Over the last six months, the Tate Modern in London has held Topology: Spaces of Transformation, a series of ‘keynote conversations’ which have brought in an impressive array of international intellectuals. Previous events have tackled borders, edges, concepts of north-south, continuity and infinity. The subject of Saturday’s talk was to be no less huge, gathering David Harvey, Drucilla Cornell and Achille Mbembe to speak on ‘The Vast Space-Time of Revolutions Becoming’. Oscar Guardiola Rivera convened the event from a pair of noteworthy purple moccasins, immediately answering the title of his book What If Latin America Ruled the World (“we would all dance better”) then describing the speakers as ‘butterflies’ moving across the globe, ‘commanding’ the space they ‘hover’ above.

The first speaker, Drucilla Cornell, spoke of the revolutionary communism she had encountered in the uBuntu Township Project, in which ‘armed struggle [and overthrow of the ANC] is always on the table’ and ‘the future is always already being made’. Cornell was full of stories: mentioning, during the Q&A, her brief participation in a Marxist-Leninist cell affiliated to the Black Panthers in Oakland, at a time when the police would ‘spray’ black neighbourhoods with machine gun bullets: ‘white skin wouldn’t get you very far [with the police] when you’re in a Black Panther cell’. She was thrown out of that cell, she said, after refusing orders to sleep with the man, wrote a pamphlet defending this decision, and was thrown out as a ‘deviationist-idealist’. Cornell spoke of a strange amnesia over the history of collective action in the USA, and remembered working with a prostitute’s collective in New York, the prostitutes had developed a contraption to clean and clothe a customer’s member before sex, adding that the machine had developed ‘a couple of little kinks’, which left the men dissatisfied. And then there was the recent Tea Party square dance she had attended …

Rivera: ‘Did you dance?’

Cornell: ‘Of course!’

There she found elderly Americans recruited for oligarchy’s anarcho-capitalism because ‘they were just looking to find a husband aged 73 without going on the internet’. This revelation provoked the declaration, after Emma Goldman: I will not be part of a revolution in which there is no dancing. Cornell suggested that the transformation of capitalism should accommodate a ‘revolutionary communist dating service’.

Next, David Harvey spoke on how to transform capitalism according to a radical reorganisation of the city. We must ask ourselves, Harvey said, ‘what kind of human being is capitalism creating?’ He spoke of bifurcating between checking his pension fund online, the pain at seeing it had decreased by ten percent simultaneous with the thought ‘yay! capitalism is crashing’. The task at hand, he announced, was to work out ‘how to change mentalities’, and described a trade union friend asking him ‘how do you organise a whole city, politically?’ The answer involved working out ‘how the micro-structures [of a city] come together’, looking at Homs today to understand how the city became radicalised. In short, he argued, ‘you can’t transform the human without transforming the urban space’. Riding the E-train from Jamaica into Manhattan at 6 am one morning, Harvey was struck by the demographic of the other passengers – overwhelmingly females of ethnic minorities – and wondered ‘who has the right to the city?’ He spoke eloquently for the need to ‘decenter’ Occupy, to engage workers traditionally ‘excluded’ from union activities, to bring about the end of suburbanisation (which he drily described ‘a small task’), to reorganise the flows of the city, of the food chain and other networks on which the prevailing political order relies.

The event timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Indignados movement, and approach the internationalism of the occupy movement and the Arab Spring. Historical precedents of the Hanseatic League which founded mercantile capitalism in Europe in the early modern age, looking back at the American revolution to understand how ‘the port cities became revolutionary’, the pan-continental revolutions in 1848 and the 1870 Paris Commune. Harvey spoke of his ‘incredible fantasy’ to create ‘a socialist league of cities’, then a man called Kostas (who I’m sure I should have recognised) spoke of the recent ‘victory’ of the leftist coalition in Greece, and the hangover he had sustained in what sounded like the mother-of-all election-night parties.

Lastly, Achille Mbembe was due to speak on the concept of the ‘zero-world’. Except he wasn’t there: Rivera had announced in his introduction that Mbembe hadn’t been able to get a visa (cue world-weary laughter) but that he would joining the conversation from Dakar via Skype. So much for the butterflies image, thanks William Hague. Rivera received a text which said that the political philosopher was trying to find an internet café, then another saying he was trying to find an internet café with Skype, then another saying that he was trying to find an internet café with Skype in a part of the city where there wasn’t a power-cut, until it all started to feel like a practical joke about the exclusion of African intellectuals from ‘global’ conversations, and the connection never materialised.

Tate filmed the event, and there was some suggestion they’d put the video on their website, and promised that all contributions (Mbembe’s included) will be published in book format.

* Photo Credit: Jean-Claude Dhien

Further Reading