On The Wendy Davis Filibuster, And Duration As An Art

A human gesture of great symbolic potency, with marginal real effect; it's not hard to see why the artistically-minded would appreciate the filibuster.

To filibuster is to talk for as long as it takes to stop something from happening. It’s a last-ditch attempt at sabotaging the political process when you cannot abide the result. As Wendy Davis stood up in her red-rouge running shoes in the Texas state senate at 11.18am last Tuesday, her goal was to speak non-stop until midnight. If she managed to do it, she would leave no time for the members of the senate to vote on the anti-abortion legislation before them, and the hellacious reproductive fascists of Texas would be held at bay for a little while longer.

Texas Rules

What makes Wendy’s bust all the more impressive is that not only did the Democrat senator face a majority Republican congress and a Republican chair, all of whom were desperate to foil her, but she did it playing by Texas rules. In the U.S. Senate, Washington rules allow the filibuster the floor to speak about whatever they want. For those few magic hours, one half of the U.S. congress becomes a conceptual poetry reading, in which the telephone book and recipes for fried oysters are recited. But if you were even vaguely sentient for the first thirteen years of the new millennium, you’ll be aware that they do things differently in Texas; to filibuster there, not only do you have to stand and talk continuously with no toilet break (as is standard custom), but you cannot eat, you cannot lean or prop on anything, no one can aid or help you in any way, and you must must must stay on topic at all times.

If you break any of these rules you get a strike. Three strikes, you know what happens.

Given that the umpire was essentially a member of the opposing team, the unyielding (if not blatantly biased) application of rules meant Davis got her first strike for talking about the planned parenthood budget (ruled not germane to the topic of abortion); her second came at 7.27pm after eight hours of talking, when a colleague helped re-adjust a back brace (no pain, no filibuster); and her third and final strike came at 10.07pm, when Republicans stood to appeal against her discourse on sonogram law.

As the chair called third and out on this last Republican pitch, pandemonium broke out in the chamber. Hundreds of supporters sitting in the gallery began screaming and shouting, while fellow Democrats started tactical delays. Between the two they generated enough chaos to prolong the vote until after the midnight deadline.

Photo by Bob Daemmrich, for The Texas Tribune

Photo by Bob Daemmrich, for The Texas Tribune

The increasing clout of anti-abortion interests means Texas pro-lifers and their operatives will bounce back hard on this one. Already Governor Rick Perry has announced a special 30 day session, which is virtually certain to see the law passed — at which point Wendy Davis’ filibuster will be put back into its historical place as a memorable delay. But its symbolic legacy may yet endure in a different form, around which the reproductive rights movement in Texas can galvanise.

Having proved herself a worthy filibuster, Wendy Davis now has a popular culture profile which translates into bankable political capital. A filibuster won’t stop the law — but being Governor might.

Filibuster As Talk Athlete 

The format of the filibuster speaks to the sense of gameplay at the heart of the human mentality. It’s a structure built of tight rules that affords openness with respect to duration. Its elegance comes from being very difficult, but not impossible — and as political oratory, it takes the durational ascetic to the level of an elite sport. One thinks of Test cricket, with its gameplay of thirty hours over five days, the oft-repeated intrigue being the possibility that even after five days neither side will have won or lost. Texas rules make the filibusters relationship to baseball explicit, but at the level of duration — and one thinks also of tennis here — they have the same structure: If there’s still no victor by the bottom of the ninth or the end of the fifth, that shit just keeps on going. (The longest epics in those genres max out at eight hours and eleven hours respectively.)

The harsh reality of any filibuster’s life, including Wendy Davis’ and also Rand Paul’s impressive 13 hour anti-drone filibuster in Washington earlier this year, is that they amount to little more than a short delay in the democratic marching band. This makes the form a type of endurance performance art, predisposed for failure. A human gesture of great symbolic potency, with marginal real effect; it’s not hard to see why the artistically-minded would appreciate the filibuster.  Anyone touched by its epic rhetoric, if not its futility, may enjoy the somewhat hyperbolic notion that to be an artist is to be a filibuster: to keep on going for as long as it takes to stop something – boredom, a job, soul death, etc – from happening.

If its character of being really difficult but not impossible makes the filibuster a lot like life, it’s also a lot like the ascetic tendencies of artists, who for no obvious reason impose obligations upon themselves. Like two Australian women — Nicole Beaumont and Sarah Clark, aka Clark Beaumont — co-existing on top of a plinth in a white room for eight hours a day for eleven days in a row, or four woman in blue overalls beating a wooden post into the ground from dawn to dusk, like Sydney’s Brown Council.

Work in Progress: Dawn to Dusk, 2010 (Excerpt) from Brown Council on Vimeo.

