Nicola Kirkham
printable version
image20.jpg image19.jpg image18.jpg image21.jpg image8.gif

In this presentation, I intend to talk a bit about the object of my research, the ways I approach this object conceptually, and how my approach differs from most of the literature in the “field” (to speak of a field is a slight euphemism as you shall see below, but I’ll continue to use it for lack of a more accurate one). I shall then try and tell you a bit about the methods I have chosen in order to analyse my object, and how the methodology depends on the theoretical construction of the object of my research.

My case study is a “day of protest, action and carnival”1 held in London’s Square Mile on June 18, 1999. Prior to J18 the London based group Reclaim the Streets had drawn people, popular pleasures and many issue-based political groups onto the streets to carnival protest events2. J18 was to be the largest event to follow the theme of carnival protest as introduced in the UK by Reclaim the Streets. Carnival protest has continued to develop within anti-globalization events, such as those in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2000. An estimated 10,000 people occupied London’s Square Mile, disrupting the arterial heartland of London’s choreographed “flows” of capital, communications, city workers, couriers, buses and rush hour traffic. The street parties, critical-mass bike ride, lock-in and sit-in performances, amongst other choices of intervention effected a pre-emptive urban choreography of riot police, intelligence services, transport managers, emergency services, city workers, and the media.
Today it isn’t clear how even well attended, clearly signified demonstrations – such as those against the war in Iraq – have made a difference, if at all. This would therefore seem to be a pertinent question to ask of the June 18, event. Was it a political success? Did it effect a change? Indeed such questions have framed the media’s either rampantly sceptical, relative silence or their rather confused responses to the anti-globalization movement; they ask, “What is this movement with no sign?”

Research towards my Ph.D. to date represents an attempt to take account of these practices in a different way. I have chosen to approach June 18, not as a representation of protest culture or as a discourse of resistance, but as an introduction to new possibilities in our way of thinking about urban social change and its conditions of emergence. It is my aim to take account of how such differences are introduced in the form of a politics. Following Nicholas Rose, I would argue a new politics involves the creative re-articulation of the existing cultural field – a small re-working of the spaces of action. My intention is to take account of this potential by systematically analysing these creative re-articulations as they arise out of an engagement in new forms of cultural production and political participation made possible by J18. I will then move on to relate this analysis to the wider debate taking place within the field of art theory and practice concerned with the question of the political potential of contemporary creative practices, specifically with the aesthetic modalities and technical composition of practices that seek to intervene in urban society.

The Sociologies

Let me point to a few of the ways in which this research diverges from existing literature in the field. Sociologies of new political movements account for the diverse forms they have taken in our recent past. They assess the form of collectivisation involved in specific solidarities, groups, and movements and to what extent such forms are disciplined, hierarchical or more situational, mobile and fluid, such as demonstrations, protest camps, or occupations. They look to how the object of contestation is formed, as the creation of a regulated system for example, or as in the case of HIV activists, the creative lack of such a system of regulation. Such studies seek to show how truth claims are made about the object of contestation, whether through biography, bearing witness, or alternative forms of knowledge as in the environmental movement. It shows how these truth statements are generated through the rhetoric of contestation and the mechanisms that support them, such as alternative networks and circulations of expertise, experience, and critical reflection as sources of validation. It also looks at how a movement’s end points are justified – whether health, equality, or freedom.

These studies provide a useful taxonomy of the origins and forms of political mobilization in terms that stress the multiple, heterogeneous and contingent conditions that give rise to them. Sociologies of new political movements narrate an historical succession of underlying unities of forms, devices, and techniques of protest and how, in being turned to account for new purposes by new movements, they stimulate inventive and innovative improvisations within existing moral, intellectual and practical techniques.3 Sociology incorporates invention within a regime of existing resources – cultural, ethical, political and aesthetic – that exist externally, transcend and out-live the subjects who use and create them. Sociology narrates a history of protest events4 as alternative public spheres and forums for the expression of resistant collective subjects and identities.

Sociology takes account of the way such events are cause and effect of invention. My concern is rather to investigate how contemporary protest events are the site of invention, such that they provide a kind of laboratory of possible alternative futures.

The central concern of the sociology of protest would seem to be the question of agency of subjects and collectivities. When analytic attention is devoted to agency, it is in terms of participation in an existing political movement.5 Political participation is equivalent to the structures that mediate participation; the structure, form, and organization of political movements. Thus, agency equates to participation in the mediating structure of the political movements that are then assessed for their compliance with or resistance to existing macro-structures of power. These macro-structures of power exist externally to subjects or collectivities as imposed limits. 6

The Power Issue
In the first instance, my research is concerned to counter this view of power as constraint and to account for the creativity of contestation without losing sight of the productivity of existing power/knowledge. Accordingly, we cannot assume that any forms, devices, or practices (our cultural resources as sociology claims) are a-priori resistant to or compliant with existing structures of power (such as dominant or state ideologies).7 Even as new forms of political engagement and cultural production refuse the coding, logics, programs, institutions, recuperations, and rationalisations, and perhaps the designation that they are a politics at all, they are always in effect a re-working of the spaces within which power is immanent and operative. This view of power, following Foucault8 and more recently Nicholas Rose is premised on the essential recognition of the freedom and capacity of individuals to act. Power is not about crushing this capacity for action but of understanding how it works and mobilizing and acting upon its forces, instrumentalizing them in order to shape actions, processes, and outcomes in desired directions. Such ways of thinking about power require that we abandon the binary divisions that have shaped our political thinking and theorizing: domination and emancipation; power and resistance; strategy and tactics.

          We must jettison the division between a logic that structures and territorializes “from above” according to           protocols that are not our own, and a more or less spontaneous anti-logic “from below” that expresses our           needs, desires and aspirations…our present has arisen as much from the logics of contestation as from any           imperatives of control 9

J18 is not an event of contestation between power and its other, but between diverse programs, logics, dreams, ideals, goals, codified, organized and rationalized to a greater or lesser extent. Contestation is (one of) the varied ways in which space can be opened to problematize experience, circulate new meanings and try out new actions. It is a space within which potentially free beings are capable of a creative an autonomous elaboration of their lives, the way they are or would like them to be. In this sense J18 is an example of people experimenting with the freedom at their disposal. The tools, practices and procedures which compose the event comprise a kind of fieldwork in the question of autonomy.

The Aesthetic Issue
The introduction of carnival forms of protest that made the event of J18 possible are examples of theory-in-practice; the critical-mass bike ride, sound systems, dancing, samba band, street performance, portable architectures, puppetry, masquerade, video-activism. Each is constitutive of a creative re-articulation of the existing cultural and political landscape. I propose to emphasise, at the level of analysis, the aesthetic modalities and technical compositions of these practices. I propose a kind of aesthetics of what Deleuze and Guattari term a “minor politics” or “minority politics.” This is really very tricky, not least because aesthetics can be rather pretentious, tending to transform its objects into something all too special. This sits uncomfortably with a politics of minor engagements concerned with the everyday not the transcendental, and which are pragmatic, experimental little shifts and divergences. Aesthetics however, would follow my theoretical conceptualisation of J18 in that it would neither be about identifying the agents of a radical politics – be they, classes, races or genders – nor about deciphering in terms of these fixed identities, whether J18 is an historical force of reaction or progression. It would allow for an examination of the creativity “which arises out of the situation of human beings engaged in particular relations of force and meaning and what is made out of the possibilities of that location.” 10

This version of the aesthetic is distinct from the recent claim within the social sciences to adopt an aesthetic approach. This, some have argued,11 reflects a more general aesthetic turn in contemporary culture that is taken to be representative of the essence of the society – namely its commodification. This is not an attempt to advocate an aestheticist sociology but a conscious decision to explore J18 in terms of the creativity that made it possible and as crucial to the question of its political potential. Creativity in this sense is not simply art but, following Foucault and to an extent Heidegger, it is the basic character of being as self-creating and created. It is to emphasize the ways in which we shape ourselves as free beings or, for Foucault, the creative generation of subjectivity. This is not to privilege aesthetics but to highlight the creative process necessary for ethical activity in any field, whether philosophy, science, psychology, political action, and everyday life, as well as painting, music, and sculpture.

To finish, it is hard not to link aestheticization with a process of distancing or indifference, as that which lends art its autonomy or that which providesthe event of carnival its time and space outside normal everyday realities. This I argue is not necessarily an ideological distancing from the social as Bourdieus' sociology of art would claim, nor is it, following Lacan, simply a postmodernist “bearing witness” to “the lack of reality” of reality. The exercise of disinterestedness is not the manifestation of something that already exists, rather it is an autonomy that has to be produced – it is the creation through hard labour of something new.12 The process of aestheticization as it relates to the demonstration is not therefore the negation of the social element - the labour involved in the creative process of its production. It is to recognise that this is its essential conditions of possibility.

