Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Undercommons:
Fugitive Planning and Black Study

by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten
Minor Compositions, 166 pages, $24

Whatever Fred Moten is up to, it must be brilliant. Moten, a professor of performance studies at NYU, was awarded a MacArthur grant in 2020, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2016, and numerous awards for his poetry. He holds degrees in English from two of the highest-rated English departments in the country—Harvard and UC Berkeley—and has been appointed to advisory boards at Vanderbilt, UC Irvine, and the City University of New York.

Despite these laurels from the educational establishment, Moten is regularly described in interviews and profiles as an “­anti-academic iconoclast,” even an “outsider.” These appellations are debatable. What is not debatable is his success. Moten has become an exemplar of a now-common phenomenon among academic theorists: that of the ­insider-outsider, the man who stands atop the very hierarchies he claims to oppose and defy.

Moten, fifty-nine, is still at the peak of his career. Since 2000 he has published eight books of ­poetry and five theoretical works, including the sweeping, ambitious trilogy consent not to be a single being. His lectures, available online, show why he is so widely liked. His voice is soft but sonorous, his presence joyful but hesitant. He speaks with a near-­constant smile, waving side to side like a wind-blown reed, regularly pausing his reading to add a personal anecdote, often with a laugh.

Moten’s ongoing ­project is an effort to develop an “aesthetics of the black radical tradition” by drawing on pop culture and the vernacular of black life as well as left-wing revolutionary thought and high academic critical theory. But he is perhaps best known for The Undercommons, a polemic against the neoliberal university and in support of the unauthorized vernacular intellectual work that takes place on its margins, co-written with European Graduate School professor (and Harvard classmate) Stefano Harney. As the story goes, the book became an underground classic by being shared around faculty ­lounges and beneath grad school seminar tables, a kind of twenty-first-century American samizdat.

At the heart of its critique is the idea of “fugitivity,” a term borrowed from professors Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman. To exist in fugitivity is to be unsettled, unmoored, cut adrift—to pass quietly from port to metaphorical port out of sight of sovereign actors who might wish your internment, or worse. It is to conspire by lamplight with fellow outlaws and thieves, to share a bunk with exiles and mutineers, to form a loose society of solidarity with rogues and runaways who move in the darkened corners of the world. And in their existence on the ­fringes of traditional ­channels of power and authority, denied the protections of law and public morality, fugitives must write the maxims they live by as they go. Like jazz musicians, freestyle rappers, and critical theorists, they must improvise.

But Moten is a professor, not a pirate; the fugitivity he praises exists in student unions and printing labs of university campuses, not the taverns and inns of harbor towns. But like a port, the university is both a site of rapacious capital accumulation and a shelter for those in flight. In Moten’s telling, the university has not “­betrayed” any supposedly universal mission of enlightenment. Rather, the ­university—and “universal enlightenment” itself—has always been a “State strategy” meant to “control education and impose a worldview.” “It cannot be denied,” Moten writes in The Undercommons, “that the university is a place of ­refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment.” Therefore, “in the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.”

To join “the undercommons,” then, is to fall in with this fugitive collection of artists and thinkers operating at and beyond the margins of respectability and professionalization, an “outcast mass intellectuality” that “parasitizes” upon the resources of the university to wage war against it. Its ranks are made up of “maroon communities of composition teachers, mentorless graduate students, adjunct Marxist historians, out or queer management professors, state college ethnic studies departments, closed-down film programs, visa-­expired Yemeni student newspaper editors, historically black college sociologists, and feminist engineers.” It is “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”

Strangely, this impassioned critique of professionalization and prestige is written entirely in the language of academic critical theory, the shop talk of the seminar room, with all the usual references: “­Derrida notices,” “to return to Spivak,” “Sara Ahmed says,” “what Foucault called,” “as Fanon understood.”

Yet The Undercommons is ­actually one of Moten’s more readable works, perhaps because of his co-author. On the sentence level, the books that make up the consent not to be a single being trilogy (in which one finds things like an Althusserian reading of “Ghetto Supastar”) are almost psychedelically illegible. Moten namedrops theorists both canonical and contemporary without any context or explanation; he follows no discernible rules for punctuation. It is a kind of ­improvisatory thinking on the page, but for an audience that shares exactly his style, concerns, and references—which is to say, ultimately for himself.

