considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy
Author: U.N.E.F. Strasbourg
Original Title: De la misère en milieu étudiant considérée sous ses aspects économique, politique, psychologique, sexuel et notamment intellectuel et de quelques moyens pour y remédier
First published in 1966 at the University of Strasbourg by students of the university and members of the Internationale Situationniste.
A few students elected to the student union printed 10,000 copies with university funds. The copies were distributed at the official ceremony marking the beginning of the academic year. The student union was promptly closed by court order.
“We might very well say, and no one would disagree with us, that the student is the most universally despised creature (…) apart from the priest and the policeman. Naturally, he is usually attacked from the wrong point of view, with specious reasons derived from the ruling ideology.
Everything is said about our society except what it is, and the nature of its two basic principles — the commodity and the spectacle. The fetishism of facts masks the essential category, and the details consign the totality to oblivion.
Modern capitalism and its spectacle allot everyone a specific role in a general passivity. The student is no exception to the rule. He has a provisional part to play, a rehearsal for his final role as an element in market society as conservative as the rest. Being a student is a form of initiation. An initiation which echoes the rites of more primitive societies with bizarre precision. It goes on outside of history, cut off from social reality. The student leads a double life, poised between his present status and his future role. The two are absolutely separate, and the journey from one to the other is a mechanical event “in the future.” Meanwhile, he basks in a schizophrenic consciousness, withdrawing into his initiation group to hide from that future. Protected from history, the present is a mystic trance.
Nowadays the teenager shuffles off the moral prejudices and authority of the family to become part of the market even before he is adolescent: at fifteen he has all the delights of being directly exploited. In contrast, the student covers his protracted infancy as an irresponsible and docile paradise. Adolescence and its crises may bring occasional brushes with his family, but in essence, he is not troublesome: he agrees to be treated as a baby by the institutions which provide his education.
But we have different reasons to despise the student and all his works. What is unforgivable is not so much his actual misery but his complaisance in the face of the misery of others. For him, there is only one real alienation: his own. (…) The student really knows how miserable will be that golden future which is supposed to make up for the shameful poverty of the present. In the face of that knowledge, he prefers to dote on the present and invent an imaginary prestige for himself.
The student is a stoic slave: the more chains authority heaps upon him, the freer he is in phantasy. He shares with his new family, the University, a belief in a curious kind of autonomy. Real independence, apparently, lies in a direct subservience to the two most powerful systems of social control: the family and the State. He is their well-behaved and grateful child, and like the submissive child, he is overeager to please. He celebrates all the values and mystifications of the system, devouring them with all the anxiety of the infant at the breast. Once, the old illusions had to be imposed on an aristocracy of labour; the petits cadres-to-be ingest them willingly under the guise of culture.
The whole of his life is beyond his control, and for all he sees of the world he might as well be on another planet.
Driven by his freely-chosen depression, he submits himself to the subsidiary police force of psychiatrists set up by the avant-garde of repression. The university mental health clinics are run by the student mutual organization, which sees this institution as a grand victory for student unionism and social progress. Like the Aztecs who ran to greet Cortes’s sharpshooters, and then wondered what made the thunder and why men fell down, the students flock to the psycho-police stations with their “problems”.
Art is dead, but the student is a necrophiliac. He peeks at the corpse in cine-clubs and theaters, buys its fish-fingers from the cultural supermarket.
He thinks he is avant-garde if he has seen the latest happening. He discovers “modernity” as fast as the market can produce its ersatz version of long outmoded (though once important) ideas; for him, every rehash is a cultural revolution. His principal concern is status, and he eagerly snaps up all the paperback editions of important and “difficult” texts with which mass culture has filled the bookstores. (If he had an atom of self-respect or lucidity, he would knock them off. But no: conspicuous consumers always pay!). Unfortunately, he cannot read, so he devours them with his gaze, and enjoys them vicariously through the gaze of his friends. He is an other-directed voyeur.
The student, if he rebels at all, must first rebel against his studies, though the necessity of this initial move is felt less spontaneously by him than by the worker, who intuitively identifies his work with his total condition. At the same time, since the student is a product of modern society just like Godard or Coca-Cola, his extreme alienation can only be fought through the struggle against this whole society.
The revolt of youth against an imposed and “given” way of life is the first sign of a total subversion. It is the prelude to a period of revolt — the revolt of those who can no longer live in our society.”
For full-text visit: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/u-n-e-f-strasbourg-on-the-poverty-of-student-life
Guy Debord: The Society of Spectacle