Events I went to in November #2: The Principle of Uselessness

The second “academic-ish” discussion event that I went to in November was also in Sheffield, but in a very different setting… “The Principle of Uselessness: An Assembly”, organised by a collective of staff & students from the University of Sheffield, was part of the “Antiuniversity Now!” festival, inspired by the original Antiuniversity of East London in 1968 (which I hadn’t previously heard of, but which apparently involved many leading lights of radical theory and activism at the time, including RD Laing and other anti-psychiatrists, postcolonial pioneers like CLR James and Stuart Hall, and according to other sources I saw then but can’t find again now, Franz Fanon and Stokely Carmichael). The “Antiuniversity Now!” festival included events in London, Cambridge, Cornwall and other places over the weekend of 20-22 November, but the Sheffield event (on Sunday 22nd) was the only one in the North of England.

I came across the event on Facebook, where its event page called for “contributions of various forms, including poetry, critical reflections, music, performance, and so forth” for “an engagement with the ‘useless’ in an event in which we invite citizens / non-citizens / unspeakable ‘subjects’ to respond to, present on and perform the principle of uselessness: what stands against the notions of utility, what is, tragically, recuperated as ‘useful’, the logic and possibilities of failure, of refuse, refusing participation.” While there was no explicit reference to disability in the event description either on Facebook or on the Antiuniversity website, of course this immediately made me think of how disabled people have been oppressed and marginalised by ideologies of “utility” and “productiveness”, ranging from the abandonment of disabled children to die in ancient Sparta to the famous characterisation of disabled people as “useless eaters” in Nazi Germany, leading to the first of the Nazi mass extermination programmes (for more on this see this blog post and Liz Crow’s art/film project “Resistance”) and on to present-day demonisations of disabled people (as well as unemployed people and anyone else receiving state benefits) as “scroungers” and similar terms in the UK tabloid press – and thus, without really knowing who was involved in organising it, I invited many Disability Studies people from Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester to the event, although in the end only me and my friend and fellow Leeds PhD student Inga were able to go.

As it turned out, “The Principle of Uselessness” was a very cool and eclectic event that touched more parts of my life than it expected me to (there were readings of poetry (“The Lotus-Eaters” by Tennyson) and prose (one of the “Texts for Nothing” by Samuel Beckett) followed by discussions, more-or-less “properly academic style” papers, a short film shown on 2 laptops, more open-ended discussion, and topics including anti-psychiatry, refusal of work, space exploration, post-industrial cities and probably other things I don’t remember right now… different bits of it made me think of friends and comrades from several times in my life and areas of my interests), but it also left me with very mixed and conflicting feelings about (in)accessibility and “DIY” spaces. The space used for the event was a small and semi-derelict former electroplating workshop, used with the permission of the building’s owner, but strongly reminiscent of several squatted or otherwise temporarily occupied social centres or other similar spaces that I have been involved in to various extents and at various times (for example, the OK Cafés in Manchester).

I do think the use of such a space enabled an indefinable feeling to the event that wouldn’t have been possible in a brightly-lit university room, and one that on a personal/subcultural level made me feel much more “at home” than I often feel in academic spaces (not that I find “DIY” spaces completely unproblematic, but I definitely have a strong sense of positive identification with them). There was also a definite symbolic resonance between the space and the subject matter – as the event page said, “we meet in a collapsed, negative space, a space of ruin, to draw attention to what is neglected, made useless, temporarily occupy it, not to reclaim it, but in order to remain with what itself remains, without use or function, and in so doing to think through exhaustion, withdrawal, nullity”. There wasn’t a set order of presentations, which could have been stressful but made the event feel like much more of a spontaneous gathering and a fluid, unconstrained exchange of concepts and interests than most academic events do (and it enabled me and Inga to talk about disability, work and the welfare state without a prepared “presentation” but still as a significant and appreciated part of the event, which sparked a wide-ranging and worthwhile discussion and seemed to get a lot of interest from people who hadn’t been exposed to disability studies or Disabled People’s Movement perspectives before).

