We’re fiddling with ourselves while Rome burns


Are we really in a unique time for political action? Is there something new about the unruliness filling our screens and clogging our feeds? Are we at a critical juncture in history? Is this the rebirth of History?

I recently went to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Music and Protest, and was struck by its potent relevance for the many struggles that exist today. Oppression and injustice wear different guises in today’s world, but many of the issues we are confronted with are the same facing people in the 1960s. There was an evident nostalgia for the electric sense of possibility and change that charged street corners, sit-ins and festivals of that revolutionary era. And I left with the impression that people in the 1960s were really living the change that they wanted to see. Prefiguration was almost so fundamental to the project that it need not be mentioned.

But rather than uplifted, I left feeling a little unsettled. There was a sense of a lost time, a time gone by. The collective spirit and clamour for change had been on display in glass cabinets, separate from ourselves. Yet we are so in need of that collective spirit today and so many are clamouring for change. The fights that people were fighting fifty years ago are still going on: we are struggling for equal rights and opportunity regardless of gender, sexuality, class and/or race. We are still trying to save the planet from irrevocable damage. We are still seeking to hold politicians accountable and to redistribute the massive inequality of wealth. Why then are we romanticising protest instead of replicating it? Can we recreate the magic of the 60s today? Or are we destined to the apathetic doldrums that so many attribute to this hopeless millennial generation?

Evidently there are people across the world being unruly. And there is something characteristically new about the ways in which people in Tahrir Square or the clowns of the Clandestine Clown Army reconfigure spaces and tear up the political rule book. But there is also something new about the ways in which people engage in political action from behind a screen. Activism has become trendy. Whether it’s a filter on your facebook profile photo that says “I am a compassionate human being, go me” or signing a petition on Change.org, it’s an activism that starts and ends in an internet instant.

This is not to say that the internet has not contributed in vast and valuable ways to mobilising people, spreading awareness and facilitating social change. But I think it’s contributing to the virtual, sedentary way in which we increasingly lead our lives, and dulls our expectations of what political action can be. We’re flooded by information on a daily basis. Every day we read about new suffering and new struggle as we scroll down the guardian app on our phones. Are there simply too many fights to fight? It’s as though we become exhausted and overwhelmed by the challenge ahead before we’ve even begun.

In the UK we are still taking to the streets. But I feel as though even street protest has been infused with a ‘turn up-show your face-take a photo-instagram it’ mentality. Over the last few months I’ve attended several very large marches in London, and during the most recent, ‘March Against Racism’, I was handed several flyers for upcoming marches. Is marching now an industry? Are we a demographic blob that likes to protest on a Sunday after we’ve brunched, and can be a guaranteed bum on seat? When ‘taking to the streets’ is so managed and organised and now apparently exploited, does it still have value? I have struggled with these questions a lot. I very much believe in strength in numbers, and the positive effect that simply being there in solidarity can have. Knowing that you are not alone, that you are many and you have power, is a vital step in realizing collective action. But when it feels like people are just there for the sake of it, or that there is nothing after the march, that’s when I start to fear that acts of unruliness coexist with this bizarre combination of apathy and half-hearted action.

In a recent review of Slavoj Žižek’s new book, Will Self wrote an entertaining yet depressing summation of the author’s overall message:

“Žižek paints a portrait of pampered, self-indulgent bleeding hearts, who dither over what is to be done while indulging in febrile clicktivism and agonising over the provision of gender-neutral toilets. His discussion of LGBT+ and the spell cast by identitarian politics on the left generally amounts to this coarse- yet amusing- summation: we’re fiddling with ourselves while Rome burns.”

Whilst this made me chuckle it was sadly a truth that I recognised. I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on Žižek’s thoughts on identitarian politics specifically, but I can certainly agree with the sentiment. With all of our social media bubbles we never stray too far from the ‘echo chambers’ that are so often mentioned today. It’s easy to find people who agree with us on the internet, and to pick and choose causes we’ll align ourselves to. But what if we’re missing the point? As Khanna and other unrulistas argue, the greatest challenge before us is imagining a “politics beyond the compromise of ‘consensus’.”

Discussion, disagreement, difference and dissensus should be at the heart of politics. We must challenge ourselves to go beyond turning up at marches and sharing topical articles on facebook to show that we care. If we want to capture some of that magic of the 60s we need to live the change we want to see. I speak only for myself but I don’t think we want to see or live in a world of isolated screens propping up humans.

Bertolt Brecht was reported as saying: “power comes from the people, but where does it go?” I am an eternal optimist, and buoyed by acts of unruliness which see new forms of political engagement inspire new possibilities for social change, I believe we can still fight the fight. But when the energy of activism today so often seems to dissipate as soon as a new hashtag starts trending, I do find myself wondering: “but where does it go?”

