Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"...have you not forgot to wind up the clock?"

I began writing this before the eviction. Tenses are screwy. I'm letting it stand. I don't want to talk about Dilworth in the past tense yet. Hopefully I'll never have to do so.


Occupy Philly’s continued occupation of Dilworth Plaza has generated a number of pseudo-leftist critiques from people concerned with “labor” and “job creation.” For those of you who do not know, the rationale behind Occupy Philly’s eviction is that a 50 million dollar building project has been slated to begin at the site of the occupation since November 15. The city gets a skating rink; the unemployed can look forward to 800 or so jobs. Aren’t jobs what Occupy wants? How, ask liberal conservatives, conservative liberals, and (my favorite crowd, insofar as they expose the political bankruptcy of Maddow-watching "progressive" Democrats) conservative conservatives, can a left-wing social movement impede job creation? Of course, as they will acknowledge, these jobs will be temporary; 800 workers won’t be employed all at once. But isn’t something better than nothing? “In this economy?” (A lovely phrase that imagines “the economy” as an object susceptible to deictic indication…)

The answer, of course, is no. Such right-liberal criticisms routinize the precarity of employment; indeed, they show how well neoliberalism and flexible accumulation practices have altered normative understandings of work. Not only are we to take exploitation in the form of surplus extraction as the way of the world; now we are to be positively grateful when—happy chance!—a charitable capitalist consents to exploit us at all. Precarity and the exposure to contingency have become the nomos of the contemporary—the way in which the present divides itself. This round of struggle does not pit the proletariat against capitalists, but the precariat against the existentially secure. Of course, the language of the mid-nineteenth century continues to map onto the present: the precarious proletariat, as Marx would always state, were vogelfrei, free as birds, free to starve if they couldn’t secure, say, a low-paying job building a skating rink at Dilworth, while Mssrs Moneybags could shut down the shop for a year and still eat heartily, growing their jowls if not their capitals. But Occupy, I think, has foregrounded the issue of precarity, that the norm now is exposure to contingency, and it’s along these lines that the current cycle of struggle should be thought. They’ve brought this issue to the fore in two ways: negatively, by not making demands for jobs their primary concern, and, positively, by fashioning sites of occupation as havens from precarity and contingency. We might say: An Occupy camp is that place where members of the precariat meet and, through the mutuality of care, free one another from exposure to existential contingency. Even as Occupy thrives on contingency of all kinds—chance encounters, the openness to creative accident, and even bodily contiguity—it has cut a spatial division between the world of precarity and a world of care. In so doing, it has taken over the role of the state: to shield citizens from exposure to unwilled, unintended, contingent forces.

Occupy forces us to think the political from the perspective of precarity. Materially and ideologically, Occupy constructs itself from fragments, conjoined bric-a-brac: “homes” patched together with multiple pieces of cardboard and plywood, flimsy tents lashed to trees, flimsier consensus built through grueling hours and days of argument. (I’m recalling now the one woman who had an indescribable collection of stuff on display, first by the west-facing steps, then on the north side: some radical papers, odd toys, records with no apparent political import, dead flowers, chipped vases…) And, of course, the Occupiers themselves, the precariat, left with nowhere to go but to one another. All of these gatherings, collections, conjoinings were susceptible to interruption. Consider, for instance, the concerns about the coming cold, the weather: we’re actually talking about a political movement, a polis, so precarious that snow could destroy it—and, indeed, by literally destroying people, exposed bodies. Even as it empowered itself in its contingent coming-together, precarity, exposure, and bad contingency persistently threatened Occupy. The substrate of the potential world we would make is the ontological fragility of the world we inhabit.

I take finitude—and thus precarity—to be an ontological fact. So does any economics (it’s a science of finitude), and for this reason economic discourse is always inches away from serving as an ontological discourse. We might say that economics is a technology for negotiating the facticity of finitude, of precarity. It thus risks a certain callous positivism: scarcity is the way of the world. The proper ethico-ontological question concealed within economic thought is: how is finitude, precarity, our given exposure to contingency, to be negotiated, reckoned with, handled? How do we care about our contingent being-here-together?

We can’t unwork this fact of sheer exposure. No one can determine, before birth, if they are to be born into the secured-wealthy or the growing precariat. We’re thrown into our positions—we could call this contingent distribution of security and precarity a “birthright lottery,” with Ayelet Shachar. But, if we can’t control the underlying heteronomy that determines the modality of our being, the contingent assignment to a life free from or exposed to further contingencies, we can make a world that controls the effects of such contingent assignment, that cares for the fact of our unintended thrownness. (Once more: this is what the state used to do, at least normatively.) I’m recalling now the opening lines of Tristram Shandy, a “novel” at the origins of a literary tradition that, we are told, brought into the world the autistic and autarkic liberal subject. But, as we see, exposure to contingency, to an unwilled determination of one’s being, stands at the very origins of this subjectivity:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me…”

Tristram’s origins are tainted by nonreflexivity—the way his parents refuse to consider the effects of their actions, as they were duty bound. Contingency undoes everything in Tristram’s life-course, from his name to his nose. But, as Tristram knows, the origins are unassailable, he is factically in the world as he is, and what remains is to manage effects, to negotiate his unwilled presence in the world.

There are better and worse ways of managing the fact of precarity, of exposure to contingency. But it cannot be annulled. Liberals would have us think that the 800 people securing jobs at Dilworth will be freed from contingency, from exposure to bodily undoing. But the precariat cannot be freed from precarity through labor. Precarity will return, months later, jobs gone, skating rink complete. Neoliberalism’s valorization of labor—as an expression of self-responsibility, self-care, and as a modality of freeing oneself from contingency—enables us to ignore the fact that precarity can’t be un- or over-worked. It’s labor’s ontological presupposition.

The 800 people needing labor are precarious anyhow. Far more precarious is the thought of precarity itself. The struggle now consists in showing the insistent, non-transcendable fact of precarity, in showing how we are differentially exposed to contingency, and in developing a modality of sociality that does not seek to annul (through labor, through ideologies of freedom, or both) precarity, but continually (re)organizes social being to negotiate fragility, finitude. The struggle consists, in other words, in showing how a village of cardboard, plywood, and plastic offers members a greater freedom from precarity by insistently recognizing its own, and their, fragility. A fragility that no kind and no amount of labor—not even 800 jobs—can un-work.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Plea: Colleagues, Come to City Hall at 5pm

Occupy Philadelphia faces eviction tonight. Its permit expires at 5:00pm. Most likely, police enforcement of the eviction will take place after 11:00pm. Many Occupiers plan to stay there, to remain in the commons that their co-presence produces. You should join them—us, I mean.

I make this request in particular to those of you who cannot stand behind the politics that Occupy seems to endorse—who do not feel represented by Occupy, who do not feel as if the issues that motivate you are represented by Occupy. At this moment, the politics of Occupy—its varied ideologies, desires, and aims—are less important than the question of the political itself. And it is in the name of fidelity to the political, of a receptivity to a futurity that has been breached but might be closed, that I ask you to come to City Hall tonight.

Most of us cannot recall a time at which the private has not enclosed, diminished, and ultimately dissolved the political. Two years after I was born, a British halfwit declared, “They’re casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” The sociality of the political was cast as a mis-citation, a fantasy, a mystifying dream. Just individuals and families, mommy-daddy-me. Meaningful sociality was reduced to whom one fucks (heteronomatively), the relations between mommy-daddy and the human product of their fucking (making genealogy, and thus race, a substrate of neoliberal sociology), and one’s self-responsible interactions with other self-responsible actors (a subjectivity derived from normative models of market sociality). That’s it. Three ways of being social. Nothing else could fit into the epistemic coordinates of neoliberalism, and we’ve been subjectivated to take this impoverishment of being-with as being real: “And, you know, there is no such thing…” Sure we do, Marge. Neoliberal realism codes any figuration of the social that exceeds the scope of these impoverished hermeneutics as merely ideological, merely cultural, an interested mystification of the real forces at work. In so doing, it reduces real antagonisms to administrative problems.

