Ash Amin’s retirement party – My oral festschrift to him

Yesterday, 29th Sept 2022, I took part in the retirement party of my former first PhD supervisor and fundamental academic mentor, Ash Amin. The event was organised by Bhaskar Vira at the Department of Geography, the University of Cambridge, followed by an evening dinner at Emmanuel College.

Beyond an engaging conversation among Ash, Philip Howell, and Maan Barua, the day consisted of a series of ‘oral testimonies’ and celebrations of Ash’s thinking and doing, carried through by four of his former students. I shared the task with the excellent Tatiana Theme, Lisa Richaud and Maria Hagan.

I owe a lot to Ash. His intellectual curiosity and his care for my persona were fundamental to the development of my own thinking and love for academic work. Below you can read my oral festschrift to him, which I hope summarise well my sentiment toward Ash the person, and Ash the scholar. At the end of the text, some pictures of the event, taken by Stephen Ajadi (shared with permission).

 

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The framework of the encounter

Michele Lancione, for Ash Amin

Thank you for having me here today. It is a great honour to be part of this afternoon for and with Professor Ash Amin. I am honoured to be here because it means that in joining celebration, I have also – at least a little – been part of the journey. I am talking about the journey of an individual who has constantly questioned the grounds he has contributed to establishing, the journey of a scholar that has shown, at every turn, genuine conceptual and political curiosity: Ash as a being thirst for ideas, for well written and engaging arguments, for ways of thinking beyond the canon. This day allows me to thank Ash for a unique gift he gave me and many others: I am referring to the reverberance of his intellectual desire, a vibrance that at times accelerated as an impatience, a power inviting who encounters it to question and to push; to read more and to read better; to write with consideration; to treat intellectual labour with care.

The privilege of having encountered Ash’s intellectual affection renders being here at the same time beautiful and tricky. I want to be honest: I have struggled to put this short text together. And this is not because I don’t know what to say about Ash’s scholarship – but it is because, ultimately, I am not sure I want to say, I am not sure I want to be part of the ritual marking the process of retirement.

I started writing these lines few weeks ago. In my spare time, I went back to some of the early writings of Ash, which included, among the known text on economic and regional geography, a rich report – typed in Italian – on the ‘Stella’ neighbourhood in Naples. Then I re-read his foundational works on placing globalisation, regional inequalities, and the quest to argue for a new politics of place (what Doreen Massey called a ‘progressive sense of place’). I then switched to the writings on ethnicity, race, and encounters, and continued with the book through which I first encountered his thinking – back in 2006, reading for my Master’s degree the Italian translation of Cities, Re-imagining the Urban, coauthored with Nigel Thrift. After that, I dwelt again in the pages of my favourite book of his, Land of Strangers; then I flipped, this time faster, through the pages of my least favourite book of his, Arts of the Political (Nigel will pardon me, I hope). This journey was concluded by re-appreciating his most recent works on the notion of animated space, his papers on migrant mental health in Shanghai with Lisa Richaud, and by re-reading the introduction to the book we recently co-edited together for Duke – another of his gifts to me.

In re-approaching these texts, I was moved by the idea of providing to you today a concise overview of how these separate bodies of work are ‘one’; to give you a hint of how, at least in my reading, they are all grounded in a profound desire – a power – to articulate a politics for the just city – a project that for Ash entails questioning and re-approaching each of these terms anew. City, as a mechanosphere of human and non-human that has an act of its own, a life trespassing the rationale of policy, an intelligence of intelligences made of computations but also of affects, of atmospheres as much as of cement, of intentionalities and violent extractions, as much as of di-vidual, only partially and momentarily coherent, assemblage of volitions, metabolic and ecologic impulses, matter and discourse. Just, as a question of what kind of justice and for whom, when so clearly the language of rights has failed to provide the mean for struggles, since fewer and fewer institutions are enabled to capacitate and to defend capacitation, and more and more ‘rights’ become signifier to be appropriated by extractive practices and enduring racial dispossession. Politics, read by Ash at the intersection of urbanity and justice, both as a project to be carried through and an agent of action – a proposition that, for Ash, has to deal with economic, ecological and social structures but requires attention to how these are a matter of multiple agencies (human, non-human, infrastructural, atmospheric) providing much social flesh – disempowering but also affirmative social flesh – to work with.

