The Secret Fire: Italo Calvino And The Primacy of Labor

note: these are the sketches for what will hopefully become a more refined product of some sort at a later date

Italo Calvino’s 1963 novella La Giornata d’Uno Scrutatore (translated into English as The Watcher) is the story of a low-level volunteer with the Partito Comunista Italiano (or PCI) who grows disenchanted with both his organization and the larger structure of parliamentary democracy as he makes a half-hearted attempt to serve as an elections monitor. Assigned to the infamous “Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables,” a Catholic institute run by nuns for the irredeemably disabled and disfigured, the protagonist Amerigo Ormea is assigned to contest ballots from residents who may lack the capacity to vote for themselves. He is more or less engaged in voter suppression, but not necessarily for unjustifiable reasons: “[E]ver since the vote had become obligatory in the period following the Second World War, hospitals, asylums, and convents had served as great reservoirs of votes for the Christian Democrat part, and at Cottolengo, above all, at each election instances were discovered of idiots being led to vote, or dying old women, or men paralyzed with arteriosclerosis, in any case, people unable to make logical distinctions.” This puts Amerigo in the bad-faith position of suppressing the votes of his society’s most marginalized in the interests of the workers’ party.

With only a small amount of information about the author’s background, it’s hard not to read Calvino himself as the titular watcher who critically examines both the practice of democracy and his own party. Calvino was a member of the PCI for the decade between 1947 and ’57, only to publish his resignation after Stalin’s invasion of of Hungary in 1956. The descent of the international communist movement in the 50’s into Stalinism disillusioned comrades all over the world, but perhaps nowhere more productively than in Italy. Just as Calvino left Turin for the Americas in ’59, Raniero Panzieri was expelled from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and moved to Turin, where he would, along with Mario Tronti, develop what would become known as operaismo (workerism), a heterodox current of Marxism that eschews the official labor movement and its parties. I can find no evidence that the novelist ever met or knew anyone within operaismo, so it is not my goal to insert Calvino into the historical narrative of the movement, but The Watcher stands on its own as one of the strongest and most developed operaismo critiques I’ve ever read.

Gail Day describes the basics of operaismo in her new book Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory: “Developed by Panzieri and Mario Tronti, workerist theory argued that the ideas of the established Left—the PCI and the PSI—had stagnated into static, objectivized, and economistic categories, which inflected how the Left operated within the capitalist state (for example, the means of trade union struggle adopted) and determined its idealization of the productivist ideals of Stalinist socialism. In their view, the mainstream Left too readily accepted the framework laid out within capitalism, failing to challenge categories such as work and production; accordingly, they argued, this old Left treated the working class as merely a defensive, ‘reactive’ element within the labor-capital relation. As central players in the New Left’s ‘return to Marx’ and in the recovery of the labor process as a site of theoretical and political activity, the Italian workerists place the working class as the active element.” Ben Trott in his talk at last year’s Historical Materialism conference in New York describes this process in Tronti’s thought as a “Copernican inversion”: it is capital that it dependent on labor, not the other way around. This “primacy of labor” meant that the left was playing into capital’s hands by accepting the forms of organization (trade unions, political parties) (re)produced by the system’s reaction to earlier rounds of revolutionary action.

The Watcher is a story about this inversion and the discovery of the the primacy of labor in the historical moment that would provide the basis for a whole line of workerist and post-workerist thought and terms. Throughout the first section of the story, Amerigo is overcome with a sinking fear about Cottolengo. When a priest working on behalf of the ruling Christian Democrats suggests the residents were voting out of gratitude to God, Amerigo undergoes a full-blown existential crisis:

“‘Gratitude to God.’ Gratitude for their misfortunes? Amerigo tried to calm his nerves by reflecting (theology was not his forte) on Voltaire, Leopardi (his arguments against the goodness of nature and of providence), and then -naturally – on Kierkegaard, Kafka (the acknowledgement of a god beyond man’s ken, a terrible god). The election, here, if you paid it some attention, became a kind of religious rite. For the mass of voters, but also for him: the supervisor’s concern with possible frauds was finally trapped in a metaphysical fraud. Seen from here, from the depth of this condition, politics, progress, history were perhaps not even conceivable (we are in India), any human effort to modify what is given, any attempt to elude the fate that falls to a man at birth, was absurd.”

