Friday, March 30, 2012

Joel Olson-1967-2012

     You can find a number of eulogies for Joel already up. (Here are a number of them.)  I never met Joel personally, but his work had a strong influence on me.  I read the paper he edited, The Blast, as a young radical and have followed his work since then.  He published significant work with Race Traitor, an anti-racist collective, and produced some of the most significant work analyzing the collapse of the Love and Rage collective.  He then went onto help form the recently defunct Bring The Ruckus, which tried to produce a revolutionary politics that was neither defined by the top-down organizing style of conventional Marxism-Leninism or the loose assemblages of contemporary anarchism.  He also remained a committed anti-racist activist, continuing the critique of whiteness began by W.E.B. DuBois,and the Black radical tradition, and popularized by David Roediger amongst others.  He also attempted to do something that is remarkably difficult to do, remain active in radical politics, while attempting to navigate the strange and labyrinthine terrain of academic advancement.  Perhaps, more significantly, he attempted to use the critical lenses of theory in order to communicate and mobilize a radical politics on the ground. I put up a different version of this talk a number of months ago.  (You can find it here.)  It's interesting to see Joel engaging with a substantially different group of folks, namely the Arizona Democratic Party.  Additionally, I'm including a talk that he gave on "The Politics of Protestant Violence: Abolitionists and Anti-Abortionists."  It's all worth your time.  I feel like I should say something else, but I don't know what to say.  I'll leave it here. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Rise of Science Fiction as a Respected Genre

     I just came across this early attempt to formulate my intellectual project for the dissertation.  I cut out most of the absolute nonsense to get at some of the early efforts to formulate a relationship between literary form and historical period.

      To turn explicitly to the question of post-war academics within the context of these transformations, it’s notable that the creation of an entire series of academic formations parallels the rise of the mass society, putting the ideological detritus into the center of the analysis of modern structures of power.  This includes the rise of film studies, comics, advertising etc.  (Barthes work comes to mind, but so does the work of the Cahiers du Cinema group or even the work of Delany come to mind.)  Science fiction itself begins to transform in stature during this period.  It moves from primarily being published in pulp format as cheap periodicals to the novel format, both in paperback and hardcover format.  At the same time, the begins to rise a series of critical works on science fiction as a genre moving from the fan circles to respected academic circles.

            Science fiction then operates as one of those commodities produced within that society, but it also needs to be understood as a critical discourse of that society, particularly about the linkage between domesticity and consumption that was constructed in the post war period.  Science fiction had its roots in the traditions of ethnography, travel literature, and the utopia, all of which focus on questions of social reproduction and the social symbolic by posing questions about the customs of a society, its norms, its rituals, the ways that children are raised, and marriage compacts are arranged.  It posed questions on how societies perpetuated themselves, and perhaps more significantly, it posed these questions about the other in order to critique or denaturalize the assumptions of the societies that they lived in.  (Anderson points to this in his Imagined Communities, another place to look is in the material produced by Clifford in his analysis of ethnography and surrealism)  Science fiction contributes to these frameworks a sense of futurity, posing alternative futures, pointing to the contingency of the present, and at times, explicitly critiquing it.

            Science fiction moves from the margins of the society to much more respected position in the literary world, and at the same time, it begins to be re-evaluated as a genre, by both its practitioners as well as its critics.  Its status as both a product of mass production and as a discourse centered on the questions of reproduction put it in a unique position to critically examine the society it exists within.  Furthermore, its emphasis on contingency allows for the critique and re-imagination of a set of practices perceived as both natural and trans-historical, and allows for a critique of capitalism precisely at the moment in which McCarthyism has taken away many of the tools to make these critiques.  In addition, the feminist nature of these works allows for the exploration of the importance of the newly constructed space of the domestic in the reproduction of capital, both in its role of creating norms and expectations and in its role of assuring the market for a variety of mass produced items that insured the stability of Fordist capitalism.

            The intention of this project is to explore the way that feminist science fiction allows for first a critique of contemporary capitalism, and a series of imagined world systems that no longer operate within the logic of the commodity through a series of critical utopias, however in order to be able to map these resistances, one first needs to understand the relations of power in existence in order to establish this structure.  Women’s magazines become a unique space to map out these transformations, as they bring together a set of disparate discourses from the 19th and 20th centuries together to produce a sense of the domestic, far more coherent and homogenous than earlier formation, one that could only exist at a point of the level of social equality introduced at the end of the Second world war.

.  The literature on women’s magazines in the period of the war and the post war period has operated within the analytical structure of repression and agency, Betty Friedan making the argument that the post war period is far more repressive than the imagery of the war and beforehand, defending her readings through a set of stories contained in these magazines (which magazines?) whereas the work of Joanne Meyerowitz and Eva Moskowitz argue against this interpretation, focusing on both the ways that those magazines don’t fall into the trap of the Feminine Mystique, as well as the ways that there is a greater continuity between the work of the 1930’s and the 1940’s.  (My suspicion is that Meyerowitz’ interpretation may be shifted through Horowitz’ critical biography, that looks at the Popular Front influence on Friedan/Goldstein.  In addition, I have some minor methodological issues with Meyerowitz, particularly with her connection of magazines, such as AFL’s monthly magazine to women’s literature).  This repression/agency argument also doesn’t offer as full an argument as the linkages that Friedan’s work has with other critical works of the post war period, such as C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, and Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.

            To return to the subject at hand, my intension is to offer a different analytical framework than is offered by the one implicit in that dyad, one that follows Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis, and insists on the productivity of power.  In some sense, I am following the model of continuity between the period of the war and the post war period, but I am focusing on something else, the way that these magazines were linked up to the war effort, more specifically the effort for women to support this effort, pushing their energy towards a war that took up incredible amounts of resources of the country, which was the primary contribution to the war effort.  (Aka the United States was transformed into a giant factory)

            I don’t want to read this engagement in an uncontradictory fashion. Contained within this effort towards total war are two projects, one directed broadly towards a social democratic project, the other directed towards the re-entrenchment and intensification of capitalism, that is to say, we find a project that continues and expands the Keynesian politics of the new deal, that is Roosevelt’s attempt to ‘save capitalism from itself’ vs. the imaginary of the people’s war.  I have no intention to argue that these imaginaries are autonomous from each other, certainly the party’s refusal to support strikes after the entrance of the USSR into the war and its support of the Japanese internment camps puts it into a profoundly ambiguous situation.  But this precise ambiguity is to be expected, precisely by the entanglement of power and resistance that Foucault writes about in his analysis of modern structures of power.

            As a side note, the contradictions of the popular front project are significant to its collapse.  I have already noted that the Communist Party compromised itself through the support of detention camps, and the refusal to support the labor struggles during the war (along with the disgraceful support of the Nazi-Soviet pact.)  Similar contradictions compromised the unions tied into the popular front project through the tension between the desire to protect the jobs of men who went to war and the jobs of the women who had entered into the war effort.  Alongside real narratives of repression of the left, we also have to remember the sense of betrayal that activists such as Betty Friedan and the sense of betrayal that African American members of the Communist Party felt as the party responded to McCarthyism by narrowing its vision of social justice.

            It’s important to remember that the victory of the war was met by massive strikes in the post war years.  I believe that this points to the power of the popular front imaginary and its continued commitment on the part of large numbers of ordinary Americans.  It is within this context that the project to destroy the political organization of the popular front.  It becomes a way to rescue the new deal from the more radical set of alliances that it made to succeed, that is to say, the radical trace contained in the effort to save capitalism, contained in the alliance between the communist party and the new deal democrats.  But the post war effort needed to continue to keep the economic engine in motion even as it as it neutralized the possibility of radical social transformation.  This need for continued mobilization can be linked to the commitment to Keynes economic theories that emphasized the need for economic demand and consumer spending to the continued health of the economy

            My interest is to begin to look at the space of the domestic as place in which grounds this new formation, linking the cultural, economic, social, etc., more specifically how Women’s magazines become a space to conceptualize and form this space creating intersection between capital, consumers, and later, the state.  But before that, perhaps it would be best to define the space of the domestic, and its importance.  Many commentators have already noted the reliance of the domestic space to stabilize the social order (bring up examples) At the same time, the definition of that domestic space was transforming.  As Nancy Walker notes, “By 1940 the domestic was commonly understood to mean work performed to sustain the daily needs of family members, which rarely included servants or livestock; professionals largely took care of the ill and the indigent, and while a housewife was expected occasionally to serve as hostess, the etiquette of calling cards was a thing of the past (Walker 55)  In addition, electricity was being introduced as a standard feature of housing.  This shift in expectations creates a far more homogenous domestic space through this narrowing of expectations.  Sally Stein makes the analogy of the techniques developed in the space of the domestic with the transformations in the workplace that were created by the new manufacturing techniques introduced by Henry Ford.

