OPEN CALL (DRAFT from July 2014)

New Terms Open Call.


After almost a year of working together as a group, we decided to open out again to the wider ‘education’ community by organising a public event, hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), in November 2014. (The event will coincide with the New Contemporaries exhibition -including fine art graduates from all around the UK- taking place at the ICA’s main galleries, from November until January).

Our group has consisted of different people at different times, from students, artists, educators (primary, secondary, higher and alternative education), curators, art therapists, researchers, as well as people involved with direct action groups, community organising and activism.

We first got together after a meeting titled ‘New Terms: Radical Education Workshops’, organised by three ICA student forum members who wanted to do something that attended to the growing frustrations they and their friends were having regarding the state of the education system today. This first meeting involved group-based collaborative investigations of themes like the effects of monetisation of education and fees increases, on arts education but also by extension the effects of the latter on the way we produce and curate ‘contemporary’ art. But also questions like the value of experimenting for experiment’s sake, the possibilities of being ‘radical’ within institutional settings (and/or outside), and the value of working with groups and already established collectives/ communities.


That first event was very successful both with regards to numbers and enthusiasm, but also with regards to people’s desire to commit and come again. We have thus been meeting once a month ever since, utilising the gallery’s studio as a space for debate, production of discourse, films, and lots of notes, but also most often, just simply as a space for us to meet, share our thoughts, roles, positions, tasks and desires.

Within the process of trying to define ourselves as a group, we have tried to transverse the different paths of action (engagement with experience and history), research (soundness of thought and the growth of knowledge) and participation (life in society and democracy): by meeting other groups, being part of different collectives, attending public events together, sharing experiences, but also attempting to make a video (on the importance of skills-based learning), write a manifesto, read and share references, and research case studies (like legendary Hornsey College of Art’s sit-in (1969) and its resonances today). All bound with an insistence on trying to position ourselves within the current transitions in education systems. We have discussed in depth about everyday translations of practices of neoliberalism within learning situations, different standardisation techniques, fees, loans and systemic dependencies, but also and more specifically to arts education, themes like the role of theory, research, information technology, art history, collectivity, autonomy, precarity, all bound with our insistence to position ourselves within the micro and macro-political circumstances of our situation.

For more information on what we have been up to please visit our blog here:


We want to open up some initial results of our on-going research for public debate. But we also hope this public event will allow us to further expand our relations and potential collaborations with those committed to working transversally across public institutions, social movements and artistic strategies. But also to allow for new curiosities to come in through members of the public who are not necessarily invested in education or the arts but still feel the need to voice their opinion.

We are now thus inviting groups and individuals to take part.

How do you think we should use this time and space in the most useful way for you?

What do YOU think is useful for YOU?


So far we thought of a series of one-hour thematic collective investigations running throughout the day, where people can walk in and out.

  1. Where does education happen?  

There is an increasing demand for the location, time and resources which enable us to teach ourselves about the kind of resistant pedagogies possible. Where we can come together, talk and organise. This workshop is about the relationship between self-organised groups and institutions, and the kind of alternative spaces available for grass roots and community organising. How have these spaces changed over time in the face of commodification of education, growth of the creative industries and culture funding cuts?

What impacts do these institutions have regionally and on local communities? what happens to community organisers turned facilitators for a museum or gallery? can we imagine a pedagogic space that imagines a dialogue between art and organising?

2. Where does art happen? When is art? 

Craft based workshop that aims to practically engage with ideas of how we perceive, experience and value art through a participatory process of making an ‘exceptional work of contemporary art’. The workshop will investigate ideas like ‘general public’, ‘public taste’, ‘aesthetic/ political autonomy’ and the ‘contemporary’.

3. Where is democracy?

Children learn to enact democracy by sitting down to a family meal, night after night after night. The collective table is a means of survival, a form of vulnerable existence, and an instantiation of community. The Crinkle Cutter Project performatively stages a participatory experience – food preparation, eating, and conversing – to investigate how shared culinary encounters can create alternative (radical?) spaces for affective education.

4. Who is outside?

Who is an outsider? What is deviance?

Participatory workshop informed by ideas of radical therapy groups, self-education, emancipatory pedagogies, Theatre of the Oppressed, Red Therapy, art and drama therapy.

5. What is subsumption?

A theoretical discussion on the current state of institutional critique and the relationship between autonomous art and culture industry today, by looking into the ways art gets subsumed into university discourse, i.e the curatorial/educational turn in the arts.

6. The Human Library.

The ‘Human Library’ project investigates the impact of information technology on arts education. How can the archive become a space for debates about the struggles of the present? (Open throughout the day for people to pop in at any time).

7. Where is the sound of ‘radical’ education?

Sound-based participatory workshop investigating spatiality, mapping, and spaces of resistance through collective listening, analysis and action. Performing the spaces in and outside the gallery.

8. When is the ‘radical’?

Hornsey then and now. Poster presentations of our research on the Horsney affair. (Accompanied by text, books, visuals).

9. Why do you do what you do? 

Closing session with refreshments.

Please note

This project is run by a self-organised group, kindly hosted by the ICA.

For further information/queries please email


See here on flexible knowledge workers, artist-entrepreneur and transferable skills…

As found at: Pedagogy of Human Capital




By Stewart Martin21 February 2008

Post-Fordism’s appetite for self-directed activity is bringing about a crisis in progressive education. No longer perceived as threatening, a work force trained to think for itself has become highly desirable. So what should an emancipatory education entail today?, asks Stewart Martin

What is the relation of education to capitalism today? And what are the consequences for an emancipatory education? These questions might seem less bold than bald, untextured by the currency of popular debate. Yet they are unavoidable, and not just for the European Social Democracies in the process of negotiating the commodification of their welfare provision, but also for all those confronting the Neo-Liberal restructuring of what used to be considered beyond the market. There is equally a sense in which these questions are both obscured and entrenched by the difficulties in answering them, theoretically as well as practically. Besides the formidable noise of specificities that tends to drown them out, the scene of contemporary education presents striking ambivalences.

On the one hand, there has been an exponential and seemingly inevitable expansion of the realm of formal education, that is, education that leads to publicly recognised qualifications, both in the expansion of the traditional sector of schools, colleges and universities, and in the incorporation of new sectors. This is evident in the rise of student numbers, the extended total length of study, accompanied by the increase in post-graduate degrees, as well as the repeated drives to establish ‘vocational’ qualifications or the formal ratification of what previously would have been considered apprenticeships or such like. McDegrees did not come out of the blue. The evolution of education as a leisure sector is also notable, as is the growth of educational initiatives within the leisure industries. (This may sound like the privilege of the rich West or North speaking, but, even in more impoverished countries, who is seeking to delimit education?) On the other hand, this expansion of education is comparatively informal, both in the sense that it takes place through new sectors that are outside the traditional institutions and their rules, and in that education as a whole has become in certain respects informalised. ‘Distance learning’, ‘work based learning’, ‘home based learning’, ‘life long learning’, all indicate the integration of education into realms previously considered outside the school gates. The internet has been instrumental in these developments. The emphasis on ‘transferable skills’ is also indicative of how various disciplines’ rigour has been somewhat suspended or re-qualified. But these expansions, whether formal or informal, stand in contrast to certain pervasive contractions of education. Efficiency is the name of the game, with reduced resources per student the supreme goal, both from the side of provision and from the supplements students must contribute. The rich can buy more resources, but not another goal.

