Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Good Worker, Property Destruction, and Trayvon Martin

Even before the city street fully absorbs the resonant sounding of shattering glass, the press—mainstream media or citizen journos, it doesn’t matter which—introduces us to a stock figure whose words are nonetheless accorded a special status. You’ve met him or her before. We’re now all old friends with The Worker Who Doesn’t Like Property Damage. The prolie who picks up the shards after the anarchists have had their smashy-smashy fun.  The employee who tells us he is sympathetic to the anger, but there must be another way. Days after Trayvon Martin suffered his second death—the juridico-political death that retroactively strips him of property in himself, the juridico-political death that came after but always came before, the juridico-political death that laid down the path that Zimmerman would follow—media outlets have dusted off the Good Worker and set her to work to chastise those whose outrage at Martin’s second death has taken the form of smashed windows, burning dumpsters, courthouse graffiti admonishing us to kill all the pigs.

The Good Worker knows that property damage is no way to protest the fact that Martin had no property in himself. The Good Worker knows that violence dishonors Martin’s memory. Of course, everyone already knows that; this is the USA, after all. But the Good Worker knows something special, something more. She possesses a particular knowledge derived from a quotidian detail of her life. She is the one who has to sweep up the glass. He is the one who has to wash off the paint. After the party of anarchy, the Good Worker appears on the scene and, with a sigh, dispenses his special knowledge: the infantile leftism of the anarchists and the outraged hurts no one but those whom they claim to defend.

Through the Good Worker’s resigned affect—“I’m the one who has to clean up”—liberals convert dependence on capital into an alibi for capitalism, transform the worker’s binding to the propertied as property’s normative basis. Relations between capital and labor never seem so free from compulsion as when the Good Worker laments the extra work imposed upon her by…other workers, maybe, but more likely dropouts and nogoodniks. The discordant symphony of shattering glass resolves itself in Careyite harmonies. One is encouraged to imagine that the Good Worker’s Good Boss never demands a little overtime, never subjects her to work that go beyond the parameters of the job. But that is precisely what is happening, and not just because he is sweeping up a window: the very articulation of the lament is itself a form of surplus extraction. After all, the political geography of smashy-smashy and political economy of U.S. cities ensures that the Good Worker’s skills will tend toward the communicative, the affective. He doesn’t work in a factory, but in a shoe shop, a restaurant, a boutique cheese store. And she possesses the corresponding skills: she can read inchoate desires and conduct them toward an object, respond to pressing demands, defuse awkward situations. After the windows come smashing down, the general capital exploits these affective competencies. It shoves a microphone, recorder, or someone with a Twitter account in his face and asks him to work a little bit longer, to piece the shattered norms of capitalist society back together with his words. And she does, bearing tidings that an assault on property is an assault on workers, because workers have nothing but the property of others. To harm property is to harm ourselves. The Good Worker’s stoic acceptance of her lot is converted into a quasi-proprietorial care that simulates a property in something that could never be hers.

This equation has been literalized in the case of the Oakland protests over the juridical fact that Martin had no property in himself. In an article entitled “Waiter attacked, freeway blocked in 3rd Oakland protest,” the reader is informed, “As the night wore on, violence grew. About 11 p.m., a masked protester hit a waiter at Flora Restaurant and Bar on Telegraph Avenue in the face with a hammer as he tried to protect the restaurant, whose windows were broken two nights ago.” That this happened is undeniable, terrible, and has been condemned by pretty much everyone (minus some with what I think are fantasies of an agent provocateur). I can’t think of any anarchist who would approve non-defensive violence, particularly against a worker, during a demo; we’d gladly leave a window untouched so as to not harm a human. As the masked protestor’s action strikes us all as aberrant and abhorrent, what intrigues me is the description and naturalization of the waiter’s (named Drew Cribley) act. The causal determination of the worker’s intention is established—windows had been broken before. The deeper emplotting of the event comes at the end of the sentence, and retroactively accords his action—tensed with “as he tried…”—a drawn out, durational quality where one might only read temporal simultaneity or, indeed, spontaneity.

Yet, as another article reveals, the waiter’s defense of the restaurant was indeed spontaneous:

Cribley said his black-masked attacker passed him on the sidewalk, then started pounding on windows with a hammer when Cribley turned and told him to stop. "I kind of instinctively pushed him away," Cribley said. "That's when he turned back at me and cracked me in the cheekbone."[…] "Looking back on it, it was a really stupid thing if you thought I was going to interfere," he said.

Strikingly, Cribley didn’t think he was going to interfere, he didn’t intend to, not consciously, but a “kind of instinct[]” drove him to “turn…and [tell] him to stop.” It is as if the thump of the hammer on the window sounded out like Althusser’s policeman’s hail: Cribley can’t not turn, even if he doesn’t know what he’s turning toward, turning for. With its direct access to the habits of head and heart of liberal capitalism, the newspaper reveals why. Cribley turned to “protect the restaurant”—not himself, not a window, but the corporate/fictive entity of the restaurant. According to the paper, he wasn’t protecting an object so much as the idea of property itself.

