Sunday, October 31, 2010

My view on the election

      I just realized that I haven't utilized my somewhat small and dubious public platform to discuss the upcoming elections.  We are yet again at the momentous crossroads in which, we, the public, are allowed to choose between one of two factions of wealthy property owners.  It would be remiss of my esteemed position as 'public intellectual not to comment on this profound process.  However, I find myself in a quandary.  Who should I support?  I thought that I would pose this question here to the various candidates that crowd my blog everyday, and provide a political framework, which if taken up, would lead to my endorsement, and advocacy for on this blog.  I thought that the best way of framing these positions would be through a set of songs.

The Coup describe a tax policy that I can get behind....

Asian Dub Foundation provide some thoughts on immigration and a general orientation for foreign policy

The Clash take a position on our occupations...

Public Enemy offer a cogent critique of the police....

Bikini Kill critique patriarchy from an intersectional perspective

I realize that this only covers a few of the very important social problems of the country and issues of the election. I invite readers to make other suggestions for our electoral framework. Additionally, I invite all Californian politicians to explain how they will fulfill the demands contained in our platform. No doubt they will see the need for the abolition of private property, prisons, the police, white supremacy, and all patriarchal forms of domination after this thoughtful posting. I await their responses with a sovereign sense of patience.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

An essay on Organizing, Hope, and Fear after the 2004 election

This was written after the 2004 elections, in response to an article about Hope written by the anarchist philosopher Todd May.  It never got beyond this draft stage.  I thought I would put it up as a kind of historical document of a point in my political thinking.  There are a number of points that I still hold to, but I wouldn't sign on to the entire document at this point.  I'm open to discussing the problems if anyone is interested in the conversation.  I would also like to note that the interpretation of Levinas is Mbembe's and there are some fairly good critiques of Levinas, most notably in Judith Butler's work, particularly her Giving an Account of Oneself.

For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars
--Billy Bragg

      The initial discussion about the Bush victory in the recent elections focused initially on the ‘values voter.’ The mythology surrounding this figure posits a victory obtained through Karl Rove’s Machiavellian recognition of the voting bloc, and exploitation of it through certain well thought out ballot initiatives. This discussion also produced a brief flurry of articles by a number of authors on the left, only to be dropped for a discussion of vote counting, and conflicting accounts of vote suppression. Without denigrating the importance of the latter discussion, I am interested in returning to the conversation around the “faith based voter.” I am interested in entering this discussion as a way of looking critically at its structures, and as a way of pushing that stillborn conversation towards a critique of progressive activism, and a call for a new direction in some of that activism.
      To look at some of the initial discussion of the ‘faith based voter’, three terms were most prevalent. They were “fear”, “ignorance”, and “superstition.” All of these terms tend to link back to a certain secularist project and present the danger present in these terms in a more state based religious fundamentalism. After all, as hinted at above, one of the most successful methods of getting out the vote for the right was associated with the anti-gay marriage initiatives that were peppered across the states, and the President’s frequent and oblique references to religious text. Also the administration has increasingly filled its functionary positions with individuals who are involved in what might be termed a sort of ‘political Christianity.’
      This fact is recognized in some of the more rigorous formulations of these thoughts on the “faith based voter.” The best example is perhaps Todd May’s short article “Religion, the Election and the Politics of Fear.” In it he argues, “the religious character of these people is characterized by constant fear of the 'Other' that is perpetually seeking to infiltrate, seduce, and ultimately destroy the minds and lives of good Christians.” May pushes this formulation farther linking it with the foreign ‘other.’ The term in fact circulates with the others, reinforcing them and exchanging itself with them.
      Ultimately May is caught within the same fetishization of a certain type of Christianity, but the question brings to bear within that admittedly limited perspective, the question of the other seems to be the crucial one. The terms that are chosen by the commentators of this phenomenon, namely fear and superstition, seem to be good terms for understanding what is going on. However, we need to disconnect them from an exclusively religious context. Although more than a few examples of fear and superstition can be connected to religion, there are just as many that don’t work within this context. Xenophobia is in many ways a significant engine of U.S. society, and one that cannot be reduced to religion.
      This trace of xenophobia gestures to a particular way of relating to a perceived outside, and transfers that structure on to the 'Other' as well. We can see this in the perception of both the foreign other as well the internal counterpart. The 'Other' becomes an ideological potent term, circulating not only in the discourse of the threat to the Family, but in racial profiling of Arabs and terror level alerts as well. This figure of the 'Other' gains its power through its ambiguity as the welfare mother morphs into the mullah who manages to transform himself into the homosexual seducer of our youth. All in defense of the structures of dominance in the society at large.
      In presenting this fear in the context of an exoticized religious subject misses an essential element, an element that cuts across the boundaries of the secular and the religious, a certain superstitious fear of the ‘other.’ The most obvious trope that can be brought into play is of course the disastrous events of September 11, 2001. This event brought the United States out of its sheltered position and put it into the modes of insecurity that the rest of the world had been experiencing for some time. This is not a minor occurrence. It points to the declining hegemony, and perhaps even dominance, of U.S. power on a global stage. This throws its citizens into the quandary of rethinking their relationship with the rest of the world in new terms.
      In truth, it must be said that this fear has been on the world stage for some time. Slavoj Zizek may have not been diplomatic when he said that September 11th could have allowed the United States to join the rest of the world, but he was by in larger correct. The United States has been increasingly important in the defense of global capital since the World War I, and has been the dominant power since World War II. Under its gaze, capital has managed to perfect its domination in ways that were previously unimaginable. This domination has been enabled by the military of the United States in the last instance. This system of domination is enabled by a circulation, an economy if you will, of fear. This fear becomes even more magnified as the logic of the system begins to collapse. In these cases, those who have benefited from domination fear that the newly liberated will treat them in the same manner of brutality that was inflicted upon them. It is something that cannot be simply solved through a judicious return to an old-fashioned secularism.
      We need to understand that this structure is not one that has benefited the United States citizenry uniformly. Quite to the contrary, the same system has had a dramatic impact on large sections of the U.S. population, particularly after Fordism begins to collapse in 1968. But U.S. ideology has encouraged a strong sense of identification with those who benefit from the logic of exploitation. Instead the strong resentment that is felt by a large portion of the population has been strongly displaced on any number of figures of the 'Other', the class struggle has transformed into a fear and hatred of the stranger.
       The counterweight that Todd May and many others give is that of hope. I have two basic critiques of this notion. The first is contained in the word ‘hope.’ Hope is not the opposite of fear as these commentators suggest in either structure or intensity instead, hope is as Spinoza points out, a fluctuation between fear and joy. It is in fact a somewhat amorphous affect, one that already has one foot in fear. One has to ask the question if what these commentators are proposing is something that flits away all too quickly in the time of threat, whether real or imagined.
       If we return to Spinoza, the proper opposition to fear is joy. Joy is defined in Spinoza’s terms as the strengthening of one’s capacities, within a communal setting it would be related to the strengthening of the capacities of the community. The difference between hope and joy is not a merely semantic one, but is the difference between the possibility of a different way of engaging with others and its concrete manifestation. A more concrete way of saying this is contained in a comment by the British organization Class War when they noted the need for redistribution of wealth in the here and now, and not in some visionary, socialist future. Similarly, we need to produce a community founded in joy, which I think is best defined by the term mutual aid, in the here and now.
      But even more significantly, it ignores the fact that the reactionary community is not merely organized on the principle of fear, instead it organizes a community on homogenous principle as a fortress against the feared outside. To think through this we need to return to the question of the church, albeit with different inflections than the commentators above, and it should be noted a very specific church. In a very excellent article briefly after the elections, Barbara Ehrenreich noted that one of her informants made the comment that when entering a town in need the first place one should go is the church. The steady destruction of redistributive programs on the part of the society as a whole in the form of welfare, education, etc. has made a vacuum for these functions. The Bush administration has pushed this even farther with his “faith based initiatives” placing these functions not only in the hands of religion, but a mode of religion that accepts the basic suppositions that are essential to the survival of the Bush administration.
       In this context, the hope offered by a progressive community seems like a very vague and ephemeral thing. “What is the alternative?” the taunt that haunts so very many demonstrations comes to mind. The progressive community has come up with very many reasons why George W. Bush is a very bad man, a stupid man, a superstitious man, a hypocrite etc. What I fail to see coming out these very same mouths is an alternative form of community because to do so would be to reveal the very need for a radical substantive transformation of our society, a statement which is simply impermissible within our society. For all of its obvious contradictions, the current administration offers something tangible in its ‘faith base initiatives’ in the face of a monolithic structure of fear.
       In a real sense, I feel that the well meaning, mainstream leftist critiques of George W. Bush contribute to this sense of connection. The elitist connotations implied in such commentaries give rise to a sense of identification with the man, as do the foible and idiosyncrasies. In effect, these formulations have by in large backfired, transforming Bush from what he is, one of the most privileged of this society, educated in the most expensive schools of the nation, into a sort of bumbling, addled common man. This perversely transforms him into a proletarian figure, persecuted by a sort of cultured bourgeois elite.[1]
       Religion becomes an important element of this mode of identification. As I noted before, conflating religious belief with superstitious fear avoid the more substantial structural issue buried beneath it, but it also alienate a substantial portion of the U.S. audience, who are religious. Karl Marx, whose commentary is so often taken out of context, has something substantial to add to this conversation. He notes that “religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world. It is the opium of the people.”
       Religion, even in its most reactionary formations, is a place of community. It offers its adherents a sense of belonging and love outside of a capitalist structure in which all that is sold melts into air. It provides a basis of common identity in the love and kingdom of god. And within that structure, there are both opportunities to care and to be cared for. We may prefer, as Marx does, that these communal functions occur elsewhere, in the workplace, the union hall, the international, but the reality is that for most, these structures have been laid to waste by capitalist domination. In this void, it is not that surprising that many would turn to religion despite the fact it is so frequently manipulated for the needs of the status quo.
       So in effect, this mode of critique offers no real alternative to people, while at the same time mocking the tools that they have available to them in order to cope with and engage with a world that is so exploitative. We need to offer something more than this superior laughter. I think that Barbara Ehrenreich has the right train of thought in this matter. She suggests returning to a certain programmatic element of 1970’s feminist organizing. This element recognized the importance of mutual aid. It offered things such as child care, health care, and other essentials of life. What’s more, within these contributions to life, it offered a real meaningful alternative for the structuring of a community, a real meaningful definition of liberty and equality in the face of hierarchical patriarchy.
      We need to take up this project with a sense of urgency. The possibilities of a foundation are already in existence through a myriad of collectives, co-ops, social service, and mutual aid organizations. Similarly, the possibilities for the expansion of this project already exist in the immense creativity and interaction that allows for the production of a world system that is mind boggling in and of itself. In the most modest and simple of settings we need to desire, conceive and create a new structure for the future, both with our labor and our imagination. I neither think that this task is easy, nor do I think that it can be accomplished in a short period of time. Instead I propose in the spirit of a long march of transformation, one in which there is very little alternative to in the creation of a new society.
       In the end, I am reminded of a lecture by social theorist Achille Mbembe. He posed two alternatives for engagement with the ‘Other’. The first was that of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt defined sovereignty in the battle with an alien 'Other' that he defines as the ‘enemy’ where one kills or is killed. This very much defines the position of the Bush administration and its followers, with the exception that they may hold the possibility of the neutralization of the 'Other'. The second formulation was Emmanuel Levinas’, who placed his definition of sovereignty on the recognition of the 'Other', and his care. This recognition moreover is not dependent on the assimilation of the 'Other' into the recognizable. One perspective creates a world of walls and paranoia, the other is based, as Billy Bragg puts it so eloquently, in “faith in my fellow man” and mutual aid. This second option is not available as long as a small portion of the world’s population dominates the vast majority of its resources. I am not sure of the likelihood of this radical transformation of the world, but we need to put it forwards in both our words and deeds, as a response to the current state of things.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Critical Reading of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog

I had brought up the possibility of putting up this essay a couple weeks ago. I needed to edit the material on Derrida that I inexplicably had decided to include in the original draft, and even with these improvements, I'm not totally happy with my use of those terms. At the same time, the concept of the 'trace' is crucial to mark the totalitarianism of the Nazi project as a fantasy, even within the brutal violence and domination of the camp. The argument is in response to the arguments developed by Agamben, particularly around the notion of 'naked life', despite the fact his name is never mentioned. I hope the argument works.

      For those who have not seen or heard of the film, Renais' Night and Fog is the first documentary made about the Nazi Holocaust, drawing from the limited documentary material produced about the camps. It's a powerful indictment of the death camps, contributing to the critique of instrumental reason contained in the arguments of Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault, Arendt, and others. If you haven't seen this documentary, you should.

      The title of the film, Night and Fog, draws its name from the Nacht und Nebel act, which organized the systematic deportations of the regime under the cover of night and fog. This in turn drew its name from a moment from die Niederlungslied, “Nacht und Nebel, Niemands gleich.”. The invocation of this moment, a moment defined by romantic enchantment, is precisely within the bureaucratic and regimented authoritarian state, precisely the space that Weber and others associate with disenchantment. And one can read half the film within that light, dealing with the production of the assembly line of death, an extraordinarily brutal instrumentalization of reason. At the same time, there is an element of the film that cannot be fully captured in those terms, the attempt to deal with the experience of the camp on the part of the inmates. This takes the form of a spectral trace, a haunting and deformation of the first section I am interested in developing, but a trace that cannot be separated from, nor fully understood without the first. I will begin by exploring what I mean by this relation. Then I will explore the film as first critique of instrumental reason and then as this trace.

     To understand this relationship, I would like to use a concept developed by post-colonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty tries to develop a concept of an outside to capital that no longer operates on the logic of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ capital that would operate within a historicist teleology. Instead, it proposes an alternative formulation of the outside of capital. I will begin by bringing the concept in, and then proceed to translate and transform in within the context of the camp.

     This ‘outside’ I think of, following Derrida, as something attached to the category “capital” itself, something that straddles a border zone of temporality, that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being even as it violates the code, something we are able to see only because we can think/theorize capital, but that also reminds us that other temporalities, other forms of worlding, coexist and are possible. In this sense, subaltern histories do not refer to a resistance prior and exterior to the narrative space created by capital; they cannot be defined without reference to the category “capital.”[1]

      Let me begin by discussing the pitfalls of this approach. The primary one is the ease that this narrative can be brought back into an all too easy heroic socialism, a narrative that would replace the abject yet resistant industrial work with the inmate of the camp. It’s a narrative that is in many ways comfortable to me. The second danger is in losing the specificity of the moment, in translating the camps into either a metaphor or an example of the perfidious nature of capital. Both cover up the nature of the event in the logic of larger narratives, which while necessary to understand it also don’t adequately engage it.

      But this is not what I want to get out of the concept. Instead I want to bring out a concept of relationality that is at the center of the film’s narrative structure. This is the intertwining of a narrative of the construction of the camp, with its logic, its plans, its temporality with the experiential element of the camp from the prospective of the inmates. The latter cannot be understood without the former. Its creation is built on all the concepts that Horkheimer and Adorno reference when they discuss “the leveling domination of abstraction… and of industry.”[2] The two are both, of course referring to the concept of equality developed through the dispossession of the labor of all but her or his capacity to labor. This logic is of course not inherently exterminationist, but its instrumentalist logic opens up this potential.

      It is when we bring in the experience of the inmates that the use of the concept becomes clearer. These experiences are clearly both defined by the space and time of the camp, and cannot be conceptualized out of that time, but neither can it entirely be defined by that logic. It is this element that I think can be linked to the concept that Chakrabarty calls the ‘outside.’ This ‘outside’, which can be best described as a trace, doesn’t ever fully express itself as another temporality or another worlding, but it hints at it in its own deformities and the impact it has on the former logic. This will be further developed after we analyze the first part of the logic.

