Content type: Article discussion and WALKING
Credits: Mijke van der Drift, Janine Huizenga, Lyndsey Housden, Shailoh Phillips, Hannes Bernard, Lauren Alexander, Marta Wanek, Martha Jager, Suzanne Knip-Mooij and Claude Nassar, facilitated by Alice Twemlow.
Year: 2020

Forest zoom background

At the KABK Research Club in May, the philosopher Mijke van der Drift joined us to discuss their article, 'Management and Rights Amidst Plural Worlds', which the Journal of Speculative Philosophy from Penn State University Press had just published. The article reframes some important theoretical concepts concerning power, control and alignment in institutions and introduces generative provocations concerning resistance, collectivity, pluralism and the opening of worlds.

The Design Lectorate organised a close reading and discussion of this text, hoping that it might help those in the KABK community grappling with how this particular institution might re-constitute or re-compose around ethics, values and relations that allow for non-normative and plural modes of flourishing.

Using Sylvia Wynter's conception of Eurocentric and colonial cognitive closure as a starting point, Van der Drift explores how this style of thought suffuses an institution. While Foucault focused his attention on how disciplined subjects are panoptically scrutinised, Van der Drift inverts the gaze back upon the surveillers—the managers—and how their efforts to create order lead to a contraction of perception that Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving have termed 'smug ignorance'. Van der Drift goes on to argue that what is needed to counteract the stasis and narrowness of such institutional alignment is a combination of alternative models of relationality and collectivity, pluralist ethics and an approach to worlding practices in which, as Arturo Escobar has put it, 'many worlds fit'.

Mijke van der Drift, a tutor in Master Non Linear Narrative, brings the wisdom of lived experience, a robust engagement with theory and a generous, listening humility to the current situation at KABK, which is much appreciated. Van der Drift's research is multi-disciplinary and uses ethics to probe the possibilities of social transformation. In addition to their role at KABK, Van der Drift is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, as part of the Revolutionary Papers project, in collaboration with the London School of Economics and the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town. Their book chapter 'Radical Transfeminism: Trans as anti-static ethics escaping neoliberal encapsulation', co-written with poet Nat Raha, is included in New Feminist Literary Studies: Twenty-first-century Critical Interventions, ed. Jennifer Cooke.

The dialogue that follows presents highlights from the discussion. The transcript has been edited for clarity and focus.


Alice Twemlow: With the term management, were you thinking in particular about art institutions? Or are we talking about a concept a bit larger than that?


Mijke van der Drift: I think it was a little bit of both. I was in Goldsmiths when the Centre for Cultural Studies shut down—and there are very different stories about why that happened. I saw the prominent role that management played. When a manager is disinterested in the content that each person brings, then people are immediately commodified and replaceable. In that sense, I saw the structure of art institution management is not so different from university management.

In Foucaultian theory, although focused on prisons and hospitals, it’s about controlling through knowing. We should also bring a Marxist perspective to this conversation. In Marxism, if you have the money, you need to control people. But this article is about how non-monetary structures start to surface in our economy’s structures. Management is now a general attitude.

AT: When I first read your article, I felt a sense of culpability for my own role as a manager. I’m wondering how to negotiate that.

Janine Huizenga: What I found especially interesting about your piece is that you focused on a topic that’s often forgotten: the alienation of the individual purpose and role within an institution.

You said that we go into meeting rooms with a strategy, that we step into a specific structure—but it’s best to be oneself to break that structure. I’ve found a paradox in this school: we invite people to be themselves, independent and critical, but the structure requires everyone to have the same values. Within this structure, we become functional assets. Vulnerability is lost within alienation. Management isn’t the one who always has the control; it’s the facilitators to the other layers. I miss the deep, humanistic base. We must bring our humanity with us to the workforce.

Do you see an opening for a culture that allows vulnerability within the existing structures? A way to bring back that human interaction that allows us to see ourselves and others better?

