"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)
Ours is an age of “savage servility” to borrow a phrase from the American poet Robert Lowell. While it may well be the case that we are living through the endgame of neo-liberalism, it would be a mistake to underestimate the attenuated temporality of the crisis. Nor should we dismiss the severity of the current counter-revolution and the revanchiste zeal with which it is being carried out. One of the most egregious features of our present situation is the baleful recasting of the crisis as a simple crisis of public spending. This ‘true’ crisis simply demands, so it would seem, the further enclosure of the commons as determinate shared spaces. But it also hinges on the closing off of all that is deemed common, a process that involves not only the wholesale dismantling of collective ways of being but the disavowal and shortcircuiting of an affective sphere committed to the cultivation of care, compassion, and solidarity. In its place, we are left in a general state of obstructed agency (see Sianne Ngai’s fantastic Ugly Feelings) and have become increasingly tethered to a form of sociality shaped by a congerie of negative affects (fear, paranoia, anxiety, envy). As Lauren Berlant has persuasively written, it is the supine affective charge of aspirational normativity with its increasingly “recessive” and “underperformative” modes of being that have come to characterize our current age of austerity.
I hope to have more to say about the assembling and composition of alternative subjectivites in a future post. What I want to pick up for the moment is the link between what Berlant describes as a crisis of “ongoingness” – of trying to ‘make do’ amidst “exploding social divisions and ruptures” – and a broader crisis of the common. One exemplary site of this crisis here in the UK is Higher Education. A.C. Grayling’s recently proposed New College of the Humanities is noteworthy in this respect and should be seen as nothing less than a direct attack on the very idea that education still represents a common good. The evidential particulars of the college have already been extensively documented (here, here, and here). See also the information collected by Nina Power here and the Critical Education site which has some very useful information about the college. Many of you will be familiar with Terry Eagleton’s splenetic riposte in the Guardian. It has already received considerable attention including a risible reply by Sarah Churchwell which bears all the quietist hallmarks of liberal passivity (and extended version of Churchwell’s CIF piece can be found here) and a pernicious and willfully misguided piece by Deborah Orr . A number of other useful posts worth checking out include Crooked Timber, the LRB Blog, Lenin’s Tomb, and James Ladyman in the New Statesmen. As both Lenin’s Tomb and Ladyman rightly point out, this venture parasitically plays on the fears that have been generated (some would say deliberately) by the current funding crisis in HE and it does so as a means to accelerate privatization and marketization. This is not a humanistic venture but a strictly pecuniary one that legitimises the social reproduction of ‘elites’ and the further destruction of the idea of the university as a space of the common. Indeed, Grayling’s comments in The Evening Standard should make it abundantly clear how he really feels about education and equality of opportunity (see in particular his comments about private schools). Of course, saying all of this should not distract us from the lamentable lack of state investment in the humanities nor should we wax nostalgic about the increasingly parlous state of the public university. Grayling’s enterprise cannot be disentangled from this pressing predicament and, if anything, it only magnifies the urgency of reconstituting education as both a common good and a shared and open critical space.