Review: Emily Deprang, "Confessions of an Ex-Protester," Texas Observer, 16 November 2007.
* Has 'political resistance' ever so openly reveled in its own naivety – or, for that matter, mistaken it for a form of critique?
"When I said I was willing to be arrested, what I really meant was, 'arrested.' Arrested for the experience, arrested as a sociological experiment, arrested in theory. Arrested in retrospect. What I did not calculate was that in spite of being a white, middle-class college girl making the decision to get arrested, once I was in jail, I was actually in jail. I was not 'in jail.' The guards and I were not in on some joke, wherein they knew we weren’t real prisoners and so it was not really like we were in jail. Once your cell phone is with your clothes in a paper bag somewhere, and you’re alone in a room whose door you cannot open, you realize this is no concurrent, analogous pseudo-jail you’re in. Your ass is in jail. On purpose. You are a very, very stupid girl."
The big surprise for Deprang was that her arrest was not also a performance, was not as half-hearted and distracted as she was. It was, in a word, 'sincere' (and not without some personal danger). But what did she expect? --I mean, because she, alone, was for some reason unable to understand what imprisonment meant, are we to then conclude, somewhat paradoxically, that the actions that in fact dispelled her disillusions were therefore also the source of that disillusionment? It is as if Deprang's naivety and ironic detachment from her own political actions is precisely what prepared the trauma that later dispelled her politics altogether. In other words, what Deprang presents as a break, a turn, a rethinking of her position is, rather, the obvious conclusion, the final detachment. Indeed, even though she was arrested for protesting torture, 'rendition', murder, the displacing of millions of people, she was nonetheless able to be surprised -- and traumatized -- by a night in a cell -- traumatized enough, in fact, to rethink her life, become an "ex-protester", write an article. That's all it took, really, to shut her down (from the perspective of the state, at least). Which is perhaps not a small part of their general intention. Arrest, shake up a bit, release, deter.
The scene in the paddywagon is particularly interesting. "The other protesters and I responded with silence. I felt much less connected to these people in the forced intimacy of the paddy wagon, hands behind our backs. We kept our eyes down." –But that's just not everyone's experience (nor is it merely a useless 'gesture'). For some, it is a moment of solidarity, for others nothing, for still others, a routine -- but for Deprang, who seems intent on representing the movement, it is cathartic, revelatory, disturbing on the deepest level. The confinement really makes her think things over. And isn't that the purpose and highest goal of confinements of this type (the brief, 'send you a message' type)? –Needless to say, at every turn Deprang is 'surprised'. A whole paragraph is reserved for: "This was a surprise" [that she is put in her own cell, when she was expecting a post-protest party in a more cinematic environment] .
Her naivety is bottomless, a little insulting. "The toothpaste was gritty and bitter. I thought about Martin Luther King Jr. writing his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I’d loved that piece when I’d read it in high school. I’d imagined jail as a kind of interesting time-out, a time for reflection, of mental quiet. I’d thought that if you knew that being there did something for some cause you believed in, that it would be easy to be there, knowing that you were helping. I’d guessed that it would be a good place to read and write, like a retreat. I’d never imagined that each time MLK went to jail, he’d have to wonder if, this time, he’d get out again." For Deprang, so it seems, the world of violence keeps failing to live up to its romanticization.
What was billed as a mature abandoning of ideality ends in its greatest extension: pure aimlessness, or rather, an 'aimless activism' that does nothing but encompasses everything. It's all about the 'little acts of daily life' – which is to say, a complete surrendering of the power to exact a larger, communal change. "My circle of influence stops at my friends and family and co-workers, but I have a circle." At least I have a circle. (At least I exist?) One would be hard-pressed to imagine a more twisted version of the call to 'resist locally'. The solipsism is explicit: her own body replaces the 'governing body' of the state, as site of effect and change ("The only governing body I control is my own"), free speech is reinterpreted as "listening respectfully," and any encounter with the government previously resisted now takes place exclusively through voting.
"I know I cannot stop the war. I cannot stop even one bullet, not by shouting, not by surrendering my freedom, not even if I martyred myself. But if it’s peace I want, I can create peace, here. My circle of influence stops at my friends and family and co-workers, but I have a circle. The only governing body I control is my own, but I control it completely. I have no mechanism at my disposal by which I can know I am stopping war. But I can fight ignorance by learning. I can fight apathy by voting. I can defend free speech by listening respectfully. And I can champion human rights by suppressing my own impulse to treat others callously."
It is, then, only natural that Deprang's 'resistance' should widen to encompass everything. The last line, "every day is a barricade," means nothing, practically speaking. It is at best a poetic turn of phrase for an otherwise evacuated politics, a complete disavowal of one's capacity to participate in a political movement.
If we had the time, we could rigorously compare this position to Zizek's, as recently expressed in the London Review of Books. In "Resistance is Surrender," he notes, as many have, that the millions of people who marched against the invasion of Iraq did nothing to attempt to stop it, but rather only marched -- 'for the record', as Deprang rightly says. But for Zizek, as for others, this does not become reason for a total abdication, but rather for a determined reversal. In Italy, for instance, our counterparts interrupt the shipment of munitions by crowding the railroad tracks at strategic points. This is beyond protesting. It is intervention. In the States, by contrast, one would think the war immaterial, exacted without machines, soldiers, or equipment; with so many protesting the war, one would assume they had already tried interrupting it.