Monday, December 31, 2012

Occupy, the FBI, and the Prose of Counterinsurgency

Imagine for a moment that you are a historian, one hundred years from the present, seeking to recompose the history of social movements in the early decades of the 21st century. Imagine for a moment that—due to some cataclysmic failure of informational storage systems—the entire archive of texts, images, and videos composed by Occupiers has disappeared, leaving no trace on the Internet. You would have to go about your historiographical labors in much the same way as those of us who study historical social movements do. You would be forced to rely on state archives for basic information about the movement—archives that are saturated with the paranoid fantasies of the state agents who composed them. You would be forced to rely upon documents like the recent trove of FBI papers released upon a FOIA request.

These documents have provoked a great deal of outrage among erstwhile Occupiers and their sympathizers. Naomi Wolf writes that the documents show “a terrifying network of coordinated DHS, FBI, police, regional fusion center, and private-sector activity so completely merged into one another that the monstrous whole is, in fact, one entity: in some cases, bearing a single name, the Domestic Security Alliance Council.” Moreover, the documents “show the cops and DHS working for and with banks to target, arrest, and politically disable peaceful American citizens.” Indeed, it is the way in which these documents recode the peacefulness of these “citizens” that is particularly galling to commentators such as Wolf: these documents—many of which were written before Occupy actually materialized, when Occupy was only a specter, a movement to-come—treat Occupy as a potentially violent, radical, even terroristic movement. The response of Occupiers to this coding has been predictable, and this response has followed two lines. First, the documents are taken as evidence that the state works in close coordination with finance capital in order to ensure the functioning of capitalism, even if this means impinging upon First Amendment rights. Second, the documents are seen as pure fantasies, as paranoid misrecognitions of the essence of Occupy. Occupiers, as Wolf writes, were both “peaceful” and “American citizens,” people who comfortably inhabited a position of political subjectivity that entitled them to the peaceful exercise of certain rights. In short, responses from Occupiers have amounted to disidentifications: Within the state archive, Occupy does not appear as it actually was.

But is this the only way to read this archive—as proof of a conspiracy, as a misperception of the real? Archives, as Ann Laura Stoler tells us, are sites of fantasy, realms wherein states strive to come to terms with the limits of their capacity to know, to determine and dictate the future. Archives are thus not simply sites of knowledge production, wherein, say, the FBI would come to know the truth of Occupy. Rather, archives are formed through the “subjunctive mood of official imaginings,” as Stoler puts it, and the subjunctive of official imaginings gives access to “the uneven presence of what was imagined as the possible, the tension between what was realizable and [what] was romance, between plausible plans and implausible worlds.” Archives, in short, are saturated with affects and imaginaries, forebodings of topsy-turvy futures that impinge upon the ways in which state agents give figure their political present tense.

We who read historical archives for traces of subaltern resistance frequently have nothing more than these moods, these projected futures, these “archive romances.” Over time, we’ve become pretty good at reading—along and against the archival grain—for traces of social movements caught within the “prose of counterinsurgency.” Such reading practices always already exceed (or won’t be able to convince proponents of) a positivist historiographical method, insofar as these reading practices embed the archive within a field of polemic, power, and politics; we end up reading the politics of the archive as much as an archive of politics. I’ve been comfortable with this reading practice for as long as I can remember—it’s why I study literature, strangely enough. But I find myself doubting (in good positivist fashion) the adequacy of this hermeneutic as I read Wolf's disavowal of radicalism, as I read tweets that bizarrely respond to Occupiers’ archival figuration as militant radicals by denying that Occupy was ever radical. These doubts assemble themselves in a series of questions: Is our ability to detect traces of insurgency in the prose of counterinsurgency simply dependent upon the subalternity of our insurgents? What, in the end, makes me (as radical historian of “radical” movements) different from the FBI, ascribing an insurgent force to non-insurgent peoples, to “peaceful citizens”? Is the only way to make Occupy as radical as it could have been to systematically eradicate its archive, as I hypothetically did at the start of this paper? To leave us with nothing but the official imaginings of paranoid state agents, fucking idiots who (even in these documents!) think that “black bloc” is a club one can join—but who are also pretty scared of it?

It might be more useful to treat the subjunctive mood of state archives—a mood that frequently drags in the indicative—as indicating a potentiality whose existence social actors are themselves but faintly aware of. The value of the FBI documents doesn’t consist in their evidence of a state conspiracy, organized at the federal level, to maintain the smooth function of capitalism against those who would disrupt it. No shit: that’s what the state does, and the state’s gonna state. (Sidebar: The conspiratorial imagination of pop leftism and Occupy, as if the awful of capitalism only becomes real when seven evil dudes meet in a room and hatch evil plans.) Rather, the value of the FBI documents consists in their recognition of the potential that we had, perhaps fleetingly, perhaps more enduringly. A sad fact of the left in the U.S. is that the paranoid fantasies of the right are more leftist than Yankee leftism. Striking to me in reading these FBI documents is how strong we seemed, how powerful, how deserving of being feared. The worst possible response to these documents is to declare, “You crazies! We were never worthy of fear! We were good peaceful American citizens!” We need instead to consider how it is that the paranoid fears of the state always outstrip our capacity to realize revolutionary programs—even when, as the FBI makes clear, we had that power.

