Notes for Talk for Goldsmiths Learning Enhancement Unit

I am not sure which word in the above slogan I find most difficult – Goldsmiths, learning, enhancement, or unit. I guess I have problems with the idea of unit most of all. I like that a unit here is not singular, that it is a number of people who work in the institution ostensibly to enhance learning, and so this collective endeavour at Goldsmiths is better than the other meaning of unit which is singular – a single unit of measure, or a kitchen appliance or cupboard. The trouble however with the collective unit here is that it belongs to the bureaucratic structure and any containment of collectivity seems in dire need to be turned and released from this alienated institutionalized normative form. When it comes to learning enhancement though, the unit of assessment is still more worrying.

And we are here to talk about research. On this I simply want to say that any investigation teaches us that things are never so simple.

Are we even sure we know what research directed learning is? Or if it is such a good thing that we have whole units of the university dedicated to it? This belongs to another concern I have with learning as it goes on in educational institutions. There are many ways in which learning is assessed. Indeed, assessment is core to the way in which we seem sure about this thing we call education. It will not surprise anyone to hear me question the old credo that education is not always a social good.

Let me tell an educational anecdote. This is in fact true. Last year, in the wake of the first period of the Arab uprisings of 2011, I helped organize a conference in Gothenburg as part of the music festival Clandestino (a progressive music festival which rendered world music as global sweatbox, not just global jukebox). One evening, activists from a political faction from Tunisia joined in a comradely discussion about their intent to include the ‘right to education for all’ in the new constitution they were helping write in the post-Ben Ali era. Late into the night we argued about what sort of education. My one real chance at what the research councils like to call impact happened over beer at 3am outside a music festival under and almost midnight sun in Sweden. I cannot find the form on which to report this back to the research excellence framework people.

The point is that this tells us something about the place of education. Reading the recent work of Gayatri Spivak (An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization 2012) has suggested to me that we might consider how education can be thought of as an institutionally organized framework for class mobility and/or class reproduction. This is something that should be investigated. And the investigation itself – modeled as criticism-self-criticism – can be a teaching tool.

After all, the closer you look, the more complicated things are. If there is one lesson of research it is this one – despite the requirements of formal report back, and the absurd process of condensing lessons learned from research into formulaic aims and outcomes for program specification for teaching courses that have to be approved by … before I concede to this contemplative ever more stupid verbosity which wails on and on about the predicament in which a malignant and parasitical bureaucracy saps all subtlety and nuance from ideas… I would like to just offer the formulas as guidance:

–       Generalise and interrupt

–       dialectic – theory-praxis

–       from individual towards collective

The tendential effort of the corporate university is towards team teaching and research groups, which itself may seem happily collective, but in an alienated form governed by the policy outcomes straightjacket. Can this alienation be transmuted nevertheless? We have seen this dynamic somewhere before, and we have a theoretical and theatrical text about it – what’s new sausage factory?

As Eyal Weizman shows in his book The Least of all Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arent to Gaza, research too can become a lethal and ‘misanthropic’ instrument of governance. Israeli use of statistics and other research methods operates ‘by calibrating the level of electronic current, calories and other necessities to the minimum possible level in an attempt to govern people by reducing them to the limit of bare physical existence’ (Weizman 2012:5)

No-one will be surprised to hear me say this has echoes of what Marx had already said about capital in the factory, maintaining the worker at the minimum that ensures a return for surplus labour extraction the next day, and the next. Marx even condemns the practices of nutritional research where a certain ‘wonderful philosopher’ and American ‘humbug’ baronised Yankee Benjamin Thompson, alias Count Rumford is taken to task for proposing a specific recipe for soup for factory workers (Marx 1867/1970:601). The subsequent career of research in the pay of exploitation is itself written in annals of blood and fire – from the symbiotic embrace of anthropology and colonialism through to the neoliberal interventions of the IMF and austerity, not forgetting psy-ops, differential association deviance sociology and Co-Intel-Pro, and most recently the human terrain research of the U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written compiled, plagiarized, assembled from the detritus of outdated social research by a team of army anthropologists (2007).

