Two weeks ago, I was one of the estimated 8,000 people who participated in the Omaha Women’s March. In addition to the shared sense of camaraderie and the uncanny connection to a horde of perfect strangers, I was struck by the ubiquity of the signs that marchers dutifully hauled to the corner of 14th and Farnam. Some expressed utter frustration: “Ugh…where do I even start?”, or were ironic: “Breaking news: Mexico has agreed to pay for the impeachment.” Others were puzzling, even problematic: “Make America a first-world country again!” But all, I suppose, were a form of protest, itself a specific “speech genre,” as Mikhail Bakhtin might say.
James Paul Gee reminds us that language, beyond simply enabling us to say things, also allows us to do and be things. Every utterance might thus be read as a bid to be accepted as a certain kind of person, doing a certain kind of activity (3-5). That was us on that Saturday – assembling, marching, chanting – proclaiming our identities as certain kinds of people (liberal, feminist, civically-engaged) involved in a certain kind of thing, protest. I couldn’t help but think of Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia as I considered the historical linkages between our work that day and the similar work of hundreds of thousands of others, occurring in the past, extending through the present and persisting into the future. Indeed, we trod a well-worn trail that day.
I do not mean to be self-aggrandizing here; rather, I think about this protest as merely one of countless others, and recognizing its relatively small place along this continuum is simultaneously humbling and empowering. This dualism was further cemented for me upon spending an hour or so in an exhibition called Artists and Writers Protest the War in Viet Nam, currently on view at the Sheldon Museum of Art. This exhibition features the work of 16 visual artists and 18 poets who, in 1967, offered their contributions to a limited-edition portfolio that was intended to raise both awareness of, and financial support for, anti-war efforts.
This exhibition, along with five additional permanent collection galleries dedicated to exploring “The Long 1968,” transports us to a particular moment, and provides a sense of how an earlier generation attempted to metabolize and respond to the chaos and upheaval of the time. They, too, used the tools of protest not only to say something, but also in order to be read as particular kinds of people engaged in a particular form of social protest. As I moved from piece to piece, I imagined how these same images and lines of poetry would be taken up today, and what additional, heteroglossic meanings might be ascribed to them. I thought about the disarticulated androgyny and the spirals of blood-like stains in Leon Albert Golub’s lithograph, Killed Youth, and how today it could conceivably be read as a statement on the pervasiveness of gun violence. I shuddered in fear when I encountered Carol Summers’ work entitled, Kill for Peace, which, though initially intended to call attention to the scores of Vietnamese women and children casualties, could easily be interpreted in today’s world as a xenophobic anti-immigration statement.
I squinted to see if I could picture Robert Duncan’s words on a piece of cardboard, held high overhead on the day of our president’s inauguration:
The nation has gone so far wrong/Truth grows fateful
And true song gives forth portents of woe.
And I marveled at how William Copley’s untitled silkscreen, a black and white rendering of the US flag that features the directive, “THINK,” in place of stars, could well be aimed at any number of causes, and from any number of political and social positions. It, like most of the signs on display at the Omaha protest, could just as easily be an insult lobbed at progressive-types as much as it could be a defense of them. I wondered, thinking about Judith Butler’s notion of “insurrectionary speech,” if such speech – which bypasses illocutionary and perlocutionary designations to instead subvert the workings of power – is possible when meaning is so contextual and subjective, and so fundamentally capricious.
Years ago, I found myself in a room with a few other college students and Kara Walker, a visual artist of much acclaim and, of late, much derision. With all the timidity of an awkward 20-year-old, I remember asking her if she was concerned that someone might encounter a piece of hers and not comprehend its complex historicity. “My work understands that it will be misunderstood,” she replied, coolly. Perhaps, then, we’ve little choice but to embrace the idea that our utterances and actions, and the meanings we intend them to take on, are not only ours to interpret. They become part of a heteroglossic tapestry. They will be uttered again and again and again, in different contexts and for different purposes. This is limiting, as our words are likely to "be misunderstood,” in Walker’s view. On the other hand, maybe the malleability of language also permits us to speak words that were not meant for us, that have been used against us, words that get us closer to Butler’s insurrectionary speech.
Charles Stein, another of the exhibition’s featured poets, suggests,
in the action of
one conscious thing.
Collectively, the assembled works in Artists and Writers Protest the War in Viet Nam are as much an excoriation of something specific – US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1960s –as they are a template (derived from thousands of previous examples) for conscious action, generally. In 2018, over fifty years after these works were compiled, there is still so much to be learned.
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich. Speech genres and other late essays. University of Texas
Butler, Judith. Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. Psychology Press, 1997.\
Copley, William. Untitled. 1967, silkscreen, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska
Duncan, Robert. Untitled. 1967. In Artists and Writers Protest the War in Viet Nam.
Gee, James Paul. An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. Routledge, 2014.
Golub, Leon. Killed Youth. 1967, lithograph, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of
Stein, Charles. Tenth Circle Speculation. 1967. In Artists and Writers Protest the War in Viet
Summers, Carol. Kill for Peace. 1967, silkscreen, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of
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