      The first quality that should be noted in this first logic is banality. This can be found in the opening sequence of the film, which opens with the image of the countryside outside of one of the camps. One is shown an empty countryside, primarily bereft of trees, roads, etc. The narrative emphasizes this quality as well, emphasizing the ability of the camp to exist in the ordinary world of the most banal countryside, of commerce, of travel etc. These shots are returned to repeatedly in the film, emphasizing the ordinariness of the buildings used in the camp. The film moves from these shots to equally banal shots drawn from various propaganda films and stills, the most notable of those being Riefenstahl’s film, Triumph of the Will.

      The film's exploration of the construction of the camp is in fact defined by this sort of medium. This goes beyond the initial usage of the Riefenstahl film, to photos and footage of the camps themselves, no doubt created for purposes that radically opposed to the film. The tactics that are used to engage with this material can be defined within these early shots. The Riefenstahl footage is condensed into shots of troops marching in order, with a few moments of the crowd. These shots are placed in the context that they are in order to create a mechanical sense of order, and the effect of the adoring crowd that is so important to the logic of the Riefenstahl film has been reduced if not completely removed. Stills of the planning and construction of the camps, along with stills of the empty camps follow this. These are placed in a mechanical narrative arc.

     There is an effective counterpoint created through the use of both dialogue and music. This has a strong connection to Brecht’s theory of the theater, and particularly its theory of distanciation. The composer Eisler was a collaborator with Brecht, and a good deal of the music in the film is taken from music previously composed for a Brecht play about the war. This element of distanciation can be seen primarily in the moments of the logic of the camp from the perspective of its creators. The images of Riefenstahl provide a good example of this. Against the mechanical images presented to us, we are offered a counterpoint in the form of a particularly prickly and atonal countermelody. This usage goes against their original presentation, which is without soundtrack. The music undermines the heroic nationalist narrative of Riefenstahl’s film, and creates a sense of continuity with the images of the film with the construction of the camp.

     The text is also extremely significant in disrupting the images presented. The images of the Riefenstahl film are tied to a terse set of statements emphasizing the social conformity without the baroque rhetoric of the film. This essentially reduces the films to its instrumentality, without the rhetorical power behind it. This logic is best captured by a moment in Dialectic of Enlightenment in its theorization of domination. “But then the whole as whole, the manifestation of its immanent reason, necessarily leads to the execution of the particular.”[3] The film reduces the romantic appeal to unity into these crude terms, presenting its logic without appeal.

      As the shots move from the Riefenstahl footage to the images of construction, the logic returns to the banal. The construction of the camps is narrated in the following manner. “A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or a hotel is built, with businessmen’s estimates, competitive bids and no doubt a bribe or two.”[4] The camp is constructed within the cynical logic of exchange. The Nazi dictatorship may operate as a state of exception, but it operates through a broad structure of everyday life. The film returns to this theme repeatedly. Through its visuals and text, it emphasizes that the buildings appear normal to the eye, even available for snapshots of tourists. This semblance goes to the logic of the camp as well. The film’s narrative points out after deconstructing each of its elements. “Thus the SS managed to build the semblance of a real city, with its hospital, red light district, residential district, and yes, even a prison.”[5] This semblance is both a sort of mask to cover up the reality as well as the crucial element that allows for that operation to work.

      The logic of the factory can be already found in the initial shots by Riefenstahl and the statement, “The machine begins.”[6] The film returns to the theme of profiteering several times within the narrative. It can be found in the discussion of medical testing with its emphasis on the use of patients for testing deadly substances, where patients are literally bought for such purposes. Daily life in not only punctuated by the absurd face of the sovereign, but by labor in the factory as well. This element of profiteering explodes as the camps explode. By 1945, “factories have camps of their own, off limits to the SS. Steyer, Krupp, Heinckel, I.G. Farben, Siemens, Hermann Goering recruit their labor here. The Nazis may win the war. These new towns are part of the economy.”[7]

      This emphasis on production can be read in the cynical use of the camp for a cheap labor force as discussed above, but it also operates with the body of the inmates themselves. The logic can be summarized by the moment of Himmler’s visit to the camp in 1942, “We must destroy, but productively.”[8] This logic is linked to the image of the blueprint of the crematorium. From the crematorium, the body is itself broken up into product. The film emphasizes that ‘everything was saved.’[9] It then moves to a series of images, from glasses and boxes, to fabric and paper that is produced from the hair and skin of the victims. The bones and bodies are made into fertilizer and soap respectively.

       But this mode of thought can already be found in the modernism of the inter-war period. We can find the threat of mass death in the works of Bloch, Benjamin and many others. This too can be said about the images of mechanization that can be seen in films such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great Symphony amongst others. Perhaps the most literal comparison can be found in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, where the lead character has a hallucination of workers walking into a daemonic semblance of a factory, acting as a willing sacrifice for its logic. Horkheimer and Adorno discuss the logic in German modernism, “The individual who is thoroughly weary must use his weariness as energy for his surrender to the collective power which wears him out.”[10] The literature of the time, too, is constantly aware of this trope, as we can see in Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnung des Malte Laurids Brigge.

      Dieses ausgezeichnete Hotel is sehr alt, schon zu Konig Chlodwigs Zeiten starb man darin in einigen Bett. Jetzt wird in 559 Betten gestorben. Naturlich fabrikmassig. Bei so enormer Produktion is der einzelne Tod nicht so gut ausgefuhrt, aber darauf kommt es auch nicht an. Die Masse macht es.[11]

      We can see several of the elements discussed above contained in this brief paragraph. There is already the notion of death entering the realm of mass production. This fantasy continues throughout the narrative including the fear of the hospital, etc. The primary fear can be reduced to the idea of suffering a banal death or a non-authentic death. We can find the theme of both the banality of death through mass production, and the logic of a factory of death. It is notable that the narrator identifies this as something that naturally falls to the lot of the poor. But the film cannot be reduced to this, however significant it is. Between the cracks of the logic of the machine, there is something else, something that can be called experiential, not the experience of the architects or the enforcers of the machine, but that of the inmates themselves.

      The theme of impossibility of communicating or even witnessing the experience of the Camps is consistent theme in both the writings of survivors and outsiders. We can see this in the work of Primo Levi, in his final book, The Drowned and the Saved. “We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have remained mute, but they are the “Muslims,” the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance.”[12] The understanding produced through the survivor is only partial, provincial. The one ‘whose deposition would have a general significance” is absent.

      But what to make of this impossibility, this is not the impossibility of the obscure God of negative theology, an obscure deity that is totally outside of the human. Instead, this element acts as a sort of trace that runs through the narrative of the film, an absence that nonetheless has an impact on the entirety of the structure. We’ll look at the way this trace operates within the logic of the film, but first, we’ll try to define the concept as Jacques Derrida develops it. Derrida begins to develop this concept in Of Grammatology, and expands on it in his essay, “Freud and the Scene of Writing.”

      Derrida develops this idea of the trace through a reading of Freud’s understanding of the psychic apparatus, from the unfinished text of the Project to the “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad.” Through this, Derrida works out Freud’s production of an unconscious through a conceptualization of repression. Freud’s conception of repression is not a negative one, instead it repetitive and unproductive working through of an experience that will not be recognized by the preconscious. There is no originary moment in this system, just the reworking of a material put under erasure. Its operation continually shapes the subject’s consciousness, while simultaneously acting as the thing that the subject cannot consciously recognize. The trace can only be understood within this logic. Derrida draws on Freud’s metaphor of the Mystic Pad, a child’s toy which allows for the recording of language, and it’s erasure by the lifting of a protective cover sheet. He insists on reading the psychic process through the double maneuver of inscription on the pad, and it’s erasure through lifting the protective cover. He notes, “Traces thus produce the space of their inscription only by acceding to the period of their erasure. From the beginning, in the “present” of their first impression, they are constituted by the double force of repetition and erasure, legibility and illegibility.”[13] The process of writing is simultaneously marked by this process of erasure, of repression, or perhaps more bluntly, it becomes constitutive necessity.