Of course, many of these phenomena and their apparent conflicts can be understood as a direct consequence of commodification. This is certainly fundamental, but what form does this take exactly? Stacking high and selling cheap only accounts for part of these developments. It doesn’t explain their ideological function, which draws on certain emancipatory claims. The liberation of ‘choice’ and ‘opportunity’ is usually the carrot; the stick is the threat of deserved poverty, whether of the individual or the nation. It is all too clear that education has become a way for rich nations to manage class conflicts, either through keeping people off the unemployment register, or through seducing their populations into the idea that they can all be middle class, with proletarianisation becoming an attribute of newly industrialised nations like China or India, or immigrant work forces. Within this ideology, failure is educational failure. The idea that contemporary education is characterised by the move away from authoritarian forms of indoctrination and towards forms of self-directed or autonomous learning is perhaps the most powerful emancipatory ideology in this context. ‘Life long learning’ is exemplary. The phrase oscillates between the dream of fulfilling self-transformation beyond the privileges of youth, and the nightmare of indiscriminate de-skilling and re-skilling according to the dictates of a ‘flexible’ labour market. It modifies the ideology of meritocracy, which is perhaps the core educational ideology through which the contradictions of capitalism and democracy are recoded as the successes and (more usually) ‘failures’ of disciplined individualism: ‘life long learning’ extends ‘meritocracy’ to the whole of your life. Qualification is a receding horizon; its promise of maturity takes the form of infantalisation.

Many of these educational phenomena coalesce in the socio-political characterisations that have gained increasingly insistent currency since the 1960s: post-industrial society, neo-liberalism, cognitive capitalism, immaterial labour, bio-politics. The socio-economic qualities indicated by these terms – the emphasis on white collar labour and the service economy, and the significance of high-tech knowledge and its socio-economic relations or networks; the de-regulation of labour markets, making labour more pliable to the demands of markets; the commodification of areas of society traditionally considered outside the economy or market, extending the demands of the production and reproduction of labour power to all aspects of social and natural life; the demand for increased self-discipline and initiative, if not creativity, in wage labour; and the emergence of new terms of political struggle and dispute over capitalism and its limits – all provide an increasingly familiar context for articulating the transforming pressures on education today. Indeed, it is evident that education is at the core of these formations. Just as we can draw parallels between the traditional school and the factory, so we can between the dispersal of the factory into society as a whole and the dispersal of the school. The expansion of education is the conduit for the transformation of wage labour, entwined with the procurement of a new kind of labourer and even, some would say, a new kind of human being. Gary S. Becker won the Nobel Prize in economics for his study of ‘human capital’, understood as the economic value of educational qualifications.[1] The term has since acquired a bio-capitalist currency, standing at the centre of political-philosophical disputes over the commodification of human beings. Rather than the capitalisation of education, it has come to indicate the educationalisation of capital.

These developments have led to a crisis of ideas of emancipatory education. Not merely because they have become embattled, but due to their appropriation and instrumentalisation. John Dewey’s critique of ‘traditional’ education – its dependence on the authoritarian discipline of the teacher, and his defence of ‘progressives’ taking a non-hierarchical approach to pedagogy, embedding learning within a shared social context, and thereby integrating education into a democratic ethos, committed to the ‘quality of experience’ – sounds commonplace today, but also naïve about the entwinement of this education within new labour markets.[2] Paulo Freire’s inspirational ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, despite its direct confrontation with capitalism as a class struggle of master and slave, remains similarly remote in its articulation of the relation of teacher-master to pupil-slave in a way that is removed from the expanded and self-directed context of the new educational forms.[3] Jean-François Lyotard’s reports on the postmodern condition of education does manage to articulate many of these forms and their relation to new forms of wage labour, but he is led to profoundly ambivalent conclusions. His claim that, ‘[w]e should be happy that the tendency toward the temporary contract is ambiguous: it is not totally subordinated to the goal of the system, yet the system tolerates it’, is precarious, if not desperate.[4] The ambivalences of this situation are well recognised by many commentators, but they remain. Perhaps this merely indicates that we face a situation that cannot be theoretically resolved, and that theoretical criticism can at best aspire to clarification of the terms of political engagement.

It seems that the root of this ambivalence concerns the way in which the new forms of wage labour require forms of self-directed skills and competences that have previously been considered the preserve of progressive education, namely, its focus on authoritarian and autonomous modes of pedagogy. In short, the autonomy aspired to by emancipatory education has turned out to involve points of indifference to the autonomy required of new capitalist work. This has profound implications. Crucially, it is entwined with fundamental transformations at stake in the relation of capitalism to life. If education has become the means through which advanced capitalist societies extend the subsumption of labour under capital to the subsumption of all aspects of social life, then the issue of emancipatory education needs to be understood in terms of this radical alteration to capitalism’s metabolism.

So, if we ask what an emancipatory education should be today, we are led to questions about changes in the basic structure of capital. This may sound reductive to those seeking a stronger independence of educational concerns from economic matters, but this independence must be wrested from out of the social fact of this reduction. Moreover, there is a reverse determination revealed here, of capitalism itself as an educational form, a pedagogy.

Educating Life

Core pedagogical concepts and forms, such as ‘rule’, ‘freedom’, ‘subject’, ‘autonomy’, and so on, are already involved in capitalism’s fundamental antagonistic relation between capital and living labour, where capital exploits the powers of living labour, appropriating the production of surplus value. Capital aspires to autonomy in this relation; a self-valorisation in which it creates its own value, reducing labour to its rule and its interiority. The subjection of living labour makes capital subject, indeed sovereign. Capital, not the consumer, is king. This is expressed in the contractual agreement of a person, who, as such, is assumed to be free and able to sell their labour as their property, becoming a wage labourer through which their capacities are expropriated. But capital, for Marx at least, is ultimately incapable of autonomy. It remains intrinsically dependent on living labour, which is actually creative of value. Autonomy is rather the potential of living labour, not capital. The struggle of labour against capital is therefore a struggle against the rule of capital, against labour’s external or heteronymous determination by capital, and for labour’s self-determination, its autonomy.

The educational consequences of this account are various and conflictual, but also profound, extending well beyond the classroom and its textbooks. From the development and dissemination of knowledge about capitalism, and the formation and discipline of ‘the party’, to the more devolved and self-directed activities of labourers and anti-capitalists – pedagogical issues suffuse this terrain. The deep conflicts between science and ideology, party and proletariat, etc., remain all too familiar today, even though their early forms have decayed. The pedagogy of the oppressed, as Paulo Freire showed, reveals a disputed lesson at the heart of this whole formation: the emancipation of the oppressed from their masters must avoid reproducing new masters, ‘emancipators’ who invert emancipation into a new form of oppression. The reproduction of class struggle within the communist movement may seem like an arcane problem, something resolved by the more ‘horizontal’ organisation of recent anti-capitalist movements, but it is a problem that persists in new guises. Moreover, while its solution promises a simplified struggle of slaves against masters, the struggle against capitalism is not so easily personified, especially today.

This returns us to the pedagogical structure of capital itself, about which Freire among others has surprising little to say. The terms of this are in some sense plain: capital functions as a master, subjecting living labour to its rule, the law of value, in the process of its self-valorisation; emancipation demands a counter-pedagogy, disobeying the law of value, enabling living labour to have value for itself. The struggle of labour against capital thus assumes an educational ambition and vice versa, an emancipatory pedagogy of autonomy.

But returning to the ABC of capitalism does not only face the subsequent task of elaboration and specification. It also enables the exposure of deep transformations in the evolution of capitalism, which have equally profound effects for any pedagogy of autonomy. What is at stake here is the intensification of capital’s subsumption of labour – extending it beyond the industrial restructuring of labour processes diagnosed by Marx, and even beyond his discernment of an expanded realm of productive labour that incorporates various social and scientific supplements of the labour process – to the subsumption by capital of life itself. In other words, the colonisation by capital of all those aspects of living labour that were previously deemed outside the labour process, from leisure and the environment, to sex and physiology, and certainly education. The consequences for the struggle against capitalism are self-evidently profound: the dissipation, if not outright negation, of the basic antagonism between living labour and capital.

The contention that capitalism has subsumed living labour may be exaggerated. Few stand by it unequivocally. But it is plausible to consider it as the regulative idea of a number of theories of late capitalism. Furthermore, it is possible to understand it as the source of a series of profound political disputes between Right and Left. On the right, these tend to concern the market’s legitimate intrusion into the realms of nationhood, religion, familial life, etc. On the Left, they tend to concern the very possibility of a non-capitalist life; insofar as this seems impossible, its disputes tend to retreat to liberal versions of drawing the market’s boundaries.

