Hyper Surfing Neoliberal Reality: The Studenthood unto Death

[My delirious exegesis after a year of disintegration at the University of Otago//an audio-visual variant of this piece can be found here. For a much more optimistic and coherent view, read Students and the Education Factory or Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. CW: suicide, rape and neoliberalism—as usual.]

since the world drifts into delirium, we must adopt a delirious point of view.
Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (68)

Well I ask you to consider — if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material!
Mario Savio, Berkeley, 1964

Walking into the OUSA foyer, I am greeted with a sign stating “YOU’RE HOT PROPERTY!”, an advertisement for student job search. Later that night, I walk past a billboard for the University of Otago, with the words “REDEFINE YOUR FUTURE” plastered across the procumbent bodies of two students, who smile past one another, into the expansive void of a Gaussian blur and an empty gas station. Zizek (Sharpe 2010, 245) contends that the ideology of Marx’s time was “they do not know it, but they are doing it.”; the ideology of today, however, is “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.” The other day my flatmate told me about a University of Otago ad he saw last year. It began with a woman introducing herself by name, before being intervened upon by a man who stated something along the lines of “No, you’re Bachelor of Commerce!” The advertisement continued with every student thereafter addressing themselves by their qualifications alone. Domination has never looked so good.

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The disciplinary institutions of Foucault’s (1978) time both massified and individualised subjects. Through surveillance, examination and classification, one was interpellated into the same subject position as all others, and from this position, compared with a subject ideal; fixed into a competitive hierarchy, through the identification of deviations. The control society of Deleuze’s (1992) time, however, thrives not on enclosure, but on debt—the modulation of a subject in perpetual precarity and enforced transvaluation unto no end. Restructuring and retraining become the constants in our society, and in this state, nothing is ever complete (Deleuze 1992, 5); one is always in lack. I turn to Google Images; a University of Otago ad screams at me in full caps “LEARNING IS A WAY OF LIFE.”

Every year, the University timetabling system manages to place two of my classes, one after the other, at opposite ends of the campus. I leave class with no time to ask questions, awkwardly walk-run across a distance usually traversed in fifteen minutes for a class I have in ten, and once there, spend the first five catching my breath. Every semester, this timetable is remade. On the days where there are six classes in a row, I leave campus in a nauseous daze, stumble up the hill back to my flat to stare into the void that is my flatmate playing Bloodborne, a game that teaches the player mastery through cyclical death. The modulation of modern timetabling couples seamlessly with the discipline of examination. Where once papers were year long and consisted of only external assessments, the modern managerial class has deemed it fitting to compress these papers into three month blocks and introduce internal assessments alongside the external ones (Brookes 1999, 7). There is more and more information, and less and less time. Sometimes, after groaning at my other flatmate, who works 9-5 at the Botanical Gardens doing menial tasks such as leaf blowing, we order Hell Pizza. We descend into absurd jouissance as we consume the things we hate. For a student taking four papers, one can expect (at the absolute minimum) two internal assignments from each, which must be done across a twelve-week period. This gives one and a half weeks for each assignment. The 4500 word prison research project I undertook this semester took me over a month. Alongside assignments are required readings, which for some papers can be over a hundred pages a week.

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No wonder students are calling themselves by their qualifications—there is simply nothing else left once university is done with them. There is nothing but a rote spiral into madness, an ever accelerating modulation unto absolute fluidity, dissolution into a gas, an amorphous haunt of living death that rides the shoulders of every newly enrolled student. We are haunted by our own spectres, by the whimpering cry of our dead liberal selves—always-already neoliberal—the zombie remains of an autonomous self that was never there to begin with. That innocence of childhood, that free play and formless joy—nothing but a conjuration after, a hyperreal Disneyland whose sole purpose is to fix us into adulthood—into real life (Baudrillard 1994). Oh, those were the days of innocent folly . . . but now we must grow up; now we must suffer.

In the age of fluid regiments, one must self-regulate towards what can never be seen, an anomic norm that has left us, but which we chase irregardless. The time for critical consciousness does not exist for there is simply no time. Time has ceased to mean anything, and with its cessation, thought ceases as well. In an era of over assessing, constant upheavals and temporal compressions, thought cannot unfold. Thought is constantly interrupted, fragmented, exhausted and banalised; reduced to smiling university ads, the spilling of neoliberal autoethnographic data everyone at the institution already knows. As Althusser (1971) said so aptly, there is no escaping ideology; “They know it, but they are doing it anyway.” (Sharpe 2010, 245). Suffer—enjoy your suffering.

