Friday, June 3, 2016

On Eggs and Political Violence

The most commonly cited aspect of Weber’s definition of the state is that it possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The accent of the phrase falls on “legitimate.” Obviously, private individuals continue to use physical force in various ways; the point is that such force lacks legitimacy. To use force without the authorization of the state is criminal.

But Weber doesn’t talk about the legitimate use of force as something simply and once-and-for-all secured to the state. He writes, rather, of “The claim of the modern state to monopolize the use of force”—a phrasing that introjects a lot more uncertainty into the issue. A claim is just a claim; it is as good as one’s ability to enforce it. He elsewhere writes that the state “lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory.” Here, the tense of claims making is open, iterative; the state is only a state to the extent that it continuously lays claim to this monopoly. It lays claim to this monopolized violence by enacting its violence.

There’s an important flipside to all of this, though: the state’s claim to the monopoly of legitimate violence functions through an expropriation of violence from non-state actors. It is as a result of this expropriation that violence becomes riven by a binary—legitimate and illegitimate—that did not preexist this process. The idea that non-state actors might commit political violence becomes almost a contradiction in terms; only the polity, as the state, can legitimately commit such violence. Only the state can have its violence modified by the adjective “political.” Moreover, this process of expropriation is just as iterative and ongoing as the state’s constant claim to its monopoly. The hyper-violent state operates by depriving its subjects of their capacity for political violence. It works to render such a capacity for violence unthinkable.

The state’s ongoing expropriation of subjects’ capacity for political violence: this process is important to keep in mind when we consider the “violence” that occurred at the Trump rally in San Jose. The line taken by liberals has been predictable. Jamelle Bouie, for instance, tweeted, “Nothing good comes from political violence, period.” Obviously, the claim is falsifiable by many, many historical examples. Not so obviously, the violence complained of here is less the use of physical objects or fist fighting and more the plebian violation of the administered normal. It’s basically a deontological argument masked as a consequentialist one.

I’m more interested in a line I’ve heard from people on the left. It goes something like this: Violence like this is probably inefficacious. Yet, if you insist on the possibility of using some form of physical violence as necessary for antifascist political work, your level of violence is laughably inadequate to the threat you claim to be responding to. The implication of such a line is that a) the object we’re attacking isn’t actually fascism, or we would be attacking with greater vehemence, b) most of the political violence we’ve seen (regardless of whether it should be called violence) amounts to enactments of manarchist fantasies detached from concrete political realities and c) stop doing this shit.

It’s pretty interesting, really. I think we have broad swaths of the U.S. left that are not normatively anti-violence but who also would be reluctant to accept that any single instance of political violence—a smashed window, a thrown egg—has any positive effect. From this perspective, the proof of the pudding comes in the scalable effects of any single instance of political violence: a thrown egg didn’t defeat fascism, so throwing the egg was at best an ineffectual gesture. A smashed window didn’t end capitalism. The point always boils down to the obvious: we are not at a revolutionary conjuncture in which such acts might turn into anything. (The implication for many is that we never will be.)

This is why turning to Weber, and his narrative of the state’s ongoing expropriation of political violence from ordinary people, is important. Very simply, we’ve been made dumb about violence. Over the past century, the massive expansion of what counts as “violence”— in the liberal, Chris Hedges, finger-wagging sense—is staggering. The definition of violence is itself a very important political weapon: such definitions encode and reproduce the value-relations of our world. Liberals clutch pearls over smashed glass; the enforced displacement of humans called gentrification, not so much. More to my point, the expansion of the term’s ambit inversely correlates to its expropriation from the political repertoire of ordinary, non-state actors. A large part of this expropriation of violence has been bound up with the material recomposition of classes and the state through the twentieth century. The unions have been gutted that could (and did) more or less wage small wars against state-backed companies; meanwhile, police forces have been augmented in all the ways we know about. A significant part of this expropriation of violence also registers at the level of ideology and the formation of a collective corporeal habitus. We’ve been trained to feel like our bodies, and our modes of extending them, cannot have effects on the political and economic structures that require dismantling. Fascism, after all, didn’t vanish with that thrown egg.


