The proposal for the New School of the Anthropocene is the product of two years of discussion with university colleagues and arts practitioners about the viability of initiating an experimental Arts and Humanities college between Cambridge and London, with the intention of becoming a partner of the new federated UK Cooperative University scheduled to open in September 2021.[1] It is spurred by a need to address the industrial positioning of the teacher and student alike as opportunistic and productive neo-liberal subjects within the knowledge economy who are, in turn, located inside strategic institutions that demarcate spaces and accumulate gains in the form of grant funding, technocratic surveillance, star ratings and inane measuring systems – REF (Research Evaluation Framework), TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) –  lifted from the specious fields of management science.[2]

In their current form, such institutions are unquestionably ill-placed to foster the new collaborative patterns and forms of creativity necessary to interrupt the cyclical reproduction of the hegemonic business civilization underwritten by a reckless Social Darwinism: an ideological aegis accorded natural status that has brought us to the point of collapse of the earth’s life-support systems. Indeed, the previously unthinkable pause in transnational capital’s circulatory mechanisms enforced by the horrifying Covid-19 pandemic has afforded a unique opportunity to rethink the basis of our ruinous and wasteful practices, and explore new possibilities for sociality and encounter – or ‘forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old,’ as the Wobblies had it.[3]

The New School’s participants envisage the forging, in the first instance, of a radical four-year, part-time degree curriculum dedicated to the fusion of critical enquiry and creative practice as an approach to studying and assessment. A postgraduate programme will then follow. In so doing we aim to counter the punishing instrumentalism of a neo-liberal ‘outputs’ culture by responding to Michel de Certeau’s exhortation to academics in The Practice of Everyday Life to adopt ‘diversionary tactics,’ which might afford ‘a return of the ethical, of pleasure and of invention within the scientific institution.’[4] This project is then equally a gesture of recognition of the complicity of the UK’s higher educational system with biocide, and of its market-bureaucratization and exclusionary financial policies.

The overarching teleology of the New School has been woven from Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies, which took its impetus from cyberneticist Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and charted the interconnected and overlapping ecosystems of the psyche, society and the natural world in resistance to ‘Integrated World Capitalism.’[5] The curriculum will aim to address the omission of Humanities disciplines in the consideration of climate emergency and mass extinction through fostering an understanding and re-examination of the cultural narratives and metaphors that shape the human location on earth, and the nature of consciousness itself.

Herein lies a response to the pivotal role played by the Humanities in the engineered climate of anti-intellectualism that has underscored the sustained attack on the universities following the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010. As William Davies observes, the Humanities have been strategically deployed to amplify and exploit demographic divisions across the UK as part of a new conservative ideology, which seeks to eviscerate the postwar consensus across political and educational institutions that the understanding of ideas, artefacts and events is a matter of public interest. In its service, right-wing think-tanks and media sites have drawn together all forms of activism, complaint or critical theory as manifestations of a privileged metropolitan elite: the common enemy in a manufactured culture war that neutralises critique over issues of wealth distribution and access to social justice, and unites Chicago School market fundamentalists and anti-immigrant nationalists in an unwieldy coalition.[6] 

This is not an art school as such, but its expansive curriculum restores the episteme of the arts to the centre of living in the face of such opposition. This is an intervention designed to encourage learning through experimental thinking: the study of the imagination being the particular purpose of art, which might, in turn, equip people to deal humanely with a complex and uncertain world. As such the New School will swerve away from the pedagogical charge of higher education into training and skills: a means of preparing citizens to operate social procedures efficiently through adaptation to, and constraint within, the limits of a given environment.

Conversely, the New School’s curriculum reflects the understanding that to be educated is to inhabit a world of forms and impressions that afford a variety of unpredictable responses. The market concern with enhancing an individual student’s professional value will be superseded by the need to create producers, not consumers, of meaning; and by the understanding that community is a basic instructional force, fundamental to pedagogy. Teaching will strongly promote transdisciplinary and comparative practices, being more concerned with the porosity of subject boundaries than their policing: a principle at one with Ernst Haeckel’s 1869 definition of ecology as ‘the study of all those complex interactions referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for existence.’[7] This is a direct response to the continuing but unserviceable disciplining of knowledge into traditional subject fields, in light of the systematic unmaking of our civilization.

As such it complements the prospects forged in Textures of the Anthropocene,[8] a manifestation of the Anthropocene Project hosted by Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt since 2013, which navigates the epoch of human-made nature, where nature/culture or subject/object binaries are no longer operative in the accustomed fashion, through the particulate, the volatile and the radiant. Proposing that the civilizational can and should be approached as a history of imagination, of sensuous and material interconnections and processes, its hypothesis regards humanity as a cultural-geological force. Whereas the word ‘culture’ originates from the Latin cultus, ‘care,’ and from the French colere, ‘to till’ as in ‘till the ground,’ in biological terms, ‘culture’ signals a habitat for the growth and nourishment of organisms. The Anthropocene marks the sum of these interventions that have altered the metabolic structures of the Earth’s systems through sediments, currents and rays redistributed towards unknown configurations that bring microstructures into alignment with global processes. These necessarily, but not exhaustively, include the consequences of climate breakdown, soil erosion, the capitalocene, the digitization of all forms of production and communication, and drastic species deletion in parallel with the breeding of new tech breeds.

