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Protest Genres and the Pragmatics of Dissent

A talk prepared for the series "Studies in Practical Negation,"


at the Kootenay School of Writing, for the 2002 Mayworks Festival
by Roger Farr <poetics@runcible.org>

"We like to sit around our California townhouses and talk about black street culture from a
literary point of view."
Bruce Andrews, "Gestalt Me Out"

"Nothing is more distinctively a mark of the human than is the power to use language both to
build bridges of understanding across gaps of separateness and to capture and hold the
nuances of personal experience. But where extremism prevails, language is allowed to perform
neither of these functions. It is turned into a slave of the absolute answer and the irreconcilable
cleavage. Its menial tasks become those of affirming the correct line and of identifying and
deceiving the enemy."
Overstreet, Harry and Bonaro. The Strange Tactics of Extremism,1964.

"There is no such thing as dialogue, it is a swindle."


Jacques Lacan, qtd in "Psychoanalysis and the May Revolution"

"Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, one
obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, one must take care not to give too
much information to just anybody."
Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

I am distressed by the thought that many of the forms of oppositional speech what I'm calling
"protest genres" that have emerged in the West over the last century, have lost much of the
power and force they once enjoyed.
And I am perplexed by the fact that this loss of power is not the result of state-censorship, or the
repressive policies of an authoritarian regime. It is in fact the opposite. There is very little
censorship of oppositional speech in Canada today,1 as a Latvian student pointed out to me
recently. Dissent in the West is not prohibited; rather, it is managed by an increasing array of
specialists, who include the ranks of neo-liberal journalists, criminologists, psychologists, in
short, the cops. But what distresses me the most is the thought that we might be participating in
this process by uncritically utilizing forms of dissent that were pre-fabricated for us, under the
watchful eyes of the managerial classes.
1

Unless we are willing to include some of the various incarnations of pornography as protest genres.

The "Management of Dissent" which is the negative counterpart of "the manufacturing of


consent" hardly needs to be established, and I hope we can agree that such a process is
more or less a given. What I'd like to address today, sketchily, tentatively, is the process and
mechanisms through which dissent is anticipated, managed and diluted, in short
"recuperated." By analyzing "oppositional speech situations," a jargony phrase that needs
explanation, my intent is to bring this process to our attention, so that we might begin to
recognize it at work in the protest genres we find ourselves obliged to use. By no means do I
want to elevate the threat of "recuperation" to the point of inaction, or over-theorized cynicism.
Many struggles have been fought and won in the face much greater danger than recuperation;
and yet, recuperation does affect the efficacy of dissent, particularly in the West.
More specifically, I want show that there are specific "conventions" to the protest genres
marches, sit-ins, slogans, etc which, when adhered to, facilitate the recuperation of dissent.
My approach is therefore both practical and theoretical: I intend to first describe "oppositional
speech situations" hence the "pragmatics" in my title and then to consider how dissent is
managed by the demand to adhere to specific conventions of the protest genres. My point is a
simple one: that we have entered a phase in which dissent, if it is to retain its power, must
anticipate its recuperation, and adopt strategies of surprise and shock. In anticipation of the
mechanisms that control opposition, dissent might need to become "unreadable" but only for
those who require the maintenance of coherence, stability, and order to maintain their "grip" on
public opinion and, by extension, public space. For a number of reasons, I will not provide a
coherent description of what "unreadable" dissent will look or sound like. I would rather leave
the project of reinventing opposition to the actual situations in which it becomes a practical
necessity, or, at the very least, to a collective discussion of some current forms of protest. For
now, I prefer to speak in a language that is more or less "readable."
I should say right away that my thoughts are hardly original. They emerge out of talks and
discussions that have been occurring regularly here at KSW over the last 2 years. I cant
summarize these discussions; instead, I plan to synthesize a number of theoretical and practical
problems that have arisen, through an applied analysis of oppositional speech. I should add
that KSW is known largely as a collective of artists and writers this room is a meeting space,
a publishing workshop, and a library of post-war avant-garde poetry and poetics. And while this
description of our activities is fairly accurate, I believe that the context for my discussion is not
entirely cultural. I am not a political scientist, activist, or organizer, per se, although I do
participate in a wide array of political activities. Nevertheless, my contribution to this series
"Studies in Practical Negation" comes from the point of view of someone who works closely with
language; which is to say that as a writer, I am acutely aware of the limitations of both my
perspective and my medium.

