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Image Courtesy of Jesusa Rodríguez

The Politics of Passion

Diana Taylor | New York University

“What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts.”-J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words

This essay explores the ways in which individual bodies and affects (passion) define today’s political struggles taking place at the margins or outside traditional political parties and hierarchies. We have only to think of movements driven by outrage against political and economic injustices such as the so-called Arab Spring, European summer, "American" fall (Occupy Wall Street) and Chilean winter of 2011 as a few notable examples of affects that transcend individual feelings to form transnational conditions (perhaps unspoken coalitions) of resistance or even revolt.  While clearly the seasonal arrangement of these events misleads us into imagining a natural or sequential rhythm, at the same time the pattern serves to underline the fact that outbursts seem to occur spontaneously during certain historical moments.  The 1930s, 1960s and the 2010s are simply three examples.  All of a sudden, out of seemingly nowhere, massive protests erupt one after another. Words like contagion and entrainment suggest the ways that people can become seemingly not only of one mind but of one body: Canada, Nigeria, Mexico, Greece, Israel, Portugal, Hong Kong, Taksim Square in Istanbul, Cairo (again).1 In Brazil a hundred thousand people took to the streets.2 Marcelo Hotimsky of Brazil’s Free Fare Movement said, “It’s not something we control, or something we even want to control,”3  though certainly political parties from left to right are trying to name it and co-opt it.  Many protestors respond to local and deep-seated economic inequalities exacerbated by the ever-widening income disparities worldwide.  While these groups may (unknowingly) share common cause, they further transmit and elaborate what Teresa Brennan called "energetic affects" (Brennan 2004, 51).  The INDIGNADOS, or as Manuel Castells refers to them, the INDIGNADAS of Spain, the over two million people who manifested in over eight hundred cities around the world between May and October 2011 fueled by indignation, as their name suggests, enact pure affect. (Castells 2012, 113) “All of a sudden,” commentators write of the Brazilian situation, “a country that was once viewed as a stellar example of a rising, democratic power finds itself upended by an amorphous, leaderless popular uprising with one unifying theme: an angry, and sometimes violent, rejection of politics as usual.”

But unruly acts and passions cannot be limited to the "outside"—they cross ideological bounds, showing the fears, anxieties, prejudices, and hopes that animate the attitudes and actions of the State itself.  While usually commentators assign affect to the opposition, characterizing those outside established political systems as irrational or angry, what Freud observed just after WWI remains true today: "it would seem that nations still obey their passions far more readily than their interests.”(Freud 1915, 288) Hitler's Germany offers only an extreme illustration of the ways in which the governmental mobilization of poisonous affects and structures for identifying and loathing one’s adversaries create the conditions of “moral panic” that overwhelm all rational and juridical systems designed to contain them.  Moral panic emerges, according to Javier Treviño Rangel, “when an episode, person or group are defined as a threat to certain social values or interests.  They conjure irrational fear or a phenomena out of control.” (Treviño Rangel 2009, 645) By politics of passion, then, I refer to the mobilization of affect for political ends on collective, structural, and trans-ideological levels that skirt the traditional organization of political parties and practices (such as lobbying and voting).

Once again, it seems, political decisions during the past decade have been increasingly forged through affective and embodied struggle. Mexican theorist Rossana Reguillo has noted the move towards the de-politicization of politics through a politics of passion that exceed (and reject) traditional institutions (Reguillo 2007). Convinced that the electoral process has been violated or corrupted, that leaders support corporate interests, that the media is sequestered in the hands of the power-brokers, and that official institutions cannot adjudicate in a way that is seen as transparent and legitimate, people across political persuasions throughout the world have been gathering, demonstrating, demanding, and pressuring for change through enacted, rather than discursive or representational, practice.

The role of physical bodies in political movements has been strongly debated in the U.S. and beyond since the 1960s when street protests proved successful in civil rights, feminist, and anti-war demonstrations.  Since then, for example, Critical Arts Ensemble argued in their 1994 work, Electronic Civil Disobedience, “Nostalgia for the 60s activism endlessly replays the past as the present, and unfortunately this nostalgia has also infected a new generation of activists who have no living memory of the 60s. Out of this sentimentality has arisen the belief that the ‘take to the streets’ strategy worked then, and will work now on current issues” (Critical Arts Ensemble 1996, 10).  They conclude with “as far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital! Nothing of power to the elites can be found on the streets” (Critical Arts Ensemble 1996, 11). Instead of blocking access to government buildings and what used to be stable structures of power, CAE advocated electronic civil disobedience to block the electronic flow of “information-capital” (Critical Arts Ensemble 1996, 9), the Deleuzian “undulatory” nature of control society (Deleuze 1992, 6).

The derision of affect—of nostalgia and sentimentality—blindsided CAE, for all their brilliance.  While they focused on efficacy, they neglected the other vital aspects of civil disobedience—the visionary, the communicative, the affective, and the contestational. Instead of “endlessly replay[ing] the past as the present,” we might argue that the marches and occupations rehearse a democratic present too long promised and too long deferred. By gathering together, those in opposition identify themselves to themselves.  By being there, they prove that people can become active participants; protest can happen; resistance is not only possible but it is being enacted. The art projects and collaborative activities keep the protestors emotionally strong and focused enough to keep up their activism day after day.  The streets make manifest that WE ARE HERE.  Visibly. Hormonally. Experientially.  Politically. Not an abstraction like the "American" or in this case "Mexican" people. Not a poll number, not an easily divisible subgroup or constituency.

