From Under the Volcano

 Published on April 13, 2016 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Jessica Knott and Sarah Honeychurch /  “End of season” by Pam Corey; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  2

Endings are difficult and painful: The lava of new beginnings flows under the hard, hollow shell of habit, threatening to burst out and create new forms. The era of the public intellectual is perhaps ending — brave heroes slain by mediocrity and metrics. The university as ‘site of social struggle’ enters its final act, taking one last dramatic bow; the neoliberal university strides onto the stage to loud applause, a monotonous mannequin incapable of song, poetry, or laughter. You might ask: What’s left?

And this would be the wrong question.

For Edward Said, the public intellectual is plagued by professionalism, hemming the curious mind into smaller and smaller circles of activity, breeding conformity and inhibiting dissent; producing not winged thought but weighted thought. His solution? A new kind of amateurism — “an activity that is fuelled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization.”

I propose the following question: What’s next? This essay explores that question. Because there are people, and pockets of imagination dreaming of release.

Image by Aleksandra Nina Knezevic (

Make me bitter.
Count me among the almonds.
Paul Celan

Almonds dance across the tongue before being bitten, something Walter Benjamin discovered in his youth. One hot day in 1924, dark-haired Latvian theatre director Asja Lacis, on holiday with husband and daughter on the island of Capri, was attempting to buy a bag of almonds; the shopkeeper couldn’t understand her. Benjamin — knowing Italian — steps in and secures the purchase, gallantly assisting the lady with her packages. “Allow me to introduce myself — Doctor Walter Benjamin,” he announces, dropping the almonds, those tiny catalysts, all over the floor.

Benjamin and Lacis co-wrote Naples, an essay of their encounter with the Neapolitan city. For Benjamin, Naples provided an antidote to the grid-like divisions of bourgeois West Berlin, in a city still groaning from defeat in war. This corner of Italy served as both incubator of ideas and analgesic for German literary expats fleeing the chaos of the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch had sent shocks through German society, and hyperinflation caused the German currency to reach 4.2 trillion marks against the dollar by the end of that same year. But these artistic refugees were not without predecessors. Goethe experienced a rebirth while travelling through Italy, writing in his diary on March 16th 1787, “Naples is a paradise: in it everyone lives in a sort of intoxicated self-forgetfulness. It is even so with me: I scarcely know myself; I seem to myself quite an altered man.”

In the city natives call la città delle contraddizioni (the city of contradictions) or ‘a paradise inhabited by devils’, Benjamin and Lacis fell in love. Intoxicated not only by each other, they grew fascinated by one ever-present quality embedded in Naples: porosity — the measure of spaces between things, a defining feature of a city rising out of volcanic rock. Older buildings were assembled from a light, sandy, sponge-like rock called “toof” (in Italian, tufo); this construction material taken from under the city itself, “giving the feeling of a city rising from its own womb”, according to scholar Serenella Iovino. The rhythm of public life in Naples surprised them — people moved restlessly across boundaries and thresholds. Benjamin and Lacis write that homes are not places of refuge but “the inexhaustible reservoir from which they [the people] flood out”; even the cliffs leading down to the sea contained hewn caves and “fishermen’s taverns installed in natural grottoes.”

Neapolitan porosity was a distinct phenomenon: “Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades and stairways.” This openness not limited to the streets:

“Similarly dispersed, porous, and commingled is private life. What distinguishes Naples from other large cities is something it has in common with the African Kraal; each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life. To exist, for the Northern European the most private of affairs, is here, as in the kraal, a collective matter.”

Communal, dream-like Naples, where “everything joyful is mobile”, testifies to the erotic charge between Lacis and Benjamin in 1924; a current grown cold two years later when Benjamin visits Moscow, where his efforts to steal away moments with Lacis (then lover to Austrian playwright Bernhard Reich) prove fruitless, much to Benjamin’s disappointment (in his Moscow Diary he describes “her astonishing hardness and, despite all her sweetness, her lovelessness”). Nevertheless, the concept mined in those volcano-days — porosity — furnishes us with a tool; a tool to tackle present-day problems.

Because, as Paulo Freire taught, problem posing is the first step in problem solving.

