The Politics of Autonomous Spaces of Learning

Manuel Callahan

Manuel Callahan is an insurgent learner and convivial researcher with the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy. Callahan’s work explores three interwoven areas: the US/Mexico border and borderlands historically and in the present; struggles for autonomy across the Americas including moments of Zapatismo in and beyond Chiapas; and convivial research and insurgent learning, a community-based horizontal research approach that engages autonomous struggles throughout Greater Mexico. He also participates in the Universidad de la Tierra Califas and the several autonomous learning spaces it convenes.

Image: Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy, 2016

The political agitation often associated with large anti-capitalist and anti-racist mobilizations as well as against feminicides, fascism, and violence against migrants seem to share a common element, namely a reliance on critical spaces of learning, research, documentation, and performance. These autonomous spaces of learning, although often taken for granted, seem to be increasingly essential if less well known in the confrontation against reactionary forces, especially those contributing to the current catastrophe of this late stage of racial patriarchal capitalism. The present visibility of these spaces invite new inquiries. To begin, we might ask what we mean by an autonomous space of learning? In what ways are they autonomous and how do they contribute to autonomy? How have they been deployed? In what ways can they be executed moving forward?

In this essay, we want to approach autonomous learning spaces from two critical perspectives: an analysis and a praxis. The first entails engaging autonomous learning spaces as a category of analysis to contribute to diagnoses of critical moments of autonomy. They can bring into focus the challenges or obstacles we face, highlighting those moments where learning, research, aesthetic practice, and archiving/documenting disrupt capitalist capture, reclaim vernacular practices, and reconstruct autonomy. In short, this dynamic requires a new form of listening in these spaces that include those collective efforts of direct action and militant research, where the space co-generated through insurgency while not necessarily intended to produce an autonomous learning space, still creates the political opportunity and social energy to explore new possibilities in the disruptive space that results through opposition to dominant institutions and practices. On an even less deliberate level, we might also mark those everyday spaces that are animated by conviviality, that is the dynamic, collective energy of interdependent community regeneration uninhibited by capitalist command and discipline. Those everyday sites and practices that can become a “networked pedagogy,” or temporary autonomous zones of knowledge production, when we actively, if not necessarily “consciously,” make more observable relays of insubordinate knowledges.[1]

The second approach includes the application of autonomous learning space as a praxis. In this instance, we want to mark where they are deliberately deployed not only in relation to direct action, but also as something of an instituent space, one that accounts for the “monstrous complicities” that Gerald Raunig and Kike España caution us about in their essay “Monstrous Complicities” on this blog.[2] It might also include the “autonomous cultural alter-institution projects” becoming minor that Marco Baravalle recuperates.[3] In each instance, these efforts negotiate the difficulties of playing with dominant institutions or the attempts to abandon any contamination with them altogether. Here we might want to map out the many efforts to create specific spaces of convivial research and insurgent learning that are also tacking toward the reconstruction of social infrastructures of community no longer mediated by dominant social forms.[4] Comrades associated with the Autonomy Project (2010) and later iterations such as Decentralizing Political Economies (DPE) have proposed revivifying “the term autonomy as a site of social, political and economic—as well as aesthetic—struggle, a territory to be struggled over and fought for.”[5] This effort continues, for example, in the current DPE Roaming Symposium (October 19/21 and Nov 5/19 2021).[6]

While there is not enough space here to fully examine the Zapatistas or the broader context of Indigenous autonomy in Mexico, a brief review of the Zapatista politics of encounter reveals a praxis animated by autonomous spaces of learning. In short, the political mobilizations during what we have been calling the Zapatista conjuncture, largely facilitated by the Zapatistas themselves, are notable as spaces of encounter that promote intersecting and overlapping mobilizations that circulate struggle. The Zapatista encounter seeks “to go beyond solidarity” through a shared research, learning, performance, and documenting, a deployment we are currently witnessing with the Zapatista Journey for Life across Europe that began in July 2021. The Zapatista Journey for Life, initially with the 421 Squadron and later with the subsequent arrival of La Extemporánea, once again calls us to action, inviting us to activate spaces of encounter to host the Zapatista squads, in this case as they travel through Europe (or the continent that the Zapatista’s have renamed “slumil k’ajxemk’op” which means “Rebel Land,” or “Land that doesn’t yield, that doesn’t fail”), but also to gather together in our own locales.[7] In these spaces communities of struggle are asked to reclaim spaces, network projects, and share information—to circulate research, knowledge, and wisdom that results from the ongoing resistance to the violent forces of the 4th World War.[8] It is a warfare constituted by persistent counterinsurgency increasingly manifest in militarized policing, carceral regimes, and, as Rita Segato theorizes, an informalization of violence designed to rip apart the social fabric, especially through feminicides and disappearances.[9] It is also a continuation of the over five-hundred-year war against subsistence and an imposed forgetting and oblivion instituted in such a way that we are expected to forget our victories and forsake our dead.

