It Doesn’t Just Get Better, This is Political


“There is nothing “universal” about the university anymore except the universality of emptiness. Students and professors spend their waking lives covering up this void with paltry declarations and predictable nonactions. The void should no longer be avoided; it should be unleashed.

Seceding from the university is no longer enough. One must bring it down as well.”
– Preoccupied, The Logic of Occupation by the Occupiers of the New School

“A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be predictable, calculable and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is, to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange.”
– Points, Jacques Derrida

Update: Students at the University of Puerto Rico are about to begin a new student strike, amidst massive efforts by the university to stop them, including actually removing the gates of the university. [video]

Last week was the first Queering the Campus Mixer at UCSD, organized by SPACES and the Transnational Queer & Transgender Studies Research and Curriculum Group, including a large effort from Sarah Shim. I wanted to add a comment to the discussion in the open forum, but I left the event crying and didn’t really feel like talking to people at that point.

Early in the conversation, the group was discussing the need they feel for more queer and trans spaces on campus. One person in the circle, to paraphrase, said that they feel that this campus is the most homophobic environment they’ve ever been in. This person went on to say that they don’t know how the rest of us manage to do it, to come here day to day and face the coldness, the hostility, the feeling that everyone here is against you. Going on, they said that they feel like this campus is so cold that it goes beyond just homophobia, that everyone ignores each other, that the buildings feel like they are against you, the air, the cement. It’s like death, they said, this place is like death.

I hope I’m not sharing too much here about what was said, but I’m trying to share some it to get to my point. A number of people responding talking about the queer spaces that exist on campus and how they’re underused, or about how they share those feelings, or about how much work goes into creating queer and trans and People of Color (POC) spaces on campus that goes unnoticed. I raised my hand to say how grateful I am to have been able to teach, even if only for one quarter, in the Critical Gender Studies department, and how it’s the most amount of time I get to spend with other queer and trans people in my life. That’s when I started crying, embarrassed and trying to talk through it to get that last part out.

But what I wanted to say after that is that it’s important for us to understand our feelings about this place, UCSD and the space of University in general as political, not just as personal. As unwelcome as the person who spoke first at the Queering the Campus mixer feels, as unwelcome as you or I feel in this space, this feelings must be compared against the people we see on this campus everyday who look beyond comfortable, who look entitled to be here. The question I want us to ask is: who feels welcome here? And why? Certainly some people feel very welcome on this campus, from the looks of how they walk around. I’m sure you have someone in mind who you’ve seen on campus recently. Since the mixer, I’ve been haunted by this question, reconsidering what I see at this school.

The question of who feels welcome and comfortable here, who these universities offer their greatest hospitality to, leads me to think of the “It Gets Better” campaign in response to the large number of suicides of LGBT youth in the past few months. The framing of this campaign completely disavows any institutional responsibility for violence against LGBT people. If we consider the recent attack against Colle Carpenter, a transgender man at Cal State University Long Beach, and the recent incidents of hate across the UC, with openly racist gestures by students and attacks on LGBT centers, we can begin to look at the institutions we inhabit are wholly responsible for our safety. When I ask who is comfortable here and who is welcome, that question also results in considering who is unwelcome, uninvited and unsafe. Every communication by the university shapes their depiction of who is welcome here, from emails to architectural decisions, and the result to date is a very hostile environment for a lot of people, including myself. When we consider who is welcome and why we might feel unwelcome, I hope that people can then move on to imagining their own demands for how the university needs to be changed. For example, it’s clear that having more gender neutral restrooms on campus would reduce the number of violent attacks like the one Carpenter was the victim of, having the word “IT” carved into his chest with a knife. While the university wants to say that these are one off occurrences, I disagree. As long as I’ve been on this campus, I can remember incidences of sexual violence occurring. I argue that the very structure of the university, including the curricular decisions, creates the situation where these actions are permitted to happen. It doesn’t just get better, someone has to make it better. And “it” is not an it, but an action that someone does. Who is doing it, and how can we stop it. The university space is not urban or suburban, but a unique environment with demographics hand picked by administrators. The social dynamics on this campus are largely a product of choices made by the university to decide who is welcome here and who isn’t, on what kinds of merit, and who should be a 3% minority in this space and who should be a majority. If you feel that it’s hard to build community here because there are so few people like you, then that is because of choices made by the administration.

As I considered these issues, I realize more and more that those of us in academic, students, faculty and staff, live our lives inside of outdated institutions that do not represent us, much less welcome us. I realize that I live much of my life inside of this institution created and structured in 1960, in a time in which misogyny, homophobia and racism were far more accepted. Jorge Mariscal, a professor at UCSD, has researched the founding documents of the university and revealed a great deal of the actual language of institutional racism in the founding documents, such as in the decision about where to geographically place the campus. As we find ourselves to be aliens, or unwelcome monsters from the future, in these outdated institutions, it is up to us as participants in them to change them or leave them behind. Today I am still hoping that the dream of education can be served to some small degree in these outdated institutions and so I’m willing to put in the work to change them. Projects such as Agitprop’s upcoming 2837 University continue the long history of creating free universities to provide people with a space to imagine what education can and should be.

