Our time is not unique. Ours is an ongoing rupture of violence and violation that was set loose into the world as far back as 1492, though the logics of displacement, aversion and the making of objects through categorical distinction no doubt existed previous to that historic flashpoint. Our time is not unique. Ours is one that attempts to consolidate revolutionary impulse and radical social form into ever-expansive neoliberal dreams. Our time is not unique. Ours is grounded in the flowering and flourishing of the promise citizenship, a promise that necessitates submitting ourselves to violence the nation-state imposes on its subjects. Our time is not unique. And yet we would do well to consider the form inequity takes in our milieu, we would do well to be attentive to the creative capacity and inventionary instinct internal to empire such that we can contend against injustice in all its guises.
Learning is not a luxury. Learning is what we do, what we be, when we gather together with others to think, to consider, to play the dozens, to laugh, to shout in church aisles, to dance in nightclubs, to sit on porches, to sit at tables eating starchy foods and fried meats. Learning is what we do, what we be, when we commit ourselves to sociality, when we commit ourselves to longsuffering that would have us – in all our fleshly thereness – be with, rather than raptured from, the worlds of our inhabitation.
But learning is under radical assault. Learning is, because of schooling, being submitted to neoliberal realities against radically imagined fantasies. Schooling is becoming a privatized industry and this runs antithetical to the necessary openness to worlds that constitute the grounds for learning to occur. Schooling gives education but we are discovering a concept that we have already known, which we already been known for a long time: learning is not the primary goal of school but, rather, its goal is education. And being educated is about becoming the proper kind of subject, the proper kind of citizen, for the state’s use and exploitation. Education, so construed, is about making a promise today about one’s future relationship to the nation-state, it is about becoming indebted to a political order. Learning, in such a configuration, is the resistance straining against such indebtedness because learning gives the tools for critical analytics, critical enfleshment, social flesh as a critique of governance.
Stefano Harney says of debt that, “The common way to understand debt…is that we are, by coming into debt, making a promise to act out capitalist social relations – as they currently exist – in the future.” And it is this common understanding of debt which is operationalized in the service of education currently. And I’m not just talking about, teachers in K-12 classrooms that are literally being encouraged to go into financial debt, taking “low interest” loans for school supplies. And I’m not only thinking about the financial debt college students accrue by taking out exorbitant loans in order to provide for their essentials, in order to eat and have shelter while attending post-secondary institutions. I include all forms of schooling that would seek to make us better, more productive citizens for the nation-state as requiring of us a certain indebtedness for purportedly allowing us time and space to be educated. Education – through schooling – makes us debtors, the best kinds of citizens, through forcing the promise of futural relationships of inequity. Schooling is the instrument mobilized to deliver education, schooling attempts to suppress creativity, desire, uniqueness and sociality through standardized tests, assessment rubrics, core “standards.” Schooling, as a mode of administration, is against the very interrogation of current (anti-)social relations with respect to the current political economy. Schooling is about the inculcation and enactment of obedience: “What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” Yet James Baldwin offers, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”
We are told that through schooling, if we work and study hard, that we too can go to college and get good jobs. But there is much that remains unsaid in such declarations. The hard work and study that produces an entrance into college and good jobs is the maintenance of the existing anti-social relations of inequity. These existing anti-social relations keep us forever competing against one another. Our labor is exploited to make the nation a strong global competitor. Suppressed, then discarded, is the question about the purpose of learning itself. Education is about the suppression of the question in order to gain entrance into normative mode of subjectivity, about our emergence into the “world” as it is currently construed. What also goes unsaid is that the suppression and eventual discarding of the question about the purpose of learning is as true for Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields as it is for thought that occurs within the delimitation of the Humanities. It is not the Humanities that are under assault; it is learning itself.
What is occurring with explicit intensity in our milieu is the trade-ification of all modes of knowledge such that anything learned is supposed to be used to make the nation-state competitive on a global scale. Folks majoring in business, law and medicine are just as discouraged from radical creative thinking as folks in the Humanities are. The lack of arts and music programs – discarded as so many unwanted questions – has had pernicious effects in poor K-12 school districts. No longer are arts and musical knowledges considered integral to the development of the whole student, save in situations where parents can afford such seeming excessive, creative luxuries. The indebtedness that becomes the foundational characteristic of education is virulent in its attack against various literacies, various social practices of learning.
Literacies are not eternal, they change over time. Literacies are always social practices, engagements with others in order to produce otherwise worlds of inhabitation and thus are not reducible to the technique of delivery. Important are what the techniques make possible and the kinds of interventions radical social practices of learning can be. For example, it was not always assumed that the ability to read and write would give coherence to something like a subject, it was not always thought that personhood was predicated on this particularized form of knowledge transfer. But the antebellum rule against reading and writing for enslaved folks is instructive. Though some theorists claim that reading and writing would allow enslaved persons the “establishment of the African’s human identity to the European world,” it seems more appropriate to consider how literacies were utilized to resist the nation-state’s violence and violation. What we must do in our own time is give attention to the antebellum period’s injunction against reading and writing, not because reading and writing confer personhood but because the one’s who were juridically prohibited from the practice recognized its utility. We must attend to the past in order to ask what the modes of learning are today being kept from the marginalized, what modes of literacies are today deemed unnecessary and are discarded as excess.
