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Insurgency of discourse and affective intervention: the Chilean students’ movement

Walescka Pino-Ojeda

Imprisoned Emotions

During the Chilean military dictatorship of 11 September 1973 to March 1990, a widespread contestatory culture of collective enthusiasm for political and social change produced affective networks of solidarity that weakened the very foundation of pragmatic civic order. These networks of resistance provided the basis for a culture of opposition towards the projects of ideological cleansing that had been so brutally implemented by the dictatorship. Upon the return to institutional democracy in March of 1990, the affective ties that had been created in this resistance movement were suppressed, civil society ceding the task of mending national social bonds, democratic culture and national institutions to the state’s political elites.

Once they regained legitimacy, the nation’s political class was also entrusted with the task of managing collective sentiment, ameliorating fear, uniting former political antagonists, tactfully identify perpetrators of state terror and dealing with victims of the outgoing regime’s repression. Faced with the destruction of their judicial system, the government established two Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, proposing a politics of reconciliation that built an emotive framework for behaviour hinging on responsibility and the civic need to build consensus.1 Their expectations in this regard were well intentioned and largely understandable —to a certain point. Taken to an extreme, this collective sentiment could be seen to have become hostage to the politics of consensus (i.e. governability), with feelings of consolidation becoming subsumed within economic imperatives and the fulfilment of market-mandated consumerism. Thus, financial transactions would occupy the social sphere previously reserved for more varied types of collaboration, companionship and daily affective exchanges.

In other words, these processes made the post-authoritarian Chilean political elites responsible for managing the entire affective sphere of civil society. This meant not so much moderating, but rather reorienting it, liberating a proxy of social interaction through liberalisation of markets and, thus, the massive circulation of merchandise. Within this new framework, market circulation became a surrogate for collective ideological and social aspirations. In this way, the recovery of true communal order in post-authoritarian societies such as Chile may be seen to still require a massive ideological redirection away from ephemeral individualist imperatives and towards the communal sphere of long-lasting shared fulfilment that these imperatives have inadequately replaced.

The ongoing social movement initiated by Chilean students in May 2011 tackles current frustrations with this condition, enacting dissent through a discursive framework that re-appropriates the notion of ‘common sense’ away from neoliberal adages and centres itself in the fundamental realm of feeling and emotion.

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The students’ rhetoric has broken through the veil of normativity that once hid the ongoing ethical duplicity and absurd logic of the current system of socio-economic politics and practices. Their discourse has drawn attention to the fact that what we are dealing with in the current social structure is a logical obscenity which confuses the means with the ends. This confusion was repeatedly put forward in multiple debates over the imperative to generate profit in all types of exchanges of service— even essential social services such as education. In these discussions, profit, which provides the means necessary for the achievement of social objectives, which in this case is education, has been converted into the goal for which education serves as the means. Only an intentional blurring of critical judgement could lead to this perversion of goals. The discursive insurgency exercised by Chile’s student leaders in this regard has attempted to invert this dynamic in order to reorient a much larger social debate. This represents a gesture of transcendental responsibility to the degree that it returns debate to the realm of communal sustainability through the recovery of basic modern notions of humanism.

Perverse Goals and Discursive Insurgency

This student protest movement constitutes a foundational dislocating event in Chilean society. It is foundational in the sense that, from its very emergence, it has been propositional, rejecting the binary rubrics that structure typical political, economic and generational debate. These are the same rubrics that place powerful financial and political elite coalitions in constant opposition to debilitated unions and activist groups, with both sides adopting well-worn rhetorical frameworks. Indeed, the discourse adopted by the current protest movement’s student leaders—and by the wider population they represent—rejects the legitimacy of this dynamic, putting into question the entire discursive parameters imposed and upheld by the dictatorship and the post-dictatorial political elite, respectively.

For their part, these political elites have absolutely failed to respond to this discursive re-framing, and have become paralysed by their inability to step outside the rational parameters through which they have governed thus far. To an extent, their disconcerted reactions have been understandable, given the massive worldwide ‘success’ enjoyed in the last 40 years by the ideological model they inhabit. In this sense, this movement represents the most radical schism to have yet stemmed from Chile’s transitional democracy —refusing to engage in dialogue within the established parameters of imagination, logic and affect set up by this transition.

