EIOS 1 and 2 Evaluation Report

EIOS 1: Paper Sessions/Formal Activities

EIOS I was formally structured around a series of paper presentations and discussions based on the contributions to the special ISSJ issue and the essays prepared by the other participants. During the opening orientation session on the morning of January 22, the main issues to be discussed were introduced: definitions of open space, political and strategic dimensions of open space (with respect to world politics and Social Forums), inner and outer spaces (both in the sense of the external limits of open spaces, and the individual dimensions involved), activist-research networks, and inter-disciplinary relations. After an initial discussion of these issues, a choice was made to proceed with the paper sessions in a more participatory, experimental fashion than had been initially conceived. Thus, we decided to hold consecutive rather than parallel sessions, some of which would involve only group discussions, while others would involve breaking up into smaller groups before coming back together in larger plenaries. In addition, after the first attempt, it was decided that everyone would be given time to read over the papers before each session, and then, discussion facilitators would present the papers rather than their authors. Finally, sessions would revolve around common themes in order to draw connections and facilitate broader participation.

The first paper session explored issues related to marginalization and inclusion/exclusion with respect to the WSF. What kind of differences are marginalized? Papers and the subsequent discussion largely revolved around race and religion. To what extent does the ‘movement of movements’ effectively include, beyond general rhetorical claims, working class people of color? Is it just a white, middle class, Global North movement with a difficulty to speak to those who are different? With respect to religion, is there a normative stance where secularism as implicitly posited as a default position? Are people of faith welcome at spaces such as Social Forums? During the discussion, people spoke about the importance of diversity and the importance of valorizing multiple ways of being in the world; a contrast was made, however, between a formal, liberal idea of diversity and tolerance (whose product is tokenism), and a form of concrete relationship with otherness that can only exist in act, and not as a formal imperative. The latter, it was thought, was what we should strive for.

The second session involved the formal presentation of a paper about the nature of global justice movements and the Forum, which explored issues related to complexity and self-organization, the sustained exchange facilitated by the WSF, boundaries and space, the Forum architecture as a multiplicity of spaces, and the question of debris: what happens when a “building” is destroyed? The subsequent discussion continued to focus on issues of marginality and exclusion from the morning session, while also branching out into more theoretical questions surrounding open space and intentionality (who opens the space?), inside vs. outside, inclusion vs. participation, space as relation and process rather than a thing, hegemonic practices within open space, and the productivity of conflict. As was possible given the nature of some of the issues dealt with by the paper, such as complexity theory, the discussion ended up involving specific jargon and more abstract problems, such as the relationship between the understanding of human agency in more traditional, humanist/mechanistic approaches, and under theories such as those of Deleuze and Guattarri. This kind of debate tended to be dominated by some of the latecomers, who had arrived just before the session; several participants noted the shift in tone and jump to a more abstract, theoretical and discipline-specific discourse, which caused some to feel alienated; and some people perceived this as the direct responsibility of those who had just arrived. This raised important issues with respect to inclusion/exclusion inside the group based on shared language and discourse, as well as in terms of the reaction of the group to the newcomers.

The first paper session the following day revolved around democracy, participation, and popular education. We began by discussing in small groups and then shifted to a larger plenary session, which emphasized the following issues: culture, ethics, and fundamentalism; space as thing vs. as process; liberalism, Marxism, and anarchism; resonance between neoliberalism and discourses of participation; power, legitimacy, accountability, and delegation; consensus and dissent within the Forum; and boundaries with respect to the Forum. The second paper session expanded on many of these issues by focusing squarely on the issue of power: Whose Open Space? Who opens/’owns’ it? Who controls it? Both of the papers in this session provided genealogies of spaces that have become foci for political action and power disputes at a certain moment.

One of the more conflictual issues running throughout both of the day’s sessions involved the question of who holds power and who participates in political spaces. Some emphasized the lack of participation of the poor and marginalized in Social Forums, and tended to relate that to the genetic vice of the kind of politics it espouses and which is seen as a ‘rising’ political culture directly related to open spaces in general – which is, for instance, heavily reliant on mobility and means of communication such as the Internet, the distribution of access to which obviously reproduces social and regional differences. This also included a questioning of the role of academics and theory in such struggles, which included an assessment of the dynamics that had taken place at the second session the day before, and how theoretical discourse had serve to entrench differences in background and had alienated some of the participants.

Referring back to the discussions on how to relate to otherness that had taken place in the previous day, this criticism was itself critiqued as running the risk of positing the other as an idealised, abstract subject, resulting in vague, romantic ideas of ‘third-worldism’ and ‘workerism’; this, in turn, could not only preclude concrete relationships from taking place, but could also reintroduce ideas of representation that would see ‘intellectuals’ or ‘middle-class’ people situating themselves as the ‘interpreters’ and ‘mediators’ of the ‘real’, ‘grassroots’ struggles. A line was drawn here between a politics of representation (understood not exclusively in the formal, liberal sense, but including traditional left-wing positions such as Marxism) and a more autonomous politics of participation. In the first, there would be a privileged subject of political action defined in advance as an essence (‘the poor’, ‘the working class’), and the role of those falling outside those categories would be defined exclusively in relation to the needs and demands of that subject, as supporter. In the second, there would be a more general acknowledgement of the way in which all are embedded in a same global (but not total) web of relations of power, making the imperative of recognizing (social and cultural) situatedness apply to all alike, and not only for those not belonging to an ideal subject of politics; the political practice derived from this would be one of ‘resisting from where one is’, while at the same time allowing space and working through differences as ways of developing other circuits of relations that escape those that one wants to fight. Thus, the debate returned to the questions on otherness that had been raised the day before, as that seemed to be the central problem to solve when looking for forms of political participation that, while not falling back on representation (either formal/liberal or essentialist), are also able to provide the space where differences can be recognized, put into question, and articulated in new ways.

The final paper session, on the morning of January 23, focused on the nature of encounter within the Forum and the reconciliation, or lack thereof, of radical difference. The first paper addressed the possibilities of and obstacles to generating “authentic” encounters during the Forum across various political, cultural, and religious divides. The second paper explored a particular incident where an individual from a particular group communicated that he felt excluded from the Indian Organizing Committee as well as the various attempts to address his situation, some of which did not deal with difference at all, while others subsumed difference within a hegemonic form of conflict management. The subsequent discussion also addressed issued related to the reflexivity of the filmmaker and the relationship between politics and technology.