Collaboration Thinking: Introductory Framework

An introduction by way of trying to answer the question: Why did I organize a working group on collaborations, co-operatives, coalition-building?

When I wrote the proposal for this working group last spring I was sitting in an apartment in Zagreb, I had just worked 7 hours in the Croatian film association archive (essentially the state archive) with a Macedonian colleague who was helping me with translations of the “Anti-Film Debates” that happened in Zagreb in the early 1960s. At that time, she was telling me, Macedonia still did not have a government. It had fallen in December under the weight of Albanian ethno-nationalist opposition forces, or that is what I could understand of the complicated story that unfolded in her description of the situation. The day prior she and I had travelled to Ljubljana on the train passing through heavily armed check points along the border. On the way into Slovenia—the Schengen Zone—my friend was questioned. On the way out of the Zone, back into Croatia, I was. We sat and drank a beer together the following evening, back in Zagreb, after another long day in the archive. I wrote a proposal for “Collaborations, Co-operatives, Coalition-building,” and she and I talked about what those words could mean in relation the ideas of the Anti-Film Debates that we were working with in the archive; and what they could mean under the contemporary conditions of the Balkan states (in each state, across the states, in relation to the EU, and in relation to anywhere/everywhere else).

The three keywords—collaboration, co-operative, coalition-building—structure my dissertation research (what I was doing in Croatia and Slovenia). The project is broadly an historical examination of the transnational movement of experimental film through the Cold War period in Europe (West and East) and the United States. So I decided maybe they could structure a working group as well. At the time I wrote the proposal for the Critical Theory working group, in April/May, I had only been in the US for about a month total since the trump regime had taken power, and it was only just starting to dawn on me how startlingly relevant all of my work was actually becoming. I was realizing that the three words that structured my guiding research questions were keywords I needed to talk about more with other scholars and colleagues and comrades and friends; and keywords that we could maybe all use—those of us who generally identify with a “Left”—to think about together.


Last week UC Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory hosted a conference entitled “What Now? Political Thought at a Moment of Crisis.” In the Thursday afternoon panel Judith Butler gave a paper challenging us to operate in “critique” and “crisis” simultaneously, or that is how I understood it. I liked that idea and thought it a good enough articulation to open this working group with. For me, the keywords collaboration/collaborative; co-operative/cooperation; and coalition/-building are structuring mechanisms, at least in part, for how one strategically responds to crises. With that in mind, I want to juxtapose Butler’s provocation with some other words, which are the title of an article BLM co-founder Alica Garza wrote just after inauguration day and the Women’s March and have been echoing in my head ever since: “Our cynicism will not build a movement. Collaboration will.” But how do we conceive of collaboration? I thought then and I still wonder now.

Women's March DC 21Jan 2017
Mario Tama/Getty Images


At the time this text is being written, the UC Berkeley administration is financially supporting security for racist and misogynist right-wing mouthpieces of the US authoritarian regime (on Thursday, September 14th Ben Shapiro will speak in Zellerbach Hall on the campus, effectively shutting down the entire Sproul Plaza—you know, that place where the administration’s beloved Free Speech Movement began—and south campus, as well as impacting classes in all buildings surrounding Zellerbach Hall; see the campus securities measures maps and email below) because, they tell us, they are bound by law to do so; on Tuesday, September 12th the Berkeley City Council approved use of chemical weapons against anyone wearing a face covering at a protest because, they tell us, it is for our own good. Our own “common good.” So. Given the militarization of the campus and the city, which we are facing in Berkeley tomorrow and in the coming weeks and months, I am thinking a lot right now about: how and when collaboration can happen; which forms of collaboration foster exclusion and which forms inclusion—are these the same forms?; and who do we imagine is collaborating with whom? The actions currently being taken by our academic and civic institutions here at Berkeley and in Berkeley, ostensibly in place to protect the “common good” of “the people,” bring to my mind the word Vichy—a collaboration from our collective fascist past that might make us stop and feel compelled to set some critical limits on that how and when of collaboration’s happening.

20170911_Campus Map_Impacted Buildings_Shapiro Event_vFINAL  Sept 14 Alternate Pedestrian Pathway Map

UCBerkeley campus email_13Sept 2017

UC Berkley campus-wide email notification plus attachments sent on Wednesday, September 13, 2017


These actions of the state set next to Butler’s response last Thursday to the question of violence and participation (to which Butler proposed “aggressive non-violence”) raise in my mind a series of questions posed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article, “Nonviolence as Compliance,” in the April 27, 2015 issue of The Atlantic (and I’m going to quote Coates at length):

Coates_Baltimore protest image

Jim Bourg / Reuters

Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?

The people now calling for nonviolence are not prepared to answer these questions. Many of them are charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray’s death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm. But there was no official appeal for calm when Gray was being arrested. There was no appeal for calm when Jerriel Lyles was assaulted. (“The blow was so heavy. My eyes swelled up. Blood was dripping down my nose and out my eye.”) There was no claim for nonviolence on behalf of Venus Green. (“Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up.”) There was no plea for peace on behalf of Starr Brown. (“They slammed me down on my face,” Brown added, her voice cracking. “The skin was gone on my face.”)

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.


So. With Butler and Garza and now Coates’ words on the table, I ask again: how do we conceive of collaboration? And to go a bit further and offer (an admittedly abrupt) segue into the space of our here and now of the BCNM Commons at UC Berkeley on Wednesday, September 13th: do we imagine this working group as a space of collaboration? And, if we do, a space of collaboration for whom? And with whom?




Megan Hoetger   |   September 13, 2017, 2:49pm   |   Berkeley, CA


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