During the antebellum period what was given was an education that sought to suppress and discard difference, what we might think of as common standards. Indeed, various skills were acquired in order to keep the peculiar institution profitable – everything from agricultural sciences to hospitality. But there was also learning, learning through fleshly performance that was against the education that would make of these black objects mere organic machines with no will nor volition. The learning took place not just in the hush harbors and clearings. Learning also took place as the excessive creative force that sustained people during labor, such that singing and chanting and hollering could measure distance, denote time and provide protective noise for escapes. Folks learned against the trade-ification of education, against the skillset deemed necessary for labor.
And today, too, we have education wherein everything acquired is supposed to be instrumentalized into the service of the state, helping us become proper citizens. It would seem that the national Common Core Standards Initiative would address issues of access in education. The CCS only organizes learning such that it will have people both college and career ready. But the guise of “common standards” is quite antithetical to learning as social practice. The CCS contributes to the suppression and discarding of difference in the service of state power, is just another iteration – under neoliberal delusions – of the suppression and discarding of internal, irreducible difference. The critical intervention calls us to descend just below the surface.
On the surface of things, it perhaps looks as if these various initiatives and calls for STEM education and denunciations of the Humanities, are means to care for individuals, to care for the “self.” But if there is anything artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s work has elaborated, it is the interrogation of surfaces.
Piper’s Art for the Artworld Surface Pattern is a tightly constructed room, closed off from the world, full of sensory information on walls.
The “piece” is a rather small room that could fit three to four persons in it. Walls flat with only one small entrance, the furnitureless room’s walls and ceiling are covered with newspaper clippings of various political struggles and world disasters. As well, “At arbitrary places across the photographs the words NOT A PERFORMANCE are stenciled in red” (162). There is also the insertion of sound and speech with a recorded tape loop. The speech is the repudiation of the material on the wall as art, it is a stereotyped reply about the aesthetics “that ignored completely [the] topical thrust” of the work (164). As such, the piece “surrounds you with the political problems you ignore and the rationalizations by which you attempt to avoid them” (161). The point of the overload of both visual and sonic material was to create a situation in which, “in order to distance oneself from the work, one would be forced to adopt some critical stance that did not itself express the aestheticizing response” (167).
People enter this art space only to be confronted with problems they’d much rather avoid. This confrontation takes place on the level of the scene constituted by the seen and the sound. What Piper does – by way of the words “NOT A PERFORMANCE” as well as the audio loop – is to gather and insert thought, which is typically thrown away. To be attentive to the “surface pattern” is to give attention to that which easily recedes, that which readily is discarded. Attending to the “surface pattern” equally requires attention to that which exits right below the surface, that which is barely there, that which shows up by way of a resistance to showing up. The “noisy” walls and speech saturate the room, causing the looking away, the aversion, for what is seen and heard. Piper uses the surface of walls and the plain-ordinary surface-level speech of dismissal to have viewers go below such surfaces, to confront the world.
And on the surface of things, there seems to be much chattering about the need for quality education, for everyone from pre-K to post-secondary. But what this chattering does is obscure the ways education, through schooling, has followed the arc and trajectory of western theologic-philosophic concepts for the grounds of existence: the denunciation of the social in the service of the individual. Education, through schooling, is about the means to articulate a coherent, stable, impenetrable “self,” one that competes with others to prove worth and value, one who submits to metrics and measurements, to tests and examinations. This “self” also submits to being evaluated by those around about them and the examiner will make declarations about the capacity for the individual to be good, to be intelligent, to be normal. Just below the surface of the chattering is the desire to keep the status quo operational, is the desire to reduce the capacity for learning while increasing access to education. Barack Obama provides a sufficient example.
Obama had the following to say about “Art History” as a mode of examining the world:
[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree – I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.
This pontificating cannot be divorced from the radical restructuring of public education currently under his administration. It has been noted time and again that his Race to the Top (RTTT) is more egregious than Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and it is not by accident that the privatization of public education under the guises of charters and choice has many of these “boutique” schools focusing on STEM rather than anything in the Humanities. It is also not by accident that many of the first programs that were defunded in public education were arts and music programs. It is not that Obama is against art-making itself as a practice. He used at least three Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service observations to put paintbrush to hand in order to show what service to one’s community looks like.