Clearly, to think of political performance more broadly, we need to look at the role of social media and digital networks. Recent protest movements show the degree to which earlier separations and tensions between "street" and "online" activism seem to be dissolving.  Many protestors have smart phones; they are always "online"—networked, in contact with each other and of course identifiable to those in power. The role of digital technologies in uprisings around the world includes traditional media—radio, photography, and video—and sites of social networking such as Facebook and Twitter. But while flesh bodies expand into their electronic and digital bodies, the balance between online and off does not always work in the same way.  When Mubarak shut down the Internet in Egypt, people took to the streets.  But they knew where to go because plans for contestations using Internet platforms had been in the making for a couple of years.  In Turkey, conversely, tweets informed the general population of the country what was happening at Taksim square (Tucker 2013). Sandra Gónzalez-Bailón and Pablo Barbará, also commenting on protests in Turkey note:

There is abundant evidence suggesting that social media have been pivotal in the spread of information, especially in the absence of coverage by traditional media [1]; to recruit and mobilize protesters [2]; to coordinate the movement without the infrastructure of formal organizations [3]; and to draw the attention and support of the international community [4]. That social media is at the heart of these protests was defiantly acknowledged by the Turkish Prime Minister himself when he described them as “the worst menace to society” [5]. There are also reports that 25 people were arrested because of their use of Twitter to spread information about the protest [6]. (González-Bailón and Barbará 2013)4

Bodies and social media inhabit the same—albeit expanded—world of power. Repressive forces know where to locate and arrest their critics, as PRISM and other information gathering and surveillance programs make evident. Protestors and whistle-blowers end up in jail or in transit pens in Moscow airports. While most recent uprisings involve mixed modes of digital and embodied practice, Ricardo Dominguez reminds us that the "indigenous avant-garde" demands that we consider lands without streets and communities without networks (Dominguez 2012).

But for now, in the context of events that happened in 2006, before the political uptake of social media, I will think about bodies acting in public space in relation to traditional media—mostly advertising and television that have been dominated by powerful business interests on the political right.  While I do not want to essential the notion of bodies, let’s assume that due to specific historical, phenomenological, and political reasons these bodies give at least the illusion of ontological stability and coherence.


Here, then, I focus on Mexico’s contested election of 2006 in which two million protestors gathered in the Zócalo (Mexico’s central square and the symbolic heart of the nation) to challenge the election results through acts of civil disobedience.  This example, I hope, will shed light on the importance of bodies in politics that we can extend to more recent Occupy Wall Street movement and other youth-driven protests.

I will not go into all the ins and outs of the 2006 election and Mexican politics as such or in relation to the elections of July, 2012.  Instead I focus on the efficacy and limitations of performance as politics—using the 2006 election as a stunning case study of several performances taking place simultaneously in the public sphere:

Diana Taylor

photo: Diana Taylor

1) Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the mayor of Mexico City and the popular presidential candidate for the PRD—the ever so slightly left of center party-- gathered millions in the Zócalo when he heard the elections had gone to his opponent, Felipe Calderón, candidate of the PAN—on the political right.5 Many believed then, as they do now, that Calderón’s victory was a product of electoral fraud. Nearly half of the ballots in designated voting places did not add up.6 AMLO knew he would no longer have access to TV or other media.7 It was now all about bodies. You-Tube and Twitter had not yet become part of the distributive network that politics take for granted today. Millions of Mexicans concerned that the PAN might have again stolen the elections after seven decades of make-believe democracy demanded a recount.2) Protestors, organized by the performance and cabaret artist Jesusa Rodríguez, took to the streets and organizing a massive sit-in and tent-city (or plantón) that lasted for fifty days and clogged the Zócalo of Mexico City and the main boulevard, Reforma.
Cristina Rodríguez, Courtesy of La Jornada

photo: Cristina Rodríguez, Courtesy of La Jornada

Protestors enacted non-violent resistance during which three thousand four hundred performances took place and 3) AMLO was sworn in as the ‘Legitimate President’ in a ‘pretend’ inauguration—‘pretend,’ that is, in relationship to the ‘real’ one that was out-performed as illegitimate. The official swearing-in could not be celebrated in a public place for fear of popular outrage—rather, it took place during a four-minute ceremony in the midst of a congressional brawl.9

These competing utterances, displays, and ceremonial acts however, erupted in a political environment of “moral panic” in which AMLO’s opponents had depicted him as a “political monster,” a “danger to Mexico,” and a “messianic” populist (Treviño Rangel 2009, 644).10 These acts illustrate the degree to which performance and/as politics comprise multiple, overlapping, and often contested cultural repertoires and legitimating practices.  I will look at the staging, the power of political performatives and what I will call animatives, and the role of spectatorship—that characterized the scenario of democratic participation that has yet to come into being.

Performatives, in the J. L. Austin understanding of the term, refers to language that acts, that brings about the very reality that it announces (i.e., the preacher’s declaration “I now pronounce you man and wife” has the force of law) (Austin 1975, 6–8). Legally, in some religions, the two individuals are now "one."  These utterances are verbal performances that take place within highly codified conventions; their power stems from the legitimacy invested in authorized social actors rather than individuals (the priest, the judge).  All parties need to be acting in good faith. No crossing one’s fingers while making a promise, no ignoring the priest’s injunction to speak up, or forever hold your peace.  These breaches would render the act "void"rather than "true" or "false."  True, the act took place, but it failed to achieve its desired goal of legitimizing a union.  In political rather than linguistic terms, we might say that performatives belong to the realm of internal cohesion, clearly defined authority, enabled by popular consensus, producing a recognized, agreed-upon "real."

