What is so seductive in a voice? A voice exists in its presence and uniqueness before and beyond representation. The voice can subvert the disciplinary codes of language. This is what makes it so powerful. Sometimes it’s hard to hear because there are too many noises around. Other times, the sound is so clear it feels like an arrow travelling at the speed of light, straight into your ear. It hurts. At times, the vocal sounds blow like cold wind into the thin fleshy corridors, running from the auricle through the larynx, down the lung into the gut. It’s like a tickle. Occasionally, the firm voice hits the ear, sinks into the throat, through the stomach, down the intestine, into trembling lower limbs. It’s like a punch. This is what makes it seductive.
Now and then, voices cry out with frustration. How does it feel to have no voice? To see your rights (and duties) endlessly denied, rendered impossible in every form and language. To feel misrepresented by the ones who are supposed to represent you. To be silenced by the ones who have (not only) acoustic control of the real. How many ways are there for a voice to become a medium of participation and protest? Reading aloud, repeating the words together, producing a mass echo: this is what has happened in many meetings of the Occupy Movement, Los Indignados, protestors reading slogans aloud or through a megaphone—this is what we have seen everywhere. Reading or speaking aloud has transformed bodies into resonant chambers for voices to come out and propagate in every square, street, corner of the globe.
The new issue of …ment is an investigation of the relation between aesthetic and political praxis, from a consideration of what a voice can do, how words affect our perception of reality and images help to create new imaginaries beyond the current meaning of resistance. Conceived and developed in collaboration with Book Works for their annual commission series Common Objectives guest edited by Nina Power, this new issue of ...ment is dedicated to the many and different meanings of resistance today.
The contributors to this issue are voicing needs, desires, hopes, disappointment, frustrations, opinions situated at particular historical, cultural and intellectual intersections, in a variety of tones and formats: some are outspoken and irreverent such as Federico Campagna’s analysis of the notion of ‘politics’ and the relation between politics and war in our society; some have a rough unworked texture such as Volcanic Activity by Mexican writer Gabriela Jauregui, a short fiction which it tells us of the student revolts in Mexico City; some are ironic, as is the case in Charming for the Revolution, a visual and textual contribution by artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, and others highly imaginative, for example A Something Else Manifesto by fluxus artist Dick Higgins, or Abraham Cruzvillegas’ musical scores and lyrics.
This issue is a miscellany of voices including on-the-spot experiences, as well as researched reflections on the rhetorical uses of political discourse. Media theorist Josè Manuel Bueso contributes a first-hand experience of the protest movement in Spain with the M15 and considers the role of social media in this current political struggle; the experiences of the collective of artists and activists, Telecomix, who offered their knowledge of the web and their technical support to protestors in Egypt during the revolt are recounted here by Christopher Kullenberg; and through personal impressions and cultural analysis, writer and curator Bassam El Baroni addresses the politics of representation in Egypt today. Abandoning the apocalyptic imaginary of the end of the world and despising the language of the crisis, these voices speak out from the everyday experience of artists, writers, activists, cultural practitioners, who live and work in this time of political upheaval and desire for cultural transformation.
We believe that each of these stories urge to be told and these voices must be listened to.
Story-telling, poetry and fiction (political and non) have inspired our approach to the question of cultural resistance. Literature, in particular, has offered us a way to look at this issue from a different angle, from the kitchen rather than from the main narrative of revolution, so to speak. Authors such as Colette, Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Octavia Butler, Kathy Acker, and Ursula Le Guin have created fictitious realities as modalities of critical thinking autonomous from the ideological grip of their own time and societies. They addressed difference, sexuality, gender politics, racism, and other relevant societal issues beyond the claim for ‘engaged’, or what we might call political, art.
We have paid homage to these women by reprinting Dead Doll Humility by American experimental novelist and poet Kathy Acker. The text was written by Acker in response to the demand made by author Harold Robbins that she apologise for plagiarising his work in one of her novels. Acker explained that she didn’t feel any guilt, for appropriation is central to her political project. Acker argued, ‘if the writer or critic (deconstructionist) didn’t work with the actual language of these texts, the writer or critic wouldn’t be able to uncover the political and social realities involved.’
Kathy Acker’s subversive spirit, her strategy of appropriation is not a mere transference of texts and quotes from one place to another. Displacing meaning from its original context allows Acker to transform what she has appropriated. Agamben would say that she appropriates the means (the writing), leaving behind the ends (the argument that has sustained the production of that text), giving the text a new use. This is profanation.
Profanation, as Giorgio Agamben suggested, does not simply mean to abolish the sacred, but to put it to a new use, to play with it. The act of profanation returns the spaces that power has seized to common use, but it maintains the sacred by giving it a new form and new use. It has a transformative value. The punk band Pussy Riot, whose performances are discussed by Claire Tancons in this issue, operate in a similar spirit. Having stormed a half-empty Moscow cathedral in brightly coloured tights, dresses, and ski masks, Pussy Riot performed what they called punk prayers as a call to action to their fellow comrades. Pussy Riot give voice to their disappointment by literally singing (speaking) from the position of a new generation of feminist and political activists.
