Masks, or The Illusion of Power

“A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.” -Joseph Brodsky

The following text is a script for a participatory performance. Copies of the text are handed out to the audience and volunteers are asked to read aloud the questions that are underlined along with the performer. The script was first performed at the UCIRA conference State of the Arts at UCSD on 11/20/2010.

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw materials are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specifications laid down. –Ellwood Cubberly, Public School Administration, 1916 quoted in School is a Factory by Allan Sekula, 1980.

The students’ movement in California and around the US is a real opening for radical politics. It raises basic questions about what society has become and where it is going. I am a long-term critic of neoliberalism, I am convinced that this form of capitalism is totally unsustainable and unlivable. Since, however, it is squarely installed in the realms of knowledge, culture and information — since it is cognitive capitalism — it seems there is no more strategic point for opposition than the universities. That doesn’t mean that every point of opposition is not important, just that this one could become crucial if enough people would raise the basic questions of value, what’s society good for, how am I participating, which consequences does that have on others, etc. Those kinds of questions form the basis of the practical philosophy that interests me. –Brian Holmes in an interview by Michael Wilson  (

“a) The struggle for public education is a struggle against privatization throughout the economy, against the exclusions of the marketplace, and finally against an economy based on private resources.

b) The defense of staff and adjunct teachers is part of a program against the precaritization of workers’ lives in every sector.

c) The student (witness the recent revelations about the scope of student debt) is not a privileged case but a true subject of the market in its credit-fueled plunderings of the future — and the fight against capitalism will necessarily happen on campuses, among other places.via facebook by Joshua Clover

“A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.” -Joseph Brodsky

Thanks everyone for coming and thanks to the organizers of the conference. I would like to dedicate my time today to reflecting on my engagement – both individually and collectively – with the struggles around the meaning of public education over the past year and in doing so I hope to consider what I see as an unresolved tensions within this struggle that are both productive and debilitating. And those are, in part, the tensions around symbolic action and modes of engagement – The tensions that surround the meaning of public education when what constitutes ‘the public’ is itself a contested term full of the sorts of antagonisms that animate collective fictions. By focusing on the arc of my own involvement in this struggle I hope not to engage in a kind of narcissistic blow by blow of the last year or so but rather to re-examine my experiences in light of questions that faced and still face those of us who seek to link the struggles around public education with a broad social, political and economic climate and the ways that the university administration manages various forms of resistance to privatization.

I warn you in advance that some listeners may find a certain naivete and redundancy in what follows but what I would like to say, without a hint of anti-intellectualism, is that I’m looking to avoid further mystification without oversimplifying the complexity of our predicament. I should also say by way of introduction something about my format. When I proposed this talk for the conference I was under investigation by Labor relations at UCR for my involvement with the website which announced Mark Yudof’s resignation last March. I’ve structured this presentation in an intentionally open ended way so that we might have a conversation and really use the experiences and questions that I present as a starting point. I don’t want to preach to the choir here and I do think that we have to ask difficult questions of ourselves so that as the administration puts the final touches on dismantling the UC system as we know it, this conference does not become hamstrung by hand wringing OR by patting ourselves on the back. The question is not only WHAT TO DO NOW but also how do we move from protest to action, from managed, reactionary politics towards spaces of potential?

On september 24th last year, after making a number of protest signs and teaching an abridged version of my web-based art class at UCR, I encouraged my class to attend the rally together which was beginning to form just outside of the art building. I had already spent a large portion of the class explaining the so-called crisis as I understood it then, the logic of the walk-out and I made what I thought was a rational appeal to my students: namely that the interests of staff, faculty and students were being undermined in the name of austerity and efficiency. This logic, I explained, could only be countered by a large demonstration of refusal. Most of my students wandered off sheepishly and the rally, though organized with good intentions and a sense of commitment, was poorly attended and felt more like a rehearsal than an event. Meanwhile other campuses saw rallies attended by thousands and the building occupations that have given this “struggle” such as it is, its real meaning and charge. One of the questions I faced was how to activate meaningful struggle on a campus that seemed and still seems almost oblivious to the gravity of the present-day dynamics of the university.