Consequentialist approaches to small acts of political violence—if violence is even the proper term—are complicit with the state’s expropriation of violence to the extent that they induce a feeling that our bodies are always already incapacitated to impact the political, to violate its administered normal. The idea that political violence only makes sense in conditions of a full-blown revolutionary conjuncture obfuscates the fact that re-appropriating political violence from the state is a necessary condition for anything like a revolution to occur. This process of re-appropriation takes time, and is intimately bound up with the revolutionary process. These small acts are moments of collective self-pedagogy where subjects learn, slowly and haltingly but truly, what our bodies can do, and what they can do without the state-form. They are an organic part of the process of communizing the monopolized violence of the state and its racist-fascoid fanboys.

Fascism didn't vanish with that thrown egg, but it will never have vanished if it hadn't been thrown.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thoughts and Prayers and the Terror of Politics

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ orders?”

I always think about the first line of Rilke’s first elegy when I think about what comes first in poetic address because it stages the primal fact of any address: It is probable that no one is listening, that no one can hear what you would want heard. All lyric address begins in the phatic mode, as a query, “Hey! Hey?” But—and this is second originary fact of lyric address—the poem must proceed as if no one is in fact listening, as if no one is there, as if the addressee won’t and can’t respond. The non-response of the one whom the speaker wishes to respond opens the space of the poem; it creates the realm of privacy in which the speaker encounters subjectivity as deprivation. This deprivation isn’t sad, though. Or, if it is, sadness is not the worst one risks experiencing by opening one’s mouth and shouting to the angels. There’s something worse—and that is, precisely, to have been heard, to have been made intimate to the one whom one addresses. What if the angels heard Rilke’s speaker, and responded? Terror would follow, he claims:

“…and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”

Lyric is the condition of where the negation of a desire precedes its articulation, where not wanting to be heard incites one’s very act of address.

I’ve been thinking about these lines of Rilke since I encountered liberal-oriented critiques of people—presidential candidates, sure, but ordinary folks too—who responded to the San Bernardino shooting by tweeting out their “thoughts and prayers.” Now is not the time for prayers, the commentary goes; prayer does nothing. What we need is real action, or at least a commitment to real action. Not this supernatural nonsense whose sole purpose is to assuage the troubled consciences of a Christian Right whose love of guns prevents real action from being taken. And on. And on. It’s even got a couple of hashtags: #thoughtsandprayers and #ThoughtsAndPrayersAreNotEnough.

What immediately struck me about this prayer-trolling is the functional indistinction between prayers to an absent god and randomly shouting shit on a Twitter hashtag. Unless you are @’ing a bud bound to respond, almost any tweet you write is necessarily oriented toward a non-present superaddressee, toward the possibility that someone might be listening even when there is no empirical proof that anyone in fact is. Both prayer and social media participate in the lyric structure of address that Rilke limns when he begins by asking if anyone is listening at all.

Prayer bares the device of any social media platform that desires political efficacy. We want to imagine social media as a new instrument in the repertoire of participatory democracy, as a new means for establishing broad consent and pressuring state officials to norm their actions with out represented desires. Our secular liberals would probably be okay if our prayerful tweeters simply shifted addressees and made demands upon Obama instead of supplicating God. But such a shift in addressee would not shift the structure of address. Neither God nor the state is listening; neither will respond. Even if a response arrives, there is no secure connection between public representation of its desires and state action, no conduit that converts that force of the former into a force that acts upon the latter. Any connection between what we say to the state and what the state does is the effect of a miraculous, magical causality. To engage in or with the public is always to be praying.

On one side, then, the theological mystifiers; on the other, the humanist demystifiers. God and the State. What links these two positions is their profound incapacity to think action beyond making representations to a superaddressee. Instead of thinking about concrete modes in which we might act to de-pathologize the social, we call upon a transcendent being who will never adequately respond to #DoSomething. Anything! Just give us a sign that you’re real, Obama.

But what if the state listens? When if angels hear our cries and act? Every angel is terrifying, Rilke warns, and sometimes to be heard is to be complicit in one’s own annihilation. What Rilke describes as an aesthetic terror might, in the realm of the political, name an experience of what the state does once it responds to our prayer that it do something, anything. Once it holds us close and tell us, yes, it will #DoSomething for us. The angelic terror of having-been-heard echoes through Iraq, through Afghanistan, through every drone strike, through the sighs or cries of every person subjected to hours of intensified searching at borders, through the affectless data plucked by the NSA and the rest. We wanted the state to do something; it did. Great job. It might be safer to make no demands, to simply pray, when every act by which the state commits itself to doing something becomes an alibi for doing something worse.  


Today’s politics of terror are founded by a terror of politics. We pray for angels to act, even if in acting angels become demons, because action for us and by us, undertaken in our own name, is more or less unthinkable. The scale of action, the complexity of problems, the simple fact of power differentials…these are indeed big problems. Huge. And they require a lot of tactical and strategic thinking, and this always normed by political practice. True political terror today comes from knowing that to-hand formations of the political cannot help us, while also knowing that there are no to-hand ways by which we might help ourselves. Anarchism begins with the terrifying knowledge that there’s no transcendent structure, God or State, who might help us, and with the equally terrifying knowledge that any such structure will be worse than none at all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The School as Prison (no pipeline required)

Friends, a proposal: Let's stop using the phrase "school-to-prison pipeline." It's misleading.

When going to school looks not a little like being in a prison, we're no longer talking about a subject's itinerary through discrete times and spaces—the narrative geography wherein a student, routed through a school that can only fail her, finds herself pushed into juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. The rigidity of disciplinarity in the post-public public school system intimates the tendential identity of the prison-function and the school-function. When a teacher calls an administrator who calls a cop who then brutalizes a student for failing to move from her seat when ordered, neither students nor observers need schooling in Althusser or Foucault to see the school operating as a prison.  

All the same, school and prison’s tendency toward an identity of function can be hard to see. First, it is only emergent, a tendency, a possible future that nonetheless enacts itself in the present and points us toward what is in the process of becoming. To read this process of becoming is not the same as declaring an accomplished identity. Indeed, to say today “the school is a prison” is also to compute with the fact that it also is not a prison, not really, not yet. In describing a tendential identity, then, one always risks a kind of overdramatization, the inflation of an instance into a sign of things to come.  

Second, this emergent identity is masked by the entrenched persistence of signifiers—and not a little sentiment, too. We continue to call “schools” institutions that are functionally indifferent to the task of fostering the creative, intellectual, and affective capacities of those whom we continue to call “students.” We continue to call “teachers” those people whose skills and good intentions are perverted by an apparatus and a world that doesn’t care about anyone’s intentions. And these signifiers are so sticky because they are so affectively saturated. We all have a favorite teacher, and few of us are prepared to acknowledge that we were bonding to someone who unwittingly substitutes for a cop. And then plenty of folks on the left are wary of critiquing school and schooling today for fear of sounding like a Milton Friedman acolyte. Let’s just remember that it is utterly possible for two opposed political orientations to have a critique of a shared object; that doesn’t mean they have a shared critique. One can mark the tendential identity of schools and prisons and (as I do) still support teachers unions—if only to block and roll back the recoding of schools by the police function.

The idea of the school-to-prison pipeline gets around these barriers through dissociation. The to situates the students in a cartography of linked but discrete spaces, which enables us to cognitively and affectively sunder school from prison. The case of the phrase is accusative, but the critical disposition and political fantasy it sustains is in the ablative. And so it becomes harder to see the prison in the school. 

My recourse to grammar might seem pedantic, but it’s not. Slogans are the residues of past struggles and the seeds of new ones. They travel so well because they are so economic in their language. And they are so powerful because they teach so quickly. (Try to recall the first time you heard the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline.” I actually can’t, because I can’t imagine not knowing it, the way it let me rethink the institutional fabric of the world. That’s powerful teaching, and all in just four words.) In a movement phrase, every word counts, every word is made out of and remakes a movement’s orientation toward the world.  

I wouldn’t dream of trying to coin a new slogan, but we need a different vocabulary—one that, in terms of grammar, opts for the conjunction over the preposition. Where the preposition posits discrete time-spaces, the logic of the conjunction allows us to see the overlapping but non-identical functioning of these two institutions and their rationalities. Non-identity matters: after all, the teacher called an administrator who called a cop; the teacher and administrator could not beat the student on their own authority. What that moment revealed was neither a school-to-prison pipeline nor the achieved identity of the two. Rather, that moment displayed school and prison operating in the same time-space as an articulated assemblage. Cop and teacher, hand in hand.

It also revealed, I think, the way that Spring Valley High School is situated in a broader social terrain where school functions as a prison—that is, where the labor of human cultivation is subordinated to simple and authoritarian order maintenance. In the school-as-prison, the aim and activity of pedagogy is repurposed to conform to the aims of the police. To be sure, schools have always worked to produce orderly subjects, but such ordered subjectivities were produced through the pedagogical process itself. (Just think of everything implied in the act of raising one’s hand.) Now, police are taking over the application of discipline in schools, and teachers and legislators are handing it over to them. Niya Kenny, the student who filmed the event, was arrested for “disturbing school,” an honest to Jesus law that legislators recently attempted to amend to increase fines from one to two thousand dollars and jail time from ninety days to one year. (Thanks to Ed Kazarian for sharing the “disturbing school” link.) This handoff in disciplinarity marks less a differentiation of function between cops and teachers and more a willed subordination of pedagogical space to the police. Think about this absurdity: a student refusing to leave her seat sparks an event that compels the Richland County Sheriff to fly back from the cop conference in Chicago like a sovereign returning to his troubled land. In this school-as-prison arrangement, cops rule.

School and prison, school as prison, yes. But the most troubling possibility, I think, is school or prison. By using this locution, I don’t intend to invoke the uplift narrative that posits education as a means of avoiding criminality or, really, criminalization—a narrative that the “school-to-prison pipeline” concept has already undone. The or of my “school or prison” marks not a choice between alternatives but an identity produced through the indifferent interchangeability of functions. It is sort of like the sive in Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura.” It would sound like this: “School or prison—whatever, what’s the difference.” The school is rapidly and intensively being inscribed as an institution in the state’s carceral network; the logics of policing are overwriting the ideal logics of pedagogy. The racialized poor of the U.S. are sent to school to learn how to do time in prison, and the effectiveness of this pedagogy indicates the tendential interchangeability of school and jail.


The minimal demand to combat this tendency is very simple: No cops at school. Neither police nor private security guards should ever be involved in administering ordinary classroom discipline. No teacher or administrator should ever have the thought that this could be a good idea or a necessary thing. These are pretty easy fixes, because incredibly concrete. But minimal demands are just that—minimal—and the prison-function of the school is not limited to the fact that cops are on campus. To think beyond the minimal requires some account, perhaps, of the multiple systemic forces that overdetermine the becoming-prison of the school. But the question is not simply one of knowledge, of planning, of finding the best systemic points at which to undo the carceralization of the classroom. It is also one of dispositions and orientations and the creation of new imaginings of the world. I’m thinking of the student who was beaten in South Carolina. By media accounts, the student wasn’t participating in class but also refused to leave it. Maybe she doesn’t like the subject, maybe she didn’t like the pedagogical mode, maybe she was just tired and having a bad day, maybe she just hates school. But her refusal to participate in a given pedagogical arrangement interacts dynamically with her refusal to leave the scene of learning; indeed, we might say she was beaten because her refusals to participate and to leave staged the difference between the learning she wanted and the schooling she got. The cop, then, was not simply enforcing order but reproducing a pedagogical norm: You will learn this subject in this way and not express dissatisfaction with this fact. This command links pedagogical modes across varied institutional terrains, from the underfunded public schools to the neoliberal charters to, indeed, my own classroom, probably, alas. Getting cops out of schools will be meaningless if a post-police pedagogy is unimaginable; the cop will always be invited back in and, indeed, will never have left. What I want, then, is to imagine the time, place, and form of encounter whose possibility is conjured in the student’s refusal to participate and in her refusal to leave—a world of learning otherwise where desiring alternatives won’t get you clubbed by a cop.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Civil War and Farcical Politics

Well, it happened: We got Bill Kristol to quote Marx. He writes


Kristol is, of course, citing the opening of Marx’s 18th Brumaire. Let’s quote it in full:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the Nephew in place of the Uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances surrounding the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire!

