Friday, February 24, 2012

New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

OWS has recently published a statement on the “99% Declaration,” an Occupy-inspired group that wants to convene a national general assembly on—you guessed it—July 4th in Philly in order to develop a petition of grievances to be directed to the U.S. state. I have no time for the 99% crew (although I do love their geeky love of the poor relation of the freedoms of speech, religion, press, and assembly—the freedom to petition). But I have less time for OWS’ official response, in which they claim that the 99% Declaration’s plans “blatantly contradict OWS’ stated principles.” Here’s why.

OWS’ response takes the form of a kind of legal reasoning. First, OWS claims that the Declaration contradicts the OWS’ “Statement of Autonomy”—the text of which is binding on all who Occupy if one wishes to be considered as Occupying. Second, OWS cites a resolution of the GA of Occupy Philly, which states, “We do not support the 99% Declaration, its group, its website, its National GA and anything else associated with it.” We thus have two reasons for rejecting the Declaration. One cites an empirical refusal, a political decision, to reject a national assembly. The other cites the Statement of Autonomy as if it functioned as a foundational (even constitutive, constitutional) document in order to reject a proposal to constitute a national assembly. A constituted anti-constitution.

It’s in the unevenness of these two modalities and scales of citation that we can see how full of shit OWS is. As cited in the statement, Occupy Philly rejects the 99% Declaration as a local GA refusing to participate; OWS rejects it because it contradicts statements of principles developed at OWS, principles that have spread to and been affirmed by most local GAs. Philly’s rejection is empirical, a local matter; OWS’ rejection is deterritorialized, universalized (for we who occupy the Occupy Universe), and apparently indifferent to the fact of its embeddedness within New York City. Indeed, the locality of OWS is insistently negated as OWS ascribes to itself authoritative speech: “When reporting on stories concerning the convening of national ‘Occupy conventions’…we strongly urge reporters, editors, and producers to vet these stories by contacting the official press relations working group of Occupy Wall Street.” OWS will regulate national public discourse that involves projected national occupations. In effect, the particular group called OWS has fashioned itself as a synecdoche for Occupy in general (that is, to think Occupy is to think Occupy Wall Street); in so doing, the merely local GA of OWS attains bloated significance entirely disproportionate to the amount of voices there represented, participating.

Every rupture—say, OWS’ rupture with neoliberal parliamentary epistemes—is a repetition. OWS accrual of authority produces the precise circumstances that led to the convening of that proto-national delegation in 1776 that led in turn to the development of the parliamentary modes of delegating power (embedding power in localities while articulating multiple localities) that OWS rejects. Discursive regulation without representation is tyranny! Second, the document’s vacillation between the particular and the general, the way that OWS signifies simultaneously a single GA and the movement as a whole, demonstrates that OWS has not yet unthought the problematic politics of the in general, of the generalizable. Occupy Wall Street’s locally embedded actions deterritorialize themselves and stand in for communities and GAs not represented at OWS. This simply replicates the way that Wall Street (and finance capital as a whole) has generalized its own peculiar (valorization) requirements as being identical to those of the nation—a nation that remains unrepresented on Wall Street.

Like Wall Street, OWS has not yet unthought its privilege—it treats its utterances as having immediate general significance. As such, its structural privilege is denegated: the sovereign refusal of a delegated national assembly simply shows that, within Occupy, Wall Street remains king, declaring which locally made statements are generally valid and which are generally repugnant to all of Occupy (repugnancy, by the by, was a crucial jurisprudential concept for the mixed British imperial legal regime…)

How could this have been avoided? I’ll give you some hints, OWS, and I do it with love. First, be clear in language: Let OWS refer to a single GA, and let Occupy refer to all of us who occupy together. Second, don’t let these two scales collapse into one another: recognize the limits of your utterances. Third, recognize the authority of other GAs: the statement might simply have highlighted the fact of Occupy Philly’s rejection, and expressed solidarity with this decision. If you had done that, OWS, you would have avoided the impression that OWS stands above other GAs, as if OWS is the final authority ultimately deciding on what is repugnant to Occupy in general. You also would have avoided the appearance of jurisprudential positivism, the need to cite to decide. You could simply have cited the decision of others, decided yourselves, and let that be that.

