Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Neoliberal University, Penn, and Flying by Philly

Let’s begin with the flyleaf from a fictive schoolboy’s geography textbook:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

Joyce offers us a spatial imaginary constituted by nested scales. If Stephen’s namesake, the old artificer, built wings to enable him to jump scales and fly from Crete to the world, Joyce’s Dedalus scales up as if ascending a ladder. Some rungs appear to have been knocked out (e.g., Ireland is not nested in the British Empire but jumps into Europe), but the ladder remains largely intact. One effect of this imaginative nesting of spatial scales is a multiform localization that diminishes as one scales up: personal names give way to institutional names give way to proper names give way to common names. Each named scale corresponds to a distinct social and institutional form. These nested forms conduct Stephen’s imagination; they mediate his relationship to the world, generating relations of responsibility, of debt, of guilt. Portrait of the Artist is, in many ways, a novel about unlearning this imaginary of nested scales. Thus we find Stephen, at the end of his Bildung, declaring, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.” His solution to this ensnaring is Daedalian: “I shall try to fly by those nets.” Nets, or nests, those nested scales he had described as a schoolboy? Our young man will jump scales, leaping from Dublin to Europe, to what passed as “the world.” Biographical diachrony encourages us to see this movement as freeing; with Stephen, we shout, “Welcome, O life!” But what if we read these two relations to space—the schoolboy’s nested scales and the university’s scholar’s scale jumping—synchronically? What might we gain from thinking together, in a single moment of social time, the schoolchild’s and the university student’s spatial imagination? We would gain insight, I think, into how the spatial imaginary promoted by today’s neoliberal university promotes an irresponsible relation to the spaces in which the university is in fact embedded.

Where, for example, is the University of Pennsylvania? The postal address of the English Department shows the scales in which the university is nested. Abstracting from this address, we get a sequence of scales that mirrors the spatial imaginary of young Stephen:

Christopher Taylor
Department of English
University of Pennsylvania
United States of America

Every job application I sent off involved me, in some manner, reinscribing the university—and myself—within these nested scales. To get to me, letters need to move through the U.S., Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia; each scalar mediation localizes me, places me within that space. Yet, this postal perception of space is discontinuous with the modalities by which the university produces lived and imagined relations to space. We might locate Penn, in a formal cartographic sense, within Philadelphia or even Pennsylvania; institutionally, however, Penn has been disembedding itself from the pesky scales that get between it and the world. Like the university student Stephen, Penn tries scale jumping, “fly[ing] by” Philadelphia in order to directly access the world.

How does it attempt flying by Philly? On one hand, the university has committed itself to a process of hyperlocalization—it is committed to becoming an autonomous locale. This happens through naming (“University City”), through property ownership (Penn is only growing), and through providing quasi-public “services” (a private police force). It happens through differentially treating residents of “University City”: when the racist curfew laws were passed, incoming Penn students who arrived during the summer who were under 18 were ensured that they would not be targets of enforcement. We see, then, the emergence of a kind of University Citizenship, one that interacts unevenly with the bundle of rights and expectations accorded to everyone in public space. Jurisdictions are becoming mixed, rules are unevenly enforced, and the protocols of enforcement are not formal and abstract but stick to particularized bodies. Neoliberal universities’ privatization of governance results in the neofeudalization of the city.

On the other hand, this process of hyperlocalization has its dialectical counterpart in processes of scalar separation. There is quite literally a western boundary to University City: if you cross 50th Street, you won’t see any more Penn security, nor will the university provide incentives to employees to get them to buy houses. If you cross 50th Street, you’ll be in Philadelphia. Moreover—and this is the thing motivating my critique right now, and which will bring us back to the schoolchild—Penn doesn’t pay taxes, nor does it any longer pay a “voluntary contribution” in the form of PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) contributions to Philadelphia. In effect, Penn is so institutionally and imaginatively separated from Philadelphia that it can choose the precise modality of its interaction with the city and its inhabitants. It can voluntarily give a paltry sum to the city coffers, it can voluntarily build a charter school in West Philly, it can voluntarily criminalize black youth in the neighborhood—or it can choose not to participate in Philadelphia life. Meanwhile, city residents living in University City have no meaningful way of shaping the decisions that Penn makes with regards to their neighborhoods or Philadelphia more broadly. They’re decision-takers.

