The following is excerpted from the chapter “A Third University Exists within the First” from la paperson’s A Third University Is Possible (2017. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). Reproduced by Permission of University of Minnesota Press.

K. Wayne Yang

A Third University Exists within the First

In this chapter, I propose a frame for the university in terms of first, second, third, (and fourth) worlds. To do so, I draw from a range of political–intellectual analyses, perhaps the most contemporary of which are the four forms of civil society as analyzed by the project of México Profundo.[1] Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation described the layers of Mexican civil society as Penthouse Mexico, Middle Mexico, Lower Mexico, and Basement Mexico.[2] In the Zaptistas’ critique, Basement Mexico is not only a site of dispossession but also a deep well of Indigenous cosmology, wisdom, and sovereignty, un México profundo. This is the “fourth,” autonomous form of civil society. In this book, I use fourth world university as a placeholder for the places of epistemology that are autonomous from the university. In this sense, “fourth worlding” wisdoms are sovereign.[3] Yet they offer decolonial strategies to be carried out within the other three civil societies, even when those strategies are wrapped within the dominant project of statecraft and transnational capital accumulation. We might think of the first and second world universities as the penthouse and middle universities. Inside these universities exists the third world university.

In this regard, I am also drawing from third world feminist conceptualizations that position the “third world” not merely as a site of domination by the Global North over the Global South but also as a crucible of transformative politics and pedagogy.[4] Following other thinkers, I recognize the problematic uses of third world. On one hand, it was a signifier for different revolutionary nationalisms in the twentieth century: Juan Perón’s “third way” in Argentina and the Cuban Revolution were two such nationalisms that aspired to challenge Cold War binaries that revolved around the competing empires of the United States and the USSR. On the other hand, the third world is a warrant for nongovernmental organizations to operate as self-stylized humanitarian ventures and also for-profit corporations to dress up as charities.[5] My choice to use third world is meant to be problematic. Any decolonizing project of the third world university should be a problematized one, in much the same way as revolutionary nationalisms and international aid should be problematized.

Most directly, a third world university references the organizing by the Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s and early 1970s to found a Third World College. These events reached an apex in the 1968–69 San Francisco State Strike; at 167 days, it was the longest student strike in U.S. history.

However, I find that the most precise analogy for a third world university, both materially and symbolically, is offered by Third Cinema. Glen Mimura explains:

First Cinema, in this framework, is the cinema of the studio systems—Hollywood preeminently, but also Bollywood and any other capitalist film industry that, regardless of its formal and thematic diversity, is characterized by an ultimate commitment to corporate profits and mass entertainment. Second Cinema, comprising independent or “art” cinema, may indeed offer meaningful challenges to studio system productions; however, its defining pursuit of questions of art and aesthetics displaces the possibility of sustained, radical critique, and thereby remains circumscribed “within the system.” In contrast, Third Cinema defines itself fundamentally as a political project—as a democratic, participatory, socialist cinema that seeks to challenge and provoke the collective consciousness of its viewers toward the revolutionary transformation of society.

To be sure, no mode of cinema is completely distinct, autonomous; each mode appropriates or contains within itself elements of the other two. . . . To paraphrase an oft-quoted line by Trinh Minh-ha, there is a Third Cinema in every First and Second Cinema, and vice versa.[6]

Materially, both cinema and the university require a high concentration of capital. Each industry requires a willing civil society of moviegoers and university-goers, physical theaters and physical campuses, digital videos and digital learning platforms. Whereas cinema’s investments are mostly liquid capital, the university’s investments are land and debt. Cinema’s horizon of consumption is the total population of visually abled people. Likewise, the university, though historically elitist, has expanded its horizons toward the total debt-enabled population—to be discussed shortly. Pedagogically, cinema and university perform complementary roles in the production of the symbolic order. Cinema is a key industry in the production of “commonsense knowledge,” as compared to the university’s production of legitimated knowledge. Whereas cinema accumulates images for a visual grammar book, the university accumulates scholarship for an epistemological grammar book.

