For and Against Critique

Undercommons cover

At the heart of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons (Minor Compositions, 2013) is an astonishing conditional. If the marginalized, the queer, the raced, those on the wrong side of gender and social ambition—in short, if those in the undercommons— accept critique as the mode of politics most suited to their struggle and their aesthetics, then there had to have been a tacit acceptance that some group, some they over there, is better, has more, is advantaged, while some identified and, for that moment anyway, fixed we over here has less. That differential itself, Harney and Moten argue, is inherent to the structure of critique. Of course, that differential is also historically, brutally factual. It seems to be the very definition of racism. Which is why, ultimately, Harney and Moten do not accept it. If, their thinking proceeds, one agrees to this differential (oppressor-oppressed, master-slave, rich-poor, queer-straight) then one inevitably arrives at democratic politics as a means of redress. For Harney and Moten, democracy is always a politics of making equal: of equalizing rights, of striving to grant equal possessions and equal self-possession to all. This constitutive differential, so intrinsic to democracy and to politics itself, is what Harney and Moten most forcefully, surprisingly, and generatively refuse. From the point of view of the undercommons—the space where they consciously situate themselves—the very idea of this differential, not just the violence that perpetuates that idea, is itself part of a wider racist imaginary—although rarely addressed by anti-racist work.[1]

Stefano Harney is Professor of Strategic Management Education at Singapore Management University. Fred Moten teaches in the Department of English at the University of California Riverside. These are their institutional affiliations. Thinking, as they say, with and against these institutions has been the basis of their long collaboration, although not its horizon. Influenced by autonomist thought as well as postcolonial theory, Harney studies contemporary practices of capitalist management in relation to race and labor. Moten works in what they both call black studies, situating his work and his collaboration with Harney in the context of what he refers to as the black radical tradition. This tradition extends back to the middle passage and beyond, into the present and beyond. Accordingly, the location of the hold and the condition of the shipped are concepts that complexly permeate Moten’s work, as they do here in The Undercommons. Moten is also a poet, a practice which is more like the means of his scholarly practice than its sideline or supplement.

Harney and Moten begin simply and declaratively: “Our task is the self-defense of the surround in the face of repeated, targeted dispossessions through the settler’s armed incursion. And while acquisitive violence occasions this self-defense, it is recourse to self-possession in the face of dispossession (recourse, in other words, to politics) that represents the real danger” (p. 17). The book’s eponymous tactics, fugitive planning and black study, are conceived to forestall all representations of political problems that rely on such oppositions. Study, as they say in an interview, is “what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three….”[2] Key here is to emphasize that these activities are intellectual inherently, are already intellectual. They do not need to achieve the status by rising to a certain standard of quality or efficacy. The concept of planning is similarly animated by a spirit of acknowledgment over discernment.[3] As opposed to policy, which organizes the lives of others, planning is thinking for oneself where the self is not self-possessed but dispossessed, divested in common with others. Dispossession is the undercommon’s form of belonging. It is not imposed but assumed. Planning names the undercommons’ practices. Planning emerges from management and other schools of thought that take it as their special expertise to organize social and political life. Study emerges from, with and against, the university. Both study and planning are, first and last, ways of being with others. On the other hand, the stakes of these practices, of recognizing them as already present, as already powerful, are obviously different for people on the top and people on the bottom of the global economy. Most of the book is dedicated to the description and elaboration of study and planning and a set of associated concepts: debt (what is shared among those in the undercommons), the surround (the undercommons’ relationality), and the shipped (a subjectivity of the dispossessed). If I focus here, more than do Harney and Moten, on what they might turn our attention from, what the undercommons surrounds, namely critique, it is because I want to address the persistence of critique today as a dominant mode of aesthetic politics. Harney and Moten attack the premises of that mode. I want to help us catch up to that thought and, in the end, leave us back at the doorstep of the book’s first page.

For all of their interest in the ongoingness of the surround, the way that forms of study and planning proceed along with, as the persistent underside of, capitalist exploitation, Harney and Moten nevertheless present this thinking as something that has been occasioned (but “anoriginally,” as they say, with an instigation but without a before). Three themes are persistent: the (neo)liberal management of the university, credit as a form of debt that now manages life, and the utter pervasiveness of a form of planning that is concomitant to the totalizing needs of a networked economy. It is oversimplifying but not inaccurate to say that, in their terms, black study is the undercommons of the university; fugitive planning is the undercommons of informaticization; and a form of debt that unites the shipped (referring to the Middle Passage specifically and dispossession generally), that unites people in dispossession, is the undercommmons of the credit system.