What is particularly revealing and significant here, certainly for the radical Left, is the intense ambivalence that the contention of capital’s subsumption of life has produced within neo- and post-Marxist thought. On the one hand, there is the understandably pessimistic reaction, from the Frankfurt School to Baudrillard, that tends to see the intensification of capitalist subsumption as an incorporation of all social and natural life within the reproduction of capitalism, leading to the exhaustion of anti-capitalist politics, even its imagination. Notoriously, environmental catastrophe seems a far more realistic future for many than an end to capitalism. On the other hand, Negri and others have drawn a radically opposed conclusion: that capital’s tendency to subsume life is merely a consequence of the intensification of capital’s parasitic dependence on life; that capitalist production processes change not of their own accord, but as a result of the power and resistance of labour. This therefore demonstrates the very creativity and growing autonomy of living labour, which capital only subsumes as an increasingly thin membrane of control, predisposed to disintegrate. For the former, capital tends to subsume not only labour but life; for the latter, capital’s tendency to subsume life is merely its tendency to reach its unsubsumable limit. Such opposed reactions to such similar structural characterisations of capital is striking. It indicates an intractable disagreement, since both reactions seem liable to each other’s objections. But rather than approaching it as a simple choice or alternative, perhaps it indicates a change of the terms of struggle that needs to be grasped as such: no longer between living labour and capital, as Marx understood this, where capital is understood simply as dead or mechanical; but between alternative forms of life, capitalist life versus non-capitalist life. In other words, not a struggle between life and non-life, but between alternative forms of life. Negri remains an orthodox Marxist in maintaining a residual, unsubsumable, border between capital and life – non-capitalist life remains for him a tautology. The Frankfurt School’s thinking of non-capitalist life tended to remain utopian. Neither of them quite confront the predicament that anti-capitalism has become the struggle to wrest non-capitalist life from capitalist life.

This predicament also suggests a change in the significance of the aspiration to the autonomy of living labour. If both capitalist life and non-capitalist life tend to autonomy, then non-capitalist life must be understood according to an alternative form of autonomy. Indeed, given this issue, perhaps the value of autonomy should be revised? Perhaps living labour’s heteronomy should be sought as resistant to the autonomy of capitalist life? But how would this advance on labour’s heteronomous determination by capital according to Marx’s original characterisation? The terms may spiral here, but this speculation is not idle.

The consequences for education are profound and in many respects very visible. Most obviously, the subsumption of life by capital offers a powerful explanation of why education, despite being formally outside the labour process, is nonetheless treated as integral to it, indeed, an urgent and necessary part of the capitalist mode of production. By the same token, it also suggests that the extension of education beyond the formal realms of schools, colleges, etc., should also be seen within this extended orbit of production. In sum, it provides grounds for understanding the subsumption of education by capital, and indicates how education itself becomes a mode, perhaps the central mode, of capital’s subsumption of life. ‘Life long learning’ is not exhausted by this explanation, but it can certainly be interpreted as a struggle between capitalist-life and non-capitalist life.

But, what of an emancipatory education? Clearly its terms become questionable. If capital can no longer be understood as a mechanical rule that oppresses living labour’s autonomy from outside it, then the powerful correspondence this has to a pedagogy of emancipation, as a struggle of autonomy contra dogmatic rules, is problematised, if not inverted. If life can be subsumed by the law of value, such that it is life’s own law, its autonomy, then does this not suggest that a new pedagogy is called for?

If these queries are substantive then they indicate a crisis for the terms of an emancipatory education. But they are difficult to resolve. Perhaps this indicates that they should be treated as the issues of a novel struggle between capitalist life and non-capitalist life fought out on an expanded field of education.

Autonomy or Heteronomy?

In order to try and clarify this transformation of terms it is worth considering the broader context of their evolution – in particular, the libertarian and egalitarian formation of the idea of autonomy that emerges with the modern notion of democracy, and that in large part defines the idea and significance of emancipatory education. The French Revolution grounded freedom on equality, as an inalienable right, introduced in the form or guise of ‘man’, and therefore distinguished its notion of democracy from the aristocratic forms of antiquity. This introduced a non-dogmatic conception of law: freedom must be subject to universal law, demonstrating its equality, but this law must simultaneously be subject to freedom, demonstrating that it is not a new enslavement. This dialectic of subjection infuses the idea of autonomy: a rule to which a subject subjects ‘himself’. Obedience is therefore transformed into an act of freedom. In consequence, one is not subject to dogmatic or externally imposed rules – heteronomy.

This idea of autonomy produces a crisis and reinvention of the idea of education. For, insofar as education is essentially a relation of subjection – of student by master – then it is incompatible with the constitution of autonomy. Even if education means merely the transmission of something from those who have it to those who do not, how can there be an education in autonomy? How can autonomy be ‘received’ without collapsing it into subjection? Autonomy would rather need to be an egalitarian presupposition of any such exchange. If education contradicts autonomy, then it should be left behind in the seminary, or reduced to a minor and subordinate cultural function.

These contradictions justified the various forms of anti-education to emerge from this epoch, frequently attached to the natural, the naïve and the untrained or perhaps self-trained. And yet this anti-education also induced new ideas of education, of an education against education, which might indeed succeed as an education in autonomy. Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education has his Savoyard vicar profess a faith in ‘common reason’ to his young companion, rather than conduct ‘learned speeches or profound reasonings’:

I do not want to argue with you or even convince you. […] Reason is common to us, and we have the same interest in listening to it.’[5] Kant, famously enthused by this peculiar education, conceives of enlightenment as a matter of courage: ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ Further:

Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of [man’s] natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity.[6] The paradox of Joseph Jacotot’s universal method of teaching is exemplary: ‘I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you’.[7]

The paradox of an education in autonomy should not be overstated, since, if freedom should be subject to equality – albeit as much as vice versa – then education’s subjecting function might be employed to this end. Still, this only tends to heighten the tensions that remain precariously in balance in the idea of autonomy. If one becomes free through subjecting oneself to oneself, then there is an obvious sense in which freedom is understood in essentially disciplinary terms, as if doubling subjection cancelled it out, emancipating a subject, rather than just oppressing it twice over. The conception of freedom in terms of autonomy thereby articulates freedom as a function of ruling, freedom as domination. Autodidact: the educational hero of autonomy is well named. It may be insisted that the unity of equality and freedom in autonomy is essentially and necessarily antagonistic, as the unity of competing rules. But this doesn’t sound like a good life.

An antidote to this antagonism was found in a rapprochement with nature and life, often via art. This is even the case in Kant, despite his tendency to express autonomy in disciplinary terms, and it was already central to Rousseau. Schiller’s letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) is a manifesto of the new pedagogy at stake here. The beautiful artwork presents autonomy less in terms of self-ruling or self-domination, than in the suspension of rules. The whole disciplinary ethos of giving or receiving rules is displaced by play. Art becomes that through which the antagonism of nature and reason is mediated: nature’s heteronomy, its externality to human reason, is internalised through art, but without dominating it; hence art presents a way through which reason can relate to human nature without dominating it. Autonomy is then rendered a form of life. This aesthetic conception of autonomy, of a life that is spirit, infuses speculative philosophy from Fichte to Hegel, and is pivotal to the theoretical founding of the influential University of Berlin between 1807 and 1810.

This formation of spirit assumes a profoundly ambivalent relationship to Marx’s diagnosis of capitalism. In one sense, Hegel’s speculative idealism provides the model for articulating the speculative character of capital as self-valorising value. However, Marx’s idea that living labour should free itself from its determination by the dogmatic and mechanical rule of capital – and not just as brute nature – clearly remains indebted to key aspects of a speculative concept of life.

