When We Are Apart We Are Not Alone

A conversation with Fred Moten and Stefano Harney

by Zach Ngin, Sara Van Horn & Alex Westfall

Illustration by Alex Westfall

published May 1, 2020



In the first issue of the semester, we published a reflection on Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons, a book that holds us close, that insists we unlearn and relearn how to study, and that “more than anything else, offers itself as a social space: where phrases and sounds and citations collide, gathered from the world and given to the world. The book invests its hopes in those collisions, in the touch between people and objects and words that—though fleeting—changes everything.” 

In the months that have passed since then, the transformative “touch” has assumed a different, darker meaning. For the final issue of the semester, we reached out to both scholars to ask how they’re reacting to the present moment. They were kind enough to share some thoughts on the distances of the pandemic, the demands of institutions, and their long-standing collaboration. We invite you to enter the stolen time—the groove, the pulse, the swing—of their words.




The Indy: Where are each of you right now? How are you and how are you absorbing and responding to these times? Are you teaching and how are you teaching? 

Moten and Harney: Stefano is in Brasilia and Fred is in New York City. It's not unusual for us to be in different cities and usually also different hemispheres and continents. We do spend as much time together and with our other collaborators as possible but for us, being apart changes the balance. When we are together we hang out. We have a good time. When we are separated we write together. So on the one hand these times are not that different. They are also not that different because we both hang out and write and struggle in the general emergency. In that emergency, the sirens have not stopped for 500 years. In that emergency, you shelter, but together, and not in place, but on the move. 

Fred is teaching. Stefano was fired from his teaching job in Singapore last June. He tried as much as possible to deserve it. As a result Stefano has not entered further into online teaching, although this was for a long time a facet of business school teaching anyway. Fred is now in online mode for the first time, participating in a reality that has long been in place not only in business school teaching but also in community colleges and for-profit higher education, where students who work or who have otherwise been excluded from the traditional college experience, with all its amenities and all of its structures of abuse, have been trying to get what they need from, or share their needs in, the university. We have neither advocated for the joys of the classroom, as if they were accessible to all and all good, nor have we abdicated our responsibility to radicalize that space for work and play; but neither have we either simply accepted the imposed protocols of distance learning or rejected them from the position of moralistic hedonism that professors often occupy and from which they often do their professing when they have what is generally thought to be a good job at a good school. Being on the move and in shelter together we try to work with what we got and with whom we're held, against the grain of this new imposition of scarcity but in enjoyment of the leveling it has induced.

The Indy: In the last section of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, you talk about study as “what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three.” There’s a powerful physicality to many of the images in the book, a sense of liveness and shared space, though we don’t mean to imply that the concept privileges certain forms of being together over others. But we’re curious about how our practices of study can accommodate the kind of distances between people that feel heightened and involuntary at this moment, whether that’s a matter of time zones or geography or “context,” whatever that might mean. The two of you met in college, and now teach on opposite sides of the world. We're currently writing you from three different cities. Could you talk a little bit about how the two of you have kept conversing and collaborating across time and space?

Moten and Harney: Well, when we are apart we are not alone. We are apart but with others, elaborating on our partnership through others and coming together in different configurations.  There's no sociality without coming together because being apart tempts you to think you are alone, rather than a part. It is capitalism that is social distancing. We want to hold each other, as our friend Fumi Okiji says, "without holding each other to anything."  That's our thing.  Capitalism's thing is locks and distancing and shortages. We can't lose sight not only of the fact that the healthcare systems of the world need to collapse, but also that we need to take back into our embrace not just our health but our ill-health, and hold them until this nefarious distinction is gone. Because that distinction is a product of the healthcare system, which in turn is just the institutional fix at work in the artificial divisions of capitalist society.

You are already collaborating, the three of you, in a way that revolts against individuation. But watch what happens as you move up through the institution, whether the university, the hospital, the government, the NGO, the creative firm. Improvement, advancement, recognition are all individuating tools brought down on people by their very commitment to improve, advance, reform, repurpose the institution. That's one place where the struggle is, to remain within and against, but really against, to be complicit in the most corrupt way possible.




