Dispossession, Discontinuity, and the Enclosure of Space and Time

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

In the Garden of Eden, as the story goes, humankind committed the “original sin” by eating from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. By one interpretation, this story represents the emergence of humans’ self-awareness, or the construction of self. Adam and Eve became aware of their own bodies as something distinct from the rest of the Garden. Implicit in the construction of self was the notion of “other” — other people, other organisms, and also the natural world. Our “animal-ness”, our material being, became isolated from the continuum of nature. In this way, original sin can be understood as the advent of alienation.  

However we explain the construct of self — as a virulent and resilient cooperation of memes precipitating the growth of our large brains [1]Blackmore, S.J. (2000). The Meme Machine. OUP Oxford., or as something magical and divinely inspireda, it comprises the original enclosure. And yet, inherent to the human condition, and fundamental to our survival, is our drive to form communion with others. Even the “self” is not merely contained somewhere in our brains, but is rather a product of experience and expression, remixed and exchanged with others, in an iterative, reciprocal process. 

What followed “the fall” were ceaseless attempts by humankind to re-assimilate nature — to return to Eden —  through consumption, exchange, and transformation.  Whether this exchange between humans and the rest of the natural world takes the form of stewardship and reciprocation or extraction and violence, depends upon our relationship to the land as one characterized by abundance, meaning ample access to material needs, or scarcity, wherein humans see themselves as at war with nature, regarding wild land as “worthless waste”,  and “a space of resources that has not yet been subjugated to the rule of exchange-value” [2]Malm, A. (2018). In wildness is the liberation of the world: On maroon ecology and partisan nature. Historical Materialism, 26(3), 3-37

Within the scarcity mindset, natural spaces only gain legitimacy through the “power of colonial possession, and the potential for profit”[3]Day, T. (2018). Mired Memory: Marronage in The Great Dismal Swamp. Social and Economic Studies, 67(1), 33-143.. This “Northern Cradle worldview” emerged from harsh (colder, more barren) environments, in which nature itself was seen as “an obstacle to basic survival”[4]Engel-Di Mauro, S., & Carroll, K. K. (2014). An African-centred approach to land education. Environmental Education Research, 20(1), 70-81.. In more hospitable lands, the difference between abundance and scarcity is political, a line drawn in blood between “workers” and “owners”, fabricated as a means of capital accumulation and social control, and reinforced by a continuum of violence. 

From England to Turtle Island: The Export of Enclosure

The enclosure movement started in England sometime in the 15th century, marking the transition from the exploitative relations of feudalism to the exploitative relations of capitalism. Under feudalism, English peasants worked the land owned by wealthy lords — ownership and wealth defined by one’s capacity for and inclination toward violence. Yet serfs had some degree of self-determination in that their material needs could be fulfilled as a product of their own labor. Even in years of lean harvest, peasants could supplement what they produced with what was available in the commons: the woods, rivers, lakes and such that were understood not to belong to anyone.

Within this formation, peasants also formed communities, worked collectively, and shared resources. The pernicious idea of enclosure — sectioning off the commons into privately owned segments — in addition to facilitating inequity between those whose plots were arable and those whose were not, had the effect of breaking apart peasant communities. This latter effect was likely the primary intention, as a means of weakening collective resistance to the ever-increasing encroachments of the landlords upon the production, labor, and bodies of the peasant class. 

Upon the advent of enclosure and the resulting inequities, peasants’ relationship to work shifted from the direct conversion of labor power to sustenance and shelter, to one of alienation, as they produced things or provided services for others in exchange for money, which in turn was exchanged for material needs. 

Denied access to the former commons, rural subsistence farmers and even their children had no choice but to work in the new woolen textile factories under miserable condi­tions—that is, when they could find such work for unemployment was high.[5]Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press.

A good number of peasants moved from the landlords’ estates into the cities, creating a “crisis” of vagrancy, which was in turn criminalized[6]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.. This same logic was at work in the United States during the Reconstruction era, when formerly enslaved Black people were charged with vagrancy or “loitering” wherever they were found not working. In both scenarios, separated by centuries but united by a common ideological thread, so-called vagrants were pressed back into the service of the landed/planter class as punishment. 

The thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially ended slavery, included the caveat that “involuntary servitude” (i.e. slavery) was an acceptable punishment for crime. After Reconstruction, slavery was reinstituted in the form of “debt peonage, sharecropping, domestic servitude, and the convict leasing system” [7]Hartman, S. (2020). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton.. Penal labor, ever since, has remained a lucrative industry. 

Back in Europe, through decades of increasing accumulation, extraction, and exploitation, the relationship between the landed classes and the workers became one of such gross inequity that news of a “new world” inspired many to “cross a vast ocean with the promise of land and attaining the status of gentry[8]Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press..

What they carried across the oceans with them, apart from disease and foreign crops, was the viral idea of enclosure, and a relationship to land mediated by scarcity. Turtle Island was not some pristine sanctuary. The landed classes had blazed the trail, setting up the same relations of domination which existed in Europe, predicated upon incredible violence: the genocide of indigenous people and the importation of Black bodies pressed into service. The only prospect for the new arrivals who lacked the capital or military might to be the landed class, was to lean into their relative privilege as not-Black or not-Indigenous — the foundation for the construction of whiteness. 

Being unmarked for extermination or enslavement facilitated aspirations toward becoming the landed class [9]Mullen, M. L. (2016). How the Irish became settlers: Metaphors of indigeneity and the erasure of indigenous peoples. New Hibernia Review, 20(3), 81-96., which required they impose the same relations of domination they had experienced, upon Black and Indigenous people. This contentious drama has continued to play out, with only slight changes in the script, for five hundred years. The export of enclosure to Turtle Island and elsewhere throughout the world — wherever Europeans left their colonial footprint — resulted in recursive manifestations in all relations between people and land, throughout history. In all cases, these relations have been mediated by violence, starting with the colonial project of dispossession.

Dispossession, Displacement and Dislocation

Dispossession operated through a variety of mechanisms — outright theft, military violence, unethical treaties (often broken in any case) — but broadly took the form of either displacement or dislocation. The indigenous people of Turtle Island were forcefully removed from their lands — displaced — at the same time as the indigenous peoples of West Africa were uprooted from their homelands — dislocated — to be pressed into slavery. This act of removing people from land was both an exacerbation and a physical articulation of the cognitive/spiritual separation of humans and the natural world. 

Ireland was where the ways of settler colonialism were perfected, “a learning opportunity for plantation and settler colonization in the New World” [10]Garner, S. (2009). Ireland: From racism without “race” to racism without racists. Radical history review, 2009(104), 41-56.. The English, under the rule of the Tudors, refused to recognize the “right of property in the people, or [loosen] their grip on the peasant” [11]Green, A. S. (1908). The making of Ireland and its undoing, 1200-1600. Macmillan and Company, limited.. They saw extraction — a high level of productive activity — as evidence of civilization, with “civilized” being juxtaposed against “primitive” to justify “land dispossession, political subjugation, and forced assimilationist schooling”[12]Lomawaima, K. T., & McCarty, T. L. (2006). “To Remain an Indian”: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. Teachers College Press..

The English dispossessed the Gaelic Irish of a half-million acres, citing Irish “backwardness and savagery” as justification for “the expropriation of land and, later, genocidal violence”[13]Garner, S. (2009). Ireland: From racism without “race” to racism without racists. Radical history review, 2009(104), 41-56.. The English brought enclosure with them into Ireland, carving up the former commons into private estates, where the “labor of the Irish peasantry began to accumulate capital for the English landowners”[14]Garner, S. (2009). Ireland: From racism without “race” to racism without racists. Radical history review, 2009(104), 41-56..

The English then opened Irish land to settlement by the Scots and Welsh, who had previously been conquered themselves[15]Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Beacon Press.. The Scots and Welsh thereby became a vanguard and a buffer class between the Irish and the English lords, proxies and propagators of settler colonial violence — a mechanism which would soon be exported across the seas, “a step along the spectrum toward the removal of Native Americans and Australians from their ancestral lands”[16]Garner, S. (2009). Ireland: From racism without “race” to racism without racists. Radical history review, 2009(104), 41-56..

On Turtle Island, the first material impact of displacement and dislocation was mass death: from the Indigenous casualties of warfare and forced removal (which is to say nothing of death by disease), to the millions of Africans who died along the Middle Passage, and more besides who suffered violent deaths within the institution of slavery. The secondary impact was the denial of self-determination. Indigenous people were forced onto reservations and turned from citizens of sovereign nations to subjects of a colonial state, while Black people were remanded to a status of non-persons, as mere objects of the state. Both pathways fed Black and Indigenous people into a system of dependency, wherein their very survival was conditioned on subordination and reproduction: physical, cultural, and ideological. What was not destroyed would instead be repurposed. 

