A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Rhetoric and Event: The Embodiment of Lived Events

Phil Bratta, Michigan State University

(Published August 12, 2015)

Introduction: Rhetoric as Event

On April 7, 2012, about 250 volunteers laid 50,000 fabricated bones on Congo Square in New Orleans. Around 9:00 am, volunteers—including myself—had begun organizing the bones into five piles on the edge of Congo Square. About two hours later, we began the “Laying of the Bones Performance”: each volunteer would gather two to eight bones from a stock pile, carry the bones to the center of Congo Square, lay them down, and return to the stock pile to repeat the process. During this activity, local musicians—Luther Gray, Alexey Marti, Bill Summers, Tyrone Henry and Schubert Dauphin and others played percussions and drums, chanted, and sung. After five hours, the 50,000 bones presented a large installation piece. Then, Claude Gatebuke and Eric Ndaheba, both survivors of the Rwanda genocide and the Gatumba Massacre respectively, shared their stories with the volunteers and the general public. Around 5:00 pm, we participated in the “Reclaiming the Bones” performance, an act of gathering and packaging the 50,000 bones for storage and their eventual re-laying in the final installation at the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Figure 1: Jamilah Yejide Peters-Muhammad leading the Opening Ceremony at the New Orleans installation (http://www.onemillionbones.net/gallery/new-orleans-50000-bones-installation/14750282)

The New Orleans performance and installation was a preview-installation for the larger social arts project One Million Bones. After four years, the final installation of OMB came to fruition on June 8 to 10, 2013, at the National Mall, a powerfully rhetorical site because of the backdrop of and access to the United States Capitol. As the OMB website notes, the intent was to create a symbolic mass grave in order to bring awareness to ongoing genocides happening in Republic of Congo, Sudan, Burma, Syria, and Somalia. Each of the more than one million bones—made from plaster, clay, paper, wood, and fabric by artists, activists and students—symbolically represented one victim of genocide. Compiled in this public space, the installation strived to invoke the public to both acknowledge humanity’s past transgressions and inspire them to engage more with global issues. On June 10, volunteers collaborated with the non-profit organization Enough Project to meet with politicians to encourage them to address genocide in public policy. The success of this final June 2013 installation and meeting with politicians accumulated through the development of various initiatives: the Albuquerque 50,000 bones preview-installation, the New Orleans 50,000 bones preview-installation, and the Road to Washington mini-installations in state capitals across the nation (http://www.onemillionbones.net).

Figure 2: The One Million Bones final installation on the National Mall in Washington DC, USA. June 8, 2013 (http://www.onemillionbones.net/). Photo by Teru Kuwayama.

Over the last five years, the project has been promoted, documented, and circulated well through blogs, news articles, images, and videos. Using a variety of rhetorical moves to invoke action, these texts create a sense of responsibility and empathy for victims of genocide by presenting survivors’ stories.

Figure 3: One Million Bones Albuquerque Event.

Figure 4: One Million Bones New Orleans Installation

As shown in Figures 3 and 4, the accounts and stories of victims of genocide, particularly when coupled with the images and music, are heartbreaking and inspirational. Although these images demonstrate an important aspect of the project and of genocide as a major social concern, I focus in this article on the non-digital embodied performance of the New Orleans preview-installation as a station leader and volunteer. These performances generated an ontological experience of what I call a lived event: affective spontaneity and proprioception of one’s body in collective action with other bodies for the purposes of producing political and social art/protest. I explain the features of lived events by some of those who participated: victims of genocide, volunteers, and non-volunteers. And although I discuss this particular installation, many similarities also emerged in the other preview-installation, the mini-installations, and final installation.

Figure 5: Opening Ceremony, Municipal Auditorium viewed from center of Congo Square (http://onemillionbones.squarespace.org/gallery/new-orleans-50000-bones-installation/14750280)

The New Orleans preview-installation was set in Congo Square, located just northwest of New Orleans’ French Quarter, in Louis Armstrong Park. The Square has had many cultures engage with this public place throughout history. Before colonization by the French, and later the Spanish, Native Americans used the site as a marketplace and gathering for artistic exchange. In eighteenth-century French colonial rule, slaves used this marketplace for gatherings of song and dance when they got their one day off per week. And in the nineteenth century, Congo Square continued to be a kind of haven for slaves to practice music and dance. Throughout New Orleans’ history, this marketplace has functioned for emergent art practices and forms composed by various cultures (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and Creoles). In choosing this public place for an artistic installation that addresses genocide, OMB rhetorically connects the past to the present as a way to highlight injustices and inhumane practices in French, Spanish, and U.S. histories. That is, OMB uses kairos effectively to communicate how our past is our present and should not be buried. The use of this rhetorical device allows the installation to propose to the public what we do with and how we perceive present social and political matters as we move into the future. For the preview-installation, the ground is thus equally important to the performance and the material rhetoric of the day. In other words, the ground situates and contributes to the ecology of affective intensities that will form through the material rhetoric of the bones, the performance of laying them, and the music. This ecology will shape the potential of lived events.

Lived events draw more attention to embodiment and proprioception, ideas that much contemporary rhetoric and writing scholarship has not considered thoroughly when conceptualizing rhetorical acts as events. For instance, in Composition as a Human Science, Louise Wetherbee Phelps contends that “all discourse, spoken or written, is an event in the life processes of individuals” (147) and that “reading is experienced as an event, that is, as a series of cognitive acts felt as responses to another person’s speech act” (140). Raúl Sánchez ties event to identity and the act of writing, remarking that identity is “an act—the act—of writing. And the writing subject is an act of identity formation, which is to say that it is an act of writing” (245). As an act of writing, identity “is not an epistemological or ontological concept. It is a rhetorical action-an event” (243). In addition to Phelps’ and Sánchez’s work with literate practices as event, Barbara Biesecker suggests that “what we are dealing with . . . is not the saying of the Event, not the inscription of the Event into language or into speech, but saying as the Event, saying as eventful and not as an eventuality” (19; original emphasis). Images also can function as events. Kevin DeLuca and Joe Wilferth argue that image events are “staged acts of protest designed for media dissemination” (315). While DeLuca and Wilferth point out ever so briefly the importance of the actual bodies involved in producing the image event, they focus more on the image and its media circulation.

Malea Powell’s ideas about rhetorical events come closest to describing lived events. Powell has spoken extensively about Rhetoric and Composition as one in which we fetishize texts, particularly privileging texts and subordinating the body. Simply put, Powell wants to shift away from texts that make rhetoric and consider making as rhetorical. That is, as the body makes things, the body, the activity of the body, and the things are rhetorical (Powell).

Although I align myself more with Powell’s theory of event, I also believe lived events supplement all these theories because of more direct attention to embodiment and ecology. Hence, in this article I articulate tentative criteria for lived events, using OMB as an example that deepens our understanding of how rhetorics can unfold in public places and spaces within an ecology of affective processes and intensities. Although I argue that the following three criteria need to be met, I understand that I will contradict the emergence of lived events (or any kind of event). According to Jacques Derrida, “Once there are rules, norms, and hence criteria to evaluate this or that, what happens and what doesn’t happen, there is no event” (457). Through my discourse, therefore, the lived events I discuss below cease to be lived events; lived events can only be retroactively identified. Even by simply naming, I attempt to fix boundaries. Those boundaries (representations), however, have slippage and can never articulate the exact temporal-spatial dimensions of lived events. The issue also lies in the fact that lived events are ongoing and in constant flux. They are embodied intensities and ephemeral. Derrida remarks, “the event is that which goes very quickly; there can be an event only when it’s not expected, when one can no longer wait for it, when the coming of what happens interrupts the waiting” (443). Nevertheless, I propose the three tentative criteria: (1) public performance art, (2) topological space, and (3) collective action. Despite the overlap with these characteristics, I will attempt to explain them taxonomically.

Public Performance Art

While lived events can unfold in myriad ways, including acts of writing and speech, they are most evident in public performance art. By appearing in a public place, rather than private or specific institutional place (such as a museum or theater), performance art has greater impacts on and engagements with a wider audience. Performance artist and activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña asserts, “Certain ideas, impulses, and metaphors can be better expressed through live performance, installation, or video” (xvii). He continues:

My job may be to open up a temporary utopian/dystopian space, a ‘de-militarized zone’ in which meaningful ‘radical’ behavior and progressive thought are allowed to take place, even if only for the duration of the performance. In this imaginary zone, both artist and audience members are given permission to assume multiple and ever-changing positionalities and identities. In this border zone, the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ self and other, art and life, becomes blurry and unspecific. (24)

Gómez-Peña strives to create indistinguishable boundaries with a variety of concepts in order to open space for new experiences. Likewise, Allen Kaprow’s Happenings had functioned along these same lines, attempting to eradicate performer and audience roles. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Kaprow defined Happenings as “events that, put simply, happen. . . . we feel, ‘here is something important’ [and] . . . they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point. . . . they have no structured beginning, middle, or end. . . . They exist for a single performance, or only a few, and are gone forever as new ones take their place” (New Media Reader 85). Like Gómez-Peña’s work, Happenings sought to fuse art and the everyday. Geoffrey Sirc notes, “Happenings were all about blurring the boundaries between art and life” (9).

