15 July 2019
The symposium ‘Against the Grain: The Ethics, Poetics and Politics of Contrarian Speech’ was held as a collaborative event in June 2019. It involved several members of DeLC, in collaboration with the research project "Poetry and Politics" and the University of Amsterdam.

From 5th to 7th June 2019 a group of researchers and activists met at the University of Amsterdam to discuss the poetics, politics and ethics of contrarian speech. DeLC was represented by Dr Samuel O’Donoghue and by event co-organiser Dr Cornelia Gräbner, in her role as a member of the team of the research project Poetry and Politics (FFI2016-77584-P). Dr Joost de Bloois from the University of Amsterdam took on the organisation from the Amsterdam side.

The event was co-funded and supported by the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies, the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis, and POEPOLIT. It kicked off with a poetry reading and critical reflection on poetics and contrarian speech by poets Sarah Clancy (Ireland) and Frank Keizer (The Netherlands).

The title of the event is inspired by the Italian writer and translator Erri De Luca’s essay La parola contraria, which he wrote while awaiting trial for charges of incitement to sabotage under Italian Anti-terrorism law. He had publicly stated that the high-speed trainline TAV (the construction of which has met with the staunch resistance of a wide coalition of people from all walks of life) should be sabotaged, and the Italian Prosecution Service pressed charges, encouraged by the company in charge of the TAV. While the court eventually decided that there was no crime, De Luca’s case is a particularly visible example of how active dissidence regarding infrastructure projects (considered 'critical' by the governments that implement them in collaboration with private companies) is now often criminalised as terrorism. Dr Jim Hicks, De Luca’s translator, delivered one of the keynote lectures and brought out the crucial significance of the connection between the fostering of critical thinking in Higher Education, and ethical contrarian and provocative (poetic) speech. His lecture was complemented with a presentation by Harriett Bergman from the Dutch organisation Code Rood, which has called out in a combination of direct action and contrarian speech the practice of artwashing, whereby fossil fuel companies seek to whitewash their image by sponsoring cultural institutions.

De Luca’s presence was also evoked by Dr Anna Botta’s presentation of the film LampeduSani (2014), a film by Constanza Quatriglio with a screenplay by Erri de Luca, produced by TV2000, in which De Luca finds a poetic language for the solidarity that inhabitants of the Italian island Lampedusa enact towards refugees in their (now criminalised) efforts of caring for them.

In a series of panels participants explored aspects of the theme through presentations and lively debate: contrarian speech as deployed by the New Right, Reactionary Conservatism and Neo-Fascism; contrarian poetics as a subversion of neoliberal performance culture and the neoliberal zoning of public spaces; contrarian speech as a poetic strategy of intervening into public space in an anti-totalitarian spirit of resistance against 20th century dictatorships and against racist and austerity regimes; and contrarian speech as a defiance of different manifestations of neoliberal normativity in neoliberal public discourse on politics and work.