Sunday, June 29, 2014

Neo Bohemias in East London- A Travelogue, Part Two

I made my landing in London last Thursday, and chose to stay in Shoreditch, a residential and commercial district on the East side of London. Wanting to be in close proximity to street art and graffiti art, I used a google search to guide my AirBnB room investigation, which resulted in a spot near to Brick Lane.

How to describe the area? It is energetic. Such energia lies in the intense displays of night life (seemingly blank warehouse façades suddenly manned by larger men, bouncers, while glamorous men with faux-hawks, tight pants, carefully manicured facial hair and women wearing fancy jumpers, legs and arms bare, and shimmering jewelry and makeup flow in and out. But it also emerges in the day time movements of commuters, bike riders in yellow bests, with longer hair, jeans tattered and rolled up at the knee or ankle, nevertheless freshly showered and slightly bleary eyed, walking their bicycles while gulping down coffee in the emerging day. A large population of student and coffeeshop workers (performing laptop work whilst at a coffeeshop, though yes, some also baristas), myself included, take up residence in the many indie coffeeshops along Brick Lane. One, Kahilia, is a large open space with large tables of varying sizes and wooden chairs that are cut raw, allowing the grain of the wood to be visible. A crowd of younger people, all pale, in different tank tops and similar bird-crest hair cuts, gather around a table, eagerly discussing weekend plans. In front of me more "square" styles predominate as two men, more rotund with the fresh-shorn-sheep short haircut that I see more in the U.S. among prep school boys, sit on the same side of their table, discussing the merits of PhD school. "I can get a PhD for free, if I go to ____" the American one explains. The other nods slowly. I read the card on my table that informs me that the coffeeshop is also a not-for-profit space, as well as a church. I am invited (by the card) to a 7:30 pm service on Wednesday. Another shop, Brick Lane Coffee is shaped like a subway car, long and narrow, with decaying black couches and brown square leather chairs arrayed on one side of the room, and on the other, a long leather benth with red, yellow, and black narrow tables in front at regular intervals. The ceiling near the rear of the space is "graffitied" with chalk, "Fran and Andy Forever 2/22/11" or "Ronan and Svetlana 5.3.13," and also "Oliver and Ronni 2/11/11." A patron discusses with a customer getting a "big yellow storage unit" to turn into a room to "hang out with mates" in a warehouse down the way. A poster from some 90s era shower, faded, sits beside a window unit AC, conspicuously ugly on an orange strip of wall. A large mirror on the couch side reflects a man with the bird crest haircut, large square glasses, and some sort of black t shirt, pale, round cheeks that reflect the beginnings of stubble. He stares into his computer, seemingly unaware of the mirror in front of him, writing some sort of IT guide. Music plays, with a heart-beat like beat, synth pop something that I imagine is an appropriate ambiance for the starship trooper next to a hand drawn/painted wall that is deliberately messy. A raggedy yellow toy leers. In the evening, morning, and afternoon, there is always a rowdy queue at the two bakers shops that sell bagels with toppings for 1 to 2 pounds. There is a vintage shop every three doors, and a bar every five. The corner store is mostly organic, boasting a large variety of kale chips and marinated tofu.
Bethnal Lane Friday Morning. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The main attraction of this place, in addition to the distinctive and "personality" laden shops, are the people. The parade of experiments in old and new fashion, hair that is shorn, flowing, teased, and angled; pants that are fitted, flowing, cut off at the ankle or knee; glasses that demand recognition; all exhibit an intense commitment to self-fashioning, in Michel Foucault's sense, a self stylization that occurs under the dual imperatives of freedom to express, and compulsion to do so in a continual way. The walk down Brick Lane enables at least three social layers to emerge although in this four day visit much is unseen by me, an outsider. Many of the more basic shops, the bakeries, hardware stores, seem to be run by more working class folks, evident in a shift in accent, it is harsher, making me think that proximity to natural resources and their extraction and fashioning (coal, iron, gas, pipes, ovens) calls for the human voice to bend to them and take on their dense character.
Beigel Bake. Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Second, a diverse South-Asian and East-Asian population of first generation immigrants, also evident in linguistic accents, but also forms of dress. These first two populations, in framings of the neighborhood as "ethnic" and "old Londoners" are more like the background or scene against which the third population plays, providing some level of "grit" and "authenticity," although they too function as urban decor.

