In memory of Moussa Balde

Today I am turning 38, and all I can think about is that the city I have chosen to live in, the city where my life is continuing and extending, is the same place where last Sunday Moussa Balde had to take his life as the only possible choice, the only possible way forward.

For the international friends, here we are talking about a 23 years old young Guinean man, who travelled across deserts and sea to reach this place – where he got jailed, then beaten up by fascists on the streets, then incarcerated again in one of the ‘centres for repatriation’ (Cpr).

The silencing of the potential of his life – the shutting down of all possible reverberations of his becoming – is a violent act that came before Moussa’s decision to commit suicide in the CPR’s cell where he was locked in. It is ingrained in European migration politics, in its Italian implementation, and in the everyday life of a city that does not simply ‘turn its back’ away, but it fires against, its so-defined ‘other’.

What kind of inhabitation is this? What kind of home?

Rest in power, Moussa Balde.

Going back ‘home’

Tempo di tornare a casa…

2020 has been hard on my family, and so, after 13 years abroad, from 1st April (no fool!) I’ll return to Italy & take up a full professorship/Professore Ordinario in Geography at the Interuniversity Department of Urban Studies at the Polytechnic of Turin (DiST,

Above, a shot of the countryside I grew up in (& the only bridge we had to do tagging as kids).

Sure, Italy is sexier than that bridge. But ‘home’ is what it is and rarely one to choose. So if those northern flatlands of ricefields and wasted industrial warehouses, the FIAT factory were my father worked, the house my mother Marina cared for with devotion, and the one my beautiful, strong and inspirational sis Silvia & I grew up in, pushed me to move around — like many, many of my friends…

… those same fields and those same people pull back, demand a renewed care and attention, implicitly so, because it is not a matter of asking or complying, but just of redirecting a flow.

Plus, let’s be honest: this is as well a thrilling move for me, ’cause as my bro & sis know very well, I never exactly loved the Queen and her island!

And yet, I am grateful for what it provided. For the people I encountered in Durham, in Cambridge, in London, in Cardiff, overseas in Sydney & especially to those who really made a difference & always supported me to this very move at the University of Sheffield. Including, above all, Leo.

I will retain a visiting professorship at the Urban Institute at Sheffield & continue to enjoy the vibe. I will also soon re-load my ERC project & hire internationally in Turin —

— so it appears the move is just the iteration of a vantage point. My intention is to exploit all my privilege to maintain it radical.

To conclude, two more shots: 1/9/08 departing for my PhD at Durham — 1/4/21 packing to coming back ‘home’.


Worlds of Homelessness street magazine, with AOWC and Goethe LA

It is a great privilege for me to be part of this publication by the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles & Arts of the Working Class with so many friends coming out of the #WorldsofHomelessness event that took place last year in LA.

Essays by Ananya Roy, the LA Poverty Department & activists fighting homelessness all over the world. My two cents focus on ‘reentering the politics of home’.

PDF free:…/awc_extrablatt5_255x350mm_lay101.pdf

Bio-austerity and solidarity in the Covid-19 space of emergency (with Abdoumaliq Simone)

With AbdouMaliq Simone we have produced this text, which appeared first on the Society & Space Blog (here and here) and then on LeftEast (here). It comes out of weeks of reflections on how the covid-19 impacted China and Italy. A good amount of critical readings on the topic can be found here and, for ones written mostly by social scientists, here.

Bio-austerity and Solidarity in the Covid-19 Space of Emergency

Written by Michele Lancione and AbdouMaliq Simone.
All pictures by Michele Lancione

Recent days have witnessed many Western heads of state acting as pedagogues-in-chief, lecturing their populations that the nation is at war against an invisible enemy to which the majority has been seemingly oblivious and indifferent. We want here to explore the implications of this retreat from busy to empty streets, the retreat to the safety of individual abodes and what this indicates about public sociality and the sense of the urban. These reflections come out of our long-term engagement with collectives in Romania and Italy (Michele) and Sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia (Maliq), which have taught us about the importance of rethinking inhabitation from the standpoint of autonomous and solidarity-based forms of dwelling. More recently, we have more closely engaged with what produced by comrades in Italy (especially Blocchi Precari Metropolitani in Rome, and Wu-Ming/Giap in Bologna) and Romania (FCDL and Bloc) in response to the Covid-19 state of emergency. We are indebted to these forms of collective thinking, and our intervention aims to contribute to further reflections around the new austerity in the makings.

The essay will unfold in two parts. The first focuses on what we call bioterity, the ways in which the war against the virus extends austerity regimes into the very biological mechanisms of human existence, and where these mechanisms’ legitimate existence become further removed from a discernible social life. The current mode of governing the crisis in Italy will serve as the primary means to elaborate this notion. The second episode concerns the waning of the sensuousness of the street as a locus of circulation—of knowledge, affect, and capacity—and the performance of solidarity. It concludes with some ideas about how to think through a potential reassembling of social life in the time of this crisis.


Part One: The New Austerity

An ever-present danger?

Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Italian collective, Wu-Ming, highlighted the difference between the danger (pericolo) and the emergency (emergenza) structuring our current times and spaces. The pericolo is the immanent and potential threat, such as the one posed by the virus in its capacity to infect/affect our bodies. L’emergenza is what is built on and around that threat. It is a space that opens up from the danger of the given situation: a space that is molded from above and from below, through relationships of various kinds and strength, such as the ones operated by governments and state agencies (including Universities), economic and financial powers. But it also entails mundane acts of participation in the micropolitics of that space of emergency. Pointing out the generative power of that space to restructure everyday life can be seen as a way of negating the necessity of action in face of a given pericolo. But as commentators such as Wu-Ming are signalling, being vigilant on how a space of emergency is arranged – and on its implications – is as important as washing our hands to stay alive in the times that we currently inhabit.

A processual notion of ‘inhabitation’ here is key. Our subjectivities are constituted through regimes of governance, historical baggage, social stratification, and everyday fluctuations, interactions, and assemblage (Bondi, 2005; Guattari, 1996; O’Sullivan, 2012). When the terms of the everyday change, our bodies are put under stress and have to adjust. This process is as contested and political (Haraway, 1991) as it is unconscious. The covid-19 space of emergency instantiates unprecedented stress, positing questions around its long-term effects, and the ways those will (re)assemble modalities of interaction, control, and self/collective affirmation. At the same time, l’emergenza offers also the opportunity to imagine autonomous and liberatory ways of inhabiting its spaces.

A key factor in how we currently inhabit is austerity. As a domain of interventions, affections, and governance key to the neoliberal project, austerity produces subjects that are more easily controlled to extract capacities, knowledge, labour and income streams from them. Life under precarious conditions and permanent crisis has become the norm, re-structuring the ways of dwelling everywhere, as evident, for instance, around matters of housing (Madden & Marcuse, 2016; Rolnik, 2019). Through movement restrictions, increased job precarity and overall policing of social interaction, it seems evident that the covid-19 emergency is an extension of austerity technologies. But what exactly does this emergency bring to the fore? How does such an extension intersect with the normalized repression we currently inhabit? These are early days, and our direct experience of these matters is limited to the cases of Italy, Germany, the USA and the UK, but peculiar traits are already evident and worth highlighting.



The current space of emergency distinguishes itself for its scale and pace—think of the diffusion of unprecedented restrictive measures from China to Italy, Iran, Spain and beyond. But there is more. At its core, that emergency space is structured around a biological framework, that is, it is structured around the need to control the flow of certain kinds of biological circulations across bodies in space and time. From Canguilhem and Foucault (1989; 2016) to Franco and Franca Ongaro-Basaglia (2013), to the debated work on biological citizenship of Rose and Novas (2005), many have discussed how biological/health grounds can be used both to govern and to organize demands for resources and rights. Sparke points out how the relationship between neoliberal economics, austerity politics and biology leads to the restructuring of and production of new forms of ‘biological sub-citizenship’ (2017). Here, austerity measures are embodied and lead to the definition of specific bio-inequalities and related subjectivities. But covid-19 poses a different challenge.

