“Even if all criticism of Plato is right, Plato may still be better company than his critics. At any rate, we may remember what the Romans…thought a cultivated person ought to be: one who knows how to choose his company among men, among things, among thoughts, in the present as well as in the past.”
Hannah Arendt-Between Past and Future
Cycles of falling stars are simultaneously bewildering unpredictable in the particular for modern astronomy, yet sufficiently regular and constant in general to form calendars and seasons of activity. This is equally, or perhaps more true of the psychic life of the American public space, and after a troubled political year, that season of falling stars that you always know will come seems to be upon us. Like Gloucesterians, we seem fond of winter in the United States: all three branches of the federal government, both major political parties, and the president have disapproval ratings that range from personal lows to ranking among the worst in the nation’s history. But this time has been no less filled with high profile cases in Western and Eastern Europe, South America, Central and North Africa, China, South Asia…the list could continue at will. I’m choosing not to dwell on the stories of particular politicians precisely because it is the trough of an ugly time, and it has been an ugly season for long enough that it’s worth thinking about not just where this particular cycle came from, but why we have them the way we do, and what it means to get out.
The newest issue of Interview Magazine is carrying a pretty extraordinary dialogue. That Steve McQueen – whose brilliant shorts established him as one of the brightest young directing talents of a generation well before the current run that culminated in last year’s shattering 12 Years a Slave – takes the role of interviewer rather than interviewee is enough to justify expecting something special. His subject (and that is the right term, in several senses) is Kanye West, perhaps the artist who most exemplifies in a single, still brief career the dizzying cycle of fall from grace and resurrection that defines the dramatic life of the modern public. Admittedly, the dialogue leans heavily toward a monologue, as you might expect given both the form and the figures. But it is also one of the most fascinating co-meditations I have ever read on what it means to strive and fail and thrive under the gaze of others, to actively confront the reality that the narrative of your life is only ever partially written by you. That neither artist would feign for a moment to be Everyman is paradoxically what gives the exchange such an incredible vibrancy, a resonance held open for any one precisely by refusing universality. Their crafting of West’s story comes out as two voices speaking through a bewildering tapestry of fragmented influences, pressures, and above all images of West both painted and defied. To a degree that only maybe his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” also allows, there is just something in the collision between West’s intensely solipsistic artistic brilliance and his equally intense and utterly open social vulnerability that can’t help but grab and shake raw your sense of what it means to live and die – and fail – in public. Wrapped in the presence and influence of McQueen, it also manages to viscerally bring home one of Arendt’s most important thoughts: that those questions are, and must be, personal to each one of us, too.
I can’t speak well to the public humours outside of this country, but I know that the particular dynamics that McQueen draws West to describe reflect a pattern of the rise and fall of public lives in this country. The only way I can reach to describe that pattern is by grafting metaphors of love onto Arendt’s language for describing how we tell stories about a “who”, that precarious hybrid of a person and a narrative that none of us can escape being. In these scenes of disgrace, as we remold dramas in a matter of moments from adoration to utter disillusionment, we are depressingly adroit at ignoring a gap in our own passions between our reasons for falling so quickly in love, and our reasons for so quickly embracing its opposite. When a public embraces someone – politicians no less than cultural superstars – with that special fervor that marks our peculiar brand of messianism, it is never purely for the sake of what she has done. We admire the what, we respect the what, but when we love, publicly, we love the who in a way that no measure of what they’ve done could possibly justify. Maybe that is simply the nature of love, of a public or a person, because that is the nature of a who. Though we’re fond of decrying it when retrospect turns bitter, would we really want it to be otherwise? Wouldn’t there always have been a certain miserliness in trying to practice our story-building and our allegiances with dry lists of accomplishments, a certain desiccated frugality to our attachment to the public? I know of no one in my life who could say with real honesty that their public loves of choice – whether those were Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong, Chris Christie or Kanye West – ever resembled anything of the sort.
Yet when we cast these down, in that moment, that who we had been narrating with such care to ourselves and each other becomes utterly overtaken by a what, and not that figure’s whats taken together, but a what which simply becomes their disgraced who to us. Often, it becomes a pattern of whats. Often, it was always a pattern of whats that simply hadn’t made it into the story, either through deceptions by others or our own to ourselves. But it is always a what – a sin, a crime, an act, a betrayal – that turns the page.
There are times when that switch is justified. There are moments of whats so grave that they ought to come to dominate our vision of a who…that is what it means to reserve to ourselves the right not only to tell histories, but to judge them. There are times when this must be done. But in a season like this, we must judge, but we must also be honest with ourselves about what we are doing, to recognize…and taking care because of it…that we are exercising one of our most precious capacities, one that Arendt called in the quoted essay by a name now itself disgraced in some eyes: our humanism.
In her very Augustinian rendition, Arendt describes forgiveness as “an eminently personal…affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it”. Many have criticized the thought, but it seems worth returning to at least in the context of these so very public scenes. Forgiveness of this form is never a duty. Indeed, it may be a grace we want to use sparingly. It means even less the suspension of punishment. But it is first and foremost an exercise in that faculty Arendt described, in a way few had admitted since Cicero, as choosing with whom we will share our world. There will always be those who we decide we want to share our public world with because they retain some reason that drives us to. Though never, I think, so very terrible, West has done and said some things that others have found unforgivable; but I, for one, want the who in that interview to remain in my world, and in some part create that world.
There will also always be those who we decide, with justice, that we will not share our world with them. Some of those will be for trespasses no greater than West’s, and where that hazy line lies might be the consistent thread in McQueen’s storytelling. Others will not be for trespasses, but for enormities that defy even the possibility of forgiveness for us. Arendt closed her report on the Eichmann trial with the judgment that she, and we, could not share a world with Eichmann. In the wake of those writings, there were many who decided that they could not share a world with her. It is not a process we can do with out, least of all in that most public of spheres, politics. But I also suspect that if we did it with a clearer eye on we were doing with our whos and our whats, and a less clouded memory, the discontent would not run so deep in our winters. At least, it could never be said that we know not what we do.
Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.
Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?
Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.
In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”
Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.
Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.
Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?
Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.
In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.
To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.
Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).