Commmunal Choreographies: Claiming the Embodied Public Sphere in Recent Climate Activism

Susanne Foellmer*

Abstract

From 2022 to 2023, the protests by the activist group Letzte Generation (Last Generation) have created a large echo, both publicly on site as well as in mass and social media. Especially their blockages of roads in various German cities—achieved by sitting and gluing oneself with one hand to the ground—have led to debates reaching from extreme positions, such as allegations of terrorism, to expressing sympathy regarding the cause of climate activism. The precarity of the actions is crucial, deliberately exposing the body in hazardous situations, such as stopping moving traffic with the sheer bodily presence of the activists as a means of blockage. In this piece, I am exploring how dance studies’ conceptions of choreography in an expanded sense can enhance the understanding of topical social movements such as the ones by Letzte Generation in the urban embodied public sphere. I am especially focusing on the affective dynamics that these immobilizing actions are triggering, particularly for passersby or car drivers whose everyday motions are interrupted temporarily. In these protest situations, corporeal confrontation (bypassers, verbally or bodily attacking activists) is met with corporeal cooperation (protesters and police). The connecting momentum between these actants is the formation of affective communities: socially and emotionally glued to the ground, on the one side; outraged and confrontative, on the other side. My hypothesis is that here the idea of social choreography is shifting into one of communal choreographies: the campaigners base their protests on an emotional investment in their cause (the threat and urgency of climate emergency), thus engendering a particular protest community, while also generating opposing situative (temporal) counter-communities on the “other side.” In this context, I am furthermore examining the power dynamics prevailing even in non-violent resistance;I question the idea of the so-called passivity of bodies in this realm. My argument goes that Letzte Generation’s seemingly passive, immobile bodies, indeed, segue into an active mode, pro-actively stopping traffic’s flow in the case of the road blockages. Such a logic of non-violence, then, cannot be regarded as mere (physical) inertia, but creates a complex web of violence dynamics.

Keywords: protest, activism, choreography, embodied public sphere, affective societies, communities, vulnerability, non-violent resistance

A woman is sitting on a street in one of the western neighborhoods of Berlin with a hand stuck to the ground. A man is kneeling beside her, coating her hand with oil, spreading it all over and carefully treating the skin with a small brush. Patiently, he sits there and brushes, oils over the back of the hand, the sides and the fingers, eventually delicately trying to peel away the thumb or other parts of the hand. Passersby by are gathering on-site, observing the scene, some of them sympathetic with the woman on the ground, many others, though, expressing anger and yelling at her.

Three days later. A group of six people rushes to the crossing of a street in the eastern part of Berlin when the traffic lights turn red. They stand in front of the waiting cars, holding up a banner. As the light turns green, they settle on the ground and remain seated. Soon after, the sound of sirens indicating the arrival of police prompts the sedentaries to quickly open tubes containing superglue. Four of them fix their hands to the ground. Despite this, some of the police officers rush to the scene to quickly rip two of the seated persons off the street.

These brief scenarios are two of numerous actions that happened, especially since 2022, all over Germany (and partly abroad): The activist group Letzte Generation (Last Generation) was blocking roads, among other actions,[1] in order to increase the pressure on politicians to take urgent climate action. The group particularly focuses on the body as an instrument to express discontent and to force attention to the climate crisis by interrupting the conventional (ideally) smooth flow of urban movement, especially motorized transport. These measures have triggered strong, at times extreme, counter-reactions: From politics or media, with some outlets even labeling the activists as “[t]he new public enemies” (Der Spiegel, title page). But also from passersby who, at times, use aggressive and violent language, for instance, expressing the wish to have the activists killed by having them taken by the waste collection services and get them “shredded” (remark from an onlooker at Berlin Wittenbergplatz, 24 April 2023).

Such excessive reactions are not least triggered by the deployment of the vulnerable body in the public sphere to make one’s voice heard, so my hypothesis: The body as a last resort and a powerful tool at the same time, claiming space by embodied appearance, as Judith Butler outlines in referring to Hannah Arendt (Notes 76). Letzte Generation’s bodies are meant to stay, to “persist[],” as Butler stresses (83), referring to the so-called Arab Spring (82). These bodies are impacting regulated ways of urban motion, in this case, by their sheer corporeal presence on the street. Letzte Generation’s activities disrupt the (ideally) neat interplay of urban rhythms, to put it in Henri Lefebvre’s words (53), indicating and enhancing the crisis mode in which the climate and, thus, humankind finds itself, as they emphasize.

In this piece, I want to address the use of the body as a means of protest in terms of choreographic interruptions. Acts of civil disobedience as the ones sketched above are not novel but well known, such as the actions by civil rights movement activists in the U.S.A, in the 1960s—for example, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins (1960)—or the direct actions by the Clamshell Alliance at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire, U.S.A. in the 1970s, or, even earlier, the protests by the Suffragettes in the early twentieth century, campaigning for women’s right to vote. Also, choreographic interventions such as placing one’s body onto the ground to reinforce a campaign have been investigated by dance studies lately.[2]

Susan Leigh Foster describes choreography as a method to train bodies to sustain such actions, while Andrew Hewitt coins the term “social choreography” to emphasize the intrinsic connection of regulated (dance) movement with larger societal frames, building and impacting (on) social (conventional) structures. Positioning the vulnerable body in the centre (Butler, “Vulnerability”) and building upon recent research in the relation of protest to dance and performance, I am further investigating how dance studies’ explorations of choreography can enhance the understanding of topical social movements such as the ones by Letzte Generation.

I am particularly focusing on the affective dynamics that these disruptive, immobilizing actions are triggering, be it by passersby or car drivers whose everyday motions are interrupted temporarily, be it the media echoes whose outputs push such actions into the realm of left-wing extremism. The connecting momentum between these diverse actants involved in the blockage situations is the formation of affective communities, so my argument: politically and emotionally glued to the ground, on the one side; outraged and confrontative, on the other side.

My hypothesis is that the idea of social choreography (Hewitt) is shifting to one of communal choreographies that further highlight the eventual decrease of socially regulated inhibition on the antagonistic side of bystanders in particular. At the same time, it is important to consider the mediation of these events, by looking at both sides of the actions, the quite polarized opponents and the respective media echoes.

In the following, I will unravel the affective entanglement between protesters, passersby and, not least, the police. The analysis is based upon my attendance of lectures of the Letzte Generation and the observation of various blockage actions, also having talked to police officers on duty as well as having taken part in the group’s assemblies, marches and protest training, in April and July 2023 respectively (Berlin, Germany).[3] I closely examine the power dynamics prevailing even in non-violent resistance and thus question the idea of the so-called passivity of bodies—for example, in Butler’s explorations of embodied protest (Notes). My argument goes that Letzte Generation’s seemingly passive, immobile bodies segue into an active mode, proactively stopping traffic’s flow in the instances of road blockages.

