Inhabiting Spaces of Resistance: A Meditation on Co-Performative Acts of Protest
Cindy Spurlock, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Enculturation 6.2 (2009): http://enculturation.net/6.2/spurlock
Protest and dissent have long played a crucial role in the project of American democracy. Indeed, democracy requires it. The act of taking to the streets, pamphleteering, marching, and/or speaking out about perceived injustices, from the early days of the American Revolution to the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the 1963 March on Washington, the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, and the recent anti-war protests of 2003 to 2005, has made a significant imprint on public policy and public opinion. It is a form of un/civil participation that draws attention both to the status quo and its alternatives. In Charles Morris and Stephen Howard Browne's terms, "the rhetoric of social protest, whatever form it takes, has typically been thought of as outward-directed . . . it seeks to alter the status quo by persuading others to change their attitudes, beliefs, and actions" (2). And, as Franklyn Haiman's groundbreaking work noted in 1967, the "rhetoric of the streets" is indeed worthy of scholarly attention. After nearly four decades of sustained intellectual inquiry and vigorous debate, the question of whether rhetorical studies has something important to say about social movements, protest, and other forms of resistance has overwhelmingly been answered in the affirmative. Rhetoricians have brought their critical expertise to bear on social movements and social protests (SM/SP) of all sizes and ideological stripes to understand how and why these moments and movements "move" others rhetorically, and they have generated a vast and rich body of literature in the process.
Along the way, the questions, perspectives, and methods used to study social movements and social protest have radically shifted. These changes, broadly speaking, are the result of significant epistemological challenges raised by the critical turn of the 1980s and 1990s. Here, the assumptions that govern knowledge production were scrutinized, debated, and re-theorized across the humanities in ways that shook the pillar from beneath the notion of purely rational, apolitical, objective inquiry. As a result, and although not universally embraced, knowledge production was (re)figured as an act that could not be divorced from its politics. With respect to SM/SP studies, these challenges to the status quo enabled rhetoricians to engage in new forms of interdisciplinary inquiry that crossed borders and to participate in scholarly conversations with cultural studies and performance studies while also taking up some of their problematics, questions, and methods. It is at this critical-performative-rhetorical intersection that some of the most provocative scholarship in SM/SP studies is taking place, as first principles about effects, audiences, rhetors, and the role(s) of the researcher are challenged, revised, and challenged anew.
At the crossroads of these three perspectives, acts of social protest and dissent are not understood as "simply" meaning one thing or another: meanings are rarely, if ever, neutral or value-free representations of what is, what was, and what will be. Instead, meanings are like cultural capital, and the value of that symbolic currency is the result of contested and changing negotiations between publics, counter-publics, individuals, and other interested parties (i.e., politicians, corporations, non-governmental organizations [NGOs]) who participate in these struggles. In particular, rhetorical studies offers a rich and unique approach to the interdisciplinary study of SM/SP because of its classical grounding in philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, its long-standing commitment to democratic theory and practice, and its relevance to both historic and contemporary social controversy. Together, these intellectual trajectories have enabled the critical-rhetorical study of SM/SP to yield scholarship that is nuanced and interdisciplinary, both conversant with and relevant to ongoing conversations in history, political science, economics, and sociology. Although there is still much to be learned from the study of public address and the statements made by official or figurehead representatives (as well as the role that such individuals play in the production of SM/SP rhetorics), these studies have been augmented by other work that is sensitive to both the political economy of media and the compression of time-space that is dictated by the demands of late capitalism and modernity. From these contributions, we have learned that movements cannot be studied as totalities, power is not necessarily located at the top of the hierarchy, and there are many forms of social and political resistance that have, until recently, been overlooked because they did not fit the rubric of SM/SP studies or popular notions of decorum. Moreover, conflict is desirable, radically divergent publics can be mobilized to unite under a common umbrella (temporarily) to achieve a goal and, perhaps most importantly, there are no guarantees. Movements are no longer considered to be the "proper" or real agents of social change, and the motives of protesters are no longer considered to be ego-driven. No longer do critical- rhetorical SM/SP studies seek to pathologize or typologize the objects and subjects of its gaze. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of scholarship in communication studies and elsewhere that rejects the call to reflexivity. Nonetheless, nearly every aspect of SM/SP studies has been (or is being) questioned. To paraphrase Karl Marx, it seems as if all that was solid has melted into air.