Finally, stop acting like Wall Street. Refuse the movement whereby a local particularity synecdochalizes itself into a generality. Understand your privilege: Just because the national public conflates Occupy with OWS doesn’t mean that you have to do so. Resist that conflation! Develop, with all of us, alternative grammars of the political. Stop bringing me down.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Rabbi, Where Dwellest Thou? Occupying Jesus around Dave's Birthday

The following, nonsensical reading of the Gospel of John is motivated by a few factors. First, I’ve been going back over the hermeneutic tradition of late, which means reading about biblical hermeneutics, which has inspired me to emulation. Second, I’m interested, in general, in how we can read histories of past social movements (like Jesus’ social movement) as a means of getting a read on ourselves as we Occupy. Third, I think that the ontology of sociality implicit in the Gospel continues to organize our present, particularly for how it debases the materiality of sociality in order to secure an incorruptible social being. (This is bad for Occupy.) Fourth, John’s key phrase “come and see” is near and dear to my heart for an entirely non-theological reason: for some reason, my best friends and I used to mobilize the phrase as a strange kind of joke, one that became funnier through its incessant citation. Functioning as a means of social-movement- and friendship-building, the phrase interests me for how it proleptically functions as a technology of mourning; how, by encoding sociality through the visible, it allows social worlds to live on as readable signs after their finite material bases have corrupted, vanished, died. No one wants to simply see the ones they love—one wants to be with them, to dwell with them, to dine and drink with them. And so I read with and against the Gospel to contest the work of mourning that relieves us of considering our material finitude by virtualizing the materiality of the social into the visual; to make us melancholic for (and so prepared to attempt to re-produce) the finite materiality that is Occupation; and, more personally, to apologize to Dave and Marci for not being able to drink and dine with them tonight as they celebrate their finite coming-to-be in the world.

The phrase “come and see” circulates throughout the Gospel of John, and, indeed, its movement through the text forms a peculiar circle. The circle of quotation is opened early, as Jesus begins his ministry (1:38-39); the circle of quotation closes with the closure of Jesus’ ministry in his final and grandest miracle, when an anonymous they tells Jesus to “come and see” where the deceased, and soon to be resurrected, Lazarus has been laid (11:33). The structural function of “come and see”—marking as it does the beginning and the end of Jesus’s ministry—suggests that co-presence (coming-with) in the mode of visuality (seeing) is the non-transcendable horizon of the social movement that Jesus inspires. Within the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, visuality organizes a) subjective certitude in Jesus’ ministry and b) evidentiary protocols for convincing others to reproduce this subjective certainty. (Thus, John the Baptist, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God” [1:34].) This prioritization of visuality programs reception of Occupy today: the spectacle of Occupy made/makes (the tense is necessarily screwy, insofar as, as we'll see, visuality en- and de-crypts what it shows in its showing) something (poverty, inequality) visible and legible for others. The problem, as I suggested before, is that the prioritization of what Occupy makes-visible over the fact of Occupation itself generates an indifference to the materiality and continuation of Occupy; Occupy becomes a mere sign, a mere producer of signs. I want to track this becoming-sign, this virtualization, throughout John.

The organizing function of visuality is not a given; visuality competes with, but always subsumes, alternative modes of accessing the radical sociality of being-with-Jesus. Consider the first appearance of “come and see”: “Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master), where dwellest thou? He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelled, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour” (1:38-9). Here, dwelling is a derived effect of coming and seeing, a derivation that is somewhat bizarre. Why, after all, would the spectacle of Jesus’ site of dwelling, that way it gives itself to be seen, take priority over dwelling itself? Dwelling-with is subordinated to the spectacle of the Master’s dwelling-place, and one only dwells after one has seen. Indeed, it’s in the repetition of coming-and-seeing, the way that the insistence on visuality unnecessarily insinuates itself into the text, that the emphasis on visuality becomes clear. Note the horridly tortured syntax: “They came and saw where he dwelled, and abode with him that day…” Dwelling-with is not prior to the visual—even though one might suggest that in addressing Jesus as “Rabbi/Master,” the followers already begin to dwell with the significance of Christ—but is rather an effect of a seeing.

