Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

A life-history of the reading group

1 Comment

Pluralising Transition

In 2008, the rise of the Transition Towns movement sparked an Aberystwyth initiative (Mason and Whitehead, 2012). One of the working groups was a reading group, initially to discuss Transition movement literature. Initially, the group met out-of-hours in a local organic restaurant, the Treehouse, which functioned as a ‘green space’ (c.f. Horton, 2006). In 2009 our first ‘out-reading’ was a critique of the politics of the Transition movement, (Trapese Collective, 2008). Thence, the group began more radical reading, memorably Holloway’s Twelve Theses on Changing the World without taking Power. In 2010 and 2011, members of the group participated in occupations and teach-ins by students opposing hikes in tuition fees. By late 2011, however, the group was flagging with a scant handful of regulars. Inspired by Exeter Anarchist Reading Group, we called a meeting of all the local activists we could think of, resulting in an injection of some new life. ‘Marketing’ ourselves via university channels attracted academic staff, Masters and PhD students. One member set up a blog which extended our practices into writing and interaction with authors whose work we read (https://abertransitionreadinggroup.wordpress.com/). Arguably, the group became academic-heavy/activist-lite, though any distinction is vexed (c.f. Askins, 2013). To signal the extension of our focus beyond energy transition to any form of change, we added ‘s’ to Transition in the group’s name. For me, this signified a shift from the totalising ideology of the Transition movement to a more pluralistic approach to community politics and knowledge.

It would be too lengthy to list everything we have read, but a poll of regulars reveals some favourites. We sustained an engagement with Albert’s Parecon, largely ignored by academia. Unsurprisingly given the group’s preponderance of human geographers, David Harvey and Andy Merrifield have proved popular, while Simon Springer’s Why a radical geography must be anarchist (2014) was a favourite. The Kilburn Manifesto (2013) stimulated an exchange with one author, Stuart Hall, now sadly deceased. We have read about the degrowth, makers, Low Impact Development, and climate justice movements, but oddly not Occupy. Listening to pod-casts and watching films, we do not confine ourselves to written texts. Future activities mooted include reading fiction, discussing music, art and poetry, attending performances and exhibitions, and inviting speakers.

In 2014 the reading group is the only collective legacy of Aberystwyth’s Transition initiative. Evening meetings are in cafe-bars outside the university. Group identity remains defined by municipal transition: we are concerned with social change, our own lives, the place where we live and its relations with a wider world. As with other local activisms, our radical ambition is constrained by a lack of critical mass in a small rural town with a conservative university, neither offering significant resistance to processes of neoliberal globalisation. As a new year looms, the group seems to be entering a new phase, coalescing around more conventional academic format and content.

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Author: masonk4

Academic, activist, clown, rebel, insurgent...

One thought on “A life-history of the reading group

  1. Hi Kelvin, Thanks for writing and sharing this. It was interesting for me to hear about the inception of the group, and I agree that it’s a shame that it seems to be becoming a more conventional academic group now. For me, one of the great appeals was the exposure to not only radical thinkers but radical doers, often the same people. I still feel somewhat separate from the activist side but each meeting in which people recounted stories of their activism was revelatory for me as a conventional – conservative even – citizen. Being part of a group that mixed together radical thought and stories of radical action and contemplation on the efficacy of different kinds of radical action was, without exaggeration, profoundly transformative. For me it broke down some of the barriers I saw between myself and ‘activist types’ who I felt were special people able to put themselves at risk to defend causes, and for which I had respect but saw myself as different from. Often I found the meetings uncomfortable in that I felt sort of ashamed about my lack of fire and protest, but that unsettling feeling was something I sought, appreciated and developed through. It forced me to ask tough questions about how I saw my own self as an empowered citizen or not, whether I was accepting the status quo because there was nothing I could do, or whether my action (or more importantly inaction) was due to fear and insecurity, or indoctrination… I felt very challenged by the group, in a good way. It was a supportive and encouraging but critical space in which to develop ideas, and I think the mixing of academic and non-academic was profoundly important in that respect, particularly as a critique of orthodox Marxism, which through time has run up against the accusation (particularly in the Paris 1968 context) of being removed and separated from on-the-ground realities. Just as Marxism has been accused of that, work by Pickerill and others also suggests that the environmentalist movement suffers the same critique sometimes, though not as a result of lack of on-the-ground work, but as a result perhaps of parachuting in ideas into local contexts with existing populations and complexities.

    In my work now, where we are constantly challenging ourselves to question our position, and thinking and working with artists and community groups, granted in perhaps not the most radical of ways all the time, I feel I am taking forward critique and self-critique discovered and developed in the transitions reading group. Today I read a letter by Peter Harper to The Land magazine on the subject of permaculture (which he resoundly critiqued in a previous issue). In the letter he concedes that although highly problematic because of the uncritical way in which permaculture is being understood and employed, it may perhaps be acting as a vessel to draw in people who would otherwise steer well clear of anything remotely radical or non-mainstream. As such, it might have benefit and potential, even if highly problematic, of adding people to the overall movement towards better ways of living… though he seems to suggest that unless the permaculture sorts out the science from the nonsense, drawing people in is not much good as they will soon drop it without going on to anything else. My point with this long-winded anecdote is to say that transitions was a way in which I was drawn into much more radical and challenging ways of thinking, and potentially (in future?) ways of being. It’s hard to measure this kind of transformation but I sense that there has been a little of that at least for me and that this is one of the great potentials of groups like this. Unlike with the permaculture movement perhaps, once drawn in I didn’t find a bunch of unsubstantiated claims or practices that didn’t apply in my context, instead I found the limitless potential of thought and practice, intertwined, in the possibilities of changing the world, however tiny and incremental such changes may appear.

    I hope that someone will take forward the group in the Aberystwyth area and try to incorporate again the non-academic side. I feel we could have perhaps worked on this a bit more by changing our venue to Mach occasionally, inviting speakers, maybe from PIRC, etc. and various other things. But it was difficult with such a small group of members and so many commitments on time. Once I emerge from under the current burden I will aim to spark something like this in my new location as I see endless potential in these kinds of spaces/possibilities and indeed I think they are one of the last bastions of critical thinking in an increasingly neoliberalised world.

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