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Beauty, anger, joy (al padron non far sapere)

By Paolo Plotegher, 24 January 2011

London, 10th of November 2010, we go to the demonstration against the cuts. The government is going to drastically cut the funding of education, Goldsmiths’ public funding for example will be cut entirely, and the fees could be raised to 9.000 pounds a year. But this is not just a demonstration “against”, it is also a celebration of something, it’s not really clear of what: of finally getting together, of waking up again, of having found each other. People dance, sing, smile, the most fantastic banners and slogans are waving, the sun is shining, there are beautiful colours everywhere, some friends of ours are carrying a huge carrot made of paper-pulp, the carrot that has been promised to us donkeys, placed in front of our eyes to make us run and look straight. “Here is your carrot, take it back, we don’t want it anymore!”

It is the articulation of protest and celebration, the crushing together of the opposed feelings of anger and joy, that makes not only this demo but also the many collective initiatives that are proliferating in London, and all around the country, something that I have never seen before.

There are students giving lectures in banks and supermarkets, brief talks before the police arrive. These 5 minutes lectures are many things at the same time: engaging in a conversation with people shopping at Tesco, exposing yourself, being seen by thousands of people in youtube, shining of beauty, putting yourself at risk, having fun together, laughing, and protesting as a way of disrupting a mechanism.

There are students occupying libraries, and instead of locking themselves inside the building they keep it open night and day, everyone can go in, at the entrance there is a big sign saying “this library is now open 24 hours”. This is an opening up more than an occupation, it is a use of the building as a public place: people talk, discuss, make love (the management condemned especially the use of condoms inside the library), sleep, clean up, eat, decorate walls. The students make the library run when the staff is not coming to work: the library is also open as usual, students who are not “occupying” can use the library, they can take books out, other students issue the books, students talk to each other, whilst some members of staff join the occupation. The teachers are invited to give lectures in the library, ordinary lectures as well, so that university lectures become public and free. The students know that to have the library open means to allow in policemen in plain clothes, but this is part of an openness that operates transversally. And all this is ultimately a huge experiment, people experimenting new ways of being together, different ways of living, talking, getting passionate, using a building, organising together, without cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, using the library as a place for encounters.

No matter what will happen, this will not be destroyed, it is shaping our bodies, it will be with us as a bodily memory always capable of resurfacing. A Greek friend of mine tells me about her mother: when she was young, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she took part in the uprisings in Greece, and then, as an adult, she lived her life as a middle class wife, raising her children, working in an office, cooking and cleaning the house. Now, after a few decades, in the last few years, when students started to protest in the streets, something comes back to her, something that was already there, through her body, she somehow knew it, she can sense it: she gets down to the street and joins the students. Something gets unlocked, a burst of heat, her shoes get on fire.

There is something that gets through my body with this acceleration, in bits and pieces, from different sides: it cannot be either or, it cannot be either anger or joy, either protest or celebration, either active criticism or life experiment. It cannot be testing forms of life as an independent experiment, as something separated from the crap all around us, from a cancerous machinery that invades our bodies (we cannot protect ourselves by reducing this rickety gang to an enclosed group). It cannot be an eradication of the crap from our bodies, a purification of my individual body, a narcissistic taking care of my little garden as a way of complying with my personal role (“take good care of yourself and the world will be a better place...”). It cannot be a “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, in the sense of conducting a parallel, discreet, invisible double life, hiding underneath my apparent or partial fitting into a given system organised by someone else (if you are a slave stay a slave and be free in front of God, be free according to a different logic – according to a separation between micro and macropolitics).

The protest now is something else or something more than a “demonstration” , it is the sabotage of a machinery (throwing your high-heel shoes into the gears of a globally extended machine), and it is also the celebration of something, of getting together in a way that we haven’t done before, overflowed with something, so that it’s not really us, it’s not really me, as I’m supposed to be, as a PhD student, as a teacher, as someone who has to carefully circumscribe his self into his self, in order to function efficiently and protect myself from others.