Problem One: World

We wake up in a world the grammar of which inspires monsters — an unjust, volatile world. In the West we endure increasingly unequal ‘trickle up’ societies, with wealth accumulated by working and middle classes during post-WWII social democracy largely expropriated by the rich. We witness increasing circuits of war and militarism, leading to massive out-migrations; according to UNHCR figures, in 2014 there were almost 60 million refugees and internally displaced people — the highest number in recorded history, equivalent to the combined populations of California and Canada. We are plagued by a political-economic dogma that seeks to fashion the world in its own image of cold-hearted, morality-free abstraction: neoliberalism, at heart the belief that social life can, and should be governed by the market mechanism. (In short, naked marketism.)

We live in increasingly brittle societies; societies from which notions of a ‘commons’ or ‘solidarity’ (originally conveying a sense of debt to others) have been stripped away. Note the media response to those fleeing the ongoing Syrian conflict. In the U.K (and elsewhere), right-wing media let loose the dogs of misinformation: metaphors of swarms, parasites, ‘vermin’ ran across the front pages — the destiny of the West: to be swamped by outsiders. The European Union, largely united on neoliberal economics and trade, stands divided on how to treat a human population seeking sanctuary — a paradox for an institution established to transcend centuries of perpetual war between its nations into ‘perpetual peace’ for its citizens.

Neoliberalism involves, in many ways, the application of ‘Lean Management’ or ‘Just-in-Time’ principles to state governance, the most important principle being: Eliminate waste in the system; ‘waste’ under neoliberalism being anything impeding the market. This principle, applied across a given society and exemplified in the drive to eliminate so-called ‘inefficient’ public goods, then becomes dogma — no matter the cost to people’s lives. The result? With ‘Just-in-Time’ production methods, supply lines are stretched to their limits, vulnerable to stressors, breakdown and attacks; in a society, people’s resilience, self-worth and empathy for one other corrode in the struggle to survive.

A fragile society, perhaps understandably, has little spare capacity to deal with the problems of outsiders. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes that in our world, refugees are the “very embodiment of ‘human waste’”, given no useful role to play, with little hope of assimilation: “People without qualities”.

Problem Two: Who’s the big, bad boss?

In his book Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (published in English as The Burnout Society), German-born Korean scholar Byung-Chul Han writes that our mode of being under late capitalism includes, as a formative element, an excess of positivity: ‘Yes We Can!’ We see this positivity within Facebook, its clean lines and boxes forming an orderly ‘like-chamber’; according to Svetlana Boym, “We live in the world of friending, not friendships.” But one day still contains only 24 hours, the number of ‘events’ and ‘causes’ we can support is limited, and eventually we discover positivity’s shadow: We Just Can’t! — causing generalised fatigue and weariness. Those who inevitably fall under the truck of constant positivity render themselves surplus to requirements: burnouts. This state precludes resistance in two ways. First, according to Han, our ability to contemplate on a deep level is severely compromised because our attention [Aufmerksamkeit] is scattered and fragmented. We can see this with the phenomenon of constant multi-tasking (actually a primitive mode of perception), reducing our consciousness to the level of wild animals which, while grazing, keep an eye out for the wolf. Second, the disciplinary Eye today is no longer the corporation, the union, or the state; it’s me, myself and I.

We see ourselves, and our careers, as something to be worked on, like an artistic project. Just as Michelangelo believed his sculptures lived inside the block of marble — just waiting to be revealed by hand, eye, and chisel — so we blame ourselves if our own dreams, our own David or Pietà, fail to emerge from the dust. Yet there is a duality here. Even though a class of precariat workers exists, a “multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development.” Even though we see “a complete overlapping of fear and anxiety” with the dismantling of the welfare state, even though borders between work and private life have long dissolved, many welcome the exodus from dull yet secure 9-to-5 full-time employment. Work-loathing has a long history, and modern forms of labour provide (at least) some with increased control and agency.

So instead of being slaves to a corporation or the state, workers (at least in the West) are increasingly slaves to their own forced or voluntary entrepreneurship; we freelance, we pay our own taxes and pensions, we arrange our own health insurance. We’re participants and drivers of the system. As political economist Martijn Konnings explains, “neoliberalism does not operate in a way that is primarily authoritarian. Its distinctive strength is its ability to lure us into organising our own oppression.”

Therefore, how can you resist a system you perpetuate and reproduce?

Problem Three: The profound disconnection between the academy  and the ‘movements’

The gap between academia and social movements forms a permanent problem. ‘Plus ça change’ you say, ‘relations between intellectuals and movements are always problematic!’ We might consider this true (though certainly an under-researched truth). However, this disconnection between academia and projects for social change seems more an ever-present gulf than a solvable problem, ‘social movement theory’ largely failing to connect with the practical world of activism. In the words of Douglas Bevington and Chris Dixon, “activists do not find such theory useful.”

