Notes on a strike 1: the day after

Dylan Thomas Exeter

I had the weirdest dream. I was in Streatham campus, you know the main gate on Prince of Wales Road? There. It was packed with people: I didn’t know them all but somehow I knew they all worked at the university. We were holding banners and talking. The atmosphere was quite jolly. There were dogs and children too. We had soup and cinnamon bagels. There were students writing poetry on the pavement, classicists holding placards with quotes from the Catiline Orations, a band called ‘The Attachment Issues’ singing protest songs. There were professors from Philosophy and Geography knitting a blanket. I’m not sure how, but I found myself embroidering ‘we are the university’ on some bunting.

And then the dream goes from weird to outlandish.

At some point, the Vice-Chancellor showed up but he was a Lego figurine. I talked to him and he actually listened to my concerns. We posed for a photo together and he told me I am an extraordinary academic. No idea what a psychoanalyst would make of this. Then Billy Bragg arrived (!) and we all sang The Internationale – can you imagine Exeter academics singing The Internationale?
Ah, I almost forgot: students were occupying Northcote House in protest, then they came out and we greeted them with party poppers and a booming, sonorous round of applause. Beaming smiles, song, energy, enthusiasm. It was magical!

We marched through town and eventually ended up in the drama studio at the Phoenix Arts Centre where we talked about the university of the future and, wait for it, we discussed electing the Vice-Chancellor (!), boycotting the TEF, and abolishing tuition fees (!!!!).

I mean… I don’t know. It was probably something I ate.

Wait a sec…why do I have a party popper in my coat pocket?

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‘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)

How do we make space for time?

KitchenOrbs.gif

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.

Another Election

lie lie land

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

relentless optimism

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.

A Labour of Love

valle-occupato

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.

 

 

 

 

Change of season

change-of-season

In Sardinia, autumn is the season of new beginnings. After the harvest, it’s time to plan the year ahead. During the summer months we revel the warm evenings; we endure long idle afternoon hours sheltering from a merciless sun; we long for the sea. We secretly await September to bring some respite from the heat. Then Cabidanni arrives. Cabidanni is the Sardinian for September. Caput anni: the beginning of the year. Anything of importance is always deferred to cabidanni: house maintenance, weddings, studies, diets. September is the real start of the year; a new start without the pomp, the expectations, and the inevitable anticlimax of New Year’s Day.

I submitted my thesis a year ago and I was awarded my PhD this spring. I enjoyed a glorious Bristolian summer. The most extraordinary feature was the amount of time suddenly at my disposal. Beyond my nine-to-five job, I felt I had all the time in the world: guilt-free weekends, reading fiction, long chats with friends, and some long-overdue family time.

September, time of new beginnings, is the time to get back into teaching and research. The break from academia was beneficial in many ways. Finding an academic routine healthier than the one I experienced during the PhD and, crucially, more productive and efficient is not an easy task. There are exciting projects in the pipeline.

As I start my new career, one of my theatrical heroes passed away. I’ve never been able to comment on the news of the day, but Dario Fo’s passing is one of those events that marks the end of a cultural era. The world celebrates him, and rightly so. There isn’t much I can add here. Yet, if I have to single out someone, Dario Fo and Franca Rame are, without a doubt, the practitioners that made me fall in love with the theatre. In the darkest moments of my doctorate, their work reminded me why live performance matters. Their practice informed my understanding of the relationship between art and politics; their plays shaped me as a researcher and as a practitioner. Once again, I have to go back to their work. If you haven’t seen Mistero Buffo, here it is.