What Dr. Steve Collis is ‘Undoing’ with Revolutions and Occupations

May 06, 2013

A public intellectual should “speak truth to power,” said famed Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said during the 1993 BBC Reith Lectures and later in his Representations of the Intellectual. Said argues that the work of the public intellectual ought to be the “exercise of critical and relatively independent spirit of analysis and judgment” even when enmeshed by the very systems power one seeks to dismantle (86). Twenty years later, amidst political movements like Idle No More, Occupy Vancouver, and Occupy Wall Street, Said’s words hold a particular resonance.

Publishing creatively and critically on social and political change, the English Department’s Dr. Steve Collis has been active in these recent movements through such works as his Dispatches from the Occupation (Talonbooks 2012) and his participation in the 2012 public workshop, “Tragedy of the Market: From Crisis to Commons” .

Discussing his role as a public intellectual, Collis says, “I think it’s important to be a public intellectual because I don’t think there’s a public…and the job is to voice a demand for a public and publicness and public conversation about [these] crucial issues that everyone faces.” He goes on to say that there is a present need to “instantiate and create that public on the spot with other people.”

The problem with ‘speaking truth to power,’ according to Collis, is “power doesn’t listen.” He explains: “power has evolved a way of letting truth be spoken in little corners and spaces and then working around that leaving it there on an island somewhere…and universities have evolved in that way you know they’re little islands where maybe where maybe some truth is being spoken but power looks at that truth and goes, ‘ok cool, so how can we market that?’ ”

Despite this evolution, Collis notes “a real hunger and desire by a large segment of the population for actual direct engagement in things political.” Social demonstrations like the European anti-austerity movement, Idle No More and Occupy have incited “more direct participation in our own self-governance,” he says. About the university, Collis is hopeful; he sees amongst “professors and graduate students, increasingly in the sciences…a sense of wanting to be engaged and participate in the struggle over and creation of publics.” Collis sees this engagement “driven by climate change and climate science and the current Harper governments resistance to that particular truth being spoken.”

In addition to participating in movements like Idle No More and Occupy Vancouver, Collis has two books out this year questioning the process of representing political and ideological revolution and occupation-as-resistance. To the Barricades (Talonbooks 2013) is a book of poetry moving “back and forth between historical and contemporary scenes of revolt from nineteenth-century Parisian street barricades to twenty-first century occupation and street marches” (Talonbooks). According to the publisher, the book is both an “elegy” to past figures and moments in social revolution and a “call for renewed struggle in the here and now.”

Launching in May 2013, The Red Album is a work of fiction stemming from Collis’ research findings of “anonymous anarchist poetry published out of Catalonia” in 1936‑1937. Taking on social and political upheaval—namely the Spanish Civil War and a later revolution unfolding in South America—the main character living in South America must visit Spain to deal with a great uncle’s remains which have been exhumed from a mass grave. The narrative breaks off when the main character’s hometown in South America experiences a revolution. As Collis explains, it is revealed “that maybe that author is fictional” and the story becomes an “undoing” of all these narrative strands."

With several allied calls for social change in Canada, Collis reflects upon his own participation in movements like Occupy and Idle No More: “I certainly see an increasing tendency across disciplines towards collaboration on social issues and social struggles in which we all step outside of our disciplines in order to engage in something […] I’ve been seeing more of that [….] and there’s a historical moment here with things like Occupy and with Idle No More happening and with the kind of moves the Harper government’s been making both with Indigenous traditional rights...also with the environment and climate.”

Where dominant narratives are concerned, Collis says, “[w]e unfortunately need to do a lot of undoing, culturally, socially, economically…because we’ve worked ourselves into a situation that is absolutely destructive and self-destructive to the entire planet; so there is a lot to be undone and taken apart. But we can’t do that without some sense of what else we would do.”

Indeed, the follow-up to “The Tragedy of the Market” workshop, “Thinking in Common: Ideas for Radical Change” (April 2013), was about what comes next. With academics, activists, and workers from a variety of backgrounds attending, the event showed a commitment to the formation of and engagement in ‘the public.’ On that note, Collis says he’s hopeful and interested in what appears to be a “resurgence of maybe Utopian kinds of thinking,” asking the crucial question of society: “how else can we organize ourselves and sustain ourselves and sustain everything else too?”

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