Liminality, Artificial Human Evolution and Anti-Nuclear Movement

Gennep, who introduced the concept of the ‘rites of passage’, indicated that it emerges everywhere in the society. And also we know that this concept and the idea of ‘liminality’ are used here and there in many films as an important structure to support the storyline. This time, I just want to focus the most famous animation story in Japan which seems to owe a lot to these concepts. It is called ‘Evangelion’, a series of TV programmes and films. The latest film became huge hit which achieved 3.8 million audiences and 5.2 billion yen (30 million pounds) at the box office in 2012-13. It’s hardly surprising if you have heard of this as it is also famous in the rest of the world.

The main character is 14 years old boy called Shinji. He is a very private, obedient to other people and low self-esteem. He has a family problem and is less confident in building human relation. He has suffered from human relation so much and wishes to escape from it. The story also reveals that not just Shinji but also a secret group of the Establishment called ‘Seele’ wishes the world without the fear of others. Seele secretly launches a plan of the magical ‘rite’ to make all the people in the world abandon the form of individual existence, which means every individual will be integrated into ‘one single life aggregation’ and will be free from the terror of others (‘The Artificial Human Evolution’ plan). Once this plan is completed, the idea of ‘individual’ will totally disappear and permanent peace will visit (since there will be no more human relation problem).

 

This is the basic storyline. Now let’s check the theories. Gennep indicated that ‘rites of passage’ is a ritual event that indicates a person’s transition from one status to another. Although he developed this concept in the context of ritual-subject’s trajectory from separation of childhood to full inclusion of society, this concept can also be applied to any other individual’s milestone in the life and it emerges everywhere in the society. The process of the rites of passage is made up of three phases, which are the ‘rites of separation’, the ‘rites of transition (liminal rites)’ and the ‘rites of incorporation’ (Gennep 1960[1909]).

Turner focused on this Gennep’s idea of the liminal rites phase and built the idea of liminality based on it. The characteristics of it are as follows;

(1)      The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there: they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial.

(2)      [L]iminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, an eclipse of the sun or moon.

(3)      Liminal entities […] may be represented as possessing nothing. They may be disguised as monsters, wear only a strip of clothing, or even go naked,

(4)      Our present focus is upon liminality and the ritual powers of the weak. […] In liminality, the underling comes uppermost. […] “[T]he power of the weak” or, in other words, the permanently or transiently sacred attributes of low status or position (Turner 1969)

At the final stage of the story, Seele ultimately starts the rite to implement the Artificial Human Evolution Plan. People starts to lose their forms of body and are gradually integrated into one singe life. Shinji also says goodbye to the world filled with pain (rites of separation) and the story starts to focus on the change of his mental scenery along the Artificial Human Evolution. This phase can be regarded as his liminal rites (liminality), as a lot of typical elements of liminality (listed above) can be found in the depiction of this stage.

First of all, in the depiction of his mental scenery, Shinji is drawn as naked (3). He is lying and his female friend sits on him with her hands melting into his chest and the hands and chest become unified (which may be the reflection of the process of Artificial Human Evolution), he is no longer individual but drawn as an ambiguous existence (1). They are in the water but it looks as if they can breathe. The female friend says to him, ‘here is under the sea of source of life (2), an ambiguous world where you lose your form, where you cannot find the boundary between others, where you are extended endlessly and where you no longer exist (1).’ He asks her ‘am I died?’ She replies, ‘no…just everything is integrated into one… and this is the world itself which you wished.’

Shinji understands that it was him who wished the world without any terror of human relation, but here in his liminality, he feels something is wrong. He asked himself whether he wishes the world with one single life aggregation. ‘It looks different rather than I imagined’, he said to her. ‘All I got in the old world was a hurt, so I escaped and came here, but I feel uncomfortable here too, as I am not here and it means no one is here’. ‘If you wish the existence of individual once more, the integration will be cancelled and people will be separated into individuals again. But are you okay with the fact that the terror of others will visit you again?’ She asked her. ‘Yes I am, thank you’, he answered.

When he gets out of his liminality, he finds himself lying on the beach (the rites of incorporation phase). He finds his other female friend lying next to him. They are already separated completely as individuals. In his liminality, he denied the Seele’s Artificial Human Evolution Plan and the Plan ended up in failure at the very final stage of implementation. He seems to get back to the old world (rites of incorporation) and the story comes to an end.

I’ve never understood until recently why Shinji could stop the Artificial Human Evolution. Seele was a powerful organisation and Shinji at that time was a poor 14 years old boy. However, applying the idea of liminality to it could give me some insight. In the rites of separation (before liminality), he was characterised as the weakest. Turner pointed out that once the weak ritual subject enters the liminal phase, ‘the underling comes uppermost’ (4). So he could obtain ‘the power of weak’ (4) and ultimately he could deny the world’s supreme organisation’s aspiration during the period of liminality. He returns to the ordinary old world (rites of incorporation) with a resolution of tackling human relation problems, which can be understood as an outcome of his rites of passage.

Therefore, I conclude that the most famous Japanese animation story relies a lot on the concepts of the rites of passage and the liminality.

Before I wrap up this small blog, very briefly, I just want to refer to the implications of these concepts in the context of the Japanese biggest collective action in 2012.

On 11th of March 2011, massive tsunami killed more than 15 thousand people and gave rise to the melt-down of the nuclear plant in Fukushima. It is shame that both the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electricity Company have not managed to settle the accident and pollution down until now. Massive number of population died in a blink of an eye, besides, the Japanese has lost the confidence in industrial technology which has been the supreme value for them for more than 60 years after the WW2. AT this moment, Japanese society was likely to penetrate into the phase of liminality where the social order and principle in the post WW2 completely collapsed and the people lost values to lean. In June 2012, the anti-nuclear protest in front of the office of Japanese Prime Minister gathered between 20,000 and 45,000 people. It was the largest since the protest at the same place in 1960s. It was totally surprising that a number of ordinary people (who are usually regarded as non-political and voiceless) tried to claim the anti-nuclear directly to the Prime Minister. In liminality, as we saw above, like Shinji, ‘the underling comes uppermost’ and gets ‘the power of weak’. I’m still not sure whether these citizens can achieve the power of weak, but things which would never happen before the rites of separation can happen during the liminal phase. Although I cannot imagine what kind of rites of incorporation is waiting for Japan after the period of liminality, it depends on what will be done by the liminal entities, Japanese people.

References

Eiga.com (2013) Eva Q achieved 5.2 billion yen (Japanese website)

http://eiga.com/news/20130429/8/

Accessed on 1st of May 2014

Gennep,A (1960[1909]) The Rites of passage. Great Britain: Routledge and Kegan Paul

New York Times (2012) In Tokyo, Thousands Protest the Restarting of a Nuclear Power Plant http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/world/asia/thousands-in-tokyo-protest-the-restarting-of-a-nuclear-plant.html?_r=2&

Accessed on 2nd of May 2014

Toei (1997) The End of Evangelion (Anitube)

http://www.anitube.se/video/17445/Filme-The-End-of-Evangelion

Accessed on 1st of May

Turner,V (1969) The Ritual Process  Structure and Anti-Sturucture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 

Barcelona: The conflict of Can Vies and an analysis of its political significance

Guest post by Alison Carney and Maria Olivella Quintana

“Politics is the art of resolving problems and here a problem has been created, instead of being resolved, at many levels: a security problem, the destruction of a meeting/cohesion/training space… With many people being thrown out of the system, Can Vies was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.” (Gemma Galdon, Political Scientist, University of Barcelona, Interview with El Pais 29th May 2014)

One week ago the Catalan police entered and evicted the famous squat and community centre in the Sants neighborhood of Barcelona, called Can Vies.  This event, and the disproportionate brutality used by the police against demonstrators later that day, have sparked some of the biggest riots and public demonstrations in Barcelona since the Indignados in 2011.  The social significance and strength of the movement that is loudly protesting the eviction of Can Vies is far greater than this one incident.  Although the significance of these demonstrations and resistance is being discussed in Catalan and Spanish media, sadly, the English speaking media around the world has limited their coverage of the event and continuing movement to some very short, page-three articles that fail to even address the complexities and potential of what is happening in Barcelona this past week[1] (not to mention that the first article in English appeared three days after the eviction).  We write this piece with the intention of drawing a clear picture of the history and context of the Can Vies eviction, as well as to provide some analysis and insight into what we see as the greater social significance of this week.

