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The Elephants

Studies in Group Relations

Olive Blackburn

An ideological respect for unanimity in the taking of decisions tended to favor the uncontrolled exercise of power, within the organization itself, by "specialists of freedom” (Debord 1994: 64).

…whether we are spectators or participants. It is a confusion out of which we tried to make theater … (Blau 1985: 200).

The pedagogy of the group
What is it that people learn in groups?
How is this learning applied to our lives?

Be present in the physical space, the room you are in
learning how to be in the body every time you enter this space
as you observe how your relationships with the people here change

‘Hanging out’
could also be called ‘report backs’

Wetting a finger to test the weather in the room.
When describing the situation, seek the contradictions.

We have only one hour!
We have one entire hour!

the moments when we can examine our expectations and assumptions about authority and how we take up that authority (or choose not to) on behalf of groups

thinking out loud and then suddenly its taken up as a proposal
and being bottom-lined by people we have not spoken to before
did we ever join this organization?
do we even know its members?

Don’t look at me. I’m here fucking rank and file.

the entwinement of groupings
their sticky webs

whoever shows up are the right people.
whatever happens is what is going to happen.

welcome to a thing that we are deciding what it is

right before I step into the room, I say to myself ‘get out of the fucking way’

the tension between what we know and do not know of each other.
the gaps between who we were at the last meeting and who we are at this one.
a group of strangers again. strange lovers again. estranged lovers again.

seeing a bunch of shit go down i can't totally explain yet

the pregnant hovering between observation and participation

Taking-by-the-hand: grabbing
Taking-by-the-teeth: biting
Taking-by-the-senses: perception
Taking-by-the-ear: impressionability
Taking-by-the-passions: influence, suggestibility, affectivity
Taking-by-the-word: answerability, responsibility
Taking-by-the-name: historicity

situations you throw yourself into or resist and make your own

the encounter group is actually a tactical organizing unit materializing itself as an encounter group

everyone attending will have to participate in the work.
those who are unwilling should not come.

Costume suggestions: Mole people. Tank girl. Black mold. Fish nets with fish in them. Troglodytes. Geriatric trippers. No zombies. Zombies are out. Pure trash. Post 2012 washed up messiahs. Adult babies. Feral cult members.

dangerous relational cocktails
connections fragile, explosive, powerful.
watching the evening unhinge

No one is allowed to offer any sort of advice or help whatsoever.

the interaction of overt and hidden forms of power
the legitimacy and illegitimacy of institutions
how the contours of power shape the process of organizing
the dynamics of organizational life

A party is only a party after a split.

How can we make it happen faster?

Or as they say: The Disco Is Wide Open.

we activate full body
we look each other in the eyes

It is important to us to complicate the codified nature of the party.
Stop assuming that ‘party’ equates ‘good time.’
Don't tell us to enjoy ourselves.
Don't try to ‘chill the vibe.’
Refrain from setting an upbeat mood.
We are here for the heavy and complex.
which the party inevitably will be.

a situation that demands of even fast-talkers total comfort with long pauses

There was never enough booze, never enough analysis.

Well, it is an emerging field, and it is up to you to construct conceptually, how it positions itself vis-a-vis other movements, old and new, and how it is positioned by them--who does the positioning, how it plots its identity. In addition, there are the internal dynamics. Membership is open, as I see it, but there is some gate keeping: under what conditions would they (if they would at all) welcome other political tendencies?