I don’t have time to write more right now. I just want to make two claims. First: The event of the political is constituted through the advent of being-with that cannot fit into given modalities of counting the social. The political fucks up the census; it introjects an excessive modalization of subjectivity into the quantified and integral space of administered being. Second: The excessiveness of the political to the given means that it is properly speaking incalculable. It cannot be contained, reined in, or reigned over by given hermeneutics. This includes our own radical practices of reading, our own mechanisms of critique. I’ll take myself as an example. I think that much of Occupy’s discourse is bourgeois-reformist in orientation; its focus on finance capital enables Occupiers to neglect class stratification within the “99%.” But this critique is feckless (at best) and conservative (at worst) if it is not made on site—in this place where one is not not an individual, a family member, etc., but where one is also more than that in an as yet undetermined, incalculable way. Even though Occupy might seem regressive or stupid from a given position (say, my open Marxist position), we have to accept that we can’t outsmart the political, because the emergence of the political puts what makes us “smart” into question. In negative terms, the political will always seem stupid, and this is because the event it marks cannot be contained within given frames of intelligibility. We can only use our pre-given modes of knowing (say, class critique) to help attune us to the incalculable event that comes. But we can’t use our modes of knowing to stifle the event.

There is not one radically oriented academic hermeneutic that does not have a basis in a real social movement—political actions where subjects faced the state and demanded that their complaint be treated as a political problem, a failure of the polity that puts the polity itself in question. The event of the political produces new knowledges, new modalities of reading the social. As academics, we come belatedly to the political—so many owls of Minerva—and transform the political work of others into knowledge. It’s a kind of appropriation; at least, it is a kind of division of labor, a stratification of primary producers (activists) and secondary, value-adding producers (academics). Bring the knowledges you possess, submit Occupy to immanent critique—a critique that quickens, a critique that opens Occupy to its full potential—and come be a primary producer of the political knowledges that will have arrived.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Police and the Polis

About a week ago, while at the Occupy Philly GA, I witnessed firsthand, and for the first time, the enforcement of Philadelphia’s racist, classist curfew law. (For those of you who do not know about this law: it makes it illegal for minors to be in University City—Penn’s campus—and Center City after certain times. It essentially makes it illegal for young black kids to travel to and through affluent white areas of the city.) It’s actually incorrect to say that I saw its enforcement firsthand, for I didn’t realize what was happening until it was over. I had to perform a cognitive double take, as it were. This is because the violence that I was witnessing was extremely distressing, extremely disorienting. For one, there was the noise: the two police officers grunting orders, shouting at the black kid who was caught between them, their arms crooked between his, his body tugged forward as he shouted back. Moreover, the cops were not in uniform; they only signifier of their office was a red armband that, due to the speed of events, I could not see. The police, in short, did not appear as police; they appeared as private persons in a private dispute, carting a kid away from City Hall for reasons neither they, nor the victim, nor I, nor my co-witnesses, could immediately comprehend. They didn’t act like police, either—that is, their actions did not conform to my ideal-typical understanding of how police action appears. They weren’t cool, they weren’t calm. They were affectively and personally involved in the situation, angry and enraged at the kid who squirmed in their too-tight grip. It seemed as if, at the moment of enforcing the law, the transcendence of the law that they were enforcing was forgotten; all that remained was a kind of nonpurposive, nonreflective violence—a brute desire to dominate this resistant subject, the one right there, right at them, the one they touched and grabbed and grasped. Legal motivations provide the before and after of the event of enforcement, but the event itself seemed to suspend these legalistic concerns. All that remained was force, and their passional investment in enforcing their wills—not the determining will of the law.

I offer this scene of disorientation, of confusion, as a hermeneutic for reading the spread of police violence against Occupy that we have witnessed in the past week. We’re all familiar with these acts of violence, from NYC to UC Davis. What is most shocking about this violence is that it continues. Many are asking: How, given the fact that police know that someone is filming them, that thousands of cameras expose the rightlessness of their actions, is it possible that police continue to use batons, gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets? The scene of enforcement, however, is one in which futurity does not matter, in which questions of legitimation and right are suspended. This is not because scenes of enforcement are states of exception, paralegal spaces in which the law produces zones of exteriority in which it renders itself non-effective. Law may still exercise its grip over these scenes; it may penalize the police for the cruel violence they inflict. The law will remember these scenes, and it is important that we make the law remember these scenes. But these scenes of enforcement are constituted such that, in their taking-place, actors forget the law, forget the transcendent will that they enforce, and substitute the law’s will with their own wills, fully immanent and attuned to the situation, passional and violent. The thesis: In these scenes of enforcement, the wills of the police are not determined by the determining will of law but by the affective composition of the event itself.

If the sovereign has two bodies, the police has but one—and it’s always right there, fully involved in and immanent to the event. Policing takes place such that the police can never step outside and attain a position of exorbitant reflexivity to the world that their presence convenes. We can’t be misled, then, by the seeming impersonality of cops in riot gear—the uniformity of their dress, the invisibilization of defining and personalizing features, the bodies too sleek and shiny to be striated by particularity. Abstraction here—the abstractness of the individual bodies allegorizing the abstractness of the state—is not a uniform but a costume, a disguise. What remains important is the embodied singularity beneath the drag of abstraction, of uniformity, of impersonality. For an impersonal abstraction is not affected by affect, and it is affective pulsations—frustration, rage, perhaps even sadistic pleasure—that choreograph the movement of a decidedly non-abstract baton-wielding hand in the arc that completes itself on a protestor’s head. Abstract force, the state itself, only becomes concrete through the contingent conduits of affected singularities—and, in the moment of this concretion, abstraction is entirely forgotten, suspended. The scene of police violence is in the world of the contingent concrete, of force undetermined by an unaffected will.

It’s probably shocking to no one that police are not good Kantians, that their will is always involved and interested in the situation in which they find themselves. But I think that this goes a little distance in explaining how apparently unmotivated acts of police violence against non-violent subjects (such as the pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis) are possible. Because the will of the police is undetermined by legalistic reflexivity, non-violent protest in such situations does not signify as demonstrators legally exercising a set of rights (including, in the event of an illegal action, the right of due process). It is the affected and non-rational will of the police that matters, that participates in the shaping of these events. Any resistance—violent or “non-violent”—signifies as a violation of the police’s (not the law’s) will. Indeed, non-violent protest (e.g., the refusal to move at the police’s command) affectively determines the police as frustrated, as temporarily feckless, and produces a state in which the police will use whatever means are available to enforce their irrational will. Ultimately, the aims of the police have to strike any observer as nonsensical: what is at stake, for instance, in removing these students from this plot of grass? Who cares? I’m assuming that a police officer, off duty, away from the scene, would agree. But in the situation, it is the negation of an affected will—one that cannot achieve a position of exorbitant reflexivity—that matters and that compensates for its negation by brutalizing others.

