Dis-settling critique in stasis: Reflections on the university from the South to the North

This piece originally appeared in Overland. We thank both the author, Heba Al Adawy, and Overland, for permission to republish this important piece.

On a crispy November evening of 2019, Lahore’s smog filtered sky was buzzing with drone surveillance cameras, radiating an orangish glow over around 5,000 young protestors who had assembled at the chowk of Punjab Assembly. For the emerging student activists, the fight was not just to restore student unions banned under a military dictatorship three decades ago, but to reimagine the university as a fundamentally political space. And doing so, for them, was as much a struggle for recognition, akin to screaming from their metaphorical lamp-posts: ‘Look here, we exist.’ It was also an attempt to dis-settle the university from a state oft-described in Urdu as a jamood: a stasis, a sense of frozen-ness and immobility.

It was almost poetic, then, that the rally commenced with an attempt to wrest open the black iron gates of a red fortressed university – one of the oldest in the city dating back to the British Raj – where students could be seen peering out onto the assembled crowd from its spiralling staircases below towering arches. The gates of the university, flanked by red-bricked walls crowned with concertina wires, had been slammed shut – not so much to stop the protest from entering into the campus, but to prevent the flow of movement out, from the classrooms onto the streets where the activists were engaged in a radical project of reimagination.

Outside, the organisers thundered from aboard a traditionally decorated Pakistani truck, summoning their colleagues, their cries intermingled with the rhythmic beat of the drums and the cheer of students surrounding them. Their fellow activists had been locked inside, while other students were being shepherded into extra-curricular seminars, debating competitions and discussions for extra credit. It was as if the multitude of protestors outside the clad iron gates had suddenly animated the university in full gaze for what it was: metaphorically and literally, a prison complex, an institution of the police.

Later that evening, the struggle against the policed university merged with that against the militarised state. The student movement for unionisation had coalesced with another one emerging from the imperial frontier of the post-colonial state (the Former Federally Administered Tribal Areas), calling for an end to militarism, militarised policing and enforced disappearances in the country. Spearheaded by young, tech savvy activists documenting stories of pain and loss, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement) maintained a fierce online visibility through raging hashtags despite heavy repression and censorship. Their slogan behind the terror (dehshat gardi) is the [military] uniform (vardi)’ was electrifying as it triggered an almost instance retaliation from the military-security apparatus; as it struck a chord among similarly policed communities in the country’s peripheries – always protesting within their siloed spaces (the ‘missing persons’ camps), heavily guarded, surveilled, and concealed from the mainstream gaze. But more importantly, as it ruptured a condition of public ‘un-speakability’ – a birfurcated condition in which the military abuses could be spoken in private registers – in siloed, self-selecting congregations, in surveilled activist study circles – but never in public spaces unreserved for.

Now, at the heart of the chowk, a different temporality had come into being through the coming of a collective, all to the beat of the drums, the sound of cheers mingled with a violin instrumental of ‘Bella Ciao’, and a melodic rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s lyrical ballad. A Pashtun student stood up and made a fiery speech. He was from the erstwhile FATA, the colloquial ‘no-man’s land’ that had for over seventy years wrestled under a British colonial legal regime – the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act. His words were contorted with pain and anger, while the students surrounding him applauded in approval. As he mocked the powers that be – the military-intelligence apparatus – in the cultural heart of the capital, they roared with laughter, and the slogan erupted once again.

It was a bold, tantalising moment, a sense of exhilaration laced with impending dread. As the crowd of mostly newcomers chanted the dreaded slogan, a cordon sanitaire of public ‘un-speakability’ had ruptured once again. On our way back from the protest, onboard a mini-van, I heard an academic mutter under her breath: ‘I hope the kids stay safe … Did you see how they were standing and watching behind us?’

They was a pointed reference to the inteligence agents. I suddenly recalled two men standing behind us, watching intently over the crowd with arms folded. Over time, political organisers and their allies had come to recognise them from their gait.

The next day, a group of ‘na-maloom afraad’ or unknown men abducted the Pashtun student in broad daylight from outside his hostel on campus with the aid of none other than the chief security officer of the university – a former military officer. Five organizers of the March in Lahore were slapped with sedition. (There were no convictions. Rather, the sedition charge and the ensuing legal battle is targeted to exhaust activism and serve as an intimidation tactic.) The crime was not so much of a dissenting consciousness as it was of the audacity of its public expression in front of an unreserved audience – an ephemeral creation of a new politicised public. But now, struck with fear and just like that, the fleeting assembling of a collective disassembled.

