In the past week I have engaged in my regular life of my PhD research, chatted with friends, read the news, marched on a student rally against the introduction of fees into higher education and visited occupy london a number of times.  One thing that seems to stand out above all is the ways in which things are understood, that is the frame, the context of all action.  In this blog I will reflect a little on a few of the ways in which the ‘terms of debate’ were key in these events.

Firstly within my own work, an EPSRC funded project which looks at the relationship between the physical and social environments in the suburbs the question of scale and representation is an important one.  At one extreme, and I’ll be crude here for the point of a short blog, we have the notion of embodied, relational, subjective human space and the other we have the decentred, ‘objective’ systemic abstract space.  The first is similar to Ingold’s -(see lines 2007) notion of habitation where place comes to be seen as a point of convergence of many paths, lifelines that create an energy around a node, the latter is equated with Ingold’s notion of Occupation whereby place is seen a static bounded place that people are in, making the paths between them utilitarian movements as opposed to place forming movements.  Much has been made of the relative merits of either angle but my point here is that both are ways of representing space that work in very different ways.  Abstract space is useful for maps of a large scale and larger analysis of areas, whereas human space is more useful for person centred analysis, local embodied knowledge.   My point here is that scale is not just choice of representation, it is a choice of knowledge and as such it is, in some sense political.  So the project tries to have both types of representation but in doing so it must recognise the political implication of the representation, what does each one do, how does it de-limit the terms of knowledge. 

In a very real way this goes beyond representation, it is in a sense directly influencing the ways in which people act.  On both a traditional OS street map and in a mental map of a street, the street is represented.  However the various capacities of that street are drawn upon in very different ways.  For example the street in abstract space is a traffic node, it is a point from A to B.  It is a route.  This was used to demark the route of the Student protest.  The route map will show, in the annals of history, the realisation of the democratic right to march.  However what it does not show is the ‘terms’ of the march, the bodily experience and the effectiveness of the movement through the streets, that is the human space.   

I was a little late for the march (shame on me) and decided to join it from the front by cycling down the route in the wrong direction.  As I did I was confronted with empty streets and with almost as many police officers that could fit into every side street gap, every overhead bridge, as possible.  It was quite frankly odd.  I was being watched from every angle and the route was very strictly barricaded.  A to B was the only option available by force.  This was directly Foucauldian, the way in which I used my body changed, I felt vulnerable and I felt disempowered, rightly or wrongly.  Further the march had been preceded by the sanctioning of the use of rubber bullets ‘if needed’ and the sending of letters to those who had been on marches before and had their names taken by police (not necessarily charged

Now I don’t want to get into my moral position but these events are of direct relevance to academic geographers and anthropologists.  Here we can see directly the managing of the bodies of both the florescent clad police officers, the students as well as the office workers (perhaps representative of the normative users of space?).  Bodies as vessels of force over the struggle to use space, the streets, to perform an action, to behave in a certain way which reflects the contestation – the disjuncture’s – of power, of body politics, of conceived notions of the ‘right to the city’.  It seemed as though the demonstrators posed a real threat to the normative use of space, that needed managing, the ‘terms of debate’ are directly spatial here. It is the street and its use.  Further is it the discourse around the street. 

A recent suggestion that public sector workers should only strike for 15 minutes to avoid disruption to the public was recently tabled (but only to the press) by Francis Maude a government minister.  It seems that the idea is that protests should not disrupt, they should be made and then listened too and this is democracy.  However in recent times I would suggest that this is the problem.  Such marches have in the last 30 years, with a weakening role of trade unions and the move towards a post-political age (where consensus based arrangements to technical problems such as climate change have replaced a politics of radical alterity) have been largely ignored or ineffective.  That is a politics of antagonism where a radically different arrangement of social relations is conceived of has been wiped away from the realm of possibility.  In this situation Zizek claims it is almost easier to imagine the appocaliptic end of the world than radical alterity.  Further activists such as Arundahati Roy have suugested that if non-violent protest is not listened too in an active way, if there seems to be no discourse then violent action is the recourse and, she states this is the position of the Maoist fighters in India.  This is a serious issue.

“If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.” Arundahati Roy

So at the end of a slow, crowded march that stopped frequently in cold weather behind thick lines of police the end point was reached, the police surrounded the marches and let them filter out slowly in different directions.  Most people did leave as memories at a 9 hour kettle on a windy Westminster bridge were still raw for many.  I was asked by a TV crew if I thought the march was a success.  My answer was it depends on how you judge success, it shows that people can get together and express a view, a point of concern, a united voice on a particular issue.  Will it change the issue, I don’t think so.  For me, the failure of the anti-war marches pre-iraq invasion have signed the end to the effectiveness of such things but I hold hope. 

So I made my way to St Pauls to re-energise, and there I was given more hope.  I was tired, this is essentially an embodied experience, the police had made it hard, the march was not carnivalesque, family orientated or an engaging with the police as they have been in the past, this does not encourage wider participation at all.  It de-limits the effectiveness of ‘your right’ I needed energy.  Fortunately I was given some by Rage Against the Machine ( guitarist Tom Morello who played some songs for a lucky crowd. 

