Introduction to Forthcoming Article: Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War

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Abstract: In “Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War,” xxxx suggests ‘queering’ direct action in order to overcome the limits of rhetorical politics. xxxx shows how the Bush Administration’s justifications for the Iraq War were incoherent discourses that drew rhetorical opposition into a politics of identification that made them easy to dismiss. An alternative, xxxx claims, are “bodies that mutter” – subjects of desire whose bodily force continues where discourses fail, which he locates in the Code Pink disruption of John McCain’s speech at 2008 Republican National Convention, AIDS crisis-era queer activism, and radical clowning. 

The movement against the Iraq War was an exercise in failure. The February 15, 2003 global demonstration against the Iraq War was “the largest protest event in human history,” yet it did not prevent the war.2 A year and half later, the movement was again unsuccessful when the Democratic presidential candidate promising to the end the war lost the general election despite wavering public support for the ongoing conflict.3 Media attention gave rise to movement celebrities, such as Cindy Sheehan, who demanded that President Bush explain the ‘noble cause’ for which her son died in Iraq, but was unable to secure a meeting with the President. Even after the Democrats had enough political power to end the war, having gained control of Congress in 2006 and then the Presidency in 2008, they only completed full withdrawal in December 2011.4 In addition to these many defeats, this paper focuses on another: the failure of rhetoric – its inability to dispute official discourses of state violence, and the politics of bodies that fail to achieve rhetoricality.5 In the former, the paper identifies an impediment to the anti-war effort, and in the latter, the paper finds the constitutive lack of queer desire that overcomes political strategy’s rhetorical limits.

This paper has two parts, a queer critique of rhetoricality and a theory of desire. The first part analyzes rhetorical challenges to state violence, and the second part proposes a ‘queering’ of direct action. To begin, the argument generalizes a problematic posed by David Halperin, who argues that homophobic discourses function through incoherence and thus refuting them does not impair those discourses’ strategic function. Examining the Bush Administration’s justifications for the Iraq War and its opponents, this paper shows how discourses of state terrorism operate according to a similar incoherence. Through close analysis of Cindy Sheehan’s politics of presidential ridicule and the celebrity narrative of ‘I Told You So,’ the argument claims that rhetorical critiques of state violence can lead to what queer theorist Tim Dean criticizes as the politics of identification, which cedes moral self-righteousness to the opposition without upsetting the political balance of power. The paper finds anti-war activists fixated on the truth were correct but still unable to produce effects, and instead found themselves in emotional publics that focused on disputing official discourses at the expense of a more diverse political strategy.

To locate an alternative to disputing the discourses underwriting the Iraq War, this paper analyzes Code Pink’s interruption of John McCain’s speech in contrast to the other anti-war direct actions at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Contrary to conventional theories of direct action, this approach does not emphasize the power of bodies as physical impediments that occupy space but the potential for subjects of desire to produce events. This paper finds ‘queer’ forms of direct action that uncover different political potentials and generate disruptive events that subvert the politics of identification. These actions are theorized by way of Dean’s distinction between ‘suave bodies’ and ‘bodies that mutter.’ For Dean, rhetoric is the tool of suave bodies that use a discourse of signs and signifiers that can be easily spoken or written. Bodies that mutter, in contrast, make noises and sounds that are not directly understood because they are vocalizing desire “as something in language but not itself linguistic.”6 Accordingly, Dean’s psychoanalytic alternative to rhetoricality focuses on bodies that are not analyzed according to their “suasive” power but their disruptive potential – a power that is expressed at the limits of discourse through failed discourses and inarticulate muttering.7 This paper outlines two effects of subjects of desire: first, how they blur boundaries, which opens up potentials not otherwise available; and second, how they share trauma, which causes disruptions that evade immediate rhetorical dismissal. Through its analysis of the Republican National Convention, the paper finds an unexplored potential in the Code Pink disruption. Rather than proposing their interruption as a model for future political action, it asks what aspects of their disturbance would need to be expanded on and experimented with to develop bodies that mutter into a fully formed queer politics of direct action.

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