Furthermore, the campaigners base their protests on an emotional investment in their cause (the threat and urgency of climate emergency), thus engendering a particular protest community, on the one hand, which, on the other hand, generates at times opposing counter-communities on the “other side.” I will examine the (non-)movements of the activists in public spaces and the un/friendly interactions tied to it, partly adopting Lefebvre’s concept of “rhythm analysis” and Michel Foucault’s idea of “action upon an action.” Based upon this, I then question the often-prevailing juxtaposition of (bodily) action and passivity, develop if and how Letzte Generation is creating “dissensus,” in Jacques Rancière’s sense, and conclude with a brief sketch on if and how such affective communities negotiate or even restore democratic debate on another, corporeal level.

The Body as Barrier

The traffic light turns red. A group of six people rushes to the street, lining up in a row and facing the motorists who wait to move on. In their hands, they hold banners reading, for instance, “Letzte Generation vor den Kipppunkten”[4] (“Last Generation before the tipping points”). They sit down when the traffic lights turn green, blocking the way for the cars (Fig. 1). I observe the action at a usually busy crossing in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg.

Fig. 1. Letzte Generation. Blockage of crossing in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, 27 April 2023. Photo: Susanne Foellmer

It is 8 am on 27 April 2023, in a week in which Letzte Generation has been launching a large campaign with numerous actions in the German capital. This is day four of the week, hence the road users do not seem to be taken by surprise anymore (Fig. 2). On this day, the initial atmosphere feels rather friendly: a man telling another one to help a seated person unroll their banner when, later, one of his hands is glued to the ground. Another one simply says, “It’s starting again,” while an angrier pedestrian is yelling, “Red assholes,” at the activists (this turns out to be a rather harmless offense compared to other incidents to which I will come back later). Suddenly, there is a sound of sirens: the police appear, prompting the activists to superglue themselves with one hand to the ground (this tactic came up to prevent outraged bypassers to rip the activists off the street as soon as they block it). However, the protesters keep an emergency lane in the middle; that is, the persons positioned there do not fixate themselves with glue but simply remain seated. The atmosphere abruptly changes when, this time, the police act impatiently: Some officers are storming on the site, pulling two already fixated activists at the arms and yanking them off the ground. Three days before, the atmosphere at a large crossing in the district of Berlin Schöneberg is different. While police officers very patiently and cautiously peel off the hands of activists,[5] using oil and a brush or a thread that they slowly move back and forth to loosen the hand of one of the protesters (Fig. 3), some of the bystanders express their opinion very rudely, one of them using violent vocabulary, yelling that these people would be “all criminals” and suggesting that someone should “plant a bomb to make them go away.”

Fig. 2. Letzte Generation. Blockage of crossing in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, 27 April 2023. Photo: Susanne Foellmer

The actants involved in Letzte Generation’s blocking actions can be divided into three groups: the activists, the bystanders and the police. These groups are partly acting as opponents, partly as supporters, or they “simply” fulfil their duty as protectors of an urban social order. Interestingly, Letzte Generation sees the police rather as protectors in this sense, preventing harm from bystanders, and even thanks the officers, for instance, applauding them at the final rally after the police accompanied a non-registered march through Berlin (26 April 2023). I will come back to the different police strategies, the position of bystanders and the complex arrangements of power and (non)violence later. First, I would like to outline how exactly urban choreography is disrupted.

Fig. 3. Letzte Generation. Blockage of crossing in Berlin, Schöneberg,
24 April 2023. Photo: Susanne Foellmer

With the concept of rhythmanalysis, sociologist Henri Lefebvre suggests an embodied approach towards the understanding of society, and everyday life in particular, placing the focus on “the rhythms of our bodies and society,” as Stuart Elden summarizes in the introduction to his work (2). Of importance here is that rhythm is not only a phenomenon to be perceived but could serve as an analytical “tool” at the same time (5). One could say that choreography holds similar attributes: Devising movement in space (and time; conventionally, when choreographing a dance piece), as well as providing a mode of analyzing the arrangement of movement in space, here in the protesting urban public sphere. Lefebvre does not only use rhythm as a unique entity to observe and to explain societal structures, and eventual changes, but also claims that (social) change itself is happening through shifts and transformations of rhythm: “for there to be change, a social group . . . must intervene by imprinting a rhythm on an era. . . . In the course of a crisis, in a critical situation, a group must designate itself as an innovator or producer of meaning” (24; emphasis ibid).

Although Letzte Generation does not aim at a fundamental societal transformation, they do use a change in rhythm to disrupt the movements of everyday life, deviating it by stopping one major choreography of the city, as I would call it: the traffic. Whilst there are conventionally many obstacles that prevent traffic from flowing smoothly (such as construction sites, rush hour, and the like, resulting in traffic jams), Letzte Generation throws the embodied element into the equation: By, in effect, immobilizing traffic, they create “disrupt[ive],” “antagonistic effects” in Lefebvre’s terminology (52), rendering traffic temporarily “out of order” (52; emphasis ibid.). However, traffic does not just consist of an avalanche of cars moving autonomously through the streets. Each car is bound to a person, a body steering the machine, a body wanting to travel a particular distance, wishing to reach a certain destination.

Letzte Generation’s blockage actions unsettle the interplay of streets, traffic lights and moving bodies in vehicles that usually make for an (ideally) uninterrupted flow of transportation: They set another, immobile, rhythm. According to Lefebvre, “the living body has . . . always been present: a constant reference” (77), and it provides for the various rhythmic levels that can clash at times. He bases his ideas partly on music, where, for instance, an “isorhythmia” is achieved when in conducted music, “a rhythm falls into place and extends over all the performers” (78). A conflicting situation, then, creates “arrhythmia: a divergence in time, in space, in the use of energies” (78). One could say that this is a moment that the activists of Letzte Generation deliberately try to achieve: halting the urban choreography of traffic and generating arrhythmic disruptions to generate attention for their cause.

Besides these (immobile) choreographic interventions into the transport rhythms of the city, Letzte Generation also violates the very rules and regulations of everyday urban motion: by stepping onto the street and remaining seated when the traffic lights are set to get the cars going, thus committing an administrative offense. This interference with traffic, resulting in an unregistered—that is, not permitted—protest action, is then tackled by the police who needs to get the activists off the streets.

Thinking back on the three acting groups—protesters, bypassers and the police—it is interesting, though, that the police cannot be easily subscribed to the concept of the “choreopolicing” of movement that André Lepecki has suggested lately. Lepecki’s model is based on the juxtaposition of “choreopolitics” and “choreopolicing,” placing the latter in the realm of (bodily) control, that is, the regulation and assignment of motion—for example, in urban space—and as opposed to “choreopolitics,” which would be connected to the free and uninhibited flow of movement (in dance) (19). Whilst Lepecki’s idea references Jacques Rancière’s concept of police and politics—roughly as control versus agency—Rancière himself does not entertain such a straightforward view of policing. According to his juxtaposition of police and politics, the first does not exercise so much “control over the living” (44). Rather, the police’s “task” is the provision of a consensual space, as he develops with his idea of the “partition of the sensible,” that is, public spheres that either “separate[] and exclude[]” or “allow[] participation” (44). Politics, according to Rancière, disrupts these “arrangements,” aiming at including the ones who are not part of these spheres yet (44).

