“Beneath the University, the Commons” is the third in a series of conferences on university struggles (see: Rethinking and Reworking the University websites).  With this institutionalizing repetition, the conference faces the danger of becoming merely another academic conference – as a line for conference organizers and participants to put on our CVs, as a chance to network with other academics, and as a sheen of radicalness over our otherwise quiescent careers. This would be embarrassing; we’d not only be contradicting the ideals of the previous conferences, but also selling-out ourselves, and our comrades, whose insurgent energies continually motivate our organizing of these conferences.  Against that danger, we have framed this year’s conference in a way that directly addresses questions around constructive strategies for using the resources of universities without becoming recuperated within them.  We see the conference itself as means of practicing precisely such a strategy – creating an undercommons.  The work of such authors as Harney, Moten, and Shukaitis has given us better concepts for thinking through these strategies and for framing our conference around them.   They also help us reflect on whether and how our past conferences have lived up to our goal of creating space-times for radical experimentation *within* the university without becoming *of* the institution, and how we can continue and expand those practices through this next conference and beyond.

In examining the inspirations for our conferences, we see the conjuncture of three formative experiences. First, we had participated in struggles at our university (the University of Minnesota – labor union strikes, a grad student unionization drive, and a fight to save an affirmative action-type program), struggles through which we built relationships with each other that served as the basis for our conference organizing group; we felt the struggles could have benefited from more symbiotic connections between our activist work and the kind of academic work we did in and for conferences.  Second, we learned of commonalities between our university struggles and those of others both locally and around the world, and we saw a conference as a way to bring us together to share our experiences and collaborate on new theories and strategies.  Third, we were dissatisfied with academic conferences – their competitive careerism, co-opting of activist practices, and disconnect between the conference content and the community around the venue.

These three experiential processes converged in our encounters during our activism in the 2007 AFSCME strike at the U of M, as part of the student support group, such that we decided to create two Peoples Conferences during and immediately after the strike.  In our call for the conference, we saw the strike as “not an isolated labor dispute,” but as a “symptom of the radical making and remaking of the University of Minnesota and higher education more generally.”  We saw the conference as the beginning of “a series of productive encounters between workers, students, and faculty such that lessons from struggle and lessons from scholarship can be mobilized into a collaborative project of rethinking and remaking this institution.”  This event “set the stage for a larger conference to be held in March or April [2008] which will be opened to a wider audience and will provide the opportunity for those attending the first event to present their ideas in ways which are more fully developed and less caught up in the specific moment of the strike.”  The second People’s Conference, in the wake of the (mostly) failed strike, continued these discussions, “examining the political possibilities made available through the strike,” as a “chance to analyze, discuss and strategize ways to remake the University of Minnesota into an institution which is held in common by all people.”


On the basis of the relationships built during the strike, the strike support protests (particularly a hunger strike), and these conferences, there emerged new groups, including the Living Wage Avengers (a group of union activists at the U of M), a chapter of a free school at the U of M (the Experimental College), a renewed effort to organize graduate student workers, and following through on the People’s Conferences’ vision of organizing a major conference in Spring 2008.  The latter conference became Rethinking the University: Labor, Knowledge, Value (2008), with the organizing crew of Morgan Adamson, John Conley, Isaac Kamola, Stephen Koskela, Eli Meyerhoff, Lucia Pawlowski, Amy Pason, and Matt Stoddard.  The conference brought together participants “from across the campus community and national academic community to address the ‘crisis’ of the university as it had continually been transformed by neoliberal forces.”  Discussions included critical analysis of the “neoliberalization and corporatization of higher education and the casualization of academic labor,” as well as constructively imagining and strategizing “alternatives, including campus labor organizing, radical pedagogy, and other strategies of resistance.”  Most importantly for the continuation of our projects in their collaborative, insurgent form, the conference served as a space for joyously creative encounters through which we built new relationships and strengthened those amongst the conference organizers.  Some of the participants from around the country shared our passion for ‘commonizing’ universities so much that they, not only encouraged us to put on another conference, but also helped us plan for it remotely.  On the ground in Minnesota, our conference expanded and intensified our grad student-worker union organizing efforts, which in turn brought into our fold three new conference organizers (Noah Ebner, Elizabeth Johnson, and Sofi Shank) whose enthusiasm has continually revitalized our collaborations on the conference project.