Democracy begins with the co-recognition of one’s heteronomous co-belonging in a given space. It emerges out of a condition of fundamental non-choice, out of the simple fact that one is there-with. With a deliberative democrat at the helm, Penn has undertaken ludicrously anti-democratic policies—policies that rethink the “there” of Penn in order to hide from view the non-Penn people whom it is constitutively “with.” This capacity to dissolve the ties of withness, to absolve oneself from responsibility to one’s given locale, is a mark of neofeudal sovereignty. Penn is flying by Philadelphia, leaping into the areality of global capital. There’s no democracy there. And it is this undemocratic disposition that our neoliberal universities are instilling in our students. Our students fly by nested localities; they jump from the university to the world. As I said in a Daily Pennsylvanian interview last fall, it is unsurprising that so few Penn students participated in Occupy Philly—they don’t live in Philly, they live at Penn.

Occupying Penn would entail making Penn institutionally occupy Philly. To do so, we might adopt the perspective of nested scales delineated by Stephen—not Stephen, the cosmopolitan university student, but Stephen the schoolboy. We’ve read our Massey and our Sassen; we know that global capital has scrambled scales and that nested imaginaries never made much sense, anyhow. But this schoolchild’s epistemology of space can provide the basis for the polemical demand that Penn recognize itself as a co-sharer in the city, and act accordingly. And it’s the Philadelphia schoolchild who might stand to benefit, most of all, from such recognition. The school district of Philadelphia is about to undergo another round of neoliberalization and restructuring—66 schools to be closed by 2017, the wholesale layoff of service union employees, and so on. This is being passed off as a fiscal necessity. As Daniel Denvir has written, the budgetary crisis could be resolved (thereby removing justification for the move to restructure and privatize) if Penn could be made to pay. Penn’s anti-democratic decision to fly by Philadelphia is helping to perpetuate a social logic in which the urban poor will never have access to the cosmopolitan university culture—a culture that currently teaches students, first and foremost, to unlearn social responsibilities that inhere to the simple fact of being-there-with. The commodity of social-spatial irresponsibility is expensive. Against the sophisticated analytics that posit scrambled scales and that provide an alibi for local indifference, we might discover a politics of spatial re-embedding in the seemingly naïve spatial ladder of the schoolchild. We might craft nets to catch neoliberal institutions as they try flying by us into the non-world of capitalism.

Christopher Taylor
Department of English
University of Pennsylvania

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Corbett, the Starving State, and Anorexics against Austerity

Yesterday, at the end of Tom Corbett’s “conversation” with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the moderator asked the Pennsylvania governor what he would say to the protestors gathered outside. Before getting to his response, two points: First, as demonstrators, we succeeded in impacting the tête-à-tête between a neoliberal governor and his neoliberal business chums. Our chants, the pounding of the drums, and the fact that everyone entering had to pass by us shaped the conversation: our demands could be neglected, but this neglect would be an active process, the willed refusal of the governor to admit our claims as deserving response. And so the second point: Corbett could have spoken to us, he could have directly dispensed to us the neoliberal claptrap he would give freely to the Chamber. The governor, it seems, is so taken with austerity measures that he must also economize his words, his appearances. Indeed, Corbett (with assistance from the PPD) had to take extreme pains to not talk to us. Protestors blocked every point of egress from the venue. Corbett would avoid an encounter with us by exiting through the rear and driving the wrong way on Sansom Street. (We had this point covered, too, but it was the thinnest point, and I don’t think people were much up for getting arrested.) So keep this image in your head: A governor fleeing the people by driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Against the Einbahnstraße of revolution, perhaps.

