January 2013

FORUM III features responses to, and considerations of, dissent. As Holly Crocker states in her introduction: “In the contributions that follow, dissent is linked to heresy and to martyrdom, it undermines the autological subject, and it inspires intellectual creativity. It is mundane as well as impossible, a practice as much as a provocation. Dissent happens, but it is often difficult to elaborate its relation to community.” A number of authors here attempt to elaborate on just that.

Holly A. Crocker

The Legitimacy of Medieval Dissent
R. D. Perry

Dissention in the Ranks
Patricia Clare Ingham

Speculations on a Dissenting Passion
Julie Orlemanski

Impossible Dissent
Thomas Prendergast

Mundane Dissent
Andrew Cole

The Practice of Dissent
Irina Dumitrescu

6 Responses to FORUM III: DISSENT

  1. Share your discussion for DISSENT centrally here!

  2. Having read through all of these provocative pieces, I have some questions (and maybe some disagreements) to share with the authors, and anyone else who may be reading within this FORUM.

    I’ll start with Andrew Cole’s piece on “Mundane Diseent”: does dissent *only* act against alienation (as Marx understood it)? Could dissent be on behalf of alienation? If our current working condition are as you describe them (and I think they are: where many people take their work home and everyone is always “on call” for their job, work is never over, etc. — however, we have to also pause and reflect on the fact that some people “own” their own labors more than others and for some, work really *is* enjoyment, although maybe we should spend more time thinking about *refusing* to work more often, BUT:), is it possible that one might engage in practices of disassociation? I’m thinking here of a paper Lauren Berlant gave at the MLA meeting in Boston this past week, “No World Politics and Living in Ellipsis,” where she argued that, “Disassociation may be defined as damage, passivity, and defeat, but it also might be a form of flourishing and affective experimentalism tied to disbelief; a way of being in the world without wanting the world.” Accordingly, I like very much the idea of dissent as occurring in middle spaces [between home and work] and as also being “mundane” [which reminds me of Levinas’s thinking on “la petite bonte,” the little act of goodness, since “goodness” can never be a “regime, an organized system, a social institution”]; relative to Andrew’s example of medieval peasants stealing resources on the job [as when they ground their own corn on the boss’s mill], I have heard grad. students and post-grads without regular “academic” employment discuss thefting resources from universities to help with their own alt-ac projects, such as small presses and the like [by which I might also add that a lot of grad. and “precariat” post-grads. these days are simply making things happen, by founding and running presses, journals and alt-cult organizations, and without a lot of fanfare or “noise,” but with what I think is going to be a growing impact: continent. journal is a good example of this]. Given the Information Age in which we live, I also agree with Cole that dissent needs new techniques and modes [which might not be mass protests anymore nor singular charismatic leaders of avant-garde “movements”], and I have personally thought a lot about this vis-a-vis those who work in media studies especially [such as Wendy Chun, Rita Raley, etc.], where a lot of thinking has been going on relative to opposing systems through infiltration, theft, jamming, contamination, and the like. On a more practical university level, this might mean, not just opposing/protesting MOOCs [massive open online courses], but crafting ones of our own that are anti-Coursera-type and the like [a good example of this are the online courses being staged by FemBot Collective, which Wendy Chun is a part of:

    What I don’t fully understand [or perhaps disagree with] in Cole’s piece, is the rejection of the flaneur-outsider and its supposed negative fashionability. I mean, for Cole’s purposes, if we are talking about “mundane” dissent, of course it can’t also be fashionable, otherwise it could not be “mundane” [and so on: i.e., you can’t “win” this argument]. But there is an implicit valuing of mundane dissent in Cole’s piece in which mundane dissent is positive/admirable, and too-visible “outsiders” are negative/to-be-rejected. What does “visibility duly stylized on Instagram” actually mean? That we don’t like dissent as it manifests itself on Facebook [for the record, I don’t]? That we have to reject outright any forms of dissent that utilize social media, or that are hyper-aware of their aesthetic and other “presentation,” because that is more flash [or obfuscation] than substance? Here, I disagree, because dissent needs to be multiple and has need of multiplicity. It should seek to be everywhere, in as many forms as possible, charismatic and visible as well as quiet and mundane, stealth-like but also in your [or Their] face: I think the Anonymous collective is an excellent example of this: both “anonymous” and highly visible simultaneously, both in love with themselves [often, obnoxiously] and their self-presentation but also highly effective at jamming things up at key moments: they shut down punctum books for a day by crashing the servers and that forced me to rethink my web-hosting choices, within an ethic-political framework, I might add.

