Sunday, 29 May 2011

Impersonal Transparency

In a posting a few days ago I mentioned the ambiguity of standing with thousands of other people on the outside of a thin police cordon all looking in on the events unfolding in the square. Many people were filming what was happening, but in that moment of suspended animation, the roles and motivations of the onlookers were no longer self evident. Activists film to remind the police that they too are under scrutiny. Tourists film so that they can later demonstrate that they were indeed where they claim to have been. Protesters film to project the events in the square to the wider on-line audience, and thereby prove to the world that what they subjectively experienced in some transient moments really did form part of an objectively verifiable reality. I think there is a difference between these categories. However, the line dividing them occasionally blurs.

That morning, as I mentioned in the posting, I had been at a conference at the CCCB. The first speaker, Daniel Innerarity, delivered a paper entitled "The Observing Society". He was equating the proliferation of observation with a new form of democratic accountability. The subjugating gaze of Foucault's Panopticon is no longer uni-directional. It is not just the state that keeps citizens in check through its elaborate system of surveillance. Citizens have learned to turn the camera (or other apparatus of surveillance) around and subject the state to an interrogatory gaze. His thesis, as far as it goes, was born out by the events of Friday the 27th. Every move that the police made was being filmed by protesters and this was up on the blogs and websites in some cases within minutes of it having been taken. The evidence that it provided of the use of excess force contributed to the revitalization of the protest and since last Friday many more people have got involved. In other words, there's whatever happened in the square, in all it's fractured, contingent messiness and there is the mediated construction of that reality after the event across the various media platforms.

Which is fine, except there seemed to something that Innerarity was missing out, something about the inherent danger or uncaaniness, or something about the way immediate reality is so subjugated to the demands of mediation. A friend, "The Amazing Beryl" told me that she had seen a group of protesters filming a bunch of police who were filming them. No need to come to blows, reality is elsewhere, all that was happening there was "content" creation. I had a camera in my pocket and it occurred to me to start filming as I, along with thousands of others, re-entered the square and watched as the Mosos retreated. It would have been a great film- especially the last five Mosos to leave who put on a show of bravado, firing their rubber bullets in the air, before withdrawing. But I felt, as I often do in these situations, that I didn't want to experience what was happening through the prism of what would make a good film and what would tell the story that I would like to be told when the video is played back later. I kind of kick myself now. Sod what was happening, that was essentially transient and meaningless. Far more important was that great vid that would have really "captured" the situation. After all, and to paraphrase Baudrillard, it's not that mediation distorts, undermines or covers up reality. This would in fact leave reality unscathed in the sense that it is presupposed, as if we know what we are talking about. Instead, mediation has supplanted reality, it has become reality. What we care about isn't what happens in the square, but rather the narratives which are constructed out of the "content" which the square provides. And that feeds back into the supposed immediacy of what is going on in the square, such that peoples actions are determined by the knowledge that they are involved in a fight to control the narrative, which largely takes place elsewhere across the various media platforms. So it's not enough to be peaceful, they have to put on a performance of 'being peaceful'. Hence the flowers and free hugs.

Returning to Innerarity's confidence that the prolferation of observation can be seen in terms of an inversion, or leveling out of Foucault's notion of a surveillance society, I wonder whether the significance of this lies not in questions of democracy and accountability, but rather in this question of the totalizing effect of mediation.

Odious Debt

This film explains the idea of "odious debt", which is to say debt that has been incurred by a population without their knowledge, not in their interests and with the complicity of the lender. It is an important weapon in the fight to delegitimise the "there is no alternative" narrative.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Back to the Square

Where was I when Plaça Catalunya was taken back from the police and (bizarrely) the waste disposal trucks? Among the thousands of people who broke through the police lines to join the protesters who remained on the inside of the square, but only just.

In the morning I went to a conference at the CCCB, a cultural centre and exhibition centre in the middle of the Raval district of Barcelona. The talks were entitled, "Post-national Collective Subjectivity", which connects with subject matter of a course that I am struggling to prepare. I received a text from my friend Dirk during the first talk saying that the Mosso d'Esquadra (Catalan Police) were moving on Plaça Catalunya to clear it. I stayed at the conference and listened to what the speakers had to say. Some interesting points were raised, but it all felt a little cosy and self-congratulatory. Mid-way through the last speaker's talk he made a reference to what was occurring in Plaça Catalunya, vaguely holding it up as an illustration of some point he had made. Some one from the floor said that the protesters were in the process of being cleared out of the square. At that point I immediately got up and left the conference (I think I was the only one).

I cycled to the square and found the perimeter of the square, the large central circle, surrounded by a cordon of riot police, they were holding back a thick crowd of people, some of whom were trying to enter the square, others who appeared to watching events like an audience in an amphitheater, many seated. Inside this inner circle there were some 200 protesters, and a similar number of police, plus the incongruous refuse collectors. there was some jostling and shouting, but it didn't seem like the police were about to use violence to clear away the 200.

I peddled home to drop of my bike and had a quick look at some websites to get an idea of what had been going on. There was one particularly nasty clip of police in the cordon repeatedly beating the tightly packed and seated protesters whenever they tried to stand up. That riled me, and I grabbed my passport, camera and some cash and headed back to the square. Approaching from the nearby Plaça Urquinona, I could hear a lot of noise and the sound of rubber bullets being fired. A wave of people scattered from the periphery of the square, just as I was arriving, suggesting that they had been fired upon. I ran up to the cordon, which now consisted of a very thin line of police, backs to the centre of the square, facing the people who had come to support the protesters. It was clear at this point that the police who formed this thin cordon could never have hoped to forcibly prevent the crowd from entering the square, yet the people stood, obediently respecting this imaginary 'line in the sand'. They stood and they gazed and they took photos. The scene was surreal in that the role of the onlooking crowd was ambiguous. For sure many were protesters come to support those on the inside of the cordon, however it seems that others were more motivated by curiosity and there was even a sprinkling of tourists. If the police line had been tighter, the situation may not have felt quite so ambiguous. The roles would have been more sharply defined. We are the demonstrators and we want to enter the square. You are the police and you are charged with preventing us. Everyone knows where they stand. But with the line so porous, there was no escaping the fact that we on the outside were choosing to remain outside, observing, filming, consuming. Just then one of the protesters inside the cordon ran forward, imploring those on the outside to enter the square. Suddenly the spell was broken, someone shouted "Ya!" and we ran between the police into the square. As I reached the centre, I saw, with exhilarated disbelief, how the riot-gear clad Mossos where piling out of the square as fast as dignity would permit. The square was filling up once again and everywhere the police were retreating, not through the force of violence, but simply though the weight of numbers and determination. Overhead a police helicopter droned, ineffectually.

It was a powerful feeling, taking back the square, one that brought me to the brink of tears. It was a surging mixture of joy, strength and solidarity. It was a feeling that has been described in literature. I recognize the same feeling in George Orwell's descriptions of Barcelona in the 1930's. One which enables you to believe that more is possible than we normally permit ourselves to believe. One that also has to be handled with extreme caution.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Spanish Spring

Over the past couple of weeks something truly impressive has taken place across Spain. The central squares of the major cities have been occupied en-mass by a diverse cross section of people united in their frustration with the status quo which insists that everyday life continue as normal when the political and economic system which regulates everyday life is clearly broken. The immediate cause has been the cuts in social spending that were put in place at the insistence of the financial markets which now determine social policy across Europe. For a short while the protesters have managed to throw off the passivity that characterizes our relationship with power. Places have been established in which people have voiced their anger, discussed alternatives and made their presence felt. The mainstream media took notice for the first few days while it was still breaking news, but gradually lost interest in spite of the fact that these emblematic spaces in the cities continue to be occupied by thousands of people in peaceful and imaginative protest. Perhaps the most important feature of the protests has been the form of organization which has been spontaneous, non-hierarchical and inclusive. Inevitably, as the days pass, the lack of concrete demands or a unified voice will start to erode the initial enthusiasm for the protest, but I think that scale of the protests, their duration, the organizational model which they employed and the symbolic connection they forged with the 'Arab Spring' will leave an impression upon people's sense of what is possible that will out-last the dismantling of the last tent.

The photos were taken by the artist, Dirk Helbig, whose blog you can visit here.