Posted by: simonsteachingblog | November 18, 2010

The represented and their representatives

Karl Marx famously wrote in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte from 1853: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’ Edward Said uses this sentence as an epigraph to his book Orientalism (1978) to refer to the representational relationship between the West and the Middle Eastern Orient through which the former ‘orientalises’ and stereotypes the latter. Said comments that: ‘The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would’. As the Orient apparently cannot represent itself, it must be represented. But Said also relates this to governance. From the perspective of the Orientalist, the Orient also cannot represent itself politically. Through this discussion we can interpret Marx’s observation in terms of an interrelationship between representation as the aesthetic or linguistic description and framing of something – in this instance an entire region of the world – and the issue of political representation. Colonialism in the Middle East has been legitimized in the past by the assumption, projected onto the region from without, that the peoples of the region cannot represent themselves either directly, or through elected representatives, instead they had to be governed by those from more ‘advanced’ nations.

It has often been observed that European modes of representing colonial others as incapable of governing themselves had their origin in the ways that European elites regarded their own subordinate populations. The lower orders were represented as ‘unthinking’, as a ‘rabble’ and a ‘mass’. When these people took it upon themselves to contest their domination, they were represented as a ‘mob’ rather than as political agents. Thus when the dominated sought to act politically they were represented as being somehow beyond politics. Consequently such representations ordained that the ‘rabble’ had to be governed by those who could think and who ‘know better’. The parliamentary system of today is the result of a kind of compromise between the desires of the dominated to be counted within the sphere of the political and the desire of elites to reserve their assumed right to govern. Within elective democracy the voters are meant to be represented by the politicians who they elect; the latter are meant to be their surrogates. But the historic compromise between the urge for equality on the part of the governed and the desire to govern on the part of their governors means that there is necessarily a gap between the represented and their representatives, between the desire of the represented to have a political voice and the assumptions of their representatives that they must be represented in the sense that Marx articulated. As long as the compromise between the interests of the represented and their representatives is maintained and desires on the part of the dominated for equality are contained by our nominally democratic political system then everything will be well from the perspective of those committed to the existing order. This is partly a matter of maintaining a particular representation of legitimate politics as a narrow space between two despotic poles defined on the one hand by the figure of the dictator, or the totalitarian party and on the other by the image of the rampaging mob that would wreck the careful balance of ordered society and cast everything into chaos. Thus the representative political system is enmeshed and dependent upon particular representations of the political. As Jacques Rancière has suggested, such representations involve an actual fear of the democratic, where democracy means the involvement of people in politics beyond the act of voting and where conditions of consensus are threatened by agonistic contests, not only over different political issues, but over the very meaning of politics and democracy. To use Rancière’s metaphor of the shores and the seas of politics, such representations involve an ‘anti-maritime polemic’ that attempts to keep politics beached on dry land away from the dangerously turbulent seas populated by unruly mariners who do not know their proper place (Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics, Verso, 1995). In this sense dominant representations of politics within parliamentary democracies involve an anxiety about the political overspilling the boundaries set for it by what Rancière calls ‘the police order’ in which everyone knows there place and is in their place. Within this framing of the political, different people are assigned different and fixed roles: there are those who are meant to represent and those who are meant to be represented. The latter can potentially become the former, but only within the established political structure within which the represented and their representatives are always distinct, the fundamental rule being that the represented cannot (and should not) represent themselves.

With these things in mind, what can we make of the reporting of the student demonstration against proposed cuts in the public funding of higher education in London on 10 November? The image that graced most of the front-pages of British newspapers depicts a demonstrator kicking in a ground floor window of the Millbank Tower which houses the Conservative Party Headquarters.

