This is a ‘lightening talk’ (5mins) I gave at the UAL Educational Conference 2020 https://teachingexchange.arts.ac.uk/conference/2022/
I have no powerpoint – the first thing we should abolish!
Lets consider this 5 minute talk as a footnote, a scribble in the margins of a bigger text, some ramblings, a rant, agit prop… an interruption in the academic conference, a rallying call to join me in the Abolition of the university.
The ubiquitous use of ‘decolonisation’ as a prefix for all manner of talks, papers, books, curriculums, initiatives, conferences, especially in academia and the arts has led decolonisation being more of a placeholder, a brand, an empty or floating signifier.
The incorporation of decolonisation in the university is deeply problematic given the university is driven by neoliberal, corporate, capitalist practices.
The critique of the neoliberal university is very well established:
1. An audit culture of monitoring, control, and metrics
2. Top-down managerialism
3. Exploitation of staff through high workloads, and the precarity of labour
4. The commodification and marketisation of students and education.
5. Increasing corporate vocational training with its focus on employability.
In the art school this means the production of the neoliberal ‘creative entrepreneur’ – the student who has to invest in producing the individuated self as the model for academic, creative and career success.
All these reproduce racial, class, gendered and sexualised hierarchies.
The incorporation of decolonisation into the workings of the neoliberal university is a form of racial capitalism, presented as a progressive development. Decolonisation has been integrated and stands in for, the continuously failing institutional policies, of equality, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.
There is little positioning of decolonisation as a revolutionary idea linked to the historical anti-colonial struggles against European imperialism and capitalism. The ‘Global South’ and its agency is largely absent in institutional decolonisation, instead the global university means merely the Eurocentric scramble for international students. There is little attention to the geographies and histories of decolonisation. Decolonialisation in the west is Eurocentric.
This is not to say that are not some very good decolonial projects, but these are easily incorporated and diffused into the neoliberal infrastructure. Decolonisation and anti-racist practices and pedagogies in the contemporary art school are at best reformist that tinker at the edges, and worse reproduce institutional whiteness, eurocentrism, and racial/class exploitation. The centre remains.
Instead of decolonisation, I propose we need the Abolition of the university. What would it mean to abolish the university? This is the only way of decolonising the university.
My evocation of abolition resonates with ideas of abolishing the prison and defunding of the police especially in the US. Abolition is understood in the longer histories of anti-slavery and on-going racial violence. Abolition is the project for total social justice – for collective struggles against racial capitalism, and for building new social relations and practices.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore posits:
‘Abolition is figuring out how to work with people to make something rather than figuring out how to erase something. Abolition is a theory of change, it’s a theory of social life.’
The neoliberal university, the art school is carceral in design.
The post-covid university is in crisis – financial and otherwise. This is evident in the closing down of arts and humanities courses, and the sacking of staff in various UK universities. (This is one problematic form of intuitional abolition and defunding).
The university is a site of alienated labour. The on-going strikes, continual ASOS, academic marking boycott, all attest to the crisis and challenges to the university.
Crisis is also opportunity.
Black Lives Matter and Climate justice have been catalysts for the youth and student protests and activism. Can this be reproduced in the university without its domestication into institutional policy?
New digital technologies are transforming the arts, education and pedagogy with the inevitably that in their corporate, privatised, algorithmic forms they will intensify staff and student monitoring, control and exploitation. Abolition will be open access, open source communication that creates insurgent and ethical modes of international study and knowledge exchange.
Abolition is the militant praxis of resistance, refusal, indifference, opacity and invention. Abolition would be what we do together, at this conjuncture, in deconstructing the university and creating new ways, of thinking, listening, making and studying. Abolition is the alternative, anti-capitalist, anti-racist university. We are the university, so why not? Abolition is an utopian idea against the false hope of the decolonial.