Visibility, Spectacular Unreadability and Democracy
In thinking about the link between representation and the body, as well as mobilizing theories of embodied alterity in social space, I became fascinated by French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s staging of politics as an event that disrupts the existing order. Rancière is associated with neo-Marxists working in Althusser’s circle during the 1960s. Interestingly, Rancière’s break from Althusser occurred in response to the May 1968 student uprising (events which Althusser called “counterrevolutionary”), and which marked the beginning of a replacement of conservative with liberal political ideals in France. Rancière also came to believe that Althusserian Marxism was a “philosophy of order” that prevented active revolt against the bourgeoisie. Rancière then began to re-examine socio-political and historical forces influencing the production of theory. One of his central concerns is from what position do we speak and in the name of whom? I think Rancière will help me trace out an argument about democracy, representation, and effecting change in the political sphere through what I will call “spectacular unreadability.” In building on Rancière’s discussion of the partitioning of visibility in social space, my paper will argue that spectacular unreadability is a certain kind of political visual presence, or a hyper-visibility, that defies existing codes and conventions—and thus refuses both capitalist incorporation of subculture style by the mainstream (as with punk subculture) or a typological criminalization (as with the zoot suiter style becoming a preemptively criminalized body).
If we take the simplistic definition of democracy as the free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government, then clearly we must begin again; that is to say, to find democracy in the ruptures rather than re-instantiations of the political power in which “majority rule” is predicated. “Equality” exists in democracy only through the systematic and violent policing of space to rule out the minority. Conceiving of diverse “representation” as the goal of democracy, and as a strategy for implementing its vision, my paper seeks to examine the rupture of the political, which is where politics really happens for Rancière, through the visual register. The circulation of bodies that continually confronts the accepted order could be one small but necessary step to staging actual change in politics. Conceived of as an embodied Deleuzian deterritorialization in the political sphere (which is everywhere), what is the possibility for effecting change through spectacular visual confrontations to the dominant order? And furthermore, what would unreadability look like without being subsumed by invisibility (or in Rancière’s terms, an “unrecognizable modality”)?
My paper will draw from theorists of subculture, such as Dick Hebdige and Simon Frith, in order to work through the problem they expose and analyze in their work, which is that forms of spectacular rebellion have always been appropriated by mainstream capitalist flows. As Hebdige argues in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style,” spectacular youth culture is always returned to capitalism, or normalized under its systematic cataloging of subculture codes. We are left with the dilemma of creating a rebellious subculture style that remains unreadable, while highly visible, and thus evades hegemonic systematization.
These new interstitial subculture identities are at once highly visual but also disruptive, or political. But what would these bodies look like? How does one avoid the hailing? Let’s take one example. Antonio Viego addresses one possible response to this moment of hailing in his discussion of the “pachuco’s/a’s and zoot suiter’s endless production of meaning” through the visual realm (151), by constructing “an incalculable, unreadable, and unrecognizable text” (142). Rosa Linda Fregoso also traces out some sites of resistance within the visual register through the ways in which “pachucas” enter the public sphere through a confrontational visual presence, against the grain of expectations of “feminine” behavior—these women are “mythic figures” in their “transgression of gender and sexual norms, their rejection of Mexican American propriety (buenos modales)” (91). In “carving their presence in the public sphere” (91), pachucas “exhibited a mastery over the urban, masculinized territory of the streets” (91).
However, as I mentioned before, subculture theorists are quick to note that these “unreadable” texts quickly become easily identifiable class, gender, ethnic or racialized stereotypes that are circumscribed by the law. It becomes necessary, therefore, to theorize a new kind of visual resistance. Lázaro Lima discusses the difficulty of resisting the system when that resistance often requires partial complicity, “since the enabling condition for intervention and clout in the public sphere has often meant the uncritical acceptance of bourgeois inclusionary norms” (7). Lima discusses the post-Mexican-American War’s assertion of a counteridentity, the Chicano—“born out of the interstices where ethnic memory meets American cultural amnesia” (9). Lima explores the multiple ways in which the Latino body has reconstituted itself within the order Lauren Berlant calls the “National Symbolic,” as the “archive of images and language the nation depends on to represent Americanness” (9).
Lima’s key tropes of the body and memory summon the juridical term corpus delicti—meaning body of crime. This term is useful insofar as the “National Symbolic categories of citizenship and the discourses of national belonging are plagued with metaphors with juridical meaning and historical weight (alien, citizen, legal, illegal, foreigner, national, immigrant, migrant)” (15). Lima critiques the fantasy produced by cultural amnesia that “continues an investment in American national identity through a folk mythology that is neither historically factual nor ethically accountable” (21). Lima writes that we must “awaken from the elusive embrace of a national fantasy incapable of reciprocating our love of difference” (126).
