Histories, Aesthetics and Cultures of Dissent
Edited By Ben Dorfman
Ben Dorfman - Refractions: Dissent and Memory
By Way of Introduction…
Ours hasn’t been the only good time to write about dissent. The concept has broken like waves across Western history—1215, 1517, 1642, 1776, 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1968, 1989 are all dates incomprehensible without the “no.” In his well-known “Ten Theses on Politics,” e.g., Jacques Rancière (2010, 42) notes dissensus—a related yet distinct concept—as “the manifestation of a distance of the sensible from itself.” Stephen Corcoran (2010, 2), interpreting Rancière’s work, suggests dissensus as not the “institutional overturning” we’d usually expect, but “an activity [cutting] across forms of cultural and identity belonging and hierarchies between discourses and genres.” It’s a mouthful. Still, Corcoran might be right: dissensus brings new identities and ideas into historical space. Dissensus elucidates “new subjects and heterogeneous objects” and their function on the “field of perception” (Corcoran 2010, 2). Whether it’s politically limited monarchs, Protestantism qua religious movement, democracy as the basis for the state, the beginnings or ends of socialism or the development of counter-cultural movements, it’s clear that meaningful social phenomena and groundbreaking ideas have been products of dissent. As Rancière argues, processes of negotiating difference over time bring irruptions into the historical fabric; things take different directions than they otherwise would. I—we— keep the “t” in “dissent,” however, to remove senses of temporality (“dissensus” as opposed to “consensus,” somehow—elongated processes of negotiation). Dissent is a moment; an act. It’s a putting up of a hand and stopping things in their tracks. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein (2003) has posed dissent as not always “doing what others do.” It seems to me, anyway, to be a good place to start.
Recent years have been filled with dissent. Generation X’ers will find it hard not to remember the dramatic events of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Momentum built slowly: Soviet dissidents in the ‘60s and ‘70s, movements like Charter 77, Poland’s Solidarity, and intellectuals based around journals like the Hungarian Demokrata. These challenged the solidity of Eastern regimes that, truth be told, may never have been as solid as they might have either liked or seemed. 1989 broke like water through a dam, though—a tide flow of happenings washing over and under authoritarianism’s gates, begging for the renewal of systems whose foundations had become arid ground. From protestors on both sides of ← 11 | 12 → the Berlin Wall shouting “Die Mauer muss weg!” to demonstrators jingling keys on Prague’s Wenceslas Square to the hissing down of Ceausescu in Bucharest’s Palace Square—to say nothing of events in China in the spring of that year—it was hard not to be impressed by the “no” leveled at ranges of monolithic regimes both within the West and without. The barricades in front of the Russian parliament in the summer of ‘91 may have been a capstone—the violent end to a form of politics (“real existing socialism”) born out of opposition (to capitalism) yet which came to quell opposition as much as it supported it in its supposed opposition to a capitalistically mind washed mainstream. Meanings were unclear. Was communism a “defective form of recognition,” as Francis Fukuyama (1992, xix) posed it? Were regimes founded in radical critique destined for totalitarian ends? Perhaps so. Still, the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated that people could bring change. That was regardless of the state, set of ideas, or particular political system against which people might pose themselves.
In many ways, these halcyon days unfortunately evaporated quickly. Postmodern malaise set in, and at least some have claimed we moved quickly towards cultures of apathy (Jacoby 1999; Jameson 1991).1 More than a few commentators have noted that the remaking of the “world order” (Huntington 1996) involved senses that the battles of dissent had been won. Opposition seemed to have done its chore and neo-liberal values simply became “correct” (Hobsbawm 1990). Of course one could choose between more laissez-faire American models and more social-democratic European approaches: the “third way,” as Anthony Giddens (1998) phrased it—capitalism with a human face—was open to more than one interpretation. Still, one could rest. The barricades could come down. In the name of any ideology, there would be scant reason they should be put up again.