I don’t know whether or not I agree with the apathetic condemnation of millennials, but I am most definitely disturbed by “febrile clicktivism”. Ultimately I believe we should all take note of Césaire’s warning: “do not allow yourselves to cross your arms as a sterile spectator.”

Césaire, A. cited in Fanon, F., 1952. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, p.187.

Khanna, A., 2012. Seeing Citizen Action Through an Unruly Lens. Development 55(2), p.170.

Self, W., 2017.The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Žižek review – how the big hairy Marxist would change the world. The Guardian. [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/28/courage-of-hopelessness-slavoj-zizek-review&gt;.


Phantasmagoric Queens


Last night I saw Theresa May pull the article 50 letter out of her briefs. I saw her seduce a crowd with a saucy rendition of “hey big spender”. I saw her receive love, laughter and respect from an audience who were by no stretch of the imagination conservative. It was the last place you’d expect to see her: the dark, sweaty downstairs room of a pub in Dalston, East London. In fact many things about her wouldn’t have seemed quite right: her silver bob was more sleek, her lipstick a different shade, her heels uncharacteristically high, and her union jack two-piece suit surprisingly flattering. Nothing about her was ‘realistic’; and yet she was the most real to me she’s ever been.

The world of drag is relatively new to me, but over the last few months I’ve regularly attended several shows and competitions. Whilst I’ve enjoyed it from the beginning, it was only last night that I found myself thinking how unruly it is. It’s a giant f*** you to society. It’s the most wonderful example of “we’re not going to play by your rules”. Not only are we not going to play by your rules but we’re going to show you just how ridiculous your rules are. I’ve seen bodies simultaneously lose all significance and acquire immense power. Trivial pop culture has taken on a radically new meaning.

As I was watching a queen give a moving performance of some chart song I’m sure I’ve heard but can’t quite place, it occurred to me just how real it became when parodied and removed from its original context. It was when the lyrics were taken to the very extreme that their meaning was really understood, and their force was felt as an acute indictment of our society today. The hypocrisy and cruelty of our exclusionary consumerism and apparently enlightened capitalism was crystallised in a single song. The spotlight is thrown on the myriad constructions and assumptions of gender, race and class that pervade popular culture. And it’s so much fun.

Rancière has been swirling around my brain recently and I have developed a tendency to view most things through an aesthetic lens. Drag is undoubtedly a disruption of the distribution of the sensible: it categorically breaks all the rules of who can do what, where, in what dress. It is a dissensus in itself, drawing back the red velvet curtain to reveal another, coexisting world. However as I walked home having said goodbye to Theresa, I found myself thinking of a very specific element of Rancière’s argument that perhaps does not receive so much attention.

When describing the aesthetic regime of the arts, Ranciere insists that a distinct characteristic is the inclusion of the anonymous as objects of art. Whole civilizations, he claims, can have histories rewritten and stories retold by the anonymous, the everyday, the vestiges of a culture.

“The Marxist theory of fetishism is the most striking testimony to this fact: commodities must be torn out of their trivial appearances, made into phantasmagoric objects in order to be interpreted as the expression of society’s contradictions.”

Having googled phantasmagoria I chose my preferred definitions from those on offer: “a bizarre or fantastic combination” and “a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined”. Drag shows indeed often are a bizarre and fantastic combination of colours, ideas, identities, confessions, fantasies and revelations. And I would argue that they can also claim the title of a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined. Drag plays with boundaries and toys with ‘reality’. It can be both utterly familiar and wildly unfamiliar. I think the line between seen and imagined is hazy. And that’s the magical thing. If what we see and what we imagine are not so easily discernible then what we imagine could be what we see.

Ultimately this is where Rancière’s theories provide, at least to my mind, a source of hope and inspiration. We can change the common sense of society, we can make the imagined real. Drag offers us the most wonderfully bizarre and fantastic way of revealing truths of our society.

“…the ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true. And the ordinary becomes a trace of the true if it is torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure.”

It is only when the ordinary is made extraordinary that we see it for what it really is. And while drag may certainly have been commercialised in some instances, it seems to me a profound act of rebellion and reclamation. Drag is an intellectual indictment of society and a protest. It is of course also a celebration and a show, but it is one that tells the story of our lifetimes. It confronts us with our complicity in maintaining heteronormative, patriarchal and racist structures of oppression. It is phantasmagoric. And we might all learn something from it.

Rancière, J., 2004. Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum, p. 30.



