Blog Post: Week 3 – Legislative action

After reading chapters 1 – 7 in McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street, I think I find the concept of détournement most interesting. Wark describes this idea as both “the opposite of quotation” and “a challenge to private property” because it “attacks a kind of fetishism, where the products of collective human labor in the cultural realm can become a mere individual’s property” (40). He also describes how it functions as more than just a remix such as those described by Henry Jenkins, but rather as something that highlights the idea that knowledge belongs to no one person but to society itself. For me, this idea calls to mind both the cut-up technique developed by the Dadaists (though popularized by William S. Burroughs) and the work of street artist Banksy. With cut-up, poets sought to rearrange existing texts into entirely new works, often by literally cutting up a finished text and then rearranging the pieces into a different order to create something entirely new. Such actions seem to attack the fetishism of the written word and therefore represent a kind of challenge to or rebellion against linearity that has been established by literature and its critics. Thus, cut-up, like détournement, appears to function as a challenge to existing elitist power structures as well as an attempt to shift power imbalances in favor of those excluded from so-called “high-minded” pursuits (especially since the Dadaists intended cut-up as another of their surrealist games, thereby demonstrating a ludic aspect to the technique).

Meanwhile, Banksy often repurposes prevailing cultural images (such as corporate logos or well-known pop cultural characters like Mickey Mouse, himself a sort of corporate logo) into subversive new formats that send up corporate culture and reveal the darkness that lies at the heart of capitalism. Significantly, Banksy displays his art publicly on walls or in the form of self-built physical prop pieces often erected on the sidewalk or other high-traffic areas. By placing his artwork out in the open, Banksy demolishes the idea of the art museum, which is sometimes conceptualized as an elitist institution accessible only to a wealthy few or to those with cultured and refined tastes. Therefore, like the Dadaists and other cut-up artists, Banksy appears to create art that also functions as a rebellion against the art world (both as an idea and an institution) and a subversion of the notion that art occupies an exclusive and sophisticated realm. More importantly, by making his artwork freely visible to the public, he is enlisting the populace at large in his rebellion as well.

Banksy, Napalm (2004-2005)
Image credit: https://jamaispasdutoutrien.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/nape3.jpg

This then brings me to Wark’s discussion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s desire to walk the streets of Paris during curfew. Wark writes that by walking the streets at this time, Sartre engages in an act of rebellion because his nighttime stroll becomes a situation rather than a mere act of contemplation. As Wark explains, “The situation is the common product of its own unknowable facticity and of Sartre’s freedom” (57). In other words, without the curfew, Sartre is free to walk the streets whenever he wants, but with the restriction in place Sartre is actively exercising his freedom to walk whenever and wherever he wants in a blatant act of defiance. This idea puts me in mind of Michel de Certeau’s “walking rhetoric,” which states that pedestrians actively create a city’s meaning by walking through it as individual subjects capable of ignoring the city planners’ intended regulations of movement (i.e. bus routes, crosswalks, parking spaces, etc.). For de Certeau, the act of walking through a city imbues these different urban spaces with new meanings that sometimes contradict their intended purposes. This suggests that any pedestrian can “rewrite” the conventions and institutions of society simply by choosing to walk a specific route through a city. This idea in turn puts me in mind of the “Standing Man in Gezi Park” video we watched in class, as he was performing an everyday act (i.e. standing still) but in such a way that it becomes a revolutionary act. Ultimately, it seems that the act of placing something into a new context, whether it be literature, art, or simply walking, can reveal that act as a symbolic challenge to legislative or institutionalized power.

References

de Certeau, Michel. “Chapter VII: Walking in the City.” In The Practices of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall, University of California Press, 1984.

Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street. Verso, 2011.

Blog Post: Week 2 – Tactical Performance

Up front, I should state that this post is going to be a little light on theory but heavy on self-reflection and application (it might also ramble a bit because I have a lot of thoughts on this week’s topic). I find the concepts of tactical performance and electoral guerrilla theater (EGT) fascinating, because I feel like both have sort of diffused into popular culture and the mainstream consciousness in various ways, especially since the rise of the Internet throughout the late-20th and early-21st centuries. While I was unfamiliar with the case studies presented in L.M Bogad’s book Electoral Guerrilla Theater, I was somewhat familiar with the tactics he described throughout because of how they have become appropriated by popular culture. For instance, in my younger years, I often played the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game published by Chaosium, Inc., who, in 1996, launched the “Cthulhu for President” campaign. Their slogan: “Why settle for the lesser evil?” As a radical progressive Generation X-er somewhat disillusioned by a political process that often seemed little more than a choice between two undesirable people, this message resonated deeply with me.

Image credit: https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/517RwXXQkXL.SX258_BO1,204,203,200.jpg

Similarly, I can recall when, in 1984 and then again in 1988, Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed embarked on a long-running story in which Bill the Cat won the National Radical Meadow Party’s nomination to run for President of the United States alongside his running mate, Opus the Penguin. Though this story line occurred in a daily newspaper comic strip, it eventually had real world implications, with people wearing tee-shirts that announced “Don’t blame me…I voted for Bill ‘n’ Opus.”

And while I was too young to experience it first hand, I am aware that in 1976 the Marvel Comics character Howard the Duck (created by writer Steve Gerber) ran for president. Like Bill the Cat’s presidential aspirations, this mock candidacy evolved out of story published in the Howard the Duck comics, but then Marvel announced that the character was indeed running for president. However, his candidacy was more of a joke and a way for the company to sell more merchandise than an actual attempt to win high office. Nevertheless, Marvel impresario Stan Lee claimed that “Howard’s in-comic and real world campaigning earned him thousands of real-world write-in votes,” though there is no proof of that actually happening.