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Reconceptualising the university: a movement against a [Rancieran] police order

Moving back to the academy in the Global North, my research often elicits a gaze of horror and fascination in equal measure.

Horror in the face of repression is warranted. Here – if not freedom – there is immense privilege. No ghostly spectres of intelligence agents uncannily appearing at your office door; no calls from untraceable numbers warning you to step back; no risks to life for criticisms of the military-industry complex. Yet, the gaze of horror misses something fundamental, as I struggle to translate the deep sense of jamood that continues to trail my movements from the South to the North.

Ironically, my attempts to examine the policed university brought me to a striking conclusion: the university re-imagined manifested in fleeting moments in the very instances when its actors eschewed the metrics that made it an institution in all its guises – bureaucratic, statist, corporatist, nationalist. It was in the weekly study circles in public parks and ramshackle dhabas (roadside cafes) open to the commons; in the commitment of scholars to lead them week after week, heaving as they were under the usual expectations of publications, course load, audit checks; it was in their knowledge and defiance of the euphemistic ‘un-known persons’ ever present with their watchful gaze in the gatherings; and it was in the movement from the (study) circles to the protests, that I saw the most powerful, fleeting glimpses of the university emerge.

The university re-imagined was the antithesis of the institution – it was a movement – a project in motion that was constitutive of and exercised in conjunction with a collective, or what my interlocutors called an ikath – a form of joining together. This project was perhaps truer to the etymology of the word ‘university’ or Jamia-a in its Urdu rendition (and Arabic from which it is derived): a gathering or an assembly. A gathering that now lay dispersed and atomised by the institution of the university into alienated and fearful subjects. A gathering that did critique, and a critique that did movement, seething and simmering with a transformative rage; struggling to push at the seams; to wrench open the iron clad doors of a fortressed building; to bring the conversation from the classrooms to the streets.

As an idea, a project, the university existed in the efforts to dis-settle the sense of jamood – reminiscent of a Rancieran project of dissensus against the police order that defined the name, place, and function of things – the speech from the noise, the heard from the unheard, and seen from the unseen. The police, from a Rancieran perspective, was precisely this distribution of the sensible that designated the order of things; and dissensus the point of confrontation between the police (la police) and the political (la politique), a contentious movement by the part of the demos that had no part to disrupt the existing constellation – to shift from the place assigned to it and to reclaim the whole.

What might we gain through a conceptual separation of the university as an institution versus that of a gathering, an assembly, a movement? For one, it flips the matrix, against a tendency to take the university as an a priori critical space betwixt and between the state and civil society, under attack from the former and an intervention into the latter. Here, the institution is front and centre as an instrument of power – statist, corporatist, colonial and imperial – that needs to be wrenched open through a movement that effaces the scholar into an activist, a worker, an organiser. Consonant with the calls to decolonise the academy, to tear down the emblematic statues of Cecil Rhodes from South Africa to Oxbridge, and the outrage on human remains from MOVE in elite Ivy Leagues, this perspective centres the institution as the site of violence – ideological, political and epistemic.

The onus is not on an elitist institution to intervene and reconfigure social relations, but on the movement to wrench open the institution in order to pursue a decolonial, emancipatory project beyond.

Much has been written on the disciplinary practices of neoliberalism within higher education institutes, contributing to shrinking spaces for democratic dissent, and the reconstitution of education as a private good. It has been argued that the increasing corporatisation of the university, the shift to managerialism, the casualisation of labour and the installation of performance metrics have disempowered academics. Academics have become ‘auditable’, ‘self-interested’, and in-check. Mark Olssen describes the implications of this on the culture of open criticism, debate and dissent: 

Universities as, once-upon-a-time, a fifth estate, a critical bulwark for the safeguarding of democracy, are now in this new age of neoliberalism rendered impotent against the powers of capitalism, superbly administered by the state. Everyone is too intent on watching their backs to speak of dissidence or serious critique in this age where even reasonable tenure is no longer vouchsafe.

What this perspective neglects, however, is the violent genealogy of the Anglophone university in the genesis and expansion of empire. It also, arguably, reproduces a particular periodisation of liberal democracies bereft of the colonial and settler-colonial shadows that lurk barely beneath the surface. Rather than as a critical bulwark for democratic values, now subject to erosion, understanding the university as an institution of the police order forces one to confront its foundational violence (and ongoing legacies) – as civilising missions in and for the colonies.

