“The Ground Noise and the Static”: The Queer Effects of Bodies that Mutter

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In early September 2008, thousands of anarchists and other radicals descended on the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities to ‘crash the party.’81 The protests lost focus after the McCain campaign cancelled the first day of the convention – possibly nervous about the impending protests, even though the official claim was that the cancellation was to wait for Hurricane Gustav to make landfall.82 Confrontations between riot police and anarchists were numerous, but for days, a huge police force outnumbered and outmaneuvered them, and prevented them from being more than a mild nuisance.83 Yet on Thursday night during McCain’s acceptance speech as the Republican Party nominee for President, a series of Code Pink anti-war protestors rose from the gallery and interrupted the event.84 McCain, looking irritated, dismissed the protestor by saying “Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, ok?”85 Another protestor soon interrupted McCain. Subsequently, McCain was so distracted that he stopped his speech to directly address the protests and urged the audience to ignore them. Those protests, along with McCain off-the-cuff responses, soon became the most memorable part of an otherwise routine speech.

Beyond Signification: Or, How to Have a Good Time

Strictly speaking, it was the Republican audience that interrupted McCain’s speech and not the Code Pink protestors. Every time a lonely protestor raised their voice, a whole chorus of ‘USA! USA!’ thundered through the convention center to drown them out. In that way, the delegates turned potentially insignificant irritations into event-shaping disruptions. If the crowd had responded as they did the day before, when two Code Pink protestors rushed toward the stage during Sarah Palin’s speech only to be snatched by the Secret Service at the last moment, then McCain would have continued without interruption.86 Yet it appeared difficult to calm down McCain’s chanting crowd – a group so incensed by the mere presence of a dissenter in their midst that they were compelled to match her verbal outbursts with an overwhelming vocal response of their own. This excessive response is indicative of the paranoia present in a group obsessed with the politics of identification – so anxious to erase an otherwise minor disruption, the intensity of the crowd’s reaction reveals the precarity of the imaginary fantasies that bind together state discourses. Caught within a perspective that structures relations in terms of identity and opposition, the politics of identification leads to an aggressive policing of borders that reacts violently to anything that evades categorization.87

Although the Code Pink interruption provoked a massive outburst from the Republican crowd, they showed how bodies could jam political discourse, demonstrating a subversion of the usual politics of identity. The Code Pink interruption elucidates how resistant bodies can cause unspeakable irruptions of the Real and thus makes language sputter.88 During their interruption, McCain’s speech began to spit and sputter, as he lost his breath and lost his words. By calling their actions ‘ground noise and static,’ McCain made it clear that he did not know, nor did he care to know, the cause of the protestors interrupting him. Yet in the few short moments when McCain was forced off his script, there was a feeling that anything could happen. Far from any microphone, and then repeatedly shouted down, the protestors were stripped of coherent speech. All the protestors had left were their bodies and whatever howls they could let out while being dragged away. But the relative success of their protest demonstrates a basic point about the connection of the body and politics illustrated at the Republican Convention in 2008, but also in the city streets across the South during the civil rights movement when black and white youth were assaulted by firehouses and bitten by dogs; regardless of all of the new and innovative forms of protest that have followed the boom in social and media technologies of the twentieth century, the body remains the basic tool of protest –especially when is not reduced to its suasive power. Even when discourse breaks down, the body continues to exert force.

A strategy that emerged during summit protests provides a useful example of the power of bodies the mutter. For years, the battle lines drawn by politicians and bureaucrats trying to keep out protestors had led to the worst kinds of conflict. At the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas summits in Quebec City in 2001 and Miami 2003, for instance, protestors were met by fierce police repression. In Miami, in particular, the police used a set of heavy-handed tactics that included “large scale pre-emptive arrests, deployment of heavily armed, sometimes unidentifiable law enforcement officers who infringed protester rights, and the collection of intelligence by police and others on activists engaged in lawful protest.”89 When the tactic of radical clowning was introduced, however, police attempts at crowd-control became more difficult. In addition to lightening the mood, clown interventions disrupted the normal boundary- policing that allowed business as usual to continue unperturbed. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), for instance, dressed up in army fatigues and clown gear. At protests, CIRCA has used funny chants and disorder for the purpose of distracting, confusing, and disrupting police lines. By introducing humor and hiccups into the usual modes of identification, clowning disrupts the steely resolve of protesters and police alike. It is not as if the clowns introduce confusion into identification itself, as it is fairly easy to distinguish between yourself and someone in a rainbow wig and full facepaint. But the clowns therefore exhibit a performance whose effects are not to clarify identity but to disrupt it. Anarchist academic David Graeber has written about a protest where mass arrest seemed all but inevitable.90 Penned in by the cops, a bandana- and mask-clad anarchist black bloc tried to break through police lines on multiple occasions, but their militant tactics failed. Yet when a group of people dressed up as goats, a group dressed as puppeteers, and the clown army began an impromptu carnival with streamers, horns, and rubber mallets, “the tenor of the whole event” changed and the police lines gave way and everyone escaped arrest.91 Therefore, through a series of movements, gestures, and slogans that are not immediately legible, clowning demonstrates the power of mobilizing bodies that mutter.

Radical clowning makes up for some of the problems found in rhetorical challenges to the Iraq War. While clowning or the Code Pink disruptions did not derail the war, they show that little things like jokes, gaffes, slips of the tongue, and misfires inevitably erupt when the official story breaks down. And it is these unplanned utterances that haunt the fantasy of state control that paper over its incoherent discourses. In contrast to the self-assured affective world sharing in the ‘I Told You So’ narrative, Benjamin Shepard explains that clowning functions as a bridge between multiple publics. Clowns connect with the general public through pleasure to disrupt the usual barriers put up by the general public, the media, and their opponents.92 The key mechanism for creating these contact zones is performative irony, which functions differently than simply treating the Iraq War as the result of a presidential personality problem. As L.M. Bogad notes, this produces an economy of ridicule that provokes critical reflection that dissolves the easy binary of a politics of identity.93 This ridicule visibly appropriates, changes, and recasts discourses to publicly deconstruct them, as een in a 2007 rally against the KKK where a group of clowns disrupted the Nazi chant of ‘White Power!’ with ‘White Powder!’ and ‘White Flowers!’ while dancing and throwing flour and flowers in the air.94 In effect, what radical clowning produces are alternative forms of identities that are ambiguous and therefore “dynamic, shifting and unstable” challenge boundaries, power relations, and knowledge production.95 Clowning is only one example of bodies that mutter, however. Tim Dean warns that locating queerness in camp or parody focuses too much on the visible, which reintroduces rhetoricality and the politics of identification through questions of naturalness, realness, and passing.96 This is not meant as a challenge to clowning, which has proven to be effective in many instances, but as a provocation to study bodies with an even deeper connection to the invisible realm of the Real and whose mutters are that much more subtle. 

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