Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Performing the People

I want to think through performance as generating reality. Elliott Colla cites Asef Bayat’s observation on the make up of “social movements”: “an organized and sustained claim making on target authorities; a repertoire of performances, including associations, public meetings, media statements and street marches; and public representations of the cause’s worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment.” Slogans fall within this repertoire. They are rehearsed, repeated, reworked, repeated. “The people want” becomes especially interesting as performance when looked at in relation to Rancière’s discussion of democracy, in which he states, “The ‘power of the people’ simultaneously legitimizes and de-legitimizes it,” that is, the practice of ruling. If the people are announcing—or performing—their power to transform the volition to topple the regime into an actual overthrow, we are left wondering who is contained in this “people,” and what would come next after the fall of the regime. The assumption is democracy, the assertion of this will of the people, and yet in practice, through the sequence of events of the revolution in Tahrir Square and the ambiguity surrounding the subject, the inherent paradox of democracy as the voice of the people becomes evident.
The same paradox as identified by Rancière that “sets democracy in opposition to itself” is reflected in the various mutations of the slogan, “The people want.” The people issued a series of demands through the changing slogans: “The people and the army are one hand”; “The people want to honor the martyrs of the revolution”; “The people want to topple military rule”; “The people want to sentence the president to death.” Certainly, as Colla points out, “’the people’ could not want both to topple the regime and to form an alliance with its core,” but the mutations speak to the multiplicity of the subject. Rafael connects the cell phone with the attempt to unify this varied subject, a possibility of communication that represents “the potential for reaching across social, spatial, and temporal divides.” It is clear that the unity of “the people” holds a certain power in its potential for action.  
Colla ends his article by asserting that “no party to the revolution can afford not to speak in the name of the people.” There is a similarity between the totalization of claims that occurs in slogans and the creation of alternative truths as with media documentation. Both attempt to solidify a certain reality, and their power to a certain extent depends on the singularity of these realities: for the slogan, a non-metaphorical statement of fact, and for the piece of visual evidence, a documentation of social fact. In asserting these truths, both mediums work to create them. Colla remarks that “it was the collective act of stating that the people wanted something that created the sense there was a social actor by that name,” and that this actor had collective wants, as opposed to the “particular and partial demands” that initially provoked the protests. In offering evidence of an event, camera phone footage brings that event into existence in the first place. Both, however, can be immediately dissolved, once it is clear that the people do not represent all factions, once it is clear that the camera phone footage is not the only interpretation of the truth of an event. The desire for collectivism on the one hand and for transparency on the other, both key components of democracy, actually serve to undermine these democratic ideals. These promises, cruel in nature to link these notions to Berlant, are also linked to the notion of “’democracy to come’…the time of a promise that has to be kept even though—and precisely because—it can never be fulfilled.” What role does this figure of the demos, the people, play when it is coopted by any group? As the power of invoking the power of the people becomes evident, will this rhetorical device not lose power, in the same way that visual documentation produces informational overload? Professor stated that rhetoric lost its power, and so men like Nasrullah must turn to visual documentation. However, it is because of Nasrullah’s charisma, his rhetoric, that he remains so powerful.
Rancière’s article suggests that democracy exists in this infinite openness, in the cruelly optimistic double-bind of the people, who legitimize and de-legitimize the governance. It is through communication that the playing fields were leveled, giving “the people” a chance to fight against “the regime.” As communication spreads, however, the modes and techniques of this communication are spread as well. “The people” will be coopted. Video footage exposing the truth will be employed. We can perhaps look to Terranova for how to deal with such an informational overload. She might suggest that we need to think about democracy precisely in the paradox, and about the people as simultaneously the metaphor, the horizontal cell phone community, the infinitely heterogeneous,: to think simultaneously the singular and the multiple, the common and the unique. (Terranova 1) This hyperconnectivity, the virtuality of the Egyptian revolution and the network of information spread by cell phones, is perhaps what Terranova means by “a productive movement that releases (rather than simply inhibits) social potentials for transformation.” (3) This cultural politics of communication as manifested in Tahrir Square, the Philippines, Lebanon, etc. is a political mode that “cannot but start with affects—that is with intensities, variations of bodily powers that are expressed as fear and empathy, revulsion and attraction, sadness and joy…” a mode works “on the terrain of the common—the constituent terrain of the contemporary politics of communication.” (157) Certainly, the mass can no longer be thought of as “those that reason believes to be misled or hoodwinked” (156) but it is perhaps in attempts to continue to convince (through performances of purported realities) an admittedly more heterogeneous “people” or “mass” that the informational overload is perpetuated. The playing field is being leveled, the movement is distributed, but communication flow seems to be inhibiting the people as much or more than it is liberating them.  

No comments: