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The Subject of Chance and Decision

Henri Carlos and Guy Cohn

carlos cohn 1
Where to begin?

Between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2012, we tried to expose the reality of university life. We are here to take credit: we, the characters who exist outside the determination of capitalist democracy! As anyone who has ever written anything should know — but of course they don’t because they have the logics of a whole world against them! — the production of each and every ‘I’ serves to produce each and every instance of writer’s block. It is only when we reject the imposition of oneness by the world as it is that the truth can be written! The madness of any prophet is nothing compared to the madness of the academic writing her journal articles!

Our emergence was international: we are sustained by radical texts written in occupied universities around the world, by revolutionaries throughout history. Locally, our being took shape in the tenuous spaces for critical thought carved out in the formal studies of the academy, the informal studies of reading and discussion groups, and innumerable friendships and enmities. We were made possible by the chance presented by a number
of impending policies, including, but not limited to, our university administration’s moves to reduce the autonomy of academic workers, and our government’s policy to co-opt student associations by taking away their power of expropriation. We were made concrete by that which transmits chance into a subject proper: decision! Yet we claim to be nothing more — nothing less! — than prophets of the eternal truth of the reality of equality: for the realisation of a world against hierarchy; the end of capital’s dictation!

One need only experience the collective fervour of an occupied university to understand how much energy is siphoned into the individuation of each university’s subjects. On 14 September 2011, we are unashamed to say, we experienced this fervour. In the library basement of the University of Auckland, a teach-in provided the space for the coalescence of elements on the border
of a situation. A discussion about the reality of the university; a presentation of examples of student struggles internationally; exposure of the techniques of repression employed by university administrations. Point by point, a subjective determination to affirm our presence and to break with inexistence led to an occupation: the erecting of barricades and the drafting of demands! This event was the beginning of the subjectivation to which we belong.

By ‘subjectivation’ we mean the process through which a new body with the ability to act in and on the world is organised. Subjectivation, as organisation, need not necessarily take the form of an organisation; it is better conceptualised as the process of organisation itself, from which an organisation, or many organisations, may or may not be found to be necessary.

In the wake of the occupation, we practised and we experimented. We tried through our numerous frustrations to follow through with the consequences of what had happened — without being trapped in the mire of identity. The war machine against the state. The impulsive desire towards formalising a group with a coherent identity seemed almost to universally have the consequence of de-subjectivation and contraction; we would not let our desire be subsumed by such pettiness! We would not forget the necessary consequences!

As the claim ‘We are the university!’ became the catch cry of the process taking place, we found ourselves in a struggle against the simple becoming of a particular, named group; against saying we are ‘We are the University’; a battle against the suture; a struggle against common sense! We proposed that this was merely a possible phrasing of the claim that had surged forth from our collective enquiries; it was far better understood as a slogan than an identity, and all slogans are quickly saturated! Could we apply the same analysis to the revolutionary outbursts of the twentieth century? ‘The Communist Party’, what a slogan! ‘We are but the Party of Communists!’

To claim ‘We are the university!’ but not to say we are ‘We are the University’. Again and again, we were presented with points at which the truth would be contested: could the process in which we were participating be enclosed within the circle of a group, or does such an enclosure work to delimit the possibilities that present themselves, which is to say, prevent possibilities from becoming present? Both in theory and practice this was a real problem. We could even go so far as to say it was on this dialectic that everything rested: the dialectic of an organised fraction and its outside. We can hardly say the problem was solved; indeed we would say the lesson is that maintaining this problem as a problem is the only real solution.

The Situation
—From whence we came!

There was little in the way of real politics on the Auckland campus at the beginning of 2011. There was, of course, the presence of various ‘political’ groups and institutions such as the student association and a number of labour unions, but these were all thoroughly subsumed by the logics of management and administration: the student association and unions severely compromised by their place within the overall configuration of power; the political groups, whether mainstream parties or organisations of the radical left, largely focused on maintaining their existence through recruitment. These apparatuses, even under their most subversive pretences, tend to function so as to reaffirm conventional reality.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that there was no politics at all; but if we understand politics as the process of asserting the capacity for thought which leads the way to overcoming the banality of life subsumed by the motivations of capital, then politics found itself repressed by the desire for order, and other internal limits, most notably, the internal limit of so-called ‘democracy,’

The possibility of real politics existed in the cracks of the order maintained both in society at large and within the university situation in particular; an order in which society is subsumed by the dictates of capital and the social relations it foments. The conscious and affirmational desire for the transcendence of society’s subsumption was generally ushered into the margins of formal study. There in the under-commons there would be reading and writing, and the kernel of new movements. These endeavours included a collective which itself sprang from the formal study of a number of students; a reading group involving a number of academics and students; and a cartel for theory organised by students as a rejoinder to the condescension of soft entry into texts via speed reading and introductory guides. These pockets were sites of potential, yet to see the threshold crossed from theory into practice. As well as these somewhat conscious pockets there existed — and continue to exist — innumerable unconscious pockets
of resistance to power without any coherent idea in development. We must admit we were few — but it is the yeast that makes the bread!

