ACTIVIST MOVEMENTS AND SOCIAL THEORY: POWER, RESISTANCE AND PROTEST SINCE 1968

Dr Erin Carlisle (Mission Australia)

On a very rainy late November morning, many of the TASA Conference 2018 delegates made their way from Deakin University in Burwood into the city centre. Some of us – or, perhaps just me – took the longer route and journeyed via tram in the near torrential rain; the trip made more enjoyable as I hauled my suitcase off the tram in the downpour and stood, rain falling down my face, awaiting another at the Hawthorn Tram Depot.

The grey skies provided a provocative backdrop for the Activist Movements and Social Theory: Power, Resistance and Protest since 1968 Symposium, held at the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture. 1968 and revolutionary movements are often described as a ‘spring,’ like the coming of new life into bloom after a cold winter. Yet, as Professor Peter Beilharz’s keynote demonstrated, looking back at 1968 with rose-coloured glasses leads to a kind of fetishism, through which we remember 1968 as ‘the magic year’ of revolutionary change. Indeed, 1968 was one revolutionary year among many, in a much longer process. Beilharz argued that 1979, 1991 and many other years are gifted with this ‘magical’ aura in collective memory, which is then tapped as a consumerist selling point (Che Guevara t-shirt, anyone?). The discussion of radical fetishism of memory—‘retrotopia’—was the key contention of Beilharz’s presentation. Is there a eurocentrism at play in the way we remember events and choose to forget others? Are we lost in memory and nostalgia? Beilharz’s opening keynote set the scene for the symposium: not least for his use of the Beatles’ song Revolution as a prelude, but by the way in which his discussion problematized the way we remember and understand revolutionary moments.

 

Professor Nikos Papastergiadis continued the interrogation of collective memory and cultural understandings of social and political movements. His keynote shifted focus from revolutionary ‘years’ to projects of self-determination by migrant communities in Australia in 1968. Papastergiadis argued that the grassroots activism of new migrants at the time (speaking chiefly about Greek post- war migrants) helped a form of Australian multiculturalism to emerge, which had an important impact upon the social and cultural development of the Melbourne. Turning his gaze to the current context, however, Papastergiadis interrogated the way that this early, grassroots multiculturalism was adopted by political and consumer projects and in so doing reduced to sloganism. Analysing the way that this emptied-out ‘idea’ of multiculturalism became embedded in the national identity, Papastergiadis closed his presentation with the strong conclusion that the nationalisation of multiculturalism bankrupted the promise that the struggles for migrant self-determination began with.

 

Dr Theresa Petray’s discussion of Aboriginal sovereignty activism and locally-specific nationhood carried on the theme of localised struggles for self-determination. Petray’s keynote brought the larger, abstracted ideas of autonomy and agency—which permeated the evening’s discussion—into the current movements by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations in North Queensland for autonomous decision-making over their country and community. Notwithstanding recent pushes for recognition and treaty, Petray’s research illuminated the way that North Queensland Aboriginal projects of activism seek sovereignty and the power to engender actual change. Moreover, Petray highlighted that any argument for treaty must recognise locally-specific nationhood; the question of treaty must be shifted to that of treaties, in order to fully realise the diversity of culture and to facilitate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty over their lives and country.

Each of the invited speakers interrogated the way that revolution, protest and activism are practiced, remembered and understood. Their presentations drew attention to localised movements for social and political change—both past and present—and, in so doing, they challenged the way we may romanticise and idealise political action as a ‘historical moment’, one in which the creativity of society bursts forth through collective doing and effervescent passion. As Hannah Arendt made clear in On Revolution, revolutionary movements seldom begin with the ambition of the wholescale (re-)creation of society and history. Rather, political projects often emerge through smaller-scale modifications of existing institutions; or, by attempting to restore things ‘back to the way they were’. Political projects, moreover, take time and take place alongside the errands of everyday life. Collective memory may envisage the revolution through the storming of the Bastille or the ‘year’ of 1968, however such imagery glosses over the way that revolutionary political projects often descend into violence without implementing long-standing social and historical change.

Beilharz, Papastergiadis and Petray, each in their own way, challenged the imagined legacies of the revolutionary tradition—both within the community and in social theory—whilst offering alternative pathways to understanding the complex, locally-specific and diverse forms of past and present political projects. While we may imagine revolutionary ‘years’ or moments in history as this brilliant, surge of collective energy, or a passionate collective project that brings society into the new in a sudden rush, the actual events themselves were punctuated by the mundane and stretched over time; much like my long, slow tram ride into the city that rainy day.

The TASA Social Theory Convenors would like to thank TASA, the Thesis Eleven Centre for Cultural Sociology, and the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture for their generous support for this fantastic public lecture.

 

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