Gleaning the Current Conjuncture: Notes from the 3rd Antipode Institute for the Geographies of Justice

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Our group of early career scholars came together at the 3rd Antipode Institute for the Geographies of Justice in the spring of 2011. We arrived with disparate backgrounds bridged by a common interest in social justice and “radical” geography. We also shared an eagerness to pose new questions in the present and organize for a better future. When we actually got down to it, however, the achievement of those ambitions initially proved more difficult than anticipated. Our commitments were scattered across a wide range of pressing concerns. We could not rally our discussion to any unified analytical focus, as the groups from 2007 and 2009 Institutes seem to have done so well (see 283 Collective 2008; SIGJ2 Writing Collective 2012). Moreover, we became disquieted by an underlying sense that world events—the ongoing responses to the economic crisis and the Arab Spring to name but two—continued to hurdle ahead of comprehension. Just as frustration was starting to set in, one of us said: “You know what I would like to talk about? Just what the fuck is this current conjuncture that we find ourselves in? What is it that we need to figure out? Can we just talk about that?” It was a generative moment, and this became our defining question.

Conjunctures can be understood as social formations “fractured and conflictual along multiple axes, planes, and scales, constantly in search of temporary balances or structural stabilities through a variety of practices and processes of struggle and negotiation” (Grossberg 2010:41). Particular conjunctures are demarcated not only by the composition of macro-structural relations at specific historical moments, but equally and crucially by the ordinary practices and experiences that are fundamental to the continuation or alteration of those relations. This means, echoing Raymond Williams' (1977) notion of “structures of feeling”, that the conjunctural topography of the present can be situated and understood not only in the context of abstract structural forces, but also and differently in the play between the thoughts, feelings, and actions that animate social life. Some intriguing geographical and political implications follow from these distinctions.

To us, geography connotes a discipline, a profession, and an intellectual tradition, certainly, but also and perhaps more significantly, a world that we each inhabit differently, are trying to understand, and ultimately striving to change. We often profess to know that these different geographies are not separate, but our greatest challenges—and surely the ultimate measure of our radicality—seem to hinge on not merely recognizing but also somehow renovating the relationships among these geographies in a way that acts prefiguratively and collectively to transform the structures that are unfolding in, through, and sometimes in spite of ourselves. Once our attention in Athens turned towards that discussion, our differences, partial views, and disquiet began to triangulate a vitalizing problematic.

Rather than producing any linear or singular argument, we set to construct a rough outline of social formations that were on the move, under-articulated yet keenly felt from our standpoint, and potentially ripe for struggle. Our outline was anchored by five overlapping conceptual nodes which emerged organically from our discussions in Athens and to which we continually returned: everyday life; the university and austerity; knowledge production; surplus humanity; and grounded utopias. These might best be termed “flashpoints”. While each momentarily illuminates something of the current conjuncture, none define it. These flashpoints are not prescriptive, nor do they claim to herald the next big thing. Rather and more modestly, taken together they provide a compelling meta-analytical window onto already emergent aspects of the conjuncture that is still unfolding in geography and beyond. The following is a brief summary of these flashpoints and some of the openings that we feel they reveal.

Where do we start? One common refrain and a favorite slogan of Gibson-Graham (2006, 2011) is “start where you are”. There are at least two initial ways to further parse “where we are”, and both can be linked to broader contemporary concerns.

Everyday life is one point of entry. As we talked in Athens, many of us expressed a belief that there is more to ordinary life than has been intellectually and politically articulated. Henri Lefebvre (1991) once described everyday life as the “soil” from which all social structures grow, and many of us harbored an innate sense for this—a sense that our everyday lives are linked in intimate but almost unfathomably complex ways to things like climate change, political-economic crisis, or any number of challenges in the present conjuncture. We lamented that power often “works” precisely by rendering invisible its reproduction right there in the daily activities that we take for granted, with social transformation being enabled and/or obstructed in the process. Routines, habits, and subjective personal experiences mould the time–space between what counts as historical and epochal, and yet they are frequently disregarded or treated as derivative when it comes time for serious analysis. How might we summon the creativity, patience, and fortitude required to move our best ideas in and through ordinary life?