These equivocations are reproduced when we consider the extension of capital’s subsumption of labour to that of life in general. Marx’s modelling of capital on the speculative concept is simultaneously critical of it, in that he draws a limit to the idea’s/capital’s subsumptive capacities. But if these capacities exceed these limits in late capitalism then this overcomes Marx’s critique, and speculative idealism becomes true in a sense that neither he nor the idealists claimed: a model of the subsumption of life under capital, of capitalist life.

In so far as this is substantive, the whole project of an education in autonomy, even where this takes radically anti-dogmatic and aesthetic forms, becomes problematic, if not undermined, as a simple alternative to capitalism. This justifies the attempt to try and conceive of anti-capitalism through alternatives to autonomy, re-valuing forms of anti-autonomy or heteronomy. This would not only radicalise the aesthetic mediations proposed by Schiller, but exceed them. (This is the alternative sought by Lyotard among others, overcoming Adorno’s hesitations.) But anti-autonomy is scarcely a straightforward alternative. Its advocates tend to buy into a neo-vitalism (Deleuze is seminal here) which ironically returns us to Marx’s investment in living labour as essentially independent from capital, and thereby to the same problem of living labour’s subsumption by late capitalism. Otherwise, a more intensive naturalism is sought out that tends to be indifferent to the subjection of humans and just as indifferent about capitalist culture. It is perhaps unsurprising that in this context an alternative form of heteronomy has also gained ground: a neo-dogmatic anti-capitalism that reconceives of forms of subjection as forms of political subjectivity. (Žižek’s and Badiou’s alternative Lacanian-Leninisms are illustrative.) These projects are far from escaping the ambivalences of autonomy; frequently, they simply reproduce them.

The contemporary polemics between autonomy and heteronomy may be complex, but the polemic persists. And while the opponents often fight it out within the Left, its stakes traverse the political spectrum. The claim here is simply that these disputes should be interpreted in terms of the effects of the subsumption of life under capital, and the struggle this produces between capitalist life and non-capitalist life. So we return, by way of another route, to the same junction reached before.

And what of education? The effects have already been forecast, but the issues are modified. Should an emancipatory education be understood as a form of self-determination, or as freedom from self-determination? Should it be free of subjection, or an alternative subjection? Should education be a determination of life, or an emancipation from life’s determination? Autonomy or heteronomy? It is difficult to answer these questions, and not just because they are abstract. But whatever the answers may be, for them to constitute an emancipatory education within advanced capitalist societies today, they must engage in the struggle to wrest non-capitalist life from capitalist life.

Stewart Martin <S.C.Martin AT> is a member of the editorial collective, and reviews editor, of the journal Radical Philosophy, and teaches philosophy and art at Middlesex University


[1] Gary S. Becker, Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1964, 3rd edition 1993. Becker won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 1992.

[2] See John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916), New York: Free Press,  1966, andExperience and Education, (1938), New York: Touchstone, 1997.

[3] See Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), trans. M. Bergman Ramos, London and New York, Continuum, 2000.

[4]  Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), trans G. Bennington and B. Massumi, Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 66.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education (1762), trans. Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p. 266.

[6] Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History and Moral Practice, trans. Ted Humphrey, Hackett, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1983, p. 41.

[7] Quoted in J.S. Van de Weyer, Sommaire des leçons publiques de M. Jacotot sur les principes de l’enseignement universel, Brussels, 1822, p. 11, itself quoted in Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 15.


This essay draws some ideas and phrases from a previous essay, ‘An Aesthetic Education Against Aesthetic Education’, Radical Philosophy, 141, Jan/Feb 2007, written as part of the journal’s contribution to the Documenta 12 ‘Magazines Project’, in particular its theoretical motif, ‘What is to be done? (Education)’, which is also available on the Documenta 12 website…

—Who wants to know? —I want to know. —What do you want to know? —I don’t know!

Irit Rogoff


—Who wants to know?
—I want to know.

—What do you want to know?
—I don’t know!

At some point last year I proposed within my institution, Goldsmiths, University of London, that we develop a free academy adjacent to our institution and call it “Goldsmiths Free.” The reactions to this proposal, when not amused smirks at the apparently adolescent nature of the proposal, were largely either puzzled—“What would we get out of it? Why would we want to do it?”—or horrified—“How would it finance itself?” No one asked what might be taught or discussed within it and how that might differ from the intellectual work that is done within our conventional fee-charging, degree-giving, research-driven institution. And that of course was the point, that it would be different, not just in terms of redefining the point of entry into the structure (free of fees and previous qualifications) or the modus operandi of the work (not degree-based, unexamined, not subject to the state’s mechanisms of monitoring and assessment), but also that the actual knowledge would be differently situated within it. And that is what I want to think about here, about the difference in the knowledge itself, its nature, its status, and its affect.

The kind of knowledge that interested me in this proposal to the university was one that was not framed by disciplinary and thematic orders, a knowledge that would instead be presented in relation to an urgent issue, and not an issue as defined by knowledge conventions, but by the pressures and struggles of contemporaneity. When knowledge is unframed, it is less grounded genealogically and can navigate forwards rather than backwards. This kind of “unframed” knowledge obviously had a great deal to do with what I had acquired during my experiences in the art world, largely a set of permissions with regard to knowledge and a recognition of its performative faculties—that knowledge doesrather than is. But the permissions I encountered in the art world came with their own set of limitations, a tendency to reduce the complex operations of speculation to either illustration or to a genre that would visually exemplify “study” or “research.” Could there be, I wondered, another mode in which knowledge might be set free without having to perform such generic mannerisms, without becoming an aesthetic trope in the hands of curators hungry for the latest “turn”?

Heads will surely be shaken! The notion of “free” is currently so degraded in terms of the free market, the dubious proposals of the new “free” economy of the internet, and the historically false promises of individual freedom, that it may be difficult to see what it might have to offer beyond all these hollow slogans. Nevertheless, the possibility of producing some interrogative proximity between “knowledge” and “free” seems both unavoidable and irresistible, particularly in view of the present struggles over the structures of education in Europe.

The actual drive towards knowledge and therefore towards some form of expansion and transformation seems far more important than simply a discussion of the categories it operates within. In order to attempt such a transition I need to think about several relevant questions:

1. First and foremost, what is knowledge when it is “free”?

2. Whether there are sites, such as the spaces of art, in which knowledge might be more “free” than in others?

3. What are the institutional implications of housing knowledge that is “free”?

4. What are the economies of “free” that might prove an alternative to the market- and outcome-based and comparison-driven economies of institutionally structured knowledge at present?

Evidently, en route I need to think about the struggles over education, its alternative sitings, the types of emergent economies that might have some purchase on its rethinking, and, finally, how “education” might be perceived as an alternative organizational mode, not of information, of formal knowledges and their concomitant marketing, but as other forms of coming together not predetermined by outcomes but by directions. Here I have in mind some process of “knowledge singularization,” which I will discuss further below.

Obviously it is not the romance of liberation that I have in mind here in relation to “free.” Knowledge cannot be “liberated,” it is endlessly embedded in long lines of transformations that link in inexplicable ways to produce new conjunctions. Nor do I have in mind the romance of “avant-garde” knowledge, with its oppositional modes of “innovation” as departure and breach. Nor am I particularly interested in what has been termed “interdisciplinarity,” which, with its intimations of movement and “sharing” between disciplines, de facto leaves intact those membranes of division and logics of separation and containment. Nor, finally, and I say this with some qualification, is my main aim here to undo the disciplinary and professional categories that have divided and isolated bodies of knowledge from one another in order to promote a heterogeneous field populated by “bodies” of knowledge akin to the marketing strategies that ensure choice and multiplicity and dignify the practices of epistemological segregation by producing endless new subcategories for inherited bodies of named and contained knowledge.