Protest and celebration, all this is also celebration of beauty, the beauty of these bodies together, from a Topshop beauty to its doubling, not against it, but departing from it. Not against but ahead of fashion, further away and dissipating itself, a doubling of flimsiness, from spectacular images to a light storm of uneven intensities, a moving together in slightly different and unpredictable ways, dancing I Feel Good as young bodies.

And as young bodies in the sense of bodies that tremble, in the passage between childhood and adulthood, when your shapes get unstable, your body becomes monstrous, both vulnerable and dangerous, contagious, secreting previously unseen fluids, no one really understands what is going on, you don’t know the future form of your body, of our life, and to some extent you don’t care to know.

We learned how to look smart, how to look beautiful, how to look young, we learned how to act light-heartedly, and how to feel so light, so superficial, so empty, so shallow, to the extent of having sometimes the impression of being able to fly... And now we are ready to fly, but for real, and this time we are going to fly together, like a swarm, around the streets of London, wearing wigs and cha cha heels, shining of beauty, brandishing the leg of a mannequin as a weapon. Now we are going to be beautiful for real, this is a collective, diversifying, material beauty: the days of top models are over, the “Next Top Models” we all are, are now going to use pavements and streets as catwalks, whilst Angelea takes back her dreams and smashes windows with them, waddling as she learned so well. The news is that she is not alone anymore, sleeping in a bus station, it’s not her career anymore, she is not forced to compete with anyone, and this has truly become her life, our life.

Now we are going to be stupid for real, that is, we are going to generate stupefaction, we are becoming stupid in such a way that you won’t understand anymore, you won’t know how to deal with this overwhelming stupidity, because we are also thinking at the same time, thinking through our bodies, through our skin, its folds, its holes. Whilst you are simply dull, a dull machinery that can do nothing without our bodies.

You act as if nothing can touch you now, and you wanted this for us as well: indifference, as the result of a segregation of individuals, pursuing private wellbeing, developing careers, taking care of our personal feelings, each of us against the other in a non-relation of competition. A connection with others is allowed only at work, in the form of productive friendships, exclusive complicities, hierarchical agreements, and only with “others” who are, or have to become, pretty much the same. A relation with others is not only allowed but also required inside the company, this company-as-my-family that tends to coincide with my life, where I am instructed how to relate with my colleagues, where I am supposed to socialize and make friends and contribute to create a “healthy” working environment, and I am helped, and encouraged to do that, so that “life in common” is here put at work as fuel for productivity. A connection with “others” as the same is also allowed in your leisure time, which is supposed to take the form of entertainment, as a mode of remaining where you already are, a spinning around yourself.

But now for the first time I see what the “others” do and I just think: that’s fantastic! And this goes beyond a critical opinion, there is something that hits my belly. A divertissement, as a practice of diverting, of going together somewhere else, becoming something else, replaces enter-tainment as a mode of re-taining, de-taining ourselves. It is not just the students: professors as well suddenly talk a different language, so different from the hyper-intellectual one (spinning around itself) we are used to hear. There is something else at stake now, they seem to sometimes forget the need to present their “distinguished” (separated) academic persona in “public”.

You tried to repress our ability to affect and be affected, you tried to exploit it, to manage it for the sake of a hyper-productivity. But you are miserably failing. Because now we don’t have so much to lose anymore, you start replacing carrots with police batons, you are not producing attractive images of a future anymore. All that is left to us is a shiny emptiness, and we are learning to use it as a weapon, and we are going to teach this to everybody, we’ll learn it together: how to turn high heels against you – you made us buy them, you taught us how to wear them, and now we are going to use them as weapons against you. We’ll make your empire collapse, bit by bit, fighting carrots and batons with shimmering wigs and high heels: improper weapons against which yours will be useless.

Even in the kettle of the 9th of December, despite the horror organised by the police, there were moments of shining beauty and concrete glamour, people elegantly climbing fences and walls at a fantastic speed, an inch away from the line of the policemen, from their stiffed bodies pathetically erased by protective armours, bodies trained to obey and waiting for the next order. From the “beauty” of the media representing a staged nightmare to induce a feeling of fear, to a beauty of unmanageable gestures.

