Monday, January 30, 2012

Revolutionary Ex-orbitancy

Pardon the silence; I’ve been sojourning in the land of the academic job market.

I want to think today, quite bluntly, about political subjectivation. How is it that in the punctum of our present a political subject has emerged? Why Occupy? And what do I even mean by political subject, by the political itself? Gestures toward “the political” saturate my own discourse, and, thus far I’ve refused to define the term except indirectly: it’s something lost, something irreducible to regimes of calculability, and so on.  But it remains a vague term. Those of us who live anti-liberalism religiously tend to invoke the political as a blank, critical resource. Given that the political is that against which liberalism defines itself, that which liberalism seeks to limit, contain, and expel, we inflate the signifier as signifier, as if “the political” has a transcendent signified utterly exorbitant to linguistic capture. It has no such signified, and we kind of know this, and when we’re pressed to contort the exorbitant(ly empty) term into a communicable form we typically stutter out some Schmittian line. Here, I don’t want to define “the political”; rather, I want to think of the political itself as the process by which signifiers, on one hand, point beyond themselves to a transcendent exorbitancy and, on the other hand, point to nothing in the world. Let’s say that the political is ex-orbitant: it names a world saturated with transcendent meaning even as it marks an emptying-out, a cancellation, an active ex-ing of the orbis. In this double-play of the ex-orbitant we can locate the emergence of the political subject called Occupy.

The political isn’t identical to a scale, institution, or form; rather, the political is what advenes in the de-structuring of a worldly ordinary. It comes to pass in the conditions of absolute undecidability, when the nomos of the given world is cancelled. I use the passive voice [“is cancelled”] because I want to leave the agency of cancellation unmarked, just as I want to leave the structuring nomos unmarked. This cancellation, I want to suggest, actually produces the nomos it cancels as a self-conscious entity; it subjectivates it. (The “Keynesian state” becomes subjectivated after its wholesale destruction, and is subjectivated as a critique of neoliberalism, for instance.) The political takes place in the withdrawal of a world that only appears as a world in its withdrawal, when the ex produces the orbis it cancels. The political, then, couldn’t be a scale or form of activity—it takes place in the break, between regimes, as an interregnum where undecidability is the norm. Nor could it be an agential subject, something that an intending actor does, for subjectivation happens as an effect of structural cancellation, as the subjectivation of a lost world, a lost ordinary. The political subject is called into being by a lost world, a cancellation of a structure that becomes legible only through its cancellation. The ancien regime appears as a political subject only through revolutionary fighting in the streets.

The political subject is a structure of intentionality that survives the loss of the world that made that mode of being-toward-the-world an unexceptional aspect of being-in-the-world. It emerges in the cruelty of a desire or demand that won’t quit despite the structural impossibility of its realization—a demand for a state that cares, for instance, that is not set to work merely to facilitate the valorization of capital. The political begins when we’ve lost our grip on reality, when our worldly ordinary vanishes and, vanishing, seems to have been real, when we're forced to decide on new approaches to the real. The inaugural tonality of the political is thus one of frustration, of disorientation. This frustration, I want to suggest, is not primarily a frustration with the given world, but a frustration with one’s inability to unlearn the protocols of intentionality that produce this frustration—a frustration not with the world in which one is but a frustration with one’s being-toward-the-world that could only produce frustration. Conservative political subjectivity refuses to let go of this frustration; it wishes for the world to re-conform to its worldless structure of intentionality. This dynamic explains how both conservative and radical political subjectivity can be denigrated as romantic, as utopian—each prioritizes a structure of intentionality over an epistemically valid description of the world as such.

But the radical political subject relates to intentionality differently. If the political emerges in the mismatch between a structure of intentionality and the given world, radical political subjectivity enacts itself by unlearning the intentionality that binds subjects to a lost world, by destroying the phenomenological structure that makes the subject optimistically invest again and again in a world that has abandoned the worldly structures that might have made this investment worthwhile. The radical political subject is not one who decides, simply, on a new world but one who, in all its fractured plurality, co-decides on a new being-toward-the-world.