My point, then, is that these scenes of police violence are scenes of activity whose purposivity is determined by an immanent field of affects. The nonpurposiveness of the democratic polis finds its perverse double in the purposeless violence of the police. It’s an eerie reminder: in these scenes of violence stripped of transcendent reference, in the immanent enfolding of two singularities in a field of affective intensity, it no longer becomes clear who is fighting for what, or what constitutes the difference between the whos. Only the properly political distinction between friends and enemies can, at this point, separate the police and polis—but even this distinction might dissolve in the scene of violence. The police, the polis: Mon semblable,—mon frère!

Please sign this petition urging the DOJ to investigate the UC Davis police actions.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Utopia; or, the Brooklyn Bridge

Occupy Wall Street’s Day of Action on November 17 concluded with a dramatic occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has an obvious significance within the movement’s internal history: Occupy was galvanized when hundreds of protesters were arrested on the bridge on October 1. But what is it about the Bridge that made it such a cathected site for Occupy in the first place? It is possible that the bridge--any bridge--offers a potent set of symbolics for the movement. We might think of Occupy, for instance, as attempting to bridge that gap between the elites and the plebes. We might think of it as bridging a history of social, political, and economic injustice with a future democracy, a polis to come. We might think of the bridge as symbolizing the peculiar way that Occupy materializes sociality--it convokes a virtual space, a zone of being-with that cannot be localized or demarcated, a place that can always move elsewhere, a site of pure liminality and thus potentiality. Taking a more historical perspective, I suggest that Occupy’s march across the Brooklyn Bridge bridges a gap between utopian socialists of the mid-nineteenth century and social movements today. Indeed, the Brooklyn Bridge is one sedimentation of utopian socialist knowledges and practices that circulated through the Atlantic world in the republic’s first half-century. We might see Occupy’s return to the Bridge as a kind of unconscious homage to their socialist forebears--because, as we know, and as we must always assert, socialism did have a vibrant role in U.S. politics until some silly jackass decided that socialism and class-conscious politics are an impossibility in our always-already utopian land of plenty.

John August Roebling was the chief designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Born in Germany, Roebling studied architecture and engineering in Berlin; he also attended lectures offered by Hegel. It was in Berlin, and possibly in Hegel’s lecture hall, that he met John Adolphus Etzler. Like Roebling, Etzler was interested in Hegel and engineering. He also had a particular hobbyhorse--emigration from the authoritarian states of Prussia. Indeed, Etzler had been jailed for promoting emigration in 1829. Upon his release in 1830, Etzler and Roebling jointly published A General View of the United States of North America, Together with a Community Plan for Settlement, founded an emigration society, and in 1831 sailed for Philadelphia.

What would this “community plan” have looked like? I have not been able to track down a copy of the text, unfortunately, but “community plans” circulated with a ferocious speed in the Atlantic world and in the Americas during the period. We also have Etzler’s plans for settlements he would attempt to found in the 1840s in the U.S. and Venezuela. A techno-Fourierist, Etzler proposed that communitarians would live in something like a phalanstery. Every member--men and women alike--would have their own room. There would be no marriage; sexual freedom was ensured to all. Materially, the phalanstery would rely on a curious machine called the Satellite--a kind of prototype for modern day tractors that would be self-propulsive, energy efficient, and would drastically increase yields of farm land. Etzler, in short, imagined a technological transcendence of Malthusian subsistence limits; moreover, the hyper-supply of foodstuffs would also spell the death of Ricardian political economy, premised as it was on distributionist class politics. The promise of subsistence would reverse capitalism’s economy of social attention, an economy Etzler neatly glosses: “The poorer man is, the more he is neglected.” It also promised another benefit to the typical working man of Jacksonian America: aside from easy managerial labor--the superintendence of the Satellite--work itself would be abolished. As in Fourier’s Four Movements, Etzler’s New World is one where sociality is freed from privative limits, a world where “[l]ove and affection may there be fostered and enjoyed without any of the obstructions that oppose, diminish, and destroy them in the present common state of men.” Indeed, Etzler shifted the telos of sociality from the satisfaction of need to the mutual intensification of pleasure, “to please and to be pleased…to enjoy life as well as possible by mutual sociality” (Etzler, The Paradise within Reach of All Men, 1833).

Perhaps Etzler’s utopia seemed a little too utopian to Roebling. Dependent as it was on the success of the Satellite, it is possible that the engineering student recognized early on that the machine could never work. The pair had a falling out in 1831, when Roebling suggested that their party of migrants settle land the good old fashioned way and begin a small agrarian community. While it would be organized on something like a “community plan,” it wasn’t radical enough for Etzler. The party split: Roebling founded Saxonburg in Butler County, Pennsylvania, on land snatched from an Indian tribe. Etzler would go on to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Haiti, the British West Indies, Venezuela, and, eventually, my dissertation, leaving in his wake a heap of failed utopias (including my dissertation). Despite their split, Roebling remembered Etzler fondly; as J.A. Robeling’s son would write, Roebling considered Etzler “the greatest genius ever.”

In the split between Etzler and Roebling, we might see a split between two theories of social change: one works within the social, political, and economic limits of the given world, the other attempts its utopian breach. The split between these epistemes is not absolute, nor is there a contradiction in posited ends. Indeed, Roebling did not dispute the socialist, communitarian aims of Etzler’s project--he questioned the project’s pacing. Roebling’s utopian energies were directed into the pragmatic field of technology. He innovated wire rope production in Saxonburg, and it is this rope that would be instrumental in his design of the Brooklyn Bridge. Wire rope: not so grand as a robot that could produce wheat at will, but a small, quotidian object that would materially alter city-scapes throughout the world, promoting easy mobility across disjointed spaces.

We can see Occupy’s occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge as bridging the gap between these two epistemes of social change. Practical technological innovations like Roebling’s have altered our world, enabling the massive productivity that Etzler could only dream about. Indeed, our world is a perversion of the New World that Etzler imagined, and the fact that poverty reigns in a world in which Malthusian limits have been overcome should remind us that enhanced productivity without a redistributionist politics simply entrenches the class divisions Ricardo lamented. We need to keep Etzler’s vision--one in which no poor person is “neglected”--alive. And so we might see Occupy’s occupation of the Bridge as enacting a historical rendezvous between Etzler and Roebling, a re-joining after their split. The socialist Etzler strolls across the bridge, approaches the pragmatic Roebling, and says: “You’re own schemes have succeeded: you and others like you have re-made the world and enhanced the productivity of humanity. You’ve done what I failed to do. But you’ve done it in a distorted form. Everyone can eat, but many starve; no one need work, but people clamor for jobs. 170 years ago, it was perhaps correct for you to ignore me, to conceive of me as a charlatan. But today the Paradise that I imagined is social possibility. It’s time for you--the pragmatists and the technicians--to step aside; it’s time to embed the material world within a social morality. It’s time to ‘enjoy life as well as possible by [a] mutual sociality’ unfettered by material limits.” The occupation of the Bridge amounts to this: a remoralization of a factually existent material world that generations past could only imagine as a slightly insane utopian possibility.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Originary Acalculia; or, Perfume and the Political