            The women’s magazine has an important role in the developing structure of the space of domesticity.  Although, it’s important to recognize that there are a number of significant texts dedicated to domestic advice, the women’s magazine were only begun in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  The connection to commerce was always fairly immediate.  Several magazines were initially started as catalogs, and publications put a great deal of explicit focus on consumption, as the space of the domestic was transformed from a space of production to one of consumption.  The magazines also began to cultivate a set of experts to offer commentary and direct the energies of the household.  (this needs to be spelled out a bit more.)  The United States government took an active role in the structure of those publications with the beginning of the Second World War with its propaganda department.

            While I read this shift in resistance that occurs within the period after the initial terror of McCarthyism as one that occurs under erasure, or as an effect of censorship.  But I want to read that concept of censorship within the framework that is provided by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.  Freud sets up a set of terms crucial to his understanding of the psychic apparatus, condensation, etc.  In order to make these formations coherent and understandable to the reader, he brings in an analogy with political censorship.  He notes.

            The political writer who has unpleasant truths to tell to those in power finds himself in a similar position.  If he utters them openly the ruler will suppress his words—retrospectively if it is a question of words spoken, preventatively if they are to be made known in print.  The writer has the censorship to fear: and so he moderates and distorts the expression of his opinion.  According to the degree of severity and sensitivity of this censorship, he will find himself forced either to just hold back on certain forms of attack or to seek allusively instead of in plain statement, or he will have to conceal his objectionable views behind a harmless-seeming disguise—he may, for example, tell of incidents involving two mandarins of the Middle Kingdom, whereas he has the bureaucrats of the Fatherland in mind.  The stricter the censorship, the more far-reaching the disguise and often the cleverer the devices which nevertheless put the reader on the track of what is really meant.

            Freud begins by noting that censorship doesn’t only have a simple repressive impact on the work of the author, that is to say, while the destruction of words does occur, the imprisonment of writers, etc.  Freud is interested in another effect of censorship, the one that occurs at the moment that the author in some way internalizes these norms, whether out of fear or as an obstacle to be avoided.  It is precisely at this moment that the author transforms his or her discourse to escape the direct effects of censorship, in effect, censorship then transforms the terrain of the political conflict.  Freud sees this shift as a sort of semiotic game between author and reader, manipulating signs in order to complete circuit of communication.  But, this transformation doesn’t simply repeat the earlier statement.  In effect, censorship can no longer be understood purely within repressive terms, and must be understood as a sort of constitutive force, each new act of censorship leading to a new web of discourse in order to escape its effects, leading to an open ended production of language.

            McCarthyism and anti-communism produced such an effect in the post war era of the United States, closing off both the political forces of the Popular Front as well as the radical demands contained in that formation.  Within that situation, there was a desperate effort to create a new language, a language that would escape the censoring effects of anti-communism and produce a critique of the new modes of domination introduced by the new Keynsian paradigm.  The first model became a demand for inclusion into that system, which included the critiques of poverty offered by critics such as social democrat Michael Harrington that eventually informed the war on poverty, or the demands made by the early civil rights movement, which demanded access to the new wealth and political participation in the society.

            A second set of critiques came up at the same time, which posed the abundance of the society as a problem, rather than scarcity.  Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the sociological work of C. Wright Mills, and later on, the formation of SDS were all examples of this formation, and feminism fit this model as well, especially when one looks at Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which allowed for the creation of a new women’s movement to come together.  Friedan had been involved in the popular front as both an activist and as a journalist, although she wound up in the suburbs after the collapse of that formation.  Friedan’s critique made the figure of the middle class (generally white) housewife as her central figure of analysis, a product of suburbanization, the increase in wealth, and the desire to produce a stable nuclear family.  This critique has been critiqued for who got left out of its analysis, women in poverty and women of color in particular, but if you think about the book as a critical analysis of a new class formation, one that included a large percentage of the entire society, rather than a work on women as a whole, it becomes a much more productive historical document.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Insourcing of the Janitorial Workers at UCI

      A fairly significant event occurred yesterday in the student center at the University of California-Irvine, the insourcing of the campus janitorial workers.  For those who don't know the term, insourcing refers to the practice of institutions hiring on employees previously hired by outside contractors as employees at the institution.  A lot of times, this translates into bringing non-unionized position into higher paying union jobs with greater benefits, although, in this case, the workers were represented by SEIU.  At the same time, having the status as university employees translates into greater benefits, job security, and greater pay.  It also brings them into AFSCME 3299.  The janitorial workers were the last outsourced employees with the University of California system, although the administration of the system has brought up the possibility of returning to the practice, using the budget crisis as an excuse.
     The campaign had lasted four years, occurring after a successful effort to insource the groundskeepers.  Although I had been on the outside of the campaign, involved in the occasional rally and letter, the difficulties of winning were pretty obvious.  The university was involved in all out campaign against the possibility of insourcing.  They used a campaign of deception, lying to both the workers and the general university community, racially profiled the primarily Latino workers, and threatened them with the INS.  Additionally, the university tried to use divide and conquer tactics with the workers, offering some insourced jobs, while excluding others.  At the same time, the workers saw three organizers come and go within that period of time.  The final organizer showed some real commitment to the campaign, but was replaced after the contentious election in AFSCME 3299.  At the same time, the workers had a committed group of supporters in the form of the Worker Student Alliance, who supported them through the years.  Still, all of these factors add up to a organizing campaign that had a remarkable amount of obstacles to reach victory.

     I wanted to give a brief sense of the difficulties in this campaign to give the victory its full meaning despite some of the compromises made.  However, I wanted to spend the rest of the post describing the actual day of the insourcing.  It was a really strange event, but certainly one that I am glad I attended.  We were asked by the organizing committee to play the role of observers in the the process of bringing the workers into the university as full employees.  The university had a long record of obstructionism and shenanigans, so the workers wanted to have some solidarity during the process.  I was one of a number of people who were contacted about this.  I got up at about 6:30 and wondered over to the student center.  The insourcing event was heavily marked with signs, and each of the signs had a group of balloons over it, as if this process was some sort of celebration, rather than the last hurdle in a whole series of hurdles put up by the university.  A fairly large group of folks was outside in the back of the complex, made up of clergy, organizers, and a few students.  I met up with some fellow UAW folks, and we went to get our instructions.  The organizers were fully prepared, and asked us to enter into the building to make the workers feel more comfortable entering the process.

       As we entered, the room was set up with chairs for the workers to sit, and eight or nine tables manned by Human Resources folks.  We immediately set ourselves between each of the tables, and entered our first conflict.  We were pulled aside and were told that this would feel intimidating for the HR people, and that we needed to stand in front of the tables.  We were also instructed to get name-tags, so that we would not be escorted out of the building.  It was pretty clear that the management was pretty freaked out that we were there.  I can't deny that it was nice to see the folks who had contributed so much to the difficulties of the workers' situation on the other side of the table so to speak, but we followed through with their instructions so that we could do our solidarity work.  We put on our tags, and then returned to our spots, moving the front.  HR was still agitated at this point, but we followed their rules, so they couldn't do much more than whinge about intimidation and let us be.

      A few minutes later, the workers and the rest of the folks entered.  At that point, any semblance of control that HR had over the situation disappeared.  The workers basically told management that they have everything in hand, and that they would run the show.  They started off with a brief prayer, and then began the process.  The workers and the organizers slowly siphoned the workers to the various tables.  It was clear that they had already planned their approach down to the order of folks approaching each table.  To be honest, the sheer amount of outside folks were overwhelming.  Each table had two observers watching it, along with a staff of at least ten if not more floating observers who would intervene whenever there was an issue.  Each time a potential problem appeared, the table would be surrounded by organizers and workers.  Upper management would quickly appear to smooth things over.  Because of this, the process went by very quickly.  We were finished within two hours.  The workers were left to fill out the less contentious aspects of their paperwork, and we went to grab breakfast over at the local IHOP.

