written for the Cahiers de l’idiotie special issue on “The University”
While Bill Hicks is often remembered as a comedic genius, he is much less commonly thought of as a pedagogical thinker, labor theorist, or management guru. Despite that, there are moments where in his dark humor where he points to key issues for these areas. For instance describing his experience a night after a performance (2001), Hicks finds himself eating in a waffle house, where he is reading a book. While waiting for his food Hicks find himself interrupted first by someone who declares “Well look here we have ourselves a reader” and then a question from the waitress, “What are you reading for?” Hicks is perplexed by this, responding that while he’s used to be asking what he is reading he’s stumped by the question what is he reading for. After taking a second to respond he answers that one of the reasons he’s reading is so that he doesn’t end up as a waitress in a waffle house.
True, this is a joke, but, carrying on in a long satirical tradition, Hicks diagnoses what is one of the key contradictions of academic labor today, particularly for academic workers who think of themselves as encouraging skills of critical reflection and engagement as part of their pedagogical practice. What does Hicks’ answer to the question really say? Basically his reply is founded on the notion that he is engaging in reading, or one might say in a broader sense in education, so that he is not caught working in a low-waged job with little prospects for promotion, higher pay, job security, and so forth. In short Hicks here responds that what he is doing is part of gaining some form of social advancement. This is an understandable and long standing trope, one that underlies much of the rise of the university in the post-WWII era as a mass experience, namely that education is a pathway to material security and advancement out of the working conditions of low waged, industrial capitalism. There are likely multiple issues this anecdote points towards, but I use it as an introduction to thinking about the relation between pedagogical practice and a broader sense of the labor process, but starting from the realization that students are already workers.
Learning to Labor, Labor of Learning
Paul Willis in his classic book Learning to Labor (1982) describe the way that it is precisely the rejection of education by working class British lads that slots them into their continued role as future factory workers. By refusing to knowledges and skills within education, and the opportunity for advancement offered through such, the lads refusal means that they have little other choice than taking the low-skilled, low paying factory jobs (ironically enough the very jobs that would shortly be disappearing in the rise of post-Fordist capitalism). But this is not to blame them, as much as that might appear to be the argument developed at first glance. What Willis makes clear is that it is hard to imagine how such working class students would choose otherwise, or more precisely why they would want to. This is due to the heavily class structured nature of the educational system, one that is based around a certain kind of class elitism about what constitutes the proper objects of knowledge and their study, and all that goes along with in. In such Willis is arguing that the very habitus of the working class lads is such that to not refuse the opportunity for advancement through education would precisely be a betrayal of the working class community from which they come, a betrayal of the bonds of solidarity and community in which they are formed.
What we see here is a kind of refusal of pedagogical labor, of academic achievement, which ends up forming the lads for their place in the working of the economy. In short it still ends up reproducing the class relationship. One of the interesting dynamics that emerges here, despite Willis’ attention to the relationship between education and labor more generally, is the way that they are still conceived of as separate spheres. Students are students precisely because they are not yet workers. That is a role they are being trained for in the future. As Marc Bousquet observes in reflections of social struggles in the classroom (2008), there are also strains of thought that understand this relationship between labor and pedagogy differently, arguing that it not that students are training to become workers, but already are workers.[i] This is both in the more literal sense (students, particularly within universities settings, are already working part-time or even full-time jobs), but also that that there is labor involved in taking part in an educational process, labors that in various ways are integral to the working of the economy in a more general sense. This mirrors certain approaches to understanding the labor of teachers, particularly coming out of the Marxist tradition, that argue that their labor is not directly productive of value for capital. Thus the labors of education might indeed be understood as part of training future workers, but they are not an integral part of the circuits that constitute the economy proper.
While this might seem a rather abstract point to work from, it is important for consideration on several counts. What this line of thought points toward is the way that both students and teachers are engaged in what can be described of as a circuit of reproductive labor. The argument about the productivity of that reproductive labor becomes crucial in how it provides a way for thinking about a common and shared condition, a similarity across the places occupied by students and teachers. This is important for identifying a common ground or space from which to work from in the educational process. As David Harvie argues, it is quite common for teachers to regard the labor they are engaged in as “a ‘natural’ part of themselves” (2006: 9). Similarly it is quite possible for students to regard the labors they are involved in as students, or to support their existence as students, as part of forming themselves as future subjects who are capable of achieving forms of social recognition. In both cases the understanding of these labors as individualized, as separate from questions of broader economic questions, prevents connecting an understanding of these practices more broadly.
But let us now rise to the concrete, namely the way that thinking of the multiple positionalities within pedagogic labor creates a space for engagement. Or perhaps more fittingly how not thinking through these issues prevents the emergence of a shared engagement around them. This has been my most common experience, and precisely why I have been reflecting upon these concerns in such a fashion. The implicit assumption that carries through in relating to students is that they in fact are not workers. This is meant not just in a conceptual sense, but also literally. Take for instance how much time it is assumed that students have to engage in study outside of the classroom setting. If the student is enrolled within a full time program there is a certain allocations of hours that are said can be expected of them in terms of time spent on the module. I would argue that it’s fairly common knowledge that if one were to actually assign an amount of reading or work that took the given allocation of time seriously it would easily result in the crafting of assignments that would likely not be followed anywhere near to the level expected. The students simply would not accept it.
