Tag Archives: Activism

Made in Palestine

Christopher Pinney, UCL

[Please note: this  post was written before the intensification of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza]

I decided to transgress the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) injunction and attend a conference on ‘The Photographic Imagination’ in Tel Aviv in June 2014 for several reasons.  The two central ones concerned, firstly, the Apartheid analogy. Having taught a short course at the University of Cape Town in 2000 it was quite apparent that there were many courageous dissident academic intellectuals that had been a key element of the resistance during the 1980s and earlier. Collaboration with them would have been quite different from buying South African produce. The second reason has an element of illogicality, which is repeatedly pointed out to me: Syria. At a time when a nearby regime is murdering so many of its opponents (albeit opponents increasingly gripped by a fanatical politics), it seemed disproportionate to single out Israel for one’s disapproval.

So I went, in the spirit of openness, empathy and wanting to be challenged, not knowing what might unfold. In the previous three weeks I taught in Krakow and spent much time in Kazimierz and the ghetto, and read Tadieusw Pankiewicz’s Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy and Wladyislaw Spzliman’s The Pianist. I felt I was in no doubt about the profound historical shadow that would inform much of what I would encounter in Israel/Palestine.

We flew El Al (a condition of the conference organisers) and (I was subsequently informed), because I was half of a married couple, did well in the psychological profiling at London’s Heathrow Airport (it seems single females have the hardest time). Getting on the El Al flight was considerably more straightforward and hassle-free than boarding any flight to the US or India. There were no preliminary checked baggage x-rays, pat downs or random extraction for additional lengthy screening — all of which have become frequent features on those other routes.  Similarly on arrival — a few hours after the Pope’s visit had closed Ben Gurion (other conference participants complained of circling over the airport until it re-opened) — security and immigration was courteous and rapid, nothing like the totalitarian protocol of which the guide books warned.

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Our first experience of what a Palestinian cab driver we would subsequently spend a lot of time with called ‘the situation’ came after we left a visit with other members of the conference group to the Israel Museum (in West Jerusalem) and attempted to take a taxi to East Jerusalem (where we were booked into a Palestinian hotel). Several taxis plain refused to take us, proof as an Israeli friend later observed that the ‘green line’ which is ignored politically (Israel absorbed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the second Intifada) is strictly enforced socially. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take us, but with the proviso that he didn’t know the area and we would probably get lost (we gave him a detailed street map with directions). En-route he wanted to know how why it had taken us so long to visit Jerusalem (‘the origin of the world’) and how come we had made such a terrible mistake booking into a hotel on the wrong side of town (‘filthy’, ‘chaotic’: I told him I spent several months of the year in rural India and was used to such things). This was our first experience of ‘the situation’. The Old City is a textbook palimpsest of overlapping and disjunctive identities, all increasingly subject to military regulation since the second Intifada. But it is only in Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall, where you start to experience the rhizomic involution of territory. Through the presence of massive settlements, one is shaken by the intractability of an invasion that has been fully sanctioned by the present regime, and it is only then that one can start to grasp the political dimensions of material culture in Palestine. The estimated 300,000 West Bank settlers make their presence felt through serried, semi-fortified encroachments  around much of Bethlehem whose alien architecture stands as a very visible political demand.

In the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour you look across a valley to the Har Homa colony in which vast tower blocks, regiments of condominiums, are advancing towards Palestinian territory. They are monolithic and endlessly repeated: dwelling paces but also ideological embodiments of an unstoppable state-sanctioned invasion: material culture mobilised in the cause of politics.