     It was a remarkable show of what a group of self-organized workers are truly capable of.  The university threw everything it could at these folks, and they won.  The experience itself was a reminder of the buried civil war that is at the heart of every workplace within the structures of capitalist exploitation and domination.  Those workers, who faced the racist exploitation of both employer and state, managed to temporarily turn the table through their efforts.  The rest of us were largely the super-structure to the structure of the worker's self-organization at that point.  In his book, Disagreement, Jacques Ranciere argues for a sharp distinction between the categories of politics and the police.  The later operates on a logic classification, while the former breaks up those structures of classification in the name of a heterogeneous equality.  The policing quality of HR was obvious.  It was gratifying to see it overwhelmed by the political power of the workers and their allies.  I want to spend a little more time on the relevance of this distinction between the police and politics for our political movements, but this really isn't the place.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A short second posting on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's biopolitics

     I wrote a fairly lengthy posting on the ways that Gilman's biopolitical reforms were negotiated through a set of particularly economic terms. One of the points that I felt was left undeveloped was the linkage between biological race and economic structure. While working on my dissertation, I came across a fairly curious quote within Gilman's first major sociological treatise, Women and Economics. Within those pages, Gilman attempts to argue that the lack of women's economic independence leads to a sort of pathological development in the evolution of the race. In effect, women become a sort of evolutionary drag on the race, constituting a sort of primitive remainder of early individualistic economic practices. However, she one of her argument is through her interpretation of the impact of years of anti-semitic oppression on the Jewish diaspora.

     “As one clear, world-known instance of the effect of economic conditions upon the human creature, note the marked race-modification of the Hebrew people under the enforced restrictions of the last two thousand years. Here is a people rising to national prominence, first as a pastoral, and then as an agricultural nation; only partially commercial through race affinity with the Phoenicians, the pioneer traders of the world. Under the social power of a united Christendom—united at least in this most unchristian deed—the Jew was forced to get his livelihood by commercial methods solely. Many effects can be traced in him to the fierce pressure of the social conditions to which he was subjected: the intense family devotion of a people who had no country, no king, no room for joy and pride except the family; the reduced size and tremendous vitality and endurance of the pitilessly selected survivors of the Ghetto; the repeated bursts of erratic genius from the human spirit so inhumanly restrained. But more patent still is the effect of the economic conditions,--the artificial development of a race of traders and dealers in money, from the lowest pawnbroker to the house of Rothschild; a special kind of people, bred of the economic environment in which they were compelled to live.” (Gilman 4)

      It's immediately clear that we are dealing with an explanation of the diaspora that partakes in some of the same forms of anti-semitism that the short paragraph is trying to diagnose. Like a lot of contemporary analysis, we have a sort of reductive interpretation of a broad set of experiences, erasing the intense multiplicity of forms of labor and sociability in the life of the diaspora.  Working-class life disappears, experiences working the land disappears, intellectual life disappears, and what remains is a set of stereotypical expectations around finance.  Still, this aspect of Gilman's analysis isn't what I want to focus on.  As anti-semitism goes at the time, this is fairly mild stuff, and its not really a substantial part of Gilman's legacy within a variety of feminist movements.  Far more interesting is the sort of racial Lamarckian interpretation of economic life.  The experiences of historical racism creates a sort of pathology within the economic life of the 'Hebrew people' stunting their growth, producing 'a race of traders and dealers in money, from the lowest pawnbroker to the house of Rothschild.' 
     Perhaps to put a bit more bluntly, Gilman is positing that collective economic activity produces biological race.  Or perhaps more specifically, economic activity defines the racial potential of a group, its relation to modernity, its commitment to a variety of discourses around civilization.  The tragedy of the Jewish people from Gilman's perspective is their homogenous experience, defined by the limited horizons above.  She implies that the Jewish is defined by the oikos, the realm of the family, the realm of economic production, to the exclusion of the political sphere, a sphere defined by nations, kings, and the ability to express pride in something other than the family.  In a curious sense, this links up with the limitations of (white) women who are kept in the even more confining space of the household.  The difference is that (white) women are biologically linked to (white) men, creating a heterogeneity that both is the tragedy of their situation, but also their possible salvation. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gilman, Biopolitics, Race, and Economics

      I thought that I would work out some of my ideas concerning Charlotte Perkins Gilman on this space, as a sort of rehearsal for my dissertation chapter that I am completing.  There something inhibiting about putting the ideas there, so I thought this might be a good way of thinking through my project in a slightly less formal way.  I want to make a particular argument about the relationship between race, labor, and consumerism within these pages.  As I have previously noted, there is a considerable amount of revisionist scholarship dealing with the centrality of race and specifically a type of evolutionary racism in the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  This work was initially started by Gail Bederman in her text, Manliness and Civilization, but it was continued by Michele Newman in her text, White Women's Rights, and Alys Weinbaum in her text, Wayward Reproductions.  Each of these texts places Gilman's racism at the center of her theoretical and political projects.  Bederman does this through Gilman's focus on rewriting the dominant discourses on the concept of civilization, which allow for a change in status for white women, while reinforcing ways of naturalizing racial domination.  Newman and Weinbaum each focus on the racial biopolitics implicit in Gilman's particular take on reform Darwinist project in conversation with both Social Darwinism and Eugenics.  These projects succeed in placing this racism at the heart of Gilman's political projects, rather than acting as some sort of unfortunate accidental remainder that marked her as a part of her times.  Instead, Gilman's racism and demands for gender reform share at their core, the same theoretical framework, one that constructs a hierarchy of races, and sees the need for more opportunities for women and a professionalized home economics as a way of fully bringing white women into modernity.

     At the same time, I think that these engagements with Gilman are incomplete.  Gilman is certainly drawing from a racialized notion of the biopolitical control of population, but as Foucault would note, the biopolitical is the borderline zone between a particular biological notion of man as species, and an economic conceptualization.  What I want to argue is that Gilman imagines her biopolitical projects of reform in economic terms, emphasizing the need to bring the labor practices and consumption practices of the household into the modern processes of mass production that were just beginning to be introduced into the factories at a multiplicity of sources.  My initial impulse to follow this train of thought came out of my reading of a short article of Gilman’s contained in the 1980 collection, The Politics of Housework. Gilman’s article, “The Home: Its Work and Influence” poses a substantial challenge to the 19th century cult of motherhood, but that challenge operates through her evolutionary, Darwinist framework. Gilman poses a need to modernize the ‘primeval’ labor of the household with the new forms of expertise developed in the disciplines of ‘Household Science’ and ‘Domestic economics.’ Building on this new disciplinary framework, she proposes the sweeping away of the amateur, sentimentalized labor of the isolate household replacing it with newer, efficient, scientific procedures and techniques. Critic Sally Stein amongst others has explored the impact of assembly line production techniques on the conventional structures of the household, bringing not only the new technologies of the era into the house, but also the techniques developed in the Taylorist division of labor. The same forms of time-motion study used in the workplace to economize the movement of the worker were envisioned and implemented in the transformation of household labor, producing an instrumentalized economy of the household. Despite Gilman’s ability to shock sensibilities, her new experimental household built upon the techniques of domination and exploitation developed in the workplace, rather than challenged them

      It’s important to note that Gilman’s vision of the new, managed space of domestic and reproductive labor is not the privatized space of the household that eventually becomes the dominant post-war structure. Rather than translating the scientific management of Fordist modes of production to the privatized space of the home, Gilman proposes a far more direct model, proposing collective modes of daycare, cooking, and other aspects of domesticity. Unlike the later attempts to organize around the concept of wages for housewives who saw their campaign as a larger struggle to bring down the capitalist world system, Gilman was genuinely committed to these modes of collectivized, trained wage labor positions. However, her vision of modernizing the labor of the household presented a similar challenge to the erasure of that labor within the sentimentalized guise of motherhood. Although Gilman’s projection of the Fordist collective household draws upon and legitimates the apparatuses of expertise later to legitimate what Betty Friedan would later call ‘the feminine mystique,’ it cannot be read as a simple blueprint of the post-war economy.

      Although it is perhaps unfashionable to mention this within current critical standards, it's important to note that Gilman's critique of the primitive nature of the household operates on a fundamental error.  As Ruth Schwarz Cohen amongst other have noted, the notion of housework as a separate category of labor was only comprehensible quite recently.  Before industrialization, the separation of household labor from other forms of labor was far less common.  Cohen points out some of the mythic aspects of the funtionalist analysis of the household, of the totally sufficient large agrarian family.  Earlier economic systems had specialized craftsman such as candlemakers, as well as servants.  But the workplace and the household were interconnected.  In truth the position of an isolated housewife arose with industrialization.  As new technologies were developed in order to store food, clean, etc., housewives become increasingly isolated.  On one hand, the workplace becomes increasingly disconnected, on the other hand, the middle-class household needs less servants.  Increasingly the middle class household is one without servants.  This affects both the middle class who are working on their own and working class who are no longer working in those households.  Let's be honest, these relationships were often contentious and exploitative, but they gestured towards a different type of collective labor in the household.  The lone housewife far from being a primitive hold over from an earlier era, was a carefully constructed function, through a combination of new consumer technologies which reached their height slightly after Gilman's height as a popular commentator, and a whole set of popular discourse disseminated in the form of books and magazines.  This shift leads to an intensification of labor on the part housewives.  The level of labor remains consistent, and that labor is tied to intensified emotional expectations on the part of the housewife, often symptomized in the form of guilt.

     This process cannot be separated from the sorts of policies of racial assimilation that are also advocated by Gilman.  To understand this, we need to look at the phenomenon of the settlement house, which Gilman was briefly apart of.  Settlement houses were often seen as civilizing missions, equivalent to the missions in colonized countries.  Instead of pacifying indigenous populations, these houses were in existence to assimilate recent immigrations, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe.  This work has ties to the attempts on the part of white women to provide forms of popular education to African-Americans.  In both cases, the civilizing process was tied to the modern division of the home, educating women in hygiene, new consumption patterns, and childcare, while implicitly disciplining men to act as waged laborers.  The empty homogenous field of the marketplace constituted the modernity that was needed to assimilate into the dominant society.  It's notable that the particular emphasis on a kind of Lamarckian racial theory wasn't universal, but it certainly constituted the primary drive in the case of Gilman.  Although she moved away from settlement work, she never moved away from these basic goals of assimilation, even as she became more skeptical of its prospects.  (Another example of this process were the reform efforts to assimilate American Indians around the same period of time, reform efforts that still have devastating effects on those communities to this day.)

       At this point, this is pretty rough, but I think it gestures towards a way of thinking through the complexities of biopolitics in a different way... a very initial step, to be sure....

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm: Assemblage, Essence, and Desiring Matter.

This draft was written a number of years ago for a class on travel literature.  I plan to try to get it formally published at some time, but I suspect that it's going to take a level of revision that will transform it into something remarkably different than this draft.

I initially conceived as writing about Deleuze and Guattari’s essay “1227: Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine” in relation to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy as a sort of provocation. There is something incongruous about writing about a set of fantasy novels written for young adults in context of the war machine. The prevocational act can be seen to be implicit in the pop leanings of the entirety of A Thousand Plateaus, and this follows within that trajectory. However the connection is a bit deeper than the desire for some sort of shallow shock appeal. There is a parallel that I find between the work of Pullman and the work of Deleuze and Guattari. That parallel can be found in the lines of force that both works want to both represent (to the extent such a thing is representable) and produce.

The His Dark Materials trilogy comes out of an interesting historical juncture. Coming out of the age of globalization, it finds its primary influence in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in the aftermath of the English Civil War, with clear influences from the radical movements of that era. The trilogy draws from two other sources Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater” and the poetry of William Blake.[1] I want to link this to a certain argument that can be found in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire.[2] “What is revolutionary in this whole series of philosophical developments stretching from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries is that the powers of creation that had previously been consigned exclusively to the heavens are now brought down to earth. This is the discovery of the fullness of the plain of immanence.”[3]

This engagement with the past, in this case, the literature of the past, has a direct correlation with Benjamin’s understanding of history. Benjamin argues that “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”[4] Negri and Hardt point to a whole series of political and philosophical movements that allow the emergence of an understanding of an immanent power. We must understand that this immanent power was captured to produce the state of things today that of the domination of globally integrated capital, but that it wasn’t the only possibility that was possible within that trajectory.

What becomes clear is that this moment of history ‘flashes’ up at precisely at another moment of indeterminacy. As Hardt and Negri are drawn to the political and philosophical works of the period that fed into the Renaissance, Pullman is feeding off the literature that is produced out of that force. Both point to a conceptualization of both history and power that is not in the thrall of the homogenous, empty time of capitalist sovereignty and secularist thought.

This return (which is not purely a return) to a whole set of metaphors and descriptions linked to the figure of God, allows for the creation of a citadel to launch a critique of the current state of things. When we follow the trajectory of Pullman’s stated antecedents (Milton, Kleist and Blake), we can find a certain relationship with the lines of flight that come out of the history of the class struggle. As Benjamin states, “they manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward that sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history.”[5]

We are then offered a redeployment of the literature of the past in order to reconsider the present. This literature explicitly points to the reality of virtuality by positing and exploring a multiplicity of worlds. Instead of a telos that must end in the triumph of capital, we are given an explosive multiplicity of worlds. This reality is an often forbidden knowledge within the societies, either to be suppressed or used for cynical purposes. The conflict between constituent and constituted power is drawn into this expansive map of multiple worlds. One could make a compelling reading of the multiplicity of ways that this explosive power is kept in check by modes of constituted power, but instead I am interested in reading the emphasis that the books put on, which is in the lines of flight. The concept of the ‘war machine’ that Deleuze and Guattari develop in A Thousand Plateaus then becomes an ideal vehicle to explore this.

I am interested in discussing the series in relation to the war machine on three inter-connected themes. The first theme that I want to touch on is that of the mechanism of the war machine. One can make the argument that most of the main social organizations of the book operate on this model; some appropriated by the state, and some not. However, the groups that I am interested in following up on are those that operate on the interstices of society, children, gypsies, and Lord Asriel’s citadel against the kingdom of heaven. From there I want to move into the question of essence. In a sense, this follows up on the question of children. We find the production of an essence as the goal of the children’s war machine. We also get a sense of the problem that is created by a city ruled by children. The last section deals with the question of desiring matter, the rebel angels who are so intent on assaulting the authority. In this, we will be following up on some of the questions brought up by the formation of Lord Asriel’s community and its ambiguities.

As I have earlier posited, the war machine in a multiplicity of ways is the great engine of the narrative of the trilogy. We find war machines flowing throughout the text, from the formations of children, the gypsies, armored bears, etc. These machinic structures act ambiguously in relation to the state apparatus. They cannot be conceived of being innocent of the state apparatus. After all, any number of them are appropriated by the state, the bears, bands of the witches, etc. But even in that act of appropriation, there is an uneasiness in the relationship between the two structures. More significantly, more often than not they act outside of state interests and oppose them. The plot of the books ends in the fusion of these machines against the state under the guise of God, the Father, the Authority.

We open this particular discussion with the war machine that is produced by children. We are initially given a celebratory version of this machine, which we find needs to be problematized later in the book. The particular passage I am interested in looking at shifts the focus of the book from Lyra as an uncomprehending viewer of the politics of adults to the collectivity of children.

Nor was she particularly interested. In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war. Just as she was unaware of the hidden currents of politics running below the surface of College affairs, so the Scholars for their part, would have been unable to see the rich seething stew of alliances and enmities and feuds and treaties which was a child’s life in Oxford. Children playing together: how pleasant to see! What could be more innocent and charming?”[6]

We are already introduced to a pair of important ideas within this paragraph. The book is not operating within the universe of the ‘innocence’ of children. The world of innocence is a cover for a world that is as complex and full of conflict as the world of adults. We are operating in a world in which the drive and desire are in full operation. If anything, these drives are more explosive than their adult counterparts. Simultaneously, we are guided to read the complex operations of children on the level of the political through means of analogy.

