Millions of marchers, worldwide, jammed streets and transit routes. In Los Angeles, the mood was jubilant and festive, with a family outing atmosphere. We waited for two and a half hours on the Metro platform, cheering one jammed train after another. Placards flat against the windows proclaimed every possible version of equal rights, reproductive choice, attention to the earth, and the need for health care. Solidarity was assumed, and spontaneous conversation broke out everywhere.
The demographics were particularly encouraging as families with children and young women and men joined the ranks of the older generation. The pink pussy hats were everywhere, in thick ribbed knit and fuzzy fabrics. Sunshine streamed through freshly washed air, and as traffic passed below the elevated station, cars honked and people clapped and shouted in unison. Energy and lightness prevailed.
Once into the crammed cars in close proximity to the other marchers, we overheard all kinds of conversations. A community optimist, organizing transition programs to reorient fossil fuel users and consumers to multiple changes in their lifestyle, offered insights to the woman holding on next to her, two strangers gripping the pole just inches apart. She promoted the arts and crafts, learning to sew, recycle, promoted a patchwork of gardens, water reuse, urban renewal, all as approaches to radicalization. Her utopianism was evident. The sense that control over these many small choices amounted to something of consequence had a Peter-Rabbit-in-the-garden-managing-the-lettuce feel to it, as if the threats beyond the carrot patch were not existential or of enormity in scale.
The management of crowds is a through-line of urban history, from the design of sight-lines for processions to the Acropolis to Hausmann’s famous restructuring of the Paris boulevards in the 19th century.”
This husbandry of resources domesticates the struggle, brings it home to the level of family and community, but does it address the sinister conditions in which we live? A pair of young mothers, both squeezed into the same seat with their children, gradually shift from unease at proximity to this exchange of ideas and information. What school? What neighborhood? The differences of class position calibrated instantly. The woman with the wriggling daughter in dirty sweat pants struggles to keep the playing field level against her neatly turned-out seatmate who has come prepared with snacks she offers to the other’s child. Equipped for the family-friendly revolution, well-accessorized from the home larder, packets of whole grain stop-gap measures against inevitable delays along the route.
On my other side, an extended family, grandmother, in-laws, handsome husband and glamorous brother-in-law, all packed together. The mother, her in-line dental work visible just as a tiny halo above her teeth, explains to the daughter that she among all of the children was the one ready, interested, concerned, engaged enough to come. The child is being rewarded for paying attention to the election, her status in the family elevated. Cosmetically perfected, the mother wears expensive athletic clothes all carefully coordinated with her skin tones and shiny brunette pony tail.
Professionals, academics, the well-fed, well-educated, well-groomed—this is the Westside of LA heading east. These are families whose garages are well-stocked with equipment for every activity, including today’s outing. Another woman on the train says we have to train ourselves to be healthy, take charge of our lives, espousing survivalist rhetoric as progressive. Later, a retirement aged woman shares information about emigration to Portugal, requirements for health care coverage and documentation of income while another family, with its pretty transgendered teens, tries to figure out what restaurant in Santa Monica to go to for dinner, given vegetarian and vegan preferences.
It becomes clear that the inadequacy of public transportation will ultimately mitigate against large-scale civic demonstrations, at least in Los Angeles.”
Moving east, the bottlenecks do not abate. Crowds at station platforms continue to teem, attempt entry into packed trains and are mostly left standing in terminal wait. It becomes clear that the inadequacy of public transportation will ultimately mitigate against large-scale civic demonstrations, at least in Los Angeles. The Metro staff were harried, struggling with the sheer enormity of their task, yet their sympathies were clearly aligned with the marchers and the objectives of the day. But flows of people on this scale, should this become the new normal, will surely test their patience, as well as ours, and will equally test the limits of both infrastructure and the noble spirit of human forbearance.
The political implications of city planning are suddenly apparent. The management of crowds is a through-line of urban history, from the design of sight-lines for processions to the Acropolis to Hausmann’s famous restructuring of the Paris boulevards in the 19th century. His designs widened the avenues for easy movement of the army, took out the old medieval streets which could easily be barricaded so the citoyens could tear up their cobblestones and launch them as weapons against the troops. By contrast, in Los Angeles, the limiting capacities in mass transit slows the crowd’s movement to a trickle, creating another, albeit less sinister, kind of urban management. Like so many things we take for granted, infrastructure only exposes its ideologies under pressure of a crisis.
Still, the excitement is palpable and the energy of the day is exuberantly positive. The route to downtown is jammed with cheering participants, waving through the glass from their platforms as we pass. The arrival station is a mob scene, confusion everywhere, and all the gates are open free of charge. The city is all in synch with itself, even if the confusion of motion makes it hard to navigate. We pour into the streets, among the cheering, milling crowds.
The available excesses mask their enormity through habit. This abundance is all-too familiar, if not entirely normal, so much so that we do not see its scale, or costs, or connection to the day’s events.”
Everywhere there are people with signs, in costumes, on parade. Young, very pretty women, dressed to call attention to themselves, proclaim their rights. One performance artist in a sculpturally stunning blue dress drops rose petals in an act of mourning. Others dressed as Suffragettes lean gently into each other, their delicate complexions and elegant antique clothing swaying in unison. A cancer survivor bares her scars. A beautiful child poses with her hand-drawn sign. An excuse for spectacle of every kind. “Viva la Vulva!” “Old White Guy Against Trump!” “Pussies Grab Back!” and “Girls Just Want to have FUN-damental Rights.” The street performances are all Instagram ready, staged to be snapped and posted. Creative, clever, assertive, smart, the slogans are rendered in red and pink, in glitter and silver, and everywhere the streets are filled with chanting, dancing, speaking. The mood is more like a Be-In than a political event. A sense of permission permeates everything, and the sheer size of the crowd creates energy that is contagious. The open exchanges are everywhere—glances, comments, remarks. The flow of social currency is remarkable. We wander with an errant sense of some direction, seeking the heart of action. In Pershing Square the stage and signs are mounted in vivid color, but the stage is empty when we arrive. Our transport delays have made us late. We are in the wash of the after-party.
The crowd has moved on, into the surging waves near City Hall, where drums play and people sit on the bleacher-like stairs sharing stories and pamphlets. Streets are closed everywhere, right and left, north and south. Trash cans are overflowing with coffee cups and cast off paraphernalia of the march. In the cafes and restaurants, people pause for refreshment, plates piled with food. The restaurants serve organic greens with hunks of chicken, tuna, steak in portions big enough to feed a family.
…a non-directed force, a randomized intention, a policy of inconsistency that makes resistance impossible because no systematic agenda organizes its approach. The concept aptly aligns with Trump’s behavior, which has no systematic rationale, no reason, no purpose except distraction.”
The available excesses mask their enormity through habit. This abundance is all-too familiar, if not entirely normal, so much so that we do not see its scale, or costs, or connection to the day’s events. Exhaustion sets in after a few hours. The skills or even endurance for resistance are undeveloped. The lines for the rows of red porta-potties stretch two dozen deep. The restrooms in restaurants have lines longer than those for food, yet a festive atmosphere prevails.
Along the bottom of the parade route, the organized agencies of activism have booths and tables covering every zone of the spectrum—LGBT, immigration, the environment, health care. This outpouring of spirit, goodwill, communal support, civic awareness, has to matter. It has to.
And so the activities unfold in full innocent belief in their capacity to register resistance. “We stopped a war,” a dog-walker neighbor said one morning. But in those days, the clash of values was within a shared understanding of reality. Now? Alternative facts create parallel universes. The playing fields are not level because they exist in different dimensions, alternate realities.
All the while, weaving through the participation and observation of the day’s sights and scenes, the image of Vladislav Surtov, the policy advisor for Putin, filters every event into another key. Surtov, the entrepreneurial spin-doctor with his avant-garde theater background, orchestrates rhetorical interventions in the real, making statements that become conditions. Corner the news, make a spectacle of distraction, brand a new identity for a party, terrain, geography and it becomes so. Manufacture a past, a history and a justification, and then report on its effects. We are dealing with a whole different form of political manipulation, a non-linear approach to war, to the social engineering of events and their production. This is not the era of simulacra. Those were conditions of image-events disconnected from any referent in the real. That was the Gulf War era and the time of covering the absence of reality with images taken like signs for wonders.
Steadiness and endurance, tactics to repel the sleight of mind and rhetoric of hyper-normalized distraction, will be essential. The antidote to the forces of destruction will need to combine the commitment to resistance, steady, solid, unified, massive…”
Now the fictions become real, too frighteningly so, and their capacity to be acted has genuine results. The nihilistic disregard for anything but outcomes creates a non-stop spectacle of distraction. That term, “non-linear war,” came from Adam Curtis’s 2016 documentary HyperNormalization. He used it to characterize Surtov and Putin’s approach in Syria as a non-directed force, a randomized intention, a policy of inconsistency that makes resistance impossible because no systematic agenda organizes its approach. The concept aptly aligns with Trump’s behavior, which has no systematic rationale, no reason, no purpose except distraction. Is this “non-linear politics” carried out to provide a smoke screen behind which the wanton demolition of government can occur? In whose interests this destruction of regulations, tariffs, trade, safety nets, entitlements, and protections under law?
