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To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands of streets. (Michel De Certeau)

This is not a criticism of action taking place on our streets. This is not to excuse cracked heads and open wounds. This is not to rationalise or justify disabled journalists pulled from their wheelchairs and horses charging at girls too young to even vote for the government that has just sacrificed their education to a market which drove the country into the state of disarray it is presently in. This is not to say that protest doesn’t work. A majority of 84 was reduced to just 21 in the house of commons yesterday. If even just one less vote was a consequence of the protests on our streets, they were worthwhile.

This is merely to question the rhetoric that we use to protest. To think about the language that we speak. And by that I don’t mean the slogans that we chant, I mean that protesting is itself a rhetorical device. It is a way of communicating through doing that has its own codes, it’s own metaphorical flourishes, it’s own linguistic devices. It speaks in a certain way.

Protesting creates a temporary space for itself in which authority is challenged and overthrown. It is about presenting a body of people and saying “look how many are here, listen to them chanting together, look at them running, look at them marching” – in so doing it creates its own brief sphere of power. A contestation of the authority of the state, of big business, of the police. Sometimes this is merely through the size of the protest and its physical presence but at other times it occurs by physically acting out that contestation of authority – by fighting the police, by breaking barriers, by going places they have been told not to go. All of which is a means of saying  we don’t simply resist your authority, we reject it. On these streets we quite literally push back the borders of your power and claim our own circumscribed space  of influence. In here we are in charge now – we dance, we chant, we set fires, we smash windows, we wave banners, we write on the walls – our voices are the ones that are heard.

Rhetorically, protesting is a demonstration of a certain kind of strength. The strength to reclaim some space from the powers that control us. A space in which we can exert our own authority. The action of a protest march is a synecdoche for our wider relationship with power. We reclaim the streets, and in so doing demonstrate the potential to take power back from the powerful.

But this rhetoric is failing. It is failing because the space we create is not our own, however much it might appear to be. That space still belongs to the powerful and our resistance is manipulated and controlled by them.

Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this was offered 5 years ago by the introduction of the Serious Organised Crimes and Police Act which forbade protest without prior permission in the vicinity of Westminster. You couldn’t protest unless you’d been invited to do so, thus whatever you did in that space was sanctioned by the powerful. That space, both literally and figuratively, still belonged to them. We were not actors not in the sense of having any agency, more in the sense that we were performing someone’s bidding upon a stage that was not our own.

We’ve seen this same effect time and time again in the most recent protests. The actions of the protesters, the rhetoric of protesting, no longer speaks of the reclamation of power from authority, it speaks for that authority as exemplary of mindless violence and discord.  Strength is re-framed as aggression. The contestation of power as the destruction of civil society.

This is done primarily through a kind of unspoken pas de deux between the police and the majority of the mainstream media. As a protest develops it is quickly kettled. What was briefly a liberated space immediately becomes a prison. Or potentially more accurately it becomes a giant peep show booth in which the nostalgic posturing of revolutionary violence is played out for the media. As Dan Bye said yesterday on Twitter – the only inevitable thing about a kettle is that it boils. And when it does so the photographers and journalists are there to collect the photographs they require. A kind of protest bingo in which they seemingly have to get as many of the following as possible:

- Young men with their faces covered throwing things
- Someone with their arms thrown wide and their head back in a gesture of power and incitement
- A fire
- A smashed window
- Someone smashing a window
- Someone with blood pouring from an open head wound
- A protester screaming at an anonymous riot officer from less than a foot away
- A line of protesters facing off against a line of riot police
- A statue daubed in paint or hung with signs
- (please feel free to continue to fill these out in the comments section)

This parade of cliched protest-porn images is so predictable they might as well have been recycled from the last protest. That is how little influence those who are actually protesting have over how they are represented and repurposed by the powerful.

This rhetoric is no longer the rhetoric of the disposed. It is the rhetoric of the powerful. It tells the story they want to tell. The space we make for ourselves in a protest is not our own. We are not strong enough to do so and we never will be. But that powerlessness is exactly where we should begin, in making a new rhetoric for political action.

If we start from the assumption that space (both literally the space of our towns and cities and the social and political space in which we live and exist together) always belongs to the powerful then the aim of protest is not to take possession of that space through acts of force, but to find ways to re-purpose it. To use our weakness as our strength. To find tactics that infiltrate the spaces belonging to the powerful without trying to overturn them. Ways of communicating with people that circumvent the tired channels belonging to the mainstream media.

We need to find means of political agency that slips inside the forms of interaction upon which market-driven late capitalism relies and in doing so transform them. Ways of protesting that turn those actions and mechanisms to our own purpose. Not aggressively replacing the systems that are there but re-imagining them from the inside out. Acts that are as poetic as they are political. Cunning strategies, artful manoeuvres . New languages that the powerful have yet to learn.

