ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012

(P04)

Beyond the Arab Spring: the aesthetics and poetics of popular revolt and protest

Location Convention Centre Lecture Hall-I
Date and Start Time 05 April, 2012 at 15:00

Convenors

Pnina Werbner (Keele University) email
Martin Webb (Goldsmiths, University of London) email
Dimitris Dalakoglou (Vrije University Amsterdam) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The list of countries seeing major protest movements and revolts in 2011 is long: Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya, India, Botswana, Greece, Spain, the UK, Israel, Wisconsin or Chile are just a few. This panel is concerned with the aesthetics and poetics of those current movements and events.

Long Abstract

These protests have raised a lot of debates; however, the main emphasis of this panel is not simply on the politics of the revolts but on their aesthetic and poetical aspects. These protest events were/are imaginative and creative, utilising aesthetic popular media, electronic media, shared hand gestures, visual and material discourses, artistic actions and theatrical speeches to convey their message. Simultaneously, during this spring-summer of protests, people often resorted to the aesthetics of fire, broken windows, flying glass bottles and the praxis of violence, as happened for example in the case of the UK during the August 2011 riots, but also before, during the anti-cuts movement protests where people responded to state's violence with counter-violence. Everywhere, the political establishment responded in helpless shock, panic and often physical harm, utilizing the old and usual aesthetics of the State repressive apparatuses and the aesthetics of law, order and corporate mass media.

This session invites contributions not only from anthropologists who have studied the events of the Arab Spring itself, but the rest of the popular protest and revolt which have been inspired by them or have shared some of their cosmopolitan values. We ask from the participants -without depoliticizing and undermining the political objectives of the protests- to approach them from the perspective of their aesthetic and poetical articulations; to talk about and analyse the material, visual, physical and sensual manifestations of these aesthetics and their meanings.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'The Mother of all Strikes: Popular Protest Culture and Vernacular Cosmopolitanism in the Botswana Public Service Unions' Strike, 2011

Author: Pnina Werbner (Keele University)  email

Short Abstract

My paper explores the emergence of working class oppositional popular culture among members of five public service unions in Botswana, whose joint, two months’ long strike challenged the country’s establishment and the perceived authoritarianism of government in creative and imaginative ways. Inspired in this respect by the events of the Arab Spring, strikers also drew on cosmopolitan themes of labour rights, dignity and social justice while deploying resistive popular-cultural traditional styles of song and dance to mock and ‘insult’ politicians and celebrate worker solidarity.

Long Abstract

My paper explores the emergence of working class oppositional popular culture among members of five public service unions in Botswana, whose joint, two months' long strike challenged the country's establishment and the perceived authoritarianism of government in creative and imaginative ways. Inspired in this respect by the events of the Arab Spring, strikers also drew on cosmopolitan themes of labour rights, dignity and social justice, while deploying resistive popular-cultural traditional styles of song and dance to mock and 'insult' politicians and celebrate worker solidarity. In the capital, Gaborone, as in other towns throughout Botswana, strikers gathered daily in the sports grounds of a local school, under a giant morula tree. Over time, the tree and grounds came to be celebrated and sacralised with prayer and song, a point of mobilisation with periodic demonstrations and forays to other places throughout the country. Support for the strike came from the media and other opposition politicians and civil society actors. It elicited critical political commentary and humour, both in the songs and in acutely witty cartoons. Workers' popular cultural performances suppressed social divisions of class and education among the different public service unions between manual workers, doctors, teachers and civil servants. Workers' salaries were also, however, committed to sustain family members at home, in the village. The paper thus argues against a simplistic 'proletarianisation' thesis, that the fusing of cosmopolitan and local popular culture has created a distinctive vernacular way of being a worker in Botswana.

Aesthetics of Revolt in Tahrir Square

Author: Dalia Wahdan (Foundation for Liberal and Management Education)  email

Short Abstract

The eighteen days spent in Tahrir Square at the heart of Cairo, Egypt that started on January 25 have been exceptional to the minds and lives of most Egyptians. While indiscriminate violence and brutalities by the deposed regime’s security forces glued protesters together, singing, stand up comedies, chanting slogans and designing and circulating illustrative pamphlets have harnessed their energies and sustained their defiant spirits. As confrontations with security forces continued and intimidations from state-run radio and television increased, artistic forms in Tahrir Square have transcended their functionality and emerged from being the expressions of emotions into acts of revolt. This paper registers the versatile forms of expression improvised by the protestors in Tahrir Square and on social media sites during and after deposing Mubarak’s regime and argues that unlike the pre-uprising expressions of resentment and acts of resistance, Tahrir Square artistic expressions constitute an aesthetics of revolt the interpretation of which can forge an understanding of popular mass movements.