Once an event is isolated and reified, i.e., severed from its context and treated as an object, it
can be processed and exchanged just as any other commodity. Therefore, moments of
opposition are reducible to images, snapshots, and soundbites, which can then be redeployed
as a site for identification. Through this identification with an image we are initiated into social
roles. It matters little what the content of the image or message is, for the formal qualities of the
process remain the same. Consider an image of a person possibly a woman hanging
from a lamp-pole during the Seattle riots, wearing a "ski-mask," under which a caption reads:
"Demand the impossible!" There is a contradiction here that could be easily glossed over: along
with 5,000 other readers, I am supposed to identify with this representation of "lived
experience," adventure, impossibility, etc., and yet the image is immobile, mass-produced, and

entirely within the realm of what I know is "possible." How shall I reconcile this contradiction? Do
I identify? Will I eventually assume this role that is being offered to me? Perhaps this role is
closer to what I actually desire than is my role as a "worker" or a "citizen?" What do I do? I turn
the page.
In order discuss this process in more detail, I want to draw on aspects of linguistic theory,
specifically information theory, speech-act theory, and genre theory. I'm going to make some
massive leaps errors even in bringing these theories together, but that's not my concern.
Who says I have to possess or master an idea or any other tool before I can play with it?2

Traditional information theory relies on a model of communication in which a speaker directs an


utterance at an isolated addressee:

utterance
S

In essence this is an ideology of language that dominates how we think about communication
it is a metaphor we use to describe how we exchange ideas. The "conduit metaphor," as it is
called by Michael Reddy, basically reduces the complexities of communication to objects
moving along a conveyor belt between immobile and passive interlocutors. The metaphor
suggests that ideas are objects that are "put into" words, and that language is a kind of
container. Messages are like packages sent over a "channel of communication" to another
person who then takes the ideas out of the packages, and voila, "understanding." More like
cognitive mail-order. Examples of the conduit metaphor are statements such as:
We will build bridges of understanding between our nations.
He found the knowledge in a new book.
Your words seem rather hollow.
That statement was pregnant with meaning.
Try to capture your ideas in succinct sentences.
You have to convey your meaning more clearly.

"Any tool can be a weapon so long as you hold it in the right position." -- Ani DiFranco

It is not suprsing that this metaphor for communication would thrive under capitalism, for, as
Reddy points out, it effectively erases all traces of labour and struggle in the production of
meaning we get "something for nothing." Moreover, in this model, ideas are already assumed
to be static objects; the process by which they are reified turned into things is skipped
over. The conduit metaphor suggests that ideas exist independently of the people who make
and use them, and that they can be exchanged freely and easily a lassiez fair model of
linguistic economy. All things being equal.
But all things are not equal, and our two interlocutors may be standing on very different
foundations. That is to say that the site of the production of a message may not share the same
characteristics as the site of its reception. There must be some form of agreement and mutual
recognition between participants in a speech-act before any real "understanding" can occur.
Moreover, and this is the most important point for our purposes, the imaginary "channel" along
which the message passes may be not be as secure as it seems. It is subject to interference
and distortion. Or, someone may be "listening in" on the conversation, someone who is hostile
to the shared communicative aims of the two interlocutors. As I will show shortly, this scenario
is a more accurate picture of an oppositional speech situation, which, under our current
conditions3, always involves a hostile third-party listener, either in the guise of the corporate
media, or police/intelligence agencies.
It is important that we understand the relationship between these "hostile informatives." In
"Lenin and Philosophy," Althusser identifies two kinds of "state apparatuses," or mechanisms
that serve to reproduce obedience and consensus: one is the RSA (cops, military, security) the
other is the ISA (schools, work, mass-media, art, etc.). Now in terms of this discussion, it is my
understanding that RSAs and ISAs work in concert, i.e., that the police physically enforce
adherence to certain genres of protest ("get in line") which then permits the media to reproduce
an image of orderly dissent over and over again, making other formations appear "deviant" and
"isolated." More on this shortly.