Prepositions are a key to the undercommons in all three of these modalities. Critique, as well, is founded on a set of privileged prepositions: against, outside. The “under” in undercommons means to invoke a presence always and already present, planning not to come but already under-way. Not the future equality of black life, not the critique of present conditions of the University or black life or subjectivity generally, but an acknowledgment of the under-side of every corrupt and corruptly subjectivizing institution. Harney and Moten understand this under-side to be not the waste product of institutions such as slavery, the university, or the prison, but the very labor that is the engine and therefore the bane of those institutions. They give the example of the student who, while going into debt, while rejecting the propriety of disciplines, never ceases the work of study—she is exploited, but the university can’t exist without her. Such conceptual shifts which are also prepositional shifts consistently steer away from opposition (not against, but under; not outside but surrounding). They are something more like nestings. “Under” might work against the institution, but not in a way that forces one to choose between two positions—choice doesn’t really come into it insofar as choice works toward self-possession:

Can this being together in homelessness, this interplay of the refusal of what has been refused, this undercommon appositionality, be a place from which emerges neither self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other but an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question? Not simply to be among his own; but to be among his own in dispossession, to be among the ones who cannot own, the ones who have nothing and who, in having nothing, have everything (p. 96).

Black study and fugitive planning antagonize the university, the state, the prison, but always inevitably from within those institutions: stealing their resources, squatting on their land, siphoning their labor. Against the separatist claims that found critique and the critical tradition, Harney and Moten want it to be clear that the undercommons has always been part of the history of the dispossessed, that it did not come into being as a response to it. That even in the terrifying holds of the Middle Passage, there was singing, there was resistance, there was planning, there was an undercommons. But if this is the case, then it is also the case that there has likewise never been a time when the commons, politics, democracy, and education have been anything other than racist and expropriative. Critique, with its reliance on epistemic breaks, ruptures, and transformations, often seems to imply that there was a time before the need for critique (for many, this is the time before modernity). The anti-critical bent of the undercommons is both shockingly bleak and shockingly redemptive. But primarily it is re-orienting. Shocking, but only if one believes that such violence, such expropriation of life was ever not constitutive of capitalism, that democracy or Reconstruction ever truly stemmed the capitalist drives within which an institution like slavery made so much brutal sense.

But this does not mean that complacency or resignation or even withdrawal have taken the place of critique’s fury. The acknowledgment of the undercommons as persistent surround opens onto tonalities of anger but also joy, resistance but also indifference. The book dares us to name its affect. The prose seethes, but is also extravagant. Not being a plaintive book, its authors insist and never stop insisting that the world is already being fugitively planned. It has been being planned, in every student who refuses to learn her lessons well but never stops studying, in every government agency in which is secreted a group working both in and against the government, in every citizen and worker who gets called lazy, in everyone whose position in the capitalist commons ships them away from their loves while siphoning those loves as labor. This, after Marx, is what Harney and Moten call the general antagonism. The undercommons, far from being a heroic figure of resistance, is the most ordinary thing. That is why the real work of the book is acknowledgment, not critique.

Still, Harney and Moten never deny the existence or efficacy of a history of radical thought called critique. They do not feel it should cease or even be displaced. They just want something else. The problem with critique is that in its zeal to denounce one is forced to take up a position, to declare an interest for something and against something else. In this interest, one stakes a claim to an identity, even if only a defensive or provisional one: a stance, a posture, a position, a politics. And interests, as they argue, are labor in its basest state.

In this thought about interests as labor is where The Undercommons casts its longest historicizing shadow, a sense of history that proceeds by way of extension and refraction rather than rupture. Interests are only the latest form of a longstanding fact of life in worlds organized by capitalism’s drives: the expropriation of energy as labor toward the accumulation and sequestration of wealth. To take one of their privileged examples: the university (today) thrives on interests, especially the unique interests of the most privileged faculty whose privilege is precisely to be disinterested in the University, to be critical, to be “negligent,” as they say. Negligent of their teaching responsibilities, their grading, their relationship to the institution or to their colleagues. Such negligence characterizes the very top echelon of academia, is even its key criteria for singling out the very best. The university must have the interests of their faculty; the more singular, the more quirky, the more negligent the better. As Foucault once argued (forecast, really), neoliberalism thrives on just such individuation. This is how it works against the homogeneity of the mass, which to the neoliberal is always evidence that the power of the State has become too much of a fetter on the freedom of the free market. It is on the basis of such creatively, fulsomely individuated personhood that an affectively available social world, a sense of the social, can be constructed in scenes where the social seems to have fully given way to the social policies of capitalism.