The current space of emergency is not only about the effect that austerity has on health, its management, and the rise of sub-citizenship. There are also signs of a diffused, beyond-health, form of austerity (l’emergenza) founded on a health concern (il pericolo). This process goes hand in hand with the creation of sub-citizenship, for instance allowing the stigmatization and social control of travellers from Wuhan, Iran and Italy, which of course intersect with Northern-Westernized racial attitudes towards these different ‘Souths’. But at the same time, l’emergenza is about using ‘health’ as a gateway to non-biological domains that are accessed rapidly and efficaciously precisely because of the biological foundation of emergency. This is a form of biologically-structured austerity – or what we provisionally call bioterity – that can strengthen old processes of governmentality. In other words, the affective capacities of current measures *might* foster subjectivities that not only desire their own repression (Deleuze & Guattari, 1977), but willingly look for it in the name of perceived safety. If it is clear that those subjectivities have been in the making from a very long time—through neoliberal and reactionary manoeuvring around labour / housing / terrorism—the biological grounding of the current austerity measures gives it a new spin.

The novelty brought forward by the covid-19 space of emergency lies in the starting point of its measures. Bioterity founds its perceived mode d’être at the virological level: a plane of intimate biological circulations that exceed individual perception and experience. On that plane contestation is difficult, not only because it encompasses the subject, but also because its boundaries are guarded by the custodial truths of medicalized science. This double detachment – from a circulation exceeding the self, and the bordering operated by science – opens a space where appropriation and extraction can be fast and quick. The opening of such a space is, of course, not accidental, which is why we align it to a broader lineage of austerity politics that, now, not only intersects with long-standing racialized banishment (Roy, 2019), uneven urban developments (Harvey, 2012), and neoliberal management of environmental disaster (Vincanne, 2013), but founds renewed life in the fight against pandemic death. Here, bioterity allows the a-symmetrical relationships between global-exploratory flows and everyday life to work smoother and faster (Hardt & Negri, 2019).

In protecting ‘life’ against a virus that ‘we’ cannot fight individually, colluding political and economic interests are rapidly gaining direct access to a level of shared bodily fright which provides for a unique vantage-point for a number of potentially reactionary, extractive makings. As in Fassin’s notion of “biolegitimacy—“the sacredness of life as such” (2009, p. 50)— how can the many say no to a space of emergency erected to protect their lives, and how, more crucially, will they unlearn and contest the dwelling praxis they have been subjected to in the meantime?

Some concrete expressions of bioterity are already evident. From the Italian case, one witnesses the intensification of structural relegation and subsequent violent silencing and, the restructuring of economies of work combined with the rise of post-biological precarity. Beyond the illustrative and paradigmatic cases of homeless people denounced for their wandering around the streets of Milan, against the current blockade imposed by the national government, the management of prisons is a clear example of the first category.


Where does the prison begin and end?

In order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the Italian Ministry of Justice suspended family visits and meetings with social workers for inmates in most jails. The policy (enacted on the 7th of March) was the first and only addressed specifically at jails, where no other measure was put in place. No masks or hand sanitisers were distributed, and inmates were simply told to maintain distance from one another—in a carceral system composed of 189 institutes designed for 50,000 people, where 61,200 live (with an overcrowding rate of 120%). On March 8th, and in the following days, inmate revolts against the policy started in dozens of prisons across the country – most notably in Foggia, Avellino, Bologna and Modena. After three days of struggle, the body count rose to 14, all inmates. Some prisons, like Modena, were severely damaged, leading to the transfer of inmates to other cities, furthering overcrowding. All deaths have been classified as ‘overdoses’—claims that inmates abused substances taken from prison infirmaries during the revolt. Most deaths are racialized. Nine of the ten deaths registered between Modena and Bologna occurred in individuals of North African origin, with three awaiting their first judicial hearing.

In this context, a feasible response to the virus would have been to decrease the number of inmates through a pardon for minor crimes, as adopted in Iran, or through the suspension of incarceration for those awaiting their first hearing (which taken together will account for about 10,000 people currently jailed in the country). The distribution of adequate prevention kits, as well as the pre-emptive use of Skype and other remote platforms to facilitate communication with families, would have also eased tensions. As inmates’ associations correctly point out, blatant disinterest, lack of care, and the generalized acceptance of what some have called ‘penal populism’ prevented these measures from being adopted.

In the aftermath of these revolts, The Ministry of Justice, testifying in front of the Parliament, reduced these actions to a “criminal act,” stating that “Italy will not back away in the face of illegality.” No mention was made about the root cause of the unrest. Far-right politicians such as Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini have called for “exemplary and severe measures” for the rioters. The general public has largely ignored the issue. A week after the events, no further news can be found on any of the major national media outlets. Investigations of the real reasons for the deaths seem to be postponed, let alone publicly discussed.

The sense of emergency and grandiose acts of responsibility, invoked by Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on daily Twitter or Facebook videos, does not leave room for much else because it is about defending the objective truth of intimate life for the many (Fassin, 2009). In this context, the disinterested responses to the revolts of the incarcerated are not only effects of the crisis (‘there are more important things to think about right now’), or the evident expression of the racialized orderings of life. They mark, above all, the starting point for a new austerity founded on an immanent biological imperative, which will outlast its immediate instantiation. For the ones who rebelled during the rise of bioterity – having the guts to fight against the austerity imposed on them in a moment in which everybody was intimately, biologically, asked to be responsible and savvy – the future can only be bleak. The post-covid landscape, that is, the space where bioterity will largely unfold, will likely be populated with new norms of containment—the “iron fist” invoked by Salvini—to avoid similar episodes from happening again.


Who will work and how?

The restructuring of economies of work is a second, diffused, effect of these early days of biological austerity. Interviewed around the Coronavirus crisis, Rome’s controversial mayor expressed her solidarity with those losing their jobs in the informal economy (il lavoro in nero) because of the current restrictions on population movements. Ridiculed by the mainstream media, Virginia Raggi has shared a concern felt and lived by many of our working-class friends and relatives in the country. How do these workers cope, in the utter impossibility of going on with their life, being cut off also from the few available financial resources dedicated to formal workers? And most importantly, how will they continue to work post-emergency, when tight controls are likely to remain in place in a country where almost 13% of the GDP is based on informal jobs?

Arguably, bioterity measures are not only reducing the possibility of a public debate around these issues now but are also preparing for more stringent controls on the conduct of work (perhaps on the basis of the data collected during the ‘crisis’). This is most evident in the ways big multinationals and universities have been piloting remote (or ‘smart’) working schemes en-masse on the eve of the outbreak. When Italy still had no containment zone, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft in the U.S. were launching large-scale office closures. The effects that these measures will create, undermining place-based solidarity and interaction and enhancing the capabilities of remote digital control, are likely to protrude well beyond the current space of emergency.

Given this atmosphere, in Part II we will focus on possible more progressive and judicious responses to these spaces of austerity based on what seems to be lost in our experiences of collective life, and what might be triggered anew.



Part 2: On circulation and solidarity


Twenty-four, twenty-four hours to go, we want to be instructed

While it may appear that we have paid insufficient attention to the real dangers of the crisis underway thus far, we want to be clear that it seems severity measures might work to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, and that calls for herd immunity, as in the case of the UK, are no more than attempts at continuing the flow of profits before public health. At the moment of writing, very encouraging signs emerge from Wuhan province and other parts of China.

Indeed, especially when one is a “senior citizen” residing in the UK wary of contamination, one wants masks delivered to one’s doorstep (Singapore), one wants the imposition of mandated social distancing (Hong Kong), one wants the movements of populations precisely tracked as a way of monitoring and controlling disease vectors (Taiwan). If such wanting appears to buttress the imaginary of an all-knowing surveillant state, or to offer up essential individual and collective responsibilities to technological apparatuses outside of common design or control, it does reflect a distrust in the capacities of a general public to act in its best interest. For is such a public a simple collation of existences long encouraged to curate themselves as exaggerations of a purported human autonomy, or does it reflect some critical mass of mutual recognition, of complementary alignment among divergent experiences and assessments? In public, whose interests do we really have in mind? What is happening to our experiences of social solidarity, our ways of being in public, and our capacities to circulate through each others’ lives?

These questions allow us to further unpack the groundings of the emerging bio-led austerity regime. The want for surveillance, for restrictions from possible contaminating contact, for a statistical representation of the intersection of lives, partly stems from a downward spiral of the capacity of individuals to remain attuned to their surrounds. In this sense, bioterity is not found only in the intimate biology of the self, and in one’s own essential incapacity to deal with these dynamics of genetics and infection, but also in the circulatory regimes between those intimacies and other wider ecologies.

