UMW Blogs and the Virtual Geography of Free Speech

Image of Bahrain and Richmond

UMW Geography professor Donald Rallis has an amazing two-part blog post about the relationship of the protest movements in Manama, Bahrain and Richmond, Virginia (part 1, part 2). Having been in both places recently, professor Rallis starts to triangulate the relationship amongst geography, protest movements, and the struggle for Free Speech in public spaces. Professor Rallis not only shares an amazing reading of the role of geography in these movements but shares images he took of both sites as well as video he took of the occupy Richmond event the day before it was shut down for “bad hygiene.”

Now what’s just as interesting as professor Rallis’s posts is the way in which he is sharing these posts on his Regional Geography blog. This space is both a personal and course blog he keeps wherein he shares his reflections on his teaching, research, and regular travels around the world. What’s even cooler is these reflections are syndicated from here to the UMW Geography department blog that is hosted on UMW Blogs but has it’s own mapped domain. This site aggregates a series of sites such as the Geography Club blog, course blogs, department updates, and brilliant posts like the one from Donald Rallis described above are sent out in a digest to over 300+ alumni of that department. Makes sense to me that the community of the department should be a space for thinking through what the #occupy protest movement, the Arab Spring, public space, and free speech have in common. And what could be better than having it out in the open where anyone can comment and broadcasting it to your alumni to invite them to the discussion? Isn’t this kind of the virtual geography of free speech on the web?

It is amazing to me that this very post is what so many more professors around UMW could be doing as a community with the way not only UMW Blogs is setup, but all the UMW department sites are all WordPress and every department page can default to a blog, in fact several already do. Now, this idea of virtual geography and free speech is something I don’t take lightly, and I read another Geographer on the topic of space and , namely the following bit from David Harvey‘s blog post “Rebels on the Street: The Party of Wall Street Meets its Nemesis:”

But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront The Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and by putting human bodies there convert public space into a political commons, a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and on-going struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Plaza del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, now the steps of Saint Paul’s in London as well as Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook that really matter.

I take David Harvey’s point of bodies in public space seriously, and his dismissal of Twitter and Facebook here aren’t entirely out of line, but at the same time he blogged this deeply thoughtful and provocative reflections on the #occupy wall street movement. And the fact that he blogged it is significant just for that reason. This is a form that understands public bodies in public space differently, but potentially just as significantly. And the blog is a frame for discourse that we at UMW are poised to make part of the very DNA of discourse—what’s more it is framed by the web. I don;t think the bodies in the street and the babble on the web are that exclusive when the babble is an informed and bracing discourse about the moment we are living in, and I think Donald Rallis really strikes me as a UMW professor who is modelling this not only for his students, department, and colleagues at UMW, but for faculty just about anywhere. We should all be engaging this to some real extent because this is the world we live in right now, this is the space we occupy. We should be #occupyingumwblogs (or any other open publishing space) with our ideas about this moment and our reactions to it!

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