Book Review: Protest. The Aesthetics of Resistance

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Protest. The Aesthetics of Resistance, from Lars Müller Publishers and the Zurich University of the Arts, is a collection of burning essays that deals with contemporary political insurgency. The essays are grouped into three chapters: “Images”, “Voice”, and “Bodies”, and range in length and formality from extended blurb to long-form article. Its bold typeface and striking red cover lend to the urgency and utility of its content. The list of protest songs from 1939 to 2015 that wind through the front and back French flaps, as well as at the start of each chapter, solidify the countercultural attitudes of the collection. While some essays here read as online think pieces, many are important critical and theoretical pieces that will have a lasting effect on resistance tactics, in addition to the contemporary import they offer.

The most striking thing revealed from the list of essays that make up the table of contents is the eclecticism of topics. A small sample includes the Black Lives Matter Movement, the theory of Theodore Adorno, and the New York Punk scene, in the first chapter; Twitter, Mexican revolutionaries, and protest theatre, in the second chapter; and Native Americans, Irony, and Russia, in the final chapter. Despite the suggested incongruence, all these elements point, unified, forward. Almost all pieces in the collection define a truth in resistance that was used in the past and can be used in the present political climate.

The second most striking thing about the collection is its intense inclusiveness, which is not always guaranteed with eclecticism. Though it is not revealed right away, this collection presents a representation of oppressed minority populations that is invigorating and essential, not least because a volume dealing with such intense social justice themes would lack authority if it were to forgo the inclusivity. There is ample time discussing issues within the Black, Native, Asiatic, and Latino communities around the world, and working-class issues are raised throughout. Its breadth, though, while being its most appealing feature, is also its weakest feature.

The vastness of subjects in this book can be overwhelming, if one is not well versed in all topics discussed, which is a large ask of the audience for this 450-page kaleidoscope of social engagement. Putting the time and effort into understanding most topics in the book — though worthwhile— is impractical for all that read this book, besides those in academia. This results in a “pick and choose” style of reading that can be as socially insightful as the material presented. Striking a balance between accessibility and erudition is something many of the essays either struggle with or ignore completely, to the detriment of the wider audience, but to the benefit of specialists.  While one essay uses the theory of Adorno, which to many is too dense to comprehend, to explain why the pink pussyhats of the Women’s March are effective symbols of revolution, another suggests, with no critical substance, that the selfie is the new protest sign. Between these extremes, though, is a balance that breeds a new school of critical social writing.

“Troubled Pictures: The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement”, by Teju Cole, is a shockingly raw essay that discusses the effects superhero imagery has had on the BLM movement. Cole does well to root the two contemporary subjects into traditions that give context and gravitas; Greek myth and protest photography, respectively. Without this, the essay would lose its footing. The first photo discussed is Jonathan Bachmann’s 2016 photo of Leshia Evans being forcefully approached by officers in full swat gear during a rally against police brutality. The image evokes Storm of the X-Men, calmly standing strong as violence swirls around her, and the real sense of danger that Evans is in. these things, in turn, evoke feeling of Herculean resolve and the overwhelming fate of the “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square.  Cole suggests that, “Images trigger our memory of the history of images”, which suggests a Dealuzian rhizomaticism within photography, both general and protest photography. Cole breaks down the layering of the contemporary zeitgeist, namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe, onto the collective memory of a population, which forms strong and enduring images with links going back thousands of years to Greek myth. It is in this way that Cole’s essay is the strongest candidate to illustrate the effectiveness of this collection, with its gravitas, contemporaneity, urgency, and potential for lasting impact. Both the photographs she discusses and essays like, “Troubled Pictures: The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement”, give hope and motivation to populations in resistance. While this is a very brief discussion on only one of many, many pieces on the anthology, there are numerous reasons to work through this collection. Reasons of lasting social, cultural, and political importance.

Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.

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