These are languages that don’t simply speak of protest but speak of the future world we want to imagine on the other side of that protest. As this beautiful, enthralling piece of writing by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination stated:

A March from A to B with placards, repetitive slogans chanted with hoarse voices, protesters kettled in the cold for hours, crowds listening to a man with a beard giving a speech, boring banners hung from buildings, flyers filled with statistics of doom … Do these acts resemble the future we want? How else could our demands and desires be manifested? How else could our actions look and feel?
How can our political action speak of a world in which, as Chris Goode has beautifully articulated, weakness is valued as an asset? How can we create a poetry of protest, that remakes the conventional symbols and mechanisms of our lives as powerless consumers? A form of political action that doesn’t just anticipate a better future, but is already making it.

12 Comments

  1. This is very exciting – and a really good question to ask.

    The world of activists and professional campaigners certainly needs help from others to bring these new ideas and exciting tactics into our toolbox – and to do it in a way that it feels do-able to those seeking to make change will be the real test…

    Thanks for writing,
    Casper

  2. yes! this is exciting and yes! the world of activists and professional campaigners do need help in bringing these news ideas/tactics into the collective tool box. they have been asking for a while. it is time to link up.

    so maybe we are and can all be the bringers of such stuff? but to do that we need to understand that means picking it up and moving our feet? we’ve slipped into such a mode of commentary and separatism that it is like we believe that seeing ourselves in (or other to) that space is – as if to share that space with the protestors? (or at least the nice bits). i don’t think it is. yet. like it or not, we’ve drifted.

    this is a good challenging post, but pls don’t forget how ‘this rhetoric no longer..’ is actually disconnect… we are *not* alone in history and yes this is a repeat. all struggle (un/popular) has involved playing into the narrative as dictated by the powerful, government and media alike, diggers, luddites, the swing rebellion, tolpuddle, suffragettes, beanfield, ravers, rts, wombles – *all* were villified by the press and powers what were/is, no matter how creative they were (and my god, they were).

    we’re not winning the argument, and we should be. cos there’s lots of us and we talk alot. but we are not discussing the ‘violence’ or ‘property damage’ intelligently or loudly enough, so we – as commentators are playing into this narrative too. of course the photographers and journos take pictures and collect soundbites as if re-hashed from the last demo – or as you brilliantly put it – as ‘protest bingo’. they look for them. and we buy them. and then we reject them by talking about how clever we are in regards to them. and then we go for coffee.

    We forget that in other European countries, this is not a difficult argument to win. but we do point out that in other European countries, this is not a difficult argument to win – to one another, and thats as far as it goes.

    The ludicrous cond-emn/one – make the choice gameshow style media position has been perpetuated over the past few weeks BY US. we should be challenging the concept that state violence is always necessary and proportionate, non-state violence is always irrational and dangerous but instead, we’ve all made sure to say that:

    “I THINK non-violence is the only way”
    and
    “I am (not going to write here what I think) SAD about all this”
    and
    GLIB STUFF
    and
    #ff
    and
    “the POLICE STATE started now this minute”
    and
    “We forget that in other European countries, this is not a difficult argument to win”
    and
    “what will ‘the public’ think?”
    and
    so on.

    and although I applaud most of this post, I do feel like, unless something *actually happens* with it, its another thing that has gone into the air

    I suggest we book a room, invite activists (professional and ‘first time’ and all that is inbetween) and invite artists and talk. and plan. and argue. and make.

    yes?

  3. Bang on with your ideas. We are developing an event on reclaiming the use of public space, be great to see if we could put your ideas into practice http://bit.ly/gd8epI

    In many ways, the UCL Occupation was a far better example of reclaiming public space to create new forms of public good and organisation – from teach ins to swarm mapping.

  4. @X – yes to that room + people idea. I’m in.

  5. Casper and Noel, thanks very much for your thoughts. I would agree to UCL occupation is great and brilliant, not because it is a reclamation of public space but because it is a beautiful and effective re-writing of the function of a university as a place of learning and knowledge. As such it not only serves a practical purpose in disseminating information (through teach-ins, swarm-mapping etc) but also offers a hopeful image of learning liberated from the market to which the government are so enthusiastic to tie it.

    x, I totally and wholeheartedly agree. As you know, there’s a number of ways in which I (or indeed, we, in some contexts) are trying to take this kind of thinking ‘of the page’ as it were and I would be hugely keen for your proposed room to be one of them.

    When are people free? Are we thinking before Christmas? Or something to plan for in the earliest part of the New Year? I’m sure I can sort us a space to meet. Either way, I’m very keen.

  6. Let’s do it – Saturday 18th? Otherwise second week of January?

  7. sat 18th is a day of action for UK Uncut. we could do something for that and be on that action – and when thats over – have a chat/plan?