Given the spate of recent Occupy clearances, as well as the threat of eviction facing Occupy Philly, the question arises: What’s at stake in staying, in continuing to occupy, in forcing a confrontation with the city and the police, in putting bodies in harm’s way? Some at Philly—the so-called “Reasonable Solutions” group—believe that we should be reasonable and move, and they’re acting on that belief. Denying the GA’s authority, they claim to represent the majority of occupiers—those who aren’t “radicals” or “anarchists”—and have been in talks with Nutter’s office. I think that this solution is “reasonable,” if we define reasonableness as participation in capitalist rationality. This rationality controls the event of the political by regulating the distribution of social time-space—through an economy of the political. We could re-read the entire archive of classical political economy to tease out this process of invagination, the point at which the species term [political] becomes a mere instance of the erstwhile part [economy]. But the regulative distribution of social time-space has far deeper roots, as we know. So let’s turn back to a diktat of Jesus, a locution that serves as the commonsense of any distributive rationality.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” A woman, you recall, had just washed Jesus’ feet with perfume; the apostles, appalled by the costliness of the gesture, suggest that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. The act of expenditure brings into conflict two distinct temporalities: the insistent transhistoricity of the poor and the eruptive but finite temporality of Christ’s appearance. Chronos versus kairos, the long duree versus the event. Jesus offers a phenomenological reduction of his own eruption into the world’s time-space: “the poor” mark that which must be bracketed, suspended in an epoché, kept away so that the divine kairos can take place as kairos. Humorously, the poor are actually too wealthy to participate in this kairos: they’re too rich with time, with chronos. They’ll always be around. Fidelity to the eventness of the event—the eruptive apparition of the divine—means neglecting the ordinary, the poor. The poor serve as an anti-figure for the event: they must not appear, and thus must be rendered invisible, so that the extraordinary, kairotic moment can constitute itself.

The poor will continue to serve as a species-term for that which, because omnipresent, cannot and should not appear in the constitution of an event. The semiosis of the poor will be an anti-semiosis; the omnipresence of the poor means that their signs mark nothing more than an unremarkable being-there. To try to find the poor is to enter a disorienting world in which signs cannot direct us anywhere, a world in which signs signify disorientation. After all, the omnipresent poor have no direction, no aim, no ability to transcend the bad infinity that is impoverished dwelling on earth. Engels invites us to take a walk through this bad infinity: “Above Ducie Bridge, the left bank grows more flat and the right bank steeper, but the condition of the dwellings on both banks grows worse rather than better. He who turns to the left here from the main street, Long Millgate, is lost; he wanders from one court to another, turns countless corners, passes nothing but narrow, filthy nooks and alleys, until after a few minutes he has lost all clue, and knows not whither to turn. Everywhere half or wholly ruined buildings, some of them actually uninhabited, which means a great deal here; rarely a wooden or stone floor to be seen in the houses, almost uniformly broken, ill-fitting windows and doors, and a state of filth!” It goes on like this. The semiosis of poverty revolts against the order of the proper by refusing to be anything but horribly common, horribly generic. Phenomenologically and rhetorically, Engels can’t get his bearings: the proper sign of “Dulcie Bridge” is sharply juxtaposed to clichéd descriptions of the world of the poor, a world bereft of deixis, proper names, the possibility of orientation. And, as he points out, Manchester was constructed in such a way as to produce zones of visibility, of orientation, of proper signs and stable semiosis, and zones of invisibility, of disorientation, of common signs—of the poor.

We see, then, a double invisibilization of the poor. As ordinary, as a chronological constant, they cannot appear in the constitution of the kairotic event. But, as ordinary life unfolds in its humdrum chronos, the ordinary/poor is also that which one need not consider or make legible. The poor are foreclosed from participating in the constitution of an eruptive moment and they are so spatially distributed that they will not come-to-legibility within the ordinary time that they figure.

What are the implications for us, in our decision to move or not move? The demand that Occupy move from the site of the polis—City Hall—is to ask the poor to invisibilize themselves, to disappear from view, to go elsewhere. Through the production of camps, the poor as poor are appearing: Dilworth Plaza is not unlike the messy, disorienting Manchester neighborhood through which Engels walks (though it’s far more hygienic). This common space is invaginating the site of the proper; the properly political is re-subordinating the economic. To leave would be to participate in the invagination of the polis by the economic, to willfully submit to the very economization of political time-space that constitutes itself by bracketing the apparition of the poor. Our visibility, our constitution of a political event, is more important than an administrative decision—particularly a decision to gentrify City Hall. We’re removing the political from the economic, from distributive rationalities. The political will only ever appear as an incalculable event, only after a polis-to-be has staked its possible being on a refusal to participate in the economization of who-appears. An originary acalculia: the kind of decision that led a seemingly irrational woman to dump perfume on Jesus’ feet without considering what that expenditure meant for the poor.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bloomberg, That Fucking Asshole; or, Reflections on the Insult

I intended to write about the genre of the petition today—to clarify, for myself, the implications that inhere to the act of petitioning—but last night’s clearance of Occupy in New York has interrupted my schedule. Like many, I’m angry. I imagine a utopian scene in which I sit down with the mayors of Oakland, New York, Portland, (Philly soon, one guesses) and so on. I imagine, in my frustration, taking seven minutes to insult them with the full range of my cruel rhetorical resources. I would tell Bloomberg that he’s a fucking asshole, a marionette of capital, a vulgarian facilitating the vulgarization of the world, an intellectually impoverished cock whose concept of responsible authority is determined by a realty company asking for “assistance.” This scene of insulting speech is obviously a product of frustration. But I want to consider how the structure of insulting speech-acts sheds light on what has been happening to Occupy camps throughout the states. I want to suggest, briefly, that these crackdowns are rhetorically structured as insults.

What is an insult? Let’s take as an example the utterance, “Bloomberg, you’re a fucking asshole.” The utterance seems like an act of predication: Bloomberg, the subject, is included within the class of fucking assholes. But we might also think of “Bloomberg is a fucking asshole” as a nonpredicative assertion. Unlike other terms—white, tall, etc.—it seems impossible, as Agamben discusses, “to establish a class that includes all things to which the predicate in question [“fucking asshole”] is attributed.” Agamben discusses nonpredicative statements in his discussion of friendship, and, usefully and intriguingly, he suggests that the assertion of friendship (“I am your friend”) is rhetorically parallel to the insult (“You’re a fucking asshole, Mayor Bloomberg”). Insults, he writes, “do not offend those who are subjected to them as a result of including the insulted person in a particular category…something that would simply be impossible, or, anyway, false.” Bloomberg is not a “fucking asshole”; the assertion is catachrestical; it doesn’t refer to an actual reality; the statement is consciously false. So why might the good mayor get offended? Because an insult “is effective precisely because it does not function as a constative utterance…it uses language in order to give a name in such a way that the named cannot accept his name, and against which he cannot defend himself.” Insult is effective because it misses what it hits; and, indeed, it hits by missing. Bloomberg is not a fucking asshole—whatever that would actually be—and it is the mis-naming of Bloomberg that hits him, that hurts him. Or would, if he weren’t a fucking asshole.

Insult is a speech-act that affects the insulted by not addressing itself to the properties of the subject. And it’s the structural errancy of insult—how it hits by missing—that rhetorically structures the acts of violence visited upon Occupy camps. As Bloomberg knows full well, the Occupy movement now has a virtuality exorbitant to its materialization in common space; moreover, the destruction of one common space will be recuperated immediately, in the occupation and formation of new common spaces. We’re a many-headed hydra. Each act of violence—the slashing of a tent, the grip of a cop’s hands on the arms of a yelling protestor as she is hauled away, gas in eyes, batons on heads—necessarily misses what it intends to hit. Bloomberg knows this: he knew that there would be a GA today, he knew that people would return to a park (if not the park), he knew that these moments of violence are not and could not be addressed to the subject that is Occupy, because Occupy is exorbitant to its punctual manifestations. Occupy now names the virtual matrix out of which bodies will precipitate an occupied time-space. Bloomberg knows this.