Two differences arise between lived events and both Happenings and Gómez-Peña’s work. With the former, the difference is in how Happenings neglected any particular political issue. As Noah Wardrip-Fruin notes, “the work Kaprow reports does not necessarily employ interaction in the service of something besides the creation of a new experience and type of attention” (83). Although such aspirations for new experiences were/are admirable, the lack of moving beyond the experience itself fails to account for the moral and ethical imperatives within social and cultural performance. In contrast, lived events do call attention to moral and ethical implications embedded within social and political issues. In this way, they align more closely with Gómez-Peña’s work, which always has strong ties to such implications. Gómez-Peña remarks, “Perhaps the ultimate goal of performance, especially if you are a woman, gay, or a person ‘of color,’ is to decolonize our bodies and make these decolonizing mechanisms apparent to our audience in the hope that they will get inspired to do the same with their own” (24). Yet, the difference between his work and lived events lies in the magnitude of the audience, which connects to the third criteria—collective action.

Nonetheless, lived events partially follow Gómez-Peña and Kaprow’s work in that they flow in the veins of audience participation in public performance art. During lived events, the audience is not simply visual consumers, but engages with several senses and embodies the event to co-produce rhetoric and activism. Such performance emerges by focusing (whether intentionally or unintentionally) on processes and interactions of artist, audience, and art rather than a final product. Through such processes and interactions, performance art can be thought of as what Brian Massumi calls a “technique of existence.” In Semblance and Event, Massumi contends that a technique of existence is

a technique that takes as its ‘object’ process itself, as the speculative-pragmatic production of oriented events of change . . . They [techniques of existence] make no gesture of claiming ‘objectivity,’ nor do they pride themselves on their grasp of common sense. At the same time, they reject being characterized as ‘merely’ subjective. They are inventive of subjective forms in the activist sense: dynamic unities of events unfolding. (14; original emphasis)

Working off Alfred Whitehead, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze, Massumi wants to move away from an object-oriented philosophy of the (fixed) substance or being of things. He also wants to shift away from subject-oriented philosophies in which cognitive approaches position the subject as epistemological producer. According to Massumi, “cognitivist approaches ask what the subject can know of the world, as if the subject does not come to itself already in the midst but rather looked upon the world as a reflective remove that it is philosophy’s job to overcome. The cognitivist paradigm equates the subject with the knower, and the object with the known” (6). In contrast to both these philosophical frameworks, a process-oriented philosophy is better equipped to address metaphysical and epistemological inquiries via techniques of existence. Techniques of existence are inventive gestures that articulate what Massumi proposes as activist philosophy: “Activist philosophy does not deny that there is a duplicity in process between subjective and objective. It [activist philosophy] accepts the reality of both. Rather than denying them, activist philosophy affirms them otherwise, reinterpreting them in terms of events and their taking-effect” (8). Ultimately, activist philosophy is “fundamentally nonobject [and] . . . noncognitive,” (6) and as such it shifts our attention to affect, movement, act(ivity), and embodiment.

Such activist philosophy undergirded the rhetorical performance art of OMB through the spontaneous emergence of lived events. The New Orleans preview-installation attracted a large crowd of observers, some of which mentioned that they had heard about the event in the local newspaper and simply came to watch, and others who stumbled upon the installation randomly. Many of these observers, who I will refer to as non-volunteers, did not simply have a visual experience. Rather, they spontaneously participated in the same actions and movements of the volunteers: they collected from the piles, made their way to the center, laid the bones, and returned to the stock piles to repeat the process. While OMB certainly does not reject such audience engagement in the preview-installation, such participation is not one of OMB’s goals. OMB claimed its purpose was to “raise awareness of genocides and atrocities going on around the world” by using education and hands-on artmaking” (“The Project”). The “artmaking” here referred to the making of bones from clay, plaster, etc. and not in the performance of laying down the bones in the preview-installation(s). The expectation was that volunteers who desired to do more than simply make bones would create the preview and final installations. OMB thus did not intentionally function as phenomena for unpredictable and spontaneous action. However, the project unintentionally invoked the audience to participate and co-produce rhetoric through lived events.

