Thursday, December 09, 2010


It seems essential, in whatever haste, to offer a gesture toward registering several recent economically oriented class-specific struggles that have been largely unpublicized or depoliticized in the US (where attacks on workers documented and undocumented, as well as attacks on the humanities, the social sciences, and education at large, continue frustratingly unabated).

1. Striking air traffic controllers, who brought almost all air travel to a halt this past weekend in Spain, have been ordered back to work under military authority. The controller's union apologized for its actions. NY Times, Dec 8:

In a country with a strong labor movement that is usually tolerant of wildcat strikes, the confrontation has been hailed as a potential watershed event along the lines of President Ronald Reagan's firing of air traffic controllers in 1981.
The unemployment rate in Spain stands at about %20 of the national population.

2. Student protests continue to unfold in the UK in response to proposed (and now approved) legislation that would raise the cap on tuition for students in England. For the past month or so I've had the good fortune of access to a number of online lists and discussion groups where several of these protests have been actively organized and discussed by a number of younger British poets, artists, critics and activists. The militant and enthusiastic character of the dialog taking place on these lists is incredibly enviable at a time when the most virulently (and violently) active people in the US are a frighteningly conservative, xenophobic and largely racist mob identified with the Tea Party.

3. The largest prison strike in US history was (not surprisingly) criminally ignored by mainstream and, to large extent, independent media. Thousands of inmates in ten prisons across Georgia refused to leave their cells in a non-violent protest coordinated using banned cell phones. The prisoners presented the following demands:

  • A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.
  • EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.
  • DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.
  • AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.
  • DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.
  • NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.
  • VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.
  • ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.
  • JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

With a nationwide population of nearly 2,500,000 inmates, the US prison industry boasts a far larger workforce than the US mining industry which — at just over 300,000 — is about one percent of the population. Yet the mining industry, or the strange figuration of the miner in the American cultural imaginary, carries much greater sway than the far larger prison population. Increasing exponentially since 1980, the prison community in the US is almost 10% of the overall population. And like miners in the US, the prison community is a laboring community.

Within the US, the struggles of the present moment feel far more like the desperate gestures of a starving 1932 Bonus Army than the decisive interventions of a 1965 SDS. But considered in a global context, in conjunction with nationwide strikes and non-violent actions in Spain, Greece, France, the UK and elsewhere, gestures of resistance to economic and social conditions here in the US feel far more affirmative. In most cases the decisions and legislation protested are pushed ahead in spite of popular resistance (viz. pension reform in France), but the scale and ferocity of the protests appears to be having a wonderfully viral, radicalizing effect where the net gain is not located in immediate, real-time concession and reform but in consciousness.

Anyone must recognize well in advance how naive or destructively idealistic this delight in the possibility of shifts in consciousness toward radicalization might be, especially given the failure (and impressive lack of rigor) that characterized so many root-level consciousness raising campaigns in the last decades of the twentieth century. But the strong desire for something not this is everywhere present through the enduring twilight of this economic and cultural blackout. And this desire for something not this is, I suspect, a crucial site of struggle, the wild card up for grabs. This wild card can either be surrendered to "grass roots movements" like the Tea Party or reclaimed by a Left that, however nebulous and internally differentiated, has always been decisively shaped by cultural workers and educators. And perhaps it is this which, from an administrative point of view (or the point of view of capital), makes the elimination of humanities departments so desirable in the US and UK.


Hélène Cixous' 29 November 2010 appeal to the University at Albany registering her opposition to the elimination of five humanities departments (first posted by Pierre Joris at Nomadics):

November 29, 2010
Open Letter to :
George Philip, President
University at Albany-SUNY

Dear President Philip,

In April 2007 I visited the University at Albany, extremely happy to have been invited by Professor David Wills to participate in a conference organized around my work. I had the distinct impression that the university was an institution focused on intelligence and culture, a place open toward the future, thriving on new initiatives. I encountered very high quality faculty and graduate students and found the sciences of thinking represented there to be strong and alive. I had the feeling of excitement experienced by every scholar or student of knowledge who is able to work with an engaged and motivated group of like minds.

One can judge the future of a country by the space that it provides for the Humanities. The warm welcome I received from the New York State Writers Institute, added to the intellectual atmosphere of the programs in French, Italian and Theatre, made me think that SUNY-Albany was a privileged place for emerging research, and that it possessed, in particular, the good political sense to watch over its interests. You cannot imagine how stupefied and indignant I was to learn that that institution was about to mutilate itself.

I don’t wish simply to be scandalized. I don’t want to believe that you are going, of your own account, to destroy your own riches. I’ll allow myself only to ask you to stop the ill advised process that will surely and irremediably weaken you. It is as if one were to cut out one’s own tongue. Don’t do that.

In 1968 I founded the Université de Paris 8, which still remains an experimental jewel within the French university system. I know full well that one has to struggle in order to allow the proper values for insuring the worthy and dignified development of students to flourish. They are your children, whom you must provide with the best opportunity for succeeding in the world. And, as Aeschylus said, “blood once shed cannot return to the veins”. Beware of doing something that is irreversible.

I would be very sad to know that the University at Albany had stifled its own breath. I want to believe, dear President Philip, that you won’t make the wrong choice.

Hélène Cixous
Professor Emerita Paris 8 University
A.D. White Professor at large Cornell University
House playwright Théâtre du Soleil Paris
Writer, author of 70 volumes of fiction and theory
cc. Susan Phillips, Provost
Edelgard Wulfert, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
David Wills, Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures