Monday, December 19, 2011

Radically Stylish (This Is What Democracy Looks Like II)

“This is what democracy looks like.” In my previous posts on this infinitely readable locution, I opposed the affectivity of ostension—the way that, at a certain point, the finger that points takes leave of the discursive and touches on the event of the political—to the residual mimeticism that the simile invites. Implicitly governing my reading was the idea that being-alike restrains the eruptive potentiality, the singularity, of the demos’ taking-place. I don’t know if I can unwork this opposition, or if it is worth doing so. I do, however, want to focus more on the event of looking-like, what appearing in a determinate fashion, appearing-as, has to do with revolutionary democracy. It’s of note that “This is what democracy looks like” typically a response to a demand, “Show me / Tell me what democracy looks like.” The imperative embedded in the call is, I think, a demand leveled at the concept of political democracy itself: Any democracy worthy of the name will necessarily appear, have a phenomenal status, give itself to be looked at in a way so particular that it can bear the weight of the “this.” We have to be able to see it, it has to look like something, it can’t hide in a conceptual ineffability, a future-oriented temporality, whatever. It might be that democracy is the conflation or the adequation of noumenality to phenomenality, of concept to what-gives-itself to sense. Better: the concept of democracy is always right at the flesh, the eyes, the body, the world. Its phenomenality is its noumenality. Democracy cuts a new figure for itself each time it appears, and it is nothing more than this appearance. A desperate superficiality. Let’s say that “This is what democracy looks like” uncovers the superficial secret of democracy as the non-secret of style—that is, the practices by which subjects make themselves appear in the world knowing well that their being in the world has no basis but this modality of making-appear.

I’m thinking about style quite literally. At a bar the other night, wearing my hobo coat that looks like a dirty carpet, Occupy Philly button properly affixed, someone told me that they liked my “look” and that they were glad that I occupy, as my button proclaimed. This is what democracy looks like, I guess. The encounter reminded me of the great, and greatly impoverished, discourse on clothes that met the emergence of Occupy. There was some half-witted New York Times article/slideshow, in which people a) apologized for the expense of the clothes they wore to a “protest” against “corporate greed” or b) came of with charming ways of not answering, giving partial answers, or embedding their clothes within a circuit of gift/thrift exchange so as to preserve non-/anti-capitalist authenticity. I’m not trying to mock the respondents; I imagine any answer I would give, at that moment, would be silly, a mix of (a) and (b). But I like how the article, in all its appalling fatuousness, exposed a discomfort with sartorial appearance within Occupy. What, after all, does one wear to a revolution? Which is to say: Given the necessity that, as people in the world, you cut some phenomenal figure, what figure will you cut? How will you style yourself? The silly photographer, the sillier editor who cooked up the idea, they actually leveled the same demand written above: “Show me what democracy looks like.”

If the Times piece showed that one could wear a $5,000 suit and be a prolie too, others highlighted the fact that we don’t all own $5,000 suits. All Occupiers smell, we need to take baths, we’re hippies, we don’t care about our appearances at all. Here, Occupy signifies as an aesthetic refusal; it refuses to be responsible for its mode of appearance, and, indeed, in appears in and through this appearance, its anti-style. Still others—I’m thinking of some silly Penn undergrad Facebook group, in particular—thought our democracy looked too cool. A bunch of tight-pants-wearing, cheap-booze-swilling, too-thin-looking, show-going cats who moved Brooklyn or NoLibs to Dilworth in response to trust-fund devaluation.

Out of all of the debates that Occupy has opened, this one seems the least important. No response would be more improper to the demand, “Show me…” than to describe what one is wearing, it would seem. But I want to think of the radical import of thinking democracy from the perspective of style. Etymologically, style derives from the Latin “stylus”: a writing instrument, a stake, something pointy, sharp. One cuts with a stylus, leaves a mark, an inscription. Style is a performative writing, and, as with most kinds of writing, it’s a writing that one cannot not undertake, even if one seems to refuse to style oneself, to write oneself, to give oneself to the senses of others. But we know “style” as a slightly debased term. Like graphical writing, style is just play on a surface, alterations of appearances that do not get to the actuality of the matter. And thus, I think, the radical (if mildly infantile) negativity of thinking democracy from the basis of style: it hollows out the conceptual gravitas of the term, its conflation with a) overvalued philosophemes and b) overvalued empirical/institutional factors (e.g., parliamentary systems). To simply describe one’s clothes in response to the demand would be to expose the false noumenality of democracy to the play of the phenomenal, to take the critical step of asserting that democracy is nothing more than the figure it cuts in the world (and heretofore it’s cut a fucking terrible figure). Democracy is simply a style of political sociality; the appearance of democracy has nothing underwriting it, no support, no conceptual core. Just a set of stylistic devices. The model it “looks like” is simply that iteration of democracy retroactively and metaleptically displacing its self-foundedness, its desperately superficial apparitionality, by fashioning itself as an exemplum of a pre-comprehended model.

But this critical move—the suggestion that the noumenality of democracy is exhausted by, and nothing more than, its phenomenality, that democracy is a style, a drag, a performance, an act—needs to be recuperated, ascribed a post-critical positivity. If democracy is nothing more than the apparition of democracy, democratic power-sharing would consist in the shared capacity to create and distribute appearances. A world free of theologically saturated concepts would be one in which style would matter in a most earnest way, because all that would remain would be the appearances that we are, the modalities in which we co-appear. Any democracy that does not give itself to sense is not a democracy, it’s an ideology, it’s a ghost, a trace, a word of command, a term that silences. Even ghosts cut figures in the world, appearing in a determinate fashion. The point, I think, is to let ourselves be haunted by the fact of our own materiality, the fact that we need to appear and co-appear—that we’re given over to a world in which we cannot not by stylish.

(Sorry for no links--writing and posting on train.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fiscal Polity; or, "What Does Occupy Cost Philly?"

I haven’t posted for some time because I’ve been finishing a dispatch for the SSRC Possible Futures project. Today I want to think about one dominant modality through which Occupy is represented in official media outlets—that is, the “cost” of Occupy to the municipalities in which occupations have taken place. I am curious about the very possibility of the question (“What does Occupy cost?”) and what this question indicates about political belonging and citizenship today.

Let’s say, quite simply, that fiscality is the modality through which the polity is made to appear in conditions of (neo)liberal capitalism. The question, “What does Occupy cost?” implicitly asks, “What does Occupy cost me, us, we who have contributed to the municipal fisc?” The who appears in the objective case (“me…us”) and as an effect of the what. The polity is subjectivated through the objectivity of accountancy. I stuttered on the “neo-” in “neoliberalism” because the process by which a polity figures itself through fiscal reform is nothing new—Magna Carta, anyone? But I do want to suggest that conditions of (neo)liberal parliamentarianism exacerbate the figurative function of the fisc.

I could make this claim historically. Following Parliamentary reform in 1832, which significantly (albeit modestly, by the standard of full suffrage) increased the British electorate, Richard Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League and his Financial Reform Association exploded in popularity. (To avoid lengthy explanations, the ACLL and FRA are the Tea Party’s ideological forerunners.) As Frank Trentmann’s Free Trade Nation suggests, Cobden’s liberal critique of British tariff and tax structure provided a political grammar for segments of society recently inducted into formal/institutional politics. This is in part because taxation was/is the primary modality through which “citizens” achieve recognition by the state. Let’s be clear: Cobden wanted to make sure that a greater portion of Britain’s net wealth would be available to private individuals for consumption—not tied up in supporting “corrupt” officials, the poor (c.f. Poor Law reform in 1834), or moribund colonies (c.f. the Sugar Duties Act of 1846). And thus the paradox: politics became the site where private individuals came to free themselves from the political, where the private (like private wealth, private consumption) could be shielded from political/state control. Fiscal representations (the budget, the debt) phenomenalize the polity as co-proprietors: this is our money. It also always represents the polity as co-proprietors of a failing, corrupt corporation. The solution is to “starve the beast,” to bring costs to zero. But in so doing, liberal critiques of the costs of the political threaten to render the polity a null-set. That is, if the liberal polity represents itself as a (too-great) monetary quantum, and if the solution is to bring this figure to zero, the polity works toward its own figurative dissolution, its own becoming-zero. If one defines the political as a site of cost-cutting, the disappearance of costs is the disappearance of the political. In a fantastic Liebestod, the liberal embraces the political at the moment of its death.

