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Activism, Academia and Black Community Struggles

20 Apr

A little while ago Adam Elliot Cooper from Ceasefire Magazine interviewed Stafford Scott, along with myself, on Black community struggles, activism and academia in Britain. Stafford Scott was a co-founder of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign in 1985, and is now a consultant on racial equality and community engagement as well as co-ordinator of Tottenham Rights. The interview revolved around a one day workshop run by Dr Joy de Gruy in Tottenham last October, funded by Tottenham Rights and the Centre for Public Engagement, Queen Mary University of London.


Adam: Black community struggle has been an integral part of the way in which we understand the politics of race, class and empire in Britain today. Black communities and activists have led this struggle. But academics have played a role too. Stafford, in October 2013 you brought Dr Joy de Gruy over from the US to Tottenham to run a one day workshop on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Why Dr Joy, and why Tottenham?

ScreenHunter_18 Apr. 17 19.50Stafford: It’s relatively simple to be quite honest. Why Tottenham? Because in 2011 parts of Tottenham burned as a result of the shooting of a young black male called Mark Duggan. It hit the headlines. As a result of some of us going to the police station rioting broke out and then spread across the country. We saw the media and the government’s reactions to those riots and it really was to dismiss the youths as feral criminals looking to make money out of someone’s death. It was dismissed as an opportunity for people’s materialistic natures to come out. What I wanted to do was put a total different perspective to it – a historical perspective. So I wanted to look at why rioting broke out. I was there, and I don’t believe that it was simply about Mark Duggan’s killing and the way in which his family was treated. I believe that there was a history – a context – to it, that some people chose not to examine. Duggan’s killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

We had different events in 2013. One was about the uprising that took place on Broadwater Farm and the killing of Cynthia Jarrett, the killing of Joy GardnerRoger Sylvester and Mark Duggan – four people who died in Tottenham, with involvement of the police. So this was to help the community come to terms with recent traumatic events. We brought Dr Joy over to look at historic events that have caused us great trauma.

ScreenHunter_17 Apr. 17 19.50Adam: Dr Joy, a professor of social work, is famous for developing an analytical framework called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and for developing practical programmes that address the challenges of Black communities in the United States. So Dr Joy’s work is not only based on scholarship in the traditional sense but also research that has come out of participating in the struggles that Black communities face in the United States. Robbie, do you see similar work happening in Britain?

Robbie: I think historically there certainly was, you could see that kind of thing happening. Today I think it’s far less the case and that’s to do with a number of significant transformations in British society and in academia. Continue reading

Ah, Ça Ira, Ça Ira! Iconographies of the French Revolution

27 Feb

Last month, Stanford University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France jointly released a vast online collection of documents and images from the French Revolution via the French Revolution Digital Archive. With around 14,000 high-resolution images, it is an overwhelmingly large collection but the website is thankfully very user-friendly with content tagged in multiple ways and organised according to various themes. This is undoubtedly a fantastic resource for not only historians but also a wider audience interested in the tumultuous events of the late eighteenth century considered by many to mark the start of political modernity.

Drawn into the archive, I spent quite some time trawling through it with a particular eye for caricatures, satirical illustrations, and other allegorical depictions of the revolution. I have compiled here a selection of those images I found most striking or noteworthy along with translations and contextual information where necessary. Hopefully these will be of some interest to readers of this blog. As I have no academic specialism in this period of history, I am very much approaching the material as a layman. I therefore more than welcome any corrections or additions to my readings of these images that I’ll gladly include in updates.

