Update 3


I’ve not posted an update about my work on this blog for over two years, so here’s a roundup.

For the most part the last two years have been primarily preoccupied with teaching and administration at work, at the University of Westminster in London, and a 4 year old and 1 year old at home. I’ve become Director of Teaching in the Department and Course Leader for our MA in Cultural and Critical Studies, serve as external examiner for the MAs in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies/Politics at the University of Nottingham, become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and had the immense pleasure of reading and (internally and externally) examining a couple of doctoral theses on Walter Benjamin.

Last February, I resigned from the editorial collective of the journal Radical Philosophy, which I joined in 2009. Over the last few years the journal has been undergoing some major changes in preparation for relaunching in a new format, involving some difficult discussions and decisions that left me unable to fully commit to the demands of continuing. The journal is relaunching in an open access format this spring with some old and new editors.

In September 2017 I was invited to join a British Academy Working Group on the Teaching-Research Nexus. It has been really interesting and rewarding to be involved in this project so far and the work of the group is ongoing. As part of my involvement in the group, I was also asked to give a brief talk about the teaching-research nexus to the British Academy’s Humanities and Social Sciences Learned Societies and Subject Associations Network in November.

The Higher Education and Theory (HEAT) network that I organize at Westminster with Steven Cranfield and Allan Parsons is in something of a hiatus at the moment, due in part to the ongoing effects of major restructuring and redundancies at the university and in part to the development of the Centre for Teaching Innovation.

It was a pleasure, however, to take part in a reading group at the end of the semester on Gary Hall’s The Uberfication of the University and Richard Hall and Kate Bowles’s ‘Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety’. Our discussion mainly involved trying to make sense of Gary Hall’s use of Uber as metonym for a new economic model of higher education, in part because, in mapping out the relation between the firm/driver/consumer and the university/lecturer/student, it was ambiguous whether the firm-driver nexus would practically corresponded to the university-lecturer one (as the more immediate context of precarious employment suggests but which the very different – and primarily social – material conditions of the service provided and the prestige inherently attached to the credential provider makes more difficult to imagine; in other words, Uber would need to own the transport and it would need to be a bus!) or a digital servicer company-university one (a digital-university, with no academic staff or buildings, connecting students who want to take credited modules with universities that have spare places on modules). The former would, to all intents and purposes, have a commercial interest in continuing to largely resemble a traditional university (even if working conditions for lecturers were increasingly precarious and impoverished) whereas the later would fundamentally transform the nature of both the disciplines (through extreme modularisation) and courses (through open-ended accreditation) of the traditional university.

I’m incredibly proud of what HEAT has achieved over the last four years, involved as it has been in research events at Westminster on Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth with Antonia Birnbaum, Howard Caygill, Howard Eiland, Peter Osborne, Mike Neary and others, Educational Eliminationism and Cultural Colonization with John Beck, David Blacker and Nina Power, and Avant-Garde Pedagogies, organized with my HEAT colleagues and Emile Bojesen and including a wide range of international speakers, plus regular reading groups on everything from Arendt to Spivak and research labs on theory in practice. At its heart, HEAT represents the true ideal of an academic community: diversely transdisciplinary in its membership, functioning with no formal institutional funding or support, and with no externally imposed criteria or goals other than those related to scholarship, research and collective discussion. We have genuinely judged the success of every event not in terms of attendance figures, impact, publicity or publications but entirely on the intellectual productivity of the discussion; its existence has been autonomous and autolectic.

Research-wise, the most amount of work involved researching and writing the chapter on Erziehung/Education that I’ve contributed to the Sage Handbook on Frankfurt School Critical Theory, due to be published this summer, which examines the critical theories of education in the works of the early and later generations of the Frankfurt School, from Horkheimer to Kluge. This involved lots of specific research, as well as the construction of a historical and theoretical overview of the Frankfurt School. It has been useful for me to immerse myself in a broader range of work than the Benjamin and Adorns stuff I’m more familiar with and I’ve particularly enjoyed reading the earlier works of Neumann (which proved useful for a symposium I organized and participated in on Trump and cultures of fear), the earlier works of Habermas on Marxism, and everything by Negt and by Kluge. I tried to make a few claims in the chapter and I’m happy to talk about these if anyone wants an overview of what Frankfurt School critical theory can still contribute to a ‘critical pedagogy’ that largely overlooks it. The one claim that I’m mostly looking forward to returning to when I have time is the largely occluded dimension of mimetic education.

Howard Eiland and I have been editing and are now proofing the articles we collected for a special issue of boundary 2 on Walter Benjamin and Education, with some contributions from the conference I organized on this topic in 2013. It has been a very slow process but it looks like the issue will finally be published this spring, with some great contributions, including from Howard Eiland and from me on ‘Pedagogy as Cryptic Politics: Walter Benjamin, Friedrich Nietzsche and the End of Education,’ which takes up T. J. Clarke’s claim that the Arcades Project contains a cryptic politics and unearths this as a reconfigured version of what Wohlfarth calls his early politics of youth.

Connected to this is an article, now accepted for publication in New German Critique, entitled ‘Secret Signals from Another World: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Innervation,’ which originated as an unwieldy footnote to the previous article and concerns one of those articles of Benjamin’s ‘cryptic politics’: his theory of revolution as innervations of the collective body of humanity. Against the dominant Freudian-Surrealist interpretation of this idea, rooted in Western Marxism, I reconstruct an alternative set of sources stemming from Klages, through biomechanics, to the Russian Avant-garde and collective reflexology, conjoined in their various rejections of bourgeois psychoanalysis.

A third connected article arose from a invitation to speak at a Goldsmiths conference on ‘Benjamin, Childhood and Pedagogy,’ where I spoke on educational transmissibility, and to contribute to a special issue of Pedagogy, Culture and Society, published last year, where I focused on a more specific aspect of that talk: ‘Towards a Critique of Educative Violence: Walter Benjamin and Second Education’. One dimension of the talk I’d like to return to is the specific differences between Benjamin and the early Scholem on tradition, language and education and their later readings of Kafka.

Finally, in relation to education, I’ve helped co-edit, with Emile Bojesen, Aislinn O’Donnell and John Petrovic, a special issue of Studies in Philosophy and Education on the theme of ‘Education, in Spite of it All’, which was published online last year and in print next month. I contributed an article entitled ‘Teaching, In Spite of Teaching Excellence: Recovering a Practice of Teaching-Led Research’. This is more historical and empirical, focused on tracing the idea of excellence in English education back to the influence of Boyer in the US and, via Boyer, to national anxieties about the learning society connected to human capital theory. In this context, it examines how the dominance of the idea of research-led teaching excellence is connected to the dominance of elite universities and intersects with the cultivation of human capital. Unexpectedly, given the rather parochial concerns of the article (the TEF and the idea of teaching-led research in the context of the political landscape of English higher education), this article has probably been the most widely read text I’ve published.

I’m putting the educational theory on hold for the next six months while I’m on sabbatical completing a book with Bloomsbury on Benjamin and Goethe, currently titled Modernism Between Benjamin and Goethe. In relation to the recent philosophical emphasis on the influence of Kant and German Romanticism upon Benjamin’s work, the book delineates the value of Goethe’s thought in terms of a modernism conceptualized as a post-romantic classicism and goes on to expand on this conception of modernism as itself a form of (literary/artistic) transcriticism, understood as a structural site produced through the oscillating of perspectives between classicism and romanticism. It goes on to elaborates these ideas in terms of a series of disciplinary, geographical and political oscillation (between disciplines, between Europe and Russia, between right and left) by examining the impact of this Goethean strand of modernism not only on Benjamin but the complex intellectual milieu in which he worked, from the circles around Schuler, Klages and George, through the sociology of Simmel and Kracauer, to the Soviet avant-garde.


Learning from the Undead

I’m in the process of tying up some loose ends before I depart on a period of research leave to finish up a book on Benjamin and Goethe, and this involved sifting through some previous research projects as well as working through some notes on a new project for a chapter in the book. Since I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, this seemed like a good excuse to write a little about the intersection between the different projects of my research, but it is has also been interesting to reflect on the interaction between my conference talks, my publications and my infrequent posts on this blog itself.

The title of this blog, Pedagogy and the Inhumanities, brings together two strands of my research interests and writing: the first relates to a critical theory of modern and contemporary education that focuses, in particular, on the intersection between human capital theory (neoliberalism) and the humanities (classical liberalism); the second relates to the aesthetics of historical representation, focusing on the dialectical relation between utopianism and dystopian. To the extent the two tend to come together, I utilize an idea of what I call the inhumanities as the critical negation of (neoliberal and classical liberal) formulations of the pedagogic role of the humanities, and an idea of what I call the catastrophic function of modern and contemporary art and culture that, I have suggested, is recognized and resisted in horror’s attempt to imaginatively master the inhuman and the undead. An alternative title for the blog could therefore have been: learning from the undead… .

In a 2010 conference paper, ‘Utopia and Its Discontents: Dreams of Catastrophe and the End of “the End of History”,’ subsequently included in the conference proceedings published in Social and Political Thought (Winter 2010), I offered a critique of the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of utopia taken up within the contemporary field of Utopian Studies. I argued that the latter was based on an aesthetic and limited recuperation of Ernst Bloch’s work in the 1980s, in the context of a postmodern suspicion of the totalizing project of historical meta-narratives, that was used to construct an account of the utopian imagination – without any political utopia – in order to analyse American science-fiction of the previous decades, conceived as a sub-genre of ‘critical utopian’ writing. My suggestion was that, under certain historical and political conditions in the late 1970s and 1980s (that I have analysed more fully elsewhere in terms of neoliberalism, post-Fordism and human capital theory), Utopian Studies sought to recuperate the academic respectability of both the concept of the utopian and the genre of science fiction, which shared – I conjectured – a similar phenomenological temporality of the anticipatory or not-yet. Against this, I proposed, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image and its links to his earlier notion of criticism as ruination, a dialectical conception of the catastrophic that was neither the utopian nor dystopian but, rather, the manifestation of the utopian within the dystopian. In a coda to the final article, I suggested that the ‘dialectical conception of catastrophe expounded above would have the appearance not of some utopian or dystopian possibility, but the immanent and violent intrusion of the Absolute into the space of the present. This manifests itself not in the appearance of the new, but of the archaic and primal.’


In an unpublished keynote talk at the ‘Fragments of Time’ conference in 2013, titled ‘Not Even the Dead Will be Safe: The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture,’  I developed this idea in more detail in the context of Marx and Engels, Bloch, Adorno and Benjamin in terms of what I called the catastrophic function in contemporary culture (playing on the title given to Bloch’s collected essays on The Utopian Function of Art and Literature). Drawing on Adorno’s radio discussion with Bloch, published in English as ‘Something’s Missing,’ I connected Adorno’s claim that our current aversion to the utopian elimination of death is symptomatic of an ‘identification with death …which goes beyond the identification of people with the existing social conditions’ with the anthropological materialism developed in Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Although there wasn’t time to develop the idea in the talk, which focused more on what I described as a ‘politics of the dead’ found in esoteric strands of the utopian socialism of the 19th century Paris illuminated in the Arcades Project, I was thinking specifically in terms of Benjamin’s distinction between a utopianism of first nature (the biological limits of the human body) and that of second nature (the social and technological limits of collective humanity). Whereas famously Jameson and Zizek discover contemporary ideology in the limitations of our political imagination  – “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of existing social conditions” – Adorno discovers in this situation not in our immediate attachment to capitalism but our ideological identification, under the present social conditions, with death (eternal life under capitalism as unthinkable).

This catastrophic function does not stand in simple opposition to the utopian, but serves as a critical corrective and deepening of the latter. In relation to the dialectical image, Benjamin’s temporal category of Jetztzeit – identified by Benjamin, like Nietzsche, with the socialist egalitarianism of the Paris Commune – corresponds to the not-Not-Yet. It involves a transhistorical remembrance, encapsulated in Benjamin’s injunction that ‘only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope,’ which entails that our most profound hope is never for ourselves or our present situation, since to be capable of hoping disqualifies us from being the true object of hope. It is only ever reserved for those incapable of hoping. The most profound hope is only ever for the dead and therefore hope is absolutized to encompass the redemption of the whole of history, including all past suffering. From this perspective, redemption can therefore only take place from a position outside of history and not as some future moment within history: true redemption must bear the structure of a catastrophic intervention or interruption. This absolutized hope does not dream of the future, but dream of destroying the present and thus the present’s future. To dream or fantasize is – according to Bloch – utopian; to refuse or be incapable of dreaming is the anti-utopian injunction of the “reality principle”; but to dream of annihilation is to blast open the utopian imagination by immanently absolutizing it, via a disjunction of extremes, to the point of its own annihilation (it thus has more in common with the “death drive” than either “fantasizing” or the “reality principle”).

In culture, this function expresses its political content not as content (revolution, general strikes, protest) but, negatively, as the formal ruination of the work. In the coda to the 2010 article I suggested that, in contrast to the utopian function in science fiction, the catastrophic function – the immanent and violent intrusion of the Absolute into the space of the present, manifested in the appearance of the archaic and primal as the new – would, presumably, possess the theological or supernatural simultaneity familiar from horror. In the 2013 talk, I briefly developed this idea in relation to the Arcades Project‘s fascination with the esoteric and mortuary undercurrents of Parisian socialism: Benjamin’s reading of the spleen poems of Baudelaire, the spiritualism of Victor Hugo, and the fusionism of Louis-Jean Baptise Tourreil (for whom, influenced by Auguste Comte, himself influenced by Saint-Simon, ‘The dead are “multiform” and exist in many places on the earth at the same time. For this reason, people must very seriously concern themselves …with the betterment of the earth’ (Benjamin AP, 5).


This relation between the utopian, the dead and catastrophe was explored more fully in the 2013 talk in the context of the alternative endings of the 2007 cinematic remake of I Am Legend. Specifically, I returned to the issue of semiotics (addressed in the 2010 talk in relation to Bloch and Benjamin’s differing understanding of phenomenological accounts of consciousness, intentionality and conceptual meaning as the philosophical bases of their distinct understanding of historical representation) and the differing production and meaning of the signs of the butterfly crucial to the film’s alternative endings, to discuss the motifs of the afterlife and undead in the film. These alternative signs and alternative endings constitute, I suggested there, a deeper antinomy of utopianism that can be transversed and structurally transcended only, as it is in the original 1954 novel, by adopting the perspective of the undead as the revolutionary nonsubject of history: zombie narratives as socialist revolutions in slow motion.

In an unpublished talk, ‘Capitalist Life and the Metamorphosis of the Undead in I Am Legend,’ at the ‘Fiction and The Social Imaginary’ symposium in 2016, I returned to my interpretation of the undead in I Am Legend in this broader contexts of neoliberalism and human capital theory and the longer history of alternative endings within multiple adaptations of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel. Building on my proposal of understanding the dead as a socio-political category from the 2013 talk and connecting this to the different (Jameson-Zizekian vs. Adorno-Benjaminian) accounts of the limitations of the social imaginary (capitalism vs. death), I utilized the principle of the catastrophic function of culture to analyse the growing humanization of the undead in the post-war context of the emergence of human capital theory as an attempt to re-integrate the monstrous figures of the undead back into the limits of the capitalist social imaginary (looking at the metamorphosis of the undead in adaptations of I Am Legend, as well as more recent depictions of the zombie-esque undead in film and television series like Les Revenants/The Returned and In the Flesh).

This brings us back to the original ending of Matheson’s novel, where the last surviving human, Neville, comes to a recognition and understanding of his capture and execution by the living dead (simultaneously the residual remnants of the old world, who acquire the status of something primal and archaic to Neville, and the avant-garde of the new world, for whom Neville acquires the stats of something primal and archaic). In contrast to the alternative endings of the 2007 remake, where Neville either recognizes his divine nature and performs the Christ-like act of particular self-sacrifice that redeems humanity or reflects on his monstrous nature and so recognizes the humanity of the undead who spare him, Zizek, in Living in the End Times, describes Matheson’s original 1954 ending as entailing a transcritical perspective – humanity reconsidered from the inhuman perspective of the living dead – omitted from nearly all subsequent adaptations. Here, Zizek introduces the position of transcritique, earlier elaborated in his Parallax View and based upon Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, which involves what Karatani describes as the “parallax view”: ‘confronted with an antinomic stance in the precise Kantian sense of the term, we should renounce all attempts to reduce one aspect to the other …[but] assert antinomy as irreducible, and conceive the point of radical critique not as a certain determinate position as opposed to another position, but as the irreducible gap between the positions itself, the purely structural interstice between them’. Kant’s stance is thus ‘to see things neither from his own viewpoint, nor from the viewpoint of others, but to face the reality that is exposed through difference (parallax).’

In my forthcoming book on Benjamin and Goethe I explore Benjamin’s philosophical relation to Goethe via an exploration of their shared response to and critique of Kant and of German Romanticism. Goethe is intellectually significant for Benjamin, I argue, because he represents the recuperation of a post-Romantic classicism. The book is focused on elaborating the modernism of their shared critique and charting the wider influence of this Goethean strand of modernism on a diverse range of thinkers on both the right and left. I intend to draw on Karatani’s notion of transcritique – as well as his earlier work on literature and modernity – as a way of framing the project, constructing a reading of modernism between Benjamin and Goethe, one that has affinities with Karatani’s own practice of reading Kant through Marx and Marx through Kant, but also using the perspective of transcritique to examine the productive oscillation between a series of opposed positions (right and left, conservative and revolutionary, West (Germany) and East (Russia), sensibility and understanding, art and technology, etc.).

