Waiting for Tear Gas: Sekula in Seattle
Philip Armstrong, The Ohio State University
Enculturation 6.2 (2009): http://enculturation.net/6.2/armstrong
[In a photo], when does someone resemble himself [se resemble]? Only when the photo shows something of him, or her, something more than what is identical, more than the “face,” the “image,” the “traits” or the “portrait,” something more than a copy of the diacritical signs of an “identity” (“black hair, blue eyes, snub nose,” and so on). It is only when it evokes an unending mêlée of peoples, parents, works, pains, pleasures, refusals, forgettings, transgressions, expectations, dreams, stories, and all that trembles within and struggles against the confines of the image. This is not something that is imaginary; it is nothing but what is real: what is real has to do with the mêlée. A true identification photo would be an indeterminant mêlée of photos and marks [graphies] that resemble nothing, under which one would inscribe a proper name.
Such an inscription [légende] would be meant to be read, deciphered, and recounted, but it would not be a myth: to say it more precisely, it would not confer an identity on the ipse or on some one of whom it would be the legendum est, the “this is to be read.”
Jean-Luc Nancy, “Eulogy for the Mêlée”
Moving backwards and forwards through the different scenes, three groups are immediately discernible within the sequence of photographs—the demonstrators, the police, and the governmental representatives with their aides and secretaries—even as we begin to sense that it is the relation within and between these three groups, the relation as such and not their identification or distinction, that constitutes the very “subject” of the photographs. The question immediately arises: in what sense can a relation or rapport within and between individuals or groups, whether of indifference, mutual accord, or violent confrontation, become the subject of a single photograph, or the subject, in this case, of a sequence of photographs? In what sense can this question of photographic articulation, without fixed or discernible identity, constitute a relation between subjects in the process of their mutual engagements, their oppositional or antagonistic self-transformation, their continual becoming-other to themselves, for which the concept of social change or even revolutionary conflict begins to create at once the terms in which the problem is posed for us and the stakes of a potential outcome? More generally, in what sense does photography as a medium not only index the visual relation between subjects, revealing and remarking their identities and differences, including the space of their antagonisms, divisions, or inequalities, their subjugation or subjectification? The question also remains how photography exposes the different ways in which the relation between subjects is potentially a relation with, of ones with the others—of being-with-one-another—as if the material conditions informing photographic reproducibility also transform the very grammar in which we are to think the displacement from a politics of the subject to shared or collective existence. Finally, what is at stake when the subject positions informing the question of political agency become displaced to the concept of nomadism, one of the privileged terms when considering the so-called “movement of movements,” specifically (in Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s terms) a “nomadism of true nomads, or of those who no longer even move or imitate anything”—“a nomadism of those who only assemble [agencent]” (24)? If the reference to nomadism here challenges the more common assumptions and rhetoric concerning nomadic thinking and presupposes both a critique of the rhythms of global displacement as well as a question of mimesis, in what sense is this assemblage and its agencement informed less by an underlying question of position, self-organization, and representation than by its disposition, exteriority, and exposure?
Turning back across the sequence of photographs, we begin to remark that the governmental representatives, accompanied by their aides or secretaries, wear dark suits. They carry black brief cases or suitcases for short hotel stays. Their presence in the sequence of photographs seems easily recognizable from these different attributes and traits. Sometimes faceless in the photographs, they pass in and out of buildings whose entrances are protected by armed police.
Standing in rows or columns, the uniformed police appear behind protective shields and face guards. They wear padded legging. Some wield sticks. Others hold guns with tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, or concussion grenades. Others again encircle or arrest protestors, or ride on the back of armored vehicles. If there are no scenes of actual violence in the sequence of photographs, the presence of the police is also evident in those photographs in which they are absent—through the effects of violence, in the traces of blood, the effects of tear gas, and the scars caused by physical confrontation in the streets. The police also appear faceless in many of the photographs, hidden by protective masks, even as they see themselves (as in one photograph) reflected in mirrors held up to them by a line of demonstrators, as if this reflection becomes the visual emblem of the frequently chanted phrase that “the world is watching,” or as if the mirrors demonstrated in what they come to expose that the world at stake here is precisely a partitioning of perception and the perceptible.
The largest number of photographs in the sequence is of the demonstrators themselves, dispersed across a wide display of urban contexts. Whether taken at night or day, in sun or rain, the photographs include individual portraits as well as group scenes. In several photographs, the demonstrators are seen marching behind banners, arms embraced. In others, different gestures of political enunciation are conspicuous, including peace signs, arms raised in militant defiance, or holding ground in the face of a cohort of armed police approaching in the near distance. In some photographs, the demonstrators are seen laughing. In others, they seem bemused, wary, pensive. There is a general sense of camaraderie and complicity, of wry smiles of mutual understanding and respect, of human dignity and desire, as well as moments of fear and solemnity. A woman prays as blood flows from her mouth. Other protestors are illuminated under the street lights, caught in the sulphuric yellow of drifting tear-gas. An older woman sits in a blanket holding a wet towel, her eyes stinging from tear-gas or pepper spray. In several scenes, the protestors mingle, waiting, a sense of calm before the demonstration moves on, or before a storm of assault, a rhythm of waiting and expectation, of hope and anxiety, that is more clearly marked when the series of photographs unfold not just from page to page but as a timed slide-sequence. And then there are scenes of carnival, in which figures are dressed up or performing roles—a masked devil with a cardboard chainsaw, a guitar-playing troubadour—as well as the photographs of others taking photographs or filming, as if the demonstrations were also the occasion of different kinds of performance or staging. These are all scenes of spontaneous action, in which no one seems posed, or in which the photographs are not composed, even if numerous protestors acknowledge the presence of the camera (it is this acknowledgement that reinforces the sense of spontaneity across the sequence of images).
This abbreviated description begins to recreate the various scenes that compose Waiting for Tear Gas, a sequence of photographs taken in 1999 by Allan Sekula during the demonstrations in Seattle, Washington against the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose delegates were then meeting in the city. In gallery and museum contexts, Waiting for Tear Gas includes eighty-one 35 mm slides in color and is projected as a 16-minute timed slide-sequence. A selection of the photographs was also included in Performance Under Working Conditions (a recent catalogue of Sekula’s work edited by Sabine Breitwieser) as well as in Five Days That Shook the World (a title that clearly echoes John Reed’s celebrated book on the Russian Revolution), a modest text published by Verso and co-authored by Sekula with Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. The sequence concludes the Verso volume, constituting a photo-essay after Cockburn and St. Clair’s text, in which the authors, best known as editors of the political newsletter Counterpunch and a series of widely circulated books on political corruption and U.S. foreign policy, offer a journal narrative of the preparations leading up to the 1999 demonstrations and a critical response to the events that now constitute “Seattle.”