However, there is still much work to be done. Suggesting that the airwaves have little room for dissenting voices or images of SM/SP is no longer considered conspiratorial but is acknowledged as empirical fact. In particular, progressive and liberal-left social movements and protesters have had to reinvent themselves rhetorically in order to garner media attention in an increasingly soundbyte and image-driven world where the evening news is dominated by right-leaning experts. Yet even this is no guarantee that the media spotlight will shine in their direction, let alone grant them a fair hearing or offer an accurate representation of their views. As a result of these changing tactics, SM/SP scholars have had to reconsider how they study what happens on the ground and how it is repackaged if and when re/mediated to secondary audiences. One of the most important additions to SM/SP studies in recent years has been a growing awareness and critical attention to the various forms of knowing that happen at the sites of protest and in the secondary spaces where sites of protest are re/mediated through television and other forms of visual communication, such as multimedia websites. As Kevin DeLuca and other scholars have skillfully argued in recent years, these new forms of visual and embodied rhetoric are profoundly influential: image politics are increasingly responsible for shaping the contours (if not radically shifting the parameters) of most contemporary social controversies and for carving out oppositional, alternative spaces and forms of dissent and social protest. Seemingly long gone (but not forgotten) are the days of four-hour oratorical contests and, as many would lament, a deliberative democracy founded on the principles of rational, sustained argumentation. This is not to suggest that such practices are dead or outmoded, nor to claim that a postmodern politics rules the day. It is, rather, to note that the rhetorics of SM/SP have metamorphosed and adapted to respond to contemporary articulations of power and re/mediation and, indeed, have been shaped and influenced by their demands.
And, as I argue in this essay, studying these new rhetorics with a critical-performative-rhetorical lens enables the possibility of intervention (itself a form of activism) and offers a rationale for increased attention to the extraordinarily contingent, local, fragile, and ephemeral nature of image events. Here, the act of engaging in a co-performative act of protest enables an ethnographic approach to rhetorical criticism that blurs the boundaries of text and context because it radically contextualizes the critic. Augmenting the discursive study of image events with an embodied, co-performative approach to criticism embraces liminiality as a generative thinking and writing space because it enables the possibility of a different critical perspective than one garnered through textual analysis alone. However, a co-performative approach to studying SM/SP rhetoric in the era of image politics remains tricky and contentious, and the risks associated with putting one's body on the line to participate in social protest as a citizen-scholar, let alone engaging in performative critical writing that re/mediates the rhetorics of SM/SP in ways that depart from conventional academic prose, are not without controversy. What follows is a meditation on a co- performative act of social protest—a multi-faceted image event—and the political, personal, and intellectual tensions that emerge at the critical-performative-rhetorical intersection.
A Tale of Two Protests
On Saturday, February 21, 2004, the National Socialist Party (NSP) (the American Nazi Party) and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a "Unity Rally" on the grounds of the North Carolina Capitol Building in downtown Raleigh. Their aim, according to the Stormfront White Nationalist Community online bulletin board, was to unite as "ONE SOLID FIST against those who would rob us of our Heritage" (n. pag). According to reports from the web-based North Carolina Independent Media Center and speeches made by the NSP/KKK at the rally, the State was targeted because recent media attention about gang violence in Durham and the State's growing Latino population had convinced rally organizers that the area was both unstable and potentially ripe for recruitment efforts. Although this was not the first time that the Klan had chosen Raleigh as the location for a demonstration or march, it was the first time in 25 years that the Klan and the NSP publicly presented themselves as a unified body in this region of the State. Between 12 noon and 4p.m., the streets of downtown Raleigh were slowly transformed into four distinct spaces: the "official" site of the NSP/Klan rally, the unofficial sites of protest, the heavily-policed spaces on the ground and in the air that mediated the two, and the border spaces around the perimeter where the transactions of everyday life continued, relatively uninterrupted, but on this day, surveilled by SWAT officers on rooftops and punctuated by the methodical hum of circling police and media helicopters.
When I first learned about the rally—and the protest—by picking up a small, bright orange flyer from the counter at an independent, locally owned coffee shop in Chapel Hill in early February, I scarcely imagined that I would later write about it. At that time, I saw my participation in the protest as a natural extension of my personal philosophy and politics, not necessarily as an opportunity for research and disciplinary reflection. That week, there was little mention of the "Rally in Raleigh" in the campus or local newspapers, and the story was briefly picked up by the local print news but conspicuously absent from the local broadcast news. I spoke with a few colleagues about my plans to attend, and a few were, thoughtfully, concerned about my safety. Nonetheless, it was important to be there and to stand against this public demonstration of racial hatred and religious intolerance. Still, I was skeptical about attending alone, and I could not help but recall the disturbing stories that friends would tell about their brushes with State power at protest sites after Seattle: Philadelphia, D.C., Miami, and New York were places where protesters were treated harshly by law enforcement. That Saturday morning, it took longer than usual to get ready because my mind was racing. I couldn't stop thinking:
What are the implications of wearing black combat boots today? What are the risks and benefits of bringing ID? Is my bag subject to search or seizure by law enforcement in the protest zone? If I bring a camera, on what grounds could it be confiscated? What rights do protesters have? What will I do if things get violent—on either side? Am I willing to be arrested today? Does a healthy respect for free speech and the right to assemble require us to tolerate that which we find intolerable?