Long Abstract

This paper registers the versatile forms of expression improvised by the protestors in Tahrir Square and on social media sites during and after deposing Mubarak's regime and argues that unlike the pre-uprising expressions of resentment and acts of resistance, Tahrir Square artistic expressions constitute an aesthetics of revolt the interpretation of which can forge an understanding of popular mass movements. While many slogans expressed aspirations of social justice, freedom and dignity, other expressions throbbed with long suppressed frustrations and disappointments and still others were acts of willingness to end a life of misery. Many individuals and groups of protestors came forth with artistic expressions that have wittingly captured years of turmoil leading to the uprising while others have explicitly visualized their dreams of liberty and equity. Without rehearsals or draft sketches the final outcomes of many such expressions spoke up and to the millions and eventually developed into lists of demands and visions for the immediate future. By tracing such expressions especially those of individual activists or professional artists as well as those of others in and out of Tahrir, it becomes clearer that it is only a heuristic skit that one can actually separate the revolt from its aesthetics.

Reclaiming the Political from Aesthetics: Exploring the Arab Spring and Aftermath

Author: Premjish Achari (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that the cutting edge technologies (internet, social networking sites, applications, encrypted Blackberry Messengers) facilitate both aesthetic and political revolution by looking at Arab Spring, UK riots, and Occupy Wall Street movement.

Long Abstract

This paper argues that the cutting edge technologies (internet, social networking sites, applications, encrypted Blackberry Messengers) facilitate both aesthetic and political revolution by looking at Arab Spring, UK riots, and Occupy Wall Street movement. This paper also engages with the return of the populist art like postering, body art, street theater, semi-naked performances, etc.The proliferation of Guy Fawkes masks worn by the protesters, inspired from the movie 'V for Vendetta', in occupy movements across the world attest this return of populist art. Leil Zahra Mortada's Facebook Album titled 'Women of Egypt', a compilation of images from various sources on the women protesters of Egypt, could be the most powerful virtual exhibition of gendered experiences from Arab Spring. Alia Allana's photos and guest posts for 'Kafila' are dispatches from Egypt, Syria, etc. articulating the ground realities of Arab Spring. Wikileaks and its publication of 'Cablegate' and many other secret documents have stirred these protests. Thus virtual world is creating a republic of ideas and also the cultural fields provided by it facilitate both aesthetic and cultural revolutions. Nevertheless these protests have faced brutal crackdown, in real life and virtual world, from various democratic and totalitarian regimes. These developments raise apprehension about the assumption of virtual world as a space bereft of surveillance and censorship.This paper looks at these larger political uprisings and argues that these modes of protest need not necessarily be located in the political context alone but it also has to be seen in its aesthetic context. Thus it rethinks the relation between art and politics.

Subversion through performance: Performative activism in London (2010-2011)

Author: Paula Serafini  email

Short Abstract

The focus of this paper will be the staging of performance-like actions by activist groups in the context of the demonstrations against austerity cuts in London from November 2010 to the present.

Long Abstract

This particular moment in history defined by war, an international economic crisis, a wave of uprising movements across the globe, and a dependence on the media for both activist strategies and government control, has called for new creative tactics in activism, which as a consequence deserve updated forms of interdisciplinary analysis.

The focus of this paper will be the staging of performance-like actions by activist groups in the context of the demonstrations against austerity cuts in London from November 2010 to the present. In this case, given that the type of actions I chose to study incorporate elements and procedures from performance art, I will look at them from a perspective that includes an aesthetic appraisal. This study will therefore begin by providing a theoretical background on politically engaged art and on the character of performance, in order to define the aesthetic categories that will be employed throughout the case analyses. This will be followed by examples from recent activist groups and social movements that have been of influence and acted as precedents, and finally the case analyses of actions by three London based activist groups: UK Uncut, Arts Against Cuts and University for Strategic Optimism.

My objective will be to provide a complete analysis that will generate a better understanding of current activist strategies in London, and also contribute to a general theory of performative activism.

Supercharging Satyagraha? Saintly politics and media in the struggle for a Jan Lokpal Bill

Author: Martin Webb (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the use of media and social media in the development of the India Against Corruption Movement in 2011. During the protests an idealised poetics and aesthetics of satyagraha, fasting, simplicity and non-violent resistance by leading activists became the focus of mainstream and social media attention. This paper will ask: Why did a long ignored issue such as the Lokpal bill suddenly become newsworthy? How did the aesthetics of the protests help this process? How were the aesthetics of the protests presented in different media? And, in what ways did activists and media actors collaborate to produce particular rhetorical narratives and imagery?

