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Nicholas Mirzoeff on what protest looks like


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In a fascinating conversation for The Stone, the philosophy blog of the New York Times, Natasha Lennard talks with activist and professor of media Nicholas Mirzoeff about the visual politics of modern-day protest, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. Mirzoeff deconstructs the notion of “violent protest,” and explains how the “politics of appearance” have changed in recent years with the resurgence of anti-immigrant and fascist tendencies. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

NM: It is becoming apparent that present-day politics cannot easily be configured around the demand for what Judith Butler has called “the right to appear.” Protest is a form of appearance that makes a wrong visible and seeks to have it set right. Often that demand is aimed at authority, whether the government or some other body. In 2003, an estimated 15 million people worldwide protested the predetermined decision to go to war in Iraq. President George W. Bush dismissed them as a “focus group.” As the Chilcot report has made clear, war was already the policy. This was not just a bad decision. It was exemplary of how appearance in the public sphere has lately lost its ability to have political impact.

There have been two notable responses to the breakdown of the space of appearance. Former protesters and the disillusioned have either set out to create a new politics of appearance or they have reacted by looking for groups to blame.

From the Zapatistas to the global Occupy project and today’s Nuit Debout movement in France, the politics of appearance is no longer about submitting a petition to power, but instead organizing so that people can appear to each other. That means suspending the regulation of the space of appearance by norms, above all the norms of racial hierarchy, and then refusing to move on out of that space. I believe that is why Black Lives Matter has acted to disrupt all the major presidential campaigns in 2016. It is seeking to form a new manner of being “political,” a new way to see and be seen in the world.

But the other possibility, the blaming of other groups, is a reaction to a sense of powerlessness. As we have seen in the past, these reactions are not correlated to factual evidence or even specific local experience. The Brexit vote was above all motivated by a hostility to immigration. But those voting on these grounds often live in places with low immigration, just as anti-Semitism in the past did not result from proximity to Jewish people.

“Take back control” in Britain and “Make America great again” are, then, calls for a re-regulation of the space of appearance to exclude certain groups.

Image: Jacob Lawrence, No. 19. Sunday, October 16, 1859, John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harpers Ferry. Via NY Times.