After Native Americans were dispossessed, the new lands they were given on reservations were divided into individually owned private segments following the logic of enclosure. The General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, broke up community-held Native land and portioned it off to individuals.  

As it was for the European peasants, one of the goals of enclosure under the Dawes Act was to break up tribes and disrupt tribal life, under the pretext of providing them with the “benefits of civilization” [17]Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press..

Education for “Civilization”

The main objective of settler colonialism is dispossession, which Europeans saw as essential to the growth of “civilization” and the very survival of the emerging republic.[18]Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas.. For the settlers, history itself was the movement of mankind from “savagism” to “civilization” along the inevitable continuity of “progress”. 

Savagism corresponded to indigenous and any non-white ways of living, while civilization corresponded to white culture, values, politics, etc. The goal was to get everyone to “civilized” through education.  “Civilization” was the justification for dispossession, and it was the end to which indigenous folx were to be educated. Where the Indians had land and the white man had civilization, there would be a “trade”. 

The settlers all took it as a given that they would eventually take and control the land, by way of “Manifest Destiny”, but where they differed was on what to do with the indigenous people who currently occupied it. There was an even split between those who wanted to exterminate them through warfare (including direct armed conflict, sexual violence, slaughter of buffalo, laws to restrict/ban hunting, fishing, other lifeways), and those whose white liberal sensibilities demanded a cultural solution to the “Indian problem” — to have them be “civilized” through education; thus the creation of the boarding schools.

The economic arguments for schooling were that it was less expensive to educate Indians than to kill them, and with respect to land, having indigenous people wander over large territories was more expensive and detrimental to “civilization” than to provide them with relatively small allotments and have them become farmers[19]Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas.

After Emancipation, white settlers also wrestled with the Negro Question: “What do we do about black labor, the ex-slave, the colonial subject? How do we discipline, exploit, and civilize the Negro?” [20]Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. United Kingdom: Teachers College Press.. There was a three-way split between those who would see us pressed back into service through tricky laws (convict leasing, 13th amendment), with education serving as a way to increase economic efficiency; the “philanthropists” who wanted to “help the oppressed”, and the “zealous missionaries who, believing that the message of divine love came equally to all, taught slaves the English language that they might learn the principles of the Christian religion [21]Woodson, C. G. (1919). The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. Association for … Continue reading. In all cases, it was believed that our own innate and cultural inferiority could be somewhat remediated through proper schooling. 

At the same time, we must be kept landless, so as to control our labor (make us work for the “owners”), whether on the plantation or in the factory. The carceral state emerged to deal with the “excess” that our bodies represented — to control or kill us at the first sign of resistance. 

Native youth were targeted because they were still impressionable, whereas the adults were beyond salvation and had to simply be “tamed” through the law and its enforcement. Thus the need to remove kids from their families, to prevent them from being acclimated to indigenous cultural “vices”. Schools were seen as a way to allow indigenous children to “skip” the stages of cultural evolution from savage to civilized if they were taught the ways of the latter from a young age[22]Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas.. The same was essentially true for Black children, whose cultures were regarded as backwards/inferior, their ways of living “dirty”, thus the need to train them to “behave correctly”, in line with white norms and values[23]Butchart, R. E. (2016). Normalizing Subordination: White Fantasies of Black Identity in Textbooks Intended for Freed Slaves in the American South, 1863–1870. In (Re) Constructing Memory: Textbooks, … Continue reading

From the perspective of wealthy white philanthropists who drove the national education discourse, the eventual resolution of the Negro question was to force us into a permanently subordinate political and social position, albeit with a modicum of hope brought about by “at least minimal access to survival”[24]Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. United Kingdom: Teachers College Press.. This manufactured — nay, engineered — precariousness convinced Black leaders like Booker T. Washington, himself a student of philanthropist Samuel Chapman Armstrong, to weigh basic survival against the ever-looming threat of violence, as opposed to ever expecting, let alone demanding more.

