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Disorienting the Classroom: A Response to The Undercommons


We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around. We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic. We surround democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it. Every time it tries to enclose us in a decision, we’re undecided. Every time it tries to represent our will, we’re unwilling. Every time it tries to take root, we’re gone (because we’re already here, moving).1

I sit down. There is no problem with the chair, or with the table, but they do not meet at a height conducive to resting my elbows and watching the others, which is how we sit to learn. So I pull a lever to raise the seat. Shortly, the class will arrive to an agreeable silence. I arrange my things on the table, my bag underneath, then spin. We face the front, each other, our computers, the door. We face our tutor, who will not be called a gatekeeper of knowledge but is nonetheless here to authenticate what is worth knowing and declare how well we know it. We enact and understand these things in a habit space. I conduct the ritual of my education; it repeats until I inhabit that front third of the room, radiating a halo of empty seats and sporting a lanyard. My passage from here to there is predictable, professional; it is mapped in the classroom and mirrored in the bank. It requires me to practice my skepticism, to become disciplined in my rejection of the disciplines. I have been orientated this way for a long time, perhaps always. And now I stand to walk.

On the way from here to there are a number of foreseeable stops. I sign a casual contract to forget about debt. I am getting by, learning to mobilise identity and market vulnerability as a virtue. I play the game of the professional, even when its rules determine how I cheat. I grow outraged and driven to complain. I am reflexive, rigorous, critical. I become what Harney and Moten call the ‘subversive intellectual,’ for whom ‘the university needs what she bears but cannot bear what she 2 brings’. And, configured as such, I metabolise the dysfunction of the institution, feeding off its failures and producing critique as output.3 I point to the limits of the University, to what it is not or cannot be, and in this way I am making it. If ‘to be a critical academic in the university is to be against the university, and to be against the university is always to recognise it and be recognised by it,’4 then we will be symbiotic, the University and I. There will be no need for an outside. Our co-constitution is a security pact. Together we are safe from the fugitive undisciplined, queer, illiterate, Black, stateless and unsettled elements of our world because we ‘institute the negligence of that internal outside, that unassimilated underground, a negligence of it that is precisely ... the basis of the professions.’ Together, we are safe from the undercommons.

The University is made on the way from here to there, in the ‘getting there’^5 where the ‘there’ is foreclosed by the methods of ‘getting’ and the ‘getting’ begins when we are orientated towards ‘there.’ To understand the ‘there’ and the ‘getting’ we must begin ‘here,’ in the body. Sara Ahmed traces the genealogy of this passage in the introduction to Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others.6 The ‘here’ of the body is made of points whose rearrangement allows us to ‘turn’. When we ‘turn’ towards familiar poles in the outside world of ‘there’, the body ‘finds its way’ and ‘feels at home.’ When we do not ‘feel at home,’ we are disoriented.^7

We enter a home space, a habit space, when we enter the classroom. Lifelong learning is a project of making bodies fit this space; renovations, new buildings, swivel chairs and HDMI cables make the spaces fit bodies that come here to learn better. Entry into the home space stabilises orientation. We know when to sit and stand. We know which way to turn. And so the classroom space orients student bodies towards ‘knowledge production.’ When we enter a space of critique, we are organised by ‘a collective orientation to the knowledge object as future project.’8 In the present, the student must see themselves as a problem, a customer, the embodiment of ignorance. But the preservation of critical rigour requires that ‘what is experienced as knowledge is the absolute horizon of knowledge whose name is banned by the banishment of the absolute.’9 In the pursuit of the future project, on the journey from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ the teacher (or professional) serves as the always already compromised guide. If the student will never make it ‘there,’ the task of the teacher is to orient us away from ‘here.’ We begin by asking questions.

Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick asks of questions: ‘What does knowledge do—the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge that one already knows?’10 The asking of questions in a critical classroom does a great deal. The critical academic and her students do not ask questions as a means of getting ‘there.’ Instead, an ‘elsewhere’ characterised as both distant from ‘here’ and multitudinous is conjured. The student is orientated towards an (allegedly indefinite) ‘elsewhere’ that can be assimilated into the future project of knowledge production, into the pool of that which is available for further critique. Apprehending the integration of ‘elsewhere’ into critical practice makes the classroom a paranoid space. Sedgwick describes paranoia as anticipatory, reflexive, mimetic and contagious.^11 It employs a ‘future-oriented vigilance’ that is nonetheless motivated by the avoidance of surprise, the reproduction of the familiar and continuity with the past. Paranoia tells us that if ‘there’ is to one day become our ‘here,’ it is already tainted by the same problems marring the student at present. When we ask a question, we admit that ‘here’ is inadequate, that ‘there’ will soon become inadequate and that ‘elsewhere’ is threatened with the possibility of becoming like ‘here’ and ‘there’ as it grows closer to our grasp. This confession is virtuous because it is an act of exposure. We strive to expose our ignorance and limits, trusting all the while in the naïveté of our audience and the subsequent capacity for shock to make them as paranoid as we are. The strong and negative affective power of paranoia dominates the critical classroom in which more time is spent on pre-emptive reaction than attempts at generative thought. This is the disclaimer, the acknowledgement, the note on worldviews, the question mark at the end of a statement that invites (and therefore perpetuates) critique. This is what fuels the University, reproduces its defining practice and orients its practitioners towards a future where such reproduction is inevitable. Our absolute investment in critique demands negligence of all that cannot be named in relation to a prior mistake.