In his introduction to the photographs in the Verso volume, a short text titled “[white globe to black],” Sekula outlines the conditions in which the photographs were taken and the critical ambitions shaping the overall project:
In photographing the Seattle demonstrations my working idea was to move with the flow of protest, from dawn to 3 a.m. if need be, taking in the lulls, the waiting and the margin of events. The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-journalism: no flash, no telephoto lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.
Later, working at the light-table, and reading the increasingly stereotypical descriptions of the new face of protest, I realized all the more that a simple descriptive physiognomy was warranted. The alliance on the streets was indeed stranger, more varied and inspired than could be conveyed by the cute alliterative play with “teamsters” and “turtles.”
I hoped to describe the attitudes of people waiting, unarmed, sometimes deliberately naked in the winter chill, for the gas and the rubber bullets and the concussion grenades. There were moments of civic solemnity, of urban anxiety, and of carnival.
Again, something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets against the abstraction of global capital. There was a strong feminist dimension to this testimony, and there was also a dimension grounded in the experience of work. It was the men and women who work on the docks, after all, who shut down the flow of metal boxes from Asia, relying on individual knowledge that there is always another body on the other side of the sea doing the same work, that all this global trade is more than a matter of a mouse-click.
One fleeting hallucination could not be photographed. As the blast of stun grenades reverberated amidst the downtown skyscrapers, someone with a boom box thoughtfully provided a musical accompaniment: Jimi Hendrix’s mock-hysterical rendition of the American national anthem. At that moment, Hendrix returned to the streets of Seattle, slyly caricaturing the pumped-up sovereignty of the world’s only superpower. (122)
Prefacing the sequence of photographs that follow, Sekula’s text invites a number of preliminary observations.
First, if journalistic reportage and cyberpolitics are cast aside for their stereotyping, political opportunism, or studied detachment from the events themselves, Sekula moves along with the “flow of the protest,” physically participating within the protest and at its margins, and so effacing himself as a photographer before the event to be photographed. There is thus nothing in Sekula’s text that situates the photographs in light of the numerous other documentary projects, both written and photographic, for which he is widely known or in which, as photographer, he might stand out from the crowd.
Secondly, Sekula’s text provides a critical context for situating the photographs, but it offers no single meta-narrative in which they should be read, no rationale for their sequence, no individual titles or captions through which the photographs find some measure of legibility or meaning, or no meta-narrative that is not internal to the photographs as they unfold from page to page or in the slide sequence. Everything extraneous to the mere taking of the photographs is excluded, whether technical (flash, telephoto lens, autofocus) or contextual and professional (gas mask, press pass). Indeed, everything that we might expect of a photographer in terms of photographic skills and techniques (chemical manipulation in the darkroom, Photoshop on the computer) is absent from consideration, evident in the photographs themselves through the occasional absence of focus, harsh reflection of lights, compositional distortions, arbitrary cropping, and so on. If there is anything technical informing these photographs, it is nothing more or less than the technical fact of their being photographs, taken with a camera, the production of an image through the relatively simple mechanisms of photographic reproduction. This is not an appeal to a technological determinism. It is the sheer fact of the photograph as reproducible document, irreducible, as the photographer later leans over the light-table to edit the sequence, to any concern with the essential or “pregnant” moment, the one essential shot that “captures” Seattle reduced to a spectacle, “the one defining image of dramatic violence” in which the event as event is effaced, reduced to a reproducible cultural icon (Marines erecting the flag at Iwo Jima, Tiananmen Square, 9/11 Twin Towers, and so on).
Thirdly, rather than interspersed throughout Cockburn and St. Clair’s text, the placement of the photographs at the end of the Verso volume also suggests a refusal that the photographs should be read as mere illustration of the text, a refusal that they simply accompany and illuminate the narrative. This refusal of illustration is reinforced by the brackets framing the title Sekula gives to his own text—“[white globe to black]”—a reference to the two photographs of globes that frame the sequence in its relative autonomy. As published in the Verso volume (the effect is different when shown as a slide sequence), the photographs are printed over the entire surface of the paper, edge-to-edge, as well as back-to-back in their sequence, and so appear without any emphasis on design or page layout. This refusal of mere illustration of the text is also confirmed by the lack of accompanying titles or captions that might give each of the photographs individual significance or legibility. All emphasis in Sekula’s text is thus placed on the ways in which these photographs are to be seen as visual records of an event, in which the photographer and his camera were once present, and in which it is as much the camera itself as the photographer who is witness to this event at the moment of its taking place or at the moment when it comes into visibility. The camera as witness displaces emphasis on the photograph as mere spectacle. In this sense, the photographs, whether as published in the Verso volume or presented as a slide sequence, work metonymically, not metaphorically, but a metonymy without an implied totality or possible completion (if there is no one photograph that captures the events of Seattle, there is no larger sequence of photographs that could capture the events either, even if filmed as in the documentary made of the 1999 demonstrations, This is What Democracy Looks Like). In short, the photographs are marked by a sense of their radical contingency within the flow of events that constitute “Seattle,” a contingency that continually punctuates the visual narrative that is internal to the edited sequence, and which is as much the fact of photography itself as the way in which the photographs unfold in both the center of the action and at its margins.
If emphasis is thus placed in Sekula’s text on what the photographs reveal visually or expose to view, the photographs also appear to lack all symbolism or self-reflexivity. Even the photographs of the globes at the beginning and end of the sequence lack the usual appeal to visual symbolism. Both photographs of two globes on a file cabinet in a library, the first in which the oceans are white, and the second in which the oceans are now colored black, suggest less the globes of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance world of cosmic theories, scientific discoveries, and Copernican revolutions—discourses framed by humanism, travel narratives, and territorial discoveries—than the globe that recodes these references in light of a complex survey of colonialist and post-colonialist histories, of imperialist practices, and contemporary neo-imperialist interventions. If this history is repeatedly associated with the role of nation-states within the history of modernity, then the globes pictured here indexes the globalized economies and exchanges that mark the decline of the nation-state itself as a legislative and governing institution, including the associated transformations in the concept of sovereignty (the “pumped up sovereignty of the world’s only superpower”), for which the events of Seattle and the protests against world trade become the very site of global conflict—in short, the space in which these histories and transformations are now given visibility. As Iain Boal recalls, if globes were originally emblems of sovereignty, they also became playthings of merchant princes and navigators, as seen in the props in Renaissance portraiture; “it was the task of cartography to project the globe into two dimensions; without the resulting maps and charts the business of empire and planetary capitalist hegemony would be literally unthinkable” (397). In terms of the two photographs that frame the sequence in Waiting for Tear Gas, the colors usually associated with individual States on a globe are now transposed to an emphasis on the color of the oceans, where it is now the oceans themselves that become the site of global exchange. This emphasis on the color of the oceans would then coincide with the importance of global trade across oceans and between ports in Sekula’s documentary project, Fish Story (which was exhibited in the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle around the time of the WTO protests), an emphasis on global trade movements already suggested in the reference to the exchange of containers between Seattle and Asian docks in Sekula’s prefatory text. If Sekula registers the importance of making the globe visible in the sequence of photographs, if he appropriates and recodes the globe as emblem of State sovereignty and the expansion of global capitalism, then this gesture suggests less a form of symbolism or iconography that demands decoding than ways in which “Seattle” constitutes an event to be seen on a global scale, an event, as Sekula’s photographs demonstrate, given over to different conditions of visibility, perception, or exposure.
