Media & Feminist Theory: Strategy: Collectivities and Situated Knowledges

Collectivity and the Classroom Without Guarantees

Krista Geneviève Lynes

 “Capitalist imperalism is an effort to win the world for calculation” – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline, 54.

Politics of Friendship is, in other words, only a book between covers. For the real text, you must enter the classroom, put yourself to school, as a preview of the formation of collectivities. A single ‘teacher’s’ ‘students’, flung out into the world and time, is, incidentally, a real-world example of the precarious continuity of a Marxism ‘to come’, aligned with grassroots counterglobalizing activism in the global South today” —Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline , 28.

As the number of students on strike approaches 270,000 this week, the minister Line Beauchamp declared ‘We’re not in a negotiation. A decision has been made’. The president of CEPAL, Philippe-Olivier Daniel, meanwhile sent a formal notice to student associations to ‘stop infringing on his right to attend classes’.[1] These different standpoints, figured in public discourse as the site of agonism in the public sphere (if not antagonism), figure for us the importance of the question of collectivity, and the relation of collectivity to pedagogy.

The student action would seem to pose the question of collectivity in the demonstrations, strikes and actions, and this is certainly a location for important coalitional work among students, and between students, faculty and the public. But the student’s stakes in the matter also are to preserve another form of collectivity (signalled by the second epigraph above): the collectivity of the classroom itself.

This week in my Media & Feminist Theory seminar, I had chosen as readings Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s chapter on “Collectivity” (in her book Death of a Discipline), alongside Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges”. Reading Spivak’s reflections on the importance of the classroom in the context of the student strike seemed like an impossibly fortuitous coincidence. It was also, however, a reminder that the student action did not irrupt spontaneously, but emerged at a particular historical conjuncture, one where the very possibilities of the classroom as a space for the formation of collectivities, is under threat.

In the epigraph above, Spivak stresses that the classroom is a “preview of the formation of collectivities”. We have learned this semester, via the rigorous scholarship of Caren Kaplan, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Bernice Johnson Reagon about the work required to build feminist coalitions. Reagon stated specifically, “You don’t go into coalition because you just like it […] Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done on the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do”.[2] Building collectivities requires encounters across difference, not simply the search for commonality, and a political understanding of the strategic locations and positionings of individuals within the framework of a coalition.

Why might Spivak identify the classroom as a privileged space for the formation of collectivities? A first answer might reside in the undecidability of the classroom as a space for sisterhood or solidarity. After all, anyone who has been in a classroom understands the divergent viewpoints, disparate goals, different political investments, and differential access to participation. For Spivak, it is precisely the fact that the form of collectivity cannot be decided in advance that opens the question of collectivity “without necessarily prefabricated contents” (26).

We should stress that this possibility in and of the classroom is historically specific and especially fragile in the contemporary moment. The diversity of the classroom is the result of hard-fought battles by students, and in coalitions with other groups, in the formation of a vibrant public sphere. The classroom is a shifting formation, and has been the object of a series of revolutionary shifts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, shifts which are being played out in the debates in the public sphere today. In the near history, the classroom has been one site for the revolution, since the 1980s, to reverse what Stuart Hall calls the ‘common sense’ of social democracy, i.e. the assertion of a welfare state, the buffering of market logics, support for the role of the state in representing the public interest of society, a “taken for granted popular base of welfare social democracy”.[3] Since the 1980s, the new conservative movements have engaged in a movement to contest that project, dismantle it, and put something new in its place, a regressive movement away from the social changes of the 1960s and 70s, and a ‘progressive’ articulation of a project of modernisation.

In a longer view, the pluralism and radical democratic potential of the classroom have also had to work against the function of educational institutions in culture at large. The political philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, argued that the classroom has always been the site for the representation by different social groups of their own social, political and economic function, either by creating a cadre of specialists and technicians, or by turning to categories of intellectuals already in existence which represent the historical continuity of knowledge-formation. In Gramsci’s view, this latter group (actually originally bound to the landed aristocracy), “put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group”, and thus—through an idealist philosophy—imagine[d] themselves as ‘independent’, ‘autonomous’, and ‘endowed with a character of their own’.[4] The Enlightenment project did not open the classroom up to the collectivity Spivak imagines, then, but actually shored up class interests under the guise of a universal humanism. In this regard, Spivak asks, “Who slips into the place of the ‘human’ of ‘humanism’ at the end of the day?” (26).

Classical education, thus gained its ‘autonomy’ at the expense of difference, and particularly at the expense of engaging the important social, gendered, racial and class divisions in society through the 19th and 20th century.[5] For Spivak, the mistake of this narrow vision of collectivity involves assuming collectivity on the basis of culture, and hence of grounding a collective body an originary culture. [6] This mythological unity of the student body actually disguises the manner in which, according to Gramsci, “school is the instrument through which intellectuals of various levels are elaborated”. He draws our attention to the difference between the specialised schools, which aim to serve the professional sectors, and the ‘humanistic schools’, “designed to develop in each individual human being an as yet undifferentiated general culture, the fundamental power to think and ability to find one’s way in life”.[7] Classical schools, in his analysis, serve the dominant classes and intellectuals, while vocational schools are directed toward the ‘instrumental classes’. Gramsci argues further that the emergence of technical schools (vocational but not manual) “placed a question-mark over the very principle of a concrete programme of general culture, a humanistic programme of general culture based on the Graeco-Roman tradition”.[8]

In the language of supremacy within public culture,[9] a paradox exists in the characterization of students as a collectivity. On the one hand, the separation of students from other beneficiaries of the social democratic state is meant to assert students’ privilege within the elite structures of the ‘ivory-tower’ (and thus as participants in the classical school). On the other hand, the demand that students ‘pay their due’, since their education will reap rewards in the marketplace characterizes students as consumers in technical schools. In fact, the typification of students as privleged elites in society disguises the deep and pervasive modes by which education in the arts and the humanities have been eroded through the transformation of research universities into technical schools.

