‘Them’

Going back to Italy is never easy (I hardly ever say ‘home’ nowadays: after nearly ten years in the UK I’m not quite sure where ‘home’ is). Every time I come back I see things I find profoundly unsettling.
I see an impoverished country; I see anger, resentment, fear. I see scapegoating and increasing hostility towards migrants. I hear objectifying language on a daily basis: ‘it’s too many of them’; ‘they are not that desperate’; ‘we have to help them in their own country’. Them, the others, the foreigners, they who are not like us.  Speech groups individuals together into an amorphous and mysterious entity: faceless, devoid of passions and desires; beings without a story. I shudder to think where the objectification, the othering of the migrant might lead. It’s mounting slowly but steadily. It’s now normal, ordinary.
The violence of this language bewilders me. I bite my tongue, I try not to lose my temper but I find it increasingly difficult, especially when these words come from loved ones.
Yet, I don’t want to admit defeat: We need to talk about racism. We really do. I must engage in conversation but I don’t want to take the moral high ground; I don’t want to sound querulous or sanctimonious; I don’t want to be aggressive. If I alienate my interlocutor, I achieve nothing.
It’s a bomb. It’s ticking. I must do something to defuse it but I am yet to find the language to do it.
(Any advice is very welcome)
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Siding with the underdogs

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In a recent blog post on The Stage, Lyn Gardner argued that community theatre might not be glamorous, but it changes lives. I’m reluctant to lump community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre together, as Lyn Gardner does, but I do see why she groups them together, and I recognise that she is tapping into a very delicate matter. I would even say that, as far as the performing arts are concerned, this is THE elephant in the room.
No matter how sophisticated our practice and aesthetic research, no matter how liberal and democratic our field is convinced to be, the bottom line is that there are practices that for no particular reasons do not enjoy the prestige and the status of others. Community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre (only to name a few) are hardly ever seen as aesthetic experiences in their own right.

Before I go any further with this, I should come out: as a performer, my first audiences were children; I learned the ropes of the profession with children and teenagers, and I loved every minute of working with them. Theatre for young audiences is a field very close to my heart. I often see mild condescension from those who are not aware of the research behind a good show for young audiences. And I have to bite my tongue every time I hear a practitioner contemplating putting on a “kids’ show” simply because there is funding available (this usually makes for boring shows at best, patronising at worst). While community theatre at least enjoys considerable scholarly attention, theatre for young audiences is still an under-researched area.

If theatre in any shape or form has ever changed the lives of participants or theatregoers, any practitioner worth her salt would know that theatre practice alone cannot turn a life around and that burdening theatre with this type of expectation is dangerous. But the thing that puzzles me the most is that when community theatre or theatre for children are finally considered, they have to justify their existence as an instrument of something else: of education, rehabilitation, social cohesion or, at the very least, as the training ground for future Olivier Award winners. I am not referring to the necessary and valuable dialogue with schools, prisons, and other institutions. There is a difference between mediation and defensive justifications.
No other art seem to be so obsessed with the need to justify its presence. I might be out of touch with debates in other fields, but I don’t hear visual artists fretting around their legitimacy or their impact on communities and individuals. We, theatre practitioners and scholars, seem to be compelled to jump head first into the efficacy trap: but how do you measure the affective and intellectual impact of watching and making theatre?

The truth is that community theatre, amateur theatre, and theatre for young audiences are underdogs for a reason: they are practices with an extraordinary subversive potential. They rock the boat. They deprive the sites of culture of their privilege; they close the gap between production and fruition. They demonstrate that inventiveness, creativity, play are not just for specialists and that communication goes beyond the purchase of a cultural product created elsewhere by someone else. They remind us that individuals who are not frequent theatregoers are still sophisticated audience members who engage with live performance in extraordinary and unexpected ways. If this does not unsettle the theatre industry, what does?

How do we make space for time?

