[from Toward a Global Autonomous University, edited by the Edu-factory Collective – Autonomedia, 2009]


The University and the Undercommons

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten


“To the university I’ll steal, and there I’ll steal,” to borrow from Pis-

tol at the end of Henry V, as he would surely borrow from us. This

is the only possible relationship to the American university today.

This may be true of universities everywhere. It may have to be true of the uni-

versity in general. But certainly, this much is true in the United States: it can-

not be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted

that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions

one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hos-

pitality, 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



The Only Possible Relationship to the University Today Is a Criminal One


“Philosophy thus traditionally practices a critique of

knowledge which is simultaneously a denegation of knowl-

edge (i.e., of the class struggle). Its position can be described

as an irony with regard to knowledge, which it puts into ques-

tion without ever touching its foundations. The questioning of

knowledge in philosophy always ends in its restoration: a

movement great philosophers consistently expose in each

other.” – Jacques RanciŹre


“I am a black man number one, because I am against

what they have done and are still doing to us; and number

two, I have something to say about the new society to be built

because I have a tremendous part in that which they have

sought to discredit.” – C. L. R. James


Worry about the university. This is the injunction today in the United

States, one with a long history. Call for its restoration like Harold Bloom or

Stanley Fish or Gerald Graff. Call for its reform like Derek Bok or Bill Read-

ings or Cary Nelson. Call out to it as it calls to you. But for the subversive in-

tellectual, all of this goes on upstairs, in polite company, among the rational

men. After all, the subversive intellectual came under false pretenses, with bad

documents, out of love. Her labor is as necessary as it is unwelcome. The uni-

versity needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings. And on top of

all that, she disappears. She disappears into the underground, the downlow

lowdown maroon community of the university, into the Undercommons of En-

lightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where

the revolution is still black, still strong.


What is that work and what is its social capacity for both reproducing the

university and producing fugitivity? If one were to say teaching, one would

be performing the work of the university. Teaching is merely a profession

and an operation of what Jacques Derrida calls the onto-/auto encyclopedic

circle of the Universitas. But it is useful to invoke this operation to glimpse

the hole in the fence where labor enters, to glimpse its hiring hall, its night

quarters. The university needs teaching labor, despite itself, or as itself, self-

identical with and thereby erased by it. It is not teaching then that holds this

social capacity, but something that produces the not visible other side of

teaching, a thinking through the skin of teaching toward a collective orien-

tation to the knowledge object as future project, and a commitment to what

we want to call the prophetic organization.


But it is teaching that brings us in. Before there are grants, research, con-

ferences, books, and journals; there is the experience of being taught and of

teaching. Before the research post with no teaching, before the graduate stu-

dents to mark the exams, before the string of sabbaticals, before the perma-

nent reduction in teaching load, the appointment to run the Center, the

consignment of pedagogy to a discipline called education, before the course

designed to be a new book, teaching happened. The moment of teaching for

food is therefore often mistakenly taken to be a stage, as if eventually, one

should not teach for food. If the stage persists, there is a social pathology in

the university. But if the teaching is successfully passed on, the stage is sur-

passed, and teaching is consigned to those who are known to remain in the

stage, the sociopathological labor of the university. Kant interestingly calls

such a stage “self-incurred minority.” He tries to contrast it with having the

determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by

another.” “Have the courage to use your own intelligence.” But what would

it mean if teaching or rather what we might call “the beyond of teaching” is

precisely what one is asked to get beyond, to stop taking sustenance? And

what of those minorities who refuse, the tribe of moles who will not come

back from beyond (that which is beyond “the beyond of teaching”), as if they

will not be subjects, as if they want to think as objects, as minority? Certainly,

the perfect subjects of communication, those successfully beyond teaching,

will see them as waste. But their collective labor will always call into ques-

tion who truly is taking the orders of the Enlightenment. The waste lives for

those moments beyond teaching when you give away the unexpected beauti-

ful phrase unexpected, no one has asked, beautiful, it will never come back.

Is being the biopower of the Enlightenment truly better than this?


Perhaps the biopower of the Enlightenment know this, or perhaps it is just

reacting to the objecthood of this labor as it must. But even as it depends on

these moles, these refugees, they will call them uncollegial, impractical, naive,

unprofessional. And one may be given one last chance to be pragmatic why

steal when one can have it all, they will ask. But if one hides from this inter-

pellation, neither agrees nor disagrees but goes with hands full into the under-

ground of the university, into the Undercommons this will be regarded as theft,

as a criminal act. And it is at the same time, the only possible act.


In that Undercommons of the university one can see that it is not a mat-

ter of teaching versus research or even the beyond of teaching versus the in-

dividualization of research. To enter this space is to inhabit the ruptural and

enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the

criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the

life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge,

where the refuge gives commons. What the beyond of teaching is really about

is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing sub-

jectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passiv-

ity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess

the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one

cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires

and rewards. It is not so much the teaching as it is the prophecy in the organ-

ization of the act of teaching. The prophecy that predicts its own organization

and has therefore passed, as commons, and the prophecy that exceeds its own

organization and therefore as yet can only be organized. Against the prophetic

organization of the Undercommons is arrayed its own deadening labor for the

university, and beyond that, the negligence of professionalization, and the

professionalization of the critical academic. The Undercommons is therefore

always an unsafe neighborhood.