Additionally, critique made precarious in the neoliberal Anglophone university may not sufficiently capture how critique is prevented from doing movement. Through the lens of South-to-North encounters, precarity as a generalisable condition is confronted with an un-evenness, a geopolitical privilege that makes its conceptual stretching difficult – if not impossible. Indeed, precarious academic subjects do and can exist in the North – those who cross the threshold from stasis to movement and live in those interstices. But precarity is often also paradoxical in that is mobilises movements through shared stakes and creative solidarity.

Could the movements of my own activists, disrupting the optics of dissent in a Rancieran fashion, offer a clue to understanding the prevailing stasis? One might proposition that the neoliberal Anglophone university maintains its stasis – not by disallowing critique and rendering precarious subjects – but rather, by allowing critique within channelled quarters. That is, it assigns, maintains and regiments acceptable channels for its articulation – whether it is through journal articles behind paywalls, credit courses, conferences of ‘expertise’ with self-selecting audiences, or compartmentalized research agendas separating ‘legitimate’ scholarship from ‘activism’ with the latter, as Rabab Abdel Hadi describes, ‘assigned a lesser value in the neoliberal market than the former.’

Critique – even in its most ferocious forms – has an acceptable place and function – a reserved audience. Its stasis is maintained not so much through rendering precarious as it is through rendering professional (and in turn, complacent). Precarity, on the other hand, may be symptomatic of the very movement to shift and disrupt where and how critique may be aired.

We are, then, confronted with an institution of the (Rancieran) police order, but one that actively facilitates the flourishing of critique within its assigned enclaves. Communities of critique – in so far as they are not involved in the material disruption and reconfiguration of the institution – are the part that has no part in defining the whole – the demos excluded through its very inclusion. Or to put it differently, the demos playing an unwitting role of delineating the order. We are left with a metaphor of channels within assigned circuits of circulation, rather than a confluence, a gathering that pushes at the confines of its banks – spilling outwards.

Shifting gaze from the South to the North: contest for recognition

In contrast to the institution, the university as a movement, an assembling of an ikath (collective), is an aspiration. As a gathering, it also has to be constantly invoked, summoned, and assembled after each and every form of dis-assembling. As an invocation and a summoning, it is also performative: it must engage in a contest to prevail and make its identity known. But how might the stasis of regimented channels be disrupted to form a confluence, a gathering, a movement?

The efforts of my own activist-interlocutors offer a response: it is not, as charged, to make critique practical by tailoring it for policy audiences. Rather, it is to make critique informed by a capacious, transformative project, visible and public, continually seeking recognition from unassigned audiences and creating new politicized ‘publics’ outside the zone of comfort.

A young Pakistani student had voiced this logic aptly: as we congregated to discuss student union restoration in a seminar room of a private university, among the few to allow a discussion in the first place, he noted how the university’s gesture to offer a room for discussion was ‘a mere safety valve.’ It served to turn their rage inwards within the confines of the four walls rather than outwards in public visibility.

Beyond the praxis of moving from the classrooms to the streets, it may also be pertinent to revisit an oft-neglected instrument of dissent, the endorsement of which is often sacrificed at the altar of knowledge production: online petitions or public statements of solidarity issued by departments and universities. What purpose might a name on a petition serve, it is often asked, a miniscule voice to be drowned in an unstoppable tide of violence and oppression? In my own context, petitions and institutional statements of solidarity served as lifelines for activists and scholars, always in tandem with movements on the streets. Rather than an expectation of adherence from a state committing violence or an intervention for a policy outcome, they served as performative statements of defiance (much like street protests), always paradoxical in leaving the undersigned vulnerable to surveillance, but opening apertures for conversations that could subsequently be had; rupturing the condition of un-speakability; and above all, making visible protests for a state that was invested in policing the optics of dissent more than a dissenting consciousness itself. As ‘protest texts’, they also served as a summoning of a community of critique – to assemble and make themselves known against a structure of power that thrived on their invisibility.

Shifting our gaze from the South to North, we might want to pause at the institutions here in the Australian settler-colony, where I currently reside, in midst of what is arguably the most unprecedented crisis of our times: a raging pandemic in which the so-called developed world lobbies for a ‘vaccine apartheid‘ and mutant viruses reek a kind of devastation that may soon become a ‘Third World problem’ – but one that may return to haunt the (Global) North.

