Smashing The Box To Bits Nonviolently


An act of creation is only half the story: the other half is the community into which that creation lands. The realm of blending is all-important. Novelty is insufficient — what’s also required is resonance with one’s society. That should be obvious, but it’s not. For instance, the “creativity” involved in the Occupy hey day in New York sparked a lot of positives to come to the fore, but no more than that. For all the wonderful effort, intentions and accomplishments, activists operated without a real sense of the degree to which the vast majority of New Yorkers did not agree with their anti-capitalist message. And the constant repetition of “99%” in the mainstream media reinforced the delusion that many more were on board than actually were significantly with the direct action citizens.

What people find creatively interesting — whether in the area of politics or the arts — depends on where one lives, is practicing, selling… or protesting.

Seventeenth-century French playwrights were sold on Aristotle’s three dramatic unities: a play should focus on one main plot, taking place in a single location, and within a single day. They were anal retentive about that. Contemporaneous English playwrights such as Shakespeare knew of these conventions but chose to ignore them — thus Hamlet leaves Denmark for England in one act and returns several weeks later in the next.

During the same time period, Japanese Noh drama did not realistically portray space and time: two characters could stand side by side yet not be in each other’s presence. What played well in London and Tokyo wouldn’t have played at all in Paris because cultural norms were too different. Creators and the public alike are bound by cultural restraints: an idea in one place doesn’t necessarily transfer to another because it isn’t digested from the same cultural feeding grounds.

Activist, understandably aiming for solidarity across national boundaries must keep this in mind while organizing. But far too often international efforts are made as much in the dark as was the case with the well-meaning Occupy people. Their accomplishments notwithstanding, they didn’t go anywhere near as far as they wanted or expected to. In an effort to acknowledge differences activist often make another mistake: they water down too much in order to bridge cultural gaps. That won’t do either. Not in this age where we must move expeditiously and carve out inroads together quickly, deadlines looming.

Author Joyce Carol Oates describes the writing of novels as a kind of “massive, joyful experiment done with words and submitted to one’s peers for judgment.” But what your peers think of the experiment is contingent upon the culture in which they’re embedded: the creations that are valued in any society depend on what has come before them. The products of our imagination, then, are propelled by local history. Ditto for counterparts in civic engagement.

The challenges that proactive concerned citizens face today have a lot to do with navigating these choppy waters boldly, not compromising too much by focusing overly much on recruiting the much heralded critical mass. And being very careful to not drown oneself along with everyone else by attempting to honor “democracy” to such a degree that one stymies movement that’s generated, as Occupy did with its General Assemblies (that gave everyone the same amount of time to express their opinions, and — consequently — having no time left to go into creative game plans).

Many of those who attended Shakespeare’s plays were illiterate, and so the Globe Theatre got very creative and would hoist up a white flag when there were going to be performances on a given day. That’s the way we must proceed as activists. But we have to go so far beyond the usual ways for moving in solidarity with multiple cultural considerations that what’s required is not just thinking outside the proverbial box, but smashing the box to bits nonviolently.

Annapurna Tosca Sriramarcel is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at [email protected].




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