Project Title: Radical Workshops:  The Artisan Ethos and the Rhythm of Urban Resistance

Faculty Sponsor: Jason Kosnoski

Department: Political Science



Project Description: Many recent efforts to resist global neoliberalism, while stemming from local grievances and expressing disparate goals, have shared one characteristic:  the occupation and subsequent transformation of public space.  Movements as diverse as the Indignados in Spain, the defenders of Taksim Square in Istanbul, and Occupy Wall Street resist not simply through protesting, but also by establishing semi-permanent encampments, the existence of which expresses the values of face-to-face democracy and the common ownership of the urban environment.  I argue that the manner in which these activists construct their encampments embodies an underappreciated artisan ethos. Despite stemming from seemingly chaotic origins, this ethos comprises a coherent group of practices and represents a radical ideology that could unite many disparate contemporary activist movements.  Furthermore, my project will explore the concrete spaces, or workshops, where these artisan activists practice their craft.  After articulating the theoretical outlines of this artisan practice and space, I analyze how the concrete architectural and design elements of these workshops play an integral role in the cultivation of the ethos. Finally, I will explore how recent efforts to reclaim abandoned and privatized public space, especially in Rust Belt cities in the United States,  illustrate the theoretical ethos I articulate. Ultimately, the project will create a dialogue between theory that interprets contemporary events and qualitative research that concretizes and challenges theories of radical social change.  

My reconstruction of the artisan ethos can be found in the writings of two groups of theorists who construct ideal-typical conceptual portraits of artisans, their practices, and workshops.  Postmodern theorists, especially Giles Deleuze, emphasize the creativity, mobility and liminality of artisans. For example, in his A Thousand Plauteaus, Deleuze he claims that artisans embody a subversive “nomadic” science that undermines the “royal” science practiced by agents of the modern state.   I go on, using Pragmatist theorists such as Richard Sennett in his The Craftsman and Together, and John Dewey in his Art as Experience, to reconstruct  the artisan practices rooted in the concepts of  rhythmic progression, playful experimentation and reciprocal creativity.  Together, I use these theorists to conceptualize the radical potential of artisan practice, grounding my reconstruction in a phenomenological account of how artisan ritual cultivates somatic dispositions that can generate cultures of resistance.  I emphasize how artisan rituals encourage practitioners to repeatedly revise pre-conceived plans and techniques,  how these rituals of seemingly repetitive actions ironically stoke and maintain creativity, and finally, how these rituals must be practiced collectively in workshops that sustain egalitarian testing of solutions.  The workshop spaces that encourage these rituals do so through the flexibility of their internal topography and the provision of spaces that encourage alternation between work and reflection. When taken together, these practices suggest a political ethos of self organization, collective decision making, and individuals undertaking a diversity of roles within communities.  Both the spatial and temporal rituals that artisan activists use to collectively construct common space and the spaces themselves challenge disciplinary neoliberal environments and represent a vision of an egalitarian, democratic society.

This project breaks new ground for a number of reasons.  First of all, no one has explored the similarities between pragmatism as embodied by theorists such as Dewey and Sennett and Deleuze's post-modernism within political theory.  Despite their mutual focus upon the importance of the body, habit, and how engaging in habitual and rhythmic practices constitutes the foundation of curiosity and agency, no one has compared how these insights might mutually inform a theory of political practice.  Furthermore, I will demonstrate that an artisan ethos based in pragmatism and Deleuze can be seen within the work of other theorists. For example, Henri Lefebvre's call for activists to playfully inhabit the abstract spaces indicative of capitalist development and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's hope that the “multitude” will festively reconstruct the commons invoke characteristics of the artisan ethos such as rhythmic becoming through experimentation and the importance of concrete spaces to the cultivation of radical politics.  Even theorists seemingly critical of the radical potential of artisans, such as Jacques Ranciere, author of “The Myth of the Artisan,” invokes theoretical themes that tie him to this ethos.  For example, when Ranciere states, “the truly dangerous classes are . . . the migrants who move at the borders between classes” he clearly evinces Deleuze's interest in nomadism, work, and radical political action.   Finally, the project explores unacknowledged linkages between contemporary buildings, landscapes, and urban designs and the artisan ethos.  Structures such as Louis Kahn's Ft. Wayne, Indiana Artist United Center, Aldo Van Eyck's playgrounds, and the improvised shelters, greenhouses and squats in Rust Belt cities such as Flint and Detroit all contain the seeds of artisan politics, and I will explore how they might encourage practices that propagate this ethos in those who create and maintain them.

I imagine this project to produce a book,  the first section of which will contain chapters elucidating individual theorists’ relation to the artisan ethos,  and second section of which will place examples of buildings, urban spaces and political into a critical and productive dialogue with that ethos.  Furthermore, I will expand my research concerning contemporary and past invocations of the artisan in political theory.  I also will investigate more examples of artisan space and its linkage to protest movements, focusing my new research upon the favelas and informal communities of Latin America, and the many Occupy-type movements in the US and Europe.  I will particularly focus my inquires upon the Occupy movements in Michigan and other Rust Belt Cities.  

Student Tasks & Responsibilities: The students will collect, catalog and summarize the many documents, leaflets and videos that were produced by the various Occupy movements in the United States, (with a particular emphasis upon the Occupy movements in Michigan and other Rust Best cities)  looking for indications of the “artisan ethos” that I have described in my research proposal.  They will also search for allusions to such ethos in documents produced by the Indignado movement in Spain, the Greek protestors of Syntagma Square, the Turkish uprising to defend Taksim Square, and other international movements.  Because of the recent occurrence of such events, not much traditional scholarship exists, although many documents do, which have not been adequately examined.   This task is particularly well-suited to performance by undergraduates because the material, for the most part, is meant for popular consumption, and does not contain much of the academic jargon present in the philosophical texts that the other part of my project will analyze.    

Minimum Student Qualifications: