Isobel Urquhart, ‘Gestural Politics’

Dear Professor Goldhill,

I would also like to add my voice to those supporting the CDE action last week and to condemn the response that you and others have made to it. I am one of around 50 academics from across the university who has signed the statement on the CDE website backing both the protest and the subsequent occupation of LMH. I was disquieted from the onset about the conceptualization of the CRASSH programme where you sought to distinguish the programme from what you described later in correspondence as ‘gestural politics’ and where you interpreted the split vote of no confidence in the policies of the present minister as a protest against such. I do not wish to be tedious in repeating the very pertinent challenges already made by others, but I did find myself musing on the significance of gestural politics in what I agree with you are ‘these vexing times.’

You counterpose to what you describe as ‘gestural politics’ the whole weight of rational and formal, institutionalized debate, despite your own pessimism about the possibility of actually getting the government to listen to whatever those hoped-for sharp, brief questions might have thrown up. Many who objected to the protest and the occupation have taken up this polarization in discussing the value of free speech and the importance to Cambridge University’s reputation of upholding this principle – as we can see also in the statement from the University Council. However, I would like to say a word in defence of that ‘boo’ phrase – gestural politics: there comes a time when the educational aim of getting “people who would not come to a student or CACHE meeting” (why not?) to hear robust and other views in order to decide what they thought, has run its course. ‘Gestures’ – in which the body and the voice are utilised, as in taking over a space, shouting – are powerful means of communicating affirmation and solidarity with an alternative and often disavowed viewpoint and, for that reason, are powerful means of expressing dissent, especially when access to the institutional means of expressing views is denied. Transgressive gestures thus reflect the battleground over which divergent visions of social and political order are fought. I understand your objection to the transgressive disruption of the polite, rationalistic world of debate and intellectual consideration of the merits of different points of argument; and indeed, I adhere to such in the normal course of discussion. However, the time is not normal, the crisis is real and present, and the need for robust dissent is urgent. Only David Willetts’ speech, of all the talks in the series, was prevented because only he is impervious to exactly the kind of genuine intention to learn and develop ideas that we all believe, I think, is the ground of our intellectual being and our reasons for devoting ourselves to academic life. If anyone was doing ‘gestural politics’ that night, in the pejorative sense, it was David Willetts himself. This is not to intend an ad hominem attack on David Willetts himself. There is no way in which he, as ministerial representative of government policy, could be expected to deviate from the ideological opportunism that the debt crisis has afforded to ram through an HE policy that was no part of either Coalition party’s manifesto, and to diminish the public sphere, by introducing privatized and marketised policies that allow new markets to be provided for capital over-accumulation.

The students’ own breach of the gestural codes attached to attending a lecture and follow up questions and answers should be understood – as it has been historically – as the refusal to show deference to a institutional claim to this being the ‘proper’ way to discuss the idea of a university, and their adoption of ‘unacceptable’ behaviour as an attempt to reassert their own vision of the social and political forum in which the idea of a university should be discussed – with them, in their location, according to their ways of discussing – waggly hands and all. Throughout history there have been examples of how political and religious ceremonies have been disrupted, and how these events throw into sharp relief subaltern political attitudes such as those represented by the campaigning students at our university.

With best wishes

Isobel Urquhart, Homerton College

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