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.

No comments: