Personal thoughts (scroll to the good bit if it makes you feel icky)
Lockdown is hard. Shielding is hard, and if I didn’t have such an amazing community of support around me, it would be so much harder. And I am shielding in the most privileged of circumstances. It is safe where I am. As many others have noted, the medical conditions that put me in the ‘extremely vulnerable’ camp, have also given me a load of tools, and lowered expectations, to get through the day. One of the things that has really got to me, however, is not something that I saw coming. Feeling vulnerable rather than valuable, and reliant rather than productive has shone a light on my value structure; for good and for ill. We know that the productivity drive in lockdown is unhealthy, but when a team of people that I have always enjoyed working with got in touch and floated an idea I was grateful, and excited.
I am excited to announce that from Monday 11th May 2020 I will be curating Vivienne Westwood’s Intellectuals Unite book club online on my Instagram @ProfLRobinson
I started meeting, talking and thinking with Vivienne and her IOU: Intellectuals Unite in 2016. What struck me straight away was that this is not some retro punk celebration, especially at the time of the 40th anniversary of punk celebrations. Intellectuals Unite and Climate Revolution are not a nostalgic rerun of the prank anarchism of 1977. They are a group of people, who have conversations that were very much rooted in the now and focused on the future. Although much of my work has focused on subcultures, sex, drugs and rock n roll, my involvement with Intellectuals Unite was based on my background as an activist and my historical research on structures of protest and political organisation.
The group, who meet, share tactics, and discussions across local and national issues was inspired by a variety of moments, by new community models, the legacies of the 2011 urban protest, the junior doctors strike, student campaigns for greener economically and environmentally sustainable campuses, for example. One of the practical strands has been Vivienne’s support of alternative electricity and utility providers as a way to undermine the power of the fossil fuel’s political lobby.
The politics of Vivienne’s vision however extends beyond the academy. Her starting point is that we are all intellectuals. If you think about the world; if you participate in it critically and culturally – then you are an intellectual too. The context in which we find ourselves forces us to do just that. The circuits of exchange between resistance or protest and intellectual analysis is often only imagined in one direction, where the work of great thinkers influences the public, or perhaps more commonly, intellectuals pick up on the concerns and approaches of the public, and then frame them as their own intellectual interventions.
“Any kid off the street who wants to go on a demonstration to find out what’s happening – come and join us, you are an intellectual. We have to unite. It’s the only thing that can really challenge the government’s lies.”
“The literary ethos of the 19th Century sometime after the reign of Napoleon around 1830 up to WW1. Going back, the evolution of the novel began before printing at a time when Kings and Queens and rich people lived in castles and palaces, and books were expensive. What started as ‘[h]eroic stories of romance and chivalry’, became the literary form where every strata of society could find themselves represented – if not necessarily in terms that they would choose.”
But more than that. This is the literature that I grew up loving, grew in confidence studying, and, I hope, could help us to feel connected to both each other and to the past, in these extraordinary times. The 19th century novel demands that we find ourselves in the bigger picture. The expansiveness of the novel’s totality takes us outside of our own carefully measured safe distances from each other.
Books’ characters are our comrades.
In Vivienne’s Manifesto Get a Life, Alice and Pinocchio are fellow travelers who accompany us in Active Resistance.
My hopes are that by sharing these books, we can join collectively with these fellow travelers. Reading (in all its forms) as a pastime might help us in this time. Reading as a process might connect us through a shared experience, and reading as an analysis might help us think about what lessons for today we learn from the literature of the past.
How will it work?
Vivienne will share her book recommendation every two weeks. We will share an introduction to the book, thinking about things to look for, contextual background and ideas to think about. We will hold a virtual book club, with questions and discussions. I’m going to rope in colleagues and friends that I miss talking to as well. Pam Thurschwell has agreed to come and hang out with us.
She shared her thoughts with me about the power of the novel in the current moment:
“Novels matter in the time of coronavirus because art makes connections between people, even in the absence of hugs and handshakes; novels help build our shared understandings of our worlds. The 19th century European novel was centrally focused on what binds us together into that thing that Margaret Thatcher insisted did not exist, ‘society’. But novels have also always charted what breaks us apart, the sense of ourselves as isolated individuals. George Eliot describes the ties that connect her many characters to each other and to the provincial town of Middlemarch as a “web”; this image of intricate spidery connectedness might seem both comforting and entrapping. We need our webs and we fight against them. By contrast one of the works we like to call the first novel in English was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe from 1719, the story of the hardy shipwrecked colonialist Crusoe, building his domain with a single subject, the black slave Friday. The realist novel gives us stories of love death, and domination, sex, work, scandal and money (always money), but also tells us how we fit into the webs that surround us.”
