Media and Feminist Theory: Strategy: Critique

Neo-liberal Policies and the Language of Supremacy

Krista Geneviève Lynes

This week, in my graduate Media & Feminist Theory seminar, we were meant to begin a series of classes on Feminist Strategies, including weeks on ‘Critique’, ‘Collectivity and Situated Knowledges’, ‘Dreams of a Common Language’, and ‘Figuring Otherwise’. Our guide this week was Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed,[1] a theoretical primer in what Sandoval calls a ‘differential consciousness’, located in the works of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Hayden White, Donna Haraway, Fredric Jameson and others, in dynamic conversation with the theoretical and political work of U.S. Third World Feminism. Sandoval’s text seeks not only to provide a toolkit for cultural criticism, but also a handbook for creating social movements and identities able to address the circuits of power and the persistence of forms of domination.

The momentum of the student protests have drawn public attention to the government’s decision to implement steep tuition-fee hikes in Quebec, and increased public dialogue on the role of higher education in the province and in the country. Worrisome, however, is the manner in which this increase in public dialogue has served to reinforce a neo-liberal vision of higher education as a service, of the students as consumers, and to force a wedge between communities dependent on public funds to compete for increasingly scarce resources (and thus, to quiet concerns about the winnowing down of the public sphere in toto).

In what ways might the statements by the Charest government and the press constitute a ‘language of supremacy’? In Methodology of the Oppressed, Sandoval draws out Roland Barthes’s understanding of the language of supremacy, and particularly, the manner in which Western consciousness is bolstered by seven principle figures: ‘the inoculation’, ‘the privation of history’, ‘identification’ and ‘exoticism’, ‘tautology’, ‘neither-norism’, ‘the quantification of quality’ and ‘the statement of fact’. These figures work together, form and inform the circulation of signs in culture, and have weighty ideological effects in producing a common sense of things (a ‘common-sense’, tout court) we take as reality as such. For Sandoval, these figures generate a structure, “a rhetoric for being that orders and regulates Western social space and consciousness” (118), and has enormous impact on depoliticizing public life, citizen-subjects and social inequalities.

The task of the methodology of the oppressed, in Sandoval’s view, is to highlight the work of ideology in culture through a systematic criticism of its key forms and tropes. More than this, though, it allies the work of criticism itself in the service of committed social action, seeing theory as transitive, acting on the world in direct (and sometimes unanticipated) ways. Her summary of Barthes’s analysis of the rhetoric of supremacy serves to unpack how—under the banner of ‘common sense’—public rhetorics encourage the development of authoritarianism, domination, supremacism and even fascism.

In what manner, then, might the public discourse around the tuition hikes function as a ‘language of supremacy’, and what aspects of the status quo does the discourse itself preserve and reinstantiate? Further, how might an analysis of Roland Barthes’s figures of the language of supremacy shed light on the conservative terms of public debate around this pressing issue, and inform also the student social movements and their work for social justice? Central to the mainstream media’s analysis of the strikes is the repetition that Quebec’s university tuition fees are the ‘lowest in the country’[2], ‘rock-bottom’[3], and “cheap”[4]. This trope forms and informs the terms of public debate, typifies the student body, and serves to consolidate the national average as ‘appropriate’ in the marketplace of Canadian higher education.


The first figure Barthes identifies is ‘innoculation’. Sandoval argues that innoculation works homeopathically, providing ‘cautious injections of dissimilarity’ (the ‘affirmative action approach’) in order to perpetuate the status quo. In this regard, we might see the effort at innoculation in the government’s statement that it promises to boost student aid by $118-million, largely using new tuition revenues, and thus guarantee and safeguard equality of opportunity.[5] This is similar to the strategy in the US of increasing tuition revenues while seeking to safeguard Pell Grant funding. While the strategy appears to address the class (and other access) differentials within structures of higher education, promising redistribution among the student body, it also masks a) the complicity of tuition hikes with a larger drive towards privatization, individual ‘responsibility’ and competition which have historically contributed to the increase in class divisions and the narrowing of the student body, and b) the manner in which this ‘redistributive’ logic immunizes the larger structure of the university (with its increasing class of highly-paid administrators, erosion of tenure, reliance on part-time faculty labour, and polarization of the student body). The increase in student aid thus innoculates the university against a critique of the corporatization of the university, and the wealth disparity within (and promoted by) its economic structure.

The Privation of History

This second figure works by distancing cultural objects from their material histories. In this light, the regulative mechanism that brings Quebec tuition ‘in line’ with the rest of Canada actually hides the manner in which the movement to raise tuition in Quebec is in keeping not with a static and agreed-upon norm regarding education policy in Canada but rather with the neoliberal pressure to cut education costs across the country. The focus on Quebec’s ‘rock-bottom’ tuition rates thus disguises the important connections (and sites of possible solidarity) with teachers’ movements in British Columbia and Ontario, where teachers’ unions in both provinces have resisted the calls for wage freezes in order to manage deficits. While deficit reduction is trotted out as an ideal of fiscal responsibility, it too hides the reduction in public funding (rather than the ballooning costs) which serve to produce fiscal crises. In this regard, the debate around the costs of education should be contextualized more firmly within the current government’s broad social and economic policies, within global trends towards ‘austerity’, and within a historic argument for fiscal responsibility which has always sought to erode social and economic rights, as well as government efforts to rectify social inequalities (as, for example, in the classical writings of the Chicago School, the policies of the World Bank and IMF throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and enforced throughout the global south in support of the contemporary global system).


