LATE LAST OCTOBER, three days after a white nationalist killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I was arrested along with 13 other Jews as we blocked the doors to the Metropolitan Republican Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Our protest had a single demand: that the GOP renounce white nationalism in their party, of the brand that had animated the Pittsburgh shooter.
In the police van, our hands zip-cuffed behind our backs, we immediately began to debrief and critique. A woman in her late 60s, a generation older than the rest of us and a seasoned activist (she wore laceless boots, anticipating the shoelace confiscation awaiting us at the precinct), expressed confusion about our timing: it hadn’t seemed like anyone was actually inside the building during our protest. Our comrades sitting directly against its doors had made a show of pounding them down at appointed times in the script, miming the desire to be let inside. But if a confrontation was really what we wanted, she asked, why didn’t we show up later, perhaps during one of the club’s events?
One of the younger organizers chimed in, explaining that the hour had been chosen to meet the press deadlines, get the arrests wrapped up in time for the whole event to make it on the nightly news. Indeed, when we arrived at the club, the cameras were already there, hungry for more Tree of Life–related content. We performed instrumentalized versions of our sacred mourning rituals under their enormous cycloptic black eyes.
And what about the script for the action? the woman asked. Why so repetitive, so flat? Another young organizer explained that it had been written with the livestream in mind, that people tend to tune in for an average of only 30 seconds, so simplicity and repetition are key. The speechifying is mostly for them, she said. We are always aiming to feed these distracted viewers The Point.
I could feel the tension in the van as the older activist considered this strategy. Rest assured, the young activists explained, this was all part of the intention: we were controlling the narrative and inspiring others to get involved.
It should be said—though we didn’t yet know it in the police van—that in terms of proliferating our message, the protest was a success. In addition to the nightly news, the story was picked up in nearly two dozen venues, including Gothamist, Vice, and Ha’aretz. But in the days following the action, I couldn’t stop thinking about a line towards the end of an article that ran in the New York Daily News: “After the demonstration was over, a man unlocked the Metropolitan Republican Club and went inside. ‘I don’t even know what they’re protesting,’ he said.”
This comment stung precisely because it struck me as genuine. Our protest had not troubled our targets in the least; its message hadn’t even reached them. Even if there was someone in the building, it likely wasn’t anyone capable of offering a grand renunciation (which we didn’t want anyway, despite it being our one demand; the arrest and ensuing coverage was the actual goal). Nor would the slight disruption of some lone custodian’s day result in any real disruption in the larger machine. This target was, quite simply, a symbolic one. What was presented as “direct action” was, in fact, theater, and not particularly inspired theater at that. Nowhere did this feel more true than in the dynamics of the arrests themselves: the obliging, friendly nature of the police in dealing with a bunch of white, middle- and upper-class Jews. (When I complained of reduced circulation in my cuffs, they cut them off and put the next pair on looser.)
The rationale provided by the younger activists to the older one is so familiar to me, so embedded in the conventional wisdom of so many groups organizing today, that I have almost ceased to question it. It is the idea that these protests need not be for us, the protesters, nor are they actually aimed at the “enemy,” the offending person or institution. They are aimed at the cameras, at the internet, at the public. They are based on the assumption that shoring up support in the court of public opinion is the most effective means of building power, and that, to this end, one can reasonably substitute symbolic action (which targets the public) for truly disruptive action (which targets “the enemy,” or builds alternatives to the systems that give them power). This logic locates the most valuable end goal of an act of protest in its consumable, shareable image, conflating a protest’s impact with its optics. Following this thinking to its extreme, as long as a protest’s image went viral, it would be just as well if the protest itself didn’t actually occur, but was performed instead on a large and lifelike set.
My suspicion of this mode of thinking is perhaps already plain. Yet I can’t deny that in our digital era the effect of any protest may very well be entwined with its image. And if we accept, at least provisionally, that the image of protest is of supreme importance—that the right optics, properly leveraged, can have an exponential effect—then we should be evaluating both event and image on aesthetic terms; we should be looking at protest as an art form.
During those six mind-numbing hours in the holding cell following our arrest, as I tried to parse why my experience of our action had felt so hollow, a piece of criticism I read in art school floated back to me. In 1961, art critic and Marxist son of the Bronx Clement Greenberg published his landmark essay “Modernist Painting,” in which he argued that in order for any art form to come into full custody of its powers, it had to know itself formally, “to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.” This meant that each art had to figure out what it could do that nothing else could, to “eliminate from [its] specific effects . . . every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art.” By eliminating these contaminating influences—eliminating from painting, for instance, trompe l’oeil, which encroached on the essential three-dimensionality of sculpture, or photorealism, which duplicated the aims of photography—each art would thus “be rendered ‘pure,’ and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence.”
It occurred to me that my experience of our action as “theater”—the intrusion of the latter form on the former—was at the root of my post-action malaise, my sense of abiding impotence. That we made bad theater—more akin to advertising, really, in its eagerness to make a sale—didn’t help, but even good theater, viewed through Greenberg’s lens, would seemingly be an unwelcome encroachment on political action in its purest form.
