The clock of the world is showing a new time that we’re struggling to understand. Neo-liberalism became hegemonic in the doubled moment of Thatcher and Reagan coming to power (1979–80). Brexit-Trump heralds a toxic new formation of white supremacy, patriarchy and nationalism. What Stuart Hall called ‘the great moving right show’ in 1977 has become the ‘it’s great to be white show’ in 2016.
Hall called Thatcher’s regime ‘authoritarian populism,’ a mix of force (the Falklands War, the miner’s strike) and consent (three election victories) that combined to produce the hegemonic sense that ‘there is no alternative.’ The new formation is authoritarian nationalism. It is not premised on consent or hegemony but on the force of white supremacy. It is not theoretical, but based in aesthetics and desire. The wall will be ‘beautiful.’ America will be ‘great.’ If Thatcher cited Hayek and Friedman, Trump sends tweets.
Authoritarian populism lasted thirty years, slowly breaking apart only after the crash of 2007. The ‘It’s Great To Be White Show’ is just starting. But already it has lines of force in Latin America (Brazil, Colombia) and Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova). Modi’s India is equally premised on racialized hierarchy. It feels like a global transformation. Even if it’s a local articulation of race and class, following Hall’s affirmation that ‘race is the modality through which class is lived,’ it will have force for years, perhaps decades.
Politics in the Age of Authoritarian Nationalism
Where does politics happen in these conditions? Hannah Arendt called it the ‘space of appearance.’ Who has the right to appear? Where? In what time? In what imagined community and lineage? Whose land was it first? What does it look like?
While Arendt’s phrase is powerful, I want to appropriate and reverse it. Arendt was quite aware that the Greek city-state (or polis) she imagined to be the ideal space of appearance was founded on the exclusion of women, children, all non-Greeks and enslaved human beings. It was always and already a space of representation: a space where hierarchy and substitution enables authority and dominance. The drone ‘sees’ a space in which named people may be killed. The police create a space in which any person may be killed for ‘non-compliance.’
Only those qualified can even enter the space of representation. Many are still excluded even from the act of voting for representatives including those under 18; past and current ‘felons’; those without appropriate ID (for example, I had to show ID as a first-time voter in New York); permanent residents; the undocumented; the mentally ill; and so on. Many more are excluded by artful regulations or the material difficulties of voting, such as transport on Native reservations, long waits in minority districts and so on.
What I want to imagine is a space of appearance in which I do not name you but we create a space of invention and find each other. That requires those designated white to allow those designated Black to find them first or else a racial hierarchy will assert itself. A space of appearance in which those present claim both the ‘right to appear’ (Judith Butler) and the ‘right to look’ creates a space for politics and counters representative space.
Under neo-liberalism these spaces began to appear on January 1, 1994 when the Zapatistas emerged from the Lacandon rainforest to work with the indigenous populations of Chiapas and create autonomous zones. Such zones occurred worldwide in moments such as the Seattle uprising against global trade in 1999 and became sustainable following the Arab Spring in 2011. From Tahrir, there is a networked connection to Occupy, Black Lives Matter, #NuitDebout and other spaces that tried to set aside exclusion.
Arendt’s space consists of multiple overlays, based on the concept that the polis engaged in the market, politics and theatre in the same location. Let’s evoke these layers in the current space of representation.
1. Trump’s politics are visibly authoritarian, appealing directly to his followers via the internet and his rally platforms. He alone is the voice for those he represents, whose only task is to follow him. On Twitter. Even as president-elect, Trump has boasted about how many followers he’s been adding. Perhaps he’s aware that while his 15 million followers easily outpace Hillary (11 million), he’s far behind Obama’s 80 million.
2. The ancient market was dependent on enslaved labor so it provided ‘free’ consumption only for a few. By the same token, the ‘free’ trade of the neoliberal era has mostly benefitted the very wealthiest. Authoritarian nationalism promises symbolic barriers to this inequality in the form of canceled trade agreements and tariffs, providing a point of agreement with Bernie Sanders and old-school leftism. Any follow-through on this symbolism will likely gain the nationalists legitimacy in the eyes of their supporters, even if inequality is unchanged.