Being-with is thus approached through the spectacle. This becomes clearest in Jesus’ final, most spectacular miracle. The scene of the miracle opens with Mary falling at Jesus’ feet, crying. We gain access to Jesus’ interiority through his processing of the visual spectacle: “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping…he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (11:33). Seeing weeping—not hearing, not being-touched-by-weeping in an affectivity irreducible to visuality. He then asks, “Where have ye laid him?” and is told, as we know, “Lord, come and see” (11:34). Jesus then cries, an affective performance which is interpreted visually by those gathered: “Then said the Jews, Behold how we loved him!” The passage’s emphasis on visuality reaches its apparent climax when Jesus’ ability to heal the blind is recalled: “And some of them said, Could not this man, who opened the eyes of a blind man, have caused that even this man should not have died?” (11:37). The speakers establish a structural parallel—one that, of course, runs throughout the Gospels—between being blind and being dead; restoring the capacity to see is analogous to the capacity to live. Life is coded as receptivity to the visual, to the spectacle. This definition of living-as-seeing becomes clearest in Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus: he approaches the tomb, a “cave, and a stone lay upon it”—the body is encrypted in darkness, hidden from the order of the visible (11:38). Jesus asks for the stone to be removed; Martha reminds him of another order of perception, declaring that Lazarus, dead for days, will “stinketh.” But the glory of God is indifferent to the materiality of the corruptible body, and Jesus chides Martha that if she “wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God” (11:40). The body is virtualized through an emphasis on visuality; the semiosis of corruption (to “stinketh”) loses its force because we are in a different, sanitizing order of perception. And so Jesus orders Lazarus to come, not to see, but to be seen: “Lazarus, come forth!” (11:43).

Within this scene, the production of the spectacle is a means of avoiding melancholia—or, we might say that becoming-alive through becoming-visible, becoming-apparent, is a technology of successful mourning. When Lazarus appears, when he comes forth, no more tears! Indeed, this process of virtualization-as-visualization, the way in which a stinking dead body becomes alive through becoming visible once more, by being de-crypted, prefigures the way in which Jesus will himself achieve ideality through leaving the non-virtual body behind. Seeing names the process by which a sign detaches itself from its material preconditions and achieves an exorbitant, excessive virtuality—that is, it names the process by which a body becomes a sign, a word, an idea. This becomes clearest in Jesus’ empty-tomb scene, where this new technology of mourning (virtualization) transforms Jesus’ co-dwellers (minus Magdalene) into semioticians. Mary, approaching the tomb, sees signs of its disturbance—the stone was taken away. She doesn’t enter; rather, she runs and informs Peter and another discipline, who race to the tomb. They enter the tomb, and see Jesus’ absence through a series of sartorial signs: “the linen clothes” lying there, and “the napkin, that was about his head…wrapped together in a place by itself” (20:5, 7). The absence of Jesus’ body registers positively in these little traces. They leave—the presence or absence of the body as such does not matter, because matter doesn’t matter. Only Magdalene lingers, melancholically attached to the tactile, to Jesus’ material body, to—let’s say it—finitude. She weeps for the body, a weeping that attracts a resurrected Christ, whom Magdalene eventually recognizes. And then Jesus says, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father”—as if, in between the lines, we can see Magdalene rushing to embrace him. At stake in Jesus’ words is a wholesale ban on touching: if Mary cannot touch him now, she certainly won’t be able to touch him after his ascension. What Jesus preserves is his own virtualization, his own becoming-spectacle—it wouldn’t do to reinscribe the visual figure of Jesus within a more rambunctious economy of sensation, of alternative modalities of being-with-Jesus. Henceforth, one can only be-with Jesus in the mode of the visible; one can only develop a reading practice that recovers traces of Christ (a napkin, a cloth) in the matter of history. One becomes with Jesus by de-crypting history for traces of Jesus. Look, but don’t touch (you can’t touch, anyhow). Come and see.   

Thus, the prioritization of visuality that opens Jesus’ ministry proleptically enables his movement to manage his death. (One could even say that the ontological priority of logos [in the beginning was the word] prepares the de-cryption of Jesus-as-sign at the moment of his death. In this case, the whole text exists to manage the disappearance of the body as the appearance of a disembodied logos.) It is thus interesting that when Jesus appears for the final time to his disciples he does not urge them to “come and see” him—they’ve already done that. He says, instead, “Come and dine,” and the company dines on fish and bread (21:12). It’s an odd moment—does the post-resurrection Jesus eat? It’s a point at which the group’s sociality is defined through embodied acts of consumption, of eating-with. There are many more, but this one is important insofar as eating is already cast under the sign of allegory; indeed, this eating will immediately be virtualized when Jesus orders Peter to “Feed my sheep” three times. Eating already appears as not-eating, as a sign called “eating” that in fact indexes an entirely a-material mode of being in the world. But we might, like Magdalene did, refuse to let go of materiality, refuse to virtualize bread and fish into, say, something eucharistic, and insist on the non-virtualizable, finite action of eating-with.