What finally motivated me to sit down and write this is the experience of watching myself, my friends and my loved ones scramble for jobs, experiencing all of the stress and sadness that come with economic uncertainty. In our department, 25% of the jobs for graduate students are being cut next quarter, quietly, without much fanfare or protest. I’m leaving my time as a temporary lecturer because the class I’ve been teaching is being cut in response to budget cuts, and I’m not sure if I’ll have employment next quarter. Again, the economic decisions that the university are shaping who is welcome and supported here and who isn’t. Again we can see the paradigms of state of exception discussed by Agamben playing themselves out, as any time of crisis and budget cuts is an opportunity for the university to get rid of people and projects and departments they find problematic. As my last post here stated, I am hugely inspired by the occupations currently occurring across the world, including the UK, Italy and tomorrow Puerto Rico. I just hope that as we all scramble for jobs or for a feeling of daily physical safety, that we can come together and talk about why we’re in this situation and keep in mind that maybe now is the time to stop scrambling until we get the changes we want. Hopefully we can create new environments and structures in which we can be safer and more supported, structures open to monstrous possible futures, but we have do it in a hurry.

3 Responses to

  1. Brian Holmes

    On the iDC list, Margaret Morse wrote:

    > Thinking about those who are excluded from the university as
    > teachers–including yourself–requires even greater consideration and
    > long term effort since it involves redesigning a system that relies on
    > cheap, disposble labor.

    This is so true, especially the “long term” part. Everything about dominant society is “long term,” we can see it in the way that Obama turned out to be almost totally beholden to long-term Democratic Party strategies that have barely changed over the last five decades. The question is, how does our long-term process of change get started?

    Micha writes:

    “I am hugely inspired by the occupations currently occurring across the world, including the UK, Italy and tomorrow Puerto Rico. I just hope that as we all scramble for jobs or for a feeling of daily physical safety, that we can come together and talk about why we’re in this situation and keep in mind that maybe now is the time to stop scrambling until we get the changes we want. Hopefully we can create new environments and structures in which we can be safer and more supported, structures open to monstrous possible futures, but we have do it in a hurry.”

    Now is the time to blend the aspiration to deep change that Margaret is talking about with a collective mobilization. “It’s urgent to take your time,” as an activist group in France used to say. What that could mean in this case is: take all your time, not to “scramble” for a peer-reviewed publication or any other CV-builder, but take the time to listen to others and to create something (a text, an artwork, an application) that you can bring to a community of people who want to do something fundamental this year, now, while the ax is falling. All around the world, this is the year for public education, for public services generally. They don’t just have to be defended (maintained for those who already feel like they “own” them), but reinvented. I’m not even at a university and still this whole thing seems fundamentally important. Who can we become in the future? The question is being answered by the ruling classes, right now.

    love, Brian

  2. faiz

    thanks for this.. i really relate to what you’re saying. i’ve been wondering though… i mean, i’ve been dealing with my relationship with institutions and school more specifically.. from your standpoint, it seems like your love and fate has led you to hold on to the “occupy everything” in addition to the “evacuate” position, i mean, you want to see university changed. i am confident that it will be done, but i myself chose to leave. i felt so.. betrayed. i had to change how i spoke, what i valued, how i saw myself. i gained something, i guess you could call it social capital, but something else too, i’m not sure what, in exchange for those things that were in me that, in hindsight i realise, were threatening to the institutional order, but also, and mostly, in exchange for giving up what had been promised to me, namely the prospect, as a thinker, of cultivating consciousness. but i couldn’t fight any longer to remain inside (mind you it’s not like i was a top/”natural” candidate for an academic career ;)). anyhoo, i sometimes wonder whether i “left” or whether i just didn’t fit. that holds me back. it pulls me “in”. i wonder if you have similar feelings.. i mean, the feeling of sometimes seeing it not as a reform+alternatives “diversity of tactic”, to change something so obscene rather than trashing it. i guess you have to have a lot of love for it, to appreciate what it’s worth, what its potential is.. the pleasant feeling of walking to school as you think of a reading you finished up slouching under your bedside lamp the previous evening, or the cold autumn air taking you out of a daze of wonder after a lecture given by a mad man, or the tranquil conversation about things you feel deeply about but know only for certain how much of it all you ignore, and the still air of understanding just how much nothing of what is said makes any difference of any kind except that you could die delving into endless questions that may very well be domesticated into a somewhat sensical and potentially inspiring interpretation of the world, including, if you are so luck, of your indomitable friendships. i still left, i don’t know why, save that i can’t stand being there.