These are circulatory regimes from which individuals are largely and strategically removed, therefore leaving the operationalization of these spaces up for grabs. From intoxicated women careening through the aisles of Tesco coughing indiscriminately, to cashiers wiping their noses before delivering the change, to projectiles of spit on crowded sidewalks, it sometimes appears as if individuals in public are oblivious to the current viral conditions, completely unaware of the implications of their demeanor. Relieving immediate experiences of personal discomfort or anxiety seems to take precedence over any concern for a ‘public’. The hyper-attentiveness to phone screens and advertisements captivate attention away from the sensuousness of street life. In the time of viral transmissions, passers by easily become a generalized threat, no matter who they are or where they come from. No one in their particularity is singled out in a kind of perverse inversion of solidarity. The question of how such ‘a public’ is constituted and inhabited is one key to access the politics, and the related counter-politics, of the emergent regime of governance creeping through it. It is a key reason that national leaders may seem inclined to function now as pedagogues-in-chief.


The sensuous street

What has happened to our capacity to be in public, and from where might it be possible to draw important ideas of living through new austerity regimes? In a section off the Noailles market in Marseille a cat and mouse game between police and street sellers has intensified since the onset of the virus. Without stalls, or sometimes even useful or discernible products to sell, a panoply of men and women emerge from seemingly all corners of the city to assume a spot from which to issue rumours, impressions, and propositions under the auspices of having something concrete to offer—chargers for phones that have long become dinosaurs, expired lottery tickets—as well as a motley supply of things having “fallen off trucks” or tossed out of windows during domestic disputes. Everyone gathered seems to recognize and respect the need for a predictable and stable spot, even though there is a great deal of bodies running back and forth to witness an unusual sale, and repeated exchanges of trades, where those selling bootleg cigarettes today will hawk stolen shoes tomorrow.

Without explicable notice, the crowd will often quickly disappear before the cops show up, only to return a short-time later and resume previously-interrupted transactions without missing a beat. Everyone seems to know what each other is doing; each knows that everyone pretends to be something they are not, but without any deep secrets being covered up. There is  attunement to the surrounds, a sense that these bodies are an integral part of their environment without being fixed in place, capable of incessant calibrations, small and invisible though they may appear. What is solidarity here but the capacity of participants to play off each other, to pay attention to the smallest details of how personal actions ramify across the landscape? There are no deliberated rules and enforcements, no meta-governors to issue dictates or guarantee consensus. There are no general principles about common welfare, even if each seller tacitly knows that their only opportunity rests with ensuring an opportunity for all, together. Each must also remain detached, for there is no recourse to justice; even if brokers and enforcers abound, even if a certain violence hovers over the scene, things must not get out of (one’s) hand.

While life in the time of the virus will exhibit many instances of inordinate generosity and mutual concern, the extent to which this indicates a sense of solidarity may be questionable. Whatever the motivation—from the attenuation of guilt to a sense of moral responsibility—the demonstration of care remains important, yet it transforms into solidarity only when room is accorded to all of the ways people in urban life ‘work around’ each other. A ‘public’ is constituted only if maintained as such. What this means concretely is that individuals are sufficiently attuned to the ways in which buildings, roads, stairs, sidewalks, aisles, and rooms not only posit an infrastructure of everyday performance but possibilities of figuring new modes of witnessing and transacting, of call and response, deliberating, of saying something to each other. For the question is what can we do together—something determined by those infrastructures—and then to turn the question around, what can we do to those infrastructures, right now, to permit an enhanced sensitivity to the conditions “we” face? Yes, retreat into interiors may be required, but an attunement to the surroundings may allow us to “space out” in ways that can contribute to a renewed sense of intimacy with and through the extended world we inhabit.

The question therefore seems to be how one can re-appropriate the uninhabitable space of one own’s biological intimacy as well as re-inhabit its extended circulations in their criss-crossing with those of anybody else. Relegating the former to science and the latter to the dictates of governmentality has allowed for their grounds to become terrains of extraction, where our individual responses can only be null, de-potentiated. Bioterity will only expand this process. So, if there is something to be cared for in this renewed space of emergency, that thing is not just at the level of individual practice, inclinations, or willingness to ‘do more’ and help the ‘collective’. Austerity subsumes these efforts into the cogs of the ‘new normal’ anyway. What is needed is an imagination of an undisciplined politics of inhabitation, that is, a politics that finds in limited control and circulations ways to undo austere fixtures.


Gathering the surrounds: an undisciplined politics

What might such an undisciplined politics look like? Years ago, one of us – AbdouMaliq – was living in Yopougon, a dense quarter of Abidjan, being continuously bewildered by the efficacy of peculiar practice his partner pursued with a close friend of hers. This was a district  of a uniform layout of tiny pavilions surrounded by a walled courtyard. The two women lived close by, but some four streets away, a distance of over one hundred yards. Yet both would place ladders against their back walls, climb up and have long conversations with each other even though it would have seemed physically impossible for them to hear anything each other said. For the projected words would have to cross the cacophony of so many other neighbours—their conversations and nocturnal activities. But this was seemingly the point, i.e. to speak with each other in the midst of and crossing of this other life; to speak to each other as the very surrounds they were a part of, for these surrounds to be their very voices, and to constitute the modality of whatever solidarity they shared.

In the everyday life of inhabitation, there is often a thin line between care and affliction. The other of us – Michele – has on numerous occasions been brought into the space between the two, in the everyday living of Roma people on the street of Bucharest, Romania. The seemingly inordinate life of communities violently evicted from their homes, resisting racialized state violence within self-made shacks, was about extending individual concerns beyond the self in order to arrange for a renewed ‘public’ to emerge and endure. Circulations—of buckets of water, wood beams, and food cooked in pots passed from one shack to another— were interwoven with travelling miles by foot to file documents at the City’s offices, hospital visits, public rallies and other forms of collective politicization. That condensation was untenable and because of that it was able to generate a collective/affective orientation to effective political action. Insisting on  circulating across an inordinate cacophony, and cutting through the normalizing closures of neoliberal Bucharest, solidarity emerged as a form of care beyond-the-self (Stevenson, 2014), frightening a city that did not know how to deal with that.

These stories show that in order for care to take place, persons must extend themselves to one another beyond the positions and sensibilities they occupy. Care must entail the capacity of persons to be implicated in a world beyond where it is that they can exert reasonable control, and thus to be present in ways that are diffuse, partially-formed and undisciplined. For discipline is that which reins in the multiplicities of what a person is into the appearance of something cohesive and responsible. So, care cannot control the terms of its offering, even if motivated by a spirit of generosity and empathy. The person that extends herself literally loses the ability to remain in charge of the story, for the extension entails the transgression of limits that regulate the performance of the self.

Likewise, each person is surrounded by a circulation of fragmented extensions. One’s surrounds do not constitute a cohesive atmosphere, its ecology is not a unitary thing, but a swirl of fragments, extensions from many elsewheres. These extensions seek implication and traction in the person’s life. They counter the agendas and self-interests that might characterize the extension of a fully intact subject into its surrounds. Rather, a dispersal of fragments and potentials seeks some kind of landing in a recipient—and so the well-known field of “affecting and being affected.” Just as a person seeks to secure themselves, not in defensive manoeuvres, but by being implicated in a world larger than their direct apprehension, that same person is the recipient of forces coming from both known and unknown destinations—forces that are potentially afflictive as much as sustaining—and sometimes the demarcation is not clear. So the solidarity we know of might not be enough to protect us. There will be no huddled masses yearning to be free (of the virus).

Rather, we might turn to Isabelle Stengers’ call for a “cosmopolitical” approach to slowly trying to find common ground, one based on process of distinct standpoints seeking to enfold each other’s heterogeneity rather than on consensual agreement to a specific vocabulary of analysis or action (2010). Vulnerabilities to unanticipated forms of affliction must be risked as an inevitable byproduct of coming to grips with the potentialities of disaster and not treated as a definitive impediment. Or: the same grounds that bioterity now eagerly appropriates can be colonized from below, from which a politics of uninhabitable and liberatory circulations can be experimented with, inhabited within, and cared through. For there is no closing oneself off from the inexplicable forces of the world if a person, household or community is going to extend themselves into that world. There are no fresh starts, though many incipient beginnings.


