Societies in Movement. Social Emancipation Summer School and Seminar (SESSS). Oaxaca, Mexico.

by Manuel Callahan

My Ecoversities Summer residency was primarily organized around my participation with the Social Emancipation Summer School and Seminar, from August 5th to 14th, 2018. The SESSS was the culmination of years of collaboration with Gustavo Esteva and the Universidad de la Tierra, Oaxaca. Over the course of our work together Gustavo and I have pursued three key trajectories that continue to animate my political commitments and culminated in the SESSS. The first is Indigenous autonomy, especially in Oaxaca and Chiapas. The second, related trajectory, remains “walking with” the Ejército Zapatista Liberación Nacional (EZLN) and the challenges of autonomous struggle, especially the possibilities of an urban Zapatismo beyond Chiapas. A genealogy of conviviality, that is conviviality as a praxis with application in the current moment, completes the three. Much of our research and intellectual production related to these areas has been concentrated in Universidad de la Tierra, a network of autonomous learning spaces with two of the most prominent convergences in Oaxaca and Chiapas. In dialogue with Gustavo, and as part of a broader participation in Zapatismo outside of Chiapas, we have convened the Universidad de la Tierra, Califas, an autonomous learning space in the San Francisco Bay area that claims the larger Uni-Tierra network. It is within this context that my engagement with the SESSS emerged.

Specifically, the SESSS was a collaborative project between Uni-Tierra Oaxaca and Uni-Tierra Califas over several months with the purpose of addressing two critical issues in what I have been calling the Zapatista conjuncture, that is a critical moment of struggle notable for the emergence of “societies in movement” that have made knowledge production, both research and learning, an essential, if not more visible, element of emancipation. In this conjuncture, and with the Zapatistas as a prominent political reference, we have begun to abandon the notion of social movements as a particularly Western, academic category that does not adequately explain the autonomous energy increasingly visible in many struggles, making it possible to explore more fully the challenges of a prefigurative politics, that is confronting the obstacles we face in attempting to claim the world we want in the immediate moment and not wait for change to take place in the future. We learned during the SESSS how “societies in movement” claim, an emergent prefigurative praxis by reclaiming vernacular practices and knowledges, especially those less contaminated by capital and the state, or as Illich might put it, not overdetermined by industrial tools but animated by convivial ones. Alongside a growing critique of patriarchy, the SESSS’s engagement with debates about post-development, decoloniality, and comunalidad help bring into focus “what we are discovering at the grassroots.”

One of the energies that contributed to the SESSS was an attempt to take on two afflictions associated with the modern university and how it produces knowledge about social movements, including communities of struggle in southern Mexico. Recognizing the summer study abroad model and the notion of fieldwork have become problematic, the SESSS interrogated traditional university-social movement relations and explored new ways to host visiting scholars and researchers committed to learning with local struggles and not simply studying them. Thus, the SESSS sought to bring together researchers to converge and explore new thinking in post- development, decoloniality, and comunalidad within a broader context of social emancipation with the oppressive elements of the university at the forefront of our conversation.

The SESSS was notable for its overwhelming success as a learning space. In other words, the participants, both “students” and “invited guests,” embraced the political and intellectual demands of engaging a space committed to a non-hierarchal, alternative approach to learning and research. Recognizing that at the core of any social emancipation is taking back control of our learning, we explored how social emancipation must be committed to a de-patriacharlization, de- commodification, de-subjectivization, and de-toxification, and all of this within a broader context of an on-going decolonization. Two themes that were prominent throughout were the corrosive threat of hierarchy and the possibilities of friendship.

One of the most prominent successes of the SESSS was the careful facilitation weaving together a variety of learning spaces, including but not limited to the conversatorio space at Universidad de la Tierra. As is its custom, Uni-Tierra Oaxaca’s weekly conversatorio networks several projects and organizations across the city, state, and region. Within the context of the SESSS, it linked to several community spaces beyond the campus. Through the thoughtful support work of a very capable team of facilitators the SESSS made possible several excursions to community spaces beyond “the campus,” with the most notable being in Guelatao. For me personally, the space convened in Guelatao proved to be the most impactful given that we were able to explore the emergence of comunalidad with one of its most prominent voices, Jaime Martinez Luna, and engage it as an everyday practice through the sharing of the work of the theater and arts collective, Agenda Guelatao, associated with the Cine Too theater at the center of the community.

Finally, I want to share a brief reflection on one of the spaces that was both central to the SESSS and one that was not only inspiration for me but exemplified the SESSS’s commitment to convivial research and learning. The SESSS concluded with a final evening together with a fiesta. The fiestaembodied the conviviality that we had gathered to explore in exciting ways. It underscored one of the most critical tensions associated with the concept of conviviality, that is, a space can be joyous and celebratory, animated by the excitement of friendship, and also be an embodiment of a serious social tool dedicated to the reproduction of the community through learning, research, and collective participation/decision-making. In this instance, we continued our learning about the local area in the lavish feast that was made available including several dishes from the local area and the South of Mexico more generally. Through the sharing of food, we discovered more about the political struggles of the region. Throughout, the social organization of the space demonstrated that learning and research can take place through celebration. This was underscored by the music shared by Tapacamino Colectivo Musiquero, a prominent conjunto of local musicians who were active in the political mobilizations across Oaxaca in 2006. The music and songs performed during the SESSS fiesta were shared as a fandango, also a convivial tool and an exciting element of thefiesta. In this instance, the fandango narrated many dimensions of the battles of 2006. As the evening progressed, people shared insights gleaned from the previous ten days. Some of these conversations included everyone as a result of interventions at the microphone and, in other instances, reflections were shared in smaller convergences of newly made friends. Not surprisingly, the space and discussions continued much longer than had been planned with many new friends finding it difficult to say their goodbyes. In short, the fiesta as a convivial tool both embodied the kind of convivial tools we were gathered to learn about, underscoring the challenges we face in transferring technology, that is how do we share convivial tools that emerge from specific communities of struggle in specific moments across struggles.

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