PROTEST is an interdisciplinary graduate student conference cohosted by the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department at Penn and the Media Activism Research Collective scheduled for Thursday, April 21 through Friday, April 22, 2016. A complete conference schedule is forthcoming. Check out our website for more information.
Protest defines our contemporary moment. From #BlackLivesMatter in the US to anti-austerity movements in Europe to popular uprisings in the Middle East, people have claimed public and digital spaces in response to local and global injustices, such as structural racism, sexual violence, material inequalities, political oppression, environmental degradation, and corrupt governments and corporations. In light of mass mobilizations and creative insurgencies, this conference asks: what is the role of protest in bringing about social change? What forms can protest take? What can protest achieve, and what are its limits? “Protest” is interested in tracing the contours of protest along its varied historical, geographical, social, political, and legal axes.
Protest is at risk of being perceived as obsolete in light of civil rights victories that promote the illusion of living in a world resolved of structural injustice, suggesting we are living in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-gay, and/or post-colonial moment. For example, as trans activist Jennicet Gutiérrez reminded us when she interrupted President Barack Obama’s celebration of LGBT rights at the White House, marriage equality does not begin to address the social, economic, and political grievances of many in the queer community. As a political performance, protest, whether individual or collective, brings the public’s attention to neglected or marginalized causes, making these issues the subject of public contention and policy deliberation. For example, “Carry That Weight,” the mattress performance art of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, triggered nationwide debate around how universities handle sexual assault on their campuses. Protest may also incite backlash, leading to state-sanctioned violence, repression, surveillance, or other disciplinary measures. The arrest, detention, and persecution of activists in Egypt illustrates the dangers that protest poses for authorities and protesters alike. More recently, the growing visibility of students’ mobilization at the University of Missouri, Yale, and Claremont gestures toward the timely interventions this conference seeks to explore.
Our graduate student and activist panelists take on a wide array of vitally important and interdisciplinary questions: who gets to protest? Who does protest leave out? What is the role of affect (e.g. hope, despair, depression, shame, anger) in protest? How do new media technologies reconfigure the ways we protest, express dissent, build coalitions, inhabit material space, and mobilize for collective action? What new repertoires of protest are made available by these technologies? Is there a space for protest in the neoliberal university? What is the relationship between art and protest, aesthetics and politics? What is the scale of protest? What are the differences between covert and overt, planned or spontaneous, individual or collective forms of protest? Which protests are heard, and by whom? When does protest slip into speaking for, over, or silencing? How do identity politics reinvigorate or circumscribe protest? “Protest” takes gender, sexuality, and race as pivotal axes along which to consider these questions, and we look forward to addressing the complex personal, institutional, and political meanings of protest from all disciplinary and intellectual backgrounds.