My intention today was to tell you how much Ash’s quest for a politics for the just city affected my intellectual journey and to point out how his writings – sometimes appearing perhaps disparate and concerned with too much – are instead held together by a profound commitment to social justice with a precise orientation. The project is to unpack the social beyond the pastiche of canonical sociological thinking while simultaneously maintaining a commitment to crafting socio-geographical imaginaries and methods that might be useful, directly appropriated, and put into action. But the more I have tried to write such a text, the more I confronted myself with the meaning of this exercise – the performative act of marking retirement, as I said earlier.

And so I scrapped what I had written, I trashed the ideas and the notes, and I instead wrote a text message to my dear sister Tatiana Thieme and, through a short exchange with her, I got the confidence to say what I really what to say; to affirm what I think today should be all about. My dear audience, that is simple. Today is just an illusion. You, all of you, called out of your busy academic and non-academic lives, you who have taken time off to come into this room to ‘celebrate’ and to ‘perform’, you, my friend, are no more and no less guests of an illusion, because today, I hope the might Cambridge University won’t mind, today, we are retiring no one today. Because if I may accept the fact that, after today, Ash will have more time than ever to chop his fingers in his beautiful garden, I shall not accept the option of retiring the energy of which I spoke, the intellectual burst with which he faces you every time you talk to him, as well as that questioning look of his, which makes immediately apparent to you when you haven’t done enough work, but also those same eyes running places in those rare occasions in which you might have said something he hasn’t already thought of.

No retirement today, no festivities, everybody goes home. Without please, and without excuses. We are just asking Ash to perform again and again because love for intellectual labour is so much needed today more than ever – at times in which your sad country is so clearly detaching itself from its ground and will sooner or later entirely collapse, while mine dances the swing of nationalism and fear once again, and the affect of militarisation wraps all of us together, like a cloth tight on our necks and eyes – tighter for some than others, but increasingly suffocating for the many. It is a violent image; I am conscious of that. A violent image to render the fierce powers of international financial capitalism, authoritarian pursuits, war industries and reactionary tunes, turning our dwelling on planet earth as real and felt, genuine dystopian, Land of Strangers. What is needed to cut through such a violent cloth is a multiplicity of grassroots political struggles – but the latter, to be imagined, require the labour of intellectual unrest – a labour that to speak truth to power needs to be fulfilled by a desire not to be satisfied, by any explanation, ever. To teach of this thirst in our classrooms, to write on such emancipatory affect in our papers and books, to be constantly unsatisfied and to be recharged through that — this is what Ash’s works speak of; this is what he has taught me with his silences, his nods, his sometime incomprehensible fabulations, and this is what today we are not going to retire.

I remember well the first time I arrived in the UK. It was September 2008, and I was due to commence my PhD at Durham. I landed at Heathrow, which was my first time in the country. When there, I passed through the usual duty-free shops, waiting for my connecting flight to Newcastle. To have the chance to relate to what follows, you have to know that I grew up in a tiny rural village in the North West of Italy, in a working-class family. My father, now retired, was a factory worker at FIAT, and my mother a cleaner. Becoming an academic was not in the plan, and neither was, to be honest, completing the entire cycle at Uni. I benefited from the scholarships offered by the Italian Public Education system, and from the fact that Italy is filled with Pizzerias where a waiter is always well accepted. I kept doing multiple jobs up to the end of my PhD, and it is only thanks to Ash’s and my former MA supervisor Francesca’s efforts to mobilise funding that I was able to carry the PhD through completion. But this is not what I want to focus on.

The point is that when I was waiting in Heathrow for my connecting flight to reach Ash at Durham University, I ended up buying two things. Well, I proudly and decisively bought two things. The first was a Paul Smith’s wallet. The second was a Paul Smith keychain. Of course, these were unnecessary and foolish purchases. Of course, in buying those two things, I wasted the money I had saved for many weeks of subsistence (Tesco baked potatoes and beans came to help). And, of course, luxury is evil and should be banished. But also, and at the same time, seeing from the eyes of that working-class kid with totally broken English and zero ideas about his new life, those in the Heathrow candy shop were the only possible purchases. Those purchases were a way for that kid to tell himself that things were going to be different. It’s easy, now, for me and all of us to laugh at that – and to see how problematic that was. And yet, it happened, and those two things are still with me to date, 14 years after my first landing in the country.

I thought that the keychain was the right gift for you, Ash, which is why – while I am still holding onto my wallet – I am giving it to you today. For keys are the object of home, and homing, homelessness, dwelling, inhabiting, and belonging are at the core of our shared interests. But partially, also, because you gave me keys, real ones, when you pushed me to read all those books, when you asked me to write all those essays in the first year of my PhD, and then, after, when you invited me to go back at the drawing board when things did not make sense and, most importantly, to go back there when they made too much sense. The keys you gave me will stay with me for more than 14 years. And so, to celebrate your non-retirement, for all the openings that you will offer to scholars of the future, through your direct engagement and your writing, here is my small symbolic gift for you: a warn, silly Paul Smith keychain figuring a colourful Mini car. Because sometimes the affective, as the political, can be carried through the most insignificant details.

Speaking of Frontex, Militarization and Universities at a public meeting in Turin (Volere la Luna)

On Saturday, 24th September, 9pm, I will join a critical public festival in Turin, sponsored by ‘Volere la Luna‘.

At the event, I will join a number of activists and colleagues to discuss around the increased role that the militarization industry is having in Turin, the city where I live. I will speak of the relationship between my University, the Polytechnic, and that industry – focusing in particular on the Frontex case, on bordering, and on the relationship between research and the military.

Free entry, in Via Trivero 16 at 9pm. Check the poster below for the full extent of the Festival.

Locandina 2022 def

Geography, Theory and Practice – Module syllabus 2022/2023

In the PDF below, you can find the syllabus for my Master-level module on Geography, Theory and Practice. The module offers an introduction to critical geographical thinking, with particular reference to how it developed in the past decades in Anglophone Geography.

The aim is to provide a concise, yet rich, introduction to a number of key concerns related to the critical understanding of space, place, scale and related processes. Key notions and approaches derived from political economy, relational spatial thinking, critical gender and race studies, political ecology will be presented and discussed. The course mixes frontal lectures with moments of in-depth reading of academic texts, as well as discussion of contemporary societal issues at the global scale.

The final part of the module provides a glance at some of the most common qualitative research methods in Human Geography, analysing their ethical implications and the role of Academics in the (re)production of unjust spaces.

Teaching modality: in presence, in Turin

Dates: Starting 26th Sept 2022, Ending 5th December 2022

For whom: Students part of the Interuniversity Master Degree in Geography, and any other student who will choose this module as a free option in their curricula.

Language: English.

Download the syllabus: here, or read the PDF below.

 

Geography theory and practice_Program_2022-23_ML

Beyond Inhabitation Lab at RGS-IBG 2022 conference in Newcastle, 30th Aug – 2 Sept

The Beyond Inhabitation Lab (www.beyondinhabitation.org) is excited to attend the RGS-IBG 2022 conference this week (https://www.rgs.org/research/annual-international-conference/). If you are in Newcastle, come join us for some of our events!

On Aug 30 @ 9am GMT, we will hold a lab launch panel where we will discuss our lab’s mission and current work. https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/2788/session/43792

Aug 31 we have 2 sessions on the theme of geographies of urban inhabitation, extensions, & situated resistance (9am, 11am). https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/2788/session/43734 & https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/2788/session/43759

Aug 31 we have 2 sessions on the theme of inhabiting radical housing: on the politics of inhabitation and intersectional struggles (14:40, 16:50). https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/2788/session/43785 & https://virtual.oxfordabstracts.com/#/event/public/2788/session/43810

Beyond Inhabitation at RC21 in Athens

I have the privilege of working with scholars who are going to mark #urban & #housing studies.

