Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Doing what's hard

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.

* * *

(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.)


a smith said...

A (truncated) response.
Thank you.
Just thank you.

Anonymous said...

Direct action isn't for everyone - you don't need to apologise for not wanting to go there.

Having said which, I think its important to note that the protest strategies/ political practices currently being experimented with have more grace, nuance, and humour than you seem to imagine. Its all far from programmatic and does, often beautifully, surprisingly, model communities.
Importantly- if rather obviously - the things taking place on the streets and in other civic spaces also enable different types of encounter, discussion and mutual recognition amongst people whom might not all choose to put themselves in the orbit of performance practice, be it neverso radical and inspiring. Lets never lose sight of that. Both- all- needed, urgently urgently. Complex thinking/seeing isn't our exclusive province.

Relatedly, I'm not sure the implication that media attention is somehow 'going to peoples heads' is very worthy - seems, well, maybe a little patronising?
So much to do. Love, always,

Anonymous said...

make that 'MOST of the protest strategies / political practices currently being experimented with' xx

Lucy said...

I tried to submit this comment yesterday, and thought I had been successful, but I hadn't.

I haven't changed any of it since yesterdays events unfolded. But I will add, that after seeing the bodies of young people being repeatedly beaten by police with batons, and charged at with horses in Whitehall, it is meant 100 times harder.

There was a boy with a finger squashed into something like sausagemeat from being beaten with truncheons.

Yesterday's actions against the students in and outside of the house were utterly dispicable.
They have received barely any support, and they need us now more than ever. LE

comment at 11.30am, 09/12
<As theatre makers and artists we all operate in the freemarketeconomyroom of the ‘industry’ ‘sector’ ‘practice.’ We are so much of the time too poor to do anything other than ‘take the money’ for this gig, to fund what we want/need to make. Our queer-ness has been glamorised and sold back to us with a banks as corporatepartnersofthecuttingedge, but hey we’ll still do a turn if it passes the test of being able to sleep having done it and with the knowledge that all we really have to do is to describe it how we wanted it to be and so it was. Thats where our art lies today. Our own mythmaking. We are not rebels. We are not anti-establishment. We say we need to, yet repeatedly shrink from self-examination. We are polite. We have substance, tons of it, but we don’t make work or live in a world where substance speaks for itself. And we play our part in perpetuating that, whilst virtually walking under banners of ‘radicalism’, ‘experimentalism’ and ‘leftism+’.

And yet we expect the growing grass roots (and predominantly young) movement to do/be something different?

Recent actions I don’t believe *are* presently located in some external doctrinal or institutional or programmatic authority. It is all in the mix. Which is where we should be. In the room.

Can I ask for a clarification on something? as am a bit confused: ‘either side's programme’ not wishing to be ‘either of the big fellas thumping the table’ What are the ‘sides’ do you perceive here? For so long there has only been one: neoliberalism - strawberry chocolate or banana flavoured.

I acknowledge absolutely what you mean/fear. But the young people and pensioners protesting and using direct action at the weekend are not Mr Nicer Capitalism. The students in occupation with little food and under enormous pressure are not propping up a corrupt regime, and are not all doomed to become Jack Straw. Many of them are 18 years old, and left home only 3 months ago. All of them have been used as human shields. All of them need support; actual human contact.

So as a productive offering to this post, this evening, why don’t we go to the Slade or Goldsmith or UCL or [etc...] occupations and actually see whether or not the discussion is around whether the established university system is the only, let alone the best, means of ensuring wide access to further education.... why we don’t we get on a bus and get in the room and join – or start - the conversation about not accepting the premises of the argument? They have open doors and warm welcomes and many will shut down today.

Or if none of that appeals, or is possible, how can we do this in the future? Because after the occupations are willingly or are forcibly shut down, where does everyone and this conversation go next? As a me, as an artist. Both. As you say, we can march and shout and we can work and make.

If I had a pound for everytime I’ve heard an activist ask ‘we need artists’ (and not *just* to be the ‘marketing wing’ of a campaign)...why don’t we make ‘the room’ – into ‘the streets’???

All you have to do," she said, "is be the most attractive option in the room." when competing with capitalism – which is absolutely in no way a fragile state. there are many many difficulties thrown up by this statement.

But one this is true more than anything. Being IN it is surely the place to start.

Chris Goode said...

W, thanks for your thoughts -- elegant as ever and a good corrective.

