Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Montreal’s Magical Manifestations

Whether during anticapitalist mass mobilizations, Republican and Democratic National Convention protests, reclaim the streets, occupy (everything or somewhere specific), or a host of other riot, riotous, or rebellious large-scale street situations (housing takeovers, antifascist actions, antiwar demos, and many more), there’s always a certain intensity, a certain adrenaline rush–a marathon of heightened emotions that race through everything from anger, fear, and euphoria to sorrow, exhaustion, and delirious happiness. Thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of people find themselves serendipitously together in these convergence spaces, collectively experiencing profound anxiety but also equally profound anticipation. There’s often a sense that we have everything to lose and everything to gain; that such spaces are completely fragile and temporary, yet also ours to shape, sustain, and nurture, offering a freshness that feels as if we’re the first to ever engage in such a grand experiment in self-organized consociation.

It becomes addictive. And usually, following such mobilizations or occupations, there’s a slew of criticism of those who remain addicts–who want more: more of those feelings, more of the highs (& even the lows), more of this community and belonging and pleasure, even if there’s also pain or trauma, even if the disappointment at what we can’t or couldn’t achieve in these extraordinary flare-ups of promise becomes more heartbreaking with each lose. The critics lash out with, say: “you shouldn’t summit hop! you should stay at home and do local organizing” (a familiar refrain during the heyday of the alter-globalization movement–as if this were the only choice, and the only rationale [that is, healthy, productive, nonaddictive] choice). Binary choices, though, rarely reflect the beautiful complexity of phenomena, and such beautiful complexity is usually precisely the overflowing stuff in our tool box against binaries like capitalism, the state, racism, heteronormative, and other debilitating divides.

But Montreal’s manifestations (demonstrations, marches, and now casseroles, or the banging of cookware and other usually ordinary metal household objects) are forging an extra magical addiction, thereby “troubling” the either/or binary so that it hardly makes sense as a critique or even personal dilemma. Whether one heads out nightly to the streets, walking for hours, far from one’s neighborhood; travels to Montreal from another city in the province to join in, especially on the gigantic demonstration days like May 22; or stays at home to lean off one’s own balcony to bang a pot when several thousand people clanging on pans as they pass by on the street below–the where, how, when, and who of resistance gets all mixed up, into the simmering start of a marvelous, miraculous stew of social strike that is equally social reconstruction.

No doubt this is the same magic felt in other moments, sadly few and far between, when people aren’t simply converging in mass numbers but also are constituting a counterpower: winning each other’s hearts and minds through their own doing and making of an alter-lifeworld that’s so much more compelling and convincing, that works to meet our own needs/desires so much better, that it has real power-together, and so masses of us begin to abandon that other world, the one composed of power-over. There’s a mass exodus, away from the current society of control and discipline that estranges us from each other, toward one where we no longer feel like we’re exiled from our own lives and each other, not to mention the ecosystem around us.

But for those experiencing it for the first time, here and now, in Montreal and across the coming-alive province of Quebec, the compulsion–the addiction–to come out night after night after night is also about wanting the world to feel this way again and again and again. The emotion running high is joy, festive joy, joy at the countering of power with self-made counterpower, a joy made manifest in the music of metal kitchenware.

And so a curious related phenomena has emerged from this: the desire to capture the casseroles on film, so as to relive them, share them, circulate them. This isn’t new per se. With the rise of indymedias and YouTube, among others, such mass mobilizations have and continue to generate their own cinematic memory. Oftentimes, however, such images are of the spectacular or “sexy,” with “riot porn” being perhaps the biggest DIY box-office hit, followed as close second by footage of police doing things both brutal and stupid. So much of what has been videotaped and shared in recent North American moments of large-scale resistance has been just that: fighting back, against powers that largely keep us on the defensive or only scratching the surface of moving toward the offensive, toward renewal.