It seems perfectly natural, even laudable, that a worker’s body would absorb the blow intended for a capitalist’s window. Indeed, the article establishes a striking fungibility between (capitalists’) objects and (workers’) bodies. Both are, in effect, absorbed into the fictive person of the firm and, indeed, are little more than the business’ precipitates, the accidental bearers of capital’s personhood. (The assault on Cribley doesn’t even make it into the lede; it is only reported after destruction of other property is detailed.) After the windows come smashing down, the press impresses the Good Worker to restore the commensurability of bodies and objects, people and things.

It was this form of commensuration that killed Trayvon Martin, and killed him twice. The trial of Zimmerman briefly extended to Martin something that could never be his—a proper claim to himself, a juridico-political identity that did not position him as some bizarre thing midway between object and person. If the court’s decision confirmed Martin’s status as a being that could be killed but not murdered, the discourse surrounding property destruction in Oakland confirms neoliberal capitalism’s commitment to reproducing and repairing that order. Through the Good Worker, it first indicts those who actively refuse this commensuration with the charge of exposing its ugliness, for directing conversation from Trayvon Martin to smashed windows (as if anarchists are to blame that the media cannot control its vulgarity, as if anarchists are to blame that the media can’t not stop a conversation about Martin because a violated property hails). It then tells us that Martin would not approve of this violence, that violence against property is no way to honor Martin. Indeed, it posthumously transforms Martin into the Good Worker, someone who knows that to harm property is to harm ourselves. Someone who knows that because we have no property, because the property of others has subsumed any claim to property in ourselves, we have to identify ourselves with it. Someone who knows that our being can be exchanged with objects and things and that, indeed, we should be prepared to “protect” windows—even if we risk extreme bodily harm in so doing.

Feigning outrage, the media is hard at work restoring the logic of racial, neoliberal capitalism that killed Trayvon Martin twice. But there’s grumbling in the ranks: the Good Worker isn’t complying. The follow up article on Cribley concludes with the paper asking him to play his appointed role.

Cribley said he sympathized with protesters and their right to voice outrage, yet feared the violence would overshadow their goals. "It sucks for the people who are really trying to be heard because it starts to take away from their message," he said. "People around the country look at Oakland and feel like there's a bunch of vandalism and violence rather than intelligent people with an actual cause they believe in. Instead of talking about that, you're talking about the guy who got hit in the face with a hammer."

Note the striking disparity between the paper’s gloss and Cribley’s words. Cribley’s final quote is introduced as if what follows is pure Good-Workerism. He’s sympathetic to the protestors, sure, but, like, he wonders: this couldn’t be the right way. But, as his words actually reveal—his words, what he thinks when his personality is not subsumed into the indirect discourse of capital’s mouthpiece—he does not disavow property destruction. He does not oppose “vandalism and violence” to “an actual cause.” Rather, “people” do, people who “feel” a certain way about Oakland because the reporter, instead of talking about the cause of the demonstrators, is busy “talking about the guy who got hit in the face with a hammer.” Cribley is basically asking the reporter, the you of his address, to write about something else, to write about the actual cause of the violence, the actual meanings it conveys. Cribley refuses to be the Good Worker, to simulate investment in an order of property, of proper being, that left him with a hammer to the head, that left a black boy twice dead in Florida.

But the propertied order has the last word: “Cribley said he'll return to work Thursday.” And the windows will be repaired by then, too.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Antebellism II: Rove, Ahab, and the War on Terror

In a previous post, I tried coming to grips with antebellism, a form of pop political sense-making that has dominated U.S. public discourse for the duration of Obama’s administration. Locating the origins of antebellism in the doubled movement of neoliberalism and globalization, I stressed that antebellist imaginaries are a compensatory mechanism that enable populations to relate to apparatuses of governance as democratic forms of politics. Antebellism recodes the withdrawal of the political into neoliberal administration as the antagonistic intensification of the political—an antagonism that opens onto a civil war that will never arrive. The problem with my reading is that its focus on questions of imagined relations to neoliberal governance leads it to privilege a nation-centered unit of analysis; I downplayed how Yankee globality affected and induced the antebellist imaginary. Neoliberalism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of antebellism; after all, we’ve lived with and through the former without the aid of the latter for some time. As I noted, Bruce Holsinger argues that U.S. culture during the Bush-Cheney years developed a neomedievalist imaginary to make sense of the U.S. global military adventurism. While this neomedievalist imaginary of course persists—culture is the graveyard of symbolics past—I want to suggest that it has been absorbed by antebellism, and that this absorption indexes an exhausted, post-Bush withdrawal from globality.

Inasmuch as a diffuse discourse can be invented or pinned down to a punctual scene of origins, Karl Rove invented antebellism. Days after Obama was sworn in as the 44th President, Rove appeared on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor to defend himself from John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers had subpoenaed Rove to give testimony for the possible “politicization” of the Bush Justice Department. During his interview, Rove fumbles for an analogy that would adequately render the illegitimacy of Conyers’ subpoena. Rove first considers calling Conyers’ investigation a “witch hunt,” only to decide that the label is not quite right, because “I don’t think of myself as a witch.” While Rove is uncomfortable analogizing his situation to that confronting a witch (and note, incidentally, that Rove assumes that to be subject to a witch hunt one must have been a witch, as if only guilty subjects will have been hunted and prosecuted), he is perfectly comfortable comparing himself to a whale. Drawing upon the U.S. literary canon, Rove likens himself to the sublime and eponymous object of Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851): “He’s sort of like Captain Ahab and I’m the whale.” 