Chasse patriotique à la grosse bête (1789)

Patriotic Hunt of the Great Beast (1789) [link]

“Posterity will tell us that in 1789 on the 12th July around four o’clock in the evening, several people claimed to have seen in the vicinity of Paris, on the road to Versailles, a Beast of an enormous size and a shape so extraordinary as to have never before seen the like. The news spread universal alarm in the city and put its people in a state of violent agitation. Cries of “to arms, to arms” were heard everywhere without any being found; it seemed that the Beast had swallowed them all along with their munitions. New weapons as extraordinary as the animal that had to be combated were immediately forged. On the 13th, people continued to agitate themselves, arming themselves and running after the Beast without being able to encounter it. On the the following day of the 14th, forever memorable for the France that suffers, a hundred thousand individuals ran to the Hotel des Invalides from which they carried away canons and sixty thousand rifles, such that there were two hundred thousand armed men who tracked down the Beast everywhere. Suspecting that it had retreated to the Bastille, the people flew to it with heroic courage and this lair of Despotism, despite its hundred bronze mouths vomiting fire, was taken by assault in two hours. With this victory appeared the monster with a hundred heads; its hideous form revealed that it was of an aristocratic kind; suddenly our bravest hunters seized upon her from all sides and it was to whom would cut the most heads. This monster that dragged behind it desolation, famine and death disappeared instantly under a hundred different forms and fled languidly abroad, taking with it the despair and shame of its defeat.”

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The Pay Strike And Its Discontents

2 Oct

Breaking Bad Pay Teachers More Money

The ballots are out, the wheels are in motion. Union members have until Thursday 10 October to vote on strike action over the latest derisory pay offer of 1% (if you haven’t received a ballot, go here). The justness of the cause seems clear enough. Since 2009, every pay award has been several percentage points below inflation, leading to a consistent real terms drop in pay. And some of those paltry increases were only attained after negotiations. Yet, despite the protests from above (and excepting a brief dip in student numbers), British higher education is in fine financial health. The overall wage bill is decreasing at the same time that surpluses are growing. And for “growing” read “more than doubling”, from £488 million in 2007/8 to £1.1 billion in 2011/2012. Managers are reaping their rewards accordingly, and a significant portion of Vice-Chancellors are seeing their pay go up by 10-20%. At Sussex, for example, Michael Farthing is now paid £280,000 (including pensions contributions), as compared to £178,000 in 2007 (that’ll be a 57% increase then).

And yet there is a foreboding. Fear is a factor, nondescript anxiety another. Perhaps an awkward sense that any level of action is somehow at odds with the academic code.

Articulated objections come in two stripes. First, the we-haven’t-got-it-so-bad defence. Beyond the usual ‘all in it together’ austerity ideology, there are pay increments (which most permanent academic staff get automatically). Real wages aren’t declining so hard if you move up a pay step each year. This is on its own a pretty restricted ambition, since it amounts to a kind of career “progression” that leaves you standing still. It is also, for all the talk of solidarity with lower-paid workers, a selfish analysis.

In the last 5 years, the pay for new lecturers and tutors has dropped 13% in real terms. Following the USS pension saga, they (we) have each had tens of thousands of pounds taken from them over the course of their careers, while staff that retained their old rights are paying more every month into a scheme that was, let us recall, nowhere near crisis. There are fewer scholarships and research grants than before, and an increase in teaching-heavy posts. Consumer-driven logics are set to make that worse. On the horizon, just over there, is a US-style expansion based on precarity, a prestige elite, and debt bubbles. Some at the top are already breaking from the national pay spine, inaugurating a two-tier system. Consider this trend alongside the state of university finances. What is it to look at this and say things aren’t so bad? I put it to you that such a position is detached, complacent, and irresponsible.

Second, there is the strikes-change-nothing complaint. This has better justification. Local actions over the last years have not reversed policies. Pensions were stripped down anyway. And there is something peculiar, isn’t there, about the idea of day-long walkouts and picket lines in a sector so based on relatively scattered student-teacher interactions. There is no machinery to fall silent, no buzzing shop floors to stand empty. Just a day of saved wages for management and probably a whole stack of reorganised lectures, academics not really being the types to withhold knowledge (or, rather, unwilling to see knowledge as labour). There is a sense that the old tactics are dead, and should be left in their graves.

