Zulaikha Ayub and Daniela Gandorfer | Thinking Should Not Take (A) Place

By Zulaikha Ayub and Daniela Gandorfer


[T]he master sets a problem, our task is to solve it, and the result is accredited true or false by a powerful authority. It is also a social prejudice with the visible interest of maintaining us in an infantile state, which calls upon us to solve problems that come from elsewhere, consoling or distracting us by telling us that we have won simply by being able to respond.[1]

—Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, 158 (1994).


To solve problems is said to be the thinker’s profession. It takes place in thought, in seminars, on paper, and, above all, in universities that take the taking of place literally: taking it away from others, installing bastions of transcendence that rest conveniently on both a cognitive and epistemological terra nullius, as well as a terra that never seems to be colonized enough. “Representation is a side of transcendental illusion,” where thought and ideas are kept safe, covered over by an image “made up of postulates which distort both its operation and its genesis.” [2] What gets thought is founded on recognition and identity—no matter how critical, how inventive or progressive it might seem in certain places as certain instantiations of taking place. We owe each other more, more than taking credit, more than reflecting on problems already stated, and more than a response. “We owe each other everything,”[3] that is to say, more than can take place: a space of immanent thought, a nonplace, the undercommons, where the revolution of a thought that cannot be separated from practices of life and survival, takes back—again and for the first time—its places. To falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to fulfill by abolishing and renew by unsettling, is to disobey representation. The undercommons, the non-comparable and heterogenous we, cannot represent itself. The undercommons cannot be represented.[4] We owe each other neither the same nor the Same, but we do owe each other more than giving, and  more than waiting to be given, representation and recognition within the narrow realm of the university’s imagination.

Between image(s) and critique operates a dialectical movement that can only grasp what is presupposed. To only ever decide between what is given is to comply. The response of the critical academic is necessarily negative, yet never inventive, for the new has to be thought differently, where difference “cannot be thought in itself, so long as it is subject to the requirements of representation.”[5] Destruction and abolition is needed – not in response to the image or in the name of the naming-authority, but of the dogmatic image that constitutes thought and regulates what thinking can do. To think is to experiment, but experimentation is, Deleuze and Guattari remind us, “always that which is in the process of coming about—the new, remarkable, and interesting that replace the appearance of truth and are more demanding than it is.”[6]

The university, however, has taken precautions, not only through book lists, teaching evaluations, and invitations for intellectual contribution, but also in the construction of seminar and lecture spaces, always ensuring that those looking for thought—out of love or desperation—are frontally attacked by it. It has choreographed acoustic spaces that accommodate only certain voices, and it has installed dominant and hierarchical visual fields which require every nascent thought, every intuition even, to make itself either completely visible, ready to be judged and put into place, or erased entirely. And it has taken precautions by inventing the critical academic, ensuring the heteronormativity of European thought, constantly reproduced under the guise of new terms, new specializations, and the claims of professionalization. “To be a critical academic in the university is to be against the university, and to be against the university is always to recognize it and be recognized by it.”[7] The critical academic is not external to the system, but arises, in defense or by necessity, precisely because the university is looking for a response, which will, no matter the content, reinscribe the norms of thinking and knowledge production. Thinking critically about the university’s affiliation to slave trade importantly challenges the reinscription of hegemonic historical narratives, but does it also challenge the mode of thinking and knowledge production at the foundation of slavery? If not, how can it? The danger inherent in a practice of thinking committed to not producing the dogmatic image of thought becomes imminent when it threatens the conditions that legitimize it, that is, when it becomes more than professional. “How do those who exceed the profession, who exceed and by exceeding escape, how do those maroons problematize themselves, problematize the university, force the university to consider them a problem, a danger.”[8] The critical intellectual takes up space, can bear being fully visible, yet hides by floating in the middle range, “never having to confront the foundation, never having to confront antifoundation out of faith in the unconfrontable foundation.”[9] What is needed is not only the refusal to comply with the rules of what thinking has to be and what forms of expression it has to adopt, but a collaborative commitment to thinking creatively about different modes of thought. The university grants access to knowledge about what we can know, and degrees in what we can study. We, however, still don’t know what thought can do.