You talk about “big society”, suddenly you want us to get together, to help each other, to organise our own free universities, our own community centres, our own social assistance. Because it’s austerity time (for us of course, not for you) there is no more public money for all this: money is private now (that is, yours). With this “big society” you are trying to appropriate the tools that people have constructed to organize themselves, you ask everybody to use them but in a certain way, as valuable and positive tools, as tools that would serve the health of capital (your health). And of course you don’t talk here about yourself, it is as if you were just another victim of this sad “misfortune” called crisis, as if your machinery of deprivation should be our destiny. “Solidarity! Fraternity! Mutual help! The society of the deprived [that is, society as a whole, according to your plans] gets together to survive!” How romantic.

But we don’t care about surviving, we want to shine. You can put austerity up your ass, we’ll keep taking pleasure from each other, practising a different eroticism, a collective one, where collectivity does not coincide with a society. We are going to build another solidarity, not a “positive” and “useful” one, but one based on beauty, anger, joy. We are going to create a different fraternity, an incestuous and obscene one, as a series of conjunctions amongst people so different from each other. We are going to take care of each other not as a way of protecting ourselves from “misfortunes” presented as if they were fallen from the sky, but as getting pleasure from being together and acting together, from looking gorgeous whilst taking back the pavements, the streets, re-appropriating spaces and everything else that has been taken away from us. Until there is nothing left of you, nothing left of you vs. us, and we’ll become “us”, not as a unity but as a diversifying beauty.

I have never used a “you and us” before: at Goldsmiths I have learned to detect and undo oppositions, instead of reinforce them. I would have never used this “you and us” before this winter and what is happening now. Now I think we should get back to something like a you and us, but in a different form, and we are already getting it back, we are reclaiming it. Not in the form of an old antagonism of “we against them”, as enemies in an arena, not in the sense of two factions confronting each other. We are reclaiming a “militancy” that takes new shapes, it is not based on opponent arrays, and it is not (only) based on serious commitment and rational strategies. But it is still a militancy. It is still protest what students are doing today, or better, it is protest again, in new forms, protest as a post-spectacular celebration, as a joyous violence that differs from the miserable violence of the state.

These “us” and “you” are not constituted around an identity, their identity is unstable, it is “performative”, in the sense that it keeps constituting itself differently every time we say and think this “we” we possibly are. And this “you” is here indecisively written as both the machinery (capitalism) and the individuals (these compositions of different elements that are perceived as individuals) that work to make it function and take advantage of it at the expense of others.

But, it could be said, these individuals are not only fraudulent managers and corrupt politicians, it is all of us, since we are all part of the capitalist machinery... If “there is no outside” of capitalism, if we are all implicated in the machinery, if this is what we have learned in the last few decades, our implication should get contaminated with something that spoils it: something should spoil a thought that gets often reduced to the level of a cheerful neoliberal “philosophy”.

What was written some decades ago by post-structuralist thinkers had also, back then, the effect and purpose of hindering something. We need to use those texts in such a way that hinders can be produced again and today. At Goldsmiths I have learned that we cannot go far by means of opposition, and that we can do politics by experimenting new forms of life. And now I am learning that we cannot go far by just “thinking positive”, without, not only analysing our living conditions (and this gets too often reduced to the safe task of the academic researcher), but also sabotaging the machinery that regulates their functioning. So let’s think and act more than positive, much more positive than neoliberalist smiley faces pretend to do. Let’s think and act so positive that, it’s difficult to tell whether inadvertently or not, we end up spoiling the appropriate smiles reproduced by the media.

It is you and us, but we know there are not only people in the world, there are not only people plus a machinery people inhabit, there are many other things which are not necessarily visible, which are not easy to perceive, which pass across both people and machineries and shape them. You and us, it is not a fixed opposition, and to some extent it is also a strategic way of channelling forces. It is not “us and them”: by addressing you, we already open up the chance for you to start getting rid of yourself as well. We will use every possible ways to articulate protest and celebration, our entire bodies, ways that will touch some of you, something of you, in a fight against something and someone, which is also an emergence of something else.