Thumbs up for the work of my postdocs Daniela Morpurgo, Rodrigo Castriota, Chiara Cacciotti, Oluwafemi Olajide, Ana Vilenica, Devra Waldman & brother AbdouMaliq Simone at #RC21Athens. They delivered great papers, with passion, care and insight.

@InhabitationLab www.beyondinhabitation.org
DIST – Dip. Interateneo di Scienze, Progetto e Politiche del Territorio

Collective international paper on ‘Early Career’ struggles in Urban Studies

When I was working at the Urban Institute and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning back in Sheffield, I designed and run for 3 years an ECR Post-Doc scheme to provide meaningful engagement to scholars who are too often isolated and not cared for.

Now that amazing group came out with this powerful international paper in City – Analysis of Urban Change, Theory, Action

A very powerful reading and expression of international solidarity: https://rsa.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13604813.2022.2091826#.YtVmEexBwX6

 

PS – Chuffed by the generous acknowledgement… “We are grateful to Michele Lancione who established the ECR Urban Studies Network at the University of Sheffield, UK in 2018. Without Michele’s hard work, kindness, and support, as well as a dedication to empowering precarious colleagues, this article, the establishment of the Collective, and the international workshops from which they grew would not have been possible”

New Radical Housing Journal issue out now!

The Radical Housing Journal seventh Issue is now out!!

Issue 4.1 – Carcerality, Housing Precarity and Abolition
Edited by Samanta Thompson, Erin McElroy, Ana Vilenica and myself.

Peer-reviewed, open-access and freely available at https://radicalhousingjournal.org/issue/issue-4-1/

In Issue 2.1 (May 2020), our editorial collective published ‘Covid-19 and housing struggles: The (re)makings of austerity, disaster capitalism, and the no return to normal’. The paper ended with the following provocation: ‘It is imperative to make the impossibility of returning to normal a praxis: a terrain of inquiry and a terrain of struggle. This means that we need to think about what to do next with what we have at hand’ (RHJ Editorial Collective​​, 2020, p. 25). Two years later, we reflect on this question through this collective editorial with new clarity. We are writing at a point in which there are old and new wars further degrading the living conditions of many, bolstering the power of fascist regimes. Further, there is a widespread urgency to declare the pandemic over and as an episode of the past, thereby paving the way for a return to ‘normal’. What is this normal that too many seem to be longing for? It seems especially clear now that normal simply means the reproduction of a racial capitalist machine that continues to accumulate profit through violence and dispossession. The state has continued to consolidate power, enact violence, and inflict harm upon those who need protection. Rather than safeguard people’s homes and communities, the state extends its protection and power to landlords, private property, and capital. This is the context in which we, in collaboration with the Unequal Cities Network, have decided to focus our 4.1 Radical Housing Journal issue on the nexus of continuous crisis, carcerality, housing precarity, and abolition.

Interview on radical housing and urbanity with WOZ (Swiss-German critical left newspaper)

I am grateful to the WOZ (DieWochenzeitung) and to Raphael Albisser for giving me space on their pages to express some ideas on urbanity, radical housing struggles and the meaning of academic work.

You can find the interview, in German, here: https://www.woz.ch/-c857

Below I am providing an un-edited automatic English translation of the piece.

Credit for the photo of the actual copy of the magazine above: David Kaufmann

 

AUTOMATIC ENGLISH TRANSLATION

 

“When it comes to housing, it quickly becomes existential”.

When people in the world’s urban centres resist displacement, they are fighting for much more than a roof over their heads. Understanding the radical quality of their resistance also requires radical research, says Turin geography professor Michele Lancione.

“I’m interested in cities where struggles for housing coincide with other problems,” says Michele Lancione: a woman dyes laundry in the polluted Makoko lagoon in Lagos, Nigeria.
Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP

WOZ: Mr Lancione, where is the future of a city decided?
Michele Lancione: That’s not an easy question. And the first answer that comes to mind is: probably in a bank here in Switzerland.