As art critic Boris Groys observed, contra to the myth of modern art as an expressive opening that breaks away from the old, “forms of modern art are due solely to this self-imposed ascetic creation of taboos, restrictions and reductions. This example demonstrates that newness arises not from expansion but rather from reduction, from a new mode of asceticism.”

The Participatory Filibuster

When the dust has settled on the particulars of the battle for reproductive rights in Texas, Wendy Davis’ filibuster may be best remembered for entering the innovative concept of the participatory filibuster into American political consciousness. When her talk marathon was finally struck out, it was left to the support that had flooded the congress in Austin to fill the air and the two hours until midnight with their voices. At the same time hundreds of thousands of people around the world were watching a live stream and the presence of that participation proved the lie to Republican attempts to retroactively time-stamp the bill into law. Had it not been for her supporters and all the attendant media, the filibuster would have almost certainly been a heroic ten hour and 45 minute failure.

The U.S. political process is paralysed right now. The states have no money, and the revolving doors of Washington are ruled by lobby decree. As noted by many, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party both articulated dissent against a corrupt system widely perceived to be broken. Both would seem broadly to agree that money is the dark lord of power, but only one knew their financial geography well enough to find the street where Money really lives.

If what we are witnessing now is the collapse of the political middle in the U.S., then a dysfunctional system increasingly seen as diabolical by the un-moneyed majority is primed for extra-democratic political action. It’s not crazy to think that representatives of those interests within and without government could see the art of the participatory filibuster as a useful political tool. If the democratic process is bought, then filibustering with as many people as you can cram into and around congress with millions watching live online becomes a plausible spanner tactic.

The Undemocratic Filibuster

If you are picturing the future of the participatory filibuster to all be like Wendy Davis’ — progressive, liberal and emancipatory — you might want to look back at the history of filibusters. The longest filibuster of the U.S. senate ever was by an anti-civil rights Dixiecrat Storm Thurmond, who talked against the freedom of African-Americans for more than 24 hours in 1957. So the relationship of the filibuster to democracy is necessarily fraught. At the level of system function it’s entirely anti-democratic, because its explicit aim is to fuck with the function of the system. A more philosophical perspective might grant it as an extra-democratic function that checks the partisan exercise of power, and as such acts in the spirit of democracy. In this latter sense the filibuster is a bit (and only a bit) Batmanesque, where Batman’s power (a role open to anyone provided they are willing to take off the mask at the appointed hour) is restricted solely to the power of speech: a speaking force that breaks the law in the name of justice.

But the paradox becomes as complicated as the metaphor here, because the role of justice vigilante is open equally to Storm Thurmond as it is to Wendy Davis. In the eyes of their supporters, they are both just as well cast for the role. Justice can give its name to the cause of racism as easily as it can to the reproductive rights of women; anyone who can get elected and talk for long enough has the potential to become a filibustering superhero.

Filibusters As Pirates

The filibuster’s  precarious relationship to democracy is sharply illuminated by a brief historical detour, which  makes it is strikingly clear that by being reduced to a political speech act, contemporary filibustering has been completely domesticated.

The first people to earn the title of filibusteros were pirates who pillaged the Spanish colonies in the West Indies as far back as the 16th century; Filibustiers as the French called them. We can trace the term back to the Dutch vrijbuiter to uncover an etymological treasure: vrij = free, and buit = booty. Free booty. Filibusters are freebooters, people who take the world to be theirs to freely boot. This concept of the-world-as-mine–to-pillage evidently motivated the 19th century practice of filibustering, which by then referred to a person engaging in unauthorised warfare against a foreign country.

The racketeer colonialist William Walker is the exemplary historical filibuster in this sense. Beginning in Mexico in 1853, he led numerous privately-funded military campaigns into Latin America as part of his grandiose scheme to create a slave-holding empire. He took control of Nicaragua until defeat in 1856 eventually saw him repatriated and tried for engaging in illegal war, a charge that took the pro-filibustering and Manifest Destiny-obsessed jury a mere eight minutes to acquit him of. Emboldened to not let the grey legalities of his private conquests get in the way, Walker went back to Latin America, where his filibustering pissed off the British admiralty enough to seize him and hand him over to the Hondurans who promptly executed him. That he was 36 when he died goes to show that at least one thing hasn’t changed about the filibuster: it’s a game only for the fighting fit.

In 1889, a legislator using long-windedness as an obstructionist tactic was accused of being a filibuster, and by 1890 the 19th century military adventurist had become the domesticated political windbag of the 20th century. Being a political talk artist may lack some of the grandeur of pirates and illegal warfare, but as Wendy Davis has reminded us, the power still available to humans by way of the spoken word makes contemporary filibustering relevant to anyone with a critical and social consciousness.

Nick Keys is an artist in Sydney’s Underbelly Arts Lab & Festival 2013; this piece is an edited extract from an exploration into the related forms of filibustering and durational art. Read more here.