Background

The building that is now known as Can Vies[2] was constructed in the 19th century and was property of the Barcelona metro company, which was part of the city of Barcelona.  The building is near the Barcelona Sants train station and very near the national rails.  It was used as storage during the construction of the city metro system and later became an office for the metro company.  During the Civil War (1936-1939), the anarchists (known as CNT) took over the building and began to use it as a social centre.  When Franco came to power (1939), the building was taken by the fascist union.  Then, in the 1980s at the beginning of democracy in Spain, it served as a meeting place for the metro workers’ unions.  By the 1990s it was abandoned and in 1997 a group of young people from the surrounding neighbourhood of Sants occupied the building.  The occupation was organized so that part of the building was used as a living space for young people, and the other part as a social centre that has been used as a political organising space, and a community centre for dance, music and other activities[3]

Also in the 1990s, the Barcelona metro company became the TMB company, who took over ownership of the Can Vies building.  The TMB company made a complaint against the squatters in Can Vies in 1998, which was rejected by the courts one year later.  Social and community activities continued at Can Vies into the 2000s when the city of Barcelona began construction of a high speed rail, for this reason the city council decided that they needed the building in order to store materials for the construction of the new rail. 

Can Vies before the eviction

In 2007 the TMB company filed a complaint in a second attempt to evict the squatters (The Can Vies Assembly), but the court rejected the complaint because the Can Vies Assembly[4] provided proof that the metro authority had made a legal agreement with the anarchist union in the 1980s to give this building to the squatters.  After 2007, TMB came back with another complaint to evict the squatters in 2013 and since then the Can Vies Assembly has been negotiating with the city council member who represents the neighbourhood of Sants.  The negotiations continued until the day before the eviction.

Can Vies has served as a community centre for the people of the Sants neighborhood, but also for all the city of Barcelona.  Can Vies hosts an independent local newspaper called La Burxa, and has been used as a base for many community groups, for example, Bastoner dancers, a Theatre of the Oppressed group, feminist groups and many political organisations.  In addition, anyone can go to Can Vies and request a meeting space to conduct a workshop, host a party to raise money for a cause, or simply hold a meeting.  Can Vies is one of a number of occupied buildings throughout Barcelona (and Spain) that serve as community centres and political gathering places that are completely unmediated by the state.  These centres provide resources and alternative spaces to communities that the city council has failed to provide.  Can Vies is part of a greater network of organisations called the Assemblea de Barri de Sants, which is where all political and grassroots organisations from Sants gather for discussion.

The Eviction.

In March 2014, the city council and the court made a joint decision that the TMB company could evict Can Vies on any day from the first of April, 2014.  At that point, TMB had already stated that when they evicted Can Vies they would tear down the building and leave an empty lot. This eviction happened first thing in the morning on Monday, May 26, 2014.  Members of the Can Vies Assembly were inside and had chained themselves to the building in preparation for the arrival of the police.  While the police were evicting the occupants, they were extremely aggressive with the neighbors and supporters of Can Vies who gathered outside the building in a demonstration of solidarity with the occupants.  A larger and more formal demonstration[5] was organized for 8 pm Monday evening to denounce the eviction and protest the destruction of a neighborhood space that has served as a home for community organisations and as a public space where many local people have developed their political consciousness, and built social movements. 

Demonstration against Can Vies eviction on the 26th of may 2014

The demonstration had barely started and had not made it more than 500 meters before the Catalan police cut off the march and dissipated the crowd by driving their fleets of vans into the middle of the demonstration, with armoured police officers jumping out of the vans and beating anyone near them.  People were forced to run into the narrow streets in the neighbourhood, chased by the armoured police officers who were wielding weapons.  Instead of a march around the neighbourhood to build solidarity with the local community, demonstrators were barely allowed to congregate.  There were several conflicts with the police following their violent break-up of the demonstration.  One of the most poignant conflicts that night was when some of the demonstrators tried to take refuge in a very well-known political bookstore in the neighbourhood, called La Ciutat Invisible.  The bookstore houses an important Catalan alternative newspaper called La Directa, a newspaper that has been extremely outspoken and critical about police brutality in Catalonia.  The police chased the demonstrators to the bookstore and started breaking windows, which injured several people inside[6].  The reason the police stopped the attack on La Ciutat Invisible is that a Member of Parliament from the political party CUP (Popular Unity Candidates), David Fernandez, placed himself in front of the bookstore, in between the police and the people inside. [7] Following the break-up of the demonstration on Monday evening, there were riots all night in Sants in reaction to the behaviour by the police and the TMB company.

 On the following morning of Tuesday the 27th of May, David Fernandez was interviewed by several local television and radio programs.  He explained clearly that the initial act of violence by the police of evicting the inhabitants of Can Vies is what sparked the following violence on the evening of 26th.  At the same moment, on Tuesday morning, the TMB company brought a bulldozer to the Can Vies site and immediately began to tear down the building.  In reaction, people gathered around the site, banging pots and pans to draw attention to the issue, show solidarity and gain the support of neighbours[8].  This resistance lasted most of the day, and when someone tried to set the bulldozer on fire, the police began beating people.  At 11 pm, half of the building had been torn down, the police had finally left, and protesters set fire to the bulldozer.  This led to the police returning to the site and the fighting started again.  In reaction to this, the social movement around the city immediately organized spontaneous demonstrations in different neighbourhoods, some of these involved riots and building and burning barricades against the police.  The police were incredibly aggressive in the neighbourhoods.  In Gracia (the neighborhood where we live) they brought in a helicopter with a spotlight that was following people in the streets,  creating a militarization and was an extreme use of force considering the small concentrations of people and their activities.  Militarization in dealing with demonstrators and angry citizens has been a growing problem in Catalonia.  Extremely armoured police who are armed and who do not hesitate to beat any person in their way is common at any public political gathering.  This level of violence is what sparks riots and more violence, not the other way around[9].

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27th may 2014

By Wednesday it was clear that the conflict over Can Vies had spread throughout the city and there were almost 50 spontaneous gatherings of people against the eviction of Can Vies throughout all of Catalonia.  In Barcelona, all of the demonstration started in different neighbourhoods and walked to Sants.  At 10 pm, roughly 7,000 people had arrived in Sants and the demonstration was progressing through the neighbourhood when the police announced from their vehicles that they would disperse the crowd, which was followed immediately by the armoured police rushing into the crowds, beating people and more fights between police and demonstrators broke out.  During the entire demonstration, people throughout the city were standing on the balconies of their apartments banging pots and pans.  The fights and riots continued until past midnight.

 On Friday the 30th over 60 people had been arrested, 1 of them had been sent to prison and there were more than 200 people injured due to the clashes with the police.   Everyone in the city was invested in this problem.  The solidarity and support for the demonstrations continued growing from Monday and was reaching not only the rest of Spain, but also other countries. In addition, as of Thursday, the Barcelona city council announced that they would re-enter negotiations with the Can Vies Assembly.  The demonstrations continue every night. 

