Against democratic optimism
Disappointment, as a sensible experience, can be thought of as the opposite of what Laurent Berlant (2011) described under the category of cruel optimism. The latter refers to a particular type of affective economy in the technologies of contemporary governability, that is, a form of disciplined affectation in neoliberal societies through which people choose to bond with objects of desire through historically predetermined hopeful promises and joyful images, that hold them bound to the fantasy of morally superior futures, even against their own well-being, for the sole purpose of giving continuity to their existences under the therapeutic effect that comes from following the right path, the path of normative guidelines that prescribe what can make these lives better, what can make them a good life. Through this category, Berlant names the way in which these forms of optimistic attachment wear down fantasies of mobility and progress, creating problematic bonds with such objects of desire, thus demonstrating how the promise of happiness described in turn by Sara Ahmed (2010), that semiotic architecture that works as an invisible guide orienting the experience of the existent, can be revealed as impossible, mere fantasy, or directly dangerous, risking the lives of those who dream.
As a counterpart, disappointment is a feeling that can potentially symbolise the loss of the hopeful attachment that neoliberal democracies institute as a condition of possibility to access a happy future, revealing through sensations of breakdown, fraud or disenchantment, the systemic, productive and profitable features of the self-destructive emotional contract that imposes us the clause of maintaining at any cost a bond with that object of desire - in this case, a good life, a democratic life - in order to avoid its loss, since the mere possibility of its absence or any attempt to deviate from the righteousness of its path threatens, in one way or another, to end our own life and society as a whole.
In this sense, to become disappointed, that is, to voluntarily or accidentally practice a negative reaction to the falsehood, insufficiency or directly the failure of that neoliberal promise that instrumentalises our attachment can turn into an oppositional consciousness (Sandoval, 2001) capable of accelerating through uncomfortable emotions a collective critique of the cruelty inherent to contemporary regimes of global governability. These regimes operate under the internalisation of radical individualism and a practical realism determined by the rhythms of supply and demand, that are multiplied even more by the work of sensible artifacts that extend the soporific power of magical voluntarism, that dominant belief that David Smail recognises as the unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society.
From the year 1983, an important part of the tensions that characterised the recovery of the democratic order in Argentina, can be found prefigured in a series of conflicting presences within a time that, after seven long years marked by the organised terror of the civil-military dictatorship, embraced the public space to begin the feast of democracy, along with the newly elected president Raúl Alfonsín. Also known as the Democratic Spring, this process did not condensed a homogeneous yearning for institutional reconstruction, but a polyphonic series of political strategies to make it concrete. In other words, not only instituted a legal way out of authoritarianism, but simultaneously invoked the strength of all the struggles for political freedoms, representing itself the possibility of realisation of different imaginaries of social transformation.
Therefore understood as a polemic signifier (Reano and Smola, 2013), the hopeful promise of Argentine democracy resided precisely in its ability to become a form of imagination of the social whose meanings never ended up fixed in a predetermined way, but were worked out through sinuous historical disputes. Some of these tensions were materialised in a group of micropolitical experiences and non-organic initiatives of collective organisation, such as La Marcha Pagana (Pagan March), promoted by La Coordinadora de Grupos Alternativos (1986) y la Malvenida a Juan Pablo II (The Repudiation of Juan Pablo II) organised by La Comisión en Repudio al Papa (Commission of Repudiation of the Pope, 1987) a gather of groups of political affinity which through their differences sought to make visible the repressive persecution faced by all those subjects involved in the strange design of other ways of living during the democratic return in Buenos Aires, and also denounce the leading role played by the ecclesiastical institution in promoting the repressive sexual morality that justified these types of violence. These experiences were composed of unsatisfied gay activists, anarchist magazine editors, melancholic leftists disappointed by their parties and a prolific series of street graphic action groups, young punks, heavy metal fans, underground performers and several killjoy feminists organised against the police edicts. As political spaces, they were strongly nourished by their constitutive differences, and it was from there they designed a particular way of doing defined by a deep criticism towards the traditional modes of political action. Thus, they prioritised protest under affective registers that operationalised the force of ridicule, the unraveling of pleasures and the loss of meaning as an experience of critical subjectivation on public space.
