We’re delighted to be hosting the third of our Reinventing the University seminars this week, with the Really Open University hosting. They are ‘non-hierarchical and open to anyone who wishes to see an end to the commodification of knowledge and the creation of a free and empowering education system where creative and critical thought is fostered.’
The seminar will be from 1-3pm this Wednesday in C15 Pope Building, and we look forward to seeing you there!
For a complete list of Reinventing the University seminars, please click here.
Sarah Amsler is visiting Nottingham Critical Pedagogy this Wednesday to talk about The Logics of Occupation. There follows an introduction to some of the themes she will talking about, along with links to relevant readings and questions that might be discussed on Wednesday.
If you are coming, please note that the room has now been changed: it is now in A20 Pope Building between 1-3pm, Wednesday 23rd February.
If you would like to come, please email sara.motta[at]nottingham[dot]ac[dot]uk to register your interest, as places are limited.
Thinking through logics of ‘occupation’ in education, politics and everyday life
‘The current movements of rebellion, especially those of youth, while they necessarily reflect the peculiarities of their respective settings, manifest in their essence this preoccupation with people as beings in the world – preoccupation with what and how they are “being”. As they place consumer civilization in judgment, denounce bureaucracies of all types, demand the transformation of the universities (changing the rigid nature of the teacher-student relationship and placing that relationship within the context of reality), propose the transformation of reality itself so that universities can be renewed, attack old orders and established institutions in the attempt to affirm human beings as Subjects of decision, all these movements reflect the style of our age, which is more anthropological than anthropocentric.’ (Freire 1970/2000, 53)
Why talk about ‘occupation’?
The recent movement of student-led university occupations, as well as other forms of spatial reclamation, occupation and refunctioning – such as in public buildings like museums, town halls and libraries and the more ephemeral occupations of commercial spaces by UKUncut activists and the University for Strategic Optimism – raise important questions about the significance of logics of occupation for education, as a political tactic and/or strategy, and for deepening our conceptions of how to inhabit the world in everyday life. This workshop is offered as an experimental space to collectively think through the logics of occupation, a time to reflect critically on personal experiences or encounters with these logics and practices, and an invitation to play with the ideas creatively in ways that might inspire our wider projects to re-invent our domin(ant)ating ways of being both in the university and elsewhere. Because we will not be ‘in occupation’, and if we follow a certain logic that the act of occupying is itself is a condition of transformative learning, this workshop itself is situated in an awkward interstice between theory and practice. But given that this is one of the contradictory spaces we do often inhabit (whether by choice or force of circumstance), the hope is that we can work to ‘find methods and strategies of how to most effectively use the space we find ourselves in to find higher positions of subversiveness in struggle’ (Shukaitis, Graeber and Biddle 2007, 31).
The workshop is also a more direct response to the Really Open University’s recent invitation/challenge to ‘understand what it would mean to “strike, occupy, transform” every bit of the world [we] live in’. This is most immediately a question of political action – what is an occupation of space and time, when is it a tactic or a strategy, when is it efficacious, how does it fit into the broader conditions of political power and resistance and wider histories of direct action, what are its internal politics, and etc. However, as much of the knowledge being produced by those participating in explicitly activist occupations suggests, the complexities of the logics of occupation, and their potential implications for informing the recreation of social forms more generally, are significant. They reach far into questions about (at least) the transformation of subjectivity, forms of collective life, the meaning of autonomy, social inclusion and exclusion, the critical attitude, existential dwelling and inhabitation, and institutionalised power. They also beg questions about the possible (even if remote) connections to other meanings of occupation: as a profession or craft, as a marker of status or class, as a military tactic. The theoretical implications are profound. The texts recommended as pre-reading for this workshop are intended to focus thinking on these sorts of questions; they are plurivocal and in some cases contradictory. I suspect the logics of occupation have serious potential for helping us conceptualise new forms of both political struggle and re-imagined ways of life, and I suspect that the logics of occupation are themselves deeply complex. I suspect they may also be increasingly vital for resistance to domination at all levels in our present situation, in which so many spaces, times and languages are so pre-occupied by other logics, practices and powers.
