Some Laclauian, Psychoanalytic, and Strategic Thoughts on the Middlesex Move to Kingston

Let no crisis be wasted . . .

Middlesex and Laclau’s ‘New Thoughts On the Revolution in Our Time’

I think what really concerns people about this whole fiasco, though, can best be put in Laclauian terms. I’ve always thought that Laclau’s political metaphysics from ‘New Thoughts On the Revolution of Our Times is highly underrated (and often hard to find in print), and much less often read than the more critical approach put forth in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. But its in New Thoughts that Laclau really goes beyond strategy and develops a metaphysic, one which I think is incredibly useful in times like these.

People saw the possibility for the Middlesex crisis to turn into a demand that could represent more than just Middlesex (what Laclau terms a relatively ’empty signifier’). For Laclau, when an ‘organic crisis’ occurs, the hegemonic structure which dominates a given sector of the social all of a sudden seems contingent, and the hopes and fears of the populace begin to float, rather than being anchored by the ‘master signifier’ of the hegemony in question. The result is the opening up of a variety of ‘imaginary horizons’ which allow for new possible landscapes of social being to be entertained as possibilities.

Each of these new imaginary horizons attempts to ‘explain’ the social crisis in question, and allow for the establishment of a new order. In order for this to happen, though, a particular claim needs to begin to stand in for the general desire for order. Laclau gives the example of the notion of the proletariat in the Russian revolution, in which case the industrial sector of society, and the needs of the urban proletariat, were made to ‘stand in’ for the needs of the country as a whole: ‘we are all proletariats’! The process whereby this happens is what Laclau, following Althusser, calls ‘articulation’, whereby a ‘chain of equivalences’ is formed that links groups together so that a ‘counter-hegemonic’ bloc can be formed, one that articulates enough groups around the demand of one particular group in a way that the needs of that group articulates that of all the groups, represents them, and forms a new social order.

Its in this sense that ‘Save Middlesex Philosophy!’ became about something bigger. This demand became articulated to desire to fight the entire neoliberal attack on the humanities that worried so many others. The hope here was to put the entire modern university system on trial, and with it, the neoliberal hegemony as a whole.

Is this a noble desire? Of course! But we need to separate the desires of the folks now feeling disappointed from a cool, strategic pragmatism. So, the real question, it seems to me, was: was something like a general crisis of the universities of the UK or beyond, or a May ’68 type event, likely to happen in this case?

Kingston and Pragmatics

All of which brings us to the Kingston issue. When I first heard about the move to Kingston, my first reaction was: wow, this is great! Then I read that some folks weren’t as pleased, and I went over to the Middlesex blog, and read the comments, and the majority were negative. Which hit me as a shocker, but also food for thought.

Of the two major voices against that grain, one accused the others of ‘beautiful soulism’, and that seems apt to me. The other was an undergrad who was there on the ground, and who mentioned a key factor: summer vacation coming, and the fact that this is what really took the steam out of May ’68 in France, and that pressure had been ratcheted up high but had seemed to have hit a climax, and that nobody at Middlesex seemed to be budging.

I must say, from this side of the pond, I’m pretty elated that Kingston decided to save CRMEP. If anything, it seems like that center will expand. And yes, its missing its two non-senior faculty. Which is a sticking point (especially as I’m non-senior faculty at my home institution!) I must say, I don’t know the system over in Britain, one is listed as a ‘Research Fellow’ who seems to get his funding from elsewhere, the other just seems standard non-tenured faculty (like me). I don’t know the specifics of the deal they worked out with Kingston. I hope, hope, hope that they will find a way to help these two as well, or at the minimum, the four others use their good offices make damn shit sure they get these two kick-ass jobs they are happy with elsewhere.

But is it a loss or a victory? I must confess to being a pragmatist when it comes to these things. Overall, I think a victory. I agree, with summer coming, its likely that it would’ve been real hard to keep the pressure up. Then again, as some have mentioned, the UCU (which from what I can tell is the major faculty union over there), was preparing real action for the fall. Perhaps the sort of action that could’ve brought the whole of Middlesex to its knees, by having all UCU faculty strike? IF it could’ve done this, and I don’t know, then perhaps it would’ve been a wonderful thing. But that’s a big if, and I don’t know enough of the specifics.