 On Saturday morning the 31st May, hundreds of people gathered from all over the city of Barcelona at the site of the eviction to rebuild Can Vies.  They brought materials, wore hard-hats and worked together to clear the debris from the demolition of the building and try to begin to rebuild the parts that were torn down. 

Hundreds of people working together to rebuild the squat house on saturday 30th May 2014

On Saturday night the largest demonstration so far was organised in the centre of the city of Barcelona. 20,000 people marched around the centre of the city. At the end of the Las Ramblas street the police did not allow the march to continue and they warned the demonstrators that they would start attacking them unless they dissolved the demonstration. After that point the demonstration broke and riots started in different parts of the centre of the city.  Helicopters could be heard all around Barcelona, and the police finally surrounded 200 people on one of the main streets of the city, Gran Via. There, they started one of the most astonishing police interventions of the last few years. The police forcibly enclosed the 200 people for more than 3 hours, making them identify themselves and forcing them to wear pieces of cloth over their faces and then the police took photos of each of them[10]. This was conducted without the presence of any lawyer and was not based on the order of any judge, which is considered an illegal practice by the police. The police intervention provoked protests from residents and hundreds of activists who came to the site to show solidarity with the victims and banged pots and pans as a sign of protest.

The Significance

 The significance of this public fight and demonstrations goes far beyond simply wanting to protect a building.  The city council and TMB have claimed their right by the legal argument of the ownership of the building, but it seems that this claim is only a façade for a deeper intention to discourage political organising that challenges the traditional government spaces.  As we can see, the building has already been mostly destroyed, and yet the numbers of supporters of this movement continues to grow daily.  We see this fight and the demonstrations as symbolic of support for alternative solutions to the current crisis in Spain (and elsewhere for that matter).

 There are not many alternatives to representation and community resources organized and provided to the people of Barcelona by the city council and state.  Can Vies is an example of one alternative that has actually been functioning as an important resource and political centre for 17 years.  The council and TMB say that Can Vies is not allowed to exist NOT because they disagree with the existence of Can Vies, but because they claim that it is illegal because of the occupation of a building that is owned by TMB.  The tearing down of the building, however, demonstrates that the issue is not about a need for the building (which will remain an empty lot), but that the council is threatened by self-organisation or community structures not mediated by the state.

 A well-known political scientist in Spain (Joan Subirats) has argued that the destruction of Can Vies is a destruction of a symbolic capital for a certain type of population.  This type of social capital is extremely important.  In the context of crisis (as in Spain), it is significant that citizens have not stopped self-organising.  There are centres like Can Vies all around Barcelona that demonstrate a resistance and coping with the crisis that is outside the market, the individual and the state.  These spaces are a network that has found a way to exist and support a community precisely because they exist outside of the state rules.  The growing solidarity and demonstrations since Monday is proof that people are perplexed by why the council is threatened by such a space as Can Vies (aside from the private property issue), and it is symbolic of the growing need and support for such spaces.

 In addition the rise of alternative political parties in recent elections such the CUP[11] in Catalonia or  Podemos[12] in Spain demonstrate that the politics of self-organisation is gaining traction and presenting alternative options to the traditional politics in Spain.  We see that more and more people are drawn to self-organised politics, rather than party driven or state mediated politics.

 The movement that has led to the growing support for self-organised politics in Spain has a long history, has taken enormous work and is far from being spontaneous. The creation of alternatives that strive to exist outside of the market and of traditional politics is not something that can happen overnight, or without a lot of building.  Although the context and history of this type of organizing in Spain, and even specifically in Barcelona, is particular, there are lessons to be learned by communities in other countries who are equally fed-up with the same old political options that have driven many of our counties to this point of crisis and abhorrent social conservativism.

 Update

On the 4th of June, the city council of Barcelona decided to temporarily give back the space and building for a 2 year period to the Can Vies Assembly squatters who were evicted just one week ago. Council sources have added that when the squatter collective presents a project to restore the property, the council will give them a building permit so that they can rebuild the building under the supervision of architects.

 Unfortunately, not all of the recent developments are good news. There is one young man who is still imprisoned and has been there since Friday the 30th.  His imprisonment has been denounced by the Can Vies Assembly as a scapegoat for all the conflicts occurred during the past week.  He is being used as an example of the consequences of the demonstrations and riots.  Even though the council has given back the building, they retain a power over the people who protest their decisions.

 ………

Maria Olivella Quintana is a feminist activist currently carrying out PhD research in Anthropology in Spain, on the transition from ‘family planning interventions’ to ‘sexual and reproductive health’. She is part of Gap Work (http://sites.brunel.ac.uk/gap), a European research project addressing gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia in educational spaces. She has a MA in Gender and Development from IDS and has been part of the Unruly Politics thinking since then. Feedback welcome at:  M.OlivellaQuintana@ids.ac.uk

 Alison Carney is a sports and development consultant, with extensive experience on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights. She can be contacted at: alison.carney@gmail.com

 …….

[2] For more information about the community centre you can check Can Vies website at http://canvies.barrisants.org/

[3] Almost all squats in Spain are social centres, providing a space for youth to meet and organize, which was something that was missing in the 1990s.

[4] The Can Vies Assembly is the name for the community group that orginizes and engages in politics.  They are based at Can Vies, this includes squatters who live there as well as other community members.

[5] by demonstration, we mean a march where people gather with banners and posters and walk together in protest.

[6] A video filmed by a neighbor where police can be seen attacking the bookstore https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhFw5siuyh4

[7] This brings up an important point that if the police had attacked David Fernandez, a member of Parliament and therefore part of the state, it would mean escalating to a new level of violence and would escalate the conflict, and this would also mean breaking the “them” versus “us” discourse that is so convenient to the city council when trying to justify police brutality against squatters and demonstrators.

[8] The banging of pots and pans is a tradition in the region as a way for a community to show their solidarity during demonstrations.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScrnEJQZ6r8

[9] Documentary filmed by the Guardian on the campaign “Ojo con tu ojo” that has denounced the use by Catalan police of rubber balls as an anti-riot weapon http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/apr/30/rubber-bullets-banned-catalonia-spain-video

[11] The Popular Unity Candidates (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) are left-wing Catalan independentist political party active in Catalonia. The CUP have traditionally concentrated on municipal politics, and are made up of a series of autonomous candidatures that run in local elections. More information in this link http://cup.cat/

[12] Podemos (meaning ‘We can’ in Spanish) is a Spanish political party created on 11 March 2014 by Spanish leftist activists associated with the 15-M movement that emerged from the 2011–12 Spanish protests. More information in this link http://podemos.info/

The revolution of the homo sacer: the battle for LGTB rights in Peru.

image

On the 12th of April, thousands of people went to the streets to support the draft legislation

In the past months I have been a witness of a revolution that is not like the ones we are getting used to see in media: it doesn’t mobilize millions of people to the street like Egypt; it didn’t have a moment of ‘rupture’ like Brazil or Turkey; and of course, there’s not a worldwide campaign supporting it by using a hashtag. Even academics and development practitioners don’t get excited with this type of revolutions anymore; probably because the impact is not clear.  I’m talking about the battle for the recognition of LGBT rights in Peru. This isn’t a new fight. There have been activists for decades. However, a civil union draft law has become the most debated draft legislation and has collected a huge amount of support from public figures like artists, journalists and academics, as well as activists from almost every side of the political spectrum. Also from ordinary citizens, particularly those tired with the hegemonic conservative discourse and the intromission of the Catholic Church in politics.