Against sacred marriage
Through a series of meetings that took place in a cultural space related to the Humanist Party, The Coordinadora de Grupos Alternativos (1986), a gather of alternative groups mostly formed by queer and anarchists, gathered to discuss how they could intervene in the current climate against the Divorce Law, that was once again marked by the violence of the police and the media pressure the religious discourse, giving shape to the initiative of La Marcha Pagana: a rally convened for August 15, 1986, at Plaza Congreso in the city of Buenos Aires. The principal vector for the organisation of the experience would be the demand for the urgent separation of Church and State, but it would be different from other proposals because it celebrated the exercise of absolute freedom to achieve it as its absolute horison. Through flyers filled with precarious drawings made to the rhythms of a raunchy camp (Cuello y Lemus, 2016), a type of hypersexual representation that juxtaposed the poetic density of punk graphics, the use of pornographic images and a vast universe of blasphemous signs, its protagonists cheerfully called for the occupation of public space wrapped in ragged costumes of nuns, priests and altar boys, aiming to blind the military gaze with the gender-fluid extravagance of a multitude of bodies drunk on shiny cheap gemstones, but also with the smelly mohawk of angry punks and the artisanal vests full of rusty chains from young metal fans who sought to undermine the social call to normality.
The rally landscape was completed by an uncontrolled abundance of posters that denounced the Church’s complicity with State terrorism, rejecting the forthcoming visit of Pope Juan Pablo II, while also mocking the local clergy with a strongly sarcastic tone. A series of banners attempted to disrupt the transparency of these explicit demands by introducing onomatopoeias (Oh, Uh!, Ahh!) on a large scale that graphically reproduced a confusing mix of roars of awe and pleasure. Meanwhile, two precarious puppets of big dimensions functioned as escorts of the ridiculousness during the time the concentration lasted, until their protagonists were brutally repressed. On one hand, there was a stick marionette of a nun whose robe mechanically revealed a prominent satiny pubic hair and stinging nipples smeared with glitter; and on the other, there was a puppet mounted on stilts by Gustavo Sola that tried to represent the Argentinian "macho" and whose prolonged foam penis balanced among people like a dead animal. From the liveliness of their irreverent expression, both home-made artefacts activated a pagan force imbricated with anti-repressive desires, in a coven that linked the inorganic agency of those uncontrollable subjectivities that aspired not only to the recovery of the night but also to interrupt the fictitious promise of citisenship that had inaugurated the return of democracy, altering the rhythm of the common through sexual misconduct.
Enrique Yurkovich, one of its principal promoters, says that the strategy of occupying the public space through sexual provocation, ridicule and extravagance, was aimed to antagonise with an ongoing political practice of ecclesiastical power at a national level: the Public Masses in Defense of the Family for the faithful, starred by children and adolescents in public squares. Claudia Zicker, an anarchist activist and founder along with Yurkovich of the initiative Club de Blasfemos (Club of Blasphemous), an imaginary association that operated through subscription coupons placed inside the magazine Manuela (1986), comments in an interview, on the decisions of occupying the public space with this overgrown, particular affective energy:
‘We thought we could be monsters in the street. We wanted to position ourselves within this discussion, but not from the discourse of the democratic family that we considered phoney. We wanted to detach ourselves from that political culture of normality. We weren’t going to dress up as decent people asking for a divorce, that’s what they were for. We addressed it from a different side. If the Church has a say in this matter it is because the Church and the State are jointly operating, and this is a secular country. That is why the process of forming la Marcha Pagana meant we had to learn about the constitution and the history of religions. We were prompted to test democracy, to ask about that limit. That’s why we proposed the legal separation of Church and State.’
The experimentation with the limits of democracy would not only be a quest regarding strictly the institutional interference of the Church over the State, but it had become the bodily principle from which participating spaces within the Coordinadora de Grupos Alternativos made politics. In the words of their members, their desire was to distance themselves from the phoniness, since they distrusted politics as they knew it and thought the only truth was when things happened through the body. That not only implied the idea of "use the body", that is, to inscribe it materially in the manifested multitude, but it was also a matter of turning it into the possible language of all political expression. That is the reason of why the bodily appearance or dress style as public devices of subjective singularisation (Lucena and Laboureau, 2016) along with nuances and the sex-genderised design of gestures were all part of an integral program for those new modes of political action.