Fredric Jameson reminds the university of its dependence on “Enlight-

enment-type critiques and demystification of belief and committed ideology,

in order to clear the ground for unobstructed planning and ‘development.’”

This is the weakness of the university, the lapse in its homeland security. It

needs labor power for this “enlightenment-type critique,” but, somehow,

labor always escapes.


The premature subjects of the Undercommons took the call seriously, or

had to be serious about the call. They were not clear about planning, too mys-

tical, too full of belief. And yet this labor force cannot reproduce itself, it must

be reproduced. The university works for the day when it will be able to rid it-

self, like capital in general, of the trouble of labor. It will then be able to re-

produce a labor force that understands itself as not only unnecessary but

dangerous to the development of capitalism. Much pedagogy and scholarship

is already dedicated in this direction. Students must come to see themselves

as the problem, which, counter to the complaining of restorationist critics of

the university, is precisely what it means to be a customer, to take on the bur-

den of realization and always necessarily be inadequate to it. Later, these stu-

dents will be able to see themselves properly as obstacles to society, or

perhaps, with lifelong learning, students will return having successfully di-

agnosed themselves as the problem.


Still, the dream of an undifferentiated labor that knows itself as super-

fluous is interrupted precisely by the labor of clearing away the burning road-

blocks of ideology. While it is better that this police function be in the hands

of the few, it still raises labor as difference, labor as the development of other

labor, and therefore labor as a source of wealth. And although the enlight-

enment-type critique, as we suggest below, informs on, kisses the cheek of,

any autonomous development as a result of this difference in labor, there is

a break in the wall here, a shallow place in the river, a place to land under the

rocks. The university still needs this clandestine labor to prepare this undif-

ferentiated labor force, whose increasing specialization and managerialist

tendencies, again contra the restorationists, represent precisely the success-

ful integration of the division of labor with the universe of exchange that

commands restorationist loyalty.


Introducing this labor upon labor, and providing the space for its devel-

opment, creates risks. Like the colonial police force recruited unwittingly from

guerrilla neighborhoods, university labor may harbor refugees, fugitives, rene-

gades, and castaways. But there are good reasons for the university to be con-

fident that such elements will be exposed or forced underground. Precautions

have been taken, book lists have been drawn up, teaching observations con-

ducted, invitations to contribute made. Yet against these precautions stands the

immanence of transcendence, the necessary deregulation and the possibilities

of criminality and fugitivity that labor upon labor requires. Maroon commu-

nities 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 news-

paper editors, historically black college sociologists, and feminist engineers.

And what will the university say of them? It will say they are unprofessional.

This is not an arbitrary charge. It is the charge against the more than profes-

sional. How do those who exceed the profession, who exceed and by exceed-

ing escape, how do those maroons problematize themselves, problematize the

university, force the university to consider them a problem, a danger? The Un-

dercommons is not, in short, the kind of fanciful communities of whimsy in-

voked by Bill Readings at the end of his book. The Undercommons, its

maroons, are always at war, always in hiding.


There Is No Distinction between the American University and Professionalization

But surely if one can write something on the surface of the university, if one

can write for instance in the university about singularities those events that re-

fuse either the abstract or individual category of the bourgeois subject one can-

not say that there is no space in the university itself? Surely there is some space

here for a theory, a conference, a book, a school of thought? Surely the univer-

sity also makes thought possible? Is not the purpose of the university as Uni-

versitas, as liberal arts, to make the commons, make the public, make the nation

of democratic citizenry? Is it not therefore important to protect this Universitas,

whatever its impurities, from professionalization in the university? But we

would ask what is already not possible in this talk in the hallways, among the

buildings, in rooms of the university about possibility? How is the thought of

the outside, as Gayatri Spivak means it, already not possible in this complaint?

The maroons know something about possibility. They are the condition of

possibility of production of knowledge in the university the singularities

against the writers of singularity, the writers who write, publish, travel, and

speak. It is not merely a matter of the secret labor upon which such space is

lifted, though of course such space is lifted from collective labor and by it. It

is rather that to be a critical academic in the university is to be against the uni-

versity, and to be against the university is always to recognize it and be rec-

ognized by it, and to institute the negligence of that internal outside, that

unassimilated underground, a negligence of it that is precisely, we must insist,

the basis of the professions. And this act of against always already excludes the

unrecognized modes of politics, the beyond of politics already in motion, the

discredited criminal para-organization, what Robin Kelley might refer to as

the infrapolitical field (and its music). It is not just the labor of the maroons but

their prophetic organization that is negated by the idea of intellectual space in

an organization called the university. This is why the negligence of the critical

academic is always at the same time an assertion of bourgeois individualism.

Such negligence is the essence of professionalization where it turns out

professionalization is not the opposite of negligence but its mode of politics in

the United States. It takes the form of a choice that excludes the prophetic or-

ganization of the Undercommons to be against, to put into question the knowl-

edge object, let us say in this case the university, not so much without touching

its foundation, as without touching one’s own condition of possibility, without

admitting the Undercommons and being admitted to it.