I’m not sure what this refusal would do for Christianity, nor do I really care. I’m more concerned to suggest that we need to enact this refusal in terms of our post-Occupation Occupy. We have to risk melancholia in order to hold onto the non-virtualizable, finite fact of our revolutionary coming-together. To successfully mourn our material co-presence—the way we amassed together, slept together, dined together—would be to relieve ourselves of the need to reproduce these modalities of amassing. And we need to re-amass. In other words, we above all have to avoid becoming a sign, a spectacle-that-was, a de-cryption of the past that doesn’t “stinketh.” (Might we not assume our purported stench as the ineffaceable trace of Occupy’s materiality? Come and smell!) We have to keep our eye on the task of mattering and materializing together. Of coming together and dining. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Emotechnics, Lachrymators & the Tears of the Occupiers

I want to think today about the semiotics of tear gas. We know what the deployment of gas looks like: masses lined up against police, a canister thrown, a rising cloud, people running, and then, in the aftermath, tears. Lots of them. The primary function of tear gas obviously inheres in its capacity to disperse crowds, but I want to suggest that tears are not a secondary effect, a mere index of having-been-gassed, the trace that power leaves behind. As signs, tears have a constitutive function in such enactments of power: to produce a semiotic articulation (and reconciliation) between subjects-in-revolt and the state.

To be blunt, the use of a lachrymatory agent enables the state to visually recode subjects-in-revolt as contritely lachrymose. Tear gas disciplines subjects not simply by inflicting (what I’ve heard is) excruciating pain and thus inducing flight and crowd dispersal; rather, the subject’s somatic response to the irritant simulates an affective response to a personal sin. After the revolt, tears of sorrow, and perhaps one will come to recognize the merciful beneficence of the Sovereign we dared to contest. Huic ergo parce, Deus, pie Jesu Domine, and please don’t shoot. We were bad, we’re sorry, and we promise to be good.

Emotechnics produce somatic responses in order to simulate affective investments in power. (We are more accustomed, through critiques of nationalism, to states operationalizing affects of love, say, or rage-against-others to generate cathexes to power.) In conditions of neoliberal capital—that is, at a moment when the bundle of rights and protections to which citizens are or feel entitled is becoming unbundled in order to facilitate capital accumulation—the only ties binding citizens to the state are affective ties. When these ties don’t exist, emotechnics do the trick.

But what necessity drives the production of such affective ties? I want to suggest that the state’s reconstitution of citizens as disposable and negligible, the state’s total irresponsibility to its citizenry, has put its sovereignty into question. The sovereign’s secret power, as Derrida points out in volume 1 of The Beast & the Sovereign, is the sovereign’s ability to absolve itself of sovereign responsibility. The exercise of this power-to-be-irresponsible, however, is self-destructive, insofar as sovereignty imaginatively and materially commands allegiance only insofar as addresses directed toward a sovereign can become felicitous speech-acts. Minus the possibility of felicitous address, after a while we’ll all get tired of making demands of an absent God. If protego ergo obligo is the cogito of the political, protection subtends the possibility of obligation; but, in our neoliberal moment, with the withdrawal of protection, all that remains of the state/citizen articulation is the bare coercive demand for obligation, for good subjects who will cry (or seem to cry) when they don’t oblige the state. Occupy not only refuses to oblige the state by committing acts of dubious legality: it also refuses to oblige the state by refusing to direct its tears toward the state, by unlearning the political grammar that made state-citizenship a source of hope (and thus refusing to reaffirm the irresponsible state as a sovereign site of responsibility), by becoming as indifferent to the state as the state is to us. We’re moving past the ugly affects of abandonment and neglect by neglecting the state—by affectively disinvesting from the state and investing in one another.

The state is learning how cruel it is to be abandoned. It’s important to note that the Oakland Commune was really truly not looking for a fight; they were, rather, really truly attempting to establish an alter-state of care, one indifferent to the given state of indifference. And so, to reaffirm an unearned sovereignty, to command obligation without offering protection, the state shot tear gas to recode subjects-in-revolt as sad citizens. Of course, we’re not sad, we’re past that, we’re ready to make new worlds. It’s the state that becomes sad as it anticipates a state without citizens, without subjects.

