o.l.s is a text & art undertaking located in Selma, Alabama
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Notes from Selma: On Non-Visibility
The American Civil Rights Movement took hold in a society moving from radio to television—from a social collectivity dependent on the imagination to one where everything was made instantly visible. One had to supply a complex mental horizon to the words emitted by the radio, while television shifted communicative energy toward images and evidence.
There is no denying that the horrifying images from Selma mobilized the American Public toward progressive goals. Yet, in 1955 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, this was a period prior to the widespread availability of television (especially for Black Alabamians). Unlike Bloody Sunday a decade later, the Boycott was fundamentally a product of fantasy, rather than evidence.
Citizens had to imagine what it would be like to survive without access to the public transportation system of an American city, and they had to imagine how the Boycott would function in everyday terms without a pre-existing visual template. One might even say that this on-the-spot conceptualizing was the principal progressive achievement of the Boycott. It concretized possibility in the here and now. The Boycott opened up a process that had no logical end point, because it was not geared toward a visible goal, but rather toward an invisible chain of fantasy “what if” situations: What if we could ride the buses as equals? What if we could eat in restaurants as equals? What if we could be educated as equals? What if we could vote as equals? What if we could live as equals? And so on....
Similarly, it is crucial that the structuring events of the Boycott— Rosa Parks’s actions—were underdocumented. They were to function not as evidentiary image-acts, but as mythic non-visible material, the invisible rudiments for a vernacular of possibility. As such, one sees that the imagelessness of the Boycott allowed it to begin a social process that transformed every aspect of American life in the ensuing fifteen years. The deeper idea here is that important collective mental transformations may not always be assisted by images and evidence. Maybe, such images and evidence, counter to all of our empathetic and rational assumptions, actually slow down transformation: think of the People’s Republic of China thirty years after the man in front of the tank in Beijing.
There is a sense in which such images make something unfamiliar part of one’s own world. And this no doubt has its uses, but such a process also necessarily involves a colonizing of something Other by the eye, to the false sense that “I already know about that situation.” That “something is already being done.” As a result, nothing happens.
On the other hand, knowledge derived from an event that “has no image” will be the fruit of the imagination. The mind will be forced to supply a plausible sense of what the situation entails. Most of those participating in the Bus Boycott had no established visual referent for what they were doing, and in this sense even those who produced the Boycott found themselves continually surprised by what they were already causing to happen. They had no way of getting a panoramic overview of the situation. This lack of an incorporative picture is generally assumed to be a liability for social movements. It is taken as almost axiomatic that to have images of something, to have evidence of wrongs and proof of what is right, makes an undertaking more relevant and more available for having some effect in the world. This seems to be a false assumption and one growing more obviously false everyday. Most likely, non-visibility will produce the most revolutionary visibilities of all, and we will never see it coming.
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These days we have upwards of a decade's worth of mitigated failures and qualified successes to contemplate, thanks to the generosity of the “discursively willing.” This site aims to remember a few of those sweet nuggets, and to remember that apparent “failed/incomprehensible/childish/amateur/irrelevance, etc.” might just yield more meaningful paths to more meaningful things than a big ole hunk of exquisitely professionalized dissent. Not always, but often enough. Thanks for dropping yourself by.