But what would he have told us? First, Corbett would tell us that our desires are out of sync with mechanisms for their realization. “They want good jobs,” Corbett said of the protesters. “But they want to tax the corporations. If you ask the business people here, that’s incongruous.” Tom is doubly stupid here: aside from the nonsense economics subtending his claim, the desire Corbett ascribed to the protestors was not, in fact, the desire that brought us out. We were out to protest a budget that a) slashes funding for schools and b) increases funding for prisons. If Tom had bothered to read a sign, he wouldn’t have seen shit about jobs; instead, he would have read any number of demands that we decarcerate Pennsylvania, fund the schools, and (linking the two) abolish the school-to-prison pipeline. So Tom ascribed a desire to our protest that we did not articulate so as to place us firmly in a terrain where neoliberal slogans might control the discursive field. 

Second, after telling us that we’re all stupid and don’t understand the way of the world like Philly’s illustrious Chamber of Commerce, Corbett would give moral advice to the protestors. “I understand that you’re upset because we’ve had to put the state on a diet, for want of a better description,” Corbett said. “I haven’t met anybody who likes to go on diets. It is not easy. It is not what we want to do.” Note how the mood of the utterance and pronominal shifts strive to achieve a consensus from above. First, Corbett inscribes himself into the utterance: he hears, he understands, he gets us. Then he addresses us in the second person indicative, as if we are actually in hearing-distance, as if he actually addresses us. He then presents an experiential fact (who likes diets?) to simulate a consensus: thus, when Corbett says “It’s not what we want to do,” it is unclear if the “we” refers to state agents of austerity or a human collectivity who hates dieting, a collectivity that would include the protestors. Corbett’s shifts—from self-representation (“I”) to a particularized address (“you”) to a generalized collectivity (“we”)—corresponds to the jump in scale that his metaphor enacts. Really, could the individualized, embodied logics of restricted consumption that we call “dieting” really be isomorphic with the logics of state austerity? The metaphor isn’t quite accurate, anyhow. Dieting is an ends-oriented practice that presumes a quantifiable moment of completion (five pounds, ten pounds, etc.) Tom’s state now diets for the sake of dieting and without stating a terminal point. “I will lose x+1 pounds!” swears the neoliberal dieter. When restricted consumption without end defines one’s mode of life, we’re not talking about dieting anymore. We’re talking about anorexia, an anorectic state. The state needs to be as slim as possible, irrationally slim—its bones jutting out, the fat melted off. Lean unto death.

The fact that Tom’s pedagogy of austerity is organized by a metaphoric embrace of anorectic under-consumption is intriguing. Let’s be clear: Yankees are not used to talking about fiscal austerity. At least, popular willingness to give the name “austerity” to programs to slim U.S. states’ budgets is, I think, somewhat novel. Austerity happened elsewhere sometime in the 70s and 80s and 90s, in the Global South, where IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs decimated post-colonial social programs that supported social consumption. Our state wasn’t austere—no! It was efficient, and state austerity through the years of the Washington Consensus simply facilitated tax breaks that would, in fact, promote consumption. Indeed, the transfer of wealth from the South to the North through the Reagan-era and the concomitant availability of easy credit actually produced a cultural phenomenon of people anxious about the possibility of consuming too much. (Of course the individual etiology of disordered eating is way more complicated than this.) The modern figure of the anorexic was born in the 80s and 90s, the perverse double of those whose consumption was restricted by state austerity measures. Landmark scholarly and popular research into anorexia—such as Hilde Bruch’s Eating Disorders (1973) and Kim Chernin’s The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (1981)—emerged at the same moment that IMF SAPs were setting off food riots in lands where lives were adjusted by austerity measures. We might think of anorexia and food riots as two split registers of by which the possibilities of over- and under-consumption were managed—utterly distinct, differently impacted by neoliberal policies and the uneven geography of capitalism. But we can also see something of a structural link that articulates these practices at a world-systemic level. The austerity measures in SAPed states induced food riots that challenged the mechanisms by which capital and commodities flowed to the global north; anorexia here might appear as an ethical refusal to consume via the structured starvation of others. And, as we know, both responses to neoliberal restructuring are deeply gendered, women filling the ranks of food rioters and (for reasons that are of course irreducible to neoliberal capitalism) anorexics.

