the real text, you must enter the classroom, put yourself to school, as a preview of the formation of collectivities. A single ‘teacher’s’ ‘students’, flung out into the world and time, is, incidentally, a real-world example of the precarious continuity of a Marxism ‘to come’, aligned with grassroots counterglobalizing activism in the global South today

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak3

The logic of calculation has pervasively underwritten the negotiations and public discourse surrounding the Quebec student strike from the outset: the Quebec Education Minister’s declaration that students must “pay their fair share,” the outrage in national newspapers at the cost to taxpayers of policing student demonstrations,4 individual students’ assertions that the strike infringed on their right to attend classes (and the subsequent litigations forcing classes to resume in order that students may continue to receive a service for which they claim to have paid), and the justificatory language for the hike whose principal formulation surmises that Quebec’s tuition is lower than in the rest of Canada and the United States and must therefore be brought in line with the rest of North America. The very nature of this privatizing public discourse has constituted a pervasive common language, one in which neoliberalism has served as an a priori, the ground from which the very claims to rights and privileges are articulated.

Several decades ago, Donna Haraway warned that neoliberalism’s common language constituted a “logic of rationalization,” “the common coin through which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment and exchange”.5 In her view, the logic of rationalization produced in turn an “informatics of domination” where the effective erosion of the public sphere was grounded in an economic calculus that emphasized “optimization” (rather than perfection) and “modular construction” (over functional specialization).6 This transformation not only informed the reorganization of the university, but also shaped the very conditions of public speech and democratic protest. The student strike has thus been characterized alternately as an elite affectation, a radical anarchist attack on the system, a narcissistic refusal to contribute to society, and an unwillingness to engage in productive activity.

The government’s (and much of the public’s) argument to the students has consisted of an implicit ultimatum: submit to the logic of calculation or be characterized as an elitist ‘ivory-tower,’ detached from and irrelevant to public life. The rationalization of education (through learning outcomes, job placement data, patentable intellectual property, funding partnerships, etc.) is thus meant to guarantee the university’s relevance to society (and to the public and private parties who provide its operating budget). In the past several decades, the classroom has been a specific target for conservative forces seeking to reverse the foundations of social democracy—the assertion of a welfare state, the buffering of market logics, support for the role of the state in representing the public interest of society, a “taken for granted popular base of welfare social democracy”.7 The logic of calculation in the university forms part of a larger movement to contest social democracy, dismantle it, and put something new in its place, a regressive movement away from the social changes of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec (and, concomitantly, the range of social movements in the 1960s around the world that sought to defy class-based, regional and racial barriers to higher education), and a “progressive” articulation of a project of modernization.

What this logic obscures, however, are the ties that bind economic rationalism and the ‘ivory-tower’ in the Enlightenment project. The classroom is a shifting historical formation, having been the object of a series of revolutionary interventions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, interventions that are being played out in the debates in the public sphere today. Historically, educational institutions in culture at large served as cultural sites wherein different social groups represented their own social, political and economic function, either by creating a cadre of specialists and technicians, or by turning to existing categories...