Occupy is now, finally, radicalizing, becoming a radical political subject. (There were always radicals a part of Occupy, those for whom the world of capital held no promise. My point is that the radical is becoming the set that incorporates the reformist [and Ron Paulite] elements.) Oakland is in the lead here, and their example is contagious, spreading in the form of small acts. Occupy Philly’s march through Center City last night—tying up traffic, confusing police, generating a carnival atmosphere in which people in cars honked out tunes in time with our chants—ended with some tearing down the fence around a privatized Dilworth Plaza, tearing down the stupid Dilworth project banners that surround the site to tell the public that privatization is just fucking awesome. We’re getting angry, we’re learning from our own frustration, we’re cultivating our hatred for capitalism, we’re starting to work on our own structure of desire to come to a point where we can begin to co-decide on new modes of being-toward-the-world. Occupy is now undertaking the revolutionary labor of ex-ing the orbis by unlearning the epistemic programming that makes subjects invest in a world that is always already lost. Reformists will drop out. Bye!

Will the world follow our intentions? Who knows. The co-decision on a new being-toward-the-world is necessarily exorbitant to the world that is—there is nothing that guarantees that the world will bear the burden of the novel intentionality we will decide upon. We don’t necessarily know what a new world will look like, and we couldn’t: the exorbitant will remain undecidable, and we’re leaning how to dwell in this undecidability, how to occupy the space of the incalculable. For now, we’re content to frighten power by our radical refusal to be frustrated by a world that has abandoned its promises. We’re already desiring other worlds. We're already political. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why We Should Read Thomas Clarkson

“For let us consider how many, both of the living and the dead, could be made to animate us.” So writes Thomas Clarkson in chapter eleven of The History of the Rise, Progress, & Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade (1808), the chapter in which Clarkson explains his famous riverine “map” that traces the confluences of antislavery sentiment that led, in part, to the abolition of the trade in 1807. Clarkson’s graphical depiction of the rhizomatic communication of influence functions as an interesting counterpoint to the rather linear narrative given theretofore. Through the image, we see that political animation—the kind that Clarkson described above—is never linear, obvious; it snakes around, twists about, drawing even on the life of the dead for its motive force. Looking back over the image as I re-read Clarkson’s masterpiece, I was struck by how it approximates one mapping of OWSTwitter networks I had seen two months ago. This similitude prompted a question: How could the social movement propelled by Clarkson’s labors “be made to animate us”? What lessons does Clarkson hold for us?

Admittedly, Clarkson is probably not the literary bread-and-butter of Occupy. Occupiers are more likely to read Marcuse, for instance, or other 20th century quasi-/post-/neo-Marxists, than they are to settle down with a history of a reformist movement composed in 1808. Particularly on college campuses, it is perhaps through an intellectual engagement with the questions of class and exploitation posed by these theorists that students come to desire an involvement with a movement like Occupy. Here, theory quickens and animates, transforming intellectuals thinking about the world into intellectuals attempting to change it. For many Occupiers I know, theory isn’t merely theory: even if theoretical engagement began as a merely scholastic exercise, it became a call to action. And this is the first lesson we can take from Clarkson. In a biographical section of his history, he describes how he came to awareness of the slave-trade. Students at Cambridge competitively submitted dissertations in the hopes of securing a university prize. Young Thomas had won such a prize the year before, and desired the fame of winning first prize again. The prompt for the prize was simple: “Anne liceat Invitos in Servitutem dare? or, Is it right to make slaves of other against their will?” Clarkson eagerly anticipated both the intellectual enjoyments of crafting a fine Latin essay and the honors that such a fine essay would bring. Like a good grad student, he began to diligently research slavery, focusing on the present-day slave-trade. He began to write, but the pleasures he had anticipated were “damped by the facts which were now continually before me. It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night…It became now not so much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa.” A fight for academic prestige, the flexing of rhetorical and analytic muscles…these served to bring Clarkson into ethical, and then organizational, contact with British antislavery.

