What is the Undercommons in Learning Theory?

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study is a book which is available from the Open Source publisher Minor Compositions. It is written by Professor Fred Moten, a poet and black studies scholar who has just been awarded a prestigious Macarthur Fellowship, and Professor Stefano Harney who is a scholar of Logistics.

Moten and Harney met while studying together at Harvard University. There is a specific chapter in The Undercommons which addresses the situation of the University, and particularly that of the American University system.

The central argument which is made by Moten and Harney is that real learning does not take place within the University itself. In order for study to take place, students and scholars find themselves - in essence - excavating into the foundations of the university to make space for the real work of learning.

In this excavation they create an Undercommons, a space which uses some of the resources of the University but is not entirely of that place. The conditions within the University have become too restrictive to allow for genuine exchange within its walls.

The Undercommons is something which is created - like a commons - from need. But it is created from almost nothing. Moten has previously used a saying from the days of black enslavement in the United States in order to parse this idea. The saying is to ‘make a way out of no way’. The Undercommons is a situation which is created out of struggle and difference.

It is important to state here that Moten’s position on this is very much coming from the position of Black Studies which considers the history of slavery, and of the non-corporate, community oriented forms of activism and group learning which have always existed and been in evidence in the US and elsewhere through the work of the Black Panthers, and e.g. more recently as a result of Black Lives Matter organising.

He is also situating this concept within the contemporary situation of the US university system, where people take out enormous ($100,000+) student loans to service their learning and education and must meet the criteria of a privatised system in order to participate in discussion and receive certification.

Recently Moten and Harney gave a Q&A Seminar on the FUC Youtube channel, further elucidating on this topic. I have uploaded the file which they circulated which is an addendum to the University and the Undercommons. In this, they say:

‘An abolition(ist) university would be kinda like an abolition(ist) prison or an abolitionist plantation. It would be where the generation of knowledge in the university—at the level of its form, content and practices—tends towards the knowing degeneration, disorganization and disequilibrium of the university.’

FUC is a group of activists based at the University of California, where Graduate Students who comprise the majority of teaching and seminar staff were striking for a fair pay living adjustment in order to afford to continue their teaching.

In the United States, and often now also in the United Kingdom, PhD students will take on much of the teaching work for Undergraduate students. This work is very low paid and yet it is both integral to the conditions of many Scholarships, and also to the CVs of Graduate students who wish to later join the academy. This work is known as adjuncting, which is essentially working on a very short and temporary contract at an hourly rate.

In this seminar, Moten stated that given the current Covid restrictions, he would in fact make all of his teaching available for the public to join. They discussed together the idea that actually University teaching and learning should just be free to attend from now on, and that anyone who wanted just to get the certificate should pay to do so. This is similar to the model I discussed with MOOC’s in Week 2.

So, the Undercommons in learning theory presupposes that both the teacher and the learner are in a compromised position to the system of learning (the private University) and that in order to produce real outcomes to learning we can and must produce spaces for freer discussion which utilise and act parasitically from this system which otherwise commodifies our learning. In doing so, we can deconstruct the privatised systems for ourselves (think back to Aaron Schwartz liberation of knowledge to see what we mean here).

This is not a solution to the Private university but it does provide a means to continue with learning under difficult financial constraints and neoliberal conditions of educational production. It may offer a map out, and to take inspiration from ‘making a way out of no way’.


The Undercommons PDF available at Minor Compositions:

FUC online series of discussion:

FUC 012 | Fred Moten & Stefano Harney — the university: last words (1hr 55m)

Accompanying file to the FUC discussion: