Occupied by fear

Demonstrators are not the only ones with profound if unarticulated questions. Stefano Harney says we owe students more than teaching

November 17, 2011



Credit: Cameron Law


They are assembled and they are not leaving without answers. They know that something is wrong. And yet at the same time, they seem to have no demands, or at least few they will articulate, and little they will agree on, except to say they want a different future. They come from different walks of life, but share a sense that no one is listening to them. They occupy, and by their presence ask something of us. But what?

This is the feeling I get when I look out at the 200 or so undergraduate students in our business strategy module this year. These students, like the tens of thousands on undergraduate and graduate business programmes across the UK, are unlikely to find themselves trying to pitch tents on the stony ground beside St Paul's Cathedral. Most gave even the massive student marches of last autumn a miss. But they share the anxiety and the wariness of those marching and occupying around the globe in a way that is not merely about some zeitgeist feeling. They no longer know which side they are on. They know only that one day they woke up and history seemed to be against them. So they occupy the lecture theatres as surely as those in the public squares around the world occupy our attention.

And who can blame them? Their chosen subject of study is under siege. One could not say the same about history or anthropology or engineering, although none is blameless. But business is the target. Unlike protests of the past directed against governments, the current occupations from London to Athens to New York are aimed squarely at the financial sector. Even the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt have turned to the plight of workers in state-run factories and the stranglehold of army and intelligence networks on business in those countries. The dream of so many business students to go to the City or to Wall Street looks suddenly like a career path that will require a police escort. And things are not much better for all the future trainee managers in retail, services and logistics industries who may also need some training with a broom and dustpan as rioting customers practise what the Italians used to call "self-reduction" in pricing. English literature students who might once have looked across in envy at the prospects of their peers in business studies may well now be glad to be safely out of the line of fire. Except, of course, that for many an arts graduate, a job in the private sector was Plan B.

All this is why we should take the occupation of the students in the lecture theatre seriously and not as a metaphor, and why we should not undermine the importance of other occupations. For occupation is precisely a suspension, precisely an action that draws attention to what was there before, what we might call the "pre-occupation". Before the occupation of Tahrir Square, that space was indeed occupied by Egyptians but that pre-occupation became, at some point, both intolerable and impossible. For many around the world, the subjectivity of employee and debtor is now simply intolerable, indeed impossible to occupy. So it is, perhaps, for these students. That hesitation, that confusion in the lecture theatre is the suspension of being a student, maybe even the impossibility of being a student. It is an occupation of the university that asks what it might mean to try to study under conditions where career prospects are few, where debt looms and where those with dream jobs constitute the nightmares of others.

The occupation of the lecture theatre should remind us academics of the pre-occupation that drew us to the university. Today we need not simply to teach - any more than a banker needs simply to lend and speculate or a merchant simply to market and sell or indeed a politician simply to win an election and govern. Today we need to create the conditions in the university and beyond that make it possible again to be a student.

We cannot do this alone, but only in concert with every other sector and society facing occupations. Because whether it is student debt, business loans, public funding or prisons and policing, each occupation soon suspends more than its immediate target. Such a suspension is the gift of these occupations, the opportunity to ask how we can continue when things become intolerable, an opportunity that now extends to us in the lecture theatre; assuming, that is, that the pre-occupation of teaching in the university is still possible.

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