1 RTS “Game over”, a golden agit-prop leaflet for June 18. The full text can be accessed at <>
2 From 1995 and leading up to J18 in 1999, 43 RTS carnival demonstration events are noted to have taken place in Britain. General information about Reclaim the Streets events is taken from their website at <>
3 Charles Tilly argues that these abilities, techniques and practices constitute “repertoires of contention” that are external, and pre-date and outlive the subjects who use them. This would not therefore explain how people choose or why they come to prefer certain forms of protest to others. Neither does it engage with the kinds of pleasure people take from such activities. (Tilly, 1995a; Tilly, 1995b)
4 There are no available figures as to the number of demonstrations that occur in the UK – needless to say the globe. Neither the MET nor Centrix, a think-tank for police and government strategy and tactics in relation to public order have any such figures. This in itself is a point to incorporate further into my research, but for the purposes of this presentation and to give you an idea of their number, I made a review of two of the main activist websites – Schnews and Indimedia event pages – which list a total of 34 protest events held in the UK in Septermber 2003.
5 Recently, analytical attention is devoted to the question of agency in terms of the productivity of identities of class, race, and gender as the origin of or limits to political mobilization (Beuchler, 1997; McAdam, 2001; Poletta, 2001; Tarrow, 1998).
6 (Diani, 1992; Guigni, 1999 ; Tarrow, 1998 ).
7 Resistance is, in this sense conceived of as an essence, as inherent in lived experience rather than in relations between things (Fiske, 1989; Fiske, 1994). There is no lived experience or practice that is inherently resistant – a busker might be singing the national anthem! Reclaim the streets parties are no more inherently political than Brechtian drama – that they may want it to be is the message, not the medium, and the medium is not the message. It is for this reason, in my view, that De Certeau never managed to escape what he calls the “scriptual economy” because he sees all pedestrians like pens, writing resistance as they wander the streets (DeCerteau, 1984).
8 (Foucault, 1995) (Foucault and Gordon, 1980).
9 quoted in (Rose, 1999c:281) see also (Rose, 1999a; Rose, 1999b)
10 (Rose, 1999c:281)
11 (Maffesoli, 1988; Maffesoli, 1996; Maffesoli, 1997)
12 (Osborne, 1997: 135)

Works Cited
Anonymous (1997) Reclaim the Streets, Do or Die, 6: 1-6.
Beuchler, S. and F. C. Jr, Eds. (1997) Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues, Mayfield, Mountain View, Ca.
DeCerteau, M. I. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA,
Diani, M. (1992) The Concept of Social Movement,The Sociological Review 40(1): 1-25.
Diani, M. and R. Eyerman, Eds. (1992) Studying Collective Action. Workshop on methodological Issues in the Study of Political Activism, Sage modern Politics Series. vol 30, Sage Publications.
Emirbayer, M. and A. Mische (1998) What is Agency? American Journal of Sociology 103.
Fiske, J. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture, Unwin Hyman, Cambridge, MA.
Fiske, J. (1994) Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis,
Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York, Vintage Books.
Foucault, M. and C. Gordon (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York, N.Y., Pantheon Books.
Guigni, M., et al., Eds. (1999) How Social Movements Matter. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Maffesoli, M. (1988) Jeux de Masques: Postmodern Tribalism. Design Issues 4(1-2): 141-51.
Maffesoli, M. (1996) Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society trans. D. Smith, Sage, London.
Maffesoli, M. (1997) The Return of Dionysus. Constructing the New Consumer Society, P. Sulkunen, J. Holmwood, H. Radner and G. Schulze, Macmillan, London.
McAdam, et al. (1996) Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge U.K.
McAdam, D., et al. (2001) Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge U.K.
Osborne, T. (1997) The Aesthetic Problematic, Economy and Society 26(1): 126-146.
Poletta, F. (1997) Culture and its Discontents: Recent Theorising on the Cultural Dimensions of Protest, Sociological Inquiry 67(4): 430-450.
Poletta, F. and J. Jasper (2001) Collective Identity and Social Movements, Annual Review of Sociology 27: 283-305.
Reclaim the Streets, Reflections on June 18 accessed from on January 15th 2003
Rose, N (1999a) ‘Governing Cities, governing citizens', in Isin, E (1999a)
(ed.) Rights to the City: Citizenship, Democracy and Cities in a Global Age,
Routledge, London
Rose, N (1999b) Governing Cities: notes on the spatialisation of virtue,
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 17 (6), pp.737-760
Rose, N (1999c) Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Tilly, C. (1995) Contentious Repertoires in Great Britain, 1758-1834, Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action. T. M. London, Duke University Press, North Carolina, : pp15-42
Tilly, C. (1995) Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances, Berkeley Journal of Sociology 38: 1-3