Towards a Decolonisation of DesireM. Jacqui Alexander writes of the entanglements of pedagogies in a book chapter entitled “State, Capital, and the Decolonisation of Desire” 2005.
What is the relation between the university, ideological reproduction and the political imagination regulated as it is by capitalist realism? Politically speaking, what can we claim in the name of the commons? If at the core of the decolonial projects and social movements at universities is a rejection of the injustices of neoliberal capitalism and the deep-seated inequality that is a legacy of apartheid or the new forms of class apartheid, then efforts at transforming are directed towards the university as a state apparatus and ultimately present a challenge to the legitimacy of the neoliberal reorganisation of state. I am interested in the theoretical nature of the State that is being contested, as well as the state of mind, where the word “state” implies a mental or emotional condition. Thinking with Lauren Berlant’s work on cruel optimistic relations, as well as the educational philosophy of Paulo Freire and W.E.B Du Bois, I speculate on the South African university’s shared ideological complicities. I argue against the university’s emphasis on the production of a subject that is in synch with the reproduction of capital, and well-suited for insertion into capitalist structures. This is evidence of the role universities play in sustaining the enduring fantasy of “the good life”. What magnetizes the university’s desire for, and fidelity to, a particular mode of production, even when that mode proves itself painfully unsustainable?
But the true college will ever have one goal, not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.W.E.B. Du Bois – The Souls of Black Folk
Collective desire and unwilling the good life
While in residency at STIAS in 2015, Aryan Kaganof, an independent filmmaker, decided to focus his camera’s lens on the agitating activities of a movement for change in the affluent white town in which he found himself. In his film Opening Stellenbosch: From Assimilation to Occupation (2016), one scene, in particular, stands out; in this scene, a collective of black students and their allies, among whom I number, walk into a lecture hall one morning where an instructor is giving a class on forms of governance. On any other day the class is by and large all white.
We listen to a lecture that is delivered using a method of instruction known as parallel-medium, which involves intermittent switching between English and Afrikaans at several points during the hour long class meeting. We have come to stage an intervention by demonstrating our opposition to this method of learning, by registering our aversion to what we have identified as an instrument of educational and class aparheid – the university’s prevailing language policy which privileges white Afrikaans, and which we have taken as exemplary of the problem of white nationalist hegemony and the reproduction of a specifically neocolonial and capitalist pedagogy. Although it should go without saying, one feels obliged to mention that this move had nothing at all to do with the erroneous idea that somehow Afrikaans is, in and of itself, ‘the language of the oppressor.’Oppression is and can be facilitated by any language. Moreover, a great number of black students within the movement were themselves Afrikaans speakers, many of them ‘mother-tongue’ speakers. Yet evidence of this language policy being used as an anti-black tool of exclusion is seen in the fact that Afrikaans speaking black students form part of a daming numerical minority at Stellenbosch, even as black Afrikaans speakers are a statistical majority in the province of the Western Cape. Also, despite their possession and command of the language, black Afrikaans speakers can hardly stave off the guaranteed alienation and dispossession that the space engenders. Our aim is to get the attention of the university administrators as well as branches of government responsible for overseeing transformation at universities, both of whom have consistently ignored calls to have the language policy scrapped and replaced with a more progressive language policy that we believed would, in the long run, inspire a noticeable change in the institutional culture. For those privy to what’s about to unfold, the atmosphere is thick with palpable tension, but because we’re acting on the courage of our convictions regarding the moral authority of our position, there is a sense of entitlement in our demand for full recognition. Given the subsequent acts of police brutality on campuses across the country through which the state sought to suppress any expressions of dissent against austerity and the inflation of tuition fees, this scene seems somewhat subdued, yet its poetic force is nevertheless revealing.
Midway through the lecture, a technical and seemingly arbitrary question is put to the unresponsive class in Afrikaans, until one student, Tshepo “Crocky” Modiri, rises to respond with unflinching audacity; “I can’t breathe” he says resolutely, holding up a sign with the same words, “I can’t breathe because my education is colonised,” he repeats insistently. Realising that she’s lost the class she never had, the instructor tries and fails to diffuse the implication of the utterance, but the signal has been given, and like the energetic eruption of a stadium at a moment of exaltation, a large wave of student protesters shoots up to join Modiri in the declaration of this clarion call.
Commenting on the event days later, an undoubtedly mediocre historian at the university opines something to the effect that we should pay no mind whatsoever to this moment, since the students are engaged in a form of reverse apartheid, and since the ‘slogan’ is anyway an unthinking mimicry of protests in the United States that were mobilised under the same chant following Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of white police officers. Kaganof, 2016. Blinded by the myopia of white speak, the historian can barely recognise the intersections and solidarities across the world where black people live in the asphyxiating scenes of white supremacist subjection and neocolonial enclosure.
