Lately, Catalan separatists have started making parallels between their situation and the independence of Slovenia. Foreshadowing yesterday’s suspended declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament, it had been suggested that Catalonia might do just this because Slovenia had earned international recognition after agreeing to a moratorium on the effects of its own declaration of independence in the Summer of 1991. It is perhaps particularly appropriate that in the 1980s Slovenia spawned Neue Slowenische Kunst, an avant-garde (though they called themselves retro-garde) collective engaging in political performance art around the concept of the state. Here I argue that last night’s Catalan declaration of independence took place on a symbolic plane, and that the clash with the formal legal expectations of observers is very much like that elicited by performance art, down to causing offence and anger at taboo-breaking. One could call the events of last night Catalonia’s Žižek moment, after Slovenian philosopher-cum-performance-artist Slavoj Žižek, who is loosely associated with the NSK art collective.
In a speech before the Catalan regional parliament last night, Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont “assumed the mandate that Catalonia become an independent republic”. But, in the same breath, he proposed that the Parliament “suspend the effects of the declaration of independence so as to undertake a dialogue in the following weeks to reach a negotiated solution”. After a round of statements by the parliamentary group leaders, the session adjourned and then the 72 separatist MPs signed a different independence “declaration of Calalonia’s representatives”.
It appears that the above can hardly have any legal effects, due to the sheer accumulation of legal and procedural defects:
- Puigdemont cited the referendum law requiring the Catalan parliament to “celebrate an ordinary session, to make a formal declaration of independence and start a consituent process”. The law does not say that the regional premier shall proclaim independence, but the parliament.
- The referendum law had been previously voided by the constitutional court of the land.
- There was no motion and no vote, even of the suspension of the effects of independence that Puigdemont explicitly asked of the Parliament.
- The signatories of the declaration call themselves the representatives of Catalonia, excluding the rest of the 135 regional MPs.
- No declaration has been published in Catalonia’s official journal.
And yet, despite all of these formal shortcomings, the events of last night have all the symbolic trappings of a declaration of independence.
For instance, the middle section of Puigdemont’s speech starts with
I would like to explain where we are, and above all why we are where we are. Today when all the world is watching us, and above all, today that all the world is listening to us, I think it is worth it to explain ourselves again.
There follows a long enumeration of Catalonia’s grievances towards Spain since the death of Francisco Franco 42 years ago. This is very reminiscent of the American declaration of independence, which starts with
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Most of the signed declaration of independence, addressed “to the people of Catalonia and to all the peoples of the world” is a similar exposition of grievances.
In addition, the signing of the declaration took place in a solemn ceremony in one of the halls of the Catalan parliament building, if not in the plenary chamber, and ended with the assembled signatories singing the Catalan anthem. From a symbolic standpoint, a recognisable declaration of independence had taken place, and been broadcast live to the wide world by a thousand accredited press.
It is this contrast between the legal and the symbolic content of yesterday’s events that left everyone dumbfounded. The fact that it is possible to debate whether or not independence was declared last night probably means that no declaration of independence did take place. Was it just elaborate theatre that transpired in the Catalan parliament?
In fact, some people were not just dumbfounded but outright angry, and sometimes offended. I think it was especially legal and political experts, and those laymen of a more formal disposition, that were more likely to be angry or offended, and this provides a clue as to what happened last night. What was supposed to take place on a legal plane had taken place on a symbolic plane.
When there is a clash of incompatible conceptual frames, there are at least two possible responses. One is humour, and the other is frustration. As it seems impossible to believe that what happened in the Catalan parliament last night was an elaborate prank, frustration – leading to anger – is a natural response.
But the nagging suspicion that the locations and conventions of democratic lawmaking were being toyed with also led to offence and anger. This is because lawmaking is not just a rational activity subject to rules. It is also subject to rituals, and hallowed places. Someone suggested that a reason the signed declaration of independence had no legal effect was that the MPs had not signed it in the plenary chamber. This is ascribing legal power to a symbolically favoured location. In any case, if what happened last night was illegal and the participants knew it, a taboo had been broken.
This all makes last night’s events at the Catalan parliament very much like an instance of performance art. In the 19th century the effect the Catalan separatists had last night used to be called épater le bourgeois. Today we call it trolling.