It should be said here that I am not taking issue with theater’s political potential. On the contrary, I believe that art of all kinds has an important role to play in shifting injustice embedded in culture. But, as I have argued before in these pages, I believe “political art” is best when it chooses “art” over “politics”—when it keeps the integrity of its form intact, and privileges the demands of beauty over those of justice. That which fails to choose will likely fail broadly, either as art or activism. I made this assertion primarily to protect art, to recognize and elevate its status as a powerful mechanism for long-term change, running parallel to activism despite having different concerns. But I am increasingly wondering if perhaps this distinction does not also protect protest.
To wit, what could be a less desirable form for protest to emulate than theater? A medium where nothing happening onstage is strictly real. Where the audience is totally immobilized, and the likeliest immediate result is an after-the-fact, if spirited discussion on the car ride home from the performance, or a write-up in the press, siloed in its assigned section. In turning ourselves into actors and removing our “enemies” from the arena altogether, we have reinforced the divide of the proscenium, effectively distancing ourselves from our audience, those very people whom, in the context of protest, we seek to engage. In our quest to transfix the internet’s roving eye, to win “hearts and minds,” we have substituted the playacting of resistance for the actual demonstration of power—a significant degradation of form. Because while we can quibble over what constitutes the essence of painting, power will forever be the essence of protest. And real power is very hard to simulate.
The confusion of these forms is understandable: the theatrical nature of nonviolent direct action is encoded in its DNA. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. described it this way: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored” (emphasis mine). The success of ACT UP, one of history’s most disruptive and successful direct action groups, owes much to the performers and theater-makers in its ranks, people who understood how drama could be used to command attention, to become unignorable. And yet the drama of these actions—of civil rights–era bus boycotts, for instance, or AIDS crisis–era political funerals—always served to reveal, rather than to manipulate, the nature of the current reality. The water cannons and police dogs and taunting segregationists were real. Those were real coffined bodies in the ACT UP funeral processions, real ashes on the White House lawn. And indeed, people living with AIDS really shut down the FDA; black riders really organized mass carpools, which kept people off city buses for more than a year.
But somewhere, in our quest for the consummate protest image, this elemental focus on reality has been lost in favor of flimsy, manufactured drama. Perhaps no one has adjusted to this tactic more cannily than the police, who now employ strategies of “negotiated management” to minimize direct conflict with “well-behaved” protesters and to avoid making arrests—in effect, squashing the potency of an action by denying the photo op.
This severed relationship to reality has political consequences, and here, too, aesthetics can serve as a useful framework. Susan Buck-Morss, in her essay “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics” (itself a parsing of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), reminds us that the word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthitikos, meaning “perceptive by feeling.” Its “original field,” she writes, is “not art but reality—corporeal, material nature.” Writing in 1992, even before the crushing ubiquity of the internet, she traces a process by which our modern condition of sensory overload—akin to post-traumatic stress—has inverted the role of our synaesthetic system, made a “narcotic” of reality itself. The goal of the system perversely becomes “to numb the organism, to deaden the senses, to repress memory: the cognitive system of synaesthetics has become, rather, one of anaesthetics.”
Helped by greater and greater technological advancements, she argues, reality has been replaced with totalizing aesthetic experiences she identifies as phantasmagoria—from “shopping malls, theme parks, and video arcades” to “the totally controlled environments of airplanes” to “the phenomenon of the ‘tourist bubble’ (where the traveler’s ‘experiences’ are all monitored and controlled in advance)” to the “visual phantasmagoria of advertising.” It’s easy to see our current digital fascination as an extension of these processes. “Bombarded with fragmentary impressions,” she writes, we “see too much—and register nothing.” She stresses that this “altered consciousness” driven by “sensory distraction” is not just an individual experience, but a collective one: “Everyone sees the same altered world, experiences the same total environment. As a result . . . the phantasmagoria assumes the position of objective fact . . . Sensory addiction to a compensatory reality becomes a means of social control.”
It is not just that the optics of protest have taken primacy at the expense of other, more materialist concerns. It’s also that this decision to prioritize the image chooses the screen of phantasmagoria over reality—and is therefore destined to numb rather than activate. As fascism is rooted in the corruption of our synaesthetic system, the “antidote,” according to Buck-Morss, lies in the rehabilitation of aesthetics, in the “restor[ation of] the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation.” To focus on the production of images—to feed the phantasmagoria—perverts the action from the start, producing subpar aesthetics both in Greenberg’s sense, which demands formal integrity, and in Buck-Morss’s, which demands engagement with reality.
In this age of clickable infotainment, this age of Trump and Twitter, when real life has been thoroughly confused with social media, lowering our literacy in reality and moving our attention online, we do ourselves no favors indulging the confusion of performance and power. I cannot help but wonder if our calculated, curated, professionally photographed risk-taking keeps the gaze of our intended targets—the public—trained on shadow puppets, while the real targets—our enemies—gallivant in the light of day. My fear is that we are unwittingly dulling our knives, bridling the transformational potential of our movements, in the age of late capitalism and climate change, when nothing short of revolution can save us.
