Activist Aesthetics of Dissent and Persuasion

THROWBACK to a Workshop organized by Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer and Thomas G. Kirsch Research group “Traveling Forms” University of Konstanz, 13-15 January 2022

When communicating and enacting their political aspirations, activists reach out to a variety of different audiences. This commonly involves a politics of distinction from those actors and agencies whom the activists claim to be responsible for the mischiefs and grievances they are concerned with and seek to transform to the better. At the same time, activists engage in a language of persuasiveness when trying to gain the support of members of the wider public, which requires them to attend to aesthetic, symbolic and performative repertoires deemed acceptable, even appealing, in the wider socio-cultural sphere.

The workshop started out from the observation that activists’ endeavors to communicate the cogency, urgency and legitimacy of their political aspirations to these different addressees often means walking a thin line. An overemphasis on the radicality of dissent can scare off potential supporters in the wider public; overstressing persuasiveness by tapping into all-to-familiar worlds of aestheticization and signification can make them appear toothless tigers. Given this field of tensions, the workshop probes into the aesthetics of activism in its vastly differing empirical manifestations and with a view to the ambivalences embedded in them. It asks how political engagement is being translated into different modes of aesthetic engagement, and how the aestheticization of protest can itself become a hotly contested issue in this process.

Contributors were invited to deal with the aesthetic, performative and communicative dimensions of activism in its embodied forms and/or in relation to the social and mass media representations produced by activists in different parts of the world. On the most fundamental level, this pertains to the question of which particular audiences are addressed by activists, and relatedly, whether there are audience-specific differences in their deployment of media, and in the aesthetic and symbolic languages and practices used by them. At the same time, the inquiry into the ways in which protest aesthetics bring together political and ethical registers of discourse can provide important insights into how (new) social ties and identities are formed and marked as distinct from other forms of belonging. The latter is closely tied to the experiential and affective economies of activism. The workshop thus raised the question of how the aesthetics of protest evoke and navigate emotions among activists and in the wider social field, creating experiential intensities that aim at literally “moving” people to feel attached to, and actively advocate, a given imaginary of socio-political change.

Assuming that activists cultivate distinctively “activist” values, ideals and forms of representation, the issue of protest aesthetics is also connected to the question of ownership. “Protest proprietorship” – supposedly paralleled by moral authority and political legitimacy – is expressed through aesthetic techniques, symbols and practices of self-identification, which are enacted (and partly embodied) in contradistinction from constitutive Others and are sometimes borrowed from other movements or mass media representations (e.g., the three finger gesture of protesters in present-day Myanmar which also had been used by Thai activists in 2014 and has its origins in the movie Hunger Games). In this way, activist aesthetics are constantly made and unmade, in an ongoing state of becoming. These dynamics inform the activists’ narratives of remembrance and their visions of the future, thus feeding into ever-shifting activist imaginaries and opening up novel political possibilities.

One of the key issues addressed in the workshop concerns the relationship between aesthetic innovation and what we call “aesthetic normalization”. In order to draw attention to their cause, activists come up with creative aesthetic forms. But once the latter are made to circulate in social space, in part transnationally, these aesthetics become normalized or even institutionalized, which is particularly the case if and when these aesthetics are appropriated by the cultural industry, commodifying them (think of Che Guevara posters and T-shirts). While the latter can prove useful for the activists’ endeavors, because it indicates that their socio-political aspirations have turned into a widely known “brand”, in other constellations activists feel troubled by normalization processes like these, which then makes them seek to creatively reappropriate the troubled and troubling moment of resistance and, thereby, reclaim their self-understanding and -presentation as “unruly agents”.

Taken together, the workshop was thus interested in the empirically varied manifestations of activist aesthetics as well as in the contradictory dynamics involved in the activists’ attempts to address different audiences when calling for socio-political change.

Workshop organized by
Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer and Thomas G. Kirsch
Research group “Traveling Forms”
University of Konstanz, 13-15 January 2022