It was both an honour and a delight to contribute to the Special Issue of Art & the Public Sphere edited by Ian Bruff and Mel Jordan. The focus on disrupting the relations between art, politics, and pedagogy provided a wonderful provocation to reconsider and critique some of my own teaching practice. I have long used artefacts of popular culture in teaching International Relations and International Political Economy – I discuss some of the reasons why in my contribution to the special issue – but even critical perspectives need to be reconsidered before they revert to the comfortable repetitions of an ossifying common sense.
Ossification is the danger that the most important interventions into pedagogical conversations warn us against. Paulo Freire troubled what he called a “banking” model of education, where the students await the “deposits” of wisdom shared out by a teacher; in his study of the French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, Jacques Rancière denounced the brutalisation or stultification of students whose intellectual equality is denied in the hierarchical classroom. Despite all critique, such practices remain the norm in the seminar room, where an institutionally policed division of labour allocates to the seminar leader the work of designing the syllabus, assigning learning tasks, leading discussion, and assessing student work, and to the students the tasks of realising the designs received from the teacher. There is room for creativity and critique in contemporary classrooms but always against the background of metrics of achievement, retention, employability, etc., that universities, government, and civil society use to assess how well the given tasks are executed.
I have just started teaching a new module at Newcastle University on Urban International Politics and one of the first things that struck me in planning the syllabus was how neatly the division of labour in the classroom reflects the hierarchies in the international and urban spheres. In the latter, for example, as the architect and critic Sérgio Ferro notes, buildings reflect the designs that precede them; the workers on a construction site are subjected to the same denial of the equality of their intellects and understandings as students in a stultifying classroom. Similarly with the international (in International Relations as much as in International Political Economy): the international appears as a superior level or an arena or container in which political subjects might act, rather than as a product that might be altered in its reproduction. In the lecture theatre or in the seminar room, how can we make the production of space in the urban and in the international more visible? And more to the point, how can we understand the production of space in an active voice attuned to the producers, and not only to the given product?
In my contribution to the special issue, I turn to an artefact of popular culture, a sci-fi / fantasy novel by China Miéville: Perdido Street Station. I believe there are many advantages to looking to Miéville in this context. First, reading an artefact of popular culture, as opposed to a carefully elaborated conceptual study or a rigorous empirical analysis, starts from the skills or expertise or capacities that the students already have, rather than presenting itself as authoritative material that the underdeveloped student needs to master in order to progress. This is not to say that teaching can ignore more scientific work in its practices; it is only to note a tactic for affirming the equality of the subjects in the classroom, an affirmation that better prepares students for a politically engaged critique of more scientifically presented ideas and arguments.
Second, and more specifically to this novel and this teaching, Miéville is very much a writer of the urban: not only Perdido Street Station but also The City & The City, Un-Lon-Don, The Last Days of New Paris, Embassytown, and even The Scar – the sequel to Perdido Street Station set at sea on an agglomeration of ships and boats that urbanise themselves – all feature carefully crafted and beautifully wrought urban settings. Miéville’s novels are especially responsive to enquiries into the political possibilities afforded by the urban, possibilities that in turn disrupt the givenness of the international as a limit to the horizons of the political.
Because my reading of the novel is orientated towards the production of space, I tend to read Perdido Street Station a bit against the grain laid by Miéville. The characters and the events in the novel develop and are explicitly connected to the imagined city of New Crobuzon, in which the novel is set, but they act or unfold in their circulation through the city. The most overtly political aspects of the novel refer to circulation: the policing of the city takes place from above ground, surveilled by police stations located on the sky rail or in dirigibles; police break up a strike by dockworkers and water workers that threatens to shut down the circulation of goods and ships in and throughout the city. Miéville explicitly acknowledges the influence of the Liverpool dock strikes of the 1990s in his thinking about this moment in the novel and certainly contemporary capitalism operates through the circulation and flows of goods, of bodies, of finance, and of governance. However, as noted above, such a rendering of the space of capitalism presents it as a given: it focuses on space as a product, rather than on the social relations of production and on the producers themselves.
Nevertheless, I show in my article that in the novel, the work that the characters do and the social relations in which they work are also important to the narrative arc. There is a clear impact on the narrative coming from the differences between characters whose labour is formally subsumed and those who work in conditions of real subsumption of labour. For the characters whose work is formally subsumed – in the novel, artists and craftspeople, scientists, for example – certain tactics involving their withholding their labour or knowledge are available, which shapes events markedly.
Those whose labour is really subsumed play a very different role in the political moments and outcomes in the novel. I examine some of these differences in my article but for here, what is crucial is how the appropriation and organisation of the bodies and intellects of the workers under real subsumption ends up presenting a very politicised allegory of capital. The monsters in the novel directly extract the minds of their victims but leave them as husks, unable to think or care for themselves, no longer able to work. The construct of artificial intelligences that helps defeat the monsters, by contrast, not only keeps workers working but directs their movements, coordinating them across space, in the service of the continuing self-expansion of the construct and indifferent to the outcomes for the workers: a powerful allegory for capital. The other character that contributes to the defeat of the monsters is something of an allegory for free labour: a labour that cannot be subsumed under capital, that is creative if violent, that works beyond the current understanding of the human characters.
The conclusion to the novel is politically ambivalent: rather than stage an allegorical battle between Labour and Capital, the novel refuses any utopian gestures. Returning to classroom practice, to the production of urban space, and to the international, this ambivalence is crucial. Miéville is not providing the design for revolution that others must enact. Rather, Perdido Street Station enables an understanding of the spaces of the city as it arranges encounters of difference, of exploitation, of subsumption and violence: an understanding of space that can acknowledge the producers of space.
Learning and teaching international, urban, and cultural political economy through readings of artefacts of popular culture not only opens a space of possibility in the seminar room where students and teachers might acknowledge each other as equals – a pedagogical tactic – it also, in doing so, opens the possibility for understanding the roles of the international, the urban, cultural, and the political economic forces in play in shaping a political moment. The lines between pedagogical and political tactics blur. In a worldwide moment when higher education is increasingly under attack when it deviates from producing capable and compliant “human capital”, defending such a possibility space is an urgent matter. Pedagogically and politically, trusting in the equality of the intelligence of the learners acknowledges the producers of this space too.
The set image reproduces the New Crobuzon rail map created by Mark Dormand available here.