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If there is no church in the wild, if there is study rather than knowledge production, if there is a way of being together in brokenness, if there is an undercommons, then we must all find our way to it. – Jack Halberstam
We invite you to join us in the break! For one night, we will occupy space, take possession of time, and think about what it means to ‘be with’ each other. Through a score of discussion and silence, activity and play, we will collectively make space for time and co-create a new institution*.
Is there something you wish you had more time for? Gazing at clouds, fly-fishing, cat stroking, laughing? Bring an object or idea to contribute to a playful potluck of unproductive activities and everyday expertise.

The Institute of Killing Time is a new (anti)-institute for the experimental study and exploration of time. This inaugural event is part of Antiuniversity Now 2017.

Do join us! Book your place on Eventbrite.

At the end of marking season

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I just finished marking an enormous amount of essays. Some good, some middle-of-the-road. Some were trying too hard to please the marker, and others were not even trying. Some had a true spark of insight. Some were a real pleasure to read. As I was typing my feedback, I remembered of one of Peter Elbow’s footnotes in Writing with Power:

Part of the reason why inexperienced writers benefit so little from the corrections of teachers on their essays is because the teacher is usually trying to correct flaws in an argument, while the student hasn’t yet learned simply to engage in sustained argument by himself on paper. The student experiences the feedback as a double-bind. “You ask me to engage in sustained, abstract, solitary reasoning – something that is difficult for me – and when I do you punish my behaviour” (p. 68).

Elbow does not offer a strategy to avoid the double-bind. Feedback is a delicate matter and deserves to be handled with care. It might even remain in the student’s memory for years. A friend of mine still remembers after 15 years the feedback he got after an assessed performance: “a wee bit wooden”, he was told. The teacher might not even remember the comment, but my friend most certainly does.

Assessment is required, but it can interrupt the pedagogic dialogue. Ultimately, critical thinking is the ability to sustain a conversation with the material, to interrogate it, to ask questions, to find connections. Unfortunately, assessment is so much part of our educational paradigm that a significant number of students when invited to engage critically with something, automatically look for flaws and inconsistencies. The assessment breaks two dialogues: the one between teacher and student and the one between student and material. It freezes the conversation in time and sticks a number on the output.

Teaching and learning are balancing acts. Beyond the marks and the feedback, there are people, there is thought, and there are subjectivities in flux (the learner’s and the teacher’s). I’m not sure if can can dodge the double-bind. At the time of typing up that feedback and sticking that number on the work, I need to squint and see past the anonymous essay, listen to the voice – no matter how faint -, appreciate the tussle with the material, and the labour that went into putting the essay together. Then the dialogue might, just might, not turn into uncomfortable silence.

Another Election

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No, I did not see that coming. I am tad puzzled. Is it a ploy to get rid of Boris? Or to stop the Lords getting in the way? I don’t know if this upcoming election is the product of an internal fight within the Tory party or if is it a scheme to crush Labour at the time of its greatest vulnerability. Commentators can speculate all they like but one thing is certain: this is not a second EU referendum. The ship has sailed.

But the ‘relentless optimist’ in me think that this might be an opportunity for the British Left.
Exactly with what programme is Theresa May going to win the elections? Hard Brexit? Soft Brexit? Scrambled, poached, fried Brexit? I am being flippant, I know. When Brexit pops up I can’t help it. The main thing about May is that after many months at n.10 we no longer know what she stands for. Although I give her credit for her determination, she always strikes me as someone too eager to please. A typically feminine disease, I concur: I suffer from it myself. She campaigned for remain and then took it upon herself to clear the mess left behind by Johnson, Gove, and Farage (and indeed Cameron!). Again, very feminine: pesky, messy boys, get the hell out of here and leave the clearing up to me. At the moment she is very busy keeping the boat afloat, but this is not a compelling political programme. Looking for the mandate to negotiate an exit from the EU she never agreed with in the first place makes for woolly political thinking. Can the British Left outsmart May and beat her at her own game? And let’s be clear: by Left also I mean SNP, Green Party, and Plaid Cymru. Now the ball is on their side. They can either unite and play a smart, sleek, powerful counter-attack or they can drop it (oh, so many Labour MPs would love to throw their toys out of the pram and tear the Party to pieces just to get rid of Corbyn!)

