The start-up of the self: Bennington's new discourses and the gig-economy model of education

Image from Reddit

Image from Reddit

By Lizzy Weal

“Many young people strangely boast of being "motivated"; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It's up to them to discover what they're being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill” - Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control. 1992.

The first time I saw the Bennington website following its overhaul this past summer, I was convinced that I had somehow managed to accidentally type in the address of the website of a Palo Alto-based startup drone company whose graphic design team had recently found themselves in possession of a GoPro and gone completely rogue. After about a minute, I realized that this was, in fact, the Bennington website, and that it was, in fact, somehow more disturbing than the aforementioned theoretical drone startup. I remember staring at the ‘outcomes’ page with the numbed out horror that only 4 years at Bennington can ever really teach you, compulsively reading and rereading the various buzzy one-liners about what Bennington does to students, and what these students, in turn, are not so much taught as programmed to do. It seems trite to state that Bennington, a school defined by its principled dedication to self-direction and creativity, is changing. My class is the very last class to have ever existed at a pre-Mariko Bennington, so we remember a time, however briefly, that predated the contemporary Bennington, one defined by its obsession with entrepreneurship and capacity-based evaluations. To younger students, and especially the current freshman class, these features are taken for granted.

Anyone who has ever encountered Foucault is at least minimally aware of his theory of discourse, which refers to “ways of constituting knowledge, forms of subjectivity and power relations”.  This definition is enormously difficult on the surface, but the concept itself is rather intuitive. There is no “real” reality; rather, reality is constructed by and through the constant deployment of a nearly infinite set of vocabularies, presumptions, mythologies, institutions, narratives, practices, rules, and technologies. These discourses shape external reality as well as internal reality, what Foucault calls “subjectivity” and everyone else calls “the self”. To Foucault, the ways in which we talk about, legitimize, and empiricize reality are not only extremely powerful but actually produce reality as well as ourselves with very specific results. When Bennington introduces a slew of new institutional statements, administrative positions with 7 word job titles, and evaluatory methods, they are actually discursively producing a new Bennington reality as well as a new Bennington student. These new realities are not taking shape for their own sake, but rather emerge from and, consequently, reflect already-existing conditions and discourses.

Let’s take the example of Field Work Term. Most of us are aware that, in practical terms, Field Work Term - applying for it, figuring out the logistics of it, actually doing it - is an exercise in that particular kind of bullshit that magically renders even the most inane moments alternatively humiliating, infuriating, or both. I spent almost all of my sophomore FWT in a “room” - which turned out to be an exposed, uninsulated approximation of a basement - that I paid more than $1000 dollars a month for in an apartment located on the fringes of what was then a newly, but rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights.The vast majority of my time was spent wrapped in a single pathetic blanket I had stolen from the living room on a glorified Ikea cot, the wood of which had rotted long ago and was permanently inhabited by an entire nation-state of red ants that had satellite colonies in the bathroom (the toilet was somehow both broken and constantly either leaking various liquids or emitting a low, faint groan) and the walls of the living room. Both my tech-bro sociopath of a landlord and his roommate repeatedly, aggressively attempted to sleep with me, and I cannot remember a week that went by where I did not get randomly locked out of the house late at night in the middle of a polar vortex. This living crisis was only compounded by the fact that I was profoundly lonely, could barely afford to eat and, of course, was receiving zero compensation for my work, where I frequently logged 60 hour weeks.