At what point does the imbrication of research and control – today quite readily digitized and networked by brand-name recognition search engines – at what point does the appellation ‘researcher’ tip over the line in the sand that separates Mengele or a Pentagon weapons analyst from our apprentice sorcerer of knowledge systems commonly known as the PhD candidate?

Workplace Inquiry

There is another tradition of research, or another rendering of the research project as redeemable model, perhaps. I want to explore this as it has become popular among certain activist circles and even seems to offer practical and engaged solutions for pressing problems of organization, knowledge and purpose, even if there are also serious criticisms to be taken on board as well. What follows is a truncated or potted history of an idea that could be again renewed.

This idea has a venerable back-story. The figure of the Factory Inspector is set out by Marx in ‘The Working Day’ chapter of Capital, volume one, not as an uncritically approved person of unassailable credentials, but as an advocate of investigation that does a service for the working class ‘that should never be forgotten’. The Factory Inspector is Leonard Horner, his work appeared in the Blue Books, which were parliamentary reports, appearing at least annually, and read by Marx as key sources for his examinations of conditions in the industrial factories of 19th Century capitalism and of the struggles over wages, hours, child labour and education that surround the introduction of the Factory Acts (ensuring a modicum of education for children, and limits on the number of consecutive hours they may be forced to work).

‘Leonard Horner was one of the Factory Inquiry Commissioners of 1833, and Inspector, or rather Censor of Factories until 1859. He rendered undying service to the English working-class. He carried on a life-long contest [Kampf – struggle], not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet, to whom the number of votes given by the masters in the lower house, was a matter of far greater importance that the number of hours worked by the “hands” in the mills’ (Marx 334P, 225LW)

We might attend to the blue books so as to work out the importance of Horner’s reports for the class struggle – if nothing else, offered as tribute to his memory – but also because the performative work of doing research, and showing how research – factory inspections and the like – might be done, is also the demonstrative and illustrative effort of Marx in this chapter. It is as if Marx wants to conjure a worker-reader that will take on the task of making both analysis and description themselves, in the midst of struggle, and to ensure there is a structural or institutionally supported habit of research – factory inspections as routine – that would then support organized worker use of this research. To make use of the reports though, Marx needs the worker to be a reader, a reader in his own image perhaps, and what a reader.

Of course there will have been many readers. We can wonder who else reads the blue book reports? Marx read many of them – throughout the three volumes he quotes large sections from Leonard, for example MEGa2 II/15:97-100 a letter on the speed of steam engines and their improvement. We also know that there were a number of inspectors, so Marx reads these, including a certain sub-inspector Baker (Capital vol 3 MEGA2 II/15:126). Marx quotes the half year reports from 1846 through 1864. He also quotes Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, which came out the year before the first of the blue books. eg Vol 3:485

Engels had introduced Marx to this kind of documentation, and indeed provided – as we can see from the correspondence – much detail from experience. If we consider Marx’s ‘ethnographic’ gleanings from the factory inspectors and the like, and agree these are an update on what Engels produced in the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 – as Engels in effect accepts in not updating this work on its reissue in 1892, saying Marx already achieved more (and added a more urgent sense of the class struggle), then we can see from where the imperative of research as workplace inquiry is inaugurated.

I want to stress a central Marxist trajectory for workplace research. First of all the reference is to Engels The Condition of the Working Class in Manchester, written when Engels was 24, then the huge chapter ‘The Working Day’ in Marx’s Capital, volume one, which details the conditions in factories when skilled labourers were being replaced by machines and cheaper labour, mostly women and children. This initial formation of workplace inquiry takes explicit form when very late in Marx’s life when he penned 100 questions for a ‘Workers Inquiry’ wanting to generalize the Factory Inspections of England to France, and beyond? We might perhaps trace this next to the Bolsheviks, and Lenin of 1902, the so-called Factory Exposures of the Iskra newspaper, and many other similar examples. This can be called a parallel sociology, and even owes debts to Adorno as well as Kracauer’s 1920s work on the Salaried Masses, through to the Italian post-war Marxist Operaist tradition starting with Panzieri in the journal Quaderni Rossi (Wright 2002:21) and the Workerism of Italian autonomia, on up to Negri and Hardt (though of course with reservations (Hutnyk 2004). I am also tempted to explore, alongside this, from outside the labour movement, how the collection of oral histories and questionnaires of the ‘poverty-stricken’ came to be known as co-research, and how the term Inquiry has much wider appeal among contemporary activists. Journals like Ephemera, The Commune, Common Sense, Capital and Class, Aufheben, Riff Raff, all have interesting things to say about Workers Inquiries.

