Postdoctoral Project

Non-Representational Practices in Contemporary Cultures of Dissent


The postdoc project investigates non-representational practices in what I call contemporary cultures of dissent, with a focus on the 2011 Occupy protests in the US.

The authenticity of these protests often relied on denials of representation on different levels. First, on the de-legitimization of political delegation in parliamentary democracies; second, on the problematization of subjectivities and its subsequent (medial) representation(s).

Historicizing such attempts of incorporating non-representational practices, I aim at showing that the imagery and theoretical debates surrounding the Mexican indigenous guerrilla group EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, also known simply as Zapatistas) in the 1990s provided a major reference point for contemporary protesters, with their transnational and inter-medial translation processes between Mexican, North American and European cosmopolitan networks.

The project discusses practices of urban dissensus such as the act of occupation of urban sites, leaderless decision-making processes and open membership, but also medial strategies like the usage of masks (precisely: the practices of masking and unmasking), of plurivocality and the overlap of physical and non-physical sites of protest. Following Jacques Rancière’s discussion of representational-mimetic regimes in conjuncture with aesthetic forms and his probing of possibilities of escape or rupture of these regimes, my project also takes a look at works of fictional narrative to elucidate if and how non-representational practices are negotiated in contemporary fiction.

In-Depth Contextualization

The wave of protests that was set in motion with the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 spread around Arabian countries and also reached, albeit in modified form, industrialized nations in the North-Western hemisphere throughout 2011. It has left a panoply of questions. The manifold transnational adaptations and variations of this phenomenon – which oscillated between different linguistic, medial and political regimes – make a focus on some select aspects necessary.

Thus, my project does not pretend to give a panoramic explanation of these various revolts, but zooms in on the new practices of what I call “dissent” in these revolts. Dissent, because the term denotes an ontological state of disagreement which can congeal into various future actions: protest, resignation, revolt, or re-newed conformity. The forms of dissent we witnessed in 2011 – 2012 were so varied that this term seems appropriate as a linkage between those multivocal and multipolar utterances of disagreement.

As an Americanist, my research focuses on the Occupy protests in the US, but as these expose sundry influences from other national realms, I take this protest moment to be already transnational, both in its outlook, its genealogy and by virtue of its main actors. Nevertheless, I identify the Mexican Zapatista (solidarity) movement of the 1990s as one of the major pillars for this networked structure of Occupy and therefore consider my project to be an transareal one.

Within Occupy, dissenters relied on practices like (semi-)permanent occupations of urban sites, speech-acts modulated by the “human microphone”-technique, general assemblies with horizontal decision-making processes, mass media relations governed by the logics of leaderlessness, scenes of masking, unmasking and defacing – many of which hark back at theories surrounding the crisis of representation and non-representation.

Relying on Jacques Rancière and Nigel Thrift, I conceptualize these practices as new forms of complicating time-worn concepts of (political) imagery and medial strategies. By attempting to go beyond what we usually associate with the articulation of dissensus – i.e. the formulation of achievable goals, the embodiment of leadership (and agency) in distinguishable persons, the attempt to vie for socio-political power, the dependence on personalization, etc. – Occupy tapped into discussions of non-representation that themselves connect, as I argue, with post- and decolonial theories that turn our attention towards – as Walter Mignolo has called it – “an other thinking” in terms of coloniality, knowledge, language and medial representations. An other thinking, that is, that takes into account minor voices, actors and practices outside of major cosmopolitan foci and thus unacknowledged by the dominant narratives of modernity.

This entails new forms of authentification and subjectivation, as the dissenters not only underline that “they can’t represent us,” but also ask if “we” can actually represent “us.” And if so, with which practices. I do not think that practices like the general assembly, leaderlessness, the human microphone or (un-) masking are necessarily non-representational, not even that a majority of participants and activists strove for non-representation as such. Rather, I argue that theories along the lines of Jacques Rancière’s discussions of aesthetics, linguistics and politics as well as Nigel Thrift’s non-representational theory can help us to make sense of practices that were constitutional for a cycle of protests that heralded new forms of thinking protest as such.

“Indigenous” notions of communality, of dialogue (or multilogue) and subjectification all influenced Occupy, which I take not as a singular event, but as a pivotal point of what I call cultures of dissent, that is, an epistemological shift that can also be traced in artistic forms. Thus, my project includes a discussion of some samples of contemporary fictional writing by US-American, but also by Mexican authors as well as investigations of a British comic and a multinational movie production that all contributed to the aesthetics of Occupy.

Following Rancière’s and Thrift’s lead, my project directs our attention toward the affective dimension that was so important for the Occupy protests. The protests were governed by what Nigel Thrift has called “brief moments of engagement tied to the affective texture  of particular events” (Thrift, “Passions” 240). Affects – which beyond the individual emotional state include the connections and ties established by these emotions – are interacting with the spaces they occur in, and my research brings practices, sites and affects into triangulation.