- What specific work might we do with the ideas, logics and practices of occupation in projects to re-imagine/re-recreate ‘the university’, ourselves and our collective futures?
- What are some of the complexities or questions arising from these logics in practice?
- Are there etymological relations between certain forms of occupation as transformative political tactic and/or strategy and occupation as job, craft, process of activity, social position, form of military domination? (See, e.g., alternative usages of the concept in a call for papers on ‘Preoccupations’ at
- What other factors – emotional, corporeal, psychological, relational – may impact upon different people’s abilities to imagine or practice acts of occupation in their own lives?
(1) For a statement on the onto-political significance of the logic of occupation, see The Really Open University, entitled ‘What do we mean by “strike, occupy, transform”?’ (2010) (emphasis on the alternative definitions of the terms as both transformative ethos and political practice).
(2) Jean-François Lyotard’s essay on the student occupation of Nanterre in 1968, ‘Nanterre, here, now’ (1970).
(3) On occupation as political tactic and its relationship to political movement strategy, see Inoperative Committee of the New York New School for Social Research, Preoccupation: the logic of occupation (2009) and California-focused Adam Dylan Hefty, ‘Questions for a new movement’ (April 2010); for a discussion of occupation as territorialisation, see ‘The occupations in perspective’
(20/12/2010) and a critique via the Deterritorial Support Group’s ‘Occupation/blockade’ (18/01/2011).
(4) Essays on the ‘occupation of the political’ (with specific reference to tensions around power and organisation in the Leeds occupation, autumn 2010).
(5) Reflections from queer-feminist occupations in Europe from the 1980s to the present (Erika Doucette and Marty Huber, 6/2008)
(7) For further (mainly affirmative) reflections on recent UK education-related occupations, there is also a series of essays in a new collection edited by Dan Hancox, Fightback: A reader on the winter of protest (2011), pp. 96-124. Nathan Coombs has an article, ‘Faint signal’, on the recent California university occupations in Radical Philosophy (#159, January/February 2010). See also news on the recent occupation of the New Cross Library by family and community activists.
I attended the first workshop in the series Re-imagining the University, which was held yesterday, and a few things struck me. One was that there was a really good, but unusual, mix of undergrads, postgrads, researchers, staff and visitors, which rarely gets reproduced anywhere else in the institution, outside of those formalised committees which can often inhibit the very discussion they are intended (apparently) to promote. And another was that there are a whole number of ways in which we might be able to start rethinking what a University might look like, feel like, and collectively act, some of which are more radical than others.
Heike Schaumberg of Manchester spoke first on the University as a collective actor in Argentina. Heike represented higher education as a site where the increasing neoliberalisation and marketisation of Argentinian society was challenged, due largely to its internal democratic practices, in which senior positions are subject to election. While this is light years away from UK practice, it made me ask myself the question whether there is anything in the University’s internal procedures which can be questioned, or rescued, or at least strategically used, to pursue more effective represention of the interests of students and staff. Can we push and prod and agitate for increased internal democratisation, even if this means rejecting existing bodies which claim to represent us – such as the Student Union? Do we just need to find a way, initially, to speak to the failures of our internal systems, to put them under scrutiny, as a precursor to reinventing them?
Tristan McCowan of the Institute of Education then spoke of an alternative approach in Brazil – the creation of four new state universities, designed to work in close integration with different forms of community, and to address the inherent inequities of the rest of the higher education system, in which students who have been able to have their education bought for them, vie for places at both public universtities, or buy their way into private ones. Tristan described this deeply exclusive system as a crystal ball for the current changes to UK higher education. Like many state-led developments of the Lula era in Brazil, this is a compromise. It leaves the existing elite instutions largely untouched, but attempts to supplement them with a new form of institution, meeting the needs of those with no hope of breaking into the elite institutions. But it is, at least, a political commitment. While the idea of developing new institutions is exciting, I find it hard to see the Cameron government directing public resources into developing Universities for the poor. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the idea to reimagine what an alternative form of institution might look like, and to engage with any opportunity that arises to build that – looking for the gaps, the places where the current system clearly fails to provide, and building initiatives there, close to Cameron’s favourite idea of “community”.
