On the 12 January, 2016, in a press conference at the European Parliament, an activist group called The Yes Men, masqueraded as the Global Security Response, presented ENDURAsphere, an anti-terrorism device which looks like a gated eco-commune for one person. This is the second time a friend draws my attention to the genius of satire to express an important socio-political or socio-ethical point. The first time was on Zerocalcare, an Italian artist who works mostly on graphic novels, representing and covering issues of importance ranging from the Genoa’s G8 summit to Kobane. The number that had caught our particular attention at the time was an issue on facebook reactions to homeless people. As a researcher I remember a deep feeling of disappointment and futility of academic publications at the face of the activist art, and particularly satire in expressing what I wanted to say. The same emotion was steered this time, at the security praxis of The Yes Men.
Called “The Jonathan Swift of the Jackass generation” by Naomi Klein, The Yes Men, a situationist political collective co-founded by Igor Vamos (aka Mike Bonanno) and Jacques Servin (aka Andy Bichlbaum) in 1999 following the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, uses satire, truth and lunacy to ‘expose, deviously the nastiness of powerful evildoers’. For over a decade, The Yes Men have been engaged in an extended campaign of covert activism that is part performance, part satire and part fifth-column insurgency, bluffing their way into corporate conferences and television interviews and masquerading in the guise of top-level, corporate executives, and unauthorized spokespeople trying to make an impact on the media and in public opinion in order to raise awareness of social and political issues, while exposing the worst excesses of corporations (with a smile and a middle finger). A clean suit seems to be an absolute prerequisite for successful imposture, and often a press release its main tool.
Using trickery as one of the conditions for honesty, their praxis reminds one of Augusto Boal’s Invisible Theater as one form of the Theatre of the Oppressed, making the invisible visible. In Jacque Ranciere’s term, this strategy could be called ‘fiction’, not the opposite of the real, but the reframing of the real, which becomes more real that the real, the performance of something true but not necessarily factual, a way of building new relationship between reality and appearance (Ranciere, 2007). It also reminds us of the concept of carnivalesque by Michail Bakhtin in Rabelais and his World. Carnivalesque is a particular speech-genre which occurs across a variety of cultural sites, most notably in carnival itself. It is usually a type of performance marked by displays of excess, grotesqueness and transgression which creates the chance for a new perspective and a new order of things, an alternative social space, where everything is rendered ever-changing, playful and undefined. The authoritative voice of the dominant discourse loses its privilege, and humour is counterposed to the seriousness of officialdom in such a way as to subvert it.
In other words it creates a type of politics thought of best as dissensus. Jacques Ranciere, provocatively calling policing (la police) everything that would normally go by the name of politics (1999), thus policy making as well as cultural and economic arrangements, has introduced the idea of politics as dissensus. La police connotes that which keeps the power system whole, providing a totalizing (without remainder and without exclusion) account of the population by assigning everyone a tittle and a role within the social edifice: an order of the visible and the sayable. Precisely because it offers this totalizing account of the situation, la police precludes the possibility of politics. Rather differently then, politics is defined in Ranciere’s work as something that breaks the order of the sensible through dissensus. In this instance, the order that is structured is forced to admit that it is not capable of totalizing the situation without remainder and without exclusion.
Today the totalizing view of the monolithic order in terms of fantasies of civilisation under siege from extremists, where terrorism, disease, and natural disaster fuse into a secularised vision of cosmic collapse. This vision has infiltrated legal and political discourse to such a degree that any excess of state power seems ‘proportionate’ against this greater evil. For Bakhtin, cosmic terror and the awe induced by the system’s violent power are the main reasons of its affective domination, while only carnivalesque can overcome fear because it is uninhibited and limitless. Much of the state’s power is based on anxiety. The Bakhtinian hypothesis is that anxiety can be neutralised through joyous experiences of collective festivity. Thus although a pale version of carnivalesque, curses, parody, trickery, performance and debasing can be used to subvert the stabilising tendencies of dominant speech-genres, and contain some of its original energy. These occasions strip power of its performed mystification, breaking into its ideological reproduction. It doesn’t so much confront state power as render it irrelevant and ineffectual.
