(dissent—distance—dissent )


Abstract: This co-authored performative essay examines relationships among technology, distance, and the social and political dissent of organizations, collectives, communities, persons, and relationships. We specifically address the double bind of using technology for art, activism, and resistance: liberations and oppressions; freedoms and dependencies; security and susceptibility; solitude and exposure; access and denial; connection and isolation; helpfulness and helplessness; in and out of touch; etc. This essay was a bi-costal effort, written by two scholars—one living in New York and the other in California—using long-distance technologies of emails and telephones.

Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop. Say what?!? Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop! Say what?!?!.....

Marching up Constitution Ave., I can see the Capital Building: the white round dome and small phallic-like symbol at the top pointing upward to the heavenly sky. The Capital Building is like a magnet, kinetically alluring us crazy protesters to Washington DC.

Distance. Art. In the introduction to At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activisim on the Internet, Norie Neumark claims, “It has often been suggested that the logic of distance artworks like Mail Art is a gift logic; however, they might better be thought of as gifts that inherently do not arrive, gifts for which one always waits” (8). Waiting on the train. Not waiting for the train, waiting on it. Because I get on at the end of the line, the train is often waiting there for me, too. I climb aboard and proceed to the second level, winding up the narrow stairway to sit in one of the rows of single seats above. I’m always rushing to get to the train, but once I’m there, I wait. I wait as the train begins to traverse the distance north to San Francisco. I sit facing south and watch as I wait, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history whose face is always turned toward the past, and can only watch as the wreckage of history is dropped at its feet and streams away. At least this is my understanding of the angel of history from Craig Gingrich-Philbrook’s staging of this figure in his production of “Contagion: The Sad Story of a Performance Critic” several years ago. I contemplate Patty English’s journey backward to the stage as said angel, Jerz’s “Meaning: A Meatball” dance, and my own performance of the “Tele-terror-vangelist” from this production, as I watch railroad wreckage of peninsular towns pass—the blur from my window marking the distance, making me attend to it. I am intimately connected to these performers/activists even though I am often literally half a continent away, or more. On the train I feel like I can see all the way back to Carbondale, Illinois, perhaps all the way to Boston, all the way back to graduate school, back to NCA, but really I know it’s just the Santa Cruz mountains—with the fog coming.

Washington DC is the capital of the United States, and home to many inter-connected bureaucracies: the Senate and House of Representatives, the FBI, the CIA, the FCC, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many more massive as well as minuscule engines of American power. And it is also home to severe social stratification: homelessness, poverty, ailing school systems, high crime rates, rising inflation, and throes of disenfranchised folks of all types. This place has plenty of dissent and distance. National and world leaders are so close, yet so far away from the everyday people who populate the same streets that they themselves walk on a daily basis. Our leaders see the homelessness, poverty, and stratification. They have to see it. But do they really see it? Are they capable of peering through the window of some else’s eyes, and empathizing with those who suffer rather than benefit from our way of life? Do they really care about the people they are supposed to represent? Do they care about the will of the people, or do they only care about their own will-to-power? But maybe our leaders, delegates, and representatives can’t see it. Maybe they suffer from an affliction of distance--a case of too much as well as too little distance. This is not an issue of geographical distance, in the sense of feet, inches, yards, or even street blocks. But instead, biological distance--bio meaning embodiment, emotion, psyche, place, spatiality, perception, discourse, and performance. This affliction of biological distance creates conditions for a bio-politics of predatory power and expansionist governance: eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, continually march onward for more lavish conquests.

Some people define intimacy as closeness. But true intimacy requires a comfort with multiple distances, close and far. Hegemony functions to lull us into a false sense of intimacy—intimacy as closeness—with empire. We become intimate with specific products, with brands— “I don’t wanna grow up; I’m a . . .” We identify our affinity groups by the nostalgia we feel for the advertisements that mark our corporate pseudo-intimacy—do you ever long for “you deserve a break today” when you hear “duh duh duh duh duh: I’m lovin’ it,” even as you cringe to think of one of those greasy Supersized patties? When I first thought about this paper, this topic, my immediate response was that art is at least part of the answer to the problem of being “more intimate” with empire than with each other. I believed that good art changes the distances between people, and that this change in distance is a necessary condition for activism. But that’s not quite right. Good art doesn’t just change the distance; it records the distance. It draws our attention to the need for distance and sometimes for the need to change distance.

Washington DC, along with the United States of America, and the Western Hemisphere as a whole, and also the entire globe, have been and continue to be consumed by an ever increasing and shifting empire of competing power interests. Many of us are too close to this empire. This closeness has a distancing effect. Our intimacy with empire alienates us from the face of others. We no longer see people, persons, and humans existing in-relationship-with-each-other. Care for the other, and even care for the self, become care for empire. We see financial markets, logos, brands, the latest trends, the hippest slogans, memes of information, and objects to be bought, sold, gazed upon and consumed. We see mass spectacles and privatized grids being posited as healthy human relations. We are, according to Hebert Marcuse, living out a one-dimensionality; our intimacy with the “system” inhibits our ability to see alternatives to the system. In fact, we can’t even see the system. Such a bio-political condition emerges from, and contributes to, an affliction of distance.