In the undercommons no questions are asked, because what thinking can do refuses to take the form of a question. It doesn’t require a mediator, it is not planning to wait before the law. Thinking is a practice, in touch with lives beyond the individual life and its conditions. “But we already are. We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around. We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic.”[10] The realm of revolutionary thought is not that of the response, be it in form of critique or compliance. It is “unconditional,” the “nonplace that must be thought outside to be sensed inside,” and which brings about, collectively and unconventionally, the “thought of the internal outside.”[11] The creation of an outside is the practice of transcendence. It is the power not only to exclude, but also to decide without being in touch: thought as the product of the rational subject, knowledge expressed in numbers and variables, the future imagined in code, and the thinking mind becoming digital so that it can colonize not only terra, but space.

“You are already in it.”[12] When Jack Halberstam states “[t]he undercommons is a space and time which is always here,” it is important to unpack the potency of the final three words—“is always here.”[13] The undercommons: is, always is, and always is here. We would submit further, that the space of the undercommons is here, now, at this very moment. And yet it is crucial to understand that this is not an allusion to a spatial condition that is homogenous, or undifferentiated, nor does its here-ness suggest that our anxieties can be satiated, remain inert, or, worst of all, be delayed under false impressions of inevitability. The spacetime potential of the undercommons is foregrounded not so that we can sleep peacefully tonight, but rather so that we cannot sleep peacefully tonight. The night is, we are reminded, “where we hate to be alone…right inside, and around, the surround”[14] The danger of the “always is here” is that every single inflection of spacetime is perceived as either complicity or obstruction; the safe “middle range” in which the critical intellectual can “float” is not a safe space at all (there is no safety in space)—but rather a place that, as with all forms of place-making, precludes any event not inscribed in its abstracted formation.

Well, where the fuck is that.”[15] Thought that is actualized collaboratively and collectively, does not take place—either because it withdraws its complicity, is unwilling, or is denied the power to colonize. It is non-localizable, a nonplace, precisely because its condition is dislocation, both refusing and being refused a place of its own. The distinction and relation between space and place is a crucial one. The latter has meaning attached to it, either generated through abstraction, akin to the colonizer’s map, or directly and intimately through life lived—”Space is freedom, place is security”[16] Pushing further still, conceptualizing space as a domain of lived relationality removes any fixed notion of either space or place, offering a modality of endless reconfiguring of edges and loci together, and in relation. No boundary is ever preemptively and eternally fixed, it is rather made through forces of matter, movement, and agency. There is no ‘here’ and ‘now’ in the conventional sense of representation; the present moment is (at best) a fleeting registration of transition—transition not from a known past to a predictable future, but more granularly as the movement of many distinct singularities interacting. The potential that exists at the precipice of each passing moment is inextricably linked to each location in space—a potential that is actualized by the very “dance [of] the war of apposition.”[17] It is both imminent and immanent, critical, yet not reducible to critique.

For those whose power rests on transcendence, critique is a response, while thinking immanence is a real threat, precisely because it explodes the logic of colonial space. Critique of that logic strives higher and higher, so high that it degrades to “university-consciousness and self-consciousness about university-consciousness.[18] The undercommons withdraws into the world, which is constantly under threat of being rendered external. In the undercommons it is not only known, but painfully felt, that this outside in which thought cannot legitimately take place, is constructed. This is why thinking becomes a criminal act, a stealing away from the place of institutionalized thought. Depriving thought of the image becomes theft of the regime’s power to declare inclusion and exclusion our only options. There is no use for it in the undercommons. “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world in the world and I want to be in that.[19]