His party is only the other side of the same coin, an agent of stultification nearly as bad as the church.

“In those years the Italian Communist party, among its many other tasks, had also assumed the position of an ideal liberal party, which had never really existed. And so the bosom of each individual Communist could house two personalities at once: an intransigent revolutionary and an Olympian liberal. The more schematic international Communism became, in those hard times, the more explicit its official, collective expressions became, the more the militant individual lost inner richness, to conform to the compact, cast-iron block, and the more the liberal, housed in the same individual, gained new, iridescent facets.”

Amerigo fears Cottolengo is the whole world, and all people its disfigured helpless inhabitants. The Communist Party – in the shadow of Stalin and the dogma of Diamat – can be nothing other than a second church, invested in the self-effacement of its congregation. As evidenced by the growth of operaismo as well as the PCI’s eventual adoption of Eurocommunism (which drew its reformist spirit from the liberal facets Calvino references), Amerigo’s crisis was somewhat common among (not just) Italian Communists at the time. What has gone merely implied to this point is that Calvino is a fantastic writer, and he doesn’t let the reader underestimate the turmoil he and other former Communists had to confront. Amerigo is shaken to his core opinion of humanity: the seeming inevitability of exploitative and dulling command structures must mean that’s all the race deserves. There may be no one more full of despair than the fallen Communist.

After the morning shift, Amerigo returns home on his break to console himself in a book. Here he preforms the literal “return to Marx” and reads from the 1848 Manuscripts, which Calvino quotes at length:

“Man’s universality appears, practically speaking, in that same universality that makes all nature man’s inorganic body, both because nature is (I) an immediate means of subsistence, and because it is (2) the matter, the object, and the instrument of man’s vital activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body precisely because it is not his human body. To say man lives on nature means that nature is his body, with which he must constantly progress, in order not to die.”

This passage has an immediately transformational effect on its reader:

“Swiftly, he was convinced Marx could mean also this: once outside the society that makes men become things, the totality of things–nature and industry–becomes human, ad even the handicapped man, the Cottolengo man (or, in his worst hypothesis, simply man), is restored to the rights of the human race as he makes use of this total body, this extension of his body: the richness of what exists (also ‘inorganic, spiritual nature,’ he read earlier, perhaps through a residue of Hegelianism, that is to say, reasoned nature, as in science and art), what has become finally a general object of human conscience and human life. Can it also mean that “Communism” (Amerigo tried to make the word sound as if it were being uttered for the first time, so that it would again be possible to think, beneath the noun’s husk of this dream of a death and resurrection of nature, a Utopia’s treasure buried beneath the foundations of “scientific” doctrine), that Communism will restore sound legs to the lame, and eyesight to the blind? Will the lame man then have many, many legs at his disposal to run with, so many that he won’t notice if one of his own is missing? That the blind man will have so many antennae to understand the world that he will forget he has no eyes?”

I quote this section at length, not only for its beauty, but to forestall the complaint that I’m stretching to read Calvino’s story as a piece of Marxist, and indeed, operaismo, theory rather the simply “political literature.” But Amerigo’s return to Marx is not only narratively, but substantially similar to the turn in Tronti and others. By going back to the source (which is, interestingly, in contrast to the religious behavior of prayer that Calvino uses to characterize voting), Amrigo can reimagine what it might mean to be a “Communist” outside the institutions that (re)produce people as helpless and dependent. The lame and blind at Cottolengo always stand for a whole broken humanity, and the resources (material and immaterial, Calvino takes care to mention) that belongs to/is them “outside the society that makes men become things” is a central idea for much of contemporary (post-)operaismo* thought as the “common”. But this is not yet the “Copernican inversion” that makes The Watcher a workerist parable. For the final turn, Amerigo must return to Cottolengo.