To give an example: Zuccotti Park, the major site of protests in New York City, is no symbolic site per se. It is no lieu de mémoire, sports no monuments or other signifiers that could be appropriated, is not even a central urban site whose blockage or destruction might generate attention. Yet, Occupiers immediately worked to transform this insignificant site via “social media,” thus creating another Zucotti Park on the web, one that reeked of rebellion and possibility, and thus created what Ottmar Ette (in another context) has called a “frictional reality” that appealed to the disaffected. This double space of Zucotti Park allowed for different affective states to connect, both virtually and physically.

This example shows that contemporary cultures of dissent are transnational and mediated by mass media, both traditional ones like TV or radio but also more recent forms, especially “social” (i.e. responsive) usage of online media, like blogging, the use of Twitter or Facebook. While these media all follow different internal logics, they nevertheless all partake in the creation of the globalizing modernity described by Arjun Appadurai, with its interconnectedness between different scapes.

Thus, ironically, many of the forms of these cultures of dissent occur on the very home turf of representation, and attempts to re-negotiate this terrain in non-representational terms complicate clear-cut dichotomies. My project critically engages questions like “can non-representation work in the realm of medial representation?” by a self-awareness that my own knowledge of US dissent movements has been garnered via mass media, a problem that connects with my interest in the creation of virtual sites of resistance, and their linkages back to the physical world.

I thus conceptualize cultures of dissent as local practices acted out situationally and transnationally, physically and virtually, but under (as Mignolo would call it) an other logic, with an other goal.

To summarize, my project uses non-representation and decolonial theories to investigate the practices and aesthetic forms of Occupy, thus attempting to incorporate non-representational theory and the nexus between affects and space into a field of discussion so far dominated by political scientists and sociologists. As these practices and aesthetic forms are accessible mainly in mediated forms, I further analyze the flows and exchange of medialized images of these practices. Finally, my project turns toward examples of contemporary literature to investigate if notions of non-representation have found expression in the literary field as well.

Theoretical Approach

Concepts of non-representation form the theoretical basis of my investigation. Altough a rather fuzzy term, my understanding of non-representation is based on the works of Jacques Rancière and Nigel Thrift, which both correspond in major tenets.

Rancière has written extensively on the nexus between representation, mimetic regimes and aesthetics, and also about the possibilities of widening or re-formulating political agency by escaping contemporary representational regimes. He warns that the primacy of language in contexts of (political) visibility subsumes the affective qualities of dissensus; a warning I combine with his political philosophy on politics as “a matter of subjects or, rather, modes of subjectification” (Rancière 35). By subjectification he means “the production through a series of actions of a body and a capacity for enunciation not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience” (ibid.).New political modes – possibilities for “those who have no right to be counted” within the logics of what Rancière calls the “police” (Rancière 27) – can thus be created through physical and aesthetic actions, through non-representational acts of dissent and/or art.

Controversial human geographer Nigel Thrift has outlined his own non-representational theory along similar lines, arguing that “social awareness” and “pre-cognitive,” affective dimensions of events have a fundamental impact on our understanding-experiencing of everyday life (Thrift, esp. 1-26). Especially in urban settings, where social positions are constantly in flux and human beings have to re-negotiate their social and symbolic capital daily in a multiplicity of (medial) interactions, performative, non-verbal repertoires are more important than mimetic representations based on language and verbal visibility. Thrift’s attention toward human-thing interactions (which I see at work in the creation of spheres of dissensus in interconnected offline/online scenarios) and the affective ties created through quotidian (and I would add: dissident) practices form the second tier of my theoretical apparatus.

Yet, I do not simply take Rancière’s and Thrift’s ruminations as vade mecums, but critically engage them, especially Thrift, whose non-representational theory leaves many lacunae in terms of definition. Nevertheless, their discussions of bodily-performative actions, new aesthetic regimes and new (I shy away from the fashionable term “trans-human”) forms of human-thing interactions, authentifications and identifications all encompass my own take on non-representation.

My interest in the transnational linkages, translations and appropriations of these practices is guided by Arjun Appadurai’s model of the cultural dimension of globalization, with its overlay of several scapes. I conceptualize medialized practices of dissent to occur in what Appadurai has called the mediascape, which intersects with the ethno-, techno-, ideo- and financescapes to contribute to ʻglocalized’ (i.e. locally modified global) representations of protest; I then attempt to show that notions of non-representation complicate this model to the extent that – as I argue – we have to shift our attention from a socio-political view of practices of dissent to an aesthetic one.


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