Education Activism Ethics: histories, strategies, economies

This post was contributed by Dr Nick Beech, Ian Gwinn and Calum Wright – members of the Raphael Samuel History Centre.

On 30 June – 3 July 2016, the Centre will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, along with the fortieth anniversary of the journal he helped to found (History Workshop Journal), with the Radical Histories Conference.

Read other blogs about the conference here and here

RSHC-logo-long

A strand within the larger conference has been co-convened under the working title of Education Activism Ethics, concentrating on Raphael Samuel’s legacy of ‘history from below’. The aim is to consider the complex relationships operating between academic and ‘extra-academic’ historical research. A key question raised by the strand concerns the present possibilities and limits of working ‘extra-institutionally’ in political, economic, and ethical terms.

Though the strand includes formal academic paper panels, many of the sessions consist of workshops, roundtables, and other discursive formats. The aim of the strand is to consolidate perspectives on working practical strategies and tactics towards autonomous and self-managed education.

Education Activism Ethics explores ways of doing history which move beyond the confines of the academy and engage wider public audiences, and the challenges such approaches entail both in practical and theoretical terms. Guided walks, social media and blogging; free education, social art, DIY practices, and direct political action offer ways for the radical historian to promote forgotten or marginalised histories and to bring these stories to new audiences. But these practices and modes operate within specific conditions and face particular problems. What are the possibilities opened by history beyond the academy? What ethical conditions are negotiated? What politics are constituted? What economies are required?

Historical Research and Dissemination

Some of the contributions in the strand focus on specific historical research approaches, tools and media. On Friday, we have a panel (titled ‘Labour, Class, Community’) providing readings of history that have been produced from historians working closely with communities and social formations in their localities and conditions. On the other hand, a group of historians (Catherine Fletcher, Laura Sangha, and Brodie Waddell) will present different their different perspectives at the ‘Politics of Doing History Online’ roundtable on Sunday morning, examining the specific possibilities (and present limitations) of conducting internet research and dissemination.

These sessions, we hope, will not only introduce us to specific, unique, histories, but raise questions about the contributions that history can make to public consciousness and empowerment. On mid-day on Saturday afternoon a discussion and debate will be held, led by Bill Schwarz, Lynne Segal, and Nick Beech, on the role history plays in public and political discourse, and how historical reason might contribute to a radical politics.

Radical Historical Practice Beyond the Academy

An important question motivating this strand of the conference is how radical history can operate beyond the academic institution. We are excited that a number of different research groups, reflecting a range of constituencies, have responded to our call in this regard. On Saturday afternoon, the People’s Histreh Notts Radical History Group will be providing a workshop ‘Loveable Luddites and Righteous Rioters – Can we be radical historians without pissing people off?’

In this workshop, participants will not only consider the deradicalisation of the past within meleorist, institutional histories, raising the question as to whether the past is pacified, but will also consider the structural conditions in which history is reproduced—the systems of funding, control of public forums, and instrumentalisation of history toward economic or political ends: People’s Histreh ask ‘how can groups and individuals engage in radical history? What is radical about radical history? The stories we investigate? The ways in which we tell them? The reasons why we tell them?’

Radical Histories conference

Radical Histories conference

On Friday morning, a number of DIY arts and cultural practitioners connected with the Limehouse Town Hall, hold a workshop examining the economic, political and ethical questions that have been raised in the project to institute a new civic space in Limehouse. As Elyssa Livergant, convener and facilitator of the workshop state: ‘[Limehouse Town Hall] a former nineteenth civic building is now occupied by a range of creative residents – arts, cultural and community producers with studios who also run varied progressive and ‘radical’ cultural and educational activities for wider communities in Limehouse, East London and beyond. [It] has been user led since 2004 under the umbrella of the charity Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust.

The Trust holds a lease for the building from Tower Hamlets Council. Drawing on the heritage of the Town Hall as a civic centre and one time labour history museum, we seek to draw a contemporary parallel for the buildings present use. With the input of current creative residents, Trust members and you this workshop will explore the relationship between the more recent civic history of the building and the role of the arts and culture in contemporary civic life.’

Finally, we also have a workshop, convened by Ian Gwinn, that brings together a number of representatives, from ‘Free Universities’ and other student education activists, from across the UK. Since 2010, the cuts to education funding and trebling of tuition fees have lent new urgency and impetus to the struggle to develop radical and critical alternatives to orthodox educational models. New initiatives have sprung up, advancing a very different vision of the organisation and practice of education. The idea that the purpose of education should be for emancipation and liberation, that it should be run along democratic lines, and that it should equip people with ‘really useful knowledge’, connects these initiatives to a long and rich heritage, from Owenite and Chartist ventures in the 19th Century through to second-wave feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s.

