On the Poverty of Student Life
Considered in Its Economic, Political,
Psychological, Sexual, and Especially Intellectual Aspects,
With a Modest Proposal for Doing Away With It
members of the Situationist International
and students of Strasbourg University
It is pretty safe to say that the student is the most universally despised creature in Australia, apart from the policeman and the priest. But the reasons for which they areT1 despised are often false reasons reflecting the dominant ideology, whereas the reasons for which they are justifiably despised from a revolutionary standpoint remain repressed and unavowed. The partisans of false opposition are aware of these faults — faults which they themselves share — but they invert their actual contempt into a patronizing admiration. The impotent leftist intellectuals (from Thesis Eleven to Arena) go into raptures over the supposed “importance of the students,” and the declining bureaucratic organizations (from the “Labor” Party to the [National Student Union]) jealously contend for the students “moral and material support.” We will show the reasons for this concern with the student and how they are rooted in the dominant reality of overdeveloped capitalism. We are going to use this pamphlet to denounce them one by one: the suppression of alienation necessarily follows the same path as alienation.
Up till now all the analyses and studies of student life have ignored the essential. None of them go beyond the viewpoint of academic specializations (psychology with wellbeing, sociology with housing, economics with employment and sexology with sexuality) and thus they remain fundamentally erroneous. Philosophy long ago exposed the “methodical myopia” of treating fundamental questions without relating them to modern society as a whole. The fetishism of facts masks the essential category, the mass of details obscures the totality. Everything is said about this society except what it really is: a society dominated by commodities and spectacles, as means for the smooth functioning of our society of organized survival . Even sociologists Baukman and Meck,T2 in their studies remain impotent in face of the few partial truths they have succeeded in demonstrating. Despite their good intentions they fall back into professorial morality, the inevitable Kantian ethic of a real democratization through a real rationalization.
Modern capitalism’s spectacularization(2) of reification allots everyone a specific role within a general passivity. The students are no exception to this rule. Theirs is a provisional role, a rehearsal for their ultimate role as a conservative element in the functioning of the commodity system. Being a student is a form of initiation.
This initiation magically recapitulates all the characteristics of mythical initiation. It remains totally cut off from historical, individual and social reality. Students lead a double life, poised between their present status and the utterly separate future status into which they will one day be abruptly thrust. Meanwhile their schizophrenic consciousness enables them to withdraw into their “initiation group,” forget about their future, and bask in the mystical trance of a present sheltered from history. It is not surprising that they avoid facing their situation, particularly its economic aspects: in our “lucky country” they are still without luck. The vast majority of students come from income groups above the working class, yet most of them have less money than the lowest worker. Student poverty is an anachronism in the society of the spectacle: it has yet to attain the new poverty of the new proletariat. In a period when more and more young people are breaking free from moral prejudices and family authority as they are subjected to blunt, undisguised exploitation at the earliest age, the students cling to their tame and irresponsible “protracted infancy.” Belated adolescent crises may provoke occasional arguments with family, but after all, they must always reserve the option to move back in with mummy and daddy to save money during honors, and so they uncomplainingly accept being treated as babies by the various institutions that govern their daily life.
Student poverty is merely the most gross expression of the colonization of all domains of social practice. The projection of social guilty conscience onto the students masks the poverty and servitude of everyone.
But our contempt for the student is based on quite different reasons. They are contemptible not only for their actual poverty, but also for their complacency regarding every kind of poverty, their unhealthy propensity to wallow in their own alienation in the hope, amid the general lack of interest, of arousing interest in their particular lacks. The requirements of modern capitalism determine that most students will become mere low-level functionaries, serving functions comparable to those of skilled workers in the nineteenth century.(3) Faced with the prospect of such a dismal and mediocre “reward” for their shameful current poverty, the student prefers to take refuge in a falsely lived present, which they decorate with an illusory glamor. The illusions that formerly had to be imposed on white-collar workers are now willingly internalized and transmitted by the mass of future petty functionaries.
If ancient social poverty produced the most grandiose systems of compensation in history in the form of religion, the student, in their marginal poverty, can find no other consolation than the most shopworn images of the ruling society, the farcical repetition of all its alienated products. As an ideological being, the Australian student exists upside down.. The values and enthusiasms that they consider of global importance are nothing but local prejudices, universalized by a totalizing system. Once upon a time the universities had a certain prestige; the student persists in the belief that they are lucky to be there. But they came too late. Their mechanical, specialized education is as profoundly degraded (in comparison to the former level of general bourgeois culture)(4) as their own intellectual level, because the modern economic system requires a mass production of uneducated students who have been rendered incapable of thinking. The university has become an institutional organization of ignorance. Whatever is left of culture is being degraded in the assembly-line production of professors, all of whom are cretins and most of whom would be jeered by any audience of highschoolers. But the students, in their mental menopause, are unaware of all this; they continue to listen respectfully to their masters, conscientiously suppressing all critical spirit so as to immerse themselves in the mystical illusion of being a “student” — someone seriously devoted to learning serious things — in the hope that their professors will ultimately impart to them the ultimate truths of the world. The future revolutionary society will condemn all the noise of the lecture halls and classrooms as nothing but verbal pollution. The student is already a very bad joke.
