Plying the ‘Billingsgate Trade’

By Ushashi Dasgupta.

In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855-7), Amy Dorrit despairs for her brother, Tip. Tip is a gambler, perennially in debt and unable to settle to anything; he’s always drawn back to the Marshalsea Prison, where the Dorrits have lived with their father since early childhood. We’re told that Amy, the ‘brave little creature’ at the heart of the novel, ‘pinche[s] and scrape[s] enough together to ship him for Canada’. ‘Don’t be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune’, she urges Tip, but he never makes it past Liverpool, returning to the Marshalsea before the month is up. It’s a fleeting reference to settler colonialism in a novel that explores the difficulties of traversing boundaries – especially once they’ve been constructed in our minds. It’s Amy’s last resort for Tip, who ‘tire[s] of everything’, from working in an auctioneer’s to a distillery; he goes ‘into a wool house, into dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks’ (Dickens: 1855-7).

This is an essay about the ‘Billingsgate trade’, or the sale of fish at London’s most celebrated market. Billingsgate thrives to this day. In Little Dorrit, the ‘Billingsgate trade’ is just one of many interchangeable examples of honest industry, but the market plays a greater role in the nineteenth-century imagination. Its history is also a history of constructing and questioning binaries: between the nation and the world, the human and the non-human, the haves and the have-nots, the city and the plantation, and, finally, between English and other languages. 

Graeme Milne’s work on the nineteenth-century ‘sailortown’ explores ‘entanglements’ and ‘encounters’ at waterfronts around the world: the liminal spaces separating city, river or sea (Milne: 2016). Billingsgate was a tiny sliver of land on the banks of the Thames, and its fish-market has moved several times over history. As the Victorian writer George Augustus Sala explains, ‘Billingsgate has been one of the watergates or ports of the city from time immemorial’ (Sala: 1859). Originally a gate to the ancient city, the Victorian market concentrates ideas about trade, globalisation, and the relationship between the province, the nation and the world. For Dickens and the urban journalists working around him, a visit to Billingsgate is an opportunity to witness Victorian progress, but it also forces them to confront some of modernity’s discontents. In 1850, Dickens co-wrote an article (‘A Popular Delusion’) about the market with his sub-editor, WH Wills, for his journal Household Words; Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), includes an extended section on Billingsgate and its street-sellers; Sala’s Twice Round the Clock opens with a trip to bustling Billingsgate at the break of dawn. Mayhew, Sala, Dickens and Wills share a broad aim – to make London legible. They suggest Victorian London is an undiscovered land and act as guides for their readers. In doing so, they insist on the centrality of London, the capital of the world as much as the country, a place with the power to absorb all attention and capture the imagination. 

When these writers bring Billingsgate to life, replicating its sights and sounds, they’re reinforcing the argument that urban space is atomised, and not a coherent whole. A border subdivides space and forms territories. The borders between zones in a city may be artificial, stencilled in from above, or they might emerge unintentionally – a result of a decision made elsewhere, about something else. Alternatively, the process of creating a border can be organic, the line sketched after tacit and casual agreement. Borders might spring up overnight or ossify over time. At one level, the uniqueness of Billingsgate’s identity in Victorian journalism simply emphasises that any city is a patchwork of local neighbourhoods stitched together, where some seams show more clearly than others. But because Billingsgate is both a market and a port, it also invites a host of different questions about the way space is circumscribed. Dickens, Wills and Mayhew describe the ability of technology to collapse boundaries. At Billingsgate, Londoners are compelled to recalibrate their definitions of distance and proximity, which creates a more pronounced conception of a unified nation-state. Stocks of fish hurtle into the metropolis on trains and steamboats, from Devon and Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway; as they are bought and sold, they disperse again, turning this neighbourhood into a crossroads. Dickens and Wills reconstruct the final movements of a single turbot, captured twenty miles off the coast of Dover. ‘He is no sooner taken on board’, they write, ‘than he is trans-shipped immediately with thousands of his flat companions in a row-boat into a clipper’; from the clipper he is transferred to a tug steamer, deposited alive in Billingsgate, and ‘finds his way to table in the neighbourhood of the Mansion House or Belgrave Square some four-and-twenty hours after he has been sporting in the sea, no less than a hundred and fifty miles off’ (Dickens and Wills: 1850). Perhaps unexpectedly, the turbot’s streamlined journey to the dinner-plate becomes an anchor for philosophical and political thinking: at what point does ‘there’ become ‘here’, or ‘far’ become ‘near’? As space begins to contract, the Victorians have to reorient themselves – and fast. 

The turbot is almost – if not quite – a character in this essay, and his efficient transportation from Dover to London raises ethical questions about the consumption of animals as food. There’s something slightly creepy about the way his story is told. The more recently a fish has been alive – the closer our proximity to the living thing, the narrower the line between life and death – the higher the fish is valued. While Dickens and Wills seem to allow the possibility that an animal is a self rather than an object (the turbot ‘sport[s] in the sea’, is him rather than it), Mayhew is more interested in Billingsgate’s role as a temple to commodity culture. For Mayhew, the piles of fish have a strange kind of splendour, all colour and gleam and iridescence. Most striking are the ‘transparent smelts on the marble-slabs, and the bright herrings, with the lump of transparent ice magnifying their eyes like a lens’: the ‘transparent’ smelts hover somewhere between the substantial and insubstantial, and the herrings’ massive, dead eyes stare back at the purchaser. Elsewhere in London Labour, Mayhew talks about the way the quality of the light at sunrise stains cauliflowers red on a market-stall, and he’s doing something similar in his descriptions of Billingsgate, employing a novelist’s eye for detail to suggest that commerce is beautiful (Mayhew: 1851). He’s excited by the entrepreneurial spirit, the circulation of things, and the everyday manifestations of economic change and growth – what the nation’s slow, messy transition toward capitalism might look like from the street. The history of Billingsgate captures this turn in miniature. Sales in Billingsgate were regulated in its earliest years, but it became a free market in 1699. By the time the nineteenth century comes around, the neighbourhood is at the centre of a vast enterprise: Mayhew calculates that £1,460,850 is spent on fish on the streets. 

Eel-boats, or schuyts, are sites of exchange between the British and the Dutch. They offer an interesting example of the kinds of, casual, regular interactions that are possible among the citizens of different nations. Mayhew describes the negotiations taking place; ‘men in tall fur caps with high cheek bones, and rings in their ears, walk the decks’.  As customers are brought up to the eel-boats by skiff, ‘the master Dutchman takes his hands from his pockets, lays down his pipe, and seizing a sort of long-handled landing-net scoops from the tank a lot of eels’. These encounters are theatrical and comic, at once casual and slightly ritualistic, especially as the haggling begins. It’s an example of disparate people coming together at Billingsgate. Dickens and Wills describe the diners at Simpson’s Tavern, who have arrived, ‘like the fish, from various distances’. There are visitors from the Eastern Counties and Doncaster, an ‘undertaker from Whitechapel’, and a ‘respectable Jew provision-merchant from Hamburg’. They’re joined by a man from York, ‘with sunken jaws that were always in motion, like a gutta percha mouth that was being continually squeezed’, and, finally, ‘a wooden leg that had brought the person it belonged to, all the way from Canada’; as John Carey has pointed out, Dickens frequently troubles the boundary between person and thing, the animate and inanimate (Carey: 1973). While these descriptions are uncanny, Dickens and Wills end the segment with a tiny gesture that points to shared humanity: the meal is so satisfying that a ‘very large smooth-faced old gentleman’ from Devonshire must push back his chair when he is finished ‘to give his satin waistcoat play’. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the space is utopian, or meaningfully cosmopolitan, just because it’s convivial: there’s no deeper point made in this essay about sympathy, understanding, or mutual positive change. It’s too much to ask of one fish-market. Nevertheless, the schuyts and tavern demonstrate how national and regional boundaries can be crossed in informal ways. 

As these examples suggest, the literature of London is something of an ethnographic exercise; on certain occasions, it seems more interested in perpetuating negative stereotypes and fitting people into boxes than allowing for the fluid, multiple, even contradictory identities contained within a single urban subject, which can make it jarring to the modern reader. Though London Labour does appear obsessed by categories, especially with relation to London’s ‘poor’, it also offers surprising and subtle insights into class stratification. Mayhew explains that the market is busiest at the end of the week when households are running low on money, and fish is cheap; Fridays, too, are fast days for impoverished Irish Catholic migrants into the city, and a day when fish is consumed. He interviews the people he finds at the market, listening to their stories.

While Dickens and Wills recommend serving Billingsgate fish to the inmates of workhouses and prisons, using the market to try to tackle a perceived social problem, George Augustus Sala is interested in the way physical neighbourhoods become synonymous with revolutionary politics in the cultural imagination. Billingsgate is Sala’s first stop in Twice Round The Clock – a journey through London’s neighbourhoods, over the course of a single day. As the chapter draws to a close – at five o’clock in the morning – he is tempted to go home to bed, where he will have ‘fantastic dreams’ of Ned Ward and ‘the market-scene in “Masaniello”’, and ‘hum a dream-reminiscence of “Behold, how brightly beams the morning!” [‘Amis la matinée est belle’]’.  These are references to Ned Ward’s The London Spy (1703) and Daniel François Esprit Auber’s grand opera La Muette de Portici (1828), first performed in translation in London in 1829. Both Ward and Auber tell stories of working-class subversion in the fish-markets of Europe. La Muette is an embroidered account of the Neapolitan rebellion against the Spanish Habsburg empire, led by the fisherman Masaniello in 1647; not only is the opera’s history intertwined with that of revolutionary France, it’s also credited with starting the Belgian Revolution against the Netherlands in the early 1830s (Hibberd: 2003). Ned Ward, meanwhile, is talking about his misadventures in Billingsgate and his uncomfortable encounters with local fishwives. Paula McDowell discusses Ward and explores the trope of the working-class, grandiloquent, sexualised and rude fishwives of Billingsgate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who overpower educated gentlemen; McDowell also explains that the humble fishwife becomes central in conversations about the French Revolution (McDowell: 2017). In these traditions, fish-markets are public and democratic spaces that encourage defiance against a range of oppressors. Sala, it would seem, has internalised Ward and Auber’s transgressive texts so completely that he expects to dream about them. 

But how does this story shift when we consider new research by Cassandra Pybus and Kit Candlin, who have discovered that Sala spent much of his life struggling with his own, personal connection to global histories of oppression? In their micro-histories of women in the ‘revolutionary Atlantic’, Pybus and Candlin draw attention to Dorothy Thomas: a freed woman of colour in Demerara who gained great wealth, owned and hired out slaves, and counted Sala as one of her great-grandchildren. For Pybus and Candlin, Sala’s shame about his links to Thomas, whom he met in childhood during one of her visits to Europe, explains the overt racism in his fiction and journalism (Pybus: 2011, Pybus and Candlin: 2015). Pybus and Candlin’s research also encourages a reconsideration of Sala’s project as an urban observer and journalist. His most off-the-cuff references to the rest of the world become charged. Twice Round the Clock is a celebration of flânerie, the act of walking the city at leisure and often with joy, taking in the life of the street without having to participate; it is predicated on ease, freedom of movement, and freedom of access. Sala’s London exists in a diptych with the spaces of slavery – the land seized by imperialists, the ship, and the sugar plantation. What is the relationship between the flaneur, in his mobility, and the countless constricted lives in the Caribbean and South America?  It’s clear that these spaces and bodies are linked in ways that aren’t apparent at first glance.

Peter Blake charts Sala’s travels to Russia, the US, and Australia as a foreign correspondent (Blake: 2015). In the opening pages of Twice Round The Clock, Sala suggests that being worldly isn’t simply to do with where one goes – the influence of other nations is inscribed in his literary style. ‘I cannot write otherwise than I do write,’ he says. ‘Born in England, I am neither by parentage nor education an Englishman; in my childhood I browsed on a salad of languages, which I would willingly exchange now for a plain English lettuce or potato. Better to feed on hips and haws’ – the fruit of the native rose – ‘than on gangrened green-gages and mouldy pine-apples’ – both imported from overseas, and, in Sala’s image, the worse-for-wear for travelling. It’s a strange moment, tinged with ambivalence about linguistic hybridity. Sala is reflexive about the nature and power of language, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Billingsgate. When he says that the ‘flowers of Billingsgate eloquence are evergreens’, and makes a note to himself, ‘Mem.’, ‘to write a philosophical dissertation on the connection between markets and voluble vituperation which has existed in all countries and in all ages’, he’s alluding to the neighbourhood’s centuries’-old reputation: Billingsgate fishwives are renowned through the Early Modern city for their unique and sweary cant (Spain-Savage: 2016, McDowell: 2017). McDowell argues that their raucous street-cries compel writers to weigh up competing definitions of articulacy, and speak to the triumph of oral culture over rhetorical training, book-learning, and print. Dickens and Wills take pains to show that Victorian Billingsgate is no longer the ‘headquarters of verbal vulgarity’. Its legacy, however, remains: in English idiom, ‘Billingsgate’ has become a synonym for ‘abusive language’, and to ‘speak Billingsgate’ simply means to swear. A mode of expression defined by its relationship to a precise location has broken free of its original context, and travels across temporal and geographical boundaries. 

Who, then, imports this word, or has language pressed upon them? I’m going to end in the Bengal Presidency, and with the following pair of sentences: ‘It is unnecessary to try the patience of my readers by reproducing all of his Billingsgate. The patient woman bore it silently’ (Chattopadhyay: 1864). This appears in Rajmohan’s Wife – the first Indian novel written in English, serialised in the Indian Field in 1864. Rajmohan’s Wife comes to an abrupt end, and had a limited audience. The author, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, never published an English novel again. Instead, Bankim decided to direct his creative energies to composing fiction in Bangla, and became one of the most important novelists of the age: his books include Durgeshnandini (1865) and the explicitly anti-colonial Anandamath (1882). There are wide-ranging discussions of Rajmohan’s Wife by Meenakshi Mukherjee (2000), Priya Joshi (2002), and Supriya Chaudhuri (2015), but I want to linger on this single moment, and on Rajmohan’s Billingsgate. Rajmohan is intimidating his wife, Matangini – the novel’s courageous protagonist, long used to domestic abuse. They live in an East Bengali village, and she’s punished for going down to the Madhumati River to fetch water with a friend. Rajmohan ‘pour[s] out all the water on the dust-heap’, ‘[flings] away the empty pitcher’, and grabs her wrist, threatening to hit her. Bankim uses the expression as a euphemism, in order to avoid printing Rajmohan’s language; if, in eighteenth-century London, Billingsgate was used by fishwives to chastise hapless men, gender roles are switched here, and the scene is much more serious. What do we do with this undeniably odd reference to Billingsgate in Rajmohan’s Wife? How much weight can one word bear? It functions as an imaginative bridge from tiny Radhaganj to monstrous London, the Madhumati to the Thames. It’s a time portal to the eighteenth century. It also sticks out of the text; you feel like you’ve crashed into it as you’re reading, and it becomes a hook on which to hang questions. How are the histories of imperialism and the English language intertwined? How porous are the lines between literary cultures and reading publics? What happens when the British oral tradition meets Indian print culture, or when an expression with a comic history is used in a melodramatic context, or when the language of the fish-market is brought into the home – all because a woman has ventured out to the water’s edge?

I come from three busy port cities – Hong Kong, Kolkata, and Los Angeles – and, after many years, am still getting used to living in a town with a moseying river. Thinking about Billingsgate in landlocked Oxford, though, has encouraged me to hold up the light the divisions between literary periods. Somewhat hesitantly, I have stepped over the lines separating other disciplines from my own: geography, history, economics, politics and music. It’s yet another unexpected consequence of the ‘Billingsgate trade’.

Ushashi is a lecturer in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Artwork by Charlotte Bunney.


Peter Blake, George Augustus Sala and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: The Personal Style of a Public Writer (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Rajmohan’s Wife, ed. Meenakshi Mukherjee (New Delhi: Penguin, 2009).

Supriya Chaudhuri, ‘Beginnings: Rajmohan’s Wife and the Novel in India’, in A History of the Indian Novel in English, ed. Ulka Anjaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.31-44.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1855-7).

——– [and WH Wills], ‘A Popular Delusion’, Household Words, 1 June 1850.

Sarah Hibbert, ‘La Muette and Her Context’, in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, ed. David Charlton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp.149-167.

Priya Joshi, In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Griffin & Bohn, 1851).

Paula McDowell, The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Graeme Milne, People, Place and Power on the Nineteenth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Cassandra Pybus, ‘Tense and Tender Ties: Reflections on Lives Recovered from the Intimate Frontier of Empire and Slavery’, Life Writing, 8 (2011), 5-17.

——– and Kit Candlin, Enterprising Women: Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

George Augustus Sala, Twice Round the Clock (London: Houlston & Wright, 1859).

Christi Spain-Savage, ‘The Gendered Place Narratives of Billingsgate Fishwives’, SEL, 56 (2016), 417-434.


This Organism We Call Hɪst(ə)ri

By Sophia Staffiero.

this organism we call hɪst(ə)ri
is lived on people’s skins
is the burden that forced the spine to curl inwards
taught the face to masquerade
the ears to burn quietly
polluted eyes to sting discreetly
it is the stories locked in the folds of my ancestors’ backs
the dull ache of a slipped disk
is the musty odour of flesh filtered through our deep inhales
the gritty layer of tar smeared at the bottom of our lungs
it is the muscular memory that clings to our bones
begging not to be forgotten
decaying in the commemoration of unlearnt lessons
and the spiral of repetition
it is our pulsating biological memory
the counterflow of personal and collective
the projection of names and dates
of distant women scribbled in books
the version recorded by other less distant women
it is the jutting shards of victory
the false promises of rectification
the barren landscapes, the absent narrative
the nullification that numbifies us with the same rhetoric
gushing from the singular fount of
and at the same time
it is the mesh of people’s skin
the grey tincture, drained eyes, swollen ears
liquid limbs, bitten tongues and the tongues choking for air
for life
it is the indigestion of fragmentary realities
competing for space in the arena of our minds. 

I smooth the thick oily product through your locks,
my fingertips gliding over the rippled strands
and as my hand gently recedes from the labyrinth of coils and spirals,
each one defiantly springs back as if to say 

I am here 

despite 400yrs without a comb,
despite travelling across oceans
to lands where we are categorised as ‘bad’
for no other reason than that we refuse to be stretched into submission 

I’ve survived 

the hot combs and chemicals
I’ve declined their invitation
to tune down my ‘unprofessional’
Now watch my unapologetic curves boast, 

We are here to stay 

Precious Girl, Fierce Woman
do not spurn your majestic feathers and wish them to be anything other than
they are
our intimacy is not found in the glimmers of silk-pressed ebony,
nor in the whiteness of peroxide blonde
it’s tucked away in the crevices of barber shops,
between the clasp of two knees,
in the bond of a lock or a braid
it’s found in each and every one of our unruly coils
that declare in the only way they know how
in their refusal to lay down, to surrender 

despite 400yrs without a comb,
despite too many lost years away from home
We’ve survived,
We are here, We will stay

With thanks to the artist.

Shifting Focus to the Future: The Afrofuturist Shapeshifter as (Unmenacing) Radical

By Khadeeja Khalid.

The genre of speculative fiction has always been fertile ground for evaluating and deconstructing boundaries of gender, race, sexuality, capitalism and systematic forms of oppression. Having only been legitimised in recent years as having the potential for academic relevance, many sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction have flourished. The figure of the metamorph or shapeshifter has always been met with revulsion and distrust, reaching as far back as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to as recently and culturally embedded as X-Men’s Mystique, and the alien race of Skrulls in Captain Marvel. These depictions of the shapeshifter offer a more sensationalist approach in popular culture through their constant positioning as antagonist. I would argue that focusing on other examples of the shapeshifter might yield more interesting narratives, thus producing a means for tackling material issues affecting the world today. Although there are many great examples of how this might be achieved, this article will focus on shapeshifters in Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed (1980), and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014). Both novels are from the Afrofuturist sub-genre of science fiction, which is characterised by its confrontation of past and present instances of the oppression of black people, in order to chart a productive future beyond these systems of oppression. Both Butler and Okorafor present alternative modes of existence for historically oppressed peoples who continue to tackle sentiments of Afro-pessimism worldwide, in turn subverting stereotypes of the menacing shapeshifter and downtrodden black communities.

Much in the same way that Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa’s figure of the nagual (the Náhuatl word for shapeshifter), and Donna Haraway’s cyborg (A Cyborg Manifesto (1985)) embody alternative modes of existence free of rigid human boundaries, the shapeshifter in literature and other media can be used to explore means of resisting oppressive power structures. Oftentimes oppression seems so pervasive that any resistance short of completely toppling oppressive systems seem insignificant. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon takes place in modern-day Nigeria, and unflinchingly addresses many of the issues plaguing the country, from its corrupt government to its unsafe roads, which contribute to thousands of deaths every year. Although much of postcolonial discourse continues to discuss how nations might recover from their former colonisation, and whether this is even possible, Okorafor’s vision of a recovering Nigeria necessitates an alien invasion – chaos ensues. Okorafor’s scathing political critique throughout Lagoon cuts deeper than the unfolding chaos detailed within the novel itself, but identifies the root of these problems – a failure to realise a self-determined Nigeria independent of its colonial history. Her satirical narrative plays on familiar situations to highlight humans’ dislocation from their environment, making it not difficult to believe that preoccupied with dismembering a beached whale, a crowd of Lagosians ‘never looked twice at the space people walking out of the sea’ (p.116). Despite this, the novel never collapses into a tiring polemical work, as Okorafor deftly moves between narrative perspectives from different levels of the social strata, moving between the browbeaten Prime Minister of Nigeria in one chapter, to a mute, nameless and homeless orphan in another. Okorafor also challenges the privileging of anthropocentric perspectives, the mesmerising prologue from the perspective of a swordfish being a perfect example of this. The reader is drawn in as a witness – willingly or not – much in the same way that Okorafor’s characters must face the alien invasion of Lagos. 