Still, dissent persisted. “Globalization” became a new locus of critique and the “Battle in Seattle” (1999) brought demonstrable levels of political conflict to the homeland of the Pax Americana. That’s while protests from Genoa to Göteborg in 2001—the early days of “altermodernity” (Hardt and Negri 2009)—marked the fact that not everyone accepted the new modes of socio-political management. Flows of borderless finance, multi- and international monetary institutions (the WTO, IMF and World Bank, primarily), senses that neo-liberal ideas should rule the roost unchecked and often opaque networks of global political power gained question—radically so (Zweifel 2006; Thompson 2010). The focus was on anything not conforming to “democratic norms” or offering itself to popular review (Teivainen 2008, 174). Still, an even greater wave of protests lay on the horizon. ← 12 | 13 → Here, I point to everything from Occupy to phenomena like Spain’s Indignados to Brazil’s Revolta da Vacina to anti-austerity movements almost anywhere austerity set in (see Agustín and Jørgensen 2015). Between the first wave of globalizationskeptical protests and a second, we gained an early twenty-first century interrogation of whether we had things arranged the way we (“we”—a global polity) wanted. Swathes of interlaced movements asked if global society had established socio-economic systems it not only took as just, but which were just in more than just the subjective sense of whether one imagines them to be or not.2
Now, regarding the more recent of these movements, Indignados, Occupy, and Revolta and other iterations of recent movements petitioning for social justice, financial crisis played a significant role. The 2007–8 burst of the American housing bubble depressed the world economy and brought hardship virtually everywhere the flows global finance went. This made income disparity and “fat cats” hot topics in Europe, America and many places beyond (Taibbi 2014; della Porta 2015 [indeed, “fat cats” and income disparity are major themes in the current American election cycle (Gearan 2015; Chozick 2015)]). More than economics mark what might be thought of as a second wave of early twenty-first century dissent, however. The world was wowed by the Arab Spring and Middle East protests between 2010 and 2013, e.g., as, from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria, discontent with the state of civil liberties, the entrenchment of dictatorial regimes but also, curiously, the desire to advance varieties of religious perspectives (“fundamentalism” is the easier word) brought down some regimes, caused self-reflection in others, and engendered still-unresolved civil wars in yet more (Lesch and Haas 2012; Moaddel and Karabenick 2013). Clearly, there are debates over the meaning of events like 9/11 or the bombings in London and Madrid; events marking the turn into the new century. There are similarly important discussions concerning the recent murder of cartoonists and editors at Charlie Hebdo and the attempted assassination in Copenhagen of Swedish illustrator Lars Vilks.3 Such events reveal a civilizational clash that is more than skin deep. When forces clash, however, implicit is always a “no.” Distasteful though we might find certain modes of ← 13 | 14 → expression—and when it comes to the killing and threatening of artists and illustrators, distasteful they are—somebody is saying they don’t like something. Indeed, somebody has indicated that they’re not satisfied with the current conditions of global power. As Tom Rockmore (2011, 108) has put it, the push back against the West fits into a triangulation of mindsets—anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism—with significant presence in the second half of the twentieth century (see also Tibi 2002). Of course, those forms of dissent have garnered dissent themselves. The demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo killings are an example. Political leaders and broad populaces struck back against religio-political violence; demonstrations were broad and counter voices clear. Dissent, it seems, emerges where power flows. Dissent characterizes disputes over norms, worldviews and their institutionalization. That’s even when worldviews are undergirded by the means to defend them and it’s posited that it’s dangerous if we don’t. I.e., dissent can involve opposition to entrenched global power, but also its securitization as well.4
