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?

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