He sympathizes with the residents at the end of the first section, recognizing a nobility in the peasant who comes to visit his blind son, and Amerigo even begins to identify with the dwarf who knocks against a glass window at a visiting member of parliament, forcing the representative to recognize the dwarf’s non-voting (and non-representable) existence. But it isn’t until he meets a man without hands who votes by himself with a pencil, and proceeds to draw a cigarette from a pack and light it without assistance, that Amerigo understands the residents of Cottolengo (and by extension, humanity) differently:

“Amerigo though: Man triumphs even over malign biological mutations; and he recognized in the man’s features, in his clothes and manner, the traits that mark working humanity, also deprived–symbolically and literally–of something of its completeness, and yet able to build itself, to affirm the decisive role of homo faber.” (emphasis mine)

Whereas before Amerigo feared that the residents of Cottolengo stood for a whole blighted humanity, he begins here to see them as portraits of potential, of species-being. Homo faber is man the builder, man the creator. Making is not only what people do, but the mas-as-worker in this broader sense is his decisive role. This is what allows Marx to write in the first volume of Capital: “Labor, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.” As “independent of all forms of society,” labor precedes the capital relation, it is the use of one’s organic and inorganic body, the “richness of what exists.” The use of “working humanity**” is an audacious choice by an author so clearly steeped in Marxist philosophy and no doubt exposed to a surfeit of texts in which the set of “workers” has a much more specific referent, one that would relegate the handless man to the lumpen class.

The inversion allows Amerigo to critique the institutions that constrain and distort that primary force of labor and see Communism as more than another church or factory:

Homo faber‘s city, Amerigo thought, always runs the risk of mistaking its institutions for the secret fire without which cities are not founded and machinery’s wheels aren’t set in motion; and in defending institutions, unawares, you can let the fire die out.”

There’s an antagonism here, between the fire of human creativity the institutions that would put it out while claiming to be its source. Calvino’s warning is about mistaking the ways in which institutions manage (or rather, command) labor for the existential human practice of labor itself. This is the part of Marx that, although it would ultimately be a centerpiece of his thought, Tronti writes of in “Struggle Against Labor,” as “a question which we cannot yet answer.” But Calvino had.

What is most remarkable about The Watcher is not that Calvino developed an understanding of the “Copernican inversion” and the primacy of labor before Tronti did (although, according to my reading, he did***), it is the way he not only prefigures, but integrates, so much of contemporary Italian Marxist theory. The common is there, which has been the focus of much of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri‘s recent writing, as are Paolo Virno’s theories on human nature as defined by man’s incompleteness and potential. We can glimpse Tronti’s critiques of the practice of democracy, and the beginnings of the multitude or organization without institutions. The workers’ “fire” is a component of what Alberto Toscano calls capital’s double bind, that the boss must exploit workers while making use of (and therefore cultivating) the same capacities that workers use to organize and resist****. I believe there’s even more to be gained from The Watcher as a piece of workerist theory; Calvino’s focus on subjects below democracy, like the residents of Cottolengo, could be particularly fruitful*****. Perhaps there’s even a solid critique of Giorgio Agamben’s category of “bare life” — to which the handless man stands as defiant retort.

The task is to read Calvino in the present-tense, to be reminded of the secret fire that builds society at a time when we glimpse it breaking free from its smothering institutions around the globe, to stoke that flame and remain fidelitous to its damaged human hearth. Indeed, to live something called Communism.


“Will the lame man then have many, many legs at his disposal to run with, so many that he won’t notice if one of his own is missing?”

*The odd construction here is important because it indicates the speed at which societies have been changing under late capitalism. The “post-” here doesn’t represent so much a departure in the group putting forth the theory – after all, the best known post-operaismo writer, Antonio Negri, was a leading theorist of the original operaismo group – but a departure in the world to be understood. Writers in this line often focus on post-fordist or affective labor as well as a host of other subjects that didn’t exist in the 60’s and 70’s when it was first developed. Operaismo began as an analysis primarily of the fordist factory, but, along with capital, has moved far beyond it.
**If a comrade has an Italian edition and wants to let me know whether Calvino uses operare or lavorare here, that would be awesome.
***It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong on this, but I don’t think so…
****A point I really wish I had included in my review of Adam Kotsko’s Awardness for The New Inquiry.
*****
If anyone is really interested in this. you can read more of my thoughts in the sub-section of my senior thesis “They The People” (p.69-74).

I Sure Hope Bifo Doesn’t Count Vibrators as Tools of Estrangement

I just finished Franco Berardi’s The Soul at Work, and though there’s a lot to agree with in there, the conclusion left me feeling argumentative. In reviving Baudrillard’s critique of the politics of desire, Berardi argues that horizontalism and affirmation – two cornerstones of Deleuze and Guatarri’s schizo thought – have been irredeemably co-opted by capital. Our social pathology is no longer Freudian repression, but overabundance of affirmation, of injunctions to consume and desire that produce panic and depression. When our very affective expressions have been colonized,  the multitude is nothing but a robotic swarm:

“The multitude can speak hundreds of thousands of languages, but the language that enables it to function as an integrated whole is that of the economic automatisms embodied in technology. Seized in a game of mirrors of indeterminacy and precariousness, the multitude manifests its dark side and follows automatisms that turn its wealth into misery, its power into anguish and its creativity into dependency.”

