Are Bodies Politically Meaningful? Report from The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

November 1, 2010
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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.


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6 Responses to “ Are Bodies Politically Meaningful? Report from The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ”

  1. Cornel Sandvoss on November 1, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    Great piece, Jeff!

    Just a quick transatlantic addition: while BBC coverage (I am more of a radio than TV man these days) features interview after interview with Tea Party members, the rally went largely unmentioned over the weekend and today.

  2. Daniel Marcus on November 1, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    Actually, I think bodies mean a lot in today’s politics — the Tea Partiers’ and other conservatives’ embodied opposition to Obama at town hall meetings and street protests gave their movement a lot of political momentum, providing fodder for Fox news reports and regaining confidence in opposing Obama. (This is not to discount the organizational and financial resources behind the right’s response.) The ambiguity of the meaning of the Stewart ralliers’ presence is based on Stewart’s openly nonpartisan appeals and framing of the event, which became even more ambiguous by the left’s positive response to his invitation. He might have wanted it to be nonpartisan, but liberals hungry for an occasion to respond in an embodied way to the right seized the opportunity to turn it into their rally. Sort of.

    • Jeffrey Jones on November 1, 2010 at 8:37 PM

      Dan: You write: “the Tea Partiers’ and other conservatives’ embodied opposition to Obama at town hall meetings and street protests gave their movement a lot of political momentum, providing fodder for Fox news reports.” And therein is the catch: all one needed is anywhere from two to four loudmouth idiots and one person filming it for a Town Hall meeting to become a media event, especially on Fox, but also CNN et al. Not so sure those bodies were very significant in number, more significant as manufactured YouTube viral-video goes Fox and CNN moments. So was the momentum from the bodies or how the select and outlying few were deploy and used by the machine Stewart is critiquing (the ants on fire epidemic)?

      • Jeffrey Jones on November 1, 2010 at 8:40 PM

        Same with the need for Hannity to manufacture more bodies for Bachmann’s Tea Party rally, which didn’t seem to produce as many bodies as needed to be meaningful. If anything, your examples point directly to the hyper-mediation of politics, with bodies as little more than fodder for the machine.

  3. Tausif Khan on November 7, 2010 at 1:36 PM

    This whole rally to me was to bring back the potency of the civil rights movement and remind us of how liberal (read rational) it was. This starts with Jason Jones and John Oliver’s trip to the rally on the bus with fellow rallyers and continued with African American spiritual songs at the rally and appeals to allowing every one a chance right down to the end with Stewart’s speech of- it doesn’t matter whether I am a red stater or blue stater because when it comes to a tunnel all of that melts away- and everyone has to give everyone else an opportunity in order to remain safe.

    I don’t think we are living in a postmodern political era and I think that term gets through around too frequently. I would need to see a better justification of this.

    However, if one were to read this rally through a post structuralist perspective Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Living would be relevant here specifically with the emphasis on travel and traffic and perspective and the third part of the book with chapters 7 (Walking in the City) and chapters 8 (Railway Navigation and Incarceration).

    I actually had the exact same thought as Stewart when I was trying to leave New York through the Holland tunnel-so many cars, so many things can go wrong, so many different types of people, yet all are able to cede power to make sure that everyone exits safely. This is a very interesting and important political metaphor that I would like to see explored further.

    • Tausif Khan on November 7, 2010 at 1:38 PM

      *thrown around too often