On the one hand, this is an argument for more radical action. If employers can handle strike days, we need more. Or, alternatively, forms of action that do not fetishise the picket line. Something that will make VCs pay attention, like a marking boycott or withholding final grades. In a customer-orientated culture this is the pressure point, especially if action begins to alter the results of the National Student Survey, that Big Other of the academic scene (what do students really want?). The complaint goes up that the national union lacks the imagination to instigate these actions, and that we should therefore turn to more vibrant kinds of opposition. But new forms of resistance nevertheless confront established modes of punishment. When full pay is withheld day on day, when even partial performance leads to the forfeit of full wages, how quickly will we really buckle? We know something has to break the pattern, but we’re not sure we’re capable of it, or that the sacrifice is worth it. In other words, we find ourselves a little too close to text-book academic bitching: something more fundamental needs doing, but we’re not likely to be the ones to do it.

On the other hand, the fear and the paralysis can be found closer to home. Complaints about the union form do not produce their alternative ex nihilo. There are possible replacements, but no actually-existing ones. Nor does the appetite for creating one seem to exist. And for good reason. The paradoxical character of academic subjectivity is both to consider ourselves in a position of real epistemic and social privilege and to be so despondent about our influence on things as to merely absorb the changes thrust upon us (working conditions, impact agendas, research restrictions). The legal protections of strike action have no parallel, truncated as they are. Creative alternatives have raised energy, and served as political classrooms in their own right, but they haven’t actually stymied ‘reforms’ (whether on fees, outsourcing or investment portfolios). And, strange as it may sound, universities are probably happier taking draconian action against their workers than their students. A faculty occupation, if we could even imagine such a thing, would not end well.

None of that is to say that we (there’s that intangible collective again) should walk zombie-like to the picket. Fersure, let the rejuvenation of academic democracy proceed apace. In the meantime, we have to ask ourselves seriously what the consequence is of another pliant year. There are murmurings that a failure to win this ballot will endanger collective bargaining itself. If we cannot muster the resolve to deliver a strong yes on action short of a strike, and a strong yes on strike – if we cannot even deliver a serious turnout – that’s probably as much as we deserve.

The Queer Art of Whistle Blowing

16 Sep

What should we make of the fact that Bradley Manning has become Chelsea, that Glenn Greenwald is gay, that David Miranda loves a man enough to submit to the harassment incurred by his partner’s work, that Greenwald’s detractors sought to tarnish him by association with—of all things—a porn company? Possibly nothing generalisable, except that gender is doing work here.

There has been no shortage of voices denying a straightforward connection between sexual orientation, gender identity, and patriotism. (Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this is that there isn’t one.) San Francisco Pride Board notoriously repudiated Manning’s election as a Grand Marshall in the 2013 Pride in that city, declaring: ‘even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform—and countless others, military and civilian alike—will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.’ That statement has not been retracted, notwithstanding its now patent inaccuracy in light of the prosecution’s inability to cite any evidence that Manning’s leaks led to any deaths and the court’s decision finding her not guilty of the charge of ‘aiding the enemy’. Kristin (formerly Chris) Beck, ex-US Navy Seal who recently announced her gender transition, has been harsher in her condemnation of Manning: ‘For this person, whether male or female to use gender identity to act “BADLY” is a slap in the face to me and everyone who does not fit the “Binary Gender Norm.” It is not an excuse for anything illegal or unjust.’ Pablo K is right to point out the dangers of the temptation, for those who see a link between sex/gender and truth-telling, to make the reverse move—’to relegate Beck to a minority report, and so to re-inscribe the hierarchy of authenticity, this time with Manning as the actual face of resistance, and Beck the mere puppet of militarism’—while pointing out, also, that the gap between these contrasting appropriations is constitutive of the space of contemporary politics. So let’s talk politics.

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Call for Papers: Subjects and Practices of Resistance

27 Apr

french-resistance-1944

For two inter-linked, consecutive workshops under the theme of Subjects and Practices of Resistance to be held 9-11 September 2013 at University of Sussex.