“The effective exercise of politics (that is to say of political government) presupposes a conscious possibility of elaborating of the information collectively shared by the social organism. But the information circulating within digital society is too much: too fast, too intense, too thick and complex for individuals or groups to elaborate it consciously, critically, reasonably, with the necessary time to make a decision. Therefor the decision is left to automatisms, and the social organism seems to function ever more often according to evolutionary rules of an automatic kind, inscribed in the genetic cognitive patrimony of individuals. The swarm now tends to become the dominant form of human action.”

As the ultimate horror, Berardi looks to a biotechnological post-humanism as described by Bill Gates. The idea of a literal hive-mind, a freely flowing general intellect, is too much for Berardi; he offers the only solution he can think of to this dangerous acceleration of affective communication: slow down. In a more recent article, he calls, in the middle of the largest wave of global youth insurrection in over forty years, for a process of growing old. “[T]he process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom—the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, who look at each thing as if for the first time.” The assumption underlying this call to inaction is that the system of semiocapital is nearing its inevitable collapse. Berardi sounds like an aged and depressive Saint-Simon when he writes a hopeful narrative in which the machines will make stuff for us which, combined with income delinked from employment, will give us all the necessary time we need to play mahjong and dominoes, which is the goal of life. Actually, to be fair, Berardi never ceases to use sex as the goal, the time necessary to fuck is what we must carve away from capitalist control.

Baudrillard’s critique of Foucault and Deleuze that Berardi revives was prescient in some ways. He saw the appropriation of affirmation by capital coming, and he asks essentially how we can stand to read Deleuze while wearing Nike. “Affirm your desires” is an advertising slogan, and it could handle even the queer negation of Gregg Araki which it transformed into Hot Topic. In the final scene of Araki’s breakout film The Living End, two HIV-positive lovers are entangled half-fighting half-fucking in the desert. While one sucks off a pistol, the other yells at him to “just do it!” –  four years after it became a shoe slogan. Berardi thinks we’ve been overtaken and the only solution is switching into reverse. (Which is going to happen whether we like it or not because semiocapital is collapsing anyway.) Always already co-opted, the multitude has no choice but to break down its constitutive links and start over. The only thing left is catastrophe: made by us, but not done by us.

Okay, my issues:

1. Berardi should be the last one to think a brain of any sort is univocal. He’s horrified by Bill Gates’s idea of business at the speed of thought, but what is the speed of thought really? Brains can be and are used to produce value for the market, but any friend of Felix Guattari should know brains are chaotic. They produce ideas for the boss, but they inevitably produce jokes and nightmares as well. Just because capital has organized a social brain – transcending more spatial and interpersonal barriers than ever before – doesn’t make it the hive’s necessary owner.  The processes that Berardi outlines (“wealth into misery, power into anguish, creativity into dependency”) present the possibility that it could be otherwise, that there could be a reverse movement. What capital offers is this impoverished multitude, but we ought not treat this as an offer to be either accepted or refused.

2. I feel pretty derisive about this fear of speed. Certainly a lot of his critiques about the schizogenic nature of contemporary knowledge-work are valid, but the worry that society is not able to deliberate “reasonably” at these speeds is misplaced. The swarm has been empirically capable of making decisions contrary to its instructions in Egpyt, Tunisia, The UK, Wisconsin, etc., and these actions have been successful to the degree that they’ve been fast and unreasonable. Crisis calls on creativity and innovation, and sabotage requires the multitude to seize the boss’ networks. In Madison, WI, the Capitol occupiers are engaged in the sabotage of the labor of citizenship, which is, as Tahrir Square was/is in Egypt, productive of new relations and subjectivities. Berardi points to the role of prescription drugs in pacifying and anesthetizing young people as intrinsically related to the speed technology requires, but I’m willing to bet there are a bunch of students in Madison who may be on Twitter, but haven’t needed to take their ADD meds.