The heedless historian is bound to misdiagnose the problem, he cannot know the sense of not being able to breathe within a white normative enclosure, or that this had already been framed as such by Fanon who wrote somewhere that “when we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” In my recollection of events, the echo of this assertion resonated in a number of ways, from the sense of imminent or premature death, to the force-fed desire of, and desire for, colonial logics of subjecthood. I thus take for granted that in such a situation Modiri can’t breathe, and identify with the sensory effect that this metaphor conveys.
The film indicates a strong consensus among young South African students that it is owing to a colonised education that that phrase, used in the classroom as a metaphor, comes too close to reality. From this view, I want to sit with and reflect on Modiri’s outcry, to take him on his word that a colonised education is one which produces a type of neoliberal subject perpetually suffocating and alienated, and therefore to ask what it would mean to decolonise rather than to presume to know in advance what such an undertaking would look like.
I am interested in the primary mode by which his utterance becomes reified, namely, the intersections of freedom, desire and pedagogy in the terrain of South African higher education. But rather than pursue a neat organisation of thought in relation to any query in higher education, or present an analytical argument about pedagogy that haunts contemporary critical engagements with Marxism, I set out in this paper to arrange a constellation of ideas that emerge from various discursive encounters. Questions to do with the systemic operations of desire and pedagogy turn out to be germane to the collective body or political space known as the commons. The call for a decolonised education thus draws my attention towards desire and pedagogy, both alibis for freedom, historicity and neoliberal reproduction in the South African university. My interest is not only in how these two entities are brought to bear in the contemporary political moment in South Africa, but also to track how their theoretical inflections connect our modes of inquiry to a global itinerary of counter-normative political struggles.
One can place a premium heuristic value in thinking the contemporary moment in terms of its affective dimensions, since the dynamism of affects in public, the emotive forces between subjects that bring them together to shape and agree on ideology, tend to reveal the limitations of a purely ‘Political’ mode of inquiry. In aiming for a rigorous analysis of this system of enclosure, one strategy is to understand historical contingency at the moment of its happening, in the event of the present unfolding, rather than somewhere down the historical timeline.
I will be thinking this through in terms of the supposed shifting centre of gravity in the South African university, a shift that has come to be called ‘the decolonial turn’, but that nevertheless often appears to index similar functions of power and dominance that the catalogue of colonialism prescribes. When we talk about the university of the future we are also talking about the strange sense in which, as Jacques Derrida once put it,
“the university is in the world that it is attempting to think.” Jacques Derrida, The University Without Conditions, 236.
The point indicates an entanglement with time, it would seem to have implications for our imaginations of the future African university insofar it calls us back to the present moment, requires us to think the past in the present and the possibility of repeating this enduring stretched out present in our utopian visions of the future. In the last instance, and against the backdrop of contemporary market fundamentalism, I am interested in recovering the idea (as the Du Bois epigraph to this essay suggests) that a good education prepares one to make a world, rather than passively receive or participate in an already given world. Yet to frame education as an instrument of worlding does not mean I place an unexamined provenance on the ‘enlightened subject’ of the democratic state, but rather to insist on a question that should be of significance to post-transition reformers. Simply, what are the outlines of a pedagogic intervention that is not ultimately a repetition of mastership and white hegemonic pedagogy? As intervention, does a pedagogy that comes from the desire for recognition have the same political utility as a rupture in the crisis of the historical present?
In discussing the socially embedded university, the social field with which the university is always already complicit, I think with Lauren Berlant’s formulation of attachment and relationality in her book Cruel Optimism. Berlant tracks the affective and aesthetic “judgements” we make in the ongoing drama of what she has called a “crisis ordinariness”, our negotiated way of living through and adjusting to the overdetermined and overwhelming currents in life. Her method is to work with the prosaic forms of the political, to track the affective attachments that organise the structure of an unfolding situation. What is exemplary about Cruel Optimism is the way its analytical lexicon allows us to speculate on the historically/presently located constitution of the subject as well as the subtle deployment of power that coordinates everyday life.
Negotiating the dialectic between emotions in the public and private sphere in the neoliberal present, Berlant shows how attachment relates to one’s unconscious or unwitting investment in an object, and since ‘object’ does not merely designate a material entity, this is also another way of saying an unconscious investment in a fantasy or an idea. A fantasy would be a scene where you encounter “a cluster of promises”, “desires” and investments that affirm your sense of yourself and what you think “you add up to in life”. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 16. Whatever it is you think of yourself as a (non)sovereign subject, the neoliberal mode of production forces one to think of oneself beyond the scene of the present moment. At which point, angled toward the future, you are forced to take your actions and choices in the present in terms of a projected investment that will bear fruit in the future.
We can think of students at universities rushing to enlist themselves into courses that appear to have ‘real world impact’, or getting vocational degrees as preparation for the market, a typical response to the question of disciplinary relevance often put to the humanities.
