OH WHAT A MESS I'VE MADE:
On Aesthetics and Political Praxis
by Olive McKeon
A few people may have been standing together - five, ten or twelve, not more; nothing has been
announced, nothing is expected. Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come
streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction. Most of them do not know what
has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other
people are. (Elias Canetti, 16)
Thousands of us out here. In the middle of the street, in the middle of the city. Yelling, tumbling, running. Breaking off, galloping down the alley like a pack of wild ponies. Pausing, licking our fingers and testing the air. Then out onto the street again. The pack becomes a mass becomes a throng becomes a maelstrom. Grabbing a wrist and thrusting forward. The cops! the cops! Plans B and C. Spinning on heels, back tracking. Turning and then turning again and they are off our tail. We are out wolfing.
A bloodied youth participating in the protest/occupation of the Tory Millbank Tower, London 2010. El Pias photo
Political struggles coordinate the movements of bodies in spaces as in marches, protests, strikes, sit-ins, occupations, blockades, and lock downs. These forms of struggle often share compositional devices: bodies filling up or emptying out a space, bodies surrounding a terrain or clogging a channel, bodies displacing objects, breaking brittle surfaces, burning combustible elements. These sensuous moments of unrest traverse a broad cross section of political struggle. While one can describe these moments as a calculus of social and material forces, I wonder what one can learn from an inquiry into the aesthetic character of political struggles. An examination of struggles in their aesthetic dimension - their shards and ashes, their clamor and mess, their inescapable sensuality - can illuminate the gravity and exhilaration of political praxis.
This essay proposes a shift in formulating arts activism from a question of bringing art to social movements and towards thinking aesthetically about the barest of political practices. From this vantage point, political struggles already involve a rich set of aesthetic operations that precede the contribution made by artists. I use the concept of aesthetics to denote sensuousness and play, invoking specifically Kant's formulation of the beautiful as involving free play and a purposiveness without purpose. I propose an approach to political practices that may arouse an experience of the beautiful, as suggested through my reading of a text by the French journal Tiqqun. While often sensuous, fulfilling, and rapturous, crowds and collective assemblages also potentially bear the dangers of alienation. Yet this aesthetic orientation toward political practices uniquely suggests a move away from the professionalization of arts activism that tames what otherwise might unfold as free play, communism, and the beautiful.
Thinking about the aesthetics of political struggles - specially in the moments when they become enacted with bodies in space - reframes an orientation towards art and politics. A few common frameworks for arts activism often situate art as a supplement to political movements. Community-based projects bring art in order to empower oppressed groups or build solidarity between people. Or artists aim to contribute and support social movements through projects such as silk-screening protest posters or preparing street theater for demonstrations. These practices, often immensely useful to community groups and social movements, fit into a framework of supplementing politics with art.
Moving in different direction, I propose an alternative question to ask: How can we think aesthetically about our political practices. This entails a shift from supplementing social movements to engaging with the preexisting complexity and richness of forms of struggle such as marches, blockades, occupations, sabotage, and so on. Approaching a political demonstration from this point of view would conceive of the street as always already a performance. This shift involves thinking formally and sensuously about spatial-temporal political practices and about politics as a rich aesthetic field in itself. One can focus on the artisanal crafting of political struggle, the 'social movements' happening in the street in distinction to making dances alone in the studio.
This suggests a further aesthetic turn for politics and activism, a transference of the functions played by art to political practice. One could apply the notion of prefigurative politics to the aesthetic so that social movements might aesthetically prefigure the world to come. Everything one asks for from an aesthetic experience could be asked of how groups enact political struggles in space and time. The intensities of the aesthetic can be heightened, even made psychedelic, through forms of struggle. Situations of mass political insurrection involve a sensuous density, the exhilarating overturning of once undisturbed spaces and the devastating materiality of violence and repression. Other political practices, such as an under-attended, boring rally of trite and banal speeches, pall in comparison as aesthetic experiences. These practices might benefit from an increase in intensity and unpredictability. This call to seek aesthetic experiences amongst billy clubs and rubber bullets might appear dystopian or even an apology for police violence because of its potentiality for excitement. While certainly a danger, one must not overlook the importance of the aesthetic aspects of how struggles feel as we engage in them. Instead, this is a call to experience the conflict and antagonism that is a part of any historic political struggle from the civil rights era to Tahrir Square and beyond.