If it is in fact standard to say, as I think it is, that everyone can trace this work back to the figure of the Factory Inspector Leonard Horner as described by Marx in his chapter on ‘The Working Day’ in Capital, we also owe it top Marx to note his criticisms of Horner, but also his recognition that the factory inspectors were an innovation on the part of capital.

Marx declared as much in a short notice in La Revue Socialiste April, 20, 1980, four years before his death, where he called for a official Inquiry:

The blackguardly features of capitalist exploitation which were exposed by the official investigation organized by the English government and the legislation which was necessitated there as a result of these revelations (legal limitation of the working day to 10 hours, the law concerning female and child labor, etc.), have forced the French bourgeoisie to tremble even more before the dangers which an impartial and systematic investigation might represent. In the hope that maybe we shall induce a republican government to follow the example of the monarchical government of England by likewise organizing a far reaching investigation into facts and crimes of capitalist exploitation, we shall attempt to initiate an inquiry of this kind with those poor resources which are at our disposal. We hope to meet in this work with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes form which they suffer and that only they, and not saviors sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills which they are prey. We also rely upon socialists of all schools who, being wishful for social reform, must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class — the class to whom the future belongs -works and moves.[1]

The 100 questions Marx then deploys are questions we might usefully answer today, or even better adapt to the new conditions of work in which we presently find ourselves, as workers or workers in waiting – stagnant, latent, floating, units of reproduction, training, precarious or lumpenised, rendered more or less always in relation to surplus value extraction, even when ‘resting’. The social factory being the workplace expanded to take in the entire domain of life as we know it. The investigators the normative statisticians and record keepers of this alienated sociality, such that even the inquiry, and ‘research’ is subject now to questions of intent. An workplace inquiry cannot be one which provides better information for better management – by now even the figure of the inspector is compromised, and anyway in bourgois form always had a checkered history – the detective is a case in point where we could think of Sherlock Holmes through to Inspector Clouseau, or think of how the romantic Fleet Street fantasy of the campaigning journalist and the historical-materialist sociology professor of the campus novel have now each been bought off for television serialisation.

Workers Inquiry in Italy.

‘Nobody has discovered anything more about the working class after Marx; it still remains an unknown continent. One knows for certain that it exists, because everyone has heard it speak, and anyone can hear fables about it. But no one can say: I have seen and understood’ (Tronti 1971: 18 in Wright 2002:76)

By the early 1960s the question of changes to class composition had been raised in Quaderni Rossi. The old model of class, almost intact from the times of Marx (later on, formulated in the question ‘what has happened to the working class since Marx?’ – Tronti 1971:263 in Wright 202:86) was no longer readily apparent in the new conditions of production, alongside the emergent new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, sexual politics).

May 68 changes all this by forcing new subjectivites centre stage. It was the expression of something that had been brewing in the decomposition and recomposition of the ratio of living to dead labour (Wright 2002:36) as ‘new labour processes and new workers foreign to the traditions of the labour movement’ (Wright 2002:35) joined workplace struggles.

What is the foremost question for early Italian workerism should be carefully identified as coming directly out of a close reading of Marx, especially the passages on the technical composition of capital. The task of understanding its specificities today, is considered crucial.

The technical composition of Capital is an evaluation of the relative magnitude of the components of the production process – fixed, or constant capital in the form of tools, machinery, given levels of know-how, methods of working, distribution, communication, technology and knowledge all relative to variable capital, that labour which is hired because it adds value through its particular capacity as super-adequacy – it is able to produce more value than is needed for its own reproduction.

The relative magnitude, or ration, of constant to variable capital profoundly impacts upon the character of profits that can be expropriated from the production process. The magnitude of that ration are expressions of the cultural or social as such, but of course alienated under capitalism into a system of justifications and legitimations of class rule, hierarchy and the division of labour. This is why cultural inquiry has to be something more than research into culture.