The analogy is ridiculous. Rove is himself uncertain of its value; the analogy only “sort of” makes sense. For one, who finishes Moby-Dick and thinks, “Yo, that whale gets me”? Moreover, Rove’s strange identification with that which resists identification’s imperium, the “inscrutable thing” of the whale, is a crazy symbolic inversion, the product of a wonderful disavowal. After all, was not Rove himself one of the many Ahabs steering Bush’s crisis-ridden Pequod? Isn’t Rove’s paranoia, his investment in the dramatics of a possible persecution, a continuation of the Ahabian paranoia constitutive of the xenophobic populism of Bush’s Terror Era? Was it not Rove who, like Ahab, garnered widespread popular support for a globe-scaling mission (the “war on terror”) that lacked a coherent aim or endpoint? And did not Rove, like the crazy captain’s biblical namesake, precipitate a war through the fabrication of a casus belli?

Yet, if Rove’s analogy is preposterous, it was also prescient. After all, Moby-Dick is not simply the narrative of a crazy Quaker seeking revenge against a whale with a taste for human limbs. It is fundamentally an allegory (and more than an allegory) of political transition, transformation, and crisis. Scholars have long understood Moby-Dick as allegorizing the sectional crises of the antebellum U.S., a crisis that could only resolve itself in the splintering of the U.S. ship of state. And thus the prescience of Rove’s analogy. Rove’s reference to Moby-Dick anticipated not so much an actual crisis as a the emergence of a discourse that wraps itself in the symbology of national scission, the emergence of a national commonsense that draws upon antebellum history to develop an allegory of impending crisis.

There’s a key difference, however, between Melville’s allegory of the antebellum and the antebellist allegory that Rove’s reference establishes. Melville’s book is a massive piece of (what Marx would call) Yankee universality: it ranges to-and-fro across the globe in order to gather symbolic resources through which to think the national. Antebellism works differently: it looks back to history to nationalize the global, to domesticate it, even to forget it. Consider the figure Rove chose alongside the wealth of alternative figures that were popular during the Bush era, figures that compose the discursive resources of neomedievalism. No one would have been surprised if Rove called Conyers a jihadi, if he said that the Dem representative was on a crusade—but he didn’t. He instead drew a figure from Moby-fucking-Dick, the U.S.-American novel.

Antebellism’s displacement of neomedievalist rhetoric tracks the absorption of the global framing required to map the Bush-era U.S. by the national-domestic. We can see this absorption of globality into nationality, of neomedievalism into antebellism, in the plot of Homeland. Homeland domesticates the figure of the terrorist, making a U.S. Marine (and then congressperson—Homeland plots like a Tom Clancy novel) the scariest jihadi around. More importantly, it aligns the scene of his operations with the cartography of the Civil War: Brody picks up his suicide vest in Gettysburg, treating the viewer with a supplementary spiel about honor or something. Homeland fights the War on Terror on the Civil War’s battlefield and, in so doing, transforms the set of references required for making sense of the former. Bush’s rampage against the world appears as an internecine struggle, a domestic squabble. If the Pequod’s voyage of revenge allows Melville to think the national through the global, Homeland simply asserts that the global never happened, not really. It transmutes Bush’s global military adventurism into a national fight pitting brother against brother, North against South, Red state versus Blue state, Brody against the bro who slept with his wife. The War on Terror tore our country apart!

The problem, of course, is that the War of Terror actually tore other countries, other lives, other bodies apart—countries that continue to mourn, lives that remain shattered, bodies that are marked by Ahabian violence. The antebellist absorption of globality, however, allows Yankees to ignore the persistence of this violence, both in terms of its aftereffects and of its continuation. Soldiers like Homeland’s Brody might be coming home, they might all come home, but the drones will remain. Military telekinetics relieve the public of the burden of bodies and, indeed, of the burden of thinking globality itself. (A Yankee peculiarity: the inability to think globality save through gunboats.) And that’s what antebellism does: it relieves an exhausted population of the affective weight of our neoliberal overlords’ Ahabian quest by means of an Ahabian allegory, it liquidates the recent past by drawing upon another history. And it liquidates this past even before it is past, as this past unfolds as our present and, indeed, our future.

Antebellism stylizes the neoliberal ordinary by conducting affect toward a political future that will never come and by sapping investment in a past that we can’t leave behind. Like Ahab’s crew, we invest in this allegory, certain that the capitalist ordinary has more to offer than capitalist accumulation, certain that we coast through the world, harpoons a-ready, for reasons explicable and intelligible from the intimate, domestic perspective afforded by a missing leg, an isolated ship, or a provincial nation. False memories of a civil war past replace flawed impressions of a global war present ensuring that, when the whale finally sinks the ship, Yankees will be as shocked as Ishmael was.