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Reclaiming intellectuality - activist thinking as a practical project

Laurence has outlined some very sound proposals about how to enter and survive academia as a workplace - he has written about strategies to write and promote a thesis, about setting up radical networks within academia through publishing, conferences, projects and mutual support, and about how activities within academia as a workplace connect with activist networks.

I'd like to make a contribution about this last connection - the relationship between what we called "academia" and social movements. Academia, during the Lancaster knowledge lab, broadly seemed to be used to refer to a workplace in humanities/social studies, about themes connected to social movements. "Academic" seemed to denote any intellectual activity and at the same time a person who has a job in an academic institution. I think this understanding gets in the way of what we are trying to do - building social movements with a view on "winning", using our brains and hearts to analyse where we are going, which is part of every practical work. Using institutions like academia (could be the art world, could be the voluntary sector, could be government even) without being eaten up or sucked in by them.

While studying anthropology, I've learned to look at irritations and emotional responses to get an insight into whatever field I researched. This approach has been useful in various conflicts in social movements as well as in research. Now I'm applying it to the experience last weekend in Lancaster (which I really enjoyed, although the rest of this text is mainly about anger ;-).

Drawing on my bouts of anger during the conference, I'll try to present an understanding of activist thinking, social movements and academia where I can place myself in all the facettes of my multilayered identity - precarious translator and callcenter worker, activist, writer, teacher, organiser, student. It may be useful to look at the notions of organic intellectual, global intellectual, formulated by people like Foucault or Bourdieu - if someone has useful stuff about this, please let me know...

Contrasting Conferences

A few weeks before the Lancaster knowledge lab, I went to a Soros-sponsored conference in Budapest called re:activism. The overall "smell" of the conference, the habitus of the participants, was clearly academic and what you might call "professional". We were given a nice meal in a restaurant, and a catering service provided excellent lunches. Some people got travel expenses paid. The general drive seemed to be about institutional networking. I met many good people, who are working on sound projects. But the default introduction was usually: "I am from soandso University, did my undergraduate studies with suchandsuch professor, am now working with x important institution". I felt like the odd one out with my "i'm working with indymedia uk", and found myself searching for some professional sounding affiliations in my portfolio. Even those who I know are deeply involved in social movements tended to display more their professional academic identities rather than their activist selves. And the contents of the conference - although there were some very inspiring papers, the general question was not "how do we dismantle the WTO" or "how do we strengthen social movements" but more "how can we use the methods of social movements to improve democracy, fight poverty" etc. With a bit of activist-bashing thrown in.

Last weekend, I arrived at Lancaster with mixed feelings - looking forward to hook up with other people who are both participating in social movements and writing about them, but also a bit weary about my non-institutional status - would I be seen as an exotic research object by lots of bright people writing phds? Indymedia gets tons of requests from researchers on all levels, some thoughtful, some superficial, many influenced by a market research approach. We even drew up some guidelines for researchers so that we wouldn't have to repeat the same stuff over and over again. Now I'm planning to research "us" myself, and have to deal with my own strict attitude towards researchers, and fears of being accused to "cash in on the movement" - despite having been heavily involved with the project since 1999.

Now the knowledgelab was different from the re:activism conference, although it took place in a university building as well, and although it mirrored some of the usual conference formats. You could just feel the difference. The initial classroom-teaching set-up of the furniture soon gave way to a circle. Vegan food (excellent!) was brought in and dished out by those who cooked it, but others jumped in, made coffee, collected dirty dishes, did the washing up. People's general habitus was more like in a cultural social center event. No smart casual, no predominance of shiny fresh haircuts and polished shoes, no restrained, upright body language. People were standing close to each other, greetings with hugs and kisses, lying around on the floor or on the sofas, piles of jackets and rucksacks - you know what i mean. Maybe the obvious signifiers of a squatty/hippy/alternative lifestyle like dreadlocks or piercing or imaginative clothing were less frequent than in a social center event.

