Message in a Spray Can

"Occupy and resist": one of Barcelona's 300 squats.

I will say, by way of introduction, that Barcelona is one of the most thoroughly mobilized cities I have ever seen.  Catalonia is glorified as the only place in modern history anarchism has been tried on a large scale—during the Spanish Civil War, an experiment so successful both the fascists and the communists united against it—and that tradition is definitely still very strong.  Barcelona’s general vibrancy seems to spill into its activism: just walking around the city for one week, I encountered three mass protests and countless infoshops and community centers.  And—its impossible not to notice—Barcelona may well be the most thoroughly graffitied city in the world.

Se pinta.

I have always (and by “always,” I only ever really mean after my rebirth-through-punk-rock at age sixteen) thought graffiti is, at least in concept, kind of awesome.  In idealized form, graffiti is all about seizing barren sites within the city scape—otherwise used only to project images that make us feel the compulsion to buy things, and reserved only for those who have enough money to purchase a billboard—and making it a space for expression.  Graffiti artists like Banksys are heroes for turning concrete into art and monotone walls into colorful murals—and not asking anyone for permission to do it.

"Liberty isn't requested, it is taken"

On days where I’m feeling particularly despondent, I often run down to a series of bridges along the Thames, where some enterprising soul has painted the walls with pro-immigration slogans, declaring “No One Is Illegal.”  I find it rather comforting.  Graffiti is one of those telltale signs—along with stickers on lampposts and posters on chain link fences—that I look for to remind myself there are resisters and alternative thinkers out there, even if they only leave a few tell-tale signs behind.

How many eyes do you see?

Of course, the reality of most graffiti hardly fits this stylized portrait.  I am made as indignant as any law-and-order reactionary by tags scrawled aimlessly across buildings and monuments.  Graffiti is, as often as not, intended to assert ownership and territory—rather than claiming the space for the public—and as much about destroying property as creating art.  The bombed out factories I used to ride through on NJ Transit three times a week on my way to New York could very well become tapestries for self-expression, but as far as I could tell were just one more weapon in on-going feuds between local gangs.

I can't see you, but I know you're there.

Which brings me back to Barcelona.  Our apartment was situated in the city’s old gothic quarter, and we spent our first day there—a Sunday, when everything else was closed—getting lost in the narrow, zig-zagging streets.  There was graffiti all around us, and it was fantastic.  Not just tags and bubble letters, but whole colorful scenes and portraits, with various inscrutable motifs appearing in different places.

And then, the next day, it was all gone.  I only realized on Monday that although the graffiti seemed like it was everywhere, it wasn’t really.  While telephone and cable boxes were covered, almost all of the major paintings were on the corrugated metal sheets they use to cover shops at night.  As a result, when the stores were open, much of the graffiti disappeared.

It only comes out at night.

As the week went on, I realized that—with some exceptions of course—almost all of Barcelona’s monuments were graffiti-free (and not because they had graffiti removed, as it’s usually pretty obvious when that’s been done).  Despite a wealth of tempting targets, even the stone facades of most buildings were clean.  Billboards, advertisements, deserted lots and storefront-covers seemed to be fair game; churches, statues, and houses were not.

How do you even do this with spray paint?

The sociologist in me is fascinated by how humans manage to create order and regulation in the most irregular and unlikely of places.  My thesis adviser’s book was about the social norms and community of homeless magazine vendors; my own thesis was only the careful choreography of dumpster diving.  I wish I had time to go explore graffiti in Barcelona; to figure out what it is that creates what is—in my opinion—a rather happy equilibrium between expression and order.

Not really sure where "graffiti" stops and "fine art" begins.