In thinking about the aesthetics of struggle, what does this term 'aesthetics' do for us? From its long history, I use the term to point to sensuousness and play. Sensuousness refers to the perceptible properties of something, its sensual characteristics. Recalling Frederic Jameson's imperative to always historicize, I might rework this as always aestheticize, meaning to consider how one comes to perceive or experience whatever situation is at hand. How do you know a struggle is happening, how do you know to understand it as a political struggle, and what account do you privilege as a means of explain how it occurs? These questions pertain to the sensible and the forces that organize and categorize the sensorium.
As a second idea indicated by the term 'aesthetics,' play traverses many aesthetic theorists, particularly Kant who characterizes the aesthetic experience as one of play (Kant). Play broadly refers to non-instrumental activity, tasks without an end, and I am specifically focused in Kant's notion of 'free play.' Play appears in Kant's aesthetics as the free play of cognitive faculties. One feels an alignment of the faculties and a harmony between intuition and understanding. The aesthetic judgement senses that the object in view displays a purposiveness without purpose, an experience of understanding in general without a particular content. One remains disinterested, unmotivated, and unclouded by desire for the object.
To steal these concepts from Kant then, I propose political struggle as a form of free play, a moment in which one can experience the beautiful. Consider a moment of urban unrest. A person engaged in a riot relates to the landscape in a manner paralleling a patron experiencing the beautiful before a work of art. The rioter does not interact with the newspaper box, trash can, or shop window for their functional properties nor for their pleasing qualities. She does not intend to put something in the trash can, obtain a newspaper from its box, or admire the objects displayed in the window. Rather, she interacts with the elements of the street scene with a purposiveness without purpose. She acts as though she has a purpose, taking a brick to the glass or tilting the newspaper box on its side, yet ultimately these actions serve no particular function. The riot becomes a scene of the free play of the cognitive faculties, an experience of the urban environment disinterested from its relation to either desire or goodness. The street becomes not a conduit of commerce but a play of forms. Certainly, Kant’s notion of the beautiful shares some features with the riot but not others such as his sensus communis, the universalization of taste. This appropriation of the beautiful stems not from fidelity but an attempt to read with Kant against Kant.
While the connection between urban unrest and a Kantian free play appears out of joint as the beautiful involves a restfulness of the mind and an experience of harmony, play and non-instrumental actions can help make sense what happens in political struggle. If utopia or communism can be thought not as a concrete set of socio-institutional relations but as a process, political struggles do not pursue a specific end or aim. One must not ask if a particular struggle finishes in victory or defeat but how to swing the unfolding circumstances in an emancipatory direction. The beautiful's purposiveness without purpose resonates both with the non-instrumentality of aesthetic form and political practice.
Play traverses not only aesthetic theory but also the left communist thought of the French journal Tiqqun, which embraces this continuous free play of political forces. In its Introduction to Civil War, Thesis 10 states, "Civil war is the free play of forms-of-life" (Tiqqun, 32, my emphasis) and Thesis 30 defines communism as "the real movement that elaborates, everywhere and at every moment, civil war" (Tiqqun, 63, my emphasis). This use of 'free play' gestures towards a reading of communism in light of Kant's aesthetics. Tiqqun presents a runaway communism that dispenses with any need for concepts of value production or exploitation in favor of a notion of communism as a ceaseless civil war without aim or end, a war fought with purposiveness without purpose. The choice of the word movement frames communism as a form of dance, an ongoing process of bodies leaning towards and away from each other. Tiqqun finds beauty precisely in this elaboration of civil war and communism, as it states, "the only beautiful moments of the last century were disparagingly called 'civil wars'" (Tiqqun, 191). Arising out of struggle, political struggle enacts a purposive dis-ordering of the natural universe, a disorder experienced as the harmony and beauty of communism’s unfolding. Tiqqun provides one approach to communism as an experience of the beautiful.