Virulent circulation as solidarity

Our concern has been the afterlife of austerity measures founded on biological circulation, and in the power they can gain working from that vantage point. Emergency/Emergent responses might start with containment, but in grounding themselves at the intimate biological level and its circulation they become harder to detect, attack, and dismantle. Their seemingly objective truth is to be continuously questioned. A bioterity regime is in the making, even more so considering the unprecedented spread of the current space of emergency globally. The Western African Ebola virus epidemic, which posed a greater risk to human life, could perhaps be seen as an antecedent of the current processes, revealing austerity measures grounded in biology but extending beyond it notably in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But the level of intensities of the covid-19 space of emergency is unparallelled, which of course amplifies the potential reverberating effects of its governance.

So how to respond, how to organize? The antibodies against this renewed form of biologically structured austerity are to be found within the seemingly uninhabitable times we are plunged in. We need to get closer to the bare material bioterity seems to work with – the sacredness of intimate life, in its relational affects. We have focused particularly on the latter, because in there we have witnessed, in our ethnographic errands, the emergency of non-normative modes of inhabitations and struggle structured around working through unfinished business, navigating without seeking full control and being attuned to unapparent movements. Pointing to these is not about romanticizing lives unfolding at the intersection of violent histories and makings, but to take their unfinished (yet fully lived) propositions seriously (Hartman, 2018). In this sense, the virus poses an opportunity. The virulent circulations that unite us beyond our individual control can become the groundings from which to reimagine autonomous modes of inhabitation and becoming, which are about deterritorializing violent closures and controlling formations (not dissimilarly to what Wade has proposed around blackness, 2017). It is about resisting incarceration as a generalized form of life.

In academia – a space the two of us happen to frequently inhabit – that means roaming around and stealing more than ever before (Harney & Moten, 2013). If the response to the pandemic is individualized, pushing us to intimately interiorize austerity measures from our desks (or beds), we need to break through. The neoliberal (re)structuring of our work and material conditions have already produced an enormous hiatus of solidarity-based organizing (Coin, 2017). But in writing, debating, questioning—more than in the isolation of tweeting—we shall do better. Our invitation is to offer comfort to your colleagues in need – through WhatsApp groups, Zoom meetings and the likes – but not stop there. We need to fight the colonization operated by austerity measures beyond the immanent threat, which will be rolled out through online teaching, remote working, and diagrams of ‘student satisfaction’. The struggle can be carried working within the uncertainty of the current times—breaking in and opening-up spaces of encounter and circulation beyond the institution, beyond the self.



Michele is an ethnographer interested in radical dwelling praxis. He is member of the Frontul Comun Pentru Drept la Locuire (FCDL, Bucharest) and one of the editors and founders of the Radical Housing Journal (

AbdouMaliq Simone is Senior Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield and Visiting Professor, African Center for Cities, University of Cape Town.



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Rolnik, R. (2019). Urban Warfare. Housing Under the Empire of Finance. Verso.

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My piece on Il Manifesto on the UK elections (Il panino di Boris, i piedi di Jeremy e la pancia degli inglesi)

Published on the Italian communist newspaper Il Manifesto, on 16/12/19. The original piece can be found here.


Boris mangia un panino. Tiene un pesce in mano. Si fa ritrarre come se avesse appena finito tre pinte, e deve correre alla toilette. Boris mangia un panino…

L’altro, il socialista, sembra uno che cerca in tutti i modi di uscire da un pigiama troppo stretto. Ci prova, arranca. Non riesce: sta lì a guardarsi i piedi per cinque anni e non si muove. E certo, i piedi sono manifestamente belli, ma son sempre solo i suoi piedi. Uno pare un goffo pagliaccio di cui fidarsi poco.

L’altro un tizio che parla di cose che nessuno comprende in un linguaggio che affascina solo gli intellettuali upper class come me. Giustamente, Tim (il mio vicino di casa); Nigel (il mio plumber (idraulico ndr); ma anche Jenny (la mia amica che lavora alla Lloyds) e sotto sotto pure Vivian (una collega accademica che non mi saluta da tre mesi) hanno paura dell’ignoto. E l’ignoto: non è il ciccione che mangia il panino.

Sembra banalizzante, ma il voto di ieri ha molto a che fare con questi sentimenti di pancia. E noi Italiani questo lo sappiamo bene (Silvio anyone?).

Sappiamo anche che quei sentimenti di pancia da qualche parte arrivano. Saranno forse legati a quello che uno ha mangiato? Una delle letture popolari del voto legato alla Brexit si è concentrata sulle ragioni per cui intere regioni dello UK abbiano votato in massa per il YES, confermandolo ieri col voto ai Conservatori.

E giustamente si è fatto notare come i movimenti di pancia derivino da piatti indigesti come decadi di politica economica che hanno deprivato – letteralmente – intere parti del paese di una qualunque tipo di upward mobility; una segmentazione classista della società inscritta nei suoi più basici funzionamenti (come la scuola e l’università); la totale privatizzazione di strutture chiave, che ha portato al loro quotidiano e largamente accettato mal-funzionamento (mio padre, ex-operio Fiat, in visita a Sheffield un annetto fa: Ma cosa ci fanno coi treni a gasolio qui?!); e simili altre pietanze.

Ma il rimestio intestinale dei britannici ha radici più profonde, di cui si parla poco. Intorno al 1913, questa piccola isoletta era a capo di uno degli imperi più grandi di tutta la storia dell’umanità. La storia lo conferma: a suon di bastonate, schiavismo legalizzato di stampo marchiatamente razziale, tortura, stupri, totale dispossessamento di risorse economiche ed earl gray tea, i reali inglesi controllavano un territorio pari a un quarto di tutto il pianeta.

Poi le cose sono andate declinando. Perdi un pezzo qui, perdi un pezzo lì, la disgregazione del dominio coloniale si è protratta per quasi tutto il ‘900, con strascichi che hanno ripercussioni chiare ancora oggi (si pensi a Hong Kong). In altre parole, dopo un secolo e mezzo buono di totale euforia imperialista – che aveva le sue radici culturali anche nell’enorme senso di sicurezza garantito dai successi (sempre violenti) della rivoluzione industriale – John & Jane Bloggs si sono trovati rinchiusi nel giardino di casa. E il giardino è stretto per un ego tanto grande.

Da quell’angolo John & Jane non sono stati a guardare. Da un lato si sono affannati nella capitalizzazione del loro dominio culturale (attraverso la marchetizzazione della lingua e dell’educazione terziaria, soprattutto verso la Cina) e dell’altro hanno scavato una buca dove tutti da ognidove possono nascondere e riciclare i loro profitti sporchi (la buca è la quinta città Italiana, London).

Ma questi sono business per pochi. I più sono rimasti lì, nella parte del giardinetto dove piove sempre, le galline fanno la cacca e l’unica tettoia disponibile cade a pezzi. Mentre fuori tutto cambia e corre – inclusa l’enorme espansione culturale ed economica di molte ex colonie, in primis l’India – l’isola rimane la stessa, piccola, decadente. Fondamentalmente, triste. La gente guarda al buco (Londra), ma il resto rimane oscuro: che cos’è esattamente l’Inghilterra, se non un’ernome distesa di sandwich precotti, moquette e belly beers?

Confrontati con tale decadenza, il senso di pancia degli inglesi è stato quello di reagire, di provare a dirsi che no, in fondo non è proprio così.

Nelle ultime tre decadi il discorso politico e culturale di questo paese è stato interamente centrato intorno alla riaffermazione del proprio senso di superiorità e unicità. A partire dal discorso cool di Blair fino ad arrivare al panico intestinale mal gestito del disgraziato Cameroon, e della sua Brexit, il paese è pervaso da un senso di inadeguatezza colmato con l’illusione di poter ancora, ancora una volta!, contare qualcosa.

E di poterlo fare con marcata arroganza, nella sicurezza anonima di una cabina elettorale. I più – di tutte le estrazioni e classi sociali – si sono eccitati al pensiero della Brexitall’idea di una ritrovata autonomia decisionale che li porterà a sentirsi autonomamente fieri nel grande Regno Unito.

Il fatto che i maggiori successi cinematografici degli ultimi cinque anni, in the UK, siano tutti legati a mistificare la recente storia del paese è un segno chiaro di dove sia la confort zone di John & Jane (la serie The Crown, i film DunkirkThe Darkest HourThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – senza contare quella porcata-capolavoro, neocolonialista e razzista, di Victoria and Abdul).

L’uomo col panino, nella sua completa imbecillità, è un grande politico del nostro tempo. Perché rappresenta alla perfezione il sentimento di un paese che ha mangiato troppo, per troppo tempo, e ora è tutto intasato di sé che può solo scorreggiare uno così.