In this session we will explore the kinds of principles, forms and purposes that inform current practice with contributions from members of these initiatives and others. Here a host of issues arise, carrying both practical and theoretical implications for how we go about assessing the prospects for radical and critical education today. These include the structure of pedagogical encounters (curricula, assessment, space), the resources (institutional, material, personal) upon which they depend and how they are secured and enlarged, and the process of contesting dominant conceptions of pedagogy.

There are many other sessions throughout the course of the three days of Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism that we hope will contribute to a searching investigation on the active, educative, and ethical dimensions of ‘radicalism’ in historical practice and dissemination.

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Radical Heritage, Art & Culture: The Work of a Thousand Different Hands

This post was contributed by Dr Claire Hayward, lecturer in History at Farnborough College of Technology, Researcher for Pride of Place and a team member of the Raphael Samuel History Centre

On 30 June – 3 July 2016, the Centre will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, along with the fortieth anniversary of the journal he helped to found (History Workshop Journal), with the Radical Histories Conference.

RSHC-logo-long

While the main question of Raphael Samuel History Centre Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism will be ‘what is radical history?’, the history conference and festival will also ask how heritage, art and culture can be radical. We hope that discussions will raise questions about how radical histories are shared with people from all walks of life, and how they can be made more accessible and both involve and reach radical communities.

Radical Public Histories

The RSHC is ‘devoted to encouraging the widest possible participation in historical research and debate’. The Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference and festival intends to carry on this idea. The conference papers, presentations and performances given over the three-and-a-half-day event will bring histories of radicalism to a broad audience of performers, artists, students, teachers, local community members and historians.

We’ll hear from heritage practitioners, curators and artists on how to access and preserve radical histories. On Friday morning, a panel on commemorating suffrage activism in Parliament will explore radical history in Parliament, and question how we can make radical histories more visible in the present. On Saturday afternoon we’ll hear about radical archiving and archiving radical histories. On Sunday we’ll hear about radical publishing and alternative visionaries like the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.

Participatory Events

Radical Histories conference

Radical Histories conference

Co-production and participation is at the heart of some of the scheduled events. You can join in a musical workshop and sing late nineteenth century socialist hymns for Jewish immigrant workers during Sunday’s long lunch break. You can also join in walking tours that will take you through radical histories of the East End and Hackney. Performance and art are central themes of the long weekend, and the programme promises to be both enlightening and entertaining.

Stalls, exhibitions, films and other events will take place at lunch during the long weekend. Pride of Place will be there to collect LGBTQ histories. The project is run by Historic England (previously English Heritage) and Leeds Beckett University. It is radical in multiple senses. The project collects and shares histories of radical LGBTQ lives, of radical sites such as queer squats and alternative housing. It is also a crowdsourced project that aims to collaborate with, be informed by and reach as wide an audience as possible. Radical heritage takes on many methods, and crowdsourcing is just one of them. During the lunch time sessions, you can also hear poetry readings, watch screenings and join workshops that bring to life radical voices, histories and ideas.

Revealing Radical Histories

As Raphael Samuel said, ‘history is the work of a thousand different hands’. The Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference and festival aims to show how radical histories are the work of many hands, from many backgrounds, for many purposes. The organisers, speakers, contributors and audience are from a range of different backgrounds, and have a wealth of different experiences and skills. We hope this will reveal radical histories and bring to light radical ideas of how to share them through heritage, art and culture.

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Can History be Radical?

This post was contributed by Dr Onni Gust, lecturer in colonial and postcolonial history at the University of Nottingham, and member of the Raphael Samuel History Centre – a research and educational centre, of which Birkbeck is a partner, devoted to encouraging the widest possible participation in historical research and debate.

On 30 June – 3 July 2016, the Centre will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, along with the fortieth anniversary of the journal he helped to found (History Workshop Journal), with the Radical Histories Conference.

DCF 1.0

Here, Dr Gust gives an insight into some of the central themes to be grappled with at the London-based the conference.

In 1961, towards the end of the war of Algerian Independence against France, Franz Fanon published The Wretched of the Earth In this indictment of the psychological impact of European colonial power, Fanon called on his African brothers not to follow the path set by Europe but to start “a new history of Man.”  In this history, Europe’s crimes would be accounted for, but the overall aim would be to “create the whole man” as opposed to the “pathological tearing apart of his functions and crumbling of his unity” that European imperialism had engendered. Fanon’s vision for humanity lay in the creation of new concepts that would enable unity rather than division and inequality. History lay at the core of that radical reinvention of humanity.