 

A Fateh-proseltysing (and decidedly anti-Hamas) cab driver took us under his wing, and after a chilling slide show delivered on his smart phone (young child cavorting on the beach of Tel Aviv juxtaposed with a Palestinian child in Hebron having an IDF machine gun pointed at his head), we departed for Herodium and Hebron. It was there that two other kinds of settlement presence can be experienced. The first involves sporadic land-grabs fuelled by an extraordinary frontier spirit: settlers will occupy hill tops overnight and wait for the Israeli Defence Force to install water and electricity supplies. Tents become portacabins which rapidly become houses, forming the nucleus for whole new towns built in months. Central to this process is a politics of invisibility in which the near-total Israeli military control of much of the West Bank is denied. On the road up to Herodium (in an Oslo Accord Area C, under full Israeli military control), for instance, you pass a large IDF base on your right, filled with armed personnel carriers and surveillance equipment. At the top of what remains of Herod’s extraordinary creation (from where you can see the Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance) there are helpful photographic panoramas, provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority which identify topographical features and nearby towns. The Bad Fulah ruins are identified and also Solomon’s Pools even though they are, as the legend says, ‘hidden’. But in the foreground (such exorbitance being one of the inconvenient conditions of photography) lies the un-named sprawling military camp, built to protect several recent settlements nearby and new kibbutz. On another of the photographic panoramas an unknown visitor has helpfully hand-written the word ‘settlement’ below the printed name of Tko’a.

 

Departing Herodium we encountered another aspect of ‘the situation’ that seemed to give some insight into the the subsequent abduction and murder of three youths that resulted in the lockdown of Hebron. A Settler resident and her adolescent child approached our driver and asked whether she could get a lift to the bottom of the hill. We said fine, no problem (it was very hot, she looked parched). Our driver explained that he would like to help but that legally he couldn’t (the fine for driving Israeli citizens in a Palestinian green licence plated cab was 50,000 shekels and two years arbitrary detention he later told us). We were starting to get a sense of the existential dilemmas and anxieties that both Palestinians and Settlers face in this extraordinary occupied landscape where the occupation itself is made invisible and the occupied are forced to apologise to the occupiers.

 

As a casual visitor to the West Bank you encounter the tyranny that Palestinians are living with on a daily basis in relation to their material culture. I heard plenty of stories from the conference in Tel Aviv from participants and friends of theirs who had been strip-searched, forced to miss flights, and in extreme cases, detained for two days and then formally deported because of evidence of West Bank visits. A Polish friend told me she had been required to check in five hours before departure and that every item in her luggage meticulously inspected before each book was held upside down and shaken vigorously in ways that reminded her of 1980s martial rule in Poland (don’t take any books she said).

 

Driving further south, toward Hebron (El Khalil), where we would encounter another form of Settler presence, we criss-crossed in and out of Area A — nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled zones — where it is illegal, as numerous large red road-side sings declare, for Israeli citizens to enter (‘at risk to their lives’) and I noticed that our driver would, as a form of bodily hexis, unbuckle his seat belt whenever we passed a red Area A sign. After a while I started to do so too.  Hexis, so Bourdieu argued is ‘political mythology, realised and embodied [and] turned into a permanent disposition’. In this case the unbuckling seemed to perform the mythologised possibility of political freedom, promised by the red road-side signs but obliterated everywhere else.

 

Hebron has a peculiarly bitter and contested history. It was the site of the massacre, in 1929, of sixty-seven Jews following rumours of attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem, and in 1994 of the murder of twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by US-born member of the Kach movement, Baruch Goldstein. Apparently one tour company offers a day tour of Hebron starting with a Jewish guide who narrates ‘their’ history, followed by an afternoon with a Palestinian who provides the competing, and incommensurable account. The Ibrahimi mosque was initially closed but has now been partitioned with both Muslim and Jewish access heavily controlled both spatially and temporally. The old town has been completely reconfigured by the conflict. Most of the Palestinian markets are closed, the majority of shops having been welded shut by the IDF. Despite the notices prominently displayed in the Jewish sector which complain about the thriving Arab market, it is a desolate picture, the open parts ‘roofed’ with wire netting to protect those below from the garbage which Settlers throw down on their new neighbours in an attempt to drive them out.  Security turnstiles control access to the mosque and the Settler-controlled part of the town is off limits to Palestinians. Foreigners can get through after an inspection of passports and Israeli border entrance stamps and can mingle with Settlers who openly carry semi-automatic weapons in the largely deserted streets along which IDF vehicles frequently zoom.  After Sabbath many dozens of Settlers march with cordial IDF protection through the Arab old town raising slogans about how this will become part of Israel. Closely scrutinised by many peace observers (from Temporary International Presence in Hebron, among others) this was a ritual-political occupation of space of the kind that is familiar from Northern Ireland.