There have been attempts to bridge this gap with movement-centred theory, activist ethnography, and solidarity action research (SAR). But these approaches and others still retain one element which will always remain contested: the expert power of the researcher, manifested in the asymmetry of access to resources, knowledge, skills and wider networks. Yet, if we shift the emphasis from the (choice of) mental maps and tools of the individual researcher to remaking the research environment, we open up the possibility of creating a space in which movement-generated, real-world-applicable knowledge might flourish.

A Possible Solution

The age-old dichotomy of activism versus academia is sterile — no longer generative — and should be transcended. I believe that using Benjamin’s notion of porosity we can imagine another type of scholarship: porous, committed scholarship.

What do I mean by porous, committed scholarship? I mean extending the spaces from which scholarship can emerge and extend the production of knowledge to new agents. We have, at present, a mirror-image of society’s failed meritocracy: only a small percentage penetrate the ivory tower and get to produce knowledge. What about those who didn’t get the PhD place? What about those who didn’t get the research grant? What about the meritocracy’s cast-offs; those whom academia deems ‘disposable’? What about lay or amateur scholars? To paraphrase sociologist Richard Sennett on this dark side of meritocracy: Can these people not do good work too?

To a degree, there is already a body of research extending the scope of radical inquiry and reaching out from the academy: the militant research / workers’ inquiry / co-research tradition. But the co-research canon is small and, at times, displays an alienating academicism.

What do I mean by ‘committed’? A committed scholarship entails a radical commitment to social change.

Concepts for change: Porosity and Permeability

Porosity is traditionally the measure of void space in a material, such as rock. However, redefined as a pregnant space, porosity springs to life as a space of possibility. Another common measure of porosity, or effective porosity, is the speed at which liquid flow takes place through a material. Therefore, two potential attributes of porous scholarship are as follows: an attention to possibility, and a commitment to the flow and exchange of ideas. In addition, porosity does not decrease with fracture and breakage; rather, it increases. That being so, another attribute presents itself: acceptance of ideological difference and splintering. Porosity also has a twin: permeability — the measure of openness to interpenetration and exchange. Edward Said, in his lecture Professionals and Amateurs, refers to specialization as a particular danger. That is, disciplinary silos of competence may serve the academy but may not serve society. Such silos can become insular, inward-looking, and impermeable to cross-disciplinary insight, the teaching of economics being a perfect example. Moreover, we have perhaps until now relied too heavily on the metaphor of pollination, hoping academia will pollinate flowers of social change; an excellent metaphor lacking nothing but reality.

The conditions for porous scholarship are staring us in the face. PhD and graduate students are working bars, driving taxis, or counting the hours of their disappointment, the academic system producing a year-on-year compound increase in graduates who, if ‘lucky’, end up working low-paid adjunct positions, the bird seed at the bottom of the academic cage. According to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) figures, between 1975 and 2011 there was a 27% increase in contingent faculty (which includes other non-tenure groups as well as adjuncts), matched by a 27% decrease in tenure-track appointments. Stories of sleeping in cars, living off food stamps are common. In The Just-In-Time Professor, a 2014 report from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce summarising adjunct experiences, one respondent stated: “During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for [my child’s] daycare costs.” Henry Giroux is right to ask: Where’s the Outrage? The answer: on the periphery, or outside the academy. This periphery is a world, in the words of Portuguese band Deolinda, “where one has to study to become a slave.”

The marketization of higher education as a mission is clear — along with the evisceration of tenure, a mechanism which, in theory, provided the security for intellectuals to question the status quo. As Richard Hall writes, “academic labour as a productive activity is subsumed inside the circuits and cycles of finance capital”. As noted by theorists from the Italian autonomist tradition, once-heroic higher education has been debased, transformed into an ‘Edu-factory’.

Life bursts out

Porous, committed scholarship can burst out of spaces — spaces outside the neoliberal university. Porous, committed scholarship can explode within social movements without waiting periods or nebbish methodological debates. Movement-created porous scholarship could, arguably, valorise itself through action — knowledge quickly becoming a useful weapon. I’m not claiming that research within universities is irrelevant, just that neoliberalisation of the academy shows no sign of stopping. Critical voices are being drowned out: hope in a better future is not just being out-sourced, it’s being eliminated. There is a need for a scholarship of hope and possibility, such as Kenneth Gergen’s vision of Future Forming Research, opening the way to “new aims, practices, ethical deliberations and reflections”, where the “aim of research would not be to illuminate what is, but to create what is to become”; as Benjamin wrote of Naples: “a theater of new, unforeseen constellations”.