Seriously?
No, of course that’s far too simplistic. I am not a Swiss expert at all. But the country is one of the most important locations worldwide in terms of financialisation, i.e. the transfer of capital into financial products, which in turn plays a central role in the development of cities and what we think of as urbanity.

How exactly?
Urban development and thus the further development of infrastructure just like housing do not only need capital. They are also designed for capital. They are designed to make even more money out of financial investments. The city is the place where this takes on a particularly concrete form, in infrastructure projects and a real estate economy that promises profits through mortgages and rents.

At the same time, the future of the city is also being decided from below, for example through processes of internal and transnational migration, which have brought about huge changes in the last forty years, especially for cities in the so-called Global South. Today, climate change also plays an important role, let’s think of the Indonesian capital Jakarta for example: parts of the city are subsiding by about 25 centimetres per year, flooding is increasing. This causes problems that are not decided in the context of financialisation – but in the experienced reality of the people who are forced to relocate. So the city is shaped as much by global economic interests as by the reality of the urban, the experienced struggle for housing. And there is a third level in between.

Politics?
Certainly, but I mean mainly a cultural understanding of a global political class that cities should look a certain way and function in a certain way. These three levels together result in the direction in which cities develop.

In your research, you have long been dealing with urban struggles over housing, with forced evictions and resistance to them. You describe this with the term “radical housing”. Where does it come from?
I don’t know exactly, to be honest. You can find it in pamphlets from housing movements in the UK in the seventies. As I understand it, and as my colleagues understand it, the radicalism that we use it to describe occurs particularly when movements are fighting the larger and broader issues that underlie housing in the first place. This can refer to economic mechanisms and profiteering, but also to completely different aspects.

Which ones, for example?
Sometimes it’s about climate justice, sometimes it’s about fighting racism or patriarchy. Most of my research so far has been done in Romania, especially in Bucharest. There I studied how people – especially Roma – fight for their right to housing. People, for example, who are evicted from their flats in the city centre. My focus was always on the struggle for the right to housing, but I found that it was about much more: it was a struggle of marginalised communities against racist dispossession. My new research project is now about examining in a number of cities around the world the social struggles with which the one over housing is interwoven.

The project started in September and is funded by the EU until 2025. What is the research goal?
We are trying to understand what people and communities are essentially trying to achieve when they struggle for a place to live in their city – sometimes without expressing it in language that is immediately accessible to us. We are investigating this in a number of cities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. As a global research project, however, we try to avoid an overarching theory.

Why?
That would be problematic. We are dealing with geographically and also historically very specific contexts with different forms of political expression, which are not immediately understood in our very westernised academic world. It is therefore crucial that the researchers in this project are familiar with the relevant contexts and the forms of structural violence that operate there. The kind of knowledge that should come out of this project should not be: We have here overarching knowledge that can be derived from the housing struggles from Lagos to Mexico City. No, we want to provide a set of specifically locatable insights to enrich our collective knowledge of what the global struggle for housing actually is.

So you’re not creating a synthesised theory, but rather a kind of mosaic?
Yes, and I can explain why. Essentially, we want to create a decolonised scientific framework. Because the way the political in the struggle for housing has mostly been described so far stems from a Eurocentric tradition. It is perfectly fine to understand squatting in Italy as an essential practice of housing politics; but when people squat houses in Johannesburg, it probably takes a different form of expression than in Turin. One that has been hijacked in the past by certain narratives: humanitarian narratives, for example, that are about the resilience and adaptability of urban dwellers – and not about political practices. This is problematic because these narratives and this language come from the colonial centres. But sometimes the political is not just about organising or mobilising, but about multiple, nuanced forms of resistance that cannot be generalised – hence the mosaic approach.

Was it difficult to get public research funding with this approach?
I’ll be honest here: To a certain extent, you just have to play the game. The European Research Council (ERC), which is now funding my project, has a very neoliberal language. Then you have to say something like: this is a new paradigm of science, it’s groundbreaking. To get research funding, you also need a certain track record. It’s about how much and where you’ve already published – an exclusionary way of defining scientific excellence. But that’s how it works, and for better or worse, I fit into their scheme. At least the upside is that the ERC isn’t constantly breathing down your neck when funding is spoken for.