There are approximately 3 million LGBT Peruvians (more or less 10% of the population) who don’t have the same rights as the rest of the population. The Peruvian State doesn’t recognize homosexual couples. Therefore they cannot get married, they cannot have shared heritage, they don’t have the right to inherit from their partners, and they cannot access the same health insurance or decide if their partner needs an emergency treatment, among many other things.  Moreover, they risk being beaten up or killed (confirmed by the amount of hate crimes); the rate of gay teenage suicides is five times the one from heterosexual teenagers. They grow up listening to very common expressions such as “homosexuals are sinful” or “I’d rather see my son dead than a faggot”.  In popular culture they are portrayed in a feminized way and usually associated to professions such as hairdressers or prostitutes. To sum up, the majority of society considers them dirty and immoral, and they are against giving them any right.

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Every year, LGTB activists organise “Kisses against homophobia” in Lima’s central square. There are always reactions from the police. 

It is inevitable to think that LGTB people are the Homo Sacers of Peruvian society.  As Agamben indicates “what defines the status of homo sacer is therefore not the originary ambivalence of the sacredness that is assumed to belong to him, but rather both the particular character of the double exclusion into which he is taken and the violence to which he finds himself exposed. This violence- the unsanctionable killing that, in his case, anyone may commit-is classifiable neither as a sacrifice nor a homicide, neither as the execution of a condemnation to death nor as a sacrilege…”(1998; p.82)

This was clearly illustrated, not so long ago when the Parliament refused to include in the hate crime law  crimes motivated by sexual orientation and they were finally considered in the category ‘others’.  Equally, when a hate crime occurs, it’s almost sure that the murderer won’t be prosecuted.

This is why I started this text talking about battles. The new draft legislation is not a just a representative claim but a matter of survival: too many LGTB people die because the  Peruvian State doesn’t recognize what in other countries are basic human rights. As linguist and LGTB activist Ernesto Cuba says “due to the circumstances, to say that you are bisexual or homosexual is almost a political declaration. We live in the most homophobic country in Latin America where there isn’t any exclusive and direct law that addresses the protection of LGBT people[1]”. Having a civil union law could tackle part of the problem: the State recognizing LGTB rights for the first time in its history.  Society will take its time to change but it’s sure that social movements have taken the first step.

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Image from the campaing “Unión Civil Ya” (“Civil Union now”)

However this is not only about a law. I also started the text talking about a revolution that I do believe is happening. The campaign for the civil union was supported by politicians from different sides of the political spectrum, something not common in Peruvian politics. Also, other initiatives where launched like ‘No tengo miedo’ campaign (‘I’m not afraid’), which encouraged LGTB people to tell their stories; on the 12th of April thousands of people went to the streets pacifically to support the draft legislation…there weren’t millions but that day Peruvian’s protesting standards were largely exceeded… and for the first time in the country’s history, one member of Parliament (and sponsor of the draft legislation) has openly talked about his homosexuality, thus becoming the first openly gay representative.

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“I’m  gay and I’m proud of it”, Carlos Bruce and his two sons. He became the first openly gay Peruvian MP

The icing in the cake (and the definitive proof that something is changing): for the first time I can remember the Catholic Church and the conservatives that oppose this law are portrayed as backwards by mainstream media ( and not so mainstream too). Their answer to this change was to make this issue a subject of referendum. In return, they received one clear message: the will of the majority cannot cancel the rights of a minority. Finally, the debate is raising awareness about homophobia in Peru. There’s still a lot to do but it is clear that a change has already started.

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Image inviting to the pacific protest on the 12th of April

Agamben (1998) Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Standford University Press: California

‘Everyday unruliness’for social change

“Something is wrong with the world. You’ve felt it all your life. You feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth … the truth that you are a slave. You were born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch, a prison for your mind.” (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999)

These lines are from a film called ‘The Matrix’. In the film a character called Morpheus, appeared to be a structuralist guru, says to Neo, the protagonist, referring to the illusory world which resembles that of early-21st-century capitalism, where people go to work and  engage in all the activities of ‘daily life’. Morpheus exposes Neo to the lie of his existence. When Neo realizes he commits himself to resistance against the machines.

“According to structuralist theory, institutional discourses tell us who to be, what to believe,and how to behave, individually and collectively. We are born into sets of social relations ordered in discourses and images not of our own making, structured in ways that constrain critique and agency” (Cloud, 2006).But our highly esteemed philosopher friend Ranciere does not agree with the ideas of structuralism, let me use his words- the ‘police order’ is defining our ‘modes of being, doing, making, and communicating that establishes the borders between the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, the sayable and the unsayable’.It is happening everywhere, everyday.  When we write our essays,go to our Unruly Politics class and even when we write a blog about the police order. It also happens when the order tells us to read the impenetrable, ‘sophisticated’ text of Ranciere who thinks that,  a philosopher and a South Asian, international post graduate student in the UK who is  marginalised (in some way or another),  are the same,  because their intelligence is equal to each other.He also says that the two are in very different situations even if their intelligence is same.

For Ranciere, politics emerges with rupture within the natural social order that defines the social spaces and the social identities (Ranciere, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, 1999). Politics emerges when we disagree with the police order. Politics emerges when we occupy a street or a building and also when we put up some posters on the wall against the order. But then we go back to our ‘daily life’ just as it was and feel good about our involvement in politics. Politics becomes fashionable, part of our life- “hey! I occupy! Do u? I am cooler that u mate!!”

So what am really trying to say is that, the order is telling us what to do every moment of our life. Let’s not wait for something very bad to happen and occupy a street or building or whatever, let us occupy every single moment of lives and say NO to the police order. Let every moment of our life be a moment of rupture to prevent this from happening.

Shahbag: The Uprising

“Unruly politics exposes the fact that people are finding alternative spaces to engage politically because political and civil societies no longer provide the means to express citizens’ voices”(Tadros, 2011).

Bangladesh is a no stranger to political social movements. Even before attaining independencethe country had witnessed a myriad of social movements, political protests, youth mobilization, activism etc. But recently what has been most pronounced and caught maximum attention nationally has been the Shahbag Movement which took place in February 2013.

The rupture that was theShahbag movement where tens of thousands of people spontaneously emerged on the streets of Dhaka to protests the unfair lenient punishment meted out to war criminals is not an event that happened in isolation. To truly understand the movement, we have to trace the history leading up to it for which we will have to take you back 7 decades back where the seeds of the movement lie.

In 1947, during the partition of India, was the creation of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) purely on the basis of religion and not on culture or ethnicity. The two states were hugely different in every way, and West Pakistan being the dominant player continued to oppress and discriminate against East Pakistan.

The first upsurge against this oppression, and the first youth social movement was in 1952, when West Pakistan tried to enforce Urdu as the national language as opposed to Bengali, which people of East Pakistan spoke. Students protested to this in a big way, and the Pakistani military opened fire against them, resulting in many students losing their livesthus intensifying the movement and ensuring that Bengali was restored as the official language. Thus rose the image of the students martyr;the face of the student as an active participant in the political process of the country.

From 1958 to 1969 was the military rule in Pakistan. However Student social mobilisation, and activism continued in the country in many ways. In 1969 was the uprising against the military rule where students were in the forefront led by the All Party Student Action Committee, resulting in the end of the military rule.

