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 

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