1) Working together.
Get to know your partner very well.
You will need to know your partners limits and abilities.
You will need to know how much you can trust each other.
2) Fitness.
You can never be too agile.
Train on the terrain you will operate in.
Vary your exercises.
3) Learning the territory.
Know every part of the area you will operate in.
Explore by day and night.
Explore every alley, bush, and tunnel.
Climb every tree, building, wall, railing, and fence.

those who distinguish themselves by generally being down and hanging out

How can we become more aware of what we are experiencing in the moment?
How can we recognize what our experiences tell us about ourselves and the group?
How can we use that information to understand group dynamics both overt and covert?
How can we develop a shared understanding of a group experience?

the meeting
too hilariously demoralizing to write up

Blaming R is bullshit.
Blaming R is a distraction.
it is easier to blame R, to make her the other, to say she doesn’t get it.
It is easier to blame R than take a good look at ourselves, to see the same dynamics within us and our friends.

the role of deep structures

Is it possible to reorient ourselves in relation to all the forces that teach us how to act in a room with others?

my favorite way to hang out:
quietly watching you, blindfolded
try to make your way around

strange and unexpected usages of space
giving thoroughly of the body
All love-ship.

being alone. being with others.
being alone lets you follow your own lines of thought, become strange, be mad.
being with others is to submit yourself to the whetstone of the group’s desires.
being alone is to constantly negotiate your relationship to groups that are not present.

we love you. we can't wait to see you.

The tension here between the demands (and solace) of the group and the appeal (and terror) of solitude

sites of public gatherings
specific landscapes for loneliness

We founded the group after being subjected to a thirty-minute eternity of ‘historical’ analysis at a recent conference.

the pure eroticism of a context where no one will actually sleep together

I don’t know exactly why I was invited here today.

this is a test of you and everything about you
and if you fail that test, YOU ARE THE ENEMY!!!

Alliances, misalliances, coalitions, and false friends

I'm with the bears.

It’s easy and fun to make polemical gestures.
performing one’s cleverness
how addicting

The kinds of critique that are flat, that arrive from the safety of never trying to get anything off the ground, asking everyone else to do the thinking and feeling and risking. The kinds of critique that are smug in their distant inaction; that are casual in their dismissal of those who are in the process of figuring it out.

There was a feeling of I don't give a fuck that slowly grew

I took the liberty of renaming the group entirely

At this point it was up to the participants to decide what happened next.
Eight of them walked back out to rejoin the group; two did not return and took the train instead.

Whatever the group, I always seem to be the problem child, the scapegoat.
But is it more sinister than ‘being scapegoated’?
Do I elect to be the scapegoat? even audition for the part?
Do I want to be the scapegoat
because feeling included is frightening, claustrophobic, unimaginable?

how we each participate, consciously and unconsciously, in the life of groups

the desire to love and fuck lots of people in this room

When does the party get real?
The answer: never.

groups that become embalmed together

As much as we try to describe or fix it, the dynamic changes all the time
the intimacy that appears and disappears

preferred forms of social relation:
long-form ecstatic states that break open our patterns and postures
collective ceremonies and rituals
rough. tender. harsh. searching.

WE WILL PROVIDE: guests, exquisite things, steam, merging, submerging, cucumber, bubbles.

bodies, time, and what’s going on around us.
potential re-birth, bonding, tripping out.
DO the thing. submit to the thing.

Sit back down. Let the group do all the lifting, indicate all the directions, make all the choices for you.
Let the group do you.

breaking with the injunction to look good
breaking with the injunction to be interesting
breaking with the injunction to devastate with brilliance

We assess now how far we are willing to go.

organization studies:
we think that we know what we mean when we say get free.
do we?

momentum, its all about momentum

giving / receiving witness

we don’t know. we fucked up. we’re sorry.

the angry / sad dialectic
the marvel / melancholy dialectic

i couldn't stay there. I just couldn't. I don't like to explain myself.

how much distance from a group do I need in order to love it?

a severe questioning what we can discover from each other
what we can give each other

try to hold on to the details
try to get to the heart of things.

Faithfulness, above all, to the ambiguity of experience.


Blau, Herbert. 1985. “Odd, Anonymous Needs: The Audience in a Dramatized Society.” Performing Arts Journal 9 (2/3): 199–212.

Debord, Guy. 1994. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Olive Blackburn is a writer, dancer, and communist who lives in Oakland, CA. She is the author of Communism is up there and we are down here but it is happening now (Timeless Infinite Light, 2014).

This originally appeared on August 6, 2017