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Dirty protests, dirty thoughts.

IN BLANKETMEN, RICHARD O'RAWE shares one particularly memorable account of the Irish Republican dirty protest in the late 1970s:
   It was a choking summer day; there wasn't a breath of air in the
   cell, and the smell was abominable. A swarm of bluebottles buzzed
   about the rotten food piled up in the corner. I hated bluebottles;
   they and the seagulls, with their infernal buzzing and squawking,
   would awaken us at dawn every morning.

   Dollhead and myself were playing chess on a board marked out on the
   floor, using little squares torn out of the Bible as chess pieces.
   Suddenly my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, as I noticed
   that the rotten pile of food was moving. Dollhead saw it too and
   went to investigate. As he removed the outer layer of the
   decomposed food, little white insects started to emerge. Hundreds
   of them were wriggling their way to freedom!

   The insects must have had a prearranged timetable for mobilisation,
   because they emerged together at exactly the same time all over the
   wing. Lads were shouting that their cells were infested with these
   creatures. Hurson-Boy informed the wing that they were maggots and
   had come from bluebottles laying their eggs in the rotten food.

   Nothing had prepared me for this. Cleaky Clarke, the wing oc,
   ordered that the maggots weren't to be destroyed or interfered
   with in any way, but I made it clear to Dollhead that either the
   maggots went or I did. While I could take all that the screws threw
   at me, maggots were a different matter: these little guys had the
   potential to finish me off.

   We found it harder to kill them than we had imagined, for even when
   we cut them in half they still wriggled about. Eventually, we mixed
   the pile of rotten food and the maggots together into a hard paste
   with water. We then scooped up small amounts of the paste on the
   lids of our pisspots and threw it onto the walls, where it stuck
   like glue.

   Other men obeyed the order and woke up every morning with maggots
   in their hair and beards. How they could do that was beyond me.

The point of the dirt in the dirty protest--in which Republican prisoners wore only blankets in their otherwise empty cells, smearing their shit on the walls--was twofold: to make the ordinary work of prison guards impossible and to resist clumsy government policies of criminalization that attempted to cast political prisoners as ordinary criminals. Dirt was a crudely material weapon in a propaganda war fought over the more abstractly material terrain of symbolism. Symbolically, calling Republican prisoners regular criminals (as opposed to political prisoners), and making them wear prison uniforms, would mean that there was nothing really political going on in the conflict. For the state, such symbolism would reduce its responsibility to simply managing thuggy gunmen. Symbolically, wearing only blankets, smearing shit on the walls, and living with maggots meant that the Republican prisoners were anything but ordinary. This, in turn, suggested that the state might be responsible in a specifically political way for the troubles.

Dirt had a distinct advantage over other materials for protest. It was, for instance, one of the materials the prison system could not ban. Prisoners needed access to food, which their bodies transformed into dirt. Smearing that waste onto walls symbolically transformed that dirt into dirtiness. Even if left unconsumed, food could be allowed to decompose and then become dirt, and dirty, too. The dirty protest was meant to register, propagandistically, both inside and outside the prison and was much more effective than more familiar Republican tactics of disruption (these included breaking windows, smashing furniture, or burning down prison huts), which had little symbolic impact outside of the prison itself.

The dirty protest found its ultimate conclusion in hunger strikes, which resulted in numerous deaths by starvation. Dirt in the dirty protest was produced by food, so extending the protest to hunger strikes produced a kind of material and symbolic continuity between the forms of protest (not to mention the continuity hunger strikes provided with past Republican protests). The dirty protest was an effort to produce and embrace dirt; the hunger strikes were efforts to make the bodies that produced dirt even more visible, especially to citizens and to the state. Both forms of protest take advantage of the one thing prisoners have--their abject bodies--and convert that abject property into a form of representation. In this sense, dirty protests and hunger protests refuse to let human waste (literal and symbolic) be hidden away. What would normally be disposed of (a prisoner's waste, a prisoner's body), under these conditions of protest, cannot be disavowed. No wonder dirty protesters, like hunger strikers, are often represented as either perverts or saints--symbolically, they represent life in a powerfully inverted form, by embracing and even publicizing the earthly relationship our bodies have to dirtiness and waste.

Without bluntly appropriating these protests to a very different political situation, and without making too much of them, they seem to me to be extreme models for reckoning one's political situation without despairing over current material conditions and without pretending those conditions are not a key dimension of that situation. There is a fierce kind of rigour to this accounting, and also an astounding kind of creativity. So, to shift the discussion in the direction of academic dirt, which Esc asked us to think about this summer, I would like to suggest that we should first recognize academic dirt as literal dirt. Our bodies are made up of it, they produce it, and it can't be taken away from us unless we give it away. We should also recognize academic dirt as thinking dirt. Our academic work is made up of such thoughts, we produce them, and they can't be taken away from us unless we give them away. Our relationship to academic dirt can be conventional or it can be turned around, perverted, and beatified.

That said, thinking through dirty thoughts, I have found, is pretty difficult. It is not that I don't have dirty thoughts. It is just that, except as objects of study, I am not sure how to see them as material elements of my specifically academic thinking. In my experience, academic thinking is typically structured in ways that are more readily represented as clean: ordered, properly cited, meaningful, and forward looking. A dirty thought, in this sense, isn't an academic thought at all, but something else altogether.

Now, one might counter my definition of academic thinking here by noting it is not actually a definition of thinking when it is generated but a definition of thinking when it is communicated. That is to say, one could argue that thoughts, when they are emerging, are disordered and messy and only become clean after a process of structuring and citing. The dirtiness of an academic thought is more a matter of its place in a continuum and is not a matter of either/or accounting. But still, for me, if I am being honest, when I approach thinking as a process, I see it as composing--and never decomposing. So, even if that lecture I gave smelled like a giant turd, it still wasn't, in truth, a piece of shit.

But concluding that academic thinking can only ever be composing obscures the political dimensions of academic thoughts that are wasteful. As a political practice, dirty thinking, like dirty protesting, transforms otherwise abject material conditions into symbols useful for a particular purpose. Dirty thoughts can be part of the propagation of a specific message meant to achieve a specific goal. They reveal our labour as anything but ordinary and reveal, in turn, that representations of any form of labour as "ordinary" are purposeful and ideological, regardless of the form of labour that is their target. As we found out this spring at the University of Saskatchewan, dirty academic thinking and speaking has the political potential to end the coup of the executive administrative staff at a university if they mishandle it, if they are so crudely offended by the stink that they overreact. So perhaps our task, for now, is to account for those dirty thoughts lying in the corner of the room that have, for some reason, just started moving on their own.

Work Cited

O'Rawe, Richard. Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the H-block Hunger Strike. Stillorgan, County Dublin: New Island Books, 2005.

Mike Epp is Associate Professor of English at Trent University and is also Director of Trent's Public Texts graduate program. His current research focuses on the relationship between violence and labour in the United States and Ireland.
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Author:Epp, Michael
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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