      Derrida emphasizes that this structure isn’t ‘error’ or ‘pathology’ but constitutive of a particular European project, tied indirectly to the imperialist legacy of that project. As Gayatri Spivak points out in the introduction of Of Grammatology, psychoanalysis recognizes the structure of experience, as not a presence within structures of language, but as a trace, which is placed under erasure at is inscription into either the psychical apparatus or writing. As she states, “The structure of the sign is determined by the trace or track of that other which is forever absent. This other is of course never to be found in its full being.”[14] This allows us to understand what Dipesh Chakrabarty is trying to get at in his idea of the outside. To put it in marxist terms, this experience fills in the place of use value, that which allows for value to be produced, but which never is fully encompassed into the idea of value. It can also be linked into the erased dialectic of domination and resistance that mark the imperialist project that placed the Europe at the center of the modern world system. The history of the proletariat, the colonized constitutes this discontinuous trace haunting the European symbolic, continually revealing the mystification of the universalistic nature of that project even as that project places the trace under erasure.

      This concept allows us to understand the continual introduction of the experience of the inmates through their negation on the part of the film. The text returns to this theme repeatedly, “What hope do we really have of capturing this reality?” “Useless to describe what went on in these cells.”[15] These statements index a set of experiences, but it accomplishes this by positing an inability of expression, rather than the presence of this expression. But it is the image of gas chambers that makes this most literal. The camera pans across its ceiling. It is rough and indented, with portions of the material (dry wall? Concrete?) hanging from it. The caption orients the meaning of the scene. “The only sign-but you must know- are the fingernail scrapings on the ceiling. Even the concrete was scratched up.”[16] The meaning of the markings is not evident on its own; instead it needs to be inscribed into language to give it meaning. The narrative must point to these ambiguous signs. It must interpret.

      This attempt at creating a trace is not only contained in the experience of death, but in the day to day life of the camp. The contrast is created between the banal logic of the guards and the everyday life of the inmate through the space of the latrine. The film pans across a seemingly endless row of open latrines. There is no sense of privacy here, and the narrative reminds us that to enter this space at night means to risk one’s life. But this space of abjection defined both by the continual voiding of bowels and by the risk of death both by the revelation of symptoms and by Kapo, is also the space of an alternative social. It becomes a space of conspiracy, both political and personal, gossip, violence, etc. It is also marked by the production of a market, the illicit exchange of goods. The film emphasizes that, “a society gradually takes form, sculpted by terror and fear, but less deranged that that of the SS and its slogans.”[17]

      This film is from the present of the film, and the shot emphasizes its emptiness. The camera pans along latrines, empty beds, and even the tracks leading up to the camps. These scenes are haunted by a constant reference to something that is missing; the trace of an entire constellation of experiences that is both repressed and produced by the logic of the camp. This space is not defined by a positive term such as redemption, but rather by the term resilience. The film defines this by the continual furtive production of the night. Images of the products of this labor are connected with the following text. “They make spoons, puppets to be hidden away, monsters, boxes. They manage to write, make notes. They keep their minds sharp, their hopes alive. They turn their thoughts to God. They even organize politically.”[18] This narrative is only representable through the objects left behind, but it points to an entire structure of labor and society that cannot be entirely placed under the sign of the logic of the camp.

      It might be said that the film falters here to a degree. The community described here still has traces of a positive redemption. There are references to both friendship and the formation of organizations to fight the criminal element within the camps. The emphasis that Levi puts on the ambiguity created by the camp can act as a supplement. Levi describes an interesting incident of the operations of the resistance in the camp. A relatively benign Kapo was replaced by an extremely brutal one. When Levi inquired about how to deal with him, an acquaintance involved in the internal resistance merely remarked that he would be gone within a week. Levi later found out that the resistance had the ability to switch the registration numbers of those who were to be gassed. [19] In order to understand this, we should return to the earlier quotation of Chakrabarty’s. He theorizes an outside to the logic of capital that “straddles a border zone of temporality that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being even as it violates the code, something we are able to see only because we can think/theorize capital.” The narrative of Levi’s can be understood in this light. The structure of this resistance operates entirely within the logic of the camp and its instrumentalization of death even while it violates the code within that logic that forbids structures of self-organization.

       There is something far to schematic in this presentation of the film. It is missing a simultaneity that marks its structure. But I wanted to bring out something that I felt that I left out of my initial presentation of the film that is the psychic economy and the logic of the trace that operates throughout the film. This can only be understood through the critical understanding of the monstrous instrumentality of the camp. In this sense, it follows through in the same vein as the work of Adorno, Horkheimer, Arendt and others. But this additional element troubles the narratives that these thinkers give about the totalitarian state. This spectral trace indicates that this instrumental logic in never in fact total, that there is always a possibility of multiplicity even if that exists only in negative form. This constitutes a specter haunting Europe, an overdetermining element of its psychic economy.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 95.
[2] Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), 15.
[3] Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), 22
[4] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[5] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Dialogue Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid., 152-153.
[11] Rainer Rilke, Die Aufzeichnung des Malte Laurids Brigge (Leibzig: Insel-Verlag, 1920), 8.
[12] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 83-84
[13] Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing”, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 226.
[14] Gayatri Spivak, “Translator’s Preface,” in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), xvii.
[15] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Dialogue Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[16] Night and Fog. Dir. Alain Resnais. Dialogue Jean Cayrol DVD. Janus Films, 1955
[17] ibid.
[18] ibid.
[19] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 73-74.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Proletarian Science of the Pet Shop Boys vs. The Bourgeois Ideology of Crimethinc, or, desire within the ruins of subculture in late capitalism

s       "It was the beginning of the end of the world but not everyone noticed right away.  Some people were dying.  Some people were busy.  Some people were cleaning their houses while the war movie played on television."  Sarah Schulman, People In Trouble

      This posting has a somewhat curious origin. A couple days after I had posted my critique of Crimethinc, I happened to listen to an old Pet Shop Boys song, "In The Night,"while at the gym, using some machine that approximates the motions of running.  It really struck me that the Pet Shop Boys were able to provide a much more nuanced and deeper analysis of the relationship between subcultures and structures of domination than is offered by hundreds of pages of analysis created by Crimethinc within the context of a four minute pop song.  The group's analysis is developed through reference and analysis of a phenomenon during the Nazi occupation of France, the Zazou.

       The Zazou movement was an early form of youth culture, which formed as a sort of informal opposition to the occupation of France, and the collaborationist, Vichy Regime.  Zazou was a nation wide phenomenon, but were most often associated with Paris.  Neither a formal group, nor aligned with the Resistance, the Zazou expressed their discontent through elaborate forms of dress, avoidance of work, and an identification with jazz culture.  The combined transgressive effect of this is captured by a comment of a participant, Pierre Seel, “The Zazous were very obviously detested by the Nazis, who on the other side of the Rhine, had since a long time decimated the German cultural avante garde, forbidden jazz and all visible signs of…degenerations of Germanic culture…” (  The elaborate dress was a way to flouting government policies on the rationing of cloth.  The refusal of work's political significance should be obvious from anti-capitalist standpoint, but it was also a refusal of a nationalist narrative of labor, as well.   The name of group was probably drawn from the songs of Cab Calloway, and the embrace of jazz simultaneously challenges the conservative racial nationalism of Vichy and shows an affinity with the aesthetic avant-garde of surrealism and dada.
      Seel gestures toward the other transgressive thread that defined the subculture, the rejection of the rigid notions of masculinity that not only defined fascist Vichy, but simultaneously defined both the nationalist and PCF's versions of resistance culture.  They do so through their refusal to organize their libidinal energies within the logic of sacrifice, a sacrificial commitment to the nation.  Instead of operating within Schmitt's logic of the political, that is a space in which one is willing to kill or die for a cause, the Zazous create a critical the stylization of ephemera, a position which Dick Hebdige identifies as the form of subculture, par excellence.  As Neil Tennant notes, "I was just fascinated that they were totally out of the context of their times; that you had this beaknik culture in the middle of the Second World War in occupied Paris."  Tennant goes on to link the untimeliness of les Zazous to conversations about love and the meaning of life, as well their contempt for the 'masculinity' of the conflict between the resistance and Vichy.  The rage of the fascist response focused precisely on these refusals, recognizing the stylizations of les Zazous, particularly their long hair, as a refusal of nationalist ideology.  "They became Enemy Number One of the fascist youth organizations, Jeunesse Populaire Française. “Scalp the Zazous!” became their slogan. Squads of young JPF fascists armed with hairclippers attacked Zazous. Many were arrested and sent to the countryside to work on the harvest."  (

      The first three stanzas of the Pet Shop Boys song capture this dialectic of revolt and repression.

