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.                        

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