Blog Post

Cathedrals and Ivory Towers—Occupations and Shock

This weekend in the UK saw people walking about sporting red poppies on their lapels.  It was Armistice Day on Friday, and yesterday, Sunday, was Remembrance Day.

On Thursday I attended Paul Gilroy's conference on "Shock and Awe" at the London School of Economics, which had speakers reflect on the history of aerial bombing, the deployment of massive strategic attacks on non-combatants. After the bombs were launched on Baghdad I wrote a piece that eventually appeared in boundary 2 on how the Imagination was perversely deployed in the first so-named use of "shock and awe" (at Guernica), for this was one of the first acts of psychological warfare—the terrible affect inflicted on civilians was intended to spread contagiously from them to others far from the bomb site.  I then tied the issue of shock and awe to the pre-emptive war that had been launched against Iraq ("Pre-emption, Perpetual War, and the Future of the Imagination." boundary 2. 33:1 (Spring 2006): 151-70.)—how did shock and awe, coupled with the idea of a war on terror, skew the application of our imaginations in particularly disabling ways?  At the conference people keyed in on aerial bombing and landmines as both instantiating such fears—there are no safe spaces anymore—and, importantly for my piece today, the fact that both tactics remove the perpetrators from the scenes and immediate consequences of the violence they unleash, make tracing the line of responsibility even more difficult.

Here I want to draw out the connection between this idea of responsibility, accountability and the critical imagination, and the recent events at Occupy Cal.  

On the weekend after the LSE keynote my wife and I stayed with friends in Exeter—literary scholar Regenia Gagnier and philosopher John Dupre. They took us to the magnificent 11th-century cathedral there.  Nearby there were clear vertical glass sculptures with fragments of concrete and granite embedded in them.  Regenia explained that Hitler had bombed all the cathedral cities, but that Exeter's had, miraculously, not been hit.  The fragments were from the buildings that were destroyed.

On the lawn in front, alongside the memorials to the war dead, were the tents and banners of the Occupy Exeter protest. Cathedrals are now very popular sites of such protests, especially since the highly controversial occupation of St Paul's cathedral in London, which is located right by the London Stock Exchange. 

This past Wednesday there were also demonstrations against cuts to higher education.  Tuition is now as high as nine thousand pounds, and even in bastions of elite humanistic education such as Oxford, where I am for the autumn, there are palpable signs of worry and concern.  People routinely express disgust at the New College for the Humanities.  Set up on a for-profit business model and with the backing of wealthy investors, it sets itself up as the one alternative to the demise of the humanities.  The College opened its doors to students this year, charging them twice the aforementioned amount for the privilege of hearing founders such as Richard Dworkin give maybe one lecture the entire year.  Humanistic education, it seems, is once again to be for the chosen few with deep pockets, a gentlemanly pursuit.

To me, the Occupy movement here and at Berkeley and other places worldwide share many features—I want to remark on one specific one that I think draws all the topics I have touched upon together.  Liberal education is being attacked directly and indirectly: directly through budget cuts and tuition hikes, indirectly by the massive reliance on loans (in an age of high unemployment) and by the overriding sense that one protests at the one's own peril.  Both deter the critical pursuit of knowledge.  "Protest" can take many forms—actually occupying university space illegally, but also, I want to submit, by using one's mind and imagination to critically question the actual sources and causes of the global economic situation.  To go back to my first topic—who planted those landmines, ordered the bombing?  Sven Lindquist, the first speaker at the LSE conference, left us with the image of someone pushing a button in Nevada and launching a drone thousands of miles away.  Have you seen who sits on the UC Board of Regents? People are fed up being told this state of economic emergency requires that they suspend their judgment, their values, their rights.  The Occupy movement asks for accountability.  It negates the notion of paralysis and "awe" before the powers that be.

I went to Berkeley for my degree. One overwhelming sense there was that it was a public institution—funded by the people of California. There was tremendous pride at being in Sproul Plaza during the many different years of protest: Free Speech, civil rights, anti-war.  One looked about and saw students, staff, faculty, even administrators, if not all agreeing, all occupying the plaza, listening to speakers, voices from the crowd being as much of the message as the speeches being made. And the sense of bodies, gathered altogether, dramatically reinforced that sense of common concern.

In today's virtual global community, a spreading sense of outrage exists, and each small or large occupation resonates with others. The denial of futures to young people sits side by side with depriving the elderly of a dignified old age.  What is happening at university protests has the added dimension of outrage at the immense decrease in financial support going to institutions that teach us how to think freely, critically, antagonistically even, without direct or indirect censorship, about the root causes of our shared condition. If we pride ourselves with training leaders, on "practical" knowledge, then we need to attend to responsibility as well.

David Palumbo-Liu's picture
David Palumbo-Liu is professor of comparative literature at Stanford.  His most recent publications include a volume on world-systems analysis co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi entitled Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World" System, Scale, Culture (Duke University Press, 2011), and The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (also from Duke).  He is the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, which is housed here on Arcade.