3. Berardi is old. Besides the “you kids need to slow down” crap, I object to the way he describes sex as something that requires withdrawal from the (sometimes literal) circuits of production. One need not go to Damn You Autocorrect to know sexting provides more potential for the play of libidinal flows than a room with two sets of doors gave Moliere. He assumes post-humanism means the death of sensuality rather than its queering, which doesn’t seem right to me. I think of Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Stone Gods, in which a corporate -state produces a robo-sapien, a concrete post-human. But by programming the robo-sapien with human bioanthropological constants like creativity and a taste for alterity and potentiality, they inadvertently produce a robot who can’t wait to be used as a lesbian sex toy and join a vegan feminist collective.  I sure hope Berardi doesn’t count vibrators as tools of estrangement. Sex (as I endeavor to have it, at very least), is an innovative act because, like Wittgenstein’s example of the required height of a shot in tennis, it is neither against nor within the rules, a practice of normality rather than norms.  David Sedaris writes in his memoir Naked of losing his virginity as a process of production: “‘You kids think you invented sex,’ my mother was fond of saying. But hadn’t we? With no instruction manual or federally enforced training period, didn’t we all come away feeling we’d discovered something unspeakably modern?” If we can reject the shitty scripts we get from men’s and women’s magazines as well as bad porn, sex can be productive as, well, fuck. It’s important not to confuse fooling around with revolutionary praxis -despite what Andreas Baader may have said, fucking is not the same as shooting – but the exploration of unknown and unnamed potentials in the bedroom (or wherever) need not stop there. Sex can potentially serve as a model for innovative action that, unlike Berardi’s automaton-swarms, doesn’t follow instructions. Instead of a retreat from, sex can be an act of sabotage against and appropriation of capital’s machinery of subjective production.

Hell, even riot police can be used as a sex toy.

Dissolving The Megazord: Crisis in Wisconsin and Egypt

In the tv show Power Rangers (the existence of which forced my poor parents to make official regulatory decisions regarding goofily violent programming), each episode’s climactic scene followed a typical formula: the rangers would fight the episode’s villain plus minions on foot as a group, but when the villain would inevitably grow in size, the rangers would form the Megazord, a giant humanoid robot made of smaller giant robot Zords. With all the rangers in the control-head, the two would battle on a skyscraper scale. When the Megazord gets stuck in a corner, it draws its giant robot sword and saves what’s left of the metropolis.

The Megazord is a microcosmic form of the general will, in which the rangers come together to form a single hand capable of wielding the sword. This movement is analogous to the formation of the civil state (personified as the Megazord avant la lettre leviathan) out of the crisis-state of nature in Hobbes, the abstraction of many into a unity with the collective strength to hold evil at bay.

What, then, to make of Wisconsin?


Faced with the near-certain passage of a bill depriving state workers (with the exception of police officers *cough*) the right to collectively bargain for anything other than pay, rank-and-file members along with supporters have swarmed upon the capitol building in Madison. In the State Senate, where Republicans hold a slimmer majority than in the Assembly, Democratic have fled for a hotel in Illinois, depriving the chamber of quorum.** Texas Democrats used the same tactic a few years ago to fight a partisan redistricting bill, but I think the instance in Madison is more interesting for a number of reasons. What we see in Wisconsin is the tactical suspension of representation in the face of the governor’s declared state of exception. A large number of Democrats in Wisconsin have, in practice, recalled their delegates to the State Senate, appearing in person instead. This is the reverse Megazord: when crisis hits, the abstracted will dissolves into its constituent parts. The representatives flee the state and are replaced by the hordes they represent. An irony of the situation is that the protesters are there en masse to protect their right to be collectively represented.

Demonstrator signs and reports from an organizer friend on the inside indicate Egypt has been on the lips of protesters frequently, and I see some compositional similarities between the invasion and overnight occupation of the Capitol and revolutionary subjects in the Maghreb. The unions no doubt brought their members out, but the organization has ceased to act as a mediating buffer between the workers and their government. Unions and parties performed a similar function in Egypt, as social networks but not as leviathans. Look at the variety of sign messaging in Madison, everything from union pride to critiques of the division of wealth to a plea for hemp legalization; despite the color coordination, Madison isn’t swarmed by the disciplined trade-union militias of yore. The power of the workers collected in their representatives – either union or state – is demonstrably less than the bodily power of the workers and supporters. What the last-ditch demonstrations show is that worker collective bargaining through representatives is no longer strong enough to protect itself. High unemployment and an extended sequence of compromises has left the official labor movement without enough bargaining power to defend its ability to bargain.

