This week in the UK House of Commons, a dozen activists from a new group called Extinction Rebellion entered the public gallery and took their seats to watch the collapse of language that is Brexit unfold below them. Then, at a precise moment, they rose for their performance. Most of them stripped off, revealing words and symbols written on their bodies, and advanced to the edge of the balcony. One of them merged with other members of the public in order to quietly film the event. His colleagues glued their hands to the glass ‘wall’ that was supposed to protect MPs from missiles that might be launched by the public down onto their vulnerable pates below. But nothing could protect the MPs from the sight of so many exposed buttocks.
On the one hand, it was funny. It was a practical joke of the kind that Freud distinguished as one where humans can laugh at their common frailty. (There was no butt of this joke.) The Labour MP who was speaking he didn’t deviate from his script, but phrases crept in that acknowledged the protest: he ‘fleshed out the details’ and someone commented on a ‘cheeky intervention’. There was a photograph of smiling happy faces on the Labour benches in the newspaper the next day. A rare thing indeed.
The daubed and naked bodies recall the interventions of Femen, the Ukrainian feminist activist group that campaigns for women’s rights. But the bodies in the gallery at Westminster were daubed with paint and slogans pertaining to another cause: climate change.
Extinction Rebellion emerged into public consciousness one Saturday afternoon last autumn, when its cohorts brought London to a standstill with some carefully planned and executed acts of civil disobedience. A Wiki page claims that the group was launched by “100 academics”. It includes people with PhDs in civil disobedience who have studied Martin Luther King and Gandhi, for example, and have now distilled the essence of their success. Therapists, counsellors, even analysts are part of this group. The group understands that, while being ungovernable, they need to keep the public on side. So when they sat down in the middle of the road on all but one of London’s major bridges one afternoon, November 2018, they did so for precisely seven minutes each time. A study had determined that most motorists can sustain their patience in a traffic jam for just that amount of time.
What I like about this group is that it is erudite: it reads, it studies, it thinks, it performs and it acts. There is also laughter. Extinction Rebellion aims at the real of climate change, which so far has allowed the organisation to tread carefully through the dangerous territory of contemporary politics in Britain. The nakedness in Parliament was clothed in a performance. It wasn’t the real without a veil.