It is precisely because of this negation that the student movement has been able to bring the ethical duplicity and absurd logic of current political and socio-economic practices to light. The movement seeks to reveal how these practices, rather than benefiting the wider social body, instead benefit a very small minority of the population, consistently betraying the social contracts they themselves have established through their sustained abuse of both the environment and labour. In many ways, this discursive rupture has succeeded in bringing to light the fraudulent underpinnings and deceptions of economic success inherent in neoliberalism, revealing that, rather than a problem of systemic and institutional corruption (though this is a concern), what is at issue here is the fact that the very foundation of Chile’s current institutional and social environment has been built upon an ethically bankrupt and logically corrupt construct.

The leaders of the movement put forward this very sentiment when speaking in front of the Chilean senate. In outlining and defending their legislative proposal to bar profit- driven educational institutions from receiving state funding, Giorgio Jackson points out in what way the logic that has allowed market forces to control education is ‘perverse’:

You only have one opportunity to get an education [. . .] This can’t be seen as a marketable asset, because it is impossible to truly measure the quality of the education you are receiving once you have committed to becoming a student in a given institution. It is very difficult to perceive. It’s not like trying a dry fruit, deciding that it’s not to your taste, that it is bad, and the next day buying another, or demanding your money back with a receipt. In this case, one goes on for 12 years, and then another 4 or 5, and it’s only one chance [. . .] right now we are seeing education as a market commodity, as if a person could come back, demand better quality, and waste another 15 years of their life [. . .] As such, it is barbaric that we can admit and be complicit, as a society, as a nation, with a system that generates such perverse incentives, (incentives that allow) the commodification of the right to education [. . .] We see the legislative project proposed here as being a step in the right direction, one in which the state will cease to be a participant in this moral offence [. . .] We believe this legislation is a moral imperative and necessity [. . .] in which we may establish the foundation for the state to become the guarantor of human rights, and not of market commodities.2

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The perversity to which Jackson refers is tied in with a form of premeditated evil fostered by hegemonic power structures. In turning education into a consumptive profit-driven mechanism, these structures are demolishing Chile’s social fabric and turning their victims into the very instruments of their perpetuation, unable to see the sinister nature of said structures. It is because of the obscurantism involved in this dynamic that it has been possible to impose such perverse imperatives, and it is within this context that the discursive insurgency enacted by these student leaders has sought to rectify this reorientation of means and ends and, in doing so, re-frame social debate.

For its part, the wider civil movement has now responded with strategies that display an awareness of the manipulated rationale they have been living within in the last few decades, utilising rhetoric that places an emphasis on affective bonds and shared ideas.

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Irruptions of Affect and Memory

The outbreak of this massive civil movement takes place within a social context which, superficially at least, appears to be both functional and healthy. In recent years, Chile has enjoyed strong economic indices, has soundly overcome the significant earthquake of February 2010, and currently has a presidential administration that has gained much respect from the international community in the wake of the successful rescue of the much publicised miners trapped underground between August and October of the same year —an incident which contributed to the image of efficiency promulgated by the impresario Sebastián Piñera’s administration for Chile, something that bolstered the governing conservative coalition’s hopes for future electoral success.3 Indeed, when observing common indicators of development, there is no perceptible crisis in Chile at present, be it economic or political. What then is the populace demanding?

There are, in fact, a multitude of explicitly stated demands being put forward in the manifestations organised by the student-led movement —demands which come from a range of popular sectors. Of these, I have selected three as particularly illustrative examples of the ideas and emotions involved in these acts. With some variation, all of the sentiments detailed in these examples can be seen either in the movement’s marches and performative acts, or in the signage it has posted in a variety of educational and private spaces.

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the primary political agenda it seeks to bring to the attention of the nation’s political elite. This proclamation recuperates the ‘NO+’ (NO ‘more’) ensign seen throughout the urban environments of the dictatorship era, and recaptures the symbolic potency of this symbol as a truncated protest against an environment of oppression and brutally enforced censorship. At the same time, this same truncated nature invites a dynamic, appellative relationship with the reader, compelling them to fill in the blank: No More Torture, No More Death, No More Fear, etc. In this way, though NO + certainly functions as an evocation of memory, it is flexible enough be integrated into present circumstances. In this way, ‘No more profit’ works as a phrase that doesn’t just seek to complete the statement with a signifier, but rather identifies that signifier, profit, as the one that is to be addressed in this particular instance. It is somewhat counterintuitive and paradoxical to realise that it was during the dictatorship that such an open and collective social ambition was manifested in this call to action, and it is in fact within a democratic context that it is seen as necessary to reiterate it and attach a specific agenda. This situation is much easier to grasp when taking into account the nebulous rationale described above, which serves to illustrate how the repressive technologies of authoritarianism have created divisions based in the polarisation of meanings, thus leaving neoliberal violence to persist amid the confusion of the same in the post-dictatorial context.

