Black Bloc

, 04 May 2019

Black Bloc

Political bodies and crowds, interview with Maxime Boidy by Julia Marchand

by Julia Marchand


With black blocs and yellow vests as their starting point, Maxime Boidy and Julia Marchand evoke the representation of bodies or crowds in political iconography, from James Ensor to Jeremy Deller,  in the pervasive shadow of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

[ 1 ]

« Le black bloc, terrain visuel du global. Éléments pour une iconologie politique de l’altermondialisme », Terrains/Théories, n°5, 2016. En ligne :

[ 2 ]

Richard Rorty (Ed.), The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method, The University of Chicago Press, 1967.

[ 3 ]

J’ai approfondi cette double transformation dans mon bref essai « Politiques de la visibilité », La Revue des livres, n°14, 2013, p. 76-79.

[ 4 ]

Jonathan Crary, Techniques de l’observateur. Vision et modernité au XIXe siècle, Éditions Dehors, 2016, p. 65-66.

[ 5 ]

Anne Steiner, Le Temps des révoltes. Une histoire en cartes postales des luttes sociales à la « Belle Époque », L’Échappée, 2015.

[ 6 ]

Jérôme Baschet, Le Sein du père. Abraham et la paternité dans l’Occident médiéval, Gallimard, 2000.

[ 7 ]

Siècles noirs : James Ensor & Alexander Kluge. Catalogue de l’exposition présentée à la Fondation Van Gogh, Arles, du 17 novembre 2018 au 10 février 2019. Commissariat : Julia Marchand.

[ 8 ]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, « Discours sur l’économie politique », Écrits politiques, 10/18, 1972, p. 36.

[ 9 ]

Collectif anarchiste de Green Mountain, « Communiqué au sujet des tactiques et de l’organisation » (2000-2001) :,386.html#nh2

[ 10 ]

Joshua Clover, « Les émeutes des ronds-points », Agitations :

[ 11 ]

David Batchelor, La Peur de la couleur, Autrement, 2001.

[ 12 ]

Stefan Jonsson, A Brief History of the Masses. Three Revolutions, Columbia University Press, 2008.

[ 13 ]

Jeremy Deller, The English Civil War part II: Personal Accounts of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Artangel, 2001.

[ 14 ]

Lawrence Grossberg, « Le cœur des Cultural Studies », L’Homme et la société, n°149, 2003, p. 45.

Julia Marchand: A sociologist by training, you now define yourself as a researcher in “Visual Studies”, a discipline better known in the English-speaking academic world. Your thesis, defended in 2014, focuses on the visual culture and political iconography of the black bloc, which you define as a “visual terrain of the global1 ». How do you analyse the black bloc as a sociologist and as a visual studies researcher?

Maxime Boidy: Although their intellectual history is older, Anglo-American Visual Studies were structured during the 1980s and 1990s around a “pictorial turn”, echoing in particular the linguistic turn described two decades earlier by the philosopher Richard Rorty2. Henceforth, it was the image, and no longer language, that constituted the primary framework of intelligibility of our societies, the foundation of our knowledge, our forms of communication, and even our economic and political conditions.

The revolutionary impact of this “pictorial turn” didn’t actually interest me much. On the other hand, I have developed a curiosity for one of its central theses: that this pictorial turn occurred simultaneously in scientific knowledge and in the context of daily life, the two going hand in hand. In the academic learning, particularly in political philosophy and the social sciences, visibility has indeed become an abundant, polysemous term, which today serves to redefine both public space and human subjectivity. In “ordinary” discourse, or quite simply, in everyday life, entrepreneurial communication or militant discourse, the notions of visibility or invisibility are increasingly present. Entering professional life, or simply existing and counting in the eyes of others, is now expressed through this vocabulary. It is a very important recent phenomenon3.

This is where black bloc comes in. It refers to the urban demonstration tactic of marching together, wearing masks and black clothing to stop the police from identifying the activists. This tactic, which appeared in the 1980s in West Germany, has been steadily expanding throughout the world, within the most diverse anarchist and protest circles, to the point of becoming a “visual terrain of the global”, an expression by which I have attempted to account for its global expansion from the original political roots of the black bloc, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. What interested me was that its emergence coincided exactly with the periodization of the “pictorial turn”. On the other hand, the global expansion of the uses of black bloc has been marked by numerous activist discourses on visibility – the most famous, not only in France, but elsewhere in the world, being that of the aptly named “Invisible Committee”.

