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.