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April 30, 2009

Attack of the mutant, post–modern kettles of death

Q. What’s worse than being stuck in a kettle for five hours?
Police kettles are meant to stop different groups of protesters rallying together and taking over the world. It creates what the police call a ‘sterile’ area or group of people, which they can supervise and control. However there is another kind of kettle being used much more effectively against protesters all the time, and we hardly even notice. Constantly updating news services, always on the look-out for the next story, seem at first to be a perfect opportunity for representation; but there’s no better way of being sterilised than by being treated like a protester on News 24.
A. Never getting out.

Any protest is essentially a desire for representation, and is crucial in any healthy democratic society. However, the protests at the G20 illustrate a growing phenomenon whereby our ability to represent ourselves has been usurped by rolling news channels, whose representation of events turns them into items on a news programme (or in a newspaper), rather than real-life occurrences that have a real-life meaning. War, disease, weather, traffic, protest, celebrity, climate change, expenses, sport. Events do not seem real unless they are awarded airtime; however, once in the news, they become part of a predetermined news script and lose their originality and ability to represent anything. This, at least, is the analysis of Jean Baudrillard, the ‘pop’ philosopher who was famously misinterpreted in The Matrix. According to Baudrillard, rolling news channels broadcast “the realm of perpetual change, of a ceaseless updating, of an incessant succession in real time which produces this general equivalence, this banality that characterizes the zero degree of the event” (Baudrillard 2005, 122). Wars become video games, the House of Commons turns into a soap opera and politics becomes a drama, crime becomes thriller, genocide becomes horror, and, by the magic of the media, events become non-events.

Baudrillard writes that the rolling news channel is “a space where everything is pre-neutralized, including war, by the precession of images and commentaries” (2005, 123), and if this is the case, what chance do protesters have of getting their message across? “Information, news coverage, is always already there…the best thing being to invent or cause the event so as to be the first with the news” (2005, 123), and this is exactly what, in the days leading up to the event, the special reports in newspapers predicting slaughter and riot were attempting to do. Even if they avoided the (tellingly named) “special demonstration pen near the Excel Centre [which can] accommodate a few hundred protesters” ( BBC para. 11), the police physically ‘kettled’ protesters into a carefully controlled, ‘sterile’ area. In the same way, but more efficiently, the rolling news channels ‘short-circuiting’ the representation the protesters are trying to achieve until “it is the event of news coverage that substitutes itself for coverage of the event” (Baudrillard 2005, 133). The continued coverage of police brutality and abuse of power against the protesters (whilst in itself important) only adds to the impression that the ‘story’ was that of protesters vs. police, or at best free speech vs. censorship. The tragedy is that this kind of legitimisation of protest (whether through putting protesters in pens or writing them into pigeon-holes) is a much more effective form of censorship than a secret police would ever achieve.

As protesters, we even pigeon-hole ourselves on occasions, through waving banners with nothing on them other than the name of the organisation we are representing, through chanting “what do we want? [insert cause here]! When do we want it? Now!”, through becoming systematically obsessed with the police response, and by generally acting like protesters. We act like protesters ought to act, and so do nothing to change the story that we are a part of. Even getting arrested is sometimes just part of the whole ‘protester experience’. We are like stock characters in a fairy tale. The evil stepmother, the innocent child, the wise old man, the chanting, flag waving protester. In Baudrillard’s terms, we are “events in a system that has put an end to history” (Baudrillard 2005, 126).

So far, so sceptically unhelpful. Of course protesting is necessary, and of course protesting is often fantastically successful and has brought about the most amazing change against the worst odds. I shall be going to more protests. However, as people wanting to make a difference in the world, we must always fight against the forces of legitimation that seek to make us fit into their narratives. We must stop caring about being so “media-friendly” at the expense of making a story. The crucial thing for us to learn to do is to stop being satisfied at being heard, and demand (somehow) to be listened to.

I don’t think we should be afraid of calling some protests a failure, even if there were some good outcomes. We ultimately failed on the 1st of April to do any more than make our indecipherable voices heard. Perhaps protesting as we know it is an out-of-date technique, an inadequate method of achieving political representation, but that doesn’t mean that this desire for representation is futile. Baudrillard’s big mistake is to believe that old lie, that history ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when ideology ceased to be a battle-ground and the neo-liberal agenda became the world’s only meta-narrative. If the world is now ruled by game theorists, it is Baudrillard who treats everything as if it’s a game. We’ve got to find a real-life way of representing ourselves; it is, after all, not us who are living in the fantasy-world.


Works Cited


Baudrillard, Jean. Impossible Exchange. Trans. C. Turner. London : Verso, 2002.


---. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. Trans. C. Turner. London : Berg, 2005.


“Police warn of G20 protest scale.” BBC News 20 March 2009. 10 April 2009. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7955057.stm>




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