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John Hulsey: "Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Liberalism"

Text by John Hulsey

A few weeks ago, an article showed up in my Facebook feed, one being shared within my social practice art circles. It was “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest” by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, a philosopher and professor of ethics at Case Western Reserve University. As someone who studies and practices the relationship between aesthetics and social movements, my ears perked up. Yes, I thought. Of course! A reconsideration of the ways in which direct action makes certain political ideas or forms of social organization visible, perceptible, and felt is an urgent and necessary task. Social movement organizing and aesthetic practices have historically had much to say to each other, as both are invested in thinking, making, and remaking the world. And these questions are all the more urgent now, in our upended times, when new strategies and forms are needed to make manifest the world that we desire and deserve.

So I began reading Bendik-Keymer’s article with interest and curiosity. And while it’s praiseworthy for opening up a set of key questions, I was surprised to discover that, in spite of the author’s outward statements, the essay wasn’t actually a reconsideration of the aesthetics of protest; it was an argument against protest as such. As the essay continued, and as the conceptual problems with its premises and conclusions came increasingly into view, it occurred to me that this was, perhaps, less a diagnosis of contemporary forms of protest, per se, than a reflection of more symptomatic problems in contemporary liberal thought and culture broadly defined. It is this set of problems that I am interested in exploring, for I have come to believe that unless we are able to discern with clarity the types of thoughts and actions that contemporary liberalism both authorizes and prohibits, we will be ill-equipped to deal with the crises we face in our present reality. As authoritarian right-wing populism proceeds to capture state power from the legatees of liberal democracy, we must be prepared to understand the ways in which the liberal tradition itself has come to define our current political landscape so that we might offer, in turn, a more robust, vibrant vision for society than it currently allows.

Bendik-Keymer’s essay opens with the description of a pitiful scene—a protest during last summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, in which the author witnessed

a small group of cordoned-off people shouting at the sky while no one listened and protesters’ hands worked at cell phones to stage events as tweets. I also heard a familiar sound: Short messages aimed at no one. Overgeneralizations. Insults. Basically, a lot of sound and fury.

This is the only example of a protest that he offers, and given the amount of explanatory weight he puts on it to arrive at his conclusions, it bears further scrutiny. For Bendik-Keymer, the protest was a failure because it failed to communicate a political idea, and it failed to do this for two main reasons. First, its implied recipient was absent (it “would have been acceptable if we’d been at the balcony of a king … but there were no officials in sight”), and second, the quality of speech itself was infelicitous, unseemly, or just plain meaningless—“insults” and “overgeneralizations” amounting to a lot of “sound and fury” signifying nothing.

There are a couple of problems here. First, by evaluating the protest solely on the basis of how it appears in a moment, he brackets the action from its political effects. To assess whether the protest was a success or a failure, we would need to understand what it did. Did the tweets go viral? Did the media cover it? Did the candidates themselves react? What did people on the street say? Did it shift public opinion or reshape popular discourse? These questions imply important political as well as aesthetic considerations. To understand the protest, in other words, we would need to analyze its operative poetics—examining its gestures and forms in order to assess whether they reorganized people’s perceptions, affects, attitudes, ideas, and opinions over time.

Second, given Bendik-Keymer’s insistence on protest as a type of communication (and, surely, it is both a form of speaking as well as doing), we would need to clarify what kind of speech act it is, who its implied addressee is, and what this particular form of public address does and does not do. Bendik-Keymer, for one, seems to think of protest as a straightforward attempt to speak to one’s political opponents. It’s for this reason that he’s bothered by the fact that the “king” is absent, because for him, a protest should either convey an idea directly to one’s detractors or, better yet, open a space to dialogue with them through reasoned discussion. “Protest takes place as a democratic action,” he writes, and for him this means that

it is supposed to move between people and to help people collectively consider how to shape life together. If protests do not speak with people who differ, it is hard to see how they move between people. And if protests simplify and otherwise muck around issues, it is hard to see how they help anyone consider anything. They are scarcely considerate.

What Bendik-Keymer means by “democratic” here will need to be held up to closer scrutiny a bit later. For the moment, let’s stay with this idea that protests are supposed to help people “consider” ideas and that, in order to do that, they should also be “considerate.” What, exactly, would a considerate protest look like? Bendik-Keymer has a few suggestions. Instead of shouting, he says, we might “discourse with others.” More specifically, we might “deliberate with officials or fellow people who disagree with us,” or “go to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement, and stage an in-depth conversation aimed to educate all sides.” By putting emphasis on protest as a form of mutually agreed upon dialogue, Bendik-Keymer makes certain conceptual prerogatives clear. In the manner of someone who is accustomed to facilitating classroom discussion among university students, he wants us to “speak with people” who are different from us. He wants us to help people “consider” ideas. He wants us to be “considerate” of others. What he wants is lovely and worthy of praise. But it isn’t protest: it’s civil conversation.

The last thing I intend to do is mount an argument against reasoned, thoughtful, civil conversation. Speaking and listening with consideration, empathy, and curiosity is how I would like to relate to people all the time. The problem is that in the context of Bendik-Keymer’s argument, this mode of relating comes to stand in for a much broader political strategy; and framed in this way, it’s not only problematic, it’s also based on incorrect assumptions, ill-defined terms, and ahistorical lines of reasoning that divorce his assertions from the ways in which protest, as a tactic, has actually articulated itself through historical struggles. (This, in turn, raises a secondary set of questions, which will have to remain speculative for the time being, about what kinds of pressures—ideological, moral, emotional, aesthetic, or otherwise—might cause reason itself to break down, even in the hands of a scholar on whom society has conferred the peculiar task of thinking things through with precision.)

For now, I’d like to address a few core problems with Bendik-Keymer’s argument.

  1. He draws on an exceptionally small sample size to tease out the implications of protest in contemporary political life. Even if we think the RNC protest was a failure, his argument leaves out every possible example of protest that has actually won something in recent history (for example, Standing Rock). In other words, his essay draws conclusions from an anecdotal account of his own experience of an action that does not deal either with the history of the form or with its instrumental value as part of a broader strategy.

  2. It’s completely possible that the RNC action did fail, but for reasons that Bendik-Keymer’s analysis does not allow us to discern. What has historically made protests successful is their sustained repetition and growth over time. The Black Lives Matter protests that started in 2014, for instance, persisted over many months and expanded rapidly across multiple cities in the US, effectively placing a confrontation with the country’s legacy of anti-Black racism at the center of public debate. What makes actions relatively less successful, on the other hand, is when they’re one-off events. The irony here is that we have no way of knowing from Bendik-Keymer’s account whether the RNC protest was, in fact, a one-off action that flopped on its own or whether it only appears that way as a result of his analysis, which severs it from the flow of historical events. It’s impossible to tell whether we’re reading about protesters who have aestheticized their own act of dissent to the point of political inefficacy or whether this is, instead, an aestheticized description of an action that strips it of its own political consequences. Either way, if the RNC protest was a failure, the remedy would be the reverse of the one Bendik-Keymer offers: if the action wasn’t consequential enough, we shouldn’t be doing less of it, but more—a lot more.

  3. His argument confuses one thing for another kind of thing. He wants to say that he’s analyzing the ways in which protest should be done more effectively, when in fact he’s talking about doing something altogether distinct—i.e., civil conversation. This extended category mistake derives from a deeper misunderstanding about how protest has historically been able to help people “collectively … shape life together.” As a category of political action, protest can be understood as a repertoire of tactics, including everything from protest marches to protest occupations, that use noncooperation and disruption to shape public discourse. Historically, this set of tactics has been most effective when used to do the opposite of what Bendik-Keymer suggests it should be doing in the present. Rather than speaking with people across difference, protests are successful precisely when they polarize publics through the articulation of symbolic demands that shift mass popular opinion in a particular direction. Rather than dialogue, which involves two parties agreeing to engage in conversation, protests stage dramatic moral choices for the public by introducing an intermediary third term—DAPL, a racist police force, white nationalists, the RNC, etc.—against which a new political identity can coalesce.

