[...ALL TALK or how beautiful is your politics...]

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This is the text of a very long thing that i said at Daedalus Theatre’s creative forum on theatre and protest. It’s intended as a provocation. It feels like it might be worth sharing here…

ALL TALK or how beautiful is your politics

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” – Karl Rove (a dick)

“Decisions are made by those who show up.” Jed Bartlet, the West Wing (not real)

So I want to suggest a couple of things. 1. That talking isn’t just something we do about the world – it’s something we do in it – and that speech can be a part of changing it. And if it’s so with speech, it’s so with theatre. And 2. that our politics shouldn’t (can’t) exist entirely outside of the aesthetic dimension. They should be beautiful. Just as our aesthetics should be (can’t not be) political.

The word protest comes from the latin – pro – meaning forth, or before, and testari – meaning to testify, to witness, to attest, or to make a will. The test in protest is the same test we find in testament, or in testimony, or in testify.

If we look at these other words that protest shares a root with – testify, testament, testimony – all of them are kinds of speech that become an action in the world. When someone testifies about their experience, about what they have lived and what they have seen – they do so in a way that asks us to live with the reality of that experience. They affirm its existence in a way that demands of us that we do not deny or ignore it. And they ask us to, somehow, live differently as a result of this. This is the case when testimony comes within formal institutional structures, like a court or an inquiry, where it is explicit that the testimony enables and demands that decisions be made that effect the way that people will live (that removes or offers their freedom, that creates a change in policy), as well as in less institutionally constituted structures – the conversation, the poem, the play . The different versions of testament also have this aim – from the biblical witnessing and the legacy that it leaves, to the will which apportions property – which quite explicitly affects the organisation of things in the world.

So what I’d like to suggest is that protest is a kind of speech. Or an attempt at speech. An attempt to speak forth. To speak meaningfully to and about the world. To really speak. To find a voice or a language that speaks about the world in a way that cannot help but change it.

And also, I’d like to suggest that this isn’t easy or straightforward, because those who have an interest in the world not changing, or perhaps to be a bit more accurate, in the world reproducing itself in its own image – creating and recreating the same power structures that we can see and name, but that it is so difficult to escape from – capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy – whose existence today contains the seeds of the way they will once more come into existence and assert themselves in and between our relationships with each other tomorrow – are by definition rich and powerful and they have little interest in meaningful speech. They have an interest in a kind of speech without meaning, without communication– the repetition of signs which impose themselves on us, which character the roles we are to play – worker, boss, consumer, commuter, woman, man – which define us as subjects in our own stories before we have had the chance to write them. A speech which does not deviate from what was expected to be heard, and so in fact, contains no information.

Seeing as we’re supposed to be talking about theatre, let’s call this a scene:

A: How are you?
B: I’m fine, how are you?
A: Fine thanks.

Now – this is a pretty boring scene. But more importantly – how much communication has happened here? How often, when we are not fine, do we answer the question “How are you?” fully? Or even a little bit truthfully? And how often is the question “how are you?” actually an invitation to tell the asker how you are? I would suggest that more often it is simply the empty repetition of an already scripted ritual. The spectacle of communication.

This emptiness itself might seem fairly unimportant, at least on a political level, but what if we consider these unchanging rituals in relation to the way in which the world reproduces itself – the journey in to work, the conversation with your boss, with a policeman. In relation to the Poesis – the reproduction of the world through actions and language which inscribe the limits of our experience and existence on it and on us.

Let’s place that scene in supermarket – a conversation between a shopper and cashier. And let’s imagine they really answer those questions. The shopper talks about an injury he has sustained at work, which makes it painful to carry things all the time. But he must continue to work to support his family, and carrying heavy loads is a part of his job. He must work so he can afford to buy the food he is buying now, and he must carry the shopping home to his family because they need to eat. The cashier is worried about her daughter who is in love with a man who is no good – she works hard, but he does nothing but live off her, off her goodwill and her good nature. He knows how to manipulate her – to make her feel small and as though his approval, which he doles out an withholds according to his mood, is the deciding factor in how she should feel about herself. The cashier does not know what to do or how to deal with this. Her daughter is independent and strong in many ways, and it is not the place of her mother to interfere in her relationships or her choices, but she sees that she is in pain and she is her family and also feels that pain keenly and with great sadness. The queue behind them grows. People tut and look at their watches, share looks of muted frustration. The scene is suddenly political. We see the way that abstract political forces shape these people’s lives, the way they harm them. We see that this scene is impossible – she would be fired and he would be asked to leave – they have disrupted the operation of commerce – and we see that such a meeting, which is really just an outbreak of humanity, of sharing and listening, could not be allowed to exist in this world. We see that something about this world has set itself against our humanity and called itself necessity, but perhaps the theatre has allowed us to glimpse a version of this world in which real, meaningful speech, a speech with an authentic voice is possible.

