Category Archives: Krista Geneviève Lynes

Media & Feminist Theory: Strategy: Figuring Otherwise

And yet…

Krista Geneviève Lynes

“The leaves have not fallen yet nor will they fall for some days” — Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée

Today should have been our last class together in our Media & Feminist Theory course. I had intended to end on a hopeful note, with a gesture towards ‘figuring otherwise’, toward committed strategies—in creative engagements, theoretical questions and political praxes—that a semester’s labour in media and feminism might provide. The dispersal of the space of the classroom through the last five weeks of the semester means that we too, as a tentative collectivity, have had to figure otherwise. This has meant drawing from a fount of imagination and flexibility, from the histories of protest, the language of manifestos, and practices of radical pedagogy, including a vacillation between the roles of teacher and student described in Paulo Friere’s terms as ‘teacher-students’ and ‘student-teachers’: “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is [her]self taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach”.[1]

Our guides for this last class: Gayatri Spivak and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Both of these guides navigate the terrain of the figurative, a set of practices which have, from the outset, been central to feminist inquiry. We began in January, after all, with the figure of Woman, a chimera, a “volatile collectivity” in Denise Riley’s terms.[2]  Figuration may consolidate itself in the iconic, just as it might vear, turn, in Roland Barthes’s terms ‘as milk does’. Our focus on figuration meant to richly unpack the join between ‘media’ and ‘feminist theory’, unrepresented by the & in the course’s title. We did this by thinking about subjective processes, about the question of collectivity, about the material, social and semiotic dimensions of subject-formation, and about the forms of feminist praxis which seek to be complex and emancipatory.

Spivak teaches us that figuration itself might provide a guide for the work of feminism. The figure, after all, is undecidable, fundamentally a metaphor, and thus stands in the place of another meaning to which it refers poetically. It’s in this vein that she discusses the ‘idiomaticity of non-hegemonic languages’, the complexity of the forms of expression which are often, violently, read literally. She argues, “All around us is the clamor for the rational destruction of the figure, the demand not for clarity but immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average”.[3]   We see this in the demand, within academia, political movements, social life, and even our intimate relations, for calculation, rationalization, austerity, level-headedness, comprehensibility and access. Instead, Spivak argues that the task of the literary scholar is not to translate literary language into a more transparent academic text, but rather, in her terms, “to dis-figure the undecidable figure into a responsible literality, again and again”. This she calls “cultural explanation” as well as “training of the imagination”.

The task of the feminist scholar is not simply to transcode cultural production, nor to describe social reality, but in her terms to ‘draw a response’.  According to Spivak, the feminist reader must view experience not as a source of authority, but rather as a “text to be read in the interest of agency”. What she means by this, I think, is that the skills of literary training be mobilized to understand that forms of self-representation are figurative, idiomatic, poetic, metaphorical. Experience should not be reduced to evidence, but should be read as a complex cultural practice, which demands literary, historical, sociological and political training.

She cautions however that such efforts not be aimed at resolving social and cultural life, but rather that such efforts be interrupted with what she calls an “inter-dictive ‘and yet’” (76).  We strive to elucidate, to attend rigorously to our object of analysis, and yet… Cultural products, forms of expression remain in certain respects stubbornly obdurate.  She proposes that, rather than translating from language to language (and this may be literally across language systems, or may involve translating actions, material artefacts, artworks or visual culture)  one must read with “the most intimate access to the rules of representation and permissible narratives which make up the substance of a culture” (14). This is true at the level of cultural expression but also within the subjective negotiation between inner and outer, between self and world that forms what Spivak calls ‘ethical semiosis’ (13).

