Saturday, October 30, 2010

Situationism and the Green Party

As someone once said, it's not easy being green, at least not in the United States.  Even here in Illinois, where the Green Party has had enough support to be an "established party," theoretically on a par with the Republicans and the Democrats, you run into all kinds of logistical difficulties when you try to support your party.  I'm not just talking about how difficult it can be just to get a yard sign from a party that has no money and few personnel.  And I'm not talking about the eye-rolling you get from Democrats who blame the Green's Ralph Nader for being the spoiler for Al Gore (for the record, I voted for Gore that time out).  And I'm not talking about the snickering of Republicans who figure you're some kind of birkenstock-clad deep-woods tree-hugger (my feet are too ugly for open-toed sandals, people, and I admire nature mostly on the Discovery Channel).  Nope.  I'm talking about the difficulties one runs into at the actual polling place itself.  Even with the Greens officially established in Illinois, and election officials legally bound to ask you whether you want a Republican, Democratic, or Green ballot, problems continue.  On several occasions  I've been told by election judges that there was no such thing as a Green ballot (not true).  Once, when someone behind me overheard this and asked the judge if the Greens were a real party, the judge told her that they weren't.  I don't think this was malicious: I think it just didn't compute, for this person, that there were more than two parties on the ballot.  I mean, a lot of people actually believe that the two-party system is constitutionally ordained, a permanent (if perhaps not always satisfying) part of the American political landscape.

And this brings me to why I think voting Green is a Situationist act.

Situationism — the movement we tend to think of as starting with the Guy Debord and the Situationist International in 1957 — had its roots about a decade earlier, in Sartre's essay "Pour un théâtre de situations."  Here, Sartre argued that what theater should do is, one way or another, to show "simple and human situations and free individuals in these situations choosing what they will be.... The most moving thing the theatre can show is a character creating himself, the moment of choice, of the free decision which commits him to a moral code and a whole way of life."  That is, theater, ideally, exists to break our sense of complacency and limitations.  It exists to kick us out of our sense that our hands are bound, and expand our sense of freedom and agency.  It's sort of down the same street as Brecht's thinking about theater: Brecht saw his own "epic theater" as something that, by breaking down narrative and the wall between the players and the audience, could wake people up from their spectator-stupor and make them active.  Sartre was a more conventional playwright than Brecht, but the goal was the same.  I mean, think of that moment in "Huis Clos" when the characters, who have been locked together in a room in hell, pull on the door and find, despite all their expectations, that it pops open.  They don't leave (out of fear, out of various psychological weaknesses that bind them to one another) and we, the audience, are infuriated.  We want them to go, and we're angry at them for refusing their own freedom.    We leave the show exasperated at their weakness and bad faith, and (ideally) we feel more fired-up about our own freedoms and possibilities.

That's the idea of the "situation" — it is the moment when we realize we are freer than we thought we were, and have more options than we thought we had.  This can be something very small ("I don't have to put up with that guy at work's bullshit anymore") or something large ("the King isn't really ruling by divine right — let's storm the goddam Bastille already!").  And whatever their disagreements with Existentialism may have been, the Situationists took the idea of creating such situations — not just in the theater, but in daily life — as fundamental.  Their main techniques were designed to take us out of pre-fabricated ideas and a sense of passive spectatorship. Consider détournement, in which one takes an existing cultural product (a comic book, say) and modifies it (replacing the dialogue with lines from Nietzche or something): we're clearly meant to get the sense that we are not mere consumers of culture, but can intervene in it.  Or consider the Situationist dérive, a kind of boundary-crossing ramble over a built environment, without respecting the prescribed uses for the various kinds of space.  This is meant to help us realize that we don't have to follow the ordinary paths, and use things as we are implicitly and explicitly told to use them.

So.  For me, voting Green is less about expressing a desire to save the trees and keep the water clean (though I believe those are good things to do) than it is about a desire to keep the Green Party on the ballot (you need 5% of the vote to do that in Illinois).  It's about creating an environment in which one realizes that the way things are now is not the way they have always been and must always be.  It's about creating a sense of expanded options.  It's about creating a situation.