(Anyone who has queued in a French supermarket, where the relentless dehumanising attempts of capital and commerce to commodify and control all aspects of our time (which is to say our life) and our relationships with each other (which is to say our society) are met with a kind of joyously stubborn, indifferent, even grim refusal to accept necessity when it gets in the way of the connection offered by the opportunity to gossip or complain really hard about something, will know that this description is only the tiniest bit utopian (or dystopian if you’re a supermarket manager), and that it’s seeming impossibility is a function of the very specific social and political circumstances in which we find ourselves, here and now.)

So protest as an attempt at meaningful speech amidst the sea of meaningless language in which we swim – the adverts, the ritualistic and entirely predictable simulation of political discourse which changes nothing, the exchanges defined entirely by our position within the matrix of power and privilege in which we live, with our bosses, with those who serve us, with those who sell to us – empty signifiers repeating themselves onto us with the force of empire until they become our reality (the only reality, we could almost swear, we have ever known and the only reality we can conceive of existing). And speech (and protest) (and theatre) can take many forms. It can be a function of our voices, which can shout or sing or whisper, it can be a function of our bodies which can be in a place, which can stand together, which can place themselves in the way of things, or just near things, near enough to disrupt the spectacle of a world telling itself how civilised it is, while, for example, it sells arms to oppressive regimes as it will at the Defence and Security Event International in just over two months time at the Excel centre just a few miles walk from here. Increasingly it is a function of our fingers which can write or type, or of our incorporeal avatars which exist in the digital worlds of Facebook or Twitter. So often we hear denunciations of slacktivism as a kind of empty, easy, self-regarding simulation of protest, but it seems pretty clear that in certain circumstances online campaigning is an incredibly effective form of protest. Also that when we manage to speak meaningfully, whether that be in the theatre or in a protest or online, we cannot know what effect that speech will have, or when it will come. JK Rowling could not have known when she wrote her stories of children facing up to the failure and betrayal of adults and adult institutions in their duty of care and education that student marches and occupations carried out by the genration who had grown up alongside Harry Potter would carry banners saying “Dumbledore’s Army” and “Dumbledore wouldn’t put up with this shit” in the face of the political class’s wholesale betrayal of students and their hopes, but it is entirely fitting and unsurprising that they did. It is not for nothing that the deposed dictator of Egypt Hosni Mubarak tried to shut down the internet in the early days of the Egyptian revolution – the internet is not just an organisational tool but a galvanising one – a way in which people can feel the presence and support of their allies.

(A little anecdote – during one of the (many) darker days of repressive violence under the Supreme Council of The Armed Forces which replaced Mubarak I tweeted, thinking of friends who were in the midst of things there and thinking of something that one of those friends had said about solidarity – that it contains the realistion that “your struggle is my struggle and my struggle is your struggle” – “Thinking of friends and allies in #Egypt today”. A couple of friends retweeted it, as you might have expected, but then, strangely, it was retweeted many times by those I didn’t know whose names I didn’t recognise and often whose tweets were generally in arabic. Clearly this, admittedly easy piece of speech that I had tapped out while I was at work as a way of telling my friends I thought of them and was somehow, in as much as I could be, with them in difficult times passed on to others who also found it in some way useful to feel my presence and support as they turned their bodies and voices to protest. Others found more use or meaning for my speech than I had been able to put into it.)

For me theatre is a conversation. A conversation in which, often, one of the parties is generally silent (although, let’s be clear, an audience can use their silence to speak with great eloquence). Conversely, so often what happens when we protest is that lines are drawn, lines across which the police look, or across which the protesters look at those they protest against, and their antagonists look back, sharing only a mutual incomprehension and dislike. And the only kind of speech possible across these lines is a kind of shouting, a shouting that doesn’t listen. And even when we might try to be creative or artistic with our protest, that creativity can only be put to the service of a kind of shouting that cannot afford to listen, because the voice coming across the line is one that says nothing more than “Shut up and go away, you are not important and neither is your protest. Whatever you say or do will not change things”. And so, in the face of this we become louder and perhaps more spectacular, and while a message might be writ large, it is written in spectacular terms (because spectacles don’t listen), not in theatrical terms which contain, as all meaningful speech must, the possibility of listening and hearing as well as speaking. So here’s a question I don’t know the answer to – where does or should a protest direct its speech? Outwards – across the line to those who disagree with it, in the hope that they will cross that line? Or outwards to the media (who love spectacle because they are themselves a form of spectacle) in the hope that some aspect of the message will appear in a newspaper or on the news. Or inwards to ourselves, to other protesters, enabling us to articulate something that we could not have otherwise articulated, to start creating realities and kinds of speech that are sufficiently beautiful that others might want to join them or speak with them.