In 1970’s general election, East Pakistan having the higher populationwas able to elect Sheikh MujiburRahman of Awami League. This was much to the displeasure of West Pakistan who refused to hand over the power to him. Sheikh MujiburRahman realised that gaining political power was never going to happen and announced an ultimatum that if he was not given his political rights, he would declare independence, having the legal authority to do so. On 25th March West Pakistan retaliated by orchestrating a mass killing before any social mobilization for independence could take place. Among others they targeted students and professors, a group of people who had already created their identity as political activists.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEidHJKTu00&hd=1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUCMCXfscgc

Thus rose the image of the student martyr again. Having always being at the heart of social movement in the country, they mobilised themselves to become one of the most prominent actors of the independence movement. For 9 months the struggle for independence continued. However not every Bengali was in favour of independence. Those who were not in favour, the pro Pakistani Bengali’s created 3 para-military forces and started going against the people of their own country,killingthose in favour of independence. The leaders of these forces were the leaders of a political partycalled Jammat-e-Islami.The pro-liberation majority looked on them as traitors. During the war of 1971, they perpetrated atrocities against civilians. On the 14th ofDecember 1971, having realized that independence was inevitable and imminent; the paramilitary forces assisted the West Pakistan military to conduct another mass killing of mainly the ‘Bengali Intellectuals’.

“… a group of senior Pak army officers and their civilian counterparts met in the city’s Presidential residence. They put together the names of 250 peoples to be arrested and killed, including the cream of Dacca’s professional circles not already liquidated during the civil war. Their arrests were made on Monday and Tuesday by marked bands of extreme right-wing Muslims belonging to an organization called the Al-BadarRazakar…Only hours before the official surrender was signed (on 16th), the victims were taken in groups to the outskirts of the city……where they were summarily executed……..” The Times, December 23, 1971

On 16th December 1971 after years of strugglethe free nation of Bangladesh emerged.

Independence however did not ensure any political stability for the country. After independence, Sheikh Mujib as the first president declared general amnesty to majority of the collaborators. The citizens ofBangladesh were not happy with this decision but accepted it.Jammat-e-Islamiwas banned from politics for 6 years, after which the ban was lifted with the help of a newly formed political party called Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Over the years BNP became one of the most influential political parties along with Awami League.

Despite the fact that the citizens of the country contained a certain amount of dissent about amnesty for war criminals, this feeling,lost precedence in the political battles between the few parties which was ongoing for 4 decades.

In the post-independence era, the feeling of nationalism was dominant in the minds of people and Awami League, whose political identity was always linked to pro-liberationsentiments, used this leverage to gain more power and popularity amongst the people. To feed into the anger of the common man, Awami League made it a point to maintain trials for war criminals in their political manifesto. Meanwhile, Jammat-e-Islami, taking support from the dominant political parties in the country was gaining power and prominence. This was possible mainly because most of the dominant parties like BNP often took support from Jammat-e-Islami for their political benefit. Over time, Jammat allied with BNP.

In 2009, keeping the hopes of justice for war criminals in the hearts of citizens alive yet again, Awami League, having come into power again, included the trials in their manifesto. Unlike previous occasions, this time, they start the trail procedure. The trails were of course had to be against the leaders of Jammat-e-Islami who were the leaders of the pro-Pakistani para-military forces.

The outcome of the trial was life sentence and not death sentence. The dominant feeling amongst the people of Bangladesh was that QuaderMolla, the leader of Jammat-e-Islami was let of really easily with the life sentence when the evidence clearly linked him to  mass murder and child rape during the 1971 war of liberation; crimes which command nothing short of death sentence. Also it is popular belief that Molla would only have to wait for the Government to change and his life sentence would be defunct. Even Molla accepted that he got off really lightly and his infamous ‘two fingered’ hand gesture while leaving the courtroom will go down in history as the first hand gesture to launch a mass movement. 

This was the one incident that led to the rupture that was Shahbag.The protests started the moment Molla stepped out of the courthouse with a group of online activists and bloggers vehemently opposing the verdict. They set up a camp in Shahbag square where they demonstrated a sit in. Shahbagis an intersection in the heart of Dhaka within Dhaka University. It took less than half an hour to put out the call for protest which were initially done through social media and later television channels. Student organisations who had always been on the forefront of political activism, were at Shahbag Square in no time and started demonstrating their opposition to the verdict.

“Unruly politics, as we define it, is political action by people who have been denied voice by the rules of the political game, and by the social rules that underpin this game. It draws its power from transgressing these rules while at the same time upholding others, which may not be legally sanctioned but which have legitimacy, deeply rooted in people’s own understandings of what is right and just”(Shankland et al., 2011).

These protestors painted murals on the road, drew cartoon and hanged effigies of war criminals. They chanted slogans, with a vow to continue demonstrating until their demands were met and death sentence announced for war criminals.

On the second day of the protests, the crowds started intensifying and more and more people joined in. By the third day, other towns and cities in Bangladesh also joined the demonstrations. By the fourth day morehundreds of thousands of people nationwide had joined the protest. Most actively involved in the protests were the youth, mainly the student organisations of the city. 

Shahbag movement was the first time of its kind in the history of Bangladesh that people had so spontaneously gathered in the streets and protested for so many days. The demonstrations at Shagbagcontinued for an entire month. Many protestors would sleep at night in the square. Some would go home and return next morning. Many would go to work and the return to the square in the evening to protest. Some protestors even started taking donations from the protesters to cook food in bulk for all who were protesting. People from all walks of life, all classes of society, across all age groupswere present at the protests.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v75XGOyryw&hd=1

Over the month that the demonstrations lasted, the atmosphere was like that of a carnival. There were vendors selling snacks. There were smalls groups within the crowd sitting in circles, reciting poems, playing guitars, making music. At the other end there was a play being staged. There was also a tailor sitting on the side, with his sewing machine, quickly sewing up replicas of the Bangladeshi flag for people to wear on their head. 

The nature of Shahbag was such that there was a unified consent and anger towards the decision of the trials. No political party in Bangladesh could manage to bring together tens of thousands of people and keep them in one place for so many days. It was the collective anger and feeing of nationalism which was able to bring people together. Many of whom has not been engaged in any kind of political activism before were also out on the streets protesting.

Talking to one of the student protestors about why Shagbag turned out to be such a big movement in the history of the country, he said, “This movement has been about the one thing that people have had a unified opinion for a long time. People in Bangladesh were adamant about the fact that war criminals must be prosecuted ad punished for the atrocities that they committed. This unified consent and anger led to the mass mobilization of people for this movement”

What happened over the days after the protests was a clear demonstration of the power of political parties who co-opted the movement and turned it around from its initial agenda. It got murkier with counter protests by the Jammat-e-Islami and the marked event of the death of a blogger who was one of the first to initiate the movement. The events that followed the movement and the repercussions on the protestors are essential to the movement, but not one that we can justice to in this blog. But Shahbag as a movement, in its magnitude, spontaneity and solidarity was a marvel and vision in itself.

“a given act cannot stay ‘unruly’ for long – when it is recognized as ‘political’ and engaged as such, it enters the lexicon of politics and becomes instead a recognized mode of political action”(Khanna, 2012, p . 166).

In a few days, the initial protestors and the original agenda was lost somewhere and other political manipulations had taken its place. The one definite outcome of the protest was that death sentence was awarded to QuaderMolla. As for what Shagbagh did for the people of Bangladesh, in the words of one of the protestors,

“People of the country had certain strong ideas and beliefs about thepro-liberation force and the anti-liberation force. These ideas were proved wrong. There was a clear understanding of what the pro-liberation force would do for the benefit of the country and its people as opposed to the anti-liberation force. What the people realised was that these two forces operate interdependently for the sake of power and nothing else. They don’t care for nationalism, the people or any kind of patriotism. In the process of these two forces collaborating with each other for sustenance, the people of the country are lost; accountability has become nil. This process of collaboration which had been concealed for so long, became transparent to the people through this movement. Despite the many challenges and frustrations that people face in Bangladesh everyday, the faith in the pro-liberation force and its commitment to justice was a hope that the people had held for a long time. This hope was shattered. It was never about the people. Everything was for the sake of Power.”