La direzione presa dal peto è disarmante, perché porterà al collasso certo di intere infrastrutture pubbliche (inclusa l’NHS, ma non solo) e porterà quindi i moltissimi John & Jane di questo paese a soffrire. Non c’è molta speranza da questa parte della manica. Mentre l’isola affonda e un’intero ciclo imperiale volge al termine, spero che da Sud altri possano apprendere la lezione: chiudersi nel proprio giardino, attanagliati dalla paura, è un suicidio collettivo.

Our FCDL-Antipode collective book on the fight for housing is out!

After more than three years of plotting, planning, working and sharing our collective book on the fight for the right to housing and the city in Romania is finally available. This is a Common Front for the Right to Housing (FCDL) project supported by the Antipode Foundation (info on the project, here:

The book is titled “Jurnal din Vulturilor 50: Povestea unei lupte pentru dreptate locative”, which means “Diary of Vulturilor: The story of a fight for housing justice”. The core of the book consist of a diary written by Nicoleta Visan, a member of the community of Vulturilor 50 in Bucharest. This was a community of about 150 people, who were evicted in 2014 from their homes but decided to dwell on the street for two years to fight for their right to housing and the city.

Nicoleta began to work on her diary in 2014, with my support and that of other FCDL comrades. Together we produced the first blog of the community (, which then evolved into our freely available political documentary around housing restitution and housing struggles in Bucharest (

In 2018 we were awarded the Scholar-Activist Antipode Award and with that support we were able to renew our commitment to a collective, grassroot and politically meaningful way of narrating housing struggles. We decided therefore to produce this book as a testament of that fight, but also as a document that can inspire others to move, organise and resist racialised and neoliberal forms of displacement. The book is composed of four parts: there is Nico’s diary (edited by Carolina Vozian), a text contextualizing the history of restitution and housing privatisation in Romania (by Veda Popovici and FCLD), a guide for communities that are likely to face evictions, but also for journalist that are writing about evictions (by Ioana Vlad) and final photographic essay about the Vulturilor eviction and resistance camp by myself. The whole project was complemented by the help of Ioana Florea and Erin Mc El Roy (who is curating the on-line maps that we will launch soon), and many other too! It is published by a joint effort from HECATE and IDEA publishing houses. A translation into English is also on the way and we’ll see light in 2020.

I am so proud of this project, because it shows how it is possible to work meaningfully with communities affected by evictions, without ‘extracting’ knowledge but by co-producing it in a collective form that trespass the remit of the neoliberal academia we live in. This is a wonderful, timely and so important book, coming from a Roma woman and a group of feminist activists that have fought hard to bring it to the fore. If you are in Romania, enjoy the launches (see the poster below). Otherwise, just stay tuned for the English version.

You will be able to buy it in any major Romanian bookstore in a few weeks time; on the IDEA website ( and also you can come to the launches — just follow Frontul Comun pentru Dreptul la Locuire for the events (Bucharest:

In solidarity!


Powerful screening of ‘A inceput ploaia’ in Berlin

On Friday 06/06/19 we screened our FCDL documentary film around evictions in Romania at the 11th meeting of the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City, after a day of workshops and direct action-protest. Although the film has already been screened and debated in more than 35 occasions across Europe (and beyond), this time the night took a powerful turn. The room was filled with activists coming from all corners of the continent watching the 72 minutes of the documentary with attention. They were drawn by its politics. They did not need for somebody to explain it to them: they simply connect to it, watched, and concluded the screening with a very long applause.

The best part took place at the end, in the Q&A session, thanks to the fact that a member of the Vulturilor 50 community was there with us. Emanuel Georgescu – one of the brothers of our comrade Nicoleta – powerfully answered to a number of questions regarding his own experience and the racialized politics of evictions he was subjected too. FCDL member Ioana Florea and myself contributed to the conversation as well, covering a number of points related to the history of restitution and the broader international causes of evictions like that of Vulturilor.

It was a powerful night, which energized many of us and allowed for new bonds to emerge. This is why I spent so much time doing A început ploaia/It started raining: yesterday the role that this film can play as a radical political tool of education, exchange and solidarity came really to the fore.

Launching The Radical Housing Journal

I am so proud and energized by the launch of the Radical Housing Journal: a new, peer-reviewed, open-source publication that cuts across the academy and housing movements internationally.

Together with a feminist, anti-racist and horizontally organized collective made of 13 people (10 women, 3 men) scattered across the globe, we have been working very hard in the last three years to bring this project to fruition. Following the successful launch of our first issue at the 2019 AAG in Washington, we are now actively looking for high quality contributions to be published in 2020, addressing the root causes of housing injustice, its experiences and resistance.

The RHJ is a complex machine that aims to work for radical politics both within its own structuring and mechanisms of knowledge production, and through the support of direct actions in the realm of housing resistance.

Below, you can read the editorial that the RHJ Editorial Collective wrote to present the Journal to its readers, in issue 1.1. Issue 1.2 will be out in September.  To know more about how we work, feel free to visit our website:

Introducing the Radical Housing Journal

RHJ Editorial Collective

The idea for the Radical Housing Journal emerged in 2016 from few but passionate conversations in activist and scholarly spaces. From this, the idea developed at a dizzying speed, and the collective grew from two to five to 13 committed scholar-activists spread across the globe. Most of us did not know each other before joining the journal and many of us have never physically met. In under three years, we have set up an editorial collective, managed a complex web of tasks and projects (related to financing, web-site, and much more), received an overwhelming number of submissions, and are now proud to present our first issue.

The urgency of the project is obviously also a product and response to the level of mobilization around the fight for the right to housing and the city that has been taking place in recent years worldwide. Perhaps, the RHJ was, in a sense, bound to happen. This said, many of us have been involved in radical housing politics and politically engaged research before concepts such as gentrification became such hot topics. For a very long time we have lacked a genuinely open place to discuss housing as a practice in the making, as a space of contestation, and as a politics in its own regard, beyond the calculus of academic citations and the confinements of normative urban studies and housing theory. Crucially, we have lacked a space that scholars, scholar-activists, activists, artists and many more could use to debate ideas, advance knowledge, theory and practices around a radical approach to housing.

For us, that ‘radicality’ lies in how we approach housing as a fundamentally political question, inseparable from implicated, everyday practices of inhabiting space and challenging the forces that make the world unhomely and uninhabitable. It also lies in the journal’s capacity to be put to use by its makers and readers. It is a radicality that has its own political orientation – as clearly expressed in our Manifesto – which pivots around the following points.

First, for us, housing and home are unalienable under any circumstance. There is not much to add to this point; we believe that any form of forced eviction is wrong, and that any form of housing insecurity (as defined by the ones experiencing it) should be contested.

Second, we believe that given the complexity and the potentiality of housing to be absorbed into racial capitalism, thereby catalyzing many forms of exploitation, accumulation, imperialism, raciality, and annihilation – that we need to go beyond the analysis of what problems already exist. Rather, we underline the urgency in contributing to knowledge-sharing for transformation and housing justice. The RHJ wants to create a space that challenges the study of conditions and processes that render housing alienable, combining heterogeneous theoretical standpoints. We therefore welcome transdisciplinarity and transnational approaches to conceptualizing the structural aspects and everyday elements of housing, housing justice, and resistance. We also encourage different methodological approaches, and provide tools for radical epistemology that make use of these methods.

Third, the RHJ promotes a non-exploitative, anti-capitalist, ecologically oriented, antiracist, feminist, decolonial, and horizontal politics in its own structure and functioning. We are autonomous in our making, politics, and financing. Our two Collectives (Editorial and Extended) are horizontally structured and open for new members to join. Internally, these organizational orientations are not always straightforward, and create productive, ethical, and practical tensions that, we hope, result in a more inclusive publication.

The Journal was designed to welcome different kinds of content and elicit conversations across different domains of inquiry and action. The first two sections host substantive original works and are blind peer reviewed (by one academic oriented and one activist-based), while the latter two sections offer for a more “immediate” style (which is reviewed internally by the issues’ Editors). These are:

The long read / Focus on critical analysis and theory-making
For papers focused on theorizing housing resistance and activism worldwide. Papers aim for theoretical innovation and conceptual finesse driven by speculative, case-specific or comparative arguments.

Retrospectives / Focus on specific cases, histories, actions
For papers oriented at reconstructing, in detail, particular histories of movements, organisations and/or actions worldwide. Papers aim for historical rigour and depth.