We want to want to find a space to think about virtual and literary communities. Can Instagram be this moment’s literary salon? Vivienne is always clear how much she values the book as a physical object and like a lot of academics, my bookcases are a form of autobiography (another privilege). But reading comes in many forms. This might be audiobooks, or a screen reader, eBooks, or a variety of different adaptions available form BBC sounds or iPlayer for example.
We want to find as many ways to get people involved and providing content as possible.
Send videos of your reactions to the books to be collated for the live event. Email me your thoughts and reviews, as text or as videos. Particularly if you have thoughts about how reading as a past-time, process, or analysis is helping you to make sense of a society in lockdown.
Our first Book Club will be Monday 25th May, time tbc
This post was originally commissioned by the CIRCY blog. Many thanks to Janet Boddy for all her support. I’m working to develop this into a broader project so thought I’d revisit it for a bit.
The Indie Rock-a Nore Festival was held on 21st October 2017 at the Hastings and St Leonards Angling Association. It was “[a] one-day indie-pop festival (midday to midnight), bringing together current indie bands and those of yesteryear. Raising money for Brighton based suicide prevention charity, GrassRoots, who provide support across East Sussex (Charity Number: 1149873)”. Alongside the bands there was a raffle, a pool tournament and a buffet. CIRCY made a small contribution to hosting costs, ensuring that all money taken on the door could go straight to the charity. Over £2500 was raised on the day.
The history of queer representation in film is sometimes the history of not being easily seen. It can be the history of having to work really hard to find yourself represented. It can be the history of having to work really hard with what you are given, when you are represented as the freak, the pervert, the duplicitous spy, the blackmailer.
Queerama for me, was the story of how people have negotiated the identities that have been imposed on them. As a history Queerama shows us a series of outside definitions of queer identities that have had to be negotiated; homosexuality, for example, has been seen as a sin, an illness, to an act of dissidence. Sexualities and their identities have been legislated and defined from above, diagnosed by sexologists, feared for contagion, dissected like a guinea pig, but they have also been squeezed through the cracks.
These are the words I gave at last night’s amazing, angry, joyful, loving, demo against Trump and his muslim ban. I know most of the thousands of people couldn’t hear what the speakers were saying. Because there were just so many of you there. Your bodies filled the space, soaked up the sound and responded with chants, shouts and woops. (Note, just because you might think you’ve got the biggest megaphone, doesn’t mean you have. Believe me I know, I’ve tried them all)
Over the last few months a new feminist project has been occupying a small group of feminist historians at the University of Sussex. #MorethanAssistants is inspired by the history of feminist interventions in Historical practice.
We are concerned with
The burden of responsibility on those few female figures who manage to earn a space in the public realm.
The disproportionate shaming of young women for unruly behaviour.
The power of playful, messy, feminism.
The importance of carrying our sisterhood with us, whether physically, virtually or emotionally
An assault on an all female band by a member of security staff at this weekend’s Undercover punk festival in Brighton has brought the online mansplainers and slut shamers out of the woodwork. It also raised some issues that need to be resolved, some feel new, some are as old as punk itself. Can women make a new space in a scene and politicize it from within ? Is there ever a way to reconcile the punk politics of the past, and the intersectional politics of the present? Can we actively build a politics where race, gender, age and subcultural identity intersect ?– the answer, it seems to me, to all of these questions is the same; not really, no. Continue reading Your punk politics will be privileged, or it will be bullshit→
I’ve been out of the country for a week at a great workshop in Berlin “How to Write and Conceptualize the History of Youth Cultures” organised by Felix Fuhg, Doctoral Student, with the Centre for Metropolitan studies. I was travelling with the histrrry girls and The Subcultures Network, so there were Harringtons. There are always Harringtons. We spent one day working and talking in the Archiv der Jugendkulturen. Its an incredible community archive and library that has brought together all the different traces of resistance in youth culture and subcultures. From magazines made by school pupils to the Love Parades’ backdrops and giant cut outs of Nena – the transational and hyper local are boxed up together and are being carefully catalogued by local participant experts in each scene.
So in keeping with the more recent tone of NTWICH I’m going to start this post with a confession. I avoided seeing the film Pride for nearly 16 months and only eventually watched it because I had to.