White philanthropists garnered significant control over the course of education through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, by channeling their wealth through “aid-based organizations charged with facilitating the cultural reproduction of American values derived from the Protestant ethics that sustain US capitalism”. Through their influence, the values of “individualism, self-reliance, hard work, meritocracy, discipline and obedience“[25]Scott, T. Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity. … Continue reading became the core values of most public schools.

The House, the Field, and the Plantation

It feels almost too obvious to say that plantations in the U.S. South served as enclosures, in that they were privately owned parcels of land. Equally obvious is the fact that plantations literally enclosed Black people within established boundaries, any movement beyond which was punishable by abuse, mutilation, and death. 

But there were additional enclosures even within plantations. The separation of the “house negroes” from the “field negroes”, mediated by blood, both in the sense of their respective ancestries, and the threat of violence which hovered over the threshold between house and field. The animosity sowed between the enslaved working in the household and those working in the field, almost always directly correlated to skin color (as an indicator of ancestry) and has manifested in the complex color relations amongst Black people throughout history. It echoes into dynamics of school discipline, wherein darker skinned students are punished at higher rates than lighter skinned students.[26]Hannon, L., DeFina, R., & Bruch, S. (2013). The relationship between skin tone and school suspension for African Americans. Race and Social Problems, 5(4), 281-295.

While there is no question that Black people with lighter skin or more “European” features accrue considerable privileges and disproportionate representation in positions of power, the discourse that situates Black people of different skin tones as adversaries, such as the public rivalry of “#teamlightskin vs. #teamdarkskin” in online forums[27]Williams, S. (2016). # TeamLightSkin vs.# TeamDarkSkin: Colorism on Twitter. In Women’s Magazines in Print and New Media (pp. 206-222). Routledge., is a reproduction of the same strategy of “divide and conquer” used to prevent collective rebellion on the plantation. It propagated from the original enclosure movement in Europe, which pitted peasants against one another to undermine or preempt any uprisings against the landlords.

From Self-Determination to State Dependence

Under feudalism, European peasants maintained some degree of self-determination in that they were able to sustain themselves directly through their own labor. But after enclosure, those who were not allotted viable tracts of land were forced to work for those who did, who could in turn sell any surplus at a profit, thus forming the underlying logic of capitalism, and precipitating yet another exploitation of labor.

Over generations, Native Americans who were dispossessed or relocated lost some of the cultural skills needed to work the land, becoming dependent on rations from the state. The Dawes Act “perpetuated the status of many [indigenous people] as a permanent underclass even more dependent on the federal government” [28]Reyhner, J., Eder, J. (2017). American Indian Education, 2nd Edition: A History. University of Oklahoma Press..

Where traditional, culturally-sustaining skills were lost, Indigenous folx started to rely on the government and the capitalist supply chain to provide them with what previously they could procure for themselves. For example, as knowledge of how to tan and quill hides was forgotten, Indigenous-made clothing “was replaced by government-distributed trade cloth”[29]Almeida, D. (1997). The Hidden Half – A History of Native American Women’s Education. Harvard Educational Review, 67(4), 757-772..  Another example of placing a system between individuals and others in their own community, and between people and the land. By 1975, the the idea of Native “self-determination” was feasible only insofar as Native people were trained to reproduce hegemony amongst themselves. 

After allotment, indigenous self-government was replaced by chiefs appointed by the U.S. president, and schools were taken over by the state. In the late 1800s, as an influx of immigrants from Europe started settling the Western frontier, the U.S. Congress poured money into the creation of industrial schools, to accelerate the program of “civilization”. It was also in the name of civilization that the U.S. Army massacred millions of buffalo across the Great Plains, both to make way for the railroads, and to destroy the indigenous people there by depriving them of a vital material and cultural resource. Faced with extermination or assimilation, those who survived entered into an increasing state of dependency.b 

the precarity instigated by the settler project has been enacted and extracted upon the bodies of Indigenous people and enslaved Africans, and within such communities, the most vulnerable: the sick, the young, the elderly—the front lines of biopolitical warfare[30]Grande, S. (2015). Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. United Kingdom: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers..