  8. Seconded, let’s do it!

  9. Sadly I have to be in Birmingham on the 18th. Agreed at least a couple of months ago to speak at this event for young artists in the West Midlands.

    There doesn’t at present seem to anything planned for Brum on the 18th so I’m going to have a think tomorrow and propose something via the website.

    Then perhaps we should perhaps organise a time early January and set to work ensuring a good turn out?

  10. great article, Andy

    if you meet in the new year, i’m back in the uk on jan 7th

  11. One of my friends reposting your article wrote: “For people who like well written things about protesting :D”

    Therefore, please feel free to ignore the following rant which was in response to them:

    ————————————-
    Pfff. Feel free to disagree, but to me this is just poststructuralist bullshit. This is protest viewed as “aesthetics” and as “text”/”writing”. This is the signal failure of postructuralism/postmodern thinking to deal with or even to recognise political questions. Everything becomes a question of “rhetoric” and of “representation”.

    Just to raise a few other figures: what about ORGANISATION? What about the fact that there are currently no radical or working-class or socialist organisational structures worth the name? What about the political problem that is the utter destruction/incorporation of the left? What about CLASS – and its ambivalences, vis student movement? What about the problem that students cannot withdraw their labour? What about the fact that the slogan “Students and Workers Unite!” is completely hollow and rings false at every utterance? What about LAW? Particularly with regard to strike action and protest?

    Actually, there are so many questions. And the last one worth mentioning – the one that you don’t bother about, because you’re too tired from answering the rest, and it’s not actually important anyway – is “representation”. Because, I’m not at all sure that this is a battle of ideas, or a battle to “convince” people. And I’m even more suspicious of the idea that the “correct representation” is the way to convince someone (compared, say, to cutting their job or their benefits or demolishing the services they rely on).

    Never trust someone who opens with a quote from De Certeau, the man made famous by a “philosophy” of “making do”.

    —————————-
    All best,
    Wit

  12. Hey Wit,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with almost all of what you say. Those questions you raise are all interesting and vital. I don’t though think that those questions should preclude others that I was briefly (in a single blog post) trying to raise around the physical act of protesting on the streets of the city. And in that context how is the question of rhetoric not important? The act of protesting on the streets is to a large degree (unless its considered a genuine attempt to overthrow power by sheer force of numbers, such as we’ve witnessed in Egypt recently) an act of what used to be called ‘propaganda by deed’ – something to be said and heard, a presence to be made. As such how our actions fulfill that function is important and something I wanted to try and think about – and that necessarily includes questions of rhetoric and representation, without I think excluding all other discourse.

    It’s interesting that you dismiss De Certeau so easily at the end of your post as I think possibly buried in that comment is something important we disagree on. Forgive me if any of this re-stating sounds patronising.

    To me, to describe De Certeau’s work as a ‘philosophy of making do’ is revealingly reductive. Yes – he did talk a lot about making do, though it might be better considered as something like Debord’s detournement – a repurposing or reimagining of spaces and imposed strategies of power. But fundamentally I think De Certeau was a cultural theorist, not a philosopher, and as such he looked at the world as it is – in all its cruelty and in equality – and tried to unpick the strategies by which people continue to survive, even thrive, within these oppressive situations, from the Banlieue’s of Paris to the streets of New York.

    He is mapping what is happening rather than what should or could be happening. In doing so he’s not proscribing these situations as justified or reasonable, or suggesting a model for a future society, but is rather suggesting shared tactics or approaches, or even vocabularies, that might be applied in the ongoing attempts to resist those in positions of power. This is not to say we should be ‘making do’, in fact its an exemplar of the ways in which small victories are achieved against great power and perhaps as a consequence a map or a blueprint for how we might proceed in our own very different struggles.

    Because we start where we are and we do what we can with the tools we have. And surely first identifying those ‘tools’ (or ‘tactics’) and some means of utilising them is valuable, as part of the much wider conversation that you identify.

    Perhaps it is a slightly unfair assumption to assume that all discourse around post-modernism or post-structuralism precludes other conversations or points of reference. Because neither is necessarily an all-consuming “philosophy” in the conventional sense but, as in Lefebvre or De Certeau, it is a useful resource in our ongoing attempts to respond to the challenges we face.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] found this at the link below and think it is worth wider reading. Source:  http://lookingforastronauts.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/towards-a-new-rhetoric-for-political-action/ To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands of streets. (Michel De [...]

  2. By Political Art: A User’s Manual « Andy Field on 13 Sep 2012 at 9:24 am

    [...] I still think that’s interesting But it’s not any longer what I want to talk about Though if you’re interested there is a long piece I wrote on the subject over here [...]

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