A recent example of a successful autonomous learning space is the langar, or communal kitchen, that stretches the length of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, or joint farmer’s force, along the highway just outside Delhi. In a recent essay, Sarover Zaidi describes the langar in the following manner: “The langar is a community kitchen, a congregation, a form of serving the other, a socio-religious practice, a sacred tenet, and here a political formation, a practice, and a method and location of the protest.”[10] Food is rarely shared without the sharing of knowledge. People gather together to share research, learn from one another, and celebrate their victories much more efficiently through food and drink. Although the langar has a long history and is part of a complex, emergent tradition, in the case of the farmers’ mobilization outside Delhi it also activates a range of immediate, tactical autonomous learning spaces as essential stanchions of a more complex social infrastructure of struggle.

A further elaboration of the particular use of langar described above comes from the Universidad de la Tierra, Califas and Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy’s (CCRA) monthly Tsikbal:

“The theory, strategy, and tactic, that is the praxis, of the autonomy just outside of Delhi articulates through, for example, the agricultural working groups who have been learning from and with the protesting farmers in Delhi. Many community members from a range of communities of struggle have been spending time at the protests, are thinking of other agricultural models, or have been involved in Punjabi uprisings over many generations, exploring living theories of agriculture, ecology, community, that counter the ongoing destruction of the green revolution and the neo-colonization of development projects (such as dams, chemical fertilizer, water mining, commodifying water, the introduction of industrial tools like tractors) since independence/partition. These groups are trying to learn from below (to borrow from Spivak) or to learn how to learn (Zapatistas) and claim different epistemologies of nature, land, environment as well as practices of zero-budget natural farming and agro-ecology. It is fundamentally a subversive tech-transfer, how rivers and watersheds might offer lines of flight and possibility alongside the radical care, sustenance, spiritual nutrition that the langars give, generating a kind of urgency and real-time relevance of communicating across watersheds.”[11]

The direct action and convivial construction of the langar resonates in many ways with the “strike.” For Precarias a la Deriva, “strike” offers a research methodology in the form of a drift for interrogating the conjuncture, especially with regard to conditions of precarity and the lived realities of women’s worlds, as well as a way of connecting with others.[12] Tsikbal’s January 2021 announcement offers the following elaboration:

“’The strike is not just the event or the action or the tactic that ‘stops’ something (i.e. the flow of capital) or ‘breaks’ something (i.e the relation with capital, however transient) or ‘achieves’ something (i.e. higher wages); rather, it is an ‘action-process,’ it emerges from networked relations and spaces of assembly, it poses a question, it creates a space where violences (of neoliberalism, precarity, against women, and so on) can be mapped. It is that encounter that is about ‘producing a shared sense of something.’[13] In Du Bois and Fred Moten’s work, ‘strike’ or the ‘general strike’ is closer to fugitivity it seems, a kind of fugitive strike.[14] For Claire Fontaine, ‘strike’ names and catalyzes possibility for resubjectification, and so on. Each emerges from a different genealogy and it seems that a multiplicity of meanings and uses of the term ‘strike’ make it possible to find each other across time and spaces, and to listen and borrow.”

The announcement continues:

“…for example here in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, ‘strike’ in these variations highlighted above has helped us to think about the vigils held by families and communities following police shootings, where the family gathers at the spot of a killing and holds the space there. It is a kind of occupation, a kind of collective remembering against the war of forgetting (imposed by the state), but it is also an act or event that reflects a number of networks, opens a space of encounter for questions to be posed about the shooting and the police, the community responses, and thus catalyzes a map—of neoliberal securitization, policing and the racialization of space and so on. The engagement with ‘strike’ in its multiple manifestations helps us to think this. So, it is a tool, and we would say convivial tool because it emerges from a community of struggle and is put in service to create a map that contests the criminalization and dispossession being imposed on a community. The vigil serves to regenerate the community too.”[15]

We mention these communities of struggle and the deployment of these specific convivial tools, such as the Zapatista encuentro, langar outside Delhi, the Global Woman’s Strike, and the praxis of vigil to highlight tools that are mostly activated through direct action, but also devices oriented around learning, research, performance, and documentation, in short, actions that rely on autonomous spaces of learning that in turn contribute to the reclamation of a social infrastructure of community. The provocation of the autonomous learning space is that it gestures towards community formation through collective knowledge production. In other words, it is not manipulated by ideology, confined to hierarchical organization, or driven by a single issue. Rather, it is an open space to both diagnose the obstacles to community formation and remedy how community cohesion might be achieved through shared work, principally the work of community-based knowledge production. Two additional examples are worth considering.