I want to look briefly to Austin, Texas, where a series of remarkable acts of speech involving testimony, voices and bodies were recently engaged to try to change the world. To warn you, this story unashamedly has goodies and baddies in it. The republican majority in the Texas Senate was looking to bring in legislation which would effectively deny the vast majority of Texan women access to abortion. I’m not going to get into the details of any kind of debate about abortion, because I want to talk about the nature of testimony and protest in terms of the way the bill was prevented from passing. Those familiar with the West Wing will know that American politics contains an insane thing called the fillibuster, where a senator can prevent a bill from passing by talking continuously for the entirety of a legislative session without stopping or pausing. Senator Wendy Davis (a democrat) attempted to fillibuster the bill by speaking continuously for 13 hours, by which time the legislative session would have ended and the bill could no longer pass. She had a catheter fitted as she could not break to go to the toilet. She wore a back brace as she could not sit down. She did so in part by reading the testimony of many Texans who had attempted a “Citizens fillibuster” in order to overwhelm the legislature with acts of speech against the bill – with testimonies of the affects that restrictions on abortion had had on their lives. The legislature had ruled these testimonies to repetitive to listen to in person, thus erasing those acts of speech, until Davis gave them back their voices by lending them hers, and forced the legislature to live with their testimony by living with it so profoundly herself. In a sense Davis had to do this alone – she was censured when a fellow senator tried to help her by adjusting her back brace because he was worried that she would injure herself. Texas operates a 3 strikes and you’re out rule when it comes to breaches of this kind on fillibusters, and 8 hours in Davis received her second warning meaning one more and she was out. At this point she refused to rest her voice even for questions and aimed to talk solidly on her own for the next 5 hours. In another sense many were with her – the gallery was literally packed with supporters who were not allowed to speak, nor to eat as they sat in the uncomfortable room. If they left to go to the toilet they would lose their place in the room. To ensure that Davis was not left unsupported 100s had turned up, wearing orange t-shirts as a show of support, from around the state – and the one out one in policy ensured that as a supporter left they were replaced by another. The legislature was filled, the overflow room was filled, the queue to get in run out of the building and into the gardens. But if people left they could not get back in, and so they could not get food. Tweets went out about this and people from all over the country and the world started ordering pizza and takeaway to be delivered to the senate to give them strength – buying a pizza – in this circumstance, somehow became a meaningful act of speech. They stood and sat with her as she stood and spoke for them and for others who could not be there, but watched the scene on a live internet feed, or glued to twitter as jounralists and citizens reported what was going on. After 11 ½ hours the republicans voted that Davis had made her 3rd procedural error and that her strikes were up and her fillibuster was over. The democrats in the room attempted to hold up proceedings by querying every legislative decision that had been made in the room that day – turning the bureacratic tactics that had been used against Davis on their head. With 15 minutes to go they ran out of options or the republicans just started plain ignoring them. Senator Van de Putte, who had come to the senate directly from her father’s funeral that day asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”. The gallery erupted. Those who had sat silently with Davis as she had leant them her voice, leant her theirs as she had been silenced. For 15 solid minutes they cheered and chanted and sang so loudly that the senate could not organise their vote. Tweets from the room just said #louder and then #LOUDER. There were so many bodies in the room and outside the room that police could not clear it. The vote didn’t take place until after midnight, meaning the session had ended, and the bill was not law. Someone changed the date on the record to say it had passed before midnight, but they were caught out doing it.

So all of these acts of speech, using bodies, voices, online presences, even credit cards, amount to something meaningful which has a real affect on the world. But what’s remarkable reading the testimony of protesters and sympathetic journalists is that it has also changed them – taught them that their bodies and their voices are beautiful and matter – that power resides not just in the legislature but in them. Decisions, as The West Wing’s President Bartlet is so fond of reminding us, are made by those who show up.

So here are some questions to end with. How can we find a way of protesting that is as delicate and beautiful and fragile as our humanity? How can we protest in a way that starts a conversation rather than sounding like it’s the end of one? How can we prevent this conversation being shut down or broken, or appropriated and turned into a spectacle of itself? How can we speak meaningfully and beautifully to and about the world?

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