Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mr. Bloomberg, Tear Down This Wall: #S17, Police, and Constituent Power

In response to OWS’s plans to reassemble on its anniversary (#S17) to shut down Wall Street, the forces of order took the unimaginative step of quite literally walling the street. Mikey B is a no nonsense kind of guy. Zuccotti Park and the Stock Exchange are now enclosed by lines of concrete, aluminum, and steel; atop some of these formations perches an NYPD observation post. Humorous preparations for a movement declared long dead, no doubt.

The enclosure of Zuccotti is intriguing for the light it sheds on the processes by which social symbols are formed. No doubt there are tactical reasons that motivated the police to enclose Zuccotti—a rare open space downtown, it is an ideal convergence point for mass actions. But there are others in the vicinity, others that OWS will be using on Monday. It’s clear, I think, that the social-symbolic role of Zuccotti exceeds its possible tactical function. To be sure, the becoming-symbol of the park does not mean that it utterly abstracts or detaches itself from the non-symbolic. Rather, the symbol of the park always refers us back to tactics, to struggle and antagonism: this symbol is the sedimentation of past and projected/future social confrontations. The tactical and the symbolic, the material and the discursive co-constitute one another, interpenetrate: the wall around Zuccotti is both a wall and something-more, but this excess of meaning is not separable from the wall’s construction in the first place. Discourse moves matter, matter moves discourse, each movement indexing the intensification of social antagonisms. I’m interested, here, in how the wall attempts policing—policing in a broad sense of an entire material-discursive coding apparatus—and thus re-coding this antagonism, and re-coding it is non-antagonistic.

First reading: The construction of the wall amounts to a tactical-symbolic inversion of the intentions of OWS. Looking at the wall, one gets a sense that the police are keeping the plebes of Occupy from accessing a space reserved for powerful patricians. This is no doubt true, as we will see. But the concrete-symbolic practice of keeping-out inverts the deeper structure of the intentionality of OWS and of the police. Simply put, OWS does not want to inscribe itself into a space of power, it does not want to enter capitalism—rather, it wants to force an exit, to detach itself from capitalism, to separate itself utterly and completely from power. It is rather the state that wishes to keep us inside of capital, immanent to the relations of command that constitute it. The construction of the wall and the social choreography that the wall invites—demonstrators clamoring to get inside of the park, as they entered it last night at the end of a march, as they sat in it tonight, after filing in one by one, for a Rosh Hashanah celebration—inverts the orientation and directionality of the antagonism.

Second reading: The construction of the wall amounts to a tactical-symbolic ironization of the intentions of OWS. Looking at the space enclosed by the wall, one gets a sense that there is no there there—that conquering this space would not be worth the fight, and any attempt to seize this space would simply be the result of a few bad eggs bloc’ed up and looking for a confrontation. The empty space enclosed by the wall nullifies and expresses the nullity of the desires of OWS; the desire of the plebes to enter the park seems devoid of content, as empty as the empty park they would try to occupy. The wall, in short, encloses a non-target; the intentionality of OWS is non-targeted, its aims at best contrarian, purely formal and reactive to a Power that says No, You Can’t Enter Here. The construction of the park as a targeted non-target de-positivizes the telos of OWS.

The wall, then, attempts two coding operations: On one hand, it accords a substantive rationality to radical intentionality, but it attempts to conduct it, to transform the directionality of struggle: the will to flee capital reappears as the will to get inside it. On the other hand, by constructing the park as a targetable and targeted non-target, it declares the intentionality of OWS to be merely formal and reactive: OWS would not know what it wanted if the walls disappeared. If the state said, sure, okay, have the park, pitch a tent if you want, then OWS would be revealed to lack an aim. The police, with their wall, are both directors of and actors in an insubstantial social drama, self-consciously constructing the possibility of a drama, but a drama about nothing, with no stakes, in which to win is to display the insubstantiality of the victory. In aiming for the park, OWS either aims for capital or for nothing.

Let’s note one bizarre and frightening effect of this ambidextrous coding operation. This concrete repressive apparatus of the police radiates the claim that it is repressing nothing. It redirects and conforms our aims with the dominant or it exposes the utter non-positivity of our aims—but repress? No way. Oddly, this understanding of police has percolated through the movement; when police repression is discussed, it is addressed on a level of pure formality, as the police’s violation of liberal-democratic rights—to gather and assemble, to speak and to express oneself collectively. We become more concerned about the violation of constitutional principles than about the violation of ourselves, of activists gathered-there-together. And so, in effect, the intentionality of Occupy is conducted toward liberal capitalism, its rights guarantees and its constitutional state; and so, in effect, Occupy events seem increasingly to be merely reactive to a power that willfully and eagerly oversteps legal restraints, a power to which we cry “shame shame shame” and “who do you protect” etc as if that were the full point of the action. The aim of our actions, in short, becomes staging situations in which it becomes proper to demand that the liberal-capitalist state and its constitutional guarantees protect us from its armed minions.

The Wall Effect, then: it encourages us to place our faith in constituted, constitutional power. Even as we’re cynical about the intentions of that power, demanding and petitioning become the sole modes of self-help available to us: “Mr Bloomberg, tear down this wall…” We thus ignore the extent to which the wall, the entire material-discursive apparatus of the police, does in fact repress something: our substantive and virtual potential, our constitutive and constituent power that, in its extensive and intensive mobility, exceeds the formalism of constituted Power, its mechanisms of control, capture, and reform. It represses us from moving into that time-space just before us, a field of potential that was once named Liberty Square.

And, so, a third reading, one that adopts the antagonistic perspective of constituted versus constituent power, of Power (calcified and senescent) versus power—mobile and youthful, filled with potential: The wall is just a fucking wall, a contraption of metal and concrete designed to inhibit the construction and realization of alternative modalities of being in the world. It is the vulgarity and stupidity of power, the concretion of the sheer barbarism and brutality required to keep people in their places. It’s not a sign of anything; it is repression, violence, and another brick in the wall of a whole state apparatus. Dividing us from our world-making force, just a fucking wall.

Smashing it would almost accord it too high an honor.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Pedagogy of Pickets; Or, Let's Do It for the Kids!

The struggle against austerity continues. With the struggle comes the whole set of neoliberal discursive maneuvers through which mouthpieces of capital attempt proving that tight fiscality is coterminous with a loving sentimentality. Not only are teachers’ demands opposed to anything like fiscal discipline, but the very articulation of these demands shows that, well, they just don’t care. Relations of care are best derived from the calculations of accountants. The Chicago Teachers Union, Mittens tells us, has “turn[ed] its back” on “the hundreds of thousands of children in the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education.”  Fiscality and sentimentality operate conjointly to effect a decisive displacement: they serve to depoliticize the antagonism between State-capital and labor. The necessity of caring for children, like the necessity—not matter how hard it is, how tight the belt becomes—to follow rigorously the demands of stingy accountancy, trumps any assertion of autonomous will, of freedom. Within this discursive field, the assertion of any political subjectivity requires, as a prior movement, the cultivation of an indifference toward the Child and the city’s Books—a turning-away, a turning-one’s-back-on, a willful neglect of one’s duties to Capital and Kids. Neglecting fiscal necessities is coterminous with neglecting one’s pedagogical duties to children; to resist the one is to attack the other; “[t]eachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children.”

