Opinion

The Performance Art of Congressional Protest

How do we analyze the frenetic outbursts at Wednesday’s Congressional hearings through the lens of aesthetic protest.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee (Screenshot via YouTube)

Lunacy is a special skill. Some call it politics. I call it performance.

On Wednesday, politicians and pundits exhibited a remarkably theatrical approach to derailing the Senate Intelligence, Senate Judiciary, and House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings in a combined attack that begs the question of how far we can take a cultural reading of today’s political discourse. For two diametrically opposed interest groups on the liberal-conservative spectrum, the performative aspects of protest on display was scandalously bipartisan.

Hints of pandemonium at the Capitol came from the much-anticipated liberal effort to stall Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Outside the room, activists dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tail bore witness. Inside, more than 70 protesters were arrested for yelling and disrupting the proceedings, making it the most confrontational SCOTUS hearing in recent memory.

Somewhere else in the building, conservatives mounted their own attacks on the Senate Intelligence and House Energy and Commerce meetings. Rightwing activist Laura Loomer filmed her interruption of the House committee’s interrogation of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey with her phone secured to a pink selfie-stick. As she began shouting, Congressman Billy Long (R-MO 7th District) summoned his certification as an auctioneer to overwhelm Loomer’s alt-right accusations with rapid patter that would be welcome at either an art or cattle auction.

Though stranger yet in this executive summary of congressional cockamamy is conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who appeared unannounced in the Senate halls during a break for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s questioning of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. (Google was also invited to testify before the committee but ultimately declined, leaving a noticeably vacant seat open during the hearings. Sandberg came before Congress to explain Facebook’s tardy and flawed response to evidence that foreign operatives had used social media to affect the 2016 presidential election.) With the grace of an inebriated penguin or deranged robot, Jones waved his arms around while spouting nonsense for a nearby camera livestreaming his antics: “Beep beep beep beep I’m a Russian bot beep beep beep beep.”

(The InfoWars host has been on a tirade against Silicon Valley ever since his site’s content was removed from Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify in early August for violating the companies’ hate speech policies. One week later, other social media websites like Vimeo, Pinterest, MailChimp, and LinkedIn removed Jones’ content. And just one day after his performance at the Senate, Twitter finally banned the shock jock.)

And just as Senator Marco Rubio began answering questions from a crowd of reporters outside the hearing room, Jones approached the Florida Republican like a mosquito drawn to fresh blood. Lobbing insults at Rubio like “fratboy” and “snake,” Jones went so far to tap the conservative senator on the shoulder before being swatted away by security.

Although Rubio initially feigned ignorance about Jones’ identity, he quickly dropped the act and turned sour. The InfoWars host told the senator that he wanted to be arrested. Rubio responded: “You’re not going to get arrested, man. You’re not going to get arrested; I’ll take care of you myself.”

Why do we enjoy watching the political fireworks on Capitol Hill, know that their smoldering embers will likely fall back to Earth and consume all in flames? Why, in other words, do we entertain ourselves with the impetuous personalities of Washington when we know its bad for democracy?

English has no single word to describe the phenomenon. The German word schadenfreude gets close, but it more specifically describes the acquiring of pleasure from someone else’s pain; our political rancor is a communal heartache. Rather, I think that the performative aspects of politics in the age of Trump indulges in the death drive — a seduction of destruction.

Coincidentally, the earliest iterations of performance art flirted with nihilism. Dadaism, for example, flirted with the anarchic meaninglessness of language in the early-20th century. Working in 1916, German writer Hugo Ball aimed his pen at World War I’s fervent nationalist rhetoric. Performing at the Cabaret Voltaire that same year, he recited a poem of pure gibberish that began: “gadji beri bimba / glandridi lauli lonni cadori.” Another Cabaret Voltaire performer, Romanian artist Tristan Tzara, described its nightly shows as “explosions of elective imbecility.”

Through his own deranged methods and for his own insidious goals, is Jones not also attempting to demonstrate elective imbecility by harassing Rubio? But whereas the Dadaists disassembled rhetoric to enervate the war machine of nationalism, Jones uses the same tactic to build it up.  Or perhaps a better analogy would be to Futurism’s performance tradition, which scholar Rosalee Goldberg claims launched the genre. Known today for their fascistic sympathies, the Italian Futurists developed a rowdy theatrical tradition of declamation and noisy musical accompaniment. By spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation online, Jones creates his own stultifying din.

Truthfully, Trump era’s destruction of language to pure political babble has no better mascot than Jones. His performance at the Senate confirms the buffoonery and violent infighting that now simmers within the American Republic’s heart. Critics like The New Yorker‘s Masha Green are right to openly question where civil discourse will be after the president’s tenure ends. “How will we reclaim simple and essential words?” she writes. “Most important, how will we restart a political conversation?”

But it’s an open question whether or not our current political ecosystem requires a hard restart. Further, it’s difficult to task performative modes of rhetoric and protest with solving all the world’s ills. We should be under no such illusions that aesthetic actions have a definitive relationship with political change. The path is far more winding. Even trying to apply the techniques of performance to political rhetoric, as I am here, will likely fail to divulge a clearer road to a better future.

In recent years, though, artists and entertainers have used comedy as a tool of rhetorical deescalation. Queer performance artists are particularly adept at using humor to cut through the misery. Dynasty Handbag, for example, laughed through the pain of Donal Trump’s 2016 presidential election in a YouTube makeup tutorial. As she shellacks her face with smeared eyeliner and growls about death and destruction, it’s clear to the audience that such histrionics are understandable but perhaps unproductive in solving our current political crisis.

Likewise, liberal protesters have deployed satire as a defensive tactic across the globe. Not only have activists trolled conservatives in Washington dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, but others across the globe have counter-demonstrated against white supremacists and Neo-Nazis dressed as clowns. (It’s a particularly popular approach in Scandinavia.) However, whether or not such strategies are an effective political tool is debatable. For example, Sweden Democrats — the country’s far-right party with an anti-immigrant stance and Neo-Nazi roots — is actually poised for historical gains in their upcoming general election.

Digging one’s heels into the ground. It’s a good cliché for describing the entrenched, polarizing nature of today’s political discourse, and it also reminds me of how performance artists render suffering in their work. After all, Marina Abramović has been digging her heels into knives for years. How much beating can a body take? If much of Abramović’s work is about showing the body’s stamina in the midst of violence, then other performance artists like Emma Sulkowicz use performance to show the body’s vulnerability, a history of violence that’s already taken place.

In 1965, critic Martin Esslin noted that the Theatre of the Absurd existed as a social tonic. Derived from existential philosophy and Albert Camus’ take on the toils of Sisyphus, the Theatre of the Absurd was an attempt by artists to attack comforting political and religious orthodoxies. “The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful,” Esslin writes. “But it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief.

One wonders about the stamina and vulnerability of our own democratic institutions through such a lens, in such a time as ours.

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