At the BART station in Millbrae in the mornings, the air is filled with the scent of something baking. It smells like brownies, sweet and close. I’ve never been able to trace the aroma; it’s never there in the evenings when I’m not in a rush and might be able to follow my nose to its origin. My mouth begins to water—torture since there’s no eating or drinking allowed on the BART system. I begin to think irrational thoughts, like some big corporate machine is doing this on purpose—pumping out this fudgy smell a la Disney’s Main Street confectioners and popcorn carts—trying to distract us/distance us from something sinister happening below the surface. But who would want to distract the dazed commuters as we are herded from one transportation system to another? What purpose could this distance serve? I take out my cell phone to look at the time.

But there is an underside to this affliction, which Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri refer to as the multitude. The multitude is a new metaphor that re-conceptualizes “the people” or “the masses” or “the working class.” The term acknowledges both our multiplicity of differences and our common struggle for democratic forms of life. We are differentiated peoples fighting to expand and democratically distribute the common--land, water, air, food, information technologies, the internet, post-Fordism production systems, international assembly lines, labor transmigrations, agricultural knowledges, global discourses, common dreams, and world social forums. The multitude is the political flesh of global dissent dispersed yet connected across geographical distance. The multitude binds, and is bound by, dissent and distance. These two things serve as essential structures of the multitude’s constitution.

I am moved by good performance, good art that is as Toni Morrison says “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful” simultaneously. I am transported, neither just in the I-am-becoming-one-with-the-character-onstage-through-meaningful-connection-with-her-or-his-experience sense, nor just in the Brechtian sense of being first pulled into a character’s situation only to be transported through some device of alienation to see the means of production. No. Moved in a way that continuously draws my attention to the perils of changes of distance—moved in the way that continental plates travel—a journey that is marked by both extended periods of infinitesimal movement and by sudden, inexplicable, and heartbreaking thrusts, fissures, and fragments. This movement is marked not by the movement itself, but by the distance of its products—the same quartz appears in Yosemite and hundreds of miles away on the coast near Monterey and nowhere in between. When I witness good performance, I do feel closer to others—other creators and performers and other interview participants, literary characters, and historical figures. I also feel farther from others as I learn to distinguish my daily performances from theirs—drawing more specific and finer distinctions as I negotiate issues of power and identity in the performances I witness and conduct.

Today, in Washington DC, a segment, a sliver, a meaningful composite of the multitude is marching up to and past the Capital Building. We are constituting a temporary autonomous zone of optimal distance: not too far and too not close, but just the right distance to see the performativity of empire and to also see a more meaningful way to be human—that is, to do human. We are not cyborgs, or cogs in the machine, or raw labor to be exploited. We are not mindless robots unable to resist, transgress, and yes, throw off the hold of various oppressions. We are not disabled from the possibilities of resistance. Instead, we resist daily, continually, moment to moment. Our consumption is a production—a making and remaking—of meanings, images, styles, and gestures. The multitude grants a political orientation to this creative process, and in so doing, it hints at a world without hierarchies; a global co-operative. Some concrete examples that point to this political possibility: the Bolivarian Circles that have driven and sustain the Venezuelan revolution; the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico who have resisted the onslaught of neoliberalism; the 1999 Seattle protests that shut down the World Trade Organization meetings; the February 15th, 2003 anti-war protests, which occurred all over the world and included somewhere between ten and thirty million people. The faintly envisioned world of the multitude is not an ideal, but rather, a shifting horizon that continually eclipses itself as it is approached.

Walk out of your classes. Don’t go to work. The World Can’t Wait. I glance at the flyer posted on the student center’s outside wall, perhaps tactically placed next to the Bank of America ATM I am waiting in line to use. There are two people in front of me. As the first person steps up to the machine, my mind turns to the flyer. I think about following the flyer’s suggestions. Why not just walk out of my classes today? It’s only a short MUNI ride to the protests. San Francisco State University’s mission statement and development plan foreground social justice. Dissent. But I have students scheduled to perform in all three of my classes today. I only allow make-up performances in extreme situations. Does this constitute extreme? Is this the nuclear option?

Much political and existential negotiation must occur between now and then, here and there. While sitting at my computer, typing these words, I must force myself to recognize the chains of perpetuated oppression. Dell computers, Windows XP, Microsoft packages, and technical supports all betwixt my intended dissent. Privileged white guys making six, seven, and for Bill Gates, eight figures a year. Underprivileged brown people, mostly women, forced to adopt American English and Western accents await my whining complaints about why I cannot open my Word documents. Mounds of discarded computers, wires, hardware and software pollute our global environment. Nearly six hundred million people worldwide are online, but this is but a small fraction of the 6.5 billion people who live on the planet. This statistic undoubtedly relates to global poverty, which consists of nearly three billion people living on less than two dollars a day.

The moment between classroom performances is suspended time, a fool holding a full balloon in one hand and a giant pin in the other, or maybe it’s the moment between any performances. Can we, audience members and performers together, continue to hold the hands apart so that the world we are examining does not burst just yet—at the protest, at the computer, in the classroom? It’s only a matter of time, but maybe we can trick the fool for a while longer.