3. The means of production, distribution and exchange do not simply need barricades. They need to be articulated with the demands of the earth system: no more extraction, less plastic, a ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions and so on. There are trades and trade-offs here, a carbon market or tariff, and new forms of counting and accounting.
4. In the classical theatre, heroes undertake action. Who are heroes? For Aristotle, the hero in Greek tragedy is ‘one who is highly renowned and prosperous’ (Poetics I: 6) undergoing events which ‘strike us as terrible or pitiful’ (I: 14). Trump envisages himself as a tragic hero in the sense that he alone, as he repeatedly said, could save the country from the ‘terrible’ disaster it is in. Of course, he sees no flaw in himself, only others. It’s the role of the chorus and the audience to see what he cannot. Only the chorus is composed of scary clowns and the audience is chanting ‘Build The Wall.’
The cinema multiplex has long been full of mutant heroes, as if recognizing a distorted form of Arendt’s call. The mutants’ bodies were transformed as a result of an encounter with the chemicals of the military-industrial complex. Those bodies are indeed everywhere from the child miners of the Congo to the lead-poisoned residents of Flint. No superpowers have resulted.
More in hope than expectation, the audience has shifted its attention from the theatrical space of representation to the political, turning Hillary into the bad mutant that must be killed. Clinton’s image was placed on a gallows near me in the week before the election. In this imaginary, the election is the ‘win’ – no one ever makes a Batman movie of how Gotham gets on after the Joker has been defeated. By itself, it makes white great again.
A Broken Hallelujah
A space of appearance does not theatricalize the market or create layered hierarchies. It thinks horizontally and in terms of intersections. The present task is to connect mourning and militancy in the manner of ACT UP, as Douglas Crimp once put it, to build the widest possible resistance. This is militancy in the tradition of the Suffragettes and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and if it appropriates a term from the bellicose, so much the better.
Perhaps the first response that came close to forming this articulation was, surprisingly, the opening of Saturday Night Live. Kate McKinnon performed a double tribute by singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, following Cohen’s death last week. McKinnon was dressed in suffragette white as Hillary Clinton but her voice was her own, cracking slightly in places, especially when she sang:
I did my best, it wasn't much / I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch / I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you / And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Cohen’s broken Jewishness seems closer here to Beckett than to the prosperity Bible so often preached in white America. His signature chorus ‘Hallelujah’ is the sound of the African American church haunting secular (white) progressive culture, reminding it of the broken connection to civil rights and the unfulfilled promises to end militarism, materialism and racism.
At the end of the song, a teary-eyed McKinnon turned to the camera and says ‘I’m not giving up and neither should you.’ Whether it’s the character or the actor who speaks is undecidable, adding to the sense of mourning. To whom does she speak? As some of the later sketches pointed out, it was mostly to other white people feeling lost. It took an actor to get the moment half right.
How do those of us who are ‘white’ (meaning people that the police speak to and do not shoot) best ‘not give up?’ Connect your mourning to that of the African American community and its prophetic tradition, make your militancy build anti-racist alliances and find a space of appearance which, as in Black Lives Matter actions, is an open place of interaction.
Do Black Lives Matter?
Across the country, Black people and those in solidarity with them have been reclaiming places outside the polis and against the police as spaces of appearance. Not spaces of representation. When people appear here, the space is opened by Black people. Others, ‘white’ if you like, affiliate with blackness knowing that when Black people get free, everybody gets free. And by extension, if Black people do not get free, nobody does.
These actions follow from the repeated and almost repetitive tragedies of this time when police officers shoot and kill African Americans in the truly forgotten spaces of America. There is no public there, not even the all-seeing CCTV. The people killed are not wealthy and their deaths do not exemplify ‘one action’ as Aristotle defined tragedy. This is no fault of the murdered of course: it simply tells us that even tragedy is segregated in these ‘United’ States. The space of appearance reconnects these killings that white supremacy wants to keep out of sight, off the stage (and so literally obscene) to social life, which is to say, to mourning and militancy.
