Digging up the Left-Wing Corpse: Reenactment and Melancholia in Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave

HARTLE, Stephanie (2017). Digging up the Left-Wing Corpse: Reenactment and Melancholia in Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave. In: The Left Conference : Photography and Film Criticism, Lisbon, Portugal, 16-18 November 2017. (Unpublished)

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Official URL: https://photographyandtheleft.wordpress.com/home/

Abstract

Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001) saw around 800 participants, including members of the original conflict, performing in a highly orchestrated restaging of the violent clash in South Yorkshire in 1984 between striking miners and police. In the context of increasing political uncertainty and recent revivals of public activism, the particular inflection of this paper is to consider how far Deller’s reenactment is a catalyst for political action or a withdrawal from it. In doing so, Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘left-wing melancholy’ will be invoked. Benjamin’s use of the term to refer to a perceived (unwelcome) development in the Left was a condemnation of a sentimentalism he aligned with a type of reification and fetishism. In taking in a psychoanalytical framework of analysis this malaise is close to the condition of melancholia as defined by Freud in 1917, however, there are important differences here too. Freud identified melancholia as the result of an inability to consciously perceive the lost object, a persistent and unavowable grief. Deller’s project reaches a tangibly painful sense of melancholia on hearing the well-known battle cry repeated in the present, ‘We’re miners united, we’ll never be defeated', thus prompting the viewer to consider the seeming vacuity of Deller's gesture. At the same time, calls for a full inquiry into this notorious landmark of leftist British history have been repeatedly resisted. This paper seeks to consider how Orgreave’s concern with the historical ‘then’ and the ‘now’ points to wider issues over the relationship of art and politics in contemporary culture and the critique of capitalism. The performance of reenactment raises complex questions regarding (re)collection, nostalgia and interpretation, inevitably revealing significant temporal and spatial fissures. Themes of digging-back, exhumation and historical layering appear as key ideas underpinning Orgreave. The employment of gothic tropes and, specifically, the summoning of the ghost or spectre have been well documented in previous writings on the work of Marx. What I am concerned with here is the extent to which Orgreave recalls the gothic tropes of Marxism, especially in terms of the corpse motif. It could be argued that both Orgreave and the figure of the vampire, as the ‘living-dead’, share similar characteristics of ambiguity and a crisis of identity, inhabiting a neither-nor space, between good and bad and ‘otherness’. It is through this notion of difference that could allow for the potential of critical engagement, and for Deller’s work to be conceived as a direct confrontation rather than a melancholic act of repetition; a living history. Orgreave, it will be argued, activates a dialectic of reality and fiction and functions as a reminder of the potential power of people, or more specifically the collective crowd, who are made visible rather than hidden.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Research Institute, Centre or Group: Cultural Communication and Computing Research Institute > Communication and Computing Research Centre
Departments: Arts, Computing, Engineering and Sciences > Media Arts and Communication
Depositing User: Stephanie Hartle
Date Deposited: 12 Jan 2018 15:54
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2018 15:54
URI: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/17471

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