The student protest movement that rose to sudden visibility a month ago with a 50,000-strong march through central London, culminating in an occupation of the buildings on Millbank housing the Conservative Party HQ, has not only persisted but dramatically diversified. The next major day of action, ‘Day X’, took place across the country on the 24th of November and saw dozens of university occupations as well as the first example of large-scale police response, with police containing or kettling protestors (whose ranks now included thousands of teenagers) in freezing conditions on London’s Whitehall for over nine hours, forced to remain within police lines without knowing when crossing them will be possible. Day X2 was on the 30th of November, and this time protestors largely managed to avoid being kettled by splitting into groups and moving at high speed through London in the snow, getting as far east as Bank and as far west as Hyde Park Corner. Thursday’s Day X3 was in many ways a climax of the movement, coinciding with a vote in parliament on tripling the cap on tuition fees and ending with kettling and new heights of violence from both police and protestors. The vote was won by a relatively slim majority, but with further cuts to higher education and to the public sector in general to follow in the coming months the groups and networks that swiftly emerged in the past month have vowed to continue the fight.
I was out demonstrating on each of these occasions, and on Day X3 I was caught in a police kettle that enclosed 2-3000 protestors in London's Parliament Square. Upon attempting to leave at around 3pm, I was caught in a crowd that was battling against police lines and subsequently charged by police on horseback. At this point Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old philosophy student, was struck in the head by a police baton, causing bleeding in his brain that required emergency brain surgery that evening. When this struggle died down, we waited in Parliament Square for five hours, with no more food or water than we’d thought to bring, and no more warmth than from the dodgy smoke of makeshift fires. After sunset many protestors, their anger exacerbated by being kettled, turned on the surrounding government buildings, causing riot police to further enclose us and using batons to do so once more. Just after Big Ben struck 9pm, the police surged forward with a roar, shepherding us onto Westminster Bridge. We assumed – and police officers had implied – that we were finally walking to our freedom, but instead we were kettled once again right there on the bridge for ninety minutes, this time packed together and with very little room to move. I regained my liberty at 11pm.
The internet has enabled the proliferation of pictures and video from the protests to an unprecedented extent. A great, representative compilation of Day X3 pictures and video can be found here. Some of these images have reached the press and attained iconic status, such as the photo of a masked youth high-kicking the ground floor windows of the Millbank buildings highlighted in my last post. The most recent example of this is the photo of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, a Duchess of Cornwall, panicking behind car windows as protestors who’d moved to Regent Street attacked their Rolls Royce. Dom Fox has written about this picture, which appeared on the front of most of yesterday’s national newspapers. Naturally it distracted the media from the rioting elsewhere – not to mention the cause of the protestors, which is apparently expunged at the slightest hint of criminal or irreverent activity – but it did give the day’s events a surprisingly old-school revolutionary flavour.
I can’t help but reiterate my slight nervousness about doing aesthetics – aestheticising – during a time like this. But this time, more than an exercise in getting our priorities right and speaking out or demonstrating rather than getting lost in analysis of the latest mp3s, it’s also a little erroneous to be aestheticising the events themselves beyond what is necessary. Aestheticising can publicise and galvanise a cause, but wallowing in pathos and rhetoric becomes complacent and inflammatory, colouring a representation leads to misrepresentation, and celebrating the thrill of conflict is outright dangerous. Yes, everything is aestheticised, life – that is, ‘real’ life – may be continuous with art and inseparable from it, but it isn’t a nineteenth-century Romantic painting, however the fors or againsts portray it.
A key problem for the relationship between aesthetics and political struggle, then, is that of realism. Realism and ‘reality’ are relative, selective and ideologically constituted. Tied to the necessity of social action (be it financial cuts or demonstration), reality is the political battleground, and ideas or images of it form horizons beyond which imagination of alternatives becomes difficult and discouraged. Few have articulated this better than Mark ‘K-Punk’ Fisher, whose recent book Capitalist Realism has described the rise of eponymous capitalist construction of reality and its attendant social and institutional imperatives in recent decades, which become unquestionable because they are ‘realistic’. The concept has become a valuable tool in challenging the similarly ‘realistic’ (i.e. ideologically motivated) necessities of cuts to institutions such as universities.
For me, the photograph above sharply stands out from the rest of the images to come out of Day X3 not just for its brutal presentation of evidence for violence, for police brutality (the word brutal often connotes ‘unadorned’, ‘naïve’, ‘raw’ - red raw), but for its equality brutal presentation of this problem of realism in political struggle itself. It was taken in the Jeremy Bentham Room at University College London (whose occupation by students since Day X had become one of the most successful and famous of the student occupations) and uploaded to Twitter by New Statesman columnist and student protest reporter Laurie Penny. It shows a student who’d managed to escape the police kettle with several bruises on her/his back and arms, but several extra dimensions of meaning are added to the image by the presence of that day’s copy of London’s free newspaper, the Evening Standard. Perhaps it’s there to attest to the date the photo was taken, as if the subject had been kidnapped, but it’s the headline that launches the image’s commentary on realism. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the (formerly popular with students) Liberal Democrat party, the junior partner in the coalition government, is a particular focus of student anger, as he’d promised (signed a pledge, in fact) prior to the election not to raise the cap on tuition fees. Now on the day of the vote, he announces that those opposing raising the cap are ‘dreamers’, living not in the real world, but in a dream world. In the article, which can be read here, Clegg backs the plans because he’s dealing with ‘the way the world is’. Obviously, this begs the question as to what world, what reality he thought he was living in earlier this year. Clegg’s partnership with the Conservative Party has evidently ‘woken’ him from this ‘dream’.
The paper’s headline opposes capitalist realism with a student surrealism. But of course, what could be more brutally real than the naked body marked by signs of material rupture, the painful physical embodiment of struggle. The body is the first fact of human reality. The image is differentiated into the paper on the right – a world of relative abstraction, discourse, ideology, language, symbolism, thought, opinion, representation – and the flesh on the left – a world of relative corporeality, of bodily reality. Then our understanding of the political context tells a story. The students are struck because they’re in a dream world, punished for their bad, defective education, and forcefully woken by Clegg’s establishment, brought back to reality by the discouraging pain of the police batons. But at the same time it’s the student who attacks Clegg by revealing her/his wounds, saying ‘no, I live in a world of brutally real physical injury committed to my body, look, here it is, this is its most basic sign’. We can no longer tell which side is dreaming.
The ‘realist’ coalition’s projection of student surrealism has been playfully adopted and subverted by the student movement. One famous slogan from a Day X3 placard was the surely Situationist-inspired ‘Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible’, which I later saw scrawled on a wall in Parliament Square. This easily misunderstood sentence simply suggests that the borders of ruling class-sponsored ‘reality’ shouldn’t be considered absolute and final. One group of students carried thick polystyrene shields covered in cardboard and painted up to look like famous, over-sized books of philosophy, sociology and literature. The image below, which could have been a Neo Rauch painting, will appeal to fans of hauntology:
The battle is for reality and for a new reality. Aesthetics must necessarily be a weapon in that battle, but like violence itself it is a dangerous weapon – readily abused. And most frighteningly in this case, nothing prepares people for seeing that tension between aesthetics and reality like higher education itself.
Lots of music criticism coming up here very soon. In the meantime, do look at Dan Hancox’s post on music in the Parliament Square kettle including a playlist, and Blackdown’s brilliant Grime / Dubstep / Funky end of year piece for Pitchfork.