Philippe-Oliver Daniel’s formal notice to his classmates, cited above, signals both the cost of the erosion of the possibilities of the work of collectivity in the classroom and the difficult work of coalition-building in the movement and the times to come. Stuart Hall is of assistance again in this matter. He notes that a historically effective ideology is one that “articulates into a configuration different subjects, different identities, different projects, different aspirations. It does not reflect, it constructs a ‘unity’ out of difference”. Hall notes that dominant ideology does not simply function on others, but also on the self. He states, “For, make no mistake, a tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project. Of course, we’re all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then—Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration—we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject”.[10] The trouble is that ideology itself isn’t coherent.

The problem for positing a collectivity of students is also the problem of the divisions articulated between the classical school and the technical school. How to affirm the role of a classical education without relying on the vexing category of universal humanism, Enlightenment, the canon (with all of its racial, gendered and class differentials)? How to resist the reduction of education to skills-training, which can only offer collectivity on the basis of the function of different student groups within the international division of labour (certainly not the kind of collectivity I’m talking about here)?

To do this, we must return to the quotation above by Gayatri Spivak, that the classroom is a “preview of the formation of collectivities”. When Spivak argues that the classroom is a preview, she is not making an argument for determinism or prediction. She is arguing rather for what she calls ‘teleopoesis’, which depends on unverifiability and prefiguration. Prefiguration of course has a doubled meaning, both in the aesthetic act of imagining in advance, and in the political activism of ‘being the change one wants to see in the world’. We have models of collectivity; the most widespread model for engagement is democracy in a public system. But, Spivak emphasizes, democracy entails brotherhood, and thus may become violently exclusivist (27). In raising the force of prefiguration, Spivak wishes to stress a form of collectivity that is indeterminate, that will come as a result of one’s dedicated work.

The focus on prefiguration and previewing also has its own temporality, a persistent attention to the future, not in the teleological narrative of progress, but rather in a politics of the ‘perhaps’. She names this the future anterior, a verb form used to describe an action that will have happened (and thus will be past) in the future. She sees the distinction between progress narratives and the future anterior as follows: “one promises no future present but attends upon what will have happened as a result of one’s work” (29). The role of the classroom, and of the task of reading is “to affect the distant in a poeisis—an imaginative making—without guarantees, and thus, by definitive predication, reverse its value” (31).

She calls the work involved in building collectivity, in the classroom and in aesthetic, cultural and political work, ‘open-plan fieldwork’, “learning to learn from below to devise a practical philosophy to train members of the largest sector of the future electorate and to train its current teachers in the habits of democratic reflexes” (36). This mode of critique joins the work of coalition-building to a resistance to the reductionism of higher education. It stresses the irreducible differences between and among students and teachers, the radical multiplicity of local knowledges. The form of collectivity Spivak articulates, therefore, is both the means by which students in the current action can work to articulate a historically-specific, complex and emancipatory unity and the very object such actions are seeking to protect, namely the possibility of collectivity in the classroom and through the classroom.

One of Spivak’s metaphors for a feminist, postcolonial project of teleopoeisis is borrowed from Virgina Woolf, who in A Room of One’s Own calls on women to work to summon the ghost of Shakespeare’s sister. Woolf states, “I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile” (in Spivak, 35). This act of ‘summoning the ghost’ applies as much to the objects of intellectual inquiry (to the patient and provisional listening for those sites and cultural forms that interrupt the ‘common sense’ structures of ideology) as to the politics of coalition-building where the basis for solidarity is not presumed in advance. Whereas, in Spivak’s terms, ‘capitalism moves towards the general; political or institutional calculus operates in the realm of decidability’ (46), the work of summoning the ghost works to interrupt “the necessary march of generalization” (52).

For Spivak, the question ‘Who are we?’ is itself “part of the pedagogic exercise”. This question has been answered on the right in the characterization of students as consumers of educational services. This answer not only works against the social and economic rights demanded by the student movement, it works against the classroom as the site for the work of collectivity. Spivak argues that “[r]eal answers come in the classroom and are specific to that changeful site” (25-6). This highlights not only the importance of the student movement to preserve access to education, but the immense cost the students bear in boycotting their classes. The question of collectivity, as feminists know very well, informs both the structure and content of the classroom, and affects the very possibility of education at this historical conjuncture.

[1] Marco Bélair-Cirino, “Anciens, actuels et futurs universitaires se mobilisent—Une semaine décisive s’amorce”. Le Devoir. 19 March 2012. [translations mine].

[2] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 342.

[3] Stuart Hall, “Gramsci and Us” in The Hard Road to Renewal. London: Verso, 1988: 164.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks: 7.

[5] As testified to by the revolutions of May 1968 in Paris and elsewhere, the civil rights struggle and the passing of Brown vs. Board of Education in the U.S., the debates around residential schools in Canada and Australia, and the violence enacted against women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989.

[6] Spivak calls it alternately a metalepsis (a substitution of effect for cause), hysteron proteron (using a proposition yet to be proved as a premise) or, simply, ‘begging the question’ (27).

[7] Gramsci, 26.

[8] Gramsci, 26.

[9] See my response from last week, “Neoliberal Policies and the Language of Supremacy”.

[10] Hall, 165.


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