We like to showcase original student writing on our blog. CEO Ian talks to students about Disobedient Objects on Exeter University’s MRes in Critical Human Geographies. This was student Mara Murlebach’s response. She’s in Bonn. In 2016. Part of the Right to the City movement. Where sandwiches played a part…
Type ‘disobedient sandwich’ into the google search, and your screen will be populated with images of sandwiches whose fillings were dripping, drooping and falling out – some in a rather pleasant way (melted cheese), others not so much (lumpy salad). Disobedient sandwiches are rowdy. They do not behave.
Neither do activists. In early summer 2016, I was part of the Right to the City movement in Bonn, Germany, both as activist and student researcher. Several initiatives had gathered to oppose the city council’s plans to redevelop the inner-city neighbourhood Viktoriakarree into a shopping centre. The city council’s plans would have translated into the demolition of one of Bonn’s oldest neighbourhoods, thus displacing many of the low-income tenants.
Sandwiches played a surprisingly important role during that summer – and they have since taught me a lot about what I consider as ‘political’ and ‘radical’. In this post, I ask what happens if you focus on a thing – a sandwich – and tell the story from there. Sandwiches link people, places and events together in new and unexpected ways. They ask important questions about what radical political actions are and where they take place.
What is political?
What does political mean? It’s a good question. It’s also a popular theme of recent geographical debate. Simply put, the discussion revolves around what can be considered properly political. A rally? A squat? A meeting in parliament? Political theorists Chantal Mouffe (1993, 2005) and Jacques Rancière (1999) have argued that truly political actions are radical; that is to say, they challenge the very foundations of our society. However, these radical political moments are rare. Mouffe, Rancière and others have therefore diagnosed the current era as de- or post-political – airing their disappointment about the fact that politics are too much about producing consensus and too little about making space for dissent.
What a day! Slumping down into one of the wooden folding chairs I notice that the other faces look at least as tired as I feel. We are sitting in a construction trailer turned activist headquarters. Today was rally day. Hours of chanting and marching. Now (finally!) I have time for lunch. I impatiently wrench open my lunchbox and take out my sandwich. Yummy!
Activist movements have a lot to do with the debate about the political. A couple of geographers have argued that the radical political has made a reappearance in recent urban uprisings (Halvorsen, 2015; Karaliotas, 2017). It seems, politics are being taken ‘to the streets’ to radically enact new forms of political relations. However, what troubles me about these accounts is their quite narrow view of the political (Davidson and Iveson, 2015; Beveridge and Koch, 2017). While only radical actions count as truly political, any other effort is dismissed into the post-political realm where it only scratches the surface of changing the world.
Squatting with sandwiches
It is a bright day and I bustle around a corner bakery that was forcedly closed a couple of days ago – only now it is open again. A large sheet reading ‘Café Viktoria’ decorates the entrance to the now squatted café. Someone has propped up a cardboard sign reading ‘Make coffee, not malls’. There are quite a few people around, busily chatting to each other, sandwich and coffee mug in hand.
Let us come back to Bonn’s Right to the City movement that was in full flow in the summer of 2016. A corner bakery had been squatted. Sandwiches featured prominently in this event. Occupiers, local politicians and passers-by had coffee and rolls together. I find that this occasion thoroughly troubles what can be considered a political action. How can the people eating sandwiches on this day be described? Were they squatters? Were they simply having a snack? Did they have anything political about them at all? Eating a sandwich in Café Viktoria was both radical and mundane at the same time. People having breakfast suddenly became part of a squat that radically challenged property rights and ownership. The sandwich itself became a disobedient object – and remained troublingly banal still.
Breakfast on the streets
Eating a sandwich can turn out to be a very radical move. I also find that it asks important questions about where and how contentious politics take place. Geographical research often focusses on contentious politics in public spaces (Kaika and Karaliotas, 2016; Yara and Karakayali, 2017), thus leaving a strange silence on the connections between the domestic and the political. Also, domesticised chores of social reproduction rarely figure in accounts of protest movements (for a notable exception see Rollmann and Frenzel, 2017). Again, sandwiches have a lot to contribute here. They highlight the role reproductive work plays in contentious politics. In the case of Café Viktoria, the domestic chore of preparing food was not only inseparably intertwined with radical politics; in fact, it was radical politics. Coffee was brewed, bread was sliced, dishes were washed on the streets. The squat deliberately brought reproductive work into the public realm. Thus, it also challenged deeply gendered notions of public and private, political and ‘apolitical’ spaces.
What’s geography got to do with it?
Nibbling on a sandwich I am trying to write something witty for this text. I have taken to the habit of having breakfast while reading through articles and book chapters. I am scrolling down the pages and trying to make notes with one hand while at the same time holding a piece of bread in the other… Damn it! I get really annoyed when cheese crumbles all over my keyboard. Bloody computer-breakfast!
In this post, I have sketched out how thinking with a thing – a sandwich – is useful in analysing power and politics. It is an example of how geography and geographers explore new ways of researching with material objects (Crang, 2005; Cook and Tolia-Kelly, 2010), guided by a rather naïve openness for what happens before our eyes (Bennett, 2010). Sandwiches have accompanied me to rallies and squats. Also, they have been my loyal companions throughout the writing process. The sandwiches link up the disparate places that this text brings together: a street, a construction container and a corner bakery in Bonn and a study desk in Exeter. The world is connected in myriad ways – of which we only ever see a few. Things effect a shift in perspective and make us see the world connected in new ways.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things, Durham, London, Duke University Press.
Beveridge, R. and Koch, P. (2017) The post-political trap? Reflections on politics, agency and the city, Urban Studies, 54(1): 31-43.
Cook, I. and Tolia-Kelly, D. (2010) Material Geographies, in Hicks, D. and Beaudry, M. C. eds. The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, Oxford, Blackwell: 99–122.
Crang, P. (2005) Material geographies, in Cloke, P., Crang, P. and Goodwin, M. eds. Introducing Human Geographies, London, Hodder Arnold: 276–291.
Davidson, M. and Iveson, K. (2015) Recovering the politics of the city: from the ‘post-political city’ to a ‘method of equality’ for critical urban geography, Progress in Human Geography, 39(5): 543–559.
Halvorsen, S. (2015) Taking space: moments of rupture and everyday life in Occupy London, Antipode, 47(2): 401–417.
Kaika, M. and Karaliotas, L. (2016) The spatialization of democratic politics: insights from Indignant Squares, European Urban and Regional Studies, 34(4): 556–570.
Karaliotas, L. (2017) Staging equality in greek squares: hybrid spaces of political subjectification, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 41(1): 54–69.
Mouffe, C. (1993) The return of the political, London, New York, Verso.
Mouffe, C. (2005) On the political, Abingdon, New York, Routledge.
Rancière, J. (1999) Disagreement: politics and philosophy, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Rollmann, N. and Frenzel, F. (2017) From protest camp to tent city: the ‘Free Cuvry’ camp in Berlin-Kreuzgberg, in Brown, G., Feigenbaum, A., Frenzel, F. and McCurdy, P. eds. Protest camps in international context, Bristol, Policy Press: 329–351.
Yara, Ö. and Karakayali, S. (2017) Emergent infrastructures: solidarity, spontaneity and encounter atIstanbul’s Gezi Park uprising, in Brown, G., Feigenbaum, A., Frenzel, F. and McCurdy, P. eds. Protest camps in international context, Bristol, Policy Press: 53–69.
Google images ‘Usage rights: labeled for re-use’, other photos by group Café Viktoria.