Isn’t the problem that we never became that which a fearful FBI said we were?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Pulp of Fiction: Django, Genre, and Slavery

“When slave narratives are done on film,” Quentin Tarantino says, regarding his film Django Unchained, “they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.” Tarantino tropes the adoption of a particular generic mode as an act of (salutary) historiographical violence. Against filmic slave narratives that would place history at a remove, behind the glass of a museum exhibition, Django shatters this historiographical-aesthetic speculum in order to inscribe slavery within new economies of sense and sensation. The viewer of Django is no longer distanced from the history it relates; rather, the viewer is “take[n…] into it,” a trespass into the real of history in which the order of the sanitary and sanitized visual is replaced with the scandalous sensuousness of embodied violence. One will still access this history via audiovisual mediation—Django is a film—but the sense of this history registers immediately, in the violent affectivity of viewing bodies affected by violence. This is Tarantino’s gift to the slave narrative: For the first time, someone will “take you into it,” into slavery, into a history of violence unmediated by fetishized legal instruments (Lincoln, Amistad) or by displacement of affect to an exemplary witness (Amazing Grace, etc. etc.)

Tarantino’s generic selection has occasioned a great deal of debate and criticism, the most cited of which has come from Spike Lee.  The pulpy generic mode deployed by Tarantino, Lee tells us, is inadequate to the history of violence that Tarantino treats. It is so inadequate that Lee refuses to see the film. As Lee told VibeTV, “It'd be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film. That's the only thing I'm going to say. I can't disrespect my ancestors.” Later, on Twitter, Lee would write, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them.” Tarantino’s act of historiographical violence—his shattering of the “history-under-glass aspect” of slave narratives—is disrespectful in an etymological sense: Tarantino’s film does not look correctly at slavery, it doesn’t adopt the proper speculative or specular apparatus, it disrespects a history that should only be available to a speculative mode of recovery that keeps slavery at an awed distance. Lee’s critiques have filtered through the public sphere. At the LA Times, Erin Aubry Kaplan writes: “ A white director slinging around the n-word in a homage to '70s blaxploitation à la Jackie Brown is one thing, but the same director turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction is quite another.” “Pulp fiction” attempts taking leave of the ordered economies of sense presupposed by middlebrow film in order to render “savageness” sensible in non-speculative forms; “turning slavery into pulp fiction” would violate the aesthetic and historigraphical norm that would position slavery as something uniquely unavailable to we who posses our bodies in non-transgressible ways. We might all bitch about Spielberg’s Lincoln, as it were, but at least Lincoln did not engage in the fantasy that the glass separating us from slavery could be shattered—at least Lincoln, by foregrounding the necessity of a specular apparatus, an apparatus that mediates history and that Lincoln names Lincoln, refuses the white fantasy that the horror of slavery could ever become an object of immediate experience for film-goers in 2012. And so on. At this point, the critiques of Tarantino write themselves.

I don’t want to defend Tarantino; I don’t care for his work, really, and, like Lee, I haven’t yet seen the film. (Unlike Lee, I will.) I am puzzled, though, by two claims organizing the discourse of Tarantino and his critiques. First, Tarantino and his critics assume that there is something singular about Tarantino’s act of “turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction.” Second, Tarantino’s critics assume that the politics and imaginative possibilities of a genre are aprioristically determined: pulp fiction amounts to a kind of aesthetic titillation that lacks the piety and political purchase of other modes of narration. As a kind of pulp fiction, Django makes slavery mere entertainment; as stylized genre piece, Django risks being nothing more than “insensitive, exploitative and ahistorical,” in Erin Aubry Kaplan’s terms.

Yet, these claims are themselves grossly “ahistorical.” First, slavery has provided pulp fiction with raw narratological and thematic material since the emergence of the multiple genres of pulp fiction in the nineteenth century. Far from being singular, Tarantino returns pulp fiction to its historical roots. Story papers, dime novels, and penny dreadfuls emerged in a world turned by slavery, and the stuff of slavery was readily incorporated into these popular narrative modes. An engagement with slavery was, in part, a necessity for U.S. dime novelists whose romances thrived in foreign and tropical climes: the centrality of Mexico and Cuba to dime novelists meant that readers encountered diverse modalities of bonded and unfree labor. Moreover, the dynamics of slavery that make it such an object of horror lent themselves to the sensational modes of representation forged by dime novelists; slavery provided dime novelists with the illicit sex, miscegenation, violence, and revenge fantasies that charged their narratives and made them popular successes. And the thematics and metaphorics of slavery were taken over by white dime novelists in the urban northeast concerned with “wage slavery” under conditions of the failure of Jeffersonian republicanism and emergent industrial capitalism. Slavery was always already turned into “pulp fiction”—it was, indeed, the pulp of this fiction.

This history might only serve to buttress Lee’s claims that pulpy modalities of narrative obscure, sensationalize, and disrespect the real histories of slavery; Tarantino, like George Lippard, may only have drawn on the narrative and thematic materials of slavery in order to tell a tale with ambiguous political consequences. Indeed, pulp modes of representation only bore a fantasmatic relation to slavery, and these fantasies could be set to work with racist and imperialist ambitions (e.g., the articulation of racism, imperialism, and “wage slavery” well tracked by, well, many of us). But they could also operate in the opposite direction. I’m thinking, first off, of the history of public reception of the Amistad Africans that Marcus Rediker has recently traced. Rediker gives a fair amount of attention to the various aesthetic modes by which the events on the Amistad became culturally intelligible to working class U.S. citizens. He focuses in particular on the play The Black Schooner, performed at the Bowery Theater. The play—as well as engravings, lithographs, and a traveling wax museum—helped keep the case of the Amistad Africans before the popular eye and helped generate massive public support for them. As Rediker makes clear, the managers at the Bowery did not put on The Black Schooner in the name of engendering abolitionist or antislavery sentiments; rather, they put it on because the sensational tale of the Amistad Africans fit neatly into pulpy narratives of revenge popular everywhere. Antislavery was an almost accidental byproduct of the play, but—at least in the very specific case of the Amistad—it was a byproduct.

