The incoherent discourses that justified the Iraq War were not politically ineffective; to the contrary, they trapped opponents in rhetorical disputes that failed to upset the war effort. The personalized ridicule of President Bush and the ‘I Told You So’ narrative behind Cindy Sheehan’s opposition to the Iraq War confirm that rhetorical challenges to state violence often fall into traps like those set for disputing homophobic discourse. Treating the Iraq War as the result of a personality problem, anti-war rhetoric created an economy of ridicule that failed to engage larger questions of geopolitical power and furthered a politics of identification that dismissed criticism before its claims could be evaluated. The ‘I Told You So’ narrative created an emotional politics of shared truths that helped produce large publics critical of the Bush Administration, yet they developed greater commonality through celebrity and amateur policy expertise rather than a political plan for ending the war.
In addition to blurring the categories of the usual politics of identification, the Code Pink interruption of McCain’s speech illustrates another capacity of subjects of desire: to generate events. Unlike many of the other direct actions at the Republican Convention, which were quickly dismissed, the Code Pink disruption cause a specific type of rupture that explains why McCain was compelled to continue addressing what he declared to be a non-event – these disruptions caused trauma. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis write, psychoanalytic trauma is “an event in the subject’s life defined by its intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization.”97 Therefore, it is McCain’s simultaneous dismissal of and inability to move beyond the interruption that constitutes trauma, and it is this trauma that transformed the protests from mere actions into true events. Consider an example that carries considerable historical weigh – Mario Savio’s stirring speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement urging others to use their bodies in direct action:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.98
Against the more traditional interpretation of Savio’s prescription, that bodies should be used to physically clog spaces of power, perhaps we should perform a more psychoanalytic reading – that the suasive power of politics can be interrupted by jamming its symbolic machine with bodies that mutter, which frustrate rhetorical attempts to contain the desiring force of bodies through the politics of identification. Moreover, jamming the symbolic machine is not painless, it produces trauma, but it is not the pain of an individual subject but a shared blockage with potentially enormous effects. Continue reading “The Trauma of the Real: Or, Unspeakable Acts”
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 Continue reading ““The Ground Noise and the Static”: The Queer Effects of Bodies that Mutter”
Soon before President Bush left office, he had a pair of shoes thrown at him during a press conference on his farewell journey to Iraq. The thrower was Muntadhar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist upset with the American occupation of his country. In the middle of the press conference, al-Zaidi stood up, yelled, “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” and threw a shoe at Bush.62 Before security personnel were able to intervene, al-Zaidi launched another shoe, saying, “This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq.” Showing just how unaffected he was by the whole ordeal, Bush later laughed it off by saying, “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw,” further shrugging of the protest with the comment, “I don’t know what the guy’s cause was. I didn’t feel the least bit threatened by it.”63 As a strategy of confrontation, al-Zaidi’s shoe-ing follows Voltairine de Cleyre’s classic definition of direct action as one of the “spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation.”64 Moreover, it matches the essential characteristics outlined by direct action advocates, being confrontational, public, disruptive, and illegal.65 Yet it was unable to affect Bush, probably because it was immediately contained by the politics of identification, which raises an important question: can other types of embodied protest disrupt power? Continue reading “Failed Rhetoricality: Bodies that Mutter”
The Politics of Identification: Or, Bush’s Personality Problem
In addition to critique the incoherent discourses justifying the Iraq War, Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star Families for Peace sought moral clarity by also going after Bush for the killing of innocents. In doing so, they personalized their rhetoric in the hope that it would dramatize the divide between the anti-war movements message of reconciliation and Bush’s personal “crusade.”37 Sheehan had already written that President Bush had shown “arrogance,” had “nothing in his eyes,” and lacked “any real compassion” during a 2004 meeting.38 But she was further enraged when, in a speech on August 3, 2005, President Bush said that US troops killed in Iraq had committed a sacrifice “made in a noble cause.”39 Sheehan, certain that the causes for the war were ignoble, was confident that the President would be unable to articulate the noble cause when pressed to do so. Despite Sheehan’s message being directed at the causes of the Iraq War, and the fact that the Bush Administration’s strategy of silence was a matter of political calculation rather than personal insult, her approach encouraged additional personal attacks on the President’s character. Consequently, a claim that had already existed at the margins of the anti-war movement became its most popular theme: the Iraq War was the result of a personality problem. Continue reading “Identification and Interest: Personality Problems and “I Told You So””
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. Continue reading “Introduction to Forthcoming Article: Dispute or Disrupt? Desire and Violence in Protests Against the Iraq War”