“Unruly Politics” – From the very sound of it, it’s clear that this is a fairly different module from a lot of the others we take at IDS. These classes have been a space where regular IDS jargon, seminar style lectures, structured assessments have taken a backseat as we explored how to think critically and differently about theory through discussions on film, music, art, literature, politics and popular culture. In the beginning, we truly didn’t know what was going to happen in this course. But at the end, it became one of the most exciting modules we took at IDS. There were classes that could never stop on time, weekly movie screenings, after-class evening bar sessions and of course our ‘end-of-term group assessment’.
Now, from dutifully reading our module documents, we knew there was a ‘group activity’ involved in the course – though none of us had any ideas on what this could possibly mean. As we are used to by now, we waited for some direction, indications, and pressure from our conveners; but were duly informed that we would have to figure it out on our own. We had no guidelines or directions – all we knew (or rather assumed) was that it had to be Unruly… and we also knew that last year’s Unruly action had caused quite a bit of stir and some trouble for the students and the conveners.
Armed with this information or the lack thereof, we set about engaging with the course and the readings- which have been incredibly rich and complex. In a small reading group, we started engaging deeper with the readings and relating it to anything and everything around us. The readings, reflections and discussions would go on for hours, making us feel like active participants in our own learning process.
This is where the idea for our group activity started developing. Our interests lay in how we had engaged with the IDS community and in what ways we had become a part of it. We started sharing anecdotes, conversations we had had with people, about our experiences both in and out of the classroom. These got more and more animated, and as the stories started flowing and we decided to work on how we had engaged with IDS as a space; and how the institution engaged with us.
Given that time was running out and we were in our last week of term, we also had to think about feasibility and despite the plethora of ideas we had, we had to narrow it down to the ones that we could actually do. We called our project ‘Exploring Incongruencies at IDS’, in which we addressed the ideas of ‘development’, the ‘global south’, ‘multiculturalism’, peer interactions, power relationships and inclusiveness that were being presented here at the Institute of Development Studies and reflect on how these ideas were manifested in the physical and discursive space. In short, we wanted to ask whether IDS really practices what it preaches.
When we took shared our ideas with the rest of the class, we realized that all our ideas fit in neatly together, as they too wanted to highlight what IDS meant as an institution operating in isolation and how we could collectively re-imagine IDS.
“Collective action means coordinating efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs” (Tilly, 2008, 6)
Thus all of the ‘Unruly Kids’ (as we were later branded by our peers and staff) came together for a week of ‘Unruliness’ – an effort to raise some uncomfortable questions of IDS as an institution, and a time for self-reflection.
In our group, we wanted to use the physical space and the building, and use them to make certain statements. Being extremely familiar with a space, one can become so accustomed to it, to the extent that one no longer notices what the space, the pictures on the wall, the signs say and how they represent the institution.
Our installations from covering the face of the woman on the stairs, creating an IDS Wordle, leaving cynical and humorous messages on the pictures around the halls, personal Valentine messages for everyone all tried to tackle and challenge certain ideas that the institution was reinforcing. While planning our intervention, we were inspired (like many students all around the world) by the literature we were reading on the Occupy movements, realizing the power in those movements. One of the most striking aspects of the Occupy movement, was the fact that it a movement of non-compliance. It refused to make any clear demands and suggestions; it “refuses to describe or define in any detail the world that it wants to create, while showing this world in its actual presence… It renounces the demand that it make specific, practical demands, while opening a space in which innumerable demands can be articulated” ( Mitchell, 2012,10).
Thus over the course of a long (and Unruly) weekend we came into IDS- worked for hours creating the various installations all around the space.
On Monday morning when people walked through the doors of IDS, reactions were mixed. While some looked disturbed, some were curious and some utterly confused. We were thrilled when people started taking photographs of the installations and putting them up on social media. We were very excited, as we went from corridor to corridor to see people reactions and eavesdropping on conversations.
But this initial euphoria at having gotten the reaction we wanted soon disappeared. Within 4 hours, we saw all our installations being taken down, without any explanation, warning or attempts at mediation. Everything happened so fast, that our reactions quickly went from nervous, excited, confused, angry and finally dejected. We took the fact that this was done without any dialogue with us, as a denial of our right to use the space of the institution. This led to discussions amongst us about whether we were members or just consumers of IDS. Did we have any right over the space, and a chance to use it in ways we saw fit?
“But the demand of occupatio is made in the full knowledge that public space is, in fact, pre-occupied by the state and the police, that its pacified and democratic character, apparently open to all, is sustained by the ever-present possibility of violent eviction” ( Mitchell 2012,10).
After the installations were taken down we all met for a group meeting. Our convenors said it was important for all of us to respond to the language of the establishment, pay close attention to the things that are being said, have a critical dialogue about the same and what it said about power relations. We were advised to engage with them and not provoke them further.
“…participants in contentious politics learn how to match performances with local circumstances, to play their own parts within those performances, and to modify performances in the light of their effects” (Tilly, 2008, 18).
While we were trying to decide what our next steps should be something wonderful started happening on social media. Within hours, our peers had responded with statements and support.