Linguists have used the concept of "audience design" to examine the ways in which utterances
are influenced by the presence of "informatives" in a given illocutionary act (Clark 1992). In
contrast to traditional speech-act theories, where a speaker directs an utterance only at an
isolated addressee, the notion of the "informative speech act" provides a more inclusive model
which accounts for the roles of "side-participants" and "overhearers" in the design of an
utterance. Where overhearers are present, the illocutionary act is said to be "informative."
Basically, this model adds another level of mediation between the speaker (S) and the
addressee (A), in the sense that the "informative" utterance is designed with the presence of
intermediary entities, "hostile informatives" (HI), in mind:

"Current conditions" needs to be historicized, but not here. In a forthcoming paper, I will trace the rise of
the "hostile informative" -- and the recuperative "outside" -- from the McCarthy Hearings through Vietnam
to 911.

utterance
S

HI
So, how does this relate to dissent? How does the structure of oppositional speech change
when both the speaker and the addressee suspect that a hostile informative is "on the line"?
When participants in an informative speech act must take into consideration the presence of an
"overhearer" (i.e.: an addressee who is not a direct participant in the construction of a message)
they can adopt one or more "attitudes," which then become "strategies;" these strategies are:
disguisement, indifference, disclosure, and concealment. I will not have time to look of each of
these in detail, but I will define them in order to make the idea of "strategy" clear.
Disguisement is the most complex strategy of the four. Disguisement is a kind of ploy; really, it
is an act of negative disclosure, or the "disclosure of a misrepresentation" (Clark 296), a
swindle. It communicates essential information to the right people, while leading the hostile
informative in the wrong direction.
A strategy of indifference is self-explanatory: a speaker uses the same utterance they would
under more intimate conditions, thus suggesting that the third-party is so unimportant that they
don't even warrant attention. This can be perceived by hostile informatives as a kind of
arrogance or non-chalence.
Disclosure involves welcoming the overhearer into the conversation, and providing them with
all the information they need to help them to make sense of what is being said. Facilitation.
Concealment means depriving the overhearer of information they need to understand the
message, perhaps through the use of a secret code or cryptogram that is not shared. Criminals,
subcultures, and other members of the dangerous classes employ strategies of concealment
regularly; the transmission of military information and internet banking both rely on strategies of
concealment.

Now, because oppositional speech situations have a number of possible addressees, it is


frequently unclear as to whom dissent is being directed, and which strategy is being deployed.
Sometimes utterances are addressed to other protestors ("Let's let this government know what
we think of them!"), sometimes they address the government more or less directly ("Stop Bill28!"), sometimes the authorities ("Shame, Shame!" uttered during an arrest); almost always,
however, oppositional speech indirectly addresses spectators who are not present, but who are
represented by "the cameras." The presence of the camera interrupts the direct communication
of dissent from a speaker to an addressee, thereby altering the structure of the message, as the
speaker must take into account this third party "listening in," and must adopt one of the four
strategies I just described (most often it is disclosure). This structural transformation of
oppositional speech is, I believe, the first stage of the process of reification and recuperation.
To a certain degree, the camera itself becomes the addressee of oppositional speech, therby
interfering with, and distorting literally, mediating the communication of dissent. That is to
say, when oppositional speech is uttered primarily for the camera, it will adopt forms of
expression that the media already understands and deems "legitimate" (certain kinds of slogans
for example). Perhaps this is not necessarily bad it allows a group to "get their message
across," or "to build bridges of understanding" (to employ the conduit metaphor). But look what
has happened during this process of exchange, the speaker has lost control over both the
form and the content of her dissent. She has adopted a strategy that anticipates recuperation
by the media, but which does nothing to thwart the inevitable reduction to and redeployment as
a "caption" (ie., from "capture"), slotted between the weather and sports.
And this process is dialectical. Only a few slogans will make it through the editing process, and
those that do are redistributed over and over again, like any other commodity, eventually losing
their relevance, and their accuracy, as they begin to outlive the historical and political conditions
in which they were born. In short, the slogan becomes normalized, hegemonic. This problem is
not entirely new. Lenin observed a similar process almost a century ago. In "On Slogans"
(1917) he wrote:
"Too often has it happened that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties
have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated
slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning lost as "suddenly" as
the sharp turn in history was "sudden."
Lenin's comments hinged on an analysis of the slogan "All Power Must be Transferred to the
Soviets," which he analyzed not on the basis of the "truth" of its content, but rather on whether
or not it was useful anymore. This is essentially an analysis of a major protest genre from the
point of view of speech-act theory.