And of course, there is the cell phone phenomenon. Everyone’s got a cell phone nowadays. But it is the political rather than popular use of cell phones that deserves attention. Cell phones have become an essential mainstay for political organizing. I cannot imagine organizing, or even attending, a major political demonstration without the help of cell phones. Within in First World nations, cell phones are part of the activists’ communication infrastructure, providing tactical and real-time information in the streets and behind the scenes. Calls are made to find affinity groups; to update Indymedia newswires; to inform unknowing folks about the riot police turning the corner; and to contact street legal aides. Cell phones are also used to send text-messages across time and space, informing folks of when and where to converge for flash-mob protests. Paradoxically, this activist tool is powered by the likes of Verizon, Nextel, Webmobile, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Sony, and many other high-tech transnational corporations. These are the same companies that create and directly benefit from global stratification, states of surveillance, FBI spy ware, the PATRIOT Act, infrared military nightwear, smart bombs, and war. Constituents of the multitude seek to reform if not entirely dismantle these corporations and the unfair systems of exchange involved therein. This is a dilemma, to say the least.

My recent solo performance work has been mostly about performances of consumerism. I explore my own work in the service economies of corporate sales—as an employee at a large box-store retailer—and of academic work—as an assistant professor of performance studies. In several performances, I use a continuously beeping sound effect, like the beep of a register scanning the bar codes of items to “ring them up,” and like a heart monitor machine indicating a patient’s beating heart. The beeping continues at the same volume throughout the entire performance, underlying my speech and action. Audience members’ repeated comments about this choice to have the beeping sound effect always relate to distance in some way. They either express closeness with comments like, “I was right there with you in the check-out lane,” or, “The beeping captures the monotony you must have felt and I feel when I’m at work,” or alienation with comments like, “I thought I was going to go crazy with that beeping; it pushed me out of the moment” or, “I was focused on the mechanized sound of the beeping; it seemed impersonal and cold.” I relish the intimacy implied by all the distances represented by these comments. I want people to be “right there with me” and “pushed out” simultaneously, because that mirrors the complexity of our condition of participating in corporate capitalism even while critiquing it. However, unlike the intimacy corporations strategically attempt to appropriate—advertisers and managers know and take advantage of the fact that according to consumer research guru Paco Underhill toddlers already know the layout of their supermarket well enough to run right to the aisle with their favorite brands—there is another kind of intimacy available when we re-appropriate empire’s tools in our art and activism.

But this is not—or should not be understood as—another case of leftwing hypocrisy of perpetuating that which we resist. Instead, it is the re-appropriation of social apparatuses in the attempt to expand access to the creative commons. This simultaneously relates to and differs from using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This adage follows a Hegelian/Marxian dialectical logic. The multitude’s appropriation of existing technological means follows a Foucaultian/Deleuzian rhizomatic logic. The multitude and empire exist in a co-constitutive state of tension; we simultaneously manifest the possibility of each. Dropping out of the system, living in the woods, and refusing all corporate technology is a virtuous tactic. But this ignores the current state of global affairs, abandons those who lack such privilege, and silences rather than emboldens a call for justice. The multitude can become the prevailing discourse as more and more people use cell phones, faxes, emails, computers, and communication technologies for social justice. The entire operation of global affairs shifts with this discursive usurpation: living wages, direct and accountable political participation, equitable distributions of the earth’s resources, and the common creation of a more just and humane world. The affliction of distance thereby dissolves and we attain greater possibilities for more ethical human relations.

Dissent requires an intimacy of more than just closeness. It requires a comfort with multiple/(multitude?) distances—aesthetic, physical, and critical. We must explore the complexities of distance, so that we may attend to the spaces between us—spaces that may already contain the possibilities for a more socially just world.

Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop. Say what?!? Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop! Say what!?!.....

Related Sources

Chandler, Annmarie and Norie Neumark, eds. At a Distance: Precursors to Art and
Activism on the Internet
. Cambridge: MIT P, 2005.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

---. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Ishaq, Ashfaq. “On the Global Digital Divide.” Finance and Development: A Quarterly Magazine for the IMF. September 2001, Vol. 8, Number 3. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2001/09/ishaq.htm. Accessed online November 5, 2005.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1996. (Original English publication, 1969.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. (Originally published in 1964.)

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In The Woman That I Am: The Literature and Culture of Contemporary Women of Color. New York: Colombia University Press, 492-97.

Scahill, Jeremy. “The New York Model: Indymedia and the Text Messaging Jihad.” September 9, 2004 online ZNet publication: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=6193. Accessed online November 5, 2005.

Steinbock, Anthony J. Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995.

United Nations Development Program. Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Nielsen/NetRatings. “Global Net Population Increases.” February 23, 2003 online posting: http://www.nua.ie/surveys/index.cgi?f=VS&art_id=905358729&rel=true. Accessed online November 5, 2005.

---. “Global Internet Population Grows An Average of Four Percent Year-Over-Year.” February 23, 2003 report. http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/pr/pr_030220.pdf. Accessed online November 5, 2003.

Underhill, Paco. Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.



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