Animatives, as I define them, are grounded in bodies: the becoming of "one body" exceeds discursive formulation. Animatives are part movement as in animation, part identity, being, or soul as in anima or life.  The term captures the fundamental movement that is life (breathe life into) or that animates embodied practice.  Its affective dimensions include being lively, engaged, and ‘moved.’ "Animo" in Spanish, emphasizes another dimension of the Latin 'animatus': courage, resolve, and perseverance. Animatives, thus, are key to political life. As Castells reminds us, “emotions are the drivers of collective action” (Castells 2012, 134).  Animatives refer to actions taking place in the messy and often less structured interactions among individuals. They encompass embodied, at times boisterous, contradictory and vexed behaviors, experiences and relationships.  This then is the realm of the potentially chaotic, anarchist, and revolutionary that Jack Halberstam refers to as “the wild,” that which “disturbs the order of things and produces new life.” (Halberstam 2013) Performative, in my example here, might index the Electoral Commission’s declaration of the winner in the 2006 election with its binding legal force, while animative signals the ruckus that broke out in the Zócalo and in the country.

My distinctions clearly need some stressing.  Are performatives always codified and conventional, even in bringing about the newness they announce? Political theorist Benjamin Arditi notes the utopian potential of performatives: “They are actions and statements that anticipate something to come as participants begin to experience – as they begin to live – what they are fighting for while they fight for it.” (Arditi 2012) Surely ‘let there be light’ inaugurates life itself—though even here too the act depends on the power of the authorized speaker, God.  Austin’s How To Do Things With Words is nothing if not an extensive exploration of the convoluted groups and subgroups defining what performatives are and are not, what they can and cannot perform. Performatives, in the Austinean sense, function only within the clearly demarcated conditions that he outlines and, in that sense, always rely on authority and consensus.  I would not go so far as to align performatives with sovereignty and regulatory powers of state as debates on Hobbes and performatives did in the 1960s and 70s.11 I maintain that performatives, like all other forms of performance, can be liberating or oppressive, depending on the context.  But performatives, it seems to me, rely on conventional structures for their efficacy. Yet, for that reason, the threat of disruption hovers over them.  One of the many things I love about Austin’s writing on performatives is his elaboration on the multiple ways they can go wrong—infelicities, unhappiness, misfires, misinvocations, misapplications and so on. These, it seems to me offer rich examples of strategies of resistance against the conventions and codes within which performatives claim enunciatory power.  I have already written about “relajo” as acts of as spontaneous disruption that defy authority, rupturing (even for a moment) the configuration and limits of the group or community.  Translated into English as both “commotion, ruckus” and “joke, laugh,” relajo only ever works to upset conventions.  Without authority to be defied and codes of conduct to be upended, there would be no relajo:

“It is an act of devalorization, or what the late Mexican intellectual Jorge Portilla calls "desolidarization" with dominant norms in order to create a different, joyously rebellious solidarity-- that of the underdog.’ It is a ‘negative’ form of expression in that it’s a declaration against, never for, a position. Yet, relajo proves non-threatening, because it is humorous and subversive in ways that allow for critical distancing rather than revolutionary challenge. It is an aside, not a frontal attack” (Taylor 2003,129).

Art and activist practices often disrupt performatives. One example: Las Yeguas del Apocalysis (Mares of the Apocalypse, comprised of Francisco Casas y Pedro Lemebel, two radical and brilliant gay performers in Chile) were feared at literary and art exhibits given their relish for scandal and crashing self-declared high-brow events. “They were not invited to the meeting of intellectuals with Patricio Aylwin (president of Chile from 1990-94) just before the elections of 1989, but they came anyway. They came onstage wearing high heels and feathers and extended a banner that said ‘homosexuals for change.’ Upon coming down from the stage, Francisco Casas jumped on then senatorial candidate, Ricardo Lagos, and gave him a kiss on the mouth.”12

Performatives and animatives, as these examples make clear, only ever work together—nothing pronounced means much without the re-action of those addressed or invoked.  The terms call attention to different political acts, uptakes, and positionalities encompassed by the broader word, performance.  The reason for teasing out the ways in which these various acts work is not to cement distinctions and binaries but rather (in the spirit of Austin) to expand the range of political possibilities and methodologies within the broader rubric of ‘performance.’

The efficacy of performatives, then, depends on the acknowledgment/agreement of those in attendance. And the addressee also always enacts a position—it might be one of agreement or consensus, it might be one of dis-identification, dissensus, or radical rejection.  The two million people in the Zócalo overtly denounced the results announced from above. They supported their own candidate as President Legítimo whether or not that act produced a widely-recognized "real."  I use these terms, then, not to illustrate clear-cut distinctions between some high/low, elitist/populist, real/pretend understanding of politics. The space between those terms, the space of friction, contradiction, exposure, and interface seems far more productive to me in understanding how traditional political hierarchies and structures have been stretched and upended by contemporary participatory politics.