To study but not develop the kinds of interests that lead to recognition and promotion, to be black or marginal but not care first or ultimately for equality or reparations—this will obviously entail deprivations, discomforts, detachments of various sorts. Many will find this intolerable in the face of real and persistent inequalities and the ongoing expendability of black life. But Harney and Moten want to recognize the ways out that have already arrived, that have been here all along. As though in response to those who would defend their interest in critique, in opposition, in departure, in reparation, in breaking with, in moving past and getting on with it, they suggest that we examine the ways of being with others that are entailed in the actions that we might otherwise think of as our own.

“Critique lets us know that politics is radioactive, but politics is the radiation of critique” (p. 19). Like radiation, critique is part of a process that produces energy. As with radiation, too much exposure makes us sick. For the black radical tradition out of which Harney and Moten write, politics is synonymous with the democratic impulse toward uplift. All politics is a politics of uplift for those in the undercommons, for black bodies, for the queer and those who fail bodily proprieties. Like Eve Sedgwick in Touching Feeling (a book which is an important precursor of The Undercommons), Harney and Moten write for those who must make a world because the world is not and has never been for them.[4]

I want to end by being parochial for a moment (the undercommons, by the way, loves the parochial), to speak from the interests I myself declare for the University: namely, my interests in the intersection of art history and new media studies. Were work in the vicinity of art to be organized around Harney and Moten’s notion of study—rather than around the righteousness of a canon and the concomitant of that righteousness, the critique of the canon—things would look different. There might not, for instance, be the same canonization of the most critical, the most singular, the least fundamentally hoodwinked art practice and of the historians who discover those practices while explicitly or implicitly castigating and casting aside the art practices that don’t resist, don’t subvert, don’t undermine. Modernism’s own best questions start to lose traction. Is an art practice the dupe of capitalism or the radical energy that outlines its frames (this is the deconstructive question)? Does an artwork unwittingly replicate the most current logics of capital or does it undermine them (the dialectic of enlightenment’s question)? Is the avant garde superseded or does it return in the guise of some neo-impulse (the questioned asked by the repressive hypothesis)? Modernist aesthetics has relied upon such discernments, such differentials. They are what keep forcing art heroically outside of life, despite a variety of attempts to see them together, to see them as, for better or worse, part of history and not just history’s critical conscience.

It might once have felt like a loss, to give up on subversion, on defamiliarization, on critique.[5] Now? When electronic networks have automated appropriation, even while more and more common uses of the creative work found on those same networks are criminalized as theft, perhaps there can be no more politics of attack, of undermining, of subversion. From the point of view of blackness and the black radical tradition, where commodities were always living things, capitalism was never not expropriative, never not built on affective or immaterial labor (Hardt and Negri), on semio-capitalism (“Bifo” Berardi).[6] In response to and resonance with that longer history, fugitive planning and black study offer two ways shift critique’s energies away from position taking and toward the more dispossessive surround of acknowledgment. This opens up many new avenues of study. It might, for instance (to take an extremely unassuming example), begin to favor description as an aesthetic practice, a practice that transforms and always surrounds the energies of critique: better descriptions of the already-present, of the always present but always constitutively overlooked. Description without judgment, without dividing practice into good and bad, radical and capitulated, as though such discernments were the only form of resistance to the present. On the way to the undercommons, mere description, better description turns out to be indistinguishable from planning and from study. Description is a historical politics of what has become of what is.


[1] Echoing this idea of the differential that subtends both racism and democracy, Foucault understood racism as “a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die.” Michel Foucault, “17 March 1976,” in Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-6 (New York: Picador, 1997).

[2] “Studying Through the Undercommons: Stefano Harney & Fred Moten – Interviewed by Stevphen Shukaitis,” Class War University, November 12, 2012,

[3] The idea of “acknowledgment” is in debt to: Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

[4] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).

[5] Others have acknowledged this loss on the way to encouraging it. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–48.

[6] Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation (Minor Compositions, 2009).