Divagation on “activism” in aesthetics and politics

From a forthcoming review

Image: Cover to Lajos Kassák’s
Ma: Aktivista folyóirat (1924)


Excerpted and partially excised from a generally much more favorable review of Ben Davis’ Art and Class, a very worthwhile read. Some of this material strayed a little too far off course to be included.

The one glaring weakness of Ben Davis’ recent collection 9.5 Theses on Art and Class is its conflation of activism and politics. Of course, Davis is not alone in considering them more or less identical. For many who joined the antiwar movement of the mid-2000s, protest marches were the default mode of political participation. Much of Davis’ frustration with the self-important posturing of “radical” artists stems from this formative experience.

Early on in Art and Class, he recalls an exchange he had with an artist during this period. After conversing for a while about their shared opposition to the Iraq invasion, they each agreed to attend the next chapter meeting of the ANSWER coalition in New York. When the artist failed to show, Davis followed up only to find out that he’d spent his evening in front of an easel instead. The artist apparently informed him that “his painting…was his contribution to making the world a safer place.”[1] Needless to say, Davis was nonplussed by this explanation. Wondering what might lead someone to supply such a dubious alibi, he decided to submit the very idea (or, more accurately, the ideology) of “aesthetic politics” to further scrutiny. Upon closer inspection, he concludes that “[a]s a critical trope, ‘aesthetic politics’ is more of an excuse not to be engaged in the difficult, ugly business of nonartistic political activism than it is a way of contributing to it.”[2] Repeatedly Davis expresses his consternation at this state of affairs, finding most answers to the problem of art and politics wanting. Worse yet, he alleges, the question is no longer even asked: “The question of what, if any, relation artists might have to activism has receded into the background.”[3] Continue reading

Dynamite or détournement?

One year after Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer”

Figure 1: Pussy Riot performs in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (February 21st, 2012)

I. Détournement

When members of the Russian femme-punk outfit Pussy Riot ascended the altar inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior around this time last year, few seemed to notice the physical space in which their performance was taking place.  This is perhaps understandable, after all, given the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.  Less than a minute into their gig, the band was unceremoniously carted “offstage” by officers of the Moscow militsiia.  It was an absurd scene: the frenetic punching motions of the five musicians, colorfully clad in their trademark balaclavas, clashed sharply with the sterile, Neoplatonic immobility of the gilded iconostasis and paneled Carrara marble chapel behind them.  The sole video documenting the event, which went viral almost immediately thereafter, featured a tiny Orthodox nun herding the crowd of bewildered onlookers away from the nave with far greater success than the burly cop who meanwhile attempted to assail the band.  After eluding his clutches several more times — one member even managed to kneel and cross herself before being arrested — all five were jailed and made to stand trial for “blasphemy” and “hooliganism” (an oldie-but-goodie harkening back to the days of Stalin, and before him, the tsars), of which they were eventually convicted.  A few months later, on August 17th, 2012, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

Outside Russia, news of the verdict was met with widespread uproar and scathing criticisms, roundly condemning the Putin government’s callous disregard for the most basic democratic freedoms.  These were for the most part justified, if a little poorly expressed at times.  Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the true blasphemy [in the blasphemy allegations] is the state accusation itself” is one of his clumsier dialectical inversions to date — a category mistake, even if it’s a nice sentiment.  The few dissenting voices that warned against lending uncritical support to Pussy Riot’s shenanigans, such as Vadim Nikitin in The New York Times, may have been right in parts (especially about the hypocrisy of Western observers’ puffed-up indignation at the fact that such things “still happen”) but generally had their emphasis all wrong (Nikitin’s shocked moral and aesthetic sensibilities at some of the band’s past stunts).  These complaints were by and large drowned out, and rightly so.  Still, one year on, two of the women from Pussy Riot remain locked up, their sentences increased in both extension and duration, relocated to “far-flung prison colonies” in the Urals with a few extra months tacked onto their terms.  Little, if anything, seems to have changed in the country.  Putin’s judo death-grip on Russian political life has been decisively reasserted.  No major challenges present themselves to his continued administration.

