Academic journal article Liminalities

The Limits of the Carnivalesque: Re-Thinking Silence as a Mode of Social Protest

Academic journal article Liminalities

The Limits of the Carnivalesque: Re-Thinking Silence as a Mode of Social Protest

Article excerpt

Only someone who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk-and act essentially.

-Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 1846

For more than forty years, at least since the student and worker-led uprisings of May 1968, but perhaps most vividly over the past fifteen, the carnivalesque has served as the central organizing aesthetic of much anarchist-inspired anti-state and anti-corporate protest (Haugerud 2013; Vaneigem 2006; Graeber 2011; 2013; St. John 2007). However, over the past few years, there has also emerged a notable turn toward the silent among a number of broadly anti-capitalist social movements-an emergence that remains largely unexplored in the protest literature which continues to focus primarily on the carnivalesque tactics of the broader alter-globalization movement (Juris 2008). While silent protests are not historically unprecedented (one need only recall the remarkable antilynching protests in New York City of 1916-1917), my wager in this article is that they appear to be assuming an increasingly prominent place in the repertoires of a range of contemporary activists. Although I do not have quantitative data to definitively prove their increase as a proportion of total protest activities, just a few examples should suffice to illuminate the growing range of movements currently and newly engaged in silent protest: In December 2012, with the primary aim of demonstrating their commitment to serving as a bridge between indigenous, environmentalist, and anti-capitalist social movements, and as a way of dramatizing their fidelity to the well-known Zapatista principle of "leading while following," some 40,000 Zapatistas marched silently through the southern Mexican state of Chiapas bearing the simple slogan: "With our silence, we have made ourselves present." As one observer explained: "This silence [of the Zapatistas] is not one of apathy, disengagement or withdrawal but one of strategic refusal to participate in the dominant narratives and frameworks that reinforce violent institutions, a silence where participants are able to reflect and listen to each other's struggles" (Carmona 2014). A few months later in 2013, a lone artist kicked off what have come to be known as the standing man protests in opposition to Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey when he began standing silently and without explicit demand in front of the Ataturk Cultural Center in Istanbul. In a public square that had witnessed heated protests between the government and youth demonstrators over proposed redevelopment plans in the preceding weeks, the artist's immobile body sparked what the media called a "static social revolution," as hundreds of passers-by later joined him in silent remembrance of those who had lost their lives in antigovernment clashes. And finally, 2014 saw both hundreds of young Thai activists responding to the military takeover of that country by silently reading politically inflammatory books like George Orwell in public squares and large-scale silent marches in U.S. cities to demonstrate against systemic police violence against African-American men.

As these cursory examples suggest, the performance of silence appears to occupy an important place in the strategies of a range of contemporary activists throughout the globe-both those fighting the repression of authoritarian states and those more centrally concerned with the disciplining power of free markets and post-austerity politics. Why? What might these performances of stillness tell us about ongoing shifts in political affect under conditions of both latemodern capitalism and 21st century socialism? What are some of the political background conditions against which silence seems to be assuming renewed prominence in the contemporary period and what can we say about some of the emotional-political possibilities that may lurk within it? While recognizing that silence can function in a variety of ways and be directed toward a diversity of political ends (Hatzisavvidou 2007), what might it be making experientially possible at this moment in history that was perhaps not so acutely necessary in previous periods? …

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