THE PROBLEM WITH PHANTASMAGORIA is that there seems to be no way out. It’s easy to say what isn’t breaking through and thornier to identify what might. But if we agree that engaging reality is central to our ability to exercise real power, and that this is fundamentally dependent on a kind of synaesthetic vulnerability, then perhaps a clue lies in how participation in the act of protest makes us feel.
This past January marked two years since the airport protests, a rapid response to Trump’s Muslim ban, beginning at JFK airport in New York City and immediately spreading to airports around the country. The sweeping commemoration on activist social media was notable, especially considering that a version of the ban remains in place, upheld last summer by the Supreme Court. It stands to reason that the reflective celebration was about something else—not a policy victory, but rather a triumph of feeling, and one with instructive potential.
I remember that day, the luggageless crowds on the AirTrain on the way to the terminal, vibrating with fear and determination, the dawning recognition that something was happening. We talked to each other. A young Indian American software engineer who showed up alone told me he’d never done anything like this, had never protested anything, but he felt he had to be there.
We congregated in the terminals and outside them. I remember the giddiness, the enduring jolt of seeing this symbol of our premium American freedom of movement—the airport’s broad thoroughfares and delineated pedestrian routes—clogged completely. I remember the warmth of the crowd in the winter chill. The rolling, roiling waves of sound echoing off the parking structures behind us, themselves packed with layers of cheering people, reminiscent of fans at a soccer match, down to the requisite edge of menace, increasing with the setting of the sun. In addition to the usual suspects, there were children there, and older people—I even noticed a few Hasidim—but this did nothing to suggest that the space was strictly safe. The police tried to hold protesters at the entrance to the AirTrains—in effect, putting the kettle over a flame. The crowd boiled. The governor ordered that the protesters be let through. At the terminal, the police erected metal barricades on both sides of the airport road. Across from me, a blonde woman in her late 30s with the look of a math teacher wept openly as she chanted the slogans of the day, pushing on the barricades as if she didn’t even know she was doing it. I realized I was doing it, too, that soon the crowd would swell over these barricades and we would take the road. I’ll never forget the unmistakable look on the faces of the police: helpless, awed, afraid. It was not inconceivable that we might storm the tarmac, start an occupation, formulate demands, shut down every airport in the country, trigger a general strike—it was not inconceivable that this was the beginning of something else, the revelation of some other way of communicating with the powers that be, some suddenly obvious method of shifting the balance entirely in our favor.
Of course, this did not happen—the courts issued a stay on the ban, the detainees trickled out one by one, their emotional family reunions played out in front of ecstatic, pacified crowds—but it might have. And that embodied feeling of possibility is central to the aesthetics of power. The airport protests did not need the right script, the right banners and signs; like the Israelites leaving Mitzrayim, there was no time to prepare, and many of the first to arrive showed up empty-handed. There was nothing performed, there was only what unfolded. There was nothing triangulated with an imagined audience; what happened was between the protester and the enemy, and it should be said that the protester enjoyed the disruption, and that the enemy—from the police, to the Trump administration, to Trump himself—did not. The enjoyment was not the “disinterested pleasure” (Buck-Morss) with which we watch even the most horrific events of the day on our multiple screens, but rather, the deep enjoyment of experiencing something, of being changed through contact with reality. This is perhaps protest’s greatest measure of success: that it creates participants who have tasted this feeling of possibility, and who now know the truth of their own power.
A result, meanwhile—a side effect—was a spectacle beyond that which could have been managed into existence: the image of our revered and ordered spaces of transit repurposed for unrest. The spectacle was a new image, unlike one we had ever seen before. Power creates its own expression, its own aesthetics.
The difficulty of breaking through the screen should not be understated. “In this situation of ‘crisis in perception,’” writes Buck-Morss, “it is no longer a question of educating the crude ear to hear music, but of giving it back hearing. It is no longer a question of training the eye to see beauty, but of restoring ‘perceptibility.’” Meaning that even with the right intentions and ingredients, some protests will inevitably be duds, and to try to head off that eventuality explicitly would only serve to depress the number of opportunities for disruption. As Greenberg eventually admits, to aim for purity is futile, and anyway, art—for our purposes, substitute “protest,” or better yet, “revolution”—“has never been carried on in any but a spontaneous and largely subliminal way . . . it has been altogether a question of practice, immanent to practice, and never a topic of theory.”
Still, as we stumble our way through the practice of disruption, why not keep the guiding principle of real power—of reality—in mind? Why not recognize “good optics” as one potential outcome of direct action—a tool to be leveraged in its wake, as opposed to the entirety of the toolbox? Why not act for ourselves and not an audience? Replace the careful orchestration of an image of confrontation with confrontation, plain and simple? Real power creates its own course, its own momentum. This should always be our aim. Not a better sign or a better script, but a tear in the fabric for people to step through.