 Zazou, what you're gonna do?
There's a lot of people coming for you
Zazou, comment allez-vous?
A knock on the door in the night

That Zazou, he don't care
Dark glasses, long hair
Takes his time, sneers at men
Some ugly people want revenge

That Zazou, he sleeps all day
Then down to Select or Le Collisee
Sips his drinks, orders more
Says what he thinks and it's a crazy war

      There is a difference in emphasis between the narrative offered by the Pet Shop Boys, and the one that is found in the account in libcom, which can be linked to the implicit purpose behind each of the narratives.  For libcom, the purpose of reporting the history of the group is pretty simple.  Libcom is interested in looking at the ways that les Zazous constitute a form of resistant self-organization.  It is part of a larger libertarian, anti-capitalist project arguing for a non-vanguardist revolutionary practice.  We can see the power of people in revolt, and the ability to create an alternative social logic within the most repressive of societies.  The subculture gestures towards a set of lines of flight from the logic of the mass worker, mass production, etc.  It contains a refusal of a type of production, and, simultaneously, a gesture towards a logic that uses the commodity form, but is not caught within the commodity form.

      The difference in the Pet Shop Boys narrative is immediately signaled by Tennant's claim that the movement was 'non-political.'  The narrative of the song is far more interested in exploring the practices within the continuity, or perhaps as a untimely precursor of subculture, and more implicitly, the discotheque as a social and cultural space for gay men.  The song shifts the narrative of les Zazous from a narrative about men and women to a distinctly male figure who stands in for the movement as a whole, and it strips out the historical particularities one gets in the narrative.  The figure of the Zazou is defined by a set of traits that can run through any number of subcultural practices.  He is linked to a narrative of subcultural stylization (through the gestures towards dark glass and long hair), social antagonism through that stylization, and club culture.

The figure within the song is singular.  The narrative focuses on his passage through the public streets of Paris, rather than the collective intimacy of the club or the disco.  Within that context he is the one who hates and is hated, and that mutual antagonism can only be understood within the context of the non-normativity of his stylization.  The Zazou is hated because he refuses his role as a man in the public sphere through his refusal of the sacrifice of war, but also through the blank refusal of the gaze through his sunglasses and the refusal of the norms of masculinity through his long hair.  He also refuses the normative dialectic of conversation, remaining voiceless until his exit from the street in the club.  The figure of the Zazou then can be linked to the long history of the drag queen, which emerged antagonistically into the public through the Stonewall revolt, the history of gay liberation, as well as the transgressive intermingling of disco, often noted to be one of the only genuinely integrated social phenomenon in the United States.

     And yet there is still a profound ambiguity in this position, which is immediately apparent with the next couplet.  "Zazou, what you're gonna do?/ A knock on the door in the night"  This couplet immediately shifts the narrative from a timeless story of aesthetic revolt to a moment of decision.  The figure of the Zazou is left in this moment of suspension, indicating a vacillation, an inability to critically respond to fascist domination even in his own defense.  Within this context, Tennant makes the following analysis of his own song, "The song looks at the moral implications, because the Nazis hated them and the Resistance hated them, because they were fatalistic and didn't participate in the resistance, and the song asks whether that's collaboration.  It revolves around the chorus - "Well, there's a thin line between love and crime/And in this situation/A thin line between love and crime and collaboration" - because the fact of the matter is that if you're not really against something, you're for it, and in a way they collaborated with the Nazis just by carrying on a normal life.  So, in the end, I am criticizing them."

      And despite Tennant's conclusion, the song itself remains open, oscillating between the valourized revolt of the Zazous and its refusal or inability to enter into the political.  That oscillation pivots on the following lines of the song.

And when the soldiers strut, all he cares about
Is love
When the flags are out, all he cares about
Is love
Well, there's a thin line between love and crime
And in this situation
A thin line between love and crime and -
Collaboration (-ration)

     Although the chorus ends with the possibility of collaboration discussed above, its put into a context of a refusal, a refusal of the logic of militarism, and a refusal of the logic of nationalism.  That double refusal is countered by an affirmation of 'love,' or perhaps more bluntly, the narrative logic of romance.  That narrative is simultaneously the most banal narrative possible, dragged through the mud of decades of terrible pop songs, popular novels, and films, leaving us to wonder where the sentiment begins and the commodity form ends, and yet at the same time, it gestures to something that escapes both the logic of that form and allows for the Zazou to see the common nationalism and militarism contained in the logic of both the resistance and the conservative politics of Vichy.  The very banality of the lines gestures towards a sort of double bind between a unrepresentable logic that gestures toward the sort of revolt demanded by the radical project demanded by Libcom, and infinite ability for capital to translate romance into its own reproductive logic of exploitation.

      At this point, perhaps we should bring in the context of the release of the song, which came out as a B side to the "Opportunities" single, as well as being released as an extended remix on the first Disco complation released the same year.  It occurs at the height of Reaganism and Thatcherism, the beginning of a full scale counter-offensive on the part of capital that continues to this day.  On one side, we can see the release of the 1984 album please and the later singles tied to the collapse of a set of political possibilities contained in musical subculture, with the collapse of punk and post-punk as the end point of a terrain of ruins (please note that this narrative doesn't work quite as well in the English context, which I can discuss more in detail if you would like, but you could probably glean more on this from Richard Seymour's blog, Lenin's Tomb)  Disco also had collapsed in both its mainstream and avant-garde forms, and the electronic music dance scene that would replace it was only beginning.  Finally, the HIV crisis was devastating the gay community with the conservative administrations of Reagan and Thatcher acting in almost open complicity with the disease.

        The album please was then produced in this curious moment between capital's complete co-optation of subculture into post-Fordist consumerism, and the simultaneous indifference of dominant political institutions and temporary inability of the gay community to respond to the AIDS crisis.  Within that context, there is a curious erasure of the political in the narratives of the song, remaining caught up in the adventures of lovers, hustlers, and criminals, who are caught within the web of the bourgeois city without a horizon.  The songs offer us small moments of release, of joy, but only within the logic of a mutual criminality captured best by the song, Opportunities and Two divided by zero, which offer narratives of romantic escape through a criminality that mirrors the exploitative criminality of capital at a micro level.  It is a replay of Brecht's analogy between the one who steals from the bank and the greater criminality of the bank owner.  However, it does so without the revolutionary horizon of the proletariat.  At the same time, the crisis of AIDS leads to an aporia within the gay community, neither the privatized terrain of the disco nor the older narratives of liberation offering an adequate response to the crisis.

      Within this context, we can see the Pet Shop Boys intervention as a presentist historical narrative, presenting a productive contrast to both the nostalgia of libcom, as well as the willfully stupid naivete of Crimethinc.  It neither looks back at older forms of revolt as loss, nor does it pretend that our capital is the capital of the protestant ethic, the continual error of CrimeThinc.   It recognizes the only way to understand the history of subculture is to understand it as a history in ruin, or perhaps a history of ruins, defined by the dialectical oscillation of lines of flight and apparatuses of capture, a dialectic that neither progresses nor fully contains, but repeatedly mutilates.  We are marked by this history of mutilation, but not as a common phenomenon.  Instead, it constitutes and is constituted by histories of race, of gender, of sexuality, replicating and transforming the violence and constitutive division of the proletarian body in the 16th and 17th centuries.  (Please see Sylvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch)  And yet at the same time, the logic of "In the Night" is not fully that of please, containing a historicity that both informs the present, and at the same time, while unable to contain a horizon, gestures towards the very contingency of the present.

