Graffiti as Infrapolitics: A Study of Visual Interventions of Resistance in San Francisco

Abstract : Definitions of graffiti vary depending on how encompassing they are. In everyday parlance, ‘graffiti’ tends to refer to hasty scribbles, tagging, or defacement – three categories that largely overlap. Alternatively, graffiti may be defined broadly as any unsolicited inscription on the surface of a public or private property. The term ‘graffiti’ conveys the onus of illegality and vandalism, to such an extent that street artists seeking recognition often make a claim to legitimacy by vigorously rejecting the label (McAuliffe, 2012; Young, 2012). Yet, a loose definition proves useful in that it diverts attention from what makes an inscription valid or worthwhile, and instead places the focus on what it is that practitioners do when they make unsolicited inscriptions. Part of the hypothesis in this chapter is that being unauthorized and unwarranted enhances graffiti’s capacity to constitute what Hank Johnston (2005) calls ‘oppositional speech acts.’ Thus, I suggest, being a less than licit form of intervention does not make graffiti less than political, but differently political – i.e. infrapolitical. Drawing from the work of James Scott (1990), Richard Fox and Orin Starn (1997), and Robin Kelley (1994), I regard as infrapolitics those practices which verge on being political, but lie below the threshold of what qualifies as such. As studied by Scott, Fox and Starn, or Kelley, infrapolitics refers to the makeshift ways in which subjects in subaltern positions enact their resistance, usually for lack of access to, or opportunities in, the legitimate political field. This chapter does not so much address the issue of graffiti authors’ subaltern status – which is in fact not always the case, as many of them are in fact artists with quite a high level of cultural capital – as the disqualified, improper status of their medium of expression. That is why, unlike studies that approach protest graffiti as a not-quite-political manifestation of otherwise fully-fledged social movements, I hypothesize that graffiti achieves a peculiar form of resistance due to its being infrapolitical.
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Contributor : Guillaume Marche <>
Submitted on : Sunday, May 13, 2018 - 4:47:46 PM
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Guillaume Marche. Graffiti as Infrapolitics: A Study of Visual Interventions of Resistance in San Francisco. The SAGE Handbook of Resistance, 2016, 9781473906433. ⟨hal-01790652⟩

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