In the aftermath of slavery, Black people were promised forty acres of land as reparations for their stolen labor, under Special Field Orders no. 15, issued by General William Sherman. Unfortunately, this order would be immediately revoked by President Andrew Jackson, who took office after Lincoln’s assassination[31]Beard, R. (2017). A Promise Betrayed. Civil War Times, 56(3), 44–51.. While newly freed black people were able to secure some land during Reconstruction, within a few generations, many would-be landowners fled the South during the Great Migrations. Just as the poorer peasants in Europe were sent into “chronic debt, borrowing against future harvests”[32]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia., with many losing their land as a result, Black people in the southern U.S. were dispossessed of their land through predatory loan debt, discriminatory USDA policy, racial terrorism, and outright theft.[33]Holloway, K. (2021, November 1). How Thousands of Black Farmers Were Forced Off Their Land. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/black-farmers-pigford-debt/

Out of fear, desperation, and the will to survive, Black people were forced to into cities North and West, trading self-determination for work within — and dependency on — the industrial system.  Black women in particular were forced into low-paid labor as domestics, or shunted into sex work,[34]Hartman, S. (2020). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton. mirroring the plight of European women in the 15th century, forced to work as “maids, hucksters, retail traders, spinsters, members of the lower guilds, and prostitutes”.[35]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.

Over the same period, and as late as the 1970s, Native American youth were being sent to boarding schools where they were separated from their families, land, and culture, to be indoctrinated into the system of subordination and white supremacy. In these ways, Black and Indigenous people were twice-removed: displaced and dislocated yet again to dissolve collectivity and undermine any attempts at self-determination. At every historical juncture, schooling was central to the colonial project, working in parallel to state violence as the primary mechanism for reproduction.

Philanthropists saw themselves as the “stewards” of Black and Indigenous children. While they did not “claim ultimate ownership over their possessions, [they] held them only as trustees”[36]Scott, T. Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity. … Continue reading. This logic of stewardship reveals the relationship between slavery and the paternalism of school reform efforts directed toward children of color — especially Black children. Where wealthy philanthropists no longer own Black children, they can care for them temporarily — all this under the racist pretext that we are incapable of caring for ourselves.

Yet at the same time, how these wealthy philanthropists conduct themselves in other sectors reveals their general contempt for people’s self-determination. For example, the Gates Foundation, as part of its “philanthropy” in Africa, promotes “the work of scientists in centralized labs” and ignores the “knowledge and biodiversity that Africa’s small farmers have developed and maintained over generations”[37]Scott, T. Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity. … Continue reading.

There’s a connection here between how schools dismiss the validity of students’ cultural knowledge and how wealthy foundations ignore the expertise of African farmers, presuming to know what’s for the farmers and for the kids.

Schools as Physical Enclosures

Every school building in the United States is built upon stolen Indigenous lands. From the missionary schoolhouses and boarding schools to contemporary schools designed like prisons, these structures have served as physical and psychological barriers between young people, their communities, and the lands which sustain their cultures and livelihoods. 

Within the walls, each school subject is only “done“ in specific locations. Students in general are only allowed to occupy certain parts of the building at certain times, some not at all. Doors within hallways might be locked to deny students access to certain areas — often the literal corridors of power — and to steer them along established paths. 

Autonomy of time and space are markers of status[38]Luykx, A. (1999). The Citizen Factory: Schooling and Cultural Production in Bolivia. State University of New York Press.. There are virtually no spaces within a school building that students can claim as their own, at least not without the expectation of surveillance, and never to the extent of being able to arrange it, move within it, or control who comes in or out. Emblematic of the school hierarchy, most teachers have their own classrooms, which they are able to decorate and arrange mostly as they see fit, and control who comes in or out — except those higher on the ladder still, such as administrators, who can come and go as they please. On the other hand, no one is allowed to enter administrators’ space without explicit permission. 

Linearity, Debt, and the Enclosure of Time

We take time for granted, as absolute and immutable, as opposed to socially constructed, or culturally determined. Time is how we attempt to quantitatively measure changes in our environment, be they in the form or position of a thing, with respect to some other reference point, and as filtered by our perception. It is further complicated by culture and power, each of which dictate how time is observed, how it should be measured or “kept”, and the semantics of time, with respect to how we relate to each other and navigate the physical and social worlds. 

Because time is the measurement of change, and change is the movement of matter and energy, time is also a measurement of space. Meaning that to control space is to also control time. Where one culture determines the metrics of time and space, they in effect exert control over the movement of bodies and resources, a dynamic most prevalent in the imposition of linear time.