We had a similar situation at NYU a few years ago with the graduate student strike. Despite a well organized strike, a lot of support outside the university, and the ACLU behind the strike, NYU just weathered the bad publicity, came down hard on many of the strikers, and won easily. There’s still no grad student union at NYU. My sense is that unless the UCU could’ve gotten ALL the faculty at Middlesex to join in a strike in protest, nothing would’ve happened. For administrators, I think the opinion is that bad press eventually goes away. People have short memories.

Revolution or Reform? Yes Please!

Coming back to Lacalu, it hits me that what people outside the situation are pissed at is that their imaginary horizons deflated. They were looking for some social demand with which to articulate their own desires for much grander social change. Now, IF Middlesex were a situation that could really escalate and bring about a more general crisis in the neoliberal approach to education in Britain or beyond, or even start a May ’68 type event, then there is a strong case for this. If UCU action in the fall could have brought this about, then there’s a strong case for this.

But not being on the ground there, I can’t say I know the specifics of what the UCU can really do. My sense is that with the summer, the movement would lose a LOT of steam. What could the UCU really pull together in the fall? Only those nearby in Britain know this.

My sense is that from a pragmatic point of view, the Middlesex crisis MAY, and I say may, have hit a high point. That it got a ton of publicity, and that any set of administrators who even THINK of doing something like this again will think twice. We must remember, however, that no administrator will ever just say, ‘oops, I was wrong’, and back down completely. They need to save face, to have some story to tell themselves about how they were right, and were held to their principles, and compromised pragmatically. As do the resisters. The point is that the only way to a full victory would be, as some have argued, intervention from above. Its evident that none of that would come from the current administrators, even if more from pride than anything else.

I think the Middlesex fiasco made it very clear to administrators: ‘do this at your peril.’ I don’t think any administrator will try to do anything like this again without a much, much, much stronger case. So I think this aspect of the campaign has been quite successful.

But I do think its unlikely that it would’ve turned into something bigger, involving all the campuses in Britain, or turning into a general strike against neoliberalism. Why? Because right now most of the people in Britain and the US don’t WANT a revolution. And of course, half the purpose of protests is to educate the public as to how much they need change. But this is also the purpose of education in general, the function of intellectuals, both within and without the university structure (which is where blogging can be so helpful!). But right now, people are way too satisfied with the ruling structures, even as it gives them the shaft, and gives the rest of the world a much bigger shaft.

Is it possible for a revolution to be ‘premature’? Many argued this is precisely what happened in Russia, where the proletariat were united, but the peasants in the mass of Russia were not only uneducated, but often illiterate and barely recovered from several hundred years of serfdom. The Mensheviks, Trotsky amongst them at first, argued that the gradual path to socialism was necessary because if you simply took power at the top, the bottom would eventually be too soft a foundation to support real socialism.

What happened? In hindsight, it seems the Mensheviks were right, and the Tsarist middle class administrators, the nomenklatura, won the day. They simply liked their privileges too much to actually fight for the proletariats (ok, it is also a huge question what would’ve happened had Stalin not been there, but it is likely that a less extreme example of what happened would’ve been the case). And the same is the case with the so-called ‘middle classes’ in the overdeveloped world today.

Is there hope for real revolution, or real reform in the world today? I don’t know. I’ve argued my general approach to these issues elsewhere, most specifically in a post called Networks, Politics, and Fitness Landscapes. My sense is that real change comes through interventions in the landscape, though of course the million dollar question is how you bring this all about. But I do know that while many of us dream of old-style revolution, we need to realize its limitations. As Lacan told the ’68-ers, ‘you want a new master. You will have one.’ This doesn’t mean that ’68 would have necessarily failed had it escalated, or that all revolutions are doomed to fail. Far from it. But it did mean, I think, that in the context of ’68, the hopes of the revolutionaries on revolution as such were idealistic. Revolution at the top without revolution from the masses is bound to have limited staying power. We need to learn from all of this if we are to make change which is more substantial than aleatory, feel-good events or protests, or revolutions that collapse or rot from within. How could we lay the groundwork for change that can last?

We are trained, by Hollywood and even literary fiction, with its artificial climaxes, to want cataclysmic change. But as any therapist will tell you, real change is never one of ‘flashes of insights’, and even when there are such flashes, they are often forgotten at the next session, need to be repeated many times, and only sink in after the long, hard work of what Freud and most working therapists today call ‘working through.’