Like my own desire to insult that fucking asshole, Bloomberg, Bloomberg’s own violent insults emerged out of a frustration. The mayor claims that he was decisively sovereign in his command to clear the park. In an item on Bloomberg’s news site, under the dramatic heading “Final Decision,” we read the mayor assert sovereign responsibility for his decision: “But make no mistake -- the final decision to act was mine.” Nonsense. The mayor also notes, “Inaction was not an option.” The closure of options restricts the field of decisiveness; Bloomberg’s sovereignty was bounded by the (apparent) structural necessity to act. I suggest that the sovereign, final decision was in fact a frustrated negotiation with a heteronomous force that produced a mood, a feeling that positioned Bloomberg as having-to-act. Waiting to act would have been savvier; while I think Occupy will outlast the winter, the coming weeks do threaten to produce a slow-down of Occupy activity. He knows this fact, too. The decision to move was a non-sovereign submission to an affective tonality of frustration. This frustration was itself the product of the fact that Occupy is a virtuality, vague and amorphous. It’s not a centered subject. It can appear anywhere, and will reappear once it has been temporarily forced to disappear. It cannot be bargained with. But neither, humorously, can it really be insulted: a non-subject, Occupy has no properties, and so it can't be mis-named, either in speech or in violence structured as insulting speech.

And thus the comfort of the insult, as a speech-act or as a violent act on bodies. Even if an insult misses what it intends (hitting by missing), the structural requirement that the insult miss its addressee necessitates that we think of the addressee—even if it doesn’t exist—as a subject possessing a set of properties, as a centered subject that can be wounded by actions, verbal or otherwise. Bloomberg’s violent insults attempt retroactively producing Occupy as a subject, even if only as a subject-in-and-through-violation, because the non-subjective, de-centered sociality of Occupy is frightening. A specter is haunting Bloomberg, and he’s afraid. And so he tries exorcizing the specter by transforming it into a (wounded) subject—a set of bodies that can be hit, a material agglomeration that can be slashed, removed, and trashed. All the more unethical because it cannot achieve the aim it posits. Bloomberg’s decision to raid was the feckless insult of a fucking asshole.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Press Release from Occupy Philly (in part)

Below is the text of a press release issued by Occupy Philly in response to Nutter's opportunistic instrumentalization of a rape at City Hall—an instrumentalization that paves the way for the demolition of the site. I don't have all of the working groups' texts, but the People of Color Caucus' statement offers an insightful critique of Nutter's opportunism and cynicism.


November 14, 2011

First, we want to thank the people of Philadelphia for their ongoing support for Occupy Philly and our efforts to address social and economic inequities in our city and beyond.

We’ve called this press conference today to correct the inaccuracies in Mayor Nutter’s statements yesterday about our occupation.

Occupy Philly and the occupy movement in general did not create the problems of public health and unemployment outlined by the mayor. On the contrary, these problems, among many others, created the occupy movement. Such problems are not symptoms or inventions of Occupy Philly, nor are they exclusive to the occupy movement. They are instead indicative of the greater social, political, and economic injustices of our society and everyday life—injustices often perpetuated by the mayor’s policies. This is exactly why we started this occupation.

We feel that the mayor’s inaccuracies, which four Occupy Philly working groups will specifically discuss today, were an intentional effort to divide and discredit our movement. Within Occupy Philly, we proudly support a diversity of opinions. We stand in solidarity with each other and our direct democracy, and we reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence.

We haven’t changed; the mayor has. The mayor’s new tone is an attempt to shift the focus from the real source of the problems impacting our city to those of us engaged in trying to create just alternatives.

So we’ve brought together delegates from the Occupy Philly Legal, Food, Safety, and People of Color of Caucus to address specific comments of the mayor’s.

Statement from the People of Color Caucus

As the People of Color Caucus, we work to eliminate racism and related systems of oppression inside and beyond the Occupy Philadelphia movement. We oppose the mayor’s recent statements about Occupy Philadelphia regarding civil disobedience, homelessness, and violence against women and invite him to meet with us to resolve them.

It is shameful that the Mayor has decried the use of civil disobedience as a tactic, when it has been used by leaders like Rosa Parks and Philadelphia’s own Cecil B. Moore as a way to fight racism in our nation. Civil disobedience is at the heart of American values, but the Mayor’s policies are not.

We reject the Mayor’s argument that more policing leads to more safety. We point to both the repressive youth curfew law and Stop and Frisk as examples of how increased police contact actually puts people of color at risk. We point to the police shooting just last week of Sadiq Moore as he entered his own home. We demand an Occupy Philly encampment and a City of Philadelphia that are free from police harassment and violence.

We question the Mayor’s concern about homelessness given his refusal to consider the very serious problems that the Dilworth Plaza renovations will cause for the homeless Philadephians who have occupied the space far longer than these 40 days. This issue is especially pressing given the City’s recent decision to close the Ridge Avenue shelter this Winter, our largest homeless shelter.

We believe that the cynical use of sexual violence and health concerns are opportunistic ways for the mayor to justify an attack on our movement. In the most recent reports available from the PPD, there were 28 rapes reported in our city in the last two weeks of October – where were the other 28 press conferences over those two weeks? We oppose violence against women in all of its forms, and this movement is ultimately about creating a just world in which all people are safe in their bodies, homes, and cities. As we stand against that violence, we also stand against attempts to derail this movement.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This is Real

I write this post anticipating (with many others) that things are about to get real in Philly. By real, I mean violent. Invoking the realism of biopolitical governmentality, Nutter seems poised to send in the baton-wielding clowns. A conflict of social ontologies is about to ensue. The co-presence of competing realities promises a violent production of the real.

“This is real”: so read a sign popular during the initial weeks of Occupy. Like most Occupy utterances, “this is real” signifies in two split registers. On one hand, the slogan asserts that Occupy is a movement that possesses the same gravity and density as any other “real” political movement. Occupy is neither ephemeral nor a group of kids pretending to be revolutionary: this is real. On the other hand, “this is real” calls into question the ontological status of the polity from which it solicits recognition. This—this event here, this sign, these people, we-here-together—is real, unlike the para-reality that is out there, beyond the pale of Occupy. “This is real” is thus not merely a bid for recognition but a weapon of de-realization.

As a weapon, the slogan is a technology of violence. Of war.

We can’t avoid this fact. We need to keep it in play against claims that the movement is “non-violent.” To imagine a non-violent alteration—a making-other—of social ontologies is to imagine a coming moment of messianic violence, a force that will alter the world without ripping that world’s self-identity. Such an imagination enables us to disavow the violent force of our own activity, proleptically normalizing it as the emergent real. Let’s recall Fanon’s words from his essay “On Violence” in Wretched of the Earth: “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder. But it cannot be accomplished by the wave of a magic wand, a natural cataclysm, or a gentleman’s agreement.” What is required is violence—a force that de-realizes one ontology and seeks the production of another. As Fanon suggests, the responsibility for this violence cannot be displaced. Whatever the causal relations that lead us to undertake violent acts, we are not conducting forces greater than ourselves (magic, nature, or delegated popular will); we ourselves are doing it. We need to keep in mind the fact that all de-realization is violent: it is irreducible to bodies in pain, to batons crashing on heads, to tear gas in eyes. It is sitting in a public space, en masse; it is cathecting to a dialectical process that ends with us willfully putting our heads in the arc of fast-flying batons, of exposing our eyes to gas. In terms of a bodily register, the two violences here are irreducibly different. But we must keep in mind the fact of our own being-violent.

