Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Searching for Sovereignty outside of a Steakhouse: On not meeting Corbett on #M1

For a brief period on March 1st—the National Day of Action for Education—students, faculty, and concerned members of the community gathered in front of governor Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office. Corbett, as anyone there could tell you, has proposed massive budget cuts to state-assisted Pennsylvania schools. And so, before heading on to the Philly school district headquarters to protest budget cuts there, we briefly gathered outside of his office, yelling out, “Hey, Corbett, where are you? / We just want to meet with you.” The chant conveyed more than it intended. We didn’t actually expect that Corbett would appear. But, as our brief demonstration began, we were entirely unsure that we were in the proper place, a place where Corbett—should he have so desired—could have staged an appearance. Occupy Penn had arrived a little early, our numbers were smallish (about 100, including some Fight for Philly people who also arrived early), and we worried that we looked utterly ridiculous. Were we even in front of Corbett’s office? Over a dozen people asked me that alone.

Let me explain. Philadelphia is not the capital of Pennsylvania; Harrisburg is. Corbett’s office in Philly is a rather informal affair, not located in any state building identifiable by marble columns, guided tours, or obvious guards. The semiotics of sovereignty are missing. When one gathers around 200 South Broad Street to protest Corbett, it looks, to the casual passerby, as if one is in fact gathering around Palm, a steakhouse located in the same building. The only feature identifying the building as housing Corbett is a Pennsylvania state flag flying outside—or at least that’s the slim signifier I could hang my hat on as I assured others that, yes, Corbett’s office is here, right there, even if he’s not in it, even if it’s not apparent that he would be in it.

Let’s abstract. We were on a march protesting the state’s refusal to occupy a position of responsibility vis-à-vis its young citizens. But it was unclear to us where the state actually resided. Our problem, then, was not simply that the state has abdicated a role of responsibility in fostering the education of its citizens; it consisted in the fact that the space of appeal, the political space articulating sovereign to subject, did not seem to exist. And so we had to assure ourselves that we were not merely yelling at busboys in a steakhouse by undertaking particular hermeneutic labors: Look, there’s the flag; look, cops are blocking the doors; the governor must be inside, or must have been inside at some point. In so doing, we were temporarily able to reconstitute the space in front of 200 South Broad Street as a political space, a space of appeal, a site that the sovereign could have occupied to hear our demands.

We can derive a lesson from this experience in the operation of neoliberal sovereignty. Neoliberalism does not only dissolve the ties binding sovereign to subject by unbundling privileges and protections from formal citizenship; it also dissolves the political space in which that unbundling could be contested. The sovereign does not only hide; it also dissolves the space in which its hiddenness would appear as absence. Citizens thus need to produce the space in which this absence, as absence, is apparent, and this spatiality is produced by recasting the socio-political field through a hermeneutic search for sovereignty. If one does not look in a particular way, the very absence of the sovereign will not be remarkable and will remain illegible—one will simply be shouting outside of a steakhouse. The very possibility of noting the absence of the sovereign thus depends on a kind of anamorphosis, a reading of the social from a particular vantage such that the absence of that sovereign becomes legible as a constitutive feature of the social. For us, the slim sign of the flying PA state flag provided and authorized that anamorphotic perspective.

Any relation of sovereignty requires imaginative and interpretive labors for its (re)production, and such labors are likely, in some fashion, to be anamorphotic. The questions we need to ask ourselves are: What organizes our interpretive labors? What social-political field do we hope to create through the activity of thought? As we looked for Corbett, as we attempted producing an imaginative zone in which Corbett might appear (and thus where his non-appearance would be remarkable), with what thought of sovereignty were we preoccupied, and thus re-inscribing? I want to suggest that the content of our actions—petitioning, demanding via a claim about obligations—as well as the scene of the event’s staging—in front of a big tall tower, containing and concealing a sovereign we couldn’t see—reinscribed a well-nigh Hobbesian construction of the socio-political field. By hook or by crook, we were going to find a transcendent power, even if a ridiculous flag provided the only proof of its presence. We imagined, in effect, this:

Note how the individual bodies in Hobbes’ artificial man cannot, in effect, see the social field that they’ve produced; they’ve relieved themselves of the imaginative labors of thinking the space of sovereignty. Note also, however, that they occupy the field of the sovereign, its body, even if they do not know it, even if they cannot see it. We can take from this image a warning: as we construct our spaces of sovereignty, we need to do it in such a way that this space is always in view, such that its artifactuality, its constructed and labored nature, cannot be hidden from the collectivity that, in gathering together, in embodying itself, constructed it. What if, on 200 South Broad Street, we didn’t look up, we didn’t search for the slim signs of an absent sovereign, we didn’t reinscribe the verticality of power?

What if we sought sovereignty by looking across, at one another?

To Hobbes’ frontispiece I want to oppose a slightly less famous meditation on sovereignty. You can find it in Philadelphia, right outside of Fergie’s Pub (to which all should go for Ulysses trivia night just before Bloomsday).

The sword and scepter of Hobbes’ frontispiece are replaced with a bottle of beer and a teacup. More important is the exteriorization of the little bodies composing Hobbes’ artificial man: they are (for the most part) outside this sovereign suds-slinger. Indeed, the legibility of the body as a body is almost dependent on the bodies outside of it—as if, through these bodies’ aggregation, they produced the outline of a sovereign body that, for all that, is not filled with or peopled by its subjects. Sovereignty here is an empty space produced through collectivization that, in its emptiness, permits that collectivity to gaze across at one another, to see the other sovereign bodies who produce this empty space of sovereign articulation through the practice of articulation. Sovereignty here is simply another name for the spacing of horizontal, immanent sociality—the articulated non-coherence of a social collective whose substance consists in nothing more than its coming-to-co-presence.  

When we occupy this perspective, the question of locating the state—sovereign or steakhouse?—becomes less acute. Because sovereignty isn’t a thing or a sign or a body; it’s a space of articulation produced by the praxis of articulation, of being-with. Once the Temple marchers appeared at 200 South Broad Street, the hundred or so of us who were already there, we who pondered if we in fact stood in front of Corbett’s office, stopped caring. We rushed to the hundreds who came, comrades, and hugged and danced.

Did Corbett appear? Would we have known, or cared, if he did?