The first workshop (9-10 Sept) is on Discipline(s), Dissent and Dispossession and the second on Counter-Conduct in Global Politics (10-11 Sept).  The workshop convenors encourage attendance at both workshops.  However, paper proposals should specify the intended workshop and which days participants would be able to attend.

The workshops are generously sponsored and supported by the BISA Poststructuralist Politics Working Group (PPWG) and the Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT) at the University of Sussex  Continue reading

To Yahya

15 Mar

The fourth in our mini-forum on critical methodology and narrative (the full series is here). This entry is authored by A—, a student and activist who shall remain nameless, the political realities and personal dangers of our world being as they are.


To Yahya,

I remember your eyes, your fearful and tired eyes. Your shaking voice is in my ear, repeatedly asking “do you think they want to kill me?” And my desperate answer “no they won’t; we will not allow them”. I am sorry Yahya. When I came to Canada there was no information about you, they had removed you from the…. And took you to an unknown place. We had tried so hard to find you but we could not. I am sorry. I know you thought I forgot you, but I did not. After I heard you were executed I was devastated. Your and other political prisoners’ (who we were trying to help) death embedded in me an incredible pain and weakness. I lost everything that I had believed before, my power, my self-esteem. Everything seemed hollow and reasonless. I lost my faith in humanity, International Law, NGO’s, the UN, Human Rights, the media… and all the places I wrote to and never got any response or any practical help. I see my weakness and I understand that beyond that hollow propagandas nothing actually exists that can do something. After that, I hated all of them, I hated the government and I hated the world for not seeing your pain, for not hearing your voice. Yahya, I hated myself as well. You were such a young and bright man that I could not tell you the truth: that we could do nothing to stop them. That our effort is useless, a waste of time, a waste of life and it does not come from power it only came from the fact that we wanted to make the world see what is happening here. “So what?” you might ask and I do not have any answer for you except to say I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.

When I came to Canada, I deliberately tried to keep you and the memory of other prisoners in the distance to avoid the pain. However, your face, your eyes, your fear, your anxiety, are embedded in my mind and will not leave me alone. It creates such a guilt that even If I feel that I am happy for a second, I feel terrible afterward. You come to my mind and I nag myself “shame on you!” and then I think: ‘how afraid were you when they were taking you to hang? Did you scream? Did you cry? How did you feel, Yahya? Because I feel an unimaginable pain in my chest when I think about it. Then everything goes black again and nothing remains to make me happy. Afterward, I feel good about myself, “you had better grieve, A–” I tell myself, “you did not do anything, you deserve to grieve”. Yahya, do you hate me? Do you hate me that I am still alive and you are dead? Do you hate me that you were being tortured but I have not?

When I talk to my fellow students about political prisoners in Iran I try to be so mature and rational to not make them think I am wounded or emotional. However, I wonder if you guys would hear me in that moment and think that I lost my emotions about you. Sometimes I curl up in a corner of the room and start to create creepy voices as if I am dying, pretend to be dead, just to see if I understand you and others’ feelings when you were being hanged and could not breathe. I am not saying these things to you in self- pity. I am just saying them to make you understand that I did not forget you, I won’t. Your voice is here, all over my head, and I do not want it to disappear, I want to yell and cry out your words, but they stick in my throat and only tears come out.

I am writing this letter to let you know that I am so sorry, that I am in pain as well, that I want you to stay and have a voice. I left my loved ones, Yahya. I know it is not comparable with your pain. But I was punished as well. I forced to be alienated from all that is familiar to me and isolated from all the kindness of my loved ones. I remained breathless like you did Yahya, but my breathlessness was only emotional while yours was both physical and emotional. I was punished like you, for seeking my rights, for helping you, and for having a voice. How odd it is for the people here, you know? How odd it is for an eighteen-year-old boy here to do what you have done. To sacrifice his life for a political purpose. When I see a young boy in my school I remember you. Then, I feel terrible for so many beauties in the world that you did not see, for all your ambitions that you could not achieve, and for all your dreams and lost opportunities. How cruel was the cord that took your breath away and how cruel is the world to not care about that action.

