Radical Objects

Radical Objects: The Pot and Pan

When newly-elected Argentinian President Javier Milei appeared on television at 9pm on 20 December last year, he was met with an immediate clamorous response. Argentinians opposing the announced drastic deregulation of the economy through an emergency decree appeared at their windows and balconies and then on the streets in Buenos Aires and beyond to bang pots, pans, and other items of cookware with ladles and spoons in a noisy expression of dissent. Pot-banging, or a cacerolazo, has a long tradition in Argentina that stretches back to the 1980s. But it is not peculiarly Argentinian. Over the past fifteen years, pots and pans have echoed through many countries around the world, including Chile, Canada, France, Myanmar, Turkey, and Spain. It has become a globally recognised form of non-violent collective action.

A decorated pan from the 2014 #13N protests against Argentine President Cristina Kirchner

Pot-banging’s popularity is aided by its accessibility. Pots and pans are ubiquitous, everyday items. Banging them together requires no training or skill. Nor does it require rhythm, as Nigel Farage demonstrated in April 2020. Pot-banging is, therefore, an ideal form of grassroots, DIY, media-friendly protest, which can be held in a public square or from one’s own balcony or driveway, is malleable to many kinds of messages and does not require translation. In a modern metropolis, pots and pans can dispute traffic noise to take possession of the urban soundscape.

The starting point for understanding South American cacerolazos is usually the clamorous ‘March of Empty Pots and Pans’ organised by right-wing women in Chile in 1971. The cacerolazo spread through other Latin American countries during the 1970s. An alternative genealogy for pot-banging can be located in the European tradition of charivari or rough music: a centuries-old communal tradition in which individuals engaged in noisy, carnivalesque practices in order to shame remarrying widows or widowers or similar behavioural norms, although they also adapted it for political ends. But as I have recently argued, the case of Spanish pot-banging can be better traced to an appropriation of a Chilean tradition in the 1980s that an adaptation of domestic rough music, particularly if we try to listen to the sound of pot-banging and examine its staging and gender dynamics.

Pot-banging as part of the 2019-2020 Chilean protests

The Chilean origin story also illuminates the power of pot-banging. The empty pots and pans graphically invoked the food shortages that formed the protestors’ complaints. The women brought mundane domestic out into the public sphere in the service of protest. Pot-banging asserted the moral authority of a particular kind of gendered family role – the mother as a nurturing provider. While the direct link between food shortages and pot-banging disappeared, the undertones of the pot and pan remain: they are mundane, everyday domestic items that bring the interior of the home onto the streets.

Such domestic undertones help to explain why Farage looked so self-conscious as he lightly tapped a saucepan in his driveway during the ‘Clap for Carers’. The incongruity of the scene or else his lack of sincerity, given his remarks about the NHS workforce the year before, led to mocking comparisons with Alan Partridge. The inoffensive domestic nature of the pot and pan also explains the ridiculing of French police during protests against pension reform in the spring of 2023. Pots and pans were singled out for the full weight of twenty-first-century state power when they were pre-emptively seized ahead of President Macron’s visit to a southern town. The authorities talked of “portable sound devices”, a term which sought to mask the ridiculousness through officialese.

The cacerolazo was a powerful form of protest during the Pinochet dictatorship in which opposition was extremely dangerous and people were ‘disappeared’. During a series of National Days of Protest in the 1980s, Chileans could stand in their own homes and participate in collective opposition to the regime in a safer manner thanks to the cover of noise and darkness. The “Clap for Carers” was very different in context and purpose: it was a gesture of gratitude towards key workers during a pandemic and mimicked performances in India and China. Pot-banging could be a form of thanksgiving due to the absence of a recent pot-banging protest tradition in Britain. In Spain, in contrast, which has a much more established recent history of cacerolazo protests, the performance of thanksgiving during lockdown was achieved instead through applause. Pots and pans were nonetheless brought out days later to express outrage in outrage at the murky financial affairs of disgraced former king Juan Carlos I.

Pots and pans are some of the least offensive objects in the kitchen, yet their very mundanity and the ease with which they can be employed by anyone to contribute to a deafening wall of noise make them a media-friendly, uncomfortable reminder of the collective conscience and a challenge to the voice of the state. Pot-banging is malleable to different political contexts, from dictatorships to democracies, as well as spatial performances, including refuge or confinement in the home. Milei’s government has curtailed the right to protest, but “spontaneous” pot-banging can still outwit the authorities, as the Chief of Government in Buenos Aires admitted. Despite attempts to quash noisy protests, the history of pot-banging and its radical mundanity suggests the clanging discordant beat of pots and pans will echo on.

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