The multiple Mexican political "performances" (like all performances) of course need to be understood in situ, within the context of the political acts that gave them rise—the decades of electoral fraud and corruption, endemic poverty (half of all Mexicans live in poverty and 20% live in extreme poverty), the brutal battle of images waged through the media during this specific election, the traditionally marginalized poor bursting in on the electoral process, the show of force by the Mexican military following the election, and the escalating waves of violence and human rights abuses evidenced in parts of Mexico since 2006 that have left close to 100,000 people dead or disappeared. 13

The Sunday following the announcement of election results, a million people converged in Zócalo to show their support for AMLO. From that moment onwards, the various protest acts broke new ground, social actors improvised as they went along. The contest of power was clear—on one hand, the PAN was the party in government controlling the resources, the armed forces, and legitimating institutions. It made alliances with the PRI (the party that ruled Mexico for over 70 years and which is now again in power), with media conglomerates, wealthy industrialists in the North of Mexico, and the U.S. right. On the other side were millions of people—progressives, intellectuals, young people, and a huge number of indigenous and mestizo people who had finally found a role in a political party.  Important to note, the Zapatistas condemned the elections claiming that the Mexican government, the "mal gobierno"(bad government) had failed to support them or honor any agreement with them.  They ran their own campaign, La otra campaña, as one commentator noted, is not "another" campaign but a campaign of "others" (Ross 2005). Mexico became a massive training ground for staging scenarios of democracy through civil disobedience.

AMLO started the march at the Auditorio Nacional, walking down Reforma to the Zócalo, the seat of executive power for the past 700 years when the Aztecs built their cue (or main temple) on the same ground. There he met his followers, who had come from throughout the country to join him.  His proposal was that every single ballot be recounted—voto por voto, casilla por casilla.

Image Courtesy of Jesusa Rodríguez

Image Courtesy of Jesusa Rodríguez

From a conceptual point of view, this performance had political and symbolic force.  But the staging posed a real problem.  Jesusa Rodríguez (Mexico’s most famous cabaret performer and activist) went to the Zócalo that first Sunday only to find a huge platform structure--an empty stage. During the three hours it took for AMLO to walk from the Auditorio to the Zócalo, the million people waiting there had nothing to do. When AMLO finally did arrive, all his political advisors and followers crowded around him.  No one could see him. Jesusa remembers thinking, “a stage is a stage. It has its rules and norms. Someone has to organize it—people have to be able to see and hear things.”  As Rodríguez pointed out, many politicians don’t understand ‘live’ teatro político.


Image Courtesy of Jesusa Rodríguez

Image Courtesy of Jesusa Rodríguez

For the second massive rally in the Zócalo, Jesusa had orchestrated the event. The platform now had risers so that AMLO could stand stage-center; party members would line up behind him. While AMLO walked from Reforma to the Zócalo, well-known actors and writers read, sang, and entertained the public. As Mayor of Mexico City, AMLO was able to have huge TV monitors installed along the route so that those walking could see what was going on in the Zócalo, and those waiting in the Zócalo could see their leader coming closer. The walk itself took on a sense of dramatic crescendo, symbolically building on and amplifying the effect of AMLO’s approach to occupy the center of power.  When he arrived, he was greeted with open arms by the admiring PATRIA—the actress Regina Orozco as Motherland.


Diana Taylor

photo: Diana Taylor

More important, the participants could see themselves magnified as a collective body both on and off screen; they were now visibly a part of a historic movement they could visualize and identify with. The staging did not in fact change what happened.  Its efficacy, rather, lay in changing everyone’s sense of participation in the event. Performance, the poor person’s media in this case, made it possible for people to represent themselves (in the democratic rather than mimetic sense of the word—as in political representation) and to see themselves in and as a political force. By fueling passionate identification, the force of the event created the very "body" it claimed only to ‘represent.' But instead of language that acts, here bodies act, bodies that feel themselves robbed of their language in the form of their vote. They were voting with their feet, as the saying goes.  Political participation begins to take other, more affective, forms.

The plantón was a different kind of performance—the animative challenged the official performative.  The occupation was both an embodied claim to inclusion and the performance of belonging, of establishing a different  "city" that people would occupy and control for over 50 days.  The tent city enacted an alternative vision of what communal social life might look like—a more open and equitable society. Representatives from all around Mexico lived in the make-shift tents installed along several miles of the protest route.  Gender roles underwent change as men cooked and cleaned and new forms of collaboration came into being. The plantón inverted the private/public we’ve become used to—the use of ‘public’ space as if it were private.  Cell phone conversations and iPods have created a new etiquette—we take our private world with us wherever we go. These daily acts reaffirm the private publics of capitalism with its privatization of public space.  My bubble world allows me to lock out all and everyone else.  Here, however, the private became public as people literally rubbed shoulders and lived together peacefully in one of the world’s largest cities.  A different notion of politics was not only envisioned but enacted.  “The radical utopian character” of the plantón, to recall Herbert Marcuses’ words about the 1968 uprisings, were “expressions of concrete political practice” (Marcuse 1969, ix).

Living as if culminated in the strangest performance of all—AMLO’s swearing in as the “Presidente Legítimo, head of a parallel government that boasts about one million constituents. The performative declaration “misfired” for one essential reason—he did not have the recognized authority to enact the claim.  The act was “void” according to Austin, but certainly not “without effect” (Austin 1975, 16). The misfire worked to question the authority of the 'official' decision.  Rather than participate in the “simulated democracy” of the Right, his performance accentuated not only the theatricality and make believe quality of the ‘real’ but the very real potential of the what if.  The scenario offered another framework for envisioning a way forward by calling attention to the sham and imagining alternative, plausible futures.  The as ifs and what ifs, as Aristotle noted, are very “serious business…. [and] the poet’s job is not to report what has happened but what is likely to happen: that is, what is capable of happening according to the rule of probability or necessity.” (Aristotle 1973, 32) Political as ifs create a desire and demand for change; they leave traces that reanimate future scenarios.  In Mexico, this means imagining the political as a space of convergence and potentiality rather than (as we know it to be) a done-deal, brokered behind closed doors by those in control.  The as ifs and the what ifs, often dismissed as posturing or ‘only pretending’ by cynical commentators, can open liberating and progressive pathways to social re-inventions, amplifying the limits of the political imagination.