The final speaker was a Nottingham colleague, Jennifer Martinez, who has been researching with The Comites de Tierra Urbana in Venezuela, particularly their use of popular education methods to reimagine their urban environments in new ways which meet their collective needs and aspirations. State-led developments in Venezuela have focussed on the opening of specialist Universities in the poor barrios, which provide technical and specialist training in particular vocations and professions. However, Jen’s research has looked more specifically at how educational methods outside of formal structures, owned entirely by its participants, can help us to rethink our worlds. She spoke about a process of five steps:
1) Sharing our experiences of the world, our problems and triumphs, and writing them up collectively.
2) Looking at all of those stories together and analysing the themes we share, the blocks and frustrations, the problematic or helpful relationships.
3) Debating the shared themes, producing an analysis which is also written up collectively.
4) Identifying through consensus what the key shared issues are, and what we still experience differently (and may need to discuss further) and producing a synthesis.
5) Evaluating the process itself.
The purpose of this process is to examine, analyse and transform practice, lived experience. It allows participants to understand how individual experiences are connected, and how they reflect existing power relationships. And it allows us to decide, collectively, where we want to go together.
The discussion which followed began to highlight the extent to which we have to be prepared to constructively and imaginatively disrupt existing University practice, if we want to resist the increasing commodification of learning:
We have to be prepared to challenge existing relationships within Universities, in a way which insists that every experience is valid, including those of current students who are disappointed with existing hierarchical relationships with management and staff, and with lack of time and opportunity for collective learning to take place.
We have to be prepared to reject the dominance of individual knowledge production, which is at the base of most current academic practice, and which divides staff and students, and staff from each other, in a constant effort to compete to produce and publish, almost regardless of quality. It means exploring opportunities to work together collectively, and to challenge the idea that working together represents a cost to the wholly marketised University.
We have to be prepared to rethink both the way we organise time, or time is organised for us, and space. This was one of the most productive parts of the discussion, for me, the idea that we have to be prepared to reject some of the tyrannies of organised time, and wrestle back both space and time for some collective exploration of learning and experience. Instead of constantly passing through the campus on arterial roads, and shooting out the other side, there needs to be a place where members of the University can gather without being under pressure to buy food and drink, or be out by the next timetabled slot.
We have lost some of these spaces of engagement. Genuinely student-owned spaces, or places in the community where outreach work is undertaken in a genuinely collaborative way. But at the end of this workshop, I think I had a clearer idea of how a recreation of these spaces might come about – somewhere where members of a University can engage horizontally to rebuild a more lasting collective commitment to each other, and to producing new knowledge which has the potential to lead to new practices, and the energy to maintain the challenge.
I realise that these are just my individualistic thoughts, which is something of a contradiction. I didn’t have time (ironically) to go for the collective drink afterwards. But I’d be interested to know what came out of it for everyone else.
Nottingham Critical Pedagogy and the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice invite your participation in ‘Reinventing the University’- a series of bi-weekly workshops exploring how the crisis in Higher Education opens up the possibility of imagining and practising the university as a space for the realisation of community needs and desires.
There is a maximum of 20 participants per session: please register by emailing cssgj[at]nottingham[dot]ac[dot]uk.
Learning from Radical Education in Latin America
February 9th, C20 Pope Building, University of Nottingham, 1-3pm
Jennifer Martinez: The Comites de Tierra Urbana, Venezuela
Tristan McCowan:Reimagining the University in Brazil
Heike Schaumberg : The university as a collective actor in Argentina
The Logics of Occupation
February 23rd, C20 Pope Building, University of Nottingham, 1-3pm
Sarah Amsler (Aston University) will present a paper and lead a discussion on the logics behind the wave of occupations recently witnessed in Universities across the country.
Reflections from the Really Open University
March 9th, C15 Pope Building, University of Nottingham, 1-3pm
‘The Really Open University is non-hierarchical and open to anyone who wishes to see an end to the commodification of knowledge and the creation of a free and empowering education system where creative and critical thought is fostered’.
The University of Utopia
March 23rd, A100 Law and Social Sciences Building, University of Nottingham, 1-3pm
‘The University of Utopia is run as a ‘not-for-profit’ workers’ co-operative… managed on democratic, non-hierarchical principles with all students and staff having an equal involvement in its operation.’