I am currently in the process of writing a discussion of Karatani that projects his later writings on Kant, the parallax view and transcritique back, via his comments on the significance of mid-eighteenth century literary criticism, journalism and the problem of the judgement of taste in Kant’s work, into his earlier work on the Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. In doing so I aim to recover modernism as a literary transcriticism founded on the antinomy – the transversal oscillation and transcendental deepening – between classicism and romanticism; this can be seen in the familiar (and not unproblematic) claims for classicism in, for example, Anglophone modernists such as T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound – and their readings of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting and the modernism of Joyce  – as well as the practice of parallax in, for example, Joyce, H.D., Nancy Cunard and others).

In the course of this research, I am coming to rethink my earlier discussion of the catastrophic function and its relationship to the utopian and dystopian more directly through this lens, less in terms of a dialectical relationship than a antinomical one, in the transcritical sense of a parallax view. This obviously accords more closely with Zizek’s borrowing of Karatani’s transcritique in his analysis of I Am Legend and with my own reframing of Benjamin’s philosophical method in the forthcoming book and it would be nice to return to my talks on Benjamin, Bloch, Adorno and the catastrophic function of contemporary culture once the book is finished later this year, in light of this quotation from Zizek’s The Parallax View:

Perhaps the best way to describe the Kantian break toward this new dimension [of the transcendental subject] is with regard to the changed status of the notion of the “inhuman.” Kant introduced a key distinction between negative and indefinite judgment: the positive judgment “the soul is mortal” can be negated in two ways: when a predicate is denied to the subject (“the soul is not mortal”), and when a non-predicate is affirmed (“the soul is nonmortal”)— the difference is exactly the same as the one, known to every reader of Stephen King, between “he is not dead” and “he is un-dead.” The indefinite judgment opens up a third domain which undermines the underlying distinction: the “undead” are neither alive nor dead, they are precisely the monstrous “living dead.” And the same goes for “inhuman”: “he is not human” is not the same as “he is inhuman”—“he is not human” means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while “he is inhuman” means something completely different: the fact that he is neither human nor inhuman, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as “humanity,” in inherent to being-human. And, perhaps, we should risk the hypothesis that this is what changes with the Kantian revolution: in the pre-Kantian universe, humans were simply humans, beings of reason, fighting the excesses of animal lusts and divine madness, while only with Kant and German Idealism is the excess to be fought absolutely immanent, the very core of subjectivity itself …So when, in the pre-Kantian universe, a hero goes mad, it means he is deprived of his humanity—that is, animal passions or divine madness have taken over—while with Kant, madness implies the unconstrained explosion of the very core of a human being. (In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s sister Grete calls her brother-turned-insect a monster—the German word used is “ein Untier,” an inanimal, in strict symmetry to inhuman. What we get here is the opposite of inhuman: an animal which, while remaining animal, is not really animal—the excess over the animal in animal, the traumatic core of animality, which can emerge “as such” only in a human who has become an animal.)

What, then, is this new dimension that emerges in the gap itself? It is that of the transcendental I itself, of its “spontaneity”: the ultimate parallax, the third space between phenomena and the noumenon itself, is the subject’s freedom/spontaneity…(Zizek PV, 21-22)


Finally, the concept of spontaneity evoked here, in the gap between the human – (inhuman) – non-human, and which might be related to Lyotard’s own discussion of the inhuman, touches upon the consequences of Benjamin’s own transformation of Kant’s concept of freedom, developed in his politics of pure means in essays like the Critique of Violence, and the possibility of educative violence that has disturbing but profound ramifications for rethinking the role of the humanities in the contemporary (post-Kantian and post-Nietzschean) university, outlined in my chapter on ‘Walter Benjamin and the Inhumanities: Towards a Pedagogical Anti-Nietzscheanism’ in the conference proceedings of the Pedagogies of Disaster conference which took place in Tirana in 2013 and developed in my article, ‘Towards a Critique of Educative Violence: Walter Benjamin and “second education”, a revised version of a paper presented to the ‘Walter Benjamin, Childhood and Pedagogy’ symposium in 2015.

This would connect together the non-intentionality of Benjamin’s utopian version of dystopianism, in the work on Bloch and the catastrophic function, with the politics of pure means connected to work on educative violence and ‘second education,’ to the notion of a transcritical modernism as the model of such a pedagogy, a project initiated in the Avant-Garde Pedagogies conference I helped organize in 2016. In the final section of a conference report on Pedagogies of Disaster I published on this blog, I wrote about learning from the undead:

Against this contemporary “de-schooling of society,” [Oliver] Feltham proposed a “desocializing of the school”, recalling the performative and theatrical aspects inherent to the philosophical School’s original entanglement with Theatre. This involves subtracting school from the society, not into a void of individualism but a “zone of action”. The latter is developed in his Anatomy of Failure: Philosophy and Political Action (2013) as the space of multiple, incomplete, and overlapping agents and actions with unintended consequences …theorized through Aristotle’s conception of phronesis or practical “prudence” …Rejecting the predominant narrative of zombie fiction in which the “soft values” associated with the humanities are considered useless against the hard-nosed survival skills imbued by technical expertise and unsentimental pragmatism, [John] Van Houdt expanded on and reversed this theme, calling for our own “survival manual” for the end of the humanities. I would add that given that most recent zombie fiction represents the contemporary re-imagining of the State of Nature, which – as Marx pointed out in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy – largely provides creation myths for the individualism of emerging bourgeois liberalism, the fear of the supposedly mindless and violent masses makes some ironic sense in the context of contemporary Higher Education …If the price to pay for “surviving” this educational State of Nature is a commitment to the (bourgeois/liberal) humanities, it is pertinent to point out that the alternative is not necessarily that of “dying” but becoming transformed into a member of the undead masses, whose thinking so little resembles that of solitary, academic thought…