I asked Jesusa what, from her experience as a cabaret artist, had prepared her for this task of choreographing an entire political movement. Judging from her response, cabaret might indeed be essential training for politics. While she had to keep the general structure of the scenario in mind—the creative, non-violent struggle against fraud and oppression—she had to act without a script.  Her body became central to the performance (with advantages and draw-backs that we will see later).  The improvisational nature of her work in Cabaret, where she constantly pulled topical issues and figures into a loosely structured art piece, had trained her to stay on her feet and respond creatively to what was going on around her.  Improvisation, as a methodology, is practiced based—“you can only learn to improvise by improvising,” she reminds me.  She also stressed the quality of bodily presence—developing a deep focus and connection to the people and place around her, allowing herself to become a body of transmission for the energy that moves in and through her to the crowd.  Affect, as Teresa Brennan reminds us, circulates among and between us; we as individuals are not self contained (Brennan 2004, 14).  The enormous power of embodied protest stems from this unconstrained flow of energy and affect—the expansion and constant regeneration of the body politic.  Presence of mind is equally important as she weighed various options.  A good imagination and a sense of humor are key, not only to performance and cabaret but to envisioning a better world. Moreover, running El Hábito, an alternative performance space for fifteen years with her wife Liliana Felipe, Jesusa had learned to plan, program activities, and look ahead six months. While performance is always in the now, it also has an eye to the future.


The politics of passion, and the scenarios of a more equitable society that these sometimes give rise to, can prove politically efficacious. Since 2000, popular marches by ordinary citizens have peacefully toppled five undemocratic governments in Latin America—Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Peru.  Erica Chenoweth and María J. Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, note the success of non-violent overthrow of regimes in Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004-5), Lebanon (2005) as well as the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East.  They note, moreover, that between 1900 and 2006, “non-violent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts” (Chenoweth and Stephan 2012, 7) in part because “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance” (Chenoweth and Stephan 2012, 10).

But there are dangers and risks to relying so heavily on performance as politics—some of them having to do with the highly unstable nature of performance itself.  It can cut officials down to size but it’s hard to know when resistance, civil disobedience, and protest might trigger a violent backlash. In Why Civil Disobedience Works, Chenoweth and Stephan label the 2006 protests as a “Failure” in the outcome graph (Chenoweth and Stephan 2012, 33).  What does failure mean, in a case such as this one?

On a simple level, the protests failed to reach their objective of forcing a total recount. The power brokers managed to resist the demand for clarification. The long-term effect was that the Calderón presidency, like the first George W. Bush presidency, was marred by the cloud of illegitimacy.

On another level, the plantón was depicted as a strategic disaster—turning off supporters and giving spectators and critics occasion to paint AMLO as a radical. A couple of months after the contested elections, many of those who voted for AMLO said that if the elections were held again, they would not vote for him. They were put off by all the acting out. For others, still supportive of the movement, the truck drivers and taxi drivers who had to endure the daily grind of navigating a complex city, the plantón proved too much—they would not forgive AMLO for what came to feel like, so very literally, as the enactment of obstructionist politics.

But perhaps more serious, the rejection of AMLO following the 2006 election seemed to be a rejection of the performance of a more equitable society. It’s fine for the middle class and even progressives to embrace ‘equality’ on an abstract level, yet become afraid when they actually see the power of a dynamic and motivated working class.  While many of the featured speakers were white, almost all of the people gathered in the Zócalo were brown. Did the white students, artists, and intellectuals abandon the struggle?  Or did they feel that the largely mestizo social movement did not represent them?  Even a cursory look at the faces associated with the Mexican student movement, #YoSoy132, shows a very different constituency in terms of age, class, and race.

The plantón reminds us that protests and occupations are framed by many mediated forces and interests. Animatives terrify governments whose main goal is to control bodies through the mobilization or threat of force, or the use of performative edicts, decrees, and official utterances with the force of law.  They also challenge on-lookers who respond differently to spectacles of defiance and resistance. Who controls the action? For better and for worse, animatives lack the legitimating structures, authority, and hierarchies that empower performatives.  Animatives –linguistically so close to animation, as in what Sianna Ngai calls the “non-stop technology” of cartoons—raise serious questions of agency. In Ugly Feelings, she explores what she calls “animatedness” as “unusually receptive to outside control” (Ngai 2005, 91).  The inanimate body usurps the “human speaker’s voice” and agency (Ngai 2005, 123). The ruckus may be liberating on one hand, but it’s not always clear what it’s about.

