Student as Producer (6)

See an introduction to this series of notes here.

6. Neary, Mike and Amsler, Sarah (2012) Occupy: a new pedagogy of space and time?. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2)

In this paper, Neary and Amsler present the ideas and practices of the Occupy movement in terms of its “explicit” pedagogical purpose and intent. In doing so, they formulate Occupy as a prefigurative curricula for the production of a new politics of space and time. They offer Student as Producer and the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, as existing forms of this critical curricula; projects which by altering “the relationships of the production of educational space and time by producing them otherwise… constitute a direct threat to the logics of capital”.

Student as Producer is introduced as a project which is not so much concerned with ‘student engagement’ and ‘student satisfaction’ but rather “the meaning and purpose of higher eduction, or ‘the idea of the university’, as a ‘collective intellectual’ project (Waquant 2007: 57).” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 108)

In the context of Neary’s writing about Student as Producer, the article is important for its critique and development of Lefebvre’s argument that the social relations of capitalist production result in the “violence of abstraction”, and the source of this violence lies in the production of value experienced in the real abstraction of exchange value as revealed by Marx.

“For Lefebvre, the substance of time-space is Marx’s labour theory of value, by which use value is converted into exchange value in a process dominated by both the violence of abstraction and resistance to abstraction, which Lefebvre describes as ‘counter-projects’.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 118)

The authors are not satisfied with Lefebvre’s argument that the site of resistance to the abstraction of exchange value is in its counterpart: use-value, nor that in contrast to this abstraction, “use value constitutes the only real wealth” (Lefebvre 2008: 341). In essence, the problem for Neary and Amsler is that radical subjectivity is aligned with the production of use-value; that is, ‘concrete’, ‘natural’, ‘material’ wealth. Ultimately, they argue, this is to fetishise the concrete (i.e. use-value) as a form of anti-capitalist resistance. Although widespread, it is a limited theoretical position which in practice

“perpetuates the approach it is attempting to critique … replicating and repeating struggles in more fragmented forms without posing a fundamental challenge.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 119)

Their argument draws on the work of Moishe Postone, who has argued that this “hypostatisation of the concrete” leads to a sense of helplessness:

“The hypostatisation of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract underlie a form of “anti-capitalism” that seek to overcome the existing social order from the standpoint which actually remains immanent to that order’ (Postone 2000: 18).” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 120)

The source of this helplessness can be found in Lefebvre’s privileging of use-value over exchange-value, whereas for Marx, Postone, Neary and Amsler, value should be understood as “value in motion”: “the explosive contradiction between use-value and exchange/abstract value, in a process of commodification dominated by the violence of abstraction.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 120). Whereas for Lefebvre and other ‘anti-capitalists’ who hypostatise and fetishise one side of the value-form, here the authors argue that surplus-value, “the substance through which the social universe expands” (ibid) can only be “detonated” by over-coming the abstract violence of value through struggle in time and space i.e. “anti-value in motion”.

“And so it becomes possible to conceive of radical subjectivity as being located not in use value, but in the production of new forms of critical knowledge in everyday life, or practical reflexivity. Critical practical knowledge is formed from the same social substance as ‘anti-value in motion’: just as time inheres in space, use value inheres in exchange value, so to does theory inhere in practice as critical reflexivity or living knowledge, including life itself.” (ibid)

What sets apart ‘critical practical knowledge’ from the category of use-value is not entirely clear. Earlier in the paper, they say that

“Our purpose is to re-appropriate (‘detonate’), ‘occupy’, these moments of space-time through ‘a new pedagogy of space and time’, which can be characterised as the production of critical knowledge in everyday life. The basis of this critical knowledge is critical practical reflexivity. Critical practical reflexivity adheres to our space-time formulation in that theory and practice are considered as immanent to each other (Gunn 1989). The essential aspect of critical practical reflexivity is that it questions the validity of its own concepts, which it does by recognising itself as inhering in the practical social world emerging out of, and inseparable from, the society it is attempting to understand. This process is expansive, creating new knowledge and meaning, avoiding circularity and infinite regress: ‘good conversations’ (Gunn 1989).” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 108)