The invasion is spearheaded by a shapeshifting alien ambassador named Ayodele, who embodies both future change as well as a return to the past. Military and religious fanatics immediately deem her presence menacing, yet it is this disruptive quality that attracts a disenfranchised underground LGBTQ+ group to seek her out as their spokesperson and protector, and also establishes her as a coveted figure for monetary gain. All of these conflicting groups see Ayodele as a means of destabilising the system, and are either vehemently repulsed or inextricably attracted to her. Adaora, a marine biologist and one of the first to encounter Ayodele, is convinced of the shapeshifting aliens’ benevolent purpose, which is augmented by the fact that she takes the form of Adaora’s favourite cousin. However, she finds herself unnerved by Ayodele: ‘If there was any strong hint of the alien in Ayodele’s appearance, it was in her eyes. When Adaora looked, she felt unsure… of everything. A college friend of hers used to say that everything human beings perceived as real was only a matter of the information their bodies recorded’ (p.37). Looking and seeing are prominent motifs in the novel; a mute orphan sees Ayodele’s first appearance as the auspicious incarnation of Mami Wata, whereas a prostitute sees her as ‘the devil’ heralding the end of days, which causes her to lead a crusade against those she arbitrarily identifies as aliens (p.13-4). It is arguably the orphan that has a keener insight, however lacks the social standing as well as a literal voice with which to share his perceptions. Besides exploring the menace of not being able to identify the shapeshifter based on looks alone, Okorafor’s aliens possess the ability to see in to minds of humans. This ability allows them project humans’ comforts and insecurities through assuming the shape of people in their lives, and although it is never used malevolently, this ability is deemed menacing as the aliens possess power in being able to see that which humans cannot.   

Amidst rioting and military violence against civilians, Okorafor’s polyvalent narrative brings together Lagosians, animals, aliens, and African deities, embodying what Anzaldúa sees as the spiritual purpose of the nagual – to act on behalf of a community to fight their ‘collective shadows’ (‘Speaking Across the Divide’). In the context of Lagoon, Ayodele as nagual/shapeshifter thus becomes a neplantera (Anzaldúa’s figure of a border-crosser between different worlds), an ‘agent of awakening’ that appears at points of crisis to ‘see through our cultural conditioning and through our respective cultures’ toxic ways of life’ (‘Speaking Across the Divide’). When questioned about her purpose, she simply remarks, ‘We are change’, however states that the alien invasion is simply the catalyst to amplify ‘the sentiments were already there’ and ‘impulses already present in [human] minds’ (p.39). The Lagosians can no longer turn a blind eye to those elements of life that they have been neglecting, as roads become anthropomorphised and insatiable in their hunger for human life, looters party with African deities in the streets, and sea creatures rise up to avenge their polluted waters. This augmentation of chaos, although at first met with distrust, is understood to be necessary, as a Lagosian civilian regards an alien in awe: ‘she was not human. She was not earthly. She was something completely other. But she was not evil either’ (p.206). The shapeshifting aliens supplant corrupt leaders and allow the Lagosians to build their communities from the ground up – a luxury that was not afforded them and other colonies in establishing nations in a post-colonial era. They are able to reconnect with that which they have neglected on a personal and national level, although the close of the novel sees this as the first step in the decolonising process. This might be read as analogous to movements such as Black Lives Matter, which campaigns for social change not just with regards to police violence towards African-Americans, but their socio-political status which remains part of America’s slaveholding history. Although BLM protests are vilified in the media, and its supporters understand that there is still much to be done to attain racial equality, it is undeniably a productive way of using the past and present to project a brighter future for the disenfranchised.   

Deemed the mother of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler has been praised for her ability to challenge restrictions of genre, as she seamlessly merges the slave narrative with science fiction elements in her popular novel Kindred (1979), as well as within her Patternist series (1977-84). The first book of the series (chronologically), Wild Seed (1980), follows the immortal shapeshifter Ayunwu and her fraught relationship with Doro, the only other immortal in existence. Having lived for millennia, Doro has established a number of settlements across the globe during the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and traverses continents in search of other supra-humans to populate these settlements. Ayunwu is taken to Wheatley, a settlement in 1690s colonial America, which is protected from the country’s formative years characterised by land-grabbing and its growing slave economy. The inhabitants of Wheatley are spared from social death – the condition of slaves, landless Native Americans, and those deemed mentally disturbed (in this case due to their psychic powers), which establishes them as sub-human. This idea of social death is still prevalent within the contemporary world, in America alone evidenced by the BLM movement, appalling conditions in detention centres on the US-Mexican border, and the epidemic of violence against Native American women. These forms of social death more often than not lead to actual deaths without recompense. Within Doro’s distorted plantation, there is no fear of racial discrimination, as many of the inhabitants are children of Doro – born black but father to many through his ability to assume the body of others at will. They therefore have mixed heritage and become racially ambiguous through Doro’s exacting and often incestuous breeding programme, and revere him as patriarch as well as a god-like figure. The success of this programme allows Doro’s children to become a race of their own in subsequent novels in the Patternist series, and colonise entire races due to their supra-human legacy. Ayunwu, as ‘wild seed’ – born and having lived for centuries outside of his settlements – is afforded a special status due to her unprecedented shapeshifting abilities and healing powers. These powers serve to protect Ayunwu from Doro’s wrath when she openly challenges his immoral and murderous approach to propagating his supra-human race. 

Butler’s Wild Seed provides the reader with two opposing approaches to constructing a community of Othered peoples, and the equally opposing shapeshifters that establish them. Doro’s shapeshifting abilities necessitate death – innumerable deaths that stretch infinitely back to his original body, and infinitely forward to the future in an immortal chain of existence. He can be read in many ways as propagating systems of oppression associated with slavery, especially through his obsessive breeding programme, which values its participants only in terms of their genetic code. Poet and essayist M. NourbeSe Philip observes: ‘“Dis place” – the space between. The legs. For the black woman “dis placed” to and in the New World, the inner space between the legs would also mutate into “dis place” – the fulcrum of the New World plantation’. Ayunwu recognizes the incongruity of separating the Othered people of Wheatley from the rest of slave-trading America whilst maintaining one of its integral systems of oppression. Although at first she cedes to Doro’s demands to produce children to add to his brood, having ‘given in to him again and again’ (p.211) she pushes back against this force that renders her the ‘fulcrum of [Doro’s] New World’, and eludes his influence for a century by assuming various animal forms. 

Doro reveres Ayunwu for her literal female labour, which encompasses her reproductive and healing abilities as it serves to further his own ends, but views her shapeshifting as menacing as it undermines his power. Devaluing such labour is still prevalent today, as entire nations were built on the backs of slaves, yet their descendants continue to fight for their rights within these nations. The devaluation of female labour also continues in the 21st century, evidenced by gendered wage inequality and the lack of maternity leave in many so-called ‘developed’ countries. Philosopher Rosi Braidotti remarks that with regards to the female shapeshifter or metamorph, ‘[t]he fact that the female body can change shape so drastically is troublesome in the eyes of the logocentric economy within which to see in the primary act of knowledge and the gaze that the basis of all epistemic awareness’. Ayunwu’s existence beyond a sexual and reproductive object disconcerts Doro, which is exacerbated by the fact that ‘as an animal, she was beyond him’ (p.97), as he cannot ‘see’ her presence when she assumes animal forms. This evasive power gives Ayunwu the mobility to establish her own community independent of Doro, and she creates a safe haven for supra-humans and racial Others by assuming the disguise of a wealthy plantation-owning white man. Although Doro immediately sees this as ‘competition’, accusing Ayunwu of ‘raising witches of [her] own’, she sees them as ‘people’ who ‘need someone who can help them’ (p.231). Alongside being the white plantation-owning patriarch, Ayunwu assumes the role of ‘mother, older sister, teacher, and when she invited it, lover’ (p.235). Instead of creating a supra-human race through a dehumanising breeding programme, Ayunwu ‘was herself, gathering family. […] They felt like her children’ (p.235), establishing a protected community based on peaceful interdependence amongst social outcasts. From the outside, the plantation’s inhabitants are viewed as socially dead, whereas Ayunwu facilitates their revival independent of wider society. As a white plantation owner, Ayunwu marries a high-class white woman who is deemed to be mentally unstable who in fact has uncontrolled psychic powers, buys and sets free a male slave destined to be no more than breeding stock, and creates a safe space for numerous other social outcasts. Although Ayunwu must assume the shape of a white man, this is not seen as an action stemming from Afro-pessimistic sentiments; Anzaldúa regards identity as ‘a changing cluster of components and shape-shifting activity […] We shift around to do the work we have to do, to create the identities we have to do to create the identities we need to live up to our potential’ (‘A New Mestiza Nation’). Ayunwu therefore understands the necessity of presenting as white to wider society to protect her community’s safety. Within her community, she is still revered for every form she takes, whereas others see her transitioning as grotesque and indicative of her awesome power. In this way, Ayunwu cultivates attitudes within her community which challenge Othering and anti-black sentiments that still continue to plague society today. 

Although this article barely skims the surface of the subversive potential of sci-fi, it demonstrates the multitudinous ways in which Butler’s and Okorafor’s writings are applicable to material contemporary issues, and can be excavated further still. Sci-fi has for too long been relegated to the sidelines of literary and popular culture, and looked on as merely a means of escapism. As evidenced in this article, literature and other artistic media can be used as thought experiments to bringing about radical socio-political change, building on past and present issues to envision a radical future. As Butler and Okorafor illustrate, radicalism may necessitate going against centuries-old systems of oppression, but what truly radical movement has ever been exempted from a bit of chaos?

Khadeeja is currently completing her MA in Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She completed an English MA (Hons) at the University of St Andrews.

Artwork by Molly Marie Aysu.

Feminism Today: How Neoliberalism Is Failing Us

By Lola Dickinson.

Feminism in 2019 can at once seem both real and tangible while also remaining elusive, and hard to define.  We have seen the recent successes of the International Women’s Strike and the admirable triumphs of the unionisation of strippers in London. Yet, alongside this, we are increasingly surrounded by the mainstreaming of feminism into popular culture: from the outpouring of ‘GIRL POWER’ merchandise and deals on International Women’s Day to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, run largely on her assertion that ‘women’s rights are human rights’. Feminism has become cool. At times, it is hard to know what all these ‘feminisms’ have in common aside from their shared use of the word.

One of the most prominent and dangerous forms of these strands includes ‘neoliberal feminism’, recognisable under labels such as ‘marketplace feminism’, ‘corporate feminism’, or ‘lean-in feminism’. We live in a neoliberal economic system where free markets are prioritised at the expense of social welfare provision, and responsibility is centred on the individual, not the collective. Indeed, David Harvey defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (Harvey, 2005). Within such a framework, neoliberalism has actively appropriated feminism, using it as a means to adopt ‘social liberal’ politics, whilst simultaneously maintaining a political and economic system that operates in the interests of elites (Eisenstein, 2010). The adoption of mainstream feminism has been an active project to maintain neoliberal capitalism, albeit with a more human face. Further, in a manner often unnoticed, this process caught feminism in its snares and made it palatable and watered-down – now it is something that can be adopted by people of all political leanings.