For us, the existence of such potential had a strong correspondence to what could be more or less openly studied in the different spaces of the university. In our experience, this was most strongly the case wherever theory could resist the injunction to do nothing more than gather data for the encyclopaedia, or proffer in the disingenuous demand for objectivity. This was very much contingent on who happened to be teaching where, and always subject to change. While it is clearly true that the university largely serves to subvert any radical thought into ‘writing papers for journals which no one ever reads and books which no one could care less about’, it is
also important to state that this is not necessary. The subversion of radical desire into the tedium of academia is contingent not only on the existing state of things, but also on the failure of that desire to find its true consequence. It is both a failure of structure and a failure of subjectivity. We must always work against the cowardly figure of the academic, who hides behind the empty admission of privilege, who demands to speak and will not listen, and who will not link arms against the violence of the situation when it is revealed.

The ‘radical academics’ and rebellious students found lurking in the cracks of the university make up its ‘Imaginary Party’. Evidence of their membership is found in the small deeds of introducing each other to ideas that expose the contingency of the present way of things, and their atomised resistance to the power that bears down upon them. It is in this Party of the Imaginary that we found each other. Whereas previously there was the very real presence of the Party as the dominant form of emancipatory politics, today the very concept of the Party is in tatters; resistance is fragmented, atomised, disorganised. The Imaginary Party makes potential the idea that the seemingly spontaneous outbursts of resistance we find in recent history, whether they be the recalcitrance of the workforce or the riots of the poor, find a potentially unifying principle in the possibility of an imaginary recognition of a shared project.

The importance of those precursory classes and study groups, despite their flaws, lay in their providing a space for the encounters through which we began to find each other. It was only with those first cautious leanings— coming out with our thoughts and desires—that what followed could: anxiety and its transgression. As these elements began their movement towards amalgamation, there existed a deep current of fear and anxiety toward any real engagement. Pseudo-activity always seems an easier option than taking any risk. We might say then that overcoming fear—fear of punishment, fear of failure, fear of looking ridiculous—necessitated a subjective forcing. This was a decision to abandon our fear and carry out the consequences of truth’s exposure; only with the necessary intensities will the permanence of our new present take hold. We must take sides and organise. In the beginning, there was not a problem of the head, but of the body and its acts.

The Event
—We were the inexistent!

The teach-in in the library basement on 14 September 2011 was the event with which the real subjectivation began, ushering in a shift beyond the realm of the imaginary and into the real. The event coalesced around a happenstance sequence from which a number of points would emerge and genuine decisions would be made. Insofar as decisions were made, they were made, created from the new field
of possibility we had exposed. These real decisions are something that can only be made between what is given and what is impossible to know, beyond inane and arbitrary choices, constructed in the radical prospect for change and endowed upon a situation through chance.

The teach-in constituted a ‘site’, a part of the world apart from the world, ‘at the edge of the void’, which, while being within the contemporary situation of capitalist democracy, managed to avoid the overbearing power structures of that situation. A site has some degree of autonomy as a place from which the contingency and precarity of the existing order can be seen, yet a site is itself contingent and precarious. The teach-in was such a site within the university under capitalist democracy; evidence is found in the fact that the participants came to terms with the reality of the power structures that dominate the university under this capitalist democracy, and from there actively rejected them; the participants ignored the demands of the university administration’s proxies the university administration’s proxies, and carved out a space for thought not subject to the ordinary constraints which the university places on thinking.

The university, within the wider political context, is counted as something that produces a quantifiable product, made manifest in the symbolic register of the market, whether it is performance based research scores for academics, the entrepreneurial gamble of student debt, or an obscure patent mined from neuroscience, engineering or pharmacology. So-called knowledge is contained, numerated and circulated. The subjective side to the university, the capacity for study to lead to its own independent conclusions, is glossed over, overwritten in the language and the logic of finance. And it is in the reversal of the way the university counts for the state that we can find the possibility for something not subsumed by the dominant logics of the world as it is structured. From the point of view of that which the state glosses over—the point of view of thought which follows its consequences without compromising its principles—it is possible to think a rupture with the dominant logics of today, and act in support of this. For us, one of the ways such thought and activity assumed a new consistency was through the formulation of demands that corresponded to different logics, unleashing the university from the dictates of the market and accumulation, and creating the university of taking-place and defending it from the police!

The claim ‘We are the university!’ would put into words what the event had exposed. Despite the teach-in itself being shut down by university administration and the cops, in maintaining the truth of what we had discussed, we claimed that the real university existed precisely in those spaces that are not sanctioned. In fact, the reality of the university—the students, academics, workers, and broader community—which should count for everything, counted for nothing unless subsumed by the rationale of capitalist democracy. And, yet, it is precisely this minimal existence that could be turned into actual subjectivation.

