So many activist groups, action networks and radical theorists deal primarily with grandiose political ideas and secondarily with their human, personal cultural implications. Clearly the extremes of the spectra differ from social sphere to social sphere, someone who takes ‘right’ and ‘left’ to be epitomised by The Sun or The Guardian has different ideas of how far ‘normality’ can be questioned than someone who sees the polar opposites as Fascism versus Anarchy. The former might find it culturally appropriate to engage in perfectly civil debate with someone of an opposite viewpoint to them, while the latter might unquestioningly physically assert their freedom or authority when confronted. But to large extents they are both operating within similar cultural spectra that become seemingly inescapable when we consider the influence of language, tradition and majority-driven identity politics. Leaving aside false dichotomies for the moment, I will seek to ponder aloud why I think activism must put culture into question waaay before any more abstract political opinion and how my particular channel for doing so is clowning. At no point do I mean to put discourse over action, but instead encourage critical re-evaluation of our own movements and encourage more rudimentary action if we are serious about living the change.
It is no secret that liberation movements, particularly over the last century, have sought to radically change personal relations in the household and beyond, be it over race, gender or sexuality to name the obvious ones. The problem is these emancipations often speak in the same language as their predecessors, at least in their pop culture manifestations. Feminism becomes “equal rights for women”, doubtless a practical improvement if adopted, but nevertheless validating the gender binary out of sync with the most up to date high brow theory. Politically white and black still ultimately aludes to the fabrication of the idea of people being of “pure race” and sexuality theories still speak in the language of couples and their unmoving biological fascinations. The point being that these new fangled theories may balance out brash inequalities but often through encouraging participants to act in the opposite way to before, which is by definition dictated by the “before” and thus not a transcendental emancipation. Instead we take these ramnifications to the very way we should walk and talk, and debate them in controlled, respected environments, push them through official lobbies and ancient centralised decision-making systems as if an announcement by an elected old fool makes it okay.
The classic example of a “question culture first” is the 60s counter-culture “hippies”, “punks” etc. which, however preferable an inheritance to its predecessors, invariably modeled itself on a reaction – as we have established, reactions being dependent on their producers – and has since been rapidly assimilated into globablised majority culture as sanitised acceptable archetypes. In a world where even protest has been normalised and fit into the schedule, we have not only the police to contend with but also ourselves. With organised demonstrations planning protest routes with the local police force to enable appropriate bus diversions, marches becomes a place to let of steam, “do your bit for the cause” and then head to the pub for a “did you see when the police did this” social. This ultimately serves the system as a means of containing dissent, as people jettison their political anger by marching once a year. Furthemore, marching through the banking district chanting slick leftist catchphrases in a monotonous rhythm only allows the Bankers on coffee breaks to peer out their window and dismiss us as a cute hoard of naïve zombies. If indeed we are decided to be civil and modern and not line then up and shoot them then we need to communicate to them directly, personally, challengingly yet positively!
So, how does clowning fit into all of this? For the clown the activism doesn’t start in the mouth as a well-rehearsed sentence with a university degree behind it to challenge the ideology of an opponent. It would not be real radicalisation to question merely within the mathematical thought processes our brains are conditioned into using the high-culture language of logic. Nor can the work be reduced to physical resistance instinctive to the body’s anarchic outcry activated by increasing encroachment on our rights to space and identity. To do so would inhibit us by engaging with that oppression and conversing in a language the authorities are adept at negotiating. The clown’s activism starts in rediscovering the mind-body as it contorts and convulses, weakly and vulnerably re-emerging into the physical space around them, fascinated by their surroundings as if a baby fresh from the womb. As we re-negotiate with gravity, movement, need, wee, water, food and simultaneously emotion, communication and language we better observe the multiferous patterns, routines and mechanisations at every stage in our present paradigms. We embody, exaggerate and parody core cultural binaries such as “love/hate”, “good/bad” and “child/adult” because to unplug from apathy and engage in political action without observing, reacting to and redefining these basic cultural muscle memories would be a changeless hypocrisy in itself.
Blog owner, singing/strumming person, word speaker, community arts make-happen-er, eco-baby.