Jennifer Cooke responds to Letter (from Berlin) to London Poets in Oakland and Oaklanad Poets, in Oakland

Dear Jacob and Tom,

You blog post surprised me. Firstly, I believe it accuses me of something I didn’t actually say or express in my paper. The paper describes what happened at the Millbank protest in terms of how the crowd reacts. I think it is notable – which is why I wrote about it – that the crowd responded immediately and in condemnatory fashion. It expressed a judgement. I do not, in the paper, comment upon whether I think that judgement is the correct one. I point to it as an example of how crowds make ethical decisions (something often disputed in theories of crowd behaviour); how, in this example, they distinguish between an act judged as indiscriminate and potentially harmful to protesters and other acts which the crowd directly supported through cheers and other chants. Girard calls this way that a group operates to exclude a member to reinforce its sense of itself as a group scapegoating; my very brief allusion there to Girard is perhaps unclear and certainly too short. I was not advocating scapegoating but pointing to how it happens. I think it is very important for us to understand carefully how crowds behave.

What the crowd did in that moment is very different to what later happened to Edward Woollard, in the press and through the courts. My description of that event is not analogous or the same as stating that I agree with the attitudes of the judiciary. For the record, I can state that I did not agree with or support his arrest, his prosecution or his imprisonment, and nor do I now. In fact, I absolutely condemn it.

Yet, for me, no one, no crowd, no individual, in whatever situation (revolutionary struggle and protest included) is beyond criticism. Not all actions in a protest are revolutionary. If we want to think and act in ways which are going to further the struggle against the current State, then it is important that we analyse our collective and individual actions. To do so is not to align oneself with the State, who might also critique those actions but from a very different perspective and with different reasons. I personally think it is a shame that Edward Woollard threw the fire extinguisher towards the people below, which included both protesters and police. I’d have preferred he’d done something else with it, any number of things. I’m glad it didn’t hit a protester, for obvious reasons; I’m glad it didn’t hit a member of the police because they’d have tried to put him away for life and painted an even more vicious picture of the protests than they did, it would have given the Daily Mail even juicer headlines and it would have achieved very little to nothing in furthering what the protests were actually about.  I’d be very worried about a situation which forbade us to think critically about the actions we undertake, collectively or individually. Perhaps this is a genuine point of disagreement here with you, given what you wrote.

As to the other points you raise, I don’t have much disagreement with your political statements, although I have a problem with the rhetorical style in which you write. You tend to try to state what I say, then state your own position as different, and in doing so, caricature my position as one which apologises for police violence or denies that other emotions than the one I am focusing on are also felt on protests. This dismays me, for several reasons. It is so often that the left ends up fighting among itself, expending the precious resources we have on debates about position-taking and misrepresentation. I truly believe – and this was very much in the spirit of the Revolution and/or Poetry conference – that we are not at all best served by the denouncing style that this blog post is written in. For one, it made me feel like I simply want nothing to do with ‘Militant Poetics’, whatever that is. It made me feel tired. It is a form of grand-standing and, in an uncannily accurate inversion of your own accusation of what you think I am doing, excluded me from the kinds of militant position your post thinks we should be taking.

Of course we should criticise each other and each other’s positions. For example, I’d be interested to extend the conversation about the chorus that you raise briefly in the post. There is a historical, literary (dramatic) dimension to the chorus, of course, and there is also a very immediate need to discuss how chants and slogans operate on us, circulate among us, express our feelings or work to make us feel alienated. You say that the chorus is on the side of the police and negative community formation. I don’t agree that all chanting is just like a chorus or that it is all negative, in history and in practice, even though obviously some chants are. I’d like to explore this: I usually find chanting problematic. But everything about the way this blog post has been done has not at all been in the spirit of seeking dialogue or discussion. You know how to contact me. You didn’t. You just posted this to the web. You know my name – and I have met Jacob, at least, several times at events and on protests – yet you refer to ‘the author’ throughout. The ‘we’ that operates in your paper is quite obviously deployed in order not to include me.  

We should seek dialogue, to talk to one another about what we think the other might be saying, to be careful of one another and each other’s feelings. Today, I should be writing to a deadline. Had I done so, I’d have had more time to give to preparing for the strike which has been called for the 31st October 2013. This is a very real material consequence of how you’ve decided to engage with my paper and it makes me angry and makes me feel the impotence of how we conduct our debates. There were all sorts of options open to you to make this into more of a dialogue than a denunciation and yet you explore none of them.

It is precisely this issue of how we talk to each other and how we try to build lasting, inclusive conversations and solidarity that for me was the most important aspect of what was discussed at the conference in the Bay Area. I’m not sure what you intended to achieve with your response. But the effect has been to make me angry, baffled, despairing, and to feel as though the possibilities of us being able to organise anything among poets and activists in London in the way that the two conferences at Birkbeck hoped for are extremely far away.

Jennifer Cooke  


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