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2017 Meeting: Call for Sessions

Call for Sessions

5th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group


University of Nevada, Reno

26-29 October 2017


… think of how leaving the accepted social paths can be to leave behind support systems; those institutional ways of holding, protecting, nurturing. To leave a support system can mean to become more fragile, less protected from the bumps of ordinary life. Racial capitalism is a support system: the uneven distribution of bodily precarity is the uneven distribution of support. When we say something is precarious we often mean it is in a precarious position: that vase at the edge of the mantelpiece, if it was pushed, just a little bit, just a little bit, it would topple right over. This position is what has become generalised when we speak of precarious populations. Living on the edge: a life lived as a fragile thread, when life becomes the effort to hold onto what keeps unravelling. To be black, of colour, poor is to have less to fall back on when you fall. … We need to handle what we come up against. But what if the handle is what breaks? Fragility: losing the handle. When the jug loses it handle it becomes useless. We sense the terror of its fate: the fragments swept up and away. To lose the handle can feel like losing yourself.

 ~ Sara Ahmed, “Feminism and Fragility”

Session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN JANUARY 31st, should be sent to:

For our fifth biennial meeting, to be held at the University of Nevada Reno from October 26-29, we propose to place three terms (which are also modes of being and action, soundings as well as verbings, imperatives but also interrogations) into both alliance and uneasy tension with each other: Make / Risk / Work. Our call is an imperative: Make risk work! But it is also a question, or a series of questions: How do we make risk work? How do we make risk work? How do we make risk work? How do we make risk work? Further, under the current aegis of the thoroughgoing neoliberalization of the university, as well as the move to the extreme, populist Right in the US and Europe, what new risks are we facing as intellectual laborers and creative makers? How, also, can we explore the long(er) histories of making (creating, manufacturing, building), working (laboring, endeavoring, s), and risk (trial, hazard, chance), while also imagining and testing out these three term’s present and futural potentialities — negative, positive, and everything in between.

Our meeting will focus especially on the conditions of labor (academic and para-academic), as well as the role of creativity and making in our productive and counterproductive lives. We invite multiple thinking-throughs of the risk that labor and production and creation entails, and the precariousness inherent in the institutions that facilitate this labor. But as we attempt to think through these problems, our meeting also seeks to do a work of organization and education. Modeled partly on the Subconference of the MLA’s emphasis on resistance, subversion, and direct action, as well as THATCamp’s emphasis on more informal, participatory sessions designed around creating, building, writing, hacking and problem-solving, we are designing this meeting around learning how we can better organize our labor, better collaborate across disciplinary and institutional boundaries with other social justice activist groups, and better agitate for pragmatic structural changes inside our own institutions.

AP University of Missouri Turmoil

Figure 1. University of Missouri Student Protest, November 2015

The meeting is not merely about how intellectual labor, or the work of medieval studies or any other academic discipline, gets done, but is also about how we mobilize, coordinate, and support each other in making a new, less precarious world for ourselves and other creative workers (“another world is possible”) — a world in which the risks of intellect would not constitute nor contribute to the risks of bodies. The emphasis of this meeting is on action, taking action, and doing the risky work of world-making, right now.

We therefore call for sessions that will teach a valuable strategic skill to university and other labor activists, that will interrogate the structures that allow for under-compensated labor within the university even as it values that labor, that will organize participants in order to equip them for direct action, and that will prepare us to go back into our institutional and para-institutional spaces ready to resist the corporatizing of public education, the privatization and surveillance of everything, the violence against non-compliant bodies laboring to survive and thrive, and the anti-intellectualism of new forms of fascism. We are further interested in sessions that help us to better understand the longer and always polychronic histories of the knowledge economy, maker cultures, labor struggles, and risk societies.


Figure 2. #BlackLivesMatter Protest, New York City, December 2014

When journalist Marc Dery coined the term ‘Afrofuturism’ he noted that black futures were already in creative play in various idioms — graffiti, literature, beat-making, rapping, music-making. Africanist modes of performance sampled, at their very essence, and these modes prefigured methods of adaptation like code hacking because they are already built around dissident strategies of analysis, manipulation, and improvisation. Africanist expression manipulates data to create unexpected aesthetic stances that will not deny black presence.