Moments of anger

All this made me feel more relaxed. At the same time, I had moments of intense suspicion and even utter aggressivity in most of the sessions I participated in. For example, when the facilitator in one of the later sessions pointed out on someone's request that people should be aware that not everybody here was an academic and take that into account when choosing their language. Ok, yes, any jargon can be a problem. It can be used to cover up emptyness and as a tool for distinction ("I'm an academic/activist, and you are not"). Or, if you have engrossed yourself in Foucault and Deleuze and Zizek and Irigaray for some time without digesting it properly, you might use some concepts without contextualising them for the context you are discussing them in. Both versions are, in my view, examples for bad academic standards.

But during this conference, in my experience, nobody had floated away on the higher echelons of abstraction, neither to show off nor as a lack of contextualisation. So I took this innocent remark as an insult. I was offended in my activist identity, and this part took over. I pointed out that activists are using abstract concepts all the time, even read books (meaning that it was not necessary to dumb down for the sake of activists), then Massimo added that activists have even been known to write books. Everybody laughed, which I took as an acknowledgement of the complexity of the situation and calmed down.

Another example: Somebody who is teaching at university explained that he encourages students to study social movements, and that this could be part of political activities in academia as a workplace. I deeply agree that it does make sense to study social movements. I do it all the time in the process of "doing indymedia", discussing proposals, writing summaries, seeking consensus. Sometimes I even write about it. One of the best texts on indymedia was written as an MA thesis (Chris Shumway). But for some reason, this remark made me really angry, so I blurted out that these students and researchers requesting interviews are basically a pain, wasting valuable activist time with their pointless questions and their desire to write up a quick essay without even going through the trouble to maybe browse an indymedia website before bothering us.

I made many of these aggressive remarks during the conference. Each time, one or several people came up to me afterwards and said they felt the same but bit their tongue. Funny enough, this included a very straightforward researcher as well as someone who is involved in a direct action group and dropped academia years ago. By Sunday, I was getting suspicious about my own anger. Why was I so furious, instead of just calmly taking notice of a statement I disagreed with? Were those statement really as bad, or in fact quite innocent? Did I feel threatened? And by what, in which capacity? Maybe it wasn't just me and my personal reaction? Maybe there was something in the setup that sparked off these clashes?

Intellectuals, activists, academics - threatened identities?

I'm not quite sure how to name the thing I picked up during the conference. One explanation would be that both fields, activism and academia, are highly exclusive, and highly competitive. At the same time they demand that you are a good networker and teamworker, open and perceptive. You have to be able to be seen as an insider (dress-code, language, knowing the right people). In academia, you often compete furiously with friends or collegues, but you have to stay cool about feelings of envy, injustice, fear, triumph etc. In activism, even though openness is one major claim of many social movements, there is also a culture of invisibly and often unconsciously "protecting" a community. The vegan food, the long discussions on consensus, the funny handsigns - there are tons of markers for "ins" and "outs" in activism.

Another explanation might be that the concept of "bridging the academia/activism divide" itself is causing problems. It assumes that you are either an academic or an activist. But for many people, the divide runs straight through their very selves. Some are true intellectuals of the movement without ever having been to university. Some have academic jobs but are mainly known for organising something or other. Some are students trying to find their way between academia and activism. Some are on the dole writing papers. Some have done one thing and moved on to another. And so on.

Despite many very good encounters, in some sessions I felt threatened in many of my identities at the same time: as a writer, reader, activist and future phd student. To illustrate the confusion with an example that is not me, for a change: A woman who I know as a friend was sincerely angry about a paper which discussed one of the projects she was involved in. I've always tended to place her more at the academic end of the scale, judging from the projects she gets involved in as well as the way she talks and the people she knows. Yet in the situation, she reacted as any activist would, irritated about being turned into a research object and about mistakes in the presentation. Why is it so difficult for those who organise an activist project and those who research it to have a meaningful conversation in the framework of a conference? Why the assumption that those who give an initiating presentation are "the expert" who needs to be set straight - and this refers to both activist and academic presenters? Do we automatically assume a provocative air of authority, when we are presenting some thoughts?