This is the variegated population of vintage sellers, buyers, tech industry members, knowledge workers, artists and other laborers that use spaces such as the coffee shop or work share spaces as their primary space for production. Isabel Lorey and Angela McRobbie have traced the history of artists and artisans in London and shifts in labor practices. Drawing largely on Lorey's work Bojana Cvejic and Ana Vujanovic, note:

 “The marginal place of artists in society and their precarious conditions of work do not relieve them of the responsibility to deal critically with the conditions of production….we should understand the types of work that artists developed in the last 25 years or so—a variety of flexible and temporary workshops, festivals, and residencies—as an outsourced training ground for flexible neoliberal politics and its ‘crisis management,’ which constantly seeks new ‘creative’ solutions resulting from improvisations in unknown surroundings. The political potential of the ephemerality of performance as a public event—which exhausts itself through the fragility of a performing body that embodies human physical coexistence at its most vulnerable—takes place exactly within this system of production. Without facing this dialectic (between fragility and capitalization) that determines the materiality of performance today, we will continue running in immaterial circles.” (Cvejic, and Vujanovic 176)

It seems that some of the street art in the area provides a running commentary on these various components of the labor economy in east London, the relationship between art, media representation, and land value.
Holywell Ln. Shoreditch, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The street itself is worn down, and the walls are covered in graffiti and street art, providing a series of platitudes, critiques, self-conscious gestures to social media apparatuses of circulation and capture, and aphorisms that both challenge and reify the seeming "authenticity" of the place. "Endure and Adore each other," a wall in ESPO's style announces on Holywell Lane, "They Want to be on Walls but Forget to Walk the Path," "To be honest I only put this here hoping you would instagram it," "Dissent," all along Brick Lane.

Brick Lane Market, on Sundays, offers an intensification of this display of creativity, nostalgia for a kind of countercultural past, and commodification of the neobohemian space of the neighborhood. I offer two representative vignettes.  (1) Jimi Hendrix cover rocker, rocking dreds rather than an afro, playing a miniature foot-drum-set and electric guitar, holding a shifting crowd of thirty in a semicircle of attention seemingly fitting against the more dingy, grey, and industrial buildings. Two hours later as I walk back towards the musician I see a policeman speaking sternly to another musician south of Brick Lane. Like a cascade of energy musicians begin to pack up. A friend whisper in the first rocker's ear, he calmly finishes his set, shifts the change into his guitar case, and calls a little boy to help him move his hear, while managing to note "Thanks, love," as I drop change in before zipper is closed, and hell "hey Dude!" at a boy who looks about 10 who seems to be unrelated to the scene, to pull him into departure procedures, invisible connections made visible. (2) Walking back to Bethnal Green from the flower market. A few middle aged locals are slowly walking behind me. "Do you like bumbles?" a man in khaki asks to one of his compatriots. "I like bumbles, but I heard that they may disappear, but when they do, the world will stop." No one really responds and the rain drizzles slowly.

Street musician. Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Walking home in the evening I came upon a developer's advertisement for new office and condo space, which is quite on the nose. On Dufferin or Scutton or Epworth Street, it has a 1950s style black and white image of a woman in a wool suit, looking up, surprised, lips pursed, with neatly piled paper around her. "White Collar Factory," it announces, marking neatly (the desire) to serve a fully post-Fordist production class.

Derwent London, "White Collar Factory." Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
An advertisement for new property near Bishops Gate and Bethnal Green draws on similar rhetoric, boasting "Flexible space," for "creatives," neatly appropriating language of 1960s social movements for a mode of self stylization and economic life that reduces freedom to a rather privatized notion style, rather than redistribution and activation of public space.

The role of public art in Brick Lane, and here I include the musician as well as the street artists, provides a key lens through which to understand the ongoing practices of gentrification and domestication of bohemia. Richard Lloyd describes such spaces, where former working class and bohemian enclaves become capitalized and attractive precisely because of their "grit" as the workings of "neobohemia," and troublingly, suggests that the presence of marginalized populations; the homeless, drug addicts, and so forth, provide greater authenticity of the region.