The Black Schooner would reappear in another work of pulp fiction, this time in Emmanuel Appadocca; or, Blighted Life, a dime novel written in 1854 by a young Trinidadian of color, Michel Maxwell Philip. (I disagree with Belinda Edmondson’s characterization of the work as an enactment of “Caribbean middlebrow” lit, as I argue in my diss book manuscript.) A pirate tale, Emmanuel Appadocca is a revenge fantasy in which the eponymous mulatto hero sails his ship, the Black Schooner, seeking vengeance against his white Anglo father who has abandoned his (possibly enslaved) black mother and himself. Philip’s text seems to disrespect the history upon which it draws—the text even features an utterly racist minstrel character, distinguishing the mulatto hero’s Europeanized culture from the debased culture of “more African” slaves. Written a decade and a half after the end of slavery in the British Empire, Philip’s historical romance draws upon the narrative resources of pulp fiction (narratives of disguise and revenge, stark lines of good and evil, melodramatic soliloquy and dialogue, etc) and slavery (miscegenation, juridical orphanage, neglect, self-interested accumulation). It does so not simply to spin a good yarn, but to offer a) a critique of the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act and b) a critique of economic liberalism’s reconstitution of the British Empire, one that left the West Indies abandoned and neglected by the erstwhile mercantilist imperial center. The affectivity of slavery coupled with the story-form of pulpy fiction enabled Philip to translate a critique of a politico-economic situation utterly deleterious to the lives of the Caribbean’s recently freedpeople into terms understandable by those metropolitan liberal do-gooders who emancipated Britain’s slaves and then emancipated Britain’s economy from its former slave colonies. One could proliferate examples of blacks in the Americas deploying sensationalistic modes of narration for politically useful ends: Delany’s Blake, Des Sources’ Adolphus, and so on.

In short, the politics of a genre cannot be determined aprioristically—we need to engage with the particularity of each text as it emerges from a given cultural matrix. Within the Americas, slavery has always been implicated within a populist cultural matrix that drew upon the narrative resources and metaphorics of slavery to tell sensational tales and, sometimes, to work for politically worthwhile ends. If slavery has always been the stuff of pulp, the museumization of slavery is a secondary formation. And this museumization is dreadfully incomplete. For one, there is not, after all, a federal museum dedicated to slavery, nor is there a national holiday in which the U.S. remembers (or tries to remember) its terrible founding fact. Moreover, even as the rhetoric of a particular memory of slavery continues to permeate U.S. culture, this popular memory of slavery tends to be as ahistorical as the pulp narratives disseminated by Tarantino, the Bowery Theater, or Michel Maxwell Philip. At a certain point, showing “respect” for slavery has translated into not talking about it. A museumized object without a museum, slavery has transformed into a sublime and aesthetically unavailable factum that enables us to not engage with it. If Django Unchained shatters “history-under-glass” modes of representing slavery, it’s crucial to recall that the pop high/middlebrow historiography of slavery in the U.S. is all glass and no history—a transparent bar that distances us from a history without revealing an object on the other side.

This is not to say that Django is good or politically viable. It’s rather to say that there is a long tradition in the Americas of drawing upon slavery for the telling of sensational tales. Making ahistorical and aprioristic evaluations of Django on the basis of its generic affiliation is to liquidate over a hundred years of cultural history—a history in which the meaning of slavery was worked out by ordinary non-enslaved people for good or ill, and, occasionally, descendents of slaves who felt the best way of respecting their ancestors was to make the stuff of their history, sensationally rendered or not, available to others for politically useful ends. Django’s appearance of exceptionality simply testifies to bourgie middlebrow culture’s success in enclosing and engrossing the cultural commons of slavery—as if the line running from Stowe to Spielberg amounts to the only possible and existent mode of representing slavery. But the culture of slavery was always more common than that, and had to be, for slavery touched on and informed every sphere of life in the Americas for centuries. This commonness did not translate into political progressiveness; as noted, pulpy investments of slavery could be as racist as a rant from Thomas Carlyle. The point is that Tarantino’s pulp doesn’t bring us into the real of history; rather, it returns us once more to an impious cultural field in which the meaning of slavery was worked out, contested, and made the subject of popular debate.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Irregular Lives, the 2nd Amendment, and the Politics of Grief