The sequence of photographs that compose Waiting for Tear Gas also appears to preclude gestures of photographic self-reflexivity, at least beyond the more evident scenes in which other photographers and protestors are seen photographing and filming the protests. But there is one photograph included in the sequence that appears to contradict this more general assertion. The photograph in question shows two women in a sex shop or “peep show,” standing behind the glass door of the entrance. Acknowledging the presence of the photographer/viewer situated in the street outside, one of the women faces toward the street, laughing. The other woman poses within the frame of the door, her back to the viewer, dressed in stilettos and a bright red and provocatively short skirt. Her legs spread open as she leans forward against a wall, she appears to taunt the photographer/viewer, waiting to be “frisked” or “taken in.” With a sign reading “Best Deal in Town” posted to the wall behind the two women, the image provokes an obvious, if perversely coy echo of the numerous scenes occurring outside in the streets of Seattle itself, in which protestors were being thrown against a wall, frisked, beaten, or arrested. However, if the photograph doubles back on the photographer/viewer by situating the photographer/viewer not just in the position of the law but as the voyeur of an event, and if the eroticism of the peep show recalls the eroticism that Roland Barthes once described as the very condition of urban life—a meeting-space and gathering with the other, and so a privileged space for the production and reproduction of desire—then the sudden moment of self-consciousness acknowledged in the photograph is arguably less a form of photographic self-reflexivity (hardly a discovery when attempting to photograph the “living flux of acting” that constitutes a mass protest) than an echo of Kaufman, the cameraman in Vertov’s Man with Movie Camera and a reference to which Sekula has often appealed in his work. For it is Kaufman who continually reframes the modernity of urban life in terms of its specific visibility, notably in those early scenes of the film in which the camera and the technologies for making the world visible, combined with various metonymies of looking itself, are reframed in terms of windows, door frames, and the face, eyes, and body of a woman.
And yet, even this analogy to Man with a Movie Camera appears out of place, its stylized avant-gardism and radical montage too self-evident for the different scenes composing the more modest sequence of photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas. Indeed, the terms of Sekula’s argument in his introductory text appear disarmingly simple, especially since the critical exigencies accompanying his photographs also work to efface, at best ignore, the long and complex history of photographic genres, criticism, and interpretation that shapes the discourse on photography, notably in the wake of the now extensive literature, texts, and anthologies that inform photographic discourse and theory. Whether semiotic, discursive, theoretical, or historical, there remains no reference in Sekula’s brief text to theories of representation or the sign, no reference to a discourse of the subject, no contest of meaning, no reference to the endless debates about photography’s place in relation to modernism and aesthetics, no debate about the different genres of photography in relation to art history and visual culture, no referral to established traditions of socialist realism or documentary street photography, no strategies of Brechtian “distancing”—all discussions and debates in which, for several decades, Sekula has been actively engaged and intervened. Even as such references are presupposed here, none of this critical background is acknowledged in Sekula’s text (including Sekula’s exemplary reading of Peircian semiotics across Lukács’s writings on realism in his early writings), as if the visual effects or affects created by the photographs were now sufficient alone to convey a sense of the “varied and inspired” alliance between the different demonstrators. We are left in Sekula’s text with the mere fact of the photographs themselves—their realism, their transparent referentiality, or their evidence—terms that one might have imagined both historically and theoretically circumscribed, critiqued, and deconstructed in the discourse of photographic criticism over the last several decades. What you see in Sekula’s photographs is what you see—which we might begin to rephrase as the space of the real rather than realism. The terms of this argument are established in part by Sekula himself when, turning from the increasingly stereotypical descriptions of the protests characterizing journalistic accounts, he claims that the “new face” of protest warrants nothing more or less than a “simple descriptive physiognomy.”
Sekula’s appeal to a physiognomy that is “simple and descriptive” is no doubt curious given his widely influential readings of physiognomy in photographic discourse, notably in his essay “The Body and the Archive” and the relation to police archives, disciplinary society, and forms of surveillance and governmentality as elaborated in the writings of Michel Foucault. Commonly applied to large and usually stereotypical photographic surveys of a given population, as suggested in the work of August Sander or Richard Avedon, or as in Lincoln Kirstein’s famous description of Walker Evans’s American Photographs, in which “the physiognomy of the nation is laid on your table,” Sekula’s affirmation of a physiognomy that is “simple” nevertheless opens the question whether there is a physiognomy that is not a form of subjectification or governmentality. Or to redeploy a distinction specific to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the question remains whether there exists a constituent physiognomy that is irreducible to the constituted physiognomy of sovereign power or the law. Situated in light of these interpretive possibilities, and unfolding according to this affirmation of a simple descriptive physiognomy, the sequence of photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas appears to constitute less an intervention into the politics of representation and the discourse of photography, less a documentary of merely historical interest—a historia rerum gestarum—than the res gestae or visual chronicles of the Seattle protests. As Hardt and Negri have insisted, the multitude's struggles against Empire’s imperial constitution are “demonstrations of the creativity of desire, utopias of lived experience, the workings of historicity as potentiality—in short, the struggles are the naked reality of the res gestae” (52)—the res gestae, in other words, that accompanies Hendrix’s mock-hysterical rendition of the American national anthem as it is heard across the blasts of the stun grenades.
If Sekula’s text appears to turn away from much of the established critical discourse on photography, it also mentions nothing of the exponential growth of interest in social movements, notably the sociological literature, readers, and anthologies, in which mass protests and the conditions for creating mass social movements are analyzed from the perspective of statistical analysis, group dynamics, case studies, social network theory, and so on. Nor is there any affirmation in Sekula’s text concerning the discourse of cyberpolitics, in which the “movement of movements” now finds its rationale and modus operandi in the Internet (the “network of networks”), “swarm intelligence,” or “smart mobs,” all of which find one of their earliest manifestations in 1999 in the Seattle protests themselves. Nor again does Sekula elaborate on the range of critical responses to media coverage of mass protests beyond the question of stereotype, nor the effects of photo-journalism on perceptions of global justice movements. If all this literature and critical background is both presupposed and conspicuously absent in Sekula’s brief text, this absence only works to reinforce the ways in which these photographs constitute a “simple descriptive physiognomy” of the protests, one in which the “alliance” on the streets and the “new face” of protest are given visibility in ways that do not merely lend themselves to a narrative unfolding (from whatever political, sociological, or personal perspective), whether such narratives are framed in terms that are historical, revisionist, critiques, a memoir, a diary, blog, or some other account, in short, those narrative continually framed as the “story” of the battle of Seattle (as in The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle). The visibility of this “new face” of protest remains irreducible to a narrative unfolding that is not internal to the edited sequence of photographs themselves (page to page, slide to slide, internal color sequences, transitions between individual and group formation) and the rhythm of their unfolding (the passage from days to nights, from hope and expectation to violence and assault). In other words, there is no story to recount here, as in Cockburn and St. Clair’s preceding text in the Verso volume, or as in Naomi Klein’s evocative “dispatches” from the front lines of the global justice movement. There is no politics of representation either, in the sense that there is no attempt to represent the protestors and derive or deduce a politics from that representation. There is only an exposure, in which the demonstrators are presented in terms of their appearance and visibility—their “new face”—or in which the relation within and between the demonstrators, police, and WTO representatives comes into view.
