Speculations on a Dissenting Passion
Julie Orlemanski, Department of English, Boston College, Boston, MA
Here is a question both aesthetic and strategic: what are the story-lines, the narrative forms and genres, ripe for dissent in the present? The title of Chase Madar’s recent book, The Passion of Bradley Manning, suggests one possibility. In these paragraphs I am going to reflect briefly on the genre of the “passion” as a potential story-form for the mobilization of dissent in the present. The title-phrase of Madar’s book figures the fate of Private First Class Manning, charged with the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history, in the shape of so many stories of the Christian martyrs and reiterations of Christ’s crucifixion. Manning was arrested at a base outside of Baghdad in May 2010, spent eleven months in solitary confinement, and now awaits trial in a medium-security prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The documents allegedly leaked by Manning were published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks as the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Logs, the Guantánamo files, the “Collateral Murder” video, and Cablegate.
While Madar’s book bears the designation “passion” more as a catchy tagline than a formal imperative, its evocative force nonetheless suggests that twenty-first-century dissent might turn again to the plots that survive from the cultural past, testing them, sounding their pitch and resonance. Today we live in an age of data. Yet one of the conundrums posed by all of the information at our disposal — like Manning’s hundreds of thousands of leaked documents, or the millions of “#occupy” tweets since September 2011, or the hard-fought documentation of civilian drone-strike casualties in Pakistan — is how the data of dissent can be transformed into something available to, and organized for, experience. One answer is to curate it, rendering it searchable and navigable; another is to graph it, model it, and make its global patterns apprehensible at a glance. But still another is to narrate it, to give it the propriety of retrospection and to transform it into the sensory, affective, and interpretive scripts also known as literature.
One starting point for the analysis of genres of dissent is to assume that they take their determinate shapes, both in their internal orientation toward their content and in their external orientation toward their audience, according to implicit theories of the political “event.” In other words, their literary conventions manifest assumptions about how to characterize, and ultimately to influence, the inexhaustibly numerous determinants of protest and rebellion. Being both an activist and a medievalist, I have sometimes felt a kind of claustrophobia in the cramped confines of present-day protest narratives. The interest of the phrase “the passion of Bradley Manning” concerns dissent’s imaginative resources. Moreover, among the surviving plotlines of protest and rebellion, the passio has shown itself to be epochally flexible: it began in the age of early Christian persecutions but continued through the long institutional flourishing of the Church. Does it have anything to offer to the present? At the passion’s center is a vision of dissent that binds together agency, suffering, and power. Yet what is least clear about the genre is precisely how it propagates collective action. Does it communicate and inspire protest by a logic of mimesis — in which I read and then imitate the model of the martyr — or according to some other mechanism of responsiveness or affect? In what’s left of my brief compass here, I am going to imagine what dimensions the politically dissenting passio might have.
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The passion of political dissent has, shall we say, three acts. It describes an individual living in a categorically political world. It narrates the emergence — the doing — of a genuinely political act. And finally it narrates the suffering of the dissident.
Act One. Like the vitae of the saints, the passion of dissent briefly recounts childhood, youth, some naïve existence within the normal and normalizing dialectic of individual and society. Act One tends to be a series of prefigurations muted again in normalcy and contingency: in elementary school Bradley Manning refused to recite “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; at seventeen, he was unemployed and drifted to Chicago, homeless but for his pickup parked nights at O’Hare; he spent basic training relegated to a “discharge unit,” before being fatefully “recycled” back into the Army. Act One’s naïve world is “objectively” political, insofar as it is made out of communities and institutions that allocate wealth and status; but it teeters on the edge of being “subjectively” politicized as well. Within the narrative framework, dissent’s proleptic force makes the fixed distribution of privilege tremble ever so slightly. The order of the world threatens to lose its permanence, as it faintly shudders before a standard of justice other than its own.
Act Two. Francis strips off his clothes and renounces his earthly father. Lucy refuses the hand of her pagan betrothed. Perpetua turns away from her father’s pleas that she recant and save herself. Moments of sustained personal resolution — that is, moments of action — are so many nodes of the passion’s plot. These are precisely dissent’s instances: etymologically, instances of tearing one’s sentiments and sensible life away from the norms in which they had been to some extent dissolved. Suddenly, everything grows definite: I convert, I turn; I dissent and sunder the tight-knit fabric of habit. Dissent has an unprecedented quality, and this is how it helps to make way for another world. In the old religious stories, the novel and transcendent quality of dissenting action was attributed to the power of God — but “God” can be taken to name a problem, rather than a positive force. How did something new come to occur? What are the roots of this action that the world will not tolerate but that promises to transform it? Part of what compels in Bradley Manning’s story is how apparently unimaginable his actions were. In a private chat-log shortly after the alleged leaks (now publicly available), Manning asked his interlocutor, “If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?” The thousands of soldiers and government employees who sifted classified information without incident, in circumstances of weak and negligent data-security, suggest that Manning’s question went largely unasked, unthought. The empirically surprising thing about dissent is that it is, it manages to be.
Act Three. Just as in the old stories — whether it is Perpetua gored at an imperial birthday party, Stephen stoned, or Sebastian arrow-shot and bludgeoned — the dissenters’ suffering, the passion proper, is the scene in which power comes forward into visibility. How ugly the law looks then! Act Three carries out the aesthetic imperative to transform power, from the tensile force holding together the world to grotesque spectacle. The paradigm is the pagan emperor, spittle-flecked and bloated with the unchecked desires that will destroy him. Yet even when no Nero appears, a stench of tyranny hangs in the diegetic air. On November 29 Bradley Manning took the stand in pre-trial hearings at Fort Meade, Maryland, to describe his eleven months of solitary confinement: two months in a cage, eight foot by eight by eight, in a dark tent in Kuwait, and nine months at Quantico Marine brig, in a windowless cell with no human contact but his guards, allowed, according to his “prevention of injury” status, no personal possessions, required to strip naked nightly and keep his face always turned toward his guards, even in sleep. A U.N. special rappateur concluded his treatment qualified as torture. However, if the ugliness of power is one essential component of Act Three, another is the mysterious entwining of activity and passivity, individual resolution and individual dissolution. The locus classicus for crushing (or is it completing?) dissent is the destruction of the martyr’s body. Whatever fleeting endurance here holds up against violence stands out illuminated, bright with the marvelous luster of agency, which has been restored to its redemptive potential.
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Among the pressing uncertainties raised by the genre of the dissenting passion is whether there is something pathological, reactionary, or broken about the genre — or all narrative forms constructed so insistently around the scale of the individual, with individual actions and sufferings as their foci. How does a passion spread behavior and belief? Can the exemplary soul at the center of the passio mobilize collective action, and will this be the kind of collective solidarity we want? In our age of networked technology, what should narrative be? The modernist avant-gardes of the early twentieth century explicitly debated and experimented with similar questions — a discourse that I have here left aside entirely, in favor of thinking back to older genres and how they once helped to constitute groups and propagate waves of action. If it is the case that we need completely new narrative forms, new ways of telling stories adequate to, say, information systems and weather patterns and mass markets, then one is nonetheless left with the matter of aisthēsis. Stories and texts, aesthetic interfaces and affective scripts, address the sensorium and cognition of individuals. (Or is there mass perception? Perhaps we need a speculative phenomenology of collectives….) Do the constraints of phenomenological responsiveness limit the shapes of our stories? Does narrative unduly restrict how protest can be communicated and imagined? I am not sure, but as I mentioned at the outset, these questions are at once aesthetic and strategic. I suspect they can be answered only through literary making and political praxis.