Regrets of ruliness

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As I look back at my year at IDS, I can’t believe the number of amazing memories, learnings and bonding I experienced. Among all them, however, a small regret has been surfacing: not having done much to support the British Library for Development Studies (BLDS).

The BLDS has been on the verge of being shut down since last year and a final decision to close the library has been circulated among IDS staff and students recently. Over my year at IDS, the BLDS staff has been of huge support to me and many other students, including by granting us books extensions and being flexible with fees.

In an era in which the neo-liberal business model of marketisation, competition and privatisation has ruthlessly infiltrated universities and turned them into money-making machines in which students often feel like cows to milk, the BLDS seemed to me a rare example of providing a fair, human and yet incredibly efficient service.

 

One night I was in the uni bar (another space that seemed to be conceived to induce consumerism rather than human connections), discussing possible unruly actions with fellows unrulistas. After reviewing extreme scenarios like occupying the whole of IDS (I was, unsurprisingly, totally up for that!) we talked about using our action to show support for the BLDS.

The majority of the students started to realise that the library staff had been halved within a few months from our arrival but we didn’t have any information in regards to the reasons why or as for when the library was going to be definitely closed and what would have been done with the space, which at the moment is the only space within IDS available to Master’s students.

Our unruly idea was to ”occupy” the library and organise activities to bring staff and students together to discuss the future of the library space while raising awareness about the fact that the BLDS was going to be shut down. We were surprised and quite annoyed at the lack of communication provided to students, which are the main users of the library, as well as the absence of avenues for consultation and wanted to create one.

 

Later on, in a research project conducted by some students at IDS on the students’ learning experience, participants expressed their frustration for the lack of physical space accessible to them in the institute and praised the library and its staff for providing that friendly and approachable environment.

For some it was outrageous that such an important part of their IDS experience was not going to be available for future students and yet they hadn’t the opportunity to have any say in that.

Although we had all this information available, myself and my fellow unrulistas finally decided to turn down this idea. We thought we didn’t have enough information to act upon this matter and maybe feared that this action was going to be ”too political”.

 

Looking back now, I wish I had done more for the BLDS. We could have spent some time informing ourselves and used the opportunity to show support and solidarity towards such a valuable resource. I also wonder if what really stopped us was the lack of information or the fear of being too unruly.

Even if what stopped us was lack of information, I’m now left wondering how much should one know before being allowed to channel frustration into action and open up spaces for participation when they are not provided? Along the years I´ve repeatedly heard friends and people around me renouncing to their voice for lack of confidence in their understanding of political matters.

I’m not advocating for blind and uninformed unruliness, but I wonder how often the lack of perfect understanding of complex systems, rules and legislations prevent people from engaging in politics, especially when it comes to more active forms of participation such as actions, protests or even voting.

 

I’ve recently written my Unruly Essay on Ranciere’s Politics of the Aesthetics and he provided a whole new understanding of what it means to engage with political action. According to Ranciere, there are a number of human faculties we use when we take part in political processes, including emotions, imagination and perceptions as well as reasoning. He argues that they are all important and legitimate ways of engaging.

However, more often than not, we tend to prefer rational engagement over other forms which might be more creative and spontaneous. If there is one thing I learnt from Ranciere (and there  is definitely more! Really, he’s great if you manage to find the patience to read every line he writes 3 times to understand what he’s saying!) is the need to awaken my other senses and to stop privileging my rational faculties when I take part in political action.

That doesn’t mean that I will stop trying to seek information and use my rational self at the best of my abilities, but that I will trust my other faculties as much as my reasoning. I think that those other faculties such as emotions, imagination and perception will help us a great deal with concepts such as solidarity, which are very much needed in today’s political context, including the one of IDS.
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An unruly pepper

Why unruly?

Since the first unruly politics class I have been asking myself why I joined: why was I attracted to this class in the same way in many instances I have been drawn to join and otherwise support, or at the very least try to understand, political participation expressed through disobedient, disruptive and disorderly action?

The fact that these three synonym of unruly start with the prefix “dis” is interesting in itself. “Dis” is a Latin prefix meaning “apart, “away,” or having a privative, negative, or reversing force (don’t worry, this is the only time I mention Latin in this blog but please allow me to make some use of 3 years of studying a language that doesn’t exist anymore!). Two words of this particular definition are of interest for me: negative and force. Why is unruliness commonly perceived as negative And what is this force that underpins it?

In that first class, we shared translations of the word unruly in many languages. I wasn’t satisfied with the Italian translation, which is something to do with not being disciplined. I thought that a name my mum gave me to describe the way I fire up when I’m passionate about something fits more with my experience of unruliness. The name is “Peperina” and it means little chilly pepper.

The force of hot peppers

Now that I think about it, when I feel unruly, it’s exactly how I feel after eating a chilli pepper, like the super hot ones people love in the south of Italy. Although for many Italians this is blasphemy, I don’t like spicy hot food. When I accidentally ingest it, I feel like there is something in my body that needs rejecting, the typical remedies like eating bread or yogurt don’t seem to work on me. I start moving around restlessly like I’m possessed by some force.

To me unruly is when values, systems, structures or rules people don’t agree with are imposed on them with such violence (physical, psychological or social) that this force of rejection kicks in and brings them on the edge until they do something about it. That force and the actions that follow are not necessarily negative or violent but they involve breaking away from the rules and norms that are affecting their body in the same way chilly peppers do with mine.

When I decided to join my first street protests, sit-ins and school occupations as young as 15, the government in Italy was voting a reform for the national education system which included plans  to massively cut public funding for education and research from elementary schools all the way to universities. I remember the initial feeling of injustice for how something so important for me and my peers was being ruthlessly undermined. That feeling quickly turned into rage and then endless collective energy which I invested in organising and taking part in unruly actions with my peers.
If you want a taste of how that looks like you can watch this short video from a movie inspired by the student’s movements of those years.

Temporary insanity

In Italian popular traditions, the chilly pepper is associated with passion and strong desire (in fact people believe it’s an aphrodisiac and sometime it’s called natural viagra). To break away from injustice and oppression, one often enters and goes through what Alves describes as a “state of insanity on the periphery of ordinary life” in which this passionate force takes over like the spiciness of a strong chilly takes over your body.

For Badiou that state is characterised by “collective creative exaltation”, like the one you can see in the video about student’s school occupations in Italy above. Experiencing this state can be dangerous but at the same time empowering. It allows us to discover what we are be capable of, whether that’s ingesting a really hot pepper without suffocating or organising unruly actions that can change oneself, other people and the world around us. This state cannot be chronic: we break from the rules to ultimately return to them, reproducing conformity to custom.

However both Alves and Badiou believe that something more permanent stays behind when this liminal space is closed. I agree with them and believe that the passion and energy that erupt during unruly actions remain latent in us and can change that temporary insanity into learning, creativity, affection and long term projects. It might also remain silent until the next unruly event, when it will join other energies to inform, inspire and create further actions.

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