The photographs thus show both what happened in Seattle and what still remains present. However, as this event comes into appearance and exposure in the photographs—an exposure that is subject to both repetition and displacement as the photographs pass through their reproduction in books and catalogues, slide shows, web sites, and exhibition spaces—the temporal constitution of the “event” of Seattle is declined across different tenses. At once past, present, and future, the photographs are framed by Sekula himself in terms of an anticipation and threat (“waiting for tear gas”) even as the same event becomes the basis of both the past (this is what happened in Seattle) and future (these photos will constitute a permanent memory of the event), a future anterior in which “Seattle” is subject to continual revision or reinvention. The photographs thus become less historical documents, archives, or visual records illustrating the events of Seattle, part of a larger narrative in which Seattle becomes historical reference or reproducible model. Even less does Seattle become here mere myth or folklore. For the photographs are a measure in which the literature and critical response to the events of Seattle remain open to this demand for reinvention and rethinking, a revisioning now seen to be constitutive of the medium of photography itself. Or rather, the photographs are not merely an invitation toward “revisionist” histories, any more than they recreate the events of Seattle as a model to be reproduced and imitated, for the question remains how the photographs ask us to rethink the relation between this revisioning and reinvention opened by photography as a medium and the continual redefinition of the very content of political action and reflection in its incessant transformation and invention, a turn in which the global justice movement reinvents itself in ways that refuse to locate Seattle as an imitable model. It is in and as photography and the spectrality of its after-effects that Waiting for Tear Gas demonstrates how the global justice movement reinvents itself as it reinvents the world—that another world is indeed possible in its permanent exposure. In this sense, the displacement of Seattle as event to photographic image-event resists all appropriation in and as an identifiable image of Seattle, as if the rhythm of waiting and the lulls that Sekula sequences in the photographs become an index of this very resistance. In terms of the visibility and exposure of this “new face” of protest, Seattle as image event resists its very legibility, including those writings, narratives, and knowledges that attempt to sum up the situation, assume its representation, or take it fully into account (those forms of narrative and explanation that can be left to the police, journalists, and historians).
If three groups are immediately discernible in the sequence of photographs, the question of how each of the groups becomes legible or identifiable in relation to the two others becomes more difficult to discern. On the one hand, the police and the WTO delegates appear clearly representative—of “the law” and “world trade” respectively—even if the terms in which these figures are said to be “representative” or what constitutes or exceeds “the law” also remain open to question and contestation. Not that there existed a cohesive image within the WTO delegates when they met in Seattle, evident in the discord within the actual meetings between the “Third World” delegates and the trade policies of the U.S., its allies, and the World Bank. But the relation between the WTO delegates and the police is clearly recognizable in the photographs themselves, the former physically and symbolically protecting the latter as they attempt to gather in Seattle. Of the three groups, however, it is the demonstrators who are the least legible or identifiable, not so much from an uncertainty about their relation to the WTO delegates and the police—that is clearly legible in the photographs, and was no doubt audible too. Rather, the difficulty is registered in Sekula’s own accompanying text and stems from the very claim that the demonstrators at Seattle constituted a “new face” of protest in the first place. The question, in other words, remains how it is precisely this “face” that remains unrecognizable in the photographs in terms of its legibility, at least in the same way as the police or the delegates are recognizable and so constitute relatively stable forms of political and legal representation (even when they refuse to show their faces).
To phrase the photographs of the demonstrators in terms of a larger question of legibility, identification, and recognition is clearly problematic in that much of the literature on the protests in Seattle turns on narratives of exactly who or which group did what, where, and when in the sequence of events. Whether this information is given in the mainstream media, in the increasingly expansive secondary literature on “Seattle,” or in the more informal records of demonstrators on websites and through indymedia channels, a sense of almost propriety pride is made in establishing the specific details of the protests and the timelines, even if these details are made from specific viewpoints or interests or, more predictably, contested for their partisanship and veracity. Phrasing the photographs of the protests in terms of legibility, identification, and recognition also displaces emphasis on documenting police violence and its increasingly widespread use in mass demonstrations. Not that many of the photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas are devoid of legible signs and indications of police violence, nor of specific and identifiable group affiliation, including the “teamsters” and “turtles” mentioned in Sekula’s text (the latter in reference to the environmental politics of fishing practices) but also evident in banners, signs, and various symbols related to specific causes (chainsaws as reference to the environmental politics of logging in the Pacific Northwest, and so on). These signs and identifications always take place in the implied association between the demonstrators and not simply as the signs of an individual cause, part of a shared “alliance” of contestation against the terms of world trade that unfolds in a continuous process of formation and transformation across the streets of Seattle. Even if the individuals or groups in the photographs can be described as individual figures of protest and their faces made recognizable, we are also still left with a number of difficulties concerning the ways in which they are identifiable, as if the usual labels (age, gender, class, nationality, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on), while perhaps specific to individual photographs, and while discernible when compared to the masked faces of the police, appear wholly inadequate—indeed, they lack both the direct pertinence and justice—in light of a sequence of photographs of collective protest against the WTO and its policies. In this sense, the photographs also become an enabling measure for rethinking a larger set of critical initiatives, in which the very constitution of contemporary political movements is debated and proposed, including the creation of new terms for defining this “new face” of protest itself (the new left, identity politics, equivalence building, global assemblages, the movement of movements, the multitude, and so on).