There is a vexed relation between freedom, individuality, and sovereignty that has a particular relevance for the arena being discussed here, as knowledge and education have a foothold both in processes of individuation and in processes of socialization. Hannah Arendt expressed this succinctly when she warned that

Politically, this identification of freedom with sovereignty is perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous consequence of the philosophical equation of freedom and free will. For it leads either to a denial of human freedom—namely, if it is realized that whatever men may be, they are never sovereign—or to the insight that the freedom of one man, or a group, or a body politic, can only be purchased at the price of the freedom, i.e. the sovereignty, of all others. Within the conceptual framework of traditional philosophy, it is indeed very difficult to understand how freedom and non-sovereignty can exist together or, to put it another way, how freedom could have been given to men under the conditions of non-sovereignty.1

And in the final analysis it is my interest to get around both concepts, freedom and sovereignty, through the operations of “singularization.” Perhaps it is knowledge de-individuated, de-radicalized in the conventional sense of the radical as breach, and yet operating within the circuits of singularity—of “the new relational mode of the subject”—that is preoccupying me in this instance.

And so, the task at hand seems to me to be not one of liberation from confinement, but rather one of undoing the very possibilities of containment.

While an unbounded circulation of capital, goods, information, hegemonic alliances, populist fears, newly globalized uniform standards of excellence, and so forth, are some of the hallmarks of the late neoliberal phase of capitalism, we nevertheless can not simply equate every form of the unbounded and judge them all as equally insidious. “Free” in relation to knowledge, it seems to me, has its power less in its expansion than in an ultimately centripetal movement, less in a process of penetrating and colonizing everywhere and everything in the relentless mode of capital, than in reaching unexpected entities and then drawing them back, mapping them onto the field of perception.


Crowded streets of Vienna—60,000 school students strike on April 24, 2009.

In spring and autumn of 2009 a series of prolonged strikes erupted across Austria and Germany, the two European countries whose indigenous education systems have been hardest hit by the reorganization of the Bologna Accord; smaller strikes also took place in France, Italy, and Belgium.2 At the center of the students’ protests were the massive cuts in education budgets across the board and the revision of state budgets within the current economic climate, which made youth and the working class bear the burden of support for failing financial institutions.

The strikes were unified by common stands on three issues:

1. against fees for higher education

2. against the increasing limitation of access to selection in higher education

3. for re-democratization of the universities and re-inclusion of students in decision-making processes

Not only were these the largest and most organized strikes to have been held by school and university students since the 1980s, but they also included teachers, whose pay had been reduced and whose working hours had been extended, which, after considerable pressure from below, eventually moved the trade unions to take a position.

The concerns here were largely structural and procedural, and considering all that is at stake in these reorganizations of the education system, it is difficult to know what to privilege in our concern: the reformulation of institutions into regimented factories for packaged knowledge that can easily be placed within the marketplace; the processes of knowledge acquisition that are reduced to the management of formulaic outcomes that are comparable across cultures and contexts; “training” replacing “speculating”; the dictation of such shifts from above and without any substantive consultation or debate. All of these are significant steps away from criticality in spaces of education and towards the goal that all knowledge have immediate, transparent, predictable, and pragmatic application.

The long, substantive lines that connect these struggles to their predecessors over the past forty years or so, and which constitute “education” as both an ongoing political platform and the heart of many radical artistic practices, are extremely well articulated in a conversation between Marion von Osten and Eva Egermann, in which von Osten says of her projects such as “reformpause”:

Firstly, I tried to create a space to pause, to hold on for a moment, to take a breath and to think—to think about what kinds of change might be possible; about how and what we might wish to learn; and why that which we wished to learn might be needed. I guess, in this way, both Manoa Free University and “reformpause” shared similar goals—not simply to critique the ongoing educational reforms and thereby legitimize established structures, but rather to actively engage in thinking about alternate concepts and possible change.

Secondly, there is a long history of student struggles and the question arises as to whether or not these are still relevant today and, if they are, how and why? The recent student struggles did not simply originate with the Bologna Declaration. The genealogy of various school and university protests and struggles over the past forty years demonstrates that we live in an era of educational reforms which, since the 1960s, have led to the construction of a new political subjectivity, the “knowledge worker.” This is not just a phenomenon of the new millennium; furthermore, many artistic practices from the 1960s and 1970s relate to this re-ordering of knowledge within Western societies. This is one of the many reasons why we so readily relate to these practices, as exemplified by conceptualism and the various ways in which conceptual artists engaged with contemporary changes in the concepts of information and communication.3

All of this identifies hugely problematic and very urgent issues, but we cannot lose sight of the status of actual knowledge formations within these. When knowledge is not geared towards “production,” it has the possibility of posing questions that combine the known and the imagined, the analytical and the experiential, and which keep stretching the terrain of knowledge so that it is always just beyond the border of what can be conceptualized.

These are questions in which the conditions of knowledge are always internal to the concepts it is entertaining, not as a context but as a limit to be tested. The entire critical epistemology developed by Foucault and by Derrida rested on questions that always contain a perception of their own impossibility, a consciousness of thinking as a process of unthinking something that is fully aware of its own status. The structural, the techniques, and the apparatuses, could never be separated from the critical interrogation of concepts. As Giorgio Agamben says of Foucault’s concept of the apparatus:

The proximity of this term to the theological dispositio, as well as to Foucault’s apparatuses, is evident. What is common to all these terms is that they refer back to this oikonomia, that is, to a set of practices, bodies of knowledge, measures, and institutions that aim to manage, govern, control, and orient—in a way that purports to be useful—the behaviors, gestures, and thoughts of human beings.4

So the struggle facing education is precisely that of separating thought from its structures, a struggle constantly informed by tensions between thought management and subjectification—the frictions by which we turn ourselves into subjects. As Foucault argued, this is the difference between the production of subjects in “power/knowledge” and those processes of self-formation in which the person is active. It would seem then that the struggle in education arises from tensions between conscious inscription into processes of self-formation and what Foucault, speaking of his concerns with scientific classification, articulated as the subsequent and necessary “insurrection of subjugated knowledges,” in which constant new voices appear claiming themselves not as “identities,” but as eventswithin knowledge.5 The argument that Isabelle Stengers makes about her own political formation has convinced me that this is a productive direction to follow in trying to map out knowledge as struggle:

My own intellectual and political life has been marked by what I learned from the appearance of drugs users’ groups claiming that they were “citizens like everyone else,” and fighting against laws that were officially meant to “protect” them. The efficacy of this new collective voice, relegating to the past what had been the authorized, consensual expertise legitimating the “war on drugs,” convinced me that such events were “political events” par excellence, producing—as, I discovered afterwards, Dewey had already emphasized—both new political struggle and new important knowledge. I even proposed that what we call democracy could be evaluated by its relation to those disrupting collective productions. A “true” democracy would demand the acceptance of the ongoing challenge of such disruptions—would not only accept them but also acknowledge those events as something it depended upon.6

Knowledge as disruption, knowledge as counter-subjugation, knowledge as constant exhortation to its own, often uncomfortable implications, are at the heart of “struggle.” The battle over education as we are experiencing it now does not find its origin in the desire to suppress these but rather in efforts to regulate them so that they work in tandem with the economies of cognitive capitalism.


The economies of the world of knowledge have shifted quite dramatically over the past ten to fifteen years. What had been a fairly simple subsidy model, with states covering the basic expenses of teaching, subsidizing home schooling on a per capita basis (along with private entities incorporated in “not -for-profit” structures); research councils and foundations covering the support of research in the humanities and pure sciences; and industry supporting applied research, has changed quite dramatically, as have the traditional outlets for such knowledge: scholarly journals and books, exhibitions, science-based industry, the military, and public services such as agriculture and food production. Knowledge, at present, is not only enjoined to be “transferable” (to move easily between paradigms so that its potential impact will be transparent from the outset) and to invent new and ever expanding outlets for itself, it must also contend with the prevalent belief that it should be obliged not only to seek out alternative sources of funding but actually to produce these. By producing the need for a particular type of knowledge one is also setting up the means of its excavation or invention—this is therefore a “need-based” culture of knowledge that produces the support and the market through itself.

