Are bodies a text, or can they be read as such? Saturday I spent the afternoon at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” with 400,000-500,000 of the most polite political “demonstrators” I’ve ever seen or been around. Having been there, what so amazes me about the print media coverage that followed is how those bodies really don’t seem to matter much.
I’m not talking about the underestimation of the rally numbers, though one can forget the estimates of 215,000 people in attendance; those estimates fall far short. What I’m talking about is our seeming inability to make meaning of those hundreds of thousands of bodies and our inability to assess their significance—either at the level of democracy (to be grandiose) or at the level of those simply in attendance (to be realistic). The coverage has focused on Jon Stewart’s “sincerity” speech at the end of the rally and what it meant–an identifiable text that reporters know how to read and discern meaning from. But as Stewart notes in his speech, the speech itself means nothing without the people who showed up (or as he put it, “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: You have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted”).
So what do so many bodies mean? When journalists do turn their attention to the people, they again turn to more texts—the posters and signs these bodies carried. Reporters have used such signs to once again marginalize the rally and Stewart, as they had done repeatedly for the weeks leading up to the rally (the subject of a forthcoming Antenna post). But again, for journalists, these are the texts that speak for the body, over and above what the bodies themselves are saying by their presence.
I don’t think journalists or citizens or politicians in the 1930s had a difficult time understanding political bodies and their meaning for citizenship. Political reality was actually comprised of bodies—at train stop rallies in the North or surrounding politicians stumping from the backs of wagons and trucks in the Deep South; people assembled around radios or teemed from bars during political events; thousands upon thousands of marching Nazis; mobs lynching black men. For those of us who didn’t live in those times, these are the bodies represented in documentaries like Triumph of the Will and Why We Fight, and films like Meet John Doe and All the Kings Men. In this world, bodies comprised political reality. They were meaningful by their sheer presence.
But today, in our postmodern political reality, they seem inconsequential, despite the improvements in communication technologies to capture and represent such bodies in action. Indeed, the paradox is that hyperreality seemingly makes them meaningless or, if that is an overstatement, the hyperreality that stands for reality doesn’t know how to deal with them. Bodies are exhibited on screen, but then can be ignored, not taken into account, not used as the starting point for understanding just what an event like Saturday meant to the citizens in attendance.
For those in attendance, smashed together, standing shoulder to shoulder, unable to move in any direction yet politely and jokingly making space for the families having to leave to take Missy and Junior to the potty or carry out the poopy diaper, we literally embodied the message coming from the stage. And it was a message whose only meaning resides with and is given meaning by us. From the journalistic accounts I have seen, that is the text that reporters seemingly have no idea how to read. The “24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator” indeed.