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Pussy Riot’s sad fate should call into question the prevailing political imagination of the Left, both in Russia and abroad, however.  This may seem an odd claim to make, as the general public still largely considers the band’s defiance of Putin a courageous, if not heroic, act.  As such, their high-profile performances have even been regarded in some circles as a success, despite (although precisely because of) their subsequent imprisonment.  In the final analysis, this is a consequence of decades of impotent protest politics.  For many activists today, the assurance that “action will be taken” is enough to allay any anxieties they may have that nothing can be done.  The experience of mobilization and coordinated demonstrations is a virtue unto itself, and arrest only grants false legitimacy to the idea that such pseudo-activity poses a threat to existing structures of power.  Whether or not an action contributes in a meaningful way toward its purported goal — e.g., if an anti-war march actually helps bring an end to war — the sheer fact of mass participation is (mis)taken as a sign of its success.  The experience of defeat has become so naturalized for the Left that it no longer even recognizes its defeats as such.  The most miserable failures are held up as the most shining triumphs, and no one is better off for it. Continue reading

“What Now?” — The Question Haunting the #Occupy Movement

Protestors assembled in New York

by Ross Wolfe

The remarkable success of the #Occupy phenomenon to date — in terms of its sheer scope and longevity — has caught nearly everyone by surprise.

Since the demonstrations first began last month in Liberty Plaza, deep in the heart of New York City’s financial district, Occupy Wall Street has achieved a number of unexpected victories.  It has received a lot of media coverage, captured the public imagination, and enlisted the support of a number of different forces: prominent leftish celebrities (Michael Moore, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Susan Sarandon, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, etc.), prominent unions (SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and others), as well as young activists who are new to politics.  Moreover, it has spawned a series of similar protests across many major cities in North America and abroad, generating a truly international buzz.  A week ago, the protestors at Zuccotti Park successfully stood their ground against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to forcibly evict them — under the dubious pretext of sanitation.

Cardboard signs at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park

But this victory can by no means be considered final.  Rather, it has tasked the protestors with the following, foundational question: “What now?”

If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning point for this movement, it must begin to address the more serious political issues that confront it.  It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society.  Only then can it begin to articulate a political vision of global emancipation.

To this point, most of the participants in the various cities under “occupation” have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo.  In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more comprehensive understanding and critique of the prevailing social order.  This, in turn, will require that the protestors take time to theoretically reflect on the #Occupy movement’s trajectory, thereby determining its political potentialities, its practical exigencies, and the path that it will ultimately take moving forward.

Without such reflection, the demonstrations will degenerate into the political malaise and ineffectuality that has characterized so much of the protest culture of the last fifty years — meaningless gestures of dissent, empty theatrical displays, and directionless activism-for-its-own-sake (l’activisme pour l’activisme).  Over the last half-century, theory and practice have become decoupled to the detriment of both.  On one side, “radical” academic discourse has detached itself almost entirely from the realm of politics, while on the other side activism has become increasingly routine, unreflective, and anti-intellectual.  Most career academics dread the empirical messiness on-the-ground political engagement; most committed activists, for their part, avoid at any cost the so-called “paralysis of analysis.”

"Anonymous" protestors at Occupy Wall Street

Up to now, the participants in the #Occupy movement have managed to organize impressive resources for their daily needs: legal services, a first-aid station, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence.  The satisfaction of these requirements has doubtless been essential to the endurance of the movement.  However, these pragmatic concerns have so far taken precedent over the discussion of long-term political goals.  The broader question of where the movement is going from here tends to get lost amidst administrative details.

In some respect, the main organizers of these demonstrations have — in a rather studied manner — even actively avoided posing this crucial question.  They raise the specter that this will lead to the inevitable fragmentation of the movement, and warn that reflection on the political content of the protests or formulating specific demands might prove divisive.  Until they pause to think of the shape the movement must take from here, however, #Occupy risks being assimilated to the Democratic Party apparatus — harmlessly reintegrated into the social totality of “business as usual.”

I originally wrote this article for the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists (EMAJ).  They have published this article here.

The theatrical dimension of Occupy Wall Street: A brief excursus on the “carnivalesque” in politics

The iconic American anarchist Emma Goldman was famously quoted for her opposition to the joyless seriosity that characterized some of the more hard-nosed revolutionaries she had met in America, Russia, and around the world:

If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!
If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!
If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.