Neoliberalism grants a promise—absolute liberty at the cost of absolute responsibility. The power relations that construct and structure opportunities fades from view. Inequality becomes the measure of striving. What you see is what you get: “an image of happy harmony surrounded by desolation and horror” (Debord 1994, thesis 63); spectacular university advertisements of learning and community, as one’s life seeps into the abyss; vicarious identification with an imaginary community constructed out of the smiling faces of exploited students on lunch break, their one chance to stare blankly at the sun before returning to class, study or work; never images of those visiting mental health services over attempted suicides, or having PTSD attacks over seeing their rapists on campus. Only Otago, the beautification project, the brand/logo redesign—these deterrence machines construct the capital of the hyperreal—a simulation of student life lived vicariously through sight, as the political—always-already post-political now—slips out of one’s grasp. We live a vicarious dream of neoliberal success, a success perpetually deferred because it never existed—a platonic flicker of black spots that fill one’s vision after staring at the sun for too long.

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Earlier this semester, as I walked past the reconstruction of the Leith River waterfront, I noticed that the granite stones used in the construction process, to mirror that of the heritage buildings around the university, were not blocks, but rather, plates. I watched as these stone plates were glued onto uniform slabs of concrete. After the process had been completed, there was little evidence of the concrete foundation that was holding up these facsimiles—the stone plates had been transformed into a wall of perfectly-fitted heritage blocks. I went to look at all the other heritage buildings; I realised they all shared this property. None of them were what they appeared to be, but this façade was all one could see in their final form—a surface-level suggestion of depth. If I had not glimpsed the construction process, I would have never known. Like the geometries of digital worlds, there was nothing beneath the texture but a mesh frame unto nothingness. I burst into delirious laughter as I gazed all around me at the artifice of my existence. I had been comparing the ‘fakeness’ of the waterfront to that of the other buildings, when the other buildings had never been ‘real’ to begin with. In this collapsing of real and fake, I realised what surrounded me was hyperreality—pure simulation with no referent to be found—a reality constructed through signification, which had never existed before simulation (Baudrillard 1994).

Beneath the surface glamour of the university, there is nothing but a void. The critical pedagogy Giroux (2014) laments the loss of had never been there to begin with—it had always been just an official statement, a gloss over the instrumental machinations of an endlessly tumbling capitalist monstrosity. Humanities cuts last year, PE and general staff cuts this year, shifting of university services to OUSA, reduction of funding for tutors, shift towards STEM subjects, expansion in animal testing, competitive research funding, million dollar advertisements, fourfold increased costs for international students, short-term contracts, student debt, shareholders—“neoliberalism proceeds, in zombie-like fashion, to impose its values, social relations, and forms of social death upon all aspects of civic life.” (Giroux 2014, location 274). It should come as no surprise that the university is a corporation. Through the dismantlement of the welfare state, education transformed from right to privilege, and this privilege is funded through debt—deferred death—an ever expanding asset that keeps one complicit, fearful and self-interested.

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One of the first slides I ever saw at the University of Otago was on income levels across different professions; and one of the first explanations as to why I was seeing this was that, the more income I earned, the faster I’d be able to pay off my student loan. Debt, accrued through the university, could be rid of through completing university. This tautological madness, this delirious blasé-faire ouroboros nightmare was stated without any irony or critical reflection—so commonsensical for both the lecturer and myself that I did not wonder about it until half a decade later. In this mad world we are socialised not simply to accept neoliberalism, but to embrace it wholeheartedly; to strive beyond poverty and precarity; to overcome our material conditions even as the powers that be strip us of more and more of our rights. We live in a capitalist society—this has yet to change since Marx’s time. One must sell one’s labour power to survive (Marx & Engels 2010), and our submission to the capitalist class keeps us in a vice-grip that does not kill, but rather, lets die (Foucault 2003). Either submit or starve. The very selfishness capitalist-apologists affirm as human nature is engendered by this biopolitical order (D’Amato 2006; Giroux 2014). More than material precarity, I had experienced an ideological justification for the standing order—debt unto prosperity, docility unto autonomy—contradiction unto contradiction unto contradiction.