In the end I watched it because Catherine Grant very kindly invited me to speak at an event that she organised with Diarmaid Kelliher, on Pride and its Precursors and I was too honoured, and too embarrassed, to say no. When the film first came out I ducked and dived out of numerous press requests to comment on it. I had toyed with the idea of presenting at the symposium without actually having watched the film, maybe as a sort of thought experiment. I’d floated the idea over drinks with the talented historian Ben Jones from UEA but lost my confidence after he described some of the scenes I might have missed out on (the alien invasion and massive shoot out at the end).
Over the past few weeks Class War and LSE’s Lisa Mckenzie in particular have been taking a lot of stick for their choice of target and tactics. For months Class War and the Women’s Death Brigade have been standing up against the relocation of young teenage mothers by supporting E15 Mums’ campaign, opposing Poor Doors, challenging Gay Pride’s for profit associations with big business and international banking, and exposing the dodgy deals and marketing of working class women’s bodies for profit at the Jack the Ripper Museum in Cable St. All pretty straight forward. Not everyone likes the shouty, irreverent style of the brigade, but its pretty hard to defend kicking out teenage mums, humiliating social housing tenants, censoring gay activists in the name of Pride, or possible shonky negotiations for planning permission. But then Class War went too far. They went for the hipster – and the infamous Cereal Killer Café. Jokes were made on Radio 4 quizzes. Newspapers dug around in activist’s private lives and recreational choices for a few exposes. Friends of mine argued that these were the wrong targets and the wrong tactics. I’m not going to get into analysis of cultural capital and bearded entitlement (but honestly doesn’t your face take up enough space already?). But I found it difficult to see the cereal café as the biggest victim in the struggle around austerity.
Fair enough, the other side of that coin is that the bearded cereal sellers might not be your biggest problem either. In fact you might not have heard about all the grassroots activism that Class War and the Fuck Parade had been doing if they hadn’t annoyed Shoreditch. [disclaimer – I am gluten and lactose free so cereal prices are never going to be my biggest issue] But the issue of personal taste, and personal tactics really isn’t the problem anymore. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what your personal political style is. It doesn’t matter how your particular political form and content sit together. Because whether you like it or not, whether we like each other’s style or not, we really are all in it together. If we didn’t know that already, the CPS have just made it very clear.
It was fitting that the launch marked both Corbyn’s first national Labour Party conference and Brighton’s digital festival – the questions raised intersected with both. In fact issues of what should Labour do, and what digital tools should be for, match up, question for question. How do we connect publics with structures? How do we know what people want? What material limits to access are there that get in the way of ‘being heard’? What can we do about the world that might make us feel better about our place in it.
But the session I contributed to was also specifically rooted in Brighton, and what could or should be done from a local perspective. A varied group of community activists from Eastbourne and a talk from Peter Macfadyen author of Flat Pack Democracy: A DIY Guide to Creating Independent Politics, (which outlines how a group of independent candidates effectively took over the whole of their local council in Frome, Somerset), helped make sure that we didn’t get too smug about Brighton and Hove.
Before the panel discussion Luke Flegg from Change the Future talked us through a series of possible digital tools that could be used to engage online decision making processes. A lot of the discussions that followed reminded me of the sorts of conversations we have about digital pedagogy – what are the limits and possibilities of the digital in transforming our existing practices? Does digital engagement challenge or just reinforce existing dynamics etc? As a digital pedagogical practitioner I am interested in moving beyond hierarchical teaching models, pretty similar motivations to those using digital tools to encourage political engagement.
Tools like, Vocaleyes, or Loomio, aim to nuance decision making, and move closer to post-occupy consensus processes and away from ‘for or against’ voting methods. The problem with politics, it appears, is in the participatory process. This isn’t just a bureaucratic issue that PR would be ‘fairer’n for example. The assumption behind these tools is that decision making is in itself a transformative process – making your mind up involves changing your mind through interaction. To facilitate this these tools let decisions be revisited, and made relational. The value of the digital then is in building multiple facing dialogues. The balance between representation and participation in the decision making processes online is measured by much it feels like face to face, local engagement.
So how does my involvement in the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove help me make sense of this tendency to map the analogue on the local and virtual on the national? In the rest of this blog post I want to explain why I think a small group of people pissed off but laughing might teach us something about the lines we draw between the local and the national, the digital and ‘real life’, and the public and private.
