Thursday, July 19, 2012

“What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!”

We'll leave this chap in reserve for a moment.

So, the National Gathering came and went. I wasn’t in attendance for most of it: I was out of town. (Anyhow, the Philly Radical Convergence was running concurrently, and I would’ve gone to the latter, circumstances permitting.) With NatGat and the “return of Occupy” came the return of the utterly predictable ways by which Occupy is discussed in official and unofficial media outlets. No demands, no organization, etc. etc. One writer at The Guardian declares, simply, that the “The Philadelphia national gathering reveals Occupy’s law of entropy.” The reason he gives is simple: Occupy’s mode of consensus formation actually spawns dissensus. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—dissensus (he calls it “conflict”) is the condition of the political—but, alas, the movement lacks an instituted mode of regulating conflicting (what he calls) “rights” to public speech.  No durable structure, in short, regulates or economizes the political space of Occupy. Without this police-function, the polis of Occupy dissipates into endless and frustrating quasi-polemical debate, leaving as its trace a utopian dream of consensus without friction. A good Rancierean Arun Gupta is not. He thus concludes, “for the idealistic core of Occupy, its original flowering was like a Fourth of July firework display: something dramatic and beautiful, but ultimately ephemeral.”

It’s a sympathetic article, but the demand remains the same: Occupy, turn into something! Don’t be ephemeral! And, protestations to the contrary, that’s kind of what NatGat was all about: building a “blueprint,” a “vision,” and so on. Articulating a sense of the social that is, a sense of the social that should be, and a means of realizing this sense-to-come. Not for nothing, of course, was NatGat held through the 4th of July, and the drafters of the vision statement followed their patriotic forebears admirably. The document that they’ve left us is confused. After first declaring that “our process itself was [is?] our message,” the document then evacuates considerations of process in order to maintain the vision in a kind of utopian purity: “a vision points to the ‘what,’ not the ‘how.’” Moreover, as a means of disarming dissensus—or, alternately, as a means of forming consensus—points of vision are compiled and the number of people backing each point is listed. Enumeration disarming dissensus, police for the political. (Of course, dissensus still plays out across the content of the document; many of the demands are irreconcilable.) In short, the document is structured by the desire to produce a durable cognitive-sensual structure for action, but the modality of positive construction simply results in a lifeless tally in which all issues, rendered qualitatively commensurate, differ only in the magnitude of voices saying “Yea” to each proposed item. The quest for some kind of durable presence—if not as a state or a party than as a sense, a “vision”—has simply reproduced the hackneyed forms of liberal census taking (and consensus making).

This is in part an effect of political subjectivation exceeding available textual-generic resources: we need to come up with new ways of writing such that the representation of the polis is adequate to its democratic coming-to-presence. (Anyone who has ever tried collectively drafting a document knows what I mean—the end result always represents a certain betrayal.) But there are other discursive resources that a) refuse the conservative demand of institutional/organization/ideological durability and b) maintain a relation of adequation between political presentation and political re-presentation. I’m talking about the chant. After all, if our process is our message, we might as well look to the public speech genre with which activists are intimately familiar in order to see what our vision of democracy is or might be. And, let’s be clear, if the textual product of NatGat is rather stale and boring and liberal, the actual political event of NatGat—bodies arriving together, making space, fucking up our sense of the city—was as vibrant as any Occupy event. So, it’s to this repertoire of chants that I now want to turn in order to interrupt and look beyond the liberal form of consensus formation enshrined in the primary piece of NatGat’s textual archive.

Occupy’s repertoire of protest chants reveals most plainly the multiple and irreducibly conflictual strands of political thinking and practice that compose it. Each chant—through its imagined addressee, its content, its mode of articulation—draws on a particular lineage of practices that traverse anarchism, laborism, civil disobedience movements, and so on. Moreover, chants tend to encode, as their conditions of possibility, the precise social space from which they are articulated. Certain chants only become useful or usable as a march interacts with a space in a given manner—in an anarchist, CD, liberal, or laborist manner, for instance (this list is hardly exhaustive). For instance, “Whose streets? Our streets!” really only makes sense as a forceful claim when the march is not permitted. If you’re screaming “Our streets,” you’re probably not at a union-led action, for illegality marks one condition of possibility for the chant’s efficacy. At the other end of the spectrum is the utterly bland standby, “Hey hey, ho ho, xyz has got to go!” The chant could come from anywhere; it doesn’t entail a particular relation to space, except, maybe, the non-space of the liberal public sphere. We could keep going.  At the level of content, “A- / Anti- / Anticapitalista!” articulates an anarchist politics by eschewing a determinate addressee in favor of self-naming: there is no assumed “you,” no audience, just us, autonomically singing for ourselves. In terms of space, “Anticapitalista!” assumes the production of a temporary autonomous zone. More of a dance than a chant, “Anticapitalista” requires space for bodies-in-motion: clapping hands, jumping up-and-down, the beating of drums. It also produces (in the mouths of Occupiers in the anglophone-dominant public sphere of the US) an articulation, via language choice, with a globalized field of anticapitalist struggles. In short, chants can tell us a lot about social movements: not just what they want, but how they imagine, live, and produce their (sense of) space.