    Visibility may be “beside the point” of dissent, as Cole avers, but “making things visible” is also a form of dissent, even if that “making visible” is of the dissenters themselves. Mediation, of course, is the big question that hovers over [or shines through] Cole’s essay: how is dissent mediated and why does that matter? Can there be forms of counter-mediation of dissent-presentations that are themselves forms of important dissent, or is everything that is visible subject to various forms of neoliberal-capitalist “uptake”? These are things I think, and worry about, a lot. So I take Cole’s cautions to heart, while I also don’t like the invocation at the end of his essay that something like quietly supplying food and shelter to the homeless is the best form of dissent [it smacks a little too much — at least for me — of old arguments over how praxis in the so-called streets and back alleys of the “real world” always trumps anything else you might be doing to improve this world and/or the general well-being of others]. Levinas and others would call that goodness, and also a hedge against evil; but it is not the only, or even the best, hedge. For example, if we really want to address access to healthcare, that has to be done at the national level, and that involves, of necessity, very highly visible and even charismatic counter-politics. Although to judge by recent history, we’ve really failed on this score as dissenters *and* as doers.

  3. Julie Orlemanski says:

    Thanks to Eileen for her comment and to all the writers here for their reflections & provocations. So, one of the questions that Andrew’s post raised for me is about how dissenting collectivities are formed. (I’m assuming dissent requires some thought about collectivity/class/community, but maybe not always? Seems to in the Marxist tradition.) If “mundane dissent” is going on “under the radar,” is it best characterized as an adaptive strategy independently adopted by more and more people? Does the similarity among mundane dissenters lie in the objective conditions of their jobs, which then lead them to similar strategic shirking? Or do they share a community? Do they constitute something like a class? (see also: debtors; students; the “precariat”) Is it important that they understand themselves as sharing certain circumstances, interests, forms of power, or conditions of disempowerment? Do we need to be aware of being part of a group in order to practice anything but an idiosyncratic and atomized dissent?

    Awareness of shared needs and desires is one reason why people come together to organize and act politically. The representational work of dissent (like the “We are the 99%” tumblr,” or the livestreaming of the destruction of Occupy encampments) seems to me all about creating circumstances in which people recognize shared reasons to protest, make demands, and practice mutual aid. It’s hard for me to see the Occupy encampments, as Andrew says, as viewing “style, visibility, documentation, and manifestation […] as beside the point.” That seems to describe, say, a charitable group exclusively concerned with feeding and clothing the houseless community, in a quiet assumption of some of the duties neglected by other branches of society. By contrast, Occupy *politicized* the difficulty of eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom in public space. The encampments were (semi-)functional communities that were also, in their existence, acts of protest (hence, occupiers’ appeal to the First Amendment).

    (Occupy Sandy, however, does seem more like what Andrew is describing: addressing “homelessness, the lack of available health care, and the scarcity of food by actually supplying homes, medicine, and food for free.” However, I think one of the risks Occupy Sandy runs is doing all of this awesome mutual aid without also making DEMANDS on the broader context of unjustly allocated wealth and access to services. Viewed from certain angles, Occupy Sandy is a realization of libertarian fantasies that we don’t need government, bureaucracy, taxes on the rich, etc, in order to take care of things like disaster relief. “See, FEMA sucks. Let’s continue to deny it adequate funds and leadership, because these people can and should help themselves.” No wonder Mayor Bloomberg formally praised Occupy Sandy efforts despite his notoriously brutal treatment of OWS.)