Yet when you realise that your investment in the object will not mature, when the object shows itself up as a dangerous and unstable bet, when it reminds you that it cannot promise to award your persistence and endurance with a happy ending, and when the object obscures and obliterates the potential of attaching to anything but itself, then you are experiencing something like the feedback loop of a dominant regime of thought. Within this situation, the possibility of ‘the commons’ is attenuated by the notion of the good life to which, in our labouring normative fantasy, we are unwittingly attached. For those interested in building a future that consists of collective justice and equality, (I mean this in Rosalind Morris’ sense, as in equality that is not only understood to be “equal access to inequality”) Rosalind Morris, “The Idea of Communism: Notes on the Singular and the Universal” (2019). a guiding question can be put in terms of the relation between Marxism and pedagogy, and the issues that emerge from that interface. What are the conditions that make it possible to rearrange our collective desire and attachment, away from the normative genres of being in the world?
Berlant works from the view that there is something like a tri-folded entity, an imbrication of the “moral-intimate-economic thing” that we’ve come to know as the good life, and that it coordinates the central modalities of effect that mediate our understanding of the world, and the way we embody a given genre of livableness.Berlant, Cruel optimism, 2 You don’t need to be an avowed hustler to have been taken in by the idea of the good life. Everybody must eat, sleep and breathe some version of this concept under neoliberal modes of reproduction. But the more unremarkable your attachment to the good life is, the more innocently unwilled, the better you obscure the problematic of our times, your attachment functions as an alibi for the very idea of the good life itself. I am not suggesting that the idea of the good life is the centre of, or underpins, all ideologies or forms of social organisation. In its current understanding, it is central to neoliberalism insofar as it is the ruse of capitalist ideology, the notion of the good life functions to buttress the auto-regenerative forces that neoliberalism rests upon, meritocracy, achievement, and the desire for indefinite economic growth. In this most banal way, desire and pedagogy under neoliberalism inaugurate a crisis of futurity. Let me explain:
Why do we keep returning to this scene of a fantasy of life – the good life – in our individual or collective imaginer? When we invest in our optimistic attachments, it is to an object, we project that investment towards the future, we say with all good conscience and expectancy that better days lie ahead. But sometimes it matters little what one feels about the Return On Investment of one’s faith, better days can feel distant, and we might be left feeling disappointed, neither upward nor mobile, in fact we may even feel ourselves confined to a life of attrition in which we carry around the excess baggage and hard materiality of the quotidian. And yet here we are optimistically living on, repeating a rehearsed scene of radical social disenfranchisement, of increasing alienation from the statecraft and its various apparatuses, of the eternal drama in the unsustainable forms of intimacy and breadwinning to which we cling. Why do we keep at it even when optimism looks like survival, depression and bare life, at worst, or anger, dissent or protest at best? This might be a question posed at the level of our cultural software, in which case it helps to ask certain questions about the contemporary moment in which this software is more or less uploaded in society so to speak and becomes the default operating system of everyday life.
Of course, within the good life, happiness is always around the corner. Thus, an ensemble of affect studies thinkers echo the observation that it is emotions rather than ‘rationality’ alone that are responsible for the mobilisation of ideology. For instance, a number of ‘happiness indexes’ conducted at the level of the nation state might suggest that happiness as an affect is in short supply in many parts of the world, ‘developed’ or not. This is even as happiness, or the desire for it, remains a powerful emotion that organises our life-worlds and affective communities. We might also add, as Sara Ahmed’s magnificent illuminations in The Promise of Happiness reveal, that the temporality of a promise is laden with anxiety. In a way, happiness as an end in itself is always a promise or pledge, but never the fulfilment of it.
Ahmed demonstrates how the desire for the good life is itself tied to the promise of happiness figured as attainable through the good life. She unpacks how in merely striving towards that which you imagine will bring about a feeling of happiness, you are already surrendered to a self-sustaining and regenerative fantasy. We all have experienced a moment of loss at some point in our life quests, a reach that exceeds a miscalculated grasp at happiness, or a deferral of the satisfaction of desire. Yet this is exactly the generative psycho-affective conundrum at work in our orientation toward a distinct version of the good life. If despite our best efforts we fail to achieve happiness through the good life, then failure comes to serve a specific temporal function, namely, to sustain the fantasy that a state of happiness and joy is what you can expect to follow once you have finally achieved the tenets of your imagined good life. Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 31-32
A primary concern to do with capitalist historiography foregrounds my effort to think the relation between pedagogy and desire as the unsuspecting handmaids to the neoliberal present. If we are to put the political stakes here in the form of a question, it would be on the order of; exactly where and when does the capitalist realism of ‘the present’ begin and where does it end? In the unfolding situation, does ‘the present’ have a discernible launch point from which all political judgments are to be made? Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 4. Or is it rather that, through the primary and sensorially experienced mode,
the affective intensities of the present are felt as they congeal into a libidinal-economic object that magnetizes our attachment to the present, leaving us in desperation at the point of hopeful anticipation about the future?
There is a powerful intellectual lever, an enabling argument to be made about the temporal politics of the contemporary moment, and indeed many have shown that there are radical insights to be gained in every attempt to grasp the affective structure of the vanishing present. To this effect, Berlant has taken care to explicate the nexus between attachment as a psychoanalytic concept and how it relates to the historical present.
