Humanities and praxis: Occupy Boston

[Prepared remarks for the roundtable “#OccupyBoston: Humanities and praxis,” organized by Julie Orlemanski at the 2nd Biennial meeting of the BABEL Working Group, in Boston, MA, 22 September 2012. I thank Julie for the invitation to participate in this event and the audience and panelists for a stimulating discussion.]

I’d like to use these initial remarks for two sets of reflections. First, I’d like to say something about the two terms “humanities” and “practice”, linked in our title. Secondly, I’d like to say something more concrete about work I had the pleasure of doing, alongside Julie, in the collective that produces the Boston Occupier.

So, two sets of remarks. The first remark is that humanities and practice are not in a relationship of exteriority to one another. It is not the case that “humanities” is located here, on this side, and “practice” somewhere over there. We know, of course, that academic scholarship in the humanities is also constituted through and as practices: practices of research, of writing, of teaching, of reading, of institutional organization, etc. So, there is a quite heterogeneous array of practices, which might be said, together, to make up our work as scholars of the humanities.

Hence this question: At what level of our practice as scholars of the humanities should we locate our political work? A clarification of this word “should”: I do not see it as my purpose here to supply reasons for or against engaging in political work. Instead, I merely assume that some people in the humanities will consider it desirable to engage in political work. For such people, the question arises: at what level of our practice as scholars of the humanities should we locate our work as political activists? Which aspects of my practice as a scholar of the humanities do I activate when I engage in political practice?

Okay, that is the first set of remarks. It ends with a question. I have some general ideas about how I am inclined to answer that question. However, I’d now like to shift gears — shift down from the abstract to the concrete — and say something about my experience helping to produce the Boston Occupier.

Last year I was living in the Boston area. When Occupy Boston happened, I paid attention to it. Like many others, I visited the camp. I marched, I took a shift washing dishes, I attended a wonderful teach-in on the Diggers, led by Monica Poole. I had many questions, but the energy I saw in this political experiment was unprecedented — certainly unprecedented in my limited experience — and this was reason enough to see what possibilities there were here, for doing political work. It seemed to me important that Occupy build relations with existing political organizations whose aims Occupy shared. I also thought it was important that Occupy bring its messages to people outside of Boston’s financial district. Finally, I had some limited experience doing political work in Somerville, where I lived. For these three reasons, I connected up with Occupy Boston’s Outreach working group.

Occupy Boston’s eviction from Dewey Square was, for me, a game-changer. When the police came to clear the camp and arrest those who refused to step aside, I was worried that the movement’s energy would be broken. Thus I redoubled my efforts to find a productive and sustainable point of engagement within Occupy. My objective was, in however small a way, to help this new social movement over an important and quite uncertain transition: that is, the transition from something centered in a physical encampment to a movement considerably more distributed in character.

The Boston Occupier newspaper had, at this time, just published its second print edition. I attended a meeting because it seemed to me that a print newspaper had the potential to be an effective instrument of Outreach.

The first project I took on at the Boston Occupier was to contact and solicit statements from as many active Occupy groups in Mass. as I could track down. My role in this project was basically that of compilator. The point which I sought to make through this compilation was that little Occupy groups had been springing up all around the greater Boston area well before the eviction from Dewey Square and that these groups had continued to grow and multiply in the weeks after the eviction. It seemed to me that, at that precise political conjuncture — that is, mid December 2011 — the facts of the movement’s growth and diversification were of the highest importance for the movement. These facts needed to be represented to participants in Occupy Boston and also to other people in the region.

So, those were the strategic motivations for taking on this particular project for the Boston Occupier in mid December. I was fortunate to be producing the compilation for a newspaper and hence on a short deadline. It was quite time-consuming.

Between the end of December and this past July the Boston Occupier became my primary site of political work. I contributed a small number of news stories during those months, none so involved as that first one. More importantly, I simply shared in the collective work of producing a movement newspaper.

I’ll skip over any description of what that actually involved. Suffice to say that I enjoyed this work and I learned a great deal from the experience of working with a group of people who had, quite simply, come together around the idea of a movement newspaper. This was indeed a self-selected group, but it nevertheless included a considerable range of different political perspectives, life experience, and styles of engagement. We had to find ways of working together. I found that experience of working together to be enormously instructive.

Now, to conclude these remarks, I want to suggest that my experience of this political work did not connect in any way that I can see to my professional research specialization as a medievalist. It had very little resemblance to seminar meetings, reading groups, or the theory-inflected conversations I enjoy so much. The point of intersection between this political work and my practice of humanities was instead at a different level: the level of writing-as-craft, the level of collaborative decision-making, and at the level of project organization. That is, political work bore some resemblance to faculty meetings, committee work, commenting on student writing, and participating in “staff development” sessions.

Working on a movement newspaper was like reading student essays, but without the institutional separation which divides us into students and professors. Likewise, our newspaper meetings bore some resemblance to committee work, but with the important difference that the Boston Occupier is worker-organized.


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