Today, the mass of constant capital, not only but certainly very much in the west, is considerable. Machinery, plant, stock, assets – call it whatever – this mass considerably dwarfs value in labour unless significant global scale is considered.

Proletarianisation is key here. The question is of the degree to which labour deskilling has meant the machine works the worker, but it is also a matter of political consciousness and struggle/a culture of struggle by the class that came to be affected by this deskilling. Atomised workers organize less. The laptop warrior is not of the same order. The dialectic governs the circumstances into which an inquiry succeeds or fails, and the effort of capital is of course to make it fail, the criteria of success however may not be as expected. Inquiry perhaps succeeds to the degree to which the contradictions of the scene of deskilling are brought to awareness, more or less, and turned into antagonisms, to be acted upon.

No surprise then that this is also found in Marx, and exactly where he introduces the term ‘prekärer’:

As soon, therefore, as the labourers learn the secret, how it comes to pass that in the same measure as they work more, as they produce more wealth for others, and as the productive power of their labour increases, so in the same measure even their function as a means of the self-expansion of capital becomes more and more precarious for them; as soon as they discover that the degree of intensity of the competition among themselves depends wholly on the pressure of the relative surplus population; as soon as, by Trades’ Unions, &c., they try to organise a regular co-operation between employed and unemployed in order to destroy or to weaken the ruinous effects of this natural law of capitalistic production on their class, so soon capital and its sycophant, Political Economy, cry out at the infringement of the “eternal” and so to say “sacred” law of supply and demand. Every combination of employed and unemployed disturbs the “harmonious” action of this law. (Marx 1867/1970:641 L&W P793, D669)

What distinguishes the autonomists is the working through of this precarious emergence of class consciousness in new times. The post-war period, through to the 1960s and beyond brings new subjects – feminism, sexuality, environmentalism, migration etc.

The issue of the composition (decomposition) and recomposition of classes under changing conditions does presume an ‘updated’ notion of class struggle. Negri’s schematic tracking of the key labouring subject through professional worker (skilled trades), the mass worker (unskilled) to the socialized worker (communication, flexible) is of course also abstraction just as much as was Marx’s capitalist and proletarian (see Eighteenth Brumaire for the nuanced historical antidote to the theoretical binary). Yet still the idea that a proletariat exists, inflected across an ongoing history of slavery, reconfigured as anti-racism, disaggregated into foreign workers and migrancy etc etc., is where there is something of great importance for deciding who does research, why, and who for. Is a progressive intellectual and pedagogical research project necessarily only a tracking surveillance, or can it be constitutive of something more.

Today, workers inquiry in the autonomy tradition works at that field where the socialized worker may recognize themselves and their work – immaterial labour, affective labour, attention, virtual, precarious, productive consumption, communications, symbolic play, shit work mixed with temporary, flexible, diversified, collaborative, remote, transitory and itinerant labour – as subject to, and thereby organized against, capital and capitalists. The bourgeoisie can only recognize itself through the state, as orthodox Marxism would have it, and needs institutionalized sociologists and anthropologists to articulate its self-image (this is another trap of the teaching factory) but workers inquiry is necessary collective, participatory and self-organized. Here a responsibility to oneself as part of a project offers a different outlook than does the control orders of disciplinary knowledge. Breaking with the order words and hierarchy of knowledges where cultural studies might sidestep the requirement of working for the man (in order to work for the human).

Workplace Inquiry in the University?

So we might perhaps like to consider an inquiry of this sort for our own conditions in the university. In the Learning enhancement sausage factory where the famous and over-used Marx quote cannot be avoided: ‘a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation’ (Marx 1867/1967:644).

‘they have something of which they are very proud’ – Nietzsche

Is it that we are fighting to preserve the University or the education ideal? Or is this fading image not also one of the tricks and mystifications, deceits and evasions of a neoliberal terra forming that has remade all values as money. Monetisation of the research agenda, blink, course development, blink, quality assurance, blink, corporate sponsor, excellence award, commercial start-up, blink. The fee regime, the estate redevelopment, the porters, security, blink, the brand, the font, the ‘I study at …’ blink, relocate the bookshop, redesign the forecourt, rename the Green, summer school, conference services, champagne Lasalle, the international recruits, the UKBA, Santander Bank, blink, information retention, 2015, Goldsmiths Online, podcast and blink, community liaison, gallery extension, honourary award, blink blink kerching.

