A symphony of struggle

Image result for shostakovich

Unruliness and classical music don’t seem natural companions. Musicians in dinner jackets playing to hushed concert halls hardly evoke political struggle. In Soviet Russia, however, the genre became a dangerous battleground between the state and the artist. One of the great orchestral works of the twentieth century was a direct product of this aesthetic war Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If you don’t know it, try listening while you read.

The piece was written in 1936/7 against a backdrop of brutal political repression. Stalin’s purges were tearing through the population in an indiscriminate search for political enemies. Artists of every sort lived and created their work in this climate of terror. The Soviet state fully understood the potential of literature, art, theatre and music to either bolster or destabilise the regime. As the poet Osip Mandelstam, himself a victim of the purges, famously put it: ‘Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?’

Shostakovich might well have claimed the same dubious honour for classical music. Stalin himself attended the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in January 1936, and was deeply displeased with what he heard, leaving in disgust after the third act. Reportedly ‘white as a sheet’ when he took his curtain call, Shostakovich understood the extreme danger of his position. A Party newspaper editorial ‘Muddle instead of music’ quickly condemned the piece for its ‘deliberate dissonance’, so far from the ‘simple and popular musical language accessible to all’ demanded by the Soviet vision of the arts.

Shostakovich’s only chance for redemption was his forthcoming Fifth Symphony. He retired from public life in disgrace to write it, the threat of torture, imprisonment or execution hanging over the creative process. The piece eventually premiered in 1937. It was acclaimed as the height of Socialist art, establishing Shostakovich as the Soviet composer par excellence. It is full of the elements the authorities wanted: clear, rousing tunes, swelling string melodies and bold military marches. And yet, the music manages to be so much more.

You can hear the brutality of the regime’s oppression. You can hear the tension of waiting for the secret police’s knock in the middle of the night. You can hear the ever-present threat of the informer. In a situation of the most intense oppression and scrutiny, Shostakovich used his music as resistance, even as it was held up as a symbol of the regime. He commented later, after the death of Stalin, that ‘it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.’

Music like the Fifth Symphony offers us an opportunity to explore hidden transcripts of the past, to inhabit the mask for a fleeting moment. The resistance is literally transcribed on the page for us to interpret. Perhaps this is a different way to understand the experience of the oppressed. Veena Das explores the impossibility of articulating suffering; the way in which words inevitably exclude some part of the trauma. In some circumstances, music can give voice to resistance and suffering when no other mode of expression is possible. I sincerely hope that Shostakovich found solace in his symphony along with the suffering.



Das, Veena (1996) Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India, Delhi, Oxford University Press

Pravda editorial (1936) Muddle Instead of Music accessed from  http://www.arnoldschalks.nl/tlte1sub1.html

Scott, James (1992) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, London, Yale University Press

Volkov, Solomon (2005) Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, London, Faber



On laughter, authority and unruliness


In our reflections on our group unruly action, we discussed the role of context in determining the significance of small acts of resistance. The recent story from the US of Desiree Fairooz, a civil rights activist from the NGO Code Pink, gave me new perspective on this idea.

In January this year, she was forcibly removed from a confirmation hearing for the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Her offence was to laugh out loud twice at the statement from a Republican senator that Sessions’ ‘record of treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented’. Sessions is notorious in the US for being rejected as a federal judge in the 1980s because of concerns about his views on race (The Guardian 2017a). This month, Fairooz was found guilty of “disorderly or disruptive conduct” with the intent to disrupt congressional proceedings, as well as “parading, demonstrating or picketing” (The Guardian 2017b). Her sentence will be either a $2000 fine or a short time in jail.

Image result for jeff sessions stupid face

What was it about that context that constructed Fairooz’s laugh as criminal? The act of laughter in itself was not considered unruly in that particular space. A later wave of laughter at a joke made by Sessions did not result in anyone being removed from the room by four armed police officers. The unruliness lay in mockery. There is an unruly power in humour – and men like Jeff Sessions, who fear any kind of rupture in the façade of their authority, know it. They know how laughter can undermine and ridicule. Fairooz’s laugh was an expression of dissent which could not be tolerated.

I find it both striking and alarming that a public hearing in an liberal democracy could be a context which the act of laughter becomes an act of resistance. But there is a paradox in the strength of the reaction against Fairooz. In trying to stamp out the mockery that threatened his authority, Sessions reminds us even more forcibly of the chink in his armour. He hates to be laughed at. On that note, and in support of Desiree Fairooz, I leave you with this picture.



The Guardian (2017b) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/04/desiree-fairooz-laughing-jeff-sessions-confirmation-hearing

The Guardian (2017a) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/08/jeff-sessions-controversy-explainer-attorney-general

Image credits

JD Crowe http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/05/good_people_dont_laugh_at_jeff.html


Chris Piacek





Socialised into ruliness – reflections on International Women’s Day


I am a feminist. I am a woman living in a place where I don’t have to fear expressing myself. I enjoy incredible privilege in the way I can exercise rights and freedoms compared to the majority of other women around the world.

But on International Women’s Day, I still found myself acutely aware of the social pressure to be quiet, to be polite, to be ruly.

The picture above was sent around some student groups on social media to mark International Women’s Day. It was met with a few thumbs up and heart emojis. My own response? Deafening silence. I made no comment on that image. I did not express my utter disgust at beauty still being the ultimate compliment, the defining characteristic of a woman. I did not express my anger at the ideal of femininity depicted once again as lithe, sexualised and young. I did not express my fatigue with the patronising old cliché of flowers and pink lettering used to deliver a message to women. I did not ask why a man felt that was an appropriate message for International Women’s Day.

Instead, I made excuses. It doesn’t really matter – it’s just a stupid Internet meme. I don’t want to make a fuss – I’ll upset the man who posted it. He’s a nice guy – he just wasn’t thinking. I don’t want to draw attention to myself – everyone will think I’m the caricature of the humourless, over-analysing feminist.

Well, fuck it. I hate that picture. I hate its message. I hate that it appeared in our student community, a place where people are supposed to be aware of and reflective about gender issues. I hate that the fear of appearing rude prevented me from responding directly. I hate the idea that nice guys can’t be sexist. I hate that we’re still explaining this shit to people. I hate the hypocrisy I’m showing in posting a response here, where I’m pretty sure the sender of the image won’t see it.

Enough. Enough of being bound by these things.

Fuck the norms that still keep women in check. Fuck good manners and politeness and not upsetting anybody. Fuck silence. Happy International Women’s Day. Here’s to unruliness.