Am I encouraging this display of hate by showing up in protest against it? After all, a colleague claimed, any attention simply lends credence to their message. Ignore them. Grant them no audience, his argument went, and they will disappear, having failed to rile the public. On the other hand, I had countered, ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. Isn't it unethical not to show up and protest, to embody one's politics in the face of their opposition, and to put theory (or belief, in this case) into practice? Is this about me, as Richard Gregg's work on the ego function of social protest would contend, or is this about democracy in action?
What are the relationships between social protest and image events? To what extent must an image event garner significant media attention in order to qualify as "successful"? Furthermore, how does one negotiate the contradictions of the image (a moment "frozen" in time-space) with the idea that a rhetorical event has multiple layers that resist the singularity of isolation? How will news reports (the "archive") about this event compare/contrast with my experience of it? Must an image event gain significant re/mediation in order to do its rhetorical work, or can its influence on the ground "count"? In other words, what happens when an image event "fails"? Is it still an image event?
I became increasingly aware of the contradictions at hand and of the ethical imperatives motivating one's decision to protest or not, but there was no gray area. Ultimately, however, you were either there or you were not. Yet, the act of protest was itself rife with contradiction.
I left home that morning with few expectations, fewer answers, and innumerable questions, hoping that the day's events would offer insight into my larger questions about the politics of knowledge production and the knowing production of politics. I arrived early. Just before noon, I parked 5 blocks away and walked across the pedestrian-only spaces of Fayetteville Street Mall, past the closed shops and abandoned storefronts of downtown Raleigh's failed attempt at urban revitalization. As I approached Morgan Street, I noticed that police officers were stationed every few hundred feet on either side of this denuded concrete jungle, yet I was one of a handful of people walking around. In the distance, I could see the glistening metal barricades that police had installed to separate protesters from the rally site, the Capitol Building, on the other side of the street. Here, a small cluster of protesters had begun to assemble, and a few tables laden with alternative political newspapers, buttons, and books were available for sale. The Capitol Building grounds were vacant, save a few clusters of police officers and an empty podium. On this bounded sidewalk, two women whose signs and t-shirts testified that they were survivors of the Greensboro Massacre attracted a curious crowd as they recounted a painful and personal oral history of the last "Unity Rally" held nearly 25 years ago. I stopped and joined the small circle that had gathered around them. They told us about the history of Klan activity and violence in the State, and the ways in which these men and women have continued to incite terror—at the margins, in the shadows—for several generations. They explained how public demonstrations like today's rally represented a larger cultural silence, that racial hatred is still alive and well in the South, but that it is more implicit and insidious than it had been when the Klan marched without incident, protest, or police protection through the streets of downtown Raleigh in 1965. One of the women thanked us for having the courage to be downtown that day and for facing what she perceived as the very real threat—the spectre—of violence. She recounted her memory of how the Klan had opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing five and wounding ten, on November 3, 1979. The other woman warned us that dissent and alternative points of view are still not welcome here, and that activists like us must both remember the past and never forget that progressive social change requires sustained struggle.
As they talked, those in the circle were quiet. This was, momentarily, a rhetorically sacred space where a younger generation listened intently to the war stories offered by these veterans of past ideological struggles. In this space, their narratives (and our positioning as both audience and co-protesters in this space, the sidewalks of Raleigh) articulated the past to the present moment in a constitutive rhetoric that (per)formed a cohesive, yet temporary, common bond of solidarity. By now, the crowd of protesters was growing exponentially. More than 50 students from UNC's Black Student Movement, clad entirely in black, marched in silence down the sidewalk behind our story circle. The other protesters stopped listening to cheer, whistle, and clap as these students formed a solid front line, bodies in position against the metal barricades, standing shoulder to shoulder to face the Capitol Building. They were soon joined by other students from SURGE (Students United for a Responsible Global Environment), SPAN (Student Peace Action Network), and others active in the anti-racist and farmworker labor movements, all of which had organized shared transportation networks that brought activists from across the State to counter the NSP/Klan "Unity Rally" by unifying a cross-section of progressive organizations and individuals on the sidewalks. Over the next hour, these sidewalks would become thick with bodies of all shapes, sizes, ages, and hues. Slowly, from the formerly empty spaces of the sidewalk, an embodied socio-political geography emerged where internal boundaries —the border spaces between organized protest groups of varying political affiliation and of unaffiliated individuals—were fluid and transgressable, while the spaces between the sidewalk and the Capitol Building transformed into a heavily-armed sea of black and blue.