Barcelona is a licentious and tolerant city–I received four offers for prostitution on my first day, and the squatters, who have basically “stolen” entire buildings, openly flaunt this fact to the police.  I do wonder if there is some sort of informal understanding between police and artists about where to paint that makes this combination of anarchy and respect possible.  Perhaps—contrary to the fears of “broken window” criminologists who think that little bits of disorder breed chaos and crime—if you cut people a little slack, they aren’t as selfish and thoughtless as we assume they are.  And, at the same time, maybe if we realized this, we could just sit back and

Of course, the sixteen year old punk in me knows that, once you figure out that these things have rules behind them, they aren’t fun any more.

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Jukebox: Filth – The List

Americans Abroad

Alia caught in the act of trying to take a normal photograph. I'll show you!

Well, I finally did it: I had a proper spring break trip.

Never mind that I waited until I was a graduate student to do it, or that I wound up in Barcelona, not Cancun, and that it barely got above sixty degrees.  All the parts were in place: there were messy nights at overcrowded clubs, bottles of 83 euro-cent wine, a million-and-one pictures of smiling friends mimicking great (at least, that’s what they tell me) sculptures pieces of artwork, and even a slightly-too-cold-but-at-least-we-have-a-beach day of sunbathing.

Real men eat baguettes and drink .83 euro wine.

It wasn’t quite how I envisioned it (nothing really is).  At some point last year, I had grand delusions of spending my breaks couch-surfing across Europe, hitch-hiking and living off scraps the “freegan” way. Just two weeks ago, I was doing research on Barcelona’s world-famous okupas (squats) and making plans for a little bit of anarcho-tourism.  At the very least, I hoped that I would meet some locals and have a chance to practice my Spanish in anticipation for thesis research this summer (yes, I know they speak Catalan).

Hey! We're Americans! We act dumb in restaurants!

In the end, though, I took the beaten path, which—endless guilt complex aside—felt comfortable and, well, the most like an actual vacation. I didn’t practice my Spanish much beyond asking vendors at the market to not give me plastic bags.  While I looked on disapprovingly at the mindless partiers from the U.S. and U.K. in Thailand, having returned from Spain without meeting a single Spanish person, I suppose I now have no room to judge.  And I never made it to the okupas, though I did get some great pictures of them.  Couch-surfing and activist-center hopping might be cheap, but it needs an awful lot of planning, and by the time break rolled around, I was just burned out.  All in all, the yawning gap between my purported identity as a radical—as doing things “differently”—and the reality of my life as an Oxford student has never felt so apparent.

Vida.

Brain dump about the perils of being a “normal” tourist / person aside, though, I had an amazing time.  There’s not much point in offering a blow-by-blow account, especially since the highpoints were many but not easily captured.  I particularly loved walking along the Mediterranean at midnight, running up to a castle overlooking the Olympic grounds, and buying fresh produce at La Boqueria. It felt great to read a book about development without a pen in hand, soaking in knowledge for its own sake.  And—more than anything—I loved sitting in our apartment chatting, realizing that, six months into graduate school, I do have people I can call friends. It’s kind of absurd to go to school in England, then travel to Spain, only to make friends with a handful of Americans, but if that’s what it takes, I’m all in.

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Jukebox: Yann Tierson – Les Jours Tristes

Victory Lap

Popping the finest Champagne Sainsbury's has to offer (for under 3 pounds) in the department common room.

The borderline-miserable experience of Hilary Term ended yesterday morning at 9:30 a.m., with an overly complicated eight-step process for turning in our only graded assignment of the term.  Technically, I had until noon, but having spent eight weeks on a single essay, I was ready to be free of it.  Instead – in true Princeton Band spirit, I’d like to think – I brought in a bottle of champagne and toasted my compatriots as they staggered in from printing clusters around campus.  Only in Oxford would people drinking the department common room not arouse suspicion, but instead inspire professors to come down and get a glass.

Around noon, we retired to the Turf Tavern, infamous as the place where Bill Clinton tried marijuana but did not inhale while he was in Oxford failing to get a degree.  There’s something amusing about a group of people going crazy (at one point,

Triumph.

we had three people beat boxing and improv rapping about development) on a day that has absolutely no significance to anyone else.  Yesterday was such a massive milestone, and yet there’s absolutely no way to explain why to anyone who wasn’t in the program because, after all, it’s just a couple of papers, right?  It feels ridiculous to be celebrating simply making it through the term.  I feel like by this age, I’m supposed to be reserving celebration for getting published or saving the world, not just managing to turn in a handful of assignments and non-failing a pass-fail test.

All that aside, I’m off to Barcelona today.  England has decided to take away the gorgeous weather it has been granting us in the last week, so I couldn’t be fleeing at a better time.  Here’s to you, Hilary; it’s been real, it’s been fun, it’s been real fun.

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Jukebox: Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall

Sexy-Nomics

The following is a brief excursus on the social science disciplines which should be of interest to absolutely no one.  It should not be confused with the similarly titled article by Emily Sands ’09, who is brilliant.

I’ve already many times registered my frustration with much of the criticism of development coming from the academy.  With respect to offering un-constructive criticism, though, anthropology takes the cake.  Having now officially completed two terms of my course, I can definitively say that 90% of what modern anthropologists have to say about development seems to fall into one of three categories:

-         “[Theory] fails to account for local variation.”

-         “I think a correct understanding requires a more nuanced view, somewhere between [actually meaningful position] and [actually meaningful position.]”

-         “We need to complicate our discourse about [concept that is already way too complicated].”

These statements don’t bother me because they’re necessarily wrong.  In fact, quite the opposite: they annoy me because they are, almost by definition, correct.  When someone tells me that a theory “Fails to capture local variation,” I am almost tempted to respond, “Well, duh.”  The entire point of a theory is to simplify reality: inevitably, that means leaving something out.  You can always chart a middle ground between two theories: it’s the academic version of Zeno’s paradox.

Which brings me to economics.  My somewhat rocky relationship with economics started my sophomore year of college, when I signed up for Economics 101 naively thinking it would teach me something about the real world and not just the front page of the Wall Street Journal.  I still remember reading in the first chapter of the book, “studies have shown that rich countries are not appreciably happier than poor countries” and wondering why, then, the book spent the next nineteen chapters explaining how we can get richer.  It all struck me as somewhat mystical: countries get “richer” because there are more pieces of paper floating around; inflation gets higher because people think it’s going to get higher; and global inequality grows because some guy in London moved around some numbers on a computer screen.

I’m having a better go at economics this time around.  Partially, it’s because—thanks to the recent economic downturn—Hayek is out and Keynes is back in, so economics is taught like having high unemployment might actually be a bad thing (even if you have high economic growth!).  It also helps that our class teachers are relatively honest about their discipline’s foibles (“All the assumptions in this model are false but, well, suck it up”).  There’s also a part of my brain that has missed graphs and numbers, and finds it a welcome respite from reading endless pages of theory.

Deeper than that, though, I’m enjoying economics because it reminds me of why I enjoyed studying social sciences in the first place.  Economics is still taught as if social problems can be understood and solved; as if some policy choices are better than others; and as though what we do as researchers might actually matter to people outside our disciplines.  They do more than just talk about “discourses,” “problematics,” and Michel Foucault.  I don’t agree with most of the conclusions that mainstream economists come to, but I appreciate their aims.

This is not to say that I think the qualitative, more post-modern sciences are valueless.  I just think the real intellectual work is done by people advancing broad, bold theories.  Chipping away at them and adding nuance is important, but a lot of it strikes me as a cheap way to get tenure.

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Jukebox: The Voids – Capitalist

Pavlov’s Graduate Students

Not to be overdramatic, but To be completely overdramatic, I have a truly overwhelming amount of reading to do.  Now, as an undergraduate, the phrase “I have so much reading” was bandied around quite a bit.  Being a student at Oxford, though, gives me new perspective on what “so much reading” means. Take heed, ye readers from Princeton.

Oh, Dr Gooptu, you are such a laugh.