Bendik-Keymer’s lament about the Cleveland protest was that it failed as an act of communication because it was unable to speak with government officials, but in this assessment he confuses the protest’s outward target with its actual addressee. When social movements stage actions against specific political actors, the goal is not, strictly speaking, to have a discussion with them; it is to use the confrontation as a means of speaking with and winning over broad sections of the general public. This is how successful protest movements have won their most significant victories in modern history. Through sustained acts of disruption and noncooperation, movements have historically been able to drive wedges in public debate and win popular support for transformative demands, thereby forcing open the doors to sweeping political reforms.1

Take, for instance, the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, inspired by the civil resistance methods developed by James Lawson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ella Baker. Through sustained acts of civil disobedience, the student activists in Greensboro and across the South were able to move public opinion on race by making visible, perceptible, and intelligible to a mainstream public the hideousness of white supremacy in America. This was, to an important extent, a function of optics. Recall the widely circulated images of angry white racists pouring condiments on young Black women and men who were waiting to place their lunch orders. It’s hard to overstate the effects of such appalling images on large segments of the American public: just look at the Gallup opinion polls on the “most important problem in the US” during the major Civil Rights mobilizations to see how high up “race relations/racism” jumps during these years, or look at how many volunteers from the North bussed themselves in to support those taking action in the South. If these same activists had decided to hold civil, considered conversations with white supremacists, or if they had conducted a series of educational discussions with pro-segregation governors (going “to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement”), would that have achieved the same goal?

What the Civil Rights activists understood is that rather than simply conversing with their opponents, they needed to set up strategic confrontations with them to force the American people to make a fundamental moral choice. They understood that society, rather than being an abstract collection of individuals, is a dynamic set of overlapping publics, and that each segment must be taken into account differently. By engaging in dramatic acts of civil disobedience, they emboldened those who already disagreed with Jim Crow segregation to take bigger and more public action to end it. By making visible the ugliness of white supremacy to a mass public, they pulled those who were ambivalent on issues of racial justice over to their side. And by drawing out the violence of their most fervent opponents, they isolated them politically from the mainstream.

This is what successful protest movements have done over and over again throughout the course of modern history. Rather than reaching across difference to find common ground (“having a conversation”), protest has been deployed successfully to dramatize injustice so that a new political common sense can be born.2 Instead of easing social divisions through reasoned discussion, protest has been successful precisely when it has set up strategic conceptual divides—between the “right side of history” and the “wrong side of history”—in order to catalyze the process of “shaping life together.”

  1. A fourth problem with Bendik-Keymer’s argument is the idea that protest is primarily an act of self-expression. It’s this idea that leads him to assert that protest is tantamount to “shouts” and “insults,” which for him are unfortunate because they shut down dialogue. The trouble here is a lack of distinction between protest-as-self-expression and protest-as-strategic-action. Again, if we look at the history of protest movements, we will see that many of the most significant mobilizations in modern history are not simple acts of self-expression but are, rather, means of channeling public rage or grief towards a strategic end. They are not, in other words, about slinging insults but are about using disruptive action against a symbolic target in order to win popular support for a transformative demand.

This was one of the key recipes of the victory at Standing Rock. Even though the water protectors took a highly disruptive stance toward big oil, the police, and the structural logics of settler colonialism—committing bold and ongoing acts of civil disobedience that got them arrested and put them at risk of physical harm—they made it clear, over and over again, that their actions were not about “hating” their opponents or “attacking” them personally, even at the precise moment in which they polarized the entire country (including three thousand veterans who self-deployed) against the forces of capital and state repression. In so doing, they pulled an enormous segment of the population over to their side and into the fight for environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty. What critics of disruptive tactics fail to understand is that direct action should not be understood as personal but rather as strategic.

  1. Bendik-Keymer’s essay muddles the relationship between aesthetics and politics in a few ways at once. Rather than offering a reconsideration of the aesthetics of protest as such—an analysis that would assess the ways in which protests reorganize people’s perceptions, sensations, affects, and attitudes, thereby opening up or shutting down the possibility for “making sense” across time and space—he instead offers an alternate form of politics. When he argues that protest ought to be a form of “democratic action,” he opens a broader set of question about the notion of “democracy” itself: what we think that term means, what kinds of behaviors and attitudes it suggests that we adopt, and the ways in which our commitment to a particular version of it manifests in various forms of social or cultural life—whether organizing strategies, works of art, or essays like Bendik-Keymer’s or my own.