Just before 3 p.m., police presence had swelled to anxiety-inducing proportions and nearly all six branches of law enforcement (many in full riot gear) were facing the protesters, and the street was closed to all traffic (vehicular and pedestrian), save official vehicles and police on horseback. Snipers had assumed their positions on the rooftops. By this time, the NSP/Klan rally was running an hour behind schedule, and no one on the sidewalk seemed to know what was going on. Meanwhile, a situationalist-inspired group called Klowns Against Klan Action handed out "diversity sandwiches" (peanut butter and jelly between a slice of white and a slice of whole wheat bread) to hungry protesters. Others flew rainbow flags and carried signs: "Racism Is Not A Part Of My Southern Heritage;" "Follow Your Leader" (with images implying that they should commit suicide like Hitler); "My Country Supports Liberty and Justice;" "Nazis Killed 6,000,000 Of My Family;" "We Will Not Stand 4 Racism;" "By The Blood Of My Ancestors, I Condemn You;" "We Are The Zeitgeist;" and "Keep Our Country Nice And Clean" (with an image of a swastika being tossed into a garbage can). This contingent, ephemeral space, the site of protest, where people pardoned themselves for accidentally stepping on others' toes in the tight spaces of the crowded sidewalk, where families brought their children for the purposes of witnessing, and where volunteering lawyers took time to educate protesters about their constitutionally protected rights, was alive with activity. Various organizations handed out flyers. People made small talk about politics. Traces of the same topics filled the protest spaces all afternoon, ranging from disbelief that the rally was even happening here in the first place to individual testimony or reasons for protesting and cautious observance of the growing police presence. When the rally participants finally emerged from the far side of the Capitol Building just before 3 p.m., the crowd of protesters began to shout and jeer, booing as loudly as possible in the absence of amplified sound. On three sides of the building, more than 1,000 people were dissenting, together, in our own unity rally.
Initially, the NSP/Klan had planned to march down two blocks of Raleigh's streets and begin the rally at 2 p.m. According to the NSP's website, police and city officials had voiced concern about the safety of these men and women and instead transported them by bus to the Capitol Building grounds. Just before 3 p.m., the NSP/Klan rally officially commenced as approximately 30 people dressed in white robes and Nazi brown shirt uniforms assembled under Confederate and Nazi flags. Others were dressed in the black shirt uniforms of Hitler's SS. They waved black SS flags and held large signs proclaiming "White Power" and "White Evolution: The Only Solution." Sporting crew cuts and shaved heads, jeans, leather jackets, sunglasses and black boots, some of them could have passed for average, everyday people—except that they were holding a 3x5 banner advertising the NSM and the phone number for its Minnesota office. Others waved the 13-star Colonial flag. Although several hundred feet, two sets of hard metal barricades, and a cavalry of police and SWAT officers separated them from the protesters, their amplified sound permit enabled them to be heard over the din of the crowd. As the first speaker approached the podium, the sounds of police whistles, booing and helicopters, as well as vocal uproar from the protesters all but drowned out the the rally speaker's first volley. Addressing the crowd as "leftist scum" and beginning with the issue of immigration, Commander Jeff Schoep of the NSP declared, "you people don't belong here" and quickly segued into the "problem" of race mixing. Schoep barked his claims into the microphone, struggling to be heard over the chants and drumbeats of the protesters across the street. Within five minutes, Schoep had moved on to anti-Semitic positions. Next, Schoep began to discuss the problems that he perceived as occurring right here in North Carolina: "Look at your gang culture in Durham—four murders in a week . . . turning American into a 'Black Hawk Down' Negro culture" and launching into a tirade about homosexuality and framing the issues through what he believed George Washington would do: loading a musket and turning on all of the "traitors." A haze of uneasiness permeated the crowd after these remarks, as it was clear that Schoep was talking both about us and to us.
In the space of this image event, Schoep's audience was comprised of people who were physically present (both rallying with and protesting against him), and his re/mediated audiences: the news crews who might broadcast or write about the rally, and those who would later be able to download recordings of the speeches from the NSP website, listening in the privacy of their own homes. As protesters took pictures of the rally, those on the Capitol Building grounds also took pictures (and video) of the protesters in an unsettling dance of reciprocal surveillance. While there were plenty of law enforcement officers on hand, nearly all of them had their backs to the men and women in hoods and jackboots, watching the protesters instead of those holding the rally on the lawn. A brief silence fell over the crowd when the next speaker, Virgil Griffin, an Imperial Wizard with the Cleveland Knights (NC) chapter of the KKK, introduced himself to the crowd by stating what a "pleasure it is to be out organizing the white race." As I circulated through the protest site earlier that day, I noticed that many others had also gathered around the Greensboro survivors, and they, too, heard about the ways in which today's rally would proudly and prominently feature individuals who had instigated that tragedy. As if on cue, Griffin boasted about his own participation in the Greensboro Massacre, taunting the crowd: "If the police take a break today like they did in Greensboro and go eat lunch, your . . . buns would be running the hell outta' town! We'll go out here on the interstate and meet you boys and girls anywhere you name it." With a raspy drawl and rhythmic cadence, he shouted, "We're not afraid of you scum. We don't hide under rocks. We're white men and we're white women and we're damn proud of it, ladies and gentlemen."
