The fictional and aesthetic characteristic of politics. The political act of the arts.
Presented at Contact, AAANZ 2011 annual conference, University of Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand, 2011
This paper considers two ideas, Jacques Rancière’s concept of the political capacity of people and art and Michel Foucault’s discussion of the idea of Parrhesia in relationship to an action, Muffled Protest by boat-people.org that crosses between the worlds of direct, participatory activism and contemporary live art. An artwork that proposes a particular reading of speech. This paper is still under development so it will take the form of three connected discussion whose linkages have not been fully worked out. They are propositions towards arguments rather than finialised arguments in themselves. As such I welcome your feedback regarding it.
For Jacques Rancière, politics as a concept is at the centre of his thinking. However his use of the term does not apply to politics as the exercise of power and the struggle for it, the machinations of our elected officials, or the acts of our parliamentary institutions. Rather, for Rancière, politics belongs to the realm of the demos, the people. As such it is a supplement possessed by everyone, not of by virtue any special quality, but by virtue of no qualification. It is the capacity of all to contest the given social structure and the very sphere of what is political.
Rancière wrote “Two ways of counting the parts of the community exist. The first counts real parts only – actual groups defined by differences in birth, and by the different functions, places and interests that make up the social body to the exclusion of every supplement. The second, ‘in addition’ to this counts a part of those without part. I call the first the police and the second politics.” 1
In using the term police he is not referring to the capital P Police in blue uniforms rather the symbolic constitution of the social, the ‘distribution of the sensible’ which divides up the world and people in particular and often fixed relationships and understandings. Politics Rancière argues consists in disturbing the existing arrangement of the sensible, intervening in the visible and sayable. It is effected through the ongoing practice of dissensus, what he calls “the demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible.” 2 or “ a conflict between sense and sense” 3. Politics is not the opposition of one group against the other but the rethinking of logics that “count the parties and parts of the community in different ways” 4
Where politics for Rancière “has its own specific aesthetics: … its own modes of dissensual invention of scenes and of characters, of demonstrations and statements.” He also argues that aesthetics “has its own specific politics, or rather it contains a tension between two opposed types of politics: between the logic of art becoming life at the price of its self elimination and the logic of art’s getting involved in politics on the express condition of not having anything to do with it.” 5
Or rephrased tension between art borrowing from life to create intelligibility approaching the direct messaging or action of political discourse. However, given that it is the autonomy, or specificity of the work as art, that underpins the power and position the artwork to speak from, art’s politics also lies in the separation of art from everyday life. Rancière, troublingly for me, consistently refers to this as art’s disinterested quality, something which I can only translate as self referentiality, or even self absorption in the art of itself.
Now I want to take this distinction – the aesthetics of politics which invents scenes and characters, creates demonstrations and statements contesting the given structure of the sensible and the politics of aesthetics, the doing of politics as art operating between life and the specificity of the art framework – to discuss Muffled Protest by Boat-people.org. The work was organised in the days before polling for the 2010 Australian Federal election. it asked people to assemble at a given point and instructed them to “[s]tand silently and at 4.30pm slowly wrap your head in the flag.” 6 Seventy people took part in the Muffled Protest on Saturday, 2 August, 2010 on the Opera House Stairs in Sydney. Events also occurred in Federation Square, Melbourne (31 July, 2010) and Forest Place, Perth (20 August, 2010). Muffled Protest was responding to the positioning of the asylum seeker as an enemy presenting a mortal danger to the integrity of the Australian nation-state. It replied to the speaking and therefore creation of a particular negative visibility for asylum seekers and through this a homogenised unified Australia by activating silenced bodies in space. As an action, independent of its art context, boat-people.org intended it to be a way for those disappointed by the hostility of the election to present “an expression of dismay:… A statement of ambiguous, personal and silent declarations that quietly linked borders and interventions, the edge and the interior, under the flag.” 7 As an artwork it utilised “bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible” to create meaning. 8
What was made visible through people willingly covering their heads with the Australian flag and standing in silence is both the creation of a consenting public to a particular political construction of Australian identity through the symbolic violence against the other, and the isolation of each individual within this political community scared of the outside. Using the Australian flag, “available at all good $2 shops” to cover and deindividualise the wearer, effectively made each head wrapped wearer blind and insecure in their environment. 9 Indeed, this insecure individualisation finds a corollary in Anthony Burke’s analysis of the Howard Government in the late 1990’s in which he concluded that they “sought to break and dissolve the bonds which linked individuals with broader social obligations and forms of collective social organisation, and put in their place a more selfish and atomised citizen-subjectivity.” 10
Pushing against a totalising nationalist rhetoric at work in both the 2001 and 2010 elections Boat-people.org use highly symbolic sites to stage their protests in. Federation Square in Melbourne and the Sydney Opera House are locations built to provide iconic gathering points in the respective cities. The Sydney Opera House, a symbol of national pride, has been the site of multiple protests. 11 Federation Square, although not as internationally iconic was named to celebrate the 2001 Centenary of the Federation of Australia and as such is strongly linked to the exclusionary discourses that accompanied Federation.
If the live actions lean on the politicised and iconic history of the locations they were performed within, the exhibition of the documentation as artwork drew on the history of the site it was first shown in, Cockatoo Island. Located in the middle of the Sydney Harbour Cockatoo Island was both a prison (from 1839 to 1869 and 1880 to 1909) and the site of the New South Wales Navy repair and shipbuilding yard. As a place it speaks to both the history of Australian colonisation by boat and the militarisation of its border protection. Boat-people.org’s ongoing activism is informed by Kokatha Senior Woman Rebecca Bear-Wingfield’s, reminder that the non-indigenous audience members at dLux Media’s TILT conference, Sydney, October 2001 were all ‘boat people.’ 12
Operating in the two realms of the political action and the art work, muffled protest rubs up against the border between the two. It operated in the realm of direct political action, using the tools of the protest, demonstration, gathering of individuals to assert their voice. It presents an example of the ongoing use of creative tools, theatrical, literary and visual forms of communication to enable speaking within a political context, making visible new, possible, distributions of what we can sense and know of the world and how we can be in it.
However, the action originated from a source position of performance art, the call for participation was promoted through art and theatre networks as both a political action and an opportunity to participate in the production of a video work. Through the selective framing and documentation of the action the project became partitioned into the position of art, as such operating within the politics of aesthetics.
The capacity of the Muffled protest to operate effectively in both the realm of political action and art emphasises the paradoxical role of political aesthetics, aesthetic politics. Its message is indirect (within its directness), allusive, and while made in response to a particular scenario easily applied to others. To achieve explicitness of message the work would need to move closer to life, to politics not aesthetics, yet the compelling nature of the work rests on the mutability of the work which suspend those ordinary connections listed above.
Unfortunately, as Rancière points out, no direct cause-effect relationship can be determined between the artwork or performance’s revelation of the current distribution of the sensible, or positing of a new distribution, and the provocation of a capacity for political action in the audience. In short there is no proof that the artwork has any political efficacy (or indeed the political action).
I want to move here from discussing the work as politics and art to looking at a particular form of dissensus, which is the activity of ‘Truth Telling’. Importantly I am not addressing the nature of the truth and how we can determine it, rather a subject position from which an individual exercises their capacity or politics through parrhesia.
Foucault, in a series of six lectures entitled ‘Discourse and Truth’ given at the University of California at Berkeley in 1983, set out to deal with the “problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling as an activity.” 13 He framed this through a historical analysis of the concept of parrhesia in ancient Grecian politics, theatre and philosophy.
Foucault translated parrhesia both as its common English equivalent – free speech, and its etymological root – to say everything. He linked it to the essential right of the citizen to speak critically and the right to philosophically enquire after the truth. This can be compared to Rancière’s rejection of concensus in favour of dissensus and Chantel Mouffe’s proposition that dissensus an essential component of democratic society. 14
Foucault specifies that parrhesia is not simply the right to speak, but a particular quality of speaking, in which the individual speaks in spite of the risk to self and with a sincerity, belief which coincides with the truth of their opinion, that is evident to the listener. Foucault writes “parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty.” 15
In the course of this analysis he identified three forms of parrhesia: speaking openly and frankly in opposition to silence and secrecy, in doing so revealing the truth where it has been obscured; speaking in opposition to commonly held opinions or the desires or beliefs of the majority or monarch, as such communicating an unpalatable truth; and finally parrhesia as the interrogation of the self or other in such a way that it reveals self-ignorance, not only changing the interlocutors mind, but also their way of life and relationship to self.
This analysis of parrhesia has at the base of it a presumption of the right to speak. However, as Foucault points out, the right to speak freely, fearlessly and publically rests with those who are enfranchised, admitted to citizenship within a polis or community. Here is where reading Foucault’s geneaology of parrhesia alongside Rancière’s discussion of politics presents some difficulties. The construction of parrhesia is closely linked to a politics that is posited on what Rancière rejects: defined rights of citizenship, enfranchised communities and individuals who lead through some particular virtue or disposition be it of birth, natural superiority, or knowing what others do not. Those who are without citizenship cannot play a role in democracy or speak without considering the interests of those who hold power above them. As such the disenfranchised or marginalised are unable to exercise any kind of power and cannot oppose the existing rule.
However, the assertion of political capacity in the Rancièrian sense is also an assertion of (contentious) citizenship in contemporary society. As Foucault asserts that “without the right of criticism, the power exercised by a sovereign is without limitation.” 16 Without the capacity to speak fearlessly, to assert equality and contest the given understandings of the world it will become a limited and narrow place. Muffled Protest can be read through the lens of parrhesia. It asserted the participants powers as citizens and mobilised the subject position of the parrhesiastes in those who attended, flag in hand to speak fearlessly and with criticism against the majority position, from a position of minority and the belief of the truth of what they do.
At the end of the lecture series Foucault suggests that the discussion of parrhesia raises questions such as: “Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and to be considered as, a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth?” 17
Interestingly Muffled Protest work proffers another question. How do we speak? or what is speaking? Both Rancière and Foucault write of the political act of speaking with an implicit emphasis on the speaking of words. However, Muffled Protest is a response to a situation in which words have not worked. Despite the many official parliamentary papers and activist ‘fact sheets’ the popular myth of the boat arrivals as an illegal invasion by people with incompatible values using refugee processes as a means to economic migration remains. Words have not worked on the popular imagination. While the Labor Government in Australia may have announced a week and a half ago that asylum seekers currently in detention and incoming boat arrivals will be moved into the community on bridging visas and assessed under the same process as asylum seekers arriving by air, both major parties have asserted that they stand by off shore detention and separate processing for boat arrivals. Unless the political rhetoric that constructs asylum seekers arriving by boat as queue jumpers and ethically dubious, selfish individuals taking advantage of Australia’s humanitarian bent is undone there remains the risk that off shore processing and mandatory detention will be reintroduced.
I would argue that words can not work to undo this popular perception because the originary politics underpinning the issue of the Asylum seekers arriving by boat is also non-verbal. It is assertion of political capacity of the Asylum Seekers, their assertion of a distribution of the sensible in which the refugee convention is more than unfilled good intentions. The asylum seekers assert their claim to equality of protection through physical movement. The arrival by boat is a theatrical performance of what it means to claim asylum.
And so the boat-people.org mobilised silent theatrical bodies against the articulation of national belonging as insecure, selfish and atomised, hostile to this claim. Muffled Protest posits, in its very muffling and silence the idea that it is not the words that matter in the speaking, in the act of parrhesia, but the physical action of standing in the agora, as represented by Federation square, Sydney opera house and Forest Place. Speaking, in this sense is expanded beyond the verbal. Muffled Protest breaks down of categories of what speech is, asserting speech as silent presence as much as audible speaking. It works with other actions like it to reforms the sensible of politics as verbal and in doing this it presents a fearless mirror to the Australian public and politicians that asks them to look not at what they have done, but rather what they, in this doing, have become.
Apologies for the imperfect referencing, I didn’t do good practice while writing it and have lost the page numbers on some detail on the Rancière citations
- Jaques Rancière, Dissensus, On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. and ed. Steven Corcoran (London; New York: Continuum, 2010) 36
- Ibid., 139
- Ibid., 35
- Jacques Ranciere, Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity) 2009
- Sarah Rowbottan, “pvi collective facilitate Muffled Protest the day before the election in Forest Place, Perth ” in Performing Lines WA media release Wednesday 18 August (Perth: Performing Lines WA, 2010).
- Katie Hepworth, Deborah Kelly, and Boat-people.org, “boat-people.org,” Local-Global 8 (2010) 44 – 49.
- Jaques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 19.
- Rowbottan, “pvi collective facilitate Muffled Protest the day before the election in Forest Place, Perth “.
- Anthony Burke, Fear of Security, Australia’s Invasion Anxiety, (Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2007) 180.
- In 2003 a large “No War” slogan was been painted on the roof of the Sydney Opera House within hours of Australia committing to the USA-led war in Iraq. “Opera House defaced in war protest,” The Age, March 18 2003, http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/2003/2018/1047749763708.html. On December 15 five environmental activists climbed the Sydney Opera House to hang a banner on one of the sails of with the message: “Stop the politics, climate treaty now”. Glenda Kwek, “Opera House targeted climate protest,” Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2009, http://www.smh.com.au/national/opera-house-targeted-for-climate-protest-20091215-kssl.html.
- Hepworth et. al. boat-people.org
- Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson, six lectures entitled ‘Discourse and Truth’ given at the University of California at Berkeley in the Fall Term of 1983 (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001). 169
- Chantal Mouffe, “Pluralism, dissensus and democratic citizenship,” in Education and the good society., ed. Fred Inglis (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
- Foucault, Fearless Speech. 19 – 20
- Ibid. 29
- Ibid. 169