To follow her argument all the way through, we must proceed from the point that, before we can know and give conceptual language to the present, we experience the present in a sensory way first and foremost. This “mediated affective” experience of the present, rather than the present which appears as an object, overwhelms our modalities of world-building. Being a matter of affect firstly, ways of making sense of contemporary sociality are thus constantly under revision.
There is no part of political life that is absolved from the affective intensities of a cruel optimistic relation, the sense that the very thing you desire is the thing that frustrates and forecloses your flourishing. Berlant, 1.
Whether it’s in the thrilling domain of love with all its daunting uncertainties, its sure opacities, or the domain of law that predetermines the groups to which social security and insecurity is to be redistributed, our lives are configured according to a certain genre of the unfolding present to which we are attached, and from which decoupling seems ever more difficult.
The various dimensions of subjecthood, including love and law, are in fact saturated by affective intensities which have become coded as normative and which eclipse other forms of reproducing life. But when we add to this the bewildering predicament of temporality, the idea of detaching from our sustained fantasy of the good life appears even more out of reach. We catch on to the sense that it is difficult to speak about the contemporary moment from within that very contemporary moment, it’s hard in other words to speak of the present from the vantage point of the very moment of its unfolding. Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 14. This is how we come to name an event that is traumatic, but in doing so we risk implying that the traumatic event constitutes a rupture in what is otherwise taken to be the smooth and coherently woven textile of everyday life, when in truth every situation is beset by the weight of the crisis of the present, a crisis ordinariness. Therefore, Berlant proposes that in many ways all times are transitional times. All times are crisis times.Although I’m certain Berlant’s account of cruel optimism cannot come across by way of a drive-by summary, locating desire at a collective level in the way I go about in the essay would seem to require that we maintain some difference between times of crisis and to mark the singularity of crisis times even if or even where they extend across time and space.
Transitions and transformations, desiring a commons?
We could say that a ‘transition’ by definition involves “a going across or over,” a change from one state or condition to another. It was during one such transitional/crisis time, the student protests of 2015 and 2016, that I began to seriously think about what it would take to challenge the accepted truism that is offered by the dogma of upward mobility and the impoverished version of meritocracy upon which capitalist sensibility is predicated. I don’t think it is a stretch to say this line of reason consolidated itself for me in 2015, during the student protests which sought to connect the lack of transformation at universities to broader social justice issues in the country. Or did it? From what condition and toward what state is the university said to have turned?
Thinking back now, it seems to me that we cannot take the ethical impulse of the post-revolutionary subject for granted. Far from being an apocryphal statement, the fact that ‘a political liberation is not a revolution’ was evident in the way many of the students involved in the protests would speak about ‘economic freedom.’ Quite often when it was invoked, I had the sense that the term did not signal so much the destruction of capitalism’s hegemonic grip, as it did a plea, on the part of some young black people, to be considered on equal terms, freedom perhaps, to participate equally in the capitalist economy and to be able take advantage of it, to grab its full potential in the historic way that white people had under apartheid. This desire, at a certain level, tells us something about the impairment of the collective political imagination in a time of globality as well as the continuities of oppressive regimes of thought.
Perhaps desire has been co-opted by a certain capitalist ontology. The prevailing definitions of desire are built around specific needs – no matter the degree to which the need itself might be said to be supersensible. The needs are already in the service of a priori and overdetermined purpose. The point being that; this understanding of desire is already surrendered to the logic and structure of homo-economicus. Therefore, any question of liberation has to be approached by way of desire because, in a way, any question of liberation will have first to cut through the moral outline of desire rather than innocuously bypass it. This is because neoliberalism has totally economised the capacity of individual and collective desire. The very faculty of desire, the capacity to desire, has since been subsumed into the imperative to satisfy capitalist ‘need’. This is why most conceptions of desire today are framed through capitalist pursuits or the sense that one ‘needs’ to ‘fill’ an amorphous gap in one’s moral, economic or political life. Thus we could say the notion of desire is not only entangled with a primary need, it actually presupposes a primary need in order to keep reproducing itself and, under neoliberalism, to keep reproducing a particular genre of life.
This is different from the notion of desire as a structuring feeling that is disarticulated from the raison d’etre of needs and meeting their satisfaction. We have first to dismantle the prevailing implication of desire that only carries the imperative to satisfactorily meet the self-reproducing effects of desire itself. Gayatri Spivak captures exactly this strategy when she observes that “the freedom of desire is the condition of possibility of the concept of freedom.” Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 21.
To displace a regime of thought, and then to decolonise desire, we might seek recourse to the idea of a commons. Whether we understand it as a social model in which the equal distribution of resources is facilitated by collective decision making, as Hardt and Negri argue in their book Commonwealth (2009), or the commons in the register of Harney and Moten’s fugitive subjectivity in The Undercommons (2013), the roadmap to anything resembling a commons is not altogether straightforward.
On both levels, the commons is not synonymous with a coup d’etat or a toppling of the state, or even an organised body of people working in that direction. For Harney and Moten, the undercommons is a form of infrastructure that enables us “to be together in our brokenness,” being responsible for one another, being of and within, but not for, the university or any institutional politics.