So, on the one hand, one could say that the police’s intervention in Letzte Generation’s actions aims at restoring the public urban order of the uninhibited flow of traffic—which was disturbed by the activists to shine a light on the prevision that, soon, there could be no place, no taking part in societal life for members of this generation anymore, due to irreversible climate damage. On the other hand, the police also provide security, by protecting protesters from bypassers who try to verbally and corporeally hinder the activists to sit-in for their cause, thus, indeed, ensuring the participation in a public discourse that Letzte Generation wishes to change. Hence, while the police remove the activists to restore the traffic order, they serve in their function to protect the protesters and their right to voice concerns, at the same time. As previously noted, this holds especially true when bypassers attack activists, grabbing them by the hair, for instance, in an attempt to get them out of the way, and thus committing personal injury. This is why Letzte Generation’s activists only glue themselves to the street at the very moment in which they can already hear the sirens approaching. And it is why they actively cooperate with the police, or even thank them for the protection provided.

Hence, in this case, I would distinguish the modes of corporeal cooperation— especially when it comes to the police (mostly) interacting with the activists on the grounds of protecting their rights of assembly—in juxtaposition of corporeal confrontation, often executed by outraged bystanders or traffic members. Whereas Butler (Notes) argues that “[d]emonstrations are one of the few ways that police power is overcome” (74), the case of Letzte Generation draws a more complex picture, shifting between the police granting protection but also making sure that the public sphere can operate undisturbed. However, it is important to note that Letzte Generation’s activists are mostly part of a so-called Caucasian white group of citizens, a circumstance that the campaigners have been accused of. They acknowledge the problem, though; during the protest training that I participated in (Berlin, 22 July 2023), the activists made clear that they are aware of the low level of diversity among the protesters and relate this to the fact that members of communities identifying as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)  would, or indeed are, experiencing much harsher handling by the police, presumably also when it comes to arrests. Thus, the making of an embodied space for a possible or even enhanced participation in politics, to impact on climate change action, is still reserved to a privileged group of people who usually can be assured of fair treatment when being policed (in this case, in Germany). This may be even more true when bodies’ insistence in the public sphere, in staying on the street, highlights the state’s failure (Butler Notes 83), here, taking all measures to halt the climate crisis, thus rendering the body as an unruly, possibly dangerous disruption of public discourse. One can but wonder what may happen to members of the global majority supergluing themselves on a road.

The interaction between the mentioned three groups of activists, bypassers and police furthermore encompasses a delicate net of power relations. Starting off with the obligation to raise awareness for climate action by strict non-violent tactics, this very idea is not as simple as it seems to be at first sight. Not least, non-violence raises questions about how to conceptualize the so-called passivity and activity of the body in protest, which I will explore in the next section by drawing from sources such as the protest training that I undertook with Letzte Generation and the (media) debates about the offence of coercion with which actions of the campaigners are partly criminalized—all the way to the allegation of terrorism. In this context, I critically reflect upon the (partly) prevailing actio—passio divide when it comes to the body in the theories developed by Foucault and Butler.

Bodies’ In/Action?

I am attending the protest training provided by Letzte Generation, in a communal space in Berlin (22 July 2023). After we have learned about the campaign’s organizational structure, as well as the specific procedures and levels of protest actions and the legal consequences associated with it, we are invited to do some practical exercises. One of it deals with the visualization of a blockage situation on an imaginary road. I am sitting on the floor of the room in a row with five other participants, wearing a hi-vis vest and having my eyes closed. I am listening to the voice of one of the convenors of the training who leads us through a hypothetical blockade. Sitting on the ground, I am mentally putting myself into the position of a protester being fixed on a busy crossroad in the city: The cars are very close, forced to a standstill, some drivers impatiently honking their horns, others just waiting, creating a wall made of big metal machines. I feel somewhat shrunk, down on the ground and unable to gaze at the drivers who sit in their cars high above me. The fact that I cannot see their faces, and being prevented from making eye contact, provides for uncertainty, and I feel quite vulnerable, especially as I am unable to sense the actions of the “opponents” without seeing into their eyes or sensing their bodies’ movements. My own bodily sensation is one of internally reclining backwards, feeling threatened by the imagined bulk of metal amassing in front of me. The urge to retreat is strong, but I remain seated—it’s only a mental exercise, after all.

After this visualization, we buddy up with another workshop participant, sharing our experience. When I report how powerless I felt, how small and fragile against the cars, my partner shares the same feelings, on the one hand. On the other hand, they remark that they experienced mixed emotions, that is, feeling helpless and empowered at the same time. For them, the almost overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of the climate crisis is now met with another, new sensation: the impression of strength, of feeling empowered by finally being able to counteract this sense of powerlessness induced by accelerating climate change. Hence, there are two levels of powerlessness at play here: one induced by the climate crisis on a more general and (partly) ungraspable level and the very concrete physical (and spatial) one evoked by the vulnerable position of placing one’s body opposite a wall of cars. However, in the case of my partner who is keen to get out of their felt inaction, this fragile corporeality of blocking traffic presents a powerful instrument to overcome the inertia sensed by the apocalyptic prospect of climate crisis’ consequences, impacting upon their generation.

This complex texture of “empowering powerlessness” is then met with other forms of power dynamics: The one of non-violent action, which draws from the interwoven paradox described above; the violent ones by some of the opposing bypassers and car drivers—on an either verbal or physical level; and the assertive and resolute, albeit (mostly) protective, one of state power embodied by the police. As for the strategy of non-violent action, Letzte Generation provides a precise definition in using the physical metaphor of a musical instrument, comparing the varying scales of violence with a guitar string that would need just the right tension: non-violent action, then, would equal a perfectly tuned string. Compared to this, inaction, or indifference, as they call it (Anteilnahmslosigkeit), would lack the tension necessary to evoke attention for their cause, while violence would stretch the string too much, creating a tension that would result in the guitar string snapping (protest training, 22 July 2023). Hence, non-violent action is not to be regarded as simply sitting on a street and doing nothing, in a passive sense. The very fact of forcing cars to a halt is an act of creating tension, not too little and not too much, in Letzte Generation’s understanding.

In the protest training, we are discussing various situations in trying to identify the level of violence, for instance, blocking the road and wearing a helmet and a padded jacket. Such a preparation would be regarded as indifference though, as the protective measures would prevent the right amount of tension generated in the blockage situation. The same goes for simply standing up and leaving the site. Wearing hi-vis vests, however, would support the generation of the ideal tension ratio as it also creates a strong image for media distribution. The very fact of gluing oneself to the street is not that straightforward, though, as we debate in the training: On the one hand, it falls under the category of non-violent action as no one is harmed. This, though, can be regarded as violent because it inheres the danger of self-injury. Yet, Letzte Generation’s engagement needs to be regarded against the backdrop of an overarching violent act, as the convenor of the training remarks: The violence occurring through (political) inaction in the face of the climate crisis. It provides the campaigners with a moral basis to argue for their cause and to legitimize their actions (protest training, 22 July 2023).

Hence, the climate protests are interwoven in a web of violence dynamics. That these are not publicly discussed in a more sophisticated manner comes as no surprise when taking state power into the equation: the activists have been confronted with various allegations, from applying coercion to being a suspected terrorist organization. Given the campaigners’ demands at that time—the formation of a social council to achieve the climate protection goals until 2030, a speed limit on motorways and cheap public transport—especially the accusations of extremism seem vastly exaggerated (see Jeske; Weber). However, in the eyes of the state, such non-violent protests are indeed regarded as violent action, as Butler (Nonviolence) points out: “Demonstrations, encampments, assemblies, boycotts, and strikes are all subject to being called ‘violent’ even when they do not seek recourse to physical fighting, or to the forms of systemic or structural violence” (15).

Letzte Generation performs acts of civil disobedience that fill a gap where the state does not act to prevent a worsening climate. Thus, the activists interfere with the power monopoly deemed to be exclusive to the government (see Butler, Nonviolence, 19) and its executive bodies who, then again, act with harsh measures, such as ordering preventive custody—in one case detaining an activist for 29 days—to impede announced protests in Munich in September 2023 (Bönte). Furthermore, politicians accuse the campaigners of being terrorists, titling them, for instance, “Klima-RAF”[6] (Stern). Also, in the federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg, the authorities investigated on suspicion of Letzte Generation forming a criminal organization, an assessment that was rejected later (Beck aktuell). Given the above-mentioned claims, these measures and accusations seem to be exceptionally over-reactive on the side of authorities and politics.Thus, it is important to understand the logic of non-violence adopted by groups such as Letzte Generation. They find themselves in company with other (historic) examples of civil disobedience that reach as far back as the Suffragettes, who, unlike climate activists, used violence to enforce their claim of women’s right to vote by, for example, smashing shop windows to raise attention for their cause (Bearman).

As mentioned in the introduction, other modes of resistance involve methods of “direct action,” for instance, performed in the 1970s and 1980s by campaigners of the Clamshell Alliance in New Hampshire, U.S.A., to protest against the erection of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.[7] And, not least, activists of the U.S. civil rights movement used non-violent actions such as the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins (at Woolworth, in Feb 1960), remaining seated although they were not allowed to do so as Black people, to fight for equal treatment.

The two latter cases also show the idea of finding the right amount of friction within the realm of non-violence, balancing between doing no harm on the one side and building up enough tension to make their case on the other. Butler (Notes) refers to more recent events such as squatters’ protests in Argentina, acting from an existentially precarious state of being, demanding “shelter, food, and rights of sanctuary” (81)—as mentioned before, her theory of political mobilization being based on the grounds of vulnerability.

Letzte Generation acts from a rather different stance: Not being endangered at present but worried about the future to come, that could leave them in precarious conditions. While the protesters’ bodies, sitting in front of cars, fixed to the street, are vulnerable in a matter-of-fact sense, they can act from a more comfortable position, being mostly white young German citizens, thus able to (still) live a “livable life,” in Butler’s terms, a life which is in need of future protection. However, Letzte Generation acknowledges people living in the Global South who already face the consequences of climate change and who may not have the (geopolitical) means to protest its most powerful polluters, whose companies mainly sit in the Global North (protest training, 11 July 2023).

Butler (Notes) ties the power of resistance to the “concerted action [that] emerges from . . . acting together” (81), thus emphasizing “relationality” over the “self” (Nonviolence, 23–25). She hence shifts the Foucauldian idea of the acting subject (Butler, Nonviolence 340) to a concept of embodied “[inter]dependency” (272).[8] Yet, I am wondering whether the very idea of acting remains within the binary realm of action versus passivity? Foucault draws a distinction between violence as direct action and power relations: violence “acts upon a body or upon things; it forces, it bends, it breaks, it destroys . . . [i]ts opposite pole can only be passivity” (340). Power relations, however, would act in a more indirect manner, it is “an action upon an action, on possible or actual future or present actions.” (340) Closely related to this is his concept of “[g]overnment,” that is, “to structure the possible field of action of others” (341). With the actions of Letzte Generation, I would argue that we are dealing with a complex net of interdependent and subjective action, shifting between (non-)violence, power relations and government. These interwoven dynamics prompt an enquiry into the conventional notions of action and passivity[9] that can be also partly found in Butler’s idea of action still being based upon certain states of passivity, when she frames her concept of action which rests on vulnerability and precarity.

However, Butler (Nonviolence) slightly expands her thoughts on action (and passivity) when conceptualizing non-violence: “nonviolence has now to be understood less as a moral position adopted by individuals in relation to a field of possible action than as a social and political practice undertaken in concert” which could be also found as “aggressive nonviolence” in terms of a “nonviolent force,” as she coins with reference to Mahatma Gandhi (40). This idea of aggression relates to Letzte Generation’s idea of a tense guitar string, albeit the idea of aggression would be deemed as stretching it too much. However, the thought of “concert[ed] action” cannot be that easily adopted in their case nor can be Foucault’s differentiation between violence and power: their activities interfere with such clear-cut distinctions.

Butler’s claim of concerted action is met in the fact that the protesters always act as a group, not only when blocking streets as such but also within the action; for example, the choreography of standing up or sitting down at the same time to create a strong image and to avoid being picked out as a single individuum by angry opponents (protest training, 11 July 2023). However, everyone acts on their own when it comes to the legal consequences (for example, when being sentenced to pay a fine). One cannot assume that Letzte Generation would cover the costs. Yet, social and emotional support is paramount, for instance, by always having someone waiting to pick up activists who have been brought to the prisoner collection centre (Gefangenensammelstelle) after an action of civil disobedience, such as a blockage. Letzte Generation, hence, deliberately walks on the ridge between collective and individual action, causing disruptions in the urban rhythms with as few people as possible—a consequence of the massive protests such as “Fridays for Future” who would have failed to achieve the desired results of swift political action against further climate change (lecture Strasund 5 April 2023).[10]

Also, the activists shift between the Foucauldian notions of violence, power relations and government. In using non-violent means of protest, albeit not in a passive sense but adopting the idea of tension, they act directly upon the bodies and the objects of, in this case, road users. However, in Foucault’s words, they also perform “action[s] upon actions,” or in this case: rather, actions on the in-action of politics, which apparently does not do enough to halt climate catastrophes. Thus, Letzte Generation unfolds a net of power relations: between activists and the state and its executive arms. Yet, the police are not simply clamping down on the actions, but, as previously noted, are regarded as protector and collaborator in the campaigners’ cause, having the duty to guarantee assembly and only interfering when, for instance, people block roads, further preventing harm from angry car drivers. Letzte Generation, thus, actually finds allies in those who enforce the state’s laws. Even more so, the activists remind the state of its failure to abide to the law made by itself: the obligation to guarantee the right of human integrity by writing actions against climate change into the (German) constitution. In Butler’s words (Notes), Letzte Generation uses corporeal vocabularies of assembly to make their case (18). Butler (Notes) focuses on activists protesting for their “rights to have rights” from an initial precarious position, making their “claims” in “persist[ing] under [these] conditions” and thus “threaten[ing] the state with deligitimation” (83) by “bring[ing] the material urgencies of the body into the square” (96).

As said, Letzte Generation’s activists can hardly be compared with people living in such existential conditions, at present. Their “interven[tions] in the spatial organization of power” (85) are even based on the grounds of an initial right of assembly which is, furthermore, guaranteed by the police. Yet, their embodied campaigns remind official state politics of its in-action, of not following its own laws and, thus, of acting illegally. Letzte Generation, consequently, interferes with the sphere of government which is deemed to be exclusive to the state by trying to coerce it into action and exposing their resisting bodies in the public sphere. It comes as no surprise then that the state is taking unduly measures to prevent the protesters from action. Many media outlets are echoing these actions, adding another aspect to the stigmatization or incomprehension with which the actions are mostly met: the feature of emotional involvement and morale. In the next section, I will delve into the affective perspectives of these climate protests by depicting the (counter) communities engendered in this web of (non-)violence and power relations.

Affective Communities—Communal Choreographies

Letzte Generation organizes talks all over Germany (on site and online), “Vorträge” in which they inform about the consequences of the climate crisis and encourage people to join the movement. The structure of such an evening is divided into an approximately 45-minute lecture which lists scientific facts and draws a picture of the consequences that would occur in case the climate tipping points would be reached.

I visit two lectures, one in Stralsund (5 April 2023) and one in Greifswald (13 April 2023), two smaller cities in the north-east of Germany.[11] Both talks are facilitated by the Greifswald section of Letzte Generation and, all in all, the content is mostly the same. As much of the facts are largely familiar to the listeners (and anyone who regularly follows the news), an emphasis is put on the emotional involvement; that is, what is needed to transform the factum of climate change into climate action.

The speaker in Stralsund stresses the need to see the bigger picture and the necessity to “follow one’s conscience.” He mentions campaigns by, for example, Fridays for Future,who would have mobilized huge numbers of people to protest and urge governments to act, yet they did not manage to create a significant impact on politics (other than the German government pledging to become climate neutral until 2045). However, immediate action would be paramount, and thus another approach would be needed; that is, “civil disobedience” to increase the pressure on politics. Historical reference is made to the Suffragettes as well as the Indian independence movement that started off with non-violent action. In this regard, the speaker accentuates that one would have to make personal sacrifices in order to touch and to move people. While the Stralsund speaker talks about the necessity “to polarize” to create attention for the cause, the speaker in Greifswald takes a rather communal stance, explaining the need to “emotionally grasp” the situation for being motivated to act: It would be important to “create a drama that is appropriate to the situation” in which the global population would find itself in currently.

After the talk, the audience is divided into smaller groups to have the chance to discuss what they have just heard. An emphasis is put on emotions, how one feels when hearing about the reported climate facts. Participants of the group that I am part of talk about, for example, “mixed feelings” evoked by the fact that they know most of the details, yet the talk has caused an “omnipresence” of the climate crisis that made them unable to deny it any longer. Another member of the group shares their corporeal involvement in a rather positive manner: “I have excitement in my body . . . I feel like doing something.”

Emotional involvement in this realm is thus threefold: Firstly, it is needed as an impulse to get active and take to the street, but also, secondly, to be able to cope with one’s own emotions through getting active and, thus, to try and overcome the sensation of powerlessness in the face of the current and prospective climate situation, as described in the previous section. Thirdly, emotionality is an effective mode of motivating more people to engage in immediate action. Greta Thunberg’s statement: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” at The World Economic Forum in Davos on 25 January 2019 can be regarded as key phrases in this respect.

Thus, Letzte Generation deliberately uses emotional modes of encouragement both to stress the urgency of the case and to provide tools to tackle desperation, such as climate anxiety, found particularly in the younger generation who faces an uncertain future: It would be important to “reclaim self-efficacy” (Selbstwirksamkeit) again, so the speaker in Greifswald. However, campaigning to urge politicians to act would not work on the level of a certain moral high ground or pompous self-sacrifice, as he stresses: “We are only human, too, we are no heroes.” Yet, particularly the road blockage actions of Letzte Generation cause extreme reactions on various levels (of opponents): by directly affected road users or passersby, by indirectly affected politicians, and all of it often echoed by the media, as briefly sketched before.

I will now try to further understand these dynamics by looking into the emotional engagement, or rather, the affective dynamics of the situations present here, connected to the fact of a social movement enforcing temporal immobility to, then, get people into motion, to motivate for taking climate action. Hewitt bases his idea of “social choreography” on the interrelation of aesthetics and politics; that is, “dance as the production and presentation of social order” in which an emphasis lies on the body actively generating such structures (19). Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović concentrate on the idea of normative orders and their regulations and “regimes” often becoming only visible in moments of “rupture . . . or . . . a ‘stumbling’ of social choreography” (66), referring to Hewitt’s explorations of aesthetic and political change in the Weimar era. According to him, “it is only when a certain choreography breaks down, in periods of transition, that the operation of choreographic norms and conventions becomes explicit” (179).

Letzte Generation now corporeally disrupts the conventional choreographic flow of a city as well, but within a shift towards the level of politics, and interferes with modes of governing by urging political action, as developed with Foucault in the section before. To put it with Lepecki, the protesters are choreopolitically intervening by questioning government’s failures to abide to its own legislation.

Though the activists’ demands are geared towards additional forms of democratic engagement (a citizens’ council), they do not quite fit into the realm of social choreography that Hewitt suggests, as they neither wish to create, to blueprint (or destroy) another social order, nor do they use aesthetic means to enforce their pleas (but rhythmical, choreographic ones as described with Lefebvre earlier). Rather, their actions are happening within an affective environment in which they insert their disruptive choreographies, which are, at times, met with harsh opposition on verbal and, eventually, corporeal, fisticuff levels. Thus, I would argue that activities such as the ones by Letzte Generation and the counter-reactions happening are to be understood as communal choreographies (instead of social ones), collaborating or counter-operating in the shared embodied and choreographed public sphere of, here, urban traffic.

In the research field of “Affective Societies” that has developed recently,[12] the focus is placed on understanding affect dynamics in social interactions (that often cannot be grasped by rational argument anymore). Jan Slaby takes on a new theoretical perspective in asserting that affects are not something added to social practices, “but affectivity is itself an integral dimension of these practices and forms of life and thus cannot be separated from them” (230). Thus, affect “is an essential form of social relations in general” (231). In this respect, affective dimensions always already pervade our everyday actions and social interrelations, and they are not only happening between humans but are also tied to the objects that surround us and which inhere and produce an affective dimension as Slaby explains by the example of the recently increased use of SUV vehicles in cities. Such cars would affectively represent the capacity of individual mobility and of physically felt comfort and safety (230–31): “This practical-habitual availability extends into the deepest bodily impulses and emotions, dispositions and habits; it is second nature, habitus, self-evidence” (231).

Rainer Mühlhoff (“Affective Resonance”), again, takes a closer look at how affect dynamics occur or develop by investigating its “resonances.” Mainly concentrating on affective constellations between humans, he describes the “force-like entanglement of moving other(s) and being moved by other(s); it is a movement-in-relation which is only partly under my control. In the unfolding of resonance, I contribute to a group dynamic, and at the same time, I am gripped by it“ (193). A “subcase” of resonance then would be “dissonance,” in which a “force field” would appear as “destabilizing” or “disruptive” (195).[13]

Slaby’s and Mühlhoff’s explanations are productive for the actions and inter-actions of Letzte Generation, its activists and the varying (opposing) groups involved. The image of the tense guitar string is a key idea here when it comes to the desired effects that the campaigners wish to achieve, creating disruption and “dissonance” in the rhythms of everyday traffic. The aim to move others is twofold in these situations: moving politicians in charge to act, as well as motivating fellow citizens to support the cause and get active, and thus cope with the often-felt paralysis in the face of climate emergency. As described, the activists intend to do so by, indeed, creating a situation of “no-motion,” forcing traffic to a halt to shine a light on their cause and disrupting urban mobility by way of bodily exertion. However, the campaigners’ actions do also move fellow citizens in another, unwanted sense: apparently provoking road users to get out of their cars, yell at the people fixed to the ground or even assaulting some of them physically, as mentioned earlier: grabbing activists by the hair and trying to yank them off the street, or, even worse, rolling over a hand or a foot with the car.[14] The level of aggression is high among those who disapprove of the blockages, who are being confronted with a dissonance that they did not expect when trying to get from A to B, to run errands, to get to work. Of course, there is also approval among the bystanders of the actions, applauding or uttering words of encouragement.

Astonishment about the level of belligerence has been often expressed, especially as car drivers in Berlin or other large cities, in fact, do experience traffic jams daily, caused by the usual rush hour or accidents. Slaby’s example of the ownership and use of SUV’s, though, gives an important clue to understand why feelings are running high when Letzte Generation blocks a street. It is not only the sense of comfort and safety but also the idea(l) of a universal mobility that is questioned by the protesters’ unprotected bodies, sitting in the way. Apart from reminding car owners of such times of comfort possibly being over soon, and apparently upsetting some of them by (implicitly) disapproving of these modes of traffic (though this is not the main goal; protest training, 11 July 2023), it is the vulnerable body, the abandonment of any safety net that seems to foster the dynamics within the affective force field of (unprotected) activists, shielded road users (sitting in the metal shell of their car) and bypassers, each reacting in a different manner and each experiencing specific feelings of their own.[15]

Because of Letzte Generation’s blockages—the disruption of each one’s personally felt rhythm—some of the participants in urban traffic’s choreography encounter strong senses of resistance: against the thought that comfort and safety could soon belong to the past, insisting on their right to move but being reminded that mobility, the right to move is not for ever granted. Especially the attribute of comfort that Slaby foregrounds is important as it points towards the being-as-body that holds true for all parties involved in these moments of disruption: The protesters feeling exposed by sitting transfixed on the road (albeit sensing empowerment through getting into action), the car drivers being reminded of their own possible vulnerability, of their car as one of the resorts providing safety and protection: an individual zone of comfortable mobility which is increasingly at stake.

Protesters and outraged motorists are thus forming two different, situative communities. The temporal aspect is important here, as this is not so much about conforming with an overarching (ideological) mindset, though media and politics partly try to push the opponents into this realm to serve their own agenda. Letzte Generation, however, emphasizes that they are not acting against road users but feel that they are forced to protest as the last resort of action (Thelen). Yet, it is remarkable that these two antagonistic groups, the community of protesters and the counter-community of motorists (add to it critical media voices and politicians), in effect share the same bodily (and thus existential) concern: the one of health and safety. Health and safety that is at stake if politicians carry on as before, on the one side, comfort and safety that a car is supposed to give, and that may be endangered or disrupted, on the other side.[16]

Helmuth Plessner’s elaborations on (political) communities can be helpful in understanding the kind of togetherness that Letzte Generations promotes, and why they encounter such harsh resistance. Plessner’s thoughts, that were first published in 1924, are based on the developments during the Weimar Era in Germany, and here especially the youth movement (74). With campaigns such as Fridays for Future and Letzte Generation, the parallels are remarkable not only with regard to age—albeit one must not forget the very different political,[17] historical and, of course, social and cultural backgrounds. Yet, there are parallels when it comes to the social agenda: Plessner positions the establishment of youth movements, and communitarian movements in particular, as a reaction against an increasing urbanization and the alleged evils of urbanization tied to it (74). Interestingly, the movements already adopted a critical stance against (industrial) progress, asking, in Plessner’s words “What is won with the automobile and wireless telegraph?” (74). He analyzes that “[t]hey are already too close to adventure, as their milieu is falling apart around them. The highest in life, possibility itself, means nothing to them” (78). Plessner, thus, observes a turn towards an “ethos of community” (80) in which “emotional values” such as “love” would play an important role (instead of societal ones; 87–88); “[e]motions experienced in times of high political tension or catastrophe” (88)—of course, Plessner develops these ideas against the backdrop of the experience of World War I, which was not over for long.[18]

What interests me here now is the emphasis on communality and emotion that could also appear in rather temporary communal arrangements, as Plessner already indicates: “a community of like-minded persons, a community of work” that would be also present in more ephemeral ways, “in the fluidity of appearance of these ‘forms of community’ —their emergence in disappearance” (91). I would argue that we can observe such temporal forms of communities in the situations of the recent climate protests, and during the road blockages in particular: Here, temporal communities of (mostly) young people—being concerned about political inaction with regards to climate policies, thus endangering future civil life—meeting fellow citizens “on the other side of the road,” and being entangled in an affective net of action and counter-action. However, while these are often single encounters (most blockages that I saw had possibly one or two people yelling or getting physical while the majority of bypassers and car drivers did nothing, remained astonishingly silent, or approved of the action), it is the media public sphere that enlarges these oppositions and creates antagonistic groups of “ruthless” protesters versus “well-behaved” citizens who simply want to get on with their everyday life.

