I am writing to you all, on the threshold of my graduation from Macalester, about something that affects all of us, a culture and a world we’ve inherited. I come to you from the throes of paralyzing fear for many futures: for my own, that of my friends and loved ones, for that of our country, our world. I come to this community with a critique that is born out of love for our community and of my commitment to Macalester’s values of internationalism, multiculturalism, academic excellence and commitment to service, for they have led to my ability to proffer a critique.
A few months ago, my friends and I made a video art piece titled “dismemberment” for Macalester’s Macroburst competition, in which teams competed to make a piece of art in 24-hours that they would premiere in Mairs Concert Hall. Our academic foci of critical theory and the arts come together in our project. In this article, through an exploration of the themes of the video piece, I will usher in my critique of Macalester’s Idea Lab space and its broader promotion of entrepreneurship, especially how they coalesce in ideas of neoliberal subjectivity and politics. The implications of said themes will follow. I encourage you, at this point in my essay, to stream the video, in order to apprehend my analysis that follows. Our artist statement, read at the premiere performance, is as follows:
“We were motivated by our Macalester education and the school’s mission to spread multiculturalism and be of service to society. Entrepreneurship homogenizes culture and uses society as its means to its own inhuman ends.”
In other words, the dictates of entrepreneurialism, as a practice of the neoliberal order, dismember us, break us down, commodifying and desanctifying everything in their wake. In this video, we wanted to convey the breaking down of the neoliberal subject—the subject of late 20th century sociopolitical changes of deregulated markets, privatized (formerly public, state-owned) assets and decreased state responsibility for social welfare. These structural changes, as Foucault most famously reasons, affect individuals because individual fulfillment is aligned with the economic wellbeing of the state, rooted in the premise that “the economy is optimized through the entrepreneurial activity of autonomous individuals,” and that “human wellbeing is furthered if individuals are free to direct their lives as entrepreneurs,” says theoretical psychologist Jeff Sugarman. It follows that the neoliberal subject “[owns themself] as they are entrepreneurs of a business,” conceived of as a set of assets—skills and attributes—to be “managed, maintained, developed, and treated as ventures in which to invest”.
The breaking down of the neoliberal subject is first seen through the form, or style, of the video. The video instills a sense of disorientation in the viewer, through use of a shaky camera, fast cuts back-and-forth between shots, oscillations between blur and clarity, shuttering light and jarring digital sounds. The viewer becomes overwhelmed, unable to establish themselves distinctly outside the action of the video, as visual and sonic stimuli viscerally implicate them in the scene. These elements, as well as foreign, indiscernible, animal-like movements by the performer, fit into French dramatist Antonin Artaud’s style in Theater of Cruelty, where the expression of the repressed emotions of the subconscious is central. It serves as a waking up of the “nerves and heart” of the audience, where actors express “experiences that we all attempt to proscribe and are unwilling to acknowledge, but which nevertheless occur.” Our experience as viewers also fits theorist Julia Kristeva’s idea of abjection, which literally means a “state of being cast off.” According to Kristeva in her book The Power of Horror, we experience the abject when we confront that which “disturbs identity, system, order…borders [and] rules.” This disruption is twofold: first, and most immediately, on the level of the subject, where we are simultaneous outside and inside the action and the other subject. The second takes place less primally as with the visual and sonic ambush: it takes place in the language itself. Read aloud in a eerily motherly and counseling tone is the Idea Lab’s mission statement, an assemblage of seemingly harmless, well-intentioned phrases: “The 2nd floor of the library is a space for makers, dreamers, and the hopeful among us who want to solve the wicked problems that plague our world”. It becomes clear, in the video’s argument, that such words are hollow vessels, ironic perhaps, in that they seem to be the cause of her unraveling.
I won’t analyze the whole video here, but will emphasize some points that move me. One is the word “support” getting stuttered on by a machine at 3:15, as the woman balances precariously on her head upside down. Registering akin to the skipping of a disc, the stutter, a linguistic signifier rendered in digital fragments, seems to suggest two things: that neoliberalism is far from an outgrowth of natural origin; rather it’s a machine engineered by man, subject to skipping, distortion and ultimately failure, just as machines and digital media are. The human is suggested to fit this model as well, as we witness her deterioration. The digital skipping also highlights an inconsistency or perhaps an ironic offer of support, one that turns out to be a hollow promise in a system engineered to see that most of us—the 99% percent, if you will—dwell in relative precarity. The “support” suggested here, in the context of the Idea Lab to see that our projects are fruitful generators of profit (and of certain kinds of social good, but only ones that the private institution allows), parallels practices of the neoliberal self, like self-care, that maintain distributions of power that lead to needing so much support in the first place. In a neoliberal landscape, individuals are made responsible for their wellbeing, with access to health care increasingly out of reach.