The Indy: Your comments on this distinction between health and ill-health are striking, because for weeks now we’ve been receiving emails from our administrators about protecting the “financial health” of this institution. This language of health has always been yoked to racial capitalism’s governing logics of safety and order. Our rapid (re)turn to austerity reminds us, too, of your previous work on the mutuality of debt—debts that in their endless flight can never be paid back or made good. We’re seeing stories about historic shortfalls and deficits, and hearing calls for deferral and forgiveness. What do universities, in particular, owe their communities right now—a time when they have (literally) reneged on their promise of shelter? And how might “owing” as a condition help elaborate a world in the aftermath of this (general) emergency? 

Moten and Harney: At the risk of being too blunt about it, what has been the American model?  What are its terms of order, as Cedric Robinson would say?  The American model is to stay one step ahead, be the leaders, the change makers, the disruptors, in one thing and one thing only.  America is number one, and always has been, when it comes to absolute surplus value.  Why?  Because the terms of order have been constructed in America to allow the model to work people to death. America pushes the boundaries of innovation when it comes to working people to death.  Now of course other parts of the world try this too. But we're number one. Because we have always understood that if you are going to experiment with working people to death you have to be able to replace them quickly. And you have to replace them cheaply or the advantages you got from stretching your workers to death will be lost.  If you can sustain that, you have what is called a healthy economy in America. It's as true in Brazil as in Haiti as in the US or Canada, but of course the US is always the first mover. New World slavery operated that way.  The latifundias operated that way. Oxnard farms operate that way. InstaCart operates that way.  Because in the American model the introduction of relative surplus value regimes serves not to replace absolute surplus value strategies but to extend them.  Because in the American model there is nothing wrong with the absolute surplus value as a strategy, because there is nothing wrong with killing off your workforce.  There never was, and still there is not. No factory inspector reports will ever change that.

We say all that so we can also say this. Universities don't owe communities anything. Universities don't owe and they don't have, or participate in, communities. When has the university ever been anything other than an institution devoted to the nasty innovations we describe above? Universities don't owe, they obligate; they don't give, they impose. They're like almost all of the other institutions where workers go to work. Going to work in one—whether you are a student or a professor or a janitor or a groundskeeper or a bookkeeper or a librarian or anyone else trying to live and eat and study and resist administration and the call to administer—doesn't make you a bad person or a good person. It makes you part of a workforce with varying levels of consciousness regarding the duress you're under. As things stand now, if you don't know, you're getting closer to knowing. The university can't owe. It doesn't know how. It doesn't know how to know that owing is good and owning is bad. We're interested in what we owe to ourselves and part of that is bound up with all we've had to take from the university as well as all we have to take back from the university.

The Indy: We are interested not only in what universities owe their communities, but also in how we might orient ourselves toward the university so as to be complicit in, as you say, the “most corrupt way possible”? To that end, what frameworks do you find helpful in thinking through how we might demand of, shelter in, or otherwise “steal what we can” from the university?

Moten and Harney: This is still something we think about all the time, and part of how we think about it is contained in our answer to your compelling next question. But let's start with that phrase 'steal what we can.' Of course, we've had deans thinking it meant we were going to be taking the copy machine out the back door. But as we're sure you understood it, the main thing we are talking about stealing in those passages is our time—our groove, our pulse, our swing, what Amiri Baraka calls our boom boom ba boom, and our capacity to shape all that. Of course, we're really talking about stealing it back. And this is not a formulation about overworked professors, though of course the university tries to extract more and more from all its workers. It is about all the folks who labor under administration—the main workforce, students, the administrative staff, the custodians, cooks, etc. And what will we do with this stolen time, brutally processed into labor and then labor power, when we expropriate it? First, turn labor power back through the individual laboring body and into the work and play of common animated flesh engaged in common practice. The question all this turns on is can we be more than Fanon's outlaw? Remember how he writes about the colonial outlaw as a hero of the people, not because he or she possesses a revolutionary consciousness, according to Fanon anyway, but because that bandit rejected colonial authority and the rule of colonial law. In other words, how can our rejection of the law of the university be something more than this individual and ultimately symbolic resistance?