Conversations / Reflections from the field of action and organisation
Pieces written collectively, to reflect on specific actions and strategies. We welcome reflections and debates on the challenges of particular organising approaches and practices.

Updates / Reviews, provocations, updates on actions
For reviews of books, films, art, and more; as well as updates on current actions.

Launching a new Journal has required more than two years of intensive collective labor and energies, but we are very proud of what we have set up. We aimed high and for the best quality. Of the more than 70 submission that we received for this first issue, we selected 15, which were then thoughtfully peer reviewed, editorially assessed, and accepted or rejected accordingly. A similarly rigorous editorial process was followed for Issue 1.2, ‘Interrogating Rent’, which we will publish in the Autumn.

This massive collective labor is what makes the RHJ; we want to treasure and nurture that collectivity. For this reason, we have designed the Journal with care towards future forms of collective ownership that can last beyond individual editors, and beyond the struggles presented in its pages. We have done so with an attention to the politics of publishing across the boundaries set by the Academy and across geographies. This is a Journal that is designed to host and to foster intellectual and action-oriented debates around radical housing with an attention to geographic specificities and an orientation to experimental and productive comparisons. We want for it to be our sparkling and shining home. And we want this home to be radically open, which we understand in two key ways. First, all content published in the RHJ is open access and will stay so, against the logics of enclosure of much academic publishing, where significant knowledge remains trapped behind paywalls. Second, we want to keep the RHJ open by valuing the work that goes into thinking, researching and writing about and from housing struggles.

Crucially, the RHJ aspires to build a system of self-financing that sustains its independent, radical politics both internally and externally, and offers a small compensation to its writers. Please join our fundraising campaign by donating, if you can, or help by spreading the campaign around.

If you see yourself in our Manifesto, then do get in touch. We await hearing from you and working with you, wherever you are. Our open call for papers for subsequent issues are now live here. Feel free to submit papers and ideas, and please do get in touch about anything else (also about joining our Collective, or becoming a RHJ reviewer) using our contact page, or drop us a line at And, don’t forget to follow us on twitter @Radical_Housing.

We hope that you will enjoy and join this radical endeavour as readers and critical interlocutors, beginning with our Issue 1.1: ‘Post-2008’ as a field of action and inquiry in uneven housing justice struggles. Our second Issue (1.2) ‘Interrogating Rent: structures, struggles and subjectivities’ is well into production and will be published in September 2019.

In Solidarity,

The RHJ Editorial Collective

Erin, Mara, Mel, Meli and Michele

Horizontal solidarities: Screening and debate at the Casalboccone squat (Rome)

Yesterday in Rome at the Casal Boccone Occupato resiste e insiste squat we had a powerful exchange Romania-Italy on racism, evictions and housing justice.

We screened A Inceput Ploaia and then had a debate with the comrades of Blocchi Precari Metropolitani, the Comitato Case Popolari Tufello, occupanti di Colle Salario and Metropoliz Lab.

The Frontul Comun pentru Dreptul la Locuire was represented by myself and Nicoleta (from the Vulturilor 50 community), who chatted with us via messenger, answering questions from the comrades of Rome and invited all to continue to resist and fight for the right to housing and the city. Mady Gavrilescu was there and we expressed our solidarity for her fight #DajeMada

It was a powerful exchange, which I hope it is going to be just the start of a series of collaborations and common fights. These spaces of encounter are possible only via mixing academic and activist work in ways that are not dictated by the scholars involved, but are aligned with the grassroot politics at play in the context of action.

Thanks Mady Gavrilescu for the hospitality and Margherita Grazioli for organizing!

Interview-Podcast for the Relational Poverty Network


The Relational Poverty Network is a USA-based but internationally driven ensemble, which convenes a community of scholars to develop conceptual frameworks, research methodologies, and pedagogies for the study of relational poverty. It is a project inspired and managed by Vicky Lawson and Sarah Elwood, two scholars who have done much to help us rethinking poverty and care.

I’ve joined the RPN a few years back and they always have been incredibly generous to me, firstly promoting my documentary film and now inviting me to their fantastic series of podcast on ‘New Poverty Politics‘. The series includes some of the most exciting researchers, activists and practitioners working around poverty politics in the USA and beyond.

In ‘On Collaborative Art Praxis to Challenge Homelessness‘, Rhoda Rosen (School of the Art Institute in Chicago), Billy McGuinness (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) and myself have a conversation on challenging communities to engage homelessness through collaborative art praxis. You can read the transcript below and access the podcast here.


New Poverty Politics for Changing Times:
What Emerging Nationalist Populisms Mean for Poverty and Inequality
A project of the Relational Poverty Network

A conversation between Michele Lancione (University of Sheffield), Rhoda Rosen (School of the Art Institute in Chicago) and Billy McGuinness (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)


Rhoda Rosen: Hi, I’m Rhoda Rosen.

Billy McGuinness: And I’m Billy McGuinness.

Rhoda: And together we’re co-founders and co-directors of an organization, or we should say an artist collaborative, called Red Line Service. Red Line Service is the name of a train line in Chicago where many people find themselves sleeping overnight in this provisional space for want of appropriate, affordable housing in the City. On one hand, we chose the name because our first artistic interventions as an artist/curator team were with people with a lived experience of homelessness on the train platforms of this train line. But, we also wanted to complicate the term “service”, which implies a yucky hierarchical relationship of people with means and people “in-need” rather than a mutual recognition of humanity, which is what our art project aims to create and model. [as well as an artist collaborative???….]

Michele: So my name is Michele Lancione. I am essentially an urban ethnographer. I do most of my research in relation to homelessness and in relation also to evictions. Recently I have been working around evictions affecting Roma people in Bucharest, Romania.

So probably we can start with the first question and I can ask you, Rhoda and Billy, to tell me something about: what are priority research topics on impoverishment in this moment, accordingly to you and your experience?

Billy: Well it’s a conversation we’ve been having over several years, I think. While Rhoda and I might each describe it differently, for us, we understand research to be a mode of action in the world: a way of relating to people, a way of working with people. And we also understand the work that we do to be a research practice, first and foremost. But it’s a research that is founded on direct interaction with the situation that we’re trying to learn something about, as opposed to pure observation.

Rhoda: Or as opposed to coming in with knowledge, we really see ourselves as in an unfinished, incomplete, and ongoing process of learning. And that for us is really important because every event or interaction we have, or community we engage with and build, and participate in co-building, we learn more and more. So our research is really active and always in process. And for us that’s how art is. So it’s something we can bring because we’re navigating through spaces all the time; we feel that the not-for-profit spaces, or pure academic spaces, can’t really bring that piece to the table.

Michele: This is very beautiful what you are saying. It’s actually – although I’m not an artist, I wouldn’t describe myself as such – it’s actually very close to the kind of understanding that I have of academic research and engagement. And I would say, at large, it’s my definition of being an intellectual. So you do things because you are part of those things and you change in the process of doing them. And in the process of doing research with vulnerable communities, in a sense, you are not trying to – or at least I’m not trying to describe them or to rise above them, but also always trying to do something that is empowering for both. So I think it’s very close to what you are saying. And I do agree that academic spaces, conventional academic spaces, are not ready, are not perfect; and they don’t really allow for that kind of encounter. So I think that creative methodologies and community-based activities are better in that regard. They allow for a better encounter to take place with people. Yeah.

Billy: Well it’s really refreshing that you understand us as well as you do, and that you share some of our values and approaches. Because, while I think there are people who are sympathetic and supportive of our way of working, and the people that know our project well are very enthusiastic, sometimes we feel like we’re all alone in this thing [laughs]. In prioritizing direct interaction with other human beings, sometimes people look askance at us and our approaches as being somewhat unconventional!

Rhoda: Mhm. And, you know, when you’re doing it as an art project, the frame is around something that’s happening in real life, right? The frame is really around an experience and that has been a challenge to communicate to, particularly, not-for-profit direct service organizations who are at the coalface, right? They are right there giving the person the shelter when they need it, or giving them the meal when they need it. But, they almost entrench a power hierarchy, rather than coming to the person on the level of equality and the desire to be open and to change yourself, as you said, which is critical to us. And, also they come, I think, with this understanding that the thing they are helping, homelessness, is more of a trait than an experience – a momentary, current experience. And so we really try to break open everyone’s possibilities – ours and the people experiencing homelessness. We try to help ourselves and others to reimagine our personal possibilities. And so, in that sense, it’s really a kind of re-centering of the voices of poverty

Michele: Well I think I’m going to quote what you just said. Yeah, “re-centering the voices of poverty,” it’s a beautiful way of putting it. And actually, what you said, both of you, it reminds me of the parallels that there are between, let’s take your example, not-for-profit organizations and their way of dealing with homeless people, or other vulnerable communities, and what the university does to us. Because, in a sense, these are both institutions. So they have, you know, clear mandates and, as you said, they are hierarchical. And they don’t allow, you know, for a true encounter with their constituencies, somehow. And I think that, yes, experimentation with creative writing or filmmaking can allow to disrupt some of these spaces and can allow to create new spaces in the in-between, no?