 ~ T.F. DeFrantz, “Afrofuturist Remains”

We invite sessions that help us think through the issues noted above (and others we have not yet managed to articulate), ideally by thinking through each of our key terms (Make, Risk, Work) in turn, or in conjunction. What relevance does making have to conversations in the contemporary university or Academia-at-Large (such as, within the Digital Humanities, or Para-Academia, or Pirate Academia), whether making is understood in terms of literary or artistic creation, poesis, or in terms of manufacture and production, or in terms of twenty-first-century “maker culture”? What is the relationship between making and mistaking? What does it mean to take risks from inside the university, or from the Outside? What kinds of risks can scholarship take? What kinds of risks is it possible for thought to take, in scholarship or in thinking at large? Is making a risk? What does it mean to “make risk work”? Is it to tame risk, to make it productive, to harness it to a neo-liberal fantasy of productivity, so that even risk works for us? Or is there some way that risk can overcome the drive for constant productivity, can make us work differently, rather than making us “produce”? And what is work (especially now, when many are claiming that “work” for many different laboring classes is coming to and end)? What are the conditions under which we produce or are asked to produce work? How does the system work? How do we work the system? How do we make the system work — with creativity and with style (which is always political because it provides the stamp of the personal)? And what happens when nothing we make works, and we are left with only failure, and not even productive failure at that? What happens when we don’t “make it” within the system at all, when we lose all purchase upon the very place (i.e., the University, or the Lab, or the Studio, or the Gallery, etc.) that we believe forms the necessary condition of our creative and intellectual labors? What are the contingency plans for this state of affairs, which is increasingly the norm for many teachers and researchers and creative practitioners? Is there a Plan B, or are we just fucked?

Occupy UC Davis Protests Police Pepper Spray Incident

Figure 3. Student Protestor at University of California, Davis, November 2011

The fetishizing — and profitability — of security goes on apace in our time, and on campuses may well do so until the injudiciousness of some Chancellor somewhere … orders measures that result in the deaths of students, as happened many years ago at Kent State. Universities are now contracting private security forces … that carry destructive weaponry vastly out of proportion to any possible threat posed by unarmed protesters.

 ~ L.O. Aranye Fradenberg, Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts

Who among us is at risk? While we may celebrate intellectual risk, the conditions of the contemporary university are creating fewer and fewer spaces where such intellectual risk (thought-risk) is possible. The more neoliberal-managerial the university becomes, the less space for creative risk, intellectual or activist, there is. Recent political movements across the Global North have gleefully mobilized fantasies of ethnic purity and nationalist nostalgia — often through rhetorics that conjure a monocultural (white and Christian) past that traces its origins to medieval Europe. Ethnonationalist and isolationist movements around the world — within and beyond the Global North — have contributed to the increasing surveillance of academics, and institutions of higher education throughout the Global North are witnessing an ongoing closure of ethnic studies, language studies, and gender studies programs, and they have also contributed to a cultural and intellectual climate that is openly hostile to feminism, disability rights, LGBTQIA communities, refugees, immigrants, labor rights, journalists, and the environment. How can the Academy-at-Large resist pervasive anti-intellectualism, failures of empathy, or general apathy? What commitments do we make in our institutions, scholarship, teaching, making, and everyday lives to stand up for individuals, communities, or populations at risk? How might we not only encourage risk-taking among faculty, but also encourage our students to take risks in their work, and support them when they do so? And how might those with seemingly secure positions — tenure-track faculty, administrators, etc. — support risk-taking, both by our colleagues on the tenure track and in the academic precariat, and by our students who find themselves particularly at risk in the strong backlash against identity politics? Who has the luxury to take risks (in the archive, lab, classroom, online, or in the streets) — and on behalf of whom?

University Of California Students Protest 32 Percent Fee Hike

Figure 4. Students Protest Against Tuition Hikes, UCLA, November 2009

So far, risk has seemed a purely negative phenomenon, to be avoided or minimized. But it may be seen at the same time as a positive phenomenon too, when it involves the sharing of risks without borders. Post-national communities could thus be constructed and reconstructed as communities of risk. Cultural definitions of appropriate types or degrees of risk define the community, in effect, as those who share the relevant assumptions.

