Political Activism and Art: A Consideration of the Implications of New Developments in Practice - call for papers
By way of clarification, there are contested views of what constitutes citizenship. Some argue that it is implicitly bounded by the nation-state and therefore is meaningless without a legislative and juridical system that polices an individual's status within a geopolitical space. This view focuses on the rights of an individual in terms of the benefits they accrue under a state's protection. Conflicts arise between state and citizen due to the reality of migration, dual identities, resident aliens, minorities within a population where governments, particularly in the United States, struggle to justify democratic commitments and values (articulated in the Constitution) while exploiting those who are not recognized as citizens but who contribute to a nations economy, its labor force and social fabric.
Others argue that citizenship is a psycho-social set of behaviors that extend beyond a formal system of legal protections and instead captures a dimension of belonging that promotes our democratic aspirations such as liberty, equity and fraternity. Membership in this sense involves 'participation'. And participation is a technique (or a 'technology') through which members form, and can potentially reform, the democratic state.
Understanding the manner in which social and political life is structured is therefore germane to this discussion, albeit limited in scope for the purposes of this paper. However, to offer more context, intellectuals such as Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Maurizio Lazzarato et al, outline the character of our 'postmodernist,' 'post-Fordist' past and have addressed the ever widening gap that has emerged between internationalized political elites and the increasingly degraded social and economic conditions of those who are governed within 'democratic' states.
To take a specific example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book Empire, published over ten years ago, helped to set the tone for proactively rethinking politics and had contributed to discourses within activist networks due in part to their characterization of society, in particular, their reviving the idea of 'multitude' that fitted with contemporary sensibilities and experience. This new notion of multitude is a key concept within the autonomist intellectual network and authors such as Virno and Lazzarato lend their own refinements to its meaning.
However, to continue with Hardt and Negri's analysis of the problem: they suggest that under the banner of an empire (loosely understood as a political domain) society can no longer be understood as a cohesive whole. Instead, the social space is constructed of a "plural multitude of productive, creative subjectivities." The multitude is nomadic, de-territorialized, and "in perpetual motion." In short, the multitude is a boundless mass of networks of people who "express, nourish, and develop positively their own constituent projects." Hardt and Negri have characterized a world that is peopled by active autonomous networks. They argue that these vying networks and associations are vital to the development of democracy. Why? Because the presupposition is that democracy only thrives under a social and political discourse that embodies difference. Difference, intellectual conflict, debates, etc. inherently constitute the power of the sovereign. The point is not new and has its origins primarily in the work of Machiavelli and they lean on Machiavelli's understanding of the constitutive elements of a democratic state as agonistic. Being combative then, is necessary for a democratic state to succeed in first, being democratic, and secondly, to expand beyond its own borders.
Hardt and Negri also identify the conceptual barrenness of society understood as a collective mass. There is no doubt that there has been a shift in the social imaginary in the recent decade, which their notion of the multitude beautifully captures. It encapsulates our engagement and habituation to new communication technology that not only extends the limits of our body but also psychologically amplifies the atomization of society. Such atomization must be seen in conjunction with persistent neoliberal strategies reducing every aspect of human life to the marketplace, which ultimately has configured the world differently and infused our collective imagination with the sentiment of perpetual precariousness. And this has a deep bearing on how we understand and act out our relationships to one another as members of a political community and as citizens of the state.
Where Hardt and Negri are wrong is in their assumption that the multitude is deliberative and participatory in ways that allow for democratic ideals to flourish. The networks could equally be understood as indifferent, or worse. The multitude is constituted of amorphous and nebulous groupings, subjective, yes certainly, but ultimately self-selecting, temporal alliances based on emotional need, shared beliefs, and ambitions and/or lifestyles. Nor are the networks analytical or objective. The networks are, for the most part, family, friends, and fans. In political instances that extend to single issue direct-action groups, unions, etc. the public landscape is increasingly a space where no one entity moves very far from its own satellite of associations and the lines of communication—the means of public discourse—have dissipated. This environment, this networked subjectivity, is not a precondition for a thriving democracy. It instead points to a kind of materialistic feudalism, which conflicts with the view that we have of ourselves as citizens of a society allegedly striving for equity and freedom.
However, this is the environment in which activists and art-activists have an important role to play in the push to examine, articulate, and address our political needs and relations. There is real potential for a new form of politics to emerge that dispenses with the false concept of 'mainstream' society under the management of, allegedly representative but actually self-serving, elites. One that has embedded in it a criticality where art-activists draw together disparate networks through embodied discourse and help to create a new sense of the commons.
Ariella Azoulay's Civil Contract of Photography offers us a theoretical instance for understanding how art practice can actualize political dialogue and reshape politics from the ground up. She argues that the set of relations that transpire through the act of photography are constitutive of a civic contract. Where the classical explanation of the nature of photography has pivoted on a triad of relations characterized by the photographer as agent, sitter as victim, viewer as voyeur, her suggestion is that the photographic act is in fact a collective participation where its members cannot "determine how this meeting will be inscribed in the resulting image." Photographs are just images and not records of factual events. However, she continues, "the photographed person, the photographer, and the spectator are not mediated through a sovereign power and are not limited to the bounds of a nation-state or an economic contract…Photography…deterritorializes citizenship, reaching beyond its conventional boundaries and plotting out a political space in which the plurality of speech and action…is actualized permanently by the eventual participation of all the governed."
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Posted by Anna Fox on July 22nd 2012
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