While bringing clothes and other supplies to refugees in 2016, Turkish video artist Erkan Özgen met a deaf, mute Syrian boy, Muhammed, who told him the story of his experience in the Syrian war. Özgen asked the boy’s family for permission to videotape Muhammed, and the result is a four-minute video called “Wonderland.” Özgen restricts showings of “Wonderland” to “live” rooms, not wanting its transmission to suffer the impossible-to-control conditions of the Internet. But in 2018 he allowed this 12-minute documentary to be made by the Danish contemporary art centre, Louisiana, including much of “Wonderland.” The articulacy and impact of Muhammed’s telling is undeniable, and it raises the question, is speech a necessary precondition for politics? And, can mediated bodies bring a political space into being?
Hannah Arendt, following Aristotle, placed speech and action at the centre of politics. And not just the centre, but the conditio per quam of politics (the condition that brings politics into being). Politics happens whenever persons gather together as equals to speak and act. Aristotle’s example, and Arendt’s ideal, was the Athenian gathering place for public disputation, the Agora.
Arendt valued politics because it—and it alone—gives us the collective capacity to birth something new, to break with the past and make a new future. Gathered together as equals able to speak and act, each of us can disclose what we know, the truths we carry, and we can hear and witness the disclosures of others. Each of our views is partial, our own. But the aggregate of these varied and contradictory disclosures is “reality,” our shared condition—the condition that continued speech and action can alter.
So what about the body without speech? And what about the mediated body, the one present to us through pixels on a screen, words on a page, or the private theatre of memory? No one who encounters Turkish video artist Erkan Özgen’s “Wonderland” can ever doubt the capacity of the wordless human body to disclose, powerfully—to become political. In “Wonderland” we watch a deaf, mute Syrian boy, Muhammed, tell Özgen what happened to him and to others during the war. The absence of speech only intensifies the clarity and power of his story. Muhammed is a gifted communicator, and after witnessing his disclosure one can never again say that speech is a precondition for politics.
Even bearing second-hand witness, as we do, seeing in pixels what Özgen saw through his camera, we are changed. How can this be? Have we entered into politics with these phantom, mute persons? Or is the space of our encounter with Özgen and Muhammed only a ghost of the politics born when they met in a room to disclose and to witness?
Ken Krimstein raised the same questions, in “Drawn Literature,” when he claimed that graphic novels can bring our absent bodies more fully into the discursive space of reading and writing. Rich with traces of the human hand, and home to vivid representations of the face and the body, the graphic novel hosts politics in a portable form, one that can be smuggled into or out of danger, one that can survive even its makers. Similarly, prose writers wield a technology for making an absent “voice” come to life in words on a page. If their paragraphs, or the panels of the graphic novel, are merely the ghosts of an absent political past—an illusionary trace of something that died—they are powerful ghosts indeed.
Arendt’s, and Aristotle’s, core contention was that coming together as persons in conflict, with all the noise of our words and the impact of our actions, births the collective power called politics. But in this document of “Wonderland”—as in all of the examples we examine in the Polity of Literature—persons who are voiceless, persons denied equality, persons forcibly kept out of public space, nevertheless manifest politics in whatever ways possible. Mostly it is by reading and writing together. Or, in the case of “Wonderland,” documenting and sharing a mute boy’s articulate testimony. If these are “lesser” spaces of politics, then how do we make a future with a lesser space of politics? What happens to politics when it’s forced into print and pixels?
The Agora, if it ever existed, doesn’t exist for the vast majority of persons now. Where can we go, together, to be in politics? Especially, where can we go to be in politics with the mute, the invisible, the undocumented, the people who need politics the most?