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.

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