Isabella and Elizabeth; two displaced AfroColombian women are participants in Aves de Paraíso (Birds of Paradise) community theatre groups facilitated by La Máscara Theatre Company, the only feminist theatre group in Colombia that work with theatre of the oppressed pedagogies and methodologies. Displaced in 2001 from Nariño and Chocó states on the Pacific coast of Colombia they left the violence of state sponsored paramilitary groups and guerrilla groups to arrive into the violence of urban poverty and exclusion. Elizabeth is a grandmother, tall, proud with lines of sorrow around her eyes. Isabella is a single mother of five children, a deep voice and laugh yet with a well of sadness in her eyes. Ageless and yet with the weight of much suffering on their shoulders they have participated in the theatre group for 4 years. It is, as Isabella told me, a space of peace, of escape, of warmth and humanity. It is a place of laughter and creativity where for a moment the realities of physical, cultural, economic and political violence are overcome.
Cali has been a harsh place for them; a place of much racism and discrimination, of individualism and consumerism where the displaced are viewed as thieves, delinquents, uneducated, where their children suffered verbal and physical abuse at school, where they suffer the humiliation of poverty and the desperation of hunger. Isabella recounted an experience in the first years that she arrived in which her children and she hadn’t eaten for two days. She walked for miles to get to a health centre where they handed out fortnightly rations of food. She was at the point of giving up. The doctor met her. She wept pleading for at least a handful of rice to take to her children. But the doctor said no, there is nothing. Isabella knew there was food, and remembers this as one of those moments in life that marks you for the intensity of privilege, power and cruelty exercised. She walked back to her shack weeping. Arriving to see her youngest child on the floor not moving and her other children sitting still, their eyes lifeless and heads down. She let out a scream. No more. Her neighbors came; they bought a tuna fish, some rice, and a plantain. Yet her scream became transformed into a song, a song that speaks of her values and dignity and criticizes the values of pride, possession and power over others that she has experienced in Cali, one of the most Americanized and commodified cities in Colombia.
As both explained in their tierra (land) no one went hungry. There was always food as they lived in the countryside where there was abundance. Neighbors shared and supported each other. Now the region where Elizabeth is from has become taken over by multinationals supported by the Colombian Government who grow Egyptian Palms for export which destroy the surrounding land further undermining further campesino (peasant) ways of life. There is obviously a lot more to displacement than conflict between paramilitaries and guerillas. To be violently displaced in this way from your land, way of life and community and arrive to more violence and displacement is a form of long term trauma. The violence in their lives is multi-dimensional; the way that the power of the US, the Colombian state and neoliberal capitalism has scarred and traumatized their lives cannot be understood or transformed from the outside or by a model developed in another place and another context. Such violence is intensely placed, subjective, affective, intellectual and psychological.
It is this multidimensionality of power, its affects and how one transforms these conditions into liberation and social justice that is one of the major problematics of La Máscara theatre which since 1972 has developed contestatory theatre and theatre of the oppressed based on collective creation dedicated to the thematics of gender and women. The theatre of the oppressed seeks to facilitate processes of collective understanding, representation and transformation through the development of theatre. Its objective- like popular education- is self-liberation from oppression, facilitating the self-liberation of people from the passive state of spectator to actors that self determine the theatre but also their everyday lives. As theatre is multidimensional – affective, cultural, psychological, embodied, physical and intellectual- it has the potential to transform the multidimensional nature of oppression.