The third figure works by equating all differences with itself either to brush aside differences as unimportant or to assimilate them. Public life then produces mirror-images of the citizen-subject which mitigate possibilities for confrontation. A central constitutive trope in the portrayal of students themselves is as ‘consumers’ of a ‘pedagogical service’, one which involves largely skills training for the current labour market. In this logic, students should be obliged to ‘invest’ in their education, since they will reap the rewards of such investment in future gains. While the framing of higher education within neoliberal and capitalist logics of investment and return are nothing new, the erasure of the multitude of pedagogical projects centred in the university work to produce a vision of students as profit-seeking speculators. This vision masks the reality of the labour force in the 21st century, the increase in student debt, scarcity of middle class jobs, persistent unemployment, and gender, class and race inequalities for graduating students. The possibilities of education as an emancipatory practice, a training in the imagination, and a forum for addressing inequalities produced out of capitalist logics (be they symbolic, monetary or knowledge-based) are thus discounted in the balance sheet of investment and return.


In this fourth figure, like defines like, and through this dominant forms of knowledge are understood and justified as such: “History is history”, “Truth is truth”, “That’s just the way it is—that’s all” (123). In the press reports of the strike, articles have prefaced discussions of student protests, of clashes with police with an excessive stress on the fact that Quebec’s tuition rates are the lowest in the country. This point of fact has the effect of challenging student claims, while preserving a veil of neutrality. For example, in a Globe and Mail article detailing the police use of tear gas on protesting students, the confrontation was introduced as a clash between “the Charest government” and “those who deem the province’s rock-bottom tuition rates an inviolable principle”.[6] Thus even in describing the use of force by riot-squads, the students themselves are typified by the central justificatory ‘matter of fact’ maintaining a rhetoric of supremacy, namely that the ‘rock-bottom tuition rates’ could stand to be floated a little closer to the water’s surface, and thus to a regulative ideal which, as discussed above in the ‘privation of history’, is imagined as a social consensus rather than a principal stake in the new Canadian neo-liberal order.


This figure allows the production of ‘independent neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’ in behaviour on the part of citizens. It generates noncommitted, detached, moderate and nonextreme modes of being. In framing the conflict as occurring between the Liberal government and Quebec students, ‘neither-norism’ confirms the concerned publics, and thus produces a majority of citizen-subjects whose stakes in the issue are seen to be non-existent at best. Thus, the normative visions of student life and student goals work to alienate students from other oppressed groups and, more than this, serve to create competition among the lowest rungs of the social order for public benefits emerging from an increasingly restrained ‘public pot’. Thus, the Finance Minister Raymond Bachand argued that “You can’t just freeze everything in Quebec. If you freeze fees for one group, that means another group will have to pay more. Freeze means under-financing”[7]. This ‘zero sum’ strategy works to preserve a veil of objectivity over government programmes, even as it forces the groups most disenfranchised in public life to compete over scarce public resources, and thus combats the already difficult work of coalition building among and between disenfranchised groups in Canada (and around the world).

The Quantification of Quality

This figure is perhaps most important to the student struggle protesting tuition hikes. In this figure, quality is reduced to quantity and, more importantly, a rhetorical chiasmus that actually quantifies quality, disguises quality as quantity and “economizes scholarly intelligence itself” (123). It is certainly through this logic that tuition rates in Quebec are characterized as ‘too low’. More than this, though, the quantification of quality serves to reduce the sphere of higher education to the pragmatic goals of ‘skills training’, thus providing eager (and privileged) consumers with the skills and accreditation necessary to compete for the jobs of the 21st century. It is this very characterization of the cost-benefit of education that has prioritized the disciplines of science, business, engineering over the arts and the humanities, but also worked to block sympathy for students among the general public, for whom students are characterized by this figure as a privileged cadre by virtue of simply paying for the service of higher education.

The Statement of Fact

Finally, the statement of fact as rhetorical figure functions to support all the above rhetorical figures by training public discourse to assert its own reality as if there were no other. It does this through the rhetorical devices of the ‘aphorism’ and the ‘maxim’. For Roland Barthes, this rhetoric of supremacism “will not rest until it has obscured the ceaseless making of the world, fixated this world into an object which can be forever possessed, catalogue its riches, embalmed it, and injected into reality some purifying essence which will stop its tranformation, its flight towards other forms of existence” (in Sandoval, 125). These figures join to produce the effect of ‘reality’ in public discourse, and thus to legitimize and bolster existing rhetorics of supremacy (which have enormous material effects on public culture in Canada and elsewhere).

In contraposition to this language of supremacy, Sandoval proposes a ‘methodology of emancipation’ which draws from the radical potentiality of ‘poetic modes of expression’, through “gestures, music, images, sounds, words that plummet or rise through signification to find some void—some no-place—to claim their due” (140). We see agile examples of such methodology of the oppressed in student efforts to build a coalition across Quebec, and in the protest cultures mobilized to change the terms of public debate around access to education. Through 48 hour ‘marathon musicals’, the mobile use of the red square, the discourse of protest is seeking to challenge the reduction of public culture to the pragmatism and literal-mindedness of the language of supremacy. These efforts are part of a broader aim to produce unity that is, in the terms of Angela Davis’s invocation to Occupy Wall Street, ‘complex and emancipatory’,[8] one which may borrow strategically from the methods outlined in Sandoval’s text.

[1] Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

[2] Rhéal Séguin and James Bradshaw, “Growing Student Protests Fail to Deter Charest on Tuition Hikes”. Globe and Mail. Published Thursday, Mar.01, 2012, Last Updated Friday, Mar. 02, 2012.

[3] “Montreal Police Use Tear Gas on Protesting Students; Four Injured”. Globe and Mail. Published Wednesday, Mar.07, 2012.

[4] Kelly McParland, “Canada’s cheapest tuitions are still too much for Quebec students”. The National Post. Jan.19, 2012.

[5] Séguin and Bradshaw. Op cit.

[6] Globe and Mail. Op cit.

[7] Séguin and Bradshaw. Op cit.


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