‘¡Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo!’ (‘They fear us because we are not afraid!’) This slogan encapsulates the emotional imprisonment implicit in the politics of governability I detail above, in which the administration of collective emotions has caused civil society to internalise an almost visceral rejection of conflict. This collective behaviour has been fostered in order to serve the politics of reconciliation, and benefits from the residual fear first set in place by the dictatorship.

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The fear referred to in this slogan is not only that of social exclusion, unemployment and denigrating labour conditions, but also indicates an ingrained historical fear—one which has demanded there be a culture of forgetting with regard to the recent past for the sake of establishing social consent. This imperative has damaged the notion of conflict as a healthy civic reality, stigmatising the figure of the communist and socialist, turning these into cultural phantasms or zombies that traffic alongside those dissidents now labelled subversives and terrorists. It has also devalued and trivialised campaigns working towards social justice, collective causes, and all the advances in labour rights that have been achieved in past decades. As such, this tendency represents a multi-generational culture of wilful forgetfulness entrenched in fear.

Despite the positive discursive rupture enacted by the movements towards this culture of fear, the very fact that fear is being evoked as a point of discussion indicates the extent to which fear is still relevant as a factor in Chilean society. It serves to liberate repressed, imprisoned emotions and reorient collective discussion by re-empowering the political agency of the citizenry.

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This slogan echoes the one first brought to the public fore in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in June of 2002 during the First World Social Forum ‘Another World is Possible’.4

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While the current Chilean social movement places itself within this larger framework —particularly with regard to its opposition to the ‘domination of capital interests’— it distinguishes itself from the open invitation to construct a new world put forward in Porto Alegre, by presenting a much more urgent, imperative message. The message that Chile must be different suggests much more responsibility and agency in the reader, its imperative tone suggesting that this necessary change is long overdue and requires immediate action.

Within the above-detailed Chilean context of discursive rupture, this imperative can be seen in a variety of urban occupations, many of which display vastly divergent and sometimes contradicting emotions within the need for change. While some demonstrations emphasise a celebration of entrenched communal spirit, others do not take these bonds for granted, and seek to first generate them through pathos and empathy, with a conscious effort to interpelate the spectator as a co-participant to the act, and not as an ‘other’. Among the first, celebratory category we may include:

The Family March For Education (July 6, 2011)
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Kiss-athon for Education (July 7, 2011)
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The Cueca Dance for Education’ (July 23, 2011)
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The Umbrella March (August 18, 2011)
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“Marches and Carnivals for Education” (July 29th, September 4, 2011, March 25th, 2012)
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Multiple ‘Karaoke Videos for Education’ and ‘Spoken Word for Education’ films have also emerged as the movement has progressed. All of these acts playfully celebrate a communal spirit deeply intellectually and affectively enmeshed with the interests of all those involved. This community seeks to create a dialogue that ruptures with dominant ideological and moral parameters by recurring to those aspects and desires of existence which appeal to the very core of communal life: family, love, festivity, and a shared historical and cultural past.

Within these demonstrations, a special role is played by flash mobs as a means of performative, collective demonstration. As stated by Georgina Gore, flash mobs:

[are] designed to create a visual stir, to intrude into or even disrupt the quotidian [. . .] I suggest that the event acts as a marker in several ways. First of all on memory – the novel or unexpected has a particular cognitive impact and is integrated with difficulty into the maps of the mind. Flash mobbing is like soft terrorism, using guerrilla tactics, which explains why it is a good medium for communicating a succinct message, as it is retained because of its difference with the habitual, because it creates a shift in focus [. . .] Polymorph and polyvalent, flash mobbing may be said to be a truly universal dance form, more flexible and versatile than tango, salsa or flamenco for creating ephemeral identification with communities of interest where the celebratory, political, and commercial become conflated in a mode typical of twenty first century consumer capitalism.5