This made me think about the occupy movements static-ness.  It does not move, it’s a place of flow in that I am there sometimes and not there at others but the camp stays as an ‘occupied’ part of the city.  A space of persistent demonstration where people come and talk, re-energise and form links (via livestream, through face to face meetings or through association) with others, the so called 99%.  What this shows for me is the way in which ‘the right to the city’ is constantly contested and the fights over it take many forms, they are embodied, they are spatial and in flux with the various configurations of relations between bodies, power and space. 

Lots of people I have been talking to have different ideas of the camp, some state that it needs particular demands, some say it is not ‘particularly constructive’, others sympathise.  For me this blog sums up the various positions that can be taken on the situation and as such I shall not repeat them here other than to surmise that the blog suggest three positions, greater regulation of current system, a true free market or no capitalism at all.  Whilst we all have opinions on the future there seems to be wide recognition of crisis. 

From the talks at the camp a number of ideas where put forward and here I want to relate them to geography and anthropology so we can see how our disiplines effect the ‘terms of debate’.  Professor Danny Miller, of UCL Anthropology, rejected the ideas that our society had become ‘to much’ of something or other and rather that it had become the wrong sort of thing.  Specifically he rejected the notions of ‘over commodification’ and that we had in some way become to materialistic and asserted that in many ways societies are materialistic.  That is they work through materials, he cited the love and affection in looking for a Christmas gift was part of the exchange, in this way we work through materials.  He positioned the problem rather with financial systems that work with money that is the property of the workers in the form of pensions and such.  These notions are best explained such writers as Gordon Clark, and Michel Lewis but Miller asked what is speculative capital based on and who controls this?  For Miller the focus on the materiality of the situation and the power involved should reside in these questions and less so in the link to some idea of a ‘commodity free society’ as his research suggests that commodities are far from the symbols of de-humanising greed but often the conduits of human relations such as love and care.  Miller also stated the need for material, concrete, real examples of best practice citing Norway as an example of a string economy with a string welfare state at the scale of level and companies such as John Lewis and Waitrose as worker inclusive capitalism and a smaller level.  For Miller these concrete examples show a material realisation of best practice and demands can take the form of regulation to encourage such forms of social relation. 

On the Saturday [12/11/2011] David Harvey gave talk to a sizable crowd.  His talk noted the success of the appropriation of the public space as being one that is truly public space, one that is political and rejects its privatised legal status.  This he said was the fundamentals of the matter.  The terms of debate here rest on questions that generally end in ‘for whom?’.  This is Private land ‘for whom?’, This is a Crisis ‘for whom?’, austerity ‘for whom?’.  Harvey drew links between the inequality of wealth with the inequality of political power quoting Mark Twain who said of the US “we have the best congress money can buy’.  He stated that we need to stay and demand, link ourselves globally to movements in the rest of the world citing Chile, amongst others as strong campaigns.  He linked the shadow of Pinochet, Regan and Thatcher as casting us into a neo-liberal economic trajectory that needs to be reversed as the globe reaches a saturation point of growth.  He suggested a radical imagining of a 0 growth economy and that the camp should reflect the fact that it values humanity, love and ‘the festival of life’ as its terms of debate not the %growth rate fixation. 

In conclusion the events of the last week has shown how society always has ‘terms for the debates’ about the system of social relations it conceives of as just, positive and legitimate and those that are not.  These terms range from the forms of representation of space and phenomena used in de-limiting debate to the performance of bodies and power, legal and social status of place and the configuration of space itself, amongst others.  So the fact that I marched down a street on a map does not show the bodily emotional experience of this on the day, the energy I felt and the politics of this.  This energy was taken by the slow, stop start, cattle like march but returned in full by Tom Morello.  The legal status of St Pauls land does not represent the value inactions it is involved with in wider society and so on. 

Danny Miller’s talk explained how the talk of growth and the finance sector set the terms of debate when really if we ask where are these things, how does it work through the materiality of the world situation and what is the politics for this, perhaps then we can start to understand what to take nad what to leave from capitalism. 

David Harvey showed how the ‘terms of debate’ must be set in a way that shows clearly and relevantly what you consider important.  With this it is clear that why Mr Cameron considers the occupy movement ‘not particularly constructive’ it is perhaps because it is not trying to construct the same thing he is trying to construct.  Further the terms of debate are spatial, they link people globally through the effects of economic policy and locally through the fight for the ‘right to the city’.

So for geographers and anthropologists, (I consider myself a bit of both) there are many ways the things we consider is related to the very real politics of the above events.  Events that are fundamentally about the ways in which we structure and understand social relations.  We have a role here in opening up the ways of thinking about, and being in space and the association of the politics of social relations that work through it.  In doing so we can also move beyond debates of which type form of representation should be used, and recognise abstract and human space, occupation and habitation as forms of understanding that draw upon particular political capacities of space for particular ends.  In doing so we can reflexively select our tools to build a truly ‘human space’.