Between that September day and the regents meeting at UCLA in November was a crucial germination period in terms of my own thinking about what the stakes of this particular struggle represent. A teach-in in Berkeley – still available on youtube – set out very clearly that in fact everything was and is at stake. Wendy Brown, the renowned political scientist, suggested the legacy of prop 13 and 30 years of right wing propaganda have ushered in a political moment in which we risk absolutely every aspect of human experience being reduced to equations of dollars and cents. And I probably don’t need to tell all of you that we are fighting, to put it very bluntly, to stop the utter commodification of absolutely everything. The 50,000 students marching in London last week and the relatively timid actions in CA this week, are loud reminders that this is only the beginning of that struggle…

The day of the November regents meeting at UCLA last year was perhaps the decisive moment in my understanding of this struggle… I recall vividly walking between a large confrontational protest in front of the building where the regents were approving the 32% fee hike with students linking arms defiantly in front of cops in full riot gear. The scene was tense and vital but also predictable. Both the cops and those of us protesting had rehearsed our roles many time before… if not literally then in some cinematic, phantasmagorically inflected dream. On the other side of campus, students had occupied a building, issued a beautifully open statement, and renamed the building after two murdered black panthers bunchy carter and John Huggins. The space around the building was mysteriously quiet. I tried to enter but was not allowed in… I stood outside in solidarity and argued with the odd passerby who was willing to engage with me about the merits of the occupation. Towards the end of the day I drove home in the blank and contorted traffic of Los Angeles. Los Angeles, the place that Jason Brown describes as “a hellscape of ash and banality, a metastasizing agglomeration of darkness and pain, a fungal architecture engulfing the earth in erasures and hyperrealities…” So… when our actions become too rehearsed, we search for ways to re-animate our own sense of what constitutes collective, direct action. We try to shake off the distracted paralysis and the tormented mask. We look for ways to inject into our cynical narratives moments of off kilter gestures, we try to most of all to surprise ourselves. But on that November day I wrote: “Some say the economy is shattered. I say the economy shatters us all. At least for today. Today is an economy of shatters. Or, shattering, today is an economy of alternative economies.”

It was a desire to overcome the stale habits of protest, retaining of course a spark of that oppositional spirit, that led me to think about strategic ways to push the meaning of the struggle elsewhere… or everywhere. Conversations and communication with Marc Herbst, Cara Baldwin, Jason Smith, Caleb Waldorf, Sean Dockray, Micha Cardenas, Michael Wilson, Brett Stalbaum and Ricardo Dominguez gave me the impetus and the inspiration to buy the domain name and begin thinking “what to do?” How best to use this site and when? How best intervene in and interfere with the impoverished symbolic logic and economy of the university? How best to target those who turn a crisis of priorities into a budget crisis? How to extend the logic and spirit of the building occupations? How to “occupy everything?” as we decided to put it…
The thing that surprised me most on the morning of March 3, when yudof’s resignation site was made public was the speed with which events unfolded. Threads began to circulate on discussion boards:

– this is a gag, right. probably would be a good idea to hold the jokes for a while. too many jokers around who don’t know when something is not funny.(ucsd)

– This is funny. “I have decided to go back to school to study the history of social movements.” as if…

–Is this a joke? I feel like I am in the Twilight Zone? Is it April 1st?

– Read it more closely…. and see links to “occupy everything ” , “destroy capitalism ” and the like……??Well done, authors! You had me going

– If ONLY it was true. And in this hyper-reality, who knows, who knows?

And it was only a couple of hours before I received an e-mail from the office of strategic communications at UCR, cc’d to the chair of the art department Charles Long:

Hi to both,
We have a problem. A Web site pretending to say that Yudof has resigned can
be traced back to Ken Ehrlich and the UC art department.

Anything we can do about getting that down?

We have one media request already and we are likely to see more….

Thanks, Kris

Kris Lovekin
Director of Media Relations
Office of Strategic Communications

The question of anonymity, or the potential for certain forms of digital masking, quickly came to the foreground. When I purchased the domain name, I chose not make the domain information private. This was a quick decision, not without consideration, but also not entirely cognizant of the ramifications of this choice. Even though the site was hosted through the BANGLAB server here at UCSD with the support and encouragement of Ricardo and Micha and Brett, a quick web search revealed me as the owner of the domain. As the gesture played out in the media, I was trying to strike a delicate balance: I did not want to claim sole credit for the project in a way that would take away from the idea of using yudof’s “power’ in the media and directing it towards the actions in support of public education scheduled for March 4. I also felt that the longer the gesture played ambiguously in the media, the more attention it would generate. In an effort to strike the right balance, when media relations asked me “if there was anything I could do about getting it down” I changed the domain registration to private and wrote back, saying that the site should no longer be connected to me or UCR. Later when the investigation was underway, and I went public asking for support and citing Ricardo’s idea of radical transparency, this caused some confusion. The fact is that I never explicitly denied my involvement, I simply attempted to mask it slightly in an attempt to give the gesture more legs.