Figure 6: Making of bones at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (http://www.onemillionbones.net/gallery/new-orleans-center-for-creative-arts/12220680)

When the non-volunteers participated in lived events, they became partial inventors of the installation and the elements of rhetorical situation began to bleed into each other. Audiences were no longer a distinct entity separate from artists/rhetors and art, but instead, they became co-artists and co-creators. Such rhetorical participation blurred the boundaries between themselves and artists/activists and the tripartite arrangement (artist, art, and audience), as well as redefined the OMB installation: instead of simply defined as a visual petition (a rhetoric) and performance installation, the participants and the installation became lived events through performance. To better understand how bodies become rhetorical in lived events, we must first, however, explore how bodies move via proprioceptive engagement in topological space.

Topological Space

Lived events require a presence of topological space, which differs from Cartesian space in that the latter fixes objects with an external grid. The Cartesian model situates objects with particular coordinates. The objects, as Alex Reid remarks, “are finite and locatable, and the rational subject functions through controlled and controllable interactions with these objects” (106). These interactions are based primarily on measurable qualities. For example, a city map represents buildings and provides a scale that expresses the approximate distance between the buildings and landmarks. Before one physically moves through the city, one can look at the map and determine how long it might take to walk from building A to B. The map enables us to fix the materiality of the buildings, as well as the materiality of ourselves within actual reality. Once one becomes familiar with the city, one may no longer need to return to the map to travel. The person has mentally internalized the map. On days when one walks in the city and wants to arrive at a particular location, one navigates mental maps and directs oneself to the goal. Ultimately, Cartesian space relies upon a subject-oriented framework and a classic logic for movement: the subject’s mental conception for navigation. This mental map allows for predictability: time and space can be foreseen and ordered. For the OMB project, Congo Square has its asymmetrical circular plaza with grey squared stones arranged in half circles that radiate out from a center point. The plaza has coordinates and distinct boundaries that separate it from other parts of Louis Armstrong Park and the main roads outside the gates. OMB is set within Cartesian space and positioned with an external grid: various maps (city maps, tourist maps, et al.), and subjects can mentally move to and through Cartesian Congo Square.

In addition, the external grid and mental maps turn space into place through naming/linguistic articulations. In a way, Cartesian space would be better understood as place and occupation since it is political with a value system, which Sidney Dobrin implicitly suggests. Dobrin notes, “definitions within space are formulated through occupation” (39). During occupation, and when space becomes place, meanings are produced. These meanings are not simply social; rather, they are political and structured within a value system. He continues, “all occupations are political; all considerations of the spatial must account for the political. All occupations are discursive, rhetorical, hegemonic. Through its occupations, space is not merely social; it is political” (43). Yet, before space becomes political, it is topological and has potential for being politicized. To politicize that space, I contend that individuals participating in lived events use proprioception in topological space to generate novel values and meanings within Cartesian space.

The use of proprioception and its production for lived events works nicely because of the nature of topological spaces. For Reid, “topological spaces are not limited to Cartesian geometry. Such spaces are virtual in that they are undecided; they do not have a fixed, Cartesian identity. But they are also actual in that they have a physical, material existence. They simply cannot be fully described in Cartesian terms” (99). Topological space, like most events, cannot be articulated. But working off the map example above, we may be able to better understand topological space. When we set out to arrive at a certain location, but do not have to mentally navigate how to get there, and arrive without that cognitive use, we experience topological space via our embodied knowledge. Consider the times when we get home from meeting with a friend or work and cannot remember the walk or drive. Even when we leave from various parts of the city or town and are required to take an atypical route, we still arrive at our home without having to think about every turn and travel distance.