I make no mystery of the fact that I am against Britain leaving the EU, but, as I said, the ship has sailed. All I wish for is a government willing to start real negotiations, a government that is not defensive, that does not threat or patronise the EU, a government capable of engaging in real dialogue with EU institutions. Enough of these passive-aggressive strategies already! Let’s all behave like adults, shall we?

Side note: Now that the damage is done, would the BBC please just stop dedicating a disproportionate amount of air time to UKIP? Can we please archive UKIP once and for all? The only positive aspect of Brexit is that UKIP MEPs will soon need to come back home and start job hunting…

Anyway, I’m just a Johnny Foreigner, what do I know?

Stories we dare to tell

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Easter meditation. I have been absent for a while. The winter of my discontent is over. Every year I tell myself ‘this time it won’t get me’. It always does. Short days, feeble winter light get the better of me. And I always come out at the other end. In the meantime, we have been plunged into a dystopian world that would put Ray Bradbury and George Orwell to shame. An inarticulate, narcissistic white supremacist is now the most powerful politician on the planet and he seems determined to pick a fight. A schoolyard bully with weapons of mass destruction at his disposal. Can I freak out now?
No, I can’t. We can’t. I don’t know what the future will bring, but we’d better stay lucid.
From my privileged spot, I can campaign, I can protest. What else? I am fortunate enough to be able to turn my job into a militant practice. I am fortunate enough to be working with students who (most of the time) demonstrate a remarkable generosity of spirit. I can build a militant classroom, to borrow Kim Solga’s words. But how? Teaching and research are hardly predictable activities: if you are looking for neat and ordered stuff you might as well change career. Dealing with living, breathing human beings requires a good degree of flexibility and responsiveness.
What then? How do you turn academic work into a militant practice? I’m not sure, but somehow I’ve always known that my practice (on and off stage, inside and outside the classroom) boils down to sharing stories. Forget the post-truths or the alternative facts. Beyond the news, we have stories to tell. Stories that reconnect us with our resilience, kindness, and generosity. Stories to counter the pestilent narratives of the past few months; stories to heal, stories to overcome fear, stories to make sense of the illogical and frightening stuff the world throws at us every day. And, by all means, stories to explore the monsters that inhabit the deepest cracks of our conscience; stories to face our biases and our prejudices. Teaching and research are conversations: we build images, we weave narratives, we propose visions of the world.  I’m starting here. Is it enough? Of course not!
Happy new season, everyone.