Unions developed in response to organization of labor by the industrial factory, an organization that’s gone:

“Classical industrial labor and specifically the organized form of the Fordist factory had no relation with pleasure. It had no relation with communication either: communication was actually thwarted, fragmented and obstructed as long as workers were active in front of the assembly line . . . Therefore industrial workers found a place for socialization in subversive working communities, political organizations or unions where members members organized against capital. Workers’ communism became the main form of good life and of conscious organization for the class that capital forced (and still forces) to live a great part of its existence in inhuman conditions . . . There is no more workers’ communism, since workers no longer belong to a community.” – Franco Berardi, The Soul At Work

The age of cognitive labor is post-Megazord.

A retreat from the square in order to form coalitions and an institutional apparatus for the long haul hasn’t been strategic in Egypt or Madison. Media reports out of Wisconsin have expressed surprise so far that the crowds have kept growing, but that’s what’s supposed to happen in an occupation. Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber writes about his 14 year old daughter testifying before the assembly at 5:20 a.m. after staying overnight, and makes it sound like a party, a really good party. My organizer friend tweets “Occupation has become the new normal at the #WI Capitol,” where protest has become a carnival. This celebratory element is only one part of why Mehdi Belhaj Kacem called Egypt the “première révolution situationniste de l’Histoire.The situation in both cases is one of (in the terms of Paolo Virno) “normality without norm.” He writes in Multitude: Between Innovation And Negation: “[T]he state of exception, far from resembling an unformed void, is the occasion in which the essential web of human life earns an unexpected importance. Or better: it is the occasion in which the warp of human life gains unexpected prominence. The suspension of the norm permits the surfacing of normality of practices, customs, relationships, inclinations, conflicts.”

Virno cites the multitude as the force that pushes back against the state of exception; if the juridical apparatus isn’t going to play by its own rules, then neither will the people. The suspension of “regular” law as justified by crisis – as Egypt was under for years and Governor Walker’s withdrawal of the state’s traditional relationship with the official labor movement for emergency budgetary reasons constitutes  –  is a tool for the state’s use against traditional organizing models like unions and parties. The state can quash organizations and subject them to emergency restrictions in the name of security; the state can refuse their premises. But by emerging as a multitude, the state must confront the dissidents at the bodily level – as we’ve seen in Bahrain and Libya. As if we needed to ask why Governor Walker protected the police union.

Innovation and creativity, essential human capacities that we use mostly for our bosses these days, see their expression in the linguistic games on occupation signs and the ad hoc kindergartens and sleeping barracks. Tahrir Square has emerged as more than just a site of glorious antagonistic collision; for a portion of Egyptian revolutionaries, it has become a model of society. As Mahmoud Salem (the blogger Sandmonkey) tweeted “What if we create a democracy model similar to Tahrir, based on social engagment & collaboration without forcing anything on anyone?” These spaces are sites of self-valorized labor, innovation by and for each other. In the preceding decades, the corporate state didn’t blink as common space disappeared, while the general intellect has been so incorporated into the circuits of capital that perspective employers want to know how many “friends” applicants have. By attempting the dual move of suppressing common bonds that are inconvenient for profit and cultivating profitable “social networks,” capital may have mixed itself a lethal dose. For governments and bosses, the biggest worry should be the hijacking and appropriation of the affective networks they’ve developed. Twitter doesn’t exist as a tool of liberation, it exists to link people as employees and consumers, so that we can constantly advertise to our friends and use the index of our personal relationships as an extension of our employers’ mailing lists. When the state possesses an “off” switch, it’s clear to whom these technologies belong. But revolutions always seize roads. The market attempts to construct a cognitive hive, but bees are unpredictable.

So what can the Democrats do? Stay gone. What can the official labor movement do? Order pizzas. When strike funds run low, sell your representative’s office furniture. No student is getting a better education than those in Madison, lined up should-to-shoulder with their teachers. No workers are getting better representation than the workers in Madison who stand for themselves and each other.

And if this doesn’t scare congressional Republicans into avoiding a federal government shutdown at all costs, then we’re headed for what could be a very good year.