Yesterday’s catastrophe is irreducible. It stuns; it stops thought. It stopped mine, at least. I was in my office at campus, working on an article. Completing a section, I took a break to get another cup of coffee and to check out the news. And then I became nauseous. I forgot about writing, I opened up 12 news sites, I turned on a live feed of a news station, and I lingered over twitter feeds. Over three hours passed and I hadn’t really moved—I just clicked here, clicked there, and engaged in the kind of sense-making operations that many others were then undertaking. I watched as collective grief transformed into demands for collective action, into petitions for firmer gun regulation, even into programs for amending the Constitution to get rid of the 2nd Amendment. I watched as, with the same insistence, some demanded that we not “politicize” this catastrophe, at least not yet; that we wait a day, at least, before the political is superadded to this public event of intimate grief. The two positions—the first liberal-progressive in spirit, the second not necessarily not liberal, but certainly one that lends itself to a conservative tactics of delay, to a tactics of diffusal and affective dissipation—establish a similar relationship between the intimate and the political, between the event and the collective meaning we might give it. The narrative would look like this: The catastrophic event happens; it affects us, we who have become an intimate public; and, having affected us, we turn to a collective political vocabulary to negotiate and act upon the affectivity of the event. Intimate feeling turns into a public meaning, and such meanings might have political consequences. Grief—or any other kind of intimate affect—is thus staged as a condition of possibility for public political activity. The latter only appears necessary—truly necessary, such that such a catastrophe will not happen again—due to the way that the former, the felt relation to the even, conducts us to activity.  We are profoundly sad, and this sadness propels us to political action—like, say, getting rid of the 2nd Amendment.

But here’s the problem. This understanding of the articulation of the intimate/affective to the political presupposes the sundering of affect and politics. Moreover, it presupposes that the purity of affect precedes the polemics constitutive of political being: Whatever one’s politics, one will have felt horrible yesterday. The purity of our affective lives ensures us access to the pure catastrophe of the event, and guards our motivations from becoming crassly political—even if, say, we want to undertake the eminently politic work of amending the Constitution. But—and here, finally, is the problem—what if the political precedes the affective? What if modes of collective regulation produce what can be felt as an intimate event? We are seeing, now, that grief over yesterday’s catastrophe is providing the condition of possibility for amending the 2nd Amendment. But what of that grief—how was it formed in such a way that it would, almost naturally, mobilize itself into a public vocabulary of redress, of counter-amendment? I want to suggest that it is the 2nd Amendment itself—the history from which it emerged, the culture in which it is embedded—that produces and regulates what can appear as grievable, mournable loss. Let’s begin thinking about this regulation of grief by looking at an ungrievable crisis.

It is obvious, in the wake of this catastrophe, that not all catastrophes matter equally, that not all catastrophes can accede to the category of the catastrophic. It is obvious that not all catastrophes participate in the obviousness constitutive of the catastrophic. Over the summer, for instance, Chicago went through a horrific period of gun violence, of spiking homicide numbers. While this violence achieved national legiblity, it did so not as a catastrophe, but as an on-going crisis, as something that, while exceptional, was ordinary. This crisis achieved ordinariness due to the conjoint operation of its temporalization and its spatialization. Taking place over multiple days, multiple months, the time of this crisis was diffused; it lacked the punctuality of an event. This crisis also took place in “gangland,” in a racialized space where the ordinary is always already in crisis, anyhow. The mounting body count did occasion public outcry, but this outcry was bizarrely regularized through the crisis’ mode of appearance: through statistics, charts, graphs. The deaths were publically considered horrendous, but they were met without weeping; Rahm never cried. The deaths were a police problem, not a collective political problem; they were a particular and particularizable problem, one endemic to racialized poverty. A police problem, these non-catastrophic deaths did not really engender a broad movement designed to take down the 2nd Amendment.

How does this instance of ungrievable, ordinary crisis derive from the 2nd Amendment’s mode of affective regulation, such that this crisis would barely call into question the utility of the 2nd Amendment? Let’s think about what the 2nd Amendment is. We want to think of the 2nd Amendment as having emerged out of a concern for national self-defense, of protecting the family from depredations of the King and Crown or of the emergent federal state. In those terms, we can almost make sense of it. These “well regulated militias”—and let’s laugh, as historians of the colonial Americas, at the ideas that such a “well regulated” crew ever existed—and the well-armed citizenry existed, we think, to protect the U.S. from a kind of political enslavement. And that’s not untrue; tropes of tyranny and enslavement mark the debates prior to ratification of the constitution and the amendments. Good ole Teddy Sedgwick declared it “a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved…Is it possible…that an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves or their brethren? or, if raised whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands?” The problem, of course, is that colonial militias typically did far more work ensuring the continued enslavement of slaves than in defending home and hearth from British redcoats. In most slave states in the Americas, participation in a “well regulated militia” was compulsory. Even if such militias never acted—as they did in the suppression, say, of Nat Turner’s Rebellion—their very presence was useful in intimidating slaves from actualizing collective freedom dreams. Moreover, possession of firearms and possession of slaves are statistically related. “Guns are more common in early American inventories,” write James Lindgren and Justin Heather, “where the decedent was male, Southern, rural, slave-owning, or above the lowest social class[.]” (“Decedent” because their data sets were constructed through probate records.) The likelihood of owning a gun increased as did the size of one’s slave possessions: “In 1774, large slave-owners have 4.3 times as high odds of owning a gun as small slave-owners or those who owned no slaves.” Gun ownership was intimately linked to regulating racialized and stratified populations inside of the nation.