Griffin went on to thank several police officers by name and offered a round of applause on their behalf, while they did nothing to curtail his threat of violence. Before concluding his speech, Griffin addressed the crowd: "I wanna thank you protesters. You're the ones building the Klan for us. When people see you out here in the streets, they are ready to join. White brothers and sisters," he thundered, "God bless every one of you and the rest of you go straight to hell for all I care." His last comments enraged the crowd, and a cacophonous roar of dissent rose from the sidewalk as the next speaker, Major Bill Hoff, one of the primary architects of the NSP, took the microphone. Hoff decided to address the African Americans in the crowd directly. The protesters responded with a roaring chant of "The people united will never be defeated" that quickly overpowered Hoff's amplified sound. A final speaker concluded the afternoon's rally, but his remarks were inaudible by this time due to the chanting and counter-discourses emanating from the sidewalk spaces. Several media trucks had arrived and were able to cross police lines to take close-up footage of the rally. Just before 4 p.m., the NSP/Klan members were escorted by police back to their designated parking area without incident. By this time, the crowd was punctuated by self-proclaimed anarchists whose faces were covered by black bandannas. Several of these individuals attempted to cross the police line while others taunted the police. The surrounding streets, save the stray poster, flyer, or bit of trash, were nearly vacant by 5 p.m. However, the day's events would be re/mediated in the local newspapers in a rather curious fashion: while mainstream publications devoted little space to the event, it received noticeably greater attention in other spaces. It was prominently featured in nearly all of the region's campus newspapers and independent media outlets, and several bloggers included both documentary images and field reports.
Resisting the Other: The Rhetorics of Dual/Dueling Image Events
On that crisp Saturday afternoon, the normally pedestrian spaces of downtown Raleigh were temporarily transformed into a mutually reinforcing site of social protest as two image events unfolded simultaneously, targeting each other and potential audiences (or publics) who might encounter these rhetorics in re/mediated contexts. On the grounds of the Capitol Building, the NSP/Klan had organized a rally that, by its very nature, was designed to attract media attention through its hyperbolic rhetoric, military-like pageantry, and the brute materiality of its realism. Here, white-robed bodies stood in solidarity next to men and women proudly wearing Nazi regalia, united symbolically and discursively in their mutual hatred toward others not like them. By rallying at the literal and metaphoric center of State government, the NSP/Klan were usurping its symbolic power while demonstrating their own. Such a bold move practically guaranteed a counter-response by protesters and media attention. Regardless of the actual number of participants in the rally, the threat of violence both by and to them, as well as the State's obligation to uphold their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, requires significant police presence, especially after the Greensboro tragedy. The rarity of these rallies also contributes to their rhetorical power as image events, paradoxically, as their lengthy periods of absence from the public spotlight emboldens their chosen moments of presence, suggesting that these "ghosts" are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Thus, any planned public appearance is always already a spectacle, a disturbing display of power and resistance, and a performative rupture that wounds and traumatizes the social and cultural landscape.
On the sidewalks, protesters from across the State and representatives from a range of progressive social movements had also united, temporarily articulating their diverse political and social agendas to the common goal of anti-racist action. Clearly, the protesters did not have the same degree of choice accorded to the NSP/Klan with respect to location. Nonetheless, these sidewalk spaces were transformed in ways that simultaneously figured them as classroom, carnival, stage, soapbox, memorial, site of witness, and safe space of resistance. Here, people from all walks of life shared common space, chanting and singing together in one voice to drown out the sounds of intolerance emanating from the rally site. Although I am hesitant to describe this side of the street as a utopian community because the very notion of community implies a form of social responsibility and mutuality that lasts far longer than a 4-hour protest, it was, nevertheless, a cooperative space in which most protesters appeared to take the notion of embodied tolerance quite seriously. As a co-performer, I was surprised by this fact. I had previously attended protests where in-fighting and bickering about who was right had foreclosed the possibility of political solidarity. However, there was also a palpable sense that this protest space was extraordinarily fragile and contingent—constituted by the very exigency of the rally across the street and destined to disappear when it did. Its very existence as a space and time of tolerance was itself a resistant practice, a simple but defiant rhetorical act. As a collection of competing, yet complementary, image events unfolding within a shared space, much of the activity at this relatively peaceful protest attempted to destabilize the ideograph of protester as radical, long-haired, middle class student, and to replace its hold in the popular imaginary (with the exception of a few student organizations like CAKA and SURGE) with such a wide range of possibilities that no one set of stereotypes could possibly hold.
