On Saturday I started writing a blog post that I hope will still see the light of day, before too long; I was tired and it was difficult, and as ever I stymied myself a bit by starting 60 miles out and trying to enjoy the scenic route of my oblique sneaking-up on the tricky topic in my sights. That ticklish subject was, and is, our response, as artists and makers, to the fixated ideological hooligan rampage now being visited on us by a governing coalition that's really having a ball playing out the abject logic of liberal democratic capitalism.
It's very difficult (as probably it should be) signalling -- and meaning -- a genuine solidarity with those who are putting themselves, their bodies, their actions, on the line to protest, often (as we've frequently seen already) at real cost to their own safety, while at the same time wanting to keep a critical, analytical eye trained on the ramifications of that response, and other allied reactions, and the orthodoxies that have quickly accreted around some aspects of that struggle. As I've already found to my cost, in (or abutting) an online discussion group of which I'm an interested but occasionally sceptical member, temperatures are inevitably high right now, tempers are short and solidarity can quickly fray, Twibbon or no Twibbon. Particularly when the job of active resistance is so obviously urgent -- when was it ever not urgent?, of course, but now we're getting a bit of tv time -- there's not always room for self-examination, for ambivalence, for nuance. The trouble with that is, for those of us whose political sense is formed or presently located not in some external doctrinal or institutional or programmatic authority but in the always-contingent practice of queerness and the pursuit of fleeting autonomous zones, we're dependent on nothing but self-examination, ambivalence and nuance: those are not the style of our response, they're the substance of it.
Which make us -- or me, anyway: I should venture to speak only for myself -- hopelessly unfit for placard-carrying duties, no matter how forcefully I want to register and enact my resistance. I can be as energised as anyone by the choir of calls for a show of strength: but I know more surely than anything that the problem we came in with before any of these present crises was a degrading attachment to the whole arsenal of patriarchal weaponry, and what I most want to be counted for at a civic level is a show of weakness instead. Not a vapid tumbling for the transcendental fairytales of pacifism, but a failure really to discern the forms of a liveable social existence in either side's programme, and a wish therefore to be hard at work not as either of the big fellas thumping the table but rather as one of the many termites nibbling away at the chair-legs of each. (This image follows on from a funny little set of coincidences a few weeks ago where it turned out that two friends and I, in three wholly independent conversations, had all been describing ourselves and our artist colleagues as being like 'cockroaches': a model for present artistic activity that has really stuck in my mind.)
The last time I had such a clear sense of wanting to reject the premises of the question was, I guess, one of the key early moments in the still-ongoing formation of my own political consciousness. As a newly-out teenager at university in the early 90s I had been doing a little bit of work for Stonewall; but a campaign arose at that time (which keeps on coming around, in different places and guises) around the securing of the rights of openly gay and lesbian people to serve in the armed forces. As a matter of equality there was clearly nothing to be said against it: but I absolutely couldn't do it. I couldn't go out and bang the drum for the cause of insisting on anyone's 'right' to go off and kill foreigners as an instrument of the British state.
In relation to present issues, especially around tuition fees, it's clearly a much less open-and-shut case, in which the government's total failure to grasp the cultural value and significance of universally accessible higher education could hardly present more explicit evidence of their inability to think with -- or even breathe -- any element other than money. Oddly, given the radical right-wing nature of their platform, this actually represents an abrupt discontinuity with the deceitful and ruinous Thatcherite narrative of class mobility which New Labour did so much to extend: it's a bracingly hostile declaration of open class war, a quite concerted effort to shut down and confine the poor and the disadvantaged. So I've absolutely no hesitation in supporting the uprising of resistance to this vicious shabbiness, aggression and vacuity -- and of course there's a warm whoosh of pleasure in watching the wave of occupations now spreading across British universities. This stuff is fantastic: brave and heartening and in many ways exemplary. Even so, as Suzanne Moore (weirdly -- not someone I'd normally look to...) pointed out in the Guardian the other day, what students and (increasingly, at last) their comrades are fighting for is fair access to an establishment from which they do not wish to be excluded -- "They do not want to drop out of society, they want to drop in," she notes -- when really, that establishment should be exciting mostly their distrust and contempt. (It's more complex than this, of course: universities can be brilliant incubators of anti-establishment critique: but that tension is in itself indicative.) Think of how many high-ups in the last goverment especially were of student age in 1968, were absolutely the children of that apparently radical surge; look what they eventually did with the freedom and permissiveness they were active in securing. In all the brilliant, colourful agitation and furore, I wonder in how many occupied university buildings this evening the discussion is around whether the established university system is the only, let alone the best, means of ensuring wide access to further education. (This is a huge topic and demands a much more careful post than this one. Please forgive tonight's shorthand and truncations: I hope I'll be back.)