My thesis was theoretical. One could say that it focused less on black bloc than on the difficulties, even the impossibility of accounting for it based on current academic disciplinary knowledge. Artistic approaches seem to me to be better equipped than social sciences, given the need to pay real attention to aesthetics. Sociology and political science work by analysing a previously delimited “terrain”, whether it is a corpus of events or a social movement as a whole, such as the “Yellow Vests” today. In terms of method, these disciplines proceed by questioning the actors, producing statistical data from this, trying to compare certain practices with other “repertoires of action”: this is what, for sociologists, designates wearing a yellow vest to demonstrate and mobilize collectively. For my part, I have sought to make other, more unexpected comparisons to gain a new understanding of the phenomenon. In particular, I wanted to show that, far from being a simple militant practice, the black bloc materializes our conditions of contemporary political visibility. It is an “epistemological image”, i.e. an image that is both literal and metaphorical and illustrates the way we understand vision. It pits anonymity against celebrity worship, camouflage against generalized video surveillance, the standardization clothing against the omnipresence of fashion advertising in urban areas, etc. I borrowed the idea from the American theorist Jonathan Crary, who applied it to a completely different visual object: the camera obscura in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A technical device for painters, the camera obscura was also at that time a metaphor for understanding, which was widespread among philosophers. The black bloc now has “mixed” status similar to the camera obscura of yesterday, namely that of “an epistemological figure within a discursive order and an object within an arrangement of cultural practices4”. In short, sociologists compare the black bloc to other forms of activism and demonstration. For my part, I compare it to other ways of seeing and representing.

André Devambez, La Charge, 1902. © Musée d’Orsay

JM: Your research is based on a broad study of heterogeneous visual materials, including newspaper illustrations, press photos, political speeches, activist posters, amateur photographs, and now reproductions of works. How do you see the connection between them?

MB: I just commented on the very theoretical dimension of my research. On the other hand, it involves a very empirical method. I start with a discourse, whether visual or linguistic, and establish relationships based on the materials I find as the investigation proceeds. This will determine a precise scale from which a new discourse can be stated in order to view the previous one in a different light, to criticize it or interpret it. This leads me to further clarify the distinction between sociology and visual studies. Constituting a sociological corpus means gathering a set of information based on pre-established criteria (for example, a specific number of interviews conducted to document a phenomenon with as many points of view as possible). Here, on the contrary, it is a question of constantly redefining the gathering process and the importance of the elements. To say that the black bloc is both an “arrangement of cultural practices” and an “epistemological image” (in Crary’s words) is to place it at a meta-level. This is precisely what is needed in order to shift away from a reductive, deadly configuration, in which it is flogged by militant circles who defend its legitimacy, framed by police intelligence which represses its use, and cleaved off by the vast majority of journalists’ discourses, condemning it without providing any alternative interpretive framework whatsoever.

The strike of the locksmiths in Fressenneville (Somme). Postcard from 1906.

JM: You explained that you were interested in several ways of representing protest, which leads me to ask you about the modes of representation of political collectives, starting with a definition of political iconography.

MB: In the French-speaking field, political iconography generally refers to the study of political imagery, through its material, elitist or popular production, from master painting to satirical caricature. The postcard, for example, has given rise to work that embodies this definition. Some years ago, sociologist Anne Steiner published an important book retracing the history of political and trade union struggles during the Belle Époque, between 1906 and 1914, based on numerous postcards showing scenes of strikes and riots – barricades, communist soup kitchens and the deployment of troops in industrial or agricultural regions in revolt5. The image is not illustrative: it is both documentary and narrative.

In the German-speaking world this knowledge is structured into a real sub-discipline of art history: Politische Ikonographie. In France, the definition of political iconography varies according to the schools of thought that refer to it; it focuses on the significance of motives or elements of gestures (for example, the raised fist or the extended arm salute), on political allegories representing democracy or the Republic (Marianne), and on representations of institutions such as the State. The classic case study in political iconography is Abraham Bosse’s engraving for the frontispiece of Leviathan (1651) by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, depicting the community of citizens in the form of a giant dominating the world; citizens make up the body while the head embodies state sovereignty. Political iconography also involves analysing the pre-political genealogy of these modes of representation. In the case of Leviathan, the background is religious, developed around the 10th century in Christian iconography through the motif of the “bosom of Abraham” representing the community of the chosen gathered in Paradise in the body of the patriarch6. This ascendancy also began in the 13th century with the theme of the “Virgin of Mercy”, who gathered the believers under her protective mantle.