The local chapter of the AFT, the union that represents lecturers and librarians across the campuses, was completely supportive and immediately and assertively working with me to end the labor relations investigation as soon as it began. Letters of support poured in from around the country and all over the world. As amazing as the showing of support was, the question quickly became: How to use the energy and organizing around the investigations and turn it towards a continued activation of the struggle to re-imagine public education? The administration seemed to be using investigations as a means to suppress dissent. Was the goal of the investigation meant to have a chilling effect on protest as much as it was to persecute my individual actions? Certainly potentially losing my job was consequence I could not take lightly – and the criminal investigation that ricardo, micha, brett and bang lab were facing even more so – but the investigations became a distraction from many people using creative energy and time from organizing, agitating and articulating ways forward in the face of a bureaucratic and managerial structure whose main purpose it seems is to reinforce the narrow logic of administration and by extension, capital accumulation for the few and massive debt for the many. In this way, the investigations themselves became mired in the machinations of endless memos, meetings, conference calls and corporate communications. There might be an argument to be made that if the university were so bogged down by endless investigations into similar activities, the bureaucratic structure might fall in on itself in some sort of Kafkaesque joke, but as we’ve seen, so far the university has proven remarkably fluent at maintaining high levels of managerial gravitas and public relations flim flam.

After one tense meeting and months of waiting, anticipation and silence from the administration, I finally in July received a counseling memo. I definitely need counseling of all sorts, but I couldn’t help wonder about the semiotic implications of declaring me the counseled one. I suppose it’s better than rehabilitated. The memo encouraged me, in the course of my research, to be careful to abide by University policy and cited two specific violations of that policy. One was impersonating a university official. Clearly satire is not impersonation. Second, I improperly used the seal of the university. The authenticating image that ironically enough reads “let there be light” is of course meant to be used after receiving proper approval and signifies the real in the domain of the University.

One of the most successful aspects of the gesture, admittedly quite limited in scope given the dynamics at hand, was that it forced the members of my department to have a series of difficult conversations about the website and ultimately come out in public either in support of me and the work (as most chose to do) or implicitly identify themselves as complicit with the corporate logic of the University. With some notable exceptions, in the last year faculty across the campuses have been remarkably complacent and uncreative in responding to this series of assaults on public education that have now resulted in a 40% fee hike, furloughs, layoffs, etc.. The question is why? Have faculty members either fully internalized the corporate logic of the university or do they imagine that they can hold onto whatever position thru this storm without causing a fuss? What else goes on in the minds of faculty members who are disengaged and silent?? Do faculty and students perceive engagement in the terrain of education as just another demand? Be more rigorous, more political, more engaged, funnier, more media savvy, more politically adroit, more sensitive to race, gender and sexuality. Since rebellion is packaged and re-packaged as a refusal to submit to demands, whether they are familial, cultural or political, do faculty and students imagine disengagement itself as a form of protest? Part of what I wanted to say with the website, either symbolically or otherwise, was that Yudof does not have power unless we reaffirm it. The mask he wears is one that we help sustain…. I had little faith that yudof or the regents or the stunted bureaucracy of the administration would respond favorably to protest… But masks are ambiguous. Unmasking power does not reveal some formerly unseen truth, it reveals hidden or partially eclipsed potential. Students and faculty absolutely have the potential to structure the terms of the battle and, again with a few exceptions, we have failed to do so… How then, playfully, absurdly or otherwise, to transform masks of power?

Now I would like to step back to ask a series of questions specifically in relation to the arts. Given that traditionally and historically images have always had a charged relationship to truth claims, how can we possibly frame or understand critical image making in relation to the utterly fragmented and spectacular information overload that is endemic to cognitive or cultural capitalism? As the cops and students compete to analyze video and photographs of tense standoffs are we once again, as artists, caught up in debates about the relativism of meaning in relation to images? Does the political landscape of the university itself become a series of abstract images?

An artist whose own work is instructive in thinking through these problems is Allan Sekula. In particular his 1978 project School is a Factory points out some of the historical remnants of critical image making in relation to the politics of education. As a scholar of photography and an image maker, Sekula uses sophisticated prose to situate and problemitize his own photographs, relying on language to lift images out of the abstract and ambiguous space in which they circulate culturally.

Part of Sekula’s strategy in school is a factory is polemic, perhaps one that underestimates the complexities and nuances of power, for strategic ends. And here I will quote Sekula at length:

We have been led by the champions of corporate liberalism to believe that schooling and the media are instruments of freedom. Accordingly, these institutions are seen to fulfill the democratic promise of the enlightenment by bringing knowledge and upward social mobility within reach of everyone, by allowing each individual to reach his or her own limits. This ideology hides the relentless sorting function performed by school and the media. Both institutions serve to legitimate and reproduce a strict hierarchy of power relations, tracking individuals into places in a complex social division of labor while suggesting that we have only ourselves to blame for our failures. School and the media effectively situate most people in a culture and economy over which they have no control, and thus are mechanisms by which an “enlightened” few promote the subtle silencing of the many.

School and the media are inherently discursive institutions, sites within which discourse becomes a locus of symbolic force, of symbolic violence. A communicative relation is established between teacher and student, performer and audience, in which the first part, as the purveyor of official “truths,” exerts an institutional authority over the second. Students and audience are reduced the status of passive listeners, rather than active subjects of knowledge. Resistance is almost always limited only to the possibility of tuning out. Domination depends on a monologue of sorts, a “conversation” in which one party names and directs the other, while the the other listens deferentially, docilely, resentfully, perhaps full of suppressed rage. When the wholly dominated listener turns to speak, it is with the internalized voice of the master. This is the dynamic of of all oppressions of race, gender and class. All dominating power functions semiotically through the naming of the other as subordinate, dependent, incomplete as a human being without the master’s discipline and support. Clearly such relationships can be overthrown; the discourse of domination finds its dialectical antagonist in a discourse and practice of liberation. Like home, factory, prison and city streets, school and the media are sites of an intense, if often covert, daily struggle in which language and power are inextricably connected.

Sekula’s positioning of education as central to “the sorting function” under capitalism echoes the current demand that we understand the fight for public education in the broadest possible context. Do we defend public education in its current problematic form or do we see the organizing around public education as an opening for an other kind of politics? Certainly we can also draw on Sekula’s strategy here to produce an engaged critique. The work in question was made while Sekula was teaching at a southern CA community college and part of its success and long term meaning is based on his own self implication: For Sekula this is not a detached analysis, but a provocation. A set of questions about institutions from within.

In context, this kind of politically minded artistic work constitutes a move from representation to engagement. While many readings of most so called political art might justifiably render an artwork a simple illustration of nuanced political questions, Sekula’s work demonstrates the potential to imagine forms of artistic engagement that oscillate across aesthetic, subjective and social spheres. Sekula’s practice circulates around the documentary form; while the gesture of a satirical website that plays with the conventions of authenticity is situated in the domain of hyperreality (or whatever other awful term we’ve come up with to describe the contemporary digital landscape). Sekula’s work and this gesture, as different as they might be, both traffic in forms of text and image making in which verifiability and abstraction are central. At the end of the essay that accompanies these images, it is precisely forms of abstraction that Sekula critiques.

There is first the abstraction inherent in what he calls the “supposedly realistic world picture of a bureaucratic, commodity centered society: the abstraction that emerges from the triumph of exchange value over use value, and so on.” And secondly, the abstraction that emerges from the separation of aesthetic culture from the rest of life, the imagined freedom of the disengaged play of signifiers. Against these forms of abstraction, Sekula argues for a kind of political geography. What does this political geography look like? Analyzing the interrelated dynamics of intellectual labor, cultural capital, the rise of a managerial class inextricably linked to the politics of education, Sekula’s designation of political geography is a prescient identification of the territory we currently inhabit. Produced at around the time of prop 13 and before the Reagan era set in, the work stands as both a critique of and a warning against the surge of cognitive capitalism witnessed since the time of it’s production. If Sekula seeks to move from representation to engagement through contextualizing his photographs with text, there are certainly other and perhaps more complex ways to consider engagement. So too must there be other ways of engaging the political geography of the university than creating a satirical website announcing the resignation of a corporate bureaucrat. Far from an exemplary example of a nuanced engagement with the political geography of the University, the yudof website represents an experiment: an attempt to find a form for that kind of engagement.

Directly connected to my teaching digital media the gesture was created at a time when many in the university are re-considering pedagogical strategies. If we are to fundamentally engage the political geography of this place – where we teach, study, learn, socialize, do research, and so many other things – we might begin by asking What constitutes our own assumptions about pedagogy? And how might we continue to integrate experiments in pedagogy into our efforts to dismantle the logic and the structure of a university that does not prioritize education in the broadest sense of the word.


2 replies on “Masks, or The Illusion of Power”

The black and white images reproduced here are all originally part of Allan Sekula’s “School is a Factory.”

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