         I plan on offering a second part to this narrative through a reading of ACT-UP and the Sarah Schulman novel, People In Trouble.  I intend to argue that these might give us resources to think through the process of revolutionary reconstitution in the same way that the Pet Shop Boys allow for us to recognize the shifts in subculture, capital, and the thread of desire, and the aporia that faced counter-systemic movements at that time.  However, my argument will depend on an understanding of ACT-UP as crisis itself, and the knowledge coming out of the ruins of ACT-UP through its own contradictions.  I recommend the following website as a starting point.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Addendum to the Elizabeth Moon Posting

      In my polemic against Elizabeth Moon's comments about Islam and the Islamic Community Center in New York, I had also offered a critique of the WisCon board's decision to uphold her status as the Guest of Honor for next year's WisCon.  It looks like there may be some movement on that issue.  SF3 (Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction), the 'mother corporation' of WisCon has passed a recommendation motion on the issue.  The motion recommends that the the GoH invitation should be rescinded, along with a recognition of the committee's work.  My hope is that the committee takes up this advice.  I fall into the all-to-American (a very, very problematic idiomatic way of saying that I fall into the trap of a lot of white U.S. citizens.... feel free to list them.  I'll probably miss a couple) love of redemption narratives, and would love to see a thoughtful Moon thinking critically through her own discourse in the name of an anti-racist project at a future date, but I think that her actions should have consequences.  That should mean losing the ability to claim a privileged space within a feminist project (at least temporarily.)  I don't envy the committee's responsibility to make this decision, but I don't think that I am alone in hoping that they will follow the recommendation of SF3.

Update: The invitation has been rescinded, and Moon has accepted this decision.  There has been a bit of backlash directed towards the board and SF3.  You might want to go over to their sites and express your support.  I'm glad that this decision was made and thank the folks who made for taking this important decision.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Variations on a Theme: Tower of Babel, Part 1

     This is the first of a series of short essays looking at different versions of the Tower of Babel story, drawing from film, literature, and music.  The first selection comes from the film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang and written by Thea von Harbou.  The particular clip includes a new score for the film, which isn't very good, although it is better than the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack from the early eighties.  However, I chose this particular version of the film because the clip allows us to see the story of the Tower of Babel in the larger context of the film.

      The scene opens with two sets of figures entering into the underground cathedral, first the mad scientist Rotwang leading the city's founder, Joh Frederson to spy on the precedings, and second, the exhausted workers looking for guidance and relief in the city, including Frederson's son, Freder, who has only just discovered the costs of his privilege.  The cuts between the scheming conspirators and the exhausted workers, until the workers enter into the sanctuary.  The camera focuses on Freder as he grasps his heart in pain and exhaustion.  He looks up and the camera cuts to the cathedral itself, and we follow the gaze of the workers to the lit figure of Maria, standing in front of nine crosses, positioned to represent the tower of the cathedral.  The camera holds onto this scene for a few seconds as Maria begins to speak, and then cuts back to a close up of Freder as he takes in the message.  The camera then cuts between the two to create a sense of identity between the preaching Maria, and the reverent figure of Freder, who has fully joined the workers in the act of worship.  The camera cuts back to see Freder fall to his knees, and then cuts to his father as he watches from the outside, through a small hole in the wall.  They look at the scene from above, creating distance between the figures of the worshipers and Joh Frederson and Rotwang.  The camera then returns to the perspective of the cavern itself to begin Maria's narrative, a narrative of the Tower of Babel.

      The first intertitle announces the narrative, and the camera cuts to the figure of a priest or intellectual speaking before an informal audience of his peers.  He looks down from the heavens, and the intertitle announces his first words, "Come, let us build a tower whose top may reach unto the stars!"  The speech continues and we are then given a second intertitle, "And on top of the tower we will write the words: Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!"  The film then cuts to an image of the tower, which then becomes a model of the tower surrounded by the intellectuals who were in the first scene.  Their leisurely contemplation reflects back on the leisurely pursuits of the wealthy elite that the film introduced in its first scenes.

      Before we move on there is an interesting shift in the language of the narrative of the film, with the Biblical narrative.  The King James Bible translates the text in the following manner, "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." The Luther translation, which is canonical in Germany, is as follows, und sprachen: Wohlauf, laßt uns eine Stadt und einen Turm bauen, dessen Spitze bis an den Himmel reiche, damit wir uns einen Namen machen; denn wir werden sonst zerstreut in alle Länder.  In both translations, we can see a distinct difference from the version offered in Metropolis.  The word Himmel/Heaven has been replaced with Sterne/Stars.  The shift strips out the particular theological implications embedded in the term Heaven, which contains both the the notion of the literal heights of the sky as well as a  blasphemous claim to an equivalence with god, and replaces it with a science fictional modernist ability to produce technological wonders.  The second phrase shifts the sovereign act of making a unifying name with the creation of a monument to dual wonder of creator and humanity (the literal German in the film is der Mensch, which can be translated as person, man, or human) implicitly in the Cartesian conceptualization of the universe.  We have moved from the terrain of the theological and the attempt on the part of humanity to claim the throne of god, or at least claim an equivalence to god to an enlightenment narrative of the power of der Mensch.

      It is at this point that the narrative shifts with the intertitle, "....but the minds that had conceived the Tower of Babel could not build it.  The task was too great.  So they hired hands for wages."  The next immediate scene cuts not to a scene of wage laborers, but five streams of faceless, nearly naked masses of humanity merging into one stream.  Their heads are shaved, and they are almost entirely bereft of individualization.  The scene reflects back on the earlier scene of the workers entering into the factory, replicating and intensifying the inhumanity contained in their robotic motions.  The film then offers the intertitle, "But the hands that built the Tower of Babel knew nothing of the dream of the brain that had conceived of it."  The next scenes offer a juxtaposition between the priest/intellectual who worships at the alter of the image of the city, and the workers who experience the drudgery, violence, and exhaustion of the labor.  After another intertitle explaining this juxtaposition, the film cuts to a scene in which the figure of the intellectual priest is speaking to the workers, who respond in anger.  The intertitle notes, "People spoke the same language, but could not understand each other," alluding to the common language held by humanity before the destruction of the tower.  But the narrative of the film sees the aporia created through the radically different experiences of the tower based on class position, rather than through the interdiction of god.

       The film then cuts to the sea of faceless inhuman workers shifting from angry speech into action, pouring up the stairs in murderous rage towards the intellectual priest.  The film then cuts to a sea of hand rising up to pull down the image of the tower.  The next scene shows the remain ruins of the tower, leaving the inscription, "Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!" to hang above it, reminding us of the failure of the plans that started the process.  After the clip, the film then moves back to Maria, who offers a third term which would allow for the process to work successfully, a figure that will take the place of the heart, and which could mediate between the intellectual priest who stands in for the brain, and the hands and bodies of the workers.  The clip already gestures towards Freder's role in fulfilling this function through his pained gesture towards his own heart.  The mediation of the heart, perhaps the third term in the dialectic, then becomes the force of poltical neutralization, both humanizing the proletarian mass and through that process, making them accept the necessity of their exploited labor.  Simultaneously, he neutralizes the potential feminine threat of Maria, shifting her role from agitator, vamp, and icon to housewife. (For more on this, please see Andreas Huyssen's "The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis")

          The Tower of Babel narrative captures the doubleness of this narrative, between its exposure of the violence, exploitation, and irrationality of capitalism, and its refusal to imagine another order that would not reproduce the Cartesian mind-body split, precisely because of its fear of the masses.  Interestingly, one of the film's biggest fans was Adolf Hitler, who identified with the role of Freder, the mediator and defender of the functions and the organic whole of the city project.  The history of which would contribute to the end of the marriage of Harbou and Lang, the former remaining in the German state as a loyal citizen (although Harbou always stated that her alliance with Nazism was in solidarity with the  Indian anti-colonial movement) and the later leaving the country for exile and Hollywood.  In many interviews, Lang would return to the debates that he and Harbou had over the metaphor of the heart, a metaphor created by Harbou that Lang hated.  For Lang, it's power always seemed to be an enigma, perhaps because it both contained the fantasy of the Fuhrer that Hitler desired, and the fact that it contained something else, something that would make it a favorite of the counterculture that could not be fully contained in the science fiction world that Lang so brilliantly created.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Critique of the Crimethinc Approach to Desire and Play in the Context of Anti-Globalization

I wrote this a couple years ago for a conference on Play at the University of California-Irvine. I think that I was one of the few people who didn't write a paper from the perspective of either psychoanalysis or deconstruction. I've edited this slightly, but I suspect that the critical dimension needs to be expanded considerably. If I were to rewrite this, I think I would work through the material on opportunism that I draw from Virno in greater detail, and would probably think through the question of the common more as well. I would also be tempted to link this to certain aspects of the anti-austerity protests, particularly around dance parties and occupations. However, this would be a long endeavor, as that those actions are quite complex in themselves, and don't map neatly onto the analysis that I provide here. Still, I would be open to its discussion. Ultimately, I think that Crimethinc should be read as a symptom of the complex, exciting, and problematic events of anti-globalization, rather than a critical analysis of them. That work is still needed.

