The French philosopher Jacques Rancière talks about politics in terms of the “distribution of the sensible” by which he means the ways that the things we perceive with our senses as common to all – specifically time and space and activities – are distributed. Ranciere points out that any discussion of politics has to be contextualized within the reality of people’s lives in which the distribution of time and space and activity makes meaningful political participation possible, or unlikely, or impossible.
I’m hardly stating anything new or radical when I point out that the great concentration of wealth and power, the obsessive drive toward privatization of all things that were once considered (or at least said to be considered) common to all of us living in a democratic society, as well as the porousness between the government and corporate sectors, are profound threats to the great democratic experiment with which this nation has been engaged for almost 250 years. Nationally, the departure of jobs that once provided living wages is accompanied by an instrumental public education system that trains young people for the low-wage service sector. Or, if I can mention a public arena with which I’m familiar through my own art and research: young people are being “taught” to ready themselves for incarceration — the prison-industrial complex being one of the few publicly financed growth industries left. The once common exposure to art, to culture, to critical thinking, and to the latest scientific and technological innovation – the kind of exposure, I would argue, that bring wonder and delight into human lives – are distributed in direct proportion to what one can pay for them. Moreover, working people are reduced to survival living, many working second jobs in order to pay for the childcare they hire while they’re working at their first. The technologies that were supposed to liberate have become fetters, chaining us 24/7 to the hamster wheel of progress.
I spoke this week to faculty and staff at Alcorn State University, situated against a rural backdrop between Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi. One of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the nation, a land-grant institution, and a rural public school trying to survive in an increasingly bleak higher ed lanscape. As I drove for almost 2 hours along quiet county roads from the Jackson airport to the Alcorn campus, there were long stretches when I imagined myself in Central America again: the thick, green, almost tropical forests; the miles of rusted, unadorned trailers that people called home; the horses grazing by the side of the road; the groups of men hanging about in store fronts; the women walking along sides of roads, going somewhere, slowly. I thought about the distribution of the sensible and wondered how the coordinates of time, space, and activity in the lives of those individuals facilitated, or impeded, their ability to participate in culture, in politics, or even in some leisure time given over to rest and reflection.
And I thought about Syracuse, New York. Who among us living here has the time and space to take part in the conversations that affect our lives? Whose activities facilitate a sense of voice and agency in society? And whose time, space, and activity keep them silent, either by force or distraction, and/or within a mindset that echoes the refrain: it is what it is?
Who has the right to be heard and seen?
Of course, my stance is that “all men [sic] are created equal” as regards being heard and seen, although we know too well that in American politics there is often a wide chasm between rhetoric and reality. In practice, some have a greater right to give voice on behalf of their desires, and more social capital to leverage in service of attaining them.
Speaking of redistributing time, space, and activity…
At least in my life, the larger activity of cultural and artistic intervention that I’m speaking about — the intervention intended to help pry open democratic and egalitarian spaces — requires an enormous shifting of time and space. It requires me to stay up late, to work late, to be really tired. And cranky. And nervous a lot of the day. It requires me to think about a million logistics. The tent, a costume, microphones, choir recruiting, a script, a song, choreography, a turntable, city permits, food vendors, recording booths, fliers, posters, the press and publicity… I have to reach out to a million people — to explain, inspire, sell them on the idea. To coordinate and organize them. To schedule them and keep them adhering to the timeline toward performance. And to do it all with patience and gratitude and joy because it’s truly the only payment I can offer. And to do it while still putting in 40 hours at the office. To do it all while continuing to be emotionally and mentally responsible to my wife and boys…
I speak of “prying” open spaces within the social realm through art, because it really feels like that. Prying, hacking, wrestling, pushing, birthing open this space. The modern world is not set up for artists. It is not set up for intervention. Dominant paradigms and status quos don’t encourage change. Nor does nature. “A body at rest…” Birth is not easy. It would be much easier not to give birth. Still I am trying to birth this big beautiful thing that’s inside me. And (because the metaphor is apt and because I feel I’ve got the street cred of birth experience to extend it) I realize with profound gratitude that a core of good people are supporting me, and encouraging me, and hooking me up with other good people who are going to make the whole thing easier, maybe even joyful. And I realize that when it happens, there will be many more good people there to support me and to support the creation. Many people wanting to know how they can help. But first there’s labor. And the labors I’ve been witness to in my life — my wife’s — are long. And hard. And sometimes frightening. And — and I apologize; I just can’t help myself now — there’s also a little something in birth called the “ring of fire.” And there’s no birthing a baby before it — and you — pass through that ring of fire. But the ring of fire comes later…
I’m in labor now. And as many times as I wonder how I got myself into this mess, as many times as I wish my birth support team could take more of my load, as much as I wish I could quit because some days are too hard and the prospect of something going very wrong terrifies the hell out of me…. I can’t. There’s a baby being born and it has to come out. And besides I really want to see what it’s going to look like!
When artist-activists undertake to be uncomfortable, to put themselves in painful, difficult places, to go into the unknown, and when they share their insights and their efforts with others, it is a gift and an invitation. It is an invitation for others. It presents a model of the world as it might be and at the same time presents a vision of that very model in real time….. So what else to do?
Push, Push, PUSH…..