Despite the market being the source of my suffering, it was, supposedly, also meant to be the source of my relief. Self-commodification, alienation not simply from labour, but from myself; instrumental rationalisation of knowledge unto private benefit, and the slow, painful death of everything else. The iron cage of Weber’s (2005, 123-124) time had morphed supple—the market was in. I would have to spew social Darwinist wank for the rest of my life while the world rotted under ecological devastation. I am a flexible, creative individual, who orgasms hard at the thought of challenge, commercial ventures and quarterly reports. As Giroux (2014, location 328) puts it

like the commodity there is nothing beneath the surface of the degree — the academic-corporate complex does not exist to impart knowledge but a formalised certification of knowledge — a rap sheet of mass produced/consumed skills no different from the student beside you.

As with the beautification process of the Leith River waterfront, the qualification hides the void. Niche marketed as unique individuals, mass manufactured as neoliberal subjects—the pedagogical conveyor belt spews capital spawn.

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In this merging of factory and corporation, it’s no wonder the public good drops off the agenda; the public doesn’t exist. Nobody has the time or energy to think, let alone the job security to speak up, and when they do, they are threatened by upper management (Brookes 1999, 26). This has happened for both staff and students, an irony when our university’s mission statement reads

The University of Otago will create, advance, preserve, promote and apply knowledge, critical thinking and intellectual independence to enhance the understanding, development and well-being of individuals, society and the environment. (University of Otago 2016, 3).

While the university as public sphere exists on paper, it is actively discouraged through institutional practices such as the threatening of rape survivors with defamation for critiquing the lack of mental health services, which have been cut down to six sessions a year; the threatening of lecturers with redundancy for critiquing departmental cuts; the firing and rehiring staff once on long-term tenures into short-term contracts to keep them in a position of submission, which in the US has led to the decimation of healthcare, disability and retirement benefits (Welch 2015); the increasing of student tuition fees every year for the past four decades, under the guise of improving student services, something the university has done everything in the past to avoid—the list goes on.

As Welch (2015, 61) puts it, the university has entered into a gigantic marketplace—from an corporate standpoint, it is only rational to downsize staff, oversize tuition and outsource education. No longer does the university exist to educate, but to profit, and this profit is not equally shared. More and more of it flows to upper management, and less and less to staff and students—a pattern that should sound familiar. It’s been happening at the Dunedin hospital—an understaffed, collapsing mess, run to the ground by a corporate managerial team whose members make up to half a million a year. At the University of Otago, Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne makes $599,000 a year, enough to purchase a house annually, while the majority rest are left to the mercy of their landlords, of which my own has failed to repair my sink for two years; currently rotting into oblivion. Of course, management know they are doing this. These bourgeois fuckers know that when one’s livelihood is at stake moral outrage too often slips into cynical defeat (Giroux 2014). After bringing up the cost of an average funeral in Aotearoa, my lecturer joked she would not have enough money to die. In an environment of fear, conformity becomes a safety tactic. It’s so much easier to “[chase] after grants, promotions, and conventional research outlets” (Giroux 2014, location 340), to surf atop the neoliberal wave, rather than fight and risk suffocation (Deleuze 1992).

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To see his museum of accidents, all Virilio (1989) had to do was enter the degree factory, for to innovate the student was already to innovate the suicide; and in this extreme situation, the pedagogical accident would not so much be the untimely death, but rather, that the student made it to postgrad at all. In this paradox of our accelerating society, one is trapped in modulation, forced into fluidity; granted an ever diversifying present, unto a singular, crushing future. In the dire strait of capitalism, one is forced into individuality to survive. Murder of the real? No, murder of the social. When Margaret Thatcher declared that “There is no such thing as society,” she was right—society as a principle had died and its trace was nowhere to be found (Baudrillard 2000, 61-63). It was as if it had never existed—not because there was too little of it, but because there was too much (Baudrillard 2000, 65-66). Because neoliberal ideology carried within it the same seed as socialism, only this seed sprouted madness; poverty, inequality, imperialism, genocide, sweatshops, mass incarceration, factory farming, domestic violence and rape—through a meritocratic and utilitarian lens, such a world was just. War was always for the greater good. Rape was your own doing. Sweatshops provided work for the poor—what more could you want? Individual responsibility was reified, even as greater and greater external forces encroached on one’s existence. Society did not exist because it had been pillaged by the market—alienated, privatised and commercialised. Market relations in place of social relations; individual goods in place of the social good.