So, anyway, for a whole raft of reasons, of which the above is only a vague limning at best, I've been anxious to hang on to my sense that the best response I feel I can make right now to what's happening, both on the surface and (as I see it) in the deeper structures, is as an artist: to carry on doing what I've always done, I suppose -- which seems limp, doesn't it, as a reaction -- though perhaps to adapt its formats to the circuits of exchange and affiliation that are now being nationally and internationally rewired. It's hard to hold one's nerve when everyone else -- not least some brilliant fellow theatre-makers -- looks so much more obviously committed. (I wanted to write a post specifically about this, and then I realised I already did -- a couple of years ago, when the first day of Devoted and Disgruntled #4 clashed with a Stop the War Coalition march against Israel's illegal assaults on Gaza.) Of course it's not necessarily an 'either/or', it can and should be 'both/and', we can march and shout and we can work and make. I'm certainly considering turning out on Thursday for the next in the series of protests. But honestly, I'm torn: the injunction I feel closest to at the moment is John Holloway's: "Stop making capitalism." And to accept the premises of the argument, the construction of the battle as it is currently being waged, in itself seems to me like it helps to prop up a whole system that has never, in all my life, felt so gobsmackingly fragile. So, hm, I dunno.
Anyway this is all preamble to wanting to point you towards a brilliant document which has very recently been produced by members of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination: whom I've only previously come across in their lovely piece Everything for Everyone, Nothing for Ourselves for PSI in 2006. It's a downloadable pdf booklet called 'A Users Guide to
Demanding the Impossible' and you can find it here. It's a really exciting trawl through past, present and possible future strategies for thinking about and responding to the challenges of activism through art practice. I almost stood up and cheered when I read this bit:
“Be careful with the present that you create because it should look like the future that you dream,” the anarcho-feminist art collective, Mujeres Creando wrote in huge handwritten letters across an old wall in La Paz. They, like many art-activists, know that the future isn’t out there, waiting to arrive like an apocalyptic railroad train. It’s something we make now, in the present - and responsibility for the present is the only serious responsibility for the future.A March from A to B with placards, repetitive slogans chanted with hoarse voices, protesters kettled in the cold for hours, crowds listening to a man with a beard giving a speech, boring banners hung from buildings, flyers filled with statistics of doom ... Do these acts resemble the future we want? How else could our demands and desires be manifested? How else could our actions look and feel?
Notwithstanding the odd strain of pogonophobia in the above, I'm glad to have this to refer to because until I read this passage today I thought I was going to have to show you a bit of The West Wing instead: when Bartlet's campaign for re-election is being formulated in the later stages of his first term (at the beginning of season four), and Toby Ziegler, the communications director (who's usually right about stuff -- or, at least, he's the one I identify with, ha ha), says: "Instead of telling people who's the most qualified, instead of telling people who's got the better ideas, let's make it obvious." Exactly right, I think: the privilege of making theatre in these times -- in any times -- is that we get to imagine, and to help create, together with our audiences, the places we want to live in: in other words, what we bring in resistance to the violence now being openly visited upon us can be not just oppositional, but exemplary. I had a friend -- I think I still have a friend, though I haven't spoken to her in ages, I hope she's doing great (Are you out there, Anna?!) -- who gave me some advice once, years ago, when I was feeling particularly forlorn about being in love with someone who wasn't in love with me. She said it like it was the most basic common sense, which in a way it is: it wasn't about gay or straight, attached or available: "All you have to do," she said, "is be the most attractive option in the room."
Anna made it sound easy. As that (non-) relationship amply proved, it's not that easy. But that doesn't mean it's the wrong course of action. "It's going to be hard," Toby Ziegler warns Josh Lyman. Not even a beat: "Then we'll do what's hard," replies Josh.
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(This video as a postscript to the above, following an amazing, wounding set by Richard Youngs at Cafe Oto last night: he's such an inspiring artist; all day I've been feeling his example flickering inside me, as just one among many possible ways of imagining, and of hauling out of the imagination into the world we share, what's to be done, and how we might dare to do it.)