I have up to this point been fairly critical of some of more theatrical elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  This is a an issue that is more complex than my dyspeptic attitude toward this aspect of the demonstrations would indicate.  I should like to explore this issue with a little more depth in order to clarify the root and specificity of my critique.

To be fair, staging performances at demonstrations and political celebrations does have some revolutionary precedent.  The role of festivals in the France of the First Republic has been documented by Mona Ozouf in her book, Festivals and the French Revolution.  Likewise, the young Soviet avant-garde produced numerous plays and recreations in the 1920s designed to involve the masses in the building of a new, emancipated society.  An account of these is provided in James Von Geldern’s Bolshevik Festivals: 1917-1920.

The Festival of Unity during the French Revolution, 1793

Compared with the pantomime and harlequinism of contemporary politics, however, these public displays and productions tended to be much less improvisational, less of a free-for-all — they were more organized, coordinated, and choreographed.  But despite the fact that such past festivities were successful in stirring revolutionary emotion among the people, even then they had their shortcomings.  As the famous  19th-century historian Hippolyte Taine described in an account of such a celebration held in 1789, these revolutionary political carnivals often amounted to nothing more than rote theatrical repetition:

Whatever the imagination of the day offers [the Frenchman] to increase his emotion, all the classical, rhetorical, and dramatic material at his command, are employed for the embellishment of his festival.  Already wildly enthusiastic, he is anxious to increase his enthusiasm. — At Lyons, the fifty thousand confederates from the south range themselves in line of battle around an artificial rock, fifty feet high, covered with shrubs, and surmounted by a Temple of Concord in which stands a huge statue of Liberty; the steps of the rock are decked with flags, and a solemn mass precedes the administration of the oath. — At Paris, an altar dedicated to the country is erected in the middle of the Champ de Mars, which is transformed into a colossal circus…Never was such an effort made to intoxicate the senses and strain the nerves beyond their powers of endurance! — The moral machine is made to vibrate to the same and even to a greater extent.  For more than a year past, harangues, proclamations, addresses, newspapers and events have daily added one degree more to the pressure. On this occasion, thousands of speeches, multiplied by myriads of newspapers, carry the enthusiasm to the highest pitch.  Declamation foams and rolls along in a steady stream of rhetoric everywhere throughout France.  In this state of excitement the difference between magniloquence and sincerity, between the false and the true, between show and substance, is no longer distinguishable.  The Federation becomes an opera which is seriously played in the open street — children have parts assigned them in it; it occurs to no one that they are puppets, and that the words taken for an expression of the heart are simply memorized speeches that have been put into their mouths.  (Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, Volume 1).  Pgs. 220-221.

Taine was not alone in thus criticizing certain aspects of French revolutionary spectacles.  Even the famed Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin, who regarded Taine as a vulgar bourgeois historian, had to agree that these festivals had their limitations.  “Taine disparages the festivals of the Revolution, and it is true that those of 1793 and 1794 were often too theatrical,” Kropotkin conceded.  (Petr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution.  Pg. 177).

Harlequinism: Clowning around at Occupy Wall Street

Harlequinism: Clowning around at Occupy Wall Street


The OWS zombie march almost recalls scenes from the 1967 British film Marat/Sade, in which the revolutionary Marat is resurrected to witness the Marquis de Sade’s perverse reproduction of the history of the fifteen years after Marat’s death, held in a madhouse during the Empire with all the parts played by the inmates

In contemporary cultural theory, many postmodernists glorify the creativity, spontaneity, and ironic possibilities involved in acts of political theater.  Much of this sentiment is derived from the writings of the Situationists in France and the rediscovery of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin by the French avant-garde journal Tel Quel.  Bakhtin, a renowned early Soviet literary theorist loosely associated with the Formalist school, was the one who perhaps articulated best the way in which the “carnivalesque” can potentially act to transform social consciousness:

Negation in popular-festive imagery has never an abstract logical character.  It is always something obvious, tangible.  That which stands behind negation is by no means nothingness but the “other side” of that which is denied, the carnivalesque upside down.  Negation reconstructs the image of the object and first of all modifies the topographical position in space of the object as a whole, as well as its parts.  It transfers the object to the underworld, replaces the top by the bottom, or the front by the back, sharply exaggerating some traits at the expense of others.  Negation and destruction of the object are therefore their displacement and reconstruction in space.  The nonbeing of an object is its “other face,” its inside out.  […]

Carnival celebrates the destruction of the old and the birth of the new world — the new year, the new spring, the new kingdom.  The old world that has been destroyed is offered together with the new world and is represented with it as a dying part of the dual body.  This is why in carnivalesque images there is so much turnabout, so many opposite faces and intentionally upset proportions.  (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World.  Pg. 410).