The idea of a commons can do quite different work for political and philosophical positing depending on who you ask. Take Hardt and Negri for instance, who propose the commons as a potentially unified collective working toward “the art of self-rule and inventing lasting democratic forms of social organisation” Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, vii. or the commons as that which must ultimately replace the false paradigm of public and private property or the false dichotomy in the capitalism/socialism binary that is presented when we talk about ‘alternatives’. Hardt and Negri believe in the capacities of the commons to the point that their project is to mobilise the irony of global capitalism, showing how capitalist production, “by addressing its own needs, is opening up the possibility of, and creating the basis for a social and economic order grounded in the common”. Ibid, x. Certainly, for those who are less preoccupied with the powers of the commons, it has to do with how they understand the fissures of ‘our’ presumed common plane of likeness as the collapse of the idea of the commons itself. There is anyway one unifying quality and position we all share. If there is no ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ the law that structures human activity and social organisation, and if at the same time there exists a need to break out of the totalising prison house of the juridical, in order to forge new forms of life, the implication is that since “the legal frame is the structure of capitalism, alternatives to capitalism have to be found within, not beyond, the legal context.” Étienne Balibar, “Law, Property, Politics”, 2018.
To reconcile the rhetoric and language of the movements — “everything must fall” — with something more radical and still concrete would mean working through the juridical limitations, or to use Spivak’s formulation, it would mean to ‘affirmatively sabotage’ the existing machine oriented toward the reproduction of wealth, a kind of undoing from within, rather than an attempt to work in a wish fulfilled ‘outside’ of the law of global capital. Gayatri Spivak, Aesthetic Education, 38.
Practicing a Liberating Education
If the ideological proclivities or the trajectory of the student moments are anything to go by, we can say, in alignment with Paulo Freire, that
a certain attachment to capitalist reason might have something to do with how we know ourselves as objects of knowledge.
Even when we start to feel that the prospects of a decent life are diminished on board the sinking ship of global capitalism, we are overcome by a misguided sense of ourselves as captains of the ship, captains who dutifully assume an unshaking obligation to remain in the cockpit, the captain must exert all their efforts to contain the crisis – or die trying. Just like the socio-legal code that governs this maritime convention, under global capitalism, the unwritten rule is that you stick with your attachment to neoliberal reason for the sake of affirming individual responsibility. As the proverbial captain of your individual sovereign self under capitalism, you are responsible for your own freedom and you alone are responsible should you fail to circumvent the distribution of social insecurity and avoid the general precarity of an unequal economy.
Yet I’m sure even the yellow pages would tell you that the word ‘freedom’ is on the inventory of words whose meaning we can’t quite agree on. One can reasonably expect those who defend freedom and liberty of the market and of individual to “give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety, as befitting custodians of freedom.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 10. In doing this, “they confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo; so that if conscienctizacao [critical consciousness] threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” Ibid, 10. I have it on good authority that at some point it was commonplace for university folk, in the historically black institutions at least, to think of their work in and outside of the classroom in terms of the dual injunction that comes with the idea of “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” Ibid,12. This would be what Freire calls a praxis, which has all but disappeared from most pedagogies in the neoliberal university.
The university is in the world that it is attempting to critique.
Wendy Brown’s assessment of our present state offers us the phrase “neoliberal reason”, a kind of newer model of oppressor consciousness, which has more or less transformed “the political character, meaning and operations of democracy into economic ones.” Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 17. Brown is speaking from the same area code as Freire, and gives the name neoliberalism to a phenomena that is at once an “economic policy, a modality of governance, and an order of reason.” Ibid, 20. In other words, as a form of oppressor consciousness neoliberal reason accrues power not merely in existing juridical terms, but it also interpellates, it ropes one into a forced relation, where imaginings of the future are to be conjured on the terms already laid out to suit the reproduction of a dominant economic reason, in compliance with a certain genre of normativity that obscures the myriad other forms of world making.
This is another way to say that we are at the obliteration of “democratic imaginaries.” Ibid, 17. It is against this general deception of capitalist realism, covering over the depth of human existence, that Freire famously submitted his ‘problem-solving education’ to oppose to what he called ‘the banking concept of education’, which takes students as eternally empty accounts into which the teacher merely deposits knowledge about the given world. In both instances teaching is a decidedly political act, but problem solving education seeks to keep the subject alive to the moment of awakening, the moment of consciousness, the here and now of the present world, rather than the implied permanence of the capitalist realist world that is tethered to, and over invested in, the banking model of education.