In the year after the first conference, university struggles escalated around the world, with the fight against the closing of Antioch College, the creation of the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, the insurrection in Greece, the Anomalous Wave in Italy, and the New School and NYU occupations.  Motivated by these struggles and our own continuing activism in Minnesota, we felt compelled to continue the conference’s projects with another event, “Reworking the University: Visions, Strategies, Demands” (2009).  Going beyond the first conference’s format, we sought “to generate a vibrant, political exchange by troubling the traditional format of the academic conference,” including, not only panels, roundtables, and workshops, but also a massive art installation.  Discussions included: organizing contingent faculty, the creation and promotion of radical intellectual collectives, the New School occupations, Teachers Against Occupation, the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute, and strategies for teaching about the university and for teaching working-class students.  As in the first conference, the joyous encounters at this one fostered the expanding and intensifying of our relationships, but this year we were more deliberate about actualizing the creative, insurgent potentials of these relationships through projects in between the always-too-brief events of the conferences.  At the conference, we started writing a collective manifesto, which is still in-progress.  We’ve begun organizing university-activism collectivities within disciplinary conferences, such as geography.  We took a roadtrip to Antioch, Ohio to participate in the Nonstop Liberal Arts Institute’s celebration and mini-conference.  And, most importantly for continuing the conference itself, our organizing core was joined by Cecilia Aldaronado, Randall Cohn, Nick Hengen, and Sarah Nelson, who have rejuvenated our dedication to the project and expanded our potentials to create spaces for rad experimentation.

Throughout the conference project, what’s made it happen has never been our devotion to some abstract ends, but rather, the means – the joyous, creative experiences we have together as conference organizers and participants.  In our organizing meetings and in the conference itself, we often realize - in microcosm - our desires for a radically democratic, experimental, insurgent university in common.  Our awareness of the increasingly precarious conditions of our lives in universities, and in the contemporary world generally, compels us not to simply wait for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism before enjoying the conditions of a livable life.  We can and do enact minor revolutions everyday, whenever we temporarily occupy a space – be it a coffee shop table, a university classroom, a conference lecture hall, a quad, a building, or a whole campus – and start acting otherwise than normally expected, collaborating with each other as friends and comrades, taking and making what we need to organize and valorize ourselves on our own terms.  We see our conference as an event for symbiotically connecting and expanding the participants in such occupations, from the everyday to the more spectacular, towards making the spectacular happen every day.  Beyond the limited space-time of these occupations, the friendships we foster during them have a lingering affectivity, an excess of desires and sociability.  When we are separated from each other outside of these space-times, we are continually tempted to invest this excess into the comfortable-seeming individualistic projects of the status quo (e.g., our careers), rather than reinvesting it in the subjectivity-destabilizing, collective projects of those insurgent occupations.  To prevent such recuperation of our energies into projects that sustain the normal operations of our universities and world, we need to develop collective strategies for expanding and intensifying our occupations and our friendships.  Further, recognizing the precarious conditions of our living and working situations, we need strategies for negotiating the tension between, on the one hand, working within the normal institutions that give us our resources for staying alive and, on the other hand, collectively subverting those institutions, reappropriating their resources while fostering our alternative, insurgent modes of living and working. 

To create such strategic means, we have framed our conference this year around the theme of ‘undercommons’: everyday, collaborative practices that are not only subversive but that also strategically avoid recuperation of the excess desires and sociabilities produced through such subversive activity - movements that exploit the porosity of our institutions’ established boundaries to make collective lines of flight for alternative practices, while being selective about the relative visibility or invisibility of these subversions and alternatives for different audiences. For collectively developing such means to continually reinvest our energies into our insurgencies, while helping each other build alternative institutions for thriving in conditions of precarity, we envision this year’s conference as itself a means to this means, never an end-in-itself – an event of temporary occupation, at the university of Minnesota but circulating our projects well beyond it, for continuing and expanding our experimentations in and through the space-times and relationships of the university.