Neoliberalism has left feminism with almost no political agenda at all. It has become something that props up hegemonic narratives and fails to support the most marginalised – we need a feminism that will offer emancipation and solidarity for those who are most marginalised. Theresa May, who as Home Secretary led many migrant women to detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, and as Prime Minister has consistently advocated austerity measures shown to disproportionately affect women, repeatedly affirms her identity as a feminist; its current form reinforces the marginalisation of certain groups, while upholding the power of the elite. Furthermore, we now see a growing branch of self-labelled ‘radical’ feminists who attempt to establish a firm boundary around womanhood, usually excluding trans-women and sex workers from this definition. 

The word ‘feminism’ has been adopted within many different modern-day contexts. It has become so diluted that it now holds little weight and we are losing our ability to mobilise into a cohesive movement. We need a comprehensive feminism, now more than ever, which is centred on defending trans rights, supporting sex workers, pushing to abolish detention centres, and fighting for an anti-racist, internationalist, socialist future in which the rights of all individuals are guaranteed and protected. 

Since the 1990s, the rise of neoliberal feminism has drastically changed and modified the anti-capitalist feminist movement seen in previous decades. The most visible, and prominent version of such feminism typically centres rich, usually white women, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. It advocates that women can make their own path, simply by having confidence and making more ambitious choices in their careers. At its most extreme, we saw the recent appropriation of International Women’s Day by BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms companies. As one of the leading suppliers of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, BAE Systems fuels the war in Yemen – exposing the drastic effects on women in the Global South of corporate feminism. In other contexts, companies span the intersection of liberation movements- Barclays is one of the biggest sponsors of London’s Pride Parade and has been involved in several IWD campaigns, yet also invests in arms companies that sell to Saudi Arabia where queer people are often killed for existing. 

Fundamentally, neoliberal feminism assumes that all women have the same, or at least a similar, amount of agency. It places the source of oppression on the individual: if only you try harder and be more confident, you will reach new heights. It detaches feminism from a common social movement, turning it into something that is individual, a competition with other women. Feminism becomes centred on personal advancement, a crucial component to neoliberal philosophy.

Neoliberal feminism shows little consideration for an experience that is outside that of a rich, cis white woman. It suggests that society will change through the individual action of women, not that society needs to be uprooted in order for women’s experiences to change. Neoliberal feminism ignores the barriers which capitalism poses on women, thus concealing the effect of socio-economic standing on the decisions and experiences of individuals. As Sarah Wright asserts, people’s decisions are largely limited by their class, rendering “individual empowerment…immaterial” (Wright, 2017). She highlights that all political stances of feminists are influenced by their relative class position. When looking at access to abortion in Britain, whilst it is formally a right accessible to all individuals the choice to exercise this right is often determined by socio-economic background and future prospects. This is not to say that such rights shouldn’t be fought for, indeed, the recent ‘Repeal the 8th’ movement in Ireland saw passionate and cohesive campaigning efforts which made historic and important change. We must, however, further consider the various factors that create the illusion of choice, such as class, race, religion or disability. At its best, neoliberal feminism will acknowledge such intersectionalities on a surface level, but it fundamentally fails to acknowledge the extent to which these can change and limit the experiences and perspectives of individuals. 

Directly, we can see the materialisation of neoliberal feminism in the rising trend of ‘feminist fashion’ within the fast fashion industry. ‘Feminism’ can now mean buying a t-shirt, wearing it, and identifying with the label on a personal basis, without substantive commitment to the movement as a whole. Almost every label, from Christian Dior to Topshop, has recently taken to designing clothes, bags, notebooks – anything they can sell – emblazoned with ‘feminist’ slogans. Transnational corporations have co-opted feminism, turning it into something which can be commercialised and sold. This form of brand activism works to increase sales by seemingly aligning companies with popular social values. These companies offer a public face that appears supportive of LGBTQIA+, body positivity, disability rights, and racial and religious equality movements while doing nothing practical to ensure that the rights of such marginalised identities are protected. Indeed, by capitalising from political movements, they succeed not only in making profit but also in weakening the potential of such movements to make impactful change.

Representation is important, especially in areas in which thin cis white women have often dominated. But it is also a basic requirement that should be met – not one that necessarily deserves congratulations. Further, while such representation appears to have social justice as its agenda, it must also be recognised that this also works to increase their consumer base to groups that have only recently grown in economic power after having gained bourgeois rights and prominence in the workplace. We must be cautious and aware of brands working to improve their reputation in the eyes of the consumer while profiting from social justice movements in ways that ultimately work against the movements themselves, by, for example, increasing the huge income of the global 1% and exploiting women in the countries where their products are manufactured. Whilst these companies profit, for those purchasing these products neoliberal feminism has meant that buying a t-shirt is seen as a form of activism, detracting from any actual grassroots work being carried out and diffusing the political potential of feminism as a movement. Feminism in this form is manageable and palatable; it is something that poses very little threat to the political and economic underpinnings of the hegemony of the Global North. Feminism in this form has no power.

Neo-colonialism, the control of the Global South by the Global North through indirect means that reinforces a strict hierarchy, has taken many subtle forms in contemporary society, notably within our ever-expanding fast fashion industry. The exploitation of labour, usually in South-East Asia, embodies how our capitalist and consumer-driven culture privileges the rights of Western Europeans and North Americans at the expense of those in the Global South. Within the fast fashion industry, factory workers are overwhelmingly women, with an estimated 80% of the world’s garment workers being female. This figure is as high as 70% in China, 85% in Bangladesh, and 90% in Cambodia. The horrific working conditions at factories employed by high street labels is a fact widely known though rarely reflected upon. The most extreme example of this is the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which resulted in 1,134 deaths. Rana Plaza workers provided clothes for brands such as Primark and Matalan in the US and the UK. The conditions and pay that workers are subject to would never be accepted in western countries. This can be seen as part of a continuing imperial legacy in which women continue to fare the worst. 

White neoliberal feminism shows little care or consideration for the conditions of non-white workers outside of Europe and Northern America. This can be seen on two planes: companies that brazenly adopt the word ‘feminism’ predominantly for profit, and the buyer either champions such adoption or (at best) fails to critically examine such a product in context. For example, The Fawcett Society, a charity in the UK that campaigns for gender equality, produced a t-shirt with the slogan ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’. However, these were exposed to be made in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning an estimated 62p per hour. 

More recently, a Guardian investigation found that t-shirts sold by the Spice Girls to raise money for Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made in Bangladeshi factories where women earn the equivalent of 35p per hour during shifts in which they claim to be verbally abused and harassed. These women were expected to work up to 16 hours a day to hit targets. One machinist told the Guardian: “The wages we get are very minimum. It’s barely enough to survive.” (Murphy, A2019)The t-shirts they made were sold for £19.40, with £11.60 going to Comic Relief’s fund to “champion equality for women”.(Murphy, B2019) 

It is often the same large corporations, NGOs, and companies that continue cycles of oppression while claiming to be working towards its elimination. They co-opt the word ‘feminism’ in an attempt to increase sales and improve their social standing, but their practice is far from feminist. If such working conditions were exposed in factories in London, the same people who buy and wear the self-proclaiming ‘feminist’ t-shirts would be leading marches in protest. We must be aware that Britain’s imperialist legacies often mean that critical reflection on the conditions of workers producing imported goods is not engaged with, privileging the narrative of neoliberal Western feminism. Equally important, however, it must be acknowledged that while the consumers might unconsciously afford different reactions to working conditions in the Global North as abroad, neoliberal feminists, to some extent, show minimum level care about labour rights unilaterally. While we do not have comparable working conditions, neoliberal feminists side line the rights of sex workers, those struggling on zero hour contracts, or those in low-paid full-time jobs having to increasingly rely on food banks. The levels of poverty are strikingly different, but on an ideological level, the same lack of concern for labour rights or poverty is the same at a local or global level. 

The fast fashion industry shows no care for the conditions and experiences of its workers, the desire for profit is their principle incentive. Labour outsourcing has enabled UK companies to exploit workers under far worse conditions than if they looked for labour within the EU and has simultaneously made factory workers in South-East Asia reliant on the West for labour. Such economic arrangements have cemented the imperial power dynamics instated over the last several centuries. This form of imperialism is additionally gendered, female factory employees are often subject to lower pay rates and higher rates of abuse than their male co-workers. 

In this way, neoliberal feminism thrives and profits off the backs of non-white women’s hard work and labour. The capitalist drive from huge transnational corporations is steadily working to completely divorce the word ‘feminism’ from any tangible political struggle. If we want to identify as feminists we need to do better. We need to critique the capitalist drive which sees the exploitation of workers under intolerable conditions, reject the neoliberal narrative that it should be on individual drive and determination to better one’s personal position, and support grassroots movements which are working to support and change working conditions for individuals around the world.

The need to be anti-capitalist and transnational is apparent if feminism is going to be a movement that supports and provides for all genders in all contexts. Rachel Cargle’s assertion that without intersectionality, feminism becomes a new form of white supremacy can be seen as a continuation of this theme. Indeed, “if there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of colour, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels.” (Cargle, 2018) Neoliberal feminism incurs the privileging of a single narrative that excludes the voices and experiences of those who are not rich, white, straight cis women. The silencing of such voices is seen within ‘feminist’ movements today: both the neoliberal form and the so-called radical form have seen the identification of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and SWERFs (sex-worker-exclusionary radical feminists). This ‘radical’ form of feminism is proud in its firm conceptions of womanhood rooted in certain limited conceptions of biology and the body, they affirm that this is what defines and oppresses women. As such, it comprehensively works to silence and further marginalise any voices that don’t fit within these rigid boundaries. Though to very different ends, it is similar to neoliberal feminism in privileging a certain narrative of womanhood. 

The splintering of feminism has been accompanied by the blurring boundaries of what counts as feminism in the twenty-first century. We need to find a way to define it and to ensure that it protects marginalised identities and secures women’s rights all over the world. There are strands of feminism, such as neoliberal feminism, which we need to be equipped to identify and reject in order to pave the way for a feminism which is rooted in inclusivity and capable of causing real change. The need for an inclusive, international movement is ever increasing as the global far right continues to grow in size and influence. This has brought with it a surge in the prevalence of racist and islamophobic attacks, often taking the distinct form of misogynoir when committed against women, the recent attacks and death threats on US Representative Ilhan Omar a poignant example. Further, as the on-going climate crisis takes an even greater hold, disproportionately affecting women in the Global South and working class women in the North, we must be supporting a feminism that has the capacity to support and protect rights of all genders, classes, sexualities, and races. 

For International Women’s Day 2019, we saw an international strike with over 6,000 women, with sex workers at the forefront, demanding an anti-capitalist future that fights to protect the rights of workers globally. We should be supporting, encouraging, and learning from such movements at all costs. These are the moments in history and voices that we need to evaluate, in order to ensure feminism remains a revolutionary force with genuine political underpinnings. Feminism must be an intersectional, international, socialist, and ultimately coherent movement that fights for the rights of all if it is to have a genuine and important impact. The space is here for such a movement, and the time is now.

Artwork by Beth Simcock.

Capitalism and Community: The Decline of Tanzeemat

By Zehra Munir.