While our perception of time is based on observations of material reality, it is entirely arbitrary and socially constructed within various cultural paradigms. The dominant paradigm of linear time originates in the Western world, with all change stemming from the actions of a Prime Mover or God at some fixed point in the past, a process which will either continue unabated or until reaching some predestined point in the future. 

The ancient Greeks, whose influence reverberates throughout the Western world, had two concepts of time: chronos — the aforementioned linear progression — and kairos, a constellation of critical or “opportune” moments for taking particular actions. While the hand of Chronos is felt throughout the industrialized world, Kairos seems to have been reduced to vacuous cliches such as “seize the moment”. On the other hand, there are many cultures with a cyclical conception of time, which posits that all events — reducible, again, to the movement of matter and energy — occur in observable, repeating cycles, without a fixed endpoint. 

Being able to measure “time”, as the amount of sunlight falling on a particular area, has obvious practical purposes, aiding our ability to hunt, forage, and farm, and thereby improving our chances for survival. However, where our activities are not life-affirming, but rather characterized by exploitation or extraction, time becomes a way of “organizing one’s activity by an external timetable, imposed for another’s convenience”.[39]Luykx, A. (1999). The Citizen Factory: Schooling and Cultural Production in Bolivia. State University of New York Press. It becomes a metric by which the movement of bodies and resources are measured, with respect to their returns in capital accumulation. Accumulation over time is how we determine “efficiency”, the organizing principle of neoliberal capitalism. 

In that the purpose of education is to reproduce the relations of production, power, dominance, subordination, within the broader society, schools reproduce the capitalist organization of time in order to dispose young people’s learning and labor toward capital accumulation for the “owners”, rather than for the material or spiritual benefit of young people themselves or their communities.

Through the precise scheduling of every class, and their subdivision into blocks of time for lesson plans, schools create “horizontal” enclosures of time, in the name of efficiency and accountability. They also create ”vertical“ enclosures, separating subjects themselves by grade levels and/or students’ perceived skill levels (e.g. remedial, on-level, advanced, etc.) Each of these breaks the continuity of learning, as occurs naturally within the experience of living.

Classes begin and end (and segue between activities) at the command of the teacher. If a teacher is late, learning is put on hold, while the facilitation of class is seldom dependent upon the presence of any particular student. Late teachers are then accountable to administrators, who can schedule, cancel, and reschedule appointments with teachers or students at will, even if that means interrupting teaching and learning.

Within the strictly linear conception of time central to capitalism, time cannot be reclaimed once it has passed, every precious second not committed to “productivity” regarded as waste. 

Time and Debt

Within the violent, imperial axiology that positions Black and Indigenous people, our cultures, and our languages, as expendable — or worse as ontological non-entities — the reproduction of dominant relations was predicated upon the false premise of debt. White settlers, possessed of an extreme entitlement, felt they were “owed” land — secured through the genocide, displacement, or bogus treaties — and labor, after the “divestment” inherent to Emancipation. 

Debt, too, is a form of enclosure in that it attempts to indefinitely section off a portion of a person’s assets — bodies, labor, energy, capital — for someone else’s use. This shows up in a variety of ways within the school context, perhaps most prominently in discipline. A student who “disrupts”c a class is perceived as “owing” the teacher, or their classmates, the time or attention redirected through their actions. The punishment, in many cases, will be “detention”, a way for the student to “pay back” the time. In this arrangement, the implication is that, at least within the classroom, or otherwise under the purview or authority of a teacher, the student’s own time is the teacher’s property. 

Debt (n.) — the false premise that one owes another for that which inherently belongs to them, such as their labor, or their native land. From Latin debitum, “thing owed”.

This is at odds with common educational discourse in which teaching is regarded as a service profession. Who exactly is “serving” whom in this situation? The dynamic is commensurate with hourly wage labor, except that the student is investing their time and energy in exchange for knowledge that they don’t particularly want, and often don’t need. But the repayment of this “debt” has nothing to do with the exchange-values of time or attention. Rather it is situated within a “moral economy of submission and servitude”[40]Hartman, S. V. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press.

Where the student’s “disruption” is considered particularly egregious, a student may be suspended from school, which is perhaps the most bizarre outcome. Here a student is given at least one whole day to spend their time as they please, though “without pay” — that is, deprived of that precious knowledge the teacher is rationing out. The real consequence of suspension, though, is not “lost learning opportunities”, but the time burden placed on working parents and families, which may literally cost them wages or even place their employment — and thereby their livelihoods — in jeopardy.