“‘politics’ refers to ‘interests’  that is the actions of individuals and groups in furtherance of their own particular and located interests” (Khanna, 2012, p. 162)

References:

Khanna, A., 2012. Seeing Citizen Action through an “Unruly”Lens. Development 55, 162–172.

Shankland, A., Burns, D., Hossain, N., Khanna, A., Scott-Villiers, P., Tadros, M., 2011. Unruly Politics: A manifesto. Brighton IDS Mimeo.

Tadros, M., 2011.The Politics of Unruly Ruptures.UNRISD News.

Photography and our complicated relationship with reality and so on and so on…

Last week I was strolling around Barcelona and, as I always love to do, I visited different museums. I ended up in the MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, where a collective exhibition called Invocable Reality was taking place. According to the curator explanation this exhibition intended to explore possible perspectives on reality from art practices. Based on the premise that we maintain a complicated relationship with reality and at the same time there is a “passion for the real”, for that which is credible, genuine.

But, before I continue however, a caveat is due here.

The following narrative should be viewed as a dialogue I had with myself. Not that I am a schizophrenic, but I have to admit that I find myself quite often talking with my inner voice (don’t we all?). I would guess that I am more a “schizo” as Deleuze and Guattari (and Foucault) would put it. This is, a little bit of neurosis is good as it is an inner force that permanently questions everything. Therefore, this blog entry is a cocktail party version of my wandering thoughts about some philosophical readings and, as such, does not constitute a coherent body of thought (so, bear with me!). But, I thought it was worthwhile sharing as it touches some issues we have seen in class and my own preoccupations about aesthetics, among other things…

A political ontology of photography or how photography is political. 

So, back to the main story!

Confronted with works by artist from different back grounds and generations I was so fascinated that I spend 4 hours in the museum without noticing it. Some of the questions posed by Invocable Reality where: Is there a reality outside our perception? Does it imply the affirmation of reality both in life and death? Is extreme violence the price we pay to unlock some layers of reality? Is our everyday a reality? Or does reality lie elsewhere? Can art have a bearing on reality? Many more questions rushed in my mind, heavily biased by my passion for photography: What is it that makes photography unique? If no objective reality can be represented truthfully, so what does a photography represents? What is its essential nature? Can a photograph have a bearing on reality, or is it just fiction?

But, let us examine what can surprise us here. If, indeed, one could easily assume that photography produced fictions, how could such a definition be applied to politics? Would it not rather the sense of the Real and the effort to govern that define politics?

The photograph is merely one event in a sequence that constitutes photography and which always involves a trinity of the spectator, the photographer and the individual(s)/situation(s) portrayed. And in this trinity relations of partnership, solidarity, and sharing can potentially come into being at the expense of alternate meanings set by the dominant ideology. This is due to inherent characteristics of a photography as it constitutes a proof; an immersion in an experience where the viewer is not involved making the world more available as it is, yet it is not passive, it can arouse conscience because it is always sentimental. (Sontag 1979)

But, photographs are not constructions of reality, they are a specific representation of a specific event of reality framed by the photographer. An image is the “presence of the thing in its absence” as Lechte (2012) put it. At the same time we will be able to say with certainty that what we see is faithful to what was there as it is a re-representation of a past reality. As such, a “Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or o snowflake” (Bazin 1:13) Because of this photography’s ontology, photography can be defined to an extent by a dynamic tension between the particular and the whole, it is, an instant that has the potentiality to change the immanent whereby the world is forced to question itself. I am referring here to the socio-political effects and opportunities arising from that distinctive tension.

Here is when Rancière comes to my mind. As he examines the relationship between art and politics by pointing out that politics and art have similar activities, which is source of an eternal latent conflict between these two forms of expression. The source of this conflict exist in that both create fictions and work with the same subject, the sensitive.

As he further claims, the social and political system is founded on the distribution of the sensible, it is an aesthetic order in a broad sense of the term. In this sense, Rancière points out that, all reality is “a construction of space where the visible, the sayable and doable are linked”, all reality is the process of a fiction, a dominant fiction! In other words, for Rancière establishing the Real is setting the ways of feeling.

So, how does art and politics construct the fiction that configures the world?

The “work of fiction” of art is to dissent: art blurs the homogenous construction of “common sense” and the world that it establishes; it disrupts established meanings, reunites opposites, and expresses what should not be expressed, and so on. The aim is thus, using Rancière’s words, “…to produce rupture in the delicate fabric of perceptions and the dynamics of emotions.”  True “aesthetic rupture”, he claims, brings out a “common sense polemic”, a dissenting and singular sensibility, facing the “common sense” that frame the political fiction.

In this regard, photography has the potentiality of altering the distribution of the sensible. It allows us to project our self toward diverse possibilities, and may even generate a spontaneity of responsibility to the Other as it serves as “evidential force”. However, a photography does not promote understanding, it stimulates a reordering of relationship with the world as it goes beyond the mere making of an “aesthetic judgment” by the spectator.

I will give one random example of a photograph that allow us to “see” the interplay of art and politics in the construction/de-construction of the Real.

The “Napalm Girl Photo”.

A naked girl runs with a group of other children after the accidental napalm bombing of a Vietnamese village (Trang Bang, South Vietnam). The name of this girl is Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and she was shortly taken to the hospital by Ut, the photographer. Thirty percent of Phuc’s body was burned by third-degree burns. This was one of the images that brought the atrocity of the Vietnamese war into the world’s attention. 

image                

Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut, Trang Bang, Vietnam – Terror of War, 1973

The content of the photograph in itself is very potent. It represent a horrifying image of the Vietnam War, the suffering of children. This suffering is felt so strong, so traumatic that it constitute as the Real, in the Lacanian sense. This is that which resist symbolisation, its inclusion in the world of meaning, in the daily experience of our live.

As we are used to read from left to right, our eyes tend to first lock on the left side of the photography. So, we firstly observe a boy clearly crying in despair, we then see the naked body of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, her face more in pain, and finally the young boy and girl holding hands, as they try to escape from the horror together. Somehow they look as they do not understand the horrible situation that is evolving around them. This sequence and the fact that the subjects are situated in different planes makes us examine the image so that we feel the “hierarchy” of pain:

The fact that this image has been shot in black-and-white constitutes an additional element. It somehow reinforces pain, it makes the naked girl in the centre represent the most shocking and horrific image. The contrast between the soldiers and escaping children, and the whites that highlights the children’s skin also highlight the children’s suffering. Are the soldiers just standing by? Why is this happening?  WHY? The edges of the road give us a hint as they act as lines that begin to converge, they somehow lead our eye to the origin of the horror, reminding the viewer that the reason for these children’s suffering is because of the napalm. Words cannot convey the sensations this photograph produces. As such, a photograph can situate us beyond the “wall of language”.

This was a very polemic photograph for the time, as it was the only picture of such shocking nature from the Vietnam War. “The fact that the photographer captured this moment of napalm bombs being dropped was very important as well, since what made the Vietnam War so contentious, was this use of chemical weapons which would target not just the enemy soldiers, but thousands of innocent civilians.” (McDonnell nd)

As can be seen, the potency of this photograph resides in the way in which it may alter the distribution of the sensible. In some sense, because this photograph made “reality” seemed less real.