The traditional disciplines are transparent about their future project, both to themselves and others. The critical fields, on the other hand, are struggling. The critical fields have pried on spaces of queer, Black, poor, Indigenous, disabled, illiterate, stateless, feminist and undisciplined thought in the hopes that a re-orientation of knowledge production will follow naturally. Because surely new subjects of criticism occupy a separate ‘here,’ one that does not have to relate to what is already known and critiqued. A different faith in exposure, a deep-seated belief persists that new epistemic positions will expose a radically different, incommensurable ‘there.’ The faithful have their contracts slashed and offices evicted. They grow against the University, offer more to its life-giving critique than ever before. Take away their desks and chairs and they will organise a sit-in. Their refusal is in fact an affirmation.

What happens in the undercommons requires a different kind of refusal. The choice is not for or against, but offers ‘the refusal of the choices as offered.’12 Unlike the critical academic, who is made through her opposition to the University, the undercommons ‘cannot be satisfied with the recognition and acknowledgement generated by the very system that denies a) that anything was ever broken and b) that we deserved to be the broken part.’13

Harney and Moten are unconcerned with orientation because orientation is determined by a relation between two points, at least one of which must be ‘here.’ Their goal ‘is not to end the troubles but to end the world that created those particular troubles as the ones that must be opposed.’14 The undercommons refuses to criticise ‘there’ or attempt to relocate it in new epistemological schemes. The undercommons also refuses to theorise an ‘elsewhere’ because it refuses to ask questions. This is perhaps the most jarring element of Harney and Moten’s vision, that ‘in the undercommons it is “no questions asked.” It is unconditional — the door swings open for refuge even though it may let in police agents and destruction.’15 What is refused here are the conditions inherent to the question: paranoia, critique and the taken-for-granted dismissal of the ‘here.’ To ask a question assumes either the existence of a meaningful body of knowledge (to be accessed over ‘there’) or the acknowledgement of negligence (which in turn produces further critique). It follows that ‘the questions are superfluous in the undercommons. If you don’t know, why ask?’^16 If the University is made on the way from ‘here’ to ‘there,’ the undercommons must refuse to orientate itself away from or derive potential futures from the same corrupted ‘here.’

Away from critique, away from Sedgwick’s paranoid ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and the entrapment of questions, the undercommons models disorientation. Harney and Moten illustrate this with prepositions. The undercommons is ‘in and not of’ the University; proximity does not necessitate a derivative relationship or a common origin. The undercommons is ‘beyond’ in a phenomenological space that does not depend on a ‘here,’ is not situated as rigidly in the axis of distance as ‘there’ and is not configured by oppositions like ‘elsewhere.’ It cannot be paranoid because it draws from no lineage and projects no trajectory. ‘Beyond’ is the space for surprise. The very ‘under-ness’ of the undercommons corresponds to the part of the body that is ‘animal,’ ‘undisciplined’ and disunited, making it ‘a-positional.’ Its product is therefore ‘an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question.’17 Without position, without ‘here,’ disorientation allows the people of the undercommons to ‘no longer be in one location moving to another, instead you will already be part of the “movement of things”.’^18 If orientation facilitates knowledge production, disorientation is the methodology of ‘study.’

Disorientation is a terrorising force to the critical academic and to the University. It holds the power to send contained cycles of knowledge production and critique into disarray, left to face the sheer mass of a ‘beyond’ they are engineered to neglect. Disorientation is not only ‘the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea.’19 In the introduction to The Undercommons, Jack Halberstam calls for the rejection of the ‘prescription for repair’ that maps our path from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and asks: ‘How do we resolve to live with brokenness?’20 Disorientation is the phenomenology of brokenness; it is the feeling that persists in the continual embodiment of Blackness, queerness and fugitivity. Harney and Moten write that ‘fugitivity is being separate from settling’21; disorientation is a state of unsettlement. The generative and enticing possibilities of the undercommons are activated by the feelings that inhabit this state. Sara Ahmed reflects:

Every experience I have had of pleasure and excitement about a world opening up has begun with such ordinary feelings of discomfort; of not quite fitting in a chair, of becoming unseated, of being left holding onto the ground. So yes, if we start with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different.22

I cannot say if I have met with the undercommons before, or whether or not I have practiced ‘study’ in my life. If I have, I am certain it had little or nothing to do with The University of Melbourne. What I do know, feel, embody and cherish are the minor disorientations of daily life. They throw me into feelings of connection and radical hope. They alter how I imagine beyond description. These feelings get me up in the mornings and make it harder all the time to sit back down.

Sophie Chauhan is an Anglo-Indian lesbian settler and undergraduate student of Australian Indigenous Studies at The University of Melbourne.

1. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013, p. 19.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. This conception of ‘metabolism’ comes from Audre Lorde’s discussion on how one adapts to transform hate into energy in the essay ‘Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger’, Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, 1986.
4. Harney and Moten, op. cit., p. 31.

6 Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Duke University Press, 2006.

8. Harney and Moten, op. cit., p. 27.
9. Ibid. p. 34.
10. Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick, ‘Chapter 4: Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you’, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 124.

12. Gayatri Spivak cited in Jack Halberstam, ‘The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons’ in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013, p. 8.
13. Halberstam, op. cit., p. 6.
14. Ibid, p. 9.
15. Ibid. p. 38.

17. Ibid. p. 11.

19. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception quoted in Ahmed, op. cit., p. 4.
20. Halberstam, op. cit., p. 5.
21. Ibid. p. 11.
22. Ahmed, op. cit., p. 138.

Filed under Article Sophie Chauhan