The ‘we’ in question cannot be captured in a specific counted off group; we has indeterminacy, such that the claim ‘We are the university’, despite being proclaimed by a particular group of people, summons forth the we of all who are not counted. The university event makes exist that whose inexistence sustains the university as one, not just students, but the broader community itself. What we saw was the possibility for the coming into existence of the entire contingent community in the university and the capacity for a subjectivation that could build relations that reach beyond the confines of the university as such.

—Faith in dis-integration!

The question then became one of endurance: with the realisation that rupture, which first seemed impossible, is possible, how might it become possible that this rupture endures? It is a question of fidelity. Firstly, it is a question of subjectivation, and then, for the endurance of that subjectivation, it is a question of fidelity. The university under capitalist democracy has become a manifest operation in discouraging ideas, of separating, segmenting and allocating parts; if we think of an idea as that which mediates between the world and its truth, we can say that the university under capitalist democracy is a space in which hoarding and gathering information happens, often in the absence of ideas. Thought in this environment is something more often than not foreclosed or confined. Politics then, as a kind of thought, is in contradiction with the manufactured consensus of the university under capitalist democracy, in which real political thought is already foreclosed or confined to the margins. Again, the figure of the academic cries, ‘We have plenty of ideas’ — yes, but those ideas are little more than the contents of an encyclopaedia that is ruled by the lies that sustain the current state of things.

The state of the modern university is part of a wider ideological situation. The question is: what role does the university play in reproducing contemporary ideology? We found ourselves within the university, and made the simple assertion that it was possible, from within the cracks of the university, to have an affect. There is little point fetishising the university as it stands as a place that has any clear process for affecting contemporary ideology. For it seems that it is precisely in the cracks of such unclear processes that the inertia of this period we find ourselves in can be disrupted.

The question arises of severing the links of incorporation that interpellate individuals into being ‘realistic’ about what changes can be made. When we engage, we realise that this constant recourse to reality is precisely the operation that needs to be broken down, and the only way to do that is with ideas; ideas that propose alternatives
to this so-called reality, the kind of ideas that are brutally policed out of the picture.

‘How do we convince people to join us?’ someone will ask. Avoiding the temptation of action for its own sake is important insofar as, without the thought necessary to guide it, action is destined to merely fulfil a reproductive role: to drain our bio-power. We do not need to implement bureaucracy when we come to terms with disorganisation as the ground for all politics. Bureaucracy, as that which seeks to cover for disorganisation, only to give it the power of an empty coercion, emerges in the ignorance of our collective capacity to think, to speak, and to meet, that is, to graft on to the points that can resuscitate the subject!

And so we need new political subjects. We call into question the moment when thinking breaks down and actions become aimless; we can point to this as the moment that subjectivation stalls, as the moment where the figure of the student as a political subject realises a certain impotence. Individuals will coalesce around a totem of discouragement, taking lessons in strategy from the already incorporated unions, from particularist community groups and freelance re-enactors of a bygone era. The narrative will turn to
a lack of skills and the moderate incrementalism of small victories and membership numbers. The archaic vanguardists will attempt to fill the lull with the recurrence of dead slogans. This incorporation operates at the level of police. An identity will only fall neatly into the enumerable play of differences and offer us up for representation . . . to disintegrate. We must dis-integrate from the imaginary of capitalist democracy. We are not here to set up a false dichotomy between real and imaginary politics, but when asked, ‘who are we’, it is in answering that we become who we might be.

A Wager
—The figure of the student and the characters of a world to come!

The figure of the student—a decision, a throw of the dice, to ‘play the part in the name of the waves’—is one that belongs to today. After the warrior and after the soldier, they are dead! Good riddance, we fear their return! Students have always had to defend themselves; we have had to defend ourselves! So much fear derives from our lack of faith in our own ability to defend ourselves. Before we can withhold our might we must come to terms with it.

The figure of the student bears witness to the possibility of an immanent transgression of the situation. From the bureaucrats of the left, the same old ideas are trundled out in a new package: abstraction. A thousand NGOs and their wealthy backers are nothing compared to the capacity for which the figure of the student makes way. To study, and to decide.

We need to tell a new story; to tell a story anew; to hone our imaginations; to set forth ideas not predestined to any empty form from history. We must take care in the construction of our tale. Our recital must be unconditional. To escape our determination by the world as it is, let us all assume characters, let even our characters assume characters, let us get rid of ourselves.

First principles against presuppositions; decisions against choices; truths against opinions; reality against process; honesty against bureaucracy! We should be honest about our own misery, rather than merely relying on experts and professional activists to tell us what is wrong with the world. The challenge for us now is to reinvigorate the procedure of thinking politics; to sustain thought at every stage, and reject the unthinking imposed by identity as we find it. We must theorise and think against ourselves, against every micro-state that has been established in the imaginary of those who inhabit capitalist democracy. We must finally craft in the cracks of this imaginary the characters of a world to come.