What happens when we reinterpret my FWT experience using the discourses provided by the College? According to the website, Field Work Term helps students develop the “capacity to grasp and enter complex situations; the ability to work and think independently as well as to collaborate; and the confidence to be mobilized—not paralyzed—by ambiguities, trade-offs, and uncertainties”. Defined thusly, my decision to simply never be in the apartment when I could help it after my significantly older roommates groped me or came into my bedroom for the second, and then third, time, was not, in fact, symptomatic of the uniquely gendered ramifications of gentrification, declining housing stocks, and skyrocketing rent, but rather a demonstration of the “confidence to be mobilized - not paralyzed”. In this discursive universe, my chronic hunger and eventual resignation to the constant presence of ants, sub-zero temperatures, and profound social isolation endowed me with the “capacity to grasp and enter” the “complex situation” that is, for every class except the rich, the alienation, poverty, and uncertainty that largely define the materiality of 21st century life. Where my friends perceived their development, and subsequent inability to pay for the treatment, of chronic respiratory problems and migraines caused by the black mold wallpapering their apartment as a fundamental indignity, Bennington actually sees students who ought to be commended for their “mobilization - not paralysis” in the face of “ambiguities and trade-offs”.

The deployment of these institutional discourses is disturbing not just because they justify the exploitative realities that underpin the Field Work Term experience, but because they actually show us what the College wants life and, consequently, individuals themselves, to be. The College’s decision to display a very specific selection of statistics on their new website actually says something about how they envision an ideal world and how they plan to go about practically realizing it. When the website chooses to loudly advertise the fact that “80 percent of Bennington students are engaged in the workplace”, a statement that is at once absurd and utterly meaningless, they are saying something about type of Bennington student that the College dreams of producing, and crucially why they want them to exist at all (the answer to this is: to service the accumulation of capital). It does not matter whether or not the work that Bennington students are so exceptionally “engaged in” is dignified or degrading, productive or pointless. Within the universe created by these new institutional discourses, Bennington students are defined by their singular ability to not only “get things done” but actually “thrive” in “ambiguous” and “uncertain” situations. The Bennington student-worker not only “tolerates” but feels most alive under conditions that subject them to some form of extreme, be it extreme job insecurity, extreme exploitation, or extreme exhaustion. Another statistic listed on the website is much more literal: “93% of employers would rehire a Bennington intern”. Is this remaining 7 percent of unemployable Bennington students unhirable because they aren’t sufficiently “engaged in work”? Did they simply fall victim to the “paralysis” engendered by “ambiguities, trade-offs, and uncertainties”? Again, it actually doesn’t matter. The entire point of the statistic is to produce Bennington students who exist for the sole purpose of providing a type of post-financial crisis labor pool that is both highly flexible and masochistically aspirational.

While these examples are (for now) theoretical, numerous projects that would have been impossible to implement prior to the discursive proliferation have successfully transformed, and demonstrably harmed, the lives of not only students but faculty and staff.  The discursive framings of these projects make it nearly impossible to understand what they are actually attempting to do, not least because the various discourses dress them up in ways that make them sound benign and even, sometimes, radical. This feat is best exemplified by an article Mariko Silver wrote this past November for Higher Ed Magazine. The article, titled “Title IX in the Age of Trump”, is a glorified PR pitch dedicated to explaining how campus sexual violence it is not in any real capacity the responsibility of educational institutions to deal with; rather, it is on the students to develop more innovative models of education so that they may prevent their own victimization. This summary is not hyperbolic. In the campaign against campus sexual violence, Silver asserts that the driving question of schools should not be “Why are we so passionate about defending wealthy rapists and artificially depressing reporting rates?”, but rather “How do we give our students the tools they need to identify, analyze, engage and eventually dismantle those structures that may foster gender inequality [...] both on their campuses, [...] and in the world?” Silver states that in the fight against campus rape, we “simply can’t rely solely on student life counselors and Title IX officers to do this work -- although they have crucial roles to play”, federally mandated roles which include ensuring that if and when sexual violence occurs on campus, the “hostile environment” is immediately dealt with, which typically involves the investigation of and removal of a convicted perpetrator. Silver states that college administrations “must think about how knowledge is formed [...] so that when our students confront moments of injustice [...], they will have tools to grapple with such injustice and perhaps even undo it”, a sentence which translates roughly to: “If and when students are assaulted, it is on them to deal with it, which most likely means dropping out when the thought of having keep having to take classes with their rapist makes them dangerously suicidal”. Silver signs off of the article by stating that “For colleges to make a lasting and significant contribution to the problem of sexual assault and gender inequality, we must educate students that institutions are made by people and can be transformed by people”. In Silver’s universe, the notion that administrators, the actual people responsible for the institution, might bear the onus of institutional transformation is patently absurd, and even more ludicrous is the notion that colleges might make significant contributions in the fight against campus sexual violence by actually dealing with campus sexual violence.