The time is ripe for a far more public inquiry into the character and composition of the educational institution today. Not because the privatisation and operationalisation of research is a new danger – that alignment with corporate and national interest was long underway. No, because the engagement of investigators, detectives, citizen journalists, factory inspectors, co-researchers, amateur historians, activist hunter-seekers, is itself an organizing tool that must turn research from its somnambulant sleepwalk into its ideal commercial form as market intelligence. Providing instead the militant forums for thinking and critique that will be part of a sabotage from within of the myth of neutrality of research may be the only justification for the institution of the University today.

The ‘white man got a god-complex’ said the Last Poets, and any idea that research with impact isn’t open to wholesale subservience to the false deification of money-theism really does not know what blasphemy could be. Money-theism in the university takes the spectral form of supposing that knowledge is valuable to the extent that it secures research council approval as funds. Money begets money.

Teaching and learning by-the-numbers means the imbrication of slogan versions of ideas with accreditation – the lesser of the two oldest professions. To demean teaching by both demanding money for it and refusing any substantive critical thinking, including self-criticism, is the aggravation of incoherence. This is not to say that there should be no funding for higher education – the point is that the provision of well-educated pliable automatons for industry is not something for which I think we should charge parents, or even students. Corporate employers benefit from free training when they find labour power available for hire already equipped and ready for waged employment. Ipso facto, corporate taxation and university funding through an at least seemingly impartial state mechanism, would only be a transitional phase while we inculcate in our students those habits of criticism that will necessarily be dysfunctional for capital, would build another world, and prevail against the inevitable counter-insurgent forces that will attend its birth pangs.

The question for now has to do with the technical composition of university work.

  • What part for labour power in teaching, research, training, being a student, being a student activist?
  • Is it that teaching adds value to a students labour capacity?
  • Is the monetization of teaching the key site of expropriation today?
  • Is the orientation of research to industry nationalist or global, or both?
  • Is the research council rewriting the very idea of a PhD a last-ditch defense of ideas or retooling for commerce?

There are many more questions to be devised. And there are already considerable resources and documents on the functioning of the university as workplace to read. Indeed, it would be a part of any inquiry to take heed of all the talk of productivity and quality assurance and see this as a resource of investigation. The bureaucracy is, in a way, verbose and confessional – a massive stream of documents that serve usually to obfuscate the workings of the sausage machine. Could these latter-day Blue Books be read as a way into the inquiry? If we ask about the role of all this red tape, committees and visionary parallel committee structures, we might also wonder at the dysfunctions of the institutional composition

Of quality assurance, Periodic Review, Course scrutiny committee, performance evaluation. While none of these are the kind of inquiry I am talking about, could then be turned into documentary evidence? A forensic architecture that deconstructs the corporate university (to borrow Eyal Weizman’s terminology).

Workplace inquiry is not a social science reporting to the institution for the better management of the accumulation process. It is rather a tool for organizing. More elaborate than a clipboard activist who will stop you in the street and engage in inane conversation before asking for a subscription. More than a newspaper-seller-from-hell outside the high street market on a Saturday morning. An inquiry mobilizes an engagement with class interests. It is about demystifying the ways class struggle manifests as institutional power, market ‘norms; bourgeois ideology etc., as a system of exploitation and destructive – finally counter productive of life.

Technical composition

Political composition

Organizational questions

Subject – agency – collective agency

Individual – multiple

Marx wants to make a self aware agent of the worker, not as worker, but as a class. The collective transmutation of the administrative operation as a site for intervention seems at least worthy as a terrain of struggle. The investigation may at least learn something, together, about how we can work the university. Or, die trying, and watch the dysfunction rot the sinking ship before it settles into its own malignant swamp.