Obviously, this is all horseshit, but that doesn’t mean that the figure of the Child, of the Children—all 400,000 of them, deprived of any adult care, left out on those dangerous Chicago streets—hasn’t been and won’t continue to be effective in determining public response to the strike. Much of the CTU’s defense of its action necessarily stakes a claim to being in the Child’s best interests: teachers’ conditions are students’ conditions, small classrooms benefits everyone, and so on. These claims are, I think, true, and they are important claims to make. But what really intrigues me, here, is the absurdly reductive concept of pedagogy that organizes responses to the teachers’ decision to strike. “Teaching” seems to be isolated to the slice of space-time we call the classroom; it only takes place during the school year, when performance can be enumerated and evaluated with faux precision. We already know that this definition of teaching is made in something like bad faith. After all, “teaching” is seen as a vocation that extends beyond the confines of the classroom to wider networks of sociality and identity formation. A “caring” teacher is the one who works beyond the actual scene of pedagogical production—that is, one who hyper-exploits herself by working outside of the education factory in the social factory more broadly writ: coaching teams, advising clubs, writing recommendations, being a mentor, and being, in general, a role model. As a disciplinary norm, “teaching” demands a set of behaviors that extend beyond the circuit of educative production into the circuit of social reproduction. Yet, the fact of this extension is carefully elided when minimalist definitions of pedagogy are proposed so as to chastise teachers for not caring about their kids. Anyone, however, who has walked by or walked in a picket line knows that teachers are not “turning their backs” on children—they’re facing the street, addressing the public at large, and are more than willing to explain to anyone—children such as their students or childish brats like Rahm—why they’re striking.

The picket is a pedagogical scene. So, what does it teach?

Let’s see if we can derive any lessons from the manner in which Rahm encodes the strike: “This is not a strike I wanted,” Emanuel said. “It was a strike of choice … it’s unnecessary, it’s avoidable and it’s wrong.“ Clearly, Rahm refuses to understand the centrality of disappointment to democracy, to understand democracy as a mode of living-through the non-conformity of wills. But let’s stick with these middle modifiers, “unnecessary” and “avoidable.” The question, of course, is: unnecessary for whom? Obviously, the strike is only “unnecessary” and “avoidable” from the perspective of a neoliberal accountancy operation that is willing to continually subtract the value of labor in order to enhance the freedom and value of capital. But this perspective is posed as delinked from any political subjectivity: it’s not Rahm the neoliberal opposed to the strikers, it’s just good economic sense (supplemented by a sentimental care for displaced kids) that determines the strike as “wrong.” By declaring the strike unnecessary and avoidable, Rahm gestures to a rationality exorbitant to the interests of both the city and the teachers—a fiscal causality that should coordinate the entirety of social life, a causality that is well nigh natural and objective. The teachers are, in effect, narcissistically fighting the way of the world.

Let’s agree with Rahm. Let’s say, indeed, that the strike is “unnecessary,” “avoidable”; let’s say that we will never be able to derive with any kind of scientific or apodictic certainty—calculate and compute as much as you will—the eruption of a strike. A brief course through history shows that submission to the heteronomous compulsion of economic necessity is the norm: subsistence limits have always been downwardly flexible, and real wage packages have been on a decline for centuries. It is this fact that precisely constitutes the eventalness of working-class revolt. Despite our habituation to heteronomy, it remains the case that the Atlantic world has—for centuries—seen action underived from necessity as the paradigm of ethico-political freedom. Freedom begins in the nonlinearity of the unnecessary, in the space of compossibility opened by the co-presence of the “avoidable” action with other courses of being. What Rahm is telling us, in short, is that the striking teachers, having set upon an unnecessary and avoidable course, are operating according to a self-given teleology of freedom.

It seems clear to me, at least, that the cultivation of a taste for freedom is a primary pedagogical responsibility of teachers. (Even a gross, reactionary, conservative ass would agree with that; it’s the Enlightenment-era genetic code of instituted learning.) This cultivation will not (and cannot) always take place in a classroom, particularly when classrooms are defined (as by Mittens above, and many others worried about 400,000 kids on the street) as little more than daycare centers (or prison cells). The picket line generates a new pedagogical scene, and, ultimately, establishes the same breach in our understandings of freedom as the third antinomy Kant draws in the third critique. On one side, we have those who believe that the movement of the world should be organized simply be natural-economic rationalities, laws. On the other side, those who know that natural-economic rationalities are not the sole determinants of human action—that there’s another causality, vague and obscure, that begins when a subject “turns her back” on necessity and lives the irreducible possibility of making an event. The Child, that figure derived from neoliberal accountancy, might feel neglected by this inaugural neglect of necessity. Actual children, however, might be getting a lesson in the (a)causality of freedom.