So, when I speak of a “free” academy, the question has to be posed: if it is to meet all the above requirements, namely, that it not be fee-charging, not produce applied research, not function within given fields of expertise, and not consider itself in terms of applied “outcomes,” how would it be funded?

In terms of the internet, the economic model of “free” that has emerged over the past decade initially seemed to be an intensification or a contemporary perpetuation of what had been called by economists, the “cross-subsidy” model: you’d get one thing free if you bought another, or you’d get a product free only if you paid for a service. This primary model was then expanded by the possibilities of ever increasing access to the internet, married to constantly lowered costs in the realm of digital technologies.

A second trend is simply that anything that touches digital networks quickly feels the effect of falling costs. And so it goes, too, for everything from banking to gambling. The moment a company’s primary expenses become things based in silicon, free becomes not just an option but also the inevitable destination.7 The cost of actually circulating something within these economies becomes lower and lower, until cost is no longer the primary index of its value.

A third aspect of this emergent economic model is perhaps the one most relevant to this discussion of education. Here the emphasis is on a shift from an exclusive focus on buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, to a tripartite model, in which the third element that enters does so based on its interest in the exchange taking place between the first two elements—an interest to which it contributes financially. In the traditional media model, a publisher provides a product free (or nearly free) to consumers, and advertisers pay to ride along. Radio is “free to air,” and so is much of television. Likewise, newspaper and magazine publishers don’t charge readers anything close to the actual cost of creating, printing, and distributing their products. They’re not selling papers and magazines to readers, they’re selling readers to advertisers. It’s a three-way market.

In a sense, what the Web represents is the extension of the media business model to industries of all sorts. This is not simply the notion that advertising will pay for everything. There are dozens of ways that media companies make money around free content, from selling information about consumers to brand licensing, “value-added” subscriptions, and direct e-commerce. Now an entire ecosystem of Web companies is growing up around the same set of models.8

The question is whether this model of a “free” economy is relevant to my proposal for a free “academy,” given that in an economic model the actual thing in circulation is not subject to much attention except as it appeals to a large public and their ostensible needs. Does this model have any potential for criticality or for an exchange that goes beyond consumption? Novelist, activist, and technology commentator Cory Doctorow claims that

there’s a pretty strong case to be made that “free” has some inherent antipathy to capitalism. That is, information that can be freely reproduced at no marginal cost may not want, need or benefit from markets as a way of organizing them. . . . Indeed, there’s something eerily Marxist in this phenomenon, in that it mirrors Marx’s prediction of capitalism’s ability to create a surplus of capacity that can subsequently be freely shared without market forces’ brutality.9

The appealing part of the economy of “free” for debates about education is its unpredictability in throwing up new spheres of interest and new congregations around them. It has some small potential for shifting the present fixation on the direct relation between fees, training, applied research, organization-as-management, predictable outputs and outcomes, and the immediate consumption of knowledge. This however seems a very narrow notion of criticality as it is limited to the production of a surplus within knowledge and fails to take on the problems of subjectification. And it is the agency of subjectification and its contradictory multiplicity that is at the heart of a preoccupation with knowledge in education, giving it its traction as it were, what Foucault called “the lived multiplicity of positionings.” The internet-based model of “free” does break the direct relation between buyers and sellers, which in the current climate of debates about education, in the context of what Nick Dyer-Witheford has called “Academia Inc.,” is certainly welcome. But it does not expand the trajectory of participation substantively, merely reducing the act of taking part in this economy of use and exchange. The need to think of a “market” for the disruption of paradigms emerges as an exercise in futility and as politically debilitating. To think again with Agamben:

Contemporary societies therefore present themselves as inert bodies going through massive processes of desubjectification without acknowledging any real subjectification. Hence the eclipse of politics, which used to presuppose the existence of subjects and real identities (the workers’ movement, the bourgeoisie, etc.), and the triumph of the oikonomia, that is to say, of a pure activity of government that aims at nothing other than its own replication.10

What then would be the sites of conscious subjectification within this amalgam of education and creative practices?


Over the past two decades we have seen a proliferation of self-organized structures that take the form, with regard to both their investigations and effects, of sites of learning.11These have, more than any other initiative, collapsed the divisions between sites of formal academic education and those of creative practice, display, performance, and activism. In these spaces the previously clear boundaries between universities, academies, museums, galleries, performance spaces, NGOs, and political organizations, lost much of their visibility and efficaciousness. Of course, virtually every European city still has at least one if not several vast “entertainment machine” institutions, traditional museums that see their task as one of inviting the populace to partake of “art” in the most conventional sense and perceive “research” to be largely about themselves (to consist, that is, in the seemingly endless conferences that are held each year on “the changing role of the museum”). These institutions however no longer define the parameters of the field and serve more as indices of consumption, market proximities, and scholastic inertia.

Free International University event program for Documenta 7, June 1982. Pressebüro der Documenta GmbH Klaus Becker, Photo by Dietmar Walberg, Bild-GFDL.

What does knowledge do when it circulates in other sites such as the art world?

As Eva Egermann says:

Of course, the art field was seen as a place in which things could happen, a field of potential, a space of exchange between different models and concepts and, in the sense of learning and unlearning, a field of agency and transfer between different social and political fields and between different positions and subjectivities. In a way, the exhibition functioned as a pretext, a defined place for communication and action that would perhaps establish impulses for further transformations. So, the project functioned as an expanded field of practice from which to organize and network between many different groups, but also to question and experiment with methods of representation and distribution for collective artistic research. We wanted to disseminate our research for collective usage through various means, such as the study circle itself, a wiki, publications and readers and through the model of a free university.12

Former member of the Situationist International poet Peter Laugesen talking at the CFU, 2003.

More than any other sphere, the spaces of contemporary art that open themselves to this kind of alternative activity of learning and knowledge production, and see in it not an occasional indulgence but their actual daily business, have become the sites of some of the most important redefinitions of knowledge that circulate today.

As sites, they have marked the shift from “Ivory Towers” of knowledge to spaces ofinterlocution, with in between a short phase as “laboratories.” As a dialogical practice based on questioning, on agitating the edges of paradigms and on raising external points of view, interlocution takes knowledge back to a Socratic method but invests its operations with acknowledged stakes and interests, rather than being a set of formal proceedings. It gives a performative dimension to the belief argued earlier through the work of Foucault and Derrida, that knowledge always has at its edges the active process of its own limits and its own invalidation.

In setting up knowledge production within the spaces and sites of art, one also takes up a set of permissions that are on offer. Recognizing who is posing questions, where they are speaking from, and from where they know what they know, becomes central rather than, as is typical, marginal qualifications often relegated to footnotes. Permission is equally granted to start in the middle without having to rehearse the telos of an argument; to start from “right here and right now” and embed issues in a variety of contexts, expanding their urgency; to bring to these arguments a host of validations, interventions, asides, and exemplifications that are not recognized as directly related or as sustaining provable knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, “the curatorial,” not as a profession but as an organizing and assembling impulse, opens up a set of possibilities, mediations perhaps, toformulate subjects that may not be part of an agreed-upon canon of “subjects” worthy of investigation. So knowledge in the art world, through a set of permissions that do not recognize the academic conventions for how one arrives at a subject, can serve both the purposes of reframing and producing subjects in the world.

Finally, I would argue that knowledge in the art world has allowed us to come to terms withpartialitywith the fact that our field of knowing is always partially comprehensible, the problems that populate it are partially visible, and our arguments are only partially inhabiting a recognizable logic. Under no illusions as to its comprehensiveness, knowledge as it is built up within the spaces of art makes relatively modest claims for plotting out the entirety of a problematic, accepting instead that it is entering in the middle and illuminating some limited aspects, all the while making clear its drives in doing so.13

And it is here, in these spaces, that one can ground the earlier argument that the task at hand in thinking through “free” is not one of liberation from confinement, but rather one of undoing the very possibilities of containment. It is necessary to understand that containment is not censure but rather half acknowledges acts of framing and territorializing.