Through this analogy of Third Cinema, we can describe the university as an amalgam of first, second, and third world formations. Substituting “university” for “cinema” and rephrasing Mimura’s description of cinema, we derive a reasonable definition for third university:

The first world university is the academic–industrial complex: “research-ones” preeminently, but also commercial universities and any other corporate academic enterprise that, regardless of its formal and thematic diversity, is characterized by an ultimate commitment to brand expansion and accumulation of patent, publication, and prestige. The second world university, comprising independent or “liberal arts” colleges, may indeed offer meaningful challenges to the academic–industrial complex, and could be said to be a democratic and participatory academy that seeks to challenge and provoke the critical consciousness of its students toward self-actualization. However, its defining pursuit of questions of art, humanities, and a libertarian mode of critical thinking displaces the possibility of sustained, radical critique and thereby remains circumscribed “within the ivory tower.” In contrast, the third world university defines itself fundamentally as a decolonial project—as an interdisciplinary, transnational, yet vocational university that equips its students with skills toward the applied practice of decolonization.

To be sure, no mode of university is completely distinct, autonomous; each mode appropriates or contains within itself elements of the other two. There is a third university in every first and second university, and vice versa.

The first world university accumulates through dispossession. The second world university “liberates” through liberalism. The third world university breaks faith from its own machinery by inspiriting the academic automaton with a fourth world soul.

A Third University Strategizes

The third world university defines itself against the first and second but is probably made up of their scrap material. Its aim is decolonization, but its attempts at decolonization can range broadly from nationalistic bids for membership into the family of nations to transnational forms of cooperation to local movements for autonomy to Indigenous sovereignty; these are particularistic strategies of anticolonial and decolonial projects that are not necessarily aligned with one another. By necessity, the third world university teaches first world curricula: medicine where hospitals are needed for sovereign bodies; engineering where wastewater systems are needed for sovereign lands; legal studies where the law is a principal site of decolonial struggle; agricultural science where seeds are being patented, modified, and sterilized; food studies where the land mass-produces net export crops but there is a food shortage; enterprise where capital is needed for sovereign economies. It teaches a second world critique, because only through critique can the colonial code be cracked. Like Third Cinema, the third world university “does not simply incorporate or quote these sources, but actively reinvents them through their appropriations . . . to synthesize these disparate sources into not only a coherent discourse but a far-reaching, transformative radical project.”[18] It is part of the machinery of the university, a part that works by breaking down and producing counters to the first and second machineries. As a strategic reassemblage of first world parts, it is not a decolonized university but a decolonizing one. But it still produces. It probably still charges fees and grants degrees.

What does the third world university feel like? You might find this part unsatisfying. I refuse to offer a utopic description for a strategic decolonizing machine (for utopias, go to the second world). I hope you make this same refusal. However, I am sure that many readers are involved in university projects with decolonial desires to implement change pragmatically, readers who have appropriated university resources to synthesize a transformative, radical project. These formations may be personal, even solitary; they may be small working groups of like-minded university workers, research centers, degree programs, departments, even colleges. Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in Aoteroa might be the clearest example of a decolonizing university formation.[19] If we consider the Cuban Latin American School of Medicine as a university from which decolonizing work sometimes emerges—as it has trained more than twenty-five thousand physicians from eighty-four countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, North America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania to return to their home communities where doctors and medical care are scarce—then some third world university formations can operate at the scale of state apparatuses.[20] However, besides literal “third world” formations like Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM), and explicitly decolonizing universities like Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, the third world university also appears contemporaneously within first world universities.

As an insightful example, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University and the Mecca as imbricating and coinciding institutions:

I was admitted to Howard University, but formed and shaped by The Mecca. These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education, concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude, and Phi Beta Kappa. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.

Coates goes on to root the power of the machine Mecca in the reassembly of Howard University’s transhistorical networks of Black, governmental, literary, revolutionary power and the power of place:

The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent. And whereas most other historically black schools were scattered like forts in the great wilderness of the old Confederacy, Howard was in Washington, D.C.—Chocolate City—and thus in proximity to bother federal power and black power. The result was an alumni and professorate that spanned genre and generation—Charles Drew, Amiri Baraka, Thurgood Marshall, Ossie Davis, Doug Wilder, David Dinkins, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Kwame Ture. The history, the location, the alumni combined to create The Mecca.[21]

This remarkable list of Howard University notables represents a fairly divergent constellation of ideologies; David Dinkins, former mayor of New York City, and Kwame Turé of the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party provide one example of a stark contrast. Yet in the machine of the Mecca, their individual and collective Blackness comes to mean something different in assemblage with one another. As an historically Black college or university (HBCU), Howard University is already an alternative university universe. The Mecca produces yet a third reality, and it does so by reassembling Howard’s histories of power, race, and place.