Oh, Dr Gooptu, you are such a laugh.

Last week, for one of my four classes, I was given a five page long reading list.  Uninspired by one of this weeks’ lectures, I did a quick count, which revealed that one of my professors thought it was reasonable to assign 57 books and 23 articles – for a grand total of 17685 pages – to wade through in a week’s time.  If only I could read 105 pages an hour for seven days straight!

My tragi-comic reading list is only one part of the reason why I haven’t been my usual overly-wordy self the past week.*  There’s also the matter of weekly stats and economics problem sets, as well as the term finale research methods presentation.  I have an economics test on Wednesday, an essay due for my first ever tutorial with my thesis advisor a few hours afterward, and looming qualification examinations in a few weeks time.  Add on ridiculous reading lists four times over and an assessed term essay, and it’s been a painfully long succession of fourteen hour, blogless days.

The fact that these looming deadlines have pushed me – and most of my department – to a state of near mental breakdown seems a little ridiculous given that none of this actually counts for anything. As my statistics class teacher warned us when he sent out our final take home exam, “Remember – this counts for up to 0% of your final grade, so get started early.”  About 90% of my grade for my degree will be determined by my thesis – due in April 2011 – and my final exams – which I take a month later.  So why am I not already sitting on a beach on the Mediterranean, again?

Here’s my explanation, the product of fifteen minutes of self-absorbed reflection: graduate students are like Pavlov’s dogs.  As undergraduates, we were trained that when a professor gave us an assignment, we should drop whatever we were doing, spend a few nights in study, and emerge, exhausted, with a paper/thesis/exam.  Our incentive was a good grade at the other end, which was enough to drive any overachiever rabid.  Grad school is the exact same, except the incentive of grades is taken away.  Our professors throw us non-sensical amounts of work, and we actually try to do it all, because we don’t know any better and the idea of simply not turning something in is beyond us.  We’re still salivating, but there’s no biscuit.

Unless, of course, you count knowledge, which is still pretty cool.  I wish that I had time to read all seventeen-thousand pages, because I genuinely love learning about India’s caste system, East Asia’s economic performance, and African politics, just for its own sake.  But there are definitely moments when I wish I could break out of this reflexive must-work mindset and go enjoy the sunshine.

*There’s also the matter of me breaking my computer, a catastrophe that required such a fantastic combination of stupidity and bad luck that I will have to withold further information to protect the guilty (me).

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Jukebox: Fugazi – Waiting Room

The Thames giveth; the Isis taketh away

The Mighty M2 (see if you can find me)

Sometimes, I have the self-awareness to notice my friends’ eyes start to glaze over when I start rehashing my most recent rowing exploits, and realize that the fact that I currently have an unbalanced cult-like devotion to the sport does not, in fact, mean that anyone else cares.  But, since this week was “Torpids” – which is actually a big deal in the Oxford rowing world – I will leave it to you to decide whether you care enough about klaxons and ergs and bumps and crabs to read onward.

The Isis is not wide enough to have a proper side-by-side race between boats.  So Oxford, in its infinite cleverness (rumour is Cambridge copied us), came up with “bumps racing.”  Basically, twelve boats line up one after another, with a boat length-and-a-half distance between them.  When the gun fires, everyone rows as fast as they can after one another.  Although technically coxswains are supposed to concede the race before there is contact, the real fun of bumps racing comes from celebrating our unique obligations as Oxford students to use our privileges to the betterment of humanity by ramming one $40,000 boat into another.  If you get “bumped,” you move down one place in the start order the next day, and the places carry over from year to year.  There are seven divisions, so you literally have to be consistently good for decades to be head of the river.