I’m going to begin by just sharing a bit of the PRBH anti-manifesto and then explore the relationship between content, message, brand as an activist tool – in both the virtual and the real world. I’m a member of the Republic’s Occasional Table (our equivalent of a cabinet) and am the official Minister for Nagging. I define the role as a feminist intervention in the Republic, although it largely involves being a Facebook admin and occasionally smoothing over hurt feelings (or cranking them up I expect). In this blog I’m going to write of and about the PRBH, but I’m not speaking for it in any way.
“The PRBH page was started spontaneously as a misery and stress relieving joke because various people were bemoaning the shock Tory win by 12 seats when we were all hoping for a coalition more to the left this time. We were basically commiserating with each other when suddenly the idea of The People’s Republic of Brighton & Hove occurred to a local comedian, broadcaster, musician and hat-maker called Jason Smart. Within minutes and through the next hours and days the spirit of defiance took flight with 1,000s of likes, so a group was formed which reached 3,000 members in about a week, [current group membership is 7,849]
yeh its fun mixed with pissed off”
At Synergy’s Social Forum Discussion the discussion was all about the relationship between digital and real world politics. The clicktivism debates are well established. The values attached to online activism stretch from Arab Spring inspired explanations of Twitter as a driver of social change, to more skeptical suggestions that the rise of social network activism is a debasement of the traditional public sphere. So Twitter either turns us all into revolutionaries, or snapchat turns us all into self obsessed selfie curating. These aren’t new questions about the relationship between media technology and social change – How does one feed into the other, or distract the other? We could equally ask the Victorians what they thought about ‘penny dreadfuls’ or Eric Hobsbawm about what he thought about the Beatles. But these questions do have a contemporary resonance. In a context where all of our traditional measures of social trends, voting, polling, media coverage of the public face of politics seem out of kilter, its pretty hard to know who actually thinks what. Who are the public, or publics, and what do they actually think or want?
At the very least, the Corbyn victory showed how little the Labour Party knew about what their own members wanted. Now, I’m not going to suggest that the People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove is the answer to any of these questions. It isn’t an attempt to operate a new system. It was an emotional and community response, accidentally founded on Facebook, with no shared process, and nor shared agenda. We are ultimately an imagined community, to borrow from Benedict Anderson. We share a badge, and we share a Facebook page. We accidentally willed ourselves into being and then we had to work out what that meant and what to do about it. In the process we’ve played with the joys, and frustrations of using the tools that are already out there for us; you can find us on Facebook, but also in local community centres, pubs and parks.
The variety of agendas and positions in the Republic might actually be a useful way into a bigger question about how civil society, or politics might actually be being experienced. People came to the Republic for a variety of reasons. In the wake of the Conservative election victory there were a whole variety of final straws. Some people’s principle opposition was to the first past the post system, or a lack of conviction politics or opposition within parliamentary politics. Others are rooted in the ‘small democracy’ model, and value the local. Some people are using the Frome model to engage with local council decision making. Some want to think about the national picture. Some want to think across the traditional party system, some want to think beyond party altogether. It is perhaps here that the digital tools designed to move participation and decision making ‘beyond binary’ coincide with the questions raised by the Republican. Rather than necessarily being a solution to the same problem is struck me that that use of consensus building tools and the Republic are different responses to the same challenge. Some of us have had years of political grassroots activism under our belts, but no longer feel that the old activist organisations matched our goals. Some have experience in occupy style consensus politics and forms of activism that focus on the processes of organisation as much (if not more) than what we want. Some of us just want to stir stuff up a bit. Although I don’t want to get stuck in binaries, there are two ways of seeing the accidental politics that grew out of a Facebook joke. Our shared laughter unites the politics of bringing together people who are already doing things and the politics of finding a space for people who feel, possibly for the first time, or the first time in years, that they would like to do something.
We hardly every agree on anything, and often can’t agree even on what we are. Its never simple or easy and often breaks my heart a little bit. But as Cindy, who is also on the Occasional Table, explained; ‘Any individual can speak about what the group and belonging to it means for them and what it’s general history and aims are, but not for what it means for others’. That’s what I’m trying to do here. What on earth do we have in common then? Perhaps it is that after years of being told we are apathetic, and that there’s no such thing as community, we woke up to a Conservative government and realised that not only did we want a community, we were already part of one. We are not a process or tool looking for an audience or an organisation working out how to ‘connect’ with a public, we are an community hoping to be the ones to rewrite the story. In many ways we are working backwards.
So I thought that I’d think about the badge and why wearing and sharing the badge matters as a way of thinking about what the roots of the republic might be. I want to think about the ways in which a small circular material object, the pin badge, might help us work through some of the bigger questions about the relationship between the local and the national, the virtual and the real life, the public and the personal. I’m a historian, I can’t help it.