The basic premise of speech-act theory is that language is used for far more than making
statements, and that for the most part utterances are neither true or false. In fact, sentences
are themselves a kind of action: for instance, by uttering: "Campbell's Cuts Are Class War," a
speaker effectively makes a declaration of class war, rather than just simply presenting his or
her opinion, or making a logical proposition. We could compare this to a similar sentence,
"Campbell's Cuts Are Too Deep," in which the speaker announces that they have been hurt by
Campbell's economic policies, are wounded, and are requesting/demanding that this violence
stop. Whether these slogans are "true" or "false" is not really important both are "declarative"

(though to varying degrees of effectiveness). The real question is which is more useful? Before
I try to answer that question, I want to return to Lenin for a moment.
In his analysis of the sentence "All Power Must Be Transferred to the Soviets," Lenin argued
that this sentence, used as a slogan, was no longer useful because it ceased to relate to the
historical conditions in which it was being used. In fact, Lenin argued that the slogan was
meaningful only between February 27th and July 4th 1917, "the period of our revolution." At this
time, it was still possible that power could be transferred from the Provisional Government to the
Soviets peacefully. It was, as he said, "a slogan for the peaceful development of the revolution,"
which, due to the rise of counter-revolutionary forces and allegiances, later became "absolutely
impossible." The slogan "All Power Must Be Transferred to the Soviets" was no longer useful,
because the conditions in which it was being uttered had changed. From this, Lenin arrived at
the conclusion that "[e]very particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific
features of a definite political situation."
This is instructive, for it focuses our attention on an analysis of the situation in which a genre is
used, rather than on its content of per se. I have already sketched out a scenario which shows
the current conditions in which oppositional speech must occur, so I would like to return to our
two slogans, and consider them in this light.
In the slogans "Campbell's Cuts Are Class War" and "Campbell's Cuts Are Too Deep," we can
identify distinct pragmatic differences in what are otherwise grammatically identical sentences.
The first slogan attempts to mobilize a group of people who are being targeted by the economic
and cultural policies of the Campbell government; it is both a declaration of class war or,
more accurately, that a class war is already underway and a call to action, to mobilization. In
strictly economic terms, I would say that the declaration that a class war is already underway is
correct (if we take "class struggle" to mean the competition for wealth by economically unequal
groups within capitalist societies). A study released last November showed that in BC, the
wealthiest 10 percent of families control 54.6 percent of the wealth, with the top 50 percent
controlling an outrageous 95.7 percent. That leaves 4.3 percent of the wealth for the bottom 50
percent of the province.4 These realties, in conjunction with policies that make it harder and
harder for the poor to access resources and wealth, constitute a systematic assault on one
economic class by another.5
In the context of the oppositional speech situation, however, the slogan "Campbell's Cuts Are
Class War," suggests a strategy of indifference, even hostility, as it is unlikely that many editors
would allow such an unfashionable slogan to appear prominently in their papers.6 On the other
hand, the slogan "Campbell's Cuts Are Too Deep," declares that people are hurt and wounded,
and is really more of a plea than a call to action. If it is understood as a call for action, the
4

