Occupy theorists launch The Militant Research Handbook

A collaborative project seeks to redefine the place where activism and academia meet by promoting militant research in, about and with the movements.

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Welcome to The Militant Research Handbook! It’s designed to help you answer the question: what is militant research? Let’s begin by saying that it’s the place where academia and activism meet in the search for new ways of acting that lead to new ways of thinking. Native American activist Andrea Smith quotes her mentor Judy Vaughn to this effect: “You don’t think your way into a different way of acting; you act your way into a different way of thinking.”

And that’s how the Handbook came about. In 2012, a group of visual culture artists, activists and academics met in New York for an umbrella event called Now! Visual Culture. The packed panel on student debt was perhaps the most passionate moment of the weekend. Some of those present attended one of the first Strike Debt meetings on the Sunday after the event and many of the New York attendees had already been involved with activism in and around Occupy Wall Street. We wanted to develop the relationship further, to think about how academics working on debt could work with debt activists and vice-versa. The result was the idea for the event that became In Visible Crisis: A Collective Visioning of Militant Research, held on February 8, 2013.

At the same time, we did not want In Visible Crisis to be solely concerned with New York area issues. We felt the need to engage with other approaches and to think about different perspectives. So we invited participants familiar with militant research in Spain and Argentina. We brought a group of activists and academics from California, where Occupy was less long lived and was not always received positively, especially by those who were concerned about allegations of sexualized violence at the Occupy encampments. Despite a howling snowstorm, we had a two-day three-way engagement that answered some questions and generated many more. In the final assembly of In Visible Crisis, it was resolved to produce this Handbook.

So it is not a comprehensive document, as no 32-page booklet could possibly be. It’s more of an invitation: what does militant research look like to you? How might you and those you care about engage in such practice? What else do we need to learn in order to begin? This can be a living document, or it might even be the beginnings of a publishing project.

Some may be put off by the name “militant,” as Alexandra Juhasz mentions in her contribution. We were using it in two senses. First, “militant research” has been important in Argentina and now Spain since 2001. We took it in the sense of Martin Luther King Jr.: “militancy is a term of persistence, and therefore balance, rather than violence.” At the event, there were efforts to create a better name but we failed.

What is militant research?

Militant research might be defined as the place where activism and academia meet. There is a wide range of advocacy research in universities that comments on and about activism without expecting the work to be directly engaged with it. Militant research works in and with the movements it is concerned with.

Global Precedents and Agendas — A Top Five:

1. Colectivo Situaciones
Buenos Aires, Argentina

In 2005, Colectivo outlined their strategy of “research militancy” situated in tension between the “sad militant” and the “detached, unchangeable university researcher.” Their goal: a practice capable of articulating involvement and thought. In a time when the fantasy of common ground (known to the US administration as bi-partisansip) has disappeared, idealization of all kinds is problematic: “We think that the labor of research militancy is linked to the construction of a new perception.” Hence this publication is dedicated to what Colectivo call the collective visioning of militant research.

2. Observatario Metropolitano (OM)
Madrid, Spain

OM describe themselves as: “a militant research group that utilizes investigations and counter-mapping to look into the metropolitan processes of precarious workers, migrants, and militants taking place in Madrid, brought on by crisis, gentrification, speculation and displacement.” In their Manifesto for Madrid, OM saw militant research as responding to the destruction of the elementary bases, which make possible common life (la vida en común) in a city like Madrid. They set up specific research projects in groups, publish long and short versions as books/pamphlets and free PDFs online. They concentrate on the new urbanism of Madrid as a global city, social movements and the crisis.

3. Mosireen
Cairo, Egypt

In their own words: “Mosireen is a non-profit media collective in Downtown Cairo born out of the explosion of citizen media and cultural activism in Egypt during the revolution. Armed with mobile phones and cameras, thousands upon thousands of citizens kept the balance of truth in their country by recording events as they happened in front of them, wrong-footing censorship and empowering the voice of a street-level perspective.” In January 2012, Mosireen was the most-watched not-for-profit YouTube channel in the world. They have continued to cover the unfolding crisis in Egypt, providing crucial perspectives unavailable in Western media.

4. Sarai
New Delhi, India

Sarai has created a coalition of researchers and practitioners for the past decade: “we have sought to participate in and cultivate a public domain that seeks to find a new language of engagement with the inequities, as also the possibilities, of the contemporary world.” Some common threads link the different projects from India, Egypt, and Spain despite the very different contexts in which they take place. Each seems to serve as a key source of information regarding what’s happening in the giant cities created by financial globalization.

Each city has been transformed over the past twenty-five years of neoliberalism. Each group privileges making its work available free, producing it rapidly and in as many formats as possible. These tactics strike at the heart of the walled, gated communities that call themselves universities in the Anglophone world, always happy to think of themselves as elitists in the intellectual sense. Can we continue to assume that we can still be egalitarian in other ways while maintaining such hierarchies?

5. RAQS Media Collective
New Delhi, India

The Raqs Media Collective enjoys playing a plurality of roles, often appearing as artists, occasionally as curators, sometimes as philosophical agent provocateurs. They make contemporary art, have made films, curated exhibitions, edited books, staged events, collaborated with architects, computer programmers, writers and theatre directors and have founded processes that have left deep impacts on contemporary culture in India. Raqs (pron. rux) follows its self declared imperative of ‘kinetic contemplation’ to produce a trajectory that is restless in terms of the forms and methods that it deploys even as it achieves a consistency of speculative procedures. Raqs is also part of Sarai.

6. TIDAL: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy
New York, USA

Tidal is the theory/strategy journal that emerged from Occupy Wall Street. The following comes from the mission statement: “There is no radical action without radical thought. Tidal offers a space for the emergence and discussion of movement-generated theory and practice. It is a strategic platform that weaves together the voices of on-the-ground organizers with those of long-standing theorists to explore the radical possibilities sparked by the occupations of Tunis’ Kasbah, Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, Zuccotti and their aftermaths.

Tidal understands that we are engaged in the early stages of an anti-capitalist struggle in the United States and beyond that’s finally capable of ushering in a non-capitalist way of living. In Tidal, our immediate role is to facilitate movement and action that can transform existing power structures. Our overarching objective lies in locating power and agency with people so that they can determine their own destinies.

In Tidal, theory is a means of analysis that can enable us to collectively better understand our situation. Strategy follows. It is the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems towards the goals defined in the course of action. Action means the search for, and creation of, ruptures in the existing order. This struggle. Many voices. History. Collectively: imagine.”

New York University, 2013

Natalie Bookchin, Pamela Brown, Suzahn Ebrahimian, Colectivo Enmedio, Alexandra Juhasz, Leónidas Martin, MTL, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Andrew Ross, A. Joan Saab, Marina Sitrin.

Read the full Militant Research Handbook here.