Angela McRobbie considers the capitalization of art in London and explains:

“I will be suggesting that when the arts and culture per se, become the focal point for capitalization (the logic of late capitalism as Fredric Jameson famously put it), when culture broadly becomes absolutely imperative to economic policy and urban planning, when art is instrumentalized so that it begins to provide a model for working lives, and labor processes, and when government opens a Green Paper document as it did in 2001 with the words ‘Everyone is creative’, then it becomes apparent that what in the past was considered the icing on the cake, has now become a main ingredient of the cake (DCMS, 2001). And what had been in the past left to its own devices (subculture and style, or black expressive culture or the punk avant-garde) has been plucked, over the years, from obscurity, and is now promoted with tedious regularity under the prevailing logic of revival in the window spaces of Selfridges and Harrods almost every season, as a leading edge  feature of the UK’s contribution to the new global cultural economy.
Our imagined community and branded national identity now comes to be constituted through practices that are understood to be creative. This appellation is then deployed in policies which introduce such things as Creative Partnerships into schools across the country to incorporate a kind of third sector of education and training which is neither technical nor strictly academic and into which are slotted substantial numbers of young people. We still have no real idea of how this will work out on the longer term and what kinds of careers will develop, but this notion of creative education emerges as a modernizing and mobilizing strategy that will tap into young people’s existing attachment to arts, popular culture and contemporary media. This then is where the investment is being made, in a perceived immersion in and connection with the field
of media and culture.” (McRobbie 120-121)

When creative cities discourse is made central to urban life it also means that it is impossible to extricate considerations of precarity and citizenship from a consideration of the role that art plays in cities. It further suggests that it is perhaps in the realm of the aesthetic that possible resistance can arise. But it demands an art that elucidates networks of dependency and collectivity rather than pure individualism and the "flexibility" that erodes networks of intimacy, particularly by calling attention to the street and public space as a key mode for social making and becoming, but also marking the temporariness and temporality of such making. It offers the possibility that the aesthetic can become again an interruptive force. It may work, perhaps, as what Jon Pounds describes as a haunting elegy, marking the forms of life and production that have been written out by gentrification, like the bees, the creative buzzing of street art is a form that may soon become dessicated and dead, or lost. In one of the interior markets at Brick Lane market (also an important spatial distinction that seemed to hold out along class lines, the indoor markets were more expensive, more "artisan" flavored than the ones that were held in car lots closer to Bethnal green, more "art" and less "junk") a man was selling prints of sections of Brick Lane. One of them had a cartoonish image of a radio station, now gone. Highlighting the erased landscapes of rising property values through aesthetic production, one may hope that public arts can engineer a kind of haunted landscape. Or may not.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Urban Fixation and the Paradoxes of Affective Citizenship- A Tentative Travelogue Part 1

I am spending (spending an interesting term because if implies monetary expenditure, true, in this case, but also the unfolding of time) the next four weeks traveling around Western Europe, visiting major cities and visiting graffiti and street art sites. These two limit points for my itinerary, to which I can add Berlin and London to the list, offer an interesting panorama of the ways in which public art/street art/"creative" communities, create different entry points into city life.

My first observation is that such travel involves different levels of comfort and discomfort. The comfort of my social standing, a middle class bourgeois intellectual who has the freedom to travel, economic and social capital that enables me to be a mobile transcontinental subject. Pale skin that enables me to pass as white so that when I am in contact with police forces (border checkpoints, transit ticket check points, etc.) I am not a de-facto source of suspicion. 
Researcher/tourist body. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
A sense of belonging to art-intellectual circles that allow me to find conferences and salons, to recognize interview interlocutors in exhibitions oceans apart.
Paulo Nazarth. Cadernas de Africa. 2013. ICA London, 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

 Comfort imparted by my upbringing and situatedness in a Western and anglophone culture such that, when navigating the (new to me) networks of streets and transit points in a city like London, I still find maps relatively legible. Discomfort in being on the move, without a resting place, at the mercy of public restrooms, the weather, and parks to find recuperation, and relief. Coffee shop culture in Berlin and London that enables me to find small spaces to unwind and journal. Discomfort in aloneness (disrupted by the occasional coincidental run in with acquaintances and colleagues), being a single woman walking around at night, intensely aware of my bodily vulnerability that is magnified to different degrees in different spaces. Discomfort because, between jobs, meals must be brought with and consumed at fixed points, and walking is cheaper than the train, so a kind of endemic sweatiness. Discomfort that is far outweighed by social privilege.

