Useless Thinking - David Lloyd
In this time of goals and measurable outcomes, it is worth recalling that thinking is not work, not to be conflated with work. The activity that is thinking is not satisfied with concluding with a product, an outcome, a design or project; it is process and movement, even in its most arduous defiles and blockages. The moment it produces a work—essay, book, thesis—it goes on. In this respect, the numerators of product that assess the university and seek to make it countable rather than accountable destroy the very possibility of its being a space for thinking. Intentionally, no doubt.
That necessary claim may be correct, but must also be confronted with its falsity. The notion of the freedom of thinking from the constraints of a labour that produces a work of whatever kind is not a given, but is itself the outcome of that initial division between manual and intellectual labour, between coerced production and the free play of the mind. What the latter then reproduces is the very ideology by which such a division is legitimated. Freedom of thinking is conditional on unfree work and disdains the latter at its peril. The contemporary reduction of intellectual work in the university to the forms of productivity that inhere in other sectors of capitalist economies is the logical revenge of the apparatchiks, who never miss a contradiction they can exploit, on those who have conveniently forgotten the conditions that determine their practice. Likewise the reduction of thinking to product merely returns to the academy the neoliberal economy’s global commodification of intellectual labour —creativity, inventiveness, innovation, thinking ‘outside the box’—and of its sites—the campus, the seminar, the laboratory, and now, of course, the home office that dissolves the division between production and reproduction. These protocols borrowed from the academy are now at the very heart of production and the core of the intelligence industry.
But such insights need also to be confronted with their own moments of untruth. It is not in shrugging acceptance or smug connivance with the extension of corporate measures into academic life that the current situation is to be engaged. The idea of thinking as an end-less activity—and the anger at the theft from our students also of the right to ‘think like that’, to believe that they are entitled to the space to read, reflect and think otherwise—are and remain indispensable to any critique of and resistance to the ubiquitous domination of capitalist norms and the economic rationalization of everything. Not for nothing was the initial division of labour the guarantee of the privilege of the intellectual few: the back-handed recognition secreted in the securing of the social surplus to the intellectual classes, priests and scribes, is that the freedom to think is a value irrespective of the social wage it commands. That it could command the surplus of insufficient resources is not its rationale but its condition. Now, in a time where not scarcity—other than the artificial scarcity of unevenly distributed resources—but abundance to the point of excess, the denial of the freedom to think, along with the subjection of most to superfluous labour, is the unacknowledged index of an anxious domination. The demand for the right to think unproductively is most radical precisely because it has no end, no product. Domination is disturbed by it. It does not know what to think.
It’s worth noting how often the drive to subordinate the university to corporate values is legitimated by an argument for the efficient use of public goods, even where the nature of the university as a form of commons has been entirely displaced by the very actors who have so economically transformed the right to education into an investment paid for by debt. Perilous as it may be, it seems essential to defy that logic by laying claim to inefficiency, redundancy, uselessness, the right to wasteful pleasures, and to insist on the fundamental abundance and excessiveness that must underlie the very idea of the commons. Thought that is thinking has always exceeded its means.
David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. He is a prolific and influential scholarly author, a poet (Arc & Sill: Poems 1979-2009 (Shearsman Books, UK / New Writers’ Press, Dublin, 2012)), and playwright (The Press/Le Placard is available in a bilingual edition (“Nouvelles Scenes—Anglais”, Presses Universitaires du Midi, 2018).