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.

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