So as a professor you are a kind of door opener?
If you successfully apply for the research funds, you can hire the researchers yourself. When I got the grant, I was still at the University of Sheffield, but then had to return to Turin for family reasons. At the Polytechnic, I practically started the project all over again. And I found out: The research environment there is far less diverse than that in the UK. All around me were Italians, all white. One of the central prerequisites of the project is that people work in it who already know the respective contexts very well. So I hired people from Nigeria and Brazil. And it was a nightmare.

Why?
I spent a lot of time on bureaucracy. The system is simply not ready to hire international researchers. Mistakes were made with all the visas. It was a painful process to build this team of people with seven nationalities. Yet it was the only way to do this kind of work: I don’t want to send someone to Mumbai who was doing research on the real estate market in Rome yesterday. Because that would simply be reproducing what the vast majority of social sciences have always done.

How did you choose the cities?
I am interested in cities where struggles for housing obviously coincide with other problems. In Lagos, for example, there are two levels: First, financialisation is clearly a displacement driver; Lagos is the fastest growing city in Africa in terms of population and economy. Secondly, environmental and climatic factors play a role. Because most of the displacement is in the waterfront areas of the city.

You say that you are concerned with intersectionality, that is, with intersections of social struggles. Does housing have a prominent role in this?
I think so. After all, it is a place where we find our existential security as human beings. For me, whose interest is in cities and how people inhabit the world, housing is where an incredible number of things come together: Sexism, queerphobia, racism. Issues of how housing is granted or taken away from people. Economic issues. And it’s pretty obvious by now that the struggle for housing has become a global struggle.

Why now of all times?
Maybe it’s a bit oversimplified, but I think there are two reasons: first, the stark demographic reality. The world population has grown exponentially over the last fifty years. This inevitably brings with it questions about housing and infrastructure. Secondly, it is about the space in which capital has decided to multiply.

Where else? The lemon has been squeezed in many respects.
Exactly. And in actually every city – from Zurich to London and Belo Horizonte to Hong Kong – the primary need for housing has become the decisive growth factor. What this can mean was seen in Spain, for example, when the real estate bubble burst in 2008.

At the same time, it makes the functioning of capitalism very directly tangible for people from the most diverse backgrounds. It is all the more interesting that local and national authorities as well as international organisations and the UN are still dealing with this as if it were a simple local political issue. As if the problems could be solved with technical solutions. I have not investigated this further, but I suspect that this is being done deliberately. Because it is only by negotiating the right to decent housing in this way that capital can continue to do whatever – please excuse the language – shit it wants in urban centres.

Where does your passion for urbanity actually come from?
I grew up in the country, in a village eighty kilometres north of Turin. When I was eighteen, I moved to the city, a fairly small city, but a city nonetheless. In Turin, I started to get interested in questions around the urban. And of course I was also influenced by what I saw during my studies; there was an incredible amount written about urbanity back then.

Is it common to work with the concept of radicality in the academic world?
My colleagues and I use it to refer to militant communities that worked with the term “radical housing” because it was politically obvious. When it comes to housing, it quickly becomes existential and radical action becomes necessary. In science, my main concern is that knowledge must also be radical.

How is that to be understood?
It’s about the question of how you produce knowledge. About the decisions you make in the scientific context. It may sound silly that I have spent a year of my academic life hiring researchers who come from the context of their research. But it is a conceptual radicalism that is central in my eyes. It could make it possible to create a different kind of knowledge.

Or another example: six years ago we founded the “Radical Housing Journal”, in which we publish articles according to all scientific standards, but without letting ourselves be taken over by one of the big publishing houses. They take publicly funded academic work, privatise it and sell it back to the universities. Others even pay academics to publish with them.

