A Conversation of Action–Reflection by Jack Magnusson

I’m an activist and a tutor and have always believed that the only way to
affect society at its root is to change its systems of education. Last
fall when I began hearing about the horizontal forms of organization
advocated by Occupy activists, I was drawn in as I recognized the same
principles that inspired radical mutual pedagogy. Before I knew what
direct action was I saw education as the way to directly interact with the
problems in our society through its substrate—individuals. Now, I see all
direct action as a some form of education. At the very least I think the
model of horizontal pedagogy has incredible tactical value in planning any
action. In that spirit, let me provide an example for us to look at:

On Saturday, June 9, a few hours after getting off the bus from Boston and
immediately joining a march around midtown, I found myself sitting in a
small circle of activists on a shady patch of grass in Bryant Park
escaping the searing sun and preparing to discuss horizontal pedagogy. The
facilitator introduced this radical theory of education in which students
use consensus-based process to choose and examine a shared text,
experience, or object. Fittingly, we went on to practice this method
ourselves next. It proved difficult to settle on a subject for analysis as
we cast about our environment and history for a focus to which we would
all have access. But if anything this effort drew attention to the
suspicious absence of this step from traditional education. To me it seems
obvious that a broken discourse should reproduce itself and stagnate if
its direction and focus are chosen entirely by the fully initiated.

Circling through objects around us—a statue, a pipe, our sensory
perceptions—to abstractions—the exclusivity of the word “pedagogy,” the
relation of inhabitants and spaces—and back again, we finally settled on
examining the statue of William Cullen Bryant enthroned at one end of the
park in relation with the rest of the park and its inhabitants. The
horizontality of this synthesis was undermined somewhat as some had little
investment in any particular object for analysis while I was pursuing a
preformed notion of examining public space and was the one to propose the
final subject. Nonetheless, the horizontal process incorporated others’
ideas into my synthesized proposal, such as a concrete object—the statue—,
which lead me to conclusions I would not have reached if I had analyzed
the space by myself.

After viewing the statue, recording the inscription on the pedestal, and
deciphering the Latin numerals of the date, we reconvened to discuss. We
began with a sort of grassroots art analysis (none of us knew who Bryant
was), questioning the classical style of the enclosing structure, the
figure’s scholarly garb and chair, the “meaning” of the poem set beneath
it—each person contributing what specialized knowledge they possessed.
Initially, we limited ourselves to asking questions only to avoid simply
regurgitating opinions and instead produce generative inquiry. This helped
me redirect my desire to impose terms of spatial discourse towards
specific questions about the actual practices of park-goers.

We began to shift towards the abstract, and after I raised the notion of
an interaction between multiple designs (as constructed and as used) of
the park we began to explicitly discuss space. But the tack we pursued
surprised me. We ended up discussing the significance of naming spaces:
the fact that the park was named after “an old dead white guy” rather than
an indigenous Manhattan or a modern person of color. We compared this to
the dual names of Zuccotti Park/ Liberty Plaza and looped back to a
discussion—similar to the one we had earlier about the word “pedagogy”—in
which we questioned whether the use of an unofficial name was more
empowering or if the reclamation of an established name could be equally
subversive. We wondered how the names of spaces affect their daily use.
Furthermore we considered the mechanisms mediate the naming of spaces
(perhaps a dialectic between popular use and official designation?).

Clearly this instance of horizontal dialogue only began the first few
steps of a revolutionary process. We didn’t get much farther than
exploring the questions, let alone the solutions—or even taking action.
But simply the act of radical inquiry is revolutionary in that it
democratizes the process through which we collectively view the world—and
thus the way we imagine and ultimately reproduce it. What’s more,
horizontal pedagogy epitomizes a basic attitude necessary for all socially
transformative action. Whether a teach-in or a black bloc, action is about
renegotiating collective symbols and narratives through disruption of
habitual perspectives and offering of novel alternatives. In the
fundamentally asymmetrical conflict of state power and revolutionary
counterpower, our actions need to go beyond immediate effects and seek to
reproduce further action. To do this, individuals must be engaged by
dialogue in which our actions are invitations that facilitate other’s
actions in response. We must begin a conversation of action.

this post may also be found in longer form at Jack’s website “To Where Space is Not Rationed.” 


Comments are closed.