One representative sentence in Black and Blur runs to 174 words, referencing six different theorists and two books, and containing at least two neologisms and eight ­instances of the word “dialectic.” A glowing profile in the New Yorker quotes another doozy from Stolen Life:

Black studies is a dehiscence at the heart of the institution on its edge; its broken, coded documents sanction walking in another world while passing through this one, graphically disordering the administered scarcity from which black studies flows as wealth.

(At the heart . . . on its edge?) “A reader may need to sit with that sentence for a while,” the author notes, “read it over once or twice, perhaps look up the word dehiscence.”

Guy Davenport, the critic, once said that his writing was “for anyone who enjoys reading and thinking.” His essays, as deep as they are readable, are among the best guides available for navigating the labyrinth of literary modernism. The educational reformer and Great Books evan­gelist Mortimer Adler once remarked: “Unlike many of my contemporaries, I never write books for my fellow professors to read. I have no interest in the academic ­audience at all. . . . A general ­audience can read any book I write—and they do.” Jonathan Rose notes in his “Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” that literary classics bought second-hand became an enormous source of inspiration and solace for the English poor: A young miner pulled from the wreckage of a collapse was found with a copy of Thucydides in his breast pocket, folded back to ­Pericles’s funeral oration. A kind of fugitive intellectuality has always been part of the spirit of the democratic West, and many of our most esteemed poets and thinkers studied and wrote in humble circumstances, often in obscurity.

Alongside men like ­Davenport and Adler, out of the smoke of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries marched forth figures such as John Dewey and W. E. B. Du Bois, teachers who dedicated their lives to the proposition that the best things of our tradition going back to Ancient Greece and Rome are and always have been for the benefit of everybody. For Adler, ­philosophy existed first and foremost in the lives of normal people. For Moten, it is above all a profession carried on in the language of the academy.

But the democratic dreams of the earlier generation of reformers have faded. The public they courted with Great Books and progressive learning turned its attention toward the less demanding pursuits of televised entertainment. Universities have become professionalized and specialized, shaped in the image of the German research university and increasingly focused on experimental physical ­sciences. Liberal arts have been recast as practical, technical, research-­driven ­disciplines striving for “impact” and “knowledge ­production”—or they have sought to become “­relatable” by ­intellectualizing pop-­culture ­frivolity.

Like Adler and Du Bois, Moten has sought to reconcile democratic ideals with the exclusive nature of serious study. But his solution is almost the opposite of theirs. Instead of asserting hierarchies of value in clear language, he attacks hierarchies with obscure rhetoric. His work purports to be radically inclusive and anti-institutional. But only a select few are able to participate. These are the insider-outsiders, the elect who proclaim their opposition to all hierarchies while making up their own.

But there is wisdom in the idea of fugitivity, and modern life gives much to flee. Charles Campbell, a nineteenth-century Scottish cotton-spinner, writes:

The lover of learning, however straitened his circumstances, or rugged his condition, has yet a source of enjoyment in himself that the world never dreams of . . . he unbends the wing of his imagination, and solaces his weary mind in the delightful gardens of the classical muse [of] poetry and music.

Du Bois found in literature a respite from racial prejudice. “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” he wrote. “Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas.”

We can escape the shallowness of modern life into the narrowness of ethnic groupings or the ranks of a mythical revolutionary subject; or we can turn away from all this faction and folly and strive for the freedom and togetherness in the light of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. We can build thieves’ dens that feed upon and wage war against the university; or we can build communities that prize learning and edification for their own sake. And we can speak of the need to “refuse an exclusive and exclusionary ontic capacity or to move outside the systemic oscillation between the refusal and the imposition of such capacity”—or, perhaps, we can discover the freedom found in speaking simply, the generosity of an earnest question, and the joy of fellowship with no scorn or condescension.

Joseph M. Keegin is an editor at The Point.

Image by TellingAdmire via Creative Commons. Image cropped.