They now call themselves “activist academics”. I guess that’s easier once you have a full professorship. Did you have to become more conformist on the way there?
If you publish well in the Anglo-Saxon system, you can have a fast career. I got my doctorate in 2012, and my first open ended contract as Associate Professor just four years later. And the reason was that I knew how to play the neoliberal game in the academic business. I am not ashamed to say that. Me and my partner, who is a filmmaker, were also very mobile; we lived in ten cities in three countries on two continents in less than eight years.

Where did you become an activist?
I was not yet a professor at the time, I was doing research in Bucharest as part of a post-doctoral position. I already knew the city very well and started to get involved with the Roma communities there – and that’s when the political caught up with me. I got to know feminist, anarchist, queer activist collectives – all personal matters close to my heart. And I had to learn to navigate the tensions between research and activism.

How does that work?
First, you have to be careful. It may be hip right now to call yourself an activist:n researcher: but there is a certain self-interest in the relationship. That’s why you should separate these two worlds quite strongly, because traditionally academics have always been very extractive towards activists, using them for their own purposes.

There is the same problem in journalism. What is your solution?
You must always be vigilant about your role – otherwise you risk exploiting activists for academic gain. Therefore, when I enter activist spaces, I either do it as an individual, as an activist; or I do it as an academic and in return I try to let resources flow from the academic enterprise into the activist struggles. When I call myself an activist researcher, it also refers, above all, to a critical attitude towards my own institutions. Today, as a professor, I have the opportunity to do this.

This was demonstrated last year when you publicly opposed the fact that the Polytechnic of the University of Turin, where you are employed, cooperates with the European border protection agency Frontex. What happened there?
The Polytechnic won a public tender from Frontex and now my department, where many cartographers and geographers work, is supposed to produce maps for the agency. I heard about it at a departmental meeting, and since then I have tried to fight it.

Did you succeed?
No, nothing could be done about the cooperation with Frontex. The department’s solution was to put a note in the contract stating that both parties are obliged to respect human rights. Which is of course complete rubbish, sorry. How can you ask Frontex to respect human rights? That’s madness. But at least there was some movement within the department, some colleagues took my side. And by writing an open letter to the public, it was at least noticed that not everyone in the scientific community agreed. It was encouraging for some activists, as well as for students who are grappling with the issue.

And how did the colleagues react?
The matter has caused quite a stir in the media, and for many people I am a stain on their reputations because of it. That also shows that the academic world today is largely depoliticised. A world in which young people study to pick up a degree and then have good job prospects – a functional thing for neoliberalism.

But many in the academic profession hardly have the privilege to expose themselves without consequences because many work under precarious employment conditions.
Yes, that is true. The professorship allows me to fight back. I feel it is a responsibility. But I am not the only professor at the Polytechnic. Just one of the few who speak out critically. And unfortunately that’s not only the case in Turin or Italy, many professors today are technocrats.

But there are always those who speak out clearly on political issues …
It is one thing to take a public stand, for example to co-sign an open letter, to get involved in debates. And that is also good! But it’s something else again to speak out against the academic establishment. Even if you have a full professorship, it’s not easy, because it can isolate you. I myself am on the safe side at the moment, I have my research project and my team. But what about 2025, when that ends? I wouldn’t suffer, but it would be difficult to work in an environment where I am spurned.

So should students in particular politicise the universities again?
That would probably be most effective. After all, we academics are mostly quite self-centred, we want to be liked. So if students build up pressure and start challenging their professors, they might hit a nerve. But I know from my own experience that you can’t expect that from students easily: I come from a working-class family, my father was a factory worker at Fiat, my mother a cleaner. When I arrived at the university, I first reverently accepted all hierarchies there. It is important for students to gain dominion over their own thinking and base the political on it.

Michele Lancione (38) is a professor at the Turin Polytechnic. He teaches at the Department of Economic and Political Geography of the Department of Territorial Studies and Planning. He is also Visiting Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Sheffield.

In his current EU-funded research project, Inhabiting Radical Housing, Lancione and a team of international scholars are investigating radical struggles over housing in a number of cities around the world. Lancione is co-founder and editor of the academic Radical Housing Journal and a member of the grassroots movement Common Front for Housing Rights in the Romanian capital Bucharest.