Feminist geographers (see, for example, Katz 1996, 2001, 2008; Nagar et al. 2002; Pratt 2004) have long emphasized the need to get down in the figurative soil and engage the messiness of everyday life, and parallel, to valorize “minor” accounts that grapple with the challenges and potentials shared across particular structural situations rather than striving for grand theories that would explain them all. While these injunctions obviously apply to research and thought, we wondered what else might be transformed through closer attention to the embedded social geographies of our own lives and those we engage with daily—students, research participants, workers, and all the people we share propinquity with and who labor to produce the necessities that allow us to go on. What would it mean to take these geographies more seriously in our “work”, more broadly defined? Would such an effort even be compatible with the demands of everyday life in the university as we know it? This is where the university and austerity, a second flashpoint and sense of “where we are at”, intertwines with the first.

The changing character of the contemporary university has, at this point, been recognized and discussed to the point of near ubiquity. The expectation that education should facilitate the collective good, or even serve as a stepping stone toward gainful employment and job security, rings increasingly hollow. It is apparent that educational disinvestment creates burdens that are not shouldered evenly across gender, class, and race. Disinvestment renders “public education” likely to deepen rather than level already existing inequalities. Meanwhile, academics themselves seem to have gone from trying to strike a “work-life balance” to, as one of us put it, “self-exploitation cannibalizing life”. Radical geographers know the critiques of exploitative structures existing in the world at large as well as anyone, and yet we ourselves are being pushed to act in ways that actually reinforce the most exploitative aspects of the system itself (see, for example, Antipode 2000; Gilmore 1993; Purcell 2007; SIGJ2 Writing Collective 2012).

Beneath the doom and gloom, however, there are also some compelling contradictions and antagonisms to be attended to within this situation. Perhaps more than ever, the current state of higher education seems to have made starting “where we are” both necessary and inevitable. When considering possibilities for future action, students and early career scholars often do not have the luxury of looking far afield, beyond the next hoop, or past the next review. Perhaps this is why so many gravitate towards research and activism in and around what is immediate and near at hand—around questions of the university and its publics. Every student and untenured academic inhabits a position of simultaneous precarity and relative privilege in this Age of Austerity, and that is a potential source of opportunity amidst crisis. All around the world, from Chile to London to California, the winnowing privatization of the university has blown fresh winds into the sails of student activism, intersecting in transformative ways with other mobilized sectors. People are agitated, and some of us are seemingly in a relative position to do something about it. Beyond the pessimism of the intellect that has often driven discussions about the contemporary university, there is an optimism of the will here that seems primed for action. These currents are strong in geography, where numerous scholars and collectives have already begun trying to perform a future that links these concerns to those of broader social movements (see, for instance, Autonomous Geographies Collective 2010; Meyerhoff, Johnson and Braun 2011; Participatory Geographies Research Group 2012). Perhaps the glass is half full and rising?

These questions about everyday life, the university, and the relationship between them can unsettle the way we imagine and legitimate different forms of knowledge production itself. From the perspective of early career scholars who are full of unorthodox questions and ideas but often feel stifled in expressing them, academic institutions seem to breed a culture that disguises the fallibility of our knowledge while encouraging scholarship to remain within already accepted bounds. Meaningful transformation of our lives, our universities, and our world will require that we pursue creative ways to locate difference, help it flourish, and outgrow the institutional forms that hold meaningful social action back. As many of the same geographers calling for collective transformation of the university recognize, the institutional forces that narrow what counts as knowledge also isolate us from broader social movements and opportunities for collective action in detrimental ways. Presently, the people and struggles reflecting the most pressing political and ethical demands of our age seem least likely to come into contact with or benefit from the circulation of the knowledge that we produce. What is ultimately at stake here is, of course, much more than our own livelihoods. As has also been argued elsewhere (Kohsla 2012) “this is about our humanity”.