Rather there is something of informal levels of expectations regarding workloads and what can be expected from both sides that emerge through a constant push and pull of demand and response. These are the struggles of the classroom that David Harvie discusses in relation to the value they produce. The difficulty is that this often does not find formal acknowledgment. The formal expectations hold, at least in theory, except in instances where something intervenes formally to acknowledge different situations (for instance in the filing of an extenuating circumstances). The problem is that if there still exists the shared fiction of a certain level of conditions and expectations it becomes hard to engage with the reality of how things are actually working on the ground. This has been very much my experience, when I discuss with students the conditions they find themselves in and often how they are finding it difficult to cope with they workload precisely because of having to manage other commitments of work, family, and life more generally. In short figuring how to balance other commitments that are not exactly optional. In the UK this is a condition that has only been intensified with the introduction of tuition fees in recent years. This is also frequently paired with the realization that all the energy that is being put forth to attaining a degree very well might not actually translated into the kind of security or stability that it did previously. To borrow a phrase from one of the leaflets in California student protests, students realize that they’re working towards what could end up be keeping the same crappy jobs they already have rather than “advancing” in any meaningful sense. It could be argued that the debt produced by education is just as much a part of fitting the student into a larger labor process then the content of the education they are receiving.
Network Culture & Labor Pedagogies
In considering the relation between labor and pedagogy it is key to that while the institutional space in which formalized teaching occurs is indeed a prime space for how that relation is formed, it is far from the only site this occurs. This is what someone like Tiziana Terranova points toward in her exploration of labor involved in the functioning of what she describes at “network culture” (2004). For Terranova this means that various information technologies, from mass media to the Internet, interactive and participatory media, have congealed together into one integrated media system. This is not necessarily a new argument in itself. What is unique about the angle Terranova takes is in arguing that such an integrated network culture can only function through an immense supply of the “free labor” of participation, which can range anywhere from the building of websites and running of listservs, to generating content through social networking sites, to writing open source code. While Terranova was writing before the massive rise of web 2.0 to hegemonic cultural status, the argument she makes about the forms of labor necessary to sustain it is really quite prescient. Terranova’s analysis thankfully does not simply say that interactive media is run on exploited labor and therefore is bad in some sort of simplistic manner. Rather she is quite careful to point out the ambivalent nature of such activities, how they are point willingly taken on and enjoyed, but also exploited.
Given that one could say that for the vast majority of university students entering the college classroom today they have been engaged in some form of labor even if they have never held a waged job precisely because of the ubiquity of these modalities of free work in media networks and communication. But what is interesting about this is that these are precisely the forms of labor that are least recognized as labor. I have found this quite often in his discussing the dynamics of network culture and media labor in the classroom, that students are quite hesitant, and even resistant, to thinking about these forms of interaction as work. Perhaps it is that they would prefer to keep thinking of them as play, or as pleasurable activities, so as to not have to think about them as work. But that has the interesting effect that a good portion of how students come to experience themselves as workers is not recognized as such and cannot be because of that definition. The sociologist and pedagogical theorist Stanley Aronowitz, along with many others before him, has made a similar argument about the role of mass media in blocking off spaces for critical reflection about the conditions we find ourselves. For Aronowitz this constitutes “the major event of social history in our time” (1983: 468). Given when Aronowitz was writing it would be arguable that the intensification of media flows that Terranova describes only intensifies this same dynamic.
Educational theorist Peter McLaren argues that critical pedagogy should become a strategic and empowering response “to those historical conditions which have produced us as subjects, and to the ways we are inserted on a daily basis into the frontier of popular culture and existing structures of power” (1995: 21). Popular culture in this sense can be quite ambivalent, providing both points of discussion where abstract concepts can be rendered in more approachable form (for instance by explaining a argument in relation to a film, song, or other cultural production). But this approach too reaches a limit that one chafes against, and this is precisely the kind of limit formed by the pedagogy of a networked labor that disguises itself. Or perhaps it does not really disguise itself per se, as students will often admit in discussion that there is a good deal of sense in Terranova’s case, but nevertheless they would prefer to not think about it that way. Perhaps it is by refusing to see themselves, their free and enjoyed participation in networks of free labor as labor precisely because to think about the exploited element contained within it strips them of the agency and enjoyment they currently take in it.