MvdD: I think it can be done. But to do so, people need to unlearn imperialism. I am not saying I do not have managerial attitudes; therefore, I ask myself questions every day about what habits and ideas I need to unlearn. What kind of sensory perceptions that I need to open up. What kind of spiritualities need to shift.

I recently spoke with a friend who works a lot in Pakistan, and she said that a problem in Europe is that everything happens in the same sense of space. Everything functions in the same way everywhere you are. In Pakistan, sometimes you sneak into different political parties and religious areas where people chant until five in the morning. These shifting worlds within the same space are lost in Europe.

We are in the same space. It’s why we want to be part of institutions—many people think this is the only way to exist. They see that people outside of institutions experience marginalisation as a criminal or mentally ill person.

I write in the second part of the article that the legal structure of an institution meets only the minimal conditions. Ethics is needed to run an organisation, and legal structures and ethics are different things. I sometimes joke that human rights are for human resources; they aren’t for people. We need more than rights.

JH: Basically, what you described is a monoculture. We have lost the ability to be many people—which we are—at the same time. We are forced to be solid icons of ourselves.

AT: I’d like to go back to what you’ve said, Janine, about how we should be ourselves. I’m interested in that decision to not put on the costume of professionalism before going into a meeting. I wonder if you’d call that a tactic, Mijke—although I guess that ruins it because then it becomes a tactic rather than you being yourself.

MvdD: I hope so. It’s the only thing we have. In my teaching, I try to think through urgent problems. I don’t represent the institution when I teach. I bring myself. I say this is where I am. I put my teacher suit on, and the students put student suits on because that works. Then we start negotiating to see what the relationship actually is. Can students ask for other texts? When can they derail the plan or interrupt?

AT: Can we bring this kind of negotiation between student and teacher to the relationship between employees in a management context? I can imagine that if everyone were in an institution not to replicate what they see there but to learn and question, it would create a much more interesting environment.

MvdD: Management, in an abstract way, is about being invested in a hierarchy without having ownership of it; it’s about preventing the dissipation of power; those who manage want to be aligned with the institution. I think that some managers believe that their staff requires control out of fear of unionising or laziness or who knows what.

AT: Do other people have responses to this idea of control in relation to management?

JH: I sense that my students need me to be in control in some ways. Within this professionalisation of education, where education has become something of a service, my students seem to require me to provide an overview of a subject that they don’t have. I don’t mind taking responsibility for things, but I don’t own people. I think management, like technology, has also gone wrong by assuming that a one-size-fits-all solution exists; that there must be a formula to organise the whole world. There’s no more time for reflection, mistakes or insecurities because they need things to work. If they don’t work, then you’re sent out—gone.

AT: Right. That attempt to map a corporate capitalist or a ‘creative industries’ mindset about product, scale and numbers to something that doesn’t fit...

Hannes Bernard: There’s a connection between this and other topics I’ve been thinking through, including the realisation that we don’t think about ourselves as subjugated subjects but as projects for refashioning or reinvention. I’m curious how this turn connects with Foucault.

MvdD: In some sense, this is the Foucaultian problem. Foucault wants to care for the self in a way that’s quite neo-liberal. I need to come clean a bit: I’m an Aristotelian at heart, not in his metaphysics but his ethics. For me, this practice-based process of aiming yourself in a vague or unknown direction is totally fine. This is why, in the third part of my text, I take an anarchic sashay into a life we don’t know. That is a very Aristotelian way of doing it. You throw yourself into the unknown, where you hope you’re held together. The more control that we put into our life, the less there is a possibility of Transfeminism. In fact, it’s through lack of logic, losing the ways we know ourselves and others, that we can start to understand the world differently.

AT: Do you want to give us a quick overview of the article? I hope we have time to discuss pluralism and the opening of worlds in the fifth section, which seems very exciting. Perhaps you could walk us there through your argument?