And this is what I tried to do. And I sense that it’s the same thing that you try to do. And it’s always a challenge, as you said. Because when you have your colleagues, your academic colleagues or maybe also within the artist community, looking at you as a foreigner, no? As a foreign element within their space. So there is a double challenge: there is the challenge of having to deal with an institution that is not designed to give you that space, and then also to deal with colleagues that do not recognize that what you are trying to do is still part of the intellectual labor that we are supposed to do as artists, intellectuals, and academics.

Billy: Yeah I love what you said and I think that the flipside of that liability, the liability of being a part of the system which we’re trying to change, is that when we do go into a community, or have an interaction with a population of people, our approach is so different than the institutions they’ve been working with. Precisely because we are a foreign agent in this otherwise understood order of things. We come along and we try to remove hierarchy as a first step before we’ve even walked into the room. And so, you know, I’m fresh from a conversation with a friend of ours that we’ve met through this work from a few weeks ago, who said, “when I met you and Rhoda, it was the first time since I became homeless that anyone didn’t treat me like a second class citizen. I walked in and I felt like an equal, and right away I said, ‘oh well this is different. These people are different.’ And that was what kept me coming back and wanting to have the experience with you.”

Rhoda: So I want to just say that I love what both of you are saying. And thank you so much, Michele, for bringing back the institution. I don’t disagree with the points you are making – you were speaking about it as an academic space not designed for experience. What I’ve also realized is that we have to bring our work to campus, because we also all teach, right? So we teach this kind of socially engaged art practice to students, and work with them on our projects, and with communities. And so we also have to remember that what’s happening in the outside world isn’t distinct from what’s happening on campus and to teach them engaged learning.

Additionally, we have sat in class and a student has said, “I was homeless for this many months or years or whatever.” And we’ve been to presentations in museums where a student came to us crying, saying, “thank you so much for speaking about this; my family” – in the suburbs, this was – “ we slept in the car for two years.” So remembering to know that our campuses are not ivory towers, there are people in the food pantries and in shelters who we deal with everyday on our campuses – and we have to make our classrooms also spaces where we can have those conversations .

And then, you know, to Billy’s point, I love that you brought that idea back too – that we are foreign agents within institutions: it’s not just a hierarchy that excludes a set of ideas. These experiences of poverty are within our campuses too. And when we forget that and assume a kind of privilege for all, that can be very difficult.

Billy: Yeah. I’m also just thinking of the experience, just going off of what Rhoda just said, you know, we had an event yesterday. One of the participants in our program is a PhD candidate who is getting his doctorate in Social Work, and he’s been participating in our program as a way to study and inform his research. And in yesterday’s event, he was just devastated at the end of it, in a good way. He was so moved; he was so challenged; he was so opened up by the experience – and you know he was really surprised by that, it really caught him off guard. And, of course, for us, it’s a bit like, “welcome to the party, man! We’ve been waiting for you to show up and realize what this work is actually about, and how deep it goes.” And the context of his revelation was a museum of African-American history in Chicago. And he’s African-American. And so we talked a little bit about how uncomfortable the space is, necessarily uncomfortable, when we’re having the most important conversations, the conversations that get at past trauma, whether that be on a personal level or a societal level or a global level – those things we’d rather not talk about. If we don’t create a safe space for that awkwardness, then we can’t look at those problems with any kind of honesty and we can’t effectively work to change the situation. And so for him to come, you know, at an advanced moment in his research, and just begin to learn.

Michele: This is, yeah, it’s very powerful. I think actually what we are saying, what you just said, Billy, it’s a possible answer to the second question that they posed us, which is: who should poverty researchers be collaborating with, and also how?

I mean essentially is very beautiful that we have this in common, although we we don’t know each other, is that to create the possibility of collaboration both the researcher and the community, or the people we are dealing with, needs to go outside of their comfort zones. So they really need to do what you just said, Billy, just like moving away from the comfort of what we know, and from the comfort of our established categories, and try to have a conversation from that discomfort. So, in a sense, the discomfort becomes the first step in order to be able to have the encounter that we were kind of evoking before. And I insist on this notion of the encounter, mostly because I am an ethnographer. And I think that before the “graphy” part of ethnography, which is the representation – and that representation can be done in academic form, but also in creative different ways, in artistic forms. Before that “graphy,” the “ethno” part is fundamental: which is exactly the encounter, the getting to know the other. And that encounter is possible only through that initial discomfort.

And also the discomfort, though, if you want, the conversation through Skype through different time zones, and so on and so forth. I don’t know you, I don’t know your faces, there is an initial discomfort. But still, it’s productive, it allows us to become closer. So I’m really enjoying this.

Billy: Yeah, that’s great. We feel the same way. I love that, yeah, the importance of the encounter -– and the crucial nature of the discomfort as a necessary first part of the process.

Rhoda: And maybe the end. I mean, I don’t know about the end point, but maybe the next step is, of course, the reciprocity. So when I think of old fashioned ethnography and what this person, this researcher, actually brought to us was “oh, I can’t participate, I’m here to observe.” But, in fact, that’s why it took him so long! Because as soon as he reached that discomfort and that openness, when he had the rug pulled out from under him, then the moment of an authentic relationship with people, with others – a reciprocal, rather than hierarchical, relationship with others was possible.

Michele: Yeah. I think that everything we are saying points to the next question that they are suggesting for us to tackle, which is: what are priority actions we should be taking to resist exclusionary trends? So we live in different contexts, and maybe you want to say something about a possible answer to this question in relation to your context? I mean the U.S., and Chicago, in particular?

Billy: It’s such a rich question. And of course I immediately think about – when I think about exclusionary trends, I think about equal and opposite trends moving in the other direction, right? And I’m answering really only for myself to say that I think insisting on – and I’ll use Rhoda’s language because I think she says this – “radical inclusivity” in our approach is a very direct and honest rebuttal of exclusionary trends that we’re seeing. To put inclusivity, a genuine inclusivity, at the front of the conversation. But I think to constantly challenge ourselves when we think we’re being inclusive to know that we’re not. To know that we can always open that door wider, expand that conversation further.

Michele: And for you, Rhoda, it’s the same, I guess? Or…?

Rhoda: Well, you know, Billy said that so beautifully and smoothly. It seems so simple to open a door, but it can be challenging! You know, we encounter a lot of mental illness on the streets. To back up to your point about Chicago: Chicago is a wealthy, yet bankrupt city sitting in the middle of a bankrupt state, not that this excuses closing mental institutions, rather than ending the corruption – but they have closed most of the state facilities and those people have been delivered to the streets. Our prison system, which Billy can speak more to, our Cook County Jail, is the largest mental health facility in the world.

Billy: And in fact, the three largest mental health facilities in the United States are all city jails: in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Rhoda: Right. And so we see the impact of those – of not just gentrification, not just the redlining that took place to ensure that Black families in the 60s and 70s wouldn’t be able to buy homes and keep them. The forced gentrification – as the city moves south and west into what were historically African-American areas, and watching people having to leave those. Automation, as well – you know, all of the contemporary things we see globally are being played out in a very heightened way in Chicago. And so, we plop down in the middle of that and say, “you know what? There are solutions, whether that’s housing first or paying people a living wage, and we’re just going to enact those as our art practice.” It’s that simple. And if two of us can do it, how much more if, as Billy likes to say, plumbers start caring or nurses start caring, or art historians start caring together, how might we enact real change.

Michele: Wow, this is very informative for me, that I don’t live in that context. There is one of the examples that you just made, Rhoda, which is housing first. I’ve been working a little bit on that in Italy, in ways. And there is one thing that has always struck me about housing first, is that: it doesn’t really require a huge economic investment. It doesn’t really require a huge managerial investment. What it really requires, the fundamental requirement – I don’t know if you agree with this – is a cultural change in the way you look at homelessness, no? So instead of looking at people from the point of view that they are not ready for it, you just look at them like, of course they are ready for it, no?

