School of Law | News | Gayatri Spivak, Alicia Garza & Nina Power think through the funk at this year's 'Focus on the Funk'
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Gayatri Spivak, Alicia Garza & Nina Power think through the funk at this year's 'Focus on the Funk'

From the 20th-23rd May 2016, a community of academics, activists and artists met at Birkbeck School of Law for ‘Focus on the Funk.’

This news story was written by Birkeck School of Law PhD student Kojo Koram.

From 20-23 May 2016, a community of academics, activists and artists met at Birkbeck School of Law for ‘Focus on the Funk.’ Over three days, the likes of Gayatri Spivak, Alicia Garza, Nina Power and Lewis Gordon all took up the task of trying to think through ‘the funk’.

We felt fortunate to have attracted such a cast of speakers, considering how unappealing the prospect of joining a law school threatening to ‘get funky’ must have appeared upon first reading. After an introduction by the organisers, in which we performed our manifesto outlining future plans for a different way of philosophising about law, Gail Lewis and Nina Power began with a dialogue illustrating how law’s claim to public order is haunted by ungrievable lives such as Sarah Reed’s.

Then we welcomed an activist roundtable as Rupinder Pahar from the London Campaign Against State and Police Violence, Adam Elliott-Cooper from #RhodesMustFallOxford and Alicia Garza from #Blacklivesmatter illustrated the interconnection between epistemological and state violence across the Black Atlantic.

Next Kerem Nisancioglu, Brenna Bhander and Nathaniel Adam Tobias dismissed any myopic suspicions that thinking through the funk was to indulge in particularism. Rather than avoid ‘universal’ topics, this panel confronted them, compelling the audience to re-read received notions of sovereignty, property and reason. Doyens of modernity like Thomas Hobbes and Francis Galton were immersed into the funk, re-emerging as figures other than what they were, now finding the funk to be stuck to them.

Friday closed with Sarah Keenan, Stephanie Bailey, Taylor Le Meel and Karen Mirza generously talking us through the Art System from the perspective of the ‘Wretched of the Screen.’ Sarah Keenan sported a Vernon Ah Kee designed t-shirt with the words “Australia drive it like you stole it”, as she spoke about a recent unsanctioned installation which saw the projection onto the walls of Australia House of faces of refugees killed in Australian offshore detention. Both evenings were filled with wonderful cinematic and visual art exhibitions offered by our collaborators from the Serpentine Gallery, which continued into Sunday.

The auditorium was at its most full on Saturday morning, perhaps evidence of Friday’s success, but more plausibly the result of Gayatri Spivak joining us to converse with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera on ‘The Politics of Deconstruction.’ Spivak guided the audience in revisiting her engagement with Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, whilst tying her comments into the wider themes of the conference, advocating a way of reading described as ‘funky, not straight…an on-beat, off-beat, back-beat structure.’

We returned from lunch to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Paget Henry, with Lewis Gordon, Julia Suárez Krabbe and Nadine El-Enany honouring Henry by engaging with topics of such as race, rights and stunted moments of rebellion.

Later Alicia Garza, the co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, returned to the stage to take up the task of explaining what law sounds likes when you must affirm your very existence through opposition to it. Alicia’s herstory of #BlackLivesMatter reminded us that the hash-tag that captured a movement initially began life as a love-letter. #Blacklivesmatter was the sound of black love and to a world producing harmony through the negation of that love: it sounded like a scream.

Once the audience finished giving Alicia an extended standing ovation, Lewis Gordon lived up to his reputation as ‘the closer’ with a keynote that executed a nuanced synthesis of the themes that had emerged over the conference. Lewis tied together issues of challenging legal violence, decolonising the curriculum and shifting the geography of reason whilst also transforming the stage into a makeshift drum-kit. His masterful musicianship and critique offered an embodiment of relationship between a political and philosophical commitment to ‘the funk’ and its musical manifestation.

To begin with a ‘focus on the funk’ is to begin with failure and, in that sense, we met knowing that our collective ambitions had always, already failed. Yet in the embrace of that failure, we will persist in building our intellectual community, both inside and outside the academy. And we will try to fail better, each time we meet.

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