Silent activism

While most forms of political activism have, and do, rely on noise—such as the chanting of slogans—there has also been, historically and to the present day, silent activism, according to Dr. Lauren Berlant.

While most forms of political activism have, and do, rely on noise—such as the chanting of slogans—there has also been, historically and to the present day, silent activism, according to Dr. Lauren Berlant.

Last Thursday Berlant, the George M. Pullman Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Chicago, presented her paper “On the Desire for the Political” at Portland State.

Duke University Press will publish the paper in 2011, as the concluding chapter to Cruel Optimism, according to Berlant.

Berlant, also the author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, said a cruel optimism is one wherein the object of a group or individual prevents them from obtaining their desires or achieving some goal.

For instance, “If you choose a bad love object” that prevents, rather than furthers, one’s quest for love, “That is cruel optimism,” Berlant said.

In “On the Desire for the Political,” Berlant examines contemporary political art and, by highlighting the emotional impact of the political world, how artists and activists may or may not represent relationships of cruel optimism, she said.

Most of the art Berlant examines are non-silent films filled with ambient noise, static or music, but minimal human speech.

She said the first silent protest was a voiceless speech—suffragettes simply stood in a public space refusing to speak “because being unflappable just freaks people out.”

More recently, an ad campaign called “Declare Yourself” promoted voting with the slogan “only you can silence yourself.” It displayed photos of people, mostly celebrities, whose mouths have been in some way obstructed, she said.

Like the Declare Yourself campaign, Cynthia Madansky’s public service announcement project is not about silence, but barriers to speech, according to Berlant.

“[Madansky’s PSA Project] use[s] ambient sound to stand in for the speechlessness of the failure of politics,” Berlant said.

Unlike the Declare Yourself campaign, the PSA Project assumes that the audience already agrees with its message. As a result, instead of persuading the audience, the PSA Project reaffirms the beliefs of the group and strengthens solidarity, Berlant said.

Another form of silent activism arose in response to the proliferation of surveillance cameras following the events of 2001 in New York City and 2004 in London.

According to Berlant, one instance of surveillance camera art is the Surveillance Camera Players who put on plays in front of surveillance cameras while also filming themselves.

During her lecture, Berlant showed the recording of one play titled, “It’s Okay Officer.” In this play, members of the SCP hold up placards that read things like “going shopping” and “on my way home” as they march through the gaze of a surveillance camera.

According to Berlant, the SCP obstructed the camera’s gaze and “usurp[ed] the camera’s capacity to choose its subject.”

In effect, Berlant said this undermined the proposed use of surveillance cameras, to record activity on a “just-in-case basis,” by filling the area they surveilled not with everyday and potentially criminal activity, but with a play.

Finally, Berlant showed a short selection of a silent documentary by Liza Johnson called “South of Ten.”

Though most media preferred to record and report on the tragedy of New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, Johnson filmed the effect of the storm on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, much of which suffered more than New Orleans.

According to Berlant, Johnson’s film shows the “democracy of crisis,” which hurts rich and poor, young and old, with equal measure.

The silence of this film emphasizes the parallels of wandering children and wandering adults and between the play of children and the salvage work of adults, Berlant said.

In conclusion, Berlant said that “optimism might not be cruel at all, but the bare minimum” necessary to continue a fight, whether in recovering from a natural disaster, bringing an end to a war, or protesting the threat to anonymity posed by surveillance cameras.