Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to The Undercommons: Beyond Critical Praxis

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

“But if the critical academic is merely a professional, why spend so much time on him? Why not just steal his books one morning and give them to deregistered students in a closed-down and beery student bar, where the seminar on burrowing and borrowing takes place. Yet we must speak of these critical academics because negligence it turns out is a major crime of state.”

— Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013), p. 39.


In The Undercommons, Moten and 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)

There is no way to duck the challenge—not even a rebellious stance, from within the hierarchy of the academy, would suffice. The professionalized critical scholar is nothing less than a counterrevolutionary. “A professional education has become a critical education,” Moten and Harney note. “But one should not applaud this fact. It should be taken for what it is, not progress in the professional schools, not cohabitation with the Universitas, but counterinsurgency, the refounding terrorism of law, coming for the discredited, for those who refuse to write off or write up the undercommons.” (32, emphasis added) Yes, we are back at The Counterrevolution, but this time, now, the counterrevolutionary is the critical scholar.

Rather than an internal critical stance, Moten and Harney call for subversion, for the “subversive intellectual” in Jack Halberstam’s words—the subversive intellectual who is “unprofessional, uncollegial, passionate and disloyal.” (10) Subversion is key. Deviance and dismantling are central. Moten and Harney talk about “hacking concepts and squatting terms.” (105) The goal is to break down and break up, to shatter the institutions that reproduce privilege and oppression. And not just to abolish those institutions, but to dismantle the very society that makes those institutions possible. “Not so much the abolition of prisons,” they write, “but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” (42)

To dismantle, to destitute, to abolish: these are the verbs of the undercommons. As Jack Halberstam writes:

“we refuse to ask for recognition and instead we want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls. We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming.” (6)

We are indeed back in that space of “destitution,” of the destitution of institutions that The Invisible Committee calls for in Now and that we discussed in Praxis 2/13—as Jack Halberstam reminds us as well. The Committee speaks of destituting the university, the judicial system, medicine, the government—and in the process, of making ourselves “ungovernable.” (Now, p. 81; read Nikita Shepard’s post here). The Committee writes, in very similar terms, about not just abolishing institutions, but abolishing the society that needs them: “To destitute is not primarily to attack the institution, but to attack the need we have of it,” the Committee declares. “It’s not to criticize it […] [but] to administer its death blow.” (80-81) Like Moten and Harney, The Committee does not spare the critic and the militant, stating that “the more they criticize power the more they desire it and the more they refuse to acknowledge their desire.” (81)

The undercommons is a space of disorder, of wildness, of improvisation. It is a space of radical resistance and contestation—and tearing down. A space of refusal. A space of deviance. A space where there is, in Marquis Bey’s words, “no end.” It bears a resemblance, Moten and Harney suggest, to the idea of communism, which we explored in Praxis 8/13. (42) It is close to what I called, in an earlier piece, “the politics of spleen.”

How 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!