Yet the dominant public posture of the Australian institution has been driven by the impetus of ‘returning to normalcy.’ This is paired with public (and institutional) platitudes of ‘care’ and ‘sympathy’ issued from multiple institutional tiers for those separated from loved ones amidst brutal border regimes and experiencing, remotely, horrors of the pandemic’s devastation offshore. Triumphs of normalcy and platitudes of care, nevertheless, mask a disquieting reality of budget cuts and thousands of international students stranded off-shore, now required to face the litmus test of contributing to ‘critical sectors’ of the economy in order to return on ‘compassionate grounds.’

While there has been no dearth of enriching discussions and seminars within the elite enclaves of Anglophone academic institutions, what I ask is this: in a moment of radical injustice and a crisis unprecedented, what might the public optics of care obscure? How might they normalise the university as an institution that upholds the status quo? Or shield rage with all its mobilising potential, thereby inhibiting a transformative project in motion against a catastrophic apartheid? One might argue that, in the absence of a public community summoned in rage, care (as articulated through much needed institutional redressals) carries a privatising impulse for collective action – turning politicized anger into gratitude, sorrow into sympathy.


Every once in a while, we do see the performative power of ‘protest texts’ as online petitions and solidarity statements, just as we see movements on the ground shaking academic institutions from professionalised complacent critique. As I write this piece, a wave of unprecedented solidarity for the Palestinian Intifada of Hope and Unity has also wrenched open fissures in the Anglophone academy. As a scholar of and from the Global South producing knowledge of the militarised university therein, it is a poignant reminder that my own first and formative experience of activism (and the university) was in no other place but in an American institution – in the imperial belly of the beast. For a very long time, Palestinian activists and scholars have lamented what they call the ‘great silence’ or the ‘Palestine exception to free speech’ in the Anglophone world. Those vocal for Palestinian self-determination have been punished through smear campaigns, tenure denials or donor blocks in North American universities, whereas activists from the American to the Australian settler-colonies have been surveilled by the university or the police.

In the case of Palestine, as Kaleem Hawa puts it, much of the ‘enforced silence’ has come about by making ‘an example of us, calculating – often correctly that those who are watching carefully will be quietly factoring it all in when it comes time to raise a fist.’

More recently, as Palestinians of ‘48 assembled on the streets in and around the historic territories, joined by their intersectional allies around the world, Tik Tok and Instagram teenagers, Italian and South African dockworkers, Academic Twitter became a space enlivened. In a ferociously poetic critique, Palestinian scholar Sanabel Abdelrahman called out the ‘necrophiliac’ academic desire ‘to dissect pieces of history and their peoples, which it has neutralized and fossilized in a vague, infinite past;’ to study ‘the dead bodies and people’, hanging them on its walls but ‘to never utter a word when Palestinians are writing their own historic poem.’

Directed at the silence of intellectuals within her own discipline (Middle East Literature and History) during world changing moment, as she later explained, Abdelrahman’s rage arguably has broader relevance beyond Palestine. Nor was she alone in the larger criticism of a necrophiliac academia or an extractive tendency to study precarious communities as objects of knowledge whilst desisting to move with and be moved by them.

As a young Palestinian poet facing eviction in Sheikh Jarrah tweeted from the frontlines, ‘decolonization is not abstract theory,’ academic twitterati – students and scholars – called upon their own: Where were the de-colonial/post-colonial scholars now? They hailed each other. Another scholar from Rice University wondered: was it the lack of tenure that explained the silence? If one does not speak about injustice before tenure, one won’t after in all probability. His question and comments triggered a series responses. Threads unfolded one after another, the Palestinian silence itself an animated topic of discussion propelled by a desire to speak on behalf of those denied ‘the permission to narrate.’ Speaking to the rupture of this un-speakability in the North American academy, Janaya Khan, a Black Lives Matter activist noted: ‘There is something to be said about the moment that we are in – that Palestine can now be named.’

What naming Palestine meant in this context was not very different from a rupture of public ‘un-speakability’ beyond individual enclaves of critique. It also meant its framing through previously policed concepts in relation: apartheid, settler-colonialism, imperialism. And finally, naming Palestine meant a reckoning with material investments of academic institutions in the profiteers of militarized occupation.