At the same time, through the character of Lyra we are give an image of the child as ‘barbarian’ and just as often, as ‘savage.’ We find this explicated in the following passage. The linking of children with the primitive has a long standing if not particularly distinguished history within Western thought. We need to acknowledge this lineage in understanding the passage. At the same time, it seems to be indicating a relationship of children in regards to desire.

“That was Lyra’s world and her delight. She was a coarse and greedy little savage, for the most part. But she always had a dim sense that it wasn’t her whole world; that part of her also belonged in the grandeur and ritual of Jordan College; and that somewhere in her life there was a connection with the high world of politics represented by Lord Asriel. All she did with that knowledge was to give herself airs and lord it over the other urchins. It had never occurred to her to find out more.”[7]

Children are controlled by their desires, barely directing the lines of force that are directed through them. This expressed fairly explicitly through the figure of greed. We find that Lyra engages with the world on the premise of greed, although not exclusively so. She is concerned with translating what she encounters into an immediate instrumental advantage for herself. Hence, her relation with Lord Asriel allows her to take on airs, etc. This arises out of a poor sense and development of the capacities of the subject, as well a lack of understanding of the assemblages that the subject is involved in. We find Lyra in this condition, with only the vaguest sense of the political machinery that she is already involved with. In this sense, we find that the desire of children can easily be brought into the gravitational pull of the state, its instrumentality, etc. We find this expressed best in the later descriptions of the mob of children in Cittagazze, the city of children. This element of the war machine of children will be dealt with later.

But lets return to the passage, which pivots the novel from the politics of adults to the world of children. We find very quickly that the proper expression of this world finds itself in warfare. We have already been told that this is deeply alien to the political structures of adults. That is precisely because we are in a different political arena the politics of the band. This puts it outside of the stratiated logic of state logic, into the smooth space of the war machine. As Deleuze and Guattari note, “That is what bands in general, even those engaged in banditry or high-society life, are metamorphoses of a war machine formally distinct from all State apparatuses or their equivalents, which are instead what structure centralized societies.”

In fact, of course, Lyra and her peers were engaged in deadly warfare. There were several wars running at once. The children (young servants, and the children of servants, and Lyra) of one college waged war on those of another. Lyra had once been captured by the children of Gabriel College, and Roger and their friends Hugh Lovat and Simon Parslow had raided the place to rescue her, creeping through the Precentor’s garden and gathering armfuls of small stone-hard plums to throw at the kidnappers. There were twenty-four colleges, which allowed for endless permutations of alliance and betrayal. But the enmity of the colleges was forgotten in a moment when the town children attacked a colleger: then all the collegers banded together and went into battle against the townies. This rivalry was hundreds of years old, and very deep and satisfying.

But even this was forgotten when the other enemies threatened. One enemy was perennial: the brickburners’ children, who lived by the claybeds and were despised by collegers and townies alike. Last year Lyra and some townies had made a temporary truce and raided the claybeds, pelting the brickburners’ children with lumps of heavy clay and tipping over the soggy castle they’d built, before rolling them over and over in the clinging substance they lived by until the victors and vanquished alike resembled a flock of shrieking golems.”[8]

We are given a description of a war that very much fits in with the descriptions that Deleuze and Guattari enter into in their description of Go. “But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy… In Go, it is a question of arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point: the movement is not from of one point to another: the movement is not from one point to another, but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, without departure or arrival.”[9] Energy explodes in all directions, as all permutations of assemblage are explored. One could imagine the structure of alliances being expressed in the throwing of a large grouping of dice, each throw creating a new structure, based on new alliances and affects as the old ones are eviscerated in the throwing of the dice.

In this act, we are given a vision of stasis that is driven by a sort of perpetual motion, very similar to that of the nomad, who travels without a destination. We find that “their rivalry was hundreds of years old, and very deep and satisfying.” The warfare of children is a great engine that produces very little in the way of effects that lie outside of it, and those effects are the minor inconveniences of adult life, broken limbs, windows, bruises, etc. It can be even argued that the machinery of children stays out of the state precisely because of this reason.[10]

If one were to operate within the stratiated logic of state logic, one could make the argument that nothing happens. After all, territory is not taken, cities are not sacked, and both the victors and the vanquished end up in the same condition, as “a flock of shrieking golems.” The warfare of children of course does not act within the logic of chess. It is not directed towards territorial gains, or the destruction of its nemesis, although those may be constructs within a particular game. But to accept this logic is to accept that war is the essence of the war machine. “The pure Idea is not that of the abstract elimination of the adversary but that of a war machine that does not have war as its object and that only entertains a potential or supplementary synthetic relation with war. Thus the nomad war machine does not appear to us the content adequate to the Idea, the invention of the Idea, with its own objects, space, and composition of the nomos.”[11] If we avoid that assumption, we can see that this machinery is extremely productive of its constitutive elements.

The first thing that this machine produces is a form of societal organization. Perhaps we need to argue that the band or the gang is the proper organization of children. The children when engaging in modes of self organization consistently place themselves in such a structure, whether this is a matter of the day to day life of Jordan College, the city of children, or the research facilities in the north which captured children for their experiments. We find a similar reading of bands of children, and the formation of the band or the gang in general within the work of Deleuze and Guattari. We are given an example of their war machine against the state within their essay “1227: Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine.”

This is easily seen in certain band or pack phenomena. For example, in the case of gangs of street children in Bogota, Jacques Meunier cites three different ways in which the leader is prevented from acquiring stable power: the members of the band meet and undertake their theft activity in common, with collective sharing of the loot, but they disperse to eat or sleep separately; also, and especially, each member of the band is paired off with one, two, or three members, so if he has a disagreement with the leader, he will not leave alone but will take along his allies, whose combined departure will threaten to break up the entire gang; finally there is a diffuse age limit, and at about age fifteen a member is inevitably induced to quit the gang.[12]

This structure of organization is based on a whole series of counterpowers, ranging from the ability to disband the structure to the limitations on who can be a member. In effect, these counterpowers continually put the structure of leadership in jeopardy, and make the leader pay attention to the demands and desires of the membership. If there is a form of servitude voluntaire that is to be found here it is on the part of the leader. He only keeps hold of the position of leadership through forms of prestige that are only held through the understanding and acting upon the desires of the group.

But simultaneously, the object of the war machine is not as Deleuze and Guattari point out so eloquently, war. They are instead directed towards producing something immanently within them, new forms of assemblages. We are of course drawing from the notion of the assemblage produced by Deleuze and Guattari. “Assemblages are passional, they are compositions of desire. Desire has nothing to do with a natural or spontaneous determination; there is no desire but assembling, assembled, desire. The rationality, the efficiency, of an assemblage does not exist without the desires that constitute it as much as it constitutes them.”[13] The assemblage both produces the subjects that are engaged in it, as well as being produced by them. The logic of the assemblage escapes out of the liberal/communitarian binary that has haunted certain forms of political thought.

In the case of the children, the assemblages they produce allow for the exploration and expansion of their capacities, the understanding and development of their passions, etc. We need to avoid placing this within a telos of logic; a developmentalist understanding of the subject that place a natural end of the war machine in the normalization of adults. To be certain, more often than not, this process is directed to the production of good subjects of the system, but its essence doesn’t lie there. Instead, we should find it in the ability to understand and control oneself. To place it within a Spinozist framework, they are developing the capacity for freedom. This is what lies at the essence of the war machine of children.

To avoid reading this through a liberal humanist lens, we need to bring out the ‘transindividualist’ implications contained within the notion of assemblage. This concept is developed by Etienne Balibar in order to think through Spinoza’s concept of the multitude. One could say that both Balibar’s concept of ‘transindividuality’ and the concept of the assemblage both are engaged in an understanding of the multitude, and both try to conceptualize communicability outside of the norms of political thought. What I want to bring out explicitly in Balibar’s concept deals with the relationship of subjects to affects. In their reading of Balibar, Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd argue that “relations of communication of affect [which produce the multitude] between human individuals are here subsidiary to the relations of communication between the affects themselves. In this way affective communication is the very concept of ‘the mass’.[14]

In turn we need to understand social arrangements as organizations of affective power. What in turn is accomplished through the play of children is the possibility of creation of these networks, precisely through modes of experimentation with them. One learns how to produce social networks precisely by building social networks. But this is not possible within the limits of coagulated power. Instead we see this formation only possible outside of it. The danger implicit within this project is what causes the agent, par excellence, and the church to come up with ways of disconnecting children from networks of desire. How to remove the capacity of the dust (a manifestation of desire which will be discussed later) to infect the play of children?