My point here is that concerns about individual under-consumption in the form of disordered eating are somehow linked to state under-consumption in the form of austerity measures. Culturally, Yankees are more familiar with the former than the latter, and for this reason the latter provides the legitimating cultural logic in which austerity measures are grounded.  (In SAPed places, on the other hand, austerity has a much livelier cultural life; see, e.g., Balogun’s Adjusted Lives.) Tom invoked a “diet” for “want of a better description” of neoliberal reform. Bullshit: of course other and better descriptions are available to explain austerity. For instance, the sum total of historical experiences of SAPed nations. But these experiences, of course, do not in any way legitimate contemporary austerity measures; they do quite the opposite. Austerity is thus filtered through the logic of the anorexic because a) gestures to “better descriptions” based on history would erode the legitimacy of austerity measures and b) as a keyword, “austerity” has not accrued cultural meanings in the U.S. and so requires a mediating logic for the ideology of austerity to make sense. Whatever radical implications the figure of the anorexic might have possessed are being repurposed to facilitate the legitimation of neoliberal restrictions on social consumption. Tom probably imagines the dieter, in fact, as an ideal liberal subject, a good business, one who could hang out in the Chamber of Commerce: He keeps careful accounts of calories, striving to maintain the proper balance between debits and credits, always afraid of consuming too much. The state is incorporating the biopolitical accountancy of the anorexic and transforming it into a logic of neoliberal rule. We know how to “starve the beast” because we know how to starve ourselves. If you’ve ever dieted, you can be governor.

I’m suggesting, in short, that the cultural phenomenon of (pathologized) anorexia makes austerity thinkable today. This, despite the nonsense scale jump required to think patterns of individual action (pathological or not) as the basis for state rule. Of course, that is precisely what liberalism from Smith through the marginalists up to today's neolibs do: they isolate a single privileged figure and, through a cursory demonstration of the formal logic impelling that figure's activity, establish the rules for collective activity. The rational entrepreneur and the pathologized anorexic now form the dual figure that grounds the logic of neoliberalism. We need to refuse this state instrumentalization of what is taken to be a social pathology. As someone with a history of (at best) disordered eating, I’m imagining the formation of a group of ana-anarchists, named “Anorexics against Austerity.” On one hand, our work would consist in refusing the conflation of individual and state habits of restricted consumption; our practices of self can in no way subtend, organize, or provide a logic that enables the state to snatch food from the mouths of others. On the other hand, we would strive to re-positivize the anti-austerity social meanings that anorectic practices might once have possessed. Is there a way of thinking anorectic freedom that does not reinforce neoliberal ideologies in which austerity and induced under-consumption read as freedom from the state? I think so. It would take too long—and be too phenomenological in orientation, too personal—to recover the political potentialities that inhere in consumption practices that now register as “disordered.” But let’s recall Coetzee’s Michael K, who refuses to consume as a means of refusing the corrupted sociality that surrounds him, who refuses to consume that which he does not grow—but who takes joy in the simple taste of his homegrown pumpkins, who has developed a mouth for a different kind of consumption. With Michael K, we see how an apparently anorectic refusal of consumption in one modality actually opens a space for a different kind of consumption, a different relation to food—a space, indeed, in which food sovereignty becomes thinkable, practicable. In truth, we’ve already seen this: life at Occupy encampments was nothing if not austere, and this austerity involved a reduction of access to food (no matter how awesome—and they were awesome—the food committees were). This willed austerity touched on the logic of the anorexic, sure; our consumption there could only appear as “disordered” to the dominant. But we can thus see how the anorectic logic of occupation touches on communal freedom. The very materiality of food—how it was cooked, how it was distributed, how it was consumed—was present as an object of political consensus. If the austerity of the encampment can be metaphorized as anorectic, this is not because Occupiers don’t like to eat, but because they refuse to consume in some ways and demand to consume in others. The anorectic freedom at work there did not demand that the people consume less (as austerity promotes)—even if, in fact, they did consume less. Rather, the anorectically free have developed a different kind of mouth, new sense organs, a la Michael K: we’re hungry, most of all, for the political.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Do You Believe in Life after Love (in the Era of Neoliberal Capitalism)?

