In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson uses Freudian concepts such as repression and projection to explore literary texts as attempts to deal with capitalism’s contradictions. Casting fantasy as the “vehicle for our experience of the real,” Jameson addresses some simplistic excesses of other Marxist scholars who have unduly disparaged the importance of culture. He suggests that cultural attempts to confront past political struggles can have contemporary relevance, saying:
Such long-dead issues as the seasonal alternation of the economy of a primitive tribe, the passionate disputes about the nature of the Trinity, the conflicting models of the polis or the universal Empire…can recover their original urgency for us only if they are retold within the unity of a great collective story…for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity. 
If this is true, then a reverent, spontaneous, and energetic remembrance of a monumental moment in youth activism could, without masquerading as a protest in its own right, be capable of generating its own significance.
A noteworthy attempt at such a remembrance occurred in an out-of-the-way corner of Chicago’s Grant Park on August 28, when a group of young people staged an event in honor of the riots that occurred in Chicago forty years earlier, during the week of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The event was provocatively termed a “re-enactment” of the event, which, to boast even minimal verisimilitude, would probably have needed at least a bit of staged violence to evoke the bloody clashes between armed, agitated police and largely defenseless, highly unruly young people protesting the ongoing Vietnam War generally, and in particular the Democratic choice of Hubert Humphrey, a pro-war candidate, to face Richard Nixon in the election that year. Organizers of Re-Enact ’68, however, professed interest neither in making such a grand gesture, nor in programmatically relating the goals of the 1968 protestors to obvious analogies of the present day: namely, an unpopular war and a hot and heavy presidential race. What did occur in 2008, along with a brief musical march along Michigan Avenue and some free food and face-painting, was a procession of speakers, including media and activist veterans of the 1968 events, youngsters doing theatrical readings and musical performances based on those of major youth-movement figures who appeared in Chicago in ’68 (Bobby Seale, William S. Burroughs, and the MC5, for example). There was even a mock animal election, replacing the pig of ’68 with a chicken and a cock, and there was a retired police officer who knew many of the blue-helmeted boys who were told to crack hippie skulls.
The idea for Re-Enact ’68 was hatched by 25-year-old Liam Warfield, who spoke at the event made up (reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s martyrific self-portrait) as a bloody and beaten protestor. A core group of about ten young people were involved in planning and pulling it off; the organizational effort relied largely on Yony Leyser, who portrayed Allen Ginsberg at the event, and Chip Hamlett, who was the MC on the 28th, and the one who did what he could to obtain a city permit for the event (like the 1968 protestors, they had to do without one). At a meeting about a week prior to the event, Hamlett spoke of the group’s desire to “distance ourselves from the head-smashing rhetoric” of the 1968 event, while Warfield lamented the lack of political urgency in much art of his generation, but also the lack of creativity in much contemporary activism. “The last thing we need is another protest,” he said. Rather than the issue-focused performances that started appearing around the time of the major protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, Warfield said that, while Re-Enact ’68 was attempting to encourage attendance by a variety of progressive activists, especially anti-war military veterans, the only official message the event was sponsoring was “U.S. out of Vietnam.”
Indeed, while expressing predominantly leftist views, these youthful, devil-may-care organizers didn’t seem to consider themselves standard activists nearly so much as artists, putting on the event to affect participants and viewers rather than to alter the course of public policy. The shape of the event seemed to follow the recent call to participate in reading aloud speeches made at the 1969 Open Hearing of the Art Workers’ Coalition, organized by Canadian artist Kirsten Forkert, and featuring the American artist Mark Tribe, whose Port Huron Project, named after a manifesto written by Tom Hayden (a major figure in the 1968 showdown), has involved re-staging historical speeches by figures such as Coretta Scott King, Howard Zinn, and Paul Potter. Performing re-enactments not as homage but rather as art-coded commentary on intractable social dilemmas has been around at least since the Ant Farm recreations of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and is flourishing today, as evidenced by last year’s group show at MASS MoCA, Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History, and another in Phoenix, History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies if Re-Enactment in Contemporary (Media) Art and Performance, both of which featured perhaps the seminal piece in this recent flurry of simulacra, Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of a 1984 miners’ strike in Sheffield, England, titled The Battle of Orgreave. More generally, elliptical but strongly research-based work has flourished in the sphere of socially-engaged art in this decade, from Paul Chan’s cataloguing of Marxist leaders’ facial hair to Alice Creischer’s statistics-informed sculpture to Thomas Demand’s tiny diorama of Leni Riefenstahl’s film library to Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s video explorations of state secrets.
