The silent cinema of Chancellor Katehi's slow walk of shame:
One could say that in general [Straub and Huillet’s] dispositif (1) contains a bit of open-air theater, with characters that may be in togas or in ancient garb in an open space. And this basically reflects a certain type of political utopia: one might think of the public festivals of the French Revolution or the Greek theater as it was dreamed of during the German Romantic period. It’s the idea of a people’s theater. The people are both in the audience and on stage. There is a similarity between theater and democratic assembly. —Jacques Rancière“You can’t evict an idea” — Occupy Wall Street PR team, Guardian
“The whole world is watching,” a favorite chant of protestors, a kind of warning that history is made on youtube, only calls upon cops to judge their actions by their own morality: they have a role to play in a people’s theater, and should ensure they play the one they want. As actors, their actions are representative: one cop represents a force, and a force can represent other interests. “The whole world is watching” takes it for granted that in a public space, all actions are symbolic of something larger; it’s a way of asking the actors what role they want to play.
But in the past week across the U.S., police operations seem to have assumed the same, mistaken logic that evictions, closures, arrests, and beatings—often rogue improvisations—somehow cut the roots of the protests, and not simply their physical symbols and outer faces. Almost every tactic has made the police seem blithely unaware that, as faceless symbols themselves, bodies without voices, they can only operate in a symbolic arena of pure, physical force against protestors whose actions are just an outcropping of an elsewhere, conceptual zone, where any revolution will have to happen: in general assemblies, in reading groups at sites (like the occupied New School student center), across twitter accounts and communal blogs.
The protestors’ victory last Tuesday night, as the police failed to dominate us physically after the eviction of Zuccotti park, could show the police’s quick awakening to their strange position as physical symbols, almost meaningless in of themselves and useless to their cause. To keep the whole world from watching, media was banned from the park by police (illegally) and the operation was set around 2am, when no digital cell cam, without a light, could pick up the pepper-sprayings and beatings of the next few hours: repeatedly, as cops in pairs and trios used batons to beat unarmed jay-walkers and occasionally pedestrians, I could record sound, but little video. Probably, force against individuals was meant to be its own symbol of what would happen to the rest of us, but when it failed to stop the march, police, jumping out of vans halting at approaching intersections (“closed,” they said at 3 in the morning), began to section us off at stop-lights and mid-sidewalk to herd us in circles, and eventually, to disperse us across the city in smaller bands of strangers, batons at our backs. My group sang Wonderwall down Lafayette St., as a couple police vans followed us in a sort of 1 mph, slow-motion chase, and we called the others to meet up. At Foley Square, the police having moved from pepper-spray to beat-downs to shoving over the night, finally gave up on physical force, undermined constantly by our own virtual communication, and let us stay. These physical battles have repeatedly been more useful to the protestors than the police.
As bodies and slogans, we can just brand ourselves as signifiers of deeper, unarticulated meaning. And so far this meaning has mostly been given by the cops, seemingly unaware that their function is representational. Inevitably police grant themselves the power of real, individual action in violence and force as if to legitimize their mass, anonymous, uselessly symbolic presence at non-violent protests. And in doing so, only symbolize their own chain of command and the protestors as the victims of its code. It's oppression that makes symbols—types—of us all. For now, discussion of how deinflationary policies precipitate higher interest rates to accommodate credit default loans has to be distilled neatly into the viewer-friendly metaphor of Lt. Pike, at UC Davis, pepper-spraying a line of sitting students. So the media doesn’t seem to have picked up at all on who these individual students are; despite Lt. Pike's best efforts, each is useful, like Lt. Pike, only as a symbol.
What the cops seem to have missed is that it’s they who are p0wned by the street theater of the protestors and not vice-versa. The human mic has already extended past its function to amplify, its religious incantations, its sometimes mindless repetitions, and its perfect, point-counter-point rhythm of Ranciere’s democratic Greek chorus; it can now be used to sabotage monologues through open forums (protestors mic-checking Karl Rove), or to parody the objections of a Bloomberg representative by repeating her condemnations with cheers. It becomes the thing it insists has been ignored: a gauge of the masses, bolstered by twinkles. One blogger analyzes Lt. Pike and the protest chorus as its own, one-act tragedy:
“It’s transcendently brilliant, this tactic–the students offer an alternative in a high-pressure situation, a situation that no one wants, but which seems inevitable in the heat of the moment. It’s an act of mercy which, like all acts of mercy, is entirely undeserved. Watch the other officers’ surprise at this turn in the students’ rhetoric, after they had (rightfully) been chanting 'Shame on you!' Watch the officers seriously consider (and eventually accept) the students’ offer.”
Still the question remains how to represent ourselves when higher powers won't—or, as the 99% can only be a way of representing the other 1% through its victims.
So the UC Davis students’ most eloquent theater-piece, already widely disseminated, has probably been their mute shaming of Chancellor Katehi as she walks back to her car in a path lined by sitting protestors. Not just a superior show of respect, their demonstration as anonymous signs, often just flashes of a cell phone or camera in night, acknowledges everything left unsaid in this public show of solidarity. And it forces the Chancellor to confront their victory: that it’s they, not she, who not only occupy but determine the University’s spaces, as they offer her a path to follow. The extended version, with a student’s direction preceding the action, gives an account of the students’ meticulous staging. As the camera tracks, only suggesting the masses in the dark and silence, however much it looks like it’s floating in a floating world, it follows in a long, steady movement already orchestrated by the students. When a few voices ask questions, they're asked to be quiet, to keep the silence of the students' careful mise-en-scène.
A conceptual piece, it's perfect rebuke from actual students, working to express themselves, against purely symbolic cops, working to express higher management’s force: as the students’ silence only suggests all they might have said and by university standards can't, they don’t create a full path, but only line against the road to suggest the path within which they might have hemmed Katehi and didn’t. The cops, inventing rules to enforce on the spot, only have power as long as they use it with batons and pepper-spray. But the students, like all the peaceful protestors of the Occupy movements, have power in what they don’t do, can symbolize all the actions they haven’t taken. For now, that power is almost the opposite of anarchist, even as it presents the latter possibility looming. As street actors, they follow the rites and rules of a democratic discourse even when its enforcers won’t: the rites and rituals of an interactive theater in which speaking, with the human mic, becomes a form of listening, and listening becomes a form of speaking. At the same time that speaking means nothing more and more.
Rancière again: "The one who is 'unaccounted-for,' the one who has no speech to be heard, is the one of the demos... Demos thus does not designate a socially inferior category: The one who speaks when s/he is not to speak, the one who part-takes in what s/he has no part in - that person belongs to the demos."