Put simply, the 2nd Amendment emerged out of a juridico-politico-cultural matrix in which bearing arms ensured the sovereignty of the white protestant male. (You can check out the English Bill of Rights here to see how this right, in England, emerged to enable the defense of such white prot dudes from “Papists”—itself a racial category in the Anglo Atlantic.) We see traces of this matrix in the vocabulary of the amendment itself—“the security of a free state,” “the people”—terms that mark sections of a population off from others. We might think that such history has nothing to do with us today: there are no more slaves, after all, and descendents of slaves can own guns like anyone else. Yet, the cultural norms and practices that concreted themselves in the 2nd Amendment continue to regulate the distinction between mournable and unmournable life, between grievous catastrophe and non-catastrophic modes of not-being-alive, of death without weeping. By enabling a population—“the people” who live “in a free state”—to defend itself against those who live in a state of unfreedom, the amendment participated in the material and symbolic assignment of value to lives worth living, and thus deaths worth grieving.

We think of the 2nd Amendment as we think of all rights-claims: it works through negation, it says, “Don’t take my guns away.” But it operates positively, too. The 2nd Amendment valorizes one particular form of life by giving this valued life the gift of violence, the capacity to undo other modes of living that interfered with its flourishing. All of us now can perhaps own a gun, but the simple possession of a gun does not mean that we have traversed the threshold of political legibility required to live a mournable life. We can see the enduring capacity of the 2nd Amendment to regulate grief and the grievable in the categories that we are deploying to mourn yesterday’s tragedy. I’ve been stunned by the heteronormativity and reproductive futurism that informs our collective mourning. “They had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own,” Obama said, as he “react[ed] not as a president, but as anyone else would—as a parent.” Here, straightness is both the object and optic of mourning: proleptically straight children will never be able to have “weddings” and have “kids of their own,” and only those who have done so, the “parent,” have full access to the overwhelming grief of the event. Queerness—alternative modes of life—can neither be mourned, nor can queers properly mourn. I’ve been struck, too, by the non-racialization of the victims, whiteness being the presumed race unless otherwise stated. “It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting,” I heard one reporter say of Newtown—as if such picturesque normalcy intensified the tragedy of the event.

If we are to (am)end the 2nd Amendment, we must take care to uproot its enduring capacity to regulate grief, to regulate determinations of well-lived lives worthy of mourning. School shootings induce such horror due in part to the way in which instruments developed to ensure the flourishing of “well regulated” life—normal life, straight life, white life—catastrophically redound against that population. The violent, on-going crises of the everyday that beset life less well regulated—the lives of black men in “gangland” Chicago, the lives of queers, the lives of the poor, and so on—do not and cannot achieve the same kind of catastrophic legibility. The 2nd Amendment never intended to cover such unregulated life, it never intended to provide it the mechanisms of protection required to flourish. As we grieve, as this grief propels us to action, we need to remain conscious of how this grief has already been formed and fabricated by histories that produce unmournable lives and ungrievable losses. As we seek to regulate laws that inhibit regular lives from being lived, we need to attend to the irregularity at the margins of normal life, to the (ir)regular crises of the everyday that never congeal themselves into a moment of catastrophic tragedy.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln and the Ugly Origins of the 13th Amendment

It’s the most shocking scene in Spielberg’s Lincoln. After a dramatic climax in the House chamber, Thaddeus Stevens returns to his home, bearing the official copy of the 13th Amendment. Stevens eventually makes it to bed, with his mulatto housekeeper, friend, and romantic partner, Lydia Smith. And here’s where it gets shocking: In their shared bed, Stevens gives Smith the text of the amendment, and Smith reads it. Aloud. For Stevens and for us, the audience.

Why is this shocking? I want to suggest that the condition of possibility for the dramatics of the narrative to be dramatic, the condition of possibility for the story to lovingly depict the parliamentary machinations required to emancipate slaves, is that this amendment, its very text, not be read. The amendment cannot be read if we are to affectively invest in the story, if we are to read this as a story of the generalization of juridical freedom. And that’s because, well, if you were to rip the amendment out of context, if you were to read or hear the text from the very beginning of the play, you might become confused, you might decide that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, you might think, “Wait, I thought we were trying to abolish slavery, not provide positive constitutional mechanisms for establishing it.” So, let’s read it:

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

“…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Let’s leave this clause hanging, and think about the varied ways in which Lincoln has been criticized from the left. (I want to note, at the outset, that I’m in full sympathy with these critiques.) Kate Masur has critiqued this scene for staging in micro the film’s general assumption that freedom was a gift handed over to passive blacks by do-gooder whites; Steven literally hands freedom to Stevens. Masur directs our attention to the public and activist lives of the black characters whom Lincoln treats as bit players (Keckley, Smith) in order to recover black agency in the work of antislavery. Others have extended and intensified Masur’s critique, with Aaron Bady in particular showing how the film’s investment in not foregrounding black emancipationist agency derives from its “realist” optimism in liberal reformism. Bady directs us toward more radical interpretations of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction—Du Bois and Foner, mostly. Foner himself makes the point that slavery was already dying if not dead; the 13th Amendment is a juridical-textual inscription of an accomplished social movement, the Du Boisian “general strike” of slaves fleeing toward Union lines. All of these critiques want to locate the social and political origins in the amendment in black (and feminist) social movements, and surely they’re correct: emancipation became a juridical necessity as a consequence of such movements. But if the impulse to generalized emancipation derived from black self-activity, where might we locate the origins of the emancipatory text itself? And why—given that the text actually enables positive legal arguments for slavery—do we think of this amendment as actually emancipatory? Between on-the-ground emancipatory self-activity and its legal inscription, something got in the way, some kind of legal reasoning that translated an absolute refusal of servitude into a conditional refusal: “…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Where did this legal reasoning originate?

We need to keep in mind that positive-legal authorizations of slavery from the federal legislature were rather scant. Federal statute laws that took “slave” as a juridical category typically operated according to a principle of comity: If the legal regime of x state treated a black person as property, the legal apparatus of y state would need to so treat that property in the event of, say, the capture of a fugitive. Massachusetts would have to respect Carolinian law. That’s not the same thing as the production of a positive federal law authorizing slavery—it rather places the burden of legitimation on a given state. Broadly speaking, federal law treated slavery in a de facto fashion; its juridical positivity was a state-based affair. And thus the strangeness of the 13th Amendment: in consolidating a national legal regime, it actually produces a positive legal rule for enslavement: “…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Why this clause? Where did it come from? As it appears in the film, particularly at the moment of its reading, the amendment is a highly localized, domestic affair. In Smith’s mouth, the amendment does double work: it functions simultaneously as public/legal and private/intimate speech, even as the physical circulation of the document articulates the congressional chamber with the congressman’s bedchamber. And, indeed, it’s only within this domestic context that the text is legible as an antislavery instrument—we need to know that the do-gooders in the film will not use this amendment as a legal argument for enslaving blacks. We need to know, through constant assertions, that this is an instrument of freedom—as, indeed, it was. But what if we pry this amendment from its domestic moorings, if we set it adrift in a field of international legal reasoning?

We would actually see that the legal instrument of the 13th Amendment, the Amendment of Emancipation, draws upon the legal reasoning of slavery. Writ positively, the amendment might read: “Slavery shall exist only on condition that the party shall have been duly convicted of a crime.” But that is precisely the mode of legal argumentation used to justify slavery and, moreover, the slave trade. Enslaved Africans were already convicted, as a proslavery jurisprudence had it. This conviction might have been theological and racial in origin—the curse of Ham. But there were non-theological legal arguments made as well. Slavery, apologists argued, was a recognized feature of African legal regimes. Persons could be enslaved under African commercial law (debt law, for instance), under African criminal law (as a punishment), or under African jus gentium (as a mode of humanely dealing with prisoners of war). Curiously, these apologists—elsewhere and always ready to cast Africans as decultured, uncivilized, as lacking anything like a state—understood Atlantic slavery as the effect of a kind of comity, of Atlantic legal regimes accepting juridical distinctions made in Africa by Africans. (These arguments, of course, tended to break down once the inheritability of the status of slave required defending.) I’m suggesting, though, that the amendment itself draws upon a mode of international legal reasoning that was always functional for the maintenance of slavery.

So, one effect of the Amendment’s passage was, strangely, to deactivate a mode of legal reasoning that ascribed legal reasoning to African polities—that saw Africans, and not just those in Sierra Leone or Liberia, as inhabiting thick legal regimes that operated at multiple scales. Another effect is that, well, the Amendment only makes sense as an instrument of freedom provided that it is insistently embedded within a nation-centered mode of legal reasoning and legal practice. And, indeed, the film works to insistently elide any mention of the world beyond, which is nonsense. As a point of fact, emancipation in the U.S. was thought about in expansive, transnational terms. Latecomers to emancipation, U.S. politicians, administrators, and the general public had at their disposal a whole repertoire of examples of programs for the abolition of slavery—Haiti in the revolutionary era, the British West Indies in 1834/8, the French Antilles in 1848, and much of postimperial Spanish America through the early to mid nineteenth century. We know that these examples did a great deal of work for both pro- and anti-slavery thinkers. We know that public chaps in the U.S. borrowed freely from the legal, administrative, and economic discursive resources of the British, in particular. We know that a whole series of practical, on-the-ground exchanges between do-gooders and freedpeople in the West Indies and their counterparts in the U.S. lent a concreteness to the abstract comparisons that circulated through Northern and Southern print worlds.

But we also know, I think why these transnational and international exchanges need to be ignored. On one hand, Lincoln can’t really appear too unique when you realize that lots of places had already outlawed slavery. On the other hand, we can’t look too deeply into the ugly origins of the 13th Amendment’s mode of legal reasoning. It would be disconcerting, after all, for good pious citizens to realize that something like the 13th Amendment could have been written and read on the shores of Africa by a slave-trader who, upon concluding negotiations with a local ruler, prepared to load his cargo of criminals aboard his slave ship.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Electoral Maps, Antebellum Maps: Or, How Liberal Self-Satisfaction Dissolves History into a Racist Mess

You’ve probably seen this image. Juxtaposing “Free States and Slave States, before the Civil War” alongside a red/blue breakdown of voting in the 2012 election, the image asserts a kind of continuity—if not a direct causality—between contemporary geographies of party affiliation and antebellum geographies of slavery. You might have smirked. You might have found it revealing. Maybe—as it did me—the image left you with an uneasy feeling, the felt beginnings of a refusal of the claim that the image would like to make.

A full disclaimer: I’m an anarcho-Marxist; I don’t vote; I’m not invested in blue-state- versus-red-state nonsense; my political position does not register on this map. I do, however, study nineteenth-century cultures of slavery and freedom in the Americas. I write about the strange cartographies generated by ordinary black subjects who sought to live free lives—however they defined that freedom—in a hemisphere structured to deny them personal and collective autonomy. I find myself responding to this image not just as a scholar, but as someone with some kind of a felt relationship to the stories I read and recover, someone constantly awed by the resilience and creativity of these people, someone who thinks there’s a future to-come for these myriad freedoms that survive, obscured and only partially legible to us today, in the archive.

