“How’s the ‘Unruly Politics’ module going, Louise?”
I think Unruly Politics is like one of those optical illusion images with squiggly lines, supposed to reveal another image when you stare at it. You stare and stare and stare… momentarily, you glimpse the hidden image and it’s so brilliant – but then you blink once, it disappears, and no amount of staring hard can bring it back. In the end, it’s still just a load of squiggly lines, you end up feeling frustrated and wondering if you have you just wasted your time staring at it. Or was that momentary glimpse worth it?
During this module there were moments when I absolutely understood why I was there. Sometimes one of my classmates said something was so brilliant, so on-point, that I wanted to over-enthusiastically point at them and scream ‘yes! that’s it!’ (but being British, I probably just nodded in mild agreement). But quite frankly, some of the time I sat there wanting to punch a wall. Why?
Here seems a good time to quote Matt’s recent blog on Ranciere: ‘There are times in your piece when you appear to advocate a type of politics in which things are suddenly made visible, sensible and available to experience. Like in the protests or revolutions, when the public, so often the audience of politics through our TV screens, become the performers and the distinctions between the two are lost. Well I implore you, if this is what you call the aesthetic regime, then speak its language!’
Matt criticised Ranciere for not speaking the language of the people. I agree, and I want to take his point further. I believe that as a class, we weren’t speaking the language of everyone in that classroom. We weren’t truly inclusive or participatory – for much of the module, many in the class were silent, or (like me) spent much of the time feeling too intellectually intimidated to speak.
Khanna talks about the ‘competition between civil society and the state to be the proxy for the ‘voice of the people.’’ He claims that ‘there is a fundamental difference between the opacities of the state, and the insistence of the Unruly on a different language.’ But in Unruly Politics, I felt we somehow replicated the hegemonic powers and in political fog that we were criticising. Our attempts to understand citizen action and the ‘voice of the people’ were lost in clouds of our own intellectual elite-ness.
A bunch of students in a progressive institute discussing social movements and ‘unruly’ ideas, sat in a circle on the floor. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a circle at a progressive event, NGO conference or just with my left-wing friends, doing the same thing; feeling like a caricature. It just felt very privileged to be discussing Ranciere and the ‘aesthetic regime’ while for many people in the UK right now, the concern is whether they have enough money to pay their bills or to eat that day; or consider the humiliation of visiting a food-bank.
My frustrations could be symbolic of my frustrations of the left itself in the UK (though I identify myself as strongly left leaning). We make ethical decisions, we march, we boycott. We claim to be inclusive of minorities, of the marginalised and the downtrodden. But do we just surround ourselves with people like us? Are we just talking to ourselves? In the UK, Brexit was a stark reminder to my activist friends and myself that as a progressive movement (and here I do talk very generally), there is a general lack of understanding or inclusivity. We’re not speaking the right kind of language.
This course has given me the opportunity to engage on a deeper level with texts that enhanced my understanding of what it means to be a political subject and my understanding of political events, and to delve deeply into these discussions. But I simply want to ask the question of whether the language we have been speaking to each other is useful or productive.
As well, times have changed: perhaps ‘unrulyness’ is creeping slowly into formal politics, albeit in sinister ways (Brexit, Trump). To now truly be able to shed weaknesses and limitations of elites, civil society organisations and formal political action, we might have to become a little more ‘ruly’ – and start engaging more with mainstream politics and power in our discussions.
Reference: Khanna, A. with Mani, P., Patterson, Z., Pantazidou M. and Shqerat, M. (2013) The Changing Faces of Citizen Action: A Mapping Study through an ‘Unruly’ Lens. IDS Working Paper 2013: No. 423.