MvdD: The whole structure of the article is based on Aristotelian practical philosophy. It has a double negation and then an affirmation, which I frame through three fields of discussion.

The first field is the management of hierarchy. This is what was ‘discipline’—the manager controlling and the employee being controlled. The second field is about alignment with institutions and how people grow up and into their position in the institution. The third field is Transfeminism, where we talk about doing something else, even when you don’t properly know what it is. We say no to discipline and no to alignment, and we throw ourselves into Transfeminism to see what can come instead.

I find three major tools or methods within these fields, one from each. The management of hierarchy comes with a contraction of perception. It is possible to say that management is ignorant with this approach. Management starts to know less and less about the diverse reality they engage with because they contract to knowing the institution only from their institution. I derived this section partly from Philomena Essed’s work about Dutch racism. She talks a lot about selective ignorance: people in positions of power don’t know what they’re talking about and have the social power to deny their ignorance. That’s a sort of management without property that can tie into an economic structure.

Alignment with institutions brings intuitive inclusion and intuitive exclusion. The felt and unfelt connection with others that holds structures together. Questions about who deserves bonding and who deserves exclusion is evident in this discussion.

The Transfeminist field comes with the method of giving up logic. It’s not about demanding other people give up logic (for this is the demand of colonialism), but your own logic to understand how someone else and another world with different values, senses, meaning and experiences functions. This section derives from Maria Lugones’ incredible work.

Within the working context, people of colour are often required to give up their logic, but white people aren’t even aware that this is an option. But you can give up ways of thinking to think differently. That sometimes means you need to suppress stupid comments. For example, I recently said, ‘oh, we are the same’ to someone with very different experiences than me. This expression of sameness is one of the few tools we have for bonding.

But sometimes we say that when it’s not true at all! Sometimes things are not the same. Sometimes alignment isn’t there, but you want it to be.

AT: I’m very interested in doing this work of giving up one’s logic, but I imagine it can be exhausting. That work of giving up logic requires you to go through so many layers. You’re probably reading the right stuff, having the right conversations, and then you have to continue going deeper. That work could take over everything—in a good way!

MvdD: I mean, all we want is revolution. (Said while winking.)

Lyndsey Housden: I’m wondering if you adapt your logic or give up your logic to engage empathy—but there is no give on the other side—how can you shift the condition to make people aware of their humanity and their ability to have their own voice and help them recognise when they don’t agree with some of the institutional ideas that they’re representing.

MvdD: María Lugones—writing in the US where much is about race—is very clear about different power structures related to this idea of giving up logic. In the US, in the hierarchy of white people and people of colour, white people need to learn to adapt to the logic of people of colour. However, people of colour can give up logics to each other to travel to each other’s worlds, as María Lugones explains. The issue of consent is at play here. When you exchange logics with people of similar power, there is mutual consent. But when you exist in a hierarchy, and you don’t consent to give up your logic for the logic of the institution, that’s where resistance comes into play.

JH: Hierarchy is embedded in the architecture that surrounds us, especially in Europe. The moment that we can redefine new landscapes, we can start reimagining interactions. Architecture becomes a signal for behaviour, and we should explore those things more.

AT: I wonder if Lyndsey could say something about what yoga could do to help us disrupt architecture and give up our logic. I notice that many people want to bring movement practices to the centre of education. Do you think it could contribute to what we’re discussing?

LH: Yoga makes you more sensitive to your body. I was surprised that so many people have injuries, deal with physical and emotional trauma, and they’re stuck in their chairs all day, stuck in a cognitive head space—especially with all of the online learning that we’ve been doing. Yoga doesn’t give a simple solution but a practice of developing sensitivity and awareness to your own physical needs. Quieting down makes you a little bit more receptive to others. Yoga also brings different people together on the same level. Everyone from marketing to administration to first-year students come to take a bit of time for themselves. It connects people in a new way that I appreciate.