The innocence of marching is premised on an instrumental approach to political action, to the belief that organized resistance is effective and possible, and that pressure brought to bear will create outcomes. This is a mechanistic model of politics and activism, and it is essential. It must be pursued. In addition, we must figure ways to come to terms with the non-linear and indeterminate conditions of the current tactics developed on an alternative premise. Surtov is an avant-gardist. His techniques of disturbance and intervention in the normative order are taken directly from the lineage of Living Theater and Fluxus, from the Futurist manifestos and Dada nonsense texts. The call for sublation of life into art, of the permeation of the lived with the values of an imaginative aesthetic, did not come with a guarantee of the value system to which they were attached.
When André Breton invoked Jacques Vaché as his inspiration for Surrealism, citing Vaché’s call to enter a crowd and fire at random, it was in an era when such an action was unthinkable, and thus, remarkable. It would/could register as a nihilistic act of wanton violence in opposition to the order of bourgeois culture. Now? That question was answered long ago, and the evidence of changed conditions are everywhere apparent in daily news and random killings. But the trajectory of the avant-garde, with its disruptions of the normative, its embrace of radical transformation, faith in the power of imagination, did not have an inevitable outcome as the instrument of Surtov’s dark vision—any more than the Soviet experiment had to devolve into Stalinist totalitarianism. These, too, are non-linear and unpredictable outcomes.
Images from all over the world showed seas of pink hats and signs, women, children, men, crowded into streets everywhere. The immediate denial of these facts, as reactive and predictable as Newtonian social mechanics could make it, also appeared from the White House spokesperson.”
But forces let loose in the cultural universe are not able to be kept to heel. The avant-gardist impulse, now turned into a tool of non-instrumental operations able to deploy meme-streams at the exponential snowballing speeds of networked media, is being harnessed for destruction at the highest level of global politics. The sheer perversity of this is mind-boggling, the outcomes are terrifying.
As the horror show unfolds, the accounts by which we process its particulars, its momentum, and our construction of the role we play within it, will alter constantly. Shape-shifting rhetoric run rampant undermines any field on which activist traction can take hold, unless the tactics of affective engagement can be mounted as systematically as they are needed, which will be daily, but also, of long duration.
Steadiness and endurance, tactics to repel the sleight of mind and rhetoric of hyper-normalized distraction, will be essential. The antidote to the forces of destruction will need to combine the commitment to resistance, steady, solid, unified, massive, and the invention of imaginative arts of perturbation.
Don’t compose. Juxtapose. These tenets of the compositional practice of Gertrude Stein, a woman who understood the force of non-linear production and the power of rupturing syntactic normativity, have their literary lineages and also their popular effects on us as readers. Our mediated lives are all comprised of pastiche and collage. One of the founding moments of avant-gardism was Tristan Tzara’s recipe for making a poem by drawing random strips of a newspaper article from a hat. This now comes full circle, and the poetic practice infuses the news so profoundly that our skills as readers have long-ago habituated us to reading across the multiple strains of feeds and columns.
The social contract only holds when there is accountability on both sides. The tasks ahead will be to keep this foremost when the enthusiasm for a festive outing pales, when difficulties squeeze time and resources, when violence against others induces fear for oneself, when state initiated terror suspends the terms of the Constitution.”
Coming back from the March, I opened the front page of the New York Times online. Images from all over the world showed seas of pink hats and signs, women, children, men, crowded into streets everywhere. The immediate denial of these facts, as reactive and predictable as Newtonian social mechanics could make it, also appeared from the White House spokesperson. But lower down, in another few column inches of precious screen real estate, the headline that half of the primate species on earth are threatened with extinction. It poses a poignant, powerful juxtaposition to the waves of the afternoon’s optimism. Who do we think we are? The self-perception of human exceptionalism is no guarantee of immunity against ecological disaster.
The social contract only holds when there is accountability on both sides. The tasks ahead will be to keep this foremost when the enthusiasm for a festive outing pales, when difficulties squeeze time and resources, when violence against others induces fear for oneself, when state initiated terror suspends the terms of the Constitution. Accountability has a direct, instrumental dimension that requires mechanistic activism as well as a fantasmatic charge to affective action. The necessities of marching call for an equal commitment to augmentation of our theoretical understanding of the basis on which action and activism are possible.
What is necessary is not always sufficient. We need to understand what the “more” is that is required in opposing the tactics in play and their powerful influences. The era of non-linear aesthetics—and politics—is upon us. What are the terms we need to come to augment our own innocence in the face of darker forces playing by rules ungoverned by the negotiated terms of an older paradigm of political realities?
Johanna Drucker is an artist and writer who lives in Los Angeles.