Sociology professor Kenneth H. Tucker, who specializes in social movements and mass communications, recently authored a new book, Workers of the World, Enjoy! Aesthetic Politics from Revolutionary Syndicalism to the Global Justice Movement. Tucker spoke with MHC writer Mickey Rathbun about the book, in which he chronicles the rise of the public sphere through social movements.
Q: The subtitle of your new book is Aesthetic Politics from Revolutionary Syndicalism to the Global Justice Movement. What do you mean by "aesthetic politics"?
KT: Aesthetic politics refers to understanding politics in terms of images, theater, and emotion, and I apply this idea to social movements. Increasingly participants in social movements take an aesthetic approach to their work. They believe that social protest should be fulfilling, creative, and fun. They believe that art, music, and dress can be used to communicate their messages of change. The actual practices of these movements--such as the labor and global justice movements--are much more playful now. People don't just go to demonstrations, line up, and chant. At the recent 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit, for example, protesters dressed up in costumes and paraded through the city.
Implicit in this is a critique of the standard bureaucratic set-up, as protesters advocate for more playful politics. Aesthetic politics can be at odds with more conventional understandings of politics that are based on rational debate or the delineation of clear public policy proposals.
Q: How did you become interested in this subject?
KT: I got my Ph.D. in sociology at Berkley and wrote my first book, which grew out of my thesis, on French syndicalism, a workers' movement. I have always been interested in labor movements and other social movements broadly. And I noticed that so many social movements now--including gay rights, Tea party, and global justice--are incorporating costume, music, and dancing in their protests. Tea partyers, for example, dress up like the Statue of Liberty, or George Washington. It's a carnival atmosphere.
Q: Are these social movements primarily progressive?
KT: Not necessarily. The Tea Party movement is not at all progressive. Aesthetic politics was also a central characteristic of European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.
Q: To what do you attribute this change in protesters and style?
KT: It grew out of the close relationship that developed in the early-twentieth century between labor activists and avant-garde and bohemian artists. Both these groups shared many of the same causes, especially a critique of how money and the market determined all aspects of life in a capitalist society, from art to labor. Artists often protested on behalf of workers. Further, while the growth of mass media in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries sometimes encouraged conformity to existing social values, the rise of advertising, popular music, and the like also helped to popularize many bohemian values, such as an emphasis on style, creativity, and cultural rebellion.
Q: What implications does your theory have for electoral politics?
KT: I think we are increasingly concerned with images and theater. Obama has been criticized for not being emotive enough about the BP oil spill, for example. For many people, this image is more critical than what he actually says and does.
Q: Is there anything positive about this emphasis on images?
KT: It is an implicit demand for a more creative and fulfilling public and private life, a welcome antidote to our work and money-obsessed society. But, as the philosopher Charles Taylor states, aesthetic politics is up for grabs, and it can be progressive, xenophobic, or destructive.