For us, the notion of surplus humanity was the flashpoint that pushed the limits of our collective thinking on this point and drove home what could be the bottom line for activism in the world as it presently exists. As much work in radical geography has been exemplary in pointing out (see in particular Antipode 2011), entire lives, populations, are being rendered fatally superfluous by some of the same structural and ideological forces which cloud—albeit to very different effect—the other contexts outlined above. Beyond recognition and critique, between empathy and action (Wright 2009 is enlightening on this point) there is still a yawning gap here for which there are no easy answers. Still we agreed on this point—staring down a future with probable climate change, further economic crises likely, and subsequent geopolitical instability highly possible, our failure to act in some meaningful way will have grave consequences which will exceed us to an extent that we cannot possibly know. Ultimately, this is what is at stake in changing our dominant mode of knowledge production from one which takes precarity and social movements as useful objects of research to one that produces knowledge so that it can be useful to those working for meaningful social change and to redress precarity.

In sum, the current conjuncture is dominated by hegemonic structures that are violent, deadly, and oppressive, not to mention humorless and boorish. That much has been well documented. Meanwhile, in spite and perhaps because of this, ambitions for transformation are clearly percolating and etching channels which could overflow onto multiple fronts. Our final flashpoint, grounded utopias, encapsulates our overarching orientation to this state of affairs. We bear witness to an explosion of social energies around the world, which frequently enact a lively, creative life in common as both a means and an end in social change. Geographers and countless others are pioneering projects that contribute to this explosion through all sorts of inspiring activities—collective publishing and research, scholarship based on radical participatory action, and all manner of disruptive and creative activities. Movement is happening and there are abundant opportunities to keep pushing.

We geographers like to remind ourselves that “utopia” in its original Greek form literally means “no place”. Appropriately, then, utopian praxis can travel easily, and it has lately proven to be fairly contagious. But this is not the utopia of old. It is not a program, a place, or a destination; it must be viewed as an ongoing process. In a radio interview on Spanish Radio 3, Fernando Birri, an Argentine filmmaker, recalled that he was once asked by a student, “What is “utopia” for?”: “I ask myself this question every morning …”, Birri began his response, “… because utopia is like the horizon. You walk two or ten steps forward and it's still two or ten steps further away. Utopia is the same. You walk towards it, but it still gets further away. So what is utopia for? I think it is for this; it is for walking”.

Ultimately, we are writing about our “flashpoints” because we are eager to help spark something—discussion, certainly, but also action and transformation far beyond the limited circumstances in which ideas are evoked. As we have tried to highlight here, the current conjuncture is riddled with contradictions, openings, and possibilities that we can and should occupy and expand. Collectively, we can do this. The opportunities are already all around us—in the university, in the time we can steal from conferences, in struggles where many of us are already engaged, and elsewhere. Stand up. Jump in. Alter the conjuncture bit by bit, labor by labor. Let us keep walking.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to everyone who helped to organize our unforgettable gathering in Athens and to the Antipode Editorial Collective, who furnished extremely constructive comments throughout our writing process, impelling a much stronger piece as a result. Special thanks also to Christian Anderson, Teo Ballvé, and Roberta Hawkins, whose persistent iterative and editorial labor was crucial in driving the consolidation of our collective thinking forward through to the completion of this piece.

Endnote

  1. 1

    The Revolutionary Picnic Collective is a group that came together at the 3rd Antipode Institute for the Geographies of Justice, held in Athens, Georgia in the spring of 2011(see http://antipodefoundation.org/institute-for-the-geographies-of-justice/past-institutes/athens-ga-usa-30-may-3-june-2011/). One of the first things we did there was spontaneously organize a series of daily picnics that became a nice outlet for our larger desire to change the world. In crafting a written record of our discussions, we chose this name to reflect the productive combination of joy, playfulness, and earnestness that characterized our experience in Athens.

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