- Being Together Subversively, Outside in the University of Hegemonic Affirmation and Repressive Violence, as Things Heat Up (Again)
“Who the fuck made you master?” This is Tavia Nyong’o’s paraphrase of the spirit of the demands of the new freedom struggles on campus.1 They can be described as black, undocumented, black feminist, queer of color, decolonial, anti-austerity, pro-Palestine, robustly intersectional, and, at times, abolitionist. They have also been described as reformist (rather than revolutionary), too limited by a desire for institutional recognition, and vulnerable to familiar strategies of repressive incorporation: therapeutic measures, symbolic gestures, and diversity management. In my understanding, Nyong’o’s paraphrase captures a moment of repudiation: How is it that the US academy can go on with business as usual, when its conditions of possibility have been exposed as the afterlives of slavery and ongoing settler colonialism being made anew in neoliberal debt regimes, in expanded economies of dispossession, and in routine racialized devaluation and extreme acts of racial cruelty, including police killings? As Cathy Cohen notes, the young leaders of the new student movements have “often been in our classrooms.”2 They “have been in African American studies [End Page 981] classes . . . in ethnic studies classes . . . in feminist, gender and women’s studies classes—these might even be their majors.” What is the relationship between these interdisciplines and the campus protests, however tenuous? How might we take up the students’ repudiation as a call to investigate both the obscene resilience of what we can call the “neoliberal university of open inequality” and the capabilities of oppositional intellectual labor, which the university differentially sustains and sometimes expels.
Roderick Ferguson’s Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, and Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent are up to the task. Each provides a valuable analysis of the academic–political conjuncture we inhabit and inspires forms of practice, accountability, and collectivity within the university, behind its back, and beyond its reckoning. There are many overlaps, contrasts, and tensions between the three volumes, and these are illuminating in themselves. While a good deal of their intellectual–political genealogy is shared—The Reorder of Things and The Undercommons take up the Black Radical tradition, The Reorder of Things and The Imperial University owe much to women of color feminism—ultimately, each conceives the academy’s specific mode of power somewhat differently. The concept of the political takes a different shape in each. And each text is formally quite different from the others, following from the different interventions each emerges from, aligns with, and conjures for the future. Importantly, each work never lets the reader forget that battles are raging and that this specific moment of insurgency and counterinsurgency crossing the university follows on the heels of prior (un) settlements, presenting new possibilities and dangers.
In The Reorder of Things, the scenes of battle that change everything are the student protests of the late 1960s and the strategies of affirmation and exclusion used by universities to manage student demands and regulate knowledge production about minority difference. Ferguson writes brilliantly about two of the most important struggles of the time: the movement to found the Lumumba-Zapata College at the University of California, San Diego, and the Open Admissions movement at the City University of New York. In his recounting, these and similar movements across the country become legible as radical deployments of minority difference, which sought to vivify the university as a radical force for epistemic and social transformations against racial, social, and class oppression. From the curriculum of study proposed for the Lumumba-Zapata college, which sought to challenge...