To compound the problem of legibility, the photographs of Seattle do not correspond to an established history or iconography of protest and demonstration. Unlike previous representations of protest, there remains no clear correspondence to a historically established set of images in which police violence is recorded. The photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas do not correspond easily to the quite specific histories of American labor, union organization, and class protest in terms of exclusively economic issues; however, pertinent such references also remain. There is no clear correspondence to the visual documentation of civil rights protests, race riots, or violent clashes related to urban areas or neighborhoods already characterized by their class or ethnic associations. There is nothing here that might correspond to the quite specific images associated with, say, 1968, or the Los Angeles riots that took place further down the Pacific coast earlier in the 1990s, or marches for reproductive rights, and so on, even if the photographs may be said to also presuppose such references. There is no one group of people defined by their national origins or citizenship, no one section of the population or minority group that has been excluded, no special interest group with which the demonstrators are usually identified (and identified, as usually happens, only in order to be at once targeted or dismissed by the media, governmental spokespeople, or police). Or if Sekula’s photographs register the effects of violence, there is no clear analogy either to ways in which, say, images of Rodney King beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) could feed into a longer and more recognizable iconography, including past images of slavery, lynchings, or police assaults on civil rights protestors. There is thus nothing in the sequence of photographs from Seattle that can be identified exclusively in terms of labor, class, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality alone, and thus no claims for specific rights that are evident here either (civil rights, reproductive rights, gay rights, workers rights, immigration rights, and so on). In this sense, the “new face” of protest remains irreducible to these established or pre-existing forms of political legibility, even in their modern nomenclatures (the “movement of movements,” “equivalence building,” the “multitude,” and so on) and even as the photographs of the protestors as well as the protestors themselves paradoxically draw from long traditions of mass political conflict, traditions repeatedly effaced and ignored in the secondary literature, and especially by the media. Indeed, it could be argued that it is precisely the lack of recognition and legibility in the “new face of protest” that necessitates the very turn to stereotyping by the mainstream media.
Not that the protests at Seattle were not framed by the quite legible and explicit demand for global justice in the face of the conditions informing world trade and global capitalism, demands that could also pertain to quite local contexts. Nor, as Sekula’s text also points out, does the question of global justice take place outside of the specificities of those individual men and women who work on the docks, whether on the West Coast or on the other side of the Pacific. Even here there exists no established forms of legibility beyond the ways in which a coalition of voices and action comes into appearance in the photographs, no attempt to represent a group of people that could be recognized and identified in advance of the “varied and inspired” contingency of their alliance. There remains no given identity that is not shared out in and across the sequence of photographs, no identity that does not become radically transformed, effaced, and simultaneously reopened across the photographs as they unfold from slide to slide, as if the next slide presented the possibility that any given identity in the previous slide could find itself exposed to a radically different set of allegiances and associations, another configuration (or disfiguration). Or rather, there is something in-common between the demonstrators that refuses to be pinned down and identified, or which nowhere identifies itself prior to or beyond the radical alliance of its collectivity, as if the specificity of the photographs as photographs opened and exposed the possibility of asserting not the particularity or universality of the demonstrators and their existence on the streets but their singularity, their constitutive plurality, and their inherent multiplicity—in short, not an opposition between the “one” and “many” (as Kaja Silverman suggest in her reading of the photographs) but a plural singularity and singular plurality. Or it is as if the photographs were the expression of the new face of protest and its exposure and not the representation of different, if identifiable bodies, subsumable within a body politic or movement. In short, what the “new face” of protest attests to is not an identity or essence that exists behind the face that is then represented but the face that offers and exposes itself as the very site of the political (as the Retort collective has suggested, “the face of politics is changing. . . . Its underlying bone structure may or may not be altering too. In either case, new descriptions are needed” (15).
In his introductory text to Waiting for Tear Gas, Sekula remarks that “the human body asserts itself in the city streets against the abstraction of global capital,” an assertion he associates in the protests with a strong feminist dimension. In making this assertion, the human body is marked by its refusal to accept those decisions and acts in which the body is subject to the arbitrary and abstracting measure of capitalist calculation and exchange, a refusal of the history in which the body is reduced to a codified form of labor power, the creation of surplus values, and thus the (mostly invisible and effaced) condition of profit. No doubt Sekula’s assertion of the body in the face of its appropriation and exploitation remains ambiguous in the context of photography’s own appropriation and exploitation of the body, the commerce and visual transactions of the reproducible body which are also subject to quite specific rules of calculation, investment, and exchange (a question, of course, that Sekula’s own writings have also explored at considerable length). But Sekula’s argument suggests less a form of nostalgic humanism, a fetishizing and reappropriation of the uncontaminated, pure body against its capitalist exploitation, than a studied reserve about the discourse of the body in visual representation. In other words, this reserve is set against a more pervasive discourse of the body in photography that finds its measure in avant-gardist provocations, those discourses that invariably reinscribe a form of incarnationist discourse, even when framing the body as site of resistance and conflict in the most explicitly political and not theological terms. The body to which Sekula appeals is not a transgressive body in this sense. More contentiously, Sekula’s text suggests a way in which the assertion of the body in the protests in Seattle does not constitute a form of physical sacrifice, a concept that not only tends to reproduce an incarnationist or ineffable discourse of the body but that corresponds more closely to the rationale and justification for state sanctioned violence and the visual effacements of bodily mutilation and death. Or rather, what the photographs demonstrate is less the transgressive or sacrificial body than its immanent or shared resistance.
The terms in which this argument plays out find resonance in Hardt and Negri’s Empire, specifically the point at which the authors refuse any nostalgia for an essential humanism and so affirm the “new barbarians” within Empire’s imperial constitution. (214). In the demand to escape from “the local and particular constraints of their human condition,” it is these barbarian figures composing the “multitude” who must continually attempt to construct a “new body” and a “new life.” Hardt and Negri further suggest that the construction of the multitude’s new body is not just evident in human relations in general but recognized first and foremost in “corporeal relations” and reconfigurations of gender and sexuality, specifically reconfigurations in which the distinctions between human and animal and human and machine are displaced into the “posthuman body” (218). It is this displacement into the posthuman body that is vividly evoked in the writings of Donna Harraway (cited by Hardt and Negri) and clearly evident in piercings, tattoos, punk fashion, as well as those various aesthetic “mutations” of the body recognizable from many of the demonstrators in Waiting for Tear Gas.
If this emphasis on the posthuman body is the mark of an “anthropological exodus” and an “ontological mutation” constitutive of the multitude’s constituent power and resistance to Empire’s imperial constitution, then any affirmation of this body must also acknowledge a fundamental ambiguity at the basis of this affirmation. For as Hardt and Negri also argue, it is precisely such mutations and celebrations of “hybridity” that also constitute the very methods of imperial sovereignty against which the multitude defines its exodus (including, no doubt, the “posthuman” bodies of the armored and faceless police in Seattle). Faced with this ambivalence, Hardt and Negri nevertheless argue that it is through these “anthropological mutations” of the body that the multitude finds a measure of its resistance within Empire. Indeed, it is precisely through such mutations of the body that the multitude remains “incapable of adapting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of traditional sex life, and so forth” (216). In this sense, the body as expressed in the multitude is defined not just by its refusal of any discourse of normalization but by a “coherent political artifice, an artificial becoming,” an artifice that is inspired less by the “form and order” of a new aesthetics than determined by a radical mobility and transformation in the very regimes and practices of production characterizing late twentieth century and early twenty-first century capitalism. It is then only terms of this transformation in the conditions of production that it becomes possible to recognize that this mobility and artificiality do not merely represent the “exceptional experiences of small privileged groups” (217) but indicate instead the “common productive experience” of the multitude, part of its ability (as numerous discussions of recent G8 summits in both Evian, France, and Gleneagles, Scotland, have forcefully demonstrated) to invent and create new spaces for its existence.