Students will be encouraged to develop a critical orientation from which to pursue questions that engage with the mediation of forces and forms across culture and nature; and explore such transhistorical relationships that arise between text/image/performance, memory, place and biology, as well as the possibilities for their renegotiation into more sustainable forms of social organisation. The syllabus will be shaped by the availability and expertise of a sizeable and open-ended collective of teachers, which thus far includes Michael Hrebeniak, Richard Wentworth, Assemble Studio, Hugo Azerad, Isabelle McNeill, Robin Kirkpatrick, Marina Warner, Corinna Russell, Elizabeth Manchester and Robert Macfarlane. (The activist, Roc Sandford, promises residencies on his off-grid organic farm on the Isle of Gometra; Anthony Wall, Series Producer of BBC Arena, has pledged full access to the archive of 600+ programmes made over the last 45 years.) We aim to emulate the principles of Black Mountain College (1933-57) as advanced by Josef Albers, M.C. Richards, John Cage and Charles Olson, et al, not as a geometry of nostalgia, but as a space for the consideration of experimentation as prompt to action, wherein students will be regarded as autonomous creative and critical citizens, entrusted to discover their own patterns within webs of knowledge via a series of individual and collaborative projects. The act of making – an act of nerve – will thus be assigned equal primacy to that of critiquing.

Several participants have been involved in the Learning Together programme (2015-present),[9] which has brought together Cambridge teachers, students and prisoners in workshops to explore non-hierarchical ways of working as a sociality of education. The New School’s ethos also reflects the feminist pedagogy  of the Cambridge Tactics and Praxis seminar series (2018-present),[10] which strives to reinstate the creativity, pleasure, exploration, discovery and curiosity in the academic enterprise; to respond to political and environmental crisis in the midst of relentless pressures; and to determine the connective tissue for collectivity: a means of standing with and working for those who have less, in the face of institutional achievement-commandment-prohibition frameworks entrenched in multiple forms of privilege. In particular, the New School shares the desire instantiated within these experimental seminars ‘to valorise affect and the body in teaching and research contexts and to open the possibility of channels of communication between “professional” life and intimate experience. We support, recognise and acknowledge affective and embodied responses and connections between individuals in a community context where these occur and challenge the silencing of such connections and experiences.’[11] We would build these collaborative lessons into the intellectual adventure, local independence and personal responsibility afforded by the Cambridge supervision system: the means of preparing people to make radical interventions and find urgent solutions to this crisis as a civic duty.

The New School will be a cooperative and UCU (University and College Union) rates of pay will apply. This will not be a traditional propertied university but will flex between locations and learning approaches (including digital) as individual projects demand. Site will become situation: a making – poein – by people engaged with each other and with ideas. Neither will it be encumbered by the characteristic burdens of the over-regulated higher-educational institution: namely, self-referential administration, rank, tenure, appraisal, estate, endowment, development office or grading systems. Students will be paid to assist with any necessary administration as a means of offsetting their fees. We will countenance no president, CEO nor board of trustees, and no energy will be wasted in data churning and surveillance. Our collective experience across the contemporary university has yielded no aspiration to simulate the banal mystique of the corporate world and incorporate its wasteful and sclerotic practices at every layer of operations.

This is a self-determining body within the framework of the Cooperative University and responsibility for educational policy will sit wholly with the teachers and the students. The New School will actively seek to establish fraternal and collaborative relations with the other federated learning cooperatives and cultural institutions such as galleries and museums. Whereas the neoliberal orientation of the current university system has proven itself both unable and unwilling to engage with the prospect of ecological ruin, the New School of the Anthropocene will set out to design a transdisciplinary and avowedly non-managerialist gathering of students and teachers forged in conviviality, companionship and trust: a means of addressing the greatest intellectual challenge of this, or indeed any, era.

[1]See https://www.co-op.ac.uk/pages/category/co-operative-university

[2]Terminology adapted from Cambridge Tactics and Praxis Seminar publicity. See https://www.tacticsandpraxis.org/about

[3]Preamble to the International Workers of the World Constitution, founding conference, Chicago 1905.

[4]de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), p. 28.

[5]See Guattari, Felix and Antonio Negri, Communists Like Us: New Spaces of Liberty, New Lines of Alliance, trans. M. Ryan (New York: Semiotext[e], 1990), pp. 47-74.

[6]Davies, William, ‘How the humanities became the new enemy within,’ The Guardian, 28 February 2020.

[7]Haeckel, Ernst, cited in W.C. Allee, Alfred E. Emerson, Orlando Park, Thomas Park and Karl P. Schmidt, Principles of Animal Ecology (Philadelphia and London: W.B. Saunders & Co., 1949), p. 5.

[8]Klingan, Katrin, Ashkan Sepahvand, Christoph Rosol and Bernd M. Scherer (eds.), Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain, Vapor, Ray (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

[9]See https://www.cctl.cam.ac.uk/tlif/learning-together

[10]See https://www.tacticsandpraxis.org/

[11]McNeill, Isabelle, Louise Haywood and Georgina Evans, ‘Tactics and Praxis: A Manifesto,’ in Feminist Pedagogies: MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture, Issue no. 5, January 2020.