Second, what makes cities seem welcoming, to me, is in fact their levels of visible creativity. Staying in Berlin, near Mauer Park, and visiting Kreuzberg Park, I put myself in regular contact with reputed bohemian locales. Instead of the smoothness of the central cities, I selected the textured spaces of South Berlin, spaces that are mashups of different times, spaces and inscriptions. In London, near Brick Lane, the scene is as important as the city itself as different artist types and intellectuals intensely work on the self-fashioning that enables them to present a certain "authentic" and DYI sensibility to the public. In this sense I am following an itinerary that exhibits an intense fidelity to Richard Florida's creative cities thesis, even as I wonder how, given its increasing scope and hold of cities, it may be resisted, not resisting creativity, per se, but a framework for creativity that divorces it from structures of support, reproduction, and maintenance that require state institutions, not a creativity that is seem to burst onto the scene, ex nihilo, and fully compatible with avaricious neoliberal regimes.

It is with these prominent reflections in the back of my mind that I attended two intellectual events, both reflecting on art's (or the aesthetic's) relationship to "community," or publics, or communities of practice. The first took place on Friday at London's Institute for Contemporary Art, one of their "Salon," sessions where artists, curators, and intellectuals gather for discussions. This particular session, titled "Gallery as Community," revisited a 2003 collected volume on the above theme. The four panelists offered reflections on two different projects. The first, a three-year long (so far, it continues) project where a peer group meets every six weeks for a full day to "make" together. The second, a ten-week project using art as a therapeutic vehicle for mothers in acute depression. The first, taking place at Gasworks, was described as facilitator Katie Orr and lead artist Albert Potrony as an experience of cultivating a "special language," intelligible to the group but not to outsiders, and cultivating a sense of attachment to the group that is based on the process of "thinking and making," a collective identity that is based on practice, not ascriptive identity. Some of the projects, artist and organizer suggested, involve acts of "bravery," doing things that are "silly" for the purpose of creating art. This tactical discomfort is a vehicle for building connections within the group, and making their works connect to outside spaces. The second project, articulated by Frances Williams and led by Lawrence Bradby, dealing with populations that are acutely suffering, taking place in very documented and institutional settings, seemed more about creating some space for expression, a kind of comfort or suspended space. Both projects, it seemed to me, were more about creating intimacy, the first, intimacy between strangers, the second, recuperating intimacy within families, than a more abstract commitment to the "public" as such. Lauren Berlant analyzes what she calls the Intimate Public Sphere(s) as spaces of affective attachment and investment that may not make direct claims on an institutional political, but also that the public sphere is a space of intimacy. 

The dialectic between comfort and discomfort and intimacy also emerged in a panel discussion at the London Critical Theory Conference at Goldsmith's College on Saturday. The panelists; Michael Lithgow, Helen Palmer, and Lucia Vodanovic, explored different ways that the aesthetic worked to defamiliarise (but also, in Michael's case study, create temporary spaces of comfort and familiarity. He spoke about a homeless festival in Montreal, État d’urgence, which ran from 1998 to 2010. At the festival binaries of inclusion/exclusion and comfort/discomfort are flipped (he draws on Rancière to make this argument, insofar as the homeless, provided with entertainment, food, warmth, are treated as spectators and audience members rather than victims, and the non homeless visitor is made to feel out of place, a condition that the homeless experience 365 days a year. Vodanovic discussed a 1960s-80s theatre in Kentish Town, called “Interaction,” which provided a “framework,” for interaction even as it was based on flexibility and ephemerality (Price, the architect, argued that buildings should not exceed 10 years, and argued for the theaters destruction). He also designed an unrealized project, Fun House, which worked as a kind of aspirational architecture. Dr. Palmer gave a brilliant talk about reading queer theory into Russian Futurism and Formalism, thinking "dynamic shiftology," through "queer defamiliarisation. I asked a question about the axis of comfort/discomfort and rhetorics of flexibility producing the kind of precarity that enables endemic homelessness. It made me think about how the pretty prevalent post-structural/contemporary imperatives in critical theory to make strange or uncomfortable dominant meanings can marginalize further those already on the margins. 