Galvanised by the movement on the ground, the Twitter space convulsed and throbbed with academics confronting the tiers of their own institutional silences and lobbying to puncture it. Then, statements of solidarity began to emerge. More than 300 academic departments, programs and centers issued statements rejecting the language of ‘conflict’, ‘clashes.’ Among them was the Chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeleya coalition of 120 Gender Studies Departments in the USforty departments in the NetherlandsLSESOAS and Cambridge faculty and students calling for academic divestment from corporations complicit in the occupation; over 500 across Australia including NTEU of UNSW and USydney endorsing the BDS agenda. The Departments of Architecture and Urban PlanningIndigenous and Settler Studies;the Middle Eastern Studies Association and several more from different university communities.

All of these voices did not so much represent an institutional position but a movement on the part of scholars, a community of critique, to define and claim it. Against the neoliberal inertia of making knowledge sit, they exhorted scholars to move it forward through a commitment to political action; through an attempt to make their positionalities explicit as a collective (institutional) identity; and through a contest to gain that collective recognition. That beyond atomised positions and individual scholarships, they existed – as a community, what in Urdu is called an ikath. The public proclamation of their existence was truth to power.

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This contest became particularly visible in two sites: for a moment, the American Anthropological Association faltered, triggering a rebellion of anthropologists against their own institution. Their initial statement condemning ‘both sides‘ (Israel and Hamas) in a trite trope was lambasted for perpetuating a colonial science. The sub-disciplines within AAA revolted, opening up the contentious question of ‘who could represent whom’. The earlier statement was subsequently retracted with an apology by President Akhil Gupta: ‘AAA issued a statement earlier this week that was not in line with our core values and did not reflect the voices that need to be heard in this situation. On behalf of the Association, I sincerely apologize’ he offered. The old was replaced an unflinching condemnation of colonialism and apartheid without ‘both side-ism’ but still leaving a trail of question-marks on how (with what authority and consensus) the earlier statement was released.

The Department of African American Studies at Penn State University became the second site of visible contestation. Their statement of solidarity vanished soon after its public appearance. Then in its reappearance, the head of the department laid bare the story behind the scenes – external administrative interventions rejecting the democratic consensus by which the statement was released. The new addendum was more scathing:

There is a name for this kind of scrutiny: The Palestine Exception. … It is difficult to disagree with collective bodies who publicly denounce settler-colonialism and apartheid, especially amid a spectacle of racialized and gendered violence. It proves more feasible to quietly remove the power to make public statements by inventing new rules. We affirm our capacity as a department to make collective statements in support of a free Palestine and invite other African American Studies departments to do the same.

As the movement swelled – of the dispossessed, the Tik Tockers, the Instagrammers, the dock workers, the footballers – the struggle for the university lay bare. On one hand, it re-animated existing surveillance regimes: bureaucratic and managerial, dictating where critique could be aired or not, or under the aegis of PREVENT and ADL, conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism and Palestinian freedom with hate crime. And on the other hand, it triggered a push back against the conflation as well as the attempts to render academics precarious through heightened policing.

In the outward movement by academics to make their positionalities (institutional and epistemological) visible for new audiences, one can see a fleetingly dissensual reconfiguration of the institution – a summoning of a community of critique, a contest and a call for collective recognition. Ironically, it is the movement on the streets that animates the policed university in full gaze. As the scholar effaces into an activist, compelled to rupture its own complacent confines, a jamood begins to dis-settle. In fleeting glimpses, a dissensual university emerges: a continual, dynamic and contentious project, emerging from deep within the police order, to gain recognition and claim the whole.

I want to thank activists from the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement & the Progressive Student Collective in Pakistan who have allowed me to learn through their activism; activists and scholars from the South to the North engaging in a decolonial praxis. And finally, Carlos Morreo Boada (Institute of Postcolonial Studies, Melbourne) for his discussion and ever astute feedback on the piece.

Heba Al Adawy is a doctoral researcher at Australian National University with an interest in youth politics, militarisation, and higher education spaces.

Image Source: Photo by K M Chaudary/AP/Shutterstock (10487970a), Students Rallies, Lahore, Pakistan – 29 Nov 2019. Pakistani students and civil society activists rallied against ban on students’ unions in Lahore, Pakistan. Students backed by rights activists held rallies across the country in a rare show of strength to urge Prime Minister Imran Khan to lift a decades-long ban on peaceful political activities at education institutions.