But this is such a big change. And I think that one of the ways – just to link my answer to the question – one of the ways to resist excusing these trends, from my point of view, from the work I do as an academic, is just to try to push these kind of radical agendas and policies in a very provocative way. I mean, in a sense, I tell my students, “just stop doing literature reviews.” I mean, of course, you need the literature review, but “start to think about what you are studying in a critical way, and also in a radical way.” And when I say “radical” I mean something that can be made active in the world, that is actually enabled by people in a sense.

So, in a sense, I mean a very stupid way of answering this question is that exclusionary trends, in a sense, can be resisted only by constructing non-exclusionary trends. And you construct non-exclusionary trends, as being an academic, just concerning yourself with constructing ways of making theory and policy radical: action enabled by people. You know, something that can be used by communities. Yeah, and everything you said, I mean, the scale is different, the context is different, the history is different – but many of the issues that both of you highlighted are very much present in the UK as well. And I think we can tackle them. We can try to find solutions to them only if we start to think critically at the jobs that we do; just don’t take things for granted. And as academics I think we have a big challenge, again, because the institutional tells you essentially, you know, to take things for granted – because you have to comply with the metrics, and you have to write papers, and be ranked. OK, now I’m just starting to, you know, babbling about everything, but yeah.

Billy: It’s very important what you’re saying! And I think that, you know, where you have those people who march in the street and yell about keeping out foreigners, you have the very easy target, right? OK, this is the opposition; these are the people whose minds we have to change. But, in fact, the grossness of their approach makes them easy to identify. The harder to identify exclusionary trend is the one that is unspoken and that lurks inside the most progressive institution, the most progressive work environment. You’ll find that little thread of, “yes, we’re lifting the masses but only to the bottoms of our feet and no further because we like our position here.” And so whether that’s the academy, or whether that’s, you know, a not-for-profit system that lives on charity from the for-profit system, or wherever you look, you can find that. Which is not to say people aren’t well intentioned. On the contrary, they’re incredibly well intentioned.

So the same admonition that you give your students about actionable approaches in the world that are radical in their actionability, that same shift in perspective that you’re working with your students to create in the context wherein you work, is applicable at a dinner table with your spouse and your extended family, is applicable in the classroom, on the street – everywhere we go. And it can be confrontational without being aggressive or assaultive. You can simply plant a new perspective in the conversation that requires a response. Even if it’s not a spoken response at that moment – something someone can take away and chew on for a while and say, “hmm, I’ve got something to think about.”

Michele: Absolutely.

Rhoda: Mhm. And I kind of just want to name ¬– I think I want to name the thing that we’re talking about when we say that we want to be inclusionary in a radical and authentic way. And I think it’s about this issue that you raised, Michele, about people assumed to be coming with deficits rather than coming with assets, right? And if you assume that people come with assets then, number one, they’re welcome. But what you’re really talking about is that you recognize – because I think that’s a really important word, to recognize – another’s dignity, that is inherent. And if we were to put our finger – and I’m speaking for you too, Billy – that if we were to put our finger on what we believe about every person who we encounter – it’s that we’re recognizing their dignity and we’re, in turn, recognizing our own dignity.

Billy: Yeah. I would take out the word “dignity” and replace it with the word “humanity.”

Rhoda: I like that. [all laugh]. I agree.

Bill: I think that’s the approach.

Rhoda: Right. Because dignity is filled with historical baggage, right?

Bill: Yeah, it’s got some baggage we don’t want to carry.

Rhoda: But it’s recognizing the humanity of a person, and in turn, our own humanity which is often lost when thinking about meeting people on equal footing.

Bill: Right.

Michele: Yeah. I agree with what you said, replacing with humanity. And I think, in the end it requires just training ourselves to it, in a sense, no? Because, I mean, what we’re talking about is also about empathy. To be humane with somebody else, I think, it means to understand where they come from. And that understanding requires an empathy that can be fostered, can be trained. So, in a sense, being attentive to what other people have to say and how they behave can be learned. It’s not something that we are born with necessarily. And I think it can be born, and to a certain extent it can be taught. So I don’t if you agree with this, but I think maybe one the priorities for critical poverty studies, just to connect to the last question, is probably: find a way to let people feel, more than understand, that empathy is necessary and it’s a prerequisite, probably, of action.

Billy: Well I love that you said that, “I don’t know if you agree with me.” I think that if I didn’t agree that empathy could be learned, it would be very hard to do this work [laughs]. Because I’m trying to learn it myself through this work. Yeah, that’s right, I believe we can learn it. Sorry, I got lost as you mentioned the last question – I had a response that was specific to that, but I guess I’m just really hung up on this idea that we have to be able to learn empathy. We have to be able to learn how to listen to one another, how to be with one another.

Michele: I’m curious to hear your response to the last question then, Billy.

Rhoda: Can you repeat the words.

Billy: Yeah, what was it?

Michele: I said I’m just curious to hear the response that you had for the last question, Billy.

Bill: Can you say that last question again? I don’t have it in front of me.

Michele: Oh sorry, sorry. It’s what are priority keywords for critical poverty studies in this moment?

Bill: I think “shared humanity” might be a good place to start as a keyword, sort of recognizing and participating in shared humanity.

Michele: And for you, Rhoda, it’s the same?

Rhoda: Mhm, mhm.

Michele: Yeah, it’s a difficult question. I find myself a bit lost when it comes to keywords. I kind of don’t know how to deal with them. So probably I would say something that was said before, like “empathy”, “radical action.” And maybe I would add to this becoming a little bit slower. Like “to be slow.” It’s another thing that I throw into the pot, because I am trying to learn that. To just try to slow down, and in a sense, by slowing down, allowing for that empathy to emerge. And maybe for reasons, nowadays, for me to enter into that discomfort, the discomfort zone we were talking about in the beginning, to enter into that zone I need to slow down. Because I am going so fast and doing so many things, like you, I guess. So, in a sense, slowing down may be another keyword – just trying to take time to listen.

Billy: Yeah. That’s right on. And something that I guess that occurred to me earlier, when I read through the questions, was something that we picked up from one of our friends in one of our programs. He said he didn’t like to think of himself as homeless; he preferred to use the term “in transition.” And that really struck a chord with us. And we started using it as the preferred term for anyone experiencing homelessness. And people in our circle caught on and started using that term; they referred to people in housing transition, people in transition. And maybe a year later I was with this man again and I said: “by the way, that word that you use, “in transition,” is that common among people who are experiencing homelessness, or is that just your word?” And he said, “oh that’s just my word; that’s just the word that I like.” I said, “well we’ve been spreading it around” [laughs]. But I love that word to be something that we recognize going into any situation – that it is a situation in transition, whether that’s a personal situation or a societal one; it’s always in transition.

And so we approach, as you say, slowly, deliberately, with our eyes wide open, with our ears open, hopefully – with the understanding that what we’re looking at is changing right before our very eyes through contact with us and countless other factors.

Rhoda: I like this. We’ve got: slow pace, shared humanity, empathy, assets rather than deficits. I love the active research.

Billy: And flux, a sense of flux.

Rhoda: A sense of flux. Authentic encounters, authentic relationships, maybe. We also talk about sometimes, in fact we’ve named a program something around, “disrupting the narrative.” It’s another way of saying that we’re determined to break what people think of as poverty. And, yeah, the expertise – maybe another thing is “changing the expertise.” People come with so much of that that we can’t hear if we lead with our assumptions.

Michele: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more with the changing the expertise – starting with the academic expertise, and then of course going into the practicioning world. Yeah, changing the expertise, it’s fundamental. It’s actually, again, related to homelessness; it’s the key to change the way in which practitioners, or the media, day to day man on the street deals with homelessness.

Yeah I really enjoyed having this conversation. I just hope that sooner or later we will meet. When I come next to the US I will let you know, and I hope that you’ll do the same if you happen to come to the UK.

Rhoda: Great, yeah.

Billy: We will certainly be in touch about that. It would be wonderful to meet you into a person.

Michele: Yeah, the same. OK so we did it, apparently!

Bill: Wonderful! And it’s just 40 minutes since we started the call. [all laugh]

Michele: Exactly. So it means that we really liked it.

Rhoda: Right! Thank you so much, Michele.

Michele: No, thank you both, really. Thank you. Thank you very much. Have a nice day. Bye.

Rhoda and Billy: Bye.