AT: I’m also thinking about that space yoga allows you to put between your reactive thoughts and your action. Yoga doesn’t suppress the “stupid” statement but helps people become aware that the statement came into your head and decide what to do with it thoughtfully.

LH: Everyone uses yoga differently, but I think it’s helpful to have quiet and space within a longer trajectory of change.

MvdD: What you’re putting out there about awareness of the body is a form of protection from the pressure of the architecture. The more you’re aware of your sensations and impulses, the less the normative architecture has a grip on you.

Shailoh Phillips: I’m interested in these embodied institutional critiques. I’ve been thinking about “Decolonization as Care” by Uzma Rizvi. She comes from a background in archaeology, anthropology and design history. She takes the classic Marxist thought of how ideology is embedded in materials—and what decolonisation physically looks like then in the hardware of a school.

Sometimes patience is overrated, and other times the long view is necessary. I’m thinking about how duration, materiality and embodiment can change, especially without dependence on other people.

AT: At the moment, a lot of us are trying to think through the concepts of care and commoning, and I was wondering if you could talk about the role and nuance of collectivity as a term that seems to be particularly useful to you?

MvdD: I talk about collectivity rather than care in this text because it’s possible to form a “we” based on deep connection, like a care connection can be. Internationalism is a form of collectivity that doesn’t always need a direct relation that care requires. A collective should include people you don’t know and people you don’t like, along with the people for whom you care.

On the difference between patience and resistance, I think resistance can work to stop something. Resistance is unpleasant for everyone, and that’s why it works so well and why it’s so hard to do. It’s tiring for everyone. You see just how much space for joy exists in successful resistance movements—because that joy is necessary to put up with the unpleasantness. But it takes time and isn’t consistent. We’re unlearning five hundred years of colonisation, after all. We owe all of the liberation movements in Europe of the 1960s to colonial struggles.

Resistance is unpleasant for everyone, and that’s why it works so well and why it’s so hard to do

SP: Frequently, people are scared that collectivity will erase differences. But we need collectives that are spacious enough for everyone.

MvdD: Right. We need difference without separability, as Denise Ferreira da Silva puts on the table.

AT: This would be an excellent opportunity for you to read a bit from the text. Would you be willing?

MvdD: Of course. This is from page 105 of 'Management and Rights Amidst Plural Worlds'. Here is where I start writing about pluralism the opening of other worlds:

María Lugones proposes that “it is a desideratum of oppression theory that it portray oppression in full force, as inescapable, if that is its full force.” Lugones undercuts a total theory of oppression, by arguing that such a theory is demoralizing as it creates victimization rather than accurately describing an all-encompassing force. Instead of oscillating between agents and institutions, Lugones understands agents to operate within an ontological pluralism, and to move in different “worlds.” This means it is not chaos that hovers over the edge of the institution, but multiple and resistant forms of life are found outside of the architecture of oppression, even if they are not lived freely. To counter the institutional model nonreduction to a single order is key. Liberatory organization often stumbles into the logic of homogeneity, because, together with institutionalization, it is one of the few connectives that philosophical frameworks have made available. Lugones writes: “Social homogeneity, domination through unification, and hierarchical ordering of split social groups are connected tightly into the fragmentation of the person.” Fragmentation of persons follows from fragmentation of groups. Santos argues that the creation of epistemic holes ensures separation. Epistemic holes occur by leaving viewpoints out of knowledge production forging a totality of knowledge. Denise Ferreira da Silva reminds us that the problem of understanding “difference without separability” is not solved by European philosophy. Silva argues that “only the end of the world as we know it, I am convinced, can dissolve cultural differences’ production of human collectives as ‘strangers’ with fixed an irreconcilable moral attributes.” The dissolution of the monological order undoes the problem of separability through cognitive closure. In this last part, I sketch a transfeminist ethics for engagement across multiple worlds. It is feminist because it works against structural domination and it links with transness, because it holds space for those that are trans, and offers porous forms that emphasize mobile relationalities over static categorizations. In this sense this transfeminist ethics is an antistatic movement that escapes encapsulation.

