TBNYU and our Campus Political Landscape
We’re close to the second anniversary of the Kimmel Occupation by Take Back NYU. I was a part of that during my freshmen year and I’ve always maintained that there was much more to the campaign and to the occupation than NYU’s publics gave us credit for. TBNYU first articulated a problem that many student groups who’ve tried to organize campus-wide campaigns have run into: to use JB Jackson’s intriguing/helpful we lack a meaningful political landscape.
I don’t remember the first postcard or leaflet NYU sent me, but the image of University life in Greenwich Village was exotic, and to one degree or another we all still share that image. But sometimes I’m surprised at how humdrum life @ NYU can feel. I guess I should blame ‘human nature. NYU, although it’s NYU, is an inhabited landscape as well as a political one.
Inhabited: coming to terms with nature, taking care of our personal needs; being part of a (the many) social orders. Inhabited spaces at NYU might be dining halls, dorms, the library; or speaking more broadly the campus as a whole might be inhabited space, if your ‘politics’ takes you elsewhere.
As human beings we are condemned to work out the definitions of right and wrong amongst ourselves. The methodology, epistemology, etc, that humans use to solve that conundrum is called politics. Public space is required for political action, necessitating that every “landscape evolved partly out of…the needs of men and women in their political guise.” (10)
Jackson gives us elements of the political landscape that (I assume) he means to be as timeless and universal as the political landscape itself: boundaries, public forums, and roads. He also gives it certain ‘universal qualities,’ namely visibility and sacredness.
Given these qualifiers we can point to an obvious political landscape at NYU made of classrooms, the park, Tisch Plaza, Guild Plaza; Kimmel student center. Space seems quite abundant.
Everything I’ve said thus far could have gleaned as much from the brochures, but it’s important to complicate the picture. Jackson gives a good start on page 12, writing: “No group sets out to create a landscape—but to create the community, and the landscape as its visible manifestation is simply the byproduct of people living and working, sometimes coming together, sometimes staying apart, but always recognizing their interdependence.” This is just as applicable to the heads of NYU (the planners, the administration, etc) as to Jackson’s Jeffersonian political landscape of like-minded groups forming frontier communities.
Last class we discussed how NYU created a sense of place. Those community-building activities are political from the very first instance, by defining a community that can use NYU’s resources, and creating a world for them. This NYU landscape is partially the results of these efforts, based on a conception of what the student is. My impression of their impression is as follows:
The ‘Student’ community displaces local residents, businesses*, and itself. For structural reasons the community in and of itself is slack; its parks and spaces are for passive enjoyment, to give momentary pleasure and a sense of well being; “other people more often than not in this fleeting urban space seems to mean voices and color and fleeing impressions.” (20) Students are essentially apolitical on campus vis-à-vis the university itself: discourse remains within the classroom, action travels out to NYC or to foreign lands where students are seemingly more empowered, but politics does not to cross the Rubicon. This is an extreme vision, and I’d probably temper it down a bit if there were time. But there is a certain hegemonic ideology of empty space present “in every square” as Jackson writes.
It seems to me that underneath Jackson’s ‘death of the political landscape’ narrative was knowledge that the sphere of the traditional properly political was breaking open. Modern processes had destroyed the communities that enabled such places; we present in this “new chapter” (20) are just beginning to take advantage of a landscape that has “ the undreamed of potential for public spaces of an infinite variety.” (20) The college campus is one of these spaces: “I am thinking of how the role of college campuses has changed, even in my own day. A half century ago it was a jealously guarded academic grove…now it plays a leading role in the cultural life of all classes in the community.” Jackson, (20). But I wonder how open to the community college campuses are—are we an oasis welcoming the thirsty, or are we jealously guarded. And is NYU an exception to the rule, or the now-becoming rule itself?
TBNYU never published anything without the consent of its members, so I can only give my own impressions of what it was about. Jackson reminds us that landscapes, though real, are human creations and thus can be narrated in more than one way. TBNYU made no distinction between the political and inhabiting subject. All spaces were to have an agora-like character—in this way we would create an image of ourselves through creative discourse. Thus I think it would be a mistake to characterize TBNYU v. NYU as a war between proponents of an inhabited and a political landscape; it was war between two different landscapes.