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is our guide for what this work might look like. Her moving oeuvre Dictée is a contradictory text, a partial autobiography, mythology, set of love poems with hints of Mallarmé and Beckett, photographs, cinematic mise-en-scènes, dictations and translations. Constance Lewellen argues that the text’s paradoxes are “rooted in Cha’s location in the interstital outlaw spaces between Korea and America, North and South, inside and outside […] For her, the in-between is a personal dwelling place that makes survival possible”.[4]

The preface begins not in the first person singular (‘I’) but the second (‘you’). This function conditions its whole structure, the mode of address, and the aesthetic involvement of the reader. The reader must work between citations, dictations, grammatical instructions, the erosion of punctuation, or its splintering of meaning. Her committed figuration of the interstitial space Lewellen described is bound by the specificity of her historical examples (personal, political) and the contradictory presence of those sites where language fails, where representation becomes impossible. An example of such enigmatic signifers in the text emerges even in the Preface where a figure emerges from a series of questions:

From A Far
What nationality
or what kindred and relation
what blood relation
what blood ties of blood
what ancestry
what race generation
what house clan tribe stock strain
what lineage extraction
what breed sect gender denomination caste
what stray ejection misplaced
Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other
Tombe des nues de naturalized
what transplant to dispel upon[5]

This short poem enacts a series of transcodings (from adverb to noun in the first sentence, between French and English, between the idiomatic and the literal, through reversals and neologisms). The reader must work to understand the grounds of meaning referred to here (the list of questions grounded in a desire to locate identity genealogically, racially, phyllogenetically or ontogenetically) even as the work of figuration undermines the claims proposed. The final two lines especially figure for the reader the idiomatic structure of the work as a whole. The French expression ‘tombe des nues’ is itself unclear, referencing both the act of being surprised and the join between falling and death. The word ‘de’ can be a French preposition or a negation of the following English word (hence ‘de-naturalized’). The final sentence wrenches structure in the service of a series of evocations: the ambiguity of dispelling, making disappear, or misspelling; the lack of an object on which something is dispelled and, fundamentally, the lack of a subject. This subject figured at a site of absence, in the form of a question, opens the reader to the imaginative work of the text as a whole, and to the moving and agile engagements with a series of chapters which name and subvert the conventions of genre: history, epic, lyric, sacred and love poetry, astronomy, tragedy, comedy and the choral dance.

Dictée ends in a reversal of its beginning, with three mythical figures, a narrator now named ‘She’ and two figures (a young girl and a woman) who emerge in a landscape where “the dust haze lingers between earth and sky and forms an opaque screen” (167). In this cinematic space, She recounts a sensual memory of women drawing water from a well. As the book ends, blank pages overtake written text, and emerge also as ‘opaque screens’ in which a set of propositions emerge tentatively. And then, a paragraph of unending words, the punctuated fragments from the text’s Preface vanished, just a rush of words:

Lift me up mom to the window the child looking above too high above her view the glass between some image a blur now darks and greys mere shadows lingering above her vision her head tilted back as far as it can go. Lift me up to the window the white frame and the glass between, early dusk or dawn when light is muted, lines yield to shades, houses cast shadow pools in the passing light (179)

Cha herself has argued that her “video, film and performance work are explorations of language structures inherent in written and spoken material, photographic and film images—the creation of new relationships and meanings in the simultaneity of these forms”.[6] It’s this work of figuration—which dis-figures even as it fiercely seeks to articulate a speaking position—which I would argue serves as an exemplary model of the emancipatory strategies of feminism, and of feminist mediation.

Spivak uses the formulation ‘and yet’ again to describe what she calls ‘planetarity’, an imaginary collectivity which is not global, continental or worldly. She is not simply trying to invoke current models of environmentalism (which, she argues, are tied to the global and to abstraction) but rather to conceive of the planet “in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan” (72). She states, “When I invoke the planet, I think of the effort required to figure the (im)possibility of this underived intuition” (72).

We remember to read the poetic in Spivak also. The term ‘and yet’ emerges throughout this text, the form of an argument that refuses closure, transcoding into the dominant. The work of the scholar, trained in the imagination, is to render sites of inhabitation uncanny, unheimlich, to resist the tendancy of globalization to impose the same system of exchange everywhere (72). We saw this two weeks ago in Spivak’s vision of collectivity, of Woolf’s appeal that we summon the ghost of Shakespeare’s sister and work towards a collectivity ‘to come’.