The Public Intellectual, and Intervening at the Landscape

Can we have real change today? Maybe it will come by revolution. Maybe it will come gradually. But our real task, it seems to me, is to get people interested in something other than YouTube clips of celebrity mishaps, reality TV, and following the latest gossip of our pop stars, or scandels of the moment. It seems each time the US bombs something, we have a celebrity show trial to divert us from what really matters.

Can we, as a society, unlearn this? This is where I think the public intellectual has a part to play. We need to bring our work beyond the academy, to the masses, to make them see why they should be interested. The ivory tower is the place society sends ideas to die, to make them harmless. How do we spread ideas of change, without them becoming ‘watered down’? Or can we learn to ‘walk and chew gum’ at the same time?

I don’t think I support the Chomsky approach, of fracturing yourself into your academic work and your political work, with nothing in the middle. I think it is very possible to speak clearly about philosophy and why it matters, as well as write in ways that both specialists and layfolks can understand, without a person losing their chops to write to the specialists when the moment demands. We can fracture our authorship like this, or layer it, without losing our authenticity. And I think this is necessary if we are to win against Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, American Idol, and all the other things that distract people from the violences around us in the world.

I think the burden is on us to make the case to the rest of the world as to why they should give a shit for something beyond reality TV. On why we need massive reform, say, to get money out of politics in the US (campaign finance reform!) as a start for making politicians actually accountable to the public, not the wealthy and corporations. And from there, to maybe passing some laws to make news organizations public/private entities (like the BBC), rather than completely for-profit. Or passing a law saying that no political party can have more than 30% of the seats in congress. Or interventions within laws for corporate governance to involve some sort of public accountability. These sorts of interventions shift the landscape of our politics, rather than just work within the same field of play. But the burden is on us to create the groundswell required to get any of these seemingly boring reforms off the ground, and through the massive mass-media and corporate opposition they’d require. Even after the recent financial crisis, we still couldn’t get derivatives reform through congress. The system is broken, and nobody seems to care!

How do we reach beyond the ivory tower? I think by teaching, and teaching undergrads, non-specialists. But also in finding ways, new ways, to reach beyond our traditional circles. Blogs are perhaps a start.

To Sum Up

I’m not sure if the Middlesex crisis resolved in the best way possible – as I said above, I think this depends on what the UCU could’ve done, and that’s impossible to know from my position. But I think the issue is one of strategy, and this sounds like strategically a damn good resolution, at least from this perspective. I think the people griping about it are wishing someone would cause a revolution, and are putting way too much on the Middlesex folks. It isn’t these people’s jobs to support your fantasies of social change. Things don’t change that easy. We ALL have work to do. And it starts at home. And its gonna be a long, hard slog. Maybe generations. But seeing as the CRMEP will continue, with its students, this seems to me a large win, because as they say, a bird in hand is worth ten in a bush.

I know many will feel deflated. But this is not about our feelings. Its about real social change, and that requires strategy and pragmatic action as much as dreams and feelings. IF the UCU could’ve truly escalated, great, but that’s a real gamble. From afar, it seems that scaring the shit out of administrators thinking of cuts in the future, while saving the program and its students, and maybe even strengthening the program, seems a win.

I wish the Middlesex folks the best. I think the Kingston news is great. Maybe it could’ve been more, but most likely, not. An 8/10 win, at least from this perspective.

(PS – I know I haven’t posted here much on Middlesex recently, though its not out of lack of support, its just that I don’t think anyone comes here for news, so it always felt redundant, so I only posted when I felt I had something to say or add to the discussion, or to publicly state support. That said I’m still pretty happy that, partially through my efforts, we managed to get all the chairs and the dean in our School of Liberal Arts to sign a letter of protest over the closing and the suspensions. That made me pretty happy.)

~ by chris on June 9, 2010.

2 Responses to “Some Laclauian, Psychoanalytic, and Strategic Thoughts on the Middlesex Move to Kingston”

  1. […] of conjuncture at which it becomes possible to bring about a massive shift. (Last week I wrote a commentary on the move of Middlesex Philosophy to Kingston, and I must say that since writing that, and hearing Christian Kerslake’s side of the story, […]

  2. […] of conjuncture at which it becomes possible to bring about a massive shift. (Last week I wrote a commentary on the move of Middlesex Philosophy to Kingston, and I must say that since writing that, and hearing Christian Kerslake’s side of the story, […]

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