To point out, however, that the university continues to exist as a principle site of the production of social inequality, and that para-academic activity is parasitic upon it, demands not so much a transcending (which might always leave the boundaries intact) as a dissolving: the Humanities (or something like the Inhumanities) as a peripheral zone expanding outwards, incorporating inwards, destabilizing itself and its disciplines in such a movement…

“The task of students is to rally round the university, which itself would be in a position to impart the systematic state of knowledge, together with the cautious and precise but daring applications of new methodologies. Students who conceived their role in this way would greatly resemble the amorphous waves of the populace that surround the prince’s palace, which serves as the space for an unceasing spiritual revolution – a point from which new questions would be incubated, in a more ambitious, less clear, less precise way, but perhaps with greater profundity than the traditional scientific questions” (Benjamin SW1, 43)

…read in conjunction with his later writings on a more radically politicized pedagogy, it is possible to interpret these “amorphous waves of the populace that surround the prince’s palace” as intent on its revolutionary overthrow. In this context, “rallying round the university” becomes far more ironic: if this is what Oliver Feltham means by “desocializing” perhaps we might push the image even further and try to imagine zombie zones of actions.

The Blue Flower in the Land of .edu: Automation, Education, Augmentation

A few weeks ago I received a cold call from a pleasant sounding lady, who worked for the mobile phone company O2, promising to save me money. Trying to head off a lengthy conversation as quickly and politely as possible, I refused to give her any requested information until she had answered a couple of my questions about what they were trying to sell me. The conversation took a strange turn. The lady kept answering my questions with questions of her own or replied with generic information that didn’t seem to comprehend what I was asking. Exasperated, I finally asked, “Are you a real person or a robot?” This was my first experience of what Alexis Madrigal has called “cyborg telemarketing”, where different pre-recorded messages are operated by a live agent using a hotkey interface, sometimes working two or three calls at a time.

1. Blacker: Automation and Elimination

I’m interested in this phenomenon because a few years back, in a review of David Blacker’s excellent The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, I suggested that:

…with the growth of service work and new forms of control an increasingly moribund and desperate system is forced to repurpose ‘living labour’ as it becomes increasingly reliant on human qualities such as social intelligence, imagination and resourceful initiative. Contra shifts towards automating call centres or relocating them abroad, for example, it is feasible that we will witness a new trend to rehumanize (and re-localize) the worker on the end of the line, encouraging them to be more charismatic, spontaneous and off-script in order to better sell their services …it is also possible that the social, creative and critical thinking skills of traditionally ‘non-vocational’ types of education – most obviously, the humanities – will be re-evaluated for this purpose, and not just in the worst-paid jobs…

This was part of a response to the book’s central hypothesis that technological automation would lead to a process of educational eliminationism. Blacker’s argument, that ‘the higher the tech, the dumber the worker can be and, ultimately, in the best case neoliberal scenario, phased out altogether where possible,’ was distinct from the Marxist concept of a reserve army of labour in that it predicted that automation meant this reserve army was no longer required or desired. As a consequence, he argued, national systems of modern education that supplied this workforce could also be eliminated.

Against my argument, a quick bit of research about my call from O2 revealed that its parent company Telefonica have recently invested in an artificial intelligence-voice recognition system called Aura, which it developed in conjunction with Microsoft and Facebook, to handle customer service calls (currently this seem to be used only to field basic inquiries from existing customers rather than to conduct the kind of telemarketing I experienced). One obvious advantage of artificial intelligence would be to allow companies to eliminate human operators almost entirely. Sarah Guo, who speaks of an emergent “conversational economy,” describes the basic plan of such an economy as “delivering an abstract service to the end customer using human agents …collecting data on the interactions to do smart routing / agent matching / super-agent enablement” and “possibly progress to some level of AI replacing the agent workforce.” Although Guo suggests that this process might be “bidirectional,” her own example only emphasizes that “ while some services will progress rightward in their automation and lower their cost to serve, others will remain only marginally impacted,” and doesn’t suggest AI being replaced by human agents.

Similarly, Chris Messina, an open source advocate previously employed by Google and Uber, describes companies increasing attempting to utilize “chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice),” such as Facebook Messenger, WhatasApp and, indeed phone calls, “to interact with people, brands, or services and bots” as part of a new form of “conversational commerce”. His point is that such informal conversations will become the standard and generic medium of commercial interaction (as opposed to switching to formal and specific sites for commercial exchange). Telefonica’s interest in investing in systems like Aura is therefore also linked to this bigger economic incentive: the opportunity for phone companies such as Telefonica to find new ways to generate income through the collecting, control and selling of user data, in a similar way to online media, and in conjunction with the rise of voice-controlled, as opposed to text-controlled, devices.


While Messina claims to deliberately use the terms “human, bot, or some combination thereof …interchangeably” because “over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm,” his assumption is that this interchangeability depends on slowly training users “to think and type more like programmers …the more that users get frustrated expressing themselves in complete sentences, and the more technically sophisticated they become, the more likely they are to warm to the efficiencies of the command line.” In other words, while bots learns to become more human by interacting with us, the limitations of these interactions (especially when spoken) will train us to communicate more like the programs of bots (as anyone with prolonged experience of Siri, Cortana or Alexa will testify).

Could these initiatives support Blacker’s more general thesis of technological eliminationism? Might the advent of technological automation and the attendant reduction of skills agree with Blacker’s more specific prediction of an educational eliminationism: the abandonment of the mass systems of public education that accompanied the advent of high capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries?

2. Adkins and Deleuze: Post-Fordist Money, Wages and Education

In my review I questioned Blacker’s hypothesis on the grounds that the book seemed ambiguous whether it was education tout court or a certain – public and humanistconception of education that was in the process of being eliminated: does eliminationism imply no edu or new edu? I suggested that his own claim that ‘the financialized drive to commodify education ultimately resolves itself into a commodification of oneself ‘ ultimately necessitated the continuation of a minimal economic function for such indebted students, because the education in which students have invested resources is (unlike other property) alienable, produced ‘existentially indebted’ students (unemployed students who cannot repay debts potentially threaten capitalism with the equivalent of a subprime education crisis).