The student actions that have reinvented the space of pedagogy over the last several months also direct themselves towards multiple processes of figuration (chalk outlines, bike rides, masquerades, even the colour red, but also grassroots political movements in targeted ridings, fierce negotiations and the work of coalition). The work of the classroom comes to a temporary end, and yet the classroom itself has become undecidable, a ‘changeful site’. To come…


[1] Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993 (2nd ed.): 61.

[2] Denise Riley, Am I that Name? Feminism and the Category of Women in History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

[3] Gayatri Spivak, Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 71.

[4] Constance Lewellen, The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Berkeley: University of California Berkeley Art Museum: University of California Press, 2001: 11.

[5] Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée. New York: Tanam Press, 1982: 20.

[6] In Lewellen, 9.


Art walk/Intervention’s collaborative writing pieces

Yesterday we came together and marched silently with some folks from the Communication Studies MA/PhD program/faculty and some friends from the Humanities at Concordia University: intervening in everyday rhythms, leaving performative traces along the trajectory, silently joining forces with a backward walking march and collaboratively writing praxis after the art/sound walk.

The stories have a theme indicated at the bottom of each of the pieces and were collectively written in style of corps exquis or rotating corpse. This creative method employed by the Surrealists collectively assembles a collection of words or images. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see the end of what the previous person has contributed. In our case, we just saw a part of the previous written fragment as well as the theme.


Media & Feminist Theory: Strategy: Dreams of a Common Language

Fusion is Possible…

Krista Geneviève Lynes

“We plead to each other,
we all come from the same rock
we all come from the same rock
ignoring the fact that we bend at different temperatures
that each of us is malleable
up to a point.

Yes, fusion is possible
but only if things get hot enough—
all else is temporary adhesion,
patching up” —Cherrie Moraga, “The Welder” [1]

In 1978, Adrienne Rich published The Dream of a Common Language, a collection of poems in which she reflected on the relation between love, power and consciousness. The collectivity she referenced here was fictive, hypothetical and utopian—quite literally a dream of a common language. The dream, of complex and emancipatory feminism(s), echoes Gayatri Spivak’s call in Death of a Discipline  for a collectivity to come as a result of one’s work, the join of feminist praxis with broad movements for social justice.[2] Both Rich and Spivak sought to stress the work involved in community-building, in spaces of social struggle, but at large also.

In this respect, the MA Media Studies Students in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University have been working creatively and passionately over the last several weeks to build a complex and emancipatory unity within the student movement. Their statements testify to their nuanced reflections on the differential access to education within the programme, the use of the term ‘strike’ and the historical resonances of the term within labour movements and other forms of collective action, and the need to engage actively with the community at large, faculty and staff. They have also—in their protest, media activism, public statements and organising—sought to give voice to the importance of creativity and diversity in university programmes across Québec and further afield.[3]

My Media & Feminist Theory course this week was meant to cover several readings articulating contemporary visions of the ‘dream of a common language.’ Coincident with this week’s readings, Concordia University sent out a “Notice: Obstruction of campus facilities and classrooms” to students and faculty.[4] The subtitle of this notice indicated it was a “Message to the Concordia Community about the Code of Rights and Responsibilities”. The appeal to ‘community’ in this subtitle begs the question of what kind of community was envisaged, protected, and/or shored up by this statement, and on what common ground the appeal to collectivity rested.

The Notice began by noting that “the majority of university activities have continued relatively unimpeded during ongoing student protests”. The tenor of this opening statement, it appears, is meant to indemnify a majority of student protesters from the “persistent disruptive activity in a limited number of areas”, and thus to separate out the majority of respectful protesters from “a minority of protesters who refuse to respect the rights of others”.[5] It thus couches the Notice within a broader language of support for peaceful demonstration and freedom of speech. Incidentally, the University’s position is bolstered by the comments (and ‘Likes’) on Concordia’s Facebook page, which also seem to indicate the larger student body’s support for such disruptive gestures, which are seen to prevent students from pursuing their education and entering classrooms.