Sekula’s introductory text is clearly characterized by its reticence toward the terms characterizing Hardt and Negri’s larger argument. Waiting for Tear Gas as a project is itself framed by a deep suspicion that social or revolutionary transformation will stem from what Hardt and Negri term the “plastic and fluid terrain” of the new communicative, biological, and mechanical technologies, technologies that inform the post-Fordist conditions of the multitude’s anthropological exodus and post-operaismo Marxism’s privileged terrain of contestation and conflict. Containers might be shipped across the Pacific at a mouse-click, but there are still men and women moving these containers, still bodies defined by the experience of work. Whatever the division of focus and strategies such arguments suggest, including the need to take into account Hardt and Negri’s repeated observation that post-Fordist production is not the exclusive site of the multitude’s existence but marks the hegemony of immaterial labor, what we want to hold onto here is the appeal to the body as an “artificial becoming.” For what the photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas attest to is an artifice—a performance of the body shaped by feminism, as Sekula acknowledges, and an exposure of the body—that does not merely represent the exceptional experiences of small privileged groups but indicates something in-common, a bodily resistance that is not so much individualized as shared out amongst the demonstrators. No doubt within this shared resistance there are those prepared (in every sense) to throw their bodies on the line, as well as those unprepared for the potentially (in later WTO protests, very real) lethal brutality of the police assaults. But nowhere does Sekula appeal in the photographs or his text to the ways in which the discourse of the body is subject to the “exceptional experiences” that one might associate with the more performative presentations of the (neo-) avant-garde artist (yet another Deleuzian inspired reading of Stelarc and the posthuman body, yet another privileged space in which the appeal to a pseudo-emancipatory political rhetoric of “the body” is all the more circumscribed by its theological and incarnationist affirmation of sacrifice). No doubt Sekula’s photographs also offer a sober response to the neo-avant-gardist rhetoric that tends to inform much of Hardt and Negri’s own appeal to the multitude’s posthuman body and anthropological exodus. But what both arguments share here is not the body that reacts to imperial force through sacrifice or transgression but an exposure and affirmation of the human body in the experience of life and death, a body defined by action and speech, the experience of work, and the potentialities inherent in shared resistance, a body defined not just by its biopolitical constitution but by material contiguities and tangential contacts with other bodies as the demonstrators accompany Hendrix, bodies in separation and simultaneous attachment—in short, the body that was being negotiated away in the WTO talks, the body identified, individualized, and abstracted by global capital—even as those same bodies were outside in the streets of Seattle resisting violence, arrest, stun grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, arrest, incarceration, and death.
Spaces of Appearance
A demonstration is political not because it takes place in a specific locale and bears upon a particular object but rather because its form is that of a clash between two partitions of the sensible.
The distinction Sekula offers between the stereotypical photographs of the “mainstream” media and the photographs included in Waiting for Tear Gas is difficult to make outside of the contexts in which they are published or exhibited, or at least outside of the conditions in which a sequence of photographs is edited and then displayed, for it is also clear that many of Sekula’s photographs could have been used by the mass media or in established journalistic contexts. Certainly the lack of explicitly violent scenes in Sekula’s sequence distinguishes his editing from the impulse to encapsulate the events of Seattle in a dramatic and violent clash between the protestors and the police, and the titles, partisan rhetoric, and often inflammatory captions accompanying the publication of photographs in newspaper lay-out and television presentations are also absent (police as “peacekeepers” and so on). But there is nothing intrinsic to the photographs themselves that permits the distinction Sekula makes in his text. Indeed, one could argue that the photographs composing Waiting for Tear Gas find their critical force less in terms of their opposition to stereotypical photo-journalist clichés than in light of the same types of photograph now seen endlessly on personal and indymedia websites created during and after anti-summit protests and political conventions. No doubt these sites were in part created by the cyberpolitics Sekula cautions us against in his argument, a political cyberspace that found one its earliest opportunities in the protests in Seattle in 1999, notably in the newer technological possibilities available to circulate images and communicate narratives about the events outside of the more established institutional contexts of official journalism and the mass media. Since Seattle, these images have obviously continued to flourish and have increased exponentially in volume. But it is not the distinction between the documentary photographs of street protests and cyberpolitics that is important here either. For what all these photographs attest to is the untechnical matter-of-factness of their visual description, their banal, almost dumb facticity (in spite of the exceptional nature of the event itself), their lack of any other pretension than a recognition of the photograph as an image event offered to be seen and reproduced. In short, what these photographs lay claim to is an event that passes into its own exposure and visibility, an event that exists in its becoming-visible, or an event in which the photographs begin to constitute less the documentary representation of the protestors than the very space of their appearance.
In these terms, the distinction Sekula makes between the sequence of photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas and stereotypical photo-journalism can also be rethought in light of a distinction proposed by Rancière between a concept of democracy that rethinks the political conditions informing democracy in a “nihilistic age” and the consensus system characteristic of what he terms “postdemocracy.” It is this distinction that turns precisely around different ways in which to rethink questions of visibility, perception, and appearance.
Refusing to situate democracy in terms of the usual appeals to a parliamentary system of elected officials, public institutions, or the legitimate State, Rancière proposes three theses. First, he argues, democracy is “the kind of community that is defined by the existence of a specific sphere of appearance of the people” (99). Appearance in this sense is not an illusion that is opposed to the real or a simulacrum that subsumes the real; “it is the introduction of a visible into the field of experience, which then modifies the regime of the visible.” Appearance for Rancière is not opposed to reality; “it splits reality and reconfigures it as double” (99). Secondly:
The people occupying this sphere of appearance is a “people” of a particular kind, one not definable in terms of ethnic properties, one that does not identify with a sociologically determinable part of a population or with the sum of the groups that go to make up this population. The people through which democracy occurs is a unity that does not consist of any social group but that superimposes the effectiveness of a part of those who have no part on the reckoning [décompte] of society’s parties. Democracy is the designation of subjects that do not coincide with the parties of the state or of society, floating subjects that deregulate all representation of places and portions. (99-100)
It is this reference to “a part of those who have no part [le compte des incomptés]” that constitutes the basis of Rancière’s argument throughout Disagreement. From the aporetic origins of political philosophy, what counts here is not the sum total of a community (the identities of its members, the classes, the population, etc.) but a “supplementary part” to any count of the population, the part of those who have no-part, the “supplement that disconnects the population from itself.” It is this supplement that creates the enabling conditions in which to think the “sphere of appearance” of the people as a democracy, or the nemeïn—the dealing out and distribution—that founds the nomos. Thirdly, Rancière argues that this sphere or space of appearance, the place where the people appear, is the place where a “dispute [litige]” unfolds:
The political dispute is distinct from all conflicts of interest between constituted parties of the population, for it is a conflict over the very count of those parties. It is not a discussion between partners but an interlocution that undermines the very situation of interlocution. Democracy thus sets up communities of a specific kind, polemical communities that undermine the very opposition of the two logics—the police logic of the distribution of places and the political logic of the egalitarian act. (100)
Rancière concludes his proposal for rethinking democracy by remarking the intersection of three factors. The first turns on a question of mimesis (or aesthesis in Rancière’s terms)—there is democracy if there is a specific sphere where the people appear. The second turns on a refusal to situate “the people” either as a coherent body, or in terms of a sociological allocation of different parts, including the intersections between different social identities, these identifiable parts that, once re-assembled, constitute or presuppose a social totality, notably a totality that remains determinable or accountable within a state formation. In other words, “there is democracy where there are specific political performers who are neither agents of the state apparatus nor parts of society, if there are groups that displace identities as far as parts of the state or society go” (100). And the third is the opening of a space of conflict, “a dispute conducted by a nonidentary subject on the stage where people emerge.” In the reciprocal determination of these three factors, Rancière then argues that a quite specific sense of the political becomes possible, one in which the question of perception and appearance remains central and decisive, notably in the confrontation with what Rancière terms “policing.” Rancière reserves the term "politics" for an “extremely determined activity” that is antagonistic to policing. It is this activity or situation that opens toward a politics understood as “whatever breaks with the perceptible [sensible] configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a presupposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration—that of the part of those who have no part.”
What interests us in this context is the significance of Rancière larger argument in relation to mass demonstrations and protests, and thus the critical pertinence of his argument for our reading of Waiting for Tear Gas. As he proposes in his essay “Ten Theses on Politics”:
Police intervention in public spaces does not consist primarily in the interpellation of demonstrators, but in the breaking up of demonstrations. The police is not the law interpellating individuals (as in Althusser’s “Hey, you there!”) unless one confuses it with religious subjectification. It is, first of all, a reminder of the obviousness of what there is, or rather, of what there isn’t: “Move along! There is nothing to see here!” The police says that there is nothing to see on the road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of the subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens. It consists in reconfiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. It is the established litigation of the perceptible, on the nemeïn that founds any communal nomos.
It is in this context of mass demonstrations that the break or rupture with the “perceptible configuration” becomes acute. Mass demonstrations and protests are constituted precisely around a clash between “two partitions of the sensible.” Exploring the potentialities inherent in such demonstrations, Rancière argues in Disagreement:
This break is manifest in a series of actions that reconfigure the space where parties, parts, or lack of parts have been defined. Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise. It might be the activity of Ballanche’s plebeians who make use of a faculty of speech they do not ‘possess.’ It might be the activity of those nineteenth-century workers who established a collective basis for work relations that were solely the product of an infinite number of relationships between private individuals. Or again, the activity of demonstrators and those manning the barricades that literally turned urban communication paths into ‘public space.’ Spectacular or otherwise, political activity is always a mode of expression [manifestation] that undoes the perceptible divisions [partages sensibles] of the police order by implementing a basically heterogeneous assumption, that of a part that have no part, an assumption that, at the end of the day, itself demonstrates the sheer contingency of the order, the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being. (30)
Reconfiguring the Aristotelian definition of the “political animal” as characterized by its capacity for speech, we want to argue that it is precisely this undoing of the “perceptible divisions” defining the police order that turns us back to Sekula’s distinction between the sequence of photographs that compose Waiting for Tear Gas and the media’s representations of the events in Seattle. Echoing Rancière’s refusal to reduce democracy and politics to the postdemocratic system of consensus characteristic of our nihilistic age and contemporary societies, it is the media’s representations of the events of Seattle that are not merely stereotypical but now seen to participate within a larger set of consensual procedures that remain at once sociological, scientific, and juridical. Opening a rereading of Guy Debord and the Situationists' reference to “police methods to transform perception,” it is these procedures that constitute specific regimes, mechanisms, or dispositifs of perception and visibility that Rancière defines by “policing” in the larger sense of the term:
The so-called consensus system is the conjunction of a determined regime of opinion and a determined regime of right, both posited as regimes of the community’s identification with itself, with nothing left over [sans reste]. As a regime of opinion, the principle of postdemocracy is to make the troubled and troubling appearance of the people and its always false count disappear behind procedures exhaustively presenting the people and its parts and bringing the count of those parts in line with the image of the whole. The utopia of postdemocracy is that of an uninterrupted count that presents the total of “public opinion” as identical to the body of the people. What in actual fact is this identification of democratic opinion with the system of polls and simulations? It is the absolute removal of the sphere of appearance of the people. In it the community is continually presented to itself. In it the people are never again uneven, uncountable, or unpresentable. They are always both totally present and totally absent at once. They are entirely caught in the structure of the visible where everything is on show and where there is thus no longer any place for appearance. (102-03)
If Waiting for Tear Gas finds a measure of its force in light of Rancière’s larger claims, as we are arguing, it does so not only by privileging those paradigmatic points of rupture to which Rancière appeals in his references to mass demonstrations. The sequence of photographs also insists on remarking that there is indeed something to see. The demonstrations become a clash between two “partitions of the sensible,” in which the creation of a space of appearance through the photographs resists the police demands to circulate and “move on!” At the same time, the sequence of the photographs as they unfold as a timed slide sequence, coupled with the sense of waiting and expectation that marks their own internal sequence, together open a partitioning of the visual that cannot be closed off either by the one dramatic image that encapsulates the event, nor by the sense that there is nothing to see here. In this sense, the photographs not only refuse to subordinate the demonstrations to those policing procedures that serve to structure what becomes visible (and thus invisible); through the force of their exposure, the photographs are inscribed in and as a supplement to any community’s identification with itself. Or again, the photographs do not simply expose the part of those who have no part and give that part an identity, thus reinscribing the very system of consensus the protests seek to challenge in the first place. Instead, returning us to Sekula’s own affirmation of the “new face” of protest, the photographs gesture toward the appearance of a people, in the sense that they expose this new face, or in the sense in which this space of appearance is simultaneously transformed here into an exposure. Or again, we might suggest that the photographs expose the sense not just of the inherent multiplicity of the demonstrators but a mêlée that excludes (and is excluded from) any already constituted community.