When I was younger I used to have a very particular reaction to seeing an ambulance race past, sirens blaring. There was something about that moment and the feeling I had that I could never quite articulate. As I watched the cars part automatically I was uplifted by the simple decency of manoeuvring to let the ambulance through. Yet I also imagined the tragedy that must have occurred. I felt sad, exhilarated and inspired all at the same time. As a 10 year-old and even 15 year-old, this peculiar combination of emotions was unsettling. I thought not of the tragedy but of hope, and my reaction was not so much articulated than felt.

I thought of this sensation in our last discussion of Badiou and the ‘event’. Of the magical moment when we glimpse a truth, when we feel a truth. During class Patta likened this truth to justice: not in a judicial sense but in a sense of relating to other humans as humans. Of witnessing our co-existence and our connectedness, and recognising our collective humanity. When I was younger I sensed that what struck me most about watching the ambulance tear by was the knowledge that there were people on their way to help. They were on their way to save lives. It was humans helping humans in its most basic sense. Without wrongly attributing retrospective importance to this, were these experiences glimpses of justice? Was this never fully comprehensible feeling approaching the realm of truth?

Our unruly explorations have delved into the murky existential depths of philosophy, ontology and epistemology. At times the complex theories and ideas can seem quite literally a world away from our everyday lives, and I find myself run dizzying mental circles around elusive concepts. When it comes to our own practice and political action, what, really, is the point? How is it relevant? It might tickle our egos to throw around fancy words and toy with abstractions of thought, but do we gain anything in the process? Whatsmore do we engage in meaningful dialogue when we are never quite sure if we share a comprehension of such concepts, or simply a mutual recognition of words? What is the potential for unruly politics to foster genuine and productive conversation, that draws on and creates shared understandings, opening up possibilities not simply for more nuanced comprehension but for further political action? Can we make clear connections between lofty theory and grounded experience?

The relationship between theory and practice is critical, not just for unrulistas, nor students of development, but for academics and practitioners more generally. I am wary of attributing significance where it is not due, and of applying labels where they are not appropriate. At times we most certainly run the risk of unnecessarily or erroneously intellectualising events and experiences. Yet perhaps if we endeavour to see elements of these theories in our everyday lives we might have a more solid foundation from which to work. How can we understand pontificating philosophers if not by relating it to that which we know? What I felt as sirens wailed and flashing lights whizzed by might not have been a ‘truth’ as Badiou intended the term. But I believe that likening the two inches me closer to understanding what he meant. And the process invites similar comparisons from peers, colleagues, friends and co-conspirators.

Likening ideas from unruly to events and phenomenon I’ve encountered elsewhere feels a little  like an extended a-ha moment. As we discussed Veena Das alongside Badiou, I was reminded of the ‘phenomenon’ of Japanese suicide, which I studied as a history undergraduate. Suicide has long been prominent in the popular imagination of Japan, from Samurai honour suicides to Kamikaze pilots to contemporary pop culture. However the rate of suicide increased dramatically from the 1990s onwards. Considered by some as the ultimate act of free will in what has been seen as a rather individual-less society, the government co-option of this suffering, through the creation of a national narrative, was a resounding, public negation of this autonomy. As Das argues, the totalizing effect of state narratives “cuts off the experience from the victims”. So too in Japan, the rhetoric by medical professionals, psychiatrists and politicians constructed suicide as a national issue, obscuring the individual in the process.

Applying an unruly lens onto the happenings of past and present grants us fresh insights, reveals nuance and suggests linkages that might generate possibilities. In our discussion of biopower and Agamben’s bare life, one class member recalled an experience they had had working with child refugees: they had sensed at the time that there were deeply politicised relationships between power and the body, but they had not had the language to fully grasp it. Having subsequently encountered biopower and biopolitics, it had resonated and become clearer. This comment really stuck with me at the time, as it raises the question of how far we can alter the memory and significance of events by applying certain lenses, using certain words. Does it contribute to our understanding or hinder it? I can’t pretend to know the answer but I think it lies in a collective process of interrogation.

We must continue to search these theories for relevance, for applications to past and present events, in order to determine how we might best use them in the unruly endeavour. We might not always use them and apply them as their authors intended, but even these mistakes can spark conversations. Whatsmore we must never accept an epistemological monopoly from ageing theories and self-congratulatory Marxists. I have most certainly gained a great deal from reading Badiou and Rancière, but their theories might not always be relevant. There’s every possibility that they simply cannot stand the test of time. When the phenomenon we seek to understand in unruly politics is characteristically new in some way, an indicator of new global happenings somehow connected, perhaps we need to start from our lived experiences not from books. Perhaps we need to start from the sirens.

Badiou, A., 2012. The rebirth of history: times of riots and uprisings. London: Verso.

Das, V., 1995. Critical events: an anthropological perspective on contemporary India.Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kitanaka, J., Depression in Japan: Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress. New Jersey: Princeton.