While these campaigns are not exactly the same as those discussed by Bogad or the performance tactics practiced by Augosto Boal in his “Theatre of the Oppressed,” they nevertheless utilize similar strategies that help reveal the silliness and exclusionary nature of the actual electoral process. The operate in a similar way to “corrode and rejuvenate different elements of the civic body” (Bogad 17) while also highlighting the fact that elections often denies entry to marginalized or disenfranchised groups via rhetoric that emphasizes dignity and elitism. The mock campaigns listed above similarly aim to destabilize and reveal the performative aspects of actual electoral campaigns, in much the same way that the films of John Waters sought to destabilize the norms of conventional heterosexual society and decency (NOTE: as a film scholar, I often relate things through the lens of cinema). With films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), Waters aimed to “to challenge mainstream sensibilities and push the boundaries of tastefulness” (Olson 166) while also helping to usher queer culture into the mainstream.

As much as I hate to repeat myself, I feel like this week’s topic once again relates to Foucault’s ideas regarding the diffusion of power within society. In the cast of EGT, the electoral guerrilla performers are actively attempting to shift the balance of electoral power in favor of marginalized groups, particularly in the case of queer performers like Joan JettBlakk (who sought to destabilize the electoral ritual while also highlighting the plight of queer people and people of color) and Paula Pantsdown (who acted on behalf of Australia’s marginalized Asian community). Such acts of defiance demonstrate how power resides in the hands of a wealthy elite, but that power can suddenly diffuse into the hands of disenfranchised individuals through rebellious performative acts.

Of course, it must be noted that conservatives and those in power can also utilize these same tactics to shore up their own power. For instance, Right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe of Project Veritas utilized tactical performance to successfully (though only temporarily) defund the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Other conservative figures such as Christopher Cantwell, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, and Richard Spencer all use performative tactics to spread conservative and ultra-right-wing ideologies. Even President Donald Trump utilizes such tactics through his rallies and his Twitter feed. Ultimately, tactical performance can help reveal the struggles faced by marginalized groups or individuals, but it can also be used to maintain existing power structures. This idea takes on even more resonance in the hypermediated 21st century, when any act of performance holds the potential to go viral and radically alter a political narrative.

Works cited

Bogad, L.M. Electoral Guerrilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements. Routledge, 2005.

Olson, Christopher J. 100 Greatest Cult Films. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Blog Post: Week 1 – Narrative and resistance culture

As politics and culture both become more polarized, it becomes increasingly important to control the narrative. More and more, politicians, content creators, and other public figures have stressed the importance of optics, a pervasive buzzword that refers to how the public perceives of an event or course of action. This idea reveals the importance of narrative, specifically those who control the narrative. As Bijan pointed out in class on Tuesday, the incident between the Covington Catholic students, the Black Israelites, and Native American veteran Nathan Phillips reveals the importance of controlling the narrative. The initial narrative, most notably among members of the progressive Left, was that the boys from Covington Catholic, mainly Nick Sandmann, were mocking Phillips while wearing MAGA hats and therefore were the clear villains in the situation. However, the narrative then shifted when conservative commentators took umbrage with this narrative and revealed footage that showed the boys were responding to taunting from a small group of Black Israelites, which they claimed complicated the initial narrative. This racially-charged incident soon became a rallying point for both the right and the left, with some supporting the students and condemning Philips and others taking the opposite position. At the same time, centrists chastised both sides for taking these extreme positions, noting that the narrative was ultimately complicated and that only those directly involved would ever know the true story.

Currently, members of the GOP are struggling to take control of the narrative surrounding the government shutdown that lasted 35 days and only recently ended, as in this tweet from Senator Ted Cruz:

Meanwhile, Democrat messaging has consistently laid the blame for the shutdown at the feet of President Donald Trump, who back in December of 2018 stated that he would be proud to shutdown the government over funding for his proposed border wall. Both Republicans and Democrats are attempting to take control of the narrative surrounding the shutdown, an incident that results from actions that could be considered a form of protest; Democrats are protesting Trump’s wall and Republicans are protesting what they perceive as the unchecked migration of undocumented immigrants (or, in their terms, illegal aliens, another case of trying to take control of the narrative). Ultimately, both factions are attempting to control the optics of the situation and make themselves look good in the eyes of their base.

In terms of protest movements, the need to control the narrative becomes most prominent in the tension between the Occupy Movement, which sought to raise issues surrounding income inequality, and the so-called One Percent, the wealthy few who want to maintain the existing status quo. Mainstream news media (which is overwhelmingly controlled by the corporate entities owned by the One Percent) often dismissed the Occupy Movement by framing them as having no clear objective, ignoring the messaging about advancing social and economic justice and new forms of democracy. In this way, the One Percent were able to take control of the narrative surrounding the issue of income inequality. Yet the ideas espoused by the Occupy Movement took root among voters who increasingly called on their elected officials to not just address income inequality but do something about it as well. This then forced the news media to address the issue as well, demonstrating both the importance of controlling the narrative and just how quickly that control can change hands (thus highlighting Michel Foucault’s ideas regarding how power is diffused and embodied in things like discourse and knowledge).

Ultimately, narrativizing political views and cultural ideologies helps to embed them in the popular consciousness, but those who control the narrative can influence how those ideas manifest. Issues such as income inequality, gender identity, racial relationships, queerness, and more all benefit from being narrativized, as this allows them to be understood by people who do not belong to the groups impacted by these issues. At the same time, though, these narratives can be co-opted by people who wish to suppress or oppress marginalized groups (as seen in the rhetoric used by Donald Trump during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election). Thus, those who control the narrative can impact society in various ways, but that control can (and frequently does) shift and change hands often.

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