What’s curious about the filmic gifting going on is that it’s an attempt–difficult as it is–to share the counterpower magic of Montreal’s streets and balconies right now via the simple yet powerful act of these casseroles–and the related courageous and/or carnivalesque illegal retaking of the streets. As someone wrote in an article in one of the worst (i.e., government-friendly) French-language newspaper in Montreal the other day, to paraphrase: when people threw rocks, the government wasn’t really worried; now that they are banging pots and pans, the government is scared. Or to put it more accurately: Montreal has become ungovernable for them.

It’s near impossible to use film or videotape to really offer an sense of the magic, but people try again and again and again–yet another addiction, or healthy addictions that are what keep people fighting for some better, still-unimaginable world. So far, there have been two broad categories of making short “movies” about the pots and pans:

1. The high aesthetic B&W depiction that went viral, which among other critiques that could and should be leveraged (such as focusing on white people as actors in this moment), wholly take the life out of the casseroles, making them seem at once a thing of the past, quiescent, and something already commodified as an ad campaign to sell jeans. (I would post a link here, for those who haven’t seen it, but I’m feeling cranky about adding to the viralness of its depoliticizing impact, even as the maple spring-summer becomes increasingly inspirational.)

2. The hundreds and probably thousands of fragments made from cell phones, cheap cameras, or whatever people can get their hands on to film themselves, to film their friends, to film the cute kid holding a small frying pan, to film the casseroles snaking its way past their house, to capture the pots and pans in a small town or suburb. Blurry, shaky, sometimes dark (it is nighttime, after all), sometimes too short or too long–most are awful.Yet nearly all share this seemingly desperate-passionate awareness that we need to hold these moments in our mind’s eye, not let them go, not give up.

Neither high art nor low art, professional or homemade, has yet, to my mind, been able to contain this uprising, nor make it history (yet), nor sadly, translate why it’s been so crucial to the maple spring (and thus, not something that can be simply replicated by banging a pot in the United States, for instance, in feeble hopes of the cookware itself catalyzing the magic of ungovernability).

Today, a dear new friend I made in Montreal–my constant street affinity grouplet and constant obsessive-compulsion comrade in seeking out news when we weren’t in the streets–shared a third filmic category. It too falls short of making you feel what it feels like to be there. At the same time, it comes closer than anything else to illustrating the magic, via fantasy as well as taking real-life characters from the streets and making them extra fantastical. What is gets at, rather than offering a mirror to the joyous reality, is the reality of joy–an additive, rebel joy and mutual acknowledgment of what people are doing collectively in this part of the world that too often gets ignored by much of the world, especially those of us in the United States (witness how global and U.S. media basically only “discovered” this uprising within the past week!). And I will share this one–so finish reading this blog post (or not!), and then watch it (again and again), or rather follow it along, like you too are on a nightly march through the streets of Montreal. You’ll need to scroll to the right, past joyous participant after joyous participant, after you click on this link:



If we have any hopes–and hope at these moments is both key and also, sadly, likely temporary–of sustaining such magical manifestations of counterpower, toward some society that doesn’t replicate domination and oppression, but tries its best to experiment with other ways of living and being, joy and its rightfully addictive quality have to remain front and center. Have to remain lived, felt, common and common sense collective experiences, something that no YouTube moment can grasp.

Joy isn’t going to be enough. And the underside of the pots and pans of joy is the nagging, perplexing, so hard and heartbreaking question: How do we really transform society? How do we move from street counterpower and making our cities ungovernable, to figuring how ways to shape a society of plenty, self-governed by us all, still with joy? If anarchists or anyone else thinks they know the answer, this year and then some of uprisings hopscotching around the globe is showing us that the answers are even more confusing and distant then ever.

Hence the need, as people fan out in haphazard, ragtag casseroles going every which way throughout Montreal’s street and balconies, to become addicted to the joy of trying, again and again, to begin to see and hear and share in person what it feels like to experience the noise of uprising, sans ear plugs, at least metaphorically, because uprisings also have their fair share of pain too.

* * *

If you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at my Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/


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This entry was posted on June 1, 2012 by in Dispatches from Quebec Spring.
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