In those moments, instead of a Cartesian subject and mind that moves the body, the body simply moves itself, as well as the subject and mind, through Cartesian space (or place and occupations). In other words, the body uses an affective proprioception within and from topological space to navigate Cartesian space. As Reid articulates, “Navigation becomes embodied and proprioceptive . . . the body guides itself in relation to the unfolding of its own movements rather than in reference to an external set of spatial coordinates” (107). Proprioception is a sense that allows an individual to know how his or her body parts connect with each other and mobilize through time and space. A simple example suffices: when I walk, I do not need to watch or think about my legs and feet to move my body forward. In other words, my proprioception functions to propel my body and mind through the actual, physical spatial-temporal world. Proprioception differs from the traditional five senses because it doesn't come from any specific organ, but from the nervous system as a whole. In other words, proprioception is an ecological sense of the body. However, proprioception is not the internal movement of organs; it is always connected to an external environment (whether on a Cartesian grid and/or topological web). As this ecological body moves in the external environment, knowledge emerges and becomes augmented through repetition.

Repetition differs from habit in that habit links the past to the predictable future. For example, when I set my alarm clock every day to 8:00 am, I develop an agenda with predictability. The past simply unfolds into the present so that the future can be predicted. Repetition, on the other hand, is primarily formed via an unpredictable folding of the past, present and future in particular moments, which simultaneously enables the present and future to unfold in unpredictable ways. This unfolding is an event. And that unfolding is disruption. According to Alain Badiou, an event “rupture[s] . . . the normal order of bodies and languages as it exists for any particular situation or as it appears in any particular world” (242). During these ruptures of old structures, the new or novel can be produced. The unfolding is an emergence. For instance, the repetition of drawing a landscape of trees and mountains can possibly mutate with each drawing, most likely producing unforeseen images of the landscape. The representation of the normal order of the landscape is ruptured with each drawing because the drawer may perceive the trees and the mountains differently with each stroke. If the drawer allows his or her body to guide the drawing, the trees may become resemblances of people or the mountains as buildings. The landscape may visually become a mix of an urban center and rural pastoral. Included in the act of drawing these images is proprioception: movements of the hand, of the intensity between hand and pencil, of the intensity of pencil applied to paper. With each repetition, the body of the drawer learns how to move through Cartesian space; yet, with each repetition the body also learns as it begins to move through topological space to move in possibly novel ways. If those latter moves begin to plan mentally how to move, repetition likely ceases and habit primarily develops. But when repetition emerges, embodiment occurs. Repetition, that is, allows proprioceptive acts to develop an embodied knowledge that can generate unpredictable happenings. The drawer now engages with their hand and perception in ways that had been impossible a priori. The drawer has embodied knowledge from their affective proprioception.

Figure 7: The laying of bones (video by author)


In the New Orleans preview-installation, since the bone laying process was a repetition, it created affective proprioception from the topological web. Each navigation from the bone piles to the center allowed non-volunteers to perceptually feel their way from topological space through the Cartesian space. There was no external grid or map for the performance. Linguistic directions also were absent; non-volunteers were not told how to act. Yet, non-volunteers were compelled to participate and intuited how to participate through visual, aural, and proprioceptive experience. Non-volunteers, thus, became emergent figures who embodied rhetoric. As Massumi contends, “To get an emergent figure, you need to add senses other than vision. In particular, touch and proprioception, the registering of the displacements of body parts relative to each other” (95). Although a claim, data, and warrants were not discursively present, an argument formed through the repetition of bones and bodies and movements. Such a repetition rendered the possibility of unpredictably: participants could change the path from bone pile to center and how they laid down the bones. At the end of the day, the installation would become something that could not have been precisely foreseen. All that can be seen, or rather perceived, was the ritual and repetition of volunteers and non-volunteers.

Obviously, non-volunteers saw the material rhetoric of bones and the movement of bodies. And they also saw the development of an art piece. But they also experienced multisensory stimulations: visually, aurally, and proprioceptually, all of which created perception. Non-volunteers heard the bones, the rhythms of the music, and the silence of human voices. They heard the reverberating sounds of participants collecting the bones from the piles and of bones connecting with the ground, echoing throughout Congo Square. Simply hearing the bones’ interaction with each other and the ground stimulated aurally, but perceiving the sounds signified movement. The dings of bones contacting each other and the ground created a sense of action and movement. In addition, the backdrop to those bones’ sounds was rhythmic music. The striking on the percussions and the beating of bongos added another layer to the aural experience. This rhythmic combination was accompanied by chants and songs from the musicians. The aural sources—bones, people, instruments, and voice—created a rhythm for non-volunteers to (possibly) move in the topological space and the Congo Square place/Cartesian space. Non-volunteers were persuaded by these aural and proprioceptive sources to spontaneously participate in laying the bones. Once in action, non-volunteers moved with the rhythm of the ritual, an experience of affective proprioception that produced an embodied rhetoric with political implications.