This image pulverizes history, transforming histories of slavery into the stuff of cheap political potshots. It shouldn’t need saying, but alas: Voting for Mitt Romney is NOT akin to maintaining juridical support for slavery—an analogy or commensurability that the synchronic axis of the image suggests. This mobilization of an affectively saturated history is repulsive not only for its cheapening of the deep violence of slavery, but also for the way in which it dissolves the instabilities of historical time into a simple one-two diachrony. If we actually look into these instabilities—that is, if we fucking take the politics of slavery seriously—these maps, and the historical narrative that their juxtaposition implies, comes apart.

This image attempts to draw on a historical juridical distinction between slave and free state in order to offer a snarky commentary on the contemporary distinction between red and blue state. This distinction no doubt flatters liberals, ever on the side of progress. But what if we chose another cartographic heuristic? What if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to polities wherein free blacks could vote in the antebellum U.S.? Antebellum “blue states” would shrink to a handful. What if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to polities wherein African Americans faced some form of legal disability? And what if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to, not slave states, but states wherein blacks were enslaveable—that is, states wherein New World blacks, provided a however tenuous legal title could be shown, were susceptible to being seized and carried to a slave state? The map would bleed a bright red, the whole of it.

In 1850, there were no “free states” in the U.S., if by “free” we mean a state wherein an ordinary black subject could live free from the threat of unfreedom, from civil and legal disability. And more: this realm of unfreedom, even when dragging as freedom, was only expanding in the nineteenth century. Indeed, our good liberal mapmaker’s decision to show us a map from a decade or so prior to the outbreak of the Civil War allows him or her to get around the disconcerting fact that the map of the United States would have had far fewer states only a handful of years prior to 1850. (It's unclear to me why the map is dated to 1846.) The map thus elides histories of imperial expansion—into Indian territory, into Mexico, and earlier into Florida and into the Louisiana territory—and thus elides “blue state” connivance in the extension and maintenance of slavery, the North’s compromises and its cowardice. It elides how our proto-Obama-voting “blue states” actively profited from slavery both within the U.S. and throughout the hemisphere, by financing plantations and engaging in the (illegal) slave trade. It ignores how the dynamics of capitalist accumulation—which, in the nineteenth century, ALWAYS implied some form of bonded labor, some form of slavery—cut across sectional lines.  

This image posits that the juridical distinction between slave and free is isomorphic with today’s cartographies of parliamentary politics; it implies that today’s Northern liberals have inherited, and protect, the precious freedom(s) denied to so many in the antebellum world. It implies that the rupture of the Civil War was not much of a rupture—continuity is the name of the game here. It thus elides the discontinuous rupture of black political subjectivity: the image would have us believe that today’s political cartography retains the form adjudicated 162 years ago by the desires and compromises of (mostly) white men, all of whom in some fashion profited from the political and juridical de-subjectification of blacks throughout the Americas.

Perhaps most insidiously, by posing electoral politics as the inheritor of antebellum politics of freedom and slavery, this map implies that the political unconscious of freedom and antislavery was always already preformed by the parliamentary cartography of the nation-state.  In other words, the image not only disavows imperial histories of expansion, the ways in which the U.S. electoral map was always on the move; it also elides alternative cartographies and trajectories of freedom, however fragile and ephemeral, established by blacks who recognized the difficulties of achieving autonomy in any state, North or South. The nation comes to appear as the natural container of relations of freedom and servitude, of progress and regress. The image doesn’t care about the alternative modalities of being-free that were sought outside of the institutional parameters and geographic boundaries of the parliamentary state; it doesn’t care about modalities of human freedom that cannot be contained or enumerated by ballots. It simply doesn’t matter to this image that blacks in those anachronistically blue states formed political subjectivities around August First or celebrations of the Haitian Revolution, not some act on a Tuesday in November most couldn’t participate in, anyhow.

The radical promise of antislavery—substantive antislavery, the material practices of freedom undertaken by New World blacks—has as little in common with the reduced notions of formal freedom available in the antebellum North as it does with the reduced notion of political freedom enshrined in parliamentary politics. Celebrating liberalism’s present, lambasting remnants of the South’s (but only the South's?) past, this racist image transforms the awesome, terrible, unfinished history of freedom into a persistent structure—one assembled by white men, for white men. But this is what the image, fixated on juridical and electoral geographies, cannot reveal. Even as it tries mobilizing the affectivity of the term, the discontinuous, unemplottable subjectivity of freedom remains elsewhere. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mr. Bloomberg, Tear Down This Wall: #S17, Police, and Constituent Power

In response to OWS’s plans to reassemble on its anniversary (#S17) to shut down Wall Street, the forces of order took the unimaginative step of quite literally walling the street. Mikey B is a no nonsense kind of guy. Zuccotti Park and the Stock Exchange are now enclosed by lines of concrete, aluminum, and steel; atop some of these formations perches an NYPD observation post. Humorous preparations for a movement declared long dead, no doubt.

