I saw a great talk by the wonderful Brad Evans yesterday, on “Resistance in the University of Crisis.” This presentation should be mandatory listening for all incoming students and all returning faculty and students, I think—he combined a succinct history of the neoliberal seizing of institutions of higher education (using the UK example), and an account of its aggressive assault in particular on the anti-capitalist political imagination, with a remarkably hopeful (remarkable for being hopeful as well as clear-eyed) insistence that we might now “reimagine the university from the affirmative and creative position of resistance.” One thing I love about Brad’s work is how it sees problems like resistance, the mobilization of radical power, and social solidarity as affirmative problems, not desperate or reactive ones. He absolutely refuses the narrative of catastrophe, and in his talk yesterday offered a beautiful account of how neoliberal ideologies have adapted to the massive instabilities they have wrought—political, ecological, pedagogical—by learning to profit from and reproduce themselves through a collective catastrophic imagination.
Watching him speak, I thought it brave for someone to give a talk that addressed, in succinct order, Thatcher’s evisceration of the socialist state, Blair’s reinvention of that agenda by wedding it to a paradigm of perpetual warfare, the consensus on the left that we have witnessed “the slow death of the university,” the way an entire generation gave up on “taking to the streets” after our massive protests against war in Iraq had absolutely no effect on political leadership (this one cut close to the bone), ecological disaster as the new normal, the emergence of ISIS, the emergence of Trump, and the ongoing, violent assault on the material lives of the poor and on the collective belief that those lives might be something other than disposable, and then insist, utterly convincingly, that we respond with a politics of affirmation that refuses catastrophic thinking.
One of the best points he made was that in order to return universities to the mission of holding power to account, we must address the problem of time. Others have been making this point too—see, for example, For Slow Scholarship—but it bears constant reiteration. The “speed of flows” that defines the current bureaucratic assessment of academic work, Brad said, “decimates politics,” rendering the position of the academic, and of some radically more than others, “precarious by a matter of strategic choice.”
And I want to think more along these lines about how to avoid channeling a resistance to neoliberal time into the antisocial desire for “time for oneself” (an equally neoliberal fantasy) in order to imagine, instead, a restructuring of time toward forms of solidarity. This would not preclude time for solitude and the things we do by ourselves—reading, writing, resting, reflection, whatever it is. But it would require thinking of such solitary activities as part of a necessary collective movement instead of as forms of self-indulgence—thinking of self-care as a way of staying able to be with others in meaningful ways, rather than as a way of protecting and preserving ourselves from one another.
I’ve seen a lot of talks and presentations in the past couple of years, and I will see a lot more this year. I decided to make the time to write something down about each one, beyond my notes, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m putting it here so you, my imagined (and probably imaginary) readers, can put the pressure on me to keep writing things down.