“Occupy love!” So some tweeted following Obama’s announcement that some of his daughters’ friends’ parents are gay and that he (privately) supports same-sex marriage. But it makes me wonder (I’m such a Carrie): what would it mean to occupy love? At this point, the demand that we “occupy x” typically functions as a call to an affirmative deconstruction: we are to situate ourselves within the immanent plane by which x functions materially, institutionally, and discursively, and then expose x’s immanent functioning to alternative futures. So, to occupy love would be to get a read on how love functions within one system of predications (the heteronormative system of [neo]liberal capitalism) and displace these predications. In order to occupy love, then, we’d have to begin with a simple question: Why are neoliberal states so garrulous about love? Not just sex, not just reproduction, but love itself?

We have any number of critiques that demonstrate how love can be instrumentalized by states. It provides the affective charge that sutures subjects to more-or-less abstract, ideological structures, affect serving as the conduit by which the imaginary effectively materializes. But I think that the instrumentalization of love (whatever form this instrumentalization takes) is simply the way in which liberal states negotiate the scandal of love as such. Love is scandalous because it is an act of hyper-predication—that is, it is not simply a predication such as “x is someone I love” or “x is beautiful” but a pre-predication that makes x available for predication, a predication that predicates x as such—and liberal capitalism treats subjects as thought they are formally non-predicated. There will always be a deficit of sense between love and the world of liberalism.

Hegel introduces us to this predicate-less, sense-less, love-less world in his fragment “Love,” composed around 1798. Opening with a little existential Robinsonade—that is, a tale that assumes the presuppositions of liberal capitalism as an ontological condition—we find a non-predicated individual in an alien world. This individual is “an independent unit for whom everything else is a world external to him”; the “world is as eternal as he is”; and “objects…are there,” simply there, horrifyingly bereft of subjectivity, of animation. We see a world of sheer duration in which this young Robinson can’t seem to inscribe himself meaningfully; the eternal being-there of the world is impervious to his subjectivity. Everything—including the individual person—is just stuff, “indifferent matter.” This is a phenomenological moment, not a historical actuality; it can repeat itself whenever the world-as-such is not structured as a horizon of thick meaning, a world in which matter matters indifferently. It’s simultaneously a pre-historical world and a post-historical world; it’s a world in which the sense of the world has withdrawn: the world simply endures, and the individual survives. This individual, who, given the narrative logic of Hegel, seems like a first-man, a pre-historic man, is just as easily the last man, the man at the end of the sense of the world, Fukuyama’s hero.

Love saves this individual from senselessness. There’s a theological grounding to all this, but what is important is the way in which the very possibility of sensing a sense-full, animate world is named “love.” Love, Hegel writes, “is a feeling, yet not a single feeling”—it is not one affect among others, but that which organizes affectivity in general. Love is the groundless ground by which the world grounds itself in meaning, incorporating even indifferent matter into lived meaning. Thus, “in love…life senses life”—a circular affectivity generated in the circulating love between his couple that has the effect of encircling the material world in a halo of affect. “In the lovers there is no matter…” By loving the beloved, in effect, the lover convokes the world as lovable—that is to say, as sensible and sense-full. So, what Hegel names “love” is a pre-predicative act that makes the world available for predication; it gives meaningful being to a world that seemed to resist Robinson’s attempt to find himself at home there. So, love makes the world and makes it through another—one-other, in fact. The world becomes senseless the moment the hyper-predication of love fails; the moment the lover is no longer in-love, the world collapses, and the lover becomes Robinson again. (This same narrative will be replayed in the Phenomenology, subbing love out for labor.)