Hosted by the Institute of Radical Imagination along with the Centro Cultural La Corrala, Reina Sofia Museum, and La Villana de Vallecas in anticipation of the Zapatista Journey for Life, the Zapatista Forum can be considered as yet another example of an autonomous learning space. In this case, the Zapatista Forum articulated a week of installations, film screenings, performances, book launches (e.g. Pomarico and Oleynikov, eds., When the Roots Start Moving. First Mouvement: To Navigate Backward / Resonating with Zapatismo), and spaces of dialogue across Madrid, Spain and virtually from September 16 to 19, 2021. As part of this unique effort, the CCRA, Free Home University, and Chto Delat School of Engaged Arts along with the Ecoversities Alliance co-facilitated an additional space, an autonomous learning space convergence, in a deliberate effort to convene a space to think out loud and to share experiences as a way both to activate and critically engage the theorization of autonomous learning spaces as a convivial tool, especially considering their importance in the current conjuncture. Specifically, we recognized that autonomous spaces of learning seem to be a critical way for “societies in movement” to engage autonomy while also weaving struggles together, so we asked how we might also deploy them as part of “the clamor for life.” A Zapatista politics of encounter as a strategic concept helps bring into focus the advance of Zapatismo, including urban Zapatismo, and its reliance on the deployments of autonomous learning spaces.

Over the past two years, coincidentally paralleling the COVID-19 pandemic, the UT Califas and CCRA have convened Tsikbal, the kind of autonomous learning space we have been exploring throughout this essay. Tsikbal continues earlier spaces of convivial research and insurgent learning, namely the network of tertulias, mitotes, coyunturas, talleres, and ateneos that constitute UT Califas.[16] As the current principal autonomous space of learning of the UT Califas infrastructure, Tsikbal takes up the question of assembly; although it is not an assembly, it very much seeks to relearn the habits of assembly. Much like other sites of fugitivity, Tskibal focuses less on assembly as claimed by the Global North and explores more how assembly has been claimed as part of a profound intersection of convivial commitments more common to the Global South. A Mayan term that literally translates to “shred the word,” tsikbal refers to the multifaceted, every day, informal side conversations that make possible a larger, more diffuse and diverse assembling. In other words, tsikbal is a convivial tool, one that insures the participation and contribution of each member of the community in such a way that the larger, community-wide assembly need not be confined to or overwhelmed by one authorizing moment established through the performative speech act, the “performative enactments” that declare our attachment to an abstraction, “we the people.”[17] Thus, as a convivial tool, tsikbal points to our obligation to the collectivity we constitute and claim through interdependent cooperative work that might result in tequios de investigación.

The autonomous learning space as an essential structural support within a larger, more complex architecture of community is an open, accessible space to both diagnose the obstacles to community and further develop the mechanisms of its cohesion. The obstacles can be, of course, the industrial devices of a commodity intensive society, the very systems that are presumed to be essential for grooming educated participants. Commodity intensive society depends on the construction of needs, the need for commodities and services, especially the services that promise greater access to more commodities. Services, according to Ivan Illich, can only be fulfilled by experts who in turn authorize constructed needs. Against the corrosive imposition of needs that can only be fulfilled by service experts, Illich calls for a renewed investment in the freedom to learn, the “secularization of teaching and learning.” “It must involve,” declares Illich,

“a return to control over what is learned and how it is learned to persons, and not a transfer of control to another, a more amorphous set of institutions, and its perhaps less obvious representatives. The learner must be guaranteed his freedom without guaranteeing to society what learning he will acquire and hold as his own. Each man must be guaranteed privacy in learning, with the hope that he will assume the obligation of helping others to grow into uniqueness. Whoever takes the risk of teaching others must assume responsibility for the results, as must the student who exposes himself to the influence of a teacher; neither should shift guilt to sheltering institutions or laws. A schooled society must reassert the job of conscious living over the capitalization of manpower.”[18]

In short, it must be a renewed faith in fugitive study as Moten and Harney see it.[19]

Engaged as a convivial tool, one invested in community regeneration, autonomous learning spaces de-emphasize ideology and organization, and prioritize a shared, horizontal process of convivial research and insurgent learning. The attached concept map illustrates some of the claims made above. The c-map suggests a tentative conceptualization of autonomous learning space as a “theoretical strategy” borrowing from Raquel Gutiérrez’s notion of it as “a practical comprehension of the social event of rupture and resistance, including the challenges such events pose to the social order by those who produce it.”[20] Autonomous learning spaces can be claimed in multiple ways, e.g. as a node in a networked pedagogy (Transductores), drift (Precarias a la deriva), strike (Draper, Pia Lopez, and Gago), an institute of the commons (G. Roggero), a space of encounter (Zapatistas), and a threshold (S. Stavrides), to name just a few conceptualizations.