This point towards what my teaching experience show me is key concern focus on, but one that can often be the most difficult: namely getting students to reflect critically on their own position, not just in the present, but also what they aspire to, what they desire, and why they desire what they desire. One of the difficulties in elaborating adopting a critical approach to the subject matter in question is how this can in itself, in the words of educational theorist Peter McLaren, be taken by the students as “a threat to their general ideological commitments. Critical pedagogy becomes, for many students, an uncomfortable and self-contesting exercise” (1995:19). While McLaren’s take on this I find in some ways to be quite fitting with experiences I have had in the classroom, it is perhaps also as much wrong as it is correct. What McLaren is arguing here is that critical educational approaches are threatening to the student’s ideological commitments, I have found this less so to be the case. My classroom experience has been marked less by student’s clinging to an ideological attachment to any particular relationship to business or management, and rather are threatened in so far that they fear a critical angle in such a way will undercut the prospects they have for a future becoming of their labor and living conditions. This is indeed a version of what McLaren calls a “self-contesting exercise” but not the exercise that McLaren describes. The attachment exhibited by students in my experience has not been of an ideological nature and for that reason cannot be engaged with as an ideological question, a condition that one the student has been informed of, thus relieved of their ‘false consciousness’ they will be relieved of. Rather it is this orientation to a self-in-potential becoming operating at an affective level, in the student’s experience of wanting to become more capable in acting in the world. For McLaren it is precisely the task of critical pedagogy as a form of intellectual labor that can have transformative effects by enabling a deconstruction of these affective investments. This is, as McLaren himself admits, a challenge for critical pedagogy that is “a daunting one at this time of historical amnesia” (1995: 25)
Pedagogy of the Imagination
To conclude, let’s return to good old Bill Hicks for a second. In the anecdote I opened with Hicks points to very much the question I wanted to think through, this relation between what one actually reads and thinks for, and how this related to pedagogy and labor. Hicks thinks he’s reading so that he can achieve a better and more secure standard of living. And the rise of mass education and support for it has been underpinned by much of the same sentiment, although it is questionable whether this will continue to be the case in the future. But in this anecdote Hicks also hints at another problem that important to thinking through my practice. In his trope of the “flying saucer tour” Hicks is playing on a common cultural trope of the southern United States being filled with people who are too stupid to know better, are culturally backward, and generally idiotic: in short an area filled with hicks. As Hicks description goes on he makes a joke about someone who would show up to a UFO landing with a shotgun. For Hicks this is the height of stupidity, the idea that when truly encountering the Other the only way to do so in by bringing along one’s weapons, perhaps desiring to treat it as some sort of intergalactic skeet shoot. The problem is here Hicks is engaging in the same process of Othering move with the people in the waffle house that he is mocking in their behavior. The population who abide in the territory covered in this flying saucer tour might be suggested to not know how to relate to an alien intelligence other than with the protection of their shotguns, but arguably Hicks is no more capable of meeting and appreciating terrestrial life that actually is directly in front of him.
At the risk of making too much out of a few Bill Hicks jokes, when we laugh with Hicks, when we laugh at the people in the waffle house, this risk recreating the kind of division and preventing a space of engagement. Perhaps the question for Hicks would have been how to laugh with the people he met in the waffle house rather than laughing at them. Perhaps the neoliberal restructuring of social relations acts to make this change in perspective seem impossible. If so what would the method of intervention, pedagogical or otherwise, to reverse these transformations? It is very much a form of what Chela Sandoval, taking up the work of Paulo Freire, talks about as methodology of the oppressed, or “a set of processes, procedures, and technologies for decolonizing the imagination” (2000: 69). In this context the imagination to be decolonized is the imagination that cannot perceive the forms of labor that form it as labor, or to recognize the intelligence held by students who hold on to such position precisely because it is in the interest of their self-conceptions to do so.
A postcolonial education, one that would exist in and after this liberation of the imagination, would help in the education of what Cornel West calls “a new kind of cultural worker” capable of exercising a “politics of difference” that will enable students to “interrogate the ways in which they are bound by certain conventions and to learn from and build on these very norms and models” (1990: 107). This is precisely what I’ve been trying to think through in this essay. In that sense I would agree with Peter McLaren when he suggests that the role of critical pedagogy is not to work toward some grand and pre-given ideologically endpoint but rather to “to explore other models of sociality and self-figuration that go beyond dominant language formations and social organizations” (1995: 225). Where this actually ends up is hard to say exactly, but this is precisely the point. In the same way that challenge for Bill Hicks it to find it within himself to appreciate the intelligence of those around him on his UFO tour as he can for the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, this approach to critical pedagogy and its labor is based around keeping open a relationship to possible futures that emerge within the classroom, whatever they may be.
Aronowitz, Stanley (1983) “Mass culture and the eclipse of reason: the implications for pedagogy,” American Media and Mass Culture. Ed. Donald Lazere. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bousquet, Marc (2008) How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: New York University Press.
Giroux, Henry (1992) Border Crossings. New York: Routledge.
Harvie, David (2006) “Value-production and struggle in the classroom,” Capital and Class 88: 1-32.
Hicks, Bill (2001) Philosophy: The Best of Bill Hicks. Rykodisc.
McLaren, Peter (1995) Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: Oppositional Politics in a Postmodern. London: Routledge.
Sandoval, Chela (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Terranova, Tiziana (2004) Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto Press.
West, Cornel (1990) “The new cultural politics of difference,” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Eds. Russell Ferguson et al. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Willis, Paul (1982) Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.
[i] While there are likely different thinkers who have explored this idea, I am most familiar with how these idea emerges out of an analysis of gendered labor within the feminist tradition and analyzing more dispersed forms of value production within post-Fordist capitalism and the knowledge economy.