Pussy Riot’s performances are transgressive and sacrilegious, but, as in the case of Kathy Acker, it would be reductive to limit our analysis to this. There is something profane about their way of appropriating aesthetics elements from different traditions. The use of balaclavas, for instance, originally used by British troops to protect themselves from the cold and by OMON (the special police task force) as a uniform during the Perestroika years of the late 1980s to protect their identity, now colourful masks worn by Pussy Riot, and by many women and men across the world. Pussy Riot profanes the macho culture of contemporary Russia (symbolised by the balaclava), by attributing a new use to it (everybody can have a pink balaclava), while keeping its primary function (the protection of identity) in place.
Profanation can also occur through contact. One of the simplest examples is religious sacrifice. In this ritual, the participants need only to touch the organs of the sacrificial victim for the organs to become profane. ‘There is a profane contagion, a touch that disenchants and returns to use what the sacred has separated and petrified’ Agamben explains. Can then contagion as a form of profanation become a way of thinking for cultural and political action? Is perhaps contagion, instead of resistance, a more appropriate term to think of the political and cultural movements that have spread all over the globe in recent years?
Through an allegorical reading of the Athenian Plague and by questioning the meaning of the term ‘resistance’, Lebanese artist Rana Hamadeh addresses the Arab Spring as a contagious movement, instead of a revolutionary one. Contagion as a perverse dynamic of propagation and infection - not a force, nor a technology of power. Contagion is the opposite of Resistance.
Contagious is the sense of frustration, dissatisfaction and the desire for freedom; and contagious has been the wave of protests that from Greece, to Egypt, Syria, Libya, US, Spain have spread all over the world, like a virus, invading the decrepit body of authoritarian politicians and dictators. Qaddafi, Mubarak, the still Syrian president Bashar al-Assad have played their power games in the name of resistance, after all. Their objective was and still is to combat the ‘virus’, meaning the protestors.
Rana Hamadeh’s reading of resistance and contagion poses another important question. Resistance can lead to misunderstanding, and its meaning greatly depends from which side of the world you are looking at it, from west or east, the perspective changes. So, is there any possibility for a common language that respects differences and allows for the emergence of a new political language and therefore a new political subject?
Many of the contributions in this issue engage with the limits and potentialities of meanings, concepts and written or spoken words, addressing and challenging language and knowledge as emancipatory forces. ‘We exercise the force of language even as we seek to counter its force,’ Parrhesia repeats in What we might have heard in the future, the science fiction-based radio drama by artists Valerie Tevere and Angel Nevarez, conceived for Manifesta 5, the script of which is featured in this issue. What does happen when we counter the power of language and knowledge? How can we give voice to our concerns and desires without reproducing existing forms of power, cultural models, and without giving in to common sense? How to exercise the power of articulation, while profaning it, embracing the desire to remain unarticulated: coupling with the unknown, the obscene, the freak? When we discuss knowledge, education and emancipation, what kind of education, emancipation and knowledge are we talking about?
To assume that the power of language is the articulation of thoughts and meanings is correct, but also profoundly wrong. You can have a voice and articulate your desires and demands. Fine. But you can also and always use your voice to make noises, rather than meaningful thoughts. Try it. Wouldn’t such a voice be a potent response to the current capitalisation of language and knowledge? A sound that doesn’t serve any purpose, after all.
In his insightful text, Jan Verwoert addresses the passion for intellectual emancipation and articulation and the desire to resist it. He does so by using the example of The Muppet Show. ‘The “Yip Yip Yip Nok Nok Nok” (of the two muppets called Yip Yip) is neither mythical nor irrational. It’s just the sounds scrotal things with toilet mouths from outer space produce. It’s not even liberal. It doesn’t say it’s “ok” to play with your poo. It just does it, and is it, asking for no license.’ Verwoert suggests that the obscene and the emancipated are two forces that don’t need to be reconciliated, but rather enacted. And we believe in this. The joy of remaining unarticulated and the desire for a form of emancipation that sets us free, when played out together, might give birth to creative political forms of actions. Artists know it well. The desire to play with reality, to make noises instead of meanings, is not the sign of frivolousness, but a powerful critical tool. It’s a bit avant-garde, perhaps. Yet, it is pressing to continue reminding ourselves that creativity is not only a source of capitalist production, rather it is central to any possibility of political and cultural transformation.
The irrational, the emotional, the empathic are dangerous forces, but they also light up and nurture our imaginaries. They are potent subversive energies.
In these days of creative capitalisation, when capitalism seems to have generated an empty, unprofanable reality, the act of reading aloud, of using the voice to destabilise the ratio of the system of speech, to disentangle language from its communicative ends, to profane and give voice to the unarticulated, seems to be a good way to disattend expectations that are imposed upon us and question the legitimacy of the current mode of cultural production. By making noises the Muppets perform a creative act of resistance against the demand and expectations for articulation. But their way of profaning language is not denying the power of language and the desire for emancipation. It’s playing. To return to play its purely profane vocation is a political task.1 To play with language, to profane things, meanings, existing knowledge, and given norms can give us agency to try out a different experience of reality, it’s an act of reappropriation and perhaps a way to continue the modern and postmodern project of a mundane form of emancipation. And we are all part of it.
- 1. Giorgio Agamben, Profanation (London: Verso Books), p. 77.