The plantón offered up the bodies on the streets and in the squares to be framed by the media as racialized rabble manipulated by outside forces.  The same thing happened in Occupy Wall Street.  One of the first articles about the movement to appear in The New York Times was accompanied by a photograph of two young men.  One, a nicely dressed Latino in a suit and tie, was depicted as hard working. The other, a disheveled white man, looked like a lazy slacker.  The text summed up the message—those who work hard in the U.S. get ahead.  Others, who feel things should just be handed to them on silver platters, just sit around and complain.  Economic inequalities? Ridiculous… Those who were protesting, in both cases, were painted as pawns under the spell of some delusional power.  Power brokers and media commentators conjured up scenarios of moral panic and approaching economic disaster. The people in the tents, many of them of indigenous and mestizo racial origins, triggered a deep-seated fear and racism. For some participants, the tent city offered an a utopian possibility of trust and collaboration, but for too many on-lookers, the tents, especially as they were pictured through the hostile media, foretold the ‘fall’ of the middle class that the ads had announced. AMLO (another Castro or Chávez), the Right had warned, will take all your property and belongings away (Treviño Rangel 2009, 640). And here they were, his followers sleeping on the streets! His followers were called “stinky,” “lazy,” irrational thieves and lowlifes, who knew nothing of politics (Treviño Rangel, 641). Worse, they were depicted as “alien to modernity,” in Jean Franco’s words, a drag on a country striving to become part of the First World. (Franco 2013,7) So who controls whom? Does agency and action stem form the bodies on the street or from brokers off to the side? And who is watching? Who witnesses the battle of presentation and representation to decide whether to join to protest or turn off the T.V.?


Political spectatorship, then, is a force to be reckoned with. Revolutions take place (for good or bad), as Kant reminds us, when they arouse “in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm” (Kant 1991, 182). Passion, Kant recognizes, is powerful though politically invalidating because “all passion as such is blameworthy” ( Kant 1991,184).  It’s clear, and not only to Kant, that spectators, situated somehow outside the action, are as vulnerable to manipulation as the bodies onstage. Theorists from at least as far back as Plato to the present have recognized that there is a power and politics to seeing, although few might agree on what those politics might be. For Plato, the skilled artist or “charlatan” can “deceive children or simple people” who can’t distinguish between “knowledge and ignorance, reality and representation” (Plato, 374-375). Aristotle, in Poetics, affirmed the pedagogical power of representation, but argued to keep violence offstage for ethical reasons, not necessarily because spectators should not see it (i.e., because it was obscene), but because the stage was reserved for the recognition and understanding of that violence.  Aristophanes in The Frogs pointed out that spectators were sometimes the object of political machination, rather than simply learning from it.  While the notion that all vision is partial, mediated, and susceptible to all forms of distortions and manipulations goes back at least as far as Plato’s cave, the debates about what can and cannot be known through spectatorship continue into the present, further complicated now by the prevalence of mediatized spectacles and interactive digital technologies.

So what constitutes political spectatorship? Are spectators the stupefied mass that Brecht maligns, that sits in a darkened room as in a trance, “like men to whom something is being done” (Brecht 1964, 187). Spectators, Rancière suggests like many have before him, are trapped in a paradox. On one hand, in the Brechtian worldview, according to Rancière, viewing “is the opposite of acting: the spectator remains immobile in her seat, passive. To be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act” (Rancière 2000, 2). On the other, in Artaud’s ideal theatre, spectators would disappear altogether, becoming participants totally caught up in the action.  Rancière sums up Artaud’s position: the spectator “must be removed from the position of observer [...] disposed of this illusory mastery, [and] drawn into the magic circle of theatrical action” (Rancière 2000, 4).  In fact Althusser, far more than Artaud, insists on the privilege and power afforded the distanced spectator: “Mother Courage is presented to you. It is for her to act. It is for you to judge. On the stage the image of blindness—in the stalls the image of lucidity” (Althusser, 148). While Althusser critiques the identification model of spectatorship as reducing “social, cultural and ideological consciousness” to “a purely psychological consciousness” (Althusser, 149), the distanced or hegemonic spectators profit from non-identification—they don’t have to get involved.  As Althusser’s image of the "judge" indicates, these spectators enjoy the superiority and power that accompanies the lofty position of sentencing without ever feeling oneself implicated in the proceedings.  The problems of hegemonic spectatorship are more accentuated in the realm of political performance, where people feel even less implicated in the ideological construction of the event and even more empowered to demand explanation.  The onus is on the protests, not the hegemonic spectator, to create meaning.

Others, such as Brazilian theatre practitioner and theorist Augusto Boal, also refuse the equation of seeing with passivity so often assigned to spectatorship. Boal’s conclusion to Theatre of the Oppressed, where he concludes “’Spectator’ a Bad Word!,” might rehash some of the same arguments that Rancière raises, but his methodologies to (re)train people who have learned to behave as passive political observers seems as close to an implementation of Rancière’s emancipation of the spectator as I can think of.  “Theatre is a form of knowledge” Boal writes in 1992, “it should and can also be a means of transforming society”(Boal 2002, 16). Image theatre, legislative theatre, newspaper theatre, invisible theatre among other forms he developed taught participants to see critically, and reflect, act, and intervene on what they saw. “Emancipation” for Rancière “begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting [...]. The relations between saying, seeing, and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjugation” (Rancière 2000, 13).  Boal’s “spect-actors” assume their roles as active observers, participating in the actions around them (Boal 2002, 15). He too understands that seeing is a doing, just as not-seeing is the act of not doing. Both are acts. No one has more effectively developed a strategy for the emancipated spectator, if by that we accept Rancière’s definition of “what the word ‘emancipation’ means: the blurring of the boundary between those who act and those who look; between individuals and members of the collective body” (Boal 2002, 19).

