Tuesday, December 17, 2013

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 (Strasbourg, 1966)

Situationist International and the Students of Strasbourg  November 1966

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

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. Faced with the prospect of such a dismal and mediocre “reward” for his shameful corrent poverty, the student prefers to take refuge in an unreally lived present, which he decorates with an illusory glamor.

The student is a stoical slave: the more chains authority binds him with, the freer he thinks he is. Like his new family, the university, he sees himself as the most “independent” social being, whereas he is in fact directly subjected to the two most powerful systems of social authority: the family and the state. As their well-behaved, grateful and submissive child, he shares and embodies all the values and mystifications of the system. 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 (religions), the student, in his marginal poverty, can find no other consolation than the most shopworn images of the ruling society, the farcical repetition of all its alienated products.

1. To make shame more shameful still by making it publicIT IS PRETTY SAFE TO SAY that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the policeman and the priest. But the reasons for which he is despised are often false reasons reflecting the dominant ideology, whereas the reasons for which he is 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 Les Temps Modernes to L’Express) go into raptures over the supposed “rise of the students,” and the declining bureaucratic organizations (from the “Communist” Party to the UNEF [French National Student Union]) jealously contend for his “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, sociology, economics) and thus they remain fundamentally erroneous. Fourier long ago exposed this “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. The sociologists Bourderon and Passedieu, in their study Les Héritiers: les étudiants et la culture, 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 of the teaching system (i.e. of the system of teaching the system). Meanwhile their disciples, such as Kravetz,(1) compensate for their petty-bureaucratic resentment with a hodgepodge of outdated revolutionary phraseology.

Modern capitalism’s spectacularization(2) of reification allots everyone a specific role within a general passivity. The student is no exception to this rule. His is a provisional role, a rehearsal for his 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. The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and the utterly separate future status into which he will one day be abruptly thrust. Meanwhile his schizophrenic consciousness enables him to withdraw into his “initiation group,” forget about his future, and bask in the mystical trance of a present sheltered from history. It is not surprising that he avoids facing his situation, particularly its economic aspects: in our “affluent society” he is still a pauper. More than 80% of students come from income groups above the working class, yet 90% 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 student clings to his tame and irresponsible “protracted infancy.” Belated adolescent crises may provoke occasional arguments with his family, but he uncomplainingly accepts being treated as a baby by the various institutions that govern his daily life. (If they ever stop shitting in his face, it’s only to come around and bugger him.) 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. He is contemptible not only for his actual poverty, but also for his complacency regarding every kind of poverty, his unhealthy propensity to wallow in his own alienation in the hope, amid the general lack of interest, of arousing interest in his 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 his shameful corrent poverty, the student prefers to take refuge in an unreally lived present, which he decorates with an illusory glamor.

The student is a stoical slave: the more chains authority binds him with, the freer he thinks he is. Like his new family, the university, he sees himself as the most “independent” social being, whereas he is in fact directly subjected to the two most powerful systems of social authority: the family and the state. As their well-behaved, grateful and submissive child, he shares and embodies all the values and mystifications of the system. 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 (religions), the student, in his 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 French student always arrives too late. All the values and enthusiasms that are the pride of his closed little world have long ago been condemned by history as laughable and untenable illusions.

Once upon a time the universities had a certain prestige; the student persists in the belief that he is lucky to be there. But he came too late. His mechanical, specialized education is as profoundly degraded (in comparison to the former level of general bourgeois culture)(4)as his 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. “High 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 student, in his mental menopause, is unaware of all this; he continues to listen respectfully to his masters, conscientiously suppressing all critical spirit so as to immerse himself in the mystical illusion of being a “student” — someone seriously devoted to learning serious things — in the hope that his professors will ultimately impart to him 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...