We caught a glimpse of the state’s sadness during the battle in Oakland. Miscalculations about wind direction (as well as Occupiers returning gas canisters back to sender) resulted in the clouds of gas enshrouding the line of riot cops. A backfire of emotechnics. They had to pause and re-affix their masks before they could advance and try to simulate sadness in subjects entirely indifferent to them. It’s hard to see through the gas, through their masks, in order to get a glimpse at their faces, but one can imagine police officers silently crying as they try to make post-citizens sad for abandoning the state that abandoned them.                        

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On the Statement, "Occupy has Changed the 'National Conversation'"

It’s a refrain: Occupy has begun a national conversation about income inequality. Slight modifications are allowed: add or subtract something about finance capital, replace “conversation” with “dialogue” or “discussion,” smarter people will talk about “wealth” inequality. Soon you arrive at a judgment regarding the merits of Occupy, one that circulates through Twitter, through the media, and even through Occupy sites. (Just Google “Occupy national conversation.”) The other night, I was struck by how frequently this sentiment was voiced as I scanned the Twitter feeds to see what was going on with Occupy DC, a camp that faces eviction. The utterance is mostly reparative, enabling us to extract a last kernel of value from Occupy before all encampments are swept away. But I think that the utterance is more than reparative—that in fact it destroys what it would repair. Locating the primary value of Occupy in its discursive effects, the utterance actually produces an indifference to the materiality and practical reality of Occupy. The sites could go on or not, tevs, it will continue to exist in the airy ideality of a national conversation. We can all go home; we’ve done our jobs.

That this utterance is sayable indexes the fact that Occupy has not changed the “national conversation.” Not one bit. Not even a little. And this is because the public who utters this statement still thinks having a conversation, saying things, having an opinion, matters, and matters as a politics. Indeed, such utterances place in a position of priority and superiority the abstract liberal subject who opines, who reflects, who debates—but never decides, because there is no real apparatus linking reflexive judgment to determinative judgment, to a decision for and on the political. After all, the “conversation” being changed is that which is staged in the hypercapitalized world of televisual media; it needn’t even be our conversation that is changing, then, so much as that of (wealthier) others. But even if our own conversation is changing—at bars late at night, at Thanksgiving dinners with conservative uncles, wherever—this is meaningless so long as the effect of the change in conversation is simply a change in conversation. The point of crisis to which Occupy needs to bring the “national conversation” is to show that having an opinion—a private reflection that is expressed occasionally—is not a political act. That conversing cannot be the transcendent value of the political, or politics turns into a spectacle that we simply discuss from a distance—without touching or being touched by it. And Occupy is all about touching, about bodies in contact, about being-there on the scene, about, well, occupying materiality.

Badiou neatly attends to this dynamic in his critique of Arendt and Arendt’s reading of Kant. He writes that in Arendt’s idea of “the political” that the “perspective of the spectator is systematically privileged. Arendt justifies the fact that Kant had a ‘boundless admiration’ for the French Revolution as a phenomenon, or historical appearance, whilst nurturing ‘a boundless opposition’ to its revolutionary ventures and their actors. As a public spectacle the Revolution is admirable, while its militants are contemptible.” This neatly maps onto the discursive economy I’m describing. As an item of public debate, Occupy is admirable; it has, after all, brought our attention to “inequality.” But Occupiers are dirty smelly anarchists who should just disappear into the ideality of their discursive effects. Those deciding against “inequality” are replaced by those who reflectively determinate that inequality is bad, say so, and…sleep or go bowling or something. The revolution is awesome—it gives us more shit to talk about—but fuck the revolutionaries.

I’m not against conversing, at all. Indeed, isn’t Occupy frequently mocked for its discursive aneconomy, the way that everyone gets their say, the slowed articulation between speech and act, the hyperproceduralist commitment to clarifying questions, straw polls, friendly amendments, and so on? We reflect all day—and then determine ourselves, set ourselves to a goal, decide on a new kind of political truth or aim. One isn’t a spectator on the political here; that is, one who looks, reflects, and aimlessly judges. (One isn't, in short, a liberal.) One is in the grip of the political, in a full spectrum of sensations: looking and thinking, no doubt, but also smelling, touching, tasting, hearing… And it’s from this whole range of sensations, affects, and ideas that one comes to co-decide on the political—not opine on the lamentable fact of inequality, a spectacle piped into bedroom TVs.

Occupy will not have changed the "national conversation" until conversing is reconstituted as a mechanism of decision, not reflection—as a political act, not a retreat from the political.