Part of the paradox of spectatorship, I believe, stems from the fact that most theorizations about active or passive viewing stems from theatre, as my examples so far illustrate.  Theatre, from the Greek thea meaning "a view," was the place for seeing. Spectator comes from the same word, theates. Theory does too. The etymology suggests that from its linguistic origins, the person (spectator), the act (the see), and critical inquiry (to theorize) were inseparable. Nonetheless, centuries of training spectators to sit still in their seats and follow theatrical conventions has produced not only the idea of the passive spectator but too often, perhaps, the passive spectators themselves.  But there is nothing inherently passive about spectatorship, even when we confine our analysis to the theatrical.

Along the same lines, Israeli theorist Ariella Azoulay develops the idea of the “ethical spectator” who assumes her/his role as participant in the scenario. Although Azoulay refers to photography rather than live, embodied action, her emphasis on ethics is key to understanding performance and/as politics: the “shift moves from the ethics of seeing or viewing to an ethics of the spectator, an ethics that begins to sketch the contours of the spectator’s responsibility towards what is visible” (Azoulay 2008, 130).

Political performances make dissent visible. Protests, acts of civil disobedience, strikes, marches, vigils, and blockades challenge the spectator to assess the situation, think critically, and maybe even take sides. What are these protests about?  Anti-hegemonic spectators will get informed.  But even keeping the imperatives of ethical, emancipated and anti-hegemonic spectatorship in mind, it’s important to recognize the multiple stagings of seeing/being taking place simultaneously—some separated out as in conventional western theatres with their onstage and stalls as in Althusser’s example, some taking place incessantly as people walk down the street, looking at others and being watched and surveyed and tracked at the same time.  This is a far more intense visual field than that described by Sartre or even Lacan.14 The boundaries between performance and politics (always porous) have become increasingly blurred.  We see political performers, performing politicians, performers as politicians, and the performance of political office, as cameras zoom in on flags, military attire, national colors, presidential podiums, sashes, and seals. Algorithms process which Internet sites to make available to whom.15 Spectators are simultaneously political agents, the object of politics, and performers for other spectators watching events from a different vantage point.16 Almost every event is performed for television, or transmitted online, for the distant (unseen but, in our age of data mining, not unknown) audience at home. Participants can also be "there"through streaming video or chats. At conventions and rallies, those who are physically present often watch the events on the giant screens projecting the speakers.  The "live" participants serve as an enthusiastic background for the other show taking place offstage, in the virtual public arena. Performance efficacy is measured, not by the reaction of viewers in the room, but by daily polls.  These stagings complicate whatever we might say about spectatorship in current protests.  They also pose age-old questions about perspective, embodiment, and location long associated with studies of vision, but with a fascinating twist.  Does the dominance of technological mediation signal the failure of the "live" and "seeing" as a means of knowing?  Or has the triumph of other systems of transmission rendered embodied vision one more repeat—we can only see and recognize that which we have been taught to see, that which we have seen before?  In any case, a new form of spectatorship is taking place through all these mediated frames that complicates Brecht’s vision of people sitting in a darkened room.  There are many ways of participating, many ways of being there, though not all feel as powerful and immediate and experientially vibrant as some protesters feel about embodied practice.

The complications around representation—whether in traditional political systems or the media—I believe, helps explain the resurgence and even centrality of the body in politics, bodies (as I noted earlier) that claim some degree of ontological stability. Bodies communicate far more than visual experience. People share the energy that builds as it passes through crowds.  Feelings of solidarity allow some protesters to take risks they would not necessarily take on their own.  They may be out protesting for a cause, but their allegiances often grow to encompass their fellow protesters—we’re in this together.  Do the protests transmit the sense of energy and solidarity to bystanders?  It depends in part on the conditions. Chenoweth and Stephan noted more participation in non-violent movements because people felt safe and justified in expressing their views. Activist groups such as Otpor recommend that protest be as fun and interactive with the public as possible, and their non-violent, and endlessly creative resistance, led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia.  As political parties fail to represent their constituencies, people are re-learning to represent themselves. But that in no way protects them from media mis-representations.  The PROTESTER was Time Magazine Person of the year for 2011. The cover image of the young, beautiful, veiled/masked?, dignified yet exotic seemingly Middle Eastern woman, designed by Shepard Fairey, enacts its own skewed representation. Her face gives definition to the unidentified mass clamoring in the back grounded behind her in the image.

What are spectators and commentators to make of all this? Critics called on the protestors to name their demands! Slavoj Žižek, who was against the protests until he was for them, accused protestors in the U.K. of being “thugs” whose “zero-degree protest” was “a violent action demanding nothing.”  Where were the performatives? As Arditi writes, Žižek stated that “participants had no message to deliver and resembled more what Hegel called the rabble than an emerging revolutionary subject. The problem for him is not street violence as such but its lack of self-assertiveness, ‘impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival'" (Žižek 2011). Later, of course, Žižek called for “occupy first, demand later”—animatives before performatives.  What caught on in Mexico, in Spain, in OWS, however, were the animatives.  The occupation of public space with their tents, libraries, meeting spaces, food centers, digital communication centers and much more caught on around the world. The movements, all gestures, involved repetition, citationality, and improvisation.  Everyone came up with all sorts of acts to instruct and amuse. Figures such an Anonymous refused the lure of clearly individuated leadership—they all form part of the 99%.  These animated gestures enact a politics of massive unified presence. OWS’s unwillingness to make a demand, to narrow their force to one or more specific claims, speaks for itself.  But here again, this only works if others join in.  I would argue that our role (and by this I mean mine, and Žižek’s, and Arditi’s, and all of those who write about these movements) is not to try to lead, or prescribe but to assist, especially in the Spanish asistir which means also to be present. It means to legitimate the act of occupation by being there, physically or virtually, as consenting addressees.  Again, as in the case of Mexico, the very ‘REAL’ is under debate and construction.  Who gets to decide? ASISTIR means to defend, to augment, to assure that the injustices they name are not just theirs, a disenfranchised group as the media often calls them, but ours as well. We are, after all, invoked in the 99%. But the beauty of the 99% is that is calls for solidarity and for identification, not for the individual protagonism of the famous, recognizable figures.  Here too, we're talking about distributive networks.  The Žižeks, and even the Jesusas, cannot lead this kind of movement that requires an individual, everyday practice that exceeds them. As Mexican protestors said, democracy is not about voting once every six years, it’s about defending the vote.  One protestor in Occupy Wall Street put it slightly differently (though I still edited it): You don’t have intercourse every four years and call it a sex life. Politics is a durational engagement, a process, a daily act, a way of envisioning a future, a doing and a thing done—which, incidentally, is also the definition of performance.