A political program is certainly not impossible to discern in these pieces, but, at least in theory, they are operating on a different register than street protests. Direct agitation is hardly a thing of the past, relegated to internet petitions by soft-money advocacy interests; tens of thousands of people converged on this year’s Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and, while media coverage of their adventures was far more abundant on that very internet than beyond its blurry borders, the counterculture spectacle seems to be thriving. Nonetheless, this very lack of coverage implies a factor that may be hard to simply chalk up to “manufactured consent.” Many Americans might get a brief kick out of watching hooded anarchists cavort with giant puppets depicting genetically-modifed celery, but it’s yet another marginal phenomenon of a fragmented social universe. It lacks the drama, the depth of meaning that, somehow or other, a large number of people manage to discover in the mainstream political process. The artwork I mentioned above, on the other hand, while undeniably elite in its sphere of reference and relevance, seems to vibrate more convincingly with the tenor of the current blog-driven political climate, combining a visionary focus on a rather vague big picture with a microcosmic attention to details and local tactical maneuvers.
Fueling the conceptual interest in mining and manipulating politicized histories is probably a shared interest in the distancing from the object implicit in both historical narrative and aesthetic representation. This is the gap that is filled in far too often, both in art and politics, by the easy flatness of irony and nostalgia, or an unsettling combination thereof. But the task of a strong ideology (ideology being unavoidable in any reading of history) should be instead to elaborate a fusion, an aestheticized vision of history. Ideology creates a story to fill in that gap, in which irony becomes apocalypse and nostalgia becomes utopia. As Frederic Jameson has it, ideology allows an individual is able to see herself “mirrored in history,” through her investment in a “libidinal apparatus”—the emotional and spiritual ghost of collective action.
While the crowd at Re-Enact ’68 was small, peaking at maybe 200, people I spoke with who had stayed for several hours, spoke reflectively and reverently about the event, and seemed moved in a way that was quite distinct from the righteous fury of the protestor. The “apocalypse” event of the evening would have been a re-enactment of the 1968 scaling of the Grant Park equestrian statue of General Logan, a symbolic swarming and consuming of the war machine. The scaling was cancelled owing to the presence of a battle-ready detachment of Chicago’s finest, who brought with them dozens of barricades, making a land-based approach to the statue nearly impossible. In my attendance at planning meetings, none of the organizers expressed the slightest interest in being arrested, which, rather than cowardice, seems merely to show a sense of what the event was—an opportunity for shared contemplation, not a tool of immediate revolution. The joy of destruction had to be found in the vicarious reminiscences of the speakers and the aural damage caused by William S. Burroughs’s hand-held cassette player sound piece, as well as in a little dust-up at the end in which an animal-rights activist blasted the organizers for bringing the chickens, which had been bought from a slaughterhouse and were slated to be set free in the woods.
The “utopia” event, however, was also a direct re-enactment, and it came off without a hitch: everyone in attendance sitting in a giant circle, holding hands, and chanting the anachronistic universal syllable “Om.” Human-interactive performances and sing-alongs are an aspect of both high-art and popular culture that also seems to have come back around, as in the sound-art performances of the Lucky Dragons group, who brought their digitally-aided group play to Chicago that very weekend. For a generation that hates themselves for having once enjoyed the Barney show, that doesn’t frequently sing Christmas carols or camp songs or church songs or worker hymns, the beatific ecstasy many people feel in such a situation is something that must be seen to be believed. Nearly everyone who was around for the circle noted it as a high point in the evening. Even when the organizers practiced the circle in a preparatory meeting, it changed the entire tone of the discussion. If the re-enactment phenomenon has a political purpose , it appears to be the possibility of using stories of the shared past to envision a shared future. The importance of Re-Enact ’68 should be gauged not by some pedantic idea of “effectiveness,” but by the extent it is remembered in its own right, as a simultaneously serious and light-hearted experiment in focusing the attention of a group on attempting to invent a shared moral feeling. ◊
1. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 19.