10/13 | The Undercommons – March 6, 2019

Marquis Bey, Cornell University; Jack Halberstam, Columbia University; Heather Love, University of Pennsylvania; Allegra McLeod, Georgetown Law

in conversation with Kendall Thomas, Columbia University and Bernard E. Harcourt, Columbia University

read and discuss

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. Minor Compositions, 2013.


In The Undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney invite and challenge critical scholars to overcome their complacency—or what they call, their “negligence”—and become truly subversive. Critique, criticism, and the critical stance within the academy, Moten and Harney argue, merely reproduce the forms of hierarchy and the illusions of meritocracy that are at the root of injustice and inequality in our society. Far from undermining the problems, critical scholars reinforce them. Hand-in-hand with more conventional colleagues—liberals and conservatives—critical scholars buttress the structures of domination that oppress “the undercommons”—the “Maroon communities of composition teachers, mentorless graduate students, adjunct Marxist historians, out or queer management professors, state college ethnic studies departments, closed-down film programs, visa-expired Yemeni student newspaper editors, historically black college sociologists, and feminist engineers.” (30)

In this series on “Critique & Praxis,” Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons cuts to the quick. It strikes at the very core of the project’s ambition. It places a mirror to each and every one of us, critical thinkers, and forces us to examine our own role, as professors, as graduate students, as undergraduates, especially at elite institutions, in perpetuating and reproducing the structures of domination that make possible a society that mass incarcerates.

There is no point sugar coating Moten and Harney’s intervention. It’s futile to dodge it. A tenured professor at an elite institution like Columbia University, for sure, is complicit. Professionalized critical scholars reproduce the hierarchical space that is the very condition of possibility of our tiered universities and scholarly communities that overlook, or worse willfully ignore the living and working conditions of the undercommons. Critical scholars believe themselves to be fighting for justice and combatting the “school-to-prison pipeline,” but quite the opposite is likely true: “perhaps more universities promote more jails,” Moten and Harney write. “Perhaps it is necessary finally to see that the university produces incarceration as the product of its negligence.” (41)

How then do we inhabit this space? That is the challenge of The Undercommons, and it is, today, a necessary challenge. We invite you to read and think with us. Welcome to Praxis 10/13!

[Read full post here.  © Bernard E. Harcourt.]