Must class mobility be mediated through the state and its institutional machines of compromise? We cannot credit the new academics, the reassertion of the tiered tertiary sector, or the tooling of the research councils towards national productivity as anything other than a reinforced architecture of the class system. Against this, a mobilization of research as constant critique, as internal agitation. Let us then investigate education as an institution based formula for class mobility often hamstrung by stasis, a dilapidated and parasitic bureaucracy and entrenched, unexamined, privilege, including especially race privilege. A great complicity and recuperation undermines all attempts to negotiate the blockages.


2 thoughts on “Notes for Talk for Goldsmiths Learning Enhancement Unit

  1. Thanks John for articulating so much of what passes by in ‘blink blink kerching’ while we administer ourselves, grumbling objections, into the game of decreasing intellectual autonomy. Mostly we do this resentfully because it is an imposition on our time to pursue research (blink kerching and passionate-engaged- sometimes utterly mixed together), occasionally because it puts more screen, glass and other barriers between us and the students/colleagues we work with; rather than resenting it for the really substantive reason that this administrative work undermines the possibilities for creative and critical teaching-engagement.

    I was particularly taken by your statement that, “The tendential effort of the corporate university is towards team teaching and research groups, which itself may seem happily collective, but in an alienated form governed by the policy outcomes straightjacket. Can this alienation be transmuted nevertheless? We have seen this dynamic somewhere before, and we have a theoretical and theatrical text about it – what’s new sausage factory?”

    A workplace inquiry from Melbourne: or seeing how sausages are made…
    Currently filling in the lowest management rank in our over-managed school I’ve just last week ‘been fully participated’ (we need new grammar for this management process- note management likes to have ‘levers’ to pull) in a teaching program restructure in our meg-school that ensures decreased autonomy in exactly the way you described above. A new class of perpetually trapped ‘senior tutors’ is being created in a separate administrative unit ‘free’ from the ‘fusty old disciplines’, reporting directly to the school head of ‘learning and teaching’. These ‘freed’ staff (most likely the ‘flexibles’, feminised, minoritised, disempowered) then teach into predetermined curriculum ticking off ‘core competencies’ (for employment) by committee. Given over entirely to teaching, undistracted by a research agenda, disciplinary loyalties, enthusiasms and turf wars, they are free to dedicate themselves full time to what we privileged ‘old school’ academics do resentfully: attend curriculum review and quality monitoring committee meetings and report back to management on every KPI’d index imaginable. The ‘measurables’- student satisfaction survey outcomes- will be thrillingly predictable in their mediocrity (the quant evidence is in): no more reporting shocks for management, no more irregularity! Someone senior is getting a bonus this Christmas, that’s for sure! This is the ‘immesuration’ of the academic class(es): destruction by indices.

    There is no need to romanticise what is being destroyed in order to be horrified by/critique what is being created. Yes the current university system reserves its greatest privileges and finest sinecures for bourgeois white men and a smattering of fully assimilated others (women and minorities prepared/able to play the game). Ironically the new marketised, managised model can claim to be busting this cartel- a radical meritocracy, it will employ more ‘others’ on its new academic factory floor…. shades of the Blue Books again? The claim to radical edu-market democracy is to teach ‘work-readiness’ skills rather than reproduce the bourgeois cultural capital inherent in the role of critical intellectual-citizen. Leave critique, politics, culture to its rightful masters from the old sandstones (experiencing the same pressures). Object to this, we are told, and you are just protecting your worst colleagues and own sinecures from accountability, and ensuring your own ‘unsustainability’ when the horsemen of the economic-apocalypse ride into town. This is how sausage-makers are made.

    The new sausage factory is online, totally marketised, with core functions refigured as peripheral and outsourced (teaching, grading, examinations), increasingly insecure staff- except executive management who have become the new core function- our (Australian) university even has an in-house prophet who proselytises about this dystopian future under the guise of training in online teaching systems. His message: ‘we are in competition with the University of Phoenix; a campus classroom on every freeway offramp, academic staff as contractors earning $13 an hour- this is why we have to go on-line!’… huh? Some crack outfit is running dodgy degrees from Phoenix to LA and that’s our model? He is unwittingly laying it all bear.. the prophet in the IT school is letting us in on how far management are prepared to go in this zero-sum game: ‘Welcome to The University of Enron, your future is big bright and bold! Blink, kerching!’


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