I conducted this research while part of the Laajverd Visiting School in 2017. The names of all interviewees have been anonymised, in line with their requests.

Many have made the argument that capitalism and community are not the best of bedfellows. Joseph Stiglitz put it most succinctly when he wrote that “rugged individualism and market fundamentalism have eroded any sense of community,” (The Telegraph, 2010). Critics of this view may point to the rise of virtual communities, as free market incentives have allowed social media to flourish. However, ‘community’ in the sense of physical relationships and reliance has certainly suffered in the face of the forces Stiglitz identifies. I saw this happening in a context where the transition is ongoing, recent and, thus, visible. In the summer of 2017, I conducted an intensive ethnographic study in the Gojal Valley in Pakistan centred on the money-loaning systems of the Gulmitic people. Through my days in the village of Gulmit, one thing became evident: the rise of large scale money-lending agencies and the loss of trust in relationships are closely linked

To understand what is happening in Gulmit, contextualisation is needed. Without romanticising, it is necessary to understand that, until recently, community bonds were strong in Gulmit. Even now, there exists a sort of closeness which most of us in the West would fail to understand. There is the sort of security which allows young women to grow up and walk around without fear of being catcalled, because the entire village is like family; the kind of communal feeling which means that when there is a wedding, every household cooks for the wedding feast, so that the burden does not fall on the two families directly involved. The type of care for each other which means that when the infirm cannot attend local festivals, a delivery service is organised to bring the festival meals to them. This society is far from perfect, but their community relations are stronger than many of us can conceptualise. 

Similarly, schools are run with local input, and figures such as the headteacher are treated with great respect throughout the community. Perhaps two of the greatest community-based institutions in Gulmit are the two types of Tanzeemat. One local Tanzeem is run by and exists for local women, the other by and for local men. Until recently, these two organisations represented the main money loaning service available to Gulmitic people. With all members of a Tanzeem required to deposit some money, be it 5 or 5000 rupees, every Friday and an incredibly efficient application review system, you are almost guaranteed to obtain a loan from your Tanzeem within a few days. Rejections are rare, and you know that the people judging your application are your own; they understand your situation. Be it an emergency loan to pay for your child’s university tuition fees, or any other small amount required, the committee understands your circumstances. Even when money is leaving the village economy (such as when tuition fees are paid), it is given in good faith, for the people evaluating your request have watched your son or daughter grow up alongside their own children. The system works incredibly well to finance the needs of a small but dynamic village in the mountainous areas of Pakistan. Moreover, it is not unique to Gulmit – all neighbouring villages have similar banking systems. Crucially, a Tanzeem is free of links to any bigger bank, thus making it immune to the perils of a national or global financial crisis. That is, until recently.  

Gulmit is being encouraged to become more economically successful, in the modern sense of the word, to move away from subsistence farming and to engage in market activity. Above all, it is being pushed to expand its tourist industry, by both the local and the national government. However, any expansion of the tourist industry has its costs, quite literally. Building new hotels to expand the hospitality industry is not cheap. One local hotel owner told me, in no uncertain terms, that “if the tourist industry is to expand in Gulmit, bigger loans will be needed, loans on a scale which the current Tanzeemat cannot begin to provide”. Thus, as Gojal Valley becomes a tourist hotspot, as the Gulmitic people begin to open hotels, to drive taxis, to build rooms for rent in their homes, a more long-lasting change has to occur. The large loans required to finance this new infrastructure will have to be obtained from bigger institutions, namely commercial banks, including the Al-Rahim building society and the Government of Pakistan Bank. The result: the collapse of the Tanzeemat. Community-based money loaning is all well and good until the funds of the community cannot suffice, at which point it becomes irrelevant.

After all, when the maximum loan you can obtain from a Tanzeem is but a small proportion of what you need to start up your business, it is no longer viable to stick with your local Tanzeem. Moreover, Tanzeemat cannot function if they are only used by those who need money immediately. There has to be a mix of people with different time horizons for their needs. As businesses spring up and reliance on commercial loans grows, the funds available to a Tanzeem begin to shrink. More and more people will be depositing money and obtaining loan money from commercial banks. And though its lifespan could be prolonged with investments and a greater credit ratio, how can a village kitty compete against the likes of the Bank of Punjab and, potentially in the near future, Standard Chartered? With every loan a villager obtains from Akhuwat or the National Bank, the Tanzeemat begin to be eroded. Sooner or later, free market development will have killed community-based funding.

Moreover, some of the new money loaning systems being introduced kill community links in a more fundamental, and sudden, way. These systems are those within the realm of microfinance. The experience of Gulmitic villagers confirms the results of previous studies into microfinance. Group-based lending systems, whether they are within the Islamic microfinance model of Akhuwat or the normal models of banks like the Agha Khani First Microfinance Bank, alienate those who default on their deposit. When someone in the community takes out a loan from a microfinance institution, they are grouped with other community members. The group members are all responsible for making sure that their fellow members pay back their respective loans. Time and time again, I was told of friendships broken and frustration caused when a member of the group defaulted. One man told me how he and others had to visit their defaulting friend repeatedly to try and salvage their joint loan. When the friend could not cobble together the funds to pay his share, the rest of the group had to step up. The loan may now have been paid off, but the relationship was fractured. By making social capital the collateral in this system, these banks ensure the rapid dissolution of community relationships when someone defaults. Thus, the new microfinance lending systems serve only to exacerbate the corrosion of a community, already occurring at a rapid pace as its money lending institutions begin to collapse.

In a 2008 interview, Stephen Marglin, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, stated that “markets have undermined all that is good about community”. Based on my interview-centred research, it is impossible to disagree. Although my time in Gulmit was relatively short, and I would love to go back to carry out further research, my findings present a clear trend. The development of the tourism industry in the Gojal Valley comes at the expense of the local, community-based banking system, one that is now fading into non-existence. I am sure of this also because the Gulmitic village elders supported my prediction about the weakening of the Tanzeemat as the tourism industry expands. More than that, they fit within a wider pattern that can be seen worldwide. Marglin points to the way in which the North American Free Trade Agreement opened up the Mexican market to cheap imports, and thus made it difficult for Mexican peasants to compete. This encouraged the flow of people from rural Mexico to large urban spaces, as well as to the USA, thus breaking up rural communities. Similarly, as Gulmit becomes commercialised, there is no space left either for its people to remain interdependent at a community level or for local financial organisations. I don’t want to poeticize Gulmitic society as if there was nothing wrong with it before it began to modernise, and as if it should be preserved in a timeless state. However, one thing is for sure. When globalisation encroaches and marketisation begins in earnest, it is the community that suffers.

Post-colonialism Backfires: Be Proud of My Chinese Name Please?

By Flair Donglai Shi.

“Flair? That is your name? Come on, that can’t seriously be your name. What is your real name?”

Since coming to the UK for my studies, I’ve constantly been faced with these types of questions, in both formal academic gatherings and casual social interactions. Among the numerous people I’ve encountered and have had such perfunctory conversations with, many are professors, and most would consider themselves to be not only learned and knowledgeable, but also open-minded and progressive. I clearly remember an occasion during a social event after a conference, when my supervisor tried to introduce me to one of her good friends, a British professor in Chinese Studies no less, and she felt rather embarrassed by her friend’s constant amusement over my name. The professor was persistent: she did not stop at finding out my “real name” after I told her the Chinese name my parents gave me. While urging me to be proud of my Chinese name, she insisted on questioning me further about my “incompetence” to choose a “normal” name in “the list of hundreds of English names there are”. Withholding a sense of resignation, I told her that I discovered the word “flair” by serendipity when I was still learning English as a young Chinese student and simply felt a strong connection with it, and it sounded to me to be gender-neutral and close enough to many other “conventional” proper names in English (After all, shouldn’t we all be very bothered by the gender binarism of the English naming system?). But this was not good enough a justification for her, and what was supposed to be a simple academic networking opportunity ended in much mutual discomfort. The fact is that, since I never had the chance to choose my Chinese name, I did not want to be constrained by naming conventions in English either and deliberately made the choice to exercise my agency by naming myself “Flair”. However, with my supervisor there I dared not make a big issue of her friend’s judgmental and patronising attitude, not to mention the stress this whole conversation had put on me with regards to the academic stakes and hierarchies involved. 

For my friends, my name is simply a habitual sign by which they humanise and respect me as an independent individual; and for most strangers, the name performs its social function pretty well since almost all of them will remember me via this empty signifier by the end of our conversation; no matter how much they are troubled by it initially. However, in the Anglophone world, especially in supposedly highly sophisticated cultural spaces such as Oxford University, I am still bombarded by suspicions and questions about my name all the time. Why are people so obsessed with my name and its “authenticity”?

As Walter Benjamin poignantly points out in his essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”, the philosophy of language starts from the act of naming. It is generally agreed upon that language is one of the most important defining characteristics of the human species, and in utilising our cognitive-linguistic abilities, we human beings give worldly objects names to bring them into proto-sociopolitical fabrications. In such cases, naming is simply a form of designation, a way for us to bestow meaning onto the world. However, while semiotics primarily focuses on the arbitrariness of such bestowing, in Postcolonial Studies we tend to stress the inevitable and inherent power relations embedded in such actions. For most postcolonial scholars, naming should be regarded as a form of mapping, othering and worlding. For example, Bill Ashcroft, in illustrating his statement that “to name the world is to know it and to have control over it”, raises the immediate example of the word “Africa”, which is of course, etymologically European. Similarly, the polysemous conflation of the country “China” and the ceramic “china” indicate none other than Europe’s continuous fascination about ancient Chinese art, whereas “The Middle Kingdom”—how the Chinese themselves call their country— is just as self-centric if not more so. A more direct example in the colonial context would be Hong Kong, where every British governor that ruled the city “bestows” their names to many of its main streets. As a mainland Chinese person, I could not help but feel this sense of (post-?)colonial displacement when I took the buses around Hong Kong for the first time: “Austin Road, Chatham Road, now we are approaching Salisbury Road!”

However, what post-colonialism in the context of linguistics is most concerned about is the transformation of the act of naming from a form of designation into a form of addressing, or calling, when it is used against subjects, namely human beings rather than physical objects or environments. That is, the power dynamics inherent in the act of addressing or calling. To name an individual is also to know him/her and to have control over him/her, such is the “epistemic violence” Spivak Gayatri is talking about when she addresses the existential dilemma of the subaltern. Indeed, when we think about the acting of naming used upon another individual, the image that comes to mind is that of parents naming their baby. The baby in its situation cannot resist such an action because it is new, speechless and powerless, both physically and socially. But in turn, this situation also clarifies for us that naming, when used upon another individual, always involves an infantilisation of the Other, a denial of his/her agency by assumption. Therefore, embedded in the core of any type of authoritarian control is a paternalistic attitude, and colonialism is an extremely malicious manifestation of both. Franz Fanon, in his essay “The Negro and Language”, provides an analysis of the biosemiotic nature of colonial naming, in which the black man acquires a layer of “whiteness” in his bestowed name. To use Althusser’s term, the subaltern almost has no way to resist such “radicalizing interpellation” because his very existence was triggered by this connectivity with the white Other. Therefore, in the British colonies, even though it was the colonisers that initiated this naming practice of bestowment in the name of spreading “civilization”, very quickly the colonised natives would be eager to wear such “white masks” and develop vested interests in the symbolic capitals their English names carried. To put it bluntly, if you don’t want to sound like that evil Fu Manchu, you’d better find yourself a more attractive name like Charlie Chan.