Unlike other image events, where the primary rhetorical aim is to attract media attention through alternative forms of argumentation in ways that break through the media clutter and capture a large audience, these protests played out on a shared stage where each had an integral role in the Other's narrative. As the protesters inflamed the NSP/Klan and as the NSP/Klan simultaneously riled the protesters, these discourses rhetorically constituted self and Other through the moment-by-moment performative and embodied resistances that played out on both sides of the street. Each image event required the presence of its symbolic Other to validate its truth claims and to serve as the disciplined subject of its discourses. Both were simultaneously engaged in symbolic resistance against the Other. As image events, both the NSP/Klan rally and the multiple sites and forms of dissent that comprised the protest site were attempting to address an audience that was already present and also those who would experience a re/mediated version of the protest in the future. Curiously, both sides of the street were engaged in performative rhetorics that were simultaneously constitutive (Charland), oppositional (Olson and Goodnight), and vernacular (Hauser), engaging in what DeLuca calls "image politics," whereby visual rhetorics force attention to the issues at hand by challenging and destabilizing taken-for-granted meanings. Both the NSP/Klan and the protesters, following Maurice Charland's thesis that constitutive rhetoric "calls its audience into being," making identification possible through "rhetorical claims . . . [that] are predicated upon the existence of an ideological subject" (134-137), created messages that were aimed at strengthening their own sense of identity in ways that simultaneously weakened the identity of the Other, mutually constituting self and Other in this contested space. Both sides of the street engaged in what Olson and Goodnight have termed "oppositional arguments," those that are part of larger, ongoing social controversies. Here, Olson and Goodnight define social controversy as "an extended rhetorical engagement that critiques, resituates, and develops communication practices bridging the public and personal spheres" (344). Kathryn Olson and Thomas Goodnight rightly claim that those who are "confronted by strategies of delegitimation and reassociation, those who are caught up in the controversy work to bolster, alter, or abandon the social and communication practices in question" (366), a practice that will eventually bring all sides to an impasse. However, Olson and Goodnight, as DeLuca also notes, assume rational actors in a rational public sphere. Image events, however, are often crafted to directly challenge the assumptions of rational argumentation, decorum, and the notion that social change can only happen through sustained, logical debate between equals. In this particular space of protest, there was no middle ground, nor would a dialectical synthesis that could unite both the NSP/Klan and protesters be considered an acceptable outcome.
Finally, both sides (the NSP/Klan and protesters) were engaging in what Gerald Hauser calls vernacular discourse, constituting self and Other through rhetorics that do not necessarily fit neatly into the public sphere, especially because of their gritty nature, the questionable veracity of their claims, and their relatively "irrational" actors. However, Hauser rightly argues that such groups or individuals do have the right to be heard. He explains that "the criterion of communicative rationality contributes to the exclusionary character of the public sphere by constraining open access" (51). For Hauser, multiple spheres exist, and "publics may be repressed, distorted, or responsible, but any evaluation of their actual state requires that we inspect the rhetorical environment as well as the rhetorical acts out of which they evolved, for these are the conditions that constitute their individual character" (80-81). Hauser's comprehensive exploration of vernacular rhetoric, when read alongside Sharon Beder's work on media ownership and political economy, clearly underscores the problem of corporate media and the kinds of filters that are constructed between publics and audiences in the mediated public sphere. Thus, the rhetoric of the streets—no matter how misguided, "irrational," indecorous, or problematic it may seem—deserves a hearing.
The "hearing" that these rhetorics received, however, was limited to local news coverage, documentary photos, and an ongoing flame war between self-proclaimed skinheads, anti-racist anarchists, those caught in the middle at the NC Independent Media Center's online forum, and a few blog posts written by local residents and activists who had participated in the protest. Television news coverage of these events was noticeably absent, despite the presence of several cameras and crews. News coverage of these image events was limited to local print-based media sources. The Durham Herald-Sun; Raleigh's News & Observer; The Wilmington Journal, the alternative, regional independent weekly; and the student papers at Duke, NC State, UNC, and Guilford College each offered a different perspective, and nearly all included at least one photo. As often is the case, reported attendance estimates varied significantly, from a low of 300 to a high of over 1,000. In a somewhat predictable fashion, each report offered a brief summary of the rally and the protest, as well as a quote from one of the NSM/Klan speakers and several quotes from protesters. Only by sorting through each of these differing accounts and reading them in conjuncture could one piece together a more nuanced understanding of what had occurred in downtown Raleigh that afternoon, as each story missed one or more important aspects of these dual/dueling image events. In the days that followed, the story led in the campus papers. In the mainstream papers, it was buried and not followed up with additional reporting or editorializing. On their websites, several local television stations ran the following AP wire story:
About 35 people calling themselves America's Nazi party called Jews, blacks and homosexuals the ruin of America during a rally at the old state Capitol in Raleigh. The group formerly called the National Socialist Movement praised George Washington while flying Nazi, Confederate, and Ku Klux Klan flags. Law officers decked out in riot gear stood watch as an estimated 300 people demonstrated against the group. They sang anti-Nazi songs and carried banners denouncing racism. No injuries or arrests were reported during the afternoon rally.