In conjunction with the sites described above it is also direction and circulation that help in opening up “knowledge” to new perceptions of its mobility.

How can we think of “education” as circulations of knowledge and not as the top-down or down-up dynamics in which there is always a given, dominant direction for the movement of knowledge? The direction of the knowledge determines its mode of dissemination: if it is highly elevated and canonized then it is structured in a particular, hierarchical way, involving original texts and commentaries on them; if it is experiential then it takes the form of narrative and description in a more lateral form; and if it is empirical then the production of data categories, vertical and horizontal, would dominate its argument structures even when it is speculating on the very experience of excavating and structuring that knowledge.14

While thinking about this essay I happened to hear a segment of a radio program called The Bottom Line, a weekly BBC program about business entrepreneurs I had never encountered before. In it a businessman was talking about his training; Geoff Quinn the chief executive of clothing manufacturer T. M. Lewin said he had not had much education and went into clothing retailing at the age of sixteen, “but then I discovered the stock room—putting things in boxes, making lists, ordering the totality of the operation.”15 He spoke of the stockroom, with a certain sense of wonder, as the site in which everything came together, where the bits connected and made sense, less a repository than a launch pad for a sartorial world of possibilities. The idea that the “stockroom” could be an epiphany, could be someone’s education, was intriguing and I tried to think it out a bit . . . part Foucauldian notion of scientific classification and part Simondon’s pragmatic transductive thought about operations rather than meanings—the “stockroom” is clearly a perspective, an early recognition of the systemic and the interconnected, and a place from which to see the “big picture.” While the “stockroom” may be a rich and pleasing metaphor, it is also a vector, along which a huge range of manufacturing technologies, marketing strategies, and advertising campaigns meet up with labor histories and those of raw materials, with print technologies and internet disseminations, with the fantasmatic investments in clothes and their potential to renew us.

Therefore what if “education”—the complex means by which knowledges are disseminated and shared—could be thought of as a vector, as a quantity (force or velocity, for example), made up of both direction and magnitude? A powerful horizontality that looks at the sites of education as convergences of drives to knowledge that are in themselves knowledge? Not in the sense of formally inherited, archived, and transmitted knowledges but in the sense that ambition “knows” and curiosity “knows” and poverty “knows”—they are modes of knowing the world and their inclusion or their recognition as events of knowledge within the sites of education make up not the context of what goes on in the classroom or in the space of cultural gathering, but the content.

Keller Easterling in her exceptionally interesting book Enduring Innocence builds on Arjun Appadurai’s notion of “imagined worlds” as “the multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe . . . these mixtures create variegated scapes described as “mediascapes and “ethnoscapes.” Which, says Easterling, by “naturalizing the migration and negotiation of traveling cultural forms allows these thinkers [such as Appadurai] to avoid impossible constructs about an authentic locality.”16 From Easterling’s work I have learned to understand such sites as located forms of “intelligence”—both information and stealth formation. To recognize the operations of “the network” in relation to structures of knowledge in which no linearity could exist and the direct relation between who is in the spaces of learning, the places to which they are connected, the technologies that close the gaps in those distances, the unexpected and unpredictable points of entry that they might have, the fantasy projections that might have brought them there—all agglomerate as sites of knowledge.

We might be able to look at these sites and spaces of education as ones in which long lines of mobility, curiosity, epistemic hegemony, colonial heritages, urban fantasies, projections of phantom professionalization, new technologies of both formal access and less formal communication, a mutual sharing of information, and modes of knowledge organization, all come together in a heady mix—that is the field of knowledge and from it we would need to go outwards to combine all of these as actual sites of knowledge and produce a vector.

Having tried to deconstruct as many discursive aspects of what “free” might mean in relation to knowledge, in relation to my hoped-for-academy, I think that what has come about is the understanding of “free” in a non-liberationist vein, away from the binaries of confinement and liberty, rather as the force and velocity by which knowledge and our imbrication in it, move along. That its comings-together are our comings-together and not points in a curriculum, rather along the lines of the operations of “singularity” that enact the relation of “the human to a specifiable horizon” through which meaning is derived, as Jean-Luc Nancy says.17 Singularity provides us with another model of thinking relationality, not as external but as loyal to a logic of its own self-organization. Self-organization links outwardly not as identity, interest, or affiliation, but as a mode of coexistence in space. To think “knowledge” as the working of singularity is actually to decouple it from the operational demands put on it, to open it up to processes of multiplication and of links to alternate and unexpected entities, to animate it through something other than critique or defiance—perhaps as “free.”


© 2010 e-flux and the author

From the Precarious Workers Brigade, People’s Tribunal at the ICA, 2011, On Precarity.

Tools for Collective Action—Precarity: The People’s Tribunal

The following co-authored account introduces and reflects on the people’s tribunal as a format for examining systemic problems of precarity. Based on the example of Precarity: A Participatory People’s Tribunal, carried out by the Precarious Workers Brigade (PWB) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, UK in March 2011, we make a special reference to this event in an attempt to troubleshoot any future iterations of such an action. This account is also an open invitation to adopt and adapt this tool from the PWB’s toolbox, to address the ethics of collective action and institutionalized precarity. People’s tribunals, like the one proposed here, can be applied in work-related situations where systemic injustice, normalized to the point of intractability, lies beyond the reach of existing labour and employment legislation and policy.

Precarity is an adjective referring to a set of conditions, such as insecurity, instability and vulnerability, affecting both life and labour of an individual. The expression has its roots in the notion of ‘obtaining something by prayer’. The condition of precarity plays out via short-term contracts, no-contract work, bad pay, deprivation of rights and status, vulnerability to mobbing, competition and pressure, high rent, lack of accessible public services, etc. Precarity is not linked to a specific type of employment status, but manifests itself through an insecurity whereby one is at the mercy of others, always having to beg, network and compete in order to be able to pursue one’s labour and life. Precarity is the paradoxical state of being both overworked and insecure at once, regardless of being employed or not.

The PWB is a UK-based group of precarious workers in culture and education organised around the issue of precarity. We call out in solidarity with all those struggling to make a living in the current climate of instability and enforced austerity.

We come together not to defend what was, but to demand, create and reclaim:

EQUAL PAY: no more free labour; guaranteed income for all
FREE EDUCATION: all debts and future debts cancelled now
DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS: cut unelected, unaccountable and unmandated leaders
THE COMMONS: shared ownership of space, ideas and resources

The PWB’s praxis springs from a shared commitment to developing research and actions that are practical, relevant and easily shared and applied. If putting an end to precarity is the social justice we seek, our political project involves developing tactics, strategies, formats, practices, dispositions, knowledges, etc. for making this happen. We inherited this hands-on, action-oriented approach from the Carrot Workers Collective (CW).

Over the past five years, this self-organised, London-based initiative has been active around issues of free labour, particularly internships, in the cultural sector. However, several circumstances converged in the spring of 2010, prompting the CW to seek solidarity with other like-minded groups. The massive bank bailouts that followed the inconceivable mismanagement of the banking sector by the previous Labour governments led to unprecedented cuts to public spending being introduced by the recently elected coalition (Con-Dem) government. Research funding cuts were only the beginning of a wider project, which appears to lead to an effective privatization of culture, arts and higher education sectors in the UK. Beyond these changes to the situation in the UK, there was a desire within the CW to broaden the group’s remit beyond internships, by framing precarity as a systemic problem present in all aspects of cultural and educational work. The reliance on a willingness to work for free in the arts, for example, means those who can afford to work unpaid are at a distinct advantage in this sector. This leads not only to the exclusion of those who cannot afford to work for free, but also perpetuates a culture of poor working conditions where unpaid overtime is the norm, the minimum wage regulations are often ignored and competition among peers becomes even more fierce.