However, as many supposedly “progressive” Western scholars would quickly point out, these oppressive practices have changed significantly since the end of colonialism, and yet they are often oblivious of the rigid postcolonial politics that has emerged in their supposedly multicultural societies. Following the civil rights movements in the 1960s, the West underwent many important waves of political emancipation, of women, of racial minorities, of LGBT people and etc. Embedded in these social struggles is essentially a decentring force—a leftist, egalitarian tendency striving for a dreamed equality. Indeed, Western identity politics is keen to overturn the shame that the dominant Western patriarchy used to inject into all forms of subaltern others, and its mechanism has revolved around its opposite form, pride: to be proud of your name, to be proud of your vagina, to be proud of your skin colour, to be proud of your sissy-ness and butch-ness! While in the past English missionaries in Hong Kong gave their students English names so that they themselves could be spared the efforts to learn the perceived “ching-chong-ching” of the twist of the tongue, now the new political correctness is for them to learn our names (but only to the degree that they themselves feel should be enough for us), and tell us “by the way, you should be proud of your Chinese names”. Apart from being forced to reveal my “real name” by new acquaintances all the time, even my closest friends would sincerely warn me not to put my name as “Flair Donglai Shi” on my CV or my publications: “Donglai Shi” is much better, because it shows my honesty and authenticity and my being proud of who I am. Indeed, who am I? Or perhaps more precisely, who gets to tell me who I am or what I should be? Should I be proud of my Chineseness if there is such a thing that is Chineseness? Or should I be proud of “being” anything? Many postmodern theorists like Jacques Derrida would of course see through the persistence of reductive binarism in such affective compulsion to be proud and argue that any given category is hegemonic. Spivak would similarly observe the forever voiceless position of the subaltern: shame or pride, he/she is still being told what to do, how to do, and how to feel about doing it. Having appropriated the moral urgency of postcolonial concerns, the superficial political correctness of Western multiculturalism today has not changed much of its Eurocentric foundation and yet continues to constrain the agency of the Other (the coloured, the foreign, and the outsider) to speak for themselves.

Ironically, unless it reverts to a kind of narrow-minded nationalism, this pretentious Western ethos of egalitarian cosmopolitanism will not any time soon be fashionable in a rapidly modernising country like China, especially considering the deep sociopsychological scars left behind by the country’s communist past. Therefore, while the West’s efforts to rid its Orientalism remain superficial and rigid and call for further updates and reflections, many Chinese people will remain romantically, or in some cases even fanatically, Occidentalist. That is to say, the English mania will not stop, foreign universities are going to earn more Chinese money, and more and more fashionable English names are going to appear on the business cards of Chinese employees for the ever-expanding multinational corporations in China. One does feel some kind of resignation in the face of such seemingly unstoppable trend, but it also depends on how we read such Occidentalism. Do we see it as Chinese people’s loss of agency in their craving for Western “bestowment” or can we actually view it as their active seeking of a global membership? James Ferguson, in his essay “Of Mimicry and Membership”, vouches for the latter interpretation while addressing a different context: according to him, the Africans dancing in European clubs in Nigeria are not practicing some kind of self-orientalising subordination; instead, many of them are shedding the burden of being African, which has been imposed upon them by the essentialist rhetoric of authenticity, and enjoying their freedom in opting for an alternative way to live their lives. More importantly, we need to be clear that while this “alternative” is often inspired by Western symbols of consumption and can seem like a strong desire to “be Western”, it remains in essence an act of imagination firmly rooted in the immediate reality of non-Western locations. More often than not, the encounter with the West is not the end goal, and if it is realised at all, the imagination about the alternative can crumble, exactly because such encounters involve not only the ephemeral happiness brought by consumption of Western goods but also the inevitable confrontation with racism and Eurocentric cultural hegemony, packaged in either politically correct or incorrect ways. Faced with an ever-diversified array of Eurocentric niceties, it again falls on those of us who do not easily fit in to see through the epistemic violence underneath and negotiate for that limited space of agency and dignity. Indeed, if I could have another chance to talk to my supervisor’s friend in a more equal setting, I would (perhaps proudly) say: what I have chosen by and for myself is not Donglai Shi, but Flair, and please don’t tell me to be proud of either.

(A previous version of this article was published by the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China on their website in 2015. As I was revising this article, I was still very frustrated by the he/she binaries of conventional English. But at least they can serve as good reminders for the native speakers of the language that they surely need to be more self-critical and self-reflective about English’s glorious conventions, right?)

Flair is a DPhil Candidate in English at Oxford University.

Music’s Role at the Frontline of Liberation Struggles

By Ben Jacob.

We rarely consider sound as a fundamental medium of anticolonial liberation. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire suggests that liberation, as the human demand for full material, cultural and social autonomy, is achieved through “the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it”. In articulating this demand, music shares both the imaginative element of rhetoric and the embodied nature of action, grounded within the movement of human bodies to produce sound and rouse other human bodies to movement.

Song has a deep association with freedom, from the voodoo songs of the Caribbean plantation to the hymns of the Hebrews in Babylon. How far does this spiritual connection to freedom reflect a real role for music as a tool in liberation struggles in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Human soundmaking is universal, and no time or place is without some form of music. The story of music’s role in liberation could be told through countless struggles in which it played a defining role. For today, however, the experience of musicians in apartheid-era South Africa and postcolonial Jamaica, making demands for liberation from entangled forms of colonial and neo-colonial oppression despite severe material and social constraints, has much to tell us. The tactics they employed are testimony to the pragmatic potential offered by song as a means of liberation in the face of rising hate.

The political potential of music is embedded in the forms by which it is disseminated. During the apartheid years, the Afrikaner government used the South African Broadcasting Corporation to control the cultural consumption of its population according to the policy of separate development. Radio Bantu, the wing of the SABC designed for black audiences, was forced to select content in accordance with state ideology, resulting in the suppression of directly political music. However, the transience of the aural medium meant that identifying subversive messages in radio content was harder for censors than in print media, where journalists would routinely be forced to pull stories on the eve of publication. Musicians employed word play to evade censors, with Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s ‘Winnie Mandela’ achieving air-play under the title ‘Winning My Dear Love’, while Lucky Dube’s ‘Slave’ simply substituted the line ‘liquor slave’ in place of ‘legal slave’. Gradually, words with seemingly little subversive content took on political meanings through their treatment. ‘Senzeni Na?’, a folk song sung at both demonstrations and funerals during the anti-apartheid struggle, consists largely of the single line ‘what have we done?’ repeated over and over. Yet through this repetition, in the words of musician Sibongule Khumalo, the song had an effect “like hammering somebody … you have no other option but to stand up and go and fight.” The direct interaction shared between the musician and listener allows music to convey messages in such a way to bypass barriers to less innocuous seeming messages.

How can music, as a medium of implicit meanings, challenge imposed social boundaries? Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1974 instrumental track Mannenberg encapsulates this struggle, drawing on an array of transnational influences to produce a contemporary folk music rooted in its immediate context. In the 1980s, at the climax of the antiapartheid struggle, Mannenberg took on a position as South Africa’s ‘unofficial national anthem’. Drawing on church organ music, the marabi music of the townships, jazz, blues and freedom hymns, Ibrahim’s tune foregrounded African material within a distillation of musical influences, reflecting wordlessly the growing Black Consciousness movement. In Ibrahim’s music, there is no separate development; the colonial dichotomy of the modern and the traditional is null and void. Musical elements from the African community comingle with the jazz aesthetic embraced by those who had seen shame in folk styles, all subordinated to an infectious groove. Serving, in Ibrahim’s words, as “an affirmation that our culture is valid”, Mannenberg both asserted a message of defiance to the apartheid system, and, as a popular dance hit, set bodies in motion dancing to its beat.

Mannenberg’s story is also a reminder that music is a situated act. Meaning emerges at the site of engagement, not simply the act of composition. As Steve Biko wrote of the radical potential of soul music, “when soul struck it immediately caught on and set hundreds of millions of black bodies in gyration throughout the world, people reading in soul the real meaning – the defiant message ‘say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud.” The radical potential of Mannenberg was not only contained in the notes themselves, but also in the ways in which the song was presented and performed at protests through the 1980s. Performance had long been acknowledged as a potential threat to the cultural apparatus of apartheid, with police shutting down Cape Town’s racially integrated jazz nightclubs in the aftermath of Sharpeville. From around 1982, Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, saxophonists on the original recording of Mannenberg, boldly set out to use performance to amplify the impact of the song. Performing the song at demonstrations, they would encourage demonstrators to get up on stage and join in, while Jansen urged the crowd to ‘rise up’ and ‘be proud of our own stuff’. By repeatedly using the song at rallies and concerts dedicated to the freedom struggle, Mannenberg was converted into a vehicle of political mobilisation at the point of performance. 

This use of performance to mobilize music’s political content was a tactic borrowed from the dark years of the 1970s, when live sets would be used to disseminate otherwise lost meanings. In a love ballad, at the mention of the word ‘power’, a singer’s fist would be raised, and met with a chorus of amandla eyethu! (power is ours). This dialogic exchange between audience and singer, cemented through dance, is a direct contrast to the controlled mastery of the polemical speech. In this manner, performances acted as much as social events as aural ones, rallying a group of people towards communal objectives. This function was shared across the liberation struggle in southern Africa and beyond, from the dansi clubs of Tanzania which held covert political meetings, to the South African Communist Party’s fundraising concerts. Nowhere was this better encapsulated than in Harare on the eve of Zimbabwean independence. At the last minute, and at the personal cost of thousands of dollars for lighting and sound equipment, Bob Marley flew himself and his band out to the capital to headline the independence celebrations. By this point, Marley’s Survival was the bestselling foreign album in Zimbabwe, and the reggae tradition within which he stood was recognised worldwide as an anticolonial music aimed at liberation. The journey of Jamaican music in the 40 years leading up to Marley’s seminal concert has much to tell us of the potential for musical production in the face of oppression.

In the 1940s, rapid urbanisation led to the emergence of sound systems for community dance sessions in Kingston’s ghettos. Cheaper than live bands, these truck-mounted 300-watt plus amplifier systems initially played popular American styles, forcing operators to make either frequent trips to the US or special requests to record dealers in order to maintain a successful system. Intense – and often violent – competition between sound systems led operators to innovate further and, frustrated by relying on the release cycle of American record labels, Coxsone Dodd founded his own studio and label, Studio One. Others soon followed suit, and before long an abundant supply of records were being produced in two-track recording rooms in record and electronic equipment stores across Kingston. Local producers combined American styles with Jamaican mento, evolving into ska, rocksteady and, by the late 1960s, reggae. Bass culture was born of this unique set of circumstances, producing a uniquely Jamaican musical idiom in which production was mediated through local studios and produced and distributed by Jamaican-owned labels. 

