Inhabiting the Body of Protest

by on Oct.29, 2011


If Art can be thought of as an impulse of expression that protests impermanence and invisibility (which would include silence) by fashioning extraneous objects out of impermanent stuff (not in its totality, mind, but as one facet of its existence), then it seems reasonable to speak of the Art of Protest. Likewise, if there is an Art of Protest, then there is a Reception of this Art.

It has been interesting, then, to note the similar receptions given to today’s proliferation(s) of Art and Protest. Some art, often noted and championed on this blog, is dismissed as “too much,” as too “artsy,” too “unrestrained.” By these, what is variously meant is that some art is too in-touch with its materials, too permeable with the world of its making, not transcendent enough, excessive. It is incautious, ill-mannered, leans back and puts its muddy feet up on your kitchen table. It is supposedly or apparently meaningless, a collection of disparate elements, unrefined. It is too ornate, too pretty, too made-up. Etc.

Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell

Its authors are too much in league with its viewers, with the masses — or else not mindful enough, too dependent on the viewer to fashion meaning — or too obvious and ironic. Bemoan the long-gone heroic auteur whose singular vision and singularly realized/universally fetishized totalistic art-object is now lost within the rush of the masses invading Art for themselves and making totems of permeability to set up all along the shamanistic inroads of the present moment. Bemoan the loss of high modernism!



Forget the bathwater, the baby is being drowned in babies. There are too many visions. Everyone is a shaman, a dream-journeyer, bringing back some insight from the hidden lands where Art’s impulse finds its source/sources the artist. This overwhelming multiplicity wars against the clumping singularities and politically useful (but only apparent and ultimately misleading) bipolarities of the ruling state of affairs, which is unable to perceive and respond adequately — more than that, is unable to continue existing should it attempt to perceive and respond! Instead, it reacts with what it has already in hand: riot lines, rubber bullets, and tear gas where none are needed.

This is the misperception or misreading of so much Art and Protest. The Group Mind, ever absorbed in preserving itself as it is or as it perceives itself to be, runs quickly to simplify anything outside itself and thereby incorporate (literally, to pull into its own body). The Group Mind (which does not actually exist except in its attempt to exist) gives a body to/makes an organ of anything it cannot understand by this attempt to simplify, despite its having reached an era when such simplifications have proven to result in largely inaccurate monstrosities.



In relation, it has been noted that the Poetry Foundation protest by CPC was partly described with simple and what appear to be self-comforting terms such as “pointless” and “sloppy” — by those, perhaps, looking to easily categorize and tabulate and regulate the protest, to give it the body of/make it the organ of just another event in the poetry world (or as if “unprofessional,” as if all actions of protest have some pre-acknowledged standard by which they are to be judged, and this one, having not measured up, deserved tossing into the dust heap of useless bodies, not an attempt to understand it).

I’ve experienced something similar in meetings where a corporate human resources executive speaks with workers and draws out various complaints and suggestions only to tabulate, categorize, and regulate them (especially the most uncomfortable ones) with carefully chosen, sterile terminology (corporate representations that are projections of the corporate body), thus cleansing the exchange of any potential for either satisfaction or mutual understanding between worker and employer, which would result in no easy situation but a messy and impossible arena of ongoing exchange.

Instead, the corporate employer and its representatives take the stance of a preexisting body, having already been there — having already defined the problem and how to fix it on its own terms. The act of obtaining “feedback” (as it is called) is more one of comfort — comfort to the executive who must keep spouting the inane half-truths of corporate policy and comfort to the worker who (maybe) imagines being heard.



This corporate-representative impulse is a type of reception — one of pacification to the end of subduing the true beginnings of protest (read: anti-union organizing and the suppression of the worker’s body). So, we see a corporate executive stance of self-preservation that, as a by-product, resists allowing workers to possess themselves, their jobs, their workplace — which, of course, would also mean allowing them to possess the fruits of their labor and the decision-making processes related to that labor, over which capitalism (by which I mean not an epithet but the accumulation of ever-greater chunks of money) claims something like the right of prima nocte.

In today’s corporation, workers are not allowed to occupy the spaces closest to them; they are outside their own containers, looking in at themselves, their own bodies/brains working for another mind. The scattered bodies of the “body politic” share a similar situation with politicians who categorize, tabulate, and subjugate/suppress/incorporate in favor of what has already been decided behind closed doors.

It heartens me, then, to see the various Occupations persisting and demanding merely to be given the space to gather and to be heard. By persisting, they demand the existence of this messy arena of ongoing exchange that has long been denied. It is exactly this messiness, the (to some) “pointless” or “ineffective” or “excessive” nature of the Occupations (it is costing too much to let unemployed workers protest, for instance), that is most desirable. By inhabiting the body of protest, they are drawing into the open the normally hidden relationships between the societal entities of corporation, finance, government, and the fractured and multiplied “rest of us.”

Awareness of these entities is normally missing from our “smooth” and “striated,” or channeled, society with its neat definitions of “public” and “private” entities (see Dean and Massumi’s The First and Last Emperors). This is the reason for the increasing importance for the Occupations to simply persist rather than make specific policy demands — to remain “pointless.” Rather than “winning” in the usual sense of a protest, the Art of the Occupation Protest is to inhabit and infect the old dead body of society via the body of protest.

To quote Lucas in his recent post, the protesters are gesturing toward “a dream without a name.” Attaching a definitive and all-inclusive demand to the action of protesting would allow for the easy dispelling of the dream without anything like its realization.

More on this later…

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Superb post, Jared. I wanted to make sure everyone saw the title of this post from yesterday at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. The irony is just too much. Or maybe it’s meant as an in-your-face kind of riposte to the many poets (in the CPC post down below) who commented to express outrage over the PF’s Baby-Syria tactics of response:

    “Oakland writers denounce actions toward recent protestors”

    The Chicago Reader, the city’s mass, venerable weekly, carried a big feature article last week on the Croatoan Poetic Cell protests and the bizarre reactions of the PF (you can see this online). The online version has a different title than the print one. The print headline reads (and you have to understand that about a million people in Chicago read this):

    “Don’t Fuck with the Poetry Foundation.”

    Name/URL Name

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  2. Kent Johnson

    Some more “discussion” of the PF stuff under this post here. I think there’s a good chance the person identifying him or herself as “Really, Kent?” is associated with the PF:


  3. Peter

    Hm, in another, nearly identical comment on this site (Kent likes to leave the same comment as many times as possible), we’re told that “about TWO million” people read it. Why we “have to understand” why the million or two million or, hey, ten million people read it is undisclosed.

  4. Kent Johnson

    Peter, didn’t realize I’d left the comment twice. Anyway, you’re right–the number of readers would hardly be one million–the circulation of the Chicago Reader is 100,000. I’ve heard a strong rumor, however, that a publication with a readership in the seven figures is preparing a story on the PF actions controversy. We’ll see.

  5. Sarah Fox

    This is excellent Jared! Did you happen to see the video of Zizek speaking at OWS? His suggestions align beautifully with what you state here–that occupiers need to demand “merely to be given the space to gather and to be heard.” To work on formulating questions; to take up the role of the Fool, returning to zero. He is really stepping it up, prompting occupiers to visionary action.

    “They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening … Remember the problem is not corruption or greed. The problem is the system. It forces you to be corrupt.”

    Zizek speaks of our cultural fascination, and saturation, with apocalypse–asteroids or nuclear war annihilating the planet, the world overrun by zombies. “It is easy to imagine the end of the world…But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.”

    The most important goal, it seems, of this occupation–the hope and catalyst and sustenance for its will to persist–is the liberation of our Imagination, which has been colonized/occupied by a giant insatiable dark corporate monsterperson (“Mind-forg’d Mannacles”). Time to slay that dragon or be slain by it, to enter the forest of consciousness at a threshold where “there is no way or path” (as Joseph Campbell says of the Grail Knights.) Does 2012 = the end of the world (i.e. “the end of capitalism”)? All signs point to a monumental yes.