One could go on ad infinitum about recent sites of dissent. Sometimes, dissent is worn as a badge. Dissent becomes a sit of memorialization—that whether we discuss the heroes of civil rights, the pioneers of women’s liberation or those risking all to fight Apartheid and the oppression of the poor (figures from Martin Luther King to Emmaline Pankhurst to Nelson Mandela to Cesar Chavez would be examples). Figures like Malala Yousafzai have become global celebrities protesting cultures of gender oppression in the developing world (Chozick 2015; Doeden 2015); voices such as Avijit Roy’s have challenged us to broaden senses of the free speech/“clash of civilizations” paradigm beyond the “West” versus the “rest” (i.e., conflicts can be specific, regional and local as well [Dorfman 2016]). Potentially, one can dissent in silence. For example, if—if—we accept the 9/11 attacks, gruesome as they were, as a mode of protest, much of that was done quietly. Preparation was massive and covert. Years of subtle planning were involved. A flame of anger had to be long-stoked to create what may have been the early twenty-first century’s defining event (Zarembka 2011; Calvert 2010). Still, results had to be seen. Statements had to be made. Voices of dissent needed to be heard and sights of it encountered. Concepts had to resonate and marks needed to be made in space and time. Dissent always has to pull its head over the surface and become known. ← 14 | 15 →
We’re thus confronted with consciousness of dissent. We’re confronted with knowing dissent: auralizing it, visualizing it, addressing it; contemplating its presentation and forms. We’re confronted by dissent’s figuration—how dissent is put together, its modes of reception and knowledge about it cycles. Dissent winds through imaginations and plays in our views. Again, we know this. National narratives are formed around the importance of dissent. Every national independence is formed for “us” and against “others” (others often assumed to have the dominant position against which one dissents [de Buitrago 2012]). Constitutions have been born out of dissent—American and French democracy are primary examples of this. Democratic systems are built around and experience dissent themselves. That’s as voice and counter-voice are part of liberal systems (see Rawls 1993), yet sometimes some wonder if liberal systems are what constitutes the best politics for all. “It’s dangerous to be right in matters in which established authorities are wrong,” Voltaire once said (1779, lxxxiii). Such are the sentiments infusing acts of “not doing what the others do.” That’s whether such acts are contemporary or historical, easy to see or, from time to time, demanding a bit more squinting so one can discern what’s being dissented against, or the many fine dots on the global fabric where dissent is taking place.
We thus need to refract dissent. We have to see it and play with it like glass in a kaleidoscope or binoculars training on a ship we see from afar. We have to turn dissent into memory, engaging it as a practice playing out in a wide variety of locales, through many concepts and in accordance with an array of scripts. Dissent brings stories from multiple angles with few geographical bounds and out of multifarious socio-cultural traditions. Dissent can encompass American Tea Partiers decrying what they see as Washington’s betrayal of libertarian principles—a supposed homage to the foundations of the republic yet expression of discontent with senses of franchise now. Dissent can include poet-artistes like Amiri Baraka angling against structures of racism any way they can. Dissent can be reproductions of censored publications, such as the samizdat of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states, circulating quietly yet always in danger of capture and destruction. Dissent can include “angry young architects” and the countercultural postures of youth and intellectualism in Queensland universities in late 1960s and early 1970s. Dissent questions “existential” sensibilities, such as the conceptualization of opposition in literary and philosophical oeuvres like Jean-Paul Sartre’s. Dissent includes the handling of resistance narratives such as those surrounding “Operation Anthropoid”—the action that killed Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia in 1942. As an issue, dissent can shine through in our expectation that public figures engaging international politics will play the role of sage-like intellectuals—that ← 15 | 16 → while we sometimes revile those engaged with the edges of critical thought at any rate. Dissent can support dictatorial regimes and oppose them, as happened with student dissent in Indonesia in the 1960s and ‘70s.
This book engages all of these issues and more. A selection of papers from a 2014 conference, Dissent! Refracted involves broad senses of how diverse the world of not “doing like the others” both can be and is. The current volume incorporates some of dissent’s headline themes—dissidence in the now-defunct socialist world, the dissenting philosopher and the memory of reactions to Zeitgeist-defining upheavals such as the cultural battles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, e.g. The book also strays from more-discussed paths, investigating the diverse sites and multiple modes of memory involved in not only in the recollection of dissident “no’s,” but understanding the processes of institutionalization and memorialization of the “no’s” that have often come from our lips. This book is not a theoretical treatise. It presents views of dissent and varieties of its historical, cultural and philosophical refraction (i.e., it largely analyses different dissenting situations). Still, in accepting a wide range of politicized, counter-cultural, non-conformist, anti-imperialist, minority vocalizations and anti-hegemonic acts as part of not “doing what the others do,” it offers a range of views on what dissent might be. Terry Eagleton (2003, 263) notes that one needn’t be “besieged on all sides” to dissent. Powerful institutions and individuals can pose themselves as “dissenters” as much as minorities and outsiders. Still, dissent hovers over us as a figure—an idea, desire, and a want many of us engage. That’s at the same time we’re not always exactly sure how, or even why, we feel the urge to dissent that it often appears we do.
The first essay in this book, “The History, Utility, and Paradoxes of Dissent: From State to Global Action,” by Barbara Falk, perhaps serves as a better introduction to the issue than has been provided here. Based on her wide-ranging scholarship in history, political theory, and international politics, Falk takes a broad view of dissent, moving through historical and contemporary instances of dissent’s articulation and consideration. With stylistic clarity, Falk offers the view that there’s no such thing as an uncritical view of dissent. Every oppositional action deserves to be critiqued as much as the objects of dissent themselves. This offers dissent as a multi-sided, open ended affair. It’s fecund; dissent feeds off itself and demands we challenge expectations. In the end, though, Falk sides with Hannah Arendt. Politics isn’t a separate sphere of life. Politics is life. Life can’t breathe without the necessary oxygen of dissent and free thought. Falk offers broad insight into the multiple pathways dissent has taken in relation to a range of issues both familiar and unique, close to our own times as well as distant from the historical spaces we often consider our own. ← 16 | 17 →
The next essay, Barbara Martin’s “History as Dissent: Independent Historians in the Late Soviet Era and Post-Soviet Russia: From ‘Pamiat’’ to ‘Memorial’ ” picks up an issue likely both familiar and unfamiliar to general readers: the question of dissident historians in the Soviet Union. The trope of dissenting intellectuals in the USSR in the second half of the twentieth century is familiar. It’s a central part of Cold War narratives—oppressive socialist systems and unconventional thinkers yearning to be free. What may be less-known is the specific figure of the historian. The mid- to late-Cold War USSR represented an era rich in dissent; from Solzhenitsyn to Sakharov to the “refuseniks.” The 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s provided headline names for global rights and the need for diverse thought. Martin, however, confronts an issue that has only begun to gain momentum: the fate of historians as indicative of countries’ relation with political memory. Addressing Pamiat’ and Memorial—the former a publication, the latter an organization—Martin articulates notions of legacy and public discourse central to this book.
The third essay, Bent Sørensen’s “Dissent as Race War: The Strange Case of Amiri Baraka,” addresses a similar period—the middle to late twentieth century. Sørensen shifts the scenery to America, however, where questions of what it meant to resist, perhaps especially for the Afro-American community, persist and continue to be asked. Baraka—LeRoi Jones in his first manifestation—was a controversial figure. The creator of the Black Arts Movement and author of controversial works such as Dutchman (1964), Baraka’s career reads like a résumé of the travails and victories of Black radicalism—challenging race conventions, teetering off the beaten path sometimes towards the offensive and sometimes coming home to more “acceptable” politics; all the while asking what those politics may be. Baraka’s was a life spent challenging the boundaries of the society that surrounded him, yet reconciling with those boundaries as well. Sørensen deals with all of this. Baraka, Sørensen suggests, was the dissenter: the necessity of critique was Baraka’s raison d’être and the primary lens through which he should be read. It’s a point Sørensen tells us we shouldn’t forget as race continues to be a central American issue even as memories of Baraka specifically might begin to fade.
