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.

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