If history teaches us anything, it is that lesson plans are lies. Useful lies, sometimes, but lies nonetheless. How do we really learn things? How is it that something I did not understand yesterday, I can understand today? What did I do that uncovered a new relationship to the object of my inquiry, and can it even be replicated? I’ll leave these kind of probing questions to professional epistemologists (there’s a few out there I assume, with ID and job title swinging from their institutional lanyards). For my purposes here it’s best to look at the paradigmatic cases: things that might have gone unexamined but which at some moment in time gave up their workings — things we became ‘educated’ about.
Marx dared to enter the holy and mystical cave of the economists with a crystal-cut determination to see what was really going on there, he dared to lift the lid on the illusionist’s cabinet. He wanted to understand precisely what this thing ‘value’ was; where it came from, how it was born, how it functioned and changed its own shape and its name, what it did. He wanted to understand its own logic. There is something at least minimally sacrilegious, heretical, or even blasphemous in the gesture by which Marx enters into his discussion of the commodity. It is like taking a forbidden camera into a church with the desire to document its material culture accurately and meticulously, and to analyse how it worked as a whole system. This transgressive, profaning gesture — that of trespassing in a sacred space and liberating its apparatus for a human use, the use of analysis upon the supposedly numinous — is something Marx learned from the Young Hegelians: Feuerbach in particular.
What one can say of Marx with respect to ‘Value’, one can say of Nietzsche with respect to ‘Christian Morality’, Foucault with respect to ‘Power’, Freud with respect to ‘Consciousness’, Barthes with respect to ‘Cultural Mythology’, Anderson with respect to ‘Community’, Kristeva with respect to Otherness and ‘Abjection’, Hobsbawn with respect to ‘Tradition’, Derrida with respect to ‘Presence’, and so on. In each case (of a theoretical rupture, a shift or turning point in epistemological paradigms) there is a wary and self-conscious trespass into a forbidden zone of thought, something whose weight of tradition has made it resistant to critique, made it a ‘mode of thinking’ or ‘usual form of thinking’ that had gone unquestioned and its internal logic unexamined. Defamiliarisation, the alienation of the familiar, is a necessary step into the moonlit, shadowy realm where the workings of the everyday reveal their historical contingency — their strangeness. The assumed or imaginary relation to the sunlit everyday world shows itself as a leap or lapse, caesura, lacuna, a hiatus of thought, a fall or sleep of reason, a space of idiocy. Or: the alienation effect succeeds in dis-alienating the human subject from its own alienation, thus rendering it real, active, and political.
Transgressions are a dime a dozen, all meaningless unless they actually break the world in some way. Perhaps there are only a few things worth breaking, but they are the things that matter, the things we hang our hats on every day. Things we cannot but take for granted if we are to socially reproduce existing conditions: ideological practices so ideological they don’t stick out in any way. Theory lines our shelves and victories are sparse, and from this we might learn: if you’re going to intentionally drop the ball, drop it when it counts. A strike is only a strike when, afterwards, one can say ‘we struck’. We have to invent some formations of this ‘we’; we are only a we when we can federate in new ways.
Of all the usual forms of thinking we are ensnared by, perhaps the most predominant today is the thought of competition and of competitiveness. The online world, or the new patronage as some have called it, is a system whereby content providers vie for exposure, their output formed, tuned and adjusted by the signals of commenters, subscribers and donors, and in many cases regulated by what advertisers are willing to associate with through the monetisation of attention. The attention economy, it is held, is born out of the cinematic mode of production. It’s about spectacle, it’s about pyrotechnics, making noise and putting on a show. As far as the sphere of entertainment goes, this seems fine for the most part, but what about other spheres? The civil sphere, the public sphere, the sphere of education, for example? Can we participate in rational debate, can we decide matters, can we learn anything, in an intensely competitive environment?
Questions like this, particularly as they concern critical pedagogy, came to the fore last year when Jo Johnson — as if this were not already a fait accompli — announced that he wanted to bring the world of education within the model of entrepreneurial business, and to change the fundamental mission of the university from the production of knowledge and culture into the production of competitiveness. That is to say, the production of competitive subjectivity. If I was young and healthy and had nothing to lose but such a future — a dismal, unendingly bleak future of permanently indebted competitiveness — then I would be rioting like a mad bull.
Competition is not, by itself, an ill. There is always some element of co-operation lurking within situations idealised by economists as competitive, just as competition seems intrinsic to co-operation. Total competition means everyone must agree to compete — an overwhelmingly co-operative act; total co-operation is likewise meaningless. These are merely abstract concepts, reified by economic theory. Pure competition effectively represents an ahistorical fiction much like a void of indivisible atoms bouncing around without clinamen, that is, without any intersubjective, historical or dialectical intrusions into their space. Any kind of internal relationships between closed capsule-like identities are entirely absent from such a vision, there is no ‘ethical substance’, and everything is overdetermined by self-interest. Interest groups and co-operative, social tendencies are either recognised as unnatural obstacles (when they are socially oriented) or disavowed (when they represent the private interests of a ruling class). However, historical space is not like this; it is structured by the very thing that allows us to recognise it as historical. The fiction of idealised markets has them existing sans human while simultaneously depending on a particular anthropology: the human figured as asubjective competitor, ‘rational’ in the utilitarian sense, meaning politicised or historicised only to the extent that it serves some kind of self-maximising strategy. Meanwhile the real referent of competition, real in the sense of a factor which always escapes calculation, can only be the human factor of desire. Desire upsets the economic picture because it does not bow to ‘usual forms of thinking’, and in many ways can only appear to economists as struggle for its own sake. For example, the significance of the conceptual figure of the proletariat is that it is the class that fights for its own self-abolition. Its ‘self-interest’ is indistinguishable from its struggle for self-extinguishment. It seeks neither its self-maximisation nor self-extension, and still less its absorption and integration into existing structures through adaptation and listening to feedback. Struggle, indeed, is an apt representation of desire: struggle against all that which is considered normal, but need not be so considered.
The fire of class struggle is an important way in which desire is both deeply embedded in, and obscured by, a social formation. Class struggle is a social reality that ‘competition’ could meaningfully refer to, but tends in usage never to refer to. Neoliberalism, arguably, might even be defined as the attempt to foreclose such a meaning, principally by obscuring it with a lexicon of the ‘horizontal’: an object language designed to mask an inverted class struggle being continually waged and fought from above — the CC-PP game of socialising costs, privatising public assets, and creaming off profits for obscured, nested directorates no paper trail can hope to illuminate. The usual forms of thinking ‘competition’ open into an imaginary of field sports, played on a level surface, rather than pre-structured by history. Thus the ordinary usage when it comes to the term is, again, largely meaningless. This ordinariness is something we must alienate ourselves from, in order to disalienate ourselves from the historical conditions in which we can speak meaningfully about co-operation and competition. Within the current horizons of our history, one of the the few actual kinds of competition that the human subject can engage in (while accomplishing the status of a subject) is the struggle against exploitation. If we are to be educated — if education is to mean anything at all once considered another arena for the production of competitiveness — then it can only mean the unveiling of social struggles, of finding oneself immersed within antagonisms. Education entails collectively taking up such a position, and keeping faithful to the desire to engage in the formation of subject-bodies.
The temple of competition is of use only when it has been thoroughly profaned — when it allows us to strike upwards, instead of lashing sideways or kicking those already caught under the juggernaut. Education, meanwhile, must be prevented from continuing in the mold of a talent contest, but must be preserved for desire as tool, toy, and weapon.