I take it to mean that the power of “critical practical reflexivity” (i.e. negativity) conceived as political struggle, is that which Marx referred to as ‘communism’: “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (Marx, 1845) Just as our fetishisation of exchange-value (i.e. money and other ‘rights’ of equivalence) has led to the social and ecological emergencies of the 21st century, so the fetishisation of its dialectical counterpart, use-value, will lead us to similar horrors. The related production of both must be abolished through the conception of a new form of social being – a new “social universe” – based upon the application of social knowledge produced through a new curriculum, which acts “as a pedagogy of space and time”. (Neary & Amsler 2012: 116)

Indeed, following Marx, the authors assert the meaning and purpose of education as the “ruthless critique of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be” (Marx 1843).  This fundamental approach to the production of knowledge, does not allow for the fetishisation of any social form. It is dynamic, reflexive, “anti-value in motion”. (Neary & Amsler 2012: 120)

How can education be constituted in this form? The authors provide the two examples of Student as Producer and, in some ways its development, the Social Science Centre, Lincoln.

Student as Producer is described in terms of its practical implementation at Lincoln and, as is the case of all of Neary’s writing on the subject, it is discussed more broadly and deeply in terms of a political project within the “wider social-political crisis defined by the politics of austerity and precarity”. It is likened to Occupy in a number of ways (Neary & Amsler 2012: 121), for example: it is “a political, progressive project”; it is inspired by the history of radical politics; it “has links with revolutionary educational projects”; it “is framed within a broad idealistic framework”; it is “grounded within an explicit critical pedagogy”; it “is an anti-curriculum…

“whose substance is not simply teaching and learning but the production of knowledge as a revolutionary political project: ‘the theoretical and practical knowledge of social life in the community’ (Lefebvre 1969: 155), or ‘living knowledge’ (Roggoro 2011).” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 121)

Student as Producer is “for the production of new knowledge and not simply as a pedagogical device.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 122) It is a “framework” in which the curriculum is contextualised; “spatial learning landscapes within which teaching is set” and where “students are made aware of the politics of machinic production”; a “horizontal space within which collaborations can multiply.” (ibid)

In what, I think, is a key passage with which we can contextualise Student as Producer, the authors refer to Merrifield’s work on Lefebvre describing the crisis the university is undergoing:

“Abstract space started to paper over the whole world, turning scholars and intellectuals into abstract labour and turning university work into another abstract space. Suddenly free expression and concrete mental labour – the creation and dissemination of critical ideas – increasingly came under the assault from the same commodification Lefebvre was trying to demystify. Suddenly and somehow, intellectual space – academic and ideational space in universities and on the page – had become another neocolony of capitalism, and scholars at once the perpetrators and victims, colonizers and colonized, warders and inmates” (Merrifield 2011: 119). (Neary & Amsler 2012: 123)

It is against this “turning scholars and intellectuals into abstract labour and turning university work into another abstract space” that is at the core of Neary’s critical project. As the institutional form of the highest achievements of human knowledge, the university is now occupied by capital, subsumed to the logic of value production, a means of production through which labour ‘performs‘ against labour, increasingly alienated from its own product: social knowledge, the general intellect, mass intellectuality.

Neary and Amsler want to take the “territorial” project of occupying space and time with critical reflexive knowledge and turn it into an existential project such that we understand ourselves as the university; we become the resistance to abstract labour and its abstract spaces; we become “collective individuals” that exceed the institutional and idealised form of the university:

“The limit of Student as Producer is that the student does not exceed its own institutional and idealised form: ‘the idea of the student’ (Neary 2010). In order for the student to become more than themselves, the neoliberal university must be dissolved, and reconstituted as another form of ‘social knowing’ (Neary 2011).” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 124)