 

Hebron is full of amazing things: embroidered cushions, beautiful kaffiyas and amazing glass work with a distinctive striated green sedimentation that reflects the quality of sand from the village of Bani Na’im and the sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea. The glassworks were established in Roman times and Hebron glass beads (especially efficacious in the protection they provided against the evil eye) were traded throughout many parts of Africa (becoming known as Kano beads). Export restrictions mean that this local industry now faces exceptional difficulties.

 

We threw away the wrapper for the Hebron kaffiya which proudly said made in Palestine and hid it in an internal zipper in my suitcase (it was a ‘fashionable’ red one, not the politically ‘authentic’ black and white variety). My book on old Hebron, which detailed the full-blown Apartheid division of the town, I could at least say was bought in the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, now a de facto a part of the Israeli state. The assistant there had said it was easier to import class A drugs than books sympathetic to ‘the situation’. The Hebron glass was bought in the old city of Jerusalem (‘a small shop’ I would say if necessary), although I would be unable to remember its exact location. As it happened, we passed the profiling. I had been thinking that next time I visit the West Bank I’ll go via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, in order to ensure that I can fully consume the extraordinary riches that are made in Palestine. But I now understand that Israeli border controls there are even more severe. I departed with a sense of the double politics of material culture in this part of the world. Landscape and the built environment are fiercely contested in ways that make disputes about the future of Stonehenge seem positively parochial. The built environment and its aesthetics (condominiums versus olive groves) are centrally important. And then there is the question of the distribution of the sensible, what is made visible and invisible in a traumatic politics of appearance (and non-appearance).  But there is also the question of Palestinian material culture in a more prosaic sense, those made objects, material manifestations of Palestinian endurance and resilience which the visiting anthropologist (or indeed any visitor) is unable to consume because of the impending shake-down at Ben Gurion International Airport or the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli state has tacitly declared these to be taboo, contaminating artefacts that reveal unauthorised itineraries or illegitimate sympathies. Never has a politicised study of material culture been more necessary.

 

 

CFP: Bicicultures Roadshow: The Critical Bicycling Studies Tour de California

Image Courtesy of FreeFoto.com

Anthropologists who research bicycling, urban and otherwise, are invited to attend an experimental conference being held April 16-17th in Davis, California. The preferred deadline for submission of abstracts is Sunday, February 10th. More details below and at bicicultures.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/cfp/.

 

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CFP: International Free Software Workshop 2013 (Porto Alegre, Brazil)

Deadline for Proposals: 20 February 2013

Website: softwarelivre.org/wsl

From the pioneer software sharing communities created around UNIX to the community of Emacs hackers and beyond, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development has been growing exponentially, following the popularization and widespread usage of personal computers and the Internet. Not only have FOSS communities expanded globally, but also its body of literature, becoming relevant for computer scientists and engineers, as well as for researchers in the humanities and social sciences. In the past decade, FOSS research was consolidated around questions such as individual motivation, collaborative practices, issues of scale, governance, and coordination of development efforts, as well as problems of political economy, involving the study of economic models, and forms of political mobilization around Free Software.

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Anonymous recycling

Dumpster Diving

Aliine Lotman (Anthro Dept, EHI, Tallinn University)

“Until the 19th century, the term ‘to consume’ was used mainly in its negative connotations of  ‘destruction’ and ‘waste’.  Tuberculosis was known as ‘consumption’, that is, a wasting disease.  Then  economists came up with a bizarre theory, which has become widely accepted, according to which the basis of a sound economy is a continual increase in the consumption (that is, waste) of  goods”              (Petr  Skrabanek 1994: 29).