    One of the distinctive things about Occupy was precisely its configuration of representations, its old-media/new-media network. Occupy depended on bodies (in encampments, with all of their needs), voices (the mic check, the human microphone), hand-lettered cardboard signs, drums, marches. But it also existed on twitter, livestream, facebook, blogs, as images, in discussion in the mainstream-media. All of these different formats were important to how the movement unfolded and created meaning and organized responses and participation.

    Last Saturday I spoke on an MLA panel sponsored by the Radical Caucus (so it was, happily, open to all comers, not just those who had registered). The panel was called “Getting an Education at Occupy Boston,” and I spoke about getting an *aesthetic education* at OB ~~ a nod to Schiller, who speaks about aesthetic education as the sphere in which we can change what we desire. So I spoke about my own and others’ aesthetic education in the broad terms of aisthēsis (sensation, feeling, the experience of the phenomenal world) – in marching, shouting in the streets, becoming conscious of the habituated norms of public space and violating those norms, participating in meetings, passing out papers on the subway, finding different ways to speak with different people. These practices did help to change what I want, what I value, and to what ends I devote my time and energy. (I ended my comments by speaking about the limits of an aesthetic-pedagogical model when it’s confronted with its own lack of power. Think: march vs. strike.)

    During the Q&A, one guy from (I think) UCLA spoke about his own experiences being a resistant, dissenting, but active member of the Democratic Party as well as of his labor union. He encouraged progressives and occupiers to covertly inhabit such institutions, to advance a leftist agenda from within such problematic or comparatively conservative organizations. My response to him was to ask, what are the environments in which progressive desires, leftist or radical subjectivities, are going to take shape? How will such dissenters come to be who they are, to want the social goods they want? Those seem to me problems of aesthetic education in its broadest sense.

  4. Huh, this *very interesting*, Julie and Eileen. Thanks for these thoughts. I wouldn’t say I disagree with any of your comments, but my take on dissent is very different. I valued Andrew’s piece because it didn’t automatically conflate dissent and protest. It also avoided making dissent just one element of any political or social movement. Now, as you both note, dissent often gives rise to collectivities that are crucial in bringing about change. So social and political movements are founded on dissent, I would agree. But dissent can operate on its own, and it often does in situations where individuals never find like-minded actors with whom to form collectivities. Dissent happens every day, in minor gestures that can never gain full political recognition, in societies where visible transgressions against prevailing norms are simply too dangerous. I think it is problematic, therefore, to assume dissent = protest in an organized, visible collective. I actually think that might beg the question by assuming dissent is predicated on visibility, but I’m not sure about that last point. At any rate, I don’t think dissent is of one kind, and I was very pleased to see different contributors to the Forum take up dissent’s different forms. I also think different kinds of dissent can operate in the same arena (OWS, then, can have layers of dissent, including some that remain unseen).

    I have more to say about Eileen’s remarks on “‘too-visible ‘outsiders,'” but that can wait until later. I’m eager to hear others’ thoughts (I had my turn in writing the introduction to this Forum). Thanks, Holly

  5. Julie Orlemanski says:

    Hmm, yes, interesting! It hadn’t occurred to me in my own thinking, but it does seem plausible to mark the difference between dissent and protest. I had been thinking about them very much in the same breath, but perhaps there’s something (a lot?) to be gained from elaborating the distinction. I believe there’s been quite a lot of discussion among Americanists of Bartleby’s on-the-job “I would prefer not to” as a mode of resistance, which provides a more individualistic example of Andrew’s “mundane dissent” than does peasant subterfuge. (And of course the subtitle of Melville’s story is “A Story of Wall Street,” so maybe there’s an OWS reading waiting to happen…) All of my own recent thinking has been about the middle space between individuals and mobilized groups ~~ but indeed the posts here do point to different possibilities (especially Tom’s wonderful reflections about the subject dissenting from herself).

  6. Pingback: Desiring Pasts « EXM

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