Imposed Minority and the Student Movements

(via work without dread):

On March 4, the day of massive student protest in the public universities of California, I was at Cornell at a conference called Theory Now, where I heard a talk by Michael Hardt, “The Militancy of Theory and the Exodus from Minority.” Back in California, issues of militancy and minority had come to life.

Kant writes that “enlightenment is humanity’s emergence from its self-imposed minority [Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit],” where minority means “the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” The mindset of minority is comfortable, he goes on, because “I don’t have to think about anything, if only I can pay [Ich habe nicht nöthig zu denken, wenn ich nur bezahlen kann]. . . .The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of humanity have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of humanity (including the fair sex in its entirety) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous . . . these guardians . . . show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone” (“Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” [1784], in Gesammelte Schriften(Akademie-Ausgabe), vol. 8, Abhandlungen nach 1781, Kleine Schriften, p. 35).

What should we say, then, when artificial minority is not self-imposed, but part of the culture of the university–any university that treats its students as consumers whose roles are to listen and to pay? The call and response “Whose university? Our university,” goes to the core of UC activism. I understand the “our” in “our university” to include faculty and workers, but the roles of faculty and students are never farther apart than in the assumption of students’ minority that is taken as inevitable in the usual course of things. A reform-minded approach to the UC would therefore include greater formal participation of students in university governance. I don’t doubt that if students had really substantial representation in that governance, universities would not be placing instruction last on their lists of priorities or trying to attract students through branding rather than programs and services (for example, at UC Irvine, by constructing commercial and office space while downsizing the staff of Student Academic Advancement Services). UC Irvine’s capital plan of January 2010 commits to raise $8 million of private funds for the construction by 2012 of a “meditation and reflection center” containing no classrooms or research facilities; this $8 million–a small amount by fundraising standards–would be roughly equivalent to the operating budgets of 53 small departments not featured in Irvine’s development plan (or, since we don’t have 53 small departments, 10 small departments for five years each). My reformist daydream of shared governance is also inadequate, however. We can tell that it’s inadequate from the fact that it immediately appears as a naive and impossible idea. It’s impossible now partly for circular reasons–i.e., because the university has already been taken over by self-interested privateers–but it’s also impossible, and has almost always been impossible, for deeper cultural reasons that activism makes obvious. Socially and administratively, the university makes minors out of legal and political equals; so its eyes glaze over whenever any student begins to speak as a non-minor, overwhelmed by the absence of the insider insinuations that alone count as evidence of administrative savvy. In times of conflict, it becomes sadly clear that students have more rights outside than inside the university. Where criminal charges are absurd–we can predict that they won’t hold up in court–administrative charges and academic retaliation persist which can be remarkably punitive and intimidating. So, in order to be serious about standing up for the free speech and representational needs of students, one would need to change as well the cultural attitudes and social practices through which faculty and administrators, consciously and unconsciously, gather students into a minority from which they are trying to escape.

Jacques Rancière observes that the borders of democracy are always drawn to exclude what he calls the “incompetents”–those who don’t own property, speak the wrong language, or are the wrong race or gender (Hatred of Democracy [2005], trans. Steve Corcoran [London: Verso, 2006], 54 ff.). It’s important that, after having criticized the border that the UC Chancellors and Academic Senate have erected between “civility” and “incivility,” we do not simply put it back up in another place, for example by opining from external positions on the competent and incompetent features of student movements. Part of getting beyond addressing students as minors is coming to terms with the independence and internal complexity with which the student movements confront us, acknowledging their difference (as well as their continuity) with protests of forty years ago. Taken together, the student movements project formations that are sometimes difficult to describe using words like “class,” “society,” or “state.” That should not be assumed to be a symptom of incoherence, but absorbed as a sign of the unknowability of experience that is contemporary, experience that is not yet history. We can be glad that the situation requires the expression and discussion of differences without delimiting those discussions in advance. This is one way to enact Rancière’s idea that democracy includes letting the people be further divided (Hatred of Democracy, 77 ff.) Questions of how the future could be better (better for what? better for whom?) can be addressed most legitimately and fully through activism by all, including whoever is being cast as incompetent at the time.

The intensity of protest at UC Irvine–an “apolitical campus,” it’s often repeated– takes one by surprise to the extent that one holds a stereotypical view of the capacities of the student body. The African American Studies Department at UCI was created after student activism on behalf of underrepresented populations and fields of study in 1989, when UCI had a total of five black faculty on campus (under 3/4 of 1% of the faculty). Stephanie Lopez, a member of Associated Graduate Students then, said: “They’ve got to start opening doors today, or we’re going to kick the doors down tomorrow” (“More Minority Students, Faculty Urged at UCI,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1989). Asian-American students went on a 35-day hunger strike to establish the Department of Asian-American Studies in 1993. An undergraduate named C. Michelle Ko wrote in theLos Angeles Times: “The deprivation of bodily nourishment is nothing compared to the intellectual starvation at UCI” (“UCI Needs an Asian-American Program,” May 24, 1993). Ko notes that her “education taught [her] . . . . that Asian- and Pacific-Americans were successful, wealthy and had no needs or concerns.” There is a case to be made that student passivity at UC Irvine is a myth perpetuated by a reluctance to hear or remember students’ political speech: as though what had been taken as silence was instead the uncommon deafness of the community ear.

On March 4th, back at the conference, colleagues were talking about the need to “create new political subjects” while I thought about the events significant for critical theory that were happening at home. I had to catch up on the events themselves later that night, by looking at photos posted online. Among the many moving images, this one, taken by an International Studies student named Bao Lor, is my favorite. These pink-nailed, braceleted fists of an indeterminate color are raised by those bodies that historically have drawn the most sentimentalized “guardianship” of the institution. They reveal themselves here to belong to political actors who seek to emerge from their involuntary minority.

Remarks at “Recent Activism, Better Futures,” UC Irvine, March 15, 2010

by Rei Terada


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