Academic Abolitionism, a Multi-Campus Graduate Working Group (2015-16) at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, seeks to confront the neoliberal restructuring of the academy toward privatization by expanding the framework of critical university studies with the analytics of ethnic studies. The working group situates race in the study of the neoliberal university and its turn to the market, finance, and profit. If Ruth Gilmore understands racism as differentiated “vulnerabilities to premature death,” 1) how do privatized education and privatized knowledge contribute to such racial disparities of life and death? And 2) how do higher education institutions’ historical ties to slave plantation economy and the dispossession of native lands, as Craig Steven Wilder has shown, further complicate the neoliberal university’s relationship to race? Particularly of interest to the working group is the role of the humanities under the neoliberal university. Seen as foundational yet marginal, the unique position of the humanities in the corporatized university provides us with a vantage point to explore 3) how to create strategically boundary spaces within and beyond the university that resist the collusion between neoliberalism and racism, spaces akin to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the “Undercommons.”
The working group grows in part out of the critical momentum and conversation generated at the symposium, “Academic Abolitionism: Native/Women of Color Feminist/Queer of Color Learning and Living Beyond the (Re)Production of Death,” held in UC San Diego in 2014. The naming of the symposium takes its cue from the title of Andrea Smith’s lecture “From Academic Freedom to Academic Abolitionism” at UC Berkeley in 2011. The working group deploys the term “abolitionism” as a theoretical praxis to guide us in the exploration and creation of the undercommon spaces just beneath the institutional surface of the neoliberal university. It begs the questions: What system or practice is to be put to an end? What would that “end” look like, and how to achieve it? The working group, however, finds the most productive way to engage with “abolitionism” not in giving it a singular meaning or treating it as a definite goal. Taking our cue from Saidiya Hartman’s discussion of the “nonevent of emancipation” in the context of slavery that insists on abolition’s ambiguity and elusiveness, we keep the questions of “academic abolitionism” radically open and approach it as our collective orientation to remind us of what is at stake.
More specifically, we seek to create spaces to rethink the relationship between abolition and freedom within structures of learning designed to delimit the definition of academic discourse. Such delimitation emerges from ideologies tightly woven into the fabric of modernity through the use of terms such as “civil,” always already tied to notions of “savage.” This delimitation works to obviate the role slavery and dispossession have played and continue to play in the emergence and maintenance of academia as an institution of modernity and its constituent violence. Academic abolitionism provides a framework to confront colonial processes circumscribing freedom and its expression by juxtaposing Indian residential boarding schools alongside laws criminalizing education for slaves, for example, as a way to understand contemporary social disparities, their reproduction in academic spaces, and their relationship to settler colonialism and race.
As an emergent interdisciplinary methodology, academic abolitionism imagines a critical pedagogy engaged with existing forms of knowledge production (activist scholarship, social engaged research, community collaboration, etc.) that ground the working group’s theoretical intervention, cultural production, and political activism. By bridging the divide often created in academia between inter/disciplines (for example, Black Studies and Indigenous Studies) this working group articulates colonial relations along a spectrum that recognizes both the differences and overlaps between various subjects living with legacies of dispossession, enslavement, forced migration, and labor exploitation. In addition, our attention to the political histories of knowledge production foregrounds both the university’s historical conditions of emergence in racial capitalism and colonialism as well as its role as a site of ongoing struggle to forge a new and productive conversation around those histories. More importantly, we also seek to provide a forum to hold necessary conversations about the futures of these subjects and inter/disciplines within the university as a public social institution of higher learning.