In the face of clerical power, the usual misfits cheered loudly for the divorce, the consumption of pornography, the excessive use of drugs and the free exercise of sexual deviance in the city streets, but the problems did not take long to arrive. After having occupied Plaza Congreso, they started singing spontaneously slogans with the background sound of off-key instruments, and then they decided to walk in circles around the square, as they have learned from Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the Human Rights movement with which they held a direct affinity and which many felt themselves a part of.
But in the midst of that dissonant coven, pressured by the appearance of fundamentalist Christian groups who had attended the rally to perform a “collective exorcism” on these youths driven by drugs, sex and blasphemy, the police began to surround the perimeter where the mobilisation was taking place in an attempt to disperse it. As time went on, the proximity of the police escalated into a delirious confrontation that strongly irritated those who were there to dissuade the situation. The dialogue that follows is one of the few available registers of what happened that day and faithfully represents the main features of a new sensible principle of political organisation based on mockery, delirium and the intoxicated intensification of the senses, as recalled by the people who were there in their testimonies: “’Who is the leader?’ [a policeman asked]. ‘There are no leaders; the leaders have died’, a 50-year-old replied. ‘Who is responsible for this?’. ‘We’re all irresponsible’, a punk said caustically. ‘That puppet is obscene; you are violating the 128 of the Penal Code’. ‘Haven’t you heard of grotesque art?’, they responded. In the midst of the repression, the police are still clueless, and the protesters start shouting without backing down: ‘We want to fuck!’. It is incredible: we are in Buenos Aires, it's 1986 and two hundred frenzied people are shouting WE WANT TO FUCK at the corner of Callao and Bartolomé Mitre” (Marin, 1987).
The discussion about the grotesque and obscene, the outlandish language from which they challenged the patience of the officers, the prankster replies and the ways in which they tried to outwit power gave them time to resist but ultimately failed to contain the repressive fury that would ensue. Struggles, beatings and persecutions discontinued the pleasure principle from which that small crowd of inadequacies intended to affect the reality.
The few testimonies from which this episode has become known, concur on remembering that the only resistance strategy for the possible advance of police had been nudism: "The urgent thing to do was to run away and lose our clothes on the way. That was the only way they wouldn't recognise us" remembers Claudia Zicker, in our personal dialogue. After the detention of fifteen protesters, the approximately two hundred participants reported in the public media, with the support of human rights organisations, being victims of brutal police repression as in the worst days of the dictatorship, while the police argued the main reason for interrupting the demonstration was due to the notorious sexualised expression of the those gathered and the infringement of morals implied by their obscene displays: especially, their expressive repertoires of protest.
Describing accurately what had happened, the official statement shared by the Coordinadora de Grupos Alternativos concluded by calling for a second Marcha Pagana, but the continuity of this mass blasphemy project would quickly fade over time. Even its historical value would experience a similar fate. In tension with the available language of left activism as well as the affective repertoires of the incipient gay pragmatism (Muñoz, 2009), even today it is difficult to gauge the contribution that an event like this had, especially due to its abrasive critique of democracy, but also for its absence of records, the inconsistency of its organisational methodologies, the imprecision from which it is remembered and above all, the political devaluation that its ephemeral condition has implied.
Against Christian blessing
From the shared concerns among the different types of groups that had formed the Coordinadora de Grupos Alternativos, whose political affinity was strengthened after La Marcha Pagana and especially after the repressive onslaught they had faced together, it was possible to install in the discussions of that time the urgency to dismantle the social ties of clerical power in the weightless management of the new democratic reality in Argentina through an experimental antagonistic imagination. Although in formal terms, that collective organising body had found its limit in that past experience, all of its members, along with a significant number of new activists, editorial teams, political parties, cultural organisations, sectors of the Human Rights movement and independent artists will again be grouped in the Comisión de Repudio al Papa (Commission of Repudiation of the Pope, CRAP): a call outlined under the subversive resonances of La Marcha Pagana that took public form with the publication of the manifesto entitled “Contra Wojtyla” (“Against Wojtyla”), signed by the artist Jorge Gumier Maier and the writer Enrique Symns from the editorial team of Cerdos & Peces in the magazine's no. 9 of February 1987:
We have enough evidence accumulated in our sensibility, experience and perception of the world to state that the Pope, the present one or any other, represents one of the powers that control human existence in the West. Throughout history, the Church he represents has been one of the most dangerous and cruel pests that have scourged humanity. It was there in all the massacres, participating, giving their blessing, dividing the spoils, concealing and assenting, always at the victor's side, with an evasive and uncompromising discourse at hand (...) On April 6, the Pope, the same Holy Father who in the Malvinas will line up on the Reagan-Tatcher axis, is coming to Buenos Aires with the intention of ‘blessing this democracy.’ We are calling all good-willed souls who wish to give an effective, legal and eloquent response to his message, to join us and prepare a great event where we can raise our hand and say NO to his presence. (…) Repudiation, on the other hand, must be considered as an inalienable right granted by the constitution to express the thought of a group of citizens, and therefore it is the intention of this proposal that nothing illegal, rude or injurious be done. Contact us. (Gumier Maier y Symns, 1987)
While the epistemological substratum that organised the repudiation continued to be the incandescent expression of disagreement over ecclesiastical power and its effective participation in the continuity of conservative regimes of cultural control, this call, unlike their previous experience and at least in enunciative terms, sought to avoid the possibility of any conflict or contempt that might confront them with possible repression. Some of the protagonists say this was one of the main discussions during the meetings that would structure the organisation of such an event. Both the issues of security, legal remedies and anti-repressive containment strategies, as well the expressed will to expand the repudiation without any conditions were installed as needs to address in the process of assemblies that took place at first in the editorial office of the magazine Cerdos & Peces located at 2537 Corrientes Street, but eventually, due to two bomb threats, they would move to the Parakultural Center and later, to the José Ingenieros Popular Library.
With a decidedly more organised rhythm, the groups that formed the CRAP called in the Plaza del Obelisco a massive rally for the day April 3, 1987, in which they sought to express a wide repudiation to the Supreme Pontiff, actual representative of power historically involved in the extension of restrictive principles of control towards social behaviour and, especially in Latin America, a power that had participated in the crimes against humanity perpetrated by military dictatorships. Having learnt from the public discomfort and flamboyant informality of initiatives such as La Marcha Pagana, on this occasion the call had a stipulated program of cultural activities that included the reading of poems, political documents, performances, musical shows in which the most relevant precarious stars from Buenos Aires' underground were involved. At the same time, inorganically, this program was part of an extensive series of cultural activities that the members of CRAP had produced individually from their particular spaces, as a prelude to animate the impulse of rejection to the Pope's arrival. Many of them were held in the most representative spaces of the libertarian organisation in the city of Buenos Aires of that time: the José Ingenieros Popular Library and the Federación Libertaria Argentina (The Argentine Libertarian Federation). These were spaces that housed young anarchists engaged in the organisation of conferences, film series and plays that thematised the hidden history of religious power in the reproducibility of capital and its continuous pressure on the sexual behaviour of society.
Days before the official call, in every corner of the emerging underground scene of the post-dictatorship, proliferated ephemeral associations, reduced affinity groups and fictitious organisations that implemented identification and disidentification strategies (Muñoz, 1999), produced graphic materials and tools of agitprop calling for participation in the repudiation against the arrival of Juan Pablo II. Some examples of this type of action: Claudia Zicker and Gustavo Sola, anarchist activists and impatient workers from the underground disorder, distributed flyers outside schools, during the rounds of bars and within the reading groups in which they participated. These were hand-made flyers that displayed a significant number of asses drawn with simple pencil strokes, juxtaposed with the face of Juan Pablo II cut irregularly from some xerographic printing of the time. Signing this call as C.U.L.O -Comando de Unidad Libertario del Oeste (Command of Libertarian Unity of the West)-, they ironically invited the ingestion of “puré de papa polaka” (“mashed Polish potatoes”), transforming the Obelisco in the venue of a free buffet in which diners could taste the irresistible flavour of the radioactive potato, referring not only to the recent Chernobyl Nuclear Accident in April 1986 but to the collective organisation that had taken shape in that country to express its total rejection of the arrival of the same Pope who was trying to make his way through local misery.