It’s more complicated, though. Given the narrative logic of the fragment, it seems as if love (and a meaningful world) and lovelessness (and a senseless world) are simply diachronically separated. Yet, there is also a synchronic relationship between love and the loveless, the intimate world and the worldless world-beyond. The intimate world of love is always impinged upon by its exterior. These lovers would like to enclose themselves from the outside world, from the extensive sociality of indifferent persons and matter from which they emerged, but, in fact, they cannot: “the lovers are in connection with much that is dead; external objects belong to each of them.” The lovers don’t halo the world in meaning; rather, they striate a space of meaning in the alieness of materiality. In effect, wider circuits of sociality—here metonymized by property—constantly pluck the lovers from the intimacy of their world. The autology of the at-home gives way to the heteronomy of the more-than-one, more-than-two.

Certainly, no one is surprised that the intimate is interrupted by the social. Haven in a heartless world or not, lovers have to talk about bills. What Hegel outlines, however, is the gap between the subject and the alien world once love has advened. When Robinson leaves his lover’s arms and goes forth into the crass indifferent world of matter so as to maintain his intimate world, what effect will the experience of sense-full-ness have on his ability to be in that indifferent world? Or, after Robinson has been loved by another, how are we to treat him, and how would he treat all the others, the others who are not the one-other? It’s here that love introjects a rupture in liberal capitalism. As Hegel writes, monogamous love functions as a giving-over of one’s being to a single predication (being-loved by another), and this giving-over of one’s being is necessary precisely because one’s world has no meaningful being without this predication. But one cannot appear in the world of liberal capitalism as predicated by another; one has to appear without predications, as a formally abstract person; one has to relate to all others via mechanisms of sociality that equate equality with indifference. Robinson’s impossible task: To learn indifference after love…

We know how liberal capitalism has managed this necessity: through gendered space thinking. The hyper-predication we call love is denigrated along a gendered axis as merely private: men in public are formally non-predicated. The masculinity of the liberal Everybody was a feature of liberalism’s attempt to think pure form without letting go of a vibrant concreteness it could never directly offer. It’s not that liberal capitalism does not particularize and predicate subjects—it does constantly, but always in the name of producing spheres of sociality in which subjects are freed from such predications. (The neoclassical market is that utopian place where everyone is freed from such predications, and it’s a wretchedly meaningless place, of course.) This casts Robinson’s necessary attempt to access wider spheres of sociality in a peculiar light. Bluntly, the de-predicating mode of liberal sociality, its freedom, is freeing only in the momentary affective rush of leaving predication behind—one feels the thrill of formal freedom…right before one ends up as Robinson again. Tonally, the technologies of liberal de-predication are always right at the tense excitement of infidelity: one leaves one’s beloved behind, leaves one’s being-loved behind, and enters into an anonymous, formal sociality with many-others. An orgy of senselessness.

Alas, there are no orgies in Hegel, no scenes in which a de-predicated one takes leave of the one-other and knocks boots anonymously with just-anyone. No orgies, but there is the state. Indeed, Hegel will, in other texts, manage the crisis in sense occasioned by the gap between the world of lovers and the worldlessness of liberal capitalism by turning to the state as a new principle of unity. He doesn’t in “Love,” though—it’s a fragment, after all. We’re just left with two lovers, the one and the one-other, fretting about their exposure to a world of many-others, of materiality, of the social. We can take it as a moment of potentiality before the state arrives to manage the crisis of the sense/lessness of liberalism.