War Scars

I saw my grandfather crying once. Only once. He was telling a wartime story. In 1943, he was 17 and enlisted in the Italian navy. On 8th of September, the Allies signed the armistice with the Italian government. The civil war had started. Granddad was in Venice at the time. The Italian army had no orders from central government and northern Italy was occupied by Nazi forces. He had two choices: joining the fascist army in northern Italy or run away. Granddad and a group of fellow youngsters decided for the latter option. Maybe it was fear, maybe hope, maybe it was the recklessness only 17-year-olds can muster.
It was a dangerous journey. He was a deserter and the Nazi occupiers were not exactly a conciliatory bunch. After many adventures, he reached Civitavecchia where he hoped to board a ship back to Sardinia. I’m sure he must have known fear, but his tale was always upbeat. There was almost a hint of self-complacency. We asked what was Civitavecchia like. The town was still occupied by Germans and grandad had to hide. In the meantime, the British were bombing the area. And as his memory went back to the bombings, the sirens, the shelters, civilians dying, buildings reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds, something inside him broke. He started crying. He could bear going back to his escape from Venice, the perilous journey through occupied Italy, hiding in Civitavecchia, but the bombings were still an open wound. I don’t know why, but I can try to imagine. The explanation I have given myself is that somehow he had agency over his desertion and his journey but he had no power whatsoever over death falling upon you from the sky. A faceless enemy, constant fear, not knowing what you would find when you come out of the shelter.
Years later, I found out that Grandad took medications for anxiety all his life. He rejoined the navy after the war, but he quit in the early Sixties, probably because of his panic attacks. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I can’t help wondering to what extent the war had shaped him.
Family stories emerge as I watch the news coming from Aleppo, as I think about the displaced, the dead, the injured, the city in rubbles. Even if the war ended tomorrow, reconstruction would take decades and it would only fix the material damage. The memory of violence shapes individuals and communities. Aleppo will never be the same again. Scars will be visible, wounds will remain open, survivors will wake up in the middle of the night paralysed by fear, they will have panic attacks and burst into tears many decades from now. Just like my Grandad.
I would like to write about my extraordinary first term at Exeter, about my students, about teaching, research, about the exciting feminist theorists I’m studying, but everything seems redundant now. All I can do now is contemplate the senseless violence humankind is capable of. I think about the survivors, racking my brain for solutions, focusing on the minuscule acts of charity within my reach. All I can do is think about the living, hold my loved ones close. Time will come for philosophy, for art, for beauty. Not now. Not yet.

A Labour of Love

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Teatro c’è quando Dioniso danza.

Teatro Valle  Occupato

 

I’m not going to lie. The recent developments in US politics have left quite a mark. Although part of me feared the outcome (I grew up in Berlusconi’s Italy after all and I am well aware that our democracies are not immune from this type of pernicious populism), I wasn’t prepared for the excruciating soul-searching the European and US Left went through in the  past couple of weeks. The election of Donald Trump to office compelled us all to stop and think about our actions, allegiances, and beliefs. It was necessary and bloody painful. Many have written about it. Among many others, Rosi Braidotti and Yanis Varoufakis provided some of the most lucid and articulate reflections on the matter. Very different perspectives, yet both contributions are worth reading. I’m concerned, but not in a panic just yet. To paraphrase Giorgio Gaber, I’m not afraid of Donald Trump per se, I’m afraid of the Donald Trump in us. I’m afraid of what Trumpism legitimated in the US and beyond. The unleashing of misogyny and racism, the condoning of bullying and aggressiveness. Similarly to what Berlusconism did in Italy, Trumpism is giving free rein to the worst in our culture (our, yes: the power of American culture over the rest of the world should not be downplayed).

In the meantime, I, like many of you, live in a state of almost perpetual dissociation. I watch heart-shattering footage from Syria and Yemen, I witness the mounting paranoia around the influx of migrants in Europe, I hear racist, misogynist, and homophobic discourse legitimated on mainstream media (‘let him work and judge him by his policies’). Yet, I go on working, teaching, and writing. And research sometimes helps. Political theatre always believes that oppression is not inevitable and that we can inhabit this planet without slaughtering one another. It often offers fleeting glimmers of hope.

In the past couple of days, I have been going through my material on the occupation of Teatro Valle. The occupation ended in 2014 but it can still teach us a thing or two. The occupied Valle was living proof that in dark times only a leap of faith can save us, that debate is productive, that the encounter of living, breathing, thinking bodies cannot be substituted with any surrogate, that live performance still matters. But the thing I found most striking this week is the way the occupiers articulated their protest as a labour of love. Throughout their writings, the Valle activists incorporated love, care, and desire into their political discourse.  Occupying a historic venue meant looking after it (occupare, occuparsi). Sharing practice and learning a craft was the equivalent of a sentimental education. Opening the venue meant creating the conditions for the encounter of individuals and communities. An encounter moved by desire even when rife with conflicts and contradictions. An encounter that exposed vulnerabilities and passions. A politics of affect, if you like to borrow Brian Massumi’s definition. In the writings and practice of the occupied Valle, love is a radical political concept. A ray of light in dark times.