The student is unaware that history is altering even their little “ivory tower”of activism. The famous “crisis of the university,” that detail of a more general crisis of modern capitalism, remains the object of a deaf-mute dialogue among various specialists. It simply expresses the difficulties of this particular sector of production in its belated adjustment to the general transformation of the productive apparatus. The remnants of the old liberal bourgeois university ideology are becoming banalized as its social basis is disappearing. During the era of free-trade capitalism, when the liberal state left the university a certain marginal freedom, the latter could imagine itself as an independent power. But even then it was intimately bound to the needs of that type of society, providing the privileged minority with an adequate general education before they took up their positions within the ruling class. The pathetic bitterness of so many nostalgic professors(5) stems from the fact that they have lost their former role as guard-dogs serving the future masters and have been reassigned to the considerably less noble function of sheep-dogs in charge of herding white-collar flocks to their respective digitized factories and portable offices in accordance with the needs of the ill-planned economy. These professors hold up their archaisms as an alternative to the technocratization of the university and imperturbably continue to purvey scraps of “general” culture and strategies of humanistic accommodation to audiences of future specialists who will not know how to make any use of them.
More serious, and thus more dangerous, are the modernists of the Left and those of the NTEU ,” who demand a “reform of the university structure” so as to “reintegrate the university into social and economic life,” i.e. so as to adapt it to the needs of modern capitalism. Under the inane slogan of knowledge transfer, the colleges that once supplied “general culture” to the ruling class, though still retaining some of their anachronistic prestige, are being transformed into force-feeding factories for rearing multi cultural communitarian functionaries. Far from contesting this historical process, which is subordinating one of the last relatively autonomous sectors of social life to the demands of the commodity system, the above-mentioned progressives protest against delays and inefficiencies in its implementation. They are the partisans of the cybernetized university, which is already showing its ugly head all around us.(6)
Inevitably the students are oblivious of all this.Because of their acute economic poverty the students are condemned to a paltry form of survival. But, always self-satisfied, they parade their very ordinary indigence as if it were an original “lifestyle,” making a virtue of their serialized shabbiness and pretending to be bohemian. “Bohemianism” is far from an original solution in any case, but the notion that one could live a really bohemian life without a complete and definitive break with the university milieu is ludicrous. But the student bohemian (and every student likes to pretend that he is a bohemian at heart) clings to his imitative and degraded version of what is, in the best of cases, only a mediocre individual solution. Even elderly provincial ladies know more about life than they do. Forty years after Marcuse our would-be “nonconformists” continue to follow the most traditional forms of amorous-erotic behavior, reproducing the general relations of class society in their intersexual relations. Their susceptibility to recruitment as militants for any cause is an ample demonstration of their real impotence.
In spite of their more or less loose use of time within the margin of individual liberty allowed by the totalitarian spectacle, the student avoids adventure and experiment, preferring the security of the straitjacketed daily space-time organized for their benefit by the guardians of the system. Though not constrained to separate their work and leisure, they do so of their own accord, all the while hypocritically proclaiming their contempt for “good students” and “study fiends.” They accept every type of separation and then bemoan the “lack of communication” in their religious, sports, political or union club. They are so stupid and so miserable that they voluntarily submit themselves to the University Psychological Aid Centers, those agencies of psycho-police control established by the vanguard of modern oppression and naturally hailed as a great victory for student unionism.(8)
But the real poverty of the student’s everyday life finds its immediate fantasy-compensation in the opium of cultural commodities. In the cultural spectacle the student finds his natural place as a respectful disciple. Although close to the production point, access to the real Sanctuary of Culture is denied them; so they discover so called “modern culture” as admiring spectators. In an era long after the death of art they remain the most loyal patron of the theaters and film clubs and the most avid consumer of the packaged fragments of its preserved corpse displayed in the cultural supermarkets. If art didn’t exist, the student would have invented it. They are perfect example of all the platitudes of market research: conspicuous consumers, conditioned by advertising into fervently divergent attitudes toward products that are identical in their nullity, with an irrational preference for Brand X (Houellbecq or Sunshine State, for example) and an irrational prejudice against Brand Y (Ballard or , Donnie Darko perhaps).
