Due to the ongoing industrial action in higher education, our March meet up took a slightly unusual form. We meet every month at Birkbeck, University of London. Currently, staff at the university are striking (as are the majority of staff in higher education institutions in the UK), and so to show our support, we reorganised our session as a teach-out on the picket line. On Monday evening, 2nd March, we met outside the front of Birkbeck’s main building to read out a text from our book of the month Broken Stars (2019, ed. & trans. Ken Liu), an anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction. Despite the freezing temperature (though thankfully rain-free weather), there was a good turnout and we were joined on the picket line by members of UCU and Unison.
Many who attend LSFRC events are either students or workers at higher education institutions, a number at Birkbeck itself. Staff at these institutions are striking over four issues: increased workloads, real-term pay decreases, the gender and race pay gap, and the increasing casualisation of the workforce. The refusal of work that the strike represents, aims to pressurise universities to ameliorate or completely rectify these increasingly degrading conditions, through the withdrawal of labour power. In more science fictional terms, the strike is a method of resistance to the dystopian vision of higher education, promoted by government and management of universities, as increasingly precarious, unequal, and privatised. Instead, through the pre-figurative politics such as teach-outs, assemblies, collective action, and communication– the strike proposes a vision of our own; one of hope, support, and solidarity.
For more information on the strike, I would recommend the UCU website, especially the page announcing the strikes, which has links to articles about specific strike demands. I would also highly recommend this article by The White Pube. Though it specifically talks about the strike in relation to fine art schools, it does clearly and concisely lay out the different demands and their importance.
The text that we read out at the teach out was “Submarines” by Han Song. In the story, an unnamed narrator tells of the arrival of a flotilla of submarines in the river Yangtze, during his childhood. The submarines house the workers/peasants, who have been forced off their land by developers and who have come to the city seeking employment.
To perform the text, we stood in a loose circle and took turns reading out small sections of the story. By some miracle there were exactly as many sections as participants, so that we worked our way around a complete circuit.
After the reading we briefly discussed some of the ways in which the story touched or provided illumination for our present labour struggle. I did not take notes so I’m unable to give a full run-down of what we talked about. However, we touched on the symbol of the submarines themselves, that they cannot be made to stand in for any particular view of labour or class, except that they represent a separate space owned by the workers. Homes give them a certain amount of autonomy. This led to a reflection on space and striking. Someone noted that often students crossing picket lines would say that they had no other space to go. Space is increasingly privatised in urban spaces so that there is rarely any place between work and bed to meet that is public. Someone involved with previous strike action at Goldsmith’s university mentioned how students striking in solidarity with the staff began to set up alternative spaces for other students to go to during the strikes. This reflection on striking and space led to thinking about the geographical space of the text. The submarine dwellers came from all over the country to the city, as they are dispossessed of their land. They are increasingly concentrated in urban spaces and yet able to remain separate from it by their submarines.
Although allowing for an autonomy, this gap between the urban dwellers and the submarine dwellers can also read as a representation of the alienation between classes. The two groups increasingly cannot understand each other (or perhaps it is a one way process: the alienation of the narrator from the submarine workers means that we cannot know the thoughts of these workers. Alienation is therefore baked into the narrative form).
After half an hour, we retired to the Marlborough Arms to continue our discussion of Broken Stars in the warmth. We split into two groups because of the background noise of the pub. My group continued to be fascinated by “Submarines”. Our discussion touched on the mysterious ending, the biological separation of classes, as well as the ambiguous style of the story. I had to leave early so I am unable to speak for the rest of the evening, nor for the other group. However, overall I think I can safely say, the event was a thoroughly enjoyable and hopeful one, if not a little cold at points.
Our thanks go to Guanghzao Lyu for recommending stories from Broken Stars that relate to labour and borders; to Katie Stone for printing and cutting up “Submarines” for our collective reading; and to the Birkbeck branch of UCU for facilitating our event as well as those members of UCU and Unison who joined us. I take responsibility for editing down the text of “Submarines” for the event. I would thoroughly recommend reading the full text and the anthology in general.