The last section of the article discusses the Social Science Centre, Lincoln (SSC), as an attempt “to create a new form of social knowing.” (ibid) The SSC is “an emerging educational cooperative that aspires to create opportunities for advanced study and research in the social sciences which are both free of charge, and intellectually and politically democratic.” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 125) It is a formally constituted co-operative, based on non-hierarchical, democratic principles. It is a “protest” an “experiment” in “dissolving higher education into a form of mass intellectuality” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 126, quoting Hall 2011). It has “radical political aspirations”, hoping that “students as scholars become revolutionary social beings within open, socially-driven spaces, rather than becoming institutional agents.” (ibid) For the authors, the SSC as a nomadic co-operative is not simply an attempt to re-order space and time, but

“to create a radical form of space-time by unleashing the social power of humanity locked up in the commodity- form as a way of appropriating the future as something other than crisis and catastrophe (Neary 2004).” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 127)

Whereas Student as Producer “remains committed to working within and against the existing university system in order to transform it”, the SSC,

“although in no way escaping from the institution entirely, seeks to construct spaces, times and relations of learning which are autonomous from the neoliberal university, in opposition to the abstraction of social relations through monetary exchange, and embedded in the everyday life of local communities. Both are ongoing experiments. What resonates between them is an understanding that desires to reinvent the contemporary university for human purposes ‘mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space’ (Lefebvre 2008: 59), and that the production of such spaces – and times, and relationships, and ways of knowing – is ultimately a political project.” (ibid)

This article, more than any other by Neary, develops the political, pedagogical project of Student as Producer as a critique not only of “what the university has become”, but of how our capacity as social individuals has been occupied by the logic of capital and turned into an alien, anti-social power against humanity. On such terms, what possible institutional form could it take? What does it means to be non-alientated labour, to dissolve the dialectic of both use-value and exchange value, to “create a radical form of space-time by unleashing the social power of humanity locked up in the commodity-form”? (ibid) Is the worker co-operative form anywhere near adequate for such a project?

  • What this article, more than another other by Neary has emphasised, is the need to conceive the neoliberal university as a peculiar expression of commodified space-time. It is an “abstract space” ruled by the logic of abstract labour, whereby the pedagogical relationship between teacher and student is configured for the production of value. An opposing organisational form would seek to overcome the power of these abstractions by, first of all, re-configuring the pedagogical relationship so as to abolish knowledge in its commodity-form (use-value and exchange value).
  • Education “cannot be separated from ‘life’ in institutions.” I take this to mean that all aspects of the institution must be understood to be educational or pedagogical. Cleaning the floors, teaching, installing IT, etc. The division of this labour in time and space is conceived holistically and materially as having a pedagogical purpose for society, for humanity, as a whole. All aspects of this co-operative production of knowledge are understood as appropriations of space-time thereby gradually overcoming the logic capital.
  • If we “have rather lost control over the form, structure and function of academic knowledge” (Neary & Amsler 2012: 116), worker co-operatives might be a conscious attempt to assert control, constitute an organisational form, and define a different (i.e. democratic, horizontal, consensus-based) social structure for the production of academic knowledge. The SSC is one such experiment.
  • If “the space of the university is mobilised for the purposes of production through its commodification, abstracting, converting into exchange value, fetishizing and modularising” (Lefebvre 2008: 338), how can the worker co-operative form resist these imperatives? Is it simply a “diversion” rather than an “appropriation” of a different space and time? (Egan and Jossa provide a preliminary, though not entirely satisfying, indication).
  • Must a worker co-operative for higher education possess a physical space in time, or can a new space-time be constituted through its legal form and extend to the whole of the “social universe”? If “it’s not about possessing territory. Rather it’s a matter of increasing the density of communes, of circulation, and of solidarities to the point that territory becomes unreadable, opaque to all authority” (The Invisible Committee, quoted in Neary & Amsler 2012: 123-4), can the worker co-operative form be conceived and constituted existentially and ontologically? That is, how can we become the university rather than ‘go to university’?
  • Student as Producer and the SSC are presented as examples of producing an “appropriate space” for their political objectives. Can the worker co-operative form be employed as an expedient means for the “production of such spaces – and times, and relationships, and ways of knowing”? (Neary & Amsler 2012: 127)

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