Academic journal article New Formations

Collecting Time: Some Reflections on the Psychopolitics of Belonging

Academic journal article New Formations

Collecting Time: Some Reflections on the Psychopolitics of Belonging

Article excerpt

The pro-democracy uprisings stretching from North Africa and the Middle East to the central squares of Madrid and Athens during the Spring of 2011, and the Occupy movement (1) for social and economic justice that these uprisings inspired, share something of a common aesthetic in the form of a camp or encampment. A return to the physical occupation of strategic central public spaces during these protests gains some of its resonant power and political efficacy through the intergenerational scenes it evokes, drawing on an instantly recognizable activist history of protest camps, occupations and sit-ins that is at once evocative of events in numerous geopolitical locations of 1968 (2) and at the same time thoroughly specific to the locations of its contemporary manifestations. (3) The material occupation of public space in the form of an encampment--one that includes, for instance, temporary dwellings, the means to generate food and warmth, areas and platforms for debate, learning and discussion, areas for recreation, regeneration and cultural, artistic and religious expression, as well as sites of mourning, as in the case of Tahrir Square in Egypt--exposes a series of tender boundaries. We might identify these as the boundaries between impermanence and settlement; between public and private habits and practices; between safety and brutality; and more broadly between that old conjunction, the 'personal' and political. It is curiously compelling to witness protesters, for instance, whether in Egypt, or the various Occupy encampments that were in dialogue with the Arab Spring during the latter part of 2011, waking up in the early hours of the morning, cleaning up their too-vulnerable bodies after what looks like little sleep, attending to the minutiae of personal hygiene in the context of massive political change. As Charlie Hailey draws out in his seminal work on camps, protest camps sit within a wider history of camps whose purpose is to instantiate autonomy, and nevertheless have a relation to camping as a leisure activity, to camps that are necessarily for survival, and camps whose sole purpose is that of control and extermination. (4) Twenty first century camp experience, as Hailey puts it, can be thought of as 'trauma, strategy or incomplete liberation' (Camps, p13). But perhaps protest camps in particular draw out the thin line (like the thin canvas sheet that separates the interior of the tent from the exterior public space) between the individual and the collective. I want to suggest that the materiality of bodies 'living together' in public space, despite the focus put on the integral role played by social media in recent uprisings, has particular resonance with protest practices developed in preceding decades, and draws some of its efficacy and potency from such resonance. What is 'staged', during such events, is the materiality of collectivity itself. The link between 1968 and 2011 has been noted by the sociologist Michael Kennedy, writing in the ezine, Jadaliyya about the relation between the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. (5) For Kennedy, despite the focus many analysts have put on the relation between 2011 and 1989 (the year in which east European dictatorships were overturned by democratically driven civil societies), it is 1968 that offers the more helpful resonance. Whilst it is true that in 1989, civil society led the changes as in 2011, Kennedy maintains that what is different is that in 1989 national and global geopolitical forces reinforced those changes for their own strategic reasons, with even the USSR, for complex reasons, ultimately using its power to facilitate democratic movements. This has not been the case with the Arab Spring, where European nations have not been prepared to be as invested in the emancipation of 2011 as they were in 1989. Linking together the Arab Spring, the anti-austerity occupations in Madrid and Athens, the continuing struggles in Egypt, Yemen and Syria, and the Occupy movement, Kennedy argues that like 1968, 2011 had no road map other than a desire for ending dictatorship and random and brutal violence, enabling open association and speech, and a call for global social and economic justice. …

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