THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Flights of Fantasy

On Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s Undercommons

by Zach Ngin

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published February 14, 2020


I’m trying to remember where I was when I first read The Undercommons. I don’t remember where I started it, but I must have been somewhere far from home. This book moved (with) me. In a coffee shop on the other side of the country, I was somewhere near the end. And somewhere in the middle, I was sitting on the snowy side of a road, on the other side of a blind underpass. Out of view, beyond the tunnel, was a detention center. I had sat down to record the sounds of cars and how they traveled from one side of blindness to another. Horns came blasting through the tunnel, around the bend; they came as notes and as groans, in short, staccato bursts. Occasionally, overhead, a train went by. I sat and read and listened to the sonic commerce between the detention center and the world outside. I was in my first year of college, and I was sitting somewhere in the surrounding, somewhere between the prison and the university, listening to the distances.

Through the essays that make up The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney ask what lies beneath and beyond institutions of control: the prison and the university, the slave ship and the settlement, systems of debt and credit. Their central concept, “the undercommons,”  refers simply to the ungovernable realm of social life, the place where we—colonized, queer, otherwise marginal—make meaning with each other. It is not so much an excavation of resistance or a primer for revolution as a celebration of their inescapable, improvised fact. The undercommons are ineluctably other but never elsewhere. This is the enlightenment’s shadow archive, its flights of fantasy, its maroon community, the fugitive commons just beyond its blind underpass. And the things we’ve been waiting for: they’ve been here, if you listen; they are here, we are here; just listen.

 

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The Undercommons was published in 2013 by Minor Compositions, a radical publisher that distributes electronic copies of its titles for free. Since then, it has become a touchstone for academics, artists, activists, and others. The book’s most famous essay, “The University and the Undercommons,” examines the relationship between the university and broader structures of law and order. “The university,” Moten and Harney write, “is not the opposite of the prison, since they are both involved in their way with the reduction and command of the social individual.” In their view, both university and prison are enlisted in the same war against social life—a conquest that extracts what it can (as knowledge, as culture) and discards the rest (as waste, as criminality). Both are invested in a logic of prescription: on one side, an academic program of critique; on the other, a carceral program of correction. In the face of these conditions, they argue, “one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.” This line is one of the book’s most cited: it offers to its readers a slogan, a clarion call, a shock of recognition.

A shock of recognition. I want to dwell on that phrase for a minute. Those words may come closest to what I’m trying to say about this book. By now, I’ve read and reread its passages countless times, and I could never say that I completely understand it. The Undercommons is a book that creates and sustains its own dense language, more a sound and feel than a constellation of concepts. Refusing to fall neatly into a particular form or vernacular, it invites unsettled readings, unsettling readings. It’s a style that carries as it holds, that makes a home in motion only, never setting down its bags, never settling its debts. Yet it is this very sense of unsettledness that made it feel so welcoming to me. More than anything else, it 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. The difficulty of the undercommons is the difficulty of finding connection in an atomized, alienated society. Their book reached me as an invitation to try. As Moten and Harney write, “This information can never be lost, only irrevocably given in transit. We could never provide a whole bunch of smooth transitions for this order of ditches and hidden spans.”

I see The Undercommons as an experiment: what does it mean to live and write in the wake of slavery and settler colonialism and capitalist modernity? In other words, how do we devise a grammar of brokenness, a language that honors the ruins that we live among? The answers, for Moten and Harney, if they are anywhere, lie in the cadence of their sentences, their sonic proximities, their fugitive intimacy. “Here they meet those others who dwell in a different compulsion, in the same debt, a distance, forgetting, remembering again but only after,” they write. “These other ones carry bags of newspaper clippings, or sit at the end of the bar, or stand at the stove cooking, or sit on a box at a newsstand, or speak through bars, or speak in tongues. These other ones have a passion to tell you what they have found, and they are surprised you want to listen, even though they’ve been expecting you.” There is so much that we’ve wanted to hear from one another, Moten and Harney seem to say. There is so much for us to say to each other.

 

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Moten and Harney, who met as undergraduates at Harvard, bring rich intellectual genealogies and languages to their common project. Moten, who teaches at New York University, is a poet and scholar who draws on Black radical thought, particularly Saidiya Hartman’s work on subjection and Édouard Glissant’s theory of Relation. Harney, who lives in Singapore, is a scholar of labor and management who relies on the language of Italian autonomist Marxism. Together, they ask to read alongside others engaged in this massive project of knowing and living otherwise: a few recent examples are Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, la paperson’s A Third University is Possible, and Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Though this context helps us locate their work, they would probably resist any attempt to situate them in a single lineage or settled position. On the occasion of their book’s translation into Spanish, they said in an interview, “Even within what might be called our own context, as tightly as anyone might ever want to define it, in order for our work to be read at all it will have had to have been translated, moved, displaced.”