As an opening salvo I would like to recall a pair of images that I recall from a local Quebec newspaper at the time of the Quebec City FTAA protests in 2001. The first image showed a nude man mooning the authorities in front of the fence keeping the protesters away from the conference. The man is replaced by the blast of water in the second image. At this point, there is something similar to my topic at this point in the United States. The a mode of protest organization appeared spontaneously at the 1999 protests at Seattle, and were quickly blown off the maps, if not by the violence of Genoa, then by the extraordinary state violence that came in the wake of the attacks that occurred on September 11. Between those dates a whole series of massive protests occurred at the sites of international trade conferences. The tactics, now effaced by the despondency created by the war and the security crackdown, drew directly from the discourse of play, and made that discourse productive for the protests. The first purpose could be considered the more instrumental of the purposes. The image of play became a way of partially disguising militant action. For instance, a puppet theater disguised shields at a Minneapolis Mayday protest as large puppets. The second purpose becomes both less instrumentalized and considerably more complex. Play also operates as a temporary reconstruction of space and time within the protest. In effect, play becomes the medium in which a ‘new world’ is shown to be possible, both at the constitutive level in the interactions between the protestors and at the level of representation.

There are a number of ways you could take this project. You could go in a historical direction. This would entail producing a narrative of the history of the use of play in social protest movements. After all, play has been a factor in those movements for a considerably longer time than the initial snapshot allows. This would be a narrative that discussed the role played in the practices of the new left in the sixties, the new social movements of the 70’ and 80’s, etc. It would be a story of the yippies, the diggers, ACT-UP and others. A second direction could be to destabilize this conceptualization by provincializing, and asking to what extent does this concept relate to struggles outside the extraordinary comfort granted to fairly comfortable members of the overdeveloped world. These questions will come up in this talk at points, but I want to stay focused on the concept of play as it was developed in this context. My intention is to begin with an examination of the idea from within the logic of the movement. This will draw on the work of an anarchist collective, Crimethinc that took part in the demonstrations and produced a narrative of those events through its various polemics in both book and pamphlet form. The contradictions and problems of this conceptualization will become readily apparent and the talk will shift to work through those issues in order to read the importance of play as a symptom of the structures of post-fordist capital as much as revolt against it. This demystification puts us in the position to re-read play as an ideological construction, although a crucial one within context of the contemporary class struggle.

To return to the initial conceptualization of play, it becomes immediately obvious that this conceptualization bares a strong resemblance to the conception of the space and time of the carnival that Bakhtin presents in his work on Rabelais. For Bakhtin, “the basic carnival nucleus… is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play.” (Bakhtin 7) Play becomes the key term to understand the radicality of the time and space of the carnival. It operates as a mode of stylization that rewrites the social codes of the time and place. Bakhtin calls it a borderline precisely because of this. It deliberately reshapes and reverses the ideological codes, but this reshaping doesn’t occur purely as an act of spectacle or representation. Instead, it operates as an idealization of radically different set of social relations.

This loops back neatly into the structure of the protests. One of the continual messages of the organizers of the protests was that manner in which the protest took place constituted a model for the type of society that they would like to see. The most obvious example of this was the processes of decision making that were employed for the demonstrations. These processes were open and based on large consensus oriented meetings. But the very way that space was reterritorialized within the large protest sites entered into this as well. Puppets, games, people in costumes as well as other events were used to transform commercial spaces into spaces of utopian imagination. These tactics ranged from simple sit-ins to the destruction of private property. But despite the frequently vitriolic disputes around the question of tactics, a common thread ran through them that emphasized precisely this ability to transform social space. The sit in, the spontaneous puppet theater, or the shattered windows of a Starbucks constituted a glimpse into another world that existed outside the instrumental logic of capital.

Although the rhetoric of the movement feels a bit bombastic and unreal at this point, its important to recognize that this was taken seriously by state authorities as well as by activists. Taken seriously, this play world is no less universal in its logic than the world constructed by capital. To return to the question of the carnival, Bakhtin notes, “While the carnival lasts, there is no life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom.” (Bakhtin 7) The idealization discussed above necessarily links into a notion of totality, or universality. Those terms would be anathema to the movements, but nonetheless the slogan “another world is possible” invites this conceptualization. A free world, by this logic would be one that breaks away from the logic of capital altogether through a wide variety of practices of resignification and reterritorialization. The precise nature of that new structure was both unknown and in dispute. In effect, play operated as the medium that allowed these competing visions to coexist and coagulate into a social network. At this point, play takes on a double function. It both constitutes the medium in which the nexus of state and capital is challenged and the instantiation of another possible world radically opposed to both state and capital. We are offered an image of two worlds within the logic of this model, the secretive negotiations of state and capital that seek domination and a world understood through the free association and mutual aid constituted by play.

The group that has made the greatest attempt to mobilize this logic has been the anarchist collective, Crimethinc. Crimethinc was initially formed in 1996, but its visibility increased substantially due to the protests from 1999 to 2001. The group claims that it has no “platform or ideology” and that it operates as a free association of like-minded individuals who political conceptions are constantly in flux. It also allows for the possibility of non-affiliated groups of individuals to take actions in its name. The group also operates a publishing house that has produced a substantial amount of documents in the form of newsletters, posters, books, etc. It has published a number of polemical tracts, poetry, and even a Kerouacesque novel. This work has simultaneously attracted very little mainstream attention, and has become a dominant ideological force within anarchist circles, particularly young anarchist circles. This paradox has been able to occur due to the infrastructure of independent and alternative bookstores and infoshops that can be found nationally and globally. They have also contributed to those bookshops staying open through their sales, which are comparable to the sales of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

The message that these publications offer has been fairly consistent despite the claims that the collective is continual flux. This message has taken on a level of political sophistication and maturity as the publications have occurred. For instance, there is a recognition of white privilege in later publications, that one cannot find in the initial publication, Days of War, Nights of Love. However, there is a theoretical thread that runs throughout the publications that links up to a concept of play that can be found more fully developed in that early publication. This book also remains the best selling book of the collective, and therefore the book that is most commonly taken as the group’s political philosophy. There is something remarkably paradoxical in its discursive operations. The book can be described as both extraordinarily naïve in its theoretical sophistication and a fairly sophisticated understanding of marketing. Although it would be tempting to read this contradiction through a lens of manipulation, I will eventually argue that the very sincerity of the contradiction is move revelatory.