The people sing to Marat: “Four years after the revolution/and the old king’s execution/String up every aristocrat Out with the priests/Let them live on their fat/Down with all of the ruling class/Throw all the generals out on their arse/Good old Marat by your side we’ll stand or fall/You’re the only one that we can trust at all/Fighting all the gentry and fighting every priest/Businessman the bourgeois the military beast/Marat, we’re poor, And the poor stay poor! Marat, don’t make Us wait anymore. We want our rights and we don’t care how, We want our revolution now. Why do they have the gold? Why do they have the power? Do they have the friends at the top? Why do they have the jobs at the top? We’ve got nothing! Always had nothing! Nothing but holes and millions of them. Living in holes dying in holes. Holes in our bellies and holes in our clothes.”

In these passages, Bakhtin tacitly relies on a Marxist concept inherited from the Hegelian dialectical legacy — that of determinate negation.  As Hegel observed:

[T]he skepticism which only ever sees pure nothingness in its result and abstracts from the fact that this nothingness is specifically the nothingness of that from which it results.  For it is only when it is taken as the result of that from which it emerges, that it is, in fact, the true result; in that case it is itself a determinate nothingness, one which has a content.  The skepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss.  But when, on the other hand, the result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation the transition is made through which the progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself.  (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit.   §79, pg. 51).

Hegel himself carried this notion too far in terms of what he thought was its positive speculative power.  This is something Theodor Adorno picked up on: “The nonidentical is not to be obtained directly, as something positive on its part, nor is it obtainable by a negation of the negative.  This negation is not an affirmation itself, as it is to Hegel” (Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics.  Pg. 158).  Nevertheless, determinate negation still underwrites the critical apprehension of the present, and opens up the possibility that a new society could be born out of its negative image.

Celebration of May Day, Petrograd 1920

This was something of which Marx was fully aware.  In an 1846 letter to the Young Hegelian Arnold Ruge, Marx famously called for the “ruthless critique of everything existing.”  More than thirty years later, he repeated this sentiment in the brilliant postface to the second edition of Capital, Volume 1:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists.  In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.  (Marx, Capital, Volume 1.  Pg. 103).

Dmitrii Menshikov’s poster celebrating May Day, 1920

As I see it, the biggest problem with the rock-concert atmosphere and all the myriad performance pieces one sees down at Liberty Plaza is its quasi-Situationist character.  This French group — loosely involved with the 1968 protests (according to one of their main influences and later their rival, the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre, “they…greatly exaggerated their role in May ’68, after the fact”) — loosely argued for the subversive reappropriation of the spectacle as a sort of homeopathic method by which one could counteract the “society of the spectacle.”

To be sure, Guy Debord, the Situationist movement’s most brilliant exponent, did not prescribe such a course of action.  Debord remained (at least theoretically) committed to a critical approach founded upon the notion of negation, much like what we have been discussing so far and much closer the one advocated by the members of the Frankfurt School:

To effectively destroy the society of the spectacle, what is needed is men putting a practical force into action. The critical theory of the spectacle can be true only by uniting with the practical current of negation in society, and this negation, the resumption of revolutionary class struggle, will become conscious of itself by developing the critique of the spectacle which is the theory of its real conditions (the practical conditions of present oppression), and inversely by unveiling the secret of what this negation can be.  (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.  §203).

