Occupying Boundaries.

28 Oct

when i moved to berlin 8 years ago (wow…), my first semester at uni was a very exciting one for many reasons; one of them, that it was not about studying at all. besides adjusting to a 3.5 million people-city, coming from a town of 15,000 people, and trying to grow up a little more on several levels (not that it’s done… ;)), coming to uni was a special experience, because this was the semester of something that happens periodically at universities:  a student strike against the looming introduction of tuition fees, the infamous chronic underfunding of public education and the traditionally hierarchical and increasingly neoliberal structuring and orientation of university politics.

during my first semester, in 2003/2004, this cycle had reached “point zero” again, and thousands of people got angry, attended plenary assemblies for hours, occupied buildings, planned direct actions, and marched  on a daily basis. one of the projects i was immediately involved in was the attempt to establish an “alternative” university structure, i.e. to provide the opportunity for students, teaching personal, non-academics and people who were just interested to come together in “open seminars”, discussing literature/politics/culture, learning a new language, etc., without the requirements of possessing a certain degree or falling into the increasingly small range of people accepted for uni enrollment due to a numerus clausus. the project was called “the open university of berlin” (offene uni berlins), and after repeated and tense negotiations with the university’s administration, it was actually recognised as a student initiative and even given a facility on campus. as the name suggests, this project’s most prominent asset, “openness”, turned out to be its strength and greatest weakness simultaneously and, ultimately, led to its closure a couple of years ago because it just ran out of control, sense and use.

as with (almost) all emerging social initiatives or even movements, channeling the various angles people are coming from in critiquing certain circumstances, events or even political systems is a bit of a challenge, to say the least. there seem to be some kind of “automatic” filters: e.g., people who were in it out of sheer curiosity or because of some sort of attention deficit problem seem to lose interest quite quickly, after a 8-hour-long plenary assembly at the latest. then there are certain processes, i.e., coming up with an agenda or programme and plan of action that some people disagree with, so the focus seems to clarify a bit further again.

however, “agenda” can mean many things, from working out an alternative budget/programme/structure to simply “we don’t want: …” without wanting to sound condescending, agreeing on the one thing you’re all against, e.g. bank bailouts,  is actually a great first step. it is, nonetheless, just one.

attending  “occupy wall street” (OWS) rallies and demonstrations about two weeks ago in new york city (…whereas this movement has now spread to hundreds of cities in the US and worldwide), the slogans, the people, the signs, the atmosphere were curiously reminiscent of the “open university” project and student strike and other political events i had attended before in berlin. as the open university and the student strike did, OWS seemed to put a particular emphasis on its “openness” to all sorts of people and ideas.

OWS in NYC actually has a general assembly that came up with a declaration; yet, despite the focus on the devastating impact of stock market “fails” and wall street in particular, it remains rather unclear what the movement stands for on a broader scale, i.e. regarding social inequality structures that are not uniquely related to wall street speculation; and that rang all sorts of “open university” bells (…which is not a good sign).

i agree that “openness” sounds awesome. this is how you invite and motivate people to get up and come along, this is how you make people feel welcome. it seems to be the exact opposite from what many people who are discriminated against experience on a daily basis, i.e., being shut out from certain communal identities, entitlements, spaces, rights. yet, the funny things about “openness” as a stand-alone political strategy is its follow-up rigidity and re-enforcement of these exact discrimination structures it supposedly fights, in my experience. “openness”, in this form, brings a hell lot of problems. i will even go so for to say that openness on its own is not a political concept, and is not even a value in itself without certain prerequisites.

from my experience with “openness”, it first of all means to have the same fucking discussions over and over again, instead of laying down certain groundwork, certain principles on which one can build and move forward. i did not and still do not see the point of having to argue on a weekly basis about whether it is O.K. to not have any women on a committee, for example, or to call yourselves a workshop about racism without a single person of colour. these things should be settled from the start, and there’s a bare minimum, in my opinion: no racism, no sexism, no anti-semitism, no heterosexism, no cis-sexism, no ableism. deal? deal. if people cannot agree on that, i don’t think that they should be allowed to take part in a supposedly “open” space.

and here’s why: the hypocrisy and irony of “openness” as a political concept seems to be, that the creation of allegedly “open” space often results in the fact that people occupy and appropriate open space quickly and thoroughly. and mostly, those people are the ones who have certain training in doing this, or at least are used to being treated as if their experiences were “universal” and they can, therefore, speak for “everybody”: white, male, educated, cis-gendered, able-bodied people. in the blink of an eye, “openness” reproduces and re-enforces the exact same structures it pretends to fight against – because self-reflection only goes so far… – and tends to undermine or shut out the voices of people of colour, women, non-academics, and many others who don’t have the chance to find out at an early age how to defend and sustain dominance.

so, coming back to OWS: there were remarkably many people of colour who were spokes people at the NYC rally – and remarkably few “average” demonstrators of colour. hence, putting people of colour on pedestals seems to be a bit of a hypocritical move if you somehow are unable to attract many people of colour for your protests, and, coincidentally, have a bit of a history of race fails (which might explain the somehow and coincidentally).

moreoever, and as many critiques of capitalism apparently run the risk by default, a – let’s say… – certain proximity to anti-Semitism seemed on the verge of breaking lose at the OWS rallies (and certainly also at “open university”). i was actively trying to overlook the “jobs, not war” and “end all help for israel”-signs (which wasn’t easy, believe me), because, obviously, dumbing down complicated situations like middle eastern conflicts is somewhat of a favourite past-time for new lefties. however, someone could not help but slap you in the face with a simplified personalized capitalism-critique, blown up 2 metres high, and the only thing lacking was a crooked nose. [it looks like they borrowed the one attac used to drag along…] so, this would be worth a whole post on its own, but i’m just going to leave it with answering that move by pointing to this article – with which i have certain issues, but agree with its analysis of the potentially anti-Semitic streak of many critiques of “money capitalism” (as shown by many OWS protesters).

