Jon Beasley-Murray, Associate Professor of Spanish, and Ricardo García, PhD Student in Hispanic Studies, describe the importance of discussion and idea-sharing during the Pandemic—even if it means moving from the physical to the virtual.
Preserving the “in-between spaces” for thinking and critique
Virtual Koerner’s is an online meeting place and discussion group that arose during the Pandemic, as we reached out to seek connection and to try to understand the “new normal” before becoming completely inured to it.
The Pandemic has both interrupted and transformed everyday life, in particular (from our perspective) the routines of the university. But perhaps what we have been missing is less the university itself, than what has always taken place in the hallways and in-between spaces of the institution, before and after class, or when everyone else has gone home: conversations outside of the classroom where ideas could germinate. It is this “before and after” that Zoom has taken from us, and this is why we named ourselves not after a seminar, for instance, but after the campus pub, Koerner’s, to which we once went after seminars were (notionally) over.
It is important to keep spaces for discussion and idea-sharing alive because we are persuaded by thinkers such as Fred Moten and his collaborator Stefano Harney (who have joined us at Virtual Koerner’s) that it is in these in-between spaces—in these moments that apparently don’t count and are certainly not counted, unaccountable—that the real work gets done. This is what Moten and Harney call “study”: a concept that has many facets, but which includes brief sketches, quick outlines for future elaboration, a space for the emergence of new ideas.
These are also the moments in which (to adapt a phrase from another of our guests, Alberto Moreiras) we take a step back from the endless busyness that otherwise occupies us, to make space for thinking and critique.
Virtual Koerner’s therefore inhabits a paradox: we are seeking to compensate for the sense of dislocation brought by an intellectual and academic life that is now completely online, while also seeing what new possibilities the world of Zoom brings with it, even as we keep our sense of dissatisfaction and critique alive. Our motto is “persistence in the times of Pandemic.”
About Virtual Koerner’s
The group was a creation of accident and experimentation more than foresight or programming, with no particular agenda or plan. For some of us, this attempt to live in the immediacy of what is around us is one of the virtues of the enterprise, though it also means that we have to accept the precariousness of a collective forced to reinvent itself continually.
We are based informally in the Hispanic section of the Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies, and the lingua franca of discussion tends to be Spanish, but anyone and everyone is welcome to join us, any “seekers of more productive pleasures” wherever they may be. One of the advantages of an online existence, after all, is that geographical distance is less of an obstacle to participation in such activities. From the start, we have been transnational and even transcontinental, as students, former students, friends, future friends, and colleagues have joined us from Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, the USA, and elsewhere.
The topics for discussion are open to whoever has the enthusiasm and energy to propose something. At the beginning, we naturally gravitated to talking about the Pandemic itself, but over time we have also been drawn to the question of the role of thinking and the university (and the two are, of course, far from coterminous) more generally in contemporary society.
Our reading and conversation are also dictated in part by guests that we have invited, from Venezuelan photographer Nelson Garrido, to Argentine feminist anthropologist Rita Segato, to the African-American poet and critic Fred Moten.
About half of our sessions have been devoted to the discussion of readings by these writers and others, and even of movies, photgraphs, and other cultural phenomena. The other half of our sessions have been devoted to conversations with guests. But almost always, our sessions also include a social hour or two in which intellectual discussion spills over and/or other topics arise, as it does in the “real” Koerner’s Pub, after which our little experiment is named.
From April to September, we met weekly. As the new semester began—and classes, teaching responsibilities and the panoply of university meetings took hold—we moved to meeting fortnightly. At present, we are on a bit of a hiatus, recharging our batteries, laying low and waiting to see what happens next.
You can think of Virtual Koerner’s as a burrow that expanded over time. We, the moles, are blindly digging, meeting others, learning from accidents, studying as we undermine our “new normal.” We’re seeking to tunnel our way out of the Pandemic or out of academia, but we’re reclaiming our undercommons.
Advantages of going virtual
At first, meeting via Zoom was a stopgap; we would prefer to be in the real Koerner’s! But meeting online does offer new opportunities.
It enables people to participate who are geographically dispersed.
This includes current and former students who have moved on to or found themselves trapped when the Pandemic arose. It also includes new and prospective students, some of whom have still not yet been able to enroll here at UBC, but who have been able to participate in and contribute to the intellectual dialogue here (if “here” even means anything any more). We have also had regular participants from students and colleagues at other universities elsewhere. So, again, although Virtual Koerner’s emerged from the FHIS Department (specifically, the Hispanic section), it soon spilled out and over from the department, not only to other disciplines, but also other universities and beyond the university itself.
Equally, it is of course much easier to invite guests.
Not only do we not need to pay for travel, accommodation, and hospitality etc., but they can participate at lower cost to themselves in terms of time and commitment—we don’t even ask for formal papers or presentations (for which Zoom is not well equipped). All we ask is for an hour or so of their time, something more like a chat between conference sessions.
Not that this is a substitute for a proper visit. We fear that in the future, university administrators will be all the more unwilling to part with funds for visiting speakers, on the basis that we have managed somehow with Zoom in the meantime. But as with our regular activities at the university, it is the “in between” that is often all important, and this “in between” is lost when a speaker only shows up for an hour on Zoom or (worse) for a one-way broadcast on YouTube or Facebook Live. Here, chances for casual conversation and off-hand insight disappear. Still, we do what we can, the only things we know to do. We persist. We persevere. We cannot let thinking be enveloped by either administrative reason or the Pandemic.
The Pandemic can help rouse us to challenges that we already faced and of which the Pandemic itself is only the symptom or exacerbation.
We surely need to wake up. This could be a golden age for sharing and collaborating, for thinking and teaching across the barriers that normally divide institution from institution, or academia from society as a whole. The fact that it isn’t, that Virtual Koerner’s remains an isolated exception when so many other similar forums are closed to free participation, shows how set we have become in our ways. As Stefano Harney reminded us: in the university today, individual enterprise is rewarded, while truly collaborative work and open-ended inquiry is neglected or even punished. And somehow we have allowed this to happen.
We feel it is vital to bring life back to the institution, to prevent classes from becoming streaming sessions to black boxes on screens, as universities become museums where conversation and discussion are but vanishing memories, and conferences are packaged as exclusive broadcast content. We persist in expanding our burrow, inhabiting our paradoxes, and seeking more productive pleasures.
In the end, what matters is openness and experimentation, and a refusal of what Moten and Harney term “policy,” which stifles thought and is the enemy of study. The Pandemic has heightened and accelerated processes that were already well underway, in the destruction of common spaces of idle time before and after, all in the name of efficiency and focus. The medium and even long-term repercussions of the Pandemic on academic life will probably be catastrophic, not least because universities have invested so much in physical infrastructure, to which they had increasingly been looking for revenue (dorms, catering, gyms, and so on) and which they touted as value-added aspects of the “university experience” packaged as such. Much of this we won’t miss.
But there are other sides to the university experience, unplanned and often unintended, that we miss already. We want to return to Koerner’s Pub! In the meantime, we make do and more with what Virtual Koerner’s offers, and what it offers is also up to you. Join us.
Learn more about Virtual Koerner’s.
Published November 1, 2020