Marginal Utility's Machete Group Joins Occupy Philly

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 16, 2011

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Occupy your mind: Democracy in action.

Photo by Michael Alan Goldberg

At the prompt of a public service announcement, people congregate loosely around a wooden stage outside City Hall, snagging a few raggedy chairs or standing in a ring around the speakers. The motley crowd, sporting accessories of all kinds, clutch coffee cups, snap photos on phones and brandish various signs. One man clutches his dry cleaning, and more than a few look like they haven’t showered in weeks. Differences in personal hygiene, headgear and politics aside, they’re all here for a discussion on the topic of capitalism hosted by Machete, a discussion group hatched under the guidance of art gallery Marginal Utility.

As the mic crackles to life, Machete’s second installment of what it has termed seminars in “Public Pedagogy” gets under way. Guest speakers from Villanova and elsewhere talk excitedly about the economy, greed and the need to stay vigilant of political efforts to co-opt the Occupy movement, all the while making frequent references to the day’s assigned readings (which include Karl Marx and other political-philosophical luminaries).

Committed to holding seminars at Dilworth Plaza, Machete has left the gallery and entered the messier arena of direct democracy. The ivory tower myth that dragging theory into the trenches doesn’t always translate, but the crowd that night told a different story.

And believe it or not, this stuff isn’t nearly as abstract as previous Machete selections. “We would read some stuff on postmodernism,” says Avi Alpert, a Machete Group founder and Ph.D student at Penn, referring back to the days before Occupy when Machete would meet indoors in more conventional settings. “But,” adds Alpert, “that doesn’t feel so relevant to Occupy.” In 2009, Machete began as a discussion group committed to furnishing historical context for the Philly art scene by way of studying theoretical texts in a group setting. When Occupy started, Machete’s migration to Dilworth Plaza felt both natural and necessary.

Tailoring readings to more directly address politics and social activism, Machete hopes to create a critical, reflective space in which the creative disruption staged at Occupy can be “expressed through thought.”

“We’re trying to develop a discussion about things that are pertinent to the movement but give it some historical context,” says Alpert. To date, readings have touched on such themes as “resistance and revolution” and “reform and social transformation.” So far, participation has been high and response vocal.

While some regular attendees whipped out copies of the readings, most people seemed not to have gotten the memo—but that in no way discouraged them from sharing their opinions. A man in a Penn State sweatshirt indicted politicians for irresponsibly closing Philadelphia schools; a woman in a green turban called for a third political party; and a man in a jean jacket tried to get the conversation back on track after a retired physicist from New Jersey decried the evils of health care, boasting that he hadn’t had a physical exam in 40 years.

While these interjections might seem more like random commentary rather than a discussion, such eager participation is nevertheless invigorating for Machete participants. Machete attendee Charlie is happy to forgo the more academic meetings of past Machete events in favor of the more free-ranging but also more urgent vibe of the Occupy meetings: “At institutions like Slought and the ICA, one can run the risk of “preaching to the converted,” says Charlie, referring to hosts of previous Machete events. “I think there is a greater diversity of voices, dispositions, agendas and vocabularies at Occupy Philadelphia. This is a good thing.”

An attorney who stepped up to the megaphone may have said it best: “I just appreciate the opportunity to be part of people making a movement.” A sympathetic wave of spirit fingers gave him a silent ovation.

To participate in a Machete Group seminar at Occupy Philly or to download their zine, visit machete-group.

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