Another perspective concerns the definition of political iconology, which I associate with the study of the relationship between what is seen and what is said (or image-text) as the constitutive relationship of a political form or of the political fact as such. In this sense, the concomitance of the visual form of the black bloc (urban dissimulation, black uniform…) and discourses on visibility is a political iconology: it structures its “epistemological image”. It is a matter of studying the non-iconographic visibilities that disciplinary knowledge tends to overlook, precisely because the image is too quickly associated with iconography, with graphic imagery, with what we “see with our eyes”, so to speak. An example will help to clarify this point. Gustave Le Bon is a theorist famous for his work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), a treatise to which he is too often reduced. In a later book, The Psychology of Politics and Social Defense (1911), we read: “Multitudes are never impressed by the logical vigour of a discourse, but rather by the sentimental pictures that certain words and associations of words give rise to.” For Le Bon, while individuals possess full and complete rationality that allows them to associate the “real meaning” (sic), i. e. language, with words, crowds are overwhelmed by the visual force of words and are swayed toward the visible and the irrational. From then on, language and imagery become political capacities and incapacities that determine the power of action, respectively attributed to individual and collective beings. A political iconology of the crowd, which remains to be written, begins here, and not in the social art paintings of the late nineteenth century or in any other iconography: in the very place where a definition of the image constructs the crowd as a political object.

Frontispiece (detail) of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651 by Abraham Bosse, London, A.Crooke.

JM: In the interview “From Carnival to Black Bloc” which features in the exhibition catalogue “Dark Centuries: James Ensor & Alexander Kluge” (published by Fondation Van Gogh)7, you linked the Leviathan frontispiece to James Ensor’s engraving La Belgique au XIXe siècle. The former exemplifies the “unified body politic” in your opinion: « This is the moment when citizens delegate their power to the sovereign, when they submit themselves totally to him. In Thomas Hobbes’ words, this corresponds to the moment when a “multitude” becomes a “people”. » Ensor’s engraving, on the other hand, shows “the multitude”: “The people once again become a multitude, claiming their right to be educated, claiming universal suffrage, rebelling.” How did these different categories emerge: people, multitude, crowd? And what about the category of the “body politic”? 

MB: With Hobbes’ Leviathan, the idea of the body politic finds its classic visualization. Its best verbal description is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “a common and inaccurate comparison in many respects”, he explains: “The body politic, taken individually, may be considered as an organized, living body, resembling that of man. The sovereign power represents the head; the laws and customs are the brain, the source of the nerves and seat of understanding, will and senses, of which the Judges and Magistrates are the organs; commerce, industry and agriculture are the mouth and stomach which prepare the common subsistence; the public income is the blood, which a prudent economy, in performing the functions of the heart, causes to distribute through the whole body nutriment and life: the citizens are the body and the members which make the machine live, move and work8.” This says it all, or almost all; namely that the idea of the body politic forms an anthropomorphic vision of the community of citizens understood as a whole, a model that makes the existence of a head, a leader, indispensable. I have also studied the black bloc as a political “non-body”, as an antithesis that our contemporaries have produced in response to this centuries-old metaphor. Some activist testimonies are explicit on this point: “We must and will attack the Leviathan head on, then from the shadows, and then again face-to-face9.” A face off that takes place not between two heads, but between the head of the State and a headless bloc.

The notion of the people dates back to Antiquity. It is divided into two concepts, “populus” and “plebs“, referring respectively to the political totality (the “French people”) and the class of citizens to whom the exercise of politics is prohibited (the “lower people”). The notion is therefore ambiguous, irreconcilable with itself. This is also, to a lesser extent, the case for the multitude and the crowd. The main value in studying them is to see how they are compared through equivalent or opposition regimes, iconographically or discursively by the same author. Let us return to the exemplary case of Gustave Le Bon, and his comment on “the multitudes impressed by the sentimental pictures and fascination that certain words and associations of words give rise to”. To take another comment from The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind: “Crowds are not to be influenced by reasoning, and can only comprehend rough-and-ready associations of ideas”. Although they are not completely synonymous, ideas are images; the crowd is the multitude. Many authors, particularly in the 19th century, were careful to state these similarities and differences in their writings. In La Mer (1869), the historian Jules Michelet wrote, for example, “I love the people, and I hate the crowd”, criticizing the seaside tourists and beach polluters of his time.

