Introduction: Dissent Happens /Holly A. Crocker


Introduction: Dissent Happens

Holly A. Crocker, Department of English, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina


It is fitting that postmedieval’s FORUM III, on the topic of “dissent,” would avoid consensus. 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. In turning to the Occupy movement as a recent example, several contributors note the danger implicit within dissent, what R.D. Perry characterizes as “dissent that resists pacification and threatens to culminate in the division of a political or religious community.” In rare instances dissent can upend community, fracturing bonds between members and creating new social enclaves.

More often, however, it articulates an enduring commitment to shared principles of existence. When the Occupy Wall Street movement began I was living in Frankfurt, Germany, where a parallel encampment materialized outside the European Central Bank. Occupy Frankfurt was designed to show solidarity with the U.S. protests, but its principal concerns, quite logically, were E.U.-directed. Protesters carried banners emblazoned with the slogan, “We are the 99%,” repurposing the American catchphrase to resist austerity programs introduced in the wake of the unfolding European sovereign-debt crisis


[Photo 1: Frankfurt, Germany. November, 2011. Holly A. Crocker].

At the time I was initially buoyed by the idea that global resistance to capitalism had emerged from what looked from afar like a warming “we the people” moment. An awareness that I was suffering from a potent mixture of nationalism and wistfulness, however, was quickly brought home to me by law-enforcement’s reaction to the protests.

The police were almost bewilderingly civil. Compared with the pepper-spraying, head-cracking, hair-pulling scenes that were a constant of protests across the U.S., the Frankfurt encampment looked not just peaceful, but benign. Besides some blocked traffic, the protesters caused very little disruption. They were a photo-op, and the police’s measured response, down to the moment in May 2012, when they carried paint-covered protesters from the camp, affirmed dissent as a vital part of a rationally ordered state. There was no moment of tension, the sort of uncomfortable rupture we see in The Canterbury Tales when the Pardoner scandalizes Harry Bailey with his invitation, “Com forth, sire Hoost, and offer first anon, / And thou shalt kisse the relikes everychon” (VI.943-44). Though Harry retorts with the threat of violence, there is no way for the Host to distance himself from the exacting proximity the Pardoner’s solicitation enacts.

The tale-telling compact remains intact, and, as Patricia Ingham argues, it is the exigency of community that generates the grounds of artistic difference. Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Ingham affirms the positive power of dissent: “A number of recent studies reassess the importance of debate and dissent to creativity in ways that chime with Deleuze’s account of the new: the possibility of disagreement, judgment, and evaluation seem to make us more creative not less.” Julie Orlemanski also emphasizes the political centrality of aesthetic expression, “Stories and texts, aesthetic interfaces and affective scripts, address the sensorium and cognition of individuals,” even as she wonders, “Does narrative unduly restrict how protest can be communicated and imagined?” The potential limitations of dissent, as Tom Prendergast argues, might be traced to a distorted ideal of individual coherence. A version of subjectivity that makes dissent impossible exposes a rift in post-Enlightenment notions of the just state, as he maintains.

What it suggests, I would add in response to these thoughtful analyses, is that defined genres of dissent are crucial to the self-authorizing power of the modern state. Orderly dissent, that which is allowed because it meets several criteria of rational discourse (it is non-violent, it has recognizable ideals, it has definite goals), reinforces the ideal of the autonomous subject upon which the sovereign state is founded. We can all agree to disagree, because we all subscribe to the balanced norms of political engagement. There is no instance to compare with that of Joan Warde, which R.D. Perry discusses as an example of unassimilable dissent. With her relapse into heresy, Warde uncovers a parallel, alternative scene of discourse, which cannot be recontained by political or religious powers. Unlike Bradley Manning, who avows commitment to the principles of transparency espoused by liberal democracy, Warde avers allegiance to a set of ideals that are altogether different from those that organize the religious and political cultures of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Coventry.

Warde shows that the body politic is not whole, that there might be dissention among its members that cannot be reabsorbed by the greater totality. Even so, as Andrew Cole and Irina Dumitrescu demonstrate, those moments of in-coherence need not cause a break or a rift. In thinking about quotidian acts of resistance—those daily acts that might elude Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr—Cole calls “for mundane dissent, for doing what needs to be done under the radar.” Behind the public scene of protest, as Cole notes, Occupy Wall Street addressed more immediate problems of healthcare, sustenance, and shelter. To return to my own (very limited) perspective on Occupy, I have no idea what went on inside the Frankfurt encampment; and yet, in agreement with Cole’s logic, I have faith that it exceeded the cultivated tableau of orderly dissent that might be observed from outside.


[Photo 2: Frankfurt, Germany. November, 2011. Holly A. Crocker]

This is because, as Dumitrescu shows us, acts of dissent are frequently predicated on love. This is not love as it is blogged, tweeted, or presented in public. Those stylized declarations, most of us unfortunately have had to realize at one time or another, are frequently mobilizations of unequal power relations. Rather, as the account from the Verba Sensorium affirms, love as a practiced form of dissent can take us apart. It can bring us to recognize our lack of self-sameness. The humility that this kind of love requires, evident from the “passion” of Bradley Manning that Orlemanski details, does not seek recognition. It happens because there is a need. To return to Prendergast, this love might resist a traditional ideal of justice predicated on visibility. Yet, to conclude by turning to Ingham, it also provides the impetus for artistic making, for aesthetic departures that emerge from what initially seems like a repetition, or a familiar image of dominance and resistance.