Lesson one, then: we don’t get to choose the manner of our activist animation, we don’t get to choose how a politico-ethical demand appears within the bland contexts of our everyday worlds. We might begin as silly students, reading Heidegger and Nancy late at night to catch up with our peers in the battle for prestige, but we don’t know, we can’t know, how these texts might serve as so many tributaries sending us, gently at first, to a broader social movement. Nor do we get to choose the manner in which we comport ourselves once we’ve made contact with the animated world of activism; we don’t get to choose, I mean, what the practice of activism looks like. Sure, antislavery historians or Hollywood movies will direct us to the spectacular scenes of popular mobilization—loud speeches, louder crowds, and all topped off with petitions, written on streaming rolls of paper, unraveled before Parliament. But anyone involved with Occupy knows that much of the work of Occupy takes place in front of a computer, navigating cluttered inboxes, making sense of lengthy email chains, reading and writing endless responses. Clarkson had a similar experience. Supposed to send his comrade a “weekly account” of his progress in stirring up initial support, Clarkson describes the textual bloat: “At the end of the first week my letter to him contained little more than a sheet of paper. At the end of the second it contained three; at the end of the third six; and at the end of the fourth I found it would be so voluminous, that I was obliged to decline writing it.” But the reading and writing didn’t stop. Clarkson describes daily sessions that stretched from 9pm until 3am where he and his colleagues examined custom-house receipts until their “eyes were enflamed by the candle.” And Clarkson’s History is itself an artifact of the humdrum textuality of revolutionary activism.

If lesson two is that revolutionary activism entails decidedly nonrevolutionary, unsexy, and (let’s say it) boring activity, the third lesson we can take from Clarkson is the importance of not letting our revolutionary aims be trumped by the feeling of quotidian normality that even revolutionary activity assumes. In a beautiful passage, Clarkson describes how, eyes enflamed, “tired by fatigue,” he and his comrade would “relieve ourselves by walking out within the precincts of Lincoln’s Inn, when all seemed to be fast asleep, and thus, as it were, in solitude and in stillness to converse upon them, as well as the best means of the further promotion of our cause…Having recruited ourselves in this manner, we used to return to our work.” Dreaming dreams in the solitude of night. But we also get a lesson, shortly thereafter, about the possible consequences of failing to dream well enough, to dream deeply enough. Clarkson and company are in a meeting, one of the first of their formally organized society, and someone poses the question: Do we oppose merely the slave-trade, or slavery as an institution? The conveyance of slaves or the very mode of labor? You probably know how the debate goes: Given that plantation slavery relied on fresh imports due to staggering death-rates, and given that Parliament definitely had the sovereign power to regulate commerce but did not have uncontested sovereignty over the internal affairs of colonies with representative assemblies, and given that property rights—even in people—should remain inviolate, the society decided to focus on the slave-trade, leaving slavery a fact of the British world for decades more. It’s tragic reasoning, a failure of imagination, a reformist approach to the real. An anti-lesson.

If we let Clarkson animate us, we’ll derive three lessons: We don’t choose what propels us to act; revolutionary action is less a punctual moment of affective intensity than a humdrum labor that takes time; and, despite the routine and routinized work of revolution, we need to keep our revolutionary dreams alive. Let’s add one more: Clarkson’s work—his history, his activism—demonstrate that another world is indeed possible. For thousands of years, slavery, commerce in people, was simply a fact. Without making too big a claim for Anglo-Atlantic exceptionalism, we need to take seriously the fact that the zone of formal freedom that Clarkson helped carve into being was minimal compared to the zones where human “enslaveability,” to use Drescher’s term, would continue to condition human life. Antislavery beat the odds, beat the weight of history, and made opposition to slavery, and thus formal freedom, a ground-level assumption about human being in the world. There were and are limits to the value of this formal freedom, as any post-emancipation society shows. But taking this long historical view, we might see ourselves as the newest tributaries on Clarkson’s riverine map—we might see ourselves as people struggling to achieve substantial freedom in a world where formal, merely formal, freedom is the norm.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Stuttering toward the Future

A new year, a planetary revolution completed: a good time to consider the hermeneutics of novelty, of revolution. If such a hermeneutics could exist, and nothing is less certain. For, certainly, liberal capitalism has functioned through the banalization of the new. We could think of myriad media technologies (the newspaper, the novel, a 24-hour news-cycle), consumption habits (“fashion” being the most obvious habit of practicing novelty), and technologies of governmentality as mechanisms that contain the new by proliferating novelties, inventions, deviations. The problem facing a hermeneutics of revolutionary novelty is this: How to read the appearance of the new in such a way that it is not (dis)figured by liberal capitalism’s deep embrace of novelty? We are, after all, conscripted imaginatively into liberalism: How are we to unthink the cognitive frameworks that enable thought at all?

