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”
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”
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”
Paul Brousse, “Propaganda by the Deed,” 1877:
Of what do the masses consist? Of peasants, workers, most of the time toiling eleven and twelve hours per day. They make their way home worn out from fatigue and have little inclination to read socialist pamphlets or newspapers: they sleep, they go for a stroll or devote their evenings to the family.
Well, what if there is a way of grabbing these people’s attention, of showing them what they cannot read, of teaching them socialism by means of actions and making them see, feel. touch? .. When one resorts to that line of reasoning one is on the trail that leads, beside theoretical propaganda, to propaganda by the deed.
Propaganda by the deed is a mighty means of rousing the popular consciousness. Let us take an example. Prior to the Paris Commune, who in France was conversant with the principle of communal autonomy? No one. Yet Proudhon had written magnificent books. Who read those books? A handful of literati. But once the idea was brought out into the open air, in the heart of the capital, onto the steps of the City Hall, when it took on flesh and life, it shook the peasant in his cottage, the worker at his fireside, and peasants and workers alike had to reflect on this huge question mark posted in the public square. Now that idea made inroads. In France, right around the world, for or against, everybody has picked his side … Continue reading “Propaganda by the Deed, original documents”
In his response to Butler in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Žižek challenges Butler’s notion of re-signification. Žižek notes that it’s not that re-signification is never effective, it’s just that both the two imaginaries on the left – the democratic welfare state imaginary and the ‘really-existing-Socialism’ – have been all but exhausted (325). Rather than resignify the symbolic coordinates of a particular identity, Žižek argues that one should transform the universal ‘principle’ that structures the existing symbolic order. Žižek is not shy in suggesting why he thinks a full-scale re-structuring is necessary because “it is the very focus on the notion of Real as impossible that reveals the ultimate contingency, frailty (and thus changeability) of very symbolic constellation that pretends to serve as the a priori horizon of the process of symbolization (221). On the next two pages, as well as in the last chapter, Žižek reiterates that his political project is one of hegemony, however. To be more explicit, one part of Žižek’s strategy is to sacrifice all attachments and identifications in an ethical act so the ethical figure is not required to compromise her desire, draining the Symbolic’s ability to hold the subject hostage – mirroring the famous line from David Fincher’s Fight Club “It’s only after you’ve lost everything are you free to do anything” (Revolution 249-53).
While I agree with Žižek that the constitutive Real provides a possibility for going beyond resignification, his strategy of hegemony sidesteps the Foucaultian conception of productive power. An analytics of power changes if the productive effects of power are taken into account. In a post-sovereign society, there is no longer a singular referent for all relations of power. The production of power is relocated to a multiplicity of sites. Instead of relying on a naïve humanism that would assume essential aspects of human rationality, desire, and sociality, productive power allows one to create a social topology that accounts for reproducing life (HS 92-100). Additionally, productive power shifts the terms of debate away from freedom and repression. Freedom implies that social, political, economic and cultural forces inhibit an otherwise unfettered subject. Instead, productive power proposes that different potentialities are to be increased or restricted as they are produced (increasing efficiency or productivity at performing certain tasks, added responsiveness to certain discursive pronouncements), but in a manner that is always radically circumscribed by its conditions of possibility because they rely on their conditions of possibility for their reproduction. Put another way, freedoms are produced, not liberated.