Lived events were further shaped with these processes of engagement and the multisensory experience, but they were also materialized in the installation’s ritual process that unfolded via collective action. Lived events emerge, function, and circulate with(in) a collection of people. Such movements highlight the activity of interactions (collective action), action that further underscores the political dimensions of lived events, but also expresses connections between microcosms and macrocosms.

Collective Action

Because lived events are emergent political acts, they create novel ways for the production of new values and meanings, as well as civic engagement, which is always connected to the social unit. Social units—from the micro/local to the macro/global—are intricately woven together. When individuals work collectively, they form possibilities for different ways of connection and participation within a democracy. In other words, collective action is a democratic practice. The form and substance of that democratic practice, of course, can vary. Within Western philosophical tradition, democratic practice tends to hold dialogue and/or public speech as the quintessential for action and social change. As Lorenza Mondada remarks, “Public speeches are living experiments in bringing people together and making them affiliate or disaffiliate with the positions held. They are not reduced to individual words but assemble and organize through manifestations of agreement and dissent, the very bodies of politics” (876). We see democratic practice as tied to discursive representations and acts (dialogue and discourse). Rhetorical theory is rife with (implicitly or explicitly) privileging verbal, as well as alphabetic written, communication use for collective action because of the idea of clear claims, data, and warrants. These theories that connect rhetoric to democratic practice and civic engagement often subjugate or simply neglect the body due to the body’s lack of clear rhetorical features.

Yet, the body can generate much rhetorical force, especially when participating in collective action. As Jason Del Gandio contends, “Collective action relies upon the coordination and communication of bodies. Subtract those bodies and the collective action disappears” (151). Collective actions are often subversive, in that, as Del Gandio notes, “Speeches, letters and [running for] offices are easily controlled by corporate media, governmental bureaucracies, social biases and money, power and privilege. Collective actions [with the body] cut through these contours and allow people to create the conditions of their own communication” (152). The body or bodies can spur radical changes within social formations through the body’s or bodies’ collective materiality (and movement). Important to note is that collective action differs from collaborative action in which the latter typically suggests that individuals are working together toward a particular outcome. When individuals collaborate, they tend to predict the end. But individuals collectively act with no or little script or predetermination. In fact, the collective action and the subsequent results may not even materialize and produce any substance. But collective action generates the actions and affects of the body to connect the local to the global.


Figure 8: Installation in process (video by author)

In the preview-installation, such novel actions of bodies unfolded as individuals (spontaneously) participated in collective action through repetition and perception. When they participated in collective efforts that entailed repeated movements of bone placing, they may have perceived the installation in two ways: (1) the larger than immediate, in which they perceived spaces that have movement of all volunteers to produce a text that could not be done without many other people and (2) the remote or distant contexts (the historical and current connections of seemingly disparate people), in which they perceived the acknowledgement of the injustices of genocide and the collective action to recover from those injustices. The former perception allowed participants to perceive their contribution to a cultural text (the installation) and feel part of a group of visible strangers; it is local. The latter perception enabled participants to feel connection to others (both historically and spatially distant) outside the local, hence it is global. The latter perception is what can be called perceiving/feeling cosmological spaces.

Cosmological spaces are constituted by the interaction and entanglement of seemingly disparate spaces and objects. In order to perceive cosmological spaces, ritual is often vital. A ritual, according to Massumi,

is a way of performing thought. It is a technique of existence for bringing forth virtual events through techniques involving bodily performance, in mutual inclusion with events of the other kinds. Events, for example, of the heavens, of a cosmological kind. . . . Ritual produces a perceptual feeling of seen cosmological spaces. Its gesturality is visionary. It involves proprioception in the invention of a virtual event of vision, of a cosmologically spatializing kind. Ritual technique produces a cosmological semblance of a spatializing event of vision, perceptually felt at a point of indistinction with cosmological thinking. . . . it invokes into occurring a collectively shared nonsensuous experience of a cosmological kind. (124-126; original emphasis)

While Massumi’s discourse sounds romantic, and indeed he has been accused of reverting to romantic ideals of self and truth, Massumi identifies the deep connection between ritual performance and refamiliarization that emerges in lived events. In the OMB preview-installation, many participants in proprioceptive ritual moved affectively beyond the immediate context of Congo Square, the bones, the other participants, and the installation. That is, many perceived/felt cosmological spaces: past and current genocides and victims of genocide, both historically here in the United States (Native/Indigenous peoples) and abroad (Holocaust, Armenian Massacres, et al.), and currently abroad in several African, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern states. Through these collective actions, participants were able to connect via their proprioceptive bodies not only with other non-volunteers and participants, but also with the social issue OMB addresses: genocide.

