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Acta Academica

On-line version ISSN 2415-0479
Print version ISSN 0587-2405


DICK, Liezl  and  PAINTER, Desmond. On the verge of a nervous breakthrough: Neoliberal subjectivities and precarious resistance in the contemporary South African university. Acta acad. (Bloemfontein, Online) [online]. 2020, vol.52, n.2, pp.37-51. ISSN 2415-0479.

Academics today labour under conditions of neoli-beralism, and universities increasingly operate like businesses where value is determined almost solely in terms of profitability and productivity. This reduction of the human condition to human capital (Valero, Mölbjerg Jörgensen, & Brunila 2019) is an important aspect of both Judith Butler's (2004, 2015) analysis of precarious life, as well as Isabel Lorey's (2016) understanding of precarity and precarisation as dimensions of neoliberal governmentality. For Butler in particular, precariousness refers to the vulnerability and interrelatedness of bodies. Our bodies are exposed to the possibility of violence, death and pain, and life is not sustainable without security, care and love (Taylor & Underwood 2019). Some bodies, though, are rendered more precarious and vulnerable than others through processes of social hierarchisation. In the neoliberal university context, precarity manifests in managerial regimes, characterised by a paradoxical style of governance: governing the social through material and subjective insecurity (Pérez & Montoya 2018). A work environment characterised by affects of insufficiency, non-relationality, competitiveness, individualism, isolation and very often anxiety, such as found in the contemporary South African university, results in a process of affective subjectivation suitable for neoliberal managerialism to function optimally. The neoliberal machine hence operates with and through precarity (Pérez & Montoya 2018), creating nonrelational subjectivities always on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. Against this background, we argue that the task of critical theory today is to think beyond diagnostic terms, towards possible forms of resistance that don't only exist outside of the neoliberal context, but that are perhaps made possible by the neoliberal ethos itself. This paper, a performative text, takes the form of a dialogue located in the authors' experiences at two South African university campuses. Thinking with rather than just against precarity, we experiment performatively, exploring the everyday contradictions and fault lines from where resistant forms of subjectivity might emerge, or from where an undoing of neoliberal governmentality might be imagined. Even if just as a slightly nervous breakthrough.

Keywords : higher education; neoliberalism; governmentality; performativity; Guattari; Foucault.

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