For Bendik-Keymer, an investment in civility, consideration, and considerateness is seemingly so great that it leads him to reread the history and theory of protest tactics in order to retrofit onto it his own suggestions about how he wants people to conduct themselves in the present. The notion of democracy he draws upon, I argue, is bound up in the history of Western liberalism and its values of civility, rationality, and tolerance for difference. Competing with this understanding are others—for instance, the form of democratic politics proposed by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. For them, democracy is a space not of civil conversation but of agonism, debate, and dissent, a notion that the history of social movements bears out through action.3 These different frameworks have, in turn, conflicting prescriptions for how we are to behave, speak, think, and organize ourselves, and it’s worth noting this divergence (if only briefly), in order to understand which set of cultural or political values a particular statement upholds.

Bendik-Keymer argues that his version of democracy should guide protest’s aesthetic considerations: “I wager that until protests take this democratic direction seriously, they will remain aesthetically blocked.” On the contrary, unless we cease aestheticizing democracy as thoughtful, civil conversation, our theories about what types of action we can and should take will remain politically blocked. Bendik-Keymer brackets the real political ramifications of protests by suggesting that we evaluate them on the basis of whether or not they look like the kinds of things we want to see in the world, rather than whether or not they produce the kind of world we want to live in. And at the same time, he aestheticizes an alternate set of political activities, which I’ve called civil conversation, over and against the agonistic qualities that have historically defined protest as a category of human action.

Of course, the problems I’ve tried to lay out here are hardly unique to Bendik-Keymer’s essay. His arguments in favor of civility and against agonism are woven into the fabric of contemporary US culture and its prevailing political common sense. Over and over again, we have seen in recent years what can only be described as an emotional or aesthetic revulsion towards the tactic of protest from within the centers of liberal thought and culture—a revulsion that is often enmeshed with racialized and gendered ideas about who should or should not be protesting. The language of these critiques is often the same: acts of public dissent are “messy,” “angry,” “uncivil,” and “counterproductive.” I have at times wondered whether such expressions stem, at least in part, from a fear of conflict, or whether they come more directly from a deep but disavowed anxiety that the people who are yelling are, in some way, yelling at you.

A recurrent liberal response to the pressing social, political, or economic problems of our time is to have “conversations” about them—whether panel discussions, roundtables, or certain strands of social practice art. This fixation on conversation as a form belies, I think, a skewed understanding of actually existing social power relations. A classic liberal meta-narrative runs something like this: “If we act civilly, treat each other with respect, look at each other as equals, then the world will be the kind of place we want to live in.” That’s an admirable idea, but it doesn’t account for actual imbalances in social power, or the ways in which power is racialized and gendered in our modern societies. It doesn’t specify the role that particular institutions play—up to and including art institutions, or platforms like this one—in buttressing or rejecting certain arrangements of power. And it overestimates the ability of individual choices to prefigure the world to come (i.e., the liberal catchphrase “be the change you want to see in the world”) while vastly miscalculating the efficacy of talking as a means of addressing entrenched political problems.

Now, more than ever, we must consider the aesthetics of protest, but not in the way that Bendik-Keymer suggests. Once we get clear on what protest is, how it has functioned historically within the broader landscape of agonistic democracy, and how it can help lay the foundation for the society we wish to create, then we can get to work figuring out how to refine, redefine, and reconsider its aesthetic dimensions. In its fixation on conversation over action, civility over agonism, and its abstraction of power relations more generally, contemporary liberalism has too often obscured our ability to think clearly about the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves. We need bold and considered aesthetic forms to give rise to the society we want to make manifest—a society more beautiful and more just than we previously imagined and one that liberalism has, in recent decades, repeatedly attempted to dissuade us from fighting for.

Bendik-Keymer is right in a key regard: “We need the artist in every protester, and the protester in every artist.” A reconsideration of the relationship between aesthetics and protest cannot be limited to an analysis of aesthetic forms in protest (signs, images, and other forms of communication such as “theater, puppetry, mimicry,” etc.) but must consider protest itself as an aesthetic form with its own particular properties. But as I’ve tried to suggest, the metrics for analyzing protest as a form have less to do with the way it appears and more to do with what its gestures, forms, and actions do. It’s for this reason that it’s useful to look to historical examples in order to understand how social movements have used the polarizing techniques of civil disobedience and mass protest to shape the perceptions, sensations, feelings, and attitudes of their time. Whether we look at Standing Rock, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, or other examples such as ACT-UP, Occupy, or the WTO mobilizations (to name only a handful of US examples), the tactics of protest have been effective when they’ve been able to speak to a wide swath of the general public, galvanize support for a popular demand, and shape a new common sense that sets the stage for key policy victories.