Student demonstration, Millbank Tower, London, 10 November, 2010

The demonstrator is hooded and anonymous, a fitting symbol of the ‘mob’ he is taken to represent in some of the newspapers. For these commentators this figure represents a point beyond the narrow space of legitimate politics, a point that defines the usurpation by ‘thugs’ of the legitimate right of the students to voice their opposition to government policy. But one cannot also help thinking, despite this definition of the student demonstration as a legitimate expression of political freedom, that this legitimacy is displaced by the power of the image. The iconic representative of ‘mob rule’ comes to stand-in-for and in-the-representational-way-of the political agenda of the students. The democratic concerns of the students are left to mere words and other less powerful images on the inside pages of the newspapers. Though even here there are instances of slippage between the ‘violence’ of a few of the demonstrators and the rest of the demonstration, such as the heading in a large bold font across two inside pages of the Daily Mail that read ‘Just 225 police to hold back 50,000’, as if everyone on the demonstration, including myself, was trying to get into Millbank Tower.

Perhaps what is revealed here is not so much the ‘hijacking’ of legitimate protest, as the Mail defined the events on its front-page, but a sense of the intolerance for even lawful dissent when it seeks to re-adjust standard relations between the represented and their representatives. Perhaps it is not the figure kicking in the window that is a threat to the given order, but rather the peaceful but angry political agents who took to the streets to voice their dissent without resorting to the destruction of property. Or more precisely, perhaps it is the potential of these political agents to become something else, to grow and develop into a popular movement that is the real threat; a threat that might be contained at least in the realm of representation, if not within the field of the political, by invoking the threatening symbolism of ‘King Mob’. The press seek dramatic images and the image of the destructive demonstrator is certainly that. This is why the image graced the front-pages of a broad spectrum of newspapers, whether they empathised with the students or not. These different newspapers might have verbally framed the image in different ways and intended different things by reproducing it. But we are discussing effects more than intentions here. Some newspaper editors might have intended to de-legitimise the demonstration, others might not. Nevertheless the effect of the replication of the image across the press has created an icon that summarises the demonstration in terms of only one of its aspects.

Yet the other aspects of the demonstrations cannot and will not be contained. They are there in the press in the form of other kinds of commentary, but also in the front-page image itself. The violence presented in this image might be verbally framed in elements of the press through the use of words like ‘mob’ and ‘thugs’, but the very power of the image to seemingly dominate the representational space within which the student demonstration can be understood is also something that might exceed such framings and symbolise the anger created by the gap between the represented and their representatives. In this sense the image of the violent demonstrator might not so simply be the enemy of the student cause and the tool of those who oppose it. Instead this image might be taken as a symbol of anger and violence that is generated when those who are meant to be representatives no longer even pretend to represent those who they seek to govern. In this sense the violence depicted in the image might come to stand simply as a reaction to the greater, but less visible, violence that will be caused by the policies being established by the current British government. This is the kind of violence that Slavoj Zizek has identified as ‘systemic’ violence: ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.’ (Slavoj Zizek, Violence, Profile, 2008) Thus the image might be taken to represent not mindless hatred that must be opposed if society is to be sustained, but rather an anger that needs to be understood as thoughtful and as something that needs to be channelled into a progressive politics that seeks to preserve and enhance those aspects of the social contract that our present leaders seem bent on wrecking.

The most recent student demonstrations on Wednesday 24 November have given us another image. This time the image shows us demonstrators in London venting their anger upon a police van curiously abandoned in the path of the demonstration.

Student demonstrators attack police van, London, 24 November 2010

For those with a conspiratorial bent, it might seem that the police left the van there on purpose as an irresistible target in the hope that the demonstrators would provide a scene for the media that could be used to de-legitimise the student cause and give cause for heavy handed policing. If this is true, the police were engaging in a crude form of image-generation that depended on the students adding in the final element of the picture. However, it seems that the image fails in terms of this intention, for the anger that it represents will exceed the moral panic it is meant to enable. This anger will grow as the cuts bite in different areas of British society. It is an anger that will not be contained nor know its place. Nor will it accept being represented by those who would want to send it out to sea as a means of preserving the official space of the democratic.


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