There are several troubles, however, with this statement, written to (and presumably also on behalf of) the Concordia community. The first of these is that the behaviour the University is seeking to curb is precisely the kind of disruption which makes the strike efficacious. Should the striking students simply choose to demonstrate behind a cordon sanitaire, at a remove from classrooms and campus, the University could continue to adopt a ‘business as usual approach’ even as it supports freedom of speech among the striking students.  The University’s support for strike activities which are “the peaceful expression of divergent views within our community” thus innoculates it against the form and content of the student’s demands.

Far more troubling, however, is the vision of community valorized by the Notice. The foundations of the Notice are grounded in rights-based claims: that the protesting students have the right to ‘peaceful protest’, the professors and staff to ‘carry out their professional duties’, and students at large to ‘attend classes’. These rights are secured by the Code of Rights and Responsibilities and the Security Policy. What appears renounced in this Notice is the work of community-building, of devising a ‘common language’ resulting from exchange, dialogue, negotiation, wars of manoeuvre and wars of position. More than this, though, the Notice replaces the ‘dream of a common language’ posited by Rich and others with a ‘common language’ of a very different kind, which is all too common in the neoliberalisation of higher education: the very framework of individual rights the Notice articulates.

Donna Haraway’s early version of the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ was entitled “The Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit”. Here, she voices her suspicion regarding the focus on commonality as a basis for political struggle (that a common standpoint and a common goal can ground common action). At the same time, she offers a critique of a different and more pervasive ‘common language’, the logic of rationalization. She calls rationalization “the common coin through which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment and exchange”.[6] In her terms, the logic of rationalization produces an “informatics of domination” (although it might also be called a “language of supremacy” qua Chela Sandoval).[7] The discourse of individual rights is present in much of the coverage of the student action. Kim Sawchuk provided an incisive analysis of one aggregious example—the proposal in the ‘News’ section of the Montreal Gazette proposing that demonstrators should be paying for security during student demonstrations (after one or two days) because otherwise Montreal taxpayers are paying for a group to demonstrate “effectively for profit”.[8] The effective erosion of the public sphere is grounded in an economic calculus that makes a mockery of the notion of ‘free speech’.

The necessary corrollary of the language of individual rights is the discourse of security (and hence the joining of the Code of Rights and Responsibilities with the Security Policy in the Notice to the Concordia community), which safeguards members of the community against one another, and particularly against unruly behaviour (the details of which remain sufficiently vague as to warrant calls to Security by faculty, staff and students alike). What remains an open question is what forms of activism, protest, creative engagement are tolerated by ‘the community’, and what effects such political forms can have on the very real demands voiced by the striking students.

The question of what constitutes an infraction opens up the question of power and knowledge, the rule-bound logics by which one becomes recognizable in the public sphere, counted and accounted for. But it also opens up onto the history of creative political action, the possibility of being unruly, of misbehaving to challenge specifically the inscriptive force of Haraway’s ‘informatics of domination’.

Certainly feminist activist art has always involved tactical interventions, presenting provocative images and statements (for example, Martha Rosler or Barbara Kruger), demonstrations (the new genre public art of Suzanne Lacy and others), or confrontational performances (Valie Export), distributing posters (the Guerrilla Girls), stickers and electronic messages (Jenny Holzer). Often, such activism borrows from the tactics of street theatre or guerrilla theatre. Amelia Jones has argued that “[a] more useful model for feminism […]  might be to think of the situational specificity of how particular acts, images, texts, structures, and body movements function”.[9]

