Sunday, August 14, 2016

McKenzie Wark on Judith Butler on Assembly and The Street

Street sculpture and tents, Hong Kong 2014. Source: Mapping the Umbrella Movement



McKenzie Wark has written a great review of Judith Butler's 2015 book "Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly" over at Public Seminar.

Butler's book includes a chapter called 'Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street', that appeared online a couple of years back as a talk given by Butler in the wake of events like Tahir and Occupy. Once I got over my initial jilted geographer's reaction of 'hey, you realise a few other folks have been thinking about public space and politics since Hannah Arendt?', I got heaps out of the Butler piece (it's *Judith Butler* writing about public space and politics, after all!). In particular, I really like the way she works with (and past) Arendt's approach to the 'space of appearance', focusing attention on the 'infrastructure' that is produced and sustained to support that appearance: as she puts it, "the material supports for action are not only part of the action, but they are also what is being fought about".

Anyway, one of the passages in Wark's review that really stuck out for me was this:
For Butler, “the media have entered into the very definition of the people.” (20) Might it not rather be the other way around? There is a sort of latent Platonism at work here, where the bodies gathered in and as a body, come first, and their mediated double second. But surely it is the other way around in any modern polity. The media are the primary space; public squares and so forth are sets for media performances. One cannot simply add media onto some fantasy of the Greek polis and call it modern politics. The thing to occupy is media time; the way to do it is to take space. It is not the case that “the media extends the scene.” (91) The scene is a retroactive production of media. If an assembly gathered and nobody noticed, did it make a sound?
This is a great provocation about the relationship between the urban and the media in public formation and politics. I can get with the idea that maybe the bodies don't come first, prior to some subsequent mediation, and I think Wark's point here is really important. But I'm not sure I can get with the follow-up claim Wark makes here that: "the thing to occupy is media time; the way to do it is to take space", and that argument that urban public spaces are now primarily "sets for media performances".

Sure, many occupations and assemblies are indeed 'staged' with their 'screening' in mind, and media narratives clearly shape and frame actions staged in the streets -- so I agree that efforts to claim media space/time are a constitutive element in the production of many political events in public spaces, not a secondary or subsequent process.

But in the occupations that we have witnessed across this decade, I think there are plenty of things going on that don't conform to this formulation either. Sometimes, the bodies assembled together are constantly moving between practices that sustain the physical space of occupation, and practices that reach out beyond that space in the process of representation and claim-making. 'Urban' and 'media' spaces are mixed together in different combinations to achieve these dual ends. Just as some actions are clearly staged in a physical public space in a manner calculated to find an audience via mass/niche/social media as Wark argues, so too various media are put to work in the service of maintaining what Butler calls the 'infrastructure' of assembly/occupation (eg via social media call-outs for resources/food, defence against police, etc). Theses processes of social reproduction in an assembly/occupation are not exclusively undertaken just to sustain the space that can occupy media time. They are also frequently understood as prefigurative experiments with different (more just) ways of being together, and therefore as political ends in themselves (for some great images of this in action at Occupy Wall St, see Alison Young's blog post over on Images to Live By).

So, as I tried to argue in this short piece written a little while back, I think it's a dead end to get into an argument about 'which comes first?', the city (ie Butler's bodies in a physical geography) or the media (ie Wark's mediated presence with its virtual geography). An approach that focuses on interaction and co-production seems much more promising.

Wark's review comes under the title "what the performative can't perform", meaning that for him Butler's frame is too focused on embodied performativity at the expense of a consideration of the performativity of infrastructure (including media). But in Publics and the City, when I was trying to think through the co-constitution of embodied and mediated forms of 'being public', I actually found some work in Performance Studies very helpful - in particular, Philip Auslander's 1999 book Liveness - Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Writing to a performance/theatre studies audience, he argued against the idea that live theatre has more 'radical' potential than mediatised performance on the basis of its 'liveness' and the embodied co-presence of performers and their audience. Rather, he insists, the very idea of 'liveness' is a function of mediatisation, precisely because "mediatisation is now explicitly and implicitly embedded within the live experience" (eg think about the way live events incorporate media, the way they are staged with mediation in mind, etc). In Auslander's book, this passage really stuck out for me:
any distinction [between live and mediatised performances] needs to derive from careful consideration of how the relationship between the live and the mediatized is articulated in particular cases, not from a set of assumptions that constructs the relation between live and mediatized representations a priori as a relation of essential opposition.
I think this is a great warning against any theoretical prioritisation of embodied co-presence or mediatisation.

In this vein, one of the points I took from Butler's book was her linking of bodies and media in assemblies. In noting that assemblies circulate via media, she also points out that:
there remains something localized that cannot and does not travel in that way; and the scene could not be the scene if we did not understand that some people are at risk, and the risk is run precisely by those bodies on the street. If they are transported in one way, they are surely left in place in another, holding the camera or the cell phone, face to face with those they oppose, unprotected, injurable, injured, persistent, if not insurgent. It matters that those bodies carry cell phones, relaying messages and image..." (9).
This passage brought a bunch of memories flooding back for me ... of sitting at my computer in Sydney, transfixed by the #ows twitter stream during the infamous march across the Brooklyn Bridge in which hundreds were arrested, half a world away. I was there in one sense, and they were with me ... but in another sense, of course, we really were worlds apart. Me, in a comfy office, reading live media accounts from people being violently blocked and arrested by police.

Now, Wark might say this is exactly his point (ie that those bodies were taking risks in public space precisely in order to capture media time). Fair enough. But I guess I feel as though taking a little of both Butler and Wark together could actually be quite fruitful for those of us trying to think through the urban/media interface in politics right now.

In any case, Wark's review is going to have me dipping back into some of his previous writing on media, vectoral power, etc. (I just read his latest book Molecular Red, which I loved for many reasons ... not least for some unexpected and evocative personal recollections on his time in the offices of the Communist Party of Australia back in the day when the green bans were in full swing!).

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