These visual materials will be the signature of this time and place. For anyone working in visual activism they are the point of departure, the necessary reference and the form to which we need to be accountable. We owe them the same duty of care that has been given to the photography of the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. It’s on us because the police defend white supremacy.
Antigone in St Paul, MN
On July 6, 2016, police shot Philando Castile in St Paul, Minnesota, following a traffic stop. The police thought his ‘wide-set nose’ matched that of a robbery suspect. For Mr Castile, this was the 46th and last such stop he had endured in the area for driving while Black. The cop told Mr Castile to produce his license and registration. In an excess of caution, he responded that he was carrying a weapon, for which he had a permit. When Mr Castile reached for his wallet to produce his documents, the panicked police shot him several times, leading to his death.
What made this umpteenth shooting stand out was that at this moment, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds began shooting networked video on Facebook Live. Showing astonishing composure, she describes what has just happened in detail, calling the police officer, who continues to point his weapon at her, ‘Sir.’ Her face is composed, elegant, perhaps elegiac. The phone camera makes her appear blue, unintentionally evoking that articulation of Black and blue from Miles Davis to David Hammons. Realizing that Castile has passed, she repeatedly asks: ‘Please don’t tell me that he’s gone.’
Reynolds calls on the law not to break its own promise to respect and to serve. She speaks of Castile’s compliance with the officer’s request and of the breach of procedure – her term. In the classical tragedy, Antigone defies the state by burying her slain rebel brother against a royal prohibition. She puts justice and the sibling bond above process of law, for which she dies a living death, buried alive. Reynolds speaks to the law and demands that it not speak of what it has done. In that silence, Castile will not yet have died. All the while she is live, Facebook Live, and alive but under threat of death from the gun.
For minutes, what we see is a static view. A suburban road. Wires. Evening. The messy physicality of the network that enables us to see her. It becomes our view because she is being arrested, presumably for the offence of being present. Her camera, lying on the ground as if in a machine die-in, continues to stream live. Like Antigone, Reynolds’ speech act has not prevented the law from its enactment of death. Antigone in St Paul. Who, as Saul, was stopped on the road to Damascus of all places, accused by Jesus of persecution. But he was not frisked and he was not shot. As Paul, he went on to write the one piece of scripture miscited by Trump, Two Corinthians (usually known as Second Corinthians but written 2 Corinthians).
Reynolds was unaccountably not released until 5 a.m. the following day. Just days after the presidential election, charges were finally filed against Officer Yeronino Yanez. He is charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of intentional discharge of a dangerous weapon. Conviction could lead to a sentence of ten years, although experience cautions us to expect acquittal or a lesser sentence at best. Reynolds herself continues to live in the precarious margins of white Minnesota. It is hard to see this as justice.
Diamond Reynolds created a tragic form for our fragmented time. A time in which Vine, the popular but soon-to-be-discontinued six-second video format created new narratives and in which the 140-character character assassination has won the presidency. Her ten-minute film has unity of time, place and action. It has loss. It is not about the hero. It expresses the fundamental separation and antagonism of white supremacy, in which, as Ta Nehisi Coates has put it: “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.” There is no need at present for that imaginary. The election was underscored by the question: ‘do Black Lives Matter?’ Its result reaffirms that for the white majority, the answer remains ‘no.’ The space of representation does not, in fact, include Black people, despite the Obama presidency.
Our task, however, is precisely to imagine and create that hitherto non-existent America in which Black lives matter, where the trading is in carbon and we appear to each other as fully human. That will require forming what Hall used to call a ‘broad democratic alliance.’ Electoral work, direct action, images and imagination, mourning and militancy are all part of this formation. It failed miserably in the 1980s UK and it won’t be easy this time.
In this space, what I will do (events willing!) is think about decolonizing the space of appearance in displacing the classical aura in political theory and in restoring the centrality of the Native. And finally to visit the ruins of deep time.
Here’s the measure of how much work there is to do. This weekend, post-election, I participated in a Black Lives Matter action in suburban Long Island, where Trump supporter Congressman Lee Zeldin had won with a greatly increased majority. Across the road, Trump followers celebrated, waving this banner in the air: ‘#Balls Matter.’