*Which made some of us as children wonder why the rangers insisted on being knocked around for a bit before remembering about that big sword that seems to make them invincible.
**No one check me on this, but doesn’t there have to be a quorum call for quorum to matter? That is, if the Dems don’t leave one behind, can’t the Republicans, with enough sinister party discipline, simply pass the bill without calling for a quorum call? Although it seems likely at least one Republican could be shamed into it.

The Multitude Claps with One Hand, Exodus in Egypt, And Other Musings on Insurrection

Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins’s review of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s trilogy-completing Commonwealth in Issue 10 of N+1 was unsurprising at the time, but fewer than two months after its publication, has become indefensible. Titled “Multitude, Are You There?,” Robbins’s piece repeats the standard critiques of the Empire series that have been in heavy intellectual circulation since the first book became a surprise best(ish) seller:

“Hardt and Negri’s problem with love is also their problem with organization: they don’t much like either in any of their actual forms. And this same problem underlines the structural flaw at the heart of their concept of the multitude. On the one hand, what they call ‘organization’ is, as they say, the necessary criterion for any would-be agent of revolution; as they say, it is what they ‘must establish.’ On the other hand, Hardt and Negri don’t actually believe in organization. That is, they don’t think it’s a good thing: ‘traditional organizational forms based on unity, central leadership, and hierarchy are neither desirable nor effective.’ But since these are the only forms of organization that can count as organization (an organization without unity or leadership is one hand clapping), what they’re really saying is that they recognize the multitude only when it is not organized, when it is an anarchic array of singularities. If they see the multitude, they do not see organization. If they see organization, they do not see the multitude.”

Is this a crisis of terminology, imagination, or some Wittgensteinian combination of the two? Like a single hand clapping, Robbins finds, as many have before him, the multitude riddled with contradictions; it is the organization of the disorganized, the productive labor of those who refuse work, the people of no state. Such a nebulous and dialectical concept makes it easy for the skeptics to demand the multitude appear before them so that its existence might be demonstrated. If the multitude is the phoenix that might restart history out of the ashes of neoliberalism, then the cynics have taken the eventless pile of dust as proof negative. But already in this young year, even the most world-weary and jaded among us has been forced to see something that looks new. In Tunisia first and now in Egypt, people clap with one hand.

They have burned the police stations and party offices, they have attacked and appropriated from the wealthy neighborhoods, they have co-opted the army, battled the police in the streets, and brought an entrenched (and U.S.-backed) regime to its knees. And who are they? Or perhaps: what is this they? The descriptive term I’ve heard used most often in news interviews, Twitter reports, and from a friend on the ground is “everyone.” The government has shrunk to the size of more or less one, and it has demonstrated no ability to enforce the mandated curfew: perhaps the primary requirement of a security state. What, then, does exist? If we speak of “the people” as a bounded political concept, it is insufficient to describe the marchers. Though it can exist without a nation, “the people” is by definition a sovereign unity that shares the ability to delegate authority. So far – and this is not necessarily to say it won’t happen – we haven’t seen the expected coalescing around opposition leaders or parties. Even with the support of The Muslim Brotherhood, opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei seems a long way from becoming a transitional prime minister. (I read a number of reports of protesters yelling “You’re late!” as he arrived to address the crowds.)

The Italian theorist Paolo Virno’s definition of the multitude (one of the best, in my opinion), offers a different kind of collective subject:

“Even the many need a form of unity, of being a One. But here is the point: this unity is no longer the State; rather, it is language, intellect, the communal faculties of the human race. The One is no longer a promise, it is a premise. Unity is no longer something (the State, the sovereign) towards which things converge, as in the case of the people; rather it is taken forgranted, as a background or a necessary precondition. The many must be thought of as the individualization of the universal, of the generic, of the shared experience. This, in asymmetric manner, we must conceive of a One which, far from being something conclusive, might be thought of as the base which authorizes differentiation or which allows for the political-social existence of the many seen as being many.”