Let us turn towards social movements and their formal ways of collecting and moving bodies in crowds, packs, swarms, gangs, huddles, clusters, herds, and bursting socialites. Various writers give us a sense of the viscosity and texture of crowds and their movements. One can think of Elias Canetti's poetic description of crowds and the complex typology he invents to understand them: Invisible Crowds, Baiting Crowds, Flight Crowds, Prohibition Crowds, Reversal Crowds, Feast Crowds, Double Crowds, Crowd Crystals, and so on. Or one can recall the way that Deleuze and Guattari picked up and ran with Canetti's work with their figure of the wolf pack: "The wolf, wolves, are intensities, speeds, temperatures, non-decomposable variable distances. A swarming, a wolfing" (Deleuze and Guattari, 35). These examples indicate the poetics of bodies and their collective movements. An aesthetic approach to struggle examines political practice at level of the crowd assemblages generated and the ensuing corporeality of action, or, in other words, how movements inspire themselves to actually, physically move.
Inside the form of a political struggle rests a dance party, an embodied play of social antagonisms. One can note the parallel between a struggle and a party, in its sense as revelry and festivity. At a dance party, everyone swarms towards the center of the dance floor, wanting to be surrounded and immersed in the amoebic form of the party. Both parties and struggles bring bodies together for a concentrated collective experience, leaving it their wake messes, a disorganized array of bygone objects.
While noting the poetics and play of crowds, I must raise two important admonitions: the danger of alienation and the collapsing distance between play and work. While the packs that form on the streets and collectively discover what they can do together conjures the excitement of social movements, their beauty can produce alienation as much as emergent solidarity. A friend and comrade wrote to me describing her experience during the Millbank riot of November 10, 2010 when fifty thousand British students descended upon the head quarters of the Conservative Party that had voted to triple the cost of university tuition. In the midst of students breaking the floor to ceiling windows of the lobby, tossing whatever computer equipment they found into the street, and setting fires in the courtyard of the building, she describes her uneasiness:
Then the assault on Millbank in the student protests last november, I was there with A and we got into the building after it had been taken. We ran from the cops, went up on the roof, dropped a banner, etc. So this kind of scenario of being able to act with people I know and trust at demos or riots but feeling totally alienated and vulnerable if on my own or in an unknown group, not recognizing a group energy or not being able or desiring to tap into it. So my anxiety is not being able to connect my political desires for collectivity or rupture to the uneasiness with groups, crowds, and their behaviors. Being an only child, I guess I never got over the trauma of the first day at school. I was a sovereign individual thrown into a bunch of stupid kids.
The crowd or pack as a social form can swing in many directions, sometimes as frightening as exhilarating. What haunts us about social relations in other contexts - the first day of school, the bar, the subway - will haunt us within social movements.
One must attend to the specificity of the bodies involved and how the stratification of bodies by race, gender, and class will continue to operate in the midst of action. Decision making and the norms about what to do in the context of political action will not escape the power dynamics at play within racialized and gendered social relations. White bodies acting together in a protest in a commercial center may understand each other as equipped with an anti-capitalist analysis while they may assume brown bodies in a poorer area doing the same actions as stripped of a sophisticated political critique. A group of men may fail to support actions done by women, indicative to them of female hysteria and frenzy rather than strategic political practice. Certain subject positions may understand their struggles as properly political and those done by others as non-political, mob hysteria, pointing towards a differentiation between who and what can occupy the space of the political. The dynamics of white supremacy and patriarchy will emerge in the midst of political movements as in other domains of social life.
In addition to the uneasiness of and power dynamics within group formations, approaching social movements as aesthetic phenomena raises a complex set of issues regarding cultural production, work, and revolt. If the bodies in the street resemble dancers, does taking part in political organizing consist of a form of cultural labor? Is the dancer/body-running-though-the-streets a cultural worker? From one vantage point, street actions reflect a revolt against work and a momentary refusal to be a quiet, docile body in transit, to heed the demands of capital. From the opposite angle, one could cast the street action as a form of unpaid creative labor that helps to generate a buzz about a city that brands and advertisers will source to promote their commodities. While many examples attest to the channeling of revolutionary movements by advertisers, one commodity appears particularly relevant, a video game titled Brink released in North America on May 10, 2011. In the game, two factions, resistance and security, battle in a fictional insurrectionary civil war. The characters utilize parkour-style movement, and the billboard advertisements for the game do not fail to circle the R in 'Revolution.' Framing political practice as a form of play stands in an uncertain relation to the status of work, often characterized as expanding into domains of leisure within a post-Fordist context. Political practice can play an antagonistic force to capital and value production, or it can contribute to the cultural reservoirs available for appropriation.