A residency invitation from the ICA in autumn 2010 offered the CW an opportunity to open the group to other individuals and collectives. This lead to the CW putting out an open call for contributions, which brought together a diverse group of artists, activists and educators who began to map their personal experiences of precarity. The Precarious Workers’ Brigade was born. As a fledgling collective we had come together to try to deal with the many facets of precarity and at the same time investigate how, through working together as a group, we could counteract our own individualised precarious conditions. The discussions we had were heated and complex as we reflected on, for example, the romanticised view of privileged artists in search of a precarious existence and our own complicity in the reproduction of our own precarious condition. We began to gather testimonies of other people’s experiences, used forum theatre exercises and co-counselling techniques and discussed relevant film and video materials to further our understanding of the matter at hand.

We wanted to share our research and experiences in a public arena and considered the format of a people’s tribunal as a method of continuing a collective conversation that would reflect our interest in recognising the characteristics and repercussions of precarity, as well as holding the conditions that allow it to continue to account. We hosted Precarity: The People’s Tribunal at the ICA on 21 March, 2011.

What is a People’s Tribunal?

A people’s tribunal is not a trial. People’s tribunals have been used in circumstances where legal norms do exist, but their breach is not being prosecuted by the courts, for example, if the identified injustices are not illegal per se, but could and should be outlawed or if injustices cannot be grasped by the law because the existing law is unable to identify structural causes that lead to an unjust situation. Our understanding is that precarity is not a perpetrator, person, nor a crime. It is a condition brought on by a set of interrelations that connect the deeply personal and the systemic, the political and the economic. As a result, in the condition of precarity there are regular breaches of legal conventions, such as failure to provide payment, to provide proper contracts, to comply with oral agreements and to provide safe working environments. These injustices are often not prosecuted for a whole host of reasons. While some of the aspects of precarity are covered by existing law and are therefore illegal, the vast majority is not. Therefore the condition of precarity seems to lend itself to the form of a people’s tribunal that can provide a public space where voices of the implicated can be witnessed, for example, by listening to the stories of precarious workers in their own words, gestures, sounds and images.

The more we worked together to understand the complexity of precarity in tandem with the tribunal format, the more we recognised the value of the tribunal’s structure for organizing, presenting and activating the form and content of our research. Rather than taking on a role that is already scripted, the tribunal format allowed us to adapt and script our roles ourselves, as we went along. We received an overwhelming amount of personal testimonies leading to questions concerning how they could be used in the tribunal. We were keen not to abstract them into bullet points or sound bites, draining them of the real-world significance of the contributors’ lived experience. Rather than merge many testimonies together to create more generic/fictional ones, we chose a few pertinent accounts. The rest will provide the basis for an archive, which we continue to add to and/or use in future tribunals.

Throughout our workshops and preparations, four themes emerged when organising the tribunal’s content. These themes formed the basis of four cases. The cases were scripted using some of the collected testimonies and presented by and to the participants in the tribunal. Evidence was brought to bear in the form of images, transcripts and objects. In some cases, the lack of evidence itself was acknowledged as significant by its very absence. Expert witnesses also testified in relation to each of the themes.
The four cases presented at the tribunal were:

The underpaid and the unpaid.

This section was concerned with the casualisation of the labour force, whose contracts are shorter and less reliable and often only exist in the form of spoken agreements. It also looked at the commonly held misconception that people should work for nothing.

Institutionalised precarity.

In this section, we talked about institutionalised precarity in terms of the role of institutions in the production and self-replication of different aspects of precarious life, for example, poor or no pay; the exploitation of cultural workers’ willingness to work for free; the false promise of future opportunities; the expectation of long working hours; the lack of resources for production and artists’ fees; and directorships being led by marketing and branding strategies, de-prioritising engagement in the work their organisations supposedly support. We looked at both the situated and the systemic aspects of precarity that arise in our work and life experiences.


In this case, voices of absent contributors related experiences of precarious realities arising from constantly changing immigration policy. We looked at how visa and residency issues intersected with the other themes and compounded the difficulties faced by individuals.


This section presented several cases that illustrated how precarity impacts on the body, mind and soul. Testimonials broke the silence on the physical and mental symptoms caused by long term casualisation and uncertainty of working conditions. As each person told their story, they asked: ‘why did I accept this situation?’

After hearing the cases, tribunal participants organised into breakout sessions to discuss the evidence, share their own experiences and begin to collectively formulate responses, judgments, proposed remedies and demands. While this public manifestation of the people’s tribunal at the ICA has come to an end, the PWB are interested in the notion of a permanent people’s tribunal and we consider our research and actions on these issues to be ongoing. We would welcome others to develop and rework this tool so that we can build further solidarity with other precarious workers, continue to highlight and hold to account, the conditions of our ‘employment’. Based on what we have learnt from our experiences of developing the tribunal format in this context, we would like to offer some points for further consideration.

Points to consider when developing a people’s tribunals on precarity:

Retain the multitude of voices, whilst ensuring the evidence is treated seriously. 
The collective research process and the tribunal itself mapped multiple ‘truths’. Voices were amplified through anonymous testimony, which was heard by an audience of witnesses who became active participants in the tribunal, contributing their own experiences and reflecting on those presented. The tribunal format allowed us to keep the research alive and open to a collective process of re-reading, re-writing and re-imagining. Drawing on methods of forum theatre and the concept of law as being performed, this performative aspect allowed us to open up the evidence for further discussion. We were also concerned, however, with turning this ‘serious research’ into a spectacle, performed in a theatre space at the ICA. How can you keep the balance between the politics and poetics offered by the format of the people’s tribunal so that the evidence being presented cannot be easily ignored?

Say the unsaid – go public with what we can’t usually talk about by speaking collectively.
The whole issue of precarity relies on its normalisation and acceptance by all parties. We chose the people’s tribunal format precisely because it is useful in exploring such systemic issues and allows those who have been silenced to speak. The position of victim is one of being wronged, characterised by power structures weighted against an individual – it can be empowering to speak from this position, especially if the conditioning is not to acknowledge what is going on and to remain silent. It is also vital to implicate ourselves in institutional and other structural aspects of the issue. How can we avoid being debilitated by such an implication?

We did not anticipate the strength of the emotional aspects of the tribunal – the anger, relief, anxiety, fear. It can be difficult to talk about such issues and even more difficult to listen. It is particularly empowering to speak and listen collectively.

Create a space for the audience to become participants in the tribunal process.
When preparing for the event, we thought about the tribunal’s audience as participants. The tribunal appeals to its public through its open format allowing a direct engagement in social justice. We moved back and forth between group discussions and breakout sessions in order to create a space for voices to be heard beyond those of the facilitators, the PWB. We were there to learn from each other, through the testimony and contributions of our peers, articulated through the performative format of the tribunal. Those who attended seemed to have broadly familiar and commensurate thinking and concerns. We were united in our conviction that precarity is unacceptable. There was a yearning to move beyond consciousness raising – to move beyond representing politics and to do politics more directly.

Find ways of productively implicating yourselves and the staff of your host institution, in the tribunal process.
How can we highlight working conditions without exacerbating them? The people’s tribunal is a sensitive format that can support the anonymity of precarious workers. We intended to productively implicate the ICA in our discussion around precarity and to do so in ways that might change policy or other managerial approaches and advance the struggle against this issue. Unfortunately, this was not something we were able to explore and the initial idea of working with the ICA staff over the course of several months was never realised. The ICA managed the residency process in such a way, that we could never interact with its staff until the day of the tribunal. For us, in the entire involvement with the institution, this was the biggest missed opportunity.

Continue to open the process up, so that others can carry out their own people’s tribunal on precarity.
We invite others to develop and improve the people’s tribunal as a tool. Use our experience outlined here to add to the research and host your own tribunal. We would like to learn how you are mapping, articulating and collectively and confidently rejecting situations affected by the conditions of precarity. Perhaps in this way we could raise awareness of these increasingly prevalent conditions and have a direct input in improving our own and our fellow workers’ circumstances.