Jason designed the PRBH badge inspired by the post election map of the area; ‘red and green in a sea of blue’, the shape looked a bit like a yin yang. The red and the green of the badge trace the city’s Labour and Green MP constituencies, but the badge is also beyond binary. The red and green yin yang with an outline of blue around the edge signifies that we are simultaneously both, and beyond red and green politics, acknowledging but marginalising the blue agenda surrounding us. Two further designs developed the badge into a logo incorporating the Brighton football team’s white seagull and the iconic Brighton pavilion.
It is a way of signifying we are a community. You always get a nod and smile when you see someone else wearing one. Or sometimes the badge is an invitation to start a random conversation. But we are simultaneously a walking flier, a brand, and a joke. Jason liked the design because it was ‘ A comic political idea in that it looks like labour & the greens 69ing each other!’. It is a joke political badge for an absence of a movement. It traces and makes visible networks and communities as well as building new ones. Our Minister for Badges has done incredible work using the badge to fund raise for our designated charities (Brighton Open Air Theatre, FareShare and Liberty) has also used it to create a new map of Brighton. The shops that agreed to stock the badge and support our charitable causes map a network of small independent businesses, shops and pubs that take their social responsibility seriously. In sticker form the logo pops up in surprising, but appropriate, places – on the local service train map or the posters welcoming the Labour Party to Brighton train station for example. The prank is as much part of our tool box as the Facebook page. That doesn’t mean we can’t measure things that have happened – new teams of people, new support mechanisms, new connections have been formed, money raised for charities, there’s a forthcoming oral history project, a series of open space meetings , fundraising film screenings, a choir, community picnics, fucked up school assemblies, calls out for support, lifts, lends and help and gin.
Billy Bragg famously sung ‘wearing badges is not enough in days like these’. But despite the press obsession with the idea that we are reliving 1983, wearing badges, in an increasingly digital activist world actually feels like an intervention. Because the Republic is about a sense of community identity, perhaps without a goal, it seems clear to me, why the badge matters. In the late 1960s sociologist Frank Parkin looked at the growth of CND as an organisation and recognised that he was looking at a different type of politics. He saw that being in CND wasn’t just about being opposed to nuclear war. There was more uniting its members than a shared opposition against something. He saw that people in CND shared a style, often shared tastes, often came from a similar background – and interesting later went on to be movers and shakers in the social movements around the Vietnam War and feminism that sum up the story of the radical Sixties.
The CND badge’s designer, Gerald Holtom had been a conscientious objector. He designed the badge in 1958. The first badges, made from clay to withstand and therefore bear witness to nuclear holocaust, were made by Eric Austen from Kensington CND. The design incorporated the semaphore for the letters N (nuclear) and D (disarmament) with the idea of the broken cross, circle of life and arms upstretched in despair. The story of the CND badge therefore, shows us that a badge can matter, not just because of what it says on it, but also because of how it was designed, distributed and made, and what it feels like to wear it. Its various elements match up with the various motivations for wearing it. CND was after all a very messy broad church organisation. Wearing the badge matched CND’s various attractions, from a generational identification of style, to an explicit formal allegiance. The badge had changing resonances. In her memoirs feminist socialist historian Sheila Rowbotham talks about how, as a student, wearing a CND badge was “briefly a declaration of wild extremity”. (p68) In his memoirs George Galloway used Tony Blair’s youthful wearing of a CND badge in the 80s to show how far Blair had sold out – or been prepared to pose to please his particular audience at a given time. I liked the idea of looking for CND badges in memoirs as personal accounts because that’s exactly what the badges did – make personal statements about public politics.
Now I’m not making any claims that the People’s Republic is in any way the next CND. Organising a conga on the beach doesn’t come close to the long marches from Aldermaston to London. But when Parkin saw people wearing their CND badges, he understood that they weren’t just saying something about their political positions. They were saying something important about what sort of people they were. Something that didn’t simply relate to economic or political interests, but was a way of saying this is who I am and I’ve found other people a bit like me. The PRBH, messy, contradictory, and bouncing between the beach and the Facebook page has given us a space. PRBH accidentally made a space, both virtual and local, that helped us face the depressing state of parliamentary politics and a confusion around what opposition might be. Like the badge, the Republic has helped say this is who we are and we’d like to do something about it.
You can download the anthem for the PRBH that Jason wrote. Profits go to Fareshare. Or find us on Facebook