The activity of rummaging through rubbish for usable things is known by many names: dumpster diving, freeganism, skipping, recycling and so on. As the communities of people involved in this activity are not exactly homogenous, with a common ideology, it is not too certain where the different terms originate. Neverthess, I will denote here some of the connotations and ideas behind them.

Freeganism is often considered to be the most politically charged term in use. As the first known printed use of the word ‘freegan’ – the ‘Why Freegan? zine from the end of the 1990s – declares:

Freeganism is essentially an anti-consumerist ethic about eating; asking “why freegan?” is essentially asking “why not consumerism?” /…/ By not consuming, you are boycotting EVERYTHING! All the corporations, all the stores, all the pesticides, all the land and resources wasted, the capitalist system, the all-oppressive dollar, the wage slavery, the whole burrito! That should help you get to sleep at night (Oakes 1999: 3-4).

When the term freeganism is used, it is often in contrast to capitalism or about freeganism’s role in modifying it. The anarchist sociologist Jeff Shantz claims for example that freeganism is trying to evade capitalism by creating its own alternative economic system, inspired by Marcel Mauss’s conception of the gift economy (Shantz 2005). As such, the term might also be the most controversial one for being too strict to some and at the same too ambiguous to others (Gross 2009).

(See also the Sydney doco Bin Appetit (YouTube 30March 2010).
 

Dumpster diving might be the most clear and easily graspable term for the outsider: ‘dumpster’ as the garbage bin or container where the items are retrieved from, and ‘diving’ as the activity necessary to reach deep into the vast containers filled with goods. Dumpster diving or ‘dumpstering’ are probably the most well known terms in an international context, whilst others might be perceived as more local terms.

Skipping and skip dipping share the connotations of dumpster diving and are the not as politically charged as freeganism. The difference seems to be geographical – ‘skip dipping’ is a term with clear Australian origin (Edwards & Mercer 2012) whilst ‘skipping’ is the term I heard from my informants who were either from Great Britain or had learned about skipping there.

The word most commonly used in Barcelona is recycling (reciclar) which has its congruous words in the languages spoken in the community. In Estonian, for example, the word is ‘recyclima’ [risaiklima]. It can be said to have the same meaning as ‘dumpster diving’. In this posting I mostly use this term, as it is the one my informants most commonly use.

Approaching the bins

A young man, we shall call him Mateo, yawns and stretches behind his laptop. It has been a tiring day of idleness. He does not work in the strict sense of the term. Today has been a usual day: he spent a number of hours planning tomorrow’s dinner, as friends are coming over and he would like to cook something nice. He then played with his roommate’s cat for some time and had something to eat. For a few hours he focused on the Wi-Fi problem – the neighbours’ router seemed to be giving a weaker signal, so a few other neighbouring networks had to be cracked. Now, as noted, he is stretching his back. Suddenly he glances at the clock – it is almost half past eight! He rises at once and walks into the kitchen, reaching for two large grocery bags from one of the drawers.

Mateo was born and raised in the outskirts of Barcelona, in a neighbourhood similar to where he lives now – houses built on hillsides, a cobweb of steep streets intertwined with innumerable staircases, a population of mostly working class Catalans and immigrants. His parents are too, as he says, working class people, trabajadores. From his childhood, he remembers dumpster diving as a shameful matter – a question of pride and poverty; even children wearing hand-downs from older siblings were bullied at school, not to even mention families who went picking through garbage. Mateo did not start recycling himself before ending up in Amsterdam after he was thrown out of the apartment he rented in Barcelona. Once he returned to Barcelona, he simply continued to go recycling as he had in Holland.