Marx articulates the problem neatly in a famous passage. On one hand, “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.” For Marx, earlier revolutions suffered from a failure of imagination; they could not read the poetry to come, the poetry of the future: “Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content.” Marx resolves the problem with a normative claim—one that, humorously, “require[s]” a Christological messianism for it to make sense: “In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” (For readers without the dubious benefit of 12 years of Catholic education, “let the dead bury the dead” is an utterance of Jesus, Matthew 8:22.) That is, the revolution must move beyond the poetry of the past, the “required recollections,” and live dangerously open to a future-oriented present. Indeed, it must speak the future in the present as if it were already the future (“draw[ing] its poetry…only from the future”). But what would this poetry sound like, look like? Marx makes this poetry thinkable by comparing it, formally and semantically, to the past-oriented poetry of earlier revolutions: “There [in the past] the phrase went beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the phrase.” It’s not that the phrase says more than it means—rather, the phrase cannot say what it means. We don’t have the language yet, but the intuition of this content, this poetry of the future that lacks a language, has already beggared the words, the phrases that we do possess. The future that affects language does so by loosening its hold on the future, insofar as the future (the content) goes beyond the phrase.

Language has nothing to say about the future.

With brutal honesty, Marx submits his own work to the double bind he diagnoses. The future cannot be said, its content is exorbitant to its phrasing. Yet one writes. And, indeed, writes with phrases derived from “recollections of past world history” (e.g., “let the dead bury the dead”). One could read Marx’s entire corpus as a negotiation with this double bind: How to write the new, to develop a hermeneutic for reading novelty, knowing that one only possesses the poetry of the past—that one is “required,” cognitively, to read the future in the determinate figures generated by the past? Capital is little more than the generalization of this requirement, as if, one day, everyday, capitalism reads a kind of requerimiento to those whose imaginations it would colonize. We can see Marx playing with this fact at multiple points: the subordination of variable capital to constant capital discussed in volume 1 has its cultural-linguistic counterpart in Marx’s claim that “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Value—as both a body of theoretical ruminations on value from Petty to Smith to Ricardo to Mill and as the value-form itself—similarly performs this operation of fashioning the new in a determinate image. All that remains for the revolutionary is this blank sign, the “future,” the “new,” which intimates a “content” that exceeds its phrasing. But one cannot speak the new as new, in new terms, in new words, because we lack the language, because we’re required, as conscripts of capital, to speak in such and such a way. But, at the same time, one cannot not speak: the future is the only thing worth speaking about, even if one cannot speak it.

The point is this: we lack a cognitive structure to perceive the new, because the new renders the cognitive structures that we do possess indeterminate. We might not know it when it hits us. But we might symptomatize it. As I re-read Marx’s sentence about phrasing revolution (“…here the content goes beyond the phrase”), I’m struck by how this seems to mimic a kind of stutter. A meaning-to-say that stumbles on the materiality of language, a content that can’t quite—but not for lack of trying—articulate itself. It’s at this point, where language can’t fully grasp the object or process it tries taking in hand, that some kind of newness is being illumined. The future appears, first and foremost, in moments where the epistemological authority of the past and present is evacuated. Not as a destruction, but as an indetermination—one that exposes the poetry of the past to the possibility of a poetry of the future. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must stutter—that is, one must perform that inability of language to speak the force that affects one, that brings one to speech.

I want to think of Occupy as a series of revolutionary stutters, a movement that has brought one language (that of neoliberalism in the U.S.) to crisis while, simultaneously, seeking a language to describe the future it would inaugurate. We need to hold onto this stuttering revolutionary speech. (That, at least, is what I’ve been trying to do: to see how the slogans and practices of Occupy are potentiated by a “content” exorbitant to their “phras[ing],” a content that fleetingly appears in the articulation of such phrases.) We need to do so because the moment that Occupy’s stuttering indeterminacy becomes easily articulated speech, we will have lost the future, Occupy will have become a reform movement, and we will be left speaking the language of the present. We need to see in our stuttering critiques and programs that force of a future to come, to, indeed, become comfortable with the fact that we don’t have a language for what we want.