Why? Let’s turn back to Fanon. Describing violence in an ideal-typical colony, he describes “this atmospheric violence, this violence rippling under the skin.” For Fanon, violence in the colony is pervasive, a fact of life that enfleshes the colonized. For the colonized, violence comes to represent “the absolute praxis,” an absoluteness—an unbinding of the real, an ab-solving—that takes the form of an “irreversible act.” It is thus a de-ontologizing act that has an ontological status: the irreversible breaking of the real possesses the force of reality. This violence is necessary—the real is intolerable—but this necessity requires that we assume a position of absolute responsibility for the effects of our violent ab-solution from the intolerable real. Being responsible for violence means, first and foremost, recognizing the violence and force of our own “peaceful” praxis. “This is real” testifies to the irreversibility of our actions; we’ve made an event. If we neglect to consider the violence we visit upon the given, we risk becoming a force of absolute negativity, a violence without end which is endless for its refusal to name itself as violence. The praxis of freedom thus becomes a praxis of calm fury, and we’re left confirming Hegel’s remarks on the Terror: “It [death in the name of universal freedom] is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.”

We must be violent; we are being violent. But we can’t let our acts of violence become routinized, insignificant. The phrase “this is real” says, to those out there, outside of the ambit of the “this”: “The world you know is unreal, and we will make it unreal. You will not be able to recognize the world once we’ve made it otherwise, and you will not be able to recognize yourself in the world; you will not be able to recognize yourself. We will rip you from self-identity. We do this in the name of a better real.” This is our statement, and I have no objection to it. I simply hope that we—as opposed to a capitalist world-system that routinizes the destruction of positions of responsibility—maintain an ethical relationship to the violence we have enacted, are enacting, will enact. The “99%” (I really hate this term) have worked out compromises, constructed lives in a world increasingly closed to such constructions; they will be as disoriented as the “1%” in the event of the (violent) birth of a just world. This disorientation will be on us, on the effects we unleash, and we need to be responsible for this forceful disorientation. I’m not necessarily sure what form this responsibility should take, or how one can indeed be ethically responsible for political violence. I end with this uncertainty.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Yapping Away

The ecstasy that Melville describes in “A Squeeze of the Hand” (discussed here) shows how the labor process can itself generate resistances to the violence of capitalist labor regimes. For Melville, these resistances are embodied and affective: the hands-that-labor take in hand a kind of affective surplus that resists valuation, monetization, and so on. Grace Lee Boggs, long-time James collaborator, recalls something similar of her time as a factory worker during the Second World War: “There was a tremendous camaraderie. While our hands were busy wiring and soldering, our mouths were yapping away.” The phrase “yapping away” is fortuitous. If the profit-oriented labor process generates an affective and discursive surplus, these wayward words and affects are irreducible to pre-given structures of purposiveness—whether these are capitalist profit-making or anti-capitalist organizing. If, as a Hegelian ontology of labor would have it, labor is itself the power of negating the given, these moments of non-purposive sociality (yapping away) ironize the second moment of labor—when the negated given is purposively reconstituted in a new form.

Labor secretes the non-purposive, and intends keeping this secretion secret. The play of labor—squeezing hands, yapping mouths—is always over-coded by the for-structure of capitalism. Marx describes this for-structure in the Grundrisse: “Where money is not itself the community [Gemeinwesen], it must dissolve the community.” Money initially intends something beyond itself; it is used to exchange for use values. But as capitalist modalities of exchange become dominant, the for-structure of money becomes the community itself: “It [money] is itself the community [Gemeinwesen], and can tolerate none other standing above it.” Marx’s narrative seems little more than a Tonniesian narrative in which Gesellschaft replaces Gemeinschaft. But I want to think of Gemeinwesen—which we could translate as common-being, or, indeed, being-in-common—as a third term that gets us out of the unhelpful, nostalgia-laden binaries of an older sociology. We might think of this being-in-common as a non-purposive, factical sociality that indexes less a historical organization of a society that has been lost than an ontological possibility that continually shadows—and indeed is the ontological substrate of—purposiveness, the for-structures that dominate our thought of the economy, the political, and so on. In this sense, Gemeinwesen has not disappeared and cannot disappear. Indeed, in the squeezing hands and the yapping mouths we can see the activation of this Gemeinwesen at the heart of the for-structure of capitalism.

Marx will describe the same dynamic in terms of communist organizing, the “labor process” of political activism. “When communist workmen gather together,” he writes, “their immediate aim [Zweck] is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time, they acquire a new need—the need for society—and what appears as a means had become an end.” The substitutability of ends and means opens the kind of democratic circularity that I discussed in a previous post. This non-purposive sociality is the surplus of communist organizational efforts. He continues: “This practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating, and drinking, etc., are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in turn has society as its goal, is enough for them.” Marx describes a freeing of sociality from purposivity: modalities of association (smoking, eating, drinking) are not longer means of association but its enactment. This is, as he writes, “enough for them.” Yet, this “enough,” of simple satisfaction, is not a privation. For Marx, the enough-ness of Gemeinwesen generates a particular mode of appearance: “The brotherhood of man is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures.” The reality of this “brotherhood”—a problematic phrase indexing non-purposive sociality—shines (leuchtet), glows, radiates. Sociality here appears as a kind of halo, a para-material surplus that is not a tool, not reducible to technical purposivity, but signifies the completion and being-enough of that from which it radiates.

To ask what Occupy is “for” is to rip halos from heads, to subject the satisfaction of a sociality that is enough to over-coding by a for-structure that saturates the social with dissatisfaction. Even as people attempt this over-coding, at City Hall hands keep squeezing, mouths yapping, drums drumming, and associates eating, drinking, and smoking together. Occupy shines forth a fact scandalous to capitalist society: that sociality needn’t be for anything at all.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Squeeze of the Hand

The phrase, “This is what democracy looks like,” bears similarities to the species of utterance that logicians call an “ostensive definition.” Ostension relies on examples to define qualities or concepts that language itself is ill-equipped to define autonomously. The quality of being-red, for instance, is difficult to describe purely discursively. An ostensive definition of “red” posits the existence of a set containing “red” (i.e., color) that is exemplified by a bearer of redness in the world: “This color [e.g., of a rose] is red.” Ostension introduces a peculiar tension into logic and language. Through the dynamics of ostension, we see that ideality is yoked to a materiality that it can never fully sublate. The non-self-sufficiency of language necessitates that it take leave of its ideality and tarry with materiality. The deictic marker “this” indicates the mode by which concepts (re)turn to the concrete: pointing. Indeed, the etymology of “concept” (coming from “capere,” to take; the German term is similar, "Begriff" comes from “greifen,” to seize) shows that the physicality of the hand is inseparable from the ideality of the mental conception. The hand is the scandalous remainder—but also the initiating technology—of conceptual thought.

Hands are also the initiating technologyand scandalous remainder—of capitalism. On one hand, we have the “invisible hand,” a theory of capitalism’s distributional efficiency attributed to Adam Smith. Of course, Smith never speaks of “capitalism” and only used the term “invisible hand” a handful of times (three time, I think, in his lectures on astronomy, in Moral Sentiments, and in Wealth). Regardless of fidelity to the Smithian text, the term itself provides a vernacular (and, dishearteningly, even expert) normative conception of capitalism. Yet there is another set of hands that runs through Wealth of Nations: they appear when Smith attempts empirically defining how a market-system does (or should) function. These “hands” are, of course, laborers, figures for bodies that have been transformed into mere synecdoches by capitalism. We might think of the relay between Smith’s hyper-ideal “invisible hand” and the “hands” that labor as the relay we saw at work in ostensive definition: the invisible hand of capitalism can only be made to appear, to achieve definition, by turning to these all-too-material hands. Material hands concretize the invisible hand.

