Heather Love | Praxis & The Undercommons

By Heather Love

Where is the undercommons? Inside the box or outside it? Beyond or beneath us? Do we go somewhere else to find it or do we drop down into it?

Stefano Harney addresses this question in “The General Antagonism,” the interview with Stevphen Shukaitis that is the final chapter of the book. Reflecting on academic labor and the school, Harney characterizes the undercommons as a “break piece, between locating ourselves and dislocating ourselves.” He continues: “People always say, ‘well, where the fuck is that.’ Even if you do that clever Marxist thing like, ‘oh it’s not a place, it’s a relation,’ people are like, ‘yeah, but where’s the relation’” (149).

“Where the fuck is that”: Harney indicates that this question is asked with frustration—frustration about abstraction, about the refusal of institutions, about the limits of unfindability as a political strategy. Although Harney is invested in the possibilities of dislocation, he acknowledges the force of this question. His imaginary interlocutor does not voice the administrative double-talk or liberal blandishment that The Undercommons opposes. Instead, this character, the generalized “people,” is given one of the better lines in the book, one that resonates with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s own cut-the-shit rhetoric. The fact that Harney discounts his own reaction to this question as mere cleverness casts him in the role of the critical intellectual-pedant, as he again highlights the validity of his questioner’s impatience: “yeah, but where’s the relation”—the final “motherfucker” is implied though not voiced.

I’m drawn to this moment in part because I find the rhetoric of The Undercommons endlessly fascinating. In another moment in “The General Antagonism” of interest in the context of Praxis, Harney remarks: “When we say that we don’t want management, it doesn’t mean we don’t want anything, that it just sits there and everything’s fine. There’s something to be done, but it’s performative, it’s not managerial” (157). Management, tainted by its links to capitalist expropriation and normalizing control, is not a good tool for Left projects of transformation. Moten and Harney oppose the pragmatism and the compromises of management to “fugitive planning” and “black study,” which instead of perpetuating the rotten meritocracy of the status quo aim to “tear this shit down completely and build something new” (152).

Tearing shit down; building anew: this is the something to be done in The Undercommons. By calling this task performative, Harney is not only talking only about linguistic performativity. Instead, the performative dimension of planning and study is identified with its links to social life, intimacy, and intellectual and bodily co-presence—and to the fact that it is already happening. “In the undercommons of the social reproductive realm the means, which is to say the planners, are still part of the plan. And the plan is to invent the means in a common experiment launched from any kitchen, any back porch, any basement, any hall, any park bench, any improvised party, every night. This ongoing experiment with the informal, carried out by and on the means of social reproduction, as the to come of the forms of life, is what we mean by planning.”

In their radical sharing out and enlivening of intellectual life, Moten and Harney suggest that “study is what you do with other people” ([Moten], 110)—that is to say, whatever you do, whatever you are already doing. But the fact that study is social does not mean that it is not also linguistic and textual. In a comment in “The General Antagonism,” Moten suggests that there are problems with thinking of such activities in purely textual form. In place of traditional ideas of intertextuality, Moten imagines the text as a “social space”: “It’s a deeper way of looking at it. To say that it’s a social space is to say that stuff is going on: people, things, are meeting there and interacting, rubbing off one another, brushing against one another—and you enter into that social space, try to be part of it.” In addition to scenes of group life like drinking all night or working in a factory, the text is also a place where the means gather to imagine future forms of life.

This social conception of the text makes it one of the places where the work of planning and study is carried out, and where we can locate, at least provisionally, the undercommons. It also suggests the importance of the performative or rhetorical aspect of the book. Moten remarks in a comment about his process with Harney: “Our first collaborations were in poetry,” a point that he qualifies but also lets stand. Crucial to the performative aspect of this project is the collaboration itself; joint authorship ensures that writing is a social process and also, as Moten and Harney both point out, it undermines the notion of intellectual property or ownership.

Equally important is the question of address in the book. In one sense, the book refuses to accommodate its audience, which is bound to be made up largely of readers who Moten and Harney describe as “critical intellectuals.” The discomfort produced by this situation is something that Bernard Harcourt and Allegra McLeod attest to. But Moten and Harney also address their readers in a much more open-ended way, inviting us to an ongoing conversation. In “Blackness and Governance,” Moten and Harney ask, “Whom do we mean when we say ‘there’s nothing wrong with us’?” (52), and they go on to elaborate an idiosyncratic and miscellaneous list that ends, “Our cousins. All our friends.” At the end of “Debt and Study,” Moten and Harney describe those who occupy the “undercommons of the university”—not the graduated students working diligently to pay off their loans and establish credit, but “these other ones” who “carry bags of newspaper clippings, or sit at the end of the bar, or stand at the stove cooking, or sit on a box at the newsstand, or speak through bars, or speak in tongues.” These are the disregarded voices that whisper in and around the university. But, as Moten and Harney argue, “if we listen to them they will say: come let’s plan something together. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re telling all of you but we’re not telling anyone else” (68).

This is the structure of address of The Undercommons, and it touches on what Moten calls “what’s interminable in the analysis or theory of friendship” (108). It is live: we are calling you now. And it includes widely (“all our friends”, “all of you”) but it also excludes (“we’re not telling anyone else”). This uncanny mixture of universality and refusal recalls Derrida’s analysis in The Politics of Friendship of the phrase attributed to Aristotle, “O my friends there is no friend.” We are invited to the undercommons on the condition that we come to share in the unpayable debt that defines being there.

But it is the ontology of indebtedness that is in question when we contemplate the question, “Where—or where the fuck—is the undercommons?” Moten and Harney suggest that the undercommons is all around us, that it is already happening. But it is also a matter of linguistic breaching, of refusing to respect the boundaries of academic discourse either by moving beyond it (transgression) or dropping into its basement (adjunctification and debt as the truth of the university). These acts of rhetorical breaching, stealing, and smuggling make commons, but they also raise the question of the relation between metaphors of indebtedness, homelessness, and displacement and the lived experience of those things. I take it that this is an important question for Allegra McLeod in her discussion of abolitionism in prison versus in the margins of the university.

“If we do not seek to fix what has been broken, then what? How do we resolve to live with brokenness, with being broke”? These are Jack Halberstam’s questions in “The Wild Beyond,” the essay that opens The Undercommons. Moten and Harney suggest that identification with brokenness is the condition of joining in on fugitive planning and black study. By identifying with “these other ones” we join the world of “our cousins,” “our friends.” Personally, I can’t imagine joining any commons or undercommons that does not take brokenness as a prerequisite. But the question of how to make sense of that brokenness, and of how and where to enter the undercommons, is crucial. What is to be done, and where? And, as Marquis Bey suggests, this also means asking how. I’ll spend some time elaborating on some of the social and material sites that Moten and Harney point to as the where of the undercommons when we meet in person.