Rowing seems to be the only thing English people have yet to figure out how to do in the rain, and as a consequence, our first day of rowing was canceled, leaving me in the unfortunate position of actually attending class. On Thursday, though, we were good to go, and, having spent the morning pumping up by watching cheesy you-tube rowing montages set to speeches pulled from 1980s football movies, I was ready to roll.  Our quarry for the day was Lady Margaret Hall, with Pembroke giving chase.  Following the maxim that if you fail, you should fail spectacularly, I managed to fall off my seat at the critical moment of the race (look, I was pulling really mightily).  At that moment, LMH was only a quarter length away, but quickly escaped, while Pembroke careened into us, severing our rudder.  Without steering, the entire remainder of our division proceeded to bump us.  “Ruddergate” shall live in infamy for many years, which coincidentally is about how long it will take us to regain our previous place.

Like in any good formulaic sports movie, Friday offered a chance for redemption, which we seized.  We had now been dropped down to the front of a lower division, so in our first race, our goal was simply to avoid being bumped by Wadham, whom everyone hates for some reason.  This time, I managed to keep a hold of my oar, and we put six lengths in front of the evil college from East campus.  As a result, we got to race in the next division up an hour later, and managed to ram Teddy Hall in the space of twenty strokes.  Back slaps all around.  You can see my lithe, ripped self in seat six in the below clip, rowing with terrible form.

By Saturday, we had already had a day of racing canceled, a day of catastrophe, and a day of fabulous success.  All that was left for the Thames to throw at was a “klaxon.”  I actually have no idea what part of speech a klaxon is, but whatever it is, it happens when – during a race – a bunch of boats crash into each other and block the river.  A horn blows, and the whole affair stops mid-way through, with no re-do.  I will maintain to my deathbed that we were going to catch St. Peters in fine form, but since our race ended 400 meters in, the outcome of our race will go down with the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie roll pop as things the world will never know.  That said, this hilarious video surfaced on you-tube, which shows the crash in action as well as a bunch of people getting hit in the head with oars.

All in all, a stirringly mediocre performance – but I couldn’t have been happier to take part.  On Saturday, the Hogwarts regalia was out in full force, and it seemed like half the campus – including some of my amazing friends from the department – braved the cold to come watch me (not) race.  When we pulled into the boat house, M1 handed us pints of Pims,  which we drank with oars still in hand.  Our women’s first crew bumped every day, winning “blades” (you actually get a huge oar to take home), so we showered them in champagne.  As for boat club dinner later that night, well, that would require a few more words, and having spent four days rowing, I think its time to return to unreality.

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Jukebox: Against Me! – New Wave

The Race

There are so many things to be stressing about on a Saturday morning: ever-nearing deadlines for assessed essays, upcoming meetings with my thesis advisor (still without a topic), and looming qualification exams.  And, for all that, I’ve spent all morning with my mind fixed on five minutes I will spend on the Isis this afternoon, racing with Worcester rowing against the evil empire of Wadham College.

I always hit a moment of panic about two minutes before a race.  Whether I’m sitting in a boat or standing on a starting land, I’d usually give anything to escape.  I know that the only way I can win is if I sentence myself to more misery, pain, and exhaustion than my competitors, and I know they realize this too.  I almost want to scream for them to take it easy on us, but I don’t, so I am left wondering why I do this to myself.  I had every chance during weeks of training to back out, but now it’s too late.  My torment is both unavoidable and completely self-inflicted.

And then, at some point, the gun goes off, and my world compresses.  At first, I can hear the cox screaming at us to pull, and I can both see the boat chasing us from behind and the boat we are chasing, a few lengths in front.  The simplicity is blissful: for a few minutes, all the complex problems of my life are caused by those bastards in front of us and the wankers behind.  And then, at a certain point, my world narrows further, down to just my boat, and all I am doing is trying not to let down the guy in front of me and the guy behind me.  And, about a minute in, when my body goes anaerobic and my mind goes numb, the competition is only between me and myself, and I am in nirvana.

If we lose, there’s practically nothing that can cheer me up; but if we win, I’m pretty sure I can go on and conquer the world.

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Jukebox: Complete Control – Are You Ready?