The function of a critical pedagogy, of a problem-solving education, is thus to cultivate the power to perceive reality critically, and to therefore know the way the subject “exists in the world with which and in which they find themselves” and in this intricate relation, “they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” Freire, Pedagogy, 51. It seems the dynamic condition under which any transformation is to occur will therefore be troubled by a banking concept of education, since the banking concept of education relies on the mysticism of the taken for granted world that it purports to be mediating. On the other hand, problem-solving education, education as the practice of freedom to come, is committed to demythologising the ordinary scenes of subjection in the social field,
education as the practice of freedom is sensitive to the quiet violence of the present,
it wants to demystify the human and to understand her experience of the world. The Brazilian philosopher probably thought we would know we are doing something right when our modality of reason “accepts neither a ‘well-behaved’ present nor a predetermined future – it roots itself in the dynamic present and becomes revolutionary”. Ibid, 57. What does this mean?
The temporality of global capitalism points to multiple registers, where the idea of globality or a global unitary system of financialization, allows us to intimate how neoliberalism converges with the decimation of the political imagination. Extrapolating for my own case,
one could say that global finance capitalism, and the preparatory work that the university does in providing graduates who can keep its fire burning, has stymied any hopes of the claim to a ‘revolutionary futurity’.
This is because the political battlefield of our time, its materiality, is in the struggle over who gets to interpret the past and how. It is in this respect a properly political contestation to do with who, in the historical present, gets to decide which understandings of individual and collective governance, of individual and collective sovereignty, will fashion the future.
The concept of a new South Africa is and has always been threatened by the enduring presence of a history that haunts it, a past that will not let go of the present and a past that has already claimed the future before it has emerged. Even when those subjected to extreme forms of violence and oppression attempt to dream of a revolution, the dream is in the idiom of a borrowed language. They painstakingly draw from the reservoir of historical anti-hegemonic struggles only to find that, with each generation failing to replenish the supply, its regenerative water has dried up. What is important for Freire in this instance is that the oppressed, the undercommons, the subaltern, can only liberate themselves once they appreciate and affirm the need to struggle for their freedom in the first instance, and once they see their state of abjection as the condition of possibility for a different world than the one inherited from an oppressor consciousness. Ibid, 51. The work of the imagination would be crucial for the fulfilment of this move.
And as for those who manage to beat the system, those on other side of the same coin of wretchedness, they do so only as to acquire “a class status of new men and women [sic]”. Ibid, 19. But to have inherited the machinery of the state also means that “their vision of the new man or woman is individualistic; because of their identification with the oppressor, they have no consciousness of themselves as persons or as members of an oppressed class”, and so the idea of a collective is under pressure from the authority of the neoliberal individual. This is surely one reason why, when black South Africans rightly seek to redistribute land through ‘expropriation’, the debate against the reparations owed to them has largely been eclipsed by concerns that have to do with agribusiness and national food security. But already, ‘expropriation’ with or without ‘compensation’, conveys a sense of a fleeting moment, where a concept such as ‘restitution’ might more urgently accommodate a long-term service to justice and convey a greater reparative mission. What reduces the value of this term has not only to do with the fact that it comes from a borrowed language that is now out of joint with the present, a language that is unable to keep up with the shifting articulations of power. More important is that in the context of a society that is untrained in the practice of freedom, the process and outcome of land restitution comes to find its genre before it has even begun.
This is why, regarding land restructuring programs in Latin American history, those that ostensibly failed before they began, it was such facile articulations of the vexing race-class-nation conjuncture that encouraged Freire to emphasise that: “it is not to become free that they want agrarian reform, but in order to acquire land and thus become landowners –or, more precisely, bosses over other workers.” Ibid, 20. He goes on to lament, with notable disparagement in his tone, that we are in short supply of examples wherein oppressed folk move up the social ladder and once they have gained the slightest advantage dedicate themselves to changing the system of oppression that remains, and that folds the situation into an overdetermined march towards the reproduction of capital for capital’s sake.
In another formulation, we could say that an epistemic rearrangement is made possible by an “uncoercive rearrangement of desire.” An aesthetic education is very much in service of Freire’s problem solving education, it is that which can modulate the spirit; that which can create a citizenry that constantly interrogates its conscious and unconscious; and if attended to properly, it can enable the oppressed to decolonise their presumed desires, and possibly loosen the ties that bind them to the ever-waning fantasy of the good life.
Imaginative potential and training for a commons
In the final analysis, I want to take W.E.B. Du Bois as another instructive theoretical figure to broach the subject of education and political consciousness, and for this I draw on Spivak’s developing work on Du Bois and Pan-Africanism. At this point, the reader might be wondering about my rationale for thinking through education, attachment and desire via Du Bois specifically. Such a concern would be understandable — the racial logics of the early 20th Century in the U.S are quite dissimilar to the dynamics at play for South African counterparts in the 21st Century. But the justification has to do in part with the way Du Bois, as Spivak’s reading of him shows, was unlike many of his contemporaries in that he was able to intuit the role of the imagination and an aesthetic education as integral in the process of developing democratic intuitions and the cultivation of a general will to social justice. From the perspective of education, Du Bois’ analysis of the subject formation of the formerly enslaved offers one way to theorise the post-liberation subject, and for us, the subject of the revolution that orthodox Marxist approaches often take for granted.