This music, with its undiluted message, had an intensely political edge from the local to the transnational level. Its birthplace in the ghetto of western Kingston was a hub of Rastafari thought, resulting in a series of convergences, from the ubiquity of Rastafari drumming patterns to a shared culture of resistance to colonialism, imperialism and racism. Through the influence of Garveyist pan-Africanism, reggae espoused a politics that was transnational in scope, taking aim at the Babylon system in both its local and global manifestations. Between 1967 and 1971, protest against police brutality and the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was fomented through music, leading to the banning of radio and television. As a result, protest songs became sound system hits, which subsequently became a site of conflict between youth and the police. It was this interlinked politics, carried out on the level of rhythm, performance and distribution, that brought Bob Marley to the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, both in the form of cassettes consumed by ZANU guerrillas in the bush and in performance in 1980. That year remained the high water mark for the political function of reggae music, with deregulation following Edward Seaga’s election combining with increased production costs to break the dominance of local record companies. However, its emergence and twentieth-century significance stands as a testament to the successful forging of links between culture and the liberation struggle in the sphere of music.

The story of Jamaican music from WWII to 1980 is a testament to the ability of musicians to innovatively produce and distribute their music undiluted by the material demands of the music industry. The reality of music production and distribution within an asymmetrical global music industry complicates any easy transnational musical affiliations. Today, three American-based transnational corporations command over 70% of the global recording market, sustaining their control through a neo-colonial approach to peripheral musical cultures, which are mined for profits. These distributive patterns sustain western companies through the extraction of capital from commodities in the global south. The commodification of global music towards an internationally marketable product cleaves medium from message to remove political specificities and leads directly to uneven technological development. Koffi Olomide, the Congolese soukous superstar, couldn’t even record a cassette in 1980s Kinshasha, the home of soukous, while power relationships in South African studios today are drawn along racial lines, with black musicians’ music mediated through largely Afrikaner sound engineers.  

Despite this, music continues to navigate these dynamics, serving as a crucial tool in the face of oppression in 2019. Algeria’s ongoing protests continue the practices set out in Jamaica and South Africa, with music at the heart of activism. When protestors began taking to the streets to demand the departure of President Bouteflika, they did so singing ‘La Casa del Mouradia’, a song composed the year before by supporters of USM Algiers and sung by the ultras on the terraces. Like the Jamaican youth of the late sixties who took to the soundsystems in the ghettos to protest police brutality, Algeria’s musical challenge to the FLN emerged within the subculture of the ultras, before forcing its way onto the streets. The song itself, combining a range of both national and transnational cultural influences, mirrors the cross-cultural exchanges led by South African musicians under Apartheid. Meanwhile, the absorption of the chant, alongside others composed by the supporters group Ouled el-Bahdja, reflects the creation of a popular folk music from the grassroots, similar to the realization of Mannenberg’s radical potential through performance at demonstrations. Echoing around the streets of Algiers, the sound of thousands of protesters chanting ‘La Casa del Mouradia’ is a testament to music’s continuing role in fighting entangled forms of oppression, from the struggles of the twentieth century to today.

Paolo Freire coined the phrase ‘culture of silence’ to describe the denial of a voice to the oppressed through the suppression of “free and creative consciousness”. Music is not immune to this suppression – indeed a primary function of the global music industry towards liberatory music has been to deprive it of its active political content. However, cultures of noise exist both within the industry and at the grassroots that threaten this silence by encouraging dialogic engagement between producer and listener, whether in dance or singing along, through a participatory politics that incessantly incites movement. From Kingston to Kinshasa, via Cape Town, Algiers, and sites of struggle all over the world, music is interwoven with the liberation struggle. While a song cannot bring down a wall alone, in the journey traced here from song to performance to transmission, music is a constant reminder of Rex Nettleford’s maxim, that “the creative mind is free from the vilest oppressor”. Human soundmaking has a unique capacity to melt boundaries within the mind and the body. Used to its full potential, this melting can become a torrent, rising above walls and breaching borders. We silence our conceptions of struggle at our peril.


Soukous – Congolese music genre that emerged out of Congolese rumba in the 1960s, notable for its high tempo and extended dance sequences. 

Dansi – Tanzanian music genre, originating in the 1930s in Dar es Salaam. In the years leading up to independence, dansi clubs appeared across major cities. Dansi bands became institutions in the post-independence years, with rotating members playing club nights 7 days a week and rival bands competing for each others’ fan base.

Marabi – Township music from South Africa, emerging in the shebeens (illicit bars) of the slums, where marabi music would be used to draw in customers. Blending American jazz and blues structures with African melodies, marabi used memorable patterns to allow dancers to easily pick up the feel of a song. Associated with illegality and the impoverished working class, marabi was initially shunned in popular culture as a corrupting influence, but was heavily drawn on by successive generations of black musicians in South Africa.

Artwork by Stephan Humphrey-Gaskin.

A City Divided

By Zoë Johnson and Paula von Krosigk.

The city of Oxford is a city divided. Wandering through the alleys of this ‘city of dreaming spires’ one cannot help but notice that, despite its beauty, the city’s streetscapes are dominated by boundaries — high stone walls, unsurpassable by those who do not hold University identification. These walls are a physical manifestation of longstanding discursive and socio-economic divides that define the relationship between the city and the university that dominates it.

As urbanists, we find it difficult not to notice how inequalities in Oxford are encoded in the public sphere, and how architecture becomes a medium through which power can be communicated and uncritically accepted (Lamb, 2014). We — students from the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, both newcomers to this divided city — were brought together by a desire to engage across the boundaries that dominate our experiences of urban space and sociality in Oxford. We were trying to make sense of the stark socio-economic divides around us, in a city so blatantly marked by both opulence and impoverishment.

Within the walls of our respective institutions, we discuss issues of urban inequality, but Oxford – the city where we reside – remains remarkably absent from these conversations. Students from around the globe flock to Oxford to ostensibly ‘live’ here for a few years, but their experiences of the city are very often distinct from those of most locals. Local residents remain largely excluded from the ‘magical’ gardens and ‘magnificent’ libraries cloistered within colleges and university buildings.

We wondered what would it look like to embody some of the values of sustainable urbanism – which we spend so much of our time thinking about in reference to cities elsewhere – on a local scale. In particular we were interested in issues of participation and community building, and the provision and equitable use of public space. As new and temporary residents, what role can we play in disrupting the town-gown divide? Passionate about placemaking, a strategy for collectively reimagining and reinventing public spaces through small interventions, we began thinking through how this concept could be used by students in Oxford. In order to bridge the divide, however, it became necessary to define it.

We see the ‘town-gown divide’ as encompassing many layers and facets of power in its discursive and material manifestations. In Oxford, the issues of soaring rents, astronomical housing prices, and poor living conditions are widely discussed; as are the problems associated with university ranking systems and the embeddedness of classism and racism in UK educational institutions. These issues are not always explored in a manner that captures the dynamic interrelations between them, yet the town-gown divide does just that: it provides an analytical lens through which such connections can be productively examined. It is only with an appreciation of the complex discourse and power relations entrenched within, and sustained by the University, that we can begin to understand the mechanisms through which the University maintains its power and perpetuates inequality.

In Oxford, colleges dominate the land market. A recent investigation by The Guardian found that Oxbridge colleges collectively own more land than the Church of England, with a portfolio of properties across the UK worth £3.5 billion (The Guardian, 2018). While there is no public record of the exact amount of land owned by Oxford colleges, the strength of their influence on the local housing market is nonetheless evident.

The University and its colleges own dozens of unoccupied buildings around the city. One such building was the former Volkswagen garage, owned by Wadham College, which for two months in 2017 was lived in by squatters, driven by their desperation for shelter and desire to draw attention to the extreme inequalities in the city. (“People need homes, empty spaces need people,” proclaimed an enormous banner hung in front of the building at the time.) Though on its website the college claims to be “profoundly sympathetic towards the homeless in Oxford,” (Wadham College, 2017), it nevertheless proceeded to demolish the temporary shelter in the middle of winter the same year. Wadham have started developing 135 students flats on the Iffley Road site, which will not include space for local community members or social housing units (BBC, 2017).

The development of the Wolvercote Paper Mill site is yet another example of the University’s power and impact on Oxford’s housing market. In 2016, different developers – including Homes for Oxford, an alliance of community-led housing groups – bid to developing 190 new housing units on the site. Homes for Oxford’s proposal – which had wide community support (OCF, 2016) – was for a community land trust composed of residents, local villagers, and professional experts to manage the housing project. This would have created a much-needed community-led alternative housing model within Oxford’s over-inflated market. Yet the University rejected the credible bid, instead awarding the project to the highest bidder, a private developer called CALA, whose plan for the site does not come close to matching the social benefits which a community land trust could have delivered (CALA, 2019).

As Oxford geography professor Danny Dorling suggested in The Oxford Magazine, it is high time that the University try to understand the extent to which it has contributed to making Oxford “the most unaffordable [city] to live in the UK, having the tightest of greenbelts, having one of the most divided school systems in Europe, and suffering from a health divide between Oxford’s neighbourhoods that has grown so widely in recent decades,” (Dorling, 2018). The development on the Wolvercote Paper Mill site is one example of how the University’s profit-motivation aggravates the housing market, making Oxford unaffordable for its own inhabitants.

Discourses around knowledge production legitimate power dynamics which enable the University’s control over the city and its housing market. According to its Strategic
Plan 2018-23, the University of Oxford’s vision is to act in ways which “benefit society on a local, regional, national and global scale,” (University of Oxford, 2018). By constructing an image of themselves as the benevolent creators of knowledge which can be used for ‘social good,’ the University effectively attempts to de-politicise the process of knowledge production. Furthermore, by constructing the academy as the singular source of knowledge, the institution is afforded authority over those who remain outside of it. And yet, knowledge production is anything but apolitical, and universities – especially in their current profit-motivated and ‘meritocratic’ manifestation – are far from benevolent.

The deep entanglements of knowledge and power have been vastly studied and theorised. Western academia for instance, valorises specific kinds of knowledge, and implicitly devalues non-academic, and non-Western epistemologies and ways of thinking. These academic discourses reify and perpetuate existing power relations. For
example, the ‘Facts and Figures’ page on the University of Oxford’s website boasts the institution’s first place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) (University of Oxford, 2019). The titles of ‘Best’ and ‘Oldest in the English-Speaking World’, serve to bolster the University’s prestige, contributing to its construction as
a symbol of success and icon of elite academia. This is in turn used to attract students from all over the world, to justify the extortionate fees, and perpetuates the ‘town-gown divide’.

Ranking systems create competition between universities – and, in turn, the cities and countries where they are located – which has material consequences for the institutions and the people within and around them. Money is funnelled to top ranked universities whose students, despite the so-called ‘meritocratic’ application process, tend to be the children of the well-off. In this way, social inequality and stratification within university systems is exacerbated. Furthermore, symbols of the racial and colonial violence that was – and in many ways still is – instrumental to the (re)production of this institution serve to make those who do not fit the model of white, cisgender male feel as if they do not belong. These discourses have material consequences for people living in Oxford, particularly the city’s most marginalised, because they justify the immense accumulation of wealth and power by the University of Oxford and its collegiate, even when it comes at the detriment of the
city and its inhabitants.