We are walking uphill as he tells me this story of becoming a recycler. We take a sharp left turn and he points straight ahead: “See? There’s Día”. Día is the shop that we are heading to; its red sign in the shape of a percentage symbol can not be seen from this angle. I immediately recognise the cashier’s red uniform as he steps out of the door of the shop, dragging behind him a full container of biological waste. We start moving faster, as Mateo tells me that the lady standing right next to the shop window is also a dumpster diver, and not the most generous kind. We reach the containers at the same time with the middle-aged lady (I later find out from a Polish squatter that the lady is Russian). The cashier has brought out two bin containers, one biological – with the brown lid – and the other – with the black lid – mixed. The three of us flip open the lids. Mateo and I like to think of ourselves as recyclers with a lot of solidarity (a catchword among the anarchist-punk-okupa scene) running through our veins, so naturally we share all our findings with the Russian lady, who then melts up and offers us some of her own. All in all the result of this 15-minute walk and talk are for us: six packs (500 grams each) of some yellow sweet fruit unbeknownst to me; a lot of red peppers; some salad; a huge amount of carrots; a broccoli; a big bag of onions; a zucchini; five small yoghurts; and two bottles of Actimel. We head home with a big smile, because being able to not pay for our food makes us radiate with joy.

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Neil Smith: 1954-2012

Originally published in the SocialistWorker.org on October 2, 2012

Neil Smith: A Passionate Scholar and Socialist

Bill Roberts, a founding member of the ISO, and Hector Agredano, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, remember the life of a determined activist.

Neil Smith, the renowned scholar, beloved teacher and devoted activist, died on September 29 at the age of 58.

Neil is best known for his academic work. He was a professor of anthropology and geography at City University of New York. In particular, his writings on the patterns of social development in cities–drawing on history, economics, political and social theory, and ecological studies–are among the most prominent left- wing views on the subject.

But Neil will also be remembered as a committed socialist and activist. He came to the U.S. from his native Scotland in early 1977 to complete his graduate studies with David Harvey at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He wasted no time becoming an activist on campus, helping to establish the Graduate Representative Organization.

In 1978, Neil joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO), then only newly formed, and helped to build a campus chapter at John Hopkins of a dozen committed socialists. Neil became a frequent contributor to Socialist Worker, then a monthly
newspaper. One memorable article of his in 1981, titled ”It’s Right to Rebel,” put the London urban riots of that summer in the context of the severe economic recession and the hopelessness it produced.

As Kathy Ogren, a fellow student at the time and now a recognized scholar in her own right, remembered, Neil was “a great popularizer of Marxist ideas…and a good
listener to a person’s evolving political consciousness. He could help one sort out the connections between personal and structural questions and conditions.”

Though Neil left the ISO in 1984, his comrades and students remember the humor and fearlessness he brought to his political organizing. “Neil was one of the most
creative thinkers I’ve ever met,” Ogren said. “He saw connections, applied his prodigious energy to researching an answer, and then found innovative ways to write or speak about what he had learned.”

**

As a scholar, Neil’s intellect was evident from early in his academic career. In 1979, he wrote an influential article titled “Toward a Theory of Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People.” More than scholarly research, this was a political intervention in the field of urban geography at a time when questions on urban decay and
ghettoization were riddled with inconsistent theories and contradictory research.

His most important theoretical contribution to the understanding of the geography of capitalism is outlined in Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and
the Production of Space. Here, Neil laid out a coherent explanation for the unevenness and distortion of economic development, specifically in urban areas, because of investment and disinvestment in the built environment by capital markets.

Inspired by insights from Lenin and Trotsky, Neil’s thesis is based on the contradictions of capitalism outlined by Karl Marx in Capital. However, in applying these ideas, he helped to anchor disparate theories from disciplines that often remain separated in the
academy.

Neil would expand on these theories to develop analyses on the commodification of nature under capitalism, politics in the study of geography, and U.S. imperialism. One of his most celebrated books, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to
Globalization–for which he received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography for 2002–traces American military interventionism through the age of globalization. The book would prove prophetic when, one year later, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq.