Hence, while emotional contact is important for Letzte Generation to both motivate for and endure the actions, literally providing the social glue to get going, and which is met with emotions such as anger and outrage but also approval and support, it is the affective entanglement between these, at times juxtaposed, temporal “micro-social constellations” (Mühlhoff, “Affective Disposition” 121) that particularly come to the fore. Mühlhoff emphasizes that “[w]hile . . . interactive patterns are highly dependent on the personal characteristics of particular members, this does not mean that the way in which individuals perform ‘themselves’ is similar to how they perform in other group contexts” (121). So, in the on-site embodied public sphere of the protesting situation, individual citizens meet who oppose each other (or not), being spatially grouped in a temporary stand-still (or: stand-off), some of them wanting to disrupt traffic’s flow to highlight their cause, others wanting to move on. Accordingly, Mühlhoff remarks that “micro-social constellations might sediment as potentials to affect and be affected in future constellations” (121). In this regard, it is then the media public sphere as well as politics willingly or unwillingly enlarging these groups by transforming them into opposing (irreconcilable) affective communities (Affektgemeinschaften), particularly by way of imagery (see Schankweiler) and respective (dismissive) labels and headlines, such as “Klimakleber”[19] (climate gluers), or “The New Public Enemies” (Der Spiegel).[20]

In her studies on security, and particularly the “feel” of it in communities experiencing trauma, Emma Hutchinson (127; emphasis ibid.) stresses the aspect of “emotional solidarity” (129) that would foster a sense of belonging and argues that “emotions can influence the constitution of collective and political beliefs” (128). Whilst this could advance compassion and social connection, it could also prompt controversy, as communities are generally defined via “boundaries,” often generating “inside/outside dichotomies” that might also trigger conflicts through the very fact of group formation (128). Hutchinson does not further delineate the concept of “affective communities” and, rather, ties in-group dynamics to emotional qualities. However, her observation of demarcation depicts a significant characteristic of communities: Such “boundaries . . . are largely constituted by people in interaction,” as Anthony P. Cohen argues in his seminal work on The Symbolic Construction of Community (13). Communities, according to his concept, are spheres of social learning (15), and a sense of “commonality” is crucial to feel part of a particular group—albeit this should not be confused with “uniformity” (20).

Cohen takes a (somewhat) semiotic viewpoint, focusing on community interaction that arises through symbolic communication which would create meaning (20). In the case of Letzte Generation’s blockage actions, community interaction literally takes place, however: as a corporeal encounter, in an embodied public sphere: a previously formed community—through common beliefs, the fear of an uncertain future caused by climate change and the will to do something about it—which then meets a group of opponents (as well as sympathizers), who form a temporal, ephemeral community, sharing the common feeling of being hindered in their right to free movement. The protesters’ social cohesion, built over a longer period of time, is now confronted with a spontaneously generated counter-community (of which single individuals eventually overreact), and whose anger and rage are then enhanced by the said media coverage. Discontent and, at times, fury, originate on these two levels: establishing and negotiating a literal border that blocks the passage, and thus demarcating the boundaries between climate protesters and opponents and, with it, highlighting their different belief systems as well—possibly reflecting societal community building on a macro level.[21]

Thus, I argue that it is through the very physical encounters on the streets—the momentary rearticulation of (urban traffic’s) space by immobilizing it—that communal choreographies are created. One the one hand, such communities appear temporarily, in the moment in which action happens; on the other hand, they are embedded in larger, often heated ongoing discourses about the legitimate choice of means when it comes to protesting. When these communal choreographic groups (opponents) meet on site, literally negotiating their boundaries by establishing an embodied border, in a partly immobile stand-off (apart from having their opinions enhanced in the media), the police play an important role. Not part of the antagonistic groups, they set another choreography into motion though, forming a (thin) membrane between protesters, opponents, and supporters as well. While the protesters do not move, and stop traffic’s motion, the police are in charge of re-moving the activists in order to restore the conventional urban choreography. They dislodge the body-barriers (temporal borders) and restore the regular boundaries of urban motion.

However, the police are also obliged to protect the right to protest in general; that is, removal is not always an option. I experience this when I attend an assembly in a church, happening during the protest week in Berlin (26 April 2023). The meeting, so the plan, shall transition into an unannounced slow march, following the main roads from Kreuzberg up to Berlin Alexanderplatz, ending at the Marx-Engels-Forum in Mitte (Fig. 4). Somehow, the police have got wind of it, and as soon as the protesters exit the church and gather on the road outside, they are meet by a literal wall of police officers blocking their way. For a few minutes (or so it feels), nothing happens, and no one moves. Then, as if following an invisible, inaudible command, the police officers turn around in one synchronous swing and set the march in motion, flanking the activists with their bodies like a uniformed but porous bodily frame: it creates an impression as if the state’s executive arm is now leading the protest. I am flabbergasted, and while walking along, I take the opportunity to talk to some of the police officers, asking how this is possible. One of them informs me that it is the police’s duty to guarantee the constitutional right of assembly, even if a protest has not been registered in advance.

Thus, one could say that the police plays a particular role in the (disruptive) choreographic arrangements: Bodily collaborating to facilitate assemblies of dissent, physically engaging to peel hands off the ground to restart traffic’s choreographic flow while, at the same time, protecting activists from attacks (however, also, at times, reacting emotionally, ripping protesters off the streets, pouring oil over a head, or using so-called pain handles to get campaigners into motion if they do not wish to carry them away).

Fig. 4. Letzte Generation. Unannounced slow march, Karl-Marx-Allee Berlin, 26 April 2023. Photo: Susanne Foellmer
Conclusion: Consenting Dissonances

Letzte Generation uses the instrument of civil disobedience, particularly by blocking roads to urge politics to set a more proactive and urgent climate agenda into motion. They thus create deliberate unrest to highlight their cause, which stirs up conflicting opinions and emotions, as depicted. Several times, people who happen to pass by the blockages do not react aggressively but rather express their discontent by asking, for example, why the activists would not sit in front of the parliament or form a party (Berlin, 24 April 2023). However, this, of course, would not stretch the said guitar string enough to provoke attention and would remain in the accepted realm of discontent, acting within consented forms of expressing opposition in the (political) public sphere.[22]

Rancière even goes as far as diagnosing a current “process of de-politicization [in] the name of consensus” (79): “consensus means closing spaces of dissensus” which would lead to a “shrinkage of political space” (79–80). In this respect, Oliver Marchart argues for “political intervention” that would “create the space for politics” in the first place (132).[23] Disagreeing with Niklas Luhmann’s idea of the “public sphere [as a] space of consensus,” he argues for “dissensus”; that is, an “[u]rban public space [being] generated by conflict” (134). Adopting Claude Lefort’s democratic theory, Marchart concludes further that the public sphere “is not an ontic location but rather an ontological principle of dislocation” (137; emphasis ibid.).

I would like to conclude that Letzte Generation is introducing this idea of dissensus again, especially by appearing in “inappropriate” places, such as gluing themselves to crossroads. If the activists would opt to sit in front of the Berlin Reichstag, as one onlooker suggests—stressing the wish to get into close proximity to political decision-makers instead of disturbing citizens—the disruptive effect would be close to zero, simply acting in a somewhat orderly protest in a space that would not disrupt the urban choreographies of everyday life. Hence, the actions live off the principle of dissensus: Forcing people to think about climate change by making it impossible to look away or to let protest pass unnoticed, and to urge politicians to act. In doing so, Letzte Generation promotes goals that take such enacted dissensus on the street back to the round table: in demanding a citizen’s council in which conflicting voices would be heard, attempting to negotiate necessary goals to keep climate impact at bay, that, then again, may end in a consensus on climate action.[24]

By re-choreographing and, thus, using and re-claiming an embodied public sphere, not least, climate activist groups such as Letzte Generation are demanding action within the valid legal system and with respect to human values, dismissing (in)human action that could be both caused by climate action negligence and by abusive behaviour during protests—the campaigners go even as far as withholding from suing aggressors when being attacked, ripped of the street or pulled by the hair.[25] Letzte Generation acts in a dissenting manner that, in the end, aims at re-opening spaces for democratic exchange, for having a say about and for future generations to come.

