“to be in but not of (…) the university”

Stefano Harney & Fred Moten


In The Undercommons (2013), Stefano Harney and Fred Moten speak of the subversive intellectual. 1 Unable to accept that the university is a place of enlightenment and simultaneously unable to deny that it is also a place of refuge, she develops a relationship to the university that cannot be but criminal, as Harney and Moten hold. She seeks ‘to be in but not of’ the university, which, in turn, ’needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings’. Her subversions reveal the university is a world-as-archipelago in which student-teacher relations are in the process of formation without being fully formed. Think of them as schizophrenic or polymorph-perverse student-teachers and teacher-students. This world in the making is a world without criteria, without external, autonomous, objective and stable bases that serve in systems based around judgement. The point is not to go look for these and establish them, for they do away with the world in the making and only hinder innovation and change. Instead, the subversive intellectual seeks to create new categories through which her work can be understood. This subversion of categories also unhinges what assessment has come to mean: judgement passed by a referee in a high chair.

The subversive intellectual shows assessment stems from ad sedere: a sitting beside, or more provocatively, a sitting with. Student and teacher sit beside (not opposite) one another and consider a work in terms of its process, it’s becoming, and the renewed categories it has brought to the table. It no longer involves any external, autonomous, objective and stable positions; each has become a com-position. Assessment now becomes a form of self-assessment, not because the student passes judgement on herself or because there is no longer any externality to the work and it speaks in a language only it can understand, but because it is assessed in terms of its own renewed categories. The point here is less to produce a grade and much more to contribute to the becoming of the composition, that is to com-pose and keep com-posing and to gain insight into how knowledge is constructed in the first place. A disinterestedness is involved that resists mere goal-oriented approaches.  

Learning, for the subversive intellectual, is a form of what Gregory Bateson calls deutero-learning 2. One learns to learn, so to say. Not so much the mastery of a language by means of grammar or vocabulary, but collaborative and communicative and, therefore, political skills through the use of said language. As a result, the sufficiency of a work no longer has anything to do with reproducing sterile knowledge and meeting demands, but rather with the ability to com-pose and to stay afloat.


Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe (Minor Compositions) 2013

Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Deleuze, Whitehead and Aesthetics. Cambridge (The MIT Press) 2009.

Footnotes and references
  1. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe (Minor Compositions) 2013[]
  2. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale (Jason Aronson Inc.) 1987 p166.[]