However, the most descriptive and nuanced reporting about the events came from the North Carolina Independent Media Center's online news center:
Many protesters both sympathized and critiqued police of color as a Carrboro resident commented, "It's just really really sad to talk to a black cop and watch him standing there stoic. Behind them there's a Klan guy and a fucking Nazi flag, and he's standing there protecting the stuff and upholding it and supporting it. I know it's for a paycheck, but it's the saddest thing to see these guys' faces."
While all agreed that the police were present in massive numbers, again disagreement over tactics arose. A UNC student named Richard said, "I'm here on the side of the protest because I don't believe in what the KKK and the Nazis believe. I believe the opposite, but I also think the protest against [the rally] is just as disgusting as what the [white supremacists] are protesting against. From my point of view I think the best way to protest something like this is to create a protest which is very mature, very professional in nature, one that will respect not only the police but will respect other people's rights to protest in peace without having problems. I feel like the more militant protesters are going about it in the wrong way." One of the Klowns Against Klan Action agreed stating, "everyone on that side hates us because we're against them but if we hate them then we're doing the exact same thing they're doing to us."
A direct action participant from Asheville, very aware of viewpoints like Richard and the Klown's commented, "The biggest reaction elicited from me today isn't actually from the people in sheets. It's actually from the "peaceful protesters" (quotes original) who wish to A, stifle people who are challenging cops so they can get to the Nazis and B, compare people who desire to fight Nazis (which I think we did in WWII and they probably didn't have a problem with then) as the same as Nazis. If you want to fight Nazis, if you want to crush Nazis, if you want to get rid of Nazis, you are the same as Nazis and that brings out the most emotional impact. It's very bizarre and it's not very well thought out. It's apolitical."
The NC Independent Media Center, blogs, and campus newspapers covered these events in ways that repositioned the very idea of a NSM/Klan rally and protest—and all that it stood for—as cause for significant rethinking and for sustained action. Here, the rally and protest were figured as important (if not historical) events worthy of additional social critique that needed to be taken seriously, and not as a crude publicity stunt and a rowdy counter-protest by two groups already at society's margins (and thus, not worth worrying about). This case demonstrates that it is important to reconsider the extent to which image events are considered a success or failure based upon the media coverage and re/mediation that they receive. In other words, must an image event reach a mainstream audience to achieve rhetorical success? Conversely, what does it mean to take alternative media and multimedia formats into consideration? Is this case an example of a "failed" image event, or do its contradictions instead indicate that there is still much to be said about SM/SP and the role that image events are playing in the creation of alternative, non-traditional forms of argumentation? Furthermore, what about the liminal spaces and possibilities for intervention that image events enable? How has the critical-performative-rhetorical perspective taken up in this study contributed to or challenged SM/SP studies? I conclude this meditation on co-performative social protest by returning to these questions and teasing out the implications for future research that brings ethnographic, embodied forms of knowing, of witnessing, to bear on the critical-rhetorical processes of textual analysis and radical contextualization.
Co-Performing (Criticism) in the Liminal Space: A Response-able Critical Rhetoric
After the protest ended, I returned home to think and write. I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the day's events as I struggled to make sense of them. I found a quiet space, and I pulled out the crumpled scraps of paper that had served as my medium for recording field notes. Immediately, I set out to augment them with my impressions and memories of the day. One by one, I surveyed the images that I had taken, methodically reviewing them to see what I might have missed during the times when I, too, was immersed in the singing, chanting, networking, and witnessing that defined these acts of protest. I turned on both televisions in the house and recorded the evening news, hopeful that they would highlight the relatively peaceful protest. Nothing. I waited until the 11 p.m. news and checked out CNN in the process. Still nothing. Over the coming days, I obsessively checked local newspapers and online portals for more information about the rally and protest and was disappointed by much of the coverage. There were so many omissions, as well as a few glaring errors. I began to reflect upon the radical disparities between the politics of knowledge production and the knowing production of politics, and how co-performative methods enable one to straddle the line and inhabit the liminal, in-between spaces. Cases like this require an application of Dwight Conquergood's definition of performance as "a work of imagination . . . as a pragmatics of inquiry . . . as an optic and operator of research [and] as a tactics of intervention, an alternative space of struggle" (152) and a methodology based upon his "three c's": "creativity, critique, and citizenship" (152).