Long Abstract

In 2006 a group of Gandhian activists were sitting in protest outside the gate of the Gandhi Smriti at Raj Ghat in Delhi. They were protesting against political corruption and in support of the passing of the Lokpal bill, a piece of legislation designed to institute a parliamentary ombudsman and provide whistleblowers a mechanism through which to expose the wrong doing of civil servants and parliamentarians. The bill had been stalled in successive parliaments for almost 40 years. Their weekly satyagraha, activists sitting in quiet protest and fasting for a day, was mostly ignored by the press, achieving at best one or two column inches in the newspapers, and greeted with bemusement by passers by. Jump to 2011, a different team of activists, with their figurehead leader Anna Hazare hyperbolically dubbed the 'new Gandhi' by an excited media, brought the issue of the Lokpal bill to the forefront of national, and even international news. The India Against Corruption movement emerged as protests across India, and beyond to the diaspora, were linked together through 24 hour rolling news reporting, social media and a sense of urgency that the nation must be saved. This paper will ask: Why did a long ignored issue such as the Lokpal bill suddenly become newsworthy? How did the aesthetics of the protests help this process? How were the aesthetics of the protests presented in different media? And, in what ways did activists and media actors collaborate to produce particular rhetorical narratives and imagery?

The Changing Contours of the Politics in Kashmiri Movement:Ideas, Practices & Responses

Author: Sarbani Sharma (Delhi School of Economics, DU )  email

Short Abstract

How can we reflect on the nuances on the modes of resistance by the Kashmiris for a sovereign state through an analysis of the aesthetics of politics in contemporary times?

Long Abstract

The Kashmir conflict is one of the oldest conflicts in South Asian region.It is interesting to look at how a population with a history revolving around the question of state legitimacy beginning from pre-colonial times up till now has come to interact with the ideology of azadi for a sovereign nationhood for themselves.

The movement for azadi of Kashmir and its people today faces with many dilemmatic discourses which have certainly made an impact on its politics. Most important has been how the matrix of "politics" has altered. The 2010 civil unrest witnessed the young Kashmiris as stone-pelters as a form of resistance against the government of India and its armed forces and subsequently in 2011, the Harood Literary Festival provoked further debates on "political" and "unpolitical" character of dissent from the Kashmiris. The attempt would be to look into these recent instances to reflect on the nuances of "self-making" by the Kashmiris for a sovereign state through an analysis of the aesthetics of politics in Kashmir.

This paper will look into the questions how on the one hand, people's struggle for nationhood and autonomy, with its own mapping of demography imagine and conceptualizes the terms of sovereignty, considering the fact that the people as a population are not a homogeneous and monolithic entity? One needs to conceptualize how these modes of protest speak for certain kind of political recognition and imagination of a certain population.

Building Protesting Publics: Local Trade in New 'world-class' Delhi

Author: Diya Mehra (Centre de Sciences Humaines)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the mobilizing of a political community in New Delhi in opposition to a Supreme Court ruling ordering the shutting down of hundreds of local businesses. The paper focuses on how a citywide protesting public was mobilized discursively, metaphorically and practically, as well as through the local media, most critically by deploying the imagery of anti-colonial struggles, local understandings of ethical governance, and violent street based disruptions.

Long Abstract

In 2006, the Supreme Court of India ruled that between 50,000 to 500,000 retail businesses in Delhi would have to shut because they were illegally operating in residential areas. In the year following, a massive campaign was organized against the order, involving thousands of shopkeepers who could be potentially evicted, brought under the banner of Delhi's 'trading' community. In the conspiracy world of the 'traders', as they came to be called, their planned eviction was financed by new, large-scale, and international real estate capital, seeking to dislodge local competition for their own retail projects.

This paper follows the campaign and the modes by which a citywide trader identity and community was mobilized, as one did not exist before the campaign started. The paper explicates on the discourses, metaphors, poetics and cinematic images utilized to build an affective collective among traders, distilling the local legacies of the anti-colonial nationalist struggle. It also shows how Gandhian repertoires of street based protest were used to visually present a mass protesting citizenry - images further disseminated through local media to galvanize even greater participation in the demostrations. Fueling the movement through the twists and turns of the campaign were metaphorical assertions of what ethical governance was, as well as the repeated creation of 'spaces of violent disruption', suggested as the only media and street driven language, that the government responded to. By its end, the campaign brought together hundreds of protestors from widely differing backgrounds, working a common language of protest. The paper shows how this came to be.

Corrupt Movements, the Anti-Corruption Movement, and the Movement of Knowledge in Indian Political Practice

Author: Anand Vaidya (Harvard University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers both India's 2011 anti-corruption movement and failed attempts at corruption in proposing a theory of political practice driven by the movement and sedimentation of knowledge.

Long Abstract

In August 2011, New Delhi was gripped by middle-class dominated protests against corruption in the Indian state. In the same month, in the north Indian village in which I am conducting fieldwork, a group of landless forest dwellers tried and failed to implement India's recent Forest Rights Act to gain land rights. Drawing upon ethnographic research in both sites, this paper considers these two disparate modes of political action, both based on the diagnosis that the bureaucratic rationality or moral subjectivities of state actors are inevitably overwhelmed by the profit motive, to argue for a theory of citizen-state engagement driven by social, legal, and political knowledge.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.