To understand what are the full implications of this essence, one can look at what happens with the stoppage of this development. The becoming of childhood is a transitional event, a ‘going under’ to produce something else. So what does it mean to be trapped in that state? This theme is explored in ‘A Children’s World’, the city of Cittegazze, where adults have been driven out of the city and children are left to their own to organize it. The mechanism that keeps this state going are the entities called the specters of indifference, who feed of the substance of the adults of the city. In effect, as the children reach maturity, they are either culled by the spectors or are driven away. The seeming stasis of children in turn becomes a real stasis, as that the conatus or drive of the children is taken away.

The initial comment on the ‘savagery’ or the lack of control over the passions takes on new implications within this situation. We find a society that is driven by superstition and fear, and a society that is ripe for the appropriation of the state apparatus in this situation. This is pushed forwards in the initial conflict between Lyra and Will between the children of the city. They come across the following scene.

Twenty or so children were facing inward in a semicircle at the base of the tower, and some of them had sticks in their hands, and some were throwing stones at whatever they had trapped against the wall. At first Lyra thought it was another child, but coming from inside the semicircle was a horrible high wailing that wasn’t human at all. And all the children were screaming too, in fear as well as hatred.[15]

We find the war machine redirected because the possibility of being anything but a child no longer exists. The circularity of the movement of children becomes literalized, and there is no longer any movement whatsoever. In this language so linked with the fear of the mob, we find ourselves in the space of entrapment. The children are trapped, and in turn, they reenact this entrapment. The scream of the cat, which is to become the sacrificial representation of this entrapment, blurs with the scream of the children. We are given a more explicit example of this deindividualization in a later conflict between Lyra and Will and the children of Ci’gazze. “They weren’t individual children: they were a single mass, like a tide. They surged below him and leaped up in fury, snatching, screaming, spitting, but they couldn’t reach.”[16] We are given another mode of interiorization in this instant. Fear and superstition become a crude form of constituted power that produces and interiorizes a specific body by the act of symbolic exclusion.[17]

But we are pushed farther in this recognition. Up until now we have been given a very privileged gaze on the life of children. One can argue that the possibility of this formation is immanent within children, it can always erupt in the right conditions. This is indicated through a brief conversation between Will and Lyra.

    “They were just crazy,” Lyra said. “They would have killed her. I never have seen kids being like that.”
     “I have,” said will.
     But his face was closed; he didn’t want to talk about it, and she knew better to ask. She knew she wouldn’t even ask the alethiometer.[18]

Will becomes an interesting counterweight to the experiences of Lyra in being an assemblage of children. He has already experienced the sense of exclusion and assault that is created through a sense of otherness. In the need to defend his mother, Will has been left out of the social patterns of children, their play, bonding, etc. He later explains that he could not let anyone see the condition that his mother was in, or the condition of the household. This puts him in the place of the cat, the fetishized object of superstitional fear. In turn, he had to defend himself against its exclusions.

Enough of this. Perhaps we need to move outside of the example of children to understand this directional nature of an assemblage. We are given more than one example of a war machine in the books, after all. The war machine of the gypsies is also directed towards other goals than war itself in its essence. The gypsies operate on the frontiers of the society, migrating cyclically along the river, and this has made them a prime target for the child snatchers of the General Oblation Board. In response, they turn their mobility into a war party. They collect money and supplies from all the families in order to facilitate this goal. In the meetings organized in order to discuss the mission of the war party, one of the mothers asks about punishment of the ‘gobblers’. The response says something significant about the goals of the party and the formation of the war machine in general.

“Nothing will hold my hand, Margaret, save only judgement. If I stay my hand in the North, it will only be to strike the harder in the South. To strike a day too soon is as bad as striking a hundred miles off. To be sure, there’s a warm passion behind what you say. But if you give in to that passion, friends, you’re doing what I have always warned you agin: you’re a placing the satisfaction of your own feelings above the work you have to do. Our work here is first rescue, then punishment. It en’t gratification for upset feelings. Our feelings don’t matter. If we rescue the kids but we can’t punish the Gobblers, we’ve done the main task. But if we aim to punish the Gobblers first and by doing so lose the chance of rescuing the kids, we’ve failed.[19]

We find the goal of the war machine lies in the restoration of the fullness of community, and that if it is distracted from that goal, then it has been a failure. We find that their goal is something other than the destruction of the enemy, which may occur as a supplement, but is not the essence of the mission. The essence of the mission lies in the renewal of both the community of gypsies, and the other communities that had their children stolen from them. This falls in line with something commented in the end of the ‘Treatise on Nomadology’, Deleuze and Guattari note, “if guerilla warfare, minority warfare, revolutionary and popular war are in conformity with the essence, it is because they take war as an object all the more necessary for being merely “supplementary”: they can make war only on the condition that they simultaneously create something else, if only nonorganic social relations.”[20]

The war party of the gypsies then becomes a counterattack against the incorporation of part of them, their children, into a sovereign structure. This becomes part of a longer struggle for the gypsies, as they attempt to continue in their nomadic ways. The theft of children is contiguous with a state that is continually trying to pen them in, take away the right to the commons of the waterway, and incorporate them into the sedentary nature of state society. In turn the gypsies fight to remain on the borders of the state, neither in nor out of them, in a state of indistinction.

In thinking about this struggle to remain in the interstices, I want to circle around and play with around with the demarcation of the word ‘savage.’ We have already been introduced to the word in a troublesome connection with childhood, and slavery to the passions, but we need to relate the ‘barbarian’, the ‘savage’ (the words are use interchangeably) to a certain exteriority. We need to relate this to the other examples we are given of the war machine, the gypsies, the bears, witches, Lord Asriel’s ‘republic of heaven’. All of these machines are defined by the same exteriority in relation to the state. They are at times appropriated by the state, and arrayed in battle against one another by the state, but their essence lies outside of it.

The one formation that we have not discussed as of yet is the war machine that Lord Asriel puts together in order to fight the Authority. This community, which is far more ambiguous, acts as a sort of fusion of the rest of these communities that operate on the frontiers of the state, or in its acts of exclusion. Lord Asriel’s war machine is a fusion of war machines, all of which are built upon something deeply alien to Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, the contradictions of their given societies. To grasp this we must turn elsewhere, to the notions that Louis Althusser brings to Marxism.[21] Althusser argues for an overdetermined understanding of the production of a revolutionary rupture. “If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense…, they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime in which it ruling classes are unable to defend.”[22]

Lord Asriel’s project is directed towards pushing constituted power to the point of crisis, and to organize forces to accomplish this. We cannot fully understand the actions of the machine produced by Asriel within Deleuze and Guattari’s terms. He is operating within the world of crisis and contradiction. This makes him a very ambiguous figure in the book, for if he is the one who is willing to create the conditions to confront the authority, the means he uses to do so are frequently ghastly. Still in order to accomplish this, he organizes the formation of the war machine par excellence. We find this description of the citadel he organizes.

And on the rim of the world, where the light was increasing moment by moment, a great mountain range reared at its peaks—jagged spears of black rock, mighty broken slabs, and sawtooth ridges piled in confusion like the wreckage of a universal catastrophe. But on the highest point, which as she looked was touched by the first rays of the morning sun and outlined in brilliance, stood a regular structure: a huge fortress whose battlements were formed of single slabs of basalt half a hill in height, and whose extent was to be measured in flying time.