From the perspective of the undercommons, all knowledge is a product of these unlikely displacements and entanglements, unsettled in its origins and unsettling in its effects. Moten and Harney’s name for this practice is Black study. Moten offers an explanation of the concept in an interview with Stevphen Shukaitis included in the book:

 

We are committed to the idea that study 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, held under the name of speculative practice...The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.

 

Moten and Harney reject the distinction between productive and unproductive activity, between creative and uncreative ways of being in the world with others. They ignore the call to order that separates the chatter in the classroom from the production of knowledge, the noise of the crowd from the show onstage. By recognizing all social life as intellectual and creative, Moten and Harney access a riotous, wayward history of thought. This book is, in part, a love letter to the university’s undercommons: its “maroon communities of composition teachers, mentorless graduate students, adjunct Marxist historians, out or queer management professors, state college ethnic studies departments, closed-down film programs, visa-expired Yemeni student newspaper editors, historically black college sociologists, and feminist engineers.” But it also refuses to recognize the university as the center of study. In fact, its authors are interested in how the conditions of academic labor actively suppress the kinds of study that we desire most.

 

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“To work today is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption,” write Moten and Harney at the beginning of their final essay, “Fantasy in the Hold.” The line is intentionally placeless and vague. It describes a dream as old as modernity, the time of “today”: this is a dream of total alienation, beyond human space and time, beyond the work of human hands. These conditions, which Moten and Harney describe as logistical, apply to both the contemporary academy and the founding of modernity. To work today, the authors argue, is to work in the wake of slavery and settlement, to work with their languages and institutions, their desires and visions. It may feel irresponsible—harmful, even—to draw a line from chattel slavery to the conditions of labor in the modern university. But to be clear, they are not suggesting an equivalence or even an analogy: the movement of their essay is better described as contextualization and speculation. They challenge us to consider the violence that founded our world and how it continues to condition what is thinkable and possible within the institutions that we have inherited.

For Moten and Harney, both the violence and the possibility begin in the hold of a ship, in the transport of objects, of people enslaved and imprisoned, refugees and laborers, in moving and being made to move. This movement cannot be reversed or wished away. The authors refuse offers of assimilation and rites of respectability. They refuse to advance from objecthood to subjecthood, from dispossession to the proprietary relations of self-possession. In other words, following Afro-pessimist scholar Frank Wilderson, they remain in the hold of the ship, despite their fantasies of flight—and this is where they find, where they are found. “The hold’s terrible gift was to gather dispossessed feelings in common, to create a new feel in the undercommons,” they write. “To have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others. It is to feel at home with the homeless, at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued, at rest with the ones who consent not to be one.” The undercommons is therefore neither a settled location or a gathering of individuals: it is the feel of holding and being held, the gathering of a chorus, “an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question.” All are invited into the ceaseless movement of things.

 

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The Undercommons is an experiment in refusing the conditions of logistics: Moten and Harney want (us) to think, to pause, to interrupt, to experiment. They are clear that this project neither begins nor ends in the university, but this is the place from which they write. Part of what feels so urgent about their work is that they really question why study, in their sense of the word, is so difficult in institutions supposedly devoted to it. “That's what we were trying to understand,” Moten says in the interview with Shukaitis. “How come we can't be together and think together in a way that feels good, the way it should feel good? Everybody is pissed off all the time and feels bad, but very seldom do you enter into a conversation where people are going, ‘why is it that this doesn't feel good to us?’”

Moten and Harney insist on having that conversation. They ponder the university’s investments in isolation and atomization, in instrumental ways of seeing. They insist that we attend to our feelings of stress and busyness, scarcity and precarity—in other words, to the sense that we have nothing to give each other, that there is nothing we owe each other. And they insist that we keep moving, beyond austerity, beyond critique, beyond opposition. “We run looking for a weapon and keep running looking to drop it,” they write. “And we can drop it, because however armed, however hard, the enemy we face is also illusory.” Our time and our attention, our care and our love: this is all we have, “the mutual debt that can never be made good,” our cause for suffering and celebration.

Reading The Undercommons helped me insist on having that conversation. This book moved (with) me. My copy, borrowed on interlibrary loan, began to bear the traces of its movement: all the times I pulled it out of my backpack, the times that someone lent breath to its sentences. It became an occasion to say, We’re here to study. Why doesn’t this feel good? And to ask, Why is the work of being a student so often in opposition to practices of care—for ourselves and for each other, for this city, this land, this world? The Undercommons became, in short, an occasion for study: for talking and walking around with others, among others, lingering on benches and in vacant seminar rooms, listening together to the distances. Another university is possible, and it’s already here somewhere, its cover creased from being passed back and forth, from being held until long overdue.

 

ZACH NGIN B'22 is convinced that we owe each other everything.