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.)

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