Letter to the Re-Enactors

What would it mean to re-enact the organizing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of re-enactment. A practice takes material (in this case historical material) and transforms it, producing something with or from it. The practice of re-enactment has the potential to produce new forms of knowledge, more than just unearthing information about the past, de-contextualized and random, it seems to offer the potential to re-frame and re-consider the past in light of the present. That seems like a worthy task. Especially for 1968 and its surrounding years, right? A tremendously fascinating period in history, it seems to present a bounty of material for anyone who is looking for resonances, lessons, legitimacy, democracy, political radicalism, hope. But beginning with the very notion of history as a storehouse of material seems to be where re-enactment starts to go a bit wrong.
Part of the problem I see is in this focus on moments in history. Choosing to repeat this moment and not that moment is an activity with consequences, it demotes that which you don’t choose and elevates that which you do. In addition, given that political struggle both responds to and reflects major contradictions in our society, the notion that a given moment can be understood in isolation from all the activity that came before it seems to close down the possibility of reconsidering the process of history making. Focusing on narrowly defined moments conforms to what we already have words and categories for, that which is easily repeatable, comprehensible, that fits within the frame of the sense of history as inevitable and fixed. It’s easy to re-assemble images and video from these sorts of events, to add to the archive. But activities, events, politics that might challenge that very archive, might confront the very image of the 60s that our cultural archive reproduces and holds dear, are a bit harder to produce.
Re-enact ‘68 chose to re-enact some of the events surrounding the ‘68 democratic convention in Chicago, though consciously choosing to avoid the skirmish between protestors and the police that took place at that time. They took extremely well-documented speeches and concerts and brought them back to life, animating the words and the images of Grant Park from 1968 with new bodies. The result of this re-vivifying was more material for the archive, articles, images, assessments, and accounts of first-hand experience. The focus on the event though laid almost no emphasis on the politics of organizing and staging (or re-staging) the events, an aspect that a re-enactment could have included or considered as part of their purview.
Other re-enactor artists, like Mark Tribe and, arguably Sharon Hayes, have chosen to re-animate speeches in their work as well. This isn’t the first time in history that politics has been conflated with the speech act (I’m thinking Aristotle and Plato) nor is it the most recent (Obama’s campaign suggests that his speech giving ability is equivalent to his ability to lead). But I suppose for people interested in performance, there’s a treasure trove of other materials that might actually supplement the narrow conception of the events that are being re-enacted. Take the case of Paul Potter’s 1965 speech that Mark Tribe re-staged in 2007 as part of his Port Huron Project. One week after Potter delivered the speech to the first major national demonstration organized by Students for a Democratic Society, SDS set about re-printing it, sending copies of the speech to anyone who was interested. SDS saw the re-production and dissemination of the speech as a way to build the anti-war movement, but it was also a response to the divisive red-baiting and sectarian maneuvering that had threatened to jeopardize the event and discredit SDS’s organizing efforts. While Tribe’s choice of speech is interesting, by focusing almost exclusively on the words and the location, his practice operates simply as a footnote. It operates as the most recent reproduction of a document that’s already been categorized and captioned as significant. It offers no consideration of what it means to reproduce this document, a document with a history of reproduction. And this time, as a re-enactment, the cultural text is not even doing the kind of political or organizing work that the original reproduction was tasked with. Sharon Hayes’ work is a bit more complicated, as she doesn’t situate herself as attempting to re-enact historical events so much as to create new ones through unearthing the utterances of certain forgotten histories and circulating those words through new social contexts. Narrowly conceived, her even more minute focus on speech as the carrier of radical political and identity formations doesn’t see history as an echo-chamber, but rather as a resource for political artists.
Divorced from the complexity of their context, the political actions of the 60s, and ‘68 in particular, are reduced to the most obvious or visible aspects of its significance. The labor of the movement that set that speech into motion, produced the literal context of the protest. Bringing the bodies together, organizing the buses, agitating and encouraging people to come and to protest the war is effaced. The work not of protest or activism but rather organizing is missing. In the art-historical context, one might refer to this cynically as audience-building. But in the context of politics and movement building, it’s the constituting of that audience that matters. The labor involved in bringing bodies together and sustaining the relationships established in that process transforms people’s understandings of themselves. No longer passive listeners, they see themselves in their connection with other people as the very agents of change, the force and power within society to stop things or make things.
In this context, it makes sense to point to the Iraq Veterans Against the War’s re-enactment of the Winter Soldier hearings from 1971. In March of 2008, IVAW organized a weekend of testimony, to be recorded and produced into a film. It was modeled on the first Winter Soldier conference in which Vietnam Veterans (including John Kerry) gave testimony in front of cameras concerning the effects of the atrocities that they witnessed (and participated in). As in the 1970s, the 2008 event was a focus point of organizing for a number of months. The new Winter Soldier materials have been published on the web, in a book format and are circulating as two different films at present. This project raised lots of questions and it faced some of the same exact problems that the first Winter Soldier confronted. As an example of a re-enactment whose focus involved the labor of political organizing, the project raises more than just the question of how to use the documents of an event to help build the anti-war movement (an abstract question if ever there was one). Rather, a more pressing question comes into view: what will it take to end this war and, more importantly, what will it take to end a system that needs wars to operate? Seen in this light, all sorts of other important questions come into focus, ones which don’t eddy (great image! is this word a little too perfect?) around the differences between then and now—but rather about the role of war in the economy, the problem of racism in movement building, the very question of class.
More than a matter of speechifying, re-enacting the labor of organizing can focus attention where we need it most, on producing radical change and making history, not re-making it.
The dangers I see in re-enactments of the 60s are present in the general desire to look back at 1968 that has populated our cultural landscape for the last few years, from the cover of Time magazine, to the various exhibitions and magazines (like this one) as well as film retrospectives. Often, it’s a clear example of what Walter Benjamin called Left Wing Melancholy. Ripped from the political context, artifacts of political movements are resurrected and circulated with no attention to the politics or context in which they are produced. The metaphor that Benjamin used was that of the empty jewel-case. The thing of value has been removed, emptied out, and it’s the case itself that is being celebrated, presented as the thing itself. Like the image of the raised fist, it’s severed from the body of activity (and literal bodies as well) that animated it.
Given the extent of the recent economic collapse, it might be possible to imagine that some artists might take it upon themselves to re-enact some event from the Great Depression. Hopefully, if that’s the case, they’ll heed my call to focus on the labor of organizing during that period of time in which the American Left was organized around an analysis of the economic system, not the production of the images or notions of democracy and freedom. Does that period of time require the kind of analysis that re-enactment could provide, the transformation of understanding to ask what its problems with racism and sexism were, what were the limits of the analysis that contributed to its ability to force certain changes and its inability to bring about wholesale transformations? Absolutely—but that’s a much bigger set of questions than the ones that the new left-wing melancholy of the ‘68 re-enactors seems to have been able to generate. ◊

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