By Scott McLemee
When students took to the streets in Rome last November to demonstrate against proposed budget cuts to the university system, they introduced something new to the vocabulary of protest. To defend themselves from police truncheons they carried improvised shields made of polystyrene, painted, on the front, with the names of classic works of literature and philosophy: Moby Dick, The Republic, Don Quixote, A Thousand Plateaus…. The practice caught on. A couple of weeks later, another “Book Bloc” appeared in London as students and public-sector workers demonstrated against rising tuition.
By the time an enormous anti-Berlusconi protest took place in Rome on December 14, a group of Italian faculty members had decided on a syllabus of 20 titles worth carrying into battle. It’s all over the place: The Odyssey and Fahrenheit 451, Spinoza’s Ethics and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Foucault and Fight Club. And so when the forces of law and order descended on the protesters, swinging, it was a visual allegory of culture in the age of austerity — budget-cutting raining blows on the life of the mind, though also, perhaps, the canon as defensive weapon.