 ~ Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society

‘Risk’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘rizq,’ رزق, referring to a thing that comes to you without being sought; the term found its way into medieval Europe, showing up in fourteenth-century Italian mercantile documents to refer, first, to the unanticipated good fortune (‘avventura’) that can sometimes appear and, subsequently, to the uncertainty of trade in general. The precarious etymologies of ‘risk’ and related terms ‘game,’ ‘chance,’ and ‘danger’ (such as ‘hazard,’ which migrated into Middle English via Anglo-French by way of Arabic) are emblematic not only of the state of precarity we evoke for our meeting, but also of the ways that we seek this year to rethink and reinvent our sense of radically plural multilingualism inherent in the legacy of BABEL — from the original multiplication of tongues in retribution for a collective labor nearly achieving heaven to the fraught state of language study in the colleges and universities of our present moment. In the face of this, we hope to foster sessions conducted in any language(s) that might explore both the medieval multilingual past and the modern “knowledge economy” that places little value on language study, recalling the medieval false etymology that glossed Babel as “confusion.” Let that be transformed into a “con-fusion,” a fusing together of all those who choose to engage in our common pursuit of risky languages.


Figure 5. Civil Rights Protestors, Carson City, Nevada, 1961

African-Americans make up just 5 percent of full-time faculty. If you leave out the high proportion of black PhDs working in historically black colleges and universities, black full-time faculty in the U.S. barely clears 4 percent. … On the other hand, there is also a set of social conditions — or what sociologists call structure — at play. The structural fissures in higher education labor are now becoming more visible to all sectors of the higher education labor market. Tenure isn’t just about managing labor costs. Tenure is and always has been political. For minorities, particularly African-Americans, tenure and academic labor have long looked like managing bottom lines and keeping the upper echelons of the Ivory Tower white and male.

~ Tressie McMillam Cottom, “The New Old Labor Crisis”

Finally, Make / Risk / Work asks the question of whether the university and its institutional offshoots are the spaces in which, as Bonnie Stewart has recently put it, we can “rethink education and communal action and where we all go from here.” Stewart ponders the possibilities of the Highlander Folk School movement in Tennessee that began during the Great Depression and the Antigonish Movement during the same period. These are both forms of adult education that worked outside of “systematized, institutional, formal education.” Stewart wonders what a modern-day version of these movements might look like now when “we don’t have time to wait for systematized, institutional, formal education to address the blossoming of outright bigotry that Trump’s election seems to have released on both sides of the border.” Could Babel 2017 be Step 1 of a 2.0-version of the Antigonish, Highlander (and other alternative education) movements, where, in Stewart’s words, education would become “a process of offering people tools — conceptual as well as technical — to understand their identities and possibilities and those of others within a structural framework that points to various paths of possible agency”? Is there a way to have one foot in the so-called Ivory Tower but another foot out, so we can begin to organize and plan how to Make / Risk / Work? This would be a project about education, organizing, listening to community members and groups, collaborating, and reading / making / working / risking together to prepare for the future but also to take back skills and tools for our communities more locally. How do we plan massively (such as through our “mass meeting” in Reno) but also for smaller, more locally situated groups, in order to make education more central to resistance?

Finally, we invite sessions that will help us to think, make, risk, and work our way through these questions and others. In particular, we invite sessions that risk alternative forms, that go beyond presentations of accumulated knowledge and thought. The meeting is designed to encourage, as mentioned above, following the model of THATCamp, in which sessions do not merely present papers or report on knowledge, but teach participants actionable skills they can take back into their various institutional and para-institutional spaces. In the true BABEL spirit, however, we are wide open to any and all forms of sessions styled as (possibly): protest, training session, skills-building workshop, working group, demonstration, performance, collision course, dramatic reading, thought-experiment, dialogue, debate, seminar (with papers circulated in advance), drinking game, diatribe, testimony, flash mob (or other type of flash-event), roundtable discussion, complaint, drawing-room comedy, speculation, gymnasium, protest, clinical trial, séance, laboratory, masque, exhibition, recording session, screening, potlatch, cabinet, slam, etc.


The BABEL Working Group is a global alliance of scholars, researchers, public practitioners (of various stripes), artists, para-academic rogues, knowledge pirates, and others who are interested in creative risk-taking, unconventional co-disciplinary collaboration, and the cultivation of productively dissensual conversations about Big Questions relative to the future of the university, the social-cultural role of the humanities, the open commons and the creation of new publics, the forms and precariousness of life, the relations between the arts and sciences, deep-time planetary thinking, etc., with a special interest in holding the past and present in continual productive tension, provocation, and critical relation. Through its biennial meeting (among other ventures), BABEL works to develop new co-disciplinary, nomadic, and convivial confraternities between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts (both within and beyond the academy) in order to formulate and practice new critical humanisms as well as build shelters for humanist and post/humanist vagabonds.


Figure 6. Harvard Medical Student Die-In Protest, December 2014

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