To call these efforts a third university is not to say that they are in political solidarity with one another but rather to call their decolonial possibilities into existence. More precisely, we call forth a contingent collaboration across all these efforts—a transnational, multicampus, multiscalar self-awareness. It is an AI emerging. The analytic work here is to consider how the third world university emerges out of the first, in our respective locations. The political work is to assemble our efforts with a decolonizing spirit and an explicit commitment to decolonization that can be the basis of transnational collaborations and transhistorical endurance.

To Assemble a Decolonizing-Works, We Can Learn from Black Film-Works

Making movies is an apt metaphor for making movement in and through the university. Moviemaking takes place at multiple scales, from individual works of single movies to assembling “works” in another sense of “ironworks” and “waterworks.” Film-works are the places, premises, and machinery needed to make movies: from small studios to film industries. It is a good way to envision assembling the works of a decolonizing university.

Zeinabu Davis’s insightful documentary film Spirits of Rebellion reveals the scales and scopes of Black filmmaking works by tracing the contours of what some have termed the LA Rebellion—Black radical filmmakers like Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Larry Clarke, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough, Jamaa Fanaka, Ben Caldwell, Billy Woodberry, Shirikiana Aina, and O. Funmilayo Makarah whose work created a shared legacy of study at the UCLA Film School from the 1960s to the 1980s. Davis herself is part of this genealogy, and her own work marks a continuation, a memory, and an evolution of this legacy as well as the larger tradition of Black film. Spirits of Rebellion covers the nuances of their filmic stories and the art of creating Black representational power out of a Hollywood overdetermined form.

What stuck with me through the stories in Davis’s documentary were the coincidental linkages between filmmakers, the collaborations necessary for making a film, the materiality of communication technologies, the copyright somersaults in using images and sound, the funding not just to make films but to have them shown, the legal and capital juggernaut of a Hollywood machine that Black filmmakers have to subvert. And all of the filmmakers in Davis’s documentary speak to the space-making work of Teshome Gabriel, UCLA professor and scholar of Third Cinema. His efforts were instrumental in composing a third worlding film factory.

Films are not just texts. Films are enterprises. Certainly the products of filmmaking are cinematic texts that can be “read” just like any other literary work—for their signifying meaning, for their impact on existing systems of representation, for the ways that communities and audiences take up the text. However, films are enterprises, requiring money, machines, casts and crews, networks of distribution, and critical audiences who discuss the films.

Donald Glover, speaking about his 2016 FX network show Atlanta, described how he organized an all-Black writers’ room, all ATLiens, all without Hollywood-esque writers’ rooms experiences:

I did it in my house where I was recording music and also doing the show. We called it the Factory. And we worked out of the Factory.[22]

For Glover to do the representational work of a show whose “thesis . . . was to make people feel black,” he also had to assemble a Black enterprise of Black people and Black bricks and mortar.[23] His house as cinematic factory fostered the organic intimacy he envisioned for his show.

Film movements are multiscalar endeavors. One might think about how making an independent short film is one scale. Making a Black film industry is another scale. Consider what the necessary collaborations are for making

  • a single film,
  • a body of work,
  • a film production studio,
  • a Black film industry,
  • a distribution network for theatrical releases, or
  • a Black film movement.

Assembling a decolonizing university is also a multiscalar endeavor. We might ask what the necessary collaborations are for making

  • a single project with a decolonizing aspect,
  • a body of decolonizing works,
  • a decolonizing production studio,
  • a decolonizing industry,
  • a network of decolonizing organisms, or
  • a decolonizing university movement.

Black film is Black assemblage in flight.