This dynamic can almost aquire comical qualities, when for example an academic with a fulltime job gets offended in his activist identity, or when a seemingly politically inexperienced student turns out to be the driving force behind a well known activist project.

I guess my angry responses (which I add in ironic exaggeration in brackets), wether I explicitly expressed them or just moaned and rolled my eyes were part of, a reaction to, and further enhanced a general sense of suspicion which I think was underlying the conference. Of course it would be entirely wrong to reduce the conference to this - equally strong was a very positive feeling of sharing, solidarity, mutual support, and inspiring conversation which Nina expressed in her thank you email: "Thank you so much for being the friendliest, liveliest and generally brilliantest participants any conference organisers could ever hope for! It was a great weekend - even for those of us who were looking a bit stressed at times."

How does this "underlying sense of suspicion" perpetrate itself by shifting insecurities, assumptions and perceptions from one box to the other? How are we ourselves complicit in the making of the thing we dislike?

I felt threatened by assumptions that I might not be able to understand some phd student's contribution (angry response: "I used to quote Foucault backwards when you were still in your nappies!"), by activist assumptions of "cashing in on the movement" (angry response: "I've spent years doing x activism, don't give me this!"), by the perceived need to position myself as either-or (angry response: "for fuck's sake i don't need an academic job to be thinking"), by a fear to be seen as a "passionate activist" or "exotic research object" who needs a student to understand what's going on (angry response: "What makes you think we need your crap paper?").

Positioning in-between

Obviously, this mode of threat and counterthreat, mutual dismissal and need to reaffirm one's position is not really helpful when it comes to build social movements. However, I think it's part of a process of trust-building, making common grounds, adjust to each others approaches, identifying questions, projects and collaborations.

Maybe it makes more sense to position ourselves in a continuum rather than trying to enclose ourselves on one or the other end of the spectrum. In terms of wage-labour, this continuum could be conceptualised in the framework of immaterial labour and/or precariousness rather than "academia", although reflecting on academia as a work-and-study-place and drawing on it is an important field for social movements. We are temping in offices and callcenters, work in shops and in catering, get the odd job as webdesigners, graphic designers, programmers, writers or subeditors, sometimes secure a project in academia or the art world, or are on the dole. Some are holding jobs in the voluntary sector, do social work or teach. Although there are some permanent jobs around, most of the people I know in social movements are doing temporary jobs.

When it comes to intellectual activity, maybe it would make sense to think more broadly about the intellectual rather than the narrower notion of the academic, allowing for a function that is not defined by the way we actually make a living. Which doesn't mean that academics don't need to organise around their workplaces, or that academia can't provide a platform for social movements. The knowledgelab was itself an example for using the resources of academia.

Only few people in Lancaster were completely out of the context of social movements. I've seen people who were involved in the European Social Forum, people who work with indymedia, filmmaking, noborders, sambabands, people who are or were involved in direct action, free parties, road protests, feminism, anarchism, eco-hippyism, the free software movement, squatting, social centers, free trade unions. In all these activities, we constantly analyse, discuss, reflect what we are doing. We need to, because this is how we find the connections between our various threads of activism. We might not call this process "intellectual work", but rather "consensus-making process" or "collaborative planning" or "doing something" - but our practical work involves a great deal of listening, talking, asking questions, abstract thinking, trying out concepts. This intellectual activity is by no means restricted to those have studied or are employed in research jobs or are experts in any other conventional way. It is an intellectuality that requires no formal education, a collective intellect that thrives on practical thinking, reflective practice.

We might prioritise paid work or political work at some point in our biographies, but many of us never loose the connections to the other field, particularly when we work in academia/humanities on topics related to social movements. Yet we are often required to position ourselves clearly as either/or. I think that my initial unease during the lancaster knowledge lab came from picking up this tension.