JM: How does one view the Yellow Vests movement as a visual studies researcher? Despite your caution in producing an analysis of this movement, what can we say about its “visibility”? It has been linked to past revolts such as the medieval Jacqueries or peasant revolts: how, in turn, do you integrate this movement into a broader genealogy?

MB: The Yellow Vests movement is the result of a new political alliance and a search for visibility, both urban and media – the traditional name for the vests used by demonstrators is “high visibility clothing”. Its initial strength comes, it seems to me, from the simplicity of its symbolism. The State requires every motorist, every citizen, to have a fluorescent vest so that they can appear “optically” if necessary, as an individual, a singular body. And now this vest offers the opportunity for those who wear it to make a complete symbolic about-face, a kind of return to sender: to appear no longer optically, but politically in the eyes of the State, as a collective subject and no longer as individual bodies.

In terms of the political ideas mentioned above (crowd, multitude, etc.), the one that dominates the debates is the “people”: the idea that the Yellow Vests are “the people” and vice versa. There is therefore a relatively classic battle over the meaning of the word “people” and the legitimate group(s) to use it. The “Red Scarves” and other critics claim to be the people as well and refute this takeover. Many weak historical associations have emerged from these battles, from the Great Medieval Jacquery to May 1968. Some of the recent, better constructed theses are interesting in terms of periodization. Joshua Clover, for example, is the author of a general theory of the riot as a “struggle for circulation”. He opposes the riot to the workers’ strike as a mode of action defined as a “struggle for production”, mainly within the factory. Clover deciphers the Yellow Vest movement as a resurgence of pre-industrial forms of struggle in post-industrial capitalism, while the strike is no longer able to establish a sufficient balance of power. This type of historical interpretation framework shows roundabouts, circulation areas if ever there were one, as the new marketplaces10. The meaning of their occupation by the yellow vests thus becomes immediately obvious from the outset of the movement.

JM: Is the movement producing new images, in the strictest and broadest sense of the word? Does it invoke older ones?

MB: The new image seems to me to be the Yellow Vests themselves, already established by this “return to sender” on the symbolic level as an epistemological image in the sense previously mentioned. A colourful, powerful and persistent image, to the point where power can feed a “chromophobia” to use a term coined by British artist and writer David Batchelor to describe a cultural fear of colour, which he describes as deeply rooted in our societies. His essay is worth mentioning insofar as this problem leads Batchelor to approach the notion of corporeality also mentioned. According to him, chromophobia is embodied in the idealization of the classical body: proportionate, closed in on itself and characterized by whiteness and achromatic sharpness. To this classical body, he contrasts the grotesque, carnival realism of the medieval body, which corresponds in an updated form to the crowds of James Ensor and the Yellow Vests11.

In my opinion – but this may be a distortion linked to the specific focus on iconography mentioned above – the most striking images of the Yellow Vests movement to date are those that evoke older ones, consciously or not. I will mention three of them. The first is the mural fresco Liberty Leading the people by street artist Pboy in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, which has been widely commented on. One thing that is not often mentioned, at least to my knowledge, is the diversity of social classes represented in the model. Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting is about the Parisian insurrection of 1830. The petty bourgeois and proletarians are mounted on the same barricade, an inclusiveness that only increases the allegorical scope of the painting. In the fresco, these figures are all dressed in yellow vests: class alliance made image, echoing past alliances, no less precarious and ambiguous.

The second is the body politic in the form of a digital photomosaic posted by the Yellow Vests on social networks: the bust of the French government’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner composed of hundreds of selfies of demonstrators with swollen faces, even mutilated by the use of flash-balls by the police. A photomosaic of the wounding body incarnated by wounded bodies. The last one shows the yellow vests marching through the streets of Rouen in early January 2019 brandishing a banner that reads “We live to tread on kings” (a quote from Shakespeare’s play Henri IV). The notion of “body politic” takes on its full meaning here. But this is corporeality as a “non-body”, without hierarchies: those who compose it no longer want to be dominated by a “head”, whatever it may be.

James Ensor, Belgium in th 19th century. Sepia and black etching, 170 x 236 mm. © Ensor Foundation Ostend Collection and Adagp, Paris, 2019

JM: In the same catalogue “Dark Centuries: James Ensor & Alexander Kluge” you highlight the mob atmosphere behind James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels. If we take the opposite approach: beyond Liberty Leading the People, what body of work relates to the current climate of insurrection?