For La Máscara the key elements of their work are that it is dialogical and integral in the types of collective and individual experiences developed, facilitates free play which accepts and values people’s life experience, diversity and expressions, facilitates experimental space in which communities have the time and space to reflect upon their realities and experiment with their transformation, and encourages rebellious thought, promoting ideas, perspective and actions that are non-conventional and which generate a plurality of options and alternatives (Restrepo, 1998). It uses the power of laughter in a way that relativises the power of order and control through the counter power of uncontrollable laughter. It opposes desperation and bitterness with the power of liberatory laughter. As Elizabeth expressed, ‘It would be so easy to be full of bitterness, to become cold hearted. Here we prevent this and keep it at bay. This doesn’t mean we don’t continue to suffer but it does mean that it doesn’t destroy us.’ Finally it is dedicated to public work, making visible to the public the self liberation and determination of otherwise excluded and demonized communities. As Isabella explained, ‘We have shown our work in Cali. It creates a bridge between displaced communities and Caleños. Our work really needs to be presented in every barrio (community)’. Theatre of the Oppressed brings the creative, affective and intellectual capacities of communities and individuals to the centre of the praxis of social transformation. As Pilar Restrepo Mejia participant in La Mascara explains, ‘Amongst the arts, theatre possesses the privilege of being a live art, which allows us to see the complexity of social relations and interpret reality in an inventive way, which develops an experience of reflection. Theatre becomes an extraordinary instrument for people and community development.’ In particular La Mascara aims to make visible women’s struggles, suffering, and the violence they confront and through this process make manifest the dignity, strength, knowledge and creativity of women who are otherwise represented as either merely victims or dangerous delinquents.
Working with women like Isabella and Elizabeth, they support the development of theatre groups in marginalized communities. In the case of the group in which Isabella and Elizabeth participate La Mascara had worked with la Hermana (sister) Alba Stella Barreto founder and director of Fundación Paz y Bien in Comuna 14, Aguablancas. The Foundation provided training and offered a meeting space to discuss the problems being faced by displaced and impoverished communities in the area. La Máscara through the Foundation put out a call for people interested in participating in a community theatre group. Those interested registered their names. The second stage involved the group of facilitators most from La Máscara but some specialized in questions of human rights and reproductive rights to meet over the course of two days to develop a methodology of work in the project based in that of theatre of the oppressed.
Subsequently a two day series of workshops which opened up space to discuss the key themes of human rights, reproductive rights and sexual rights with those that had signed up to participate in the theatre group was organized. The workshops used play, image, film, text and dramatological methods to develop a collective understanding of these key themes and their relation to participants’ lives. An example of the methods used in one of the human rights workshops is an activity called ‘the violence in my life’. The objectives of the exercise are to explore and identify how one can be both an object of violence but also exercise violence against others; strengthen the development of ways of dealing with violence and develop values such as solidarity and responsibility for each other and oneself (Medina and Teatro La Máscara, 2010).
The facilitator begins by explaining to the participant that this exercise is an opportunity to share ideas, feelings and experiences in relation to violence exercised against participants but also violence exercised by participants. Ground rules are set which are; respect for each other, maintaining the privacy of what is said in the workshop and that none need feel inhibited to say something that they think might make others uncomfortable. The participants are then divided into groups and asked to brain storm about types of violence that they know or think of when they hear the word violence. They make a list of these and then are asked to add examples of how this violence is exercised. Next there is five minutes for all to reflect about their personal experiences of violence in which either they have had violence used against them, used violence against another or themselves, or seen violent action and not intervened.
There is then an open discussion led by the facilitator in which the participants are asked if they found it difficult or not to think about themselves in relation to violence. They explore what they think the causes and effects of the situations of violence in their lives in their groups. Each group is then asked to choose one volunteer who will talk about their experience to support the general debate. The debate is geared around general questions; why did this violent situation occurs; why did the person act like this? How would other members of the group have acted? Are they suggestions of how one might act differently in a similar situation?
After the discussion the groups are asked to develop one or two improvisations in relation to the experiences discussed which are presented as forum theatre in which the audience have the right to interrupt the performance to ask the audience their opinion about something, to suggest a different next step of the performance, and to become actors that change what is happening suggesting solutions to the violence/conflict. This attempts to undo the traditional audience/actor partition and bring audience members into the performance, to have an input into the dramatic action they were watching. Through this process, the participant is also able to realize and experience the challenges of achieving the improvements him/herself suggested
These processes are highly emotional and potentially explosive. Thus the role of facilitator in supporting participants through the workshop and encouraging participants to listen and learn from each other is central to the realization of the workshop´s objectives, particularly as participants will make judgments about each others’ situation without necessarily knowing the context, conditions, or life story of the other. However, La Máscara facilitators continue to stress that without understanding the causes of violence it is impossible to change and overcome violence, however difficult that process of understanding is.