We weren’t planning on a specific critique of entrepreneurship until the pieces started falling together, showing it to be necessary. No one foresaw the emotional and physical strain of taking over 24 hours out of our intensely stressful lives at Macalester. It was “fun” because we were “youngsters” who could stay up all night and not have it affect our already extremely at-risk wellbeing. And an inherent end of commodification was limiting politically (any critique like ours was bound to lose), and constrained to please the judges whose professional careers were heavily advertised. We were encouraged that their approval could allow us a plethora of professional opportunities. I guess this is one kind of “support” that Mac can offer, but not the type of support I’d hope for my student body, my fellow citizens of this country and fellow human beings in this world. I want a “support” that has the potential to be administered more democratically, through living wages, and universal health care, with the surplus value that corporate CEOs steal, and a redistribution of the accumulated wealth by dispossession. Call me an idealist to see through bullshit.
Macalester (and by extension our society, our government) have proven time and time again to be hollow vessels of support: I’ve witnessed two campus suicides and one fatal drug overdose at Macalester (haters will say it’s statistically inevitable; I will say ‘what does that say about our society then, with larger suicide rates than most of the world?’). I have also witnessed the majority of my friends and young people buckling under crippling anxiety, enfeebled by depression or more serious and persistent mental illness. These phenomena are depoliticized under neoliberal political order, and treated “as if it were a natural fact, like weather”, as theorist Mark Fisher remarks in Capitalist Realism. We should be asking, “Could it have to do with exorbitant amounts of debt that will saddle us upon graduation, that will affect our lives for decades? Does it have to do with the experience of systemic racism, sexism, immigration status, etc.? Does it have to do with living in a defunct ‘democracy’ susceptible to the interests of capital (how many seats does Trump give in his cabinet to corporate CEO’s)? Will tinker-time on the second floor of the library really help us solve these “wicked problems of the world”?”
I don’t fully blame Macalester for its espousal of status-quo values of entrepreneurship, and by extension neoliberalism, as ‘everyone else is doing it’, and we have to keep up with peer institutions, sell our mission to donors to get money for financial aid, etc. I realize it’s a nuanced, complicated problem here; I don’t claim to have an easy fix. Where I become insulted is in Macalester’s purported “support” of all of its students — an expensive form of “support” at that — when in reality, these promises fall short. Entrepreneurship and startups are risk-laden ventures, with 75%-90% failure rates, according to a Harvard Business School study and Forbes magazine. The reality is, Macalester is choosing to support a small group of students with its entrepreneurship stint, and is screwing the rest of us by normalizing the commodification of all types of creativity and human endeavours, teaching us to not ask for more than precarious labor and lack of social welfare. The resources used to start the Idea Lab would be better spent in decreasing the precarity of our community, perhaps by paying the living wage (that Mac promises) to subcontracted laborers at Mac (Cafe Mac workers, security officers, etc.), or by better compensating adjunct professors and allowing them to form a union (a campaign Mac administration shut down in 2013-4). Or perhaps precarity could be decreased if Brian Rosenberg and senior staff members would agree to give up some of their inordinately large piece of the pie, with BriRo’s CEO-level salary of $792,169/year in 2013. Maybe then he wouldn’t need to convince students that tuition should go up 3% annually. What if Macalester’s administration stuck to Macalester’s purported value of serving society by resisting the corporatization of higher education characteristic of neoliberalism, thereby challenging a neoliberalism whose characteristics are “intensified inequality, crass commodification and commerce, ever-growing corporate influence in government, economic havoc and instability,” in the words of political theorist Wendy Brown.
Don’t get me wrong, entrepreneurialism is Mac’s attempt to answer the needs of the modern work environment — needs that might be more immediate for those in marginalized positions in the US or in countries abroad. But isn’t it our job to fight with the exploited and marginalized? Neoliberalism thrives off of our separation and private assumption of suffering. Step one is to organize around these nodes, to recognize both shared experiences and differing ones, to demand our vision of the world be actualized. Maybe then we can approach solving these “wicked problems” in a way that serves the majority instead of a minority.