The Space of Exposure
In “Eulogy for the Mêlée,” Nancy writes:
A city does not have to be identified by anything other than a name, which indicates a place, the place of a mêlée, a crossing and a stop, a knot and an exchange, a gathering [concours], a disjunction [déliaison], a circulation, a radiating [un étoilement]. The name of a city, like that of a country, like that of a people and a person, must always be the name of no one; it must never be the name of anyone who might be presented in person or in their own right [en propre]. (145-46)
Reviewing the sequence of photographs in Waiting for Tear Gas, the most usual way in which to conceive of the place of appearance is as a public sphere, or simply a public space. In the sequence of photographs themselves, the physical context in which the events of Seattle unfold is curiously present and absent. On the one hand, Seattle becomes a stage-set for both the WTO and the protestors, even if the police are called in to decide who will occupy this space, both physically and symbolically. In this sense, the photographs register the different ways in which public space or the public sphere is negotiated as a question and conflict of power, of inclusion and exclusion. The photographs also suggest the multiple ways in which the city of Seattle is constituted as a space that is physically occupied and traversed, with all the bite in which the city is experienced as a contested space and not merely an object of studied detachment, for which the discourse of urbanism and city planning remain our most powerful emblems. It is this space that cannot be contained by or simply identified with the more official and familiar associations with Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks, and thus Seattle’s associations with the “new economy” as it was championed in the years leading up to the 1999 protests. If the scenes take place downtown, the space also has no fixed or prior image in the photographs, at least beyond the ways in which the inhabitants who occupy the city at that moment come into appearance in that space, such that Seattle does not exist prior to the contingent alliances of those who come into appearance there. The photographs reveal no constructed, publicized, or idealized image that is suddenly broken by scenes of violence destroying the calm of the average workday, the space of commodified urban spectacle, or tourism (the favorite tropes of mass media coverage of such events). Nor is the “inner city” here a stage set for advertising, carefully choreographed scenarios, in which rival gangs or basketball games or kids standing at street corners become the backdrop for Nike ads, rap videos, or clothing commercials. What is at stake here is not just the definition of a public space or the public sphere, nor the role of Seattle as the physical site of conflict over world trade, nor the creation of the “movement of movements” across sovereign borders. For what remains at stake here is the very possibility of defining the polis itself, notably its continued, critical pertinence as a concept within the tendencies defining contemporary globalization. Indeed, as Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz has argued, what Waiting for Tear Gas throws into relief is precisely whether the “occupation of space and the taking of time as forms of negativity” are still capable of “activating the polis” (13).
This description of the events of Seattle can be rethought in light of Rancière’s references to the “place of appearance” in Disagreement. We should recall that this expression is a revision of Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition, in which the “space of appearance” is a critical dimension in which to think the effaced place of “speech and action” in the constitution of our modernity. As Arendt insists, action and speech constitute the “modes” in which human beings appear to one another, “where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance.” It is precisely in these terms that Arendt reconfigures the distinctions and relations between work, labor, and action, arguing that these concepts now constitute a decisive index for rethinking the political as a concept, including the related affirmation of human plurality. Situated in relation to the events of Seattle, it is a pivotal dimension of her larger argument that Arendt also claims that this emphasis on action and speech will have decisive implications for the constitution of a polis, the very space in which to think the “sharing of acts and deeds.” The polis to which she appeals in The Human Condition is not the city-state in its physical location, any more than Arendt mourns for the lost polis of the Greeks. Indeed, the space of appearance that defines the polis for Arendt exists prior to “all formal constitution of the public realm and the various forms of government,” that is, prior to “the various forms in which the public realm can be organized” (199). For the polis is the “organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together,” and its “true space” for Arendt “lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (198). Action and speech thus create an absolutely contingent and precarious space between people, a space that cannot be reduced to an individual’s occupation of a space or “ways of being” but finds its proper location “almost any time and anywhere.” In this sense, the polis for Arendt is constituted through a permanent displacement of itself, not in the sense of a displacement in which individuals move from one place to another (the global as the space of nomadic travel or summit-hopping) but a displacement that marks an interval, a fissure, or an interruption, a scansion in-between that is neither strictly here—nor there. More decisively, Arendt claims that this space does not always exist, few people live in it, and no one can live in it all the time (as the events of “Seattle” demonstrate, and as Rancière also insists, politics is rare). Moreover, this space of appearance “does not survive the actuality of the moment which brought it into being,” disappearing not only with the dispersal of those who occupy the space but with the “disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves” (199). The difficulty in which to characterize the topological and mimetic instability of the polis continually punctuates Arendt’s argument, as when she attempts to define the polis by evoking the proto-Deleuzian image of the soldiers returning from the Trojan War who might have wished to “make permanent the space of action which had arisen from their deeds and sufferings,” or when she has to resort to the metaphor of a séance. Rethinking what constitutes the public realm as a “common world,” Arendt argues that the difficulty in accounting for “mass society” is not simply the number of people but the fact that “the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them,” going on to suggest that “the weirdness of the situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible” (53).
Arendt’s turn to the metaphor of a spiritualistic séance and the acknowledged weirdness of this situation suggests the real difficulty of how to think the relation-between as a simultaneous attachment and detachment, a gathering and separation or proximity and distance that defines for Arendt the singular space or spacing that we call the polis. Rancière rewrites Arendt’s argument in Disagreement at precisely this point by proposing a related, if less spiritual, conclusion. For if politics is not the “consensual community of interests that combine,” then nor is it for Rancière “the community of some kind of being-between [inter-être],” in the sense of an “interesse that would impose its originarity on it, the originarity of a being-in-common based on the esse (being) of the inter (between) or the inter proper to the esse.” Rather, Rancière proposes:
The inter of a political interesse is that of an interruption or an interval. The political community is a community of interruptions, fractures, irregular and local, through which egalitarian logic comes and divides the police community from itself. It is a community of worlds in community that are intervals of subjectification: intervals constructed between identities, between spaces and places. Political being-together is a being-between: between identities, between worlds. (137)
Framed in terms of a space of appearance as well as a gathering, the fundamental aporia that both Arendt and Rancière thus confront, the aporia that Arendt simultaneous evades and nevertheless discloses in her appeal to the metaphor of a séance, is how to define the polis when it constitutes a world that, like every in-between, not only foregrounds the part of those who have no part but “relates and separates men at the same time” (52). In other words, the different topological descriptions both Arendt and Rancière turn to throughout their respective texts are inscribed by this simultaneous relation and separation, a proximity and distance that constitutes the permanently interrupted or suspended grammar of the “in-between”—in short, a simultaneous attachment and detachment that comes to determine Arendt’s references in her text to a “gathering,” as well as to the more well-known affirmation of human plurality. If Arendt’s argument clearly informs Rancière’s writings, or if thinking through the force of this in-between transforms the space of appearance into the space of an exposure, as we are arguing, it is perhaps significant that this aporia leads Arendt to rearticulate the polis not in terms of a negativity but of an uncontrollable resistance. For “while the various limitations and boundaries we find in every body politic may offer some protection against the inherent boundlessness of action,” as Arendt observes, such limitations and boundaries are “altogether helpless to offset its second outstanding character: its inherent unpredictability” (191).
It is in this sense that the photographs that compose Waiting for Tear Gas begin to offer some justice to the movement of movements in its suspension of history, some justice not to its identity or its future, nor its representation, but its inherent unpredictability—in short, the permanently remarked opening of the space in-between that constitutes at once the “new face of protest” and the ways in which this face finds its more contingent and immeasurable measure in—and as—its exposure.
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