Upon his arrival at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Smith’s scholarship and sharp politics attracted a crowd of activists, intellectuals and radicals of all stripes to his courses. From seasoned anti-gentrification activists of Washington, D.C., to peasant organizers from Costa Rica, and the curious from everywhere in between, they all found a seat at the table. His classes were lively with dissension and debate, and it was alright to be political; in fact, it was encouraged.

During the last years of his life, one of Neil’s main concerns was that radicals and revolutionaries were losing hope. He was frustrated that it was easier for radicals to imagine an environmental apocalypse than a triumphant revolutionary movement against capitalism. During class and in meetings, he would raise the concern that one of the victims of the ruling class offensive had been the utopian imagination of the left.

This was one of the most inspiring things about Neil– he never gave up hope. And when the Occupy movement burst on the scene last fall, he welcomed it with open arms. Class discussion would turn into strategy debates–he encouraged students to participate, and
would hold class at the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park or cancel them to allow us to participate in major demonstrations.

Neil leaves a lasting legacy of scholarship and dedication to geography and to Marxism. As a socialist, he always placed himself in the revolutionary tradition–he spent his last years trying to raise revolution to the agenda in people’s imagination and political frontiers. He left us too soon and will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues, students and loved ones.

Neil Smith, ¡presente!

The Painted King: Art, Activism, and Authenticity in Hawaii

Glenn Wharton, NYU Museum Studies and Museum of Modern Art,
Painted%20King%20Book%20Cover.jpg
I just published a book which describes my cultural research during the conservation of the Kamehameha I sculpture in North Kohala, Hawai’i. My aim is to show how ethnographic and participatory research during a conservation project can reveal complex networks of meaning invested in cultural objects. It also demonstrates how relationships between people and objects can inform conservation research and the hands-on work of cleaning, coating, and repair.
The sculpture is particularly charged with fused meanings and it has an amazing physical history. It was commissioned by King Kalakaua and the Hawaiian legislature to celebrate the centennial of Captain Cook’s “discovery” of the Hawaiian Islands at a moment when American business interests were advocating an overthrow of the government. They chose to portray Kamehameha I as a “Pacific hero” in the stance of Augustus Caesar.
Unfortunately the sculpture sunk in a shipwreck in 1880 on the way from Germany to Honolulu. It was recovered from the sea, purchased by a British ship captain in the Falkland Islands, and “restored” with a coat of brown paint over its gold leaf surface in 1883.
1%20Sculpture%20before%20conservation.jpg


2%20Lei%20Draping.jpgToday it serves as a spiritual, economic, political, and cultural object. Local residents paint the figure in bright, life-like colors and honor it with gifts and a parade on Kamehameha Day, a state holiday. At first, the state asked me to strip the paint off and gild it, following the artist’s original intent. Honoring “artist intent” is standard in my field, yet in this case it meant stripping the bright paint off that is applied by local volunteers. I worked with local residents to create a multi-year community-based project to decide whether to honor its material authenticity (gold) vs. the authenticity of their more recent cultural convention (paint).
3%20Nalani%20removing%20eyes.jpg
Figure 3. Nalani Cabrera, a Kamehameha I descendant, removing the eyeballs during conservation treatment on the scaffolding. Credit: Glenn Wharton.
We acquired funding for art activities in schools and wrote a puppet hula about the history of the sculpture, all to get people talking and thinking about the sculpture’s deteriorated condition and what to do about it. Gradually it became a “conservation object” as residents began to discuss its faded paint, corrosion, and whether to re-paint or gold leaf it. The question of gold vs. paint served as a window into issues of Hawaiian identity and how a multicultural community wanted to represent its Native Hawaiian past.
After a series public meetings and activities, the community voted 71% to continue painting it after addressing corrosion and structural issues – which I did with local residents up on the scaffolding. The book chronicles the project and addresses larger concerns about public interest and the heritage conservation industry.
Lei draping ceremony by Hawaiian Studies high school students on Kamehameha Day, a state holiday. Credit: Glenn Wharton.