Diana Taylor is the author of Theatre of Crisis: Drama and Politics in Latin America (1991), which won the Best Book Award given by New England Council on Latin American Studies and Honorable Mention in the Joe E. Callaway Prize for the Best Book on Drama, of Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's 'Dirty War', Duke U.P., 1997, and The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Duke U.P., 2003) which won the Outstanding Book award from the Association of Theatre in Higher Education, and the Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize from the Modern Language Association.  She is co-editor of: PMLA’s special issue on WAR, published October 2009, Stages of Conflict: A Reader in Latin American Theatre and Performance (Michigan U. P.), Holy Terrors: Latin American Women Perform (Duke U.P., 2004), Defiant Acts/Actos Desafiantes: Four Plays by Diana Raznovich (Bucknell U. P., 2002), Negotiating Performance in Latin/o America: Gender, Sexuality and Theatricality (Duke U.P., 1994), and The Politics of Motherhood: Activists from Left to Right (University Press of New England, 1997), and editor of five volumes of critical essays on Latin American, Latino, and Spanish playwrights.  Her articles on Latin American and Latino performance have appeared in TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies, Theatre Journal, Performing Arts Journal, Latin American Theatre Review, Estreno, Gestos, Signs, MLQ, and other scholarly journals. She has also been invited to participate in discussions on the role of new technologies in the arts and humanities in important conferences and commissions in the Americas (i.e. ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure). She is the recipient of numerous awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005–06. Diana Taylor is founding Director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, funded by foundations including Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. See more at:


1 See: Shah 2011.

 2  “Asked why the protests were emerging now, he said, “Why not now? This isn’t something happening just in Brazil, but a new form of protesting, which is not channeled through traditional institutions.’ Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University who has studied social movements, including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, said it was hard to know exactly what sparks would set off a broader movement.” (Neuman and Romero 2013)

3 See: Neuman and Romero 2013

4 This research, as well as that by Josh Tucker, was developed in New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation lab

5 PRD refers to the Partido Revolucionario Democrático, a left of center party, while PAN refers to the conservative Partido Acción Nacional.

6 See: Weisbrot 2012

7 Weisbrot continues: “About 95% of broadcast TV is controlled by just two companies, Televisa and Azteca, and their hostility toward the PRD has been documented.”

8 While the 2000 elections, in which the PAN won after 71 years of rule by the PRI, the widespread practice of electoral fraud –including the infamous elections of 1986—have prompted comments of Mexico as a one party system, even though voting is mandatory. The widespread accusations of fraud in 2006 were, then, especially troubling as many felt that Mexico had finally moved into the age of legitimate elections. For discussion of electoral fraud during the 2006 elections, see Galbraith 2013

9 See: García Navarro, 2006 and Mckinley Jr 2006

10 See: Krauze 2006

11 See Bertman, 1978 and Bell, 1969

12 Memoria Chilena notes: “El escándalo era la constante de las “Yeguas”. Para el encuentro de los intelectuales con Patricio Aylwin previo a las elecciones de 1989 no fueron convocadas pero llegaron igual. Subieron al escenario con tacos y plumas y extendieron un lienzo que decía “Homosexuales por el cambio”. Al bajar del escenario, Francisco Casas se lanzó sobre el entonces candidato a senador Ricardo Lagos y le dio un beso en la boca.”

13 The exact number of people dead from drug related violence in Mexico during Felipe Calderón term is still under debate. Human Rights Watch in a letter to President Obama puts the number at 70,000., accessed April 30, 2013. Additionally, over 20,000 people have “disappeared” during the same period. Bases de datos sobre personas desaparecidas. Accessed April 30, 2013.

14 See: Bryson 1988, 86-108

15 See: Pariser 2011.

16 The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual of 2006 makes clear that popular opinion enables the military’s capacity to act, and therefore must be controlled: “The United States possesses overwhelming conventional military superiority. This capability has pushed its enemies to fight U.S. forces unconventionally, mixing modern technology with ancient techniques of insurgency and terrorism. Most enemies either do not try to defeat the United States with conventional operations or do not limit themselves to purely military means. They know that they cannot compete with U.S. forces on those terms. Instead, they try to exhaust U.S. national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support. Defeating such enemies presents a huge challenge to the Army and Marine Corps. Meeting it requires creative efforts by every Soldier and Marine”

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