    Zizek at OWS:

  6. Jared

    Sarah, thanks for your comments. I had heard excerpts of Zizek’s address, including some of what you’ve quoted here. I had every intention of listening to the whole thing but never got around to it, so I’m very glad you posted the link. Probably not coincidentally, I’ve been reading a bit of Zizek lately, including his Living in the End Times.

    I grew up very close to apocalyptic thinking in the Christian sense of a coming rapture/ judgment. The irony of holding to the literalist’s apocalyptic stance is that it does indeed “manacle” one to the very system driving one to destruction — it is inevitable, you can’t stop it, and so on. This becomes a feedback loop in which the actions of a Bush and now Obama, even as they try to preserve Israel and stave off the Abomination That Makes Desolate, drive us *toward* rather than *away* from the prophesied event, the quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy or death wish. Supporting/resisting them within the context of the existing system only strengthens the drive-to-preservation-that-is-actually-the-drive-to-extinction, a wholly ecstatic drive in its own right.

    So, yes, I see the occupations as a chance to do exactly what you describe, not to forestall the apocalyptic drive in all its quasi-reasonableness, but to reverse the situation to one of an openly ecstatic death drive leading to preservation, and the danger is in the occupations being pulled “back inside” the body of the monster and assimilated before their counter-logic has had a chance to develop (starting to hear rumors of Obama operatives subverting the movement for his reelection purposes, for instance).

    In Zizek’s terms, have we sufficiently imagined the death of capitalism to the extent that this death can be realized/born? (stillborn?) In a sense, we’re awaiting the simultaneous arrival of twins, the death of the first caused by the life of the second. We might also picture it as conjoined twins, the organs of the “younger” or “second” twin gradually moving into/inhabiting the body of the “older” or “first” twin and forcing its organs to exit the body via its various orifices. The body of the “second” dies or becomes a husk while the body of the “first” has become possessed with the innards of the second.

    This need for a fuller realization of organs in need of expulsion (a reverse colonization? a move into the forest? — love the Campbell reference!) is why I think it important to recognize the fingers of capitalism — the system — wherever they reach, because they do “[force us] to be corrupt.” And so I continue to support the actions of Stephanie Dunn and Brooks Johnson, as well as the subsequent CPC actions, as those of the recognition of, opposition to, and reverse infection of that infection known as capitalism where it finds localization in the Poetry Foundation (their actions being an example of crossing the “threshold ‘where there is no way or path'” and thus the misrecognition of their bodies).

    I think Kent is rightly excited by the widening knowledge of these events, and his interest in their cross-germination, as I see it, is understandable. The simplest way I can put it is that the shit has finally hit the fan for every institution of capitalism (even the PF, we might say) and the neoliberal network of their inter-being has been laid bare for anyone watching. On the other hand, a majority perhaps does not yet share this excitement of realization, and that is reason to think that the present movements have much more infecting to do and much more developing to that end.

    A key and related realization right now is in Egypt where the revolutionaries are starting to come to grips with the fact that their military’s actions have subverted their movement back toward the preservation of the capitalist state of affairs. The existing imperial hegemony learned a lot from the breakdown of the visible British empire about how to keep control while appearing to give up control. Libya falls squarely into this camp, being now recolonized and reopened to the “free market.” True change, it seems, must be basic and unflinching in its resolve. Look for a second Arab Spring, if not an Arab Winter!

  7. Kent Johnson

    For those who may not have seen this yet, a feature article yesterday at Salon on the CPC protests at the Poetry Foundation, “Time to Occupy Poetry.”

    Of course, the somewhat voluminous discussion on this event goes back a ways here at Montevidayo. It’s been a while since “poetry news” received such a prominent bit of media buzz.