The becoming-material of capital is scandalous to capitalism—particularly in our day, when financialization and post-Fordism would have us believe that we participate in an immaterial economy, an informational economy. From the perspective of these narratives, we are to read capitalism as a process of invisibilization; the hands that labor are continually dematerialized, achieving the very ideality of Smith’s metaphor. Nothing would be easier than to posit an absolute distinction between hands in prior regimes of capitalism accumulation to the one that (supposedly) has taken hold today. Rediker, for instance, describes how the hands of sailors epidermalized their function within capitalist distribution. Tortured and toughened, deformed and calloused, one could tell a sailor by simply looking at his hands—hands marked, in effect, a form of race, a phenomenalization of one’s position within a society structured in dominance. Today, we are told, the paradigm of labor has shifted: the computerization of labor means that hands can remain lily white. (And my invocation of whiteness here is intended to show the ways in which this dematerialization of labor is itself circumscribed to a particular class that is itself structured through racial privilege.) But, of course, information labor cannot fully get rid of the real hands that labor. Consider Bartleby, for instance: how his hands must have (would have, had he preferred to labor) ached, cramped, and contorted. Computerized labor does the same: we now have a long list of occupational disorders. The invisible hand always touches down in (the form of) real hands.

Thus, the figure of the hands—otherwise an “abusive synecdoche” for laboring persons, in Bruce Robbins’ phrase—retains a revolutionary potential, insofar as it links the ideality of capitalism to the processes of its violent materialization. These hands are insistently material, the points at which capitalism matters. Capitalism necessarily produces this little point of materiality even as it seeks to sublate it into an a-material ideality. It’s from this point, the releve of a capital attempting to move beyond its dependence on hands, that we can begin taking in hand new futures.

And, indeed, hands are important to Occupy. Like “concept,” “Occupy” is etymologically linked to “capere”—it is a seizure of space, both a conception and a taking-in-hand of the commons. And hands, in their vibrant materiality, are on display at City Hall: drumming, clapping, “blinking” in affirmation, touching others, hugging, writing, and now freezing as the days shorten. And, I should add, defining, pointing, materializing a new conception of democracy. The “this” to which the slogan “This is what democracy looks like” points is a space in which the vibrant of materiality of the demos is demonstrated and taken in hand. A democratic materiality: here, pointing out democracy is to touch it, to touch one’s being-with-others.

I want to end with another invocation of Melville, this from the chapter of Moby-Dick entitled “A Squeeze of the Hand.” The matter upon which the workers labor (spermaceti) and the means by which they labor (their hands) is insistently and ecstatically present, the material means through which Ishmael comes to imagine a kind of democratic paradise. Melville’s Ishmael never names what takes place “democracy,” but we can. And we can see these squeezing whalers’ hands as prefiguring the insistently material hands materializing democracy at City Hall:

“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, - Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

Friday, November 4, 2011


A problem that has propelled my interest—and participation—in Occupy is the scission between the discourse it produces and the sociality it activates. The categories through which Occupy interprets itself in the media are typically the categories of power: one would believe it to be little more than a critique of finance capital and a demand for the return of a Keynesian state seeking to promote full employment. (These weak reformist demands are only radical to the extent that they are structurally not realizable.) We will miss the radical nature of Occupy if we limit ourselves to asking how effective it may be in producing reforms to the state, to finance, to capitalism in general. The new question—“What will victory for Occupy look like?”—is a trap. Asking Occupy to articulate a set of aims transcendent to itself is a means of asking Occupy to get innocuous, to fall in with official discourse before it produces a genuinely political, and even socio-ontological, event. Luckily, this event has already taken place, and it takes place everyday. We can descry a radical sociality that exceeds discourses of reformism in the repertoire of practices now common to the Occupy movement—practices that have not yet, but certainly will, find a conceptual language. The point now is to take this radical potential in hand, to begin to interpret the world from the concepts implicit in Occupy’s praxis. We need to become preoccupied with ourselves in order to limn the outline of the other world we might make.

What follows is something of an ethology, notes taken while on site. If the potentiality immanent to the movement is exorbitant to the outer world it critiques, we need to get a read on this potentiality, to see what we ourselves are doing in our average everyday interactions at City Hall. This is one attempt to build a set of keywords by which we might see the social logic implicit in Occupy’s modality of dwelling.



Oct. 6. Drumbeats, then, and subtle movements as I, we, stand around. A carnival atmosphere, as if the future we would like to make is already present. And in many ways it is: there is something of a Sunday taking place here as we gather. No one is working; rather, we are coordinating ourselves around a single site, sharing space, fashioning a new being in common. The tragedy inheres here: a communist sociality advenes at City Hall, enabling the critique of capitalism we put forth, but this advent of the commons seeks its own enfolding into non-revolutionary time. As if the truth of Sunday consisted in looking forward to Monday. But one should ignore the reformist discourse—more jobs, regulated Wall Street, and so on. One should instead listen to the drums and participate in this non-purposive sociality. Really, one cannot help but do so, for the laughter and shouting and clapping touch one, and one claps in response. The circulation of this affect encircles one; it figures the demos as a circle.

Affect indexes the state of the social. One is enraged, frustrated, hopeful, indifferent…But the communicability of affect means that it exceeds its indexical function (as sign) and produces events (as force). The telos of early utopian socialists—Fourier in particular—understood freedom as little more than the freeing of affect. Fourier desired the unimpeded flow of affect, passional energy linking man’s materiality to the world in common. Passions here literally make the world, which is defined as a set of energetic forces. The Fourierist phalanstery was to both prefigure this world (serving as an index of the future) and produce it (its example and sheer power forcing all to mimic its arrangements). In demarcating a site for being in common (like a phalanstery, like City Hall), a space is opened to coordinate the flow of affective intensities. Feeling makes this world; the movement is thus irreducible to slogans, cognized self-reflections—indices without force. It is for this reason that the movement’s assertion (“This is what democracy looks like”) is a failed apperception. “This is what democracy feels like” would be closer, but the dangling simile keeps the statement in the realm of the theoretical-reflective. It would be best to say: “This is democracy, and it feels.”

Feels what? The impossible “This” of the utterance, the force of its taking-place that is irreducible to indexing what-takes-place. It feels itself, gives itself to itself to be felt. But there can be no moment of reflexivity (the “this” and the “like” of the slogan assuming a phenomeno-political Subject-who-feels-and-knows). For the “this” that indexes the affectivity of democracy indexes nothing more (or less) than its spacing, and thus is striation, inadequation, and non-totality. The “this” of the slogan is an open broken space in which affect shares itself out—the kratia of the demos. It is not identical to itself, it is not like anything else: this “this” cuts open a space to let us share and play, one with another. And so, once more, drums and dance.

The origins of democracy (re)produce its telos. Democracy literally gets ahead of itself: the pulsation of affect, its sharing and intensification, intend nothing more than the extension of this intension through time. It neither begins nor ends: it performs its telos in its origination, in the cut of the “this.” And so the dialectics of the telos make no sense here. What “this” wants is to continue, but moreso—a process that entails continually extending the referent of the “this,” transforming the bare punctum into an expanding scene of circulation.

Circles, circulation, the circularity of ending at a beginning, the shape of a drum, the circles in which we sit—democracy figures itself circularly. This makes sense: I am describing the passage of non-purposive time, a social time with no transcendent aim or object that would cut a path out of the circle. (As Heidegger always claims, the difficulty is not getting out of a circle, but getting into one.) The revolutionary aim is “this”: to continue to revolve around and circulating through this aimless, auto-referential, auto-telic site. Democratic autoaffection is circulation, it affects itself as a circle, and it only desires itself. Which means others.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Autumn's Children

I haven't used this blog in forever, but given that Occupy is such a Jamesian event, and given that I'm writing constantly about Occupy for myself, I figured that I might as well begin posting. The piece below was written on October 16th. Happily, it's already dated.