And it is precisely in this world, that “[t]his shit is killing you, too.”[20] Danger is not in the recognition of military formation in “critique[s] of militarised life” but rather in “the forgetting of the life that surrounds it;” stated otherwise, the problem is not registering it as military formations, but rather registering it not as militaries-in-formation—that is, in-relation to the antagonisms of the common “beyond and beneath…in its midst.” [21] Stated differently even once more: the problem is that the academic critic of militarised life registers military only as place, and not, rather, as space. The lifeless repetition of the spatial logic of place-making produced by the military-industrial-academic-complex, is the very same that is reproduced by its critique, reinforcing the “laager” further, but not its “antagonisms.”[22] As such, the academic critic produces, and reproduces, a blindspot in the very moment of structuring their respective critique—is it any coincidence then, that there is not a single book written in English on the history of Hiroshima before 1945? Despite the horror felt by critical academics towards that which the U.S. military wrought, the entirety of “Hiroshima” is rendered in their scholarship as an already-defined object upon which to deploy ‘knowledge’ and towards which to direct thought. And so whether “the bomb detonates and/or fails to detonate” (18), the academic critic remain in their safe place—and it is exactly from this safe place that precludes the always-present risk of decision between complicity or obstruction.[23]

But also, there is radioactivity—no place, no enclosure, is forever safe from the poison of exposure, which when released into the “thinness of atmosphere,” leaves no skin untouched, no molecule disassociated, no bunker wall impervious.[24] There is no outside. There is no inside. Everything is embedded. To clarify, the condition of embeddedness is not invoked to equalize the experiences of the dispossessed with those in the fortress—this injustice is abundantly clear. It is rather to say that radioactivity will get to you too. “[I]t’s fucked up for you, in the same way that…it’s fucked up for us…[T]his shit is killing you, too, however much more softly.[25] The purport of politics to stave off threat in the commons is as much an illusion as the threat itself.

Perhaps the question—here and now—is less one about praxis, but thought’s relation to life; that is, about a practice of thinking which is accounted for, rather than taken credit for. Perhaps is not about a solution, coming from the outside, applied to what are thought to be problematic lives (black lives, queer lives, trans-lives, lives without citizenship, property and capital), but to a praxis of lived thought that poses problems differently, and from within: a complicity that is more about unfolding collective futures, and an accountability that cannot be measured. If the revolution, as Halberstam writes, “will come in a form we cannot yet imagine,” it is because it yet cannot be thought.

Thinking, Rosi Braidotti writes, is “life lived at its highest possible power,” it is necessarily creative and critical, essentially about change and transformation.[26] Power, here, is not to be confused with a power over something or someone, or the power to discriminate between inside and outside(s), but rather understood as the capacity to affect and be affected, to think-with. Thinking, she argues, has to be transgressive and experimental, it has to break with the established patterns of thought and introduce “a radically immanent relational dimension.”[27] It is in this sense that thinking has to be an ethical practice and an affirmative mode of (a) life that can never remain personal and insular. “When I say ‘with and for,’ I mean studying with people rather than teaching them, and when I say ‘for,’ I mean studying with people in service of a project.”[28] Studying, thinking, creating with and for, importantly blurs the boundaries of what it means to think, of where thought ends, and praxis begins. It is inherently collective, collaborative, and creative, always embodied, often dangerous, and even painful. It doesn’t create a cozy home for aficionados of thought, or for critical academics to sleep appeasingly and peacefully, but invents futures where thought gives rather than takes place.




Braidotti, Rosi. “Four Theses on Posthumanist Feminism.” Chap. 3 In Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard A. Grusin, 21-48. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

———. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Janis Tomlinson and Graham Burchell III. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons : Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe , New York , Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place : The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.


[1] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 158.

[2] Ibid., 265.

[3]  Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons : Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe , New York , Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013), 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 262.

[6] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Janis Tomlinson and Graham Burchell III (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 111.

[7] Harney and Moten, The Undercommons 31.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Ibid., 38, 39, 41.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 149.

[16] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place : The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 3.

[17] Harney and Moten, The Undercommons 19.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Ibid., 118.

[20] Ibid., 140-41.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 18.

[24] Ibid., 18-19.

[25] Ibid., 10.

[26] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 110.

[27] Ibid., 104. “Four Theses on Posthumanist Feminism,” in Anthropocene Feminism, ed. Richard A. Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 30.

[28] Harney and Moten, The Undercommons 147-8.

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