The enclosure of Zuccotti is intriguing for the light it sheds on the processes by which social symbols are formed. No doubt there are tactical reasons that motivated the police to enclose Zuccotti—a rare open space downtown, it is an ideal convergence point for mass actions. But there are others in the vicinity, others that OWS will be using on Monday. It’s clear, I think, that the social-symbolic role of Zuccotti exceeds its possible tactical function. To be sure, the becoming-symbol of the park does not mean that it utterly abstracts or detaches itself from the non-symbolic. Rather, the symbol of the park always refers us back to tactics, to struggle and antagonism: this symbol is the sedimentation of past and projected/future social confrontations. The tactical and the symbolic, the material and the discursive co-constitute one another, interpenetrate: the wall around Zuccotti is both a wall and something-more, but this excess of meaning is not separable from the wall’s construction in the first place. Discourse moves matter, matter moves discourse, each movement indexing the intensification of social antagonisms. I’m interested, here, in how the wall attempts policing—policing in a broad sense of an entire material-discursive coding apparatus—and thus re-coding this antagonism, and re-coding it is non-antagonistic.

First reading: The construction of the wall amounts to a tactical-symbolic inversion of the intentions of OWS. Looking at the wall, one gets a sense that the police are keeping the plebes of Occupy from accessing a space reserved for powerful patricians. This is no doubt true, as we will see. But the concrete-symbolic practice of keeping-out inverts the deeper structure of the intentionality of OWS and of the police. Simply put, OWS does not want to inscribe itself into a space of power, it does not want to enter capitalism—rather, it wants to force an exit, to detach itself from capitalism, to separate itself utterly and completely from power. It is rather the state that wishes to keep us inside of capital, immanent to the relations of command that constitute it. The construction of the wall and the social choreography that the wall invites—demonstrators clamoring to get inside of the park, as they entered it last night at the end of a march, as they sat in it tonight, after filing in one by one, for a Rosh Hashanah celebration—inverts the orientation and directionality of the antagonism.

Second reading: The construction of the wall amounts to a tactical-symbolic ironization of the intentions of OWS. Looking at the space enclosed by the wall, one gets a sense that there is no there there—that conquering this space would not be worth the fight, and any attempt to seize this space would simply be the result of a few bad eggs bloc’ed up and looking for a confrontation. The empty space enclosed by the wall nullifies and expresses the nullity of the desires of OWS; the desire of the plebes to enter the park seems devoid of content, as empty as the empty park they would try to occupy. The wall, in short, encloses a non-target; the intentionality of OWS is non-targeted, its aims at best contrarian, purely formal and reactive to a Power that says No, You Can’t Enter Here. The construction of the park as a targeted non-target de-positivizes the telos of OWS.

The wall, then, attempts two coding operations: On one hand, it accords a substantive rationality to radical intentionality, but it attempts to conduct it, to transform the directionality of struggle: the will to flee capital reappears as the will to get inside it. On the other hand, by constructing the park as a targetable and targeted non-target, it declares the intentionality of OWS to be merely formal and reactive: OWS would not know what it wanted if the walls disappeared. If the state said, sure, okay, have the park, pitch a tent if you want, then OWS would be revealed to lack an aim. The police, with their wall, are both directors of and actors in an insubstantial social drama, self-consciously constructing the possibility of a drama, but a drama about nothing, with no stakes, in which to win is to display the insubstantiality of the victory. In aiming for the park, OWS either aims for capital or for nothing.

Let’s note one bizarre and frightening effect of this ambidextrous coding operation. This concrete repressive apparatus of the police radiates the claim that it is repressing nothing. It redirects and conforms our aims with the dominant or it exposes the utter non-positivity of our aims—but repress? No way. Oddly, this understanding of police has percolated through the movement; when police repression is discussed, it is addressed on a level of pure formality, as the police’s violation of liberal-democratic rights—to gather and assemble, to speak and to express oneself collectively. We become more concerned about the violation of constitutional principles than about the violation of ourselves, of activists gathered-there-together. And so, in effect, the intentionality of Occupy is conducted toward liberal capitalism, its rights guarantees and its constitutional state; and so, in effect, Occupy events seem increasingly to be merely reactive to a power that willfully and eagerly oversteps legal restraints, a power to which we cry “shame shame shame” and “who do you protect” etc as if that were the full point of the action. The aim of our actions, in short, becomes staging situations in which it becomes proper to demand that the liberal-capitalist state and its constitutional guarantees protect us from its armed minions.

The Wall Effect, then: it encourages us to place our faith in constituted, constitutional power. Even as we’re cynical about the intentions of that power, demanding and petitioning become the sole modes of self-help available to us: “Mr Bloomberg, tear down this wall…” We thus ignore the extent to which the wall, the entire material-discursive apparatus of the police, does in fact repress something: our substantive and virtual potential, our constitutive and constituent power that, in its extensive and intensive mobility, exceeds the formalism of constituted Power, its mechanisms of control, capture, and reform. It represses us from moving into that time-space just before us, a field of potential that was once named Liberty Square.

And, so, a third reading, one that adopts the antagonistic perspective of constituted versus constituent power, of Power (calcified and senescent) versus power—mobile and youthful, filled with potential: The wall is just a fucking wall, a contraption of metal and concrete designed to inhibit the construction and realization of alternative modalities of being in the world. It is the vulgarity and stupidity of power, the concretion of the sheer barbarism and brutality required to keep people in their places. It’s not a sign of anything; it is repression, violence, and another brick in the wall of a whole state apparatus. Dividing us from our world-making force, just a fucking wall.

Smashing it would almost accord it too high an honor.