I’d like to expand on these issues by connecting them more generally to what Lisa Adkins and others have argued concerning “the socioeconomic formations and processes associated with post-Fordist capitalist accumulation” and the financialized transformation of money, specifically in relation to the dynamics of financial derivatives. (A derivative is a financial agreement whose value derives from the expected future price movements of the asset linked to). Adkins suggests that in contemporary “financial markets …money does not simply act as the medium and measure of exchange for assets but is exchangeable in and of itself,” arguing that a key “feature of financialization …is that money is now a pervasive commodity or a product,” and not just any commodity but one who value resides precisely in its capacity for the transference of risk. As a consequence of this transformation, money has lost its function as a measure of value and so its own value has become uncertain and predictable. This financialization also involves the transformation of money paid as wages, since money becomes “an unstable and unpredictable measure of any value that may, or may not, be constituted via labour.” Consequently, just as “derivatives are separated out from any underlying asset or set of assets,” Adkins argues, “post-Fordist wages must be understood as separated out from labor power.”

This separation accounts for a key characteristic of post-Fordist wages, according to Adkins: a rising debt-to-income ratio that take on the highly specific form of financialized debt, entangling workers in “processes of financialization including the exposure to risk that such an entanglement entails” and the “extraction” of profits from the wages of workers by financial institutions in the form of interest accruing on securitized credit debt. Employment contracts that “compensate workers with securitized assets (such as shares)” frame wages “less as a form of remuneration or compensation for the exchange of labor power than as the right to access trade in the unrealized potential of money, that is, as the right to access what money might put in motion,” an frame “the ideal worker” as one “who actively compensates for repressed wages by putting money in motion, that is, by becoming an asset-owning and interest-earning investor subject.” When “indebted workers put their wages to work in securitized loans, mortgages, bills, and credit, they are necessarily putting money to work as a value …trading wages not as a medium of exchange or as a measure of value but as a value in and of itself whose productive force may be—although is not necessarily—put to work to set things in motion”. Other more familiar characteristics of post-Fordist wages, such wage stagnation and repression, a pervasive gap between earning and the cost of social reproduction, and the “precarious nature of the reproduction of life,” illustrated by forms of waged employment such as zero-hero contacts, are connected to this.

In a more speculative and ambiguous way, Gilles Deleuze draws a distinction between the function of money in the disciplinary societies of modernity, which “locks gold in as numerical standard,” and the move away from this (enacted with the “Nixon shock” of 1971) in societies of control, in which money acts as “floating rates of exchange, modulated according to a rate establish by a set of standard currencies” and extends this difference to the transformation of salaried wages: the factory wage revolved around the relationship of the individual and the mass (the demand for the highest possible production for the lowest possible wages organized “individuals as a single body”), whereas the corporate system has “new ways of handling money, profits, and humans, organizing the wage around the relationship between the “dividual” and “data, markets, or ‘banks'” (by imposing a “modulation of each salary, in states of perpetual metastability …the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within”). As Deleuze suggests, this universal modulation between the dividual and big data is effected by the computer, characterizing the place of humans within social institutions as “no longer ….enclosed, but …in debt”.

Importantly, this modulating principle of the corporate wage has “not failed to tempt national education itself,” Deleuze announces: “For the school system: continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling …Many young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve…” Deleuze is describing the emergence of the idea of the “learning society” in the 1970s, which promoted the need for lifelong learning in response to economic shifts brought about by communications technology and automation. Beyond the traditional educational process of individuation, the cultivation of individual subjects through education, the learning society also aims at a process of dividuationWilliam Bogard has described the process of dividuation in more general terms as “the internal division of entities into measurable and adjustable parameters” through “modulations of coded information”. Thisparametric modulation …breaks down life into measures of information, and populations into databases,” serving the “demands of postmodern global Capital for flexible modes of production and consumption”. Arjun Appadurai has, in a different context, described how the role of derivatives in processes of “financialization produces ‘dividual’ forms that ‘slice and dice’ people into quantified risk categories that are held together by their relationship to risk and uncertainty”.

Phil Wood has charted the ways in which data is used to manage schools, pupils and teachers, although it is also important, I think, to recognize how much of this management currently continues to conform to modes of discipline, focused on the enclosure of schools as comparable units and the (competitive) relationship between the individual student and the mass of students. The shift towards more extreme forms of control and dividuation would, presumably, move beyond the narrow focus on the individual school pupil in relation to the mass and towards what Foucault, in his 1979 lectures on neoliberalism, calls “not so much the individual, or processes and mechanisms, but enterprises …enterprise-units,” with an emphasis “on the fact that what could be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital” (including “time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking …giving them affection as investment which can form human capital” and extending to the emotional resilience for flexible working conditions and cognitive adaptability for constant retraining).

What is significant here is that it would not be as monolithic institutions and individuals education will be evaluated but as enterprise-units broken down in accordance with qualification, background, course, etc. As a consequence of the Post-Fordist transformation of money discussed by Adkins above, post-Fordist education could increasingly come to involve the transference of risk form the state to a greater and greater number of private enterprise units, not as individuals but collections of categories of risk linked to background, qualification and subject. Of course, the risk remains for the state that the investment is not repaid (and this risk itself relates, if Adkins is correct, to the instability of the value of money paid as wages as separated from labour power), but, in time, this risk will be less than immediate state funding with no direct financial return.