Fanon’s was a polemic designed to provide inspiration and to galvanize those in the midst of a brutal and bloody war against French imperialism. His death in 1961, the same year that Wretched of the Earth was published, freed him from grappling with the realities of governing a newly-formed post-colonial nation and from the difficulties of researching and writing a redemptive and inclusive history.

Those who survived and have inherited the legacies of anti-colonial resistance, have born the burden of enacting the agenda that Fanon so powerfully laid out. That agenda was inseparably tied to the desires and disillusionments of mid twentieth-century socialism. Together, and in mutual constitution, socialism and post-colonialism looked to history as one mode through which a more equal and humane future could be enacted.

The radical potential of history

As a project of decolonizing and democratizing historical knowledge, History Workshop was a key forum in which that vision of a more humane and inclusive ‘people’s history’ was enacted. Yet the heyday of History Workshop, which ran concurrently with the emergence of ‘Subaltern Studies’ in India and post-colonial history more generally, also marks the growing disillusionment with post-colonial and socialist alternatives and the rise of an apparently inescapable neo-liberalism.

How far has the hope that was placed in the promise of history been lost, too? Has the faith in the power to right the wrongs of the past and build a more equitable future through the rewriting of history dissipated? Since the early ‘90s, post-colonial critique has cast significant doubt on the radical potential of history as we understand it (whoever ‘we’ are) to effect liberation.

The promise and potential of histories of subalterns – be they peasants, the proletariat, the enslaved, the racialized, gender and sexual minorities or the disabled – to open up agency now appears, at least in the academy, to be somewhat naïve. Gayatri Spivak’s critique of the Subaltern Studies project of recovering ‘subaltern’ voices in the archive ultimately determined that subaltern subjectivities were always mediated and compromised by the structures of state power that conditioned the historians’ access to the documents themselves.

In 2000, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe argued the power of history to effect agency was compromised from the very outset by its form. The narratives to which any subaltern history must fit inevitably referred back to a framework that emerged simultaneous to European-imperial structures of power. Anjali Arondekhar’s fabulous critique of the search for dissident sexualities in the colonial archives built on these positions to show how the archives simply reflected the fantasies, ‘perversions’ and paranoias  of its own elite. Taken together, these histories and critiques seem a far cry from the hope offered by Fanon’s revolutionary vision.

Questions

Yet at the same time as the academy (much of it emanating from the US institutions) appears disillusioned with the possibilities of historical knowledge as integral to liberation, history proliferates beyond its bounds. Local community archives, oral history projects, maybe even the trend for genealogy, rejuvenates a field outside of the parameters of academic knowledge.

Are these micro-projects, often based on the assertion and recovery of forgotten, or lost identities in the past, part of Fanon’s vision? Or do they merely fragment and therefore undermine the ‘whole man’ that Fanon believed was integral to the post-colonial world? What is their relationship to the history that those of us in the academy are trying to create, under the pressure of REF deadlines, funding parameters and a demand by administrators to teach subjects and approaches that are perceived to be marketable to students?

Do any of our histories really reconfigure hegemonic narratives or are we complicit in creating side-shows that act as charades of democratic knowledge? Where and how do such hegemonies conglomerate? The nation? The tenuous remains of Europe? The networks of global capital?

In many ways, the very title of ‘Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism’ encapsulates this unsure and indecisive moment. The forward slash implicitly invites the questions of ‘where’ and ‘why’ and ‘how’ radical history can take place in neo-liberal times. The series of papers, exhibitions, films and performances, I have convened with colleagues under the broadly-conceived title ‘Radical Movements’ appear, as a group, to invite speculation rather than certainty.

What visions and templates of change did actors in the past – from Kashmiri Communists, to Transatlantic Anarchists, to ANC activists in London – hold for their own futures?  How do we navigate the increasingly precarious work conditions of academics in higher education and the housing crisis that, structurally, are parts of the same problem? What is the history, and the future of radical booksellers and what does it mean to historicize the miners’ strike?

In broaching these questions, the contributors to ‘Radical Movements’ hover between the historicisation of radicalism and the construction of radical history.

About the Radical Histories Conference (30 June – 3 July)

The conference will feature a weekend of discussion, celebration and debate bringing together activists, community historians, students, teachers, writers, artists, practitioners of history, from inside and outside universities. The programme will include film screenings, theatre, song, dance, walks and talks, stands, exhibitions, caucuses and debates.

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