Negative and Violent Means of Engaging Academia

In this reading, Halberstam raises interesting points about the colonial nature of order, and the ways that resisting and infiltrating order is anarchic, organic, anti-colonial, and yes, failure. So what does anti-colonial resistance of order look like in school and academia at large?

Halberstam talks about legibility – being able read or understand something. (pg 5) Halberstam talks, for example, about legibility and academic discipline. For school to make sense, for school to be legible, we need to draw clear lines between disciplines. This way, we can continue to predictably produce work in those fields.

Halberstam argues that there are certain way of seeing things that we view as “natural order,” but are actually completely socially constructed. Halberstam argues that to see like the state is to see this natural order as natural. (pg 9) This makes sense, because this socially constructed “natural order,” is productive, and it is marketable. But Halberstam poses the question, is it in fact, sustainable?

But that’s not how things actually work. The world isn’t legible. In reality, there aren’t these clear and rigid distinctions between each field – the sciences, arts, and everything in between all mingle organically. But allowing this organic lingering is not  productive in the traditional sense. What if you’re trying to algebra and end up with an aria? This isn’t predictable, and it isn’t productive in a way that benefits academia.

Legibility and order by nature benefits people who can fit into that order, and people who already have power. To stray from legibility in my goofy example, to come up with an aria when you are supposed to do your math homework, does not benefit those in power. The aria writer in this example is not being a good little capitalist worker, because they didn’t fit into the order. Their work would result in academic failure. But a compelling one.

Another example engaging the organic as opposed to the rigid comes from the craft of Halberstam’s writing. While Halberstam does engage other academics, Halberstam also engages cartoons. Halberstam argues that in academia, to be rigid. (pg 6) Instead of rigidity, Halberstam draws from outside of the source material traditionally engaged in writing about theory.

So what choices do we, as students and academics, have to engage an institution that is built around order? How do we engage legibility when the world and our lives are anything but? How do we engage the inherent colonialism of order and legibility that the success or failure of our life is assessed about when it doesn’t benefit us?

Halberstam proposes two ways of engaging this order – through violent means and negative means. To engage the hegemonic order of academia through violent means it to infiltrate academia, learn your material more than those teaching, and change it from the inside out. To engage with negative means is to reject academia all together, and create one’s own learning intellectual pursuits organically.

So what would engaging this specific class with Halberstam;s two modes of engaging academia?

Given Halberstam’s argument that academia is inherently colonial and Halberstam’s definition of abolition not as removal but as rebuilding something, let’s assume our goal in engaging this class with violent and negative means is to rebuild the way we go about intellectual pursuits in ways that don’t support the colonizers. That would mean our ultimate goal is destruction.

So engaging this class through violent means could look a few different ways. First would be keeping our heads down and getting good grades in this class so we can get into a good grad school, become powerful professors, and then organize academia in a way that benefits the people, not the state.

It could also mean learning the material of this class so well that we are constantly challenging our prof and fellow students, starting with this class to fail to fit into the order of academic success, but have academic merit that is beyond repute.

Engaging this class through negative means is a fun idea. This could look lots of different ways. It could be showing up to class and being disruptive and distracting, talking about what we want instead of what’s on the syllabus. It could be conspiring as a class (as we used to do with substitutes in middle school) to keep the professor off topic as much as possible so we could a) fail to learn anything and b) succeed in the pleasure of goofing off for two hours.

Which is, of course, the central irony of this class. We are discussing the anti-colonial resistance of failure, but  being assessed by the colonial rigidity of academia.