Although nowhere near as complex as the derivatives trading involved in the subprime mortgage crash, speculators in the US already bundle student loans into trading investments known as student loan asset-backed securities (SLABS) and McGettigan has pointed to the potentials for derivative trading in relation to English and Welsh student loans. McGettigan has anticipated the outcome of such a logic of financialisation, within the specific context of higher education, in terms of creditworthiness: “Benefit now walks forward redefined in monetary terms as creditworthiness – of institutions and individuals. ‘If this student with these qualifications from this background does this course, how much should we lend them towards fees’ …New data [such as employment, earnings and loan repayment data] on the performance of institutions would then help those making investment decisions in a market currently saturated with proxy information and hundreds of rival institutions.”

The two central claims I am circling around here are:

(i) that the financialization of education described by Blacker is symptomatic of a much broader economic shift, tied to what Adkins describes as in terms of the post-Fordist transformation of money, wages and work (one that is distinct from – Fordist – conceptions of the “commodification” of education still understood in relation to the individual under conditions of mass production and consumption). If this is correct, this transformation is still to come for many forms of work and education and, contra Blacker, will constitute new forms of exploitation connected to debt and credit, rather than the eliminationist prediction of an absence of exploitation (because no longer reliant on a human labour force).

(ii) one of the consequences of the financialized transformation of education, as I suggested in the review mentioned above, will nonetheless be the necessity of residual educational ideals of individuation traditionally associated with unifying notions of Bildung and connected to the liberal arts or humanities, precisely as a therapeutic, albeit now in a cynical ideological form, response to increasingly frustrating experiences of control and dividuation, i.e. division, displacement and deferment. Peter Mandler has pointed out that far from there being a crisis in the humanities, as commonly claimed, ‘the proportion of students studying humanities at university has hardly changed… [a]nd, very importantly, the rapid expansion of higher education in the world over the past couple of generations means that, in absolute numbers, more people are studying the humanities than ever before.’ As I argued in a recent post, the ongoing fascination with “learning communities” from the 1980s onward can be seen as a similar response to anxieties over automation and social fragmentation that produced the demand for the “learning society” and is partly tied to a similar idealistic attempt to promote an individualistic conception of learning (i.e. a community of individuals) undermined by such trends.

In that discussion, I suggested there that the rise of new forms of digital social media might be more usefully seen not only as one among other causes of contemporary fragmentation within contemporary education but also an effect of those same educational divisions: that some developments in social media might be regarded as originating within a certain historical form of educational culture emerging in the last three decades. This not only points to both the continued importance of (a certain kind of) higher education – to at least “drop-out” off once ideas, contacts and possibly investment has been procured – to (certain kinds of) entrepreneurs working within post-Fordist economies, but also to the relevance of a transformation of technology in relation to the link between humans, technology and education.

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3. Simmel and Benjamin: The Slave Revolt of Technology

In her discussion of financialization, Adkins argues that the transformed function of money has an “extraordinary resonance” with the sociologist Georg Simmel’s idea that “the importance of money lies not in the fact that it represents, measures, or has (or should have) equivalence with one source of value but that it is ‘clothed in [a] plurality of values'”. For Adkins, “Simmel’s social theory has increasing relevance for the contemporary world, especially for the socioeconomic formations and processes associated with post-Fordist capitalist accumulation”.

Adkins’ argument for the renewed relevance of Simmel’s philosophy within the context of post-Fordist capitalist accumulation might also be useful for an area of contemporary culture that she doesn’t directly discuss: post-Fordist technology. If, as Adkins suggests, the “intellectualization of money” upon the stock exchange represents the post-Fordist transformation of money, then Simmel’s understanding of money as “the purest form of the tool” may also be useful in articulating a contemporary account of the transformation of technology via the financialization of money, which takes on a particularly acute form in digital social media. As others have pointed out (cf. Zeena Feldman’s ‘Simmel in Cyberspace’), Simmel provides a kind of phenomenology of the contemporary experience of new media, highlighting the close relationship between “the money economy, individualization and the enlargement of the circle of social relationships” (348). Charalambos Tsekeris suggests that although Simmel, “never directly used the phrase ‘social networks’ …[he] systematically focused on how social communicative interactions are influenced by the multiple ways in which people get connected to one another, and argued that the societal forms “are conceived as constituting society (and societies) out of the mere sum of living men. The study of this second area may be called ‘pure sociology’, which abstracts the mere element of sociation.” More significantly, as Adkins discussion of labour suggests, Simmel’s philosophy perhaps also allows us to conceptualize a transformation in the nature of production within the contemporary monetary economy: the extension of the productive power of labour into the sphere of consumption (the rise of productive forms of consumption, characterized in terms of the idea of “prosumption” but also theories of human capital more generally, that connect human investment of time and financial resources to increases in future productivity) to increasing members of society, most obviously in the use of social media itself. The economy of social media not only emerges out of the speculative forms of finance capital investment Adkins discusses but for the time being are sustained by the kind of productive consumption (data generation, captured and sold by corporations) also deeply implicated in speculative forms of the transference of values and risk made possible by digital technology.

According to Simmel, the purposive behaviour of humans, teleologically drawn to attain satisfaction from the achievement of consciously represented ends, is always mediated by means in a way that involves “the conscious interweaving of our subjective energies and the objective world” (206). This mediation of means over ends becomes mistaken as a value in itself with the predominance of money as a “purely abstract means” and so “the purest form of the tool,” one that “embodies and sublimates the practical relation of man to the objects of his will, his power and his impotence” (210-211). In the money economy, Simmel suggests, tools, as the mediation of subject and objective means and ends, become an “absolute means” within “the chain of purposive action” (209). “The greater the role of money becomes in concentrating values [representing and consolidating more, more diverse, and more mutable objects and values] …the less it will need to be tied to a material substance” (197), leading to the “spiritualization [or intellectualization, Vergeistigung] of money” (198). It is the stock exchange that “raises the essence of money to its purest form,” in doing so creating the “general and objective concept of being ‘creditworthy'” (294): ever “since a considerable amount of working capital, mostly in terms of mortgages, had to be sunk into the soil in order to wrest from it the required yield,” the monetary economy has tended towards “a series of previously unknown obligations” to “third persons” (295).