I want to shout, Yayha, that you are always remembered, that you are always part of this world and that you are always part of a beautiful chapter of my narrative. I could not save you but I can save your voice. At least I promise you this time…

—–

I sit on my coach, lean back with a pen and paper on my hand, staring at my white piano that I have not touched for few months. “Where should I start?” I think. I am repeatedly asking this question of myself but every time I try to write I find myself overwhelmed with a painful ache in my heart and tears in my eyes. “Let’s try looking through some pictures,” I think, they could inspire me. I take my phone from the table, and I start looking at my pictures. “I did not take very many pictures in Canada,” I wonder why; maybe I do not have enough time. Suddenly, I stop by the picture of Sahand (a mountain in the northwest of Iran, near the city that I used to live). I took the picture from the airplane while I was coming to Canada, it is the picture of its highest peak surrounded by clouds. My eyes get wet again. When you are being forced to leave a place that you were born and raised, everything about that city or region gets a sacred place in your heart. When you understand that you might not see them again you start missing them so much. Sahand is the highest mountain in the province where I lived (East Azerbaycan) and it is called ‘the beautiful mountain’ because it is full of shaghayegh (Anemone Coronaria) in spring. Shaghayegh is the symbol of dead people in Iran. People in my region take a full fist of the soil of the graves of their dead and spread it on the Sahand to turn their loved ones to flowers, so they can be born again all over the Sahand’s body. My tears start to drop again. Yes, I missed Sahand, but it is something more. Something is digging at me from inside. A sense of being useless, or being guilty. My purpose here is to narrate my own past activism to free political prisoners who were sentenced to death, but something is preventing me. Guilt, this is the emotion, I could not let go. Will I be able to finally forgive myself? To stop punishing myself and to truly justify my deeds? Maybe I am starting from the wrong side, maybe I should justify myself to you, may be I should beg forgiveness from you. Then I could rest, then I could forgive myself…

Sour Lips: A Review

8 Feb

Anyone who followed the controversy over the fictitious Gay Girl in Damascus blog, created by Edinburgh-based US graduate student Tom MacMaster writing as Amina Arraf, might have despaired of the prospects of subalterns speaking for themselves. Female, lesbian, Arab, and an anti-Assad protester, MacMaster’s Amina quickly became a posterchild of the Arab Spring for a wide swath of the liberal media and activist blogosphere. For those cognizant of contemporary critiques of homonationalism against the backdrop of pervasive homophobia, Amina’s dispatches from the frontline seemed a perfect embodiment of left liberal fantasies about the possibilities for progressive sexual politics in a time of revolution. Yet if critics such as Joseph Massad have been accused of dismissing subjects who don’t conform to their theoretical predilections, the Amina hoax gestured at an opposite, if no less insidious, temptation: that of desperately seeking subjects who confirmed theoretical utopia.

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The Student Movement in Quebec: Of Small Victories and Big Disappointments

8 Jan

A guest post by Philippe Fournier, following up on his analysis of the Quebec student movement in May last year. Philippe is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Canada Research Chair in Globalisation, Citizenship and Democracy (Chaire MDC) at Université du Québec à Montréal’s Sociology Department, and works primarily on Michel Foucault in global politics.


A Quebec student march route

A Quebec student march route

Quebec’s protracted student crisis, which laid heavy on voters’ minds, has been fixed, at least for now. In early September, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was ushered in as a minority government. The PQ campaigned on a tuition freeze, higher taxes for society’s upper echelons and a fairly ambitious environmental agenda. These aspirations notwithstanding, popular discontent with the Liberal’s handling of the student crisis, widespread accusations of corruption (see the ongoing Commission Charbonneau) and a collective displeasure with Premier Jean Charest’s smug ways, all contributed to the previous government’s demise. All things considered, the Liberals did very well, taking 31% of the vote. The PQ took a mere 32%, hardly a glowing endorsement from the general public. Most analysts believe that it was also a clear message to the incoming rulers that Quebecers had no interest in one of the more fundamental objectives of the PQ’s platform, that is sovereignty.