Image events are acts of political theater and part of their rhetorical power comes from the possibility for on-the-ground forms of persuasion and criticism that happen as a result of participation. While it is not always practical, possible, or necessarily desirable to participate in an image event (a knowing production of politics), the experience of co-performing can offer the critic an opportunity for reflexivity and meditation on the politics of one's own knowledge production. This is not to suggest that such liberatory-inflected methods are always already destined to culminate in critical intervention, but it is to suggest that the perceived stasis of the critical rhetoric debates (and the question of whether rhetoric produces doxastic or epistemic knowledge) may need to be, following DeLuca, rethought with respect to image events and the ways in which the suturing of a critical rhetoric as a critical-performative-rhetorical perspective addresses both Raymie McKerrow's call to action and his critics' call for scholarly restraint.
In 1989, McKerrow published "Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis" in Communication Monographs. In this essay, McKerrow offered an ambitious proposal that sought to reposition rhetoric's function in the creation of "knowledge" and the degree to which rhetoricians (and rhetoric) should be beholden to truth. Although he was not the first scholar to embark on such a project in communication studies, McKerrow sought to bring the work of Michel Foucault and other continental philosophers to bear on rhetorical scholarship; in particular, he aimed to destabilize the idea that rhetorical criticism, theory, and praxis were objective, and he announced a definitive break from those perspectives that had deferred rhetoric's legitimacy to philosophy. However, McKerrow's syncretic approach to theory-building relied on a variety of assumptions regarding the compatibility of such theorists (i.e., Foucault and Marx, Ernesto Laclau and Stuart Hall) and a heightened belief in the power of language and criticism to affect social change (i.e., criticism itself as an act of resistance). Perhaps the most damaging assumptions latent in McKerrow's propositions center on his ambiguous use of language in a project that itself has certain ideological goals (which, given its Leftist bent, not all members of his American scholarly audience may be sympathetic toward), and the yet-unfinished project of adequately theorizing the role of the agent/critic/activist who attempts to do what McKerrow proposes in his paradigm of mutually informed criticism and praxis. For many critics, such as Dana Cloud, the fatal flaw in McKerrow's proposal is that it appears to accept or endorse forms of intellectual and political relativism that neglect the real, the lived, the material. Nonetheless, this article was responsible for a flurry of discourse within the discipline that forced its participants to disclose their intellectual politics. At the very least (and while not the only article to do so), this discourse did turn the mirror of self-reflexivity inward in uncomfortable-yet-necessary ways that have made significant contributions to our contemporary critical and culturally-oriented approaches to the theory and praxis of rhetorical studies.
In proposing this critical cycle, McKerrow prodded critics to recognize the power and responsibility that they have as a result of their privileged position(s) and to be cognizant of the ways in which their own rhetorics and scholarship may function in the creation of discursive and non-discursive realities. Thus, it is the tension in McKerrow's implicit proposition of policy (i.e., what rhetorical studies should be and do) that is the spirit of his article: if "truth" is contingent and meanings are polysemic and interconnected to other meanings within a symbol system, and critical rhetoricians are to be self-reflexive about their scholarship and its politics (and to do scholarship that has political implications themselves), then scholars of rhetoric must embrace the "working conditions" of always revising their work to meet emerging conditions that challenge their prior claims, and to taking embodied risks that require some level of responsibility for their claims in a chaotic system where a priori prediction of the potential uses or value of one's work is fraught with impossibility. A co-performative approach to rhetorical criticism that enables the critic to inhabit a liminal space where she is implicated in the politics of knowledge production and the knowing production of politics specifically addresses these working conditions by simultaneously embracing and resisting them, operating within and through them by drawing attention to their heuristics, contradictions, and institutional restraints.
I would like to conclude by meditating on the question of liminality, following Victor Turner, and the possibility of a response-able critical rhetoric. With respect to method, I am hesitant to provide a prescriptive model, as there is already a vast body of literature across the disciplines that can provide a basic foundation for co-performance and rhetorical criticism alike. However, a flexible, generative model that adapts to the constraints and contours of a given situation can be just as rigorous as less fashionable (but still respected) approaches that deploy the Burkeian pentad or engage in metaphoric cluster analysis. A critical-performative-rhetorical form of co-performance situates the critic as a knowing participant who is articulated to the multiple layers of discourse that circulate around any given image event or social controversy. The critic is simultaneously a researcher, an activist, an insider, and an outsider. In this liminal space where the unfixity of roles and political identities collide with the disciplining apparatus of knowledge production, the possibility for radical intervention emerges. A response-able critical rhetoric implicates the critic and her criticism in contemporary material and discursive struggles in ways that actively resist objectification of the Other. A response-able critical rhetoric is, by its very nature, liminal, and it contributes to the study of SM/SP by creating a space wherein the researcher-activist-citizen can augment the textual analysis and re/mediation of a given event with the perspective of insider/co-participant. A critical-performative-rhetorical form of inquiry rejects Cartesian dualism, positioning the critic in the space between the image and the event, in ways that radically displace the boundaries between text and context, subject and object, material reality and re/mediations or re/presentations of it.
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