Monday, November 19, 2012

Rhythm and Protest

Rafael writes "the crowd is a sort of medium, if by that word one means a way of gathering and transforming elements, objects, people, and things ... a kind of technology itself." That medium is spatial, clearly, but also temporal -- it's the rhythmic break that signifies resistance. A crowd of insane size in Times Square on New Year's Eve is not a problem, whereas staying in a perfectly public place overnight (Occupy), or engaging in a prosaic activity en masse simultaneously (Critical Mass), or replacing the routine of work with a strike, is a transformation.

Consequently, for all Colla's emphasis on the semantic importance of protest repertoire, I'd argue that the (physical) crowd as a technology is programmed with rhythmic sound, via the drum, the chant, the anthem, or even conspicuous silence serving to entrain the participants. From my own experiences in mass protests (largely in NYC and DC during W's first term), the physical heat of bodies and the distributed sound of footfalls interplay with the voice to create a kind of affectual superconductor, obviously of some ancient and violent lineage. A feature of that mass is the feeling of a kind of suspended present, which I think has precisely to do with it existing in an alternative meter to that of normal everyday life. (There's a point to be made about the temporal disorganization of youth to begin with and their ready adoption of music and mass as an addendum to Swedenburg's discussion of demographics.)

I'm not sure that I have a handle yet on how the Internet and text-messaging play into this temporal organization. On the one hand, the simultaneity of communication might be thought of as a sensory prosthetic -- movement of the crowd at the 2004 RNC protests was more fluid as a result of realtime messaging, the crowd did not adhere to the expected protest rhythm as anticipated by the police. Ie, affect is conducted at a faster tempo through the masses, by distributed attractors taking up a chant that might be physically distant.

On the other hand, this tactic relied upon the naivety of the state -- it longer works, at least on the local level, as law enforcement has adapted in kind (and the biases/capabilities of consumer devices have shifted). Likewise, protestors in Egypt abandoned Twitter and Facebook once the physical crowd formed, because they knew the medium was surveilled. Further, the ratio of mobile phone cameras to Occupiers demonstrates that as technology has evolved, and documentation of the protest as performance has become central. While this is a critical innovation in many ways (dissemination of the protest, activation of the media, activating weak ties, accountability), it also undermines physical presence by displacing attention. So the utility of communication technologies in the physical, rhythmic crowd remain contingent, while the voice and the drum remain fundamental and necessary.

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