There are several dimensions and consequences to the PQ’s election, most of which provide an example of things-that-are or of things-that-will-be in western countries facing economic woe.

Students and Protests

The majority of students see the electoral results as a victory and feel vindicated for their continued efforts. A minority of students, many of whom are affiliated or sympathetic to the now recently defunct CLASSE (now the ASSÉ), which was set up especially for the strike, are less enthused and sense that this is only a reprieve in the long and arduous fight for free education.

The PQ has called for a summit on higher education, which will take place sometime in February and is meant to involve a wide-ranging consultation between state officials, student representatives, chancellors and business leaders. The likely outcome will be an indexation of tuition fees to the cost of living and new innovative means to cut costs in University management. Opposition parties are already accusing the PQ of having bowed down to the vociferous demands of ‘the street’ and have warned that this blank cheque would have consequences on the allocation of funds to other social programs. The ASSÉ is predictably sceptical of such proceedings and is not yet sure whether it will participate. After being told by the government that they had to cut a further 120 million before the negotiations even started, University chancellors are ticked off.

Insofar as the student crisis was widely heralded as a social movement and not just a sectorial claim, it is important to assess its overall effect on Quebec’s current political landscape. Continue reading

Symptoms Worse Than Death

31 Dec

The “daughter of India” died in a hospital in Singapore yesterday, causing shockwaves around the globe and placing India on the verge of a violent implosion. Whilst rape had become a matter that women were told that they had to contend with in their everyday lives, that they must make it safer for themselves by not being alone after dark, by not dressing provocatively, and by not drinking or acting in a manner that is ‘lewd’ and ‘unladylike’, especially in North India, something about this case has led to a national uprising of unprecedented proportions. People have taken to the streets, New Year eves’ parties have turned into mass commemoration events, and the Internet is positively ablaze with news, blogs, and posts about this nameless woman whose impact on Indian politics today cannot be exaggerated.

India has had the distinction of being labelled the worst country in the world for women and Delhi is often called India’s ‘rape capital’, so perhaps it is not surprising that a 23-year old woman was gang-raped on a bus by six men on the way home after watching The Life of Pi with her boyfriend. It is perhaps also not surprising that the rape was brutal, that a metal rod was shoved into her vagina, that the men took turns at “having a go” and finally got rid of both her and her male friend by throwing them out of the window of the moving bus. What is surprising, however, is the reaction. Why has an event that may even be classified as mundane garnered so much attention and prominence?

Many on the so-called Left in India have proclaimed that the case has been given such importance only because the woman was (ostensibly) middle-class and it is always a shock when it happens to “us”, not least when it happens in a manner this horrific. Most of the mobilized youth claim that this was the last straw in what has been a devastatingly protracted chain of brutalities against women. The cynics argue that reactions such as these are tokenistic gesture that will change nothing but help those protesting come together in a moment of collective catharsis, share in a feeling of shame and sorrow not unlike that experienced when Pakistan defeats India in a cricket match. For me, the answer to the question posed above is ultimately immaterial. Yes, the woman was not a Dalit or Adivasi, and crimes against the poor in India vastly exceed those against the rich. And yes, the injustices perpetrated against the rich, powerful or established have historically been at the forefront of media reporting and government agendas, as was most blatantly obvious in the case of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. And indeed, it is unlikely that there will be any overwhelming change in either attitudes or policy towards women in the immediate aftermath of this insurrection.

In light of this, should we just lull ourselves into a state of callous complacency and churn out platitudes about the state of our society? Those who want to are welcome to squander away both hope and perspective. For those who recognise that the path to any significant change is thorny but may yet render itself navigable, some acknowledgement of the conditions that have made gender-based violence possible and continue to make it possible, even run-of-the-mill, is in order. An awareness of how we ourselves, albeit unwittingly, reproduce these conditions and help engender systemic violence that is both symbolic and ‘real’ is also urgently needed. We must be cognisant of the fact that India is a deeply conservative society and the ‘opening-up’ of the economy since 1991 has witnessed a patriarchal backlash in the face of rising inequity, the collapse of the extended family and the disappearance of any social welfare. Those who have placed the blame singularly on “Indian men” and our “backward culture” – and who think revenge in the form of capital punishment and castration is the only solution – fail to take into account how deeply embedded they are in this patriarchal order and how readily they are partaking of a discourse that is both misogynistic and short-sighted.

The calls for castration are symptomatic of an acutely phallocentric order – where a man’s ‘masculinity’ is considered his greatest pride, and the source of this masculinity is none other than his reproductive organs. Similarly, the widespread proclamation that “rape is a crime worse than murder” and must be punished accordingly has a patently sinister side to it. Is a woman (or man for that matter) who has been raped not entitled to a life? Is she “worse than murdered”? Is it the “defilement”, the snatching away the “honour” and “purity” of a woman that so bothers us? It is worth remembering that the woman who died yesterday, who the Indian government in yet another meaningless and flippant gesture has called a “martyr” and “Delhi’s braveheart”, desperately wanted to live. She had been “violated” by six men in an ordeal that lasted over an hour, was on life-support, but not, in her own opinion, worse than dead. She was only (worse than) dead after she died.

The protests in Delhi and around India contain within themselves a latent emancipatory potential. But in order for this to amount to anything, even something as pedestrian as allowing women to negotiate public spaces in Delhi without constant threat of harassment, we must think about how our subjectivity as women, men, and citizens is (re)produced. This is the only way we can build up some resistance to the “common-sense” we are invariably brought up with. We need to start problematising the taken for granted assumptions that our heteronormative order inflicts upon us everyday, most importantly the implicit belief that women are “less equal” than men. The contours and manifestations of this tacit hierarchy may be different in the West from those in the global South, but the substance remains largely the same. As always, the words of anthropologist Barbara Diane Miller resonate deeply: “We must not forget that human gender hierarchies are one of the most persistent, pervasive and pernicious forms of inequality”. Change will not come easy.

What We Talked About at ISA 2012: A Human Right to Housing

20 Jun

Housing is a Human Right Exhibition, Philadelphia (original photo by Annie Seng)

I ain’t got no home. I’m just a roamin’ round,
just a wandering worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard wherever I may go.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
My brothers and my sisters they’re stranded on this road.
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod.
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
Was a farmin’ on the shares and always I was poor.
My crops I lay into the banker’s store.
My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
Now as I look around it’s mighty plain to see
this world is such a great and funny place to be.
Ah, the gamblin’ man is rich and the working man is poor.
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
 
-”I Ain’t Got No Home in this World” by Woodie Guthrie

Beginnings Are Difficult

How to start something new? This question troubles the academic as well as the activist. At the moment it troubles me both as a question of inquiry and as a meta-question of method.

In my previous work I have argued that human rights should be judged first and foremost by the consequences they bring about. Do human rights enable new forms of politics? Do they enable politics that increase the control we have over our lives, or that reduce the suffering and humiliation we are exposed to? Or do they confine us in a liberal subjectivity that makes wider visions of justice impossible, which push us to reconcile our beautiful revolutionary dreams to the limited horizon that contemporary liberal capitalism imposes?

I have offered a qualified defense of human rights as a democratising ethos, which suggests that human rights can enable everyday people to challenge the terms of legitimate political authority, including the institutional shape of their government and the makeup of their communities. This is done by formally opening up the identity of “rights holder” to anyone, regardless of their social position. This opening, however, is only formal and in that formality human rights have an ambiguous significance. For this reason, I have argued that to think of human rights as a democratising ethos also requires that we attend to the politics of human rights. This means that ensuring that human rights support democracy and equality is a political struggle as well as an ethical vision.

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