Beneath this colossal fortress, fires glared and furnaces smoked in the darkness of early dawn and from many miles away Ruta Skadi heard the clang of hammers and the pounding of great mills. And from every direction, she could see more flights of angels winging toward it, and not only angels, but machines too: steel-winged craft gliding like albatrosses, glass cabins under flickering dragonfly wings, droning zeppelins like bumblebees—all making for the fortress that Lord Asriel was building on the mountain at the edge of the world.”[23]

We are brought to all of the elements that fascinate Deleuze and Guattari. The war machine that is constructed by Lord Asriel is linked directed with the notion of metallurgy. The fortress is consumed with the production of weapons, through its mills and its smiths. These subversive and nomadic knowledges are brought together and fused into a new formation. They are transformed into “the shared line of flight of the weapon and the tool: a pure possibility, a mutation. There arise subterranean, aerial, submarine technicians who belong more or less to the world order, but who involuntarily invent and amass virtual charges of knowledge and action that are usable by others, minute but easily acquired for new assemblages.”[24]

We need to make a pivot within our discussion from the question of the war machine, to the question of essence. Obviously, this question of essence has a disastrous history, linked with both a philosophical lineage of Platonism and with the racist and colonialist lineages of Western thought. However I want to use it in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari use it. Brian Massumi makes the following reading of their usage; “The word “essence” should not taken in any Platonic sense. The essence is always of an encounter; it is an event; it is neither stable nor transcendental nor eternal; it is immanent to the dynamic process it expresses and has only an abyssal present infinitely fractured into past and future.”[25] The essence is produced through an engagement of the world, and is immanent to that engagement. Although we will find that there is a degree of parting between Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of this and the concept contained in the books, both are based in this notion of becoming.

To read essence within the act of becoming, it seems valuable to return to the roots of Deleuze’s thought, that is to Spinoza, and more precisely, the Ethics. We find essence connected to the notion of the conatus, which is defined in the third book of the ethics in Proposition 6 and Proposition 7 as, “Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persevere in its being.”[26] We find as essential definition for existence in Spinoza, the attempt to persist in it being. This applies to all of existence; a rock or a bookshelf has this drive as well as living things. This is not the essence of the modes, which are not permanent. The conatus is the essence only for substance, for god, which is eternal. Instead, for the modes, essence is linked to the conatus in another manner. “The endeavor by which each thing endeavors to persevere in its being is nothing other than the actual essence of the thing.”[27] Essence is the way, the expression of the mode’s attempt to continue in being.

As we move into a discussion of the novels, it also should be noted, that it doesn’t literally find its use in the novels. Instead we are introduced to the notion of essence in humans through the concept of the daemon, although we will find this conatus in other forms such as the armor of the bear, and in hidden forms in other worlds.

      “Why do daemons have to settle?” Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he.”
      “Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him.”
      “I never will!”
      “Oh, you will. You’ll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.”
     “What are they?”
     “Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She’s a seagull, and that means I’m a kind of seagull too. I’m not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.”
    “But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
    “Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.
     But it didn’t feel to Lyra that she would ever grow up.”[28]

We have already been introduced the notion that the conatus of the child is becoming adult. This concept is then linked to the figure of the daemon. The daemon is able to take a multiplicity of forms when a subject is a child, but maturity brings it into one definitive shape. The society that Lyra lives in is a highly stratified one, so the forms that these shapes take are similarly highly regulated. One is given a whole series of examples of this; for instance servants’ daemons usually take the form of dogs. In this sense, the figure of the daemon acts to represent the essence in the manner that subject ‘endeavors to persevere in its being’ via the mode of employment that the subject is involved in.

There is nothing particularly naturalized about the creation of this essence, save for the fact that the notions of class that are naturalized within the society. We are in fact pointed to the fact that people frequently feel dissatisfied with their daemon. This notion of essence is somewhat discordant with Deleuze and Guattari’s, that we have seen is one that is formed in the ‘event’. Instead, the formation of essence retains a sense of coagulation that moves beyond this sense of the event. In this sense, the concept of essence within the book takes on a much more historically determined coarse then in Deleuze and Guattari. Perhaps the best way of phrasing this is that the essence of the daemon is much more willing to reflect the overdetermining and frequently unpleasant elements of history that Deleuze and Guattari are trying to escape.

But the matter of contingency in the form of the essence cannot only be found in children, nor can it be reduced to some form of developmentalism. Perhaps another example can be used to understand the moment of contingency in the formation of an essence. In order to do this; I would like to move our discussion from children to the community of armored bears that are one of the war machines. The conflict can be stated in the following manner. The bears had been living in a nomadic fashion, acting as a form of mercenary war machine for some time. However under the influence of Mrs. Coultier, the bear Iofur Raknison took over the leadership of the community through trickery and began to move it in the direction of producing a human-like community. He wanted the essence of the bear to be reflected in another manner, through a human-like daemon rather than through armor which was the traditional form of reflecting a bear’s essence.

In turn, Iofur begins to transform the ways that bears interact with each other. Introducing the accoutrements of feudal power, in its modes of expressing power, with its tapestries, universities, thrones, etc. Within this transformation, we find the bears at moment of contingency. Neither have the bears transformed into colonized subjects, that is to say into junior forms of humans, nor can they properly speaking, precisely go back to what they were before. Within this moment, Lyra manages to trick Iofur into fighting Iorek for the leadership of the bears. We find a very good description of the implications of this.

“And she was aware that all the other bears were making the comparison too. But Iorek and Iofur were more than just two bears. There were two kinds of beardom opposed here, two futures, two destinies. Iofur had begun to take them in one direction, and Iorek would take them in another, and in the same moment, one future would close forever as the other began to unfold.”[29]

The two bears represented two different ways to react to the interaction with the human community, one that was defined by independence and a linkage with a certain tradition, and the other, which would have put itself in the tutelage of the human community. And yet, neither choice can be read as not being impacted by the engagement with that human community. Iorek in no way stands a pillar of a timeless essence of ‘beardom’ untouched by the human community. He himself had lived and had been tricked by the human community, and he eventually wins his kingdom back precisely through a group of forms of trickery. There are times that he begins to doubt his own goals at times, but the strategies that he puts into place pushes the community of bears into a new direction.

We are then confronted with an conceptualization of essence that while it is not as contingent as what Deleuze and Guattari are theorizing, still is produced within certain contingent frameworks, and is in no sense immutable. If the structure were immutable, after all, there would be no need for the battle; bears would have the same nature throughout time. At the same time, the confrontation closes the door on one alternative, and places the other into a hegemonic position. It is a sense of essence that coagulates out of political struggle, an concept that is neither ephemeral nor essential, rather one that comes out of the force of accumulation and the history of the subject or subjects.

If we have dealt with the issue of essence, “the endeavor by which each thing endeavors to persevere in its being is nothing other than the actual essence of the thing” as Spinoza puts it, we need to deal with the question of substance, that which finds its essence within the persistence of being. We find this figure represented within the figure of the Dust, or the figure of the angels, and I want to place under the category of desiring matter. We see this very eloquently expressed in the books. “Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and the Dust is formed.”[30] We will explore the trajectory that this desiring matter takes within the conflict between constituting and constituted power. We will find that desiring matter is not an originary state, but rather a pole in a struggle in the very direction of the constitution of things.

Before we enter into that discussion, it would perhaps behoove us to discuss the question of representation briefly. After all, one could very reasonably ask the question, how could one represent the unrepresentable? The text itself points us to this fact at a number of points as well. Within the stories of the origins of the mulefa, we are reminded that these are fables, pointing towards modes of transformation. The most significant occurs when the witch Rita Skadi comes into contact with the angels. We are both given a description of what she sees, and the inadequacy of it, from the limitations of her understanding.

“Rita Skadi was four hundred and sixteen years old, with all the pride and knowledge of an adult witch queen. She was wiser by far than any short-lived human, but she had not the slightest idea of how like a child she seemed beside these ancient beings. Nor did she know how far their awareness spread out beyond her like filamentary tentacles to the remotest corners of the universes she had never dreamed of; nor that she saw them as human-formed only because her eyes expected to. If she were to perceive their true form, they would seem more like architecture than organism, like huge structures composed of intelligence and feeling.”[31]

Representation becomes a way of comprehending something that is outside of the possibility of comprehension. While the nature of this power is unrepresentable, it must be placed within this structure of representation in order to allow it to operate within the logic of the narrative, otherwise it would fall into the traps of a certain secularist understanding of power and time. At the same time, we are constantly reminded of this connivance of the narrative, its artificiality and its inadequacy.

So lets follow the narrative of this fable of desiring matter, of constituent power. As I noted before, we need to understand that this constituent power acts as a sort of counterpower, that it has never acted alone in an originary capacity. We are pointed to this in a description of the conflict.