The next step was the building of a theatre group with the participants in their community. The group in Comuna 14 – one of 8 groups formed- was comprised of women and children, all displaced AfroColombians from the Pacific coast regions of Cauca, Chocó and Nariño. They built on the rich traditions of song, dance, story telling and poetry of their communities. Elizabeth is a poet and Isabella a story teller. Yet the traumas they have faced meant that for both their everyday experiences of hunger, homelessness and humiliation left little space for reading, writing or story telling. Their participation in the theatre group helped, at least in the time they are in the space, to develop these skills and talents challenging them into thematics of displacement chosen and developed by the participants. Their last work Tierra en Guerra (Land at War) was a shout of dignity in the face of discrimination and demonization. It captured their lives as they had been in their tierra, land; the richness, knowledge and histories of their communities, as well the experiences and causes of their displacement. Using body, mind and spirit it was a means of representing their reality and humanity to each other and the world, of turning upside down the stereotypes and representations of Caleña (Colombian) media, politics and culture.
The process of collective construction itself was a process of self-determination and discovery and strengthening of voice. In Elizabeth’s words she described ‘when I arrived in Cali I couldn’t express myself. I was panicked and shaking all the time. In the group I have built the confidence in, myself and my abilities’. Or as Isabella explained ‘they say we are ignorant and we can’t talk Spanish properly. I knew what I wanted to say but my tongue wouldn’t work. My self esteem had been destroyed. The projects, Lucy and others with their love and warmth and sincerity have helped me feel I have knowledge, understanding and rights. I still shake, I still suffer but there are lights of hope, places of breathing’.
Facilitators are trained in a number of elements to enable them to bring to fruition the development of plays and help build and sustain the group. These are corporal expression, vocal and instrumental techniques, introduction to theatre conventions, stimulation of dramatic creation of narratives, non verbal language, acting and concepts of improvisation and dramatic organization. An example of an exercise used to develop dramatic creation of narratives is through written texts. As it is possible to develop a work of theatre through a poem, a song or a written text by one of more participants the exercise begins by asking the participants to write a text o poem in relation to a chosen theme. In groups improvisations are developed to explore how one might use such a text to develop the theatre piece. Oral elements are also introduced in the improvisation such as oral stories, dreams, anecdotes, life stories.
Facilitators need to be able to recognize that which is most needed in the group and therefore how to orientate the work and process of collective construction. The facilitator of Aves de Paraíso used yoga as a way of helping the affective psychological healing from the long term, and ongoing traumas experienced by participants. This all meetings, once a week for 4 hours begins with yoga work. She also encouraged participants to build on cultural traditions of story telling, enabling a re-telling of stories of trauma as a means to transform these stories creatively with a pedagogy that facilitates a distancing from the most painful experiences. Collective processes of story telling and improvisation create links of solidarity and enable an overcoming of the monologue of isolation into dialogues of understanding, voice and pleasure. As Pilar continues ‘Telling stories is a way of reconstructing reality, and sometimes, it also enables the healing of deep wounds.’
Aves de Paraíso’s next work moves away from a focus on displacement and violence, which as Isabella and Elizabeth explained they feel they have exhausted, are exhausted by. Instead it develops a utopia of how the world would be if all women joined together to overcome violence, to encourage men to move way from violence against each other, over money, power, resources and pride. It is an act of envisaging a different world. Whilst a representation, it fuels their everyday struggles against violence and attempts to construct moments of paradise on earth.
Medina and Teatro La Máscara (2010) El Teatro de Género: Memoria del proceso, Medellin: Editorial Lealon.
Restrepo, P (1998) La Máscara, la Mariposa y la Metáfora: Creación Teatral de Mujeres. Santiago de Cali; Teatro La Máscara.
Interview at La Mascara Theatre, 13 December 2010 with Isabella and Elizabeth, participants in Aves de Paraíso, Theatre Group, Comuna 14, Santiago de Cali, Colombia.
Interview with Pilar Restrepo, participant and co-founder of La Mascara Theatre, at La Mascara Theatre, 13 December 2010
 Names have been changed for reasons of security and safety.