Silver’s article is tone deaf, glib, and disingenuous, but these are all things that we have come to expect from the administration writ large. “Title IX in the Age of Trump” is of interest because it is an example of a highly weaponized synthesis of discourses. In less than 1,000 words, Silver manages to absolve colleges of any duty they have to protect their students from sexual violence; relocates that responsibility onto quite literal student bodies; then finally frames this transfer of responsibility as if it were an opportunity for the creative imagineers of Bennington College to further hone their disruptive craft. I find it difficult to express how disgusting I find this article and Silver’s decision to write it in the first place. It is the closest thing to real evil that I have ever seen produced by the College’s administration. But my very inability to express precisely why this piece is so profoundly dangerous is testament to the seamlessness quality of its discursive configuration. The same is true of the website’s repeated references to the fact that 50 percent of classes offered are new term-to-term and that, in a reflection of the flexible intellectual pursuits of professors themselves, more than 50 tutorials are offered per semester. These announcements first obscure the ever-increasing amounts of underpaid labor, time, and energy demanded of professors by the administration in order to scramble to provide for the burgeoning student body, and then celebrate the conditions that enabled this pseudo-flexibility in the first place, namely the total evisceration of tenure by Liz Coleman in 1994 and the increasingly short-term contract statuses of new professorial hires.  The exact same obscure/celebrate strategy emerges in regard to the dining hall, which the website affectionately depicts as the penultimate cult of the self that was designed with nothing other than capital y You and Your Desires alone in mind. The page neglects to mention that this wonder of caloric customization has only been made possible through a mass recruitment of easily terminated, minimum wage, part-time employment at the expense of full-time salaried employees (conveniently, part-time contractors tend not to waste everyone’s time with the creation of unions who ruin everyone’s day by refusing to accept arbitrary increases to their health care premiums and insisting on bargaining with the school and its ferociously anti-labor attorneys).

Perhaps the most unsettling detail of the mutually embedded proliferations of structural adjustments and institutional discourses is not the harm that they caused, but the totally unremarkable manner in which these adjustments were carried out. The institutional sedimentation of these Silicon-inspired discourses of innovation, choice, and an infinitely powerful self has been so successful that the projects these discourses envelop are naturalized to such an extent that there appears to be nothing to critique at all. Of course the dining hall is about me! Of course the curriculum hinges upon a principle of novelty! Bennington, as I once overheard walking past an admissions tour, is just like an app! What happens when the college - an institution that has always been defined by a willingness to question the unquestionable - comes to structurally embody the same logics, dynamics, and incentives of not only capitalism, but other such systems as the surveillance leviathan (lest we forget that President Silver worked for the Department of Homeland Security, a federal office at the vanguard of mass surveillance, prior to her presidential appointment) that is so central to the American imperial project, to such an extent that critique itself becomes increasingly impossible?

The college that disavows the project of critical investigation and its practical application in order to continuously churn out graduates whose only skills are the ability to work in, and tacitly accept, increasingly dystopian situations is not a college. This is called an incubator or, for the more apocalyptically inclined, the stockroom in the back of a Walmart where trainees are forced to endure hours of fear mongering videos that shrilly detail the evils of unions while just behind the TV a poster is prominently displayed advertising a food drive for fellow employees who cannot afford to eat.   In order for us to generate authentic political practices, we must first contest the very terms of engagement upon which our institutional existence is predicated upon. The next time that you walk through CAPA, glance at the plaques outside the doors and ask yourself what the difference between a classroom and a design lab is, and what exactly both are intended to produce and how they are meant to function, and how the College’s Silicon turn is in many ways the predictable answer to the groundwork laid intermittently by the Coleman regime.