The book stays in the U.S. with Hasmet Uluorta’s “The Tea Party: An Ethical All-American Performance.” Two points are worth noting here. First, dissent is not only “left-wing.” Conservative appeals to the “nation” can be dissent, or at least be posed as such. Secondly, dissent involves psychological structures. Using a Lacanian analysis, Uluorta suggests Tea Partiers establish an “ethical All-American”: a point of irrefutable appeal intended to overcome general problems with identification and social belonging central to general publics regardless of their politics and how they’re posed. It’s a complex yet relevant thesis addressing ← 17 | 18 → battles for mainstream norms. Today, these battles dominate ongoing discussions in the U.S. media and public as electoral pluralities work through the turmoil of both their representative bodies and electoral cycles in which they will soon again decide on a head of state.
The book stays on the terrain of what might be posed as “non-traditional” histories of dissent with Stephanie Sapiie’s “Intellectual Identity and Student Dissent in Indonesia in the 1970s.” Sapiie takes us to a little discussed locale, at least for many Western audiences, in the boilerplate of Indonesian politics during the transformational period of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Again, we see an emphasis on the fact that dissent can emerge from more than just the left. As in Uluorta’s piece, nationalists—conservative nationalists—are loci of dissent. On one hand, Sapiie argues, anti-Communism informed the early activism of student dissenters in Indonesia in the 1960s. However, there came a focus on intellectual production as the center of political discourse and activist expression. In this context, the Suharto regime tried to control dissenters as much as support them—support being an early key to the regime’s success. The complexities of dissent and its relations with the state, Sapiie argues, bears remembrance in our own time.
For pieces five and six, we branch off into two further articles considering dissent from quite different angles. In “Angry Young Architects: Counterculture and the Critique of Modernism in Brisbane, 1967–1972,” Janina Gosseye and John Macarthur narrate the experience of a specific example of the countercultural world in its salad days in the 1960s and ‘70s: architectural students from Australia’s University of Queensland and their debates over aesthetics, politics, and the intersections between the two. This examples introduces an unusual dissent narrative. That’s not in the sense that art and design students might be caught up in counter-culture. Such things were hardly unheard of in the years of “tune in, turn on and drop out.” It’s more in the sense of framing political ideas within the considerations of aesthetic theory and the challenges to artistic convention occurring in countercultural forms important to the history of the late twentieth century. Through Gosseye and Macarthur’s work, we understand a specific moment of dissent in a crucial era for the concept. We gain a sense of how the macrocosm of late-‘60s and early-‘70s counterculture manifested itself in more microcosmic senses.
Verita Sriratana, in her essay “ ‘But That is Perhaps Why I Can Talk of Where I Want to be Without Always Being Dragged Back to My Starting Point’: Rethinking and Re(-)Membering Czech and Slovak Histories of Violence and Dissidence through the Historical ‘Infranovel,’ ” also picks up on aesthetic issues. Sriratana addresses the representation and narrativization of dissent in relation to a quite different problem, however: Operation Anthropoid, or the Czech assassination ← 18 | 19 → of Heydrich. That’s as discussed in Larent Binet’s novel HHhH (2010). HHhH provides an account of the assassination interspersed with observations of the author’s subjective writing and research processes. Sriratana makes several important points. Yes, dissent comes through political action. Though bringing massive reprisals, Heydrich’s assassination was an important blow in the European-wide resistance to Nazi rule. There is no dissent without representation, however, and the narrative forms of dissent’s depiction need to be thought through as carefully as anything else associated with the act. Binet’s novel, and Sriratana’s treatment of it, directly addresses such issues.