With a fake moustache and claiming to be Global Security Response’s spokesman ‘Archibald Schumpeter’, The Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum told the press conference convened at the European Parliament in Brussels:
“Hello. My name is Archibald Schumpeter. I’m with Global Security Response; we’re a defense and security think tank and consultancy. I’m really excited to be talking with you today about ways that nations that suffer terrorism can respond to terrorism in forceful but intelligent ways from within the defense and security paradigm that we’re used to. But unfortunately, such responses have not generally been very intelligent. In fact, it’s been pretty much all stupid, all the time, every since 9/11. Let’s start with the mainstay of the defense paradigm, military force. There have been a whole string of military responses to the terrorism of 9/11, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Sadly, these attacks not only haven’t reduced terrorism, they’ve actually increased it, generating whole new terrorist entities—like ISIS, which now undertakes its own international operations, such as the ones in Paris. In response to those attacks, France is following in the US’s footsteps, by attacking Syria. This tactic is politically fairly successful—Hollande’s popularity rose quite a bit after he launched the attack—but as far as terrorism is concerned, France’s attacks are like fighting fire with gasoline: it’s guaranteed to generate more terrorists, just like the US attacks on Iraq. For war to work against terrorists, you’d have to kill everyone in the country. And as we know, that’s just not possible. Another thing military action generates, besides terrorists, is refugees. These migrations, such as the ones we’re seeing now from Syria, can create tensions of an emotional sort— a German MEP even suggested recently that we shoot entering refugees. This sort of reaction, if followed to its logical conclusion, could create much instability. A final problem with military responses to terrorism is that soldiers die—which eventually causes public outrage, making it unsustainable in the long run. That problem at least is solved by drone warfare. Since soldiers are located where they themselves can’t be harmed, drone operations carry low political risks, and can be undertaken quite easily by democratic governments. Furthermore, the profit margins are even better than with traditional warfare. But drone operations have problems of their own. For one thing, many of the video-gamers that the military recruits to fly drones are horrified when they discover what they’re actually doing. A number of them actually lose their minds, or otherwise refuse to do their jobs. And just like conventional operations, drone operations have also been shown to create more terrorists than they kill. Another solution, with even lower impact on soldiers, is targeted assassinations. But as we’ve learned again and again, it doesn’t work either—it didn’t work for Belgium in regards to the Congo and it didn’t work with Al Qaeda: Osama’s assassination was great for Obama’s popularity, but did nothing to address terrorism. An entirely different kind of way of dealing with terrorism is more defensively, with surveillance and policing. Unfortunately, these don’t work either. Mass surveillance, sophisticated as it is, is actually completely useless at identifying suspects, simply because there are few actual terrorists and potentially many false positives. And even if you could identify suspects, you couldn’t possibly follow them all, since it takes 10 to 20 police to perform full-time surveillance on a single suspect. That’s far beyond the capacities of even the wealthiest countries. Surveillance does work in one way, and that’s culturally and psychologically. Like in the old East Germany, surveilled citizens stop speaking out against the government, because they think the government’s listening. Unfortunately however, this effect doesn’t work against terrorists, who aren’t as easily frightened as non-violent activist citizens, and are better at masking their intentions.”
The speech’s praxis of ‘truth through sarcasm’ reminded me tragically of the ten steps listed in Naomi Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, that “closing societies” (Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia) have historically followed. These ten steps which Wolf claims are being observed in America now (but not only) are: 1. Invoking a terrifying internal and external enemy, or create a faceless threat; 2. Create secret prisons where torture takes place, Gulag style, outside the rule of International Law; 3. Develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens; 4. Set up an internal surveillance system; 5. Harass citizens’ groups that do not follow the State (or the Party) line; 6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release; 7. Target key individuals (harass and criminalise them); 8. Control the press and distribution of information; 9. Cast criticism as espionage and dissent or opposition as treason; and 10. Subvert or suspend the rule of law.
The Yes Men, posing as security experts in the press conference in Brussels, eventually propose their total solution:
“So, our entire panoply of defensive and security solutions to terrorism has collapsed, worthless! There is simply no imaginable answer to the terrorist threat within the paradigms of defense and security. What we need is a brand-new way of thinking—inspired perhaps even by NASA in their quest to do the impossible and land on Mars. I’m about to show you a prototype that my company has developed, for a technology that would be guaranteed to work against terrorism. Because although there’s no way to halt a motivated and energetic opponent, there are other ways to confound them. What we need to do is be stronger than our opponents in time. And that’s what the ENDURAsphere™ is all about. Could the prototypes enter, please?
At its most obvious physical level, the ENDURAsphere is a defensive orb with numerous redundant systems that ensure the comfort and thriving of the occupant. Inside, it’s an ecosystem, a sort of gated eco-commune for one in which all materials and effluent are processed for reuse in the occupant’s ENDURAsphere, or for trade or exchange with another. It has Generation 5 Kevlar padding and a plastic-alloy skin that allows the occupant to withstand any impact; even the crumbling of an entire building would mean nothing to a citizen ensconced within. In this way, the ENDURAsphere is a lethal demoralization tool that even in the short term will interrupt and confound organizations like ISIS. For the longer term, the ENDURAsphere will give citizens the time and ease to devise truly paradigm-breaking new ways of coping with an increasingly dangerous world. The price tag for each ENDURAsphere will initially be quite high, only available to High Net Worth individuals. But as the ENDURAsphere proves itself, it will attract large government subsidies that will make it much cheaper—just as drones have done. Entrepreneurs will then find even cheaper ways of producing them, making the ENDURAsphere a truly democratic solution to terrorism.Thank you. Are there any questions?
Not quite the same quality and content of speech, but I couldn’t help thinking (maybe because of the mustache or because of the ‘prank’) of the last scene in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where mistaken for Hitler at the border of Austria, the Jewish barber makes a speech to the soldiers waiting to start the Anschluss:
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people….Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!…. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!….
Jacques Ranciere. 1999. Disagreement: Politics and philosophy. University of Minnesota Press
Jacques Ranciere. 2007. The future of the image. Verso.
Michail Bakhtin. 1984. Rabelais and his World. Indiana University Press.
Naomi Wolf. 2007. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot Chelsea Green Publishing.
The full account of the talk at the European Parliament: http://yeslab.org/parliament-talk
Cover image credit: Photo by Isopix/REX/Shutterstock (5540161f)