This tendency for money to perform a teleological displacement, sliding “in front of the inner and final ends” and displacing them, is “only the highest point on the scale” of many other kinds of technical mediating elements (490). The “origins and progress of machine technology are,” for Simmel, “connected with the monetary system” and the development of the “monetary economy” (197).  According to Simmel, the “preponderance of technology […] weaves the energies and materials of nature into our life” in such a way that “spirituality and contemplation, stunned by the clamorous splendour of the scientific-technological age, have to suffer for it by a faint sense of tension and vague longing,” becoming “fetters that tie us down and make many things indispensable which could and even ought to be dispensed with as far as the essence of life is concerned” (489-490). This situation culminates in a situation in which “the control of nature by technology is possible only at the price of being enslaved in it”:

It is quite erroneous to believe that the significance and intellectual potential of modern life has been transferred from the form of the individual to that of the masses. Rather, it has been transferred to the form of the objects: it lives in the immense abundance, the marvellous expediency and the complicated precision of machines, products and the supra-individual organizations of contemporary culture. Correspondingly, the ‘revolt of the slaves’ that threatens to dethrone the autocracy and the normative independence of strong individuals is not the revolt of the masses, but the revolt of objects. Just as, on the one hand, we have become slaves of the production process, so, on the other, we have become the slaves of the products. That is, what nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs. Thus, the domination of the means has taken possession not only of specific ends but of the very centre of ends, of the point at which all purposes converge and from which they originate as final purposes. (489)

The critical theorist Walter Benjamin was not only “particularly struck by the critique of Marx’s theory of value” in Simmel’s Philosophy of Money but also by Simmel’s associated account of technology: writing on fascism in 1930, Benjamin declared that the economic inability to incorporate the technological into the spiritual and social spheres implies that “any future war will also be a slave revolt of technology”. This “bungled reception of technology” resulted, Benjamin suggests, from a restricted concept of material and productive labour that itself derived from a impoverished misunderstanding of nature. In numerous places, as I have discussed in more detail elsewhere, Benjamin compares this bungled reception of technology with the bungled education of children:

The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.

The attempt to seize control of technology aims not only at the liberation of humanity under industrial capitalism but, simultaneously, the liberation of technology and so both the “second nature” that characterizes the habits of technological modernity and “first nature” of the organic body. Benjamin’s description of this liberation is significant here: it involves the transformation of technology away from “the maximum possible use of human beings” to the reduction of “their use to the minimum”.

If there is a utopianism in Benjamin’s work, then, it involves the technological liberation and transformation of humanity to be freed from an enslavement to technology. The primal image of such a utopia is presented to us in cinema:

In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of equipment is the result of a special procedure – namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology.

The blue flower, in Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen the symbol of the reconciliation of humanity and natureis here presented as a vision of reality free from technological equipment; this vision is only made possible by the intrusion of equipment (“the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew, and so forth”) to such an extent it prevents any spectator a “viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment” but enables, through techniques of editing made possibly by such technology, the vision of a reality in which such technology has disappeared. The educational equivalent, as I have begun to discuss elsewhere, would be the use of technological software to manage and administer all the necessary bureaucratic and pedagogic functions of teaching and learning in order to better open up the space for face-to-face learning as such.

To move beyond a simplistic understanding of new technology as either positive or negative, what is significant about digital technology and social media is the extent to which certain aspects move not towards automation but rather augmentation: the maximal possible use of human beings. Reports since 2014 have suggested that the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs may decline, partly because of rising overseas labour costs and partly because of falling domestic labour costs facilitated by the growing “taskification” or “Uber-ization” of work, facilitated by web-based platforms. As Tom Davenport has observed, labour processes transformed by “robotic process automation” have tended to involve:

…reductions in headcount—but headcount owned by offshore outsourcing firms. It’s a logical trend; the processes that were structured and codifiable enough to move to services outsourcers are the same ones that will be automated. Many outsourcers have realized this and now offer either their own proprietary RPA solutions or “white-labeled” versions from other vendors …in countries like the United States, it’s likely that increased use of cognitive automation technologies will bring back at least some jobs from offshoring locations. Almost all automation systems require some degree of human configuration, oversight, and maintenance …the fact that there will still be humans involved in almost every process suggests that “augmentation” may be a better term than automation.

The “cyborg telemarketing” I experienced is an example of such augmentation: the use of pre-recorded messages is regarded as more effective in terms of manipulating the prejudices of the customer in terms of language, accent and tone, more efficient in terms of avoiding human error in the message conveyed, and more productive in terms of enabling human agents to handle several conversations simultaneously. Technological augmentation may therefore contribute to decreased wages and increased productivity in such a way that in some sectors there could be a reversal of outsourcing and offshoring, especially if combined with some kind of resurgence of political and economic nationalism (although it is likely that such technology will simply be used, in turn, to further drive down costs overseas). While automation directly threatens jobs, the focus on augmentation points to the continued involvement of human operators in ways that complicate any suggestion of economic eliminationism and the reduction of skills required suggests the advantages (in terms of responding to rapid staff turnover and keeping wages low) of maintaining – rather than eliminating – the reserve army of labour.

As my own experience of cyborg or augmented telemarketing demonstrated, however, the technology used is currently nowhere near as effective as the communicative, cognitive and emotional skills of a human being. Rather than seeing automation as the elimination of human jobs, then, perhaps technological augmentation suggests a more sinister way in which new kinds of automation within the growth sectors of industry will maintain a symbiotic link with living labour. Under such conditions, it is conceivable that some of the seemingly “soft” functions of education, beyond the transmission of knowledge and training in skills, such as socialization and humanization, become increasingly necessary not merely for training  human beings for a world increasingly mediated by and enmeshed with machines but also for the resilience to endure in such a world: not in order to resist such augmentation but to better serve it for the interests of capital. If technology has the capacity to educate or train us against this, it must do so by providing a perception of our technological liberation from technology.