So, what’s a lover to do when confronted with the heteronomy of the social in conditions of liberal capitalism? Our lover, our Robinson, might attempt to reject the ontological premises of Hegel’s argument. There’s no reason, after all, why the sense of the world arrives through one, and only one, other; there’s no reason why the partition of sociality erected by liberalism should attain such ontological gravity. There’s really no reason to begin counting at one, with the “individual unit”; no reason why this one can only interact with the world in a meaningful fashion when he encounters one-other—and only one-other; no reason why the persistent interaction with the world beyond these two requires the production of a third figure that, ultimately, just becomes a new unit, a new one. No need to begin from the individual, the ego, Dasein, the autos, the ispe…No reason, no need, except that liberal capitalism is an ontological force, and we can’t in voluntaristic fashion assemble a new ontology, one premised one the priority of the more-than-one, the lovability of an open-ended Mitsein. To get out of the quandary—how does one live liberalism after one has loved?—without calling upon an apparatus to manage the crisis of sense/lessness, our lover will need to work with others at learning to love differently. To begin building a loving, sense-making sociality premised on the more-than-one.

Can we think of Occupy as an experiment in post-liberal love? Think about the encampments, those bizarre sites, which—being neither public nor private, neither intimate, nor extimate—take the more-than-one as its ontological, material, and social constitution. There, the meaningful world is not accessed through one-other but through constructing this world with many-others; these many-others can’t be stated in a unifying figure, but are dispersed in their multiplicity. Perhaps most importantly: the sense of the world at Occupy is produced through con-sensing, the con- marking an open-ended set of those who arrive, and arrive such as they are. Echoing Hegel, we might say that consensing is “a feeling, yet not a single feeling”—it’s the modality by which many-others make the world sense-full and full, primarily, with the sense of being-with-others. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

For What We Will: Echoes of May Day

“Do we who are to come have an ear for the resonance of the echo, which has to be made to resonate in the preparation for the other beginning?” So asks Heidegger in Contributions to Philosophy. Heidegger tells us that we must attune ourselves to this “echo”—a vague resonance of sound that does not simply emerge from a single identifiable source but that metaleptically produces a new origin, a “new beginning” from which it emanates. What echoes is an alternative past that generates a future collectivity “to come.” Should we not make ourselves resonate with this other-sound, we will simply hear what we have always heard, accessing the history we’ve always known. We can take Heidegger’s challenge as a means of rethinking the relationship between Occupy’s May Day and the whole host of May Days past that resonated through it. Echoed through it.

An echo, then. Let’s listen, and try to be affected by the tonalities of an other beginning as they emerge in and through slogans that seem to have no future. Let’s listen to Robert Owen, and see if his slogan resounds from an other beginning: “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” Circulating throughout the Atlantic world, Owen’s somewhat moralistic division of the day would be transformed in the 1860s, when I.G. Blanchard penned the lyrics to “Eight Hours,” a labor song that would be set to music in the 1880s by Jesse Jones. Note the difference: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” The time of “recreation” mutates into a period in which laborers’ wills are asserted; it is formally structured as a time of self-activation. In the U.S., we tend to think of this time “for what we will” as having been earned in the latter part of the 19th century following a series of mass marches and brutal repressions (e.g., Haymarket). Whether this in fact happened, whether we earned our eight hours for self-valorization, the demand is still with us; it echoes, faintly, up until today, May Day. And the echo changes—its intensity, its meaning—as it is received within different conjunctures. Even as recently as last year, this echo was heard in the mode of memorialization—a past with assignable limits and no future. (I had the fantastic fortune to be present for the re-dedication of the Haymarket memorial in Chicago.) Today it seems as if we are hearing this echo as a call to arms, Occupy answering the demand of those who struggled, and died, for something that many of us take for granted. Eight hours for what we will.

How to hear this echo? Is it enough for Occupy to inscribe itself within this history of listeners and actors? Or might we not have to develop new ears to hear how we might push this slogan in the direction of new beginnings, and thus futures to come? Let’s be clear: In choosing May Day as a kickoff date for a spring offensive, Occupy has situated itself within this ongoing history of labor, within the space opened by the demand that workers have eight hours “for what we will.” And, in no small way, the slogan retains a radical force. “Eight hours for work,” for instance, might be a useful slogan for both affective/cognitive laborers, those whose jobs—like mine—seep into their lives, into the other sixteen hours, transforming all of life into a modality of labor. It might also be a useful slogan for those without work, or those whose work is not understood as susceptible to remuneration: the out-of-work, on one hand, and domestic labor, on the other. “Eight hours for rest,” similarly, might not only partition time, keeping sleep free from the demands of labor—it might also articulate a demand for a place to rest, for housing security. And so on.