“Intellectuals and Dissent: Dennis Rodman, Memory Refractor,” written by the current author, is this book’s eighth essay, and it moves in different directions. Blending scholarship with feuilleton, this piece addresses the case of former American basketball star Dennis Rodman on his recent visits to North Korea. A bizarre affair, the issue butts against the themes of this book in two ways. First, the history of the intellectual, from Voltaire on, is decidedly bound to notions of dissent. Critique is expected as part of the intellectual’s purview and, strangely enough, “intellectual” is what it seems many wanted Rodman to be—a social commentator “properly” involved in world affairs. It’s an expectation he would disappoint. Secondly, in our expectations of him, the controversy around Rodman’s North Korea visit evokes ghosts and names from times when politics, ideology and social philosophy was the stuff of mortal combat and positions on such things were popularly expected and mattered. Those are times problematizing the morality of dissent and what to do when we see the sunbeam of “intellectual dissent” past, yet it’s bent to the left or right, as all beams of light necessarily are. Rodman becomes a strange locale for sensing history among us, yet, or simultaneously, asking what it is we want our historical figures to be.
The book concludes with Kalle Pihlainen’s essay “Jean-Paul Sartre and the Post-1968 Ethic of Anti-Representationalism.” Here, Pihlainen takes us onto the intellectual terrain of one of the twentieth century’s great dissidents: Sartre, perhaps the grand don of “no” in the name of liberation and the intoxicating possibilities of counterculture. In the process of remembering dissent, Pihlainen argues, we again remember how closely the act is bound to intellectual figures and philosophical thoughtways. Dissent is the narrative we think it is; it’s the romance of the radical against the machine. Pihlainen, however, describing a particular break in the history of Sartre’s thought, makes the provocative claim that absconding ideologies of representation and what he characterizes as “representational violence” (insisting on decidability when one need not) is in fact the terrain of a true politics of dissent. We can tell a great number of histories of dissent: social, political and cultural. ← 19 | 20 → Pihlainen, however, through close philosophical analysis, tells both an intellectual and aesthetic history. Focusing on Sartre’s study of Flaubert, Pihlainen shows how one of the ultimate figures in modern oppositional thought may have rethought his own concept of oppositional ideals. With that, Pihlainen challenges not only the ways we think about Sartre, but the established concepts of dissent embodied in broad sectors of a towering intellectual’s oeuvre.
Again, this book addresses a diverse array of issues. Its essays span intellectual history, political history, social history, architectural history, literary aesthetics, and philosophical investigation. Dissent! Refracted’s pieces work through novels, cultural commentary, archival work, policy analysis, and theoretical investigation. They theorize without always being explicitly theoretical and, without being explicitly theoretical, they theorize. What emerges is that regardless of where one looks on historical bases as well as in times we might call our own, dissent has presence. Dissent has a life. Dissent sparkles, shooting across the gaps of history like sunbeam refractions filling the space around us. Dissent comes to us like shades of color emerging from the far side of a crystal. That crystal, of course, is the distance time provides between ourselves and the historical past; it’s the distance between those of us who did and the acts of those of us who will. That’s whatever our will, and any “no’s” we might use to articulate it, turn out to be.
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1 Jameson’s (1991, 6) precise vocabulary is “depthlessness.”
2 Here, I point to justice not only as a matter of consent—a Rawlsian discussion—but an absolute meeting of human needs whether societies agree on those needs or not. See Rawls (1971); Boylan (2004).
3 George Packer (2015) in The New Yorker argued that the Charlie Hebdo killers were “soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and expression” driven essentially by power-thirsty ideologies. Gary Young (2015) in The Guardian, however, has wondered whether larger, global social currents contribute to the social polarization leading to extremist activity. They dissent, somehow, against each other’s dissenting views.
4 As Corey Robin (2011) puts it, dissent can be attached to the “reactionary mind”: postures in fact defending entrenched interests, yet posing themselves as outside the maintstream in the attempt to inclulcate senses of threat, or, in fact, believing threats exist to values one in fact seeks to defend.