Another aspect of the relations between play, work, and political practice pertains to arts activists who make a profession out of their activist work. By collecting their projects into a portfolio or CV that may get them a teaching gig or other form of employment, they turn what would be the play of political antagonism into the imperatives of work. Perhaps this is the moment when social movements can no longer have their purposiveness without purpose, their beauty. To uphold their status as play may entail a move away from professionalization, from an impressive portfolio of brilliant art work that knits communities together, critiques institutions, and opposes imperialism. The rowdiest in the street and during the darkest hours of the night will never receive compensation for their work, which I prefer to call communist play. Their activity will be anonymous and will not accrue symbolic capital. Few are ever paid to participate in political uprisings. Usually only mercenaries, those hired by a regime to suppress an uprising, receive wages. A distinction may need to separate the free play of political struggles from the logic and regulation of cultural labor.
If one identifies political practice not as work but as play, one faces the inevitable question of how exactly to fund and reproduce one's political efforts. While we still live in a capitalist mode of production, one is forced to sell labor-power to reproduce oneself or consent to a voluntarist marginalization. The problem of how to fund political practices on the left parallels the discussions around arts funding. As domains of play and non-instrumental activity, both political and artistic practices strive to articulate themselves as detached from or antagonistic to value production. Yet they require material resources to continue to exist. This constitutive contradiction of being exterior or in opposition to capital circulation yet dependent on it haunts those engaged in both political struggles and artistic practices. While furthering and elaborating political struggles involves a set of strategic decisions about how to sustain various efforts, I suggest not identifying too closely with professionalization. Capital will not pay labor for waging class war, and men will not pay women and trans-identified people to resist patriarchy. Parsing out and understanding the distinction and contradiction between the work we do to reproduce our political practices and the play of struggle itself may help clarify the relation between play and work.
In this consideration of the aesthetics of struggle, political practices emerge as corporeal movements that one cannot abstract from the concrete moments of their elaboration, their performance in space and time. An aesthetic operation occurs during a moment of struggle prior to the arrival of any activist marching bands, the street theater troupes, or art as such. The doing of politics rests upon the participation and play of bodies in the elaboration of a struggle. Addressing politics on the level of its aesthetic operations forges a connection between play, means without ends, and the beauty sought after in both politics and aesthetics. We will not be paid for our most beautiful dances which will be on the ashes of capitalist social relations. We will not add a bullet point on our CV for abolishing capitalism and ourselves as workers, which will be perhaps the most aesthetically satisfying moment of our lives.
At stake here is not so much a creative proposition for a new sort of project, but a way of thinking differently about the practices that traverse social movements. This implies a call for artists, in addition to making art for social movements, to make the movement their aesthetic project. In the context of political movements that do not yet have the sublimity of a mass uprising, those involved can thump up the volume, strangeness, choreography, and poetics of what they do politically. If participating in social movements feels boring or unfulfilling, add complexity and play to the dances that unfold on the streets. Use your legs for jumping, kicking, getting low. Use your arms for throwing, climbing, lifting. Your feet for running and stomping. Your hands for secret baseball catcher signs.
Pack lots of bodies into small spaces. Get tighter. Also, be more expansive, decentralize the activity, infinite splinter groups. Use levels - send some people up and others below. Dress the part, which is to say, dress as someone you have never met. Appropriate tactics from the animal kingdom - a wedge of swans, a pack of wolves, a wake of buzzards, a siege of cranes. Whether it is two or ten thousand of you, make it your finest and ceaseless dance.
Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 1984.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. by Brian Massumi. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Trans. by J. H. Bernard. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.
Tiqqun. Introduction to Civil War. Trans. by Alexander R. Galloway & Jason E. Smith. Los Angles: Semiotext(e), 2010.
Many thanks to Dara Greenwald, Lindsay Caplan, Marina Vishmidt, and Oxana Timofeeva who have been in dialogue with me about this essay.