This is a roundabout way of raising two questions I am working out in the book manuscript version of the diss. First, in privileging engaging the discomfort that encounters with difference can incite as part of an ethic and politics of Affective Citizenship (a term I draw from Monica Mookherjee and expand in the second chapter of the dissertation on Mujeres en el Arte), it further magnifies how the language of flexibility, adaptability, and discomfort used to discuss a politics of difference in some way mirrors the imperatives used to justify precarious social and economic arrangements. Second, in the context of marginalized identities, discomfort is not novel but rather an endemic condition. Lithgow illustrated this nicely in suggesting that the homeless festival, in creating an exceptional space of comfort for the endemically uncomfortable, also does powerful work in undoing the presumptive comfort of non homeless populations. It raises, however, the need to distinguish, and say discomfort for whom, and to what degree? I think that Luce Irigaray's work on wonder, an ethic of the making strange, and "seeing as always for the first time," anticipates this objection by tying wonder to the production of the interval, a kind of spatial but also perhaps subjective buffer zone that projects the subject (particularly the marginalized subject) from constant incursion. Strange, but in a suspended sense, not a violent sense. Moreover, Palmer's invocation of a queer defamiliarization, and the late Jose Munoz's work on queer futurity (Emily Cram's thought provoking piece here reminded me of this connection) also can work to resist the reappropriation of defamiliarization for precarious/neoliberal ends by emphasizing the need for imaginaries of horizons to come. The temporariness of the defamiliarizing aesthetic event contains within it the aspiration for a kind of recreation (although with a difference), an anticipation or expectation that does not cut all ties to the known, creation of kind of comfort or belonging that may defamiliarize or challenge the comfort of dominant publics. Anna Hickey Moody suggested in response to my query that the existence of ephemeral models of aesthetic practice such as Price's Interaction building that existed alongside guarantees for sustenance (actor stipends, shared meals, etc.), is a historically specific mode of ephemeral or defamiliarizing politics, one that has lost, or is losing its bearings.

To evoke an affect citizenship that affirms the ephemeral, the wondrous, and the strange, then is not a de facto call for discomfort, but rather, a call to engage in practices of intimate publicity that challenge given distributions of comfort and belonging that push already marginalized populations to the margins. It also raises a call to be skeptical (and this is symptomatic in my own work) of romanticizing the city as the ideal site of politics, a claim that elides the fact that processes of urbanization continually erase and do violence to non-urban lanscapes, violence that continues to wreak havoc on rural and indigenous populations, dramatically performed in the current show "Red Forest" by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Young Vic (which is complicated, aesthetically and politically, and subject for a much longer essay). So it is with these thoughts in mind that I continue thinking about affective citizenship, comfort, discomfort, and precarity. It is also a reminder that narratives of density and emptiness, urban and rural, can bleed into one another: in the same way that a freight train graffitied in central Berlin makes its way to rural Germany, and vice versa, narratives of quiet, non-anonymity, and the agrarian can take place in intensely urban settings (notably, interviewing Balu, a co-organizer for MOS Germany, he discussed at length the beauty of the Walle(spelling unsure) region of Germany, where he lives in a village of 78; knows the cows that make his milk; appreciates the total darkness of the night; and receives intense feedback and cake from elderly neighbors about the little wall he paints in the public square).

Friday, June 20, 2014

Social Movements Theory and MOS Germany: From Confrontation to Agonism

Young spectator watching Statik (Chicago) at work. MOS Germany 2014. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Robert S. Cathcart’s “Movements: Confrontation as Rhetorical Form,” 1978, is a touchstone in rhetorical studies of social movements. In this germinal piece he forwards his definition of social movements as

confrontational form…movements are a kind of ritual conflict whose most distinguishing form is confrontation…I will use confrontation to mean that form of human behavior labeled ‘agonistics,’ i.e. pertaining to ritual conflicts. Confrontation is a symbolic display acted out when one is in the throes of agon. It is a highly dramatistic form; for every ritual has a moral aspect, expressing, mobilizing social relationships, confining or altering relationships, maintaining a reciprocal and mutual balancing system. Agonistic ritual is redressive. It is a means of reaffirming loyalties, testing and changing them or offering new ones to replace old loyalties, always expressed in a kind of muted symbolic display designed to elicit a symbolic response which changes attitudes and values without major and unlimited conflict. Confrontation as an agonistic ritual is not a prelude to revolution or warfare but is a ritual enactment that dramatizes the symbolic separation of the individual from the existing order.” (102-103)