There are inspiring examples. In the 19th century, Ragged Schools educated, clothed and fed destitute children of the British Industrial Revolution. The Ragged School tradition has been revived by The Ragged University, a grassroots U.K. organisation bringing knowledge back into the community. Simply put, they host informal events where people share their knowledge in everyday spaces. As stated on their website: “It [The Ragged University] is about valuing knowledgeable people; it is about exploring what is possible; it is about creating something.” The Social Science Centre in Lincoln, England, is a non-hierarchical higher-education co-operative established after a 2010 government decision to cut funding for the teaching of social sciences. It works “to create alternative spaces of higher education whose purpose, societal value and existence do not depend on the decisions of the powerful”.

The spirit of these projects brings us back to Asja Lacis herself, a woman more than an intellectual appendage to Benjamin’s genius. As Justine McGill writes, in 1918 Lacis set up a children’s theatre in Orel, in the Soviet Union, after encountering groups of children orphaned by the First World War: “children without a childhood” — the besprisorniki. Eschewing a top-down pedagogy, she encouraged the children to improvise and create meaning as they worked; the “play originated as children performed for children.” Appearances therefore — things seen at surface level — can deceive; including our view of Benjamin and Lacis. The ‘Walter-Benjamin-Industry’ has tended to present Benjamin as the mild Jewish mystic, and Asja Lacis as the erotic siren luring him onto the rocks of Russian Bolshevism. In truth, Asja — or Anna Lacis (her birth name) — came to Capri in 1924 on the recommendation of doctors, as her daughter had come down with pneumonia. Their failed encounter in Moscow needs to be framed by the fact that Lacis was, at the time, hospitalized with a neural disorder, or possible nervous breakdown, coupled with the everyday problems of living in a post-revolutionary society under Soviet New Economic Policy. We find here the context in which Benjamin portrays his ‘Asja’, in a diary entry dated December 20th 1926, as an “almost impregnable fortress”.

This brings me to my reasons for writing this text. I aspired to being an academic, until I realised that the game was rigged; academia has its own indigenous methods of ‘natural selection’: I can’t afford to take unpaid internships as a ‘ladder’ to paid employment, I can’t uproot myself and my wife to chase far-flung opportunities, I’m not willing to craft a PhD proposal tailored to gain access to the programme offering the best stipend. My loss, you might say — I’m inflexible. But other qualities matter: integrity, determination, the ability to criticise the status quo, and that foundation stone of the academy: scepticism. So, joining the tribe of moles spat out by the knowledge factory, I write articles for radical magazines in the spaces my day job allows — dreaming of daylight and a breakthrough.

What if that breakthrough involved extending that spirit of scepticism and future-forming creativity beyond the given boundaries and thresholds of the neoliberal academy — and letting some light shine in? (Or at least some air.)

Roman poet Lucretius wrote, “the first beginnings of things cannot be distinguished by the eye.” This essay starts a conversation, without reference points or house numbers. Objections to porous, committed scholarship abound: How would this work? What would this mean? What would this involve? — objections coming, I suspect, not from a concern for scholarship or society, but from the impulse to debunk, deny, and move onto the next stimulus engendered by The Burnout Society. I know this impulse; I see it in my own students; I notice it in myself. But what if we refuse these impulses, and imagine something different? Because two things distinguish porous, committed scholarship from the coercive laws of publish-or-perish; first — time. Like almonds, porous scholarship needs time to ripen, with light and a convivial environment, not a hothouse. Second, also like almonds — neither triangular nor ellipse — porous scholarship can take on two shapes or appearances: the rigorous scepticism of the theorist and/or the active, world-changing arc of the social movement, the ‘culture of anyone’.

Because we need a far-reaching conversation about change; a platform, a place where rebel voices within and outside the academy might begin to listen to one another.

And perhaps — like a volcano waking from centuries of sleep — start to roar.

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2 Responses
  1. Tony MacCulloch

    I love the grounded-ness of your astute observations and insightful critique of mainstream academia. And I am inspired by your metaphors of hope and possibility through non simplistic but profound visionary imaginings. Brilliant examples of those challenging the confines of neoliberalism. Much food for thought. Thank you Paul

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