For his part, Miguel Ángel Lens, a marginal poet and one of the leading activists of San Telmo Gay, distributed his own flyer under the fictional name of Grupo Antiautoritario “Los pinchados” (Anti-authoritarian Group “Los Pinchados”), inviting to the participation in the March of Repudiation against the Pope. Under slogans such as “the poem does not protect me, poetry does”, “religion is a cosmic electric prod”, “property is theft” and scattered fragments of personal poems, he drew with the delicacy of his naivety a contemporary young face full of decorative attributes, whose graphics erotically touched the drawings of Jean Cocteau and Sergei Eisenstein, intervened by the ornamental saturation of a camp more linked to punk dissonance than to the decadent glamour of the loca's melancholic sensitivity (Davis, 2014). Around it, the iconic A capitals from the anarchist tradition were scattered, almost like the onomatopoeias of a mental chant. These initiatives were accompanied as well by less elaborated flyers that also demonstrated a truly playful attitude to political enunciation: “Say NO to papal reconciliation. The struggle continues” signed by Comandos Herejes (Heretic Commandos) and the Brigada Juan Pablo III (Juan Pablo III Brigade); “We don’t want the Pope; we want a sweet potato. Come with your best costume” signed by the magazine Manuela; “Say NO to papal amnesty. March against the Pope. Secular State Now!” signed by the Commission of Repudiation of the Pope in a flyer displaying a pregnant Juan Pablo II made by a precarious photographic montage, among many others. As we can see, the initial intention to control the affective records to guarantee such an event did not resist the abandonment of blasphemy: instead, its proliferation was enabled by creating graphic assemblages that made sexuality a mode of provocation and a form of differential contact with the political juncture. Heresy was not only employed as a language of insubordination to the historical power of Catholicism but also as a form of profound disidentification from the traditional protest repertoires and the sexual morality instituted as the norm. Operationalising the outrage, the mockery, the grotesque, the sex and the cultural incorrectness, this new generation of young people disarmed the expectations of political agency projected on themselves, prioritising not only creative aspects that involved visual procedures charged with aggression, nervousness, anger and disappointment, but also positioning new horisontal organisational repertoires, in which the absence of authorship and precarious techniques of multiple reproductions of their expressions were exercised; which taken together became apologetics of a new way of living the rebellious and insubordinate desires of radical transformation of the present.
However, all the effort invested in the successful transversalisation of this demand would be quickly frustrated with a repressive scenario that would almost immediately disarm the call made for that April Friday. Looking at the press of the time, an endless number of headlines can be found that allow us to evaluate the intense military and police deployment that prematurely curtailed the effectiveness of the programmed cultural activities, extending the persecution of the thousands of attendees for hours. With an uncertain balance on the official number of detainees, the newspapers headlined in sensationalist ways the chronicles of the riots that occurred that evening. In his personal notes (Baigorria, 2014), Osvaldo Baigorria comments that the march against the Pope, who had the objective of reaching the Congress, was not even able to start: more than one hundred people were arrested between runs, smoke bombs, gasses and batons. Regarding that episode, he also recovers the testimony of Jorge Gumier Maier, who says that located in the front lines of the demonstrators, the literary → travesti clown and icon of the independent theatre of that time, the very Batato Barea initiated a kindly dialogue with the police in order to prevent any conflict between the parties involved, when suddenly a bottle flew from a Ford Falcón car (the brand of cars driven by the military forces to forcibly disappear young militants during the dictatorship) in the rear ranks of the march and it hit the officer right on the head, an act that unleashed the ferocity of the entire repressive apparatus, pushing all the young people to a desperate run towards the peripheral zones of the rallying point.