In response to Lima’s challenge, I will mobilize Rancière’s attention to the theatrical space of politics. Rancière, after all, draws a link between politics and aesthetics, as both are a mode of visibility. So, we must ask: what is visible in the political realm, and how might a disruption of that order catalyze change? Rancière explodes this question in the space of the theatre as an “aesthetic practice,” which resonates with Butler’s idea of performativity—a destabilization of accepted ideological codes through heightened awareness of and mockery of them (take, for instance, the figure of the drag performer as a grand performance of gender that destabilizes the fixity of male/female). Although, of course, performativity is generally not a daily personal choice but a ritualized reiteration that enacts a kind of violence on the bodies it polices into submission. Like Butler, Rancière draws on J.L. Austin’s notion of the performative utterance—which is neither true nor untrue but speaking makes it so. The speech act, for Rancière as for Butler, is a political gesture. This always paradoxical gesture is specific to the present moment and thus constantly shifts in relation to the world. Like Althusser’s ideologies in the plural, they are historically contingent. For Rancière, politics is a foundation-less foundation, and this lack of fixity that never presents itself as such encapsulates the “scandal” of politics.
Considering Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, it is important to note that he is against political philosophy’s conflation of politics proper with the police, which he defines as the force that divides communities and establishes hierarchies of the sensible. He argues that the law presupposes an aesthetic division between visible/invisible, audible/inaudible, sayable/unsayable. Politics proper broadens the scope of predetermined aesthetic categories by including what has traditionally been excluded from its illusory foundation. Rancière thus defines the political as a disruption of the police, staged by politics—in order to intervene in systems of aesthetico-political order. The excluded, or the inaudible and invisible, must intervene in the aesthetic order through affirmation of the basic tenet of politics: that we are all created equal. Democracy, then, encompasses the acts that reconfigure the sensible—not as a form of government per se. For Rancière, politics is that rare event that occurs when the coming together of sanctioned divisions of the shared world and positions within it are ruptured.
My thesis, then, argues that visibility in social space has enormous potential, but since this potential has always been policed by the dominant order, we must reconfigure subculture style to disrupt the existing order without being subsumed by it. Thus, a new kind of political visibility is called for: spectacular unreadability. I will mobilize this term as a kind of hyper-visibility that refuses ideological inscription through its constant shifting of codes—by self-consciously moving between different ideologies, visual stances and subculture styles. The unreadable, unarticulable, visual confrontation of bodies that cannot be pinned to a particular subculture style or criminalized typology opens up a transformative space outside of the law’s jurisdiction, and yet continually presses upon its bounds. The lawlessness of unreadable spectacular identities works against the naturalizing stigma of hegemony’s visual order.
I welcome any comments, criticisms or complications of my argument. Thank you!
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Preface by Michel Foucault. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Fregoso, Rosa Linda. meXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands. Berkeley: UC Press, 2003.
Hebdige, Dick. “Subculture: The Meaning of Style.” From The Subcultures Reader. Edited by Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton. London, New York: Routledge, 1997. 130-142.
Lima, Lázaro. The Latino Body: Crisis Identities in American Literary and Cultural Memory. New York: NYU Press, 2007.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. 2000. London, New York: Continuum, 2004.
Viego, Antonio. Dead Subjects: Towards a Politics of Loss in Latino Studies. Durham:
Duke UP, 2007.
The Sexual Outlaw
Since my last post, I have been thinking about the following question: what would these unreadable bodies actually look like in lived social space? I reread Cathy Griggers’ fascinating article “Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction,” which maps the construction of visual (and visible) queer identities in cultural and political arenas.
As a way to examine the practice, not just theory, of “spectacular unreadability,” I will take up a close reading of the body as a kind of text, specifically the sexually other(ed) body, focusing on the figure of John Rechy—particularly his auto-doc The Sexual Outlaw.
My concern is that while my paper is absolutely inspired by the materialist trajectory and recurring themes from discussion, it deals more explicitly with theorists not directly engaged in the course, namely Rancière (although it will certainly reference Benjamin and possibly in passing—Laclau, Mouffe, and/or Lefebvre and Certeau). Any ideas on which authors here mentioned might make for the most productive dialogue? Thank you!