I, Daniel Blake

End of the movie, the credits begin to roll. Most audience members are visibly shaken. Some are crying. Others are pretending they are capable of keeping their cool. We look at each other, doubtful and bewildered. No one speaks. Then the silence is broken. From one of the back rows of Cinema 1 at the Watershed in Bristol, a loud cry rises: “Fuck the Tories!” Some applauded and cheered. Others, like me, were taken aback. Was this the reaction Loach was expecting?

I, Daniel Blake is an important film. A welcome counter-narrative to a class bias that has become endemic and often turns into open hostility. In a cultural context in which the poor – British or migrant – is regularly demonized, scorned, belittled or, in the best case scenario, ignored, this story is necessary. And yet, at the end of the film I felt manipulated. Rather than letting the story speak for itself, the movie purposefully crammed a series of emotionally strong episodes without giving them the necessary weight. The result often verged on the melodramatic. Luckily for Loach, the movie is saved by the acting: Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are terrific.

Fuck the Tories. Yes, of course. I get it. And I kind of agree. Loach offered a necessary counter-narrative, and this is already a politically significant statement. The audience at the Watershed might be composed of Guardian-reading, avocado-eating hipsters who already agree with Loach (I am guilty), yet, we need to hear this story in all its rawness. Anything capable of bursting the cosy middle-class bubble we live in must be good. I, Daniel Blake is a punch in the stomach, but poor storytelling defuses the movie’s explosive material. Had Loach allowed its audience to go beyond outrage, beyond rage, his statement would have been much more powerful.

Post-factual Politics

With his usual clarity, John Foot reminds us that what we are witnessing right now in the US election campaign had happened before. Twenty-two years ago, to be exact.

Undoubtedly, there are uncanny similarities between Trump and Berlusconi. During the Nineties, Berlusconi allied himself with the Italian neofascist Right and with a populist and openly racist party. In 1994 he promised the world and harvested the votes of those tired of politics-as-usual. He monopolized the political debate and imposed his personal priorities to the entire country. Beyond the misogyny, homophobia, racism, arrogance, questionable business practices, there are other, more worrying aspects. Berlusconi represented the rise of a populist approach to politics that still inhabits political discourse and that has now become endemic in Europe and in the US.

For two decades the Italian political debate revolved around one man. Berlusconi shaped politics to his own image: the self-made man, the outsider, the successful businessman who speaks his mind. His persona dominated the political arena; parliamentary politics was hijacked for private interests. Not unlike Trump, Berlusconi was not only a political figure, he was the representative and the promoter of a culture that gradually took over the country. Berlusconism – with his undermining of the judiciary, his manipulation of mainstream media, and its dismissal of historical facts and scientific knowledge – was an early example of the post-factual politics triumphing now in Europe and in the US.

However, what worries me the most when I look at the US presidential campaign is the flattening of political debate to Trump and to his persona. Mainstream media has stopped discussing policies: the attention is always on the latest controversy, on the most recent absurdity, on the the daily misogynistic or racist remark. If the Italian experience is anything to go by, we should worry. Not only the Italian Left had been unable to fight on Berlusconi’s terrain (i.e. communication) but it systematically failed to put forward its own agenda. The party in power was shaped to the leader’s persona to such an extent that the opposition shaped itself against B. and against what B. stand for. Political discourse shrunk to two binary positions: support or opposition to one man.  Our vote during the 1990s and the 2000s was moved only by the urgency of electing ‘anyone but him’. All we had during the Berlusconi era was reactive, defensive politics. Thankfully, the impact of Italian politics upon the larger geopolitical and economic equilibrium was minimal. If the same had to happen in the US, the implications would be felt far beyond the US borders.