Launched immediately after that altercation, the editorial of no. 11 of the magazine Cerdos & Peces sought to give a detailed account of what happened, but above all, it tried to lay down urgently a position against the profuse media stigmatisation that negatively adjectived the difference embodied by those countercultural young people and especially, by the anarchists involved in the organisation of the Malvenida al Papa:
(…) The repressive methods tending to a barbarism-based state model become commonplace, not only in the Obelisco but also in the rock recitals, in the soccer courts, in the so-called ‘confrontations’ with criminals. That is what is alarming, state violence in a rule of law as the only option to control situations that supposedly tend to disrupt the established order. This is not a model invented by Radicales or Peronistas, but seems to represent the contradictions of an outdated system of national organisation based on organised terrorism (…)
As an outcome of these communications and in line with the documents produced by CRAP at the José Ingenieros Popular Library, in which the same information was reported to call for solidarity from Human Rights organisations, the process resulted in the inconsistent creation of a Comisión de Repudio a la Violencia Policial (Commission of Repudiation of Police Violence), a course opened simultaneously by Juventudes Rebeldes (Rebel Youths), that space that organised the spiteful energy of the young punks, darks and heavy metals, continually harassed by repressive control. The balance of these experiences would not only enable a series of anti-repressive actions that would demand the derogation of police edicts, of background check laws and the request of punishment for the perpetrators of state terrorism, but in a radical way, it would pronounce with unshakeable certainty one of the most radical aspirations in the political climate of the post-dictatorial organisation: the total and immediate dismantling of the repressive apparatus.
Against political illusion
Through the fragmentary revision of these counter-cultural experiences that took place in the so-called “cultural Destape” of the democratic recomposition process during the decade of the 1980s in Argentina, I am interested in recovering not only the critical contribution from a set of inorganic initiatives of collective organisation that, by way of visual devices, performative actions and other graphic artefacts, launched expressive languages that renewed the available repertoires of protest, drawing on the convulsed operativity of negative feelings that combined rejection, irony, resentment, provocation, disenchantment and other twisted formats of hope. Moreover, I am interested in recover the epistemological potential that its awkward difference brings to the history of the sex-political imagination of the Global South. Having been discarded systematically because of their erratic, ephemeral, combustible, reticent or too opaque condition regarding the matrices of normative intelligibility of the academic and activist devices, and considered as particularly inconsistent or elusive due of their material fragility and low social circulation, these countercultural experiences propose a type of contact with sexual politics that disorders the linear imperative of history and the neoliberal economies of multicultural representation that have managed to fetishise the cancellation of their sensible resonances.
In addition to being thought of as the affective source of a platform of disidentificatory political agency, these collective feelings of disappointment can be considered as an impulse that rejects the desire to repair the social relations that this particular group of marginalised youth felt broken (Berlant and Edelman, 2014) in the face of the ongoing repressive sexual morality that inherited its foundations from the military dictatorship, exposing the resounding failure of the democratic promise concerning individual freedoms and their inclusive aspiration. This was a kind of methodical disenchantment with the power in place, which forged emotional platforms of structural antagonism, centered its force of transgression upon bodily freedom as an anti-normative principle; a political presence that strategically intended to resist the alchemical processes of pacific reworking of its distress, turning it into a mode of disengagement (Berlant, 2006), a protest register where such negativity is considered as a language of suspension, that is to say, a strategy capable of blocking the industrialised incorporation of numb subjectivities to the cruel promise of the current social agreement of neoliberalism and its conditions of uncritical reproducibility, opening up imaginative paths for other forms of life.
Putting a focus on these political efforts to disengaged with the affirmative repertoire of democracy, give us the opportunity to identify the critical potency of these negative moods as a form of historicity capable of putting together organised experiences around the disidentification with liberal normality. For this reason, disappointment can work as a genre of rejection, whose transhistorical expression allows us to discern the continuity of an emotional language sustained from an uncomfortable belonging to a "broken" present. This common created by queer, punks, feminists and underground artists sensibility is a space of alliance that did not seek to adapt to the therapeutic claim from identity politics or cultural industries, but instead, attempted to be a collective form of understanding and engaging critically the historical present, that draw on the difficulty, rejection to cohesion, improbability and the ferocious exacerbation involved in the always fragmentary and insufficient experience of the living.
By unleashing the history of the night and recognising the savage condition of its emotional registers, we may approach a historiographic practice that allows us to describe not only the way, colonialism as a form of historical oppression is inscribed within the processes of creation, access and continuity of the collective memory of alternative sexual communities in the Global South; but it also enables us to recognise the negative values of factual inaccuracy, temporal contradiction, chemical dizziness and sexual disorientation proposed in their political imagination as the differential contribution those difficult-to-categorise social subjects have made to the history of antagonistic resistance and anticapitalist dreams of the South.