The word play only appears once in Days of War, Nights of Love; however it appears a critical moment in the book. The chapters are organized in a roughly alphabetical order, moving from A for Anarchy to W for Work. The reference to play occurs at the end of the chapter entitled politics. The chapter makes an argument that former modes of radical politics have failed to create the changes that they have ostensibly attempting to create because its ‘irrelevance.’ This irrelevance is revealed by boredom. This boredom points to a loss of what the collective sees as an origin of revolutionary, which might be called a vitalist excitement. A genuinely radical politic points to some sort of authentic origin that constitutes both a means and ends of a new society. Contained within this theorization is a rejection of any mode of instrumentality. This is phrased in the following manner. “Acting in a way that is tedious, tiresome, and oppressive can only perpetuate tedium, fatigue, and oppression in our lives.” (Crimethinc 191) The essential joy and light of the revolution is opposed by the dull grey of responsibility. For the folks of Crimethinc, the opposition set up earlier in the paper can operate in terms of a moralistic obligation of capital versus the novum or novelty of the revolution, a novum that is both completely natural and constantly in danger of destruction through tedious analysis. Play then becomes the privileged site for this sort of revolt. The group ends with a call to action. “Join us in making the “revolution” a game; a game played for the highest stakes of all, but a joyous carefree game nonetheless!” (Crimethinc 192)

This theory of the spontaneous nature of revolt is linked to a particular theory of desire, which can be called both utopian and naïve. Desire becomes the authentic force that points to an ethos of freedom. The book opens with what could read as an advertising pamphlet that opposes an empty homogenous conception of time to another possibility only expressed negatively. It states, “How are you affected by holding back your desires?” It then follows with a list of things lost to the ‘delay or denial of pleasure.’ This list emphasizes the spontaneous, the authentic, the animal, and the wild. This is also linked to both the possibility of adventure and the possibility of danger. Tapping into this space creates the possibility of not only being a subject rather than an object in your life, but it also allows you to become the figure of the sovereign itself. But this sovereignty that is gained from play, is a very strange one. It is placed in opposition to power. For the collective, a gaze of power is necessarily not a gaze of desire. Power is necessarily linked to the repressive, the restrictive, the boring.

This element links the collective’s ideas to a strain of individualist anarchist thought, particularly the work of Max Stirner. Stirner argues for a radically nominalist concept of the individual that emphasizes the autonomy of that individual that is linked to the unique ‘properties’ held by each individual that must be absolutely respected against any collective concepualization that will damage that property. The sovereignty invoked by Crimethinc ties directly into that idea of the individual, and explains why the group is so terrified of being identified as a movement. Stirner feels that any ‘meta-narrative’ is both a fiction and a substitution of the essential qualities of the individual. This thread runs through to the work of Crimethinc when they reject the notion of movement. A movement is no longer a “convergence of unique desires.,” which would protect and foster the individual properties of those desires. Instead, it becomes “a standard for what those desires should be—or at best a model for how to integrate different desires.” (Crimethinc 168) The transindividualism of the movement then becomes the space of inauthenticity and repression.

This radically individualist conception produces a fairly substantial contradiction with the conception of collectivity emphasized by the idea of mutual aid as developed by Kropotkin, which is also invoked by the group through the invocation of love and community as equally authentic sites of radical possibility. Kropotkin developed the theory in response to the popular uptake of Darwin in the second half of the 19th century. Rather than emphasizing competition as the key to strength and survival of a species, Kropotkin looks at the modes of cooperation that occur both in the animal world as well as the human world, and argues that it is this cooperation that is the key to survival. In effect, the theory of mutual aid challenges the notion that society needs the vertical dimension of sovereignty and the state in order to produce social space. At the same time, this conception challenges the earlier notion of the individual as theorized by Stirner. Similarly, any invocation of community necessarily undoes the essential qualities of an individual, particularly a conceptualization that rejects the liberal distinction between public and private as Crimethinc does.

Play becomes the way of negotiating through this substantial contradiction between the sovereign individual and the collective vision of mutual aid. It allow for mutual aid to be marked off as the space of converging individual desires, rather than marking an “integration” of desire that necessarily marks the space of movement. It stitches together the contradictory narrative of the individual’s desire as sovereign and the modes of collectivity that are implicit within the idea of mutual aid. This stitching doesn’t constitute either a synthesis of these contradictory elements nor is a form of mediation. Instead, play allows for an oscillation between the two that operates less as a mode of integration and more as an eclecticism that skips between rule system to rule system in a manner equivalent to the music of Mike Patton or John Zorn. This movement between contradictory structures of subject formation is both opportunistic in its negative valiance and improvisitory in positive one, but it cannot be read as a mode of instrumental cynicism. This reading is thrown out precisely because of the emphasis on the element of spontaneity that is emphasized within the conceptualization of play. Instead, it needs to be read on the unconscious terrain of ideology, remembering that when this term is invoked it is meant as a starting point of the class struggle and not false consciousness.

Before we move into the contradictions and problems with this mode of improvisation or opportunism, I want to emphasis its ability to mobilize particular people. Within the youth community of anarchists, Crimethinc has taken on what might be called a hegemonic role. I think that this has occurred for three significant reasons. The first is that it argues that there is an intuitive revolutionary drive within young people and that they already have something to contribute to politics. Simultaneously, it cultivates this revolutionary subjectivity through the set of divisions that have already been discussed. Despite its dismissal of subculture, it constitutes a set of social networks based on style of dress, speech and other modes of signification. Last, it offers open form of sexuality that challenges the cynical forms of sexual education that have come about in the pas twenty years. As frustrating as the structure can be, it has become the mode of mobilization for middle class anarchists.

But at the same time, there have been some serious contradictions that have shown some of the problems of this combination of free desire, play, and spontaneity. The most immediate of those is the question of sexual assault within activist communities. Within a year of the major protests, anarchist sub-cultures across the country were being torn apart by issues of sexual violence. Although Crimethinc has no responsibility for this situation, it nonetheless provided a serious challenge to the narrative that the organization provided, a narrative that opposed a libratory desire with the repressive desire of the state. However, the minute one deals with the question of violence or sexual violence within intimate relationships, it becomes impossible to ignore the forms of power and domination that constitute the terrain of the social. The fantasy that domination is the sole property of a malignant sovereign who wields it against an innocent people becomes transparently untenable. To the extent that desire is constitutive force, it contains the possibility of producing radical and free social assemblages, but at the same time, it can create fascist or neo-liberal assemblages. To put it into other terms, it has to be understood as a terrain of struggle that cuts through us, rather than a source of authentic liberation.

Another immediate challenge came to the refusal of responsibility implicit in the concept of play as provided by Crimethinc through the question of raising children within activist communities. The most notable form of this challenge came through an essay put together by the group, RAMBL (the name had multiple meanings from Radical Activist Mother and Baby League to Radical Anarchist Mother and Baby League, with other variations.) The group challenged the ways that the activist and anarchist subculture made its spaces and activities inaccessible to parents and children through indifference, neglect, and, at times, hostility. The group demanded that meetings, protests, and collective spaces responded to the needs of children, through meaningful forms of childcare, spaces that were safe for children, and safe spaces in protests. Indirectly, they critiqued the subculture’s investment in spontaneity, precisely because of the ways that discourse privileged certain bodies, and restricted others. They demanded democratic planning to create new forms of access, and as significantly, they demanded that men take responsibility and sacrifice a portion of their privileged autonomy in order to contribute to this labor. In effect, they returned to a politics of reproductive labor, which cannot be accounted for within the Crimethinc narrative, despite the move on the part of the group towards a far less heteronormative concept of sexuality.

The two examples point to moments in which Crimethinc opportunistic linkage of the individualist and collectivist strains of anarchism break down. They break down because the forms of homogeneity that allow for that linkage to exist can no longer be assumed. In effect, the forms of common that must operate within the logic of mutual aid become labored, that is, they become deliberate, rather than assumed, frameworks created by their participants rather than created for them. It’s notable that the audience for Crimethinc is homogenous in age and race, although not always in income status. Within that context, the obvious structures of power they operate in appear to be simplified, with the figure of the parent or principal standing in for the figure of the sovereign. However, this obfuscates the larger structures of capital that those figures operate within. When we look at the demands for immediacy and liberation made by Crimethinc, they have an uncanny resonance to the utopian promise made by the commodity form itself. This logic, which is most evident in advertising, continually offers the promise of fulfillment through the act of purchase. In its conceptualization of an opposition to the fantasy of a stultifying and conformist capitalist designed around the mass subject, the Crimethinc collective have ignored the transformations that have occurred within the logic of capitalist accumulation. Unwittingly, they have uncritically replicated the logic of the pleasure of the commodity of late capitalism. That promise and its falsity must be engaged with within our struggles, but critically. Crimethinc is absolutely correct in its demand for a politics of joy, but its embrace of the logic of the commodity doesn’t provide for the radicality needed to challenge the deceit, misery, and violence of capital. It does not take the production of the common seriously enough, the only space which can create revolutionary politics of joy.