The illogic of suspension is two-fold: first, that by “punishing” the student’s parent(s), perhaps some of the ill will is transferred to the child in the form of direct physical or emotional discipline. And second, that by placing a student outside the school enclosure, other students will be spared from further disruption. 

In the past three decades, there has been considerable recognition of this illogic, with out-of-school suspensions being replaced by in-school-suspensions (an enclosure within an enclosure) — really a full-day detention. Here, the expectations of quiet compliance and non-stop work are even more severe. At the risk of being too obvious, I’ll point out that detention is the noun form of “detain”, again invoking the language and practices of the carceral state.

Spatiotemporal Alienation

The enclosure of time into discrete periods of production or living (e.g. shift work), and the enclosure of space which regulates physical movement and disrupts the continuity of interpersonal interaction, work in tandem to foster a powerful form of alienation. Subordination to the means of production predisposes many people to not think about the mid- and long-term impacts of their activities, let alone the far-reaching ramifications for what many indigenous people call the “seventh generation”. 

The enclosure of people — physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually — with respect to others in their communities or workplaces, as well as cultural and political conditions that sequester subjectivities in the “now”, deny people the luxury of reflecting on the past, speculating about the future, or contemplating their impact on other people, communities, and the environment. There are many examples, from our lackluster response and failure to collectively mobilize around the crisis of climate change, to the neoliberal push toward short-term profits, with no concern for “collateral damage” in the short or long term. This is not negligence on the part of the workers, but rather a consequence of alienation, wherein the reverberations of their impact are buffered by the very mechanisms of production. 

Within the educational context, this space-time enclosure is the reinforcement of “students as regulated subjects”[41]Luykx, A. (1999). The Citizen Factory: Schooling and Cultural Production in Bolivia. State University of New York Press. — the division of the day’s labor into discrete blocks of time within which only certain activities can be performed, certain subjects learned. When we consider the imbrication of the time and space enclosures — students forced into particular spaces at particular times for set durations — these structures reproduce spatiotemporal alienation as a habit of mind, as a way of being. Borbone writes about a “metaphysics of limitlessness, that consists, from one side, in the annihilation of every form of project concerning the future and, on the other side, in the idolatry of a present time conceived as eternal and unchangeable.”[42]Borbone, G. (2013). Karl Marx and the concept of Entfremdung. Review of Contemporary Philosophy, (12), 102-112. The ability to reflect and to speculate, meanwhile, are essential to the consideration of any possibility outside the hegemonic imperative. 

The interpellation of Western subjects into relations of domination discourages one from thinking beyond the self and beyond the now. The opportunity to reflect on the past and contemplate the future, as a continuum running through the present, is an aspect of freedom, making it even more difficult for the most oppressed — those for whom the future is never guaranteed, for whom the time and mental space to reflect on the past is a luxury. This collapsing of being — body, mind, and activity — into discrete units of space-time, is what I call spatiotemporal alienation. 

Spatiotemporal alienation forces us into a preoccupation with the present moment, and divorced from the continuum of history.  This enclosure of time, space, and knowledge effects an “increasing loss, among the new gen­erations, of the historical sense of our common past”[43]Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia. even as people feel the impact of history on an emotional, spiritual, or intuitive level, propagated through a generational cynicism, acceptance of the status quo, and sense of hopelessness toward the future.

This mindset not only informs how we think of ourselves, but how we think of each other — assessing others either in the moment, or across a set of discrete moments, disregarding the continuum of time, what came before, or what might come in the future. Enclosures of space and time exacerbate divisions between people and their communities, and between people and land, reinforcing the hyper-individualism essential to maintaining existing power relations by weakening the potential for collectivity, resistance, and self-determination.

a An idea that seems in direct contradiction of the concepts of “The Fall” or “Original Sin”.

b I am duty-bound to mention that this genocidal effort was led by the same General Sherman who issued Special Field Order No. 15. Far from being an advocate for Black self-determination, he was an instrument of the state, executing its will to maintain white supremacy, whether through direct extermination, or the slower, more methodical process of subordination.

c The scare quotes here are to account for the wide range of actions that could be considered disruptive, highly subjective to each teacher, and often racialized.