But oh dear, I hope this piece doesn't come across to everyone, as I fear it has to you, as me wriggling strenuously on the head of a pin trying to exculpate myself for not having the gumption to front up to the protests for which I'm mouthing support from the comfort of my writer's study. I hope it doesn't seem like a raft of self-justification to explain a lifestyle choice that I've made in light of the baleful knowledge that direct action, like bitter chocolate or paroxetine or other high-end consumer options, "isn't for everyone". What I think you identify and we might both want to dispel is the sense that anyone who's opposed to establishment ideology and the legislative and policy acts through which it's articulated, and who wishes that opposition to be both active in itself and expressive of solidarity with others who wish to resist, is obliged first of all to place themselves in relation to a default apparatus of public demonstration. My problem with this, as I hoped I'd said, is that it requires an acceptance of the premises of that opposition -- not its agenda but its structural position within neoliberal capitalism -- and in some respects I think this can be injurious -- or, I fear it might be. I didn't feel this in relation to the protests against our illegal assaults on and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; I used to turn out to march then and I'm glad I did. The question of wanting or "not wanting to go there" is irrelevant, really: I'll do what I don't want to do if I feel sure, or sure enough, that it's the right thing to do.

I'm not, really, apologising in this piece, though I'm sure it sounds like it; I'm saying that I feel conflicted and I regret that: but I'm also interested in and, in that horrible construction, "comfortable with" that sense of conflictedness. In there somewhere is some bit of information to be reoriented by. I don't think I've found it yet; not for the first time, I mostly tell this blog when I'm lost -- that seems the more useful public statement: and the question at every turn, in every moment, is, where, and how, can I be useful now?

And *that's* the question the continual restatement of which I'd like to think I'm advocating. I don't think that 14-year-olds protesting the loss of the EMA should express their anger through contemporary dance rather than hauling a banner through the streets of London on the basis that performance is necessarily more radically effective than direct action. I do think that somewhere among the chorus of agitation there should be one or two dissonant voices reminding us that there is a point at which government & police (& school) control of our actions and our thinking ends: and at that point, we are much more powerful than we tend to think we are. What we are left with is not a useless amount of power. The autonomy we have with which to make things together -- things other than capitalism -- in contexts we can define providing we can also imagine them -- is immense. That every one of these student-led actions so far has ended with a large number of thoughtful and creative and angry young people being confined at a standstill for hours on end is shameful and desolate and maybe we can be more useful if we stop showing up to it in the same way. We have to move. We have to put ourselves where there is movement. If the apparatus of protest as we know it is being damaged by policing strategy, we need to extend it in other directions.


Chris Goode said...


The apparatus of theatre is what I have at my disposal, and it's what I'm good at thinking with. It's not necessarily the best oppositional technology but it's the one I have freest access to. Because theatre's what I do, that's necessarily the centre of my little universe, and I therefore think -- I mean I do genuinely think -- that only theatre and performance ultimately can trigger the changes that we need to be able to make. (Also vice versa: I choose to work in theatre precisely for that reason.) I'm sure if I was a visual artist I'd think the same about visual art. In a sense such a position only needs to be defended if it's demonstrably untrue or if it's causing me or others to be unproductive. Maybe it is, maybe it does. We don't know yet. That's why I work hard and don't sleep much at the moment.

Urgently urgently, yes, but in the context of what may be a long haul towards systemic change. What we urgently need right now are not "the answers", but better questions.

You can't really believe I was implying that media attention was going to people's heads? (Poor old picturesque dumbkopf Charlie Gilmour notwithstanding...) That snark was directed at the media -- its unresponsiveness, short attention span and love of bright colours, the panicked stupefaction of those parts of it with any remaining vestige of a public service remit. If we have attention now, it will be shortlived. There is pressure to debate how we make best use of it. But again, I kind of feel like the most interesting question to ask just now is, do we even need it? I think we too quickly accept the premise that even hostile media attention is somehow our friend. It may be, in some circumstances, but I worry that we use our sense of dependency on old media channels for disseminating information and changing opinion to permit us, once again, to evade our responsibilities to the present moment of our autonomy.

Lots more to say but it should probably go in a post of its own!

Thanks again for talking. xx

harryg said...

Just a small heads-up to one alternative oppositional model which was (briefly) on offer earlier this year, the teach-ins (and, ahem, poetry readings by radical poets…) at the occupied campus at Middlesex University this summer; which are (sort of) still going on, in that the department remains radical, and - VERY unusually for a university - "All are welcome to all events", some of which events might even be useful - currently on is a Workshop (ghastly term, I know - cue Alexei Sayle) on 'The Humanities and the Idea of the University', and there's a public mini-course (again free and open to all) on French feminism, taking a wider view that the usual Big Three - so not just Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, but also Christine Delphy and Monique Wittig, etc. I'm sure other institutions are doing similar things - I don't know about Sussex, an obvious contender.

Anonymous said...

Just me, to apologise for starting a conversation and then wandering off and not responding to your detailed response. Sorry, on a deadline. Will be back. Wx