The (neo)liberal paradigm of the political is thus managerial efficiency. I’m struck by the fact that that fucking asshole, Bloomberg, lists “Entrepreneur” before “Mayor of New York City” in his biographical description on his Twitter feed. This won’t strike many as scandalous—after all, people voted for him because of his economic success, they wanted him to run NYC as one runs a profitable corporation, and, indeed, to refashion NYC as a city in which others would want to run corporations. The polity decided to make the telos of the political something exorbitant to the political, to transform the political into an instrument for capital accumulation. The efficient conduction of economic growth is now the “deliverable” of the political.

The question of costs is the mode by which the fiscal-polity attempts to contain the eruption of the political. And, let’s be clear, the monetary figures published by cities throughout the U.S. are figures—that is, metaphors that indicate nothing but that are set to work to capture the incalculability of the political. When Citizen Bob hears that Occupy Philly costs the city over a million dollars (the number released was more precise, thus more real), Bob imagines that that million dollars could have been better spent on a school, a bridge, or whatever; Citizen Palin declares it shouldn’t have been spent at all, but returned to consumer-citizens in the form of tax cuts. But the money that we’re talking about is not the same kind of money sitting in an interest-bearing bank account. Ramsey and Nutter didn’t—nor could they—run to an ATM to pay police overtime, and it’s not because a cash-strapped Philadelphia would have been overdrawing. The one million dollars are, first of all, so many accountancy units, not liquid funds with which I could buy 847938 vegan cheesesteaks. The public force of the numbers, their ability to enrage Citizens Bob and Palin, derives from the conflation of money-as-unit-of-account, money-as-medium-of-exchange, and money-as-wealth. Certainly, these modalities of money teeter into one another, but they’re not identical. The “costs” of the political, I’m suggesting, are purely notional at this point. Incalculablity drags as calculability. (Any transnational firm knows this: intra-corporate transfers of goods are priced for accountancy purposes, but without a market mechanism these prices are at best approximations. This is how slave plantations worked also. Thanks, dissertation!) And so the citation of the figure is merely a reinscription of the logic of fiscality against the incalculability of the political.

We live in incalculable times. If the bloat of finance capital has taught us nothing, it’s that the capitalist value-form has mutated beyond the value-form that Ricardo developed and Marx dissected. As Negri would put it, the declining purchase of the classical value-form exposes the coercion at the core of any capitalist regime—money is no longer indicative of value, it is simply a performative language of command. The subject positions that emerged in the composition/distribution of value (variable capital and constant capital, laborer and capitalist) come apart in a hyperfinanced world-system, insofar as money comes to valorize itself autotelically. (Money making money without the mediation of a commodity-value: M-M` instead of M-C-M`.) We could see Occupy as a response to the dissolution of capitalist forms of value and thus liberal forms of accountancy and calculability. Occupy camps refuse to count—or at least to count in available fiscal grammars. I’m sure that someone, somewhere is doing a costs/benefits analysis of Occupy Philly, placing the expense of police against the social services (like feeding the homeless, providing medical attention, and so on) provided on site. But these numbers could only be, as numbers today could only be, metaphorics. Nothing is being counted. Indeed, what we are seeing is a struggle over the ethics of incalculability—a struggle between a capitalism that now truly runs naked, without the cloak of the value-form covering its secret shame, its incalculable power of coercion, and a few thousand people who pitch tents and seek to reembed this incalculable power within an instituted democratic polity.

Meanwhile, Philly suburbanites will continue to be upset that the battle for control of the incalculable costs a quantum of cash.