Kerstetter, Steve. "BC Home to Greatest Wealth Gap in Canada." Behind the Numbers. Novemeber 28,
2001. <www.policyalternatives.ca/bc/btn-bcwealthgap.pdf>
5
We could also add to this the argument that by "tearing up labour contracts," the government has also
torn up the basis for our social contract, which is by definition an act of violence. Or, to put it in the
classical Englightenment formulation, violence class war is the result of a break in the social
contract. See Pierre Saint-Armand The Laws of Hostility: Politics, Violence, and the Enlightenment.
Foreword by Chantal Mouffe. Trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage. Minnesota: UP, 1996.
6
The slogan did, however, appear in one Vancouver Sun article by Doug Ward (Tuesday, April 02, 2002).
Ward went to say that "the demonstration was peaceful but it was also rude, profane, and not in good
taste." In a similar vein, a Global TV reporter recently covering a demonstration against the BC Liberals
said that "she could not repeat on television" the slogans being used during the march, presumably
because they were expletives.

slogan "Campbell's Cuts Are Too Deep," seems to be somewhat naively requesting a
discussion of "how much cutting is too much?" As such, it lends itself very well to media
appropriation, for it suggests the possibility for a "dialogue" with the government about which
cuts are legitimate, and which are "too deep." The broader totality and ideology which the "cuts"
represent is left unchallenged, in favour of reaching an audience who still believe in the
possibility of dialogue with a government that is already engaged in class warfare. As it turns
out, this slogan appears frequently in news coverage of recent demonstrations.
Now, given the fact that a slogan is by its very nature easy to remember after all, it is the
main genre of advertising and therefore easily consumable, it is perhaps one of the least
effective protest genres, although one that remains indispensable. This genre reached its
height during May 1968, when it struck against the limits of its utilitarian function as a protest
genre used to mobilize the masses. Slogans such as "I come in the streets" and "Beneath the
paving stones, the beach!" moved the genre into a form of poetic lyricism that has since
disappeared.7 I would argue that such slogans, because they disavow their role as messages
designed for potential identification through the media, adopted so sharp a strategy of
indifference that they became essentially "unreadable."
But the slogan is only one genre, and the same problem exists for other forms of protest. If they
are to regain their power and force remember, the march was once thought of as a serious
threat to the state we need to ask questions about their conventions, about why we use
them, and how adherence to specific conventions might facilitate the recuperation of dissent.
Certain locations, speech-acts, forms of movement and organization are regularly named
illegitimate, largely because they violate the familiar expectations of the protest genres. When
these genres get caught in a wheel of anticipation, facilitation, and reproduction, when their
conventions become so normalized and entrenched that they begin take on a life beyond that of
the people who use them, we need reintroduce elements of shock and surprise, of
misrecognition. We need to make dissent unreadable.

[At this point the discussion turns to a collective analysis of several other protest genres, such
as marches, rallies, sit-ins, leaflets, publicity stunts, etc., using the method sketched out in the
section on slogans. A forthcoming, expanded, version of this paper will discuss in more detail
the notion of "unreadability" (with reference to Judith Butler) and will incorporate an analysis of
other protest genres, with particular focus on the spatial conventions of the march and rally:
the verticality of the march; the route; linearity
the contact zone separating the march from the "non-march" (i.e., the rest of the city)
the location of the rally; visiblity; use of urban space
the centralizing of speech during the rally; the role of the megaphone
the stationary quality of the rally; occupation; dispersal and unreadability

One disappointing slogan I saw recently, rare for the fact that it was written in the first-person, read "I'd
rather pay taxes than lose my job."

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus.'" Lenin and Philosophy and
Other Essays. London: New Left Books,1977.
Clark, Herbert H. Arenas of Language Use. Chicago: UP, 1992.
Lenin, V. I. Collected Works. 4th English Ed. Vol. 25. Moscow: Progress Publishers,
1974. 185-92.
Reddy, Michael J. "The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language
about Language." Metaphor and Thought. Ed. A. Ortony. Cambridge University
Press: Cambridge, 1979.