However, the space was really not very accessible for a huge range of different access needs (although in physical terms it could have been worse, and was better than a lot of squatted/”DIY” spaces I have been in – it was at least all on the ground floor and possible to get a manual wheelchair in with pusher assistance) – as well as physical access not being ideal (narrow entrance corridor, unramped steps between slightly-different levels of floor, and no accessible toilet – in fact, not really even a working “standard” toilet, as it leaked water onto the floor!), it was half-dark, and seriously cold (barely warmer than outside – and being late November in England, that meant cold enough for me to need to keep my big outdoor coat, and at times hat, on inside – admittedly this was partly because the electricity stopped working about 5 minutes into the event, and they didn’t get it working again until near the end, but I’m pretty sure it would have been cold and dark even with the strung-up lights and small electric heaters working). This definitely affected my ability to concentrate and remember/keep up with what was going on, and probably would have made it completely impossible for a lot of disabled people I know to have stayed in the space for the 3-4 hours of the event. (Also about halfway through there was someone playing an instrument that I think, but am not certain, was an oboe, which made a really horrible (at least to my ears) loud, discordant squeaky sound, which (when combined with the cold) did make it literally impossible for me to be in the space while it was happening, so I wandered around the area and came back when that had finished (I probably wasn’t colder walking around than I would have been sitting inside). This followed a long break during which I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, so I think, but am not completely sure, that it was an intentional part of the event, and the person was probably deliberately playing the instrument discordantly to convey or symbolise something to do with “uselessness”, but it was very inaccessible for people who, like me, have a sensory intolerance to high-pitched noises…)

I therefore had really ambiguous feelings about the whole event – I enjoyed it a lot, but couldn’t help thinking of my friends and comrades who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy it because they simply wouldn’t have been able to access the space, and I was left much more physically and mentally exhausted by the event than I would have been if it had been held in a space with a reasonable room temperature. (I have noticed several times in the past – notably at a Radical Routes gathering that was held at a larger but otherwise quite similar space in Birmingham – that indoor temperature really doesn’t seem to be considered as a valid accessibility issue by a lot of people in “radical scenes”, even those that tend to be reasonably aware of other aspects of accessibility. Speculatively, I wonder if this might have some connection to environmentalist moralising about energy usage?) There were aspects of the space and experience – for example, the half-darkness that made sitting in a loose circle listening to people talk/present feel kind of like gathering around a campfire – that really felt like they were in direct conflict with accessibility, which causes me troubled and unresolved thoughts about what I/we perceive as a “radical aesthetic” and what potentially-ableist principles might be embedded in that (this feels possibly relevant here) – although I still hold out hope that it is possible to create radical spaces that are built on non-hierarchical and “DIY” (or perhaps better expressed as “do-it-ourselves“) principles, and retain at least some of the aesthetic markers of that, but don’t compromise on accessibility…

One important theme that came up in conversation at the event (particularly from the discussion following the reading of the Tennyson poem) was the tension between regarding activism as necessary “work” (which often brings with it its own, often highly moralistic, “work ethic”) and refusing/resisting the very concept of a “work ethic” as part of the work-glorifying ideological culture of capitalism. This is also a tension that has a huge amount of personal resonance for me, and that seems to be ever-present in my life. “Work” as capitalism defines it is a monster that eats the lives of a huge sector of the population, and also degrades and even sometimes outright destroys the lives of those who it refuses as indigestible; yet, even in a utopian society with complete liberty, equality and no money economy, it’s undeniable that “work” (in its wider definition of “altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter” (Bertrand Russell)) would need to be done for humanity to survive – growing crops, raising children, building and repairing houses, making the physical and social environment accessible for all those who live in it… and if we have any hope of getting to such a society, whatever your opinion on strategy and tactics, effort and struggle is going to be needed. However, it is all to easy to exalt “activism” and self-sacrifice in such a way as to recreate the judgemental moralism of the capitalist work ethic within “radical left” communities – which inevitably excludes and denigrates disabled people (which is not to deny that disabled people can be and often are among the “hardest-working” of activists). I don’t really have any “solutions” to this tension, although many people have written important things that touch on it it (one example that comes to mind being Sunaura Taylor’s essay “The Right Not to Work: Power and Disability”).

(I remember wondering whether the tension between DIY/”alternative” spaces and accessibility was (at least partially) a subset of that tension – I’m now not sure if that quite “fits”, but this great speech on inclusivity or the lack thereof in radical movements by AJ Withers makes me think that they are at least related…)

The group who put on this event are apparently intending to use the same space for future events, and to improve its accessibility – I hope (especially given that they are located on the same street!) that there can be some engagement between them and the Disability Studies people at Sheffield Hallam. I also think that the concepts explored by this event (in particular the refusal and problematisation of work, as I have written about in this paper, and the paradox of how to make (anti-)productive use of “uselessness” and people/things/communities/spaces rejected by mainstream society as “useless” – which vaguely reminds me of the concept of “queer negativity” and work by people like Lauren Berlant and Jasbir Puar – although I haven’t fully read or understood any of those things) definitely deserve greater exploration and engagement by the Disability Studies community.

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