Incapable of real passions, the student seeks titillation in the passionless polemics between the celebrities of Unintelligence: Badiou /Bourdieu — Foucault/Derrida — Eagleton/Jameson — Deleuze and whoever bothers to still talk about him — T3 — Eddie Maguire / Kate Blanchet and between their rival ideologies, whose function is to mask real problems by debating false ones: Post- Humanism — Deconstruction — Structuralism — Scientology — Creationism — Dialectico-Queerism — Genealogy — — Metalinguistics.
They think they are avant-garde if they have downloaded illegally the latest Von-Trier , or read the latest Agamben,(9) or participated in the latest opening on Gertrude St. Their overriding concern is always to maintain their cultural status. Like everyone else, they take pride in buying the paperback reprints of important and difficult texts that “mass culture” is disseminating at an accelerating pace.(10) Since they don’t know how to read, they content themselves with sheepishly ‘using’ them for doctoral theses.
Their favorite reading matter is the press that specializes in promoting the frenzied consumption of cultural novelties; they unquestioningly accept its pronouncements as guidelines for their ideas and tastes. They revel in The Guardian Weekly or Le Monnde Diplomatique; or perhaps they prefer the New Left Review, which they feel is an accurate and truly “objective” journal, though find its style somewhat too difficult. To deepen their trendy knowledge they dips into Radical Philosophy, the slick magical magazine that removes the wrinkles and blackheads from old ideas. With such guides they hope to gain an understanding of the modern world and become politically conscious!
For in Australia, the student is content to be politicized, rather than political. Their political participation is mediated by the same spectacle. Thus they seize upon all the pitiful tattered remnants of a Left that was annihilated more than forty years ago by “spiritualist” reformism and libertarian counterrevolution. The rulers are well aware of this defeat of the workers movement, and so perhaps are the workers themselves, though more confusedly. But the students remain oblivious of it, and continue to participate blithely in the most laughable demonstrations that never draw anybody but students. This utter political ignorance makes the universities a happy hunting ground for the manipulators of Social Movements, NGO’S and social entrepreneurs which program the student’s political options with smiles and a free beer. Occasionally there are deviationary tendencies and slight impulses toward “independence,” but after a period of token resistance the dissidents are invariably reincorporated into an order they have never fundamentally questioned.(11) The Socialist Alternative,” for instance whose title is surely oxymoronic pride themselves on having rebelled against Capitalism, then join its more conscientious accomplices in appealing for Peace in Palestine.
The students took pride in their opposition to the “outdated” and insensitive aspects of the Howard regime, but in so doing they unwittingly voice their approval of other crimes (such as those great acts of resistance initiated by FARC or Hassan Nasrallah). These “youthful” attitudes are thus actually even more old-fashioned than the regime’s — the Liberals at least understand modern society well enough to administer it.
But this is not the student’s only archaism. They feel obliged to have general ideas on everything, to form a coherent worldview capable of giving meaning to their need for nervous activity and asexual promiscuity. As a result they fall prey to the last doddering missionary efforts of the churches. With atavistic ardor they rush to adore the putrescent carcass of God and to cherish the decomposing remains of prehistoric religions in the belief that they enrich them and their time. Along with elderly provincial ladies, students form the social category with the highest percentage of admitted religious adherents. Everywhere else priests have been insulted and driven off, but university clerics openly continue to bugger thousands of students in their spiritual shithouses.
In all fairness, we should mention that there are some tolerably intelligent students and teachers. These latter easily get around the miserable regulations designed to control the more mediocre students. They are able to do so precisely because they have understood the system; and they understand it because they despise it and know themselves to be its enemies. They are in the educational system in order to get the best it has to offer: namely, grants. Taking advantage of the contradiction that, for the moment at least, obliges the system to maintain a small, relatively independent sector of academic “research,” they are going to calmly carry the germs of sedition to the highest level. Their open contempt for the system goes hand in hand with the lucidity that enables them to outdo the system’s own lackeys, especially intellectually. They are already among the theorists of the coming revolutionary movement, and take pride in beginning to be feared as such. They make no secret of the fact that what they extract so easily from the “academic system” is used for its destruction. For the students cannot revolt against anything without revolting against their studies, though the necessity of this revolt is felt less naturally by them than by workers, who spontaneously revolt against their condition as worker. But the student is a product of modern society just like Bono and Pepsi-Cola. Their extreme alienation can be contested only through a contestation of the entire society. This critique can in no way be carried out on the student terrain: beneath the pavement lies only more arable land for organic farming. The students who define themselves as such identifies themselves with a pseudovalue that prevents them from becoming aware of their real dispossession, and thus remain at the height of false consciousness.