This week, we were supposed to read together Rosi Braidotti’s work. One student, Katja Philipp (PhD student, Communications) suggested instead that members of the class hold an intervention, an art walk and silent march from the Concordia to UQAM campuses, and proposed that participants read Rosi Braidotti’s “The New Activism: A Plea for Affirmative Ethics”. In this article, Braidotti calls for the join of ‘affirmative ethics’, political activism and critical theory. In this article, she argues that feminism is “quite unique in having stressed the equal importance of creation and critique—in a double gesture that historically defines its specificity”.[10]

This creativity seeks to mobilize untapped desires and imagination, and to concretize such resources in material relations. The movement is not oppositional but affirmational, emerging out of a different set of premises, affects and conditions. As such, Braidotti articulates a mode of creative action which is both poetic and prefigurative, which seeks to found positive alternatives. In this vision, difference is not essential but a project or process, one which is in her terms ‘ethically coded’.[11]

The focus on the individual rights of the students (either to attend class or to protest) radically interrupts the efforts to speak across the diversity of the student body, and to imagine a collectivity in and through a nuanced account of difference. It renounces from the outset the sociality of academic space, and particularly of the classroom (not as an aggregate of individual students but as a collectivity in process). This rights-based discourse is intimately connected to the language of security, since self-possession is both a ‘natural right’ and guaranteed by the defense apparatuses (psychic, economic and physical) of contemporary society. The invitation that faculty, staff and students call Security in the Notice thus serves not only to ‘protect’ individual members of the community, but also to atomize that very community, and thus to support the vision of higher education proposed by the very tuition hikes the students are striking against.

I return to Donna Haraway, and specifically to her question, “What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective—and socialist feminist?” The question acknowledges the contradictory, processual and partial nature of collectivity, and yet does not renounce on the possibility of figuring a complex collectivity, in the poetic proposal not of a common language as a common denominator, but of a dream of a common language, a dream that requires creative encounters in the spirit of activist engagements through the last century and beyond.


[1] Cherrie Moraga, “The Welder” in This Bridge Called my Back. New York, Kitchen Table:  Women of Color Press, 1983: xi.

[2] See Krista Geneviève Lynes, “Collectivity and the Classroom without Guarantees”. http:// altunies.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/media-feminist-theory-strategy-collectivities-and-situated-knowledges/.

[5] Clearly, given the nuanced work of the MA Media Studies students, they would fall within the scope of the respectful members of the community, particularly given their committed labour to ‘respecting the rights of others’.

[9] Mary Flanagan, Jennifer A. González, Guerrilla Girls, Margo Machida, et al. “Feminist Activist Art, a Roundtable Forum, August 24-31, 2005”. Feminist Formations. Vol.19, No.1 (Spring 2007): 7.

[10] Rosi Braidotti, “The New Activism: A Plea for Affirmative Ethics” in Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization. NAi Publishers, 2011: 265.

[11] Ibid, 268.


Photos of Art Walk/Silent March organized by Katja Philipp, PhD Student, Communication Studies

PhD student, Katja Philipp (Communication Studies) organized an art walk and silent march from Concordia to UQAM today to “come together and experience our collectivity outside of the classroom walls”. Students within the MA and PhD programmes in Communication Studies and the Humanities participated in the event.

Below are some photos from the event:

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Photos of Mass Student Demonstration—March 22nd

Some photos taken at the Student Demonstration, March 22nd:


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. http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/education/345413/anciens-actuels-et-futurs-universitaires-se-mobilisent-une-semaine-decisive-s-amorce. [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”. https://altunies.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/media-and-feminist-theory-strategy-critique/.

[10] Hall, 165.


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.

Innoculation

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).

Identification

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.

Tautology

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.

Neither-norism

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. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/growing-student-protests-fail-to-deter-charest-on-tuition-hikes/article2356125/.

[3] “Montreal Police Use Tear Gas on Protesting Students; Four Injured”. Globe and Mail. Published Wednesday, Mar.07, 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/montreal-police-use-tear-gas-on-protesting-students-four-injured/article2361817/.

[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.

[8] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7gdNptUWlc.