Acknowledgements

This article was supported by a Senior Fellowship at the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald, Germany. I would also like to express my thanks to the activists of Letzte Generation who kindly read through my article before publication.


Endnotes

[1] However, from March 2024, Letzte Generation changed its strategy: “Instead of dividing into small groups and blocking roads, we will hold disobedient gatherings with many people. And where we cannot be ignored. A new era of our peaceful, civil resistance begins—the chapter of sticking and road blockades ends”

[2] See, for instance, Parviainen, Prickett, Mckeon, Foellmer, Mills, Monni.

[3] Note on ethics: I have identified myself as a researcher to the members of Letzte Generation and the police, and I have informed them about my current investigations into choreography and protest. The photographs used are also vastly distributed in the public domain, via mass- and social media.

[4] The “tipping points” refer to the moment when climate change is non-reversible, due to the increase of global warming (lecture Stralsund, 5 April 2023). For a more detailed explanation of what “tipping points” entail, see Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

[5] One police officer adopts a rather matter-of-fact attitude when asking one of the activists “How long have you been sticking for?” to determine how much oil is needed to remove the hand from the ground (blockage Berlin Schöneberg, 24 April 2023).

[6] The RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion; Red Army Faction) has been a terrorist organization in Germany, mainly in the 1970s, characterizing themselves as anti-imperialist and communist. Their activities included kidnapping and assassinations of prominent figures in the German economy and law sectors, such as Hanns Martin Schleyer, Jürgen Ponto, and Siegfried Buback.

[7] See Global Nonviolent Action Database.

[8] Dance scholar Gerko Egert further expands the Foucauldian idea of power by focusing on a “politics of movement” (Politik der Bewegung): In this realm, the subject is not the initiator of power relations and its motions but would have to be understood as impacted upon by the affective forces of movement that would always already inhere power dynamics (122).

[9] In his article on crowds and their (media-induced) “collective affectivization,” Christian Helge Peters, for example, (still) argues for the passivity of collectives and masses being exposed to affects (185, 198).

[10] Yet, since March 2024, Letzte Generation has taken a different tack (see also endnote 1), and opts for “disobedient assemblies,” involving larger numbers of protesters, again.

[11] The choice of these two locations resulted from my Senior Fellowship at the Alfried Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald, Oct. 2022-Sept. 2023.

[12] For instance, the Collaborative Research Centre Affective Societies—Dynamics of Social Coexistence in Mobile Worlds, Freie Universität Berlin.

[13] Mühlhoff (“Affective Resonance”) takes his theoretical cues on affects from Henri Bergson, assuming “dynamics,” and thus forces, that exist prior to individual interaction, and from Gilles Deleuze and Baruch Spinoza respectively, emphasizing the virtual and actual traits of affects as processual, non-linear dynamics, from the initial “virtual register of being-in-relation” to “actual affective qualities” (193–94).

[14] This has happened in Karlsruhe, Germany, in July 2023. See Proetel.

[15] Sara Ahmed proposes an analytic model depicting the “sociality of emotion” (8–12). In this framework, hate, for example, would be an effect that is generated through language and speech that affects the body and would, eventually, lead to the legitimation of violence (44). It seems as if the offense of coercion, also largely debated in the media, has also possibly led to lowering the social inhibition threshold for attacks. Yet, it is important to stress that Ahmed’s context of discussion is racial violence whereas the confrontations between Letzte Generation and road user are mainly happening within a White Western sphere.

[16] Another argument used against Letzte Generation’s activities has been the accusation that people with a medical emergency might be endangered in case an ambulance cannot pass through a blockage, which, allegedly, the protesters would condone (Hillenbrand). However, this is why an emergency lane is always left in the middle of the road (see also a discussion on this between a protester/emergency doctor and a fireman; Machowecz and Schirmer).

[17] For instance, the experience of World War I which just had ended a few years before Plessner published his book.

[18] Interestingly, Plessner observes the very same dynamic in both “Bolshevik or fascist” movements (84), the one being led by “internationalist . . . , rational and intellectual” ideas and traits, the other by “folk-nationalist” values and aspirations (91–93). While the latter would base its affiliation on “[b]lood,” the former would be conceived of an “ideal-based type of community” (Sachgemeinschaft, 94). Of course, I have no intention to assign such heavy-handed categories to the antagonistic groups meeting in the protests described (though Plessner’s argument may be useful in investigating other current political dynamics).

[19] This derogatory name has been used by almost every German newspaper and news magazine since the protests started in 2021.

[20] In this context, it is noteworthy that, quite often, the same video of physical attack has been repeatedly broadcasted when reporting about Letzte Generation’s actions in Spring 2023.

[21] In her study on Community as Urban Practice, Talja Blokland-Potters argues that “community always implies boundary work” (14).

[22] However, interestingly, Letzte Generation’s new strategy included running for the European Parliament in 2024, “[t]he goal: bring the resistance into parliament.” (“Last Generation in Parliament?”) So, it seems that the right amount of tension achieved by blocking roads in non-violent action has decreased.

[23] Marchart bases his ideas on the concepts of Rosalyn Deutsche, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe (Marchart 129-30).

[24] This, this would be another consensus than the one that Christian Geulen has in mind, problematizing “consensus-building permanent dispute” that would take place in the camps of left-wing as well as right-wing activism, both summoning threat scenarios: either the danger of becoming extinct as a human race or the fear of “foreign infiltration” (Überfremdung) (47–48). However, here, the communities, that Plessner already identified almost hundred years before this, do differ and cannot be lumped together. When Plessner characterizes the one “camp” as being driven by factual content, the other rather by “bloodline” (94), he introduces an important difference between left-wing- and right-wing activism which still applies today.

[25] In refraining from suing aggressor, Letzte Generation holds true to the principle of the justly tuned guitar string, its activists further emphasizing that they could understand the other side of the opponents as, in the end, humankind would be in all of this together (protest training, 22 July 2023).

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Photo: Studio Menarc

*Susanne Foellmer is Full Professor in Dance Studies at Coventry University, Centre for Dance Research. Research areas embrace aesthetic theory, corporeality in contemporary dance, the Weimar Era, interrelations between dance and “other” media, and politicality of performance. Recent publications: Media Practices, Social Movements, and Performativity (edited with M. Lünenborg, Ch. Raetzsch), 2018.

Copyright © 2024 Susanne Foellmer
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