So, you and us. You destroy the welfare state, and by doing that you cut (and that’s the cut we like) the umbilical cord that ties us to you, that keeps us quiet, like domesticated zombies in a limbo, like dogs depending on the crumbs of your banquet. Now you are promoting “self-management”, trying to turn self-organization into a way of managing ourselves, our lives, in times of austerity. We are not going to keep saving this shitty machinery with our own bodies. We are not going to keep using our intelligence and our skills to save your ass and your bank accounts. We are not going to organise ourselves in a fixed and recognizable form: we are experimenting with beauty, anger and joy, this is not quite a rational and sensible way of organizing ourselves.

We’ll try out ways of exiting the tyranny of work, the treachery of free labour, we’ll experiment ways of working otherwise, working collectively without making (your) profit, working as squatting and hijacking your institutions, always bearing in mind that to work “is not all there is.” “Then, let’s keep dancing...”

What follows is our contribution to the dance, in the form of some uncertain and inexperienced dance steps that would have not been initiated otherwise, without this 9th of November and everything that goes with it. Here the tone seems to become lower, but the point is to show that everybody can join the dance, including us. Me and Manuel are at the demo with our bags, we are flying the same day to Berlin, we go to a symposium organized by students of the Freie Universitaet. There are other people coming from London, and somehow we manage to bring to Berlin some bits of what is happening in the UK. For this symposium we (me, Manuel and a few others from Goldsmiths) have prepared some proposals for activities. The aim of the symposium is to experiment new formats for academia, but instead of coming up with something from scratch in Berlin, we developed some ideas for activities using our PhD research, trying to transpose theory into practice.

Here the proposals: to combine a Maoist questionnaire on “crisis” and a mapping exercise into a “Crisis Centre” (from Badiou and Deleuze); to have a schizoanalytic session (from Deleuze and Guattari); to have an “Ignorant Forest” workshop where we exchange our PhD topics and “teach” a topic to the student who is researching on it (from Ranciere / Jacotot); to have a “Critical Fanatical” reading of a text, where someone reads a text important to her, and the others intervene in the performance, playing with the fanatical body and at the same time responding to the text (from Boal and Virno). Together with this proposals, we bring our collection of wigs with us: one thing is clear from the beginning, the wigs are going to play a crucial role in our activities.

The first day of the symposium we set up the Crisis Centre. We use the questionnaire to discuss about “crisis”: our personal crisis, our crisis as PhD students... Someone derogatively defined this activity as “kitchen psychology”. We like this definition, it’s not really psychology, but it is definitely “kitchen”, not so much because of the wigs we are wearing, but because this way of starting something from our everyday experience, from our anxieties and desires, in order to create connections amongst them (amongst us) and formulate a collective analysis of the crisis: this is something that comes from “the personal is political” of the ‘60s, from the feminist experience of coming out from the kitchen and get together.

After some talking we decide to open the Crisis Centre to the “customers”, to turn it into a drop-in centre, offering “consultancy” to other students. Our tools are the wigs, the badges we wear indicating our roles (“Crisis Unpaid Intern / crisps and sandwich provided”, “Crisis Chief Executive Maternity Cover”, “Crisis Health and Safety Part-Time Advisor”...), the Maoist questionnaire, the discussion we just had, and the fun and excitement generated through it. Wigs and badges prove to be powerful tools, they help us getting away from ourselves as PhD students, from ourselves as ourselves. We work in small groups or in one to one sessions. All this seems rather silly, we planned this stupidity from the beginning, and we are having fun, and we become able to speak, to listen, to discuss together, to take decisions together, and we support each other, we take care of each other. We are acting as specialists, but most of us are precarious, interns, a collectively self-employed personnel with patches in the trousers (but beautiful hairstyles). There is so much we are capable of, and this surprises us, it is overwhelming. All these books we have been reading for years in the library and in our rooms, all this writing we have done in front of our laptops, together with all the different jobs we have been taking to survive until now, there is so much we can do with all this, with this “intellect”, with these skills, if we find a way of unlock them, share them, away from a career, pretending that this is yet another job but it’s not, it is a sort of game we are playing with each other.