My point, finally, is to encourage an apprehension of the political imagination as a modulator of the social and affective impulse within the racial time of capitalism and its temporal disjunctures. Writing The Souls of Black Folk as an historian and social economist, already in 1903, Du Bois was concerned with the general conditions of possibility for flourishing for black folks, that he argued could only be established if black folk were seen as complex beings whose identity is formed within the structuration of socio-economic phenomena produced by the state that does not contain them as full citizens. For Du Bois, whose Marxist principles saturated his life’s work, the facts of the material condition of black people in thinking about progress are not to be conceived of within a capitalist realist framework, since to do so is to capitulate precisely to the organising system that restricts imaginative potential of alternative forms of world making. In the end, it is the universal axiom of capitalism, or more accurately, the ‘realism’ of the taken for granted ‘world’ of globalisation that functions as a legitimatising narrative for global capitalism. Such a narrative constricts the terms of reference; to contest aspects of the social order which we deem unequal or non-conducive to the realisation of an equal relationship to the state, we must proceed from an acquiescence to the organising system, neoliberalism, and to remonstrate against it from within its ‘rational’ and structural parameters. This is one dimension of capitalist realism, the inherently strong regulation of our imaginative potential to conceive of an alternative to the prevailing global economic order.
It is this regulation of perception, ceasing in on a state of mind, that has Du Bois assert that one of the ways in which a lack of energy and the failure of world making shows up in black folk is in “a timidity in doing: a want of self-confidence, self-assertiveness, and self-knowledge” and he therefore detects in black folk a shared obstacle “a kind of spiritual hesitation in a world where spirit rules.” Du Bois, “The Education of Black People”, 28. A self-knowledge — a consciousness of one’s political constitution in relation, seems to locate the potential for social change for black people within the ambit of epistemic rearrangement and thus, the ambit imagination and desire. Spivak, Du Bois Lecture, 2009.
Nonetheless, his historical analysis of the socio-economic mobility of black people immediately following slavery, under the government’s efforts to aid newly freed slaves through the Freedmen’s Bureau, suggests that there was a sense in which black folk in America were primed to enter the domain of full citizenship from their position of subalternity that had them inherently removed from state infrastructure, and that saw them only as manual labourers. For Du Bois, the Bureau represented “one of the most singular and interesting attempts to grapple with the vast problems of race and social conditions.” (Emphasis added) Du Bois, 12. The subsequent withdrawal of the Freedman’s Bureau, which was established as a type of social welfare infrastructure for formerly rebellious Southern states, directly undercut the efforts to move black people from the category of subalternity into citizenship, and in the process confirmed how a state-centered contempt for social welfare and the condition of black people enabled the subalternisation of the Negro.Spivak, Du Bois Lecture, 2009.
To extrapolate further with Spivak, when Du Bois considers a stateless group as systemically uneducated and illiterate, as in his essay “On the Meaning of Progress”, which attends to those “born without and beyond the World,” Ibid, 42. he places us squarely within the domain of the African, American (as yet unhyphenated) subaltern. Spivak, Du Bois Lecture, 2009. 0 Indeed, this position of subalternity necessarily implies that one has no relationship to the state legitimate or otherwise, and that one is, in other words, within the state – but without the state.
And yet, even as socio-economic infrastructure can be established to permit some black people’s ‘spiritual strivings’, this is only a first step. The material conditions cannot alone satiate such a striving and hunger for coming into citizenship, since “we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than breadwinning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.”Du Bois, Souls, 58-59. What this indicates is that for those coming into citizenship from a status as subjects, the purpose of an education worth the name is seen in its emphasis on ‘culture and character’ but it seems character is seen in its capacity to train the imagination for social justice, rather than the self-knowledge of a narcissistic kind, a logic of the merely self-interested sovereign subject.
Du Bois leads by example in this case, in that he manages to synthesize biopolitics and economics to provide a complex, thicker understanding of the double consciousness that is inevitably the promise of black life within capitalist mode of production. Importantly, his synthesis involves a collective consciousness and an education that can make possible epistemic rearrangement, the most significant aspect of his critique, since “it would not do to concentrate all the efforts on economic well-being and forget freedom and manhood and equality.”Ibid, 7. Instead, Du Bois points us towards the arena of something singular and quite unverifiable, in the direction of imaginative potential, since “[n]egroes must live and eat and strive, and still hold an unfaltering commerce with the stars.”Ibid, 7 They must, to paraphrase the insight of his diagnosis, not only be preoccupied with learning how to earn a living, but they must also learn to earn a life. Ibid, 24. It is this economic exigency together with a want for an ‘unfaltering commerce with the stars’, an attention not only to the needs but also to the desires of the subaltern, which enables us to read the echoes of Du Bois’ instructive in our time. Rather than see a transformative education as vocational and skilled based only, Du Bois is quite blunt about the motives behind the constant denial of a fully incorporated and humanistic education to black people. He attributes this to a general fear of white supremacy, a fear that conscious blacks might one day get mad in full recognition of their oppression, and decide to get even: “When a human being becomes suddenly conscious of the tremendous powers lying latent within him, when from the puzzled contemplation of a half-known self, he rises to the powerful assertion of a self, conscious of its might, then there is loosed upon the world possibilities of good or evil that make men pause. And when this happens in the case of a class or nation or race, the world fears or rejoices according to the way in which it has been trained to contemplate a change in the condition of the race or class in question…”(24). This educational philosophy is exemplary insofar it offers a remedy to the crisis of the imagination, such a condition is entangled with what Du Bois would call a ‘spiritual striving.’ An education thus conceived is a practice of freedom, one that persistently works towards the decolonisation of individual and collective desire.