But what does it really mean to be the ‘Best in the World’? The THE ranking system has been criticised for its English language, regional, and hard-science biases (European University Association, 2011). These biases reinforce top universities’ commitment to maintaining Western onto-epistemological and economic supremacy and sustaining narratives that positions white, cisgender males as superior, rational, autonomous (the proper subjects of knowledge), and the radicalised gendered others as inferior, irrational, affectable (the objects of knowledge) (Stein & de Oliveira Andreotti, 2017). We also see this reflected in mainstream urban theory, which usually frames cities in the Global North as the model, and cities in the Global South as areas in need of improvement (Roy, 2009). The fact that many of the discussions about urbanity that take place in Oxford concern places outside, rather than the ways in which such issues are manifested in our own city, is another case in point.

“We have a responsibility to engage beyond the boundaries of the University and to remember our membership to a larger urban community.”

As students overwhelmed by the experience of living in a new place, the intense course load, and the abundance of opportunities to engage within university spaces, it is easy to forget that we are living parallel to a community who was here before we arrived and who will be here long after we leave. Perhaps as temporary residents, it is not our place to say what this city needs; however, as members of the educational institutions housed here, which play a pivotal role in the (re)production of inequalities in this divided city, we do have a responsibility to engage beyond the boundaries of the University and to remember our membership to a larger urban community.

Placemaking is one tool which we have found useful in approaching this challenge, as students with a desire to address the ‘town-gown divide.’ Placemaking has to do with creating a sense of place in public spaces. As Erin Toolis, a scholar at UC Santa Cruz explains, placemaking is done through facilitating opportunities for dialogue, revealing the ways in which public space is socially constructed, recovering plural histories, and raising important social issues (Toolis, 2017). Placemaking extends learning beyond the realm of formal education, transforming public places into spaces of everyday learning, and seeking to venerate all community members as both teachers and students.

Placemaking events — such as the Think Micro project in Izmir, Turkey which built small floating parks, allowing people to interact with their waterfront in new ways, the Mmofra Place project in Accra, Ghana which saw the transformation of a two-acre plot of underutilised green space into a space for play, or Park(ing) Day, an annual urban festival during which parking spots in cities around the world are transformed into temporary parklets — have served to strengthen the connections between people and the cities they share (Project for Public Spaces, 2018).

Placemaking is both hands-on approach and an overarching idea, meaning that it can extend beyond the organisation of specific projects and be adopted as a state of mind, enacted in the way that we inhabit and move through public spaces. For students, this means remaining conscious of our place within the community, taking opportunities to engage with and learn from residents beyond the University’s walls, and advocating for a more just and equitable system of land management by the University and its colleges. These ideas can be enacted through everyday actions – for example talking to a stranger, getting to know your neighbours, installing a little free library or a community message board on your street – or through participation in initiatives such as Open House on Little Clarendon Street.

Open House’s interactive exhibition on housing and homelessness and radical housing library are free and open to anyone, and their public living room provides a unique opportunity for people from all walks of life to hang out together. Open House has a lineup of great events which creates space for explorations of community-led collaborative approaches to tackling housing and homelessness which engage with rough sleepers, students, experts, activists, and everyone else (Open House Oxford, 2018).

While placemaking alone is not sufficient for overcoming the vast structural inequalities Oxford faces, it provides an opportunity to disrupt discourses which function to exclude the bodies and histories of some community members. Placemaking can serve as a reminder that the physical structures and social relations of public space are not static, natural, or eternal but are in fact dynamic, unfinished, and transformable. Placemaking might allow for re-imagining a more equitable Oxford, shining light through the stone walls that before seemed so impervious.

Zoë is MPhil student in Development Studies at the University of Oxford Department of International Development. Paula is a BSc student in urban and regional planning at the Technical University of Berlin. She studied at Oxford Brookes University for two semesters through Erasmus.

Artwork by Violetta Suvini.

Laughing in Difference: Revisiting Charlie Hebdo

By Brian Klug.

“How can people live together in difference?” asked Stuart Hall, the late cultural theorist. Hall, who was born in Jamaica but lived in the UK all his adult life, was well-versed in the diversity about which he wrote. He was a distinguished academic, but when he posed this question, he was not setting an exam paper: he was throwing down the gauntlet to post-colonial Britain and Europe.

In a rapidly globalising and transnational world where humanity, in all its variety, is discarding and redefining old labels, or combining them in novel ways, the question encompasses more than culture and ethnicity. Other categories of human identity, such as gender, are changing, dissolving, evolving. In such a world, no political question is more crucial than the one that Hall asked. In light of post-colonial Europe and more specifically a moment that stirred the dust of the French past – the Charlie Hebdo affair – it is important to question, what does it signify about political belonging in a post-colonial European state?

On Sunday 11th January 2015, millions of French people took to the streets in towns and cities across France, protesting the horrific attack four days earlier on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They bonded around the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’. The slogan could also have been ‘La France est Charlie’, for the sense of their protest was this: France stands for free speech, including uncomfortable humour, like the cartoons mocking (the prophet) Muhammad which led to the attack in Paris. The mass protest implied a simple binary: either you identify with Charlie or you are not truly French.

Humour was used as a touchstone. But humour is not that simple nor that innocent. As a general rule, the deeper your sense of belonging to a place, the more you can afford to parody others openly and, in turn, be parodied by them. Which is why it is telling that, on the whole, the cartoons poking fun at the prophet Muhammad churned out by Charlie Hebdo in issue after issue did not tickle the fancy of France’s North African Arab population, most of whom are Muslim.

French Muslims are, of course, diverse. This includes the ways in which individuals see their relationship to Islam. However, you do not have to be a believer (let alone devout) to fail to see the joke or to appreciate the satire when the Prophet is depicted naked in pornographic poses. It can be enough if you (or your antecedents) are from Algeria or one of the other former French colonies in the Maghreb, especially if you live on the margins of society, in les banlieues: the poorer suburbs around Paris and other major cities. From this vantage point, each and every one of Charlie’s pointed caricatures is yet another dagger aimed directly at your collective heart by an establishment from which you are effectively excluded; which is hardly amusing.

It might seem counter-intuitive to refer to Charlie as part of the French establishment, as the magazine fires salvos at every respectable target it can find. But, ironically, this is precisely the source of its status. Charlie is the unofficial jester at the Republican court. It is France’s freelance Shakespearian Fool, self-appointed to perform the role of lampooning the powerful and mocking the superstitious. Its origins lie in a Republican tradition, one that looks back to the eighteenth-century genesis of this Enlightenment state with its contempt for all things royal and clerical. Whether Charlie’s relentless ridicule of Islam is true to that tradition or, on the contrary, a betrayal of its roots — a betrayal of the noble role of satire — is, however, a moot point. The magazine has its defenders and detractors. The former praise Charlie for its courage: for taking risks and breaking taboos. But the question of whether it plays the part of republican hero or street bully depends on whom it chooses to pillory or taunt. The privileged? Or the disadvantaged? Those on the margins? Or the group to whom the state basically belongs?

Into this divided France the catchphrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ fell like an axe, cutting even deeper into French society – into the very crack or fissure to which Charlie itself has made a modest contribution with its caricatures of Muhammad calculated to ‘offend’. In the public debate over Charlie (and over free speech in general), the word ‘offend’ has proven to be controversial, having been stretched so thin that it covers almost any reaction that could be described as negative, regardless of the nature of the provocation or the impact it has on the person ‘offended’. But there is a world of difference between, say, affronting church-goers by using an obscenity, and, say, humiliating a group that is already demeaned, accentuating their deep sense of alienation from the nation. Lumping together cases as different as these under the rubric of ‘offend’ muddies the waters. For one thing, it treats all negative reactions as equal when they are not. For another, it tends to reduce them all to the lowest common denominator; for ‘offend’ is, after all, a rather mild term. Vicars are offended in Victorian novels (especially at teatime). But they belong, securely; they feel they belong in the company of the people at whose words they take offence. A deep sense of alienation is the antithesis of a deep sense of belonging. The give-and-take of the game of ‘offend’ only makes sense among people who, deep down, know they belong on the playing field: people who feel at home. On the periphery, le mot is hardly juste.

On the periphery, people may feel they do not belong, not in the full or deep sense of the word: the sense in which you feel that the country belongs to you. For those who not only were not Charlie but who felt nullified by Charlie, the slogan was a message sent from the centre to the periphery: “If you want to be one of us, identify with Charlie.” Adopting the slogan, France closed ranks; and the protests on 11 January 2015 were a massive mise en abyme, a hall of mirrors in which the French self was reflected to infinity. This was fraternité with a vengeance: fraternité for some (Us), hostilité for others (Them).

What is the way forward? How might the French people pick up Stuart Hall’s gauntlet and live together in difference? The answer begins with recognising that difference is not mere difference: it is the visible trace of a terrible history. The first lesson in political belonging in any post-colonial European state (whether France, Britain, or any other) is this: there cannot be a future together without reckoning with the past. 

This is not necessarily the past that Europe imagines for itself. Europeans are in the habit of thinking that for centuries they have been in the vanguard of the human race, showing the way forward to a backward and wayward world. France’s ‘civilising mission’ is well known, but every European state that planted its feet on the soil (and the neck) of other countries has harboured a similar idea of itself. Each has groaned, to a greater or lesser extent, under the ‘white man’s burden’: the burden of imposing rule on other people in their own lands for their own good, the burden of extracting their minerals and other resources (including human) for the well-being of the native population; in short, the incredible burden of being obliged to conquer, subdue and exploit for the sake of the advancement of humanity as a whole: to civilise. And even if Europe today modestly plays down the civilising role it has played in the world, humanity, so deeply in Europe’s debt, has not forgotten. Perhaps, though, it remembers it differently.

Habits of thinking die hard, as do structures of unequal power. It would be nice to think that the past is passé and we are free to plan the European future from scratch. But this is a dangerous illusion. The past is too recent not to be present. Moreover, it is not past: it has merely metamorphosed, adapting itself to changing circumstances. Since the end of the Second World War, denizens of former colonies of European states have emigrated to the former metropole, where they have enjoyed a similar status to the status they once had in their countries of origin under imperial rule. Take, for example, those French Muslims of North African extraction who, as Paul Silverstein has put it, “feel excluded from a nation whose citizenship they nominally hold”. They experience their lives in France “as a post-colonial continuation of … colonial forms of exclusion and violence”. The colonial periphery has not disappeared: it has merely changed location, moving to the European continent from its offshore sites in Africa and Asia. It is the then in the now.

So, when we broach Europe’s future, we begin not in the present but in the present-past. This is the tense of our enquiry. If we ignore the past and the painful task of reckoning with it, then the question ‘How can people live together in difference?’ ceases to be political and becomes merely sentimental. In the present-past, this question is not only about bridging differences of culture, it is also about overcoming the disparity in status written into the script of colonial history. In a way, ‘Je suis Charlie’ was a collective denial of the past – and therefore of the present.

In short, reckoning with the past is the necessary condition for living together in difference. Laughing together too.

Brian is a Senior research fellow and lecturer in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford.

Artwork by Den de Barros.