- Spectacular Transgressions: Moving beyond Polarities
What can spectacular transgressions teach us about protest? How can we learn to see through clouds of outrage or move differently among polarized factions? In this essay we explore two sites of transgression, coal rolling and public dance, to deepen and expand the possibilities of protest beyond polarities.
Recognizing the scholarship and praxis that already exists across the political spectrum,1 we enter the conversation about protest via our prior work on “spectacular transgressions” in activist performance.2 “Activist performance” or “performance for social change” casts a wide net, encompassing phenomena from massive marches and civilly disobedient direct actions to Boalian workshops and community-engaged devised productions. To speak of protest narrows the view somewhat, and we use the term here to name expressive public acts (thus performances) by individuals or groups aligned with larger efforts to realize a change in society, government, and/or culture. Usually protests communicate both challenge (protesting against “what is”) and advocacy (protesting for “what ought to be”).
Our present intervention grows from an even finer focus on those protests that qualify as spectacular transgressions, by which we mean attention-grabbing, larger-than-life crossings (trans-) of a line or norm (-gradi). Describing an act or event as a spectacle suggests something not just spectate-able, but especially spectate-worthy—spectate-imperative even. Amy Hughes argues that spectacle mobilizes a difference in physical and/or affective scale from the “normal” to attract attention (15–16). Not all transgressions or spectacles function as protests, of course. But signature Left/progressive activist protests such as the civil rights lunch-counter sit-ins, the 1999 WTO demonstrations, and the Occupy Wall Street camps all share a quality of spectacular (although often precisely choreographed and disciplined) boundary violation.3
Why focus on spectacularly transgressive protests? We do not claim that spectacular transgressions are the most common or effective protest modes. In the twenty-first century, however, being attention-grabbing and controversial means being spreadable, meme-able, known. Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observes that both present-day activism and mass media operate within an attention economy. Individuals and collectives compete for the eyes and ears (and thus the hearts and minds) of a populace inundated with countless counter-offers. Since, as she notes, “[a]ttention is a key resource for social movements” (849), spectacularly transgressive protests offer an enticing promise of return on investment. Today, grand-scale, attention-demanding protests such as anti-police-violence activists shutting down a highway, openly armed citizens gathering at a public restaurant, or professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem have come to serve as some of the most recognizable reference points for present cultural and political struggles. Although such spectacles do not represent social movements’ only or most common tools, in the public imagination of the attention economy, activist groups often become equated to their most visible, viral, and controversial protests.
We also concentrate on spectacular protests for their polarizing effects. Tactical polarization—provoking fence-sitters out of their apathy—has long been a specialized weapon in activist arsenals (Abujbara et al. 76, 116). Today, however, a range of scholars has begun to worry about an excess of polarization in US civic and political life. Disagreements are sharper, more extreme, with [End Page 139] Democrats and Republicans more apt to view the other party not merely as wrong, but as a “threat to the nation’s well-being” (Pew 7). The multiplicity of information sources circulating through social media allows us to indulge in group and confirmation biases as never before.4 Lamenting this myopic hyper-partisanship, Lee Drutman warns of “doom loop politics.” Within the doom loop of polarization, “beating our opponent” (whom we know to be evil, irrational, ignorant, a threat, and so on) eclipses all other considerations.5
As scholars of activist performance, we (the coauthors) find ourselves probing this polarization. From Pew’s perspective we would likely fit into the Left’s ideologically consistent partisan space. We support and write about multifarious resistance tactics against the current political administration. Yet, we also recognize the dangers of polarization that Drutman and others outline. Scholarship on performance protest...