Autumn's Children

We are witnessing, we are told, the emergence of an “American Autumn”—a moment of radical political possibility inspired by the pro-democratic movement called the “Arab Spring.” The citation of influence is symbolically valuable: it suggests that U.S. democracy is being revitalized, not threatened, by Arab-world populist movements. Despite the value of this discursive shift, we must be careful with our metaphors. By narrating global struggle as if it participated in the same unilinear chronology as seasonal change, the figure of an “American Autumn” threatens to hide from view the persistence of radical struggle in the Arab world. We must keep in mind that the “Arab Spring” and the “American Autumn” are now synchronous events. Despite this and other problems, the figure of an “American Autumn” conveys more than we might think. By recovering the meanings implicit in this figure, we can get a read on both the limits to and potentials for radical change in our political present.

The domination of a state by financial capitalism—the motivating complaint of the Occupy movement—is an autumnal phenomenon. Such is the conclusion that Fernand Braudel reaches in the third volume of his magisterial Civilization and Capitalism. Describing the process by which London overtook Amsterdam as the premier trade entrepot of Europe in the late-eighteenth century, Braudel suggests that Dutch capitalists’ reorientation toward finance capitalism contributed to their own demise. They “dropped the bird in hand to go chasing shadows,” abandoning the trade of material goods in favor of “a life of speculation and rentierdom.” They left “all the best cards to London” and “even financ[ed] her rival’s rise.” Far from being particular to the history of Amsterdam capitalism, Braudel suggests that the turn to finance signals the beginning of the end of any globally dominant power’s hegemonic reign: “Every capitalist development of this order seems, by reaching the stage of financial capitalism, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it [is] a sign of autumn.”

The U.S. has long since fallen into the autumn of finance capital, Giovanni Arrighi argues in The Long Twentieth Century. Arrighi charts the rise and fall of four hegemonic powers (Genoa, Holland, Britain, and the U.S.), substantiating Braudel’s claim that financial capital signals the autumn of one hegemonic power and the emergence of a new one. According to Arrighi, American autumn began decades ago: “Underneath the accelerating inflation and growing monetary disorder of the 1970s we can detect in new and more complex forms the dynamic typical of the signal crises of all previous systemic cycles of accumulation.” The loose monetary policy of the 1970s—designed to forestall inflation in the domestic U.S. economy—did not spur the “material expansion of the U.S.-centered capitalist world-economy.” Rather, the “liquidity created by U.S. monetary authorities…turned into petrodollars and Eurodollars,” which “re-emerged in the world economy as the competitors of the dollars issued by the U.S. government.” The Reagan administration attempted to repatriate this mobile money through pecuniary incentives (high nominal interest rates) and a drive toward financial deregulation. We know the result: “US and non-US corporations and financial institutions [gained] virtually unrestricted freedom of action in the United States.” What followed seems like a period of economic health—a new belle époque. But the flowers of finance capital are more like dying leaves—a multi-hued but ephemeral beauty that soon turns brown and ugly.

Arrighi’s analysis outlines some of the structural limitations of the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement began with a simple plea. It asked that the state occupy a position of responsibility, that it guarantee the availability of jobs, health care, education, and so on to all citizens. This is now a structural impossibility. If the turn to finance marks the transfer of power from one hegemon to another, the state to which U.S. protesters direct their pleas for financial overhaul, jobs, and economic redistribution is less empowered to act than we might hope. There is no political power capable of resolving today’s economic crisis. The neoliberal reforms through which the U.S. attempted to retain global hegemony effectively disembedded economic processes from territorial state control. Financial deregulation and free trade policies have produced a situation in which states cannot generate revenue by siphoning from the flows of capital traversing their boundaries. To attempt to build revenue from capital flows is to invite capital flight. The loss of revenue sources means that states are largely dependent on financial markets to provide basic services. And so the House’s primary constituent is Moody’s. Critiquing the House for this reality is a useless strategy. Their hands are tied; or, as Marge said long ago, there is no alternative. We have to give up our nostalgia for the Keynesian state. It won’t come back.

If the global economic crisis exceeds the scope of any single sovereign state, we might be tempted to look to supranational organizations to promote economic restructuring. Yet, the supranational organizations that do exist are feeble, lacking mechanisms to respond to mass demands and even the procedures to entertain them. For instance, many aspects of neoliberal reforms (and, indeed, capitalism itself) are in direct contradiction to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see, for instance, articles 22-26 of the UDHR), but obviously the UN has no mechanisms to enforce these rights, nor do we have the ability to present petitions or demands to the UN. As Adam Smith pointed out in that revolutionary year of 1776, capitalists always organize better than workers, and the truly functioning supranational organizations and mechanisms are those that have produced and reproduced the current crisis: the IMF, WTO, NAFTA, GATT… Both nation-states and supranational states are weak indeed compared to the power possessed by these globe-making organizations and mechanisms. Given the global scope of the crisis, it is unsurprising that we’ve seen the Occupy movement spread over the past few days. It’s autumn everywhere, and has been for some time.

Indeed, many involved in the youthful Occupy movements—I include myself—were born into this autumn, we’ve lived with its effects throughout our lives, and we’ve never known anything else. The destruction of the Keynesian state, the subsequent racialized war against the poor, the less metaphorical debt-fueled wars through which the U.S. has injects liquidity into the economy and attempts securing resources for itself, the financialization of daily life in the form of home mortgages, credit card debt, student debt, and the pegging of retirement funds to the whims of financial markets…these are the facts of the world into which we autumnal children were born. The rhetoric of the Occupy movement is saturated with a nostalgia for something—let’s call it a springtime—most of us have never experienced first-hand: that is, a political community that has not abandoned its citizens to the mystical workings of a self-regulating markets in goods, labor, and capital.

While this nostalgia makes Occupy rhetoric banal at best or naïve at worst, it has generated practical effects on the ground that prefigure new modalities of democratic community. Occupy camps have rearticulated subsistence needs (water, food, shelter, basic sanitation, even medical attention) with political participation. No one at a General Assembly need be hungry. In its commitment to feeding those who gather, Occupy demonstrates the viability of non-market modes of material distribution. (That the movement relies on donations—and thus the corporations that they protest—is a problem requiring resolution.) No doubt the situation is rather austere, but Occupiers seem more interested in the vibrant democratic sociality in which they participate than in pursuing an endless accumulation of wealth. The definition and experience of work subsequently shifts. Working at Occupy is not a burden nor a means to something more than work itself; it is the mode by which Occupiers make themselves responsible to and for one another. In short, Occupiers are doing far more than their slogans say: they are surrogating for the very state that has abandoned its obligations to them, and doing so in a radically democratic fashion.

The figure of “American Autumn” is split. On one hand, it names the melancholic fact that the state’s facilitation of finance capitalism has left it unable to meet the demands we make upon it. This situation produced the rage and anger that drove many to camp out in public spaces across the U.S. These protesters refuse the fact that the state has made itself structurally irresponsible to our pleas—time will tell whether these pleas will have practical effects or remain a utopian cry for a just state. On the other hand, “American Autumn” names a potentiality irreducible to explicit critiques of the articulation of the state and finance. It names the production of new communities, new forms of responsibility, new articulations of material subsistence and political belonging. This is the real value of the Occupy movement; this is where the work is happening. If autumn is a season of decay, it is also the time of harvest.