Enragés et situationnistes dans le mouvement des occupations, 1968

However, not all the Situationists were so prudent, and Debord’s concept of political practice largely involved the creation of theatricized “situations,” intended to disrupt the prevailing spectacular order of society.  This can be seen partially in the Situationist International’s “Report on the Occupation [!!] of the Sorbonne.”  Much like the situation at Occupy Wall Street, primarily youths (or students) set the precedent for the occupation, which were then later joined by the factory workers in the various unions.  The student-led Comité d’Occupation de la Sorbonne managed the occupation of the University of Paris throughout the uprising.  The Situationists defended the students’ “festivity” against the more ascetic and austere measures being called for by the more traditional Marxist organizations:

At the very moment that the example of the occupation is beginning to be taken up in the factories it is collapsing at the Sorbonne. This development is all the more serious since the workers have against them a bureaucracy infinitely more powerful and entrenched than that of the student or leftist amateurs. To add to the confusion, the leftist bureaucrats, echoing the CGT [the Communist Party-dominated labor union] in the hope of being accorded a little marginal role alongside it, abstractly separate the workers from the students. (“The workers don’t need any lessons from the students.”) But the students have in fact already given an excellent lesson to the workers precisely by occupying the Sorbonne and briefly initiating a really democratic debate. The bureaucrats all tell us demagogically that the working class is grown up, in order to hide the fact that it is enchained — first of all by them (now or in their future hopes, depending on which group they’re in). They counterpose their lying seriousness to the “festivity” in the Sorbonne; but it was precisely that festiveness that bore within itself the only thing that is serious: the radical critique of prevailing conditions.

Student protestors marching from the occupied Sorbonne to the Renault factory in May 1968

Within Situationist political praxis, one of the primary means of spectacular subversion was what they called “détournement” — “the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble.”  As the Situationists averred: “Détournement has a peculiar power which obviously stems from the double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old and new senses. And it is very practical because it’s so easy to use and because of its inexhaustible potential for reuse” (The Situationist International, “Détournement as Negation and Prelude”).  To their credit, however, the Situationists prior to 1968 realized that this tactic of ironic/parodic disruption was itself symptomatic of the political impotence of their moment:

This combination of parody and seriousness reflects the contradictions of an era in which we find ourselves confronted with both the urgent necessity and the near impossibility of initiating and carrying out a totally innovative collective action.  (The Situationist International, “Détournement as Negation and Prelude”).

Since the late 1960s, the practice of détournement has been generalized throughout post-New Left political culture.  According to Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, “Lefebvre…found [the Situationists’] strategies interesting but partial, too individualistic and theatrical.”  Brian Gallagher correctly noted the connection with this Situationist stratagem and the slogans held aloft by members of Occupy Wall Street in his comment on this post: “[T]he Situationists were attempting to subvert the status quo.  People had jobs but modern life wasn’t fulfilling.  Certainly, we see their legacy in the de facto requisite pithy slogans painted by protesters on Wall Street.”

This method, however, is unfortunately quite prone to narcissism and exhibitionism.  The theatrics one witnesses at Occupy Wall Street are politically empty.  The folk essence of political carnivals staged in societies where the agrarian peasant population still predominated has been lost, along with its freshness and ingenuous naïveté, replaced by the contrived political carnival of hypermediated youth culture.  I hate to be a buzzkill, but this atmosphere provokes my polemical temperament.


A seemingly small — though I would say incredibly important — measure was passed last night (October 13) at the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street, amidst all the chaos and confusion leading up to the projected eviction.

This was a proposal limiting the deafeningly loud and bombastic drum circles that have hitherto been continuously beating for almost twelve hours a day (every day).  From now on the drum circles are going to be limited to only two hours each day, chosen between 11:00am and 5:00pm.

While this may seem like an unfair concession and an impingement of the protestors’ freedom of self-expression, I have to say — and the other members of the GA pointed this out too — that this will allow the various workshops and teach-ins being held at OWS to be much more effective. Before it was almost impossible to find any place within that cramped park where you could be heard when addressing a crowd of listeners, or engage in a meaningful dialogue.

I am not categorically opposed to festive gatherings or musical celebrations or anything, but I have felt for some time now that this aspect of the OWS protests so far — the pseudo-tribal drumming, chanting, and dancing — has by and large been a distraction, almost a sideshow.  I’m not trying to recapitulate the puritanical attitude adopted by many members of the “Old Left” (Guevarist, Maoist, or Fourth Internationalist) toward the New Left during the late 1960s.  People should be able to enjoy themselves, of course, but I think that the spectacle of costuming and practically nonstop carnivalesque atmosphere down at OWS has prevented some of the participants in the protests from reflecting on the tough political questions more seriously.  A little more politics and a little less partying could be just what the doctor ordered.