To ask for “the artist in every protester” is another way of calling for a heightened awareness about protest as a made or constructed event. Rather than a fixed set of practices or protocols, protest must respond to an ever changing set of concrete historical conditions—a process that requires thought and consideration with regard to its form, the context in which it intervenes, and the public or publics with which it communicates. This means, among other things, that we must be open to protest looking and sounding many different ways, depending on social or historical circumstances. Considering the “aesthetics” of protest, then, is not the same thing as “aestheticizing” it. To work on the aesthetic dimension of protest (i.e., the way it makes certain ideas visible or audible, the way it sets up spatial divisions or symbolic divides, the way it orchestrates movement and stillness, scale and duration, and the registers through which it speaks to the general public) is to be responsive to the concrete givens of a historical situation with a particular political horizon in mind. To aestheticize protest, on the other hand, is to reify a fixed and highly specific set of activities based upon their inherited connotations or perceived social value. Aestheticized protest, unlike aesthetically considered protest, sees itself as an end in and of itself, rather than an opening onto a new political future.

Today, the extreme right in the US is poised to set a new national agenda and shape a new common sense based on xenophobia, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and Islamophobia. If we are to have a chance of organizing our way out of this emerging political crisis, we will need to continually pose questions like the ones raised in the process of reading Bendik-Keymer’s essay. How might aesthetic inquiry and aesthetic practices support political organizing? While the answers to these questions will emerge over time, I wager that in working through them, we will do well to avoid, on the one hand, the aesthetics of liberalism and its logics of conversation and compromise and, on the other, the aestheticization of protest and its politically ineffective romance of resistance. Instead, we need an aesthetically considered form of protest to build the society that we deserve—one that uses the forms, gestures, and techniques of disruption and noncooperation to shape a new common sense and build the sustained popular support needed to fight for, and win, a truly just and equitable society.


1 See Mark and Paul Engler, This Is An Uprising (New York: Nation Books, 2016), who argue that protest tactics exacerbate “stark divides” by stimulating previously uncommitted members of society to take sides on an issue. When protests are successful, they “polarize” in a favorable direction, capturing the sympathies of a broad section of the general public and reshaping the prevailing political consensus, thereby creating the conditions for key policy victories (205–208). My discussion of social movement history and theory, here and below, draws on the Englers’ analysis as well as on the work of Momentum, an organizing model and training institute based on the movements researched in that book.
2 The notion of shaping “common sense” as a technique of political struggle comes from the writings of Antonio Gramsci and has been taken up in recent years by contemporary Left movements such as Podemos in Spain. See, for instance, Pablo Iglesias, “The Left Can Win,” Jacobin, December 12, 2014, or César Rendueles and Jorge Sola, “Podemos and The Paradigm Shift,” Jacobin, April 13, 2015.
3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).

Image: Anti-Trump march in New York City, November 2016. Via PBS Newshour.

Hi John,

I just emailed you via your Gmail, but will also post here.

Thank you for this real and thoughtful critique of the H.A. piece. As I emailed you, there are a number of unwarrented assumptions in the view you attribute to me which might be productive to work through for thinking about how to be democratically engaged now.

If you would find it productive to have a conversation here, then let me know. I wonder if it might not be best in doing so to begin with a core question you think ought to be addressed. I don’t want to take up time and attention by going back over my H.A. piece as if it needs to be defended, and it might also just turn into another critique session if I start sifting through your piece. My hunch is that if we began with a core question, we would get to many of the issues anyway and in a more direct, plain way.

In any case, I want to say generally that my worry about your view – and that of many of the self-described “Leftist” commenters on H.A.'s site – is that your view plays into neoliberalism. My view is developed out of an engagement with some of the very authors, or traditions, you cite. But I arrive at different conclusions, largely due to my understanding of how neoliberalism works today. So I might put a core point this way: whereas you assume that I express a view from classical liberalism (with which I would disagree), I am concerned that you express a view that is complicit with both neo-liberalism and the tightening of a surveillance state.

Thank you again for such a thoughtful article.


Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

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