Above all autonomous spaces of learning need to be explicit about how these spaces as threshold spaces are against, and seek to go beyond, racial patriarchal capitalism. They can also serve as a litmus to observe how our resistance(s) have, to some degree, been mediated by racial patriarchal capitalism as a social form, organized through moments of capture from NPIC, Academic, and Art extractivist projects, to more subtle forms of discipline articulated around spectacle, narcissism, and private property in the form of activist market share and reward. In this way, autonomous learning spaces also serve as a tool to advance a shared and multi-sited analysis of racial patriarchal capitalism in the present, while at the same time reflecting and fortifying our ongoing struggles for autonomy, for a convivial life.

[1] For a discussion o networked pedagogy, see Rodrigo Montero, “Collective Pedagogies as Networked Activity: Possible Itineraries” in Transducers: Collective Pedagogies and Spatial Politics (2009). For more on temporary autonomous zones of knowledge production, see Manuel Callahan, “Repairing the community: UT Califas andconvivial tools of the commons,” ephemera 19:2 (2019): 369-387.

[2] Gerald Raunig and Kike España, “Monstrous Complicities,” New Alphabet School HKW, last modified August 12, 2021, https://newalphabetschool.hkw.de/.

[3] Marco Baravalle, “Alter-instituions and art, Between governance and autonomy. Capture, subjectivity, decolonization, governance, acceleration, queering, prefigurative economics,The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Special PataInstitutional Online Issue 2021, (https://joaap.org/patainstitutional/marco.htm).

[4] For more on convivial research and insurgent learning see, Callahan, “Repairing the community.”

[5] John Byrne, “Negotiating Jeopardy. Towards a Constituent Architecture of Use,” in The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation: A Generator of Social Change, eds. John Byrne, Elinor Morgan, November Paynter, Aida Sanchez de Serdio, and Adela Zeleznik (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018): 92–114.

[6] https://dpe.tools/resources/roamingsymposium

[7] Jérôme Baschet, “The Zapatista invasion has begun,” Roar Magazine, May 11, 2021 (https://roarmag.org/essays/zapatista-mexico-europe-trip/).

[8] Subcomandante Marcos, “The Fourth World War Has Begun,” in Le monde diplimatique September 1997 (https://mondediplo.com/1997/09/marcos)

[9] Rita Laura Segato, La Guerra Contra Las Mujeres, (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2016).

[10]Sarover Zaidi, “The Gift of Food”, e-flux Journal August 2021 (https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/survivance/412221/the-gift-of-food/).

[11] Tsikbal, “CCRA/UT Califas Tsikbal, 8.31.21, 6.00 to 9.00 p.m. PST,” email communication, August 24, 2021. Monthly announcements for Tsikbal are collectively written interventions, drawing on multiple authors, influences, and struggles. In the special case of the discussion of langar, Tsikbal participants Avi Varma and Jesal Kapadia shared significant insights and language.

[12] Precarias a la Deriva, “A Very Careful Strike”, Caring Labor: an Archive, February 2005. (https://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/08/14/precarias-a-la-deriva-a-very-careful-strike-four-hypotheses/).

[13] Susanna Draper, “Strike as Process. Building the Poetics of a new Feminism,” in South Atlantic Quarterly (2018) 117 (3): 682–691; Maria Pia Lopez, Not One Less. Mourning, Disobedience and Desire, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020); Verónica Gago, Feminist International. How to change everything, (New York, Verso 2020).

[14] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America. An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, (New York: The Free Press, 1998; Fred Moten, “Uplift and Criminality,” in Susan Gillman and Alys Eve Weinbaum, eds. Next to the color line: gender, sexuality, and W. E. B. Du Bois (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007): 317-349.

[15] Tsikbal, “CCRA Tsikbal 1.26.21; 6.00 to 9.00 p.m.,” email communication, January 19, 2021.

[16] Manolo Callahan, “Insurgent Learning and Convivial Research: Universidad de la Tierra, Califas,” artseverywhere, (https://www.artseverywhere.ca/insurgent-learning-convivial-research-universidad-de-la-tierra-califas/)

[17] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015):154-192.

[18] Ivan Illich, “An Expansion of the Concept of Alienation,” Journal of Social Philosophy (1973) 4 (1):1-7.

[19] Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study, (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).

[20] Raquel Gutiérrez, “The Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Brief Reflections Regarding How We Have Come to Know Emancipatory Struggles and the Significance of the Term Social Emancipation,” South Atlantic Quarterly (2012) 111 (1): 51–64.