There is much here. In Cathcart’s formation, he defines movements based on form, meaning symbolic enactments, and the form that social movements take is confrontational. He defines confrontation as a symbolic display of being separate or outside the “existing order,” and is a practice of agonism. Such displays impact relationships, subsequently expanding, contracting, and reordering them. As such, it offers a performance of the malleability and contingencies of collective identifications and formations through ritual displays. Four elements are immediately striking: (1) his emphasis on the symbolic or performative element of social change as “ritual enactment,” involving an aesthetic that is repeatable and recognizable; (2) his use of the language of agonistics to define confrontation; (3) the essentially public, social, and ultimately affective nature of such performances, engagements that recalibrate affinities and attachments in ways that are collective as well as individual; and (4) that such confrontation is defined retroactively, based on its level of distance or resistance to the “existing order.”

The first element of his definition, that social movements are ultimately dramatistic or performative, is not a controversial claim. Drawing on Kenneth Burke’s theories of dramatism, particularly as they are articulated by Leland Griffin, Cathcart repeats what continues to be a commonplace in rhetorical studies. Human beings are symbol-wielding animals. Therefore, demands for material transformation take place within the register of symbols. Thus, Cathcart distinguishes, such confrontation is not “instrumental” rather it is a “consummatory form essential to a movement.” (103) By “consummatory” we can understand Cathcart to be gesturing to the constructive/constitutive nature of social movement enactments, a theme taken up intensely in Maurice Charland’s work on the peuple quebeçois, and uptake of that key piece.

The second element of Cathcart’s definition, that social movements are agonistic, or confrontational, has perhaps received the most theoretical attention among the other elements of his definitions, and offers much to scholars who work in radical democracy theory.** Later in the piece he distinguishes between “managerial” and “confrontational” forms the rhetoric; the former being system-maintaining and ubiquitous, and other being system rejecting and relatively rare (Cathcart 104) Such a scarcity-based definition of previews later political theory debates about the relative immanence or eventual nature of politics (Derrida); democracy (Sheldon Wolin’s account of democracy/politics as liminal); agonism, antagonism, and deliberation (Arendt, Mouffe, Honig, Connolly, Schmitt, Nietzsche); as well as debate in rhetorical studies about the relative similarities and differences between counterpublics and social movements (Counterpublics and the State 2001 as well as a special issue in Critical Cultural Studies offers some important engagements with this theme).

The third element, that such performances of confrontation shift alliances, relationships, and affiliations, implies an affective element to social movements, one that works on the level of investment, cathexis, attachment, identification, and disidentification. It occupies a vexing place in relationship to the final element of his definition, that such confrontation exists or does not exist regarding its difference from the “existing order,” particularly because the cartography and temporality of such collective identifications and disidentifications is messy. In perhaps the most generative element of his piece, Cathcart admits to this difficulty in his definition of the status quo as a shifting and evolving terrain of social relations. It is a dynamic definition that admits (an insight that counterpublic theory lends to social movement theory) to the attention bound and thus ephemeral nature of collective attachments and identifications. Cathcart observes:

“We must be aware that when we talk of society, or the establishment, or the system, we are talking about a dynamic, ever[-]changing collection of groups. In one sense every group activity within society is a movement but in antoher and more important sense the ever-evolving, changing society is the status quo. What the rhetorical critic of movements must be concerned with then is not definitions [of movements]…which describe the dynamic status quo, i.e., the [activities] which give it its dynamism, but definitions which describe those collective behaviors which cannot be accommodated within the normal [motion] of the status quo.” (Cathcart 105)

“The system,” then is a constantly evolving constellation of groups and affinities. The status quo is movement. Given this premise, how does one distinguish between the ongoing movements that make up the status quo and social movements? Are they one and the same? Cathcart answers this concern with reference to that which is excluded. Even though the status quo is a dynamic space of becoming, that which cannot be “accommodated,” or brought within the ambit of normal(ized) processes, is what should draw the attention of rhetorical critics of social movements.

This is a very Rancièrean definition of the status quo. The part that has no part is what gives us a clue about the nature of our historical present. Moreover, those who identify with the status quo participate in ongoing practices “keeping of the secret,” Burke’s formulation for the forms of communication that “accept the mystery…preserve the hierarchy” that exists in the status quo through“rhetoric[s] of piety” that accepts the given as the proper and the morally right (105).

We come to the fourth element of Cathcart’s definition when he insists that genuine social movements  leverage rhetorics of “impiety,” (cathcart) that challenge the moral rightness of the existing order, and launch displays of resistance that force those in power to engage in coercive or violent practices that puts on display power’s social construction and contingency thus a “challenge to its legitimacy”(108).

Here, however, Cathcart’s nuanced characterization of the status quo begins to become calcified and threatens to simplify the processes of developing public discontent, as well as the forms of relationality that come into being through displays of resistance. This model of confrontation uses the terms “good and evil” as its founding coordinates, and gestures to longing for transcendence on the part of those who resist “the system.” His dynamic status quo has become reduced to a monolithic system with clear boundaries. Social movements become less about movement as such and more about rearranging puzzle pieces. He suggests that confrontational rhetoric works along a model of simple disruption, yelling “STOP!” (107), which presumes that languages using negation can maintain their exteriority to logics of domination, and that the only reactions available from the state is “polarization” and “radical division” (109). Such state-centric analysis of power neglects how capitalism has become quite good at drawing on the language of revolution. Straightforward claims of exteriority, difference, and disruption, are something that can be integrated into consumer identity and capitalist practice.

Nevertheless, I think that Cathcart’s own formulation as confrontation as agonism provides the resources to resist such simplifications. If conflict is defined by agonism, rather than antagonism, this implies an ongoing play of forces that is generative and non teleological. If confrontation enables us to better “understand the role of man as symbol maker and user,” Cathcart’s use of the term previews contemporary debates about division and disidentification (109) presciently. His dynamic status quo anticipates some of the complexity of contemporary social movemetns, such as Occupy, where there were moments of clear confrontation between the police and protesters, but also much more elongated scenes of dwelling, conviviality, and practices of everyday life that did not offer clear demands nor articulated claims to “STOP” the system as such.

In a recent research trip I attended the Meeting of Styles Germany graffiti festival. Held near Wiesbaden (just outside of Frankfurt) at the Mainz-Kastel underpass near the S-Bahn station, it is an event that has been going on since 2000 and commemorates an initially confrontational relationship between graffiti writers and the state. The festival came out of a paint jam that organizer Manuel and a cohort of other artists and urban residents planned to protest the impending destruction of the Schochthof, a slaughterhouse, turned deportation site, turned abandoned set of buildings, turned quasi legal graffiti site and bohemian location. Called at the time Wall Street festival, conflicts between writers and federal police escalated into rock throwing, the threat of riot police being sent in, all spotlighted by a helicopter. Given this outburst, graffiti was further demonized, the Schlochthof was largely destroyed, and the festival was renamed  "Meeting of Styles," and moved to Mainz-Kastel. Nevertheless, even in its contemporary form, it is framed by organizer Manuel as a political performance “culture over commerce,” resisting the “frames” put in place by a system that wishes to promote consumption over happiness. Despite such polemical language, the festival event itself is not a particularly polemical scene. 

Instead, it is eagerly anticipated by a large number of Wiesbaden and Mainz-Kastel residents, many of whom have no personal connection to graffiti culture; it is supported by the U.S. embassy; and it is a municipal council sanctioned happening, taking place on permission walls. If we accept that the graffiti movement in Wiesbaden is a social movement, one based on criticizing a property-based model for public space and consumption oriented approach to social relations, it is one that is perhaps more agonistic in its classical sense than in Cathcart’s later reduction of conflict to that which inspires state backlash or resistance. 
Enthralled spectators at MOS Germany. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

As Debbie Hawhee notes, “Rather, the root meaning of agôn is "gathering" or "assembly." (185) More than competition with victory as it goal. As a space for assembly in which a variety of styles are put on display by different artists, there is playful competition, aesthetic contrasts, and reflections on a meta theme, but there is not a specific victory that is desired. Hawhee explains that in athletic competitions it is not just athlios that takes place, but also “training and production of a rhetorical subject.” (186) At the Meeting of Styles festival graffiti audiences and producers are brought into being together as non graffiti writing publics are educated and put into contact with the art, and as artists receive the experience of engaging with, dialoging, and performing for a visible public in real-time (quite distinct from the more câché nocturnal practices that illegal graffiti writing requires).

