Precarity, Mastery, and Vulnerability: Some Thoughts on UCU’s Recent Elections

by Tilly Fitzmaurice

"Smash the Patriarchy" by ednl is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“Smash the Patriarchy” by ednl is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Two weeks ago, UCU members learned of the National Executive Committee election results. The six-week campaign period saw some acrimonious exchanges in the online sphere as the different groups within the union fought out their disagreements on multiple terrains. As the dust settles, a few reflections.

For me, it’s no coincidence that the issue of precarity was a touchpaper for conflicting visions of what the union and the university should be. In her writing about the “possibility of life in capitalist ruins”, Anna Tsing explores how precarity, once a temporary aberration, is now a generalised global norm.1 “Precariousness”, as Judith Butler explains, “is not simply an existential condition of individuals, but rather a social condition from which certain clear political demands and principles emerge.”2 This isn’t to argue that we are all ‘precarious’ to the same extent, but rather that this condition of exposure, of vulnerability, possesses a double character. It “establishes the possibility of being subjugated and exploited” but also that of “being relieved of suffering, of knowing justice and even love”.3

Vulnerability is what we show when we recognise that we have been carried to the edge of our known – and knowable – worlds. An ethic and politics of vulnerability is something we can cultivate to bridge across our teaching, scholarship, and (union) organising. It is a radical openness to (be)coming undone by the world. This kind of ethic speaks back to the inclination to heroism that runs through so much trade unionist rhetoric and practice. Precarity is presented as (and indeed, is) a scourge on the post-16 education sector; an enemy that must be overpowered and definitively expunged. So far, so good. But the question of how to do this is a contested one, and was intensely so during the recent UCU elections. Many responses to it assumed a linear temporality: we strike, then we win. Why would we do anything else? This answer is already implied in the very framing of the question. But if there is only one acceptable answer to a political or strategic question, then why bother asking the question in the first place?

This paradox recalls the anxiety expressed by many a fresh-faced graduate instructor required to facilitate their first seminar or demonstrate in their first practical: what if a student asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer? Underlying this question is a fear of being made vulnerable, of having the precariousness of one’s position as a knowing subject exposed. When I start with a new group of students, one of the first things I like to convey is that it’s okay not to know something, or not to ‘get it’. Rather, the absolute opposite: to admit to not knowing something is a radical act of intellectual generosity. As the feminist teacher and scholar Kyla Wazana Tompkins so wisely puts it: “we aren’t here to learn what we already know”.4 It is to show vulnerability, courage and to militate against the heroic, patriarchal impulse to mastery that pervades the crisis-laden 2020s university – the very same impulse that has enclosed, cleared and stripped bare so much of our precious planetary commons.

The world is not there for us to master. The world leaves us at a loss; it stumps us. Teaching, learning and organising together is about pushing at the boundaries of the world, about creating spaces in which we can be unsettled. This allows us to co-create and nurture an ethics of humility, creativity, care and repair. Only by doing this can we see the world anew, and get down to the fraught business of changing it. 

Notes:

  1. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.
  2. Judith Butler (2009) Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? New York: Verso, p. xxv.
  3. Frames of War, p. 61
  4. Kyla Wazana Tompkins (2016) We Aren’t Here To Learn What We Already Know. Los Angeles Review of Books, 13th July. Available at: We Aren’t Here to Learn What We Already Know | Avidly (lareviewofbooks.org).

Tilly Fitzmaurice is a PhD candidate in human geography at Durham University. She gratefully acknowledges all the conversations with interlocutors that fed into these reflections.

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