For those who like happy “endings” it seems that this particular story, that not has not ended yet, is a happy one. Kim Phuc, became a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to help victims war and started a foundation with a similar objective. If you are interested in the whole story you will find it HERE

By the way, she is a mother of two sons and is turning 42 this year…

Photography and the transposition of reality.

I have to acknowledge that I have depicted a partial view of the relationship of photography and the political. Consequence, off course, due to that my project in understanding of the ontology of photography is still in process. But, I hope that I have made a case that a photography is not only a mere re-representation but more importantly a transposition of reality as it sets the way of feelings. In that sense, I think a photograph can invoke the real, I put emphasis on invoke as it does it in a partial way. At the end, it is not the “visible” at all which is the essential subject of photography. Bazin in his book The Ontology of the Photographic Image in What is Cinema states: “photography ranks high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely a hallucination that is also a fact”. 

Obviously, I do not mean by this that all images have political consequences, it is the intentionality of the photographer that activates this characteristic in the image. Notwithstanding, from an ontological standpoint a possibility is the very root of existence. It is the mere possibility of unruly politics based on the re-reading and reinterpretation.

By Woody Wong Espejo

References

Bazin, A. and Gray, H. (1960). The ontology of the photographic image. Film Quarterly, 13(4), pp.4—9.

La Grange, A. (2005). Basic critical theory for photographers. 1st ed. Oxford: Elsevier Focal Press.

Lechte, J. (2012). Genealogy and ontology of the Western image and its digital future. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

McDonnel http://theafricanwriter.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/deconstruct-an-image-napalm-girl/

Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Valran, V. (2010) Sergei Podgorkov’s Leningrad photographs. Philosophy of Photography Volume 1 Number 1 doi: 10.1386/pop.1.1.89/7 

Politics of the Invisible

Reading Partha Chatterjee’s ‘Politics of the Governed’ turned out to be a very emotional journey for me. It took me back to my beloved Kolkata, my hometown, the place where I grew up and the way in which I saw the city change in the 15 years that I lived there. After reading the article, what was most remarkable for me was to realise the intensely political nature of the major changes that were taken place in the city; political processes which were completely invisible to me. 

Before starting to talk about some of the stories that Chatterjee shares in the article, I want to share about my personal ignorance and oblivion to any political issues while I was growing up. I grew up in one of the most politically charged cities in India with a very active CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist) in power. But that meant absolutely nothing to me. I never joined any of the Student’s Unions or student protests. The most politically active student’s party – The Students Federation of India (SFI) was a non-reality for me. I did not even know who they were or that these students were operating all around me. Not only was I in oblivion, I was also extensively discouraged, almost shielded from politics. My family had told me from a very young age that I would go to college in Mumbai where the student political engagement was inexistent as opposed to the hugely political Student Union movement that was going on across all the colleges of Kolkata.

At every instance, I was told by everyone around me that ‘politics’ is ‘dirty’ and thus not for ‘us’. ‘Us’ being the urban, educated middle class; superior in comparison to the inferior status of those who engaged in politics.  I would go far enough to say that we were the ‘Bengali Intellectuals’ who had no need to engage in politics but felt the immense need to declare the inferiority of those who ‘had’ to or ‘chose’ to engage in political society; while basking in the superiority of our position in the social strata defined by our estranged relationship with politics.

For ‘Us’, politics was more about headlines in newspapers, frivolous conversations, entertainment over drinks, evening time chats and debates over cups of tea; often a subject of comic relief and ridicule. The evenings would end, the tea would be finished, and our engagement with politics would be over.

 “Refugees, landless labourers, homestead, below poverty line are all demographic categories of governmentality. That is the ground on which they define their claims” (Chatterjee, 2004, p 59)

The Societal boundaries which I grew up in, made me believe that politics was only for the poor, the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, those who needed to avail Government services, subsidies etc These were the people who the political parties came to for vote banks. These were the people affected by changes in political agenda. This is what appeared to be – ‘The politics of the Governed’. Looking back, the only thing that I can assume is that, ‘we’ did not fall into any of these categories. Our lives were not dependent on the ‘claims’ that we were making to the Government. Is that why politics was unnecessary for us? As for ‘these’ people, how they engaged, negotiated and sustained in the political society was of no concern to me. I never gave it a thought. For me it was the ‘Politics of the Invisible.’

 “… claims were political, and they could only be made on political terrain where rules can be stretched, and not on the procedure of law and administrative procedure” (Chatterjee, 2004, p60).

I guess this was the primary reason for the disdain and discouragement that the middle class had for active political engagement.  The space where rules could be bent, stretched and modified was murky ground. Clear cut administrative processes, defined legal boundaries were the rules which governed the middle class ideals we lived our lives by.  We followed the ‘rules’ and behaved like ‘good citizens’ carefully refraining from ‘messy’ situations.

Reading Chatterjee’s article made me realise the impact and important of politics for certain sections of populations whose everyday existence very much depended political connections, changes and negotiations.

While my family shielded me from any kind of political engagement, I could see how politics action was very much inscribed into the visual landscape of the city. Local level politicians, stopping traffic in the middle of a main street, erecting a mic, putting together a few chairs and giving an emotionally charged animated speech was an everyday sight.  

I remember this one instance when, my friend told me about a CPI(M) rally  being held close by, where they were giving out packets of Biriyani ( one my favorite Indian dishes) to entice people to participate. My love for Biriyani and oblivion to consequences made me happily follow my friend to the rally. At the rally, I did not even stop to think about the hugely animated claims that the speakers were making, quietly took my packet of Biriyani and enjoyed a meal with my friends.

However, when I casually shared the story over dinner, I got a scolding from my Dad, who very clearly told me that I was no longer allowed to resort to such cheap activities. I wonder how much of idea of the ‘dirt’ in politics came from the fact that the people who were considered to be the ‘dirt’ of the city were actively engaging in it. Of course it could also be for the overriding corruption that was popular belief for politics in Kolkata. But having realised the continuous and active political engagement certain demarcated groups of people were struggling to face every day, I cannot help but think otherwise.

Going back to Chatterjee’s stories of engagement with political society, I remember two of these instances well as they were happening very much in front of me.  The first was the demolition of the vendors who were occupying the pavements of Gariahat. Gariahat being in an extremely central and prime location in Kolkata, these vendors or ‘hawkers’ were the delight of middle class shopping, as they sold a variety of products at very reasonable prices, always willing to bargain.

When the demolition of Gariahat was taking place, strangely called ‘Operation Sunshine’, we barely spent 2 minutes talking about it. “The pavement stalls were clearly performing an important economic function and providing low level but vital source of livelihood to thousands of people” (Chatterjee, 2004, p61 ). But I remember the only response I got from one of aunts, was “too bad! We used to get some very good bargains there. Where will we go for cheap shopping now?” and that was it. We never thought about what would happen the ‘hawkers?’ Did they even receive the rehabilitation they were promised?

Few years back when I went back to Kolkata, I found a huge mall in the same place where the hawkers used to have their stalls. I then wondered about what happened to them. Where then did they go? What happened to their livelihoods? How did they sustain after the demolition? I felt sad to realise that they were completely invisible to me while they were right in front of me, struggling to engage with political society, struggling to sustain. By the time I actually wanted to know about them, they truly had become invisible. 

The other instance is that of Rajarhat.  Rajarhat was a place where I used to go to get away from the city. The open fields and open roads were the perfect atmosphere for romantic drives, and the serenity, unachievable in the city. I used to enjoy looking at the people working in the fields, the children running around. But when news of Rajarhat being turned into a commercial ‘new town’ was declared, I did not consider how the lives of those people would change. We kept hearing about the farmers’ resettlement and how investors and real estate builders were offering prices ‘beyond expectations’ to these farmers for their land. But the reality was completely unknown. Were there some who were over compensated and some who received nothing?