Here I will quote Hawhee at length:

Taking seriously rhetoric’s emergence in the context of the agôn requires a reconfiguration of rhetoric as an agonistic encounter. That is, for the sophists at least, agonism produces rhetoric as a gathering of forces—cultural, bodily, and discursive, thus problematizing the easy portrayal of rhetoric as telos-driven persuasion or as a means to reach consensus. As a result, the sophistic rhetorical exemplar was the athlete in action. Perhaps the stranger in Plato’s Sophist said it best hwen he dubbed the typical sophist ‘an athlete in the contest of words’ (agônistikês peri logous ên tis athlêtês) (231e). This statement figures sophists as athletes: same style of performance, different venue (words rather than wrestling or boxing). As such, I will argue, it was a peculiarly ethletic—or, to invoke Nietzsche—Olympic notion of agonism that functioned as an important shaper of early rhetorical practice and pedagogy. (186)

Moments of agonistic confrontation are subject-making not just clashes of ideology. I suggest that Cathcart’s account of the status quo or the system as a system in movement provides more richness to this understanding, that social movements are particularly visible, ritual, or stylized performances of the an ongoing and moving social. The space of the social is one of continuous education, self-creation, and cultivation, and so moments of confrontation are just particularly dense agglomerations of force.

At Meeting of Styles Germany a visitor can see concentrations of new or old affiliations in the easy greetings exchanged with old friends, and tentative but curious experiments in collaboration with new companions.* The underpass walls of the Brückhopf, the bridge head, have magnetic force in drawing human beings towards them, serving as a space for conversation, creation, imbibing different kinds of substances, inhaling paint, embraces, and teasing.

Stigma One (LA). He often sings and chats while working, and engaged in teasing banter about his speed. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The novice writer can visit the festival and learn the forms of address, of dress, and techniques that produce different kinds of images. The unknowing spectator can become appraised of some of the difficulties of making particular images; patience requires in creating a vast production; and the skill involved in generating innovative representations within a field of competing images. 
Spectators. MOS Germany 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

One can observe the ingrained physical habits and bodily capacities that are required to produce fine or thick lines: following the movement of the line with the hand, the wrist, the arm, the head, knees bent and attentive.

Zore64 (Chicago). The habitus of the outline. MOS Germany 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Or the balance used to paint ten meters above the ground on a thin ladder balanced against a precarious wall. Such displays of virtuosity, or aretê, (Hawhee 187) combine the aesthetic and the ethical in a public space.

The agôn of breakdancing. MOS Germany, 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Hawhee notes of aretê: Aretê was thus not a telos, but rather a constant call to action that produced particular habits. As a repeated/repeatable style of living, aretê was therefore a performative, bodily phenomenon, depending on visibility—on making manifest qualities associated with virtuosity. As such, it was produced through observation, imitation, and learning.” (187)

These habitual motions are also accompanied by varying emotions: the drudgery of buffing a wall, the joy of applying thick swatches of color with a fat cap, the focus and attention required to execute complex layering, and the gentle competition between writers, some faster or slower than others. These public displays of engrained habits that are put to use for the beautification of public space make visible a form of civic participation that happens in a register of everyday life rather than formalized political transactions.
Statik and admirers. MOS Germany 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The festival offers a ritual performance of a community of practice that achieves emotional and social fulfillment through creativity, the easy occupation of public space, and collective imagination, rather than simple consumption. Although the police are more likely there to visit the walls than the prosecute writers, the underpasses that make up the majority of the festival gesture to the continuing underground status of many parts of the art form.

If we reimagine confrontation as agonism, as space of assembly that has ritual forms that takes place within an evolving status quo it no longer must be a moral stand off between good and evil, but rather exemplifies and makes visible the complex processes of transformation and the passage of time that takes place as a cultural form becomes more visible to a broader public. In its increasing generality, graffiti in Wiesbaden offers different public values and norms in a manner that is subtle, and gradual.


Debra Hawhee, “Agonism and Arete”Philosophy and Rhetoric
Volume 35, Number 3, 2002 , pp. 185-207 | 10.1353/par.2003.0004.
* Karma Chávez's work on enclaves and oscillation in social movements. See: Chávez, Karma R. "Counter-public enclaves and understanding the function of rhetoric in social movement coalition-building." Communication Quarterly 59.1 (2011): 1-18.
** I'm early in the lit review stages on Cathcart's uptake though happy for suggestions. Already looking at Poulakos' work on the sophists and agonism, interested in other suggestions