AT: Suzanne, would you like to share some of your responses to this?

Suzanne Knip-Mooij: Yeah, I’m just going to think a bit out loud. I wondered about the term flourishing, and I’m wondering what this concept could look like or contribute to creating these anarchic forms of togetherness. I’m not sure if it comes into your work too much, but I’m coming across it a lot in texts associated with collectivity.

MvdD: Flourishing finally shows up on page 108, after much of the critical theory. And critical theory can be a challenge because it shows all of the problems without giving solutions. But transfeminism offers a pluralism of flourishing. The heart of Aristotle’s ethics is that we know people flourish in different ways. Not only people but other species and plants. We can see if our houseplants are doing well or not. If we talk about flourishing, it’s a protection against homogeneity and homogeneity orders.

Human rights pretend to give us rights to be different, but they are a legal structure that tries to press us in by limiting the moment that we can be good into what is right for us.

AT: You have that killer last line in the article that sums all of that up: “Rights might protect one from management, but they will never liberate one from it.”

Claude Nassar: In relation to your work, it was interesting to think about the displacement of the material self within institutional settings and knowledge. Even though most of these theories are individualistic at heart, there is a displacement of the individual. That becomes very clear among managers. Their preoccupation is purely on others; they don’t produce anything. Even when doing and thinking collapse, that collapse does not bring along the subject. We become projects of self or projects of doing, always in the future. This comes back to the idea of institutional embedding. Without the “always already” of embodied thinking that allows us to think of ourselves as part of the bigger world, critiques will still play out within the institution’s limits.

MvdD: Yeah, I agree with you!

CN: Your article made me realise that embodied thinking is not emancipatory directly. Embodied thinking under capitalism is what is called intuition.

MvdD: I think that embodied thinking is necessary, but it is not a given. You train embodied thinking. In Aristotle, this training becomes patriarchal because it integrates with the polis. But if you cut out the polis, then this structure supports an emergent ethics. You say no to losing your logic without consent and say no to dominating others when you take up space. You try to do just right, which grows new ways of knowing where you are in the present to create new futures.

We are living in the future that neo-liberalism wanted for us, as Nat Raha put it; it’s happened. They built it from the early 90s to now. This is it. But we don’t want it anymore.

SP: So, I’m ethically Aristotelian but pedagogically Socratic. I propose we think about new worlds in spatial terms. How are things constructed? The problem of difference with separability, which is crucial to European philosophy, and how this non-duality or paradox of being different and connected is at the root of many things. But I don’t understand your mention of holes in your excerpt and the location of new worlds. Are we trying to make a totality out of something with holes and fragments? Where are the flourishing worlds? Are they outside? Are they in the gaps? Is the world there? Do they unfurl, as the plants in my garden are doing right now? Is it pulling away a curtain? Perhaps that plurality already exists, and we just need to notice it.

MvdD: The point is to meet worlds that are already there. But it’s also something else. It’s becoming aware of the plurality of life within Europe and asking how we can do something else. If we don’t want a project manager telling us what to do, we might need to see what kind of world can grow out of European ruins of empires. What can grow out of our long entangled histories? We need to unlearn empire and watch what else comes into being.

I connect this to Lucretius, who wrote about forms always falling apart unless they stabilise—but maybe they don’t—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because our experiences and ruins grow new entities. If we don’t want a project manager telling us what to do, we might need to see what kind of world can grow out of European ruins of empires. What can grow out of our long entangled histories? We need to unlearn empire and watch what else comes into being.

We need to unlearn empire and watch what else comes into being

AT: I was wondering if we could bring all of this back to research. We’ve been grappling with the fact that research is not separate from all that is going on, even though management tells us that it is and that we should be behaving in a particular way. I wonder if any connections could be made regarding a transfeminist ethic and the opening of worlds—how we might link that to our practices as researchers.