This bodily connection dispels genocide as simply an abstract concept or statistic. Instead, participants embody a deep, concrete yet symbolic relation to genocide as attention was drawn to the materiality of bones and bodies (actual and symbolic) across public space. This relation to genocide emerged within and through a rhetorical ecology of affective processes and intensities in which both volunteers and non-volunteers mimic a particular materiality to genocide. Although OMB artists could not, and not that they wanted to, recreate genocidal acts of mass slaughter, they used a particular signifier—bones—and the collective action of lived events to highlight part of the materiality of genocide. Particularly, as participants compiled a mass symbolic grave, their actions produced rhetorics that became more than an abstract visual display: the mass grave was felt through perception that was visual, aural, and proprioceptive. Non-volunteers perceptually felt, in other words, the materiality of genocide through their physical bodily engagement. Genocide became a felt experience as participants carried and laid bones and returned to the stock pile. That perceptually felt process collapses time. Participants experienced the singularity of past, present, and future folded into each other. Furthermore, participants felt an unfolding of the present and future that was absent of genocidal incidences. Lived events became embodied.

The collective action that collapsed space and time was expressed by both volunteers and non-volunteers. Several participants remarked that through the process of laying bones, they felt the emergence of something larger than themselves. Participants felt a presence of being there at the installation and in the process of inventing the installation, as well as a presence that connected with victims of genocide, both historical and current. This same feeling also rose after all 50,000 bones were laid. Volunteer Avril Lundi writes, “As those last bones were laid, the volunteers began to stand back and just look at what they had been part of. It was a gorgeous moment when everyone there knew in their hearts that they were part of this thing that was so entirely about them and also entirely more than them” (“Love Letter To New Orleans, Post Script”). While Avril uses the word “look” to comprehend her experience, she also follows her explanation with “knew.” Looking might be closer aligned with an enhanced “perceiving.”  When we perceive something, we do more than develop a mental image of an object(s). As participants navigated their way to bone piles and brought a small number of bones (in comparison to the total number of bones) to the center among other bones, they experienced their immediate participation, but also they perceived their results of bone laying as both significant and slightly insignificant to the larger project. It would only be after hours of ritual and repetition that participants would be able to see and perceive the whole installation and the effects of collective action.

While OMB may claim it was a “visual petition” and that collaboration emerged in the making of bones, the preview-installation actually functioned as a performance art piece that generated lived events. It persuaded the audience by creating an ecology of affective intensities that invoked ritual bodily participation to lay bones. While OMB did establish a set of rules (participants collect a set number of bones from the stock piles and are required to lay them down in a specific area), the preview-installation also opened space for spontaneity by compelling non-volunteers to engage with the ritual movements. The performance and the space of the performance rendered embodied rhetorical events: lived events.


In this article, I showed how lived events contribute to new political and rhetorical actions in public space. Lived events allow the audience to produce, and thus offer a new lens to think about how we engage with art and social issues. They are complex phenomena that emerge in particular ways: the blurring boundaries of artist/activist and audience through public performance, the dissipation of Cartesian space and actualization of topological space, and the collective actions within a rhetorical ecology of affective processes and intensities. They entail an embodied rhetoric that also generates innovative ways to understand argumentation and democratic practices. In addition, they can enable more complicated theories of epistemology and ontology: knowledge as embodiment and affect; self—the mind-body entity—as becoming or as an embodied process within a network of processes.

More research should call attention to the heterogeneity of bodies. Lived events should be further discussed with considerations of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ableness, and age. In fact, these considerations would complicate and extend the concept, offering rich insights into ontological and epistemological formations. Additionally, they might enable scholars, activists, and artists to identify new potentials of democratic engagement, meaningful resistance, and political change.


I would like to thank Casey Boyle, the enculturation reviewers and editors, Laurie Gries, Sid Dobrin, and Ames Hawkins for their thoughtful feedback and suggestions and patience at various stages of this piece.

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