In the 60’s, JFK stated “A rising tide lifts all boats”—that as long as the economy and the wealthiest few were well, prosperity would trickle down. In 2001, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Massey University stated “In a competitive marketplace, you either find a position of strength or you die.” (Brookes 1999, 21). Let’s face it, even if we did develop a sociological imagination and connect our private grievances to public ills, the ruling class wouldn’t care. From the very beginning, the university has operated unto the reproduction of the ruling order, not the formation of a public; it has acted to reproduce class, gender, race, sexuality, and all other social relations in the interests of capital (Welch 2015). The university has never not been a site of class domination. Sink or swim, ride or die, fuck this decimation of class from postmodern analyses, for as much as power from the bottom reinforces neoliberal ideology, power from the top imposed neoliberal policies in the first place. Ours is a society driven by global economic forces.

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And let me be honest here, I was going to write some fantastically absurd postmodern analysis of how the digital, despite its amorphous absence, has performatively shaped our understandings of the real, but then my first exam was three days after the end of semester, meaning I couldn’t even make use of the extension I got for this assignment. This is both an essay and an exegesis, a critical evaluation and final proclamation to my apocalyptic year. At the second 2017 OUSA election forum, nearly every candidate said they knew someone suffering from mental illness, or who’d attempted, or succeeded, suicide. I personally know of one other student who has attempted suicide, this year. After my own attempt, two of my flatmates said to me that if they’d had more courage, they would have likely done the same earlier. I know of multiple rape survivors, who suffer from panic attacks, depression and more. The university has done fuck all to support us. More than an outline of grievances, this is a postmodern Marxist intervention into our bullshit world. All these crushing burdens and debts have exacerbated the ‘accident’ of suicide, so commonplace now that it has become the substance of contemporary studenthood (Virilio 1989). Forced to juggle study and work to the point of mental collapse, more and more students are seeking counselling, a service the university is loath to provide (Brookes 1999, 7). As they beautify the waterfront, 160 full-time staff positions are cut. As students collapse out of exhaustion and anxiety, they sell themselves to international students as a place of learning and care. A rising tide means fuck all if one can’t afford a boat; left to surf in the wake of this ever heightening wave, one either modulates in perfect synchronicity to the whims of the market, or drowns to death.

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
Mario Salvio, Berkeley, 1964

all traditional functions—the critical, the political, the sexual, the social functions—become useless in a virtual world.
Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (64-65)


References
Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (trans. A. Blunden). marxist.org. Retrieved from here.
Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation (trans. S. F. Glaser). The University of Michigan Press.
Baudrillard, J. (2000). The murder of the real. In The vital illusion (59-83). Columbia University Press.
Brookes, G. (1999). Students and the Education Factory. NZ: International Socialist Organisation. A different version can be found here.
Debord, G. (1994). The Society of the Spectacle (3rd ed.). New York: Zone Books. Retrieved from here.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on societies of control. October 59, 3-7.
D’Amato, P. (2006). But What about…? Arguments Against Socialism. In The Meaning of Marxism [e-book]. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Foucault, M. (1978). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. A. Sheridan). New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, M. (2003). Eleven: 17 March 1976. In M. Bertani and A. Fontana (eds.) “Society Must be Defended.” Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76 (239-264). New York: Picador.
Giroux, H. (2014). Introduction: Neoliberalism’s War on Democracy & Chapter One: Dystopian Education in a Neoliberal Society. In Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education [e-book]. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Marx, K & Engels, F. (2010). Manifesto of the Communist Party (trans. S. Moore & F. Engels). marxist.org. Retrieved from here.
Savio, M. (1964, 2 December). Sit-in Address on the Steps of Sproul Hall. University of California. Retrieved from here.
Sharpe, M. (2010). Slavoj Žižek (1949-). In From Agamben to Žižek: Contemporary Critical Theorists (243-258). Edinburgh University Press.
University of Otago. (2016). University of Otago Annual Report 2016. NZ: Author. Retrieved from here.
Virilio, P. (1989). The museum of accidents. public 2: The Lunatic of One Idea, 80-85.
Weber, M. (2005). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London & New York: Routledge.
Welch, N. (2015). Educating for austerity: Social reproduction in the corporate university. International Socialist Review (98), 58-79.

 


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