Friday, 11 April 2014

Commons sense: CDJ special supplement Occasionally my amateur interest in the history of the commons pokes through – for example while exploring the history of eating in public, questioning the present government’s attitude to public ownership, reflecting on the system of gebuurten developed in medieval European cities of Belgium and the Netherlands, or simply delighting in the history of neighbours. Perhaps we'll all be thinking and writing more on the topic, on the grounds that ‘It is almost a law of contemporary social life that the more commons are attacked, the more they are celebrated.’ This quote comes from an article in a special supplement on the commons, published by the good folk at Community development journal. Here's the blurb: Commons sense: new thinking about an old idea All articles permanently free to download Editors Mary McDermott, Tom O’Connell and Órla O’Donovan This Special Supplement aims to introduce the efflorescence of commons activism and thinking to people who are new to the old idea. In addition to celebrating how the commons can enrich our perceptions of the present and possible, the contributors caution us to look critically at contemporary discourses on the commons, recognizing how some actually reinforce capitalism, albeit with a human face. The articles demonstrate a high degree of reflexivity, along with clear and critical assessments by commoners themselves of their own projects. In articles focused on contemporary urban, water, knowledge and traditional music commons in contexts ranging from South Africa, Bolivia and Ireland, commoning right here, right now is considered. True to the spirit of the movement itself, many of the debates taking place between commoners with different ‘common senses’ are explored. The collection helped me appreciate how so many of the arguments and warnings about threats to the commons were offered by Ivan Illich years ago. It also gives us all a chance to reassess the relation between the commons and community development: could we have the latter without the former? As Maria Mies points out, reflecting on the village where she grew up, ‘no real community could exist without commons. All persons in the community were responsible to maintain and care for the commons, even children. This responsibility was not enforced by formal law, because it was evident to everybody that people's survival and subsistence depended on the commons and on free communal work.’ So take a look. Here you can have a think about paradoxes in the current momentum behind open access academic publishing, observing Orla O’Donovan’s ‘search for cracks in the pay walls that commodify and enclose much publicly subsidised research that should be common knowledge.’ You can reflect on the perception of traditional Irish music as ‘an artistic and cultural commons’ and the ‘annexation’ of sites of performance by the commerce of copyright. (Or as I did, just ponder how an author can describe himself as ‘radically rooted’). I recall that Illich’s works were out of print for some years in the UK, presumably because there was ‘no market’ for them. Perhaps that’s as strong an indicator...
The commonwealth shames Not much has been made of the quiet irony that the city of Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games a few weeks before the country’s citizens vote for independence in September. This is surprising given the inescapable imperial connotations of the event and the rich vein of ironic defiance that seems to define the Scottish people. Until today, the organising body entertained seriously a proposal that the opening ceremony for those games should include the live demolition of the ‘Red Road flats’. We were told that this act was planned both as commemoration of a part of Glasgow's social history as well as a statement of the city's regeneration. If the proposal seems truly crass, so does the sense that those in question provoked the spirit of defiance and under-estimated the response. Today it was announced that the plans have been cancelled ‘because of safety and security concerns’. I’d describe the defiance of the organisers in this case as unworthy. It shouldn’t have required 15,000 signatures to a petition: a modicum of common sense would have done. My question is about how such a manifestly disrespectful and insensitive idea could have got as far as the agenda of the sub-committee of any sub-committee tasked with planning the event, let alone approved. How do we come to have people in public office who think the idea of watching homes being demolished is consistent with the celebration of international sporting endeavour? Perhaps the adoration of spectacle has got out of control. The spectacularisation of culture is not a trivial issue: many commentators have bemoaned the demise of subtlety and nuance in popular culture over the past couple of decades, as various media emphasise ‘impact’ above forms of culture that more modestly stimulate reflection. And we’re talking about places where people have lived. Surely in very few circumstances, even in the most blatantly necessary cases – think Fred West or Ian Huntley, if you must - can the destruction of a home be free of sadness. The notion of home is resonant with symbolism and with shared, long-lasting meaning: loss of home is always poignant and disturbing. It is a matter of deep shame for those concerned that they did not pause to reflect on this, but instead were somehow seduced by infantile imagined delight in the spectacle of falling totems, cascading breeze blocks and apocalyptic dust clouds.

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