What is vilified, then, is not action – a trade, a skill – but thinking, collective, improvisational, social thinking about any range of actions one could take in the world. It is perfectly within the horizon of education to acquire a set of common actions in order to get tasks done; what is not encouraged is the theory that would have one thinking about color and saturation, about lines and texture. This is problematic and vulgar because it also assumes that intellection is a result of class, that learning only happens amongst elites. However, for example, the ruptures on warehouse floors in Detroit during the Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers prove otherwise, workers reading Marx in order to critique unfair labor practices. So though Obama could go into schools to offer skills, there was no theorizing about the policies that create the conditions of inequity that produce the need to volunteer at such a location. Obama painting walls and wood while decrying art history only underscores the ways social intellectual practices as modes of inhabitation, as ways of life, are under assault.
Creative social intellectual practice itself is excess, and thus is only ever constitutive for an otherwise world’s production of joy and justice. With the assault to social practices of learning, creative enjoyment is then marshaled as a mode of labor – through volunteering – that must be relegated to days off, must be relegated to modes that do not have within them the critique of systemic injustice. This is the promise of being indebted to society through education: to carry into the future the present conditions of inequity, including such good faith, feel good projects of every-now-and-then volunteerism. What cannot be questioned, what must go uninterrogated, is the condition of the world that produces this demand of education over and against the open-endness of learning.
Such that what Obama opined about Art History was not an accidental throwaway sentence about the impotence of art history education to acquire employment. Deeper still, he acknowledged – without stating so explicitly – that future job growth will obtain mostly with jobs requiring only a high school diploma. Doug Henwood had to say about jobs in the next ten years: “So according to fresh projections from the [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the 10 most rapidly growing jobs over the next decade, accounting for a quarter of total job growth, require on average no more than a high school diploma, and only one – nursing – pays more than the national median wage.”
Like explicit newspaper clippings with NOT A PERFORMANCE written across our bodies, the fact of blackness – through the very inhabitation of our flesh – is political, calling for the various aversive logics that attempt to control us. Rather than lingering with the question of the purpose of learning, the nation-state seeks to quiet the perpetual questioning that we carry in and as our fleshliness, the nation-state seeks to paint over the walls of inequity in the service of keeping us indebted to inequity. Social practices of learning, against schooling education, would have us ask interrogate empire’s desire for a promise of our complicity to the current political economy.
This is a Blues for Mister Charles. Charlie, we all know, is the informal, the non-standard, the familiar and intimate version of Charles. What education does today specifically is move from Charlie to Charles, exploiting the rhetoric of common standard while actually enacting the force and violence of normativity. Rather than the irreducibility of internal differentiation and variation of care and concern that emerges in the local that would yield such intimacies and familiarities, scantrons, rules of law and order orders and rules the school day. Nutrition managers felt compelled to follow rule and order, discarding the food of children, rather than break such ruling in the cause of justice. The children were quite explicitly punished for their parents’ future promises of indebtedness to the anti-sociality and alienation of capitalism. This fact of inequity and debt has been a constitutive force of anti-blackness and we are simply seeing the logics of inequity proliferating. The formal rather than the intimate, the anti-social rather than the zone of sociality, the standard rather than differentiation: all this is what education, through schooling, would produce antithetical to social practices of learning.
As James Baldwin stated, “Mister Charlie” is the non-disruption of white supremacist logic. Such that Blues for Mister Charles would not disorder the logic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Rather, the formality merely marks the spread of empire’s violence and violation more explicitly felt, known, present. Charles rather than Charlie is an affect of purported post-raciality, a vision of livability wherein differences do not matter, where they are suppressed and discarded in order to have “a more perfect union.”
Yet, various movements – the Philadelphia Student Union, Chicago Teacher’s Union, North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement, as examples – are using their flesh to make promises of bad debt, of black debt, that refuse to take the current model of anti-sociality into the future. These varied movements provide examples of learning that are against education, learning that produces impropriety, learning that is itself a critique of any notion of a common core standards, and a more general critique of the emergence and arrival into citizenship. And this by their walking and display of signs. And this by their angered voices and pleas. They refuse, and thus we should refuse, to sing blues for Mister Charlie, for Mister Charles, that would leave Mister uninterrogated. They recognize that formality and standard are effects of the continual hiding of violence from view. Like how a protest of 80-100 thousand people this past weekend in North Carolina went unnoticed in mainstream media, there is an aversion to our fleshly ways of learning, an aversion for refusing quieting and sitting still allowing the nation-state to enact violence on us without resistance. They, we, refuse. They are, we are, using flesh, as Harney would say, to promise to refuse to take today’s anti-sociality of capitalist debt arrangements into the future. They have, we have, better things to carry.
 My understanding of debt – which will run throughout this piece – is entirely influenced by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s notion of debt and indebtedness. For the important treatment of the topic, please see Harney and Moten, The Undercommons.
 Adrian Piper, Out of Order, out of Sight, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).