At some point in 2019, an architecture grad student asked me to write something for UW’s architecture publication. I’d just read Moten and Harney and was living through my first quarter as a “full-time lecturer, temporary” (after being upgraded from teaching on a stack of part-time lecturer contracts). I wrote this, felt it was too full of ressentiment to publish, but was just reminded of it while reading through a Becoming Poor email chain.
You may have seen one of us in the corridors or on the stairs, perhaps carrying a big book. “Are they graduate students or professors?” you might ask. It could be our age, our clothes, or the way we are speaking that prompts your question. Or if you know one of our names, you may have seen it listed for teaching in multiple departments, colleges, or even on different campuses. We might have shown up in your studio review session or someone might have said, “Hey, you should really talk to X, they are into that __________” (fill in blank with “philosopher,” “writer,” “filmmaker,” “poet,” “social movement,” “musician,” etc.). We are always around, speaking as casually to one another, undergraduate students, custodians, and baristas as we do to full professors and administrators. Sometimes – though much more rarely – we actually are professors.
We inhabit the cracks – sometimes loitering, sometimes in motion – and tell you things that you might have already figured out for yourself (stealing books from the University Bookstore is easy, especially if you’re white, 35 or over; it’s even easier if you have a child with you). We stop to talk to you as you lock up your bike, remember your name from a big lecture class we taught a year or two ago. You might recognize one of us and look at us out of the corner of your eye as we cross paths, but we recognize you too and say hello, because we were paying attention in the class and we continue to do so on the street. It is, however, difficult to be in but not of a place like this university…we are certainly overworked, but we are not tired; our ID cards might say faculty, but we are more like stowaways, pickpockets, counterfeiters, or the help. Some of the real faculty – the ones with their photos plastered outside office suites and across websites – talk to us, but most of them ignore us, or see right through us (which, as you probably know, hurts even more).
We may be exploited when we are not being ignored by the institution, but we are not alone. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have seen us; they not only dwell in the undercommons, they have given it its name. In the opening of their essay “The University and the Undercommons,” they write:
It cannot 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 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 (Harney and Moten 2013, 26, emphasis added).
The state of the modern university in general is well known, but numbers help illuminate it: according to the American Association of University Professors, “some 73% of all faculty positions are off the tenure track” (Flaherty 2018). Maybe you have read about that adjunct professor sleeping in his car in Berkeley, but did you know that one of us is technically homeless, squatting at his brother’s house while working a retail job to supplement his meager teaching income? Did you know that one of us teaches twice as much as an assistant professor for half the salary, and also works a professional design job half-time to be able to afford to live in this city, and still manages to eek out a publication from time to time? Did you know that one our most original personalities quit pursuing a doctorate here because she could never find funding? But to critique, to point out injustices, is both easy and futile – and no one around here is listening anyway.
Instead, my main question is, What do those of us inhabiting the undercommons bring to design education? Or perhaps more broadly: How do we – and by “we” I mean those of us already haunting the undercommons and those who have not yet found the rest of us – deal with this situation productively and poetically? But first, let’s take a moment to try to understand what Harney and Moten mean by the concept of the undercommons. In his introduction to their book, Jack Halberstam writes, quoting Hamlet: “the undercommons is not a realm where we rebel and we create critique; it is not a place where we ‘take arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing end them.’ The undercommons is a space and time which is always here” (Halberstam 2013, 9). It is, in other words, an alternative and co-present way of being in the world. In but not of…
The world, from this perspective, is indeed broken and battered, but it is not our task to fix it (leave that to administration…and wish them, um, luck?). Better to live as beautifully as possible in the ruins, to ride out this world right up to the end, and right in to whatever comes next (administrative initiatives, budget cuts, new technological overlords, acid rain, earthquakes, tidal waves – what’s the difference, anyway?). Granted, to even write this is to risk being called unprofessional (again) by those who are comfortably situated in their role of reproducing the state’s primary concerns. But Harney and Moten know this – they write that it is “better to think of [professionalization] as a circling, an encircling of war wagons around the last camp of indigenous women and children” (Harney and Moten 2013, 34); they know the idea of professionalism references having one’s own desires molded from above, to be pushed or pulled along certain paths, to bite one’s tongue when faced with injustices, or to – if one is serious about moving up in the university – move beyond teaching. But the denizens of the undercommons willingly subvert this trajectory: we move beyond moving beyond teaching. We know we are nothing but labor power and labor is, by definition, always a problem to its bosses. But we are still necessary resources – necessary to fill in for professors on sabbaticals, to boost enrollment in struggling courses, to generate excitement for various majors in introductory courses, or even to unknowingly provide text and ideas for higher-ups’ promotion packages. We are here and we must be here; and while we are here, we give generously…and then we return to our holes, like rats, moles, or cockroaches.
But despite the prevailing feeling that were are disposable coupled with the reminders that we should be thankful for being here, we are always hustling. You know this all too well, especially if you have taken a studio from a professional who is trying to launch her own firm, perhaps, trying to keep one foot in practice and the other in education. Or maybe you spoke to one of us at a café and learned that we teach on multiple campuses that are located hours apart by transit – sometimes on the same day. Or maybe, just maybe, one of us dared to discuss the politics of non-tenured labor on the first day of class (it happens). We might have shown up to your studio review session and introduced ourselves as having appointments in like six different academic units, and then we went on to talk about science fiction novels, queer theorists, experimentation with drugs, and strange documentaries during our comments. Later, you may have stopped us on the stairs and asked us if we would be willing to chat about your thesis, asked us to screen that documentary to a group of students, or asked us where that quotation we read during the review came from. These interactions occur in the undercommons while the “Boundless” version of the university swirls around us.
But moving forward, one question might be, How can we become for visible to others lurking on the edge? We tend to find one another, but how can we support one another, intellectually, physically, creatively? Reading groups are one way – and students can earn credit for participation. But the challenge here is finding a faculty member to sponsor it; they exist, and they are inhabiting the undercommons too. Volunteered labor is another way, but this takes its toll on the subversive academic’s body. Official faculty members are compensated for service, but we moles are not, so when we talk to you about your thesis or work with you on an independent study, we are volunteering our already devalued time. A potential solution – a form of mutual aid – might be to gather several students and rats together for a working potluck dinner. A third way might be pure socializing, checking out from work together: invite a cockroach out for a walk or a (cheap) drink, a run or a swim, a movie or a concert.
These strategies are far from comprehensive but they are attempts to address Harney and Moten’s suggestion that teaching is one thing – a fundamental thing – but that the real challenge is understanding the production “of the not visible other side of teaching, a thinking through the skin of teaching toward a collective orientation to the knowledge object as a future project, and a commitment to what we want to call prophetic organization” (Ibid., 27). “Prophetic” is indeed a strange word here, but the authors use it as code for enrichment, but a very specific kind of enrichment that comes from the bottom, from “the standpoint of the shipped, the containerized, the unsettled and unsettling” (Ibid., 130). It is about taking care of our own minds and bodies on our own terms, in order to fuel the pursuit of knowledge that we all crave.
So this is the question and a hint at an answer. Is it about design education? Not specifically. Is it about the ongoing project of enrichment, intellectually, physically, and creatively? Absolutely. Steal a book, find another mole, have a beer; be unprofessional, express what you really think, step on administration’s toes, go see that therapist, start running. You might end up back in studio or back in seminar with new inspirations or you might find yourself driving off into the desert in an ’87 Cutlass Supreme. If you choose the latter, take us with you.