On its own, the utility of the slogan is inexhaustible. But it seems unclear if we today inhabit the same social ontology of labor that made this call radical. As a transnationally-minded movement that—at least rhetorically—situates itself between Wall Street and the Global South, it seems to me that Occupy is situated between two new modalities of social being that are irreducible to a laborist ontology. On one hand, finance capital, as we know, has little to do with the form of capitalism enshrined in the process of valorization discussed in Capital vol. 1—one that we can figure in terms of its juridical, social, and political dynamics through the apparently voluntary contract between labor and owner. Finance is simply the agglomeration of the power to command that is indifferent to the wills of those whom it commands; finance does not need to simulate the voluntary conformation of wills of those whom it effects, be these wills those of individual people or entire states. We’re talking, quite simply, about a rent-seeking mode of accumulation articulated to an increasingly feudal power dynamic. On the other hand, the neoliberalization of the world has resulted, as Mike Davis puts it, in a billion people being expelled from productive participation (even exploitative participation) in the world-system. In this emergent planet of slums, the meaning of labor will alter beyond recognition as we try to get a read on the new forms of life being produced (or being survived). Labor, indeed, probably won’t serve as a meaningful category of being-in-the-world. This is because the Hegelian ontology of labor that programs the social consists in our ability to separate it from other modalities of being even as we might recognize the ontological priority of labor as such. Labor, as we know it, is a term that produces a set (the world) in which it is itself a member (just as, for Marx, production is a moment incorporated into the movement production-exchange-circulation-consumption even as it stands outside of it). Labor, as we knew it, thus engendered modes of being (resting, recreating, being-for-what-we-will) that are irreducible to it—ending with freedom. But none of that remains for the world’s abandoned, insofar as labor can’t engender the separations that made it, for Marx, a technology of becoming-free. Life doesn’t separate into ontologically thick regions when a survivalist battle with necropolitical accumulation is the law of the land. Labor no longer matters, because labor is embedded within a neo-feudal structure of command that, via structural abandonment, has commanded a billion people to die. We can get a sense of Occupy’s sense of this dual positioning in the rhetorical structure of Occupation. Just think: a tent city, a kind of village outside the castle, forms around Wall Street, and what this village manifests to Wall Street is nothing but the precarity of life exposed to pure heteronomy, lacking even the time-honored tool (i.e., labor) to transform this heteronomous condition into the substrate of a freedom to come.

If this slogan is to mean anything to us, if the location of ourselves in a history of May Days past is to do anything more than simply frighten wealthy folks by our deployment of Red signifiers, we need to become resonant in such a way that the alternative origins intimated in these slogans and signs echoes through us. And I think, to an extent, that Occupy has done a fantastic job in keeping the ontology of labor at arms length and in attempting to develop new modalities of being in the world. Note that, despite the verbal link, the practice of occupying is discontinuous with having an occupation. (No one in the future will mark down, under “Previous Employment,” “I occupied!”) And most of us don’t occupy to gain occupations, either—the social ontology Occupy thinks, materializes, and materialized from, is post-labor, post-work. For better or worse, we’re outside of the parameters that made “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” a meaningful slogan. So what remains of it, what echoes? That last bit, that last prepositional clause—provided that we rip it from its temporal partitions and provided that we attempt determining relations of work and rest from the perspective of this last eight hours. An other beginning echoes here, the foundationless beginning of a self-constituting collectivity that aims only at constituting itself. The irreducible, aimless circularity of democratic self-production.
What, we will be asked, we have been asked, we will be asked, are we after? What is Occupy working for?
            For all time to be a period of self-activation. For all time to be for what we will.