now, i can hear people yelling through the internetz: “you can’t control everything! that wasn’t my blow-up-capitalist!” and of course, they’re right. i still maintain that you can actually control a lot of shit by drawing certain boundaries beforehand, e.g. by publicly endorsing the short “no -ism”-list, but yes, shit happens. and sometimes, it is mostly about how you react to shit. people certainly did not seem bothered about the blow-up doll and the signs. and the one party in germany that can’t but constantly talk about their overarching goals of left-liberalism, transparency and openness, the so-called “pirates”, cannot be bothered to deal with the fact that their openness has allowed some (allegedly ex-)fascists to have a pretty good standing within their own ranks. both is in the name of openness, and openness seems to trump everthing else.

to make the triad complete, there’s that other thing i love: sexism and outright misogyny! and guess what? OWS has it (…and so did “open niversity”)! and one of the most charming examples of “open” activism is the project of steven greenstreet, who launched a blog called “hot chicks of occupy wall street”, where he published photos and videos he took of women who were at the protests (and he deems hot enough) or, respectively, he interviewed about their reasons why. consent or release forms? hah! lingering shots on boobs? sure! telling women it was for a website under this name? please!

again: there’s always some jackass playing dress-up as oh-so-liberal-thus-automatically-anti-sexist. yet, proving again that a lot of guys who’d call themselves progressives certainly don’t give a shit about misogyny as long as it’s sexaaay, greenstreet’s creepiness was not only excused as “boys will be boys”, but actually labelled as furthering the movement, since all these hawt babes on the internet will thankfully lure guys to the rallies, and now “we” will be oh-so-powerful because of all the dedicated masses (and all the boners)! yeah. oh, and of course feminists are ugly, man-hating humourless, frigid bitches who are just jealous that they could never make the top ten – steven greenstreet has a lot of very liberal friends who defend his actions and his rape jokes.

ah, and speaking of rape: as it so happens in “open” spaces, some people think that openness actually means “i can grab who i want”. i am not going to argue that this is OWS’ fault, but i am arguing that OWS is doing a shit job in reacting to it and protecting people, when they send out the message that victims of sexual harassment are allowed to call the police but certainly discouraged from it, and should rather talk to the three people who were appointed to deal with these kinds of situations. Certainly, the police is not a very big help when it comes to justice for rape victims, and there are additional, specific problems with police intervention in social movements – duh! yet, the “solution” to sexism, misogyny and sexual harassment is to keep it in the family and don’t make such a big fuss about it? clearly the most disgusting thing i have found out about OWS yet.

again, i personally think it is a problem of “openness” movements in general: when people reported about discriminatory behaviour at “open university”, there were people who actually cared about it, and others who rolled their eyes and suggested victims should solve things on their own and not be such wusses. so: suck it up, for solidarity!

thank you, openness, that sounds nothing like what some people have to do on a daily basis to assure they’re still in “their place”… “openness” is not enough. “openness” is not a value in itself. open for whom? for which type of behaviour? to what ends? mere “openness” perpetuates domination – be it in a company where most women only get promoted when there’s a clear and binding structure of achievement evaluation (in contrast to informal openness, chats with the boss and bonuses, disbursed as sex worker visits), or be it occupying liberty park or a university building, where the failure to recognize the importance of certain boundaries results in the perpetuation of racism, potential anti-Semitism and sexual harassment. that’s not my kind of openness, and it should not be yours.

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6 Responses to “Occupying Boundaries.”

  1. magda October 30, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    one of the smartest things that i’ve read about occupy wall street so far! i’m currently trying to write something about my difficulties with this movement and i find it pretty hard to write down what actually bothers me so much… you clarified a few things for me… thanks!

    • accalmie October 30, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

      hi magda, thanks for stopping by and commenting :). and yes, i too had trouble writing something, that’s why this comes rather late – it’s a fuzzy feeling of discomfort that is hard to articulate until you actually recognise what the problem is (for you, personally). looking forward to your article!

  2. SnowdropExplodes October 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    That’s a very interesting piece.

    One note on terminology: you use “open university” to refer to the Open University of Berlin model, but in the UK there is an organisation called the Open University, that offers degree-level courses by distance learning and is a very respected part of our higher education structure (and generally serves to help those who have to work for a living full-time to learn part-time and achieve a recognised and respected degree). it isn’t, however, run on the same basis of “openness” that you discuss. Just wanted to clarify that.

    I think it’s an excellent post and outlines what my scepticism is about what amounts to a laissez-faire version of collective activism.

    It’s an interesting point about anti-Semitism: it’s been a feature of anti-Semitism going back to the early Middle Ages that it has been linked to hating banks and bankers, and I wonder how much the images of the hated bankers are not consciously anti-Semitic, but still derive from those earlier associations?

    • accalmie October 31, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting, SnowdropExplodes! I had actually heard about the UK’s “Open University” before and did not know what to make of it – thank you for clarifying!

      I think you are absolutely right that, when it comes to the question of “hating banks” and anti-Semitism, people come back to a certain historical tradition of personalising capitalism.

      i would agree to a certain extent with OWS’ critique of banks’ actions (e.g., speculating on the bankruptcy of states or the prices of basic goods, and the policy of only partially disclosing risks to clients who then lose all of their retirement savings), but this citique often seems not only limited in scope, but intrinsically linked to the actual person “evil banker” and a tradition of hatred for certain people, instead of questioning an economic system that makes this type of behaviour profitable.

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