We’ve been fighting a second-edition Civil War for some time now—since the electoral season that led to Obama’s first term. I've called it antebellism. It’s tiring and tiresome. The primary problematic effect of mobilization around the Confederate flag in South Carolina has been to displace concerns to take down white supremacist organizing into the symbolic field of the Civil War. (Of course, I’m happy it’s not flying, but we’re talking effects here, not moral norms.) In this regard, Kristol’s citation of Marx is telling. White supremacists and their mainstream allies have undertaken a discursive operation that attempts to shunt the possibility of a world-historical tragedy—a robust, decisive encounter between competing nomoi, a decisive encounter between the racists and the anti-racists—into something farcical, a re-enactment of the Civil War undertaken entirely through cultural symbolics. Kristol wants this farce. It’s far better than a material challenge to white supremacy, racial capitalism, and the racial state.

For anti-racists, the solution is to not get entrapped in this symbolic field—although this is hard. In the next paragraph of the 18th Brumaire, Marx writes

The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. And, just when they appear to be engaged in the revolutionary transformation of themselves and their material surroundings, in the creation of something which does not yet exist, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them; they borrow their names, slogans and costumes so as to stage the new world-historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language. Luther put on the mask of the apostle Paul; the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire; and the revolution of 1848 knew no better than to parody at some points 1789 and at others the revolutionary traditions of 1793-5.

Here, Marx encourages us to think symbolic belatedness as an index of a movement’s political and social weakness in the time of its unfolding. It looks back because it possesses no idiom of itself to address the composition of the present—or the future. White supremacists present their politics indirectly, in the garb of future’s past, because the future of a white politics is the undoing of any futurity, the dissolution of the world. A fully whitened world would radiate disaster triumphant, and so the content needs to hide in ambiguous or illegible phrasing. A Confederate flag is obviously nostalgia for slavery—but no, it’s heritage! Hitler can’t be heiled without a numerical transcription of the alphabet. And most white nationalists, in their public remarks, deploy the idiom of liberal multiculturalism in order to pose whiteness as just any other political-racial-cultural identity. Political whiteness knows it can’t be present in its presence. To be sure, symbolic weakness does not equate to political inefficacy or an incapacity for outrageous violence; moreover, the order of the world remains white supremacist regardless of the political strength of white-supremacist movements. The point here, I think, is that the cultural-symbolic remains a safe space for white supremacists in public because it is the point at which politics can be articulated that otherwise can’t be, and in polysemous, unstable ways that refuse—at least notionally—fixity. Heritage, not racism.

White supremacy presents itself through “world-historical necromancy,” in other words, because it can’t offer a vision of the present or the future that most of the world would want. This is not to say, of course, that an anti-racist, non-anti-black world is a vision of the present or the world that most of the world would want, either. I do want to suggest, though, that we would do well to cede this past in our quest to build an anti-racist future. Most of the past—especially if white people, the state, and capitalism are involved—has very little to offer us, anyhow. So let’s let it go. It’s a field where, at best, to win is to break even. As Marx put it, as he attempts to call it quits with this necromancy, “The social revolution…can only create its poetry from the future, not the past.” In that claim I hear Fanon, whose poetry from the future seems to haunt Marx in the past: “comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man [sic].”      


Poiesis, not history. We need to dedicate time to writing pieces that will train people in practical anti-racist tactics for the present, pieces that will circulate with the speed and popularity that three dozen articles on the cultural symbolics of the Civil War do. We need to materially organize to develop new ways of thinking in order to create the new human. What if think-piece publishers gave space to this endeavor, instead of shadowboxing with history's poltergeists? When we make our new world, the Confederate flags will burn, anyhow, and the monuments of Confederate generals will topple, too.