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”[32]

We are given a sense of one pole of the battle, which are linked to a certain project of the enlightenment. The project of “human freedom” is linked intimately with the acquisition of “every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency.” These traits are linked with the increased capacity of the human subject. We can read this within the terms that Deleuze and Guattari operate within, one side that is constantly drawing lines of flight to create new capacities, and one side that is dedicated to the apparatuses of capture to control them. At the same time we find another element in this struggle that links up with Deleuze and Guattari, that is in the matter of origins. They argue against Clastres that one cannot conceive of a time without the state as part of a conflictual structure.

We are compelled to say that there has always been a State, quite perfect, quite complete. The more discoveries archaeologists make, the more empires they uncover. The hypothesis of the Urstaat seems to be verified: “The State clearly dates back to the most remote ages of humanity.” It is hard to imagine primitive societies that would not have been in contact with Imperial States, at the periphery or in poorly controlled areas.[33]

We cannot conceive of a Rousseauean state of nature within this structure. Human history is constituted by these two poles. The State does not constitute a fall from grace, but something that has always defined this conflict. But this history has more specificity that we can find further within the narrative, something beyond a variation on Marx and Engels’ statement at the beginning of the manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” We are given a history, a narration of the conflict, the struggle later in the story from one of the angels, the dust. This narration no longer operates from the perspective of man, but from the lines of force that go through them.

Balthamos said quietly, “The Authority, God the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself. He was never truly the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and the Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of the Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her. We serve her still. And the Authority still reigns in the Kingdom, and Metatron is his Regent.[34]

The figure of dust is immediately linked with two important attributes, which can be linked to matter and self-knowledge. As the angel notes in the passage above, “dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and the Dust is formed.” We find contained within this formulation, a desire and a drive, and through this we are pointed to a wide and expansive constituent power, one that links matter and spirit. At the same time, this is precisely what produces its opposition in a form of constituted power.

The contestation that comes out of this formula is more than global; it crosses a multiplicity of dimensions. The primary form of contestation has taken place within human evolution and the evolution of other sentient subjects. The dust, or rebel angels, intervened within this evolution to introduce their form of desire into the community. Within Christian mythology, this takes the form of the snake. This act was taken as a form of counterattack, a form of vengeance. We find human desire to be a form of weapon thrown at the form of constituted power.

One recalls the analysis and detail that Deleuze and Guattari give to the creation of weapons within their text. They are interested in responding to and critiquing a particular productivist trope within Marxist thinking. They look to the form of the weapon rather than the tool as the most important form within this desiring economy.

As a first approximation, weapons have a privileged relation with projection. Anything that throws or is thrown is fundamentally a weapon, and propulsion is its essential moment. The weapon is ballistic; the very notion of the “problem” is related to the war machine. The more mechanisms of projection a tool has, the more it behaves like a weapon, potentially or simply metaphorically. In addition, tools are constantly compensating for the projective mechanisms they possess; or else they adapt them to other ends. It is true that missile weapons, in the strict sense, are only one kind among others; but even handheld weapons require a usage of the hand and arm different from that required by tools, a projective usage exemplified in the martial arts. The tool, on the other hand, is much more introceptive, introjective: it prepares a matter from a distance, in order to bring it to a state of equilibrium or to appropriate it for a form of interiority. Action at a distance exists in both cases, but in one case it is centrifugal and in the other, centripetal. One could also say that the tool encounters resistances, to be conquered or put to use, while the weapon has to do with counterattack, to be avoided or invented (the counterattack is in fact the precipitating and inventive factor in the war machine, to the extent that it is not simply reducible to a quantitative rivalry or defensive parade).[35]

The weapon is thrown out into the world as a form of direct engagement with it. It is directly linked in with the figure of desire, with the affects. By doing this, it is linked with movement and the transversal of space rather than mediation. It is not designed to bring things into a state of equilibrium, but create a situation of explosive motion. For Deleuze and Guattari, the revolutionary moment doesn’t occur when workers act as such, but when they reformulate themselves in the form of the war machine, when they turn their tools into weapons.

In that case, it would be easy to read that in conjunction of the creation of the subtle knife, the knife that can cut through dimensions, but for the angels, it is clear that the weapon that they have hurled is Lyra, who is to reenact the role of Eve. They transform the tools that they work with, that is to say, with the understanding of matter and desire, and hurl it outward into the universe. In the end, it is not the knife that destroys the authority, but Lyra, who we are reminded by Lord Asriel repeatedly, is quite ordinary. It is not out of transcendent figures that the revolutionary assemblage is made out of, but out of our ordinary desires.

One interesting note to make about the end of the book is despite the apocalypse that is wrought; there is surprisingly little transformation on the level of the political. We have after all, witnessed the death of God, and the destruction of his structure of authority. One sees the return of liberal forces after the encroachment of the forces of reaction. I think that socialist science fiction writer China Mieville’s disappointment in the book can be largely found in this fact. Perhaps, we need to follow in Giorgio Agamben’s argument in The Coming Community, when he quotes from Benjamin’s version of a parable “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”[36]

But to be frank, there is something unacceptable in such quietus. Let’s turn to the political community that is formed in this battle. What does it mean that Lord Asriel’s concept of ‘the republic of heaven’ cannot work? Ultimately I want to argue that this is the most ambivalent moments of the books, one that is tied into the notion of essence that is developed in the form off the daemon. There is an initial disappointment in the declaration that the republic of heaven must be created at home. After all, the social structure that Asriel brings together fits surprisingly well with the globalizing world that we are living in today. It produces an assemblage that is based in multiplicity. One feels that the formulation of a ‘republic of heaven” that is to be found at home is a bit parochial in its formulation. It does not deal with the multiplicity that already exists.

At the same time, the community that Lord Asriel produces is steeped in the language of transcendence. Asriel is a figure that could come out of the pages of Percy Shelley’s epic poetry or could fill the role of Milton’s Satan. Revolutionary desire is tied to the figure of the great man, inaccessible and discreet. By critiquing this, we are also pointed to the possibilities of revolutionary desire that can be found in everyday life. After all, the most significant figures we are given in this description are the formations of children and of the gypsies. The weapon, par excellence, is not the subtle knife, a dubious product of mercantile capital, but the ordinary structures of desire and understanding of the world.

In the end, this duality between a parochial localism and a transcendent understanding of the globalism may be the horizon of the book. To move beyond it, we must conceive of both structures as constructed and immanent. This notion pushes against the notions of representation that the book is clearly struggling with. Perhaps we should read it in another way, as a limit figure that must be crossed in the transformation of the world.

[1] See Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 521.
[2] Although a more thorough explication of this argument can be found in Antonio Negri’s book, Insurgencies.
[3] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 73.
[4] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 255
[5] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt and trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 255
[6] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Del Rey Books, 1995), 31-32.
[7] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Del Rey Books, 1995), 33
[8] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Del Rey Books, 1995), 32-33.
[9] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 353.
[10] It is also worth noting that the children described in this scenario are not the recipients of any sort of formal education, as that they are the children of servants. Lyra herself is only educated sporadically, taken up temporarily by a scholar here and there only to be dropped. One presumes that they exist within the institution of the family, but this aspect of children’s life is never given to us. The books only give us children in their modes of self-organization, or in their capture by the agents of the General Oblation Board.
[11] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 420
[12] Ibid., 358.
[13] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 399.
[14] Moira Gatens and Gnevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 1999), 66
[15] Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Del Rey, 1997), 96.
[16] Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Del Rey, 1997), 204
[17] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993).
[18] Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Del Rey, 1997), 98.
[19] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Del Rey Books, 1995), 122.
[20] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 423
[21] I also think that the figure of Lord Asriel could also be read in the context of much of what Louis Althusser says in his small book on Machiavelli.
[22] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1996), 99.
[23] Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Del Rey, 1997), 126-7
[24] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 403
[25] Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press, 1992), 18.
[26] Spinoza, Ethics, ed. and trans. G.H.R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 171
[27] Spinoza, Ethics, ed. and trans. G.H.R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 171
[28] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Del Rey Books, 1995), 146,147
[29] Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Del Rey Books, 1995), 307
[30] Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 32
[31] Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Del Rey, 1997),, 124, 125
[32] Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Del Rey, 1997), 283
[33] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 360
[34] Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 32
[35] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ed. and trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 395
[36] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 53.