MvdD: My transness is interesting to me because it claims a possibility for change that takes oneself along with it. Transness is about transformation and seeing oneself as constantly changing (speaking about gender or not). Research that is there to change us and the world gives us an ethics of non-domination. In ethics, we are always the subject. It’s about our hearts and ourselves. This research approach asks you who you can be in relation to your research. At least, that is what I’m wondering. How can we be in relation to our topic? If I’m going to work on the philosophies of flux, I start with Lucretius, a philosopher of flux from Europe that I can understand well enough to use to have conversations with non-European scholars of fluctuation.

This research approach asks you who you can be in relation to your research

Research that is there to change us and the world gives us an ethics of non-domination. In ethics, we are always the subjects. It’s about our hearts and ourselves. This research approach asks you who you can be in relation to your research. At least, that is what I’m wondering.

SP: It’s also interesting to ask who are we in relation to our research because research can be a site of collectivity. The dialogue that exists makes the research something beyond us.

Lauren Alexander: Do you mean, Mijke, that the “I” and the “we” are the same?

MvdD: Yes, I do. You do act and have agency, but you’re always already plural. And the “we” is not homogenous. You do act and have agency, but you’re always already plural. And the “we” is not homogenous.

You do act and have agency, but you’re always already plural. And the “we” is not homogenous

LA: When we were talking about the idea of having solidarity while maintaining difference, I thought about the rhetoric of integration in the Netherlands. We don’t exist in a country where cultural differences are celebrated. Here, everyone feels squashed into one Dutch nation. Even on a structural level, how do we then go about undoing that project of integration and thinking about how we live together in our differences? And this includes an institution like KABK too.

I also thought about how we’ve never gone through managerial training. Those trained in management sit very high above us in the hierarchy. It’s not that we want to be trained as managers, but we are managers, and we’re grappling with that task.

AT: A closer analysis of the excel spreadsheet as a symbol of this neo-liberal era would allow us to think about what we’ve been forced into.

Marta Wanek: I wish there were more understanding that good things can come when things fall apart. I’ve been a member of so many collectives throughout the years that have ended, but so much came out of each experience. There’s also an assumption that everyone can do plurality, but what about the people who can’t? How do we handle these segments?

AT: I was wondering if you, Martha, could describe your experience with management, specifically how you were able to distribute invitations to this event.

Martha Jager: The KABK recently turned off the “mail all staff” email function, so it was impossible to mail invitations to everyone for this meeting. I suggested printing invitations on paper and distributing them in the staff post boxes. That’s what I did. But the experience comes back to the topic of roles. I felt unsure about what I was doing, considering my role in the institution. I asked myself if this was going too far for my position. It is a privilege to resist, to refuse to play a part and choose to leave for other opportunities. Unfortunately, this is only possible for very few people.

JH: We live in a very challenging time when dialogue is seen as people always agreeing instead of a conversation in which people grow from their disagreements with each other. In the KABK, there is also a clash of language about how things are addressed, and it would be helpful to have more people from the administrative side share their experiences. Our very philosophical approach to the topic of management might put off people who approach it in different terms. We need to find common ground where this group feels safe enough to enter a discussion to break down the division between them and us, between researchers and managers. So how do we do that?

MvdD: I agree that management should be involved in conversations about management. This conversation has been about pattern recognition, which we can then use in this new forum to include more people.

SP: One of the things that I’ve been working with is the notion of institutions as material. How pliable is an institution as material? What can move and fold?

AT: It’s been so lovely thinking through this. I’d like to keep it going so that we can keep peeling into the subject deeper and deeper.

MvdD: It was so helpful thinking through text and to better understand what I wrote. It’s been incredibly generative and interesting to hear the different takes, examples and facets of where the discussion could go. It’s been very enriching. Thank you.