Some chants, however, refuse to make their political desires transparent. It’s in these absurdist chants that we can recover the much-cited anarchist roots of Occupy. The politics of “A- / Anti- / Anticapitalista!” are probably pretty clear to the onlooker caught in her car as demonstrators dance by; the political import of “I- / I need- / I need a piece of pizza!” is surely less clear. What would a good Habermasian say to the communicative irrationality of nonsense meta-chants such as “Three word chant! Three word chant!” or “Call! Response! Call! Response!” (see Graeber, Direct Action, 417). No doubt, such nonsense chants serve an immediate function for the marchers: marching is tiresome, intense, and marchers’ affect oscillates between exhilaration and boredom. Anticapitalism can be monotonous, but its important not to let this monotony show. These absurd chants thus enable a kind of affective recuperation: without leaving a vacuum, the specific target of the march is vacated of intense intention; at the same time, the humor of these chants produces a new kind of jolt, a different kind of intensity. The functionality of such chants for group formation should be clear: as ironic in-jokes, they produce a sense of belonging, of knowingness—one winks with one’s comrades. And this group is formed as a democratic, creative assembly. On one hand, the condition of possibility for such absurdist chants is the non-hierarchical nature of the march; no earnest march leader or chant master is going to start yelling, “Three word chant! Three word chant!” On the other hand, such chants, as jokes, can’t really be planned; they contingently bubble up as an effect of someone’s, anyone’s, creativity. During actions, twitter feeds buzz with the repetition of funny or ironic chants. The author can’t really be cited; there’s no author but the ephemeral creativity of the democratic anyone. As Graeber puts it, such chanting works through a “kind of democratization of effervescence.” We might also say that these chants work to make democracy effervescent, for many chants, of course, do not get picked up, repeated, shouted out--chants bubble up, contingently and randomly. Nothing guarantees—no census taking or consensus making—that an individual’s offering will be repeated save the intensifying acclaim of the demos that picks it up. Such an acclamatory model is, of course, starkly opposed to the kind of enumerative democracy of liberalism. (One finds here an ally in Schmitt in his Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy: “The will of the people can be expressed just as well and perhaps better through acclamation…than through the statistical apparatus that has been constructed with such meticulousness…)

So, these chants a) are functional for the continuance of a scene of democratic presentation; b) take a democratic assumption—that anyone can creatively present the demos—as a condition of their production; and c) take another democratic assumption—that others can decide in the immediate affectivity of the moment what presents democracy as it is—as a condition of their circulation. All these points are linked: the marching democracy endures (in its intensity, in its affectivity) by democratically distributing responsibility for (the effort of) making the demos appear. The “democratization of effervesence,” then, actually serves to ensure the democracy’s endurance. It’s in these emergent, contingent, ephemeral spaces, I suggest, that we should look to find adequate (re)presentations of democracy—what it demands, what it desires. I now want to read one (apparently absurd) chant to see what it can tell us about the coming democracy.

It’s straight-up nonsense. It began as a sign (written as a chant) and, in time, after it circulated as a picture and through twitter, was briefly enacted as a chant: “What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!” In case the joke isn’t clear, the chant-form it’s riffing on goes, “What do we want? X! When do we want it? Now!” Obviously, the time-travel chant works by noting that the realization of its demand—the traversability of time—renders the precise moment at which the demand is articulated a matter of indifference. The moment that one can travel through time, the precise moment when time travel was desired or realized as a possibility becomes just another moment through which one can travel. Time is thus derealized as a meaningful organizer of being in the world, for one could circulate through time in an atemporal fashion.  The “now” of the revolutionary demand loses its punctuality.

So, what’s at stake here? Well, for one, any theory of revolution is necessarily a theory of temporality, perhaps even a philosophy of history. Revolution is supposed to inaugurate a new order of time—shooting at clocks and all that other claptrap we’re all ready to cite from Benjamin. But, of course, revolutions are rarely punctual—the “Now!” that articulates the scene of revolutionary desire and activity requires, for its felicity, a labor of making that revolution, of bringing it about, of making it endure. Only then will the revolution unleashed in a given Now have actually unleashed a revolution. From the perspective of the revolutionary punctum, then, and as Derrida shows of the Declaration of Independence, all revolution exists in the future anterior—as a “what will have been” in order to render the inaugural moment of revolutionary action felicitous.

But that’s only if revolution is supposed to endure, if the “now” of our revolutionary desire is supposed to turn—revolve and evolve—into something. The chant above suggests something different about democratic revolution. The aim of revolution is not to inaugurate a new temporary, not to produce a structure that can endure. The aim is rather to transform the articulation of a demand into an effervescent happening that needn’t matter, that needn’t found a new regime—a punctual demand that endures by dissolving endurance’s value and desirability. We might say, then, that the non-enduring temporality of democracy consists in the capacity of the demos to traverse time as it will—to make and unmake the given as a sign of the effervescence of the will that once willed that given. Hegel hits on this radical effervescence in his critique of the French Revolution; he describes it as simply negativity, the “fury of destruction.” Critiquing indeterminate (or infinite or absolute) freedom as non-phenomenalizable and hence inherently negative, he writes, “This is why the people, during the French Revolution, decoyed once more the institutions they had themselves created, because all institutions are incompatible with the abstract self-consciousness of equality.” We're back to Gupta's "firework display," noted above, except Hegel doesn't see this "ultimately ephemeral" revolution "as dramatic and beautiful." Turn into something, Hegel says, or you'll turn into a furious nothing; turn into something, says Gupta, or you'll turn into an aesthetic spectacle, a meaningless burst of light and color. Following the time-travel chant, however, we might say that it is the durational temporality of any institution that inhibits the demos from making new time, from becoming democratically and freely effervescent. Ultimately, the time-travel of revolution does not consist in willing a new time once and once only; there will be no more Year Ones. Or--and this is the same thing--there will be as many of them as there are people.

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