The examples of flash mobs realised in Chile present the majority of the attributes identified in Gore’s profile of these performances. Their particularity within this movement’s context, however, lies in their power to transmit a social message while at the same time avoiding the political canonism inherent in both coordinated political picketing, as well as the Chilean funas, a likewise spontaneous though much more confrontational social act by which this movement’s flash mobs nonetheless have been clearly influenced.6 In contrast to these acts, the flash mobs are much more geared towards eliciting surprise, empathy, persuasion and feelings of social congregation and openness with regard to their political messages, now laid bare and stripped of institutional partisan politics. At the same time, and taking into account the long-term nature of their campaign, they have also served to create new performative points of interest in the wider population, bolstering a general attitude of alertness and awareness of the movement as it continued to adopt new messages and formats for protest.

A few of the more noteworthy flash mobs of this type include the ‘Thriller for Education’ (June 24th 2011), which recreated the zombie dance from Michael Jackson’s eponymous music video, complete with full choreography, make up, and bearing signs bearing such slogans as: ‘RIP, my brother died owing $5,150,109 studying medicine’ and ‘I died owing $15,347,251’.

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The figure of the zombie itself not only symbolises the persistent and unyielding student debt that burdens so many and which exceeds the limits of the human life span. It is also indicative of an economy that manufactures its own ruin, establishing unsustainable parameters through its phantasmagorical dependence upon the speculation of virtual capital and is not sustained in any human or ecological reality, as is well detailed by Chris Harman in the aptly titled Zombie Capitalism.

‘Genkidama for Education’ (July 15, 2011) represents an example of the ways in which new symbolic imaginaries, in this case derived from Japanese comics and animation, are coming to the Chilean cultural fore. Despite the (obviously prejudiced) perception of such media as being alienated from concrete quotidian concerns, it was drawn upon by the students in this instance through their symbolic evocation of the super- natural benevolent force of the Genkidama (translated as ‘spirit bomb’ in English media but keeping its original Japanese appellative in the Latin American translation). The Genkidama itself is a massive orb of collectively donated life-energy (Chi), wielded as a weapon by the character Son Goku, protagonist of the massively popular animated series Dragon Ball Z (1999-2001, L.A airdate). Collectively evoking this force of collective will, represented in the performance by a massive paper orb, the students hold it aloft collectively as they enforce their positive energy over the educational authorities in order to compel them to provide free, high quality education.

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The collective nature inherent in the diegesis of the Genkidama cements this evocation’s discursive relevance within the strategies and goals of the movement, as does its generational relevance as a cultural product embedded in the childhoods of so many young adults in Chile.

The various discursive techniques wielded by both the leaders and participants of the Chilean student movement have all sought to interject themselves within both physical urban spaces and in the public imaginary in order to enact a re-orientation of meanings and affect. In all of these cases, what is being questioned fundamentally is the radical nature in which neoliberalism has reformatted alterity, so that the ‘other’ is seen not as an unknown neighbour, but rather an unknowable and dangerous entity that threatens the subject’s wellbeing. The other is, above all, the antagonist competitor, a latent enemy. The performative acts adopted by the Chilean student-led movement combine, then, both accusatory and contemplative imperatives. While they denounce, indict and call to action, they likewise perform, entertain, satirise and create spaces in which affects and feelings may be enacted. In this way, they appeal to the realm of sense and emotion in order to facilitate the understanding of what otherwise would be very abstract ideas and ideals. Slogans succeed in their imperative pleas only when sentiment is put into action, when performative acts compel us to see by looking at ourselves, and reflect upon the world around us by examining within.

By gaining awareness of the ways in which one may see ‘oneself within the other’, we are able to rebuild, recuperate, appreciate, and reconnect individualities into a functional collective body. This is true even within the larger context of discursive and ideological violence engendered and perpetuated by neoliberal rhetoric. In as much as this movement’s leaders have assumed the role of evidencing the manipulations of meaning inherent in this context, performative techniques are able to communicate not simply what is being denoted, but also evoke the multifaceted and emotive power only available within the language of art. It is in this way that the current student-led movement of Chile manifests the agency of culture and its power to transform the socio-political through the force of imagination.

Assistance with translation: Camilo Diaz Pino