It is a living thing, Black cinema. It is a living thing that has endured. It has survived under duress since the beginning of the last century with no help, with no tools, with no focus, with no attention, with no water, with no sunlight. And still the images have been made by people long before us. So I do think there are beautiful things that are happening in the space, because there has always been.[24]

The very existence of the preceding quote by filmmaker Ava DuVernay is itself an aperture into the living thing of Black cinema, into its transhistorical timelines and multiscalar assemblages. In this instance, DuVernay is speaking to Another Round, a podcast hosted by Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, the Black female creators, hosts, and writers of the show.[25] They are interviewing DuVernay about her forthcoming projects: 13th, a Netflix documentary on the advent of modern slavery through mass incarceration as generated by the Thirteenth Amendment, and Queen Sugar, a dramatic series about a Louisiana family, to be broadcast on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). With a Black podcast audience surrounding her, the Oscar-nominated Hollywood film Selma behind her, a digital streaming Netflix documentary ahead of her, and a serial drama to be broadcast on a television channel owned by one of the wealthiest Black women of all time, DuVernay is in this moment a rider and a rewriter of Black cinematic assemblage in motion.[26]

Black assemblage involves the modding of technologies raked together by the witch’s broom. YouTube, podcasts, blogs, Twitter feeds, digital streaming services, crowdfunding campaigns, are new technologies commandeered by a collaboration of organisms already-readied by producing bodies of works sometimes within first world systems. These collaborations meant that Pharrell’s YouTube channel could host Awkward Black Girl, that Oprah would televise DuVernay, that podcasts and Twitter hashtags might become Black.

The witch’s flight might fashion landing pads out of First Cinema, yet it is always poised to fly away from them. She can “walk into meetings and talk with my studio partners now with a sense of freedom,” DuVernay says, because she can always fly away.[27] Her ever-ready refusal of First Cinema is a stance rooted in self-determination: “It’s because I always know I can make something on two dollars and a paperclip. Always. Always.”[28]

Filmmaking is collaborative but not democratic. Most films, even independent ones, require a crew of makers, seek investments by producers, need actors. Films are made collectively, yet generally hierarchically (not usually “democratically”), by a gang of folks who unevenly control the film through their invested cash, their supply and operation of video or film equipment, the coordination of schedules, their scriptwriting and their improvisation. Maybe there is a single director. Maybe creative decisions are born more collaboratively. One ought to be a little agnostic about the value of democracy if one wants to make a film.

When building a decolonizing machine out of colonizing scraps, we ought to ask, what are the types of organizational structures to get it done? What organizational structures do we think we are supposed to have? Why do we think that way?

Universities can certainly be called hierarchical, but such a critique is an incomplete analysis. An evolved colonizing machine, like any code, is not simply hierarchical. If it were, it would not be efficient—there are multiple flows of commands, some hierarchical, some lateral, some “organic” in the sense of emergence.

One ought to be a little agnostic about democracy when inside a colonizing machine. And alternatives to democracy exist. We might think of various Indigenous forms of governance such as elderships or matrilineal land stewardship. We might think about hip-hop governance, or even revolutionary organizations, as a form of relation-based organizing.

A Black film movement is ideologically diverse. What is in common for a Black film movement, I want to say, is a love for Black life and for Blackness. This love functions like gravity; it is everywhere, operating on all things. But it manifests differently in interactions big and small—planetary in scale or intimate. It is not always your friend, and it can lead to plummets, but isn’t flying just a falling heart with wings?[ 29] It is the witch’s flight, not linear genealogy, that connects decolonizing work. An effective decolonizing university assemblage must be ideologically diverse; it must have different and differing parts that work. A decolonizing university has only to share that love for Black life, for Indigenous worldings, for their futures.

Axioms about the Third University

I list below axioms for third university actualities. If we consider that a decolonizing university exists already amid the colonial, and that it takes many formations at multiple scales—from the personal to the institutional to the national—then we can start to ascertain the premises for its existence. Axioms should be flexible enough to build multiple formations and to accommodate contradictions, while clear enough to catch the decolonial desires that inspirit these formations. I call them axioms not so much because they are self-evident or irrefutable. Rather, they are axioms in the second sense of the word: propositions upon which a structure, in this case, a decolonizing university, can be built.

  1. It already exists. It is assembling. It assembles within the first and second universities.
  2. Its mission is decolonization.
  3. It is strategic. Its possibilities are made in the first world university.
  4. It is timely, and yet its usefulness constantly expires.
  5. It is vocational, in the way of the first world university.
  6. It is unromantic. And it is not worthy of your romance.
  7. It is problematic. In all likelihood, it charges fees and grants degrees.
  8. It is not the fourth world.
  9. It is anti-utopian. Its pedagogical practices may be disciplining and disciplinary. A third world university is less interested in decolonizing the university and more in operating as a decolonizing university.
  10. It is a machine that produces machines. It assembles students into scyborgs. It assembles decolonizing machines out of scrap parts from colonial technology. It makes itself out of assemblages of the first and second world universities. To the degree that it accomplishes these assemblages, it is effective.


1. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, México Profundo: Una Civilización Negada, 1st ed. (México, D.F.: Secretaría de Educación Pública/CIESAS, 1987); Gustavo Esteva and Carlos Perez, “The Meaning and Scope of the Struggle for Autonomy,” Latin American Perspectives 28, no. 2 (2001): 120–48.

2. Marcos and Žiga Vodovnik, Ya Basta! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising: Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, 1st ed. to the United States/United Kingdom (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2004).

3. My use of fourth world is not intended as a reference to “fourth world cinema,” and I am not equating Indigenous worlds with the “fourth world.” Admittedly, my use of the fourth world as a source of wisdom is a bit romanticized. However, I do so not for the sake of romance but for the purpose of asserting that some forms of knowledge and learning ought to refuse the university—following Indigenous writers Audra Simpson, Eve Tuck, and Sandy Grande. Community and Indigenous knowledges are already prefigured in the academy as folk/superstitious, as unscientific, as effeminate, or, in the most colonial ways, as “data” to then be appropriated as objects to be reinterpreted and renarrated back to you. Therefore I am using fourth world to assert the value of those knowledges, without turning them into valued commodities. I am using fourth world to make space.

4. See Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Feminist Review, no. 30 (1988): 61–88.

5. See Albahri, “Hands Clasped behind Her Back”; Gilmore, afterword, 230–33.

6. Glen M. Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 30. Mimura lists notable filmmaker collectives that explicitly aligned themselves with Third Cinema: Grupo Cine Liberación; Black Arts movement in London (Sankofa and the Black Audio Film and Video Collective); Amber Films in Newcastle, England; Appalshop in Appalachia, Whitesburg, Kentucky; Third World Newsreel in New York City; Visual Communications in Los Angeles, California. All six were founded in the late 1960s. Ibid., 33.

18. Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema, 32.

19. Whare Wānanga o Awanuia-rangi, “Prospectus,”

20. “Historia de La ELAM,”; Robert Huish and John M. Kirk, “Cuban Medical Internationalism and the Development of the Latin American School of Medicine,” Latin American Perspectives 34, no. 6 (2007): 77–92.

21. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2015), 40.

22. Rodney Carmichael, “Donald Glover’s Real Rap on ‘Atlanta,’” Creative Loafing Atlanta (blog), August 29, 2016,

23. Melanie McFarland, “Inside ‘Atlanta’ with Donald Glover: ‘The Thesis behind the Show Was to Make People Feel Black,’” Salon, August 31, 2016,

24. Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, “Two Dollars and a Paperclip,” Another Round (Podcast), September 13, 2016.

25. Adding still more gears, Nigatu and Clayton came up from new media spaces such as BlackTwitter and blogs such as MadameNoir and TheRoot (founded by Henry Louis Gates Jr.). Another Round lives on, one of the single most influential media shapers on the Internet (and thus in mass culture), a site that explicitly functions without a core demographic but through lateral and multiple networks.

26. The year 2016 is a also [sic] year that has seen the “Blackening” of mainstream media—from late-night talk show hosts Larry Wilmore (now canceled) and Noah Trevor to black Marvel superhero Luke Cage on Netflix to successful comedy serials Blackish (ABC), Atlanta (FX), and Insecure (HBO) with Issa Rae—mainstream productions with almost no white cast members. Prior to her HBO deal, Rae got attention as creator, writer, actor, and producer of the YouTube series Awkward Black Girl, which went viral enough for a second season premier on record producer Pharrell’s YouTube channel iamOTHER. For the surreal dark comedy Atlanta, Donald Glover, who acted in Community and wrote for NBC’s 30 Rock and also raps as Childish Gambino, similarly absorbed all roles—executive producer, writer, director, executive music producer, and star.

27. DuVernay herself has risen to fame from her 2015 Oscar-nominated film Selma, the first film directed by a Black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award—although DuVernay herself was not nominated, during a year that spawned the much-discussed viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite created by Black Twitter activist, writer, and former lawyer April Reign.

28. Clayton and Nigatu, “Two Dollars and a Paperclip.”

29. “The work of wings / was always freedom, fastening / one heart to every falling thing.” Li-Young Lee, “One Heart.”