Well, it's tempting to say that we can't. It's tempting to say, with a certain well-wrought critical self-loathing, that we have built nothing outside the university, that our work means nothing outside the university, that the way we act implies that we don't need our communities (except to write about them as source material), that we only wish to provide 'policy' to our movements, so that our solidarities beyond the university can be summed up simply—we don't live with or even near our people, and our people make no claim for us, or upon us, for understandable reasons, given how we have behaved. It's tempting to say all that, because it's true and the pandemic is going to prove it. It's tempting to set out on that outlaw, buffalo run with our stolen labour, knowing you'll have nowhere to go and no one to go with you, leaving you in a state of constant, lonely, neurotic demand, where you can be your best self or live your best life or at least live the life of the one one who's not bad, not complicit, though all the performance of that goodness ever seems to lead to is a frenzied, serially filed petition to share the governance of the institution that maims you. Yes, it's tempting to say all that, because it's all true. It's just that way more than that is true. We’re trying to learn from those who refuse to let it be completely true. Because the thing is, what we're trying to steal back, what was stolen from us, never belonged to anyone. It's what we share.




The Indy: Much of your work stages a collision (or complicity, to use your word) between prose and poetry, aesthetics and politics, theory and praxis. These are fraught distinctions to hold, but we wanted to ask how you conceive of the entanglement of theory and practice right now. Within and against the models of individual authorship that the academy offers us, what makes theoretical work worth doing? 

Moten and Harney: We guess we will see what becomes of the university-art world industrial complex as capitalism attempts to consolidate itself in the face of this pandemic. When this complex is humming it has its own version of bringing these things together. It specifically manages to do so on the grounds of content provision, vertical integration, and product innovation.  The genius artist and the critic who is supposed to know about him is a favorite combo of distinctly separate entrees. So we try to work differently with our friends who are artists, entering the art practice instead of certifying it. This is something you can see in our friends Arjuna Neumann and Denise Ferreira da Silva. The films they make blur things, even as landscapes are as clear as daydream across the screen. But part of it is that if you are really committed to working collectively you have to give up some of your preciousness around style. You have to experiment, and the only thing you know is that acceptable academic style is a machine for individuation and must be roundly rejected. Of course, as you say, we are complicit in this workplace, and so sometimes we have to use some of it and deal with being used and abused by it. But everything from citation, to copyright, to authorship, to giving public lectures is designed to individuate study. We wanted to study, to be embraced by black study, and sometimes, when we try hard, and in the company of our friends, we find that our practices of gathering, of thinking together, of moving together, of investigating things together, begin to differ from those of the university, even within the university as we try to work our way out of the university, to retire, to go on recess, to find ourselves, and then lose ourselves, in a fundamental antagonism between black study and the university, and between the aesthetics of black study and the museum, that we can share and cultivate.

The Indy: We first encountered your collaboration in the form of The Undercommons, your book from 2013. Has your collaboration taken other forms since then? We’ve heard that you have a forthcoming volume, All Incomplete, and would love it if you could tell us a little about that project.

Moten and Harney: Our collaboration is based on 30 years of friendship, though it was only something we ourselves really came to notice through writing together, something that began more like 15 years ago. At first we wrote just to figure what the university job had done to us—like auto workers might talk about how the job gave them asthma or bad backs. But we had more work to do than auto workers, because we had fallen prey to that strange attachment not just to the job but to the workplace. The great militants of the auto plants like General Baker never had those illusions. They were not attached to General Motors or Ford or to the industry. The job was just where they fought. It was just the site of revolutionary struggle and because it was just, and only, such a site, other sites of struggle opened up and were not cut off by the privileging of the job. But we, on the other hand, were in danger of thinking the university was special, our jobs were special, and therefore of cutting ourselves off, not only from other sites and solidarities of struggle but from the work itself, from study. So our early collaborations were a matter of helping each other to shake off the individuating, delusional idea of the lone, critical, subversive intellectual and his or her self-appointed importance. Study is important precisely because it is not special. Academia—which is to say the university as a business, which it has always been, and as an institution that does what Kant calls the regulatory business of the understanding—fosters this being lost in how special the university is, either as especially good or as especially bad, and therefore fosters this sense in academics of how special we are. And this is to say that what is fostered is a particular mode of alienation, the student's estrangement from study.  We are lucky to have each other and a whole league of people who keep trying to pull us out of that.


ZACH NGIN B’22, ALEX WESTFALL B’20, and SARA VAN HORN B’21 are sheltering together.