MB: The mob atmosphere surrounding the production of Ensor’s prints is too often overlooked, as is the politicization of the figure of Christ with which he strongly identifies, presenting himself as a martyr or figure of crucifixion. In a carnival style, the Swedish political scientist Stefan Jonsson noticed that in several engravings made during this period, we see a Marianne wearing a Phrygian cap and kissing a tied-up bourgeois on the mouth. This kiss motif joins the idea of a class alliance, which the lower classes would impose on the bourgeoisie; an ambiguous motif, as is the carnival itself12.

Ensor’s work is of powerful relevance while since 17 November 2018 a movement has blurred all the political codes with which we have been used to dealing for decades: through the use of riots to the detriment of workers’ strikes and controlled demonstrations, the absence of trade unions and political parties in structuring the mobilization, etc. Other more contemporary works could be referred to. I am thinking in particular of Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, the re-enactment of a police riot that occurred in June 1984 during the British miners’ strike movement, which the English artist carried out in 2001 with hundreds of extras, including many of the original participants. One of Deller’s aims was to put this trade union, people’s battle against Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal-inspired reforms in British history on a par with the other major dates along the way. As a workers’ strike turning into a riot, the “Battle of Orgreave“, as it is commonly known, is representative of the transitional movement described by Joshua Clover in terms of political action and forms of revolt; the date therefore deserves to be retained beyond the simple celebration of workers’ cultures, which underlies Deller’s project. But his work, blending fiction and reality, above all invites us to reflect on the conditions of representation and appearance of collective bodies with which the Yellow Vests movement confronts us Saturday after Saturday. It should be noted that the publication accompanying The Battle of Orgreave contains testimonies from trade unionists or miners’ wives, as well as very rich ethnographic documentation. Significantly, Deller chose to call it The English Civil War: Part II, – the first being the civil war in the 17th century, which resulted in the temporary eclipse of the monarchy. The first part was also the background to Hobbes’ Leviathan, and of course to Abraham Bosse’s representation of the united body politic 13.

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (2001). © Jeremy Deller

JM: In light of these remarks about Jeremy Deller and the other examples, I think it would be interesting to conclude by going back to the methodology. Whatever the case, whether as an artistic practice or in your own approach, this seems to be based on a set of connections, intersections, displacements, articulations…

MB: The methodology I’ve just outlined and, it seems to me, the one that Deller implements in The Battle of Orgreave owes a lot to one of the key concepts of Cultural Studies: articulation. Among the plethora of given definitions, the American theorist Lawrence Grossberg describes it as “the practice of making, unmaking and remaking relations, of establishing new relations out of old relations or non-relationships, of drawing lines and mapping connexions14“. Other more historically-based definitions emphasize the ancestry of the concept, borrowed by Cultural Studies theorists from the writings of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, in particular his famous concept of the “historical bloc”, itself inspired by French revolutionary syndicalism of the Belle Époque. This is a remarkable point, because here is another “bloc”, which has no direct connection with the black bloc, but which suggests a discontinuous, underground history of the idea of a bloc in political history. Here, the point of application is indeed methodological: how to articulate, either to prove or simply to show something, depending on whether you are a sociologist or an artist. The fact that the approaches are similar does not mean that they lead to the same result, nor that they are subject to the same imperatives.

As well as the use of the concept of articulation in the social sciences or in artistic creation, I’d like to conclude by adding that the concept is also at work in curatorial practices. Your exhibition “Dark Centuries” offers an implicit version by associating James Ensor’s images with texts and especially with Alexander Kluge’s montages. The objective, it seems to me, was not to arrive at a unified proposal, but precisely at an assemblage of elements, to be worked on through heterogeneity in new ways. “The Genderless Time”, the essay that Paul B. Preciado wrote for the catalogue, biographically associating his trans body with Leviathan, both “made up of bits of other bodies, organic or inorganic, that are put back together to construct a new body” (sic), is exemplary in this sense. A subjective voice, from elsewhere, materializes a very objective relationship between the Leviathan engraving and Ensor’s work: a relationship that is clearly apparent but in which no one, to my knowledge, had shown interest prior to this exhibition. Or how to articulate Leviathan with queer theory in the same way that Jeremy Deller relates it to the British political climate of his adolescence, at the moment when his entire work germinated.

Translation by Angela Kent
Cover: Protest at the G20 in Hamburg, July 2017. © Flickr, Thorsten Schröder

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