“I was amazed in this Monday morning with the art works my peers put around IDS building. I was surprised with the sweet pink love letter at my locker. But half a day later, I saw a man taking down all the nice posters my peers had spent long nights to draw and hang up. It is absolutely a shocking feeling for me. It’s a mixture of sadness, disappointment, frustration and confusion. We are encouraged to challenge all social norms, so could we challenge this IDS system? What is the price of being unruly later in real life? Its not a facility man who takes down your posters on the corridor, it may be guns and cannons. Its not the mental attack that strikes you with the feeling of sadness and frustration, it may be physical attack. Do we dare to be unruly? I can imagine how you guys are feeling, Unruly Politics peers!! If you want to protest, I’m in!”
-Trang, MA Dev (on Facebook)
In all the confusion, we felt that we still hadn’t made our point, and we were adamant that it be made. In addition, the other group still had to showcase the interviews they were working on. Since we had been compelled to negotiate and abide by the rules dictated by the management, we began to think of new ways of getting our message across. We decided to take the whole intervention forward, with the same message but also incorporating the reactions of the management and why they had reacted in the way they did.
“…no two contentious performances mirror each other perfectly. Indeed, they would lose some of their effect if they operated like precision military drill. Participants improvise constantly in two different ways: figuring out how to shape the available routines to communicate claims they are currently pursuing, and responding to other people’s reactions as they make the claims” (Tilly, 2008, 11).
This time we took over the lobby of IDS after taking due ‘permissions’. We worked on pin boards, aware that many of our installations had lost their meaning in their new de-contextualised spaces. However, they had also gained new meaning because of this. On these new boards, some of the installations were tattered and ripped, and jostling for space with each other. The movie made by our classmates was also played on a loop. Some of us got instruments and started playing music. When people came and walked through the installations, we started a conversation with them, asked them what they thought about the intervention and explained our intentions in organizing this.
It wasn’t the unruly intervention we had planned initially, but it was the unruly intervention that we refused to give up on.
Our reflections and learning on this Unruly intervention have been rich and varied. Aside from the process of initiating and conducting the group work, the response of the management was in retrospect quite amazing. Instead of engaging with us in the way that we had provoked them to, they responded in an almost typical fashion. They made the entire exercise about a group of ‘unruly kids’ who had turned vandals for a day and had violated institutional rules. Their assertion was that the space did not belong to us; we had not taken ‘permission.’ This became the central point of contention; which most people would agree, defeats the purpose of any Unruly intervention.
What the management had done was refused to even acknowledge the questions that the installations had raised and shut down debate before it even started. Unwilling to give up, we were forced to speak with them a language they understand and accept. When authorities act in a way that shuts down dissent, discourages debate and critical thinking they are actually reinforcing many of the issues we are supposed to be tackling and challenging in the classroom. While a lot of this reaction may have stemmed from ‘baggage’ of what the management had faced from unruly students last year, the institution showed an almost knee-jerk reaction to the intervention. Unruly Politics, while certainly different from other modules, is still a module with a syllabus, teaching outcomes, student body, convenors and assessments that we are graded on. It is part of the curriculum at IDS, one that it offers its students but still refuses to let them engage with it completely, as we experience through the restrictions we had to face in our ‘assessed group work’.
To shut down an exercise that was part of our assessment just because it wasn’t handed in to the teaching office at 4pm, wrapped in a green and blue cover sheet, just shows an amazing level of hypocrisy on the part of the institution.
Our experience with this level of censorship was in some ways used to our advantage. It only managed to sensationalize the event, and soon everyone in IDS was talking about it, sharing pictures and asking each other about the things that they had missed out on seeing. One of the most interesting comments made by one of the fellows at IDS was: ‘you know that an action is effective based on the nature and swiftness of the response’. The point of the intervention was not about making clear-cut demands, about asking for something and offering alternatives and suggestions. Instead, it was to make everyone aware of certain ideas of development, thus provoking them to question their own notions and ideas. There was no conference, or dialogue involved. The physical space of the institution was used to convey the message. When the brick and the wall of a physical space go unnoticed every day, become the main actor or protagonist of the show, it creates a powerful statement.
“The trope of occupation…is it speaks by refusing (for now) to speak; it declares by refusing to declare…” (Mitchell, 2012, 2).
Over all, the unruly politics course challenges many of the dominant discourses of development, and reinforces the necessity of having critical debates, thinking and readings that are subversive. If IDS is in the business of creating development practitioners; then contentious politics should be given more space and emphasis. The unruly action gave us a chance to see how what sometimes appears to be vague and abstract theories can be used practically and how they play out in our lives. We had set out to challenge people’s perceptions, but in the process, we ended up re imagine and changing our own perceptions about the space. Much to our surprise, this intervention helped transform us and altered the way in which we engaged with the institution. Having been able to articulate things which were bothering us throughout the year gave us a sense of satisfaction and feeling of closure with the conflicting emotions. Through the reactions, response, support and sympathy that we got from the Unruly event, we ultimately identified what has been drilled into our heads since the first day of class.
‘Development’ is not just one thing; there are different voices, opinions and issues to be dealt with and understood. Challenging and questioning these from within can then bring about the change we hope to see in development studies and the larger Development paradigm’.
Tilly, C. (2008), “Claims as performance” Contentious Performances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mitchell, W. J. T. (2012) ‘Image, Space, Revolution: The Arts of Occupation’, Critical Inquiry 39 (1), 8-32.