 “The decisions taken by the governmental authorities, hides the actual negotiations that must have taken place in political society” (Chatterjee, 2004, p 73).

Again, ‘we’ just speculated about the political process of changing Rajarhat over our evening conversation and watched the green fields being turned into a glittering ‘New Town.’ 

When Chatterjee says, “not every population group is able to operate successfully in political society” (2004, p 60), I wonder whether the huge middle class population automatically goes into the ‘successful’ category or we don’t count at all. Or maybe it was just my family who were fortunate or ‘smart’ enough to never have to engage with any kind of political society. As stated by Aristotle, “citizen is someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed” (Rancière, 2013, p 12). Going by this definition, I should not even count as citizen. Apart from going to a rally purely for free food, I have had absolutely no engagement with politics. But what now? Have we changed? Have I changed? The world of politics and how different groups are continuously engaging and struggling in political society has been opened to me. But nothing has changed. Politics still continues to be the speculation of our evening chats over tea, entertainment over drinks…..

For years, political society around me continued to be invisible. The people who were affected by politics were invisible. However I realise now that Iit was not the ‘Politics of the Governed’ that was invisible to me. It was I who was invisible in the entire process and I continue to be invisible.

References:

Chatterjee, P., 2004. The politics of the governed: reflections on popular politics in most of the world. Columbia University Press.

 Rancière, J., 2013. The politics of aesthetics. A&C Black.

‘Speaking from the Unruliness’

Unruliness: the condition of being disposed to disobedience or indiscipline

(Collins Dictionary)

Wednesday, 14th of May, 9.30 am. It is my second day at Barcelona, Spain, and I am going to occupy a bank.

I am meeting a group of activists in a public square in the city center. On my way, I feel excited but also nervous and uncomfortable. The action is secret – I do not know yet which bank I am going to occupy. All external signals – T-shirts, pins, placards… are hidden. What are we going to do exactly? What are we asking for? What can happen if things do not go ‘well’? What are my red lines about my position?

When I arrive to the meeting point I cannot avoid myself counting, the number of policemen that I can see, I do it almost unconsciously: How many they are? Where they are? Which banks I can see in the square – which one are we occupying???… I could not imagine myself, a quite formal and obedient Spanish woman, doing this some years ago.

 Then I see that group of people, ‘the crowd’. Automatically I feel relax and welcome, protected:

Pau[1]: ‘Good morning! How are you? Thanks for coming. We are very few affected people in this bank and we need all support. Today we are blocking the bank, not occupying it’

Me: ‘Brilliant. Could you explain me the difference between a block and an occupation, please?’

Talking about blocks and occupations as an ordinary way to start the day, we walked to the bank, Novagalicia now I know which one (thankfully I am not a client), to force a negotiation with the management.

The problem behind this action is a very complex one. To put it in very simple words: as a result of the economic crisis and this bank’s operations – among many other reasons –  many Spanish people have lost their houses and savings[2]. Today we-they are defending the rights of 17 affected people who cannot pay their mortgages. They are going to be evicted and still be obliged to pay part of the debt. This is the evil trap of the Spanish law. The activists want to negotiate a real solution. To negotiate they have to make their voice be heard.

 It is 10 am. We arrive to the bank. I remain in a secondary line, after the experienced activists. We all wear normal clothes. The action starts, working as a well-rehearsed performance. First, some people enter to the bank and simulate to be clients. Second, some of them open the bank door and block it. Third, part of the group enters the bank and ‘occupies’ the place. Forth, suddenly and simultaneously, all people inside and outside the bank dress their ‘true colours’: put their activist T-shirts on, unfold the placards, start making noise (sirens, music…), start throwing leaflets and confetti all around the place, shouting ‘Yes it is possible, yes it is possible’. Fifth, 3 activists quickly announce with a megaphone that they form the negotiation commission and want to talk to the bank’s director. In the meantime, outside the whole front building is covered with leaflets, placards and messages.

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‘This bank cheats, defrauds and evicts people from their houses’

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‘We rescue people, not banks – Yes it is possible’

Outside buses, taxis and cars start showing their support, hooting their horns. I cannot believe what I am seeing: 60 people – young, old, Spanish, immigrant, evicted, not evicted – acting in coordination, in apparently unruly ways but with a distinct order inside the disobedience and the chaos, challenging the power of banks and unfair laws, feeling the owners and protagonists of their actions, fighting to be considered and take part in the decisions that affect them.

‘This is the strength of the Platform’, says somebody. ‘The strength of making collective your individual problems, the strength of the fight: if they touch one of us, they touch all of us’.

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Not all of it is exciting. It is hard and painful. ‘I am very nervous, I cannot be inside today’, says Pau. His situation is being negotiated right now.

Their messages and demands are clear: ‘This bank steals and cheats’, ‘This bank evicts people from their houses’, ‘Social rents right now’.

It is 12pm. The commission announces that the negotiation is going well and Marta, one of the affected people, is about to get a social rent. All we clap and celebrate the good news.

I am touched.

What has happened? The Mortgage Victims Platform has happened (PAH, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca[1]). A movement that has changed the dominant discourse in Spain, that has made even ‘formal’ people like me to question and reconsider the concept of justice and democracy that we experience and feel in our daily lives. It makes us question who are the winners and the losers of this economic and inhuman crisis and system. They have made us believe that it is true: we can create new meanings, we can create new spaces. And yes, sometimes ‘contentious issues require contentious forms of mobilisation’[2].

I leave the bank singing:

‘Lo llaman democracia y no lo es’

‘They call it democracy and it is not’

I say good bye:

Me: ‘All the best Pau, see you soon’

He: ‘See you soon! Tomorrow is Thursday? We have action’ (another)

Me: ‘See you then’

I smile. I start to feel how PAH warms and occupy your daily life.

(I must confess: I cannot help worrying about how dirty we leave the place and the damages caused to the building… Is it necessary? How can I reconcile my ruly and unruly dimensions?)

P.S. 7.30pm. I receive a whatsapp: ‘Novagalicia refuses any negotiation under pressure. We decide to occupy the bank indefinitely. We need support. Will you come? Alone you arrive sooner; together we go further’


[1] All names are pseudonyms to protect the activists’ anonymity

SOMA, 13 MAY 2014

Photo: Gündüz Akagündüz/Nar Photos

By now it’s more than 250 miners died in the mine explosion in Turkey. Some reporters say that medics put oxygen masks on dead people in order to prevent rage among families from escalating. It can never be enough.

There are many things to be said about mine conditions in Turkey, about how we refused to sign ILO’s Mine Security Agreement for 19 years, how this Company reduced cost “significantly”, how the ruling party recently declined a proposal from the opposition party for investigation for the same mine. These questions are running on my timeline in facebook now. People are organising a protest tonight. Unions started doing things. One is especially very effective: putting black ribbons on tomorrow!!!

Anyway, the reason I am writing now on this blog is the silent fight I gave at IDS. Since the beginning of classes I tried to include Turkey and countries alike (and there are many) in class discussions. Not because I don’t care about the rest obviously but I knew I would go back to Turkey and would be applying what I learned here in NGOs etc. I often get the look saying “what are you whining about; Turkey is not a poor country”.

Yes, it’s getting richer as well. It’s getting richer while negligence in a mine results in a massacre, a 15 year old boy found dead in that mine or silicosis kills many in a country considered to be a success story in exporting blue jeans.