After this first day Stefanie talks with some fellow students and together they decide to ask the head of the department to change the structure of the “colloquium”, a hierarchically set up presentation / exam that takes place at the Freie Universitaet, where students have to defend themselves from the professors’ interrogations, whilst little space is given to the contribution of other PhD students.

The second day we decide to have a schyzoanalytic workshop as a continuation of the Crisis Centre. But there is no schizoanalyst amongst us. I try to explain to the others how a schizo workshop could be conducted, I talk about desire in Deleuze and Guattari. I’m nervous, I feel I’m talking for too long, the others stare at me blankly, now I’m stuttering, we look at each other perplexed, we all think “this is not going to work”. But then we decide to start and we get into a three hours stormy conversation, the symposium ends, the others are drinking beer around us but we just carry on and on with this schyzoanalytic session. Since there is no one who can facilitate the session we do that collectively: each of us tells the others about personal blockages and desires related to herself and herself as PhD students. Everyone else re-reads blockages and desires shifting the personal towards the collective, producing a proliferation of connections between different desires and blockages, between different bits and pieces of them. “I thought I was the only one thinking this!” “Yes, same for me...” “It seems as if we have been kept in isolation until now, and now we are finally talking to each other!” “I always thought it was my fault, I thought I was stupid, not good enough for a PhD, and I felt guilty because of that, but now I understand that it’s not like that, it’s not all about myself!” At the end of the day we declare the Crisis Centre officially founded. We plan to continue the activities in the near future.

A month later the Goldsmiths Anthropology department organizes a teach-in entitled Unkettling Education. We decide to take part in it as the Crisis Centre, and a couple of people join us from Berlin. The teach-in is a series of talks on different activities and topics related to the cuts. By looking at the names of the speakers I thought that us, with our wigs, would not easily fit into such a framework of serious activism. We don’t even appear on the program. We follow the opening session where a guy tries to “activate” the audience, “provoking” us, asking us loudly “So, what are you doing here? Can you answer this question, please? Come on, you should know why you are here, so tell me, give me an answer!” I guess this is some sort of consciousness awakening technique. We move somewhere else in the building with our collection of wigs and we start talking about the teach-in and about the “crisis”. This time we focus more on what is going on in London, and we put together a new questionnaire. We are aware that the setting here is different from the one in Berlin, we discuss this as well. And at some point we wear our wigs and declare the Crisis Centre open in front of the group of students attending the teach-in. Some of them are giggling, some of them smiling, I don’t have the strength to really look at them. “This is crazy”, I think, and I’m nervous, I hate to stand in front of people looking at me, with or without a wig on my head. After our 60 seconds presentation we sit down, waiting for people to come and talk to us. No one comes. Opposite to us the University for Strategic Optimism is doing better: they have a booth where people can make a statement that gets filmed and later put on youtube – they manage to attract a few people. Some of us make use of the booth, reading parts of a Crisis Centre text Manuel has written using the material gathered in Berlin. But no one comes to us, the Crisis Centre is itself in crisis...

If no one comes to us, we’ll go to them. Me, Stefanie and Tijana decide to go around the cafeteria, and sit at people’s tables, and talk with them about the crisis and the cuts and everything else. We take the wigs off. We hesitate a bit, standing between tables. There is a student by himself, we sit down and we find out that you can do that: you can ask someone you don’t know “can I sit here and talk to you?”. And you sit down and talk.

And now, after talking with a few people in the cafeteria, we ask ourselves: what are we doing with this Crisis Centre, and why are we doing this, where does this go? Are we going to go around the city making people talk and think, and talking and thinking together with them, as if we were nomadic Jacotots? Where is the sabotage here, where is the protest, and where is the experimentation of new forms of collective life? Could we become nomads as Robert Walser was, wandering around and “falling in love” with people, trees, buildings, a dog, a sunset, a blow of wind, to such an extent that institutions (The Institute Benjamenta) collapse, whilst, at the same time, the structure of a sociability as we know it crumbles, and different ways of living together take place?