Time will testify that given how this is not only a question of access to the technological and economic domains of the modern world, the ideal citizen-subject will not merely come into being because a small group of benevolent capitalists decide to empower schools through instruments of technology or large financial injections. For anything resembling critical consciousness, we would need to supplement these technological and material gains in a Spivakian mode, with an even more sustained and sustaining technology of the soul. The aesthetic, by which I mean the artistic forms of cultural expression and production generally; literary, textual, filmic and so on, would be offered here as a supplement to the wished-for distribution of technology in our education agenda. And while curriculum reform alone under the banner of decolonising education is not a guarantee of a liberated world, there is at least something to be said for the responsibility of a humanities education, its role in cultivating the mindsets that can apprehend a revolutionary moment to come, an epistemology that can outlive the mere moment of liberation that colonial historiography has bequeathed us. We would need to speculate in good faith about the extent to which our current political expectations are continuous with the future of our imagined future. This gestures towards one direction; to the ongoing relation between education and the university, the ideological reproduction of desire, and the enduring forms of structural violence in the post-apartheid state.
This article was previously published in the journal Social Dynamics. Re-published here in shortened form with kind permission of the author and the editor Bernard Dubbeld. You can read the full paper here.
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|1.||M. Jacqui Alexander writes of the entanglements of pedagogies in a book chapter entitled “State, Capital, and the Decolonisation of Desire” 2005.|
|2.||Although it should go without saying, one feels obliged to mention that this move had nothing at all to do with the erroneous idea that somehow Afrikaans is, in and of itself, ‘the language of the oppressor.’Oppression is and can be facilitated by any language. Moreover, a great number of black students within the movement were themselves Afrikaans speakers, many of them ‘mother-tongue’ speakers. Yet evidence of this language policy being used as an anti-black tool of exclusion is seen in the fact that Afrikaans speaking black students form part of a daming numerical minority at Stellenbosch, even as black Afrikaans speakers are a statistical majority in the province of the Western Cape. Also, despite their possession and command of the language, black Afrikaans speakers can hardly stave off the guaranteed alienation and dispossession that the space engenders.|
|4.||Jacques Derrida, The University Without Conditions, 236.|
|5.||Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 16.|
|6.||Rosalind Morris, “The Idea of Communism: Notes on the Singular and the Universal” (2019).|
|7.||Berlant, Cruel optimism, 2|
|8.||I am not suggesting that the idea of the good life is the centre of, or underpins, all ideologies or forms of social organisation. In its current understanding, it is central to neoliberalism insofar as it is the ruse of capitalist ideology, the notion of the good life functions to buttress the auto-regenerative forces that neoliberalism rests upon, meritocracy, achievement, and the desire for indefinite economic growth.|
|9.||Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 31-32|
|10.||Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 4.|
|12.||Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 14.|
|13.||Although I’m certain Berlant’s account of cruel optimism cannot come across by way of a drive-by summary, locating desire at a collective level in the way I go about in the essay would seem to require that we maintain some difference between times of crisis and to mark the singularity of crisis times even if or even where they extend across time and space.|
|14.||Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 21.|
|15.||Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth, vii.|
|17.||Étienne Balibar, “Law, Property, Politics”, 2018.|
|18.||Gayatri Spivak, Aesthetic Education, 38.|
|19.||Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 10.|
|22.||Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 17.|
|25.||Freire, Pedagogy, 51.|
|30.||Du Bois, “The Education of Black People”, 28.|
|31.||Spivak, Du Bois Lecture, 2009.|
|32.||(Emphasis added) Du Bois, 12.|
|33.||Spivak, Du Bois Lecture, 2009.|
|35.||Spivak, Du Bois Lecture, 2009. 0|
|36.||Du Bois, Souls, 58-59.|
|40.||Rather than see a transformative education as vocational and skilled based only, Du Bois is quite blunt about the motives behind the constant denial of a fully incorporated and humanistic education to black people. He attributes this to a general fear of white supremacy, a fear that conscious blacks might one day get mad in full recognition of their oppression, and decide to get even: “When a human being becomes suddenly conscious of the tremendous powers lying latent within him, when from the puzzled contemplation of a half-known self, he rises to the powerful assertion of a self, conscious of its might, then there is loosed upon the world possibilities of good or evil that make men pause. And when this happens in the case of a class or nation or race, the world fears or rejoices according to the way in which it has been trained to contemplate a change in the condition of the race or class in question…”(24).|