Although it may only last for a moment, we can glimpse the many as many in Egypt right now. The ad hoc safety committees are not the rich protecting themselves and their property from the proletarian mobs let loose, hoping Mubarak will hold on, they are Egyptian neighbors who have taken it upon themselves (and each other) to organize and protect. Where Robbins was able to write derisively of Hardt and Negri “They dislike socialism more than they dislike the corporations,” we can now see the kind of resistance the authors outline. He associate their desire for openness and fluidity as a reckless gesture toward anarcho-capitalism, but this crisis has called into being the kind of organization Robbins, caught between models of the state and the corporation, refuses to imagine. The safety patrols are neither state, party, nor corporation, their composition worries those on the traditional right and left, who imagine them as either a prelude to Jacobin terror or a looting mob. But as the lede to this Times article makes clear, we’re not witnessing the rise of the Egyptian Tea Party; the analysis of the Tunisian revolution as a popping of the education bubble is much closer to reality.

What Hardt and Negri (and others, [like Virno, who often do so better] on the post-operaismo ultra-left) offer is a theoretical understanding of the events in Egypt that isn’t dismissive of their novelty. Where some see Iran in ’79 or France in ’89, post-operaismo recognizes that the Egyptians have no mediating entity adequate for channeling their struggle. No opposition party (or invading state – notice how Bush isn’t on Fox celebrating the wave of democracy through the Arab world) could have planned and executed the revolution as successfully as the multitude has. From the selection of targets to its militant will, the protesters (surely we can call them revolutionaries?) have demonstrated strategy and organization that some on the traditional left believe shouldn’t be possible without dozens of plenary meetings and thousands (hundreds?) of sold newspapers. From where does this insurrectionary knowledge issue? Robbins would have us believe that Hardt and Negri hope naively for a coincidence of joy and rainbows and sunshine, that they think the multitude will just know what to do because that’s what makes it happy. When the reviewer refers to the authors’ “anarchist silliness,” the caricature supposedly unfounded faith in the crowd’s knowledge might be a good example. But that would be to ignore the foundations of Negri’s concept of immaterial labor – perhaps the theoretical move for which he has faced the most criticism. The claim in Empire that all labor is immaterial labor strikes a lot of critics as abstract at best and classist at worst, but we can trace this argument back to Negri’s early work, before he has even picked up the term “multitude.”

In the pamphlet “Domination and Sabotage” (1977), Negri draws the immaterial aspect of all work out of the practice of sabotage. The fact that workers know how to reverse the work they do into the appropriative non-work of sabotage reveals  the implicit knowledge-work. We can see the same principle at play on the streets of Egypt where citizens are sabotaging their state. The Egyptians know the critical points of the security structure because they are the ones who have been performing the cognitive labor of citizenship. If they knew where they could find the police stations that now lay in ashes, it’s because they have had to avoid or be bailed out of them. They have reversed their place in the police apparatus, rather than use their knowledge-work to reproduce the system, they have repurposed it for sabotage.

I don’t think Egypt will be the domino that starts the global revolution, but I will be surprised if this new decade doesn’t include more insurrections of the same character. The world is young, educated, connected*, and dispossessed. There are no institutions adequate for their grievances, no parties, unions, or states. And yet, the Egyptians haven’t left the streets. Reaffirming my belief in poetic justice and the use of grandiose terminology in theory books, one of Robbins’s most unfair critiques of Commonwealth was on the concept of “exodus.”

Here’s what Robbins wrote:

“In part perhaps because of Negri’s time in prison**, escape becomes an explicit motto of their politics. ‘The multitude must flee the family, the corporation, and the nation . . .’ Some, they note, will be ‘reluctant to accept a notion of class struggle as exodus.’ Well, they’ve got that right. However unglamorous, it makes more sense to think of the task of politics as staying to fight, and it makes more sense to think of the common as what is fought for.”

Here’s what Hardt and Negri wrote:

“By exodus we mean, at least initially, a process of subtraction from the relationship with capital by means of actualizing the potential autonomy of labor-power. Exodus is thus not a refusal of the productivity of biopolitical labor-power but rather a refusal of the increasingly restrictive fetters placed on its productive capacities by capital. It is an expression of the productive capacities that exceed the relationship with capital achieved by stepping through the opening in the social relation of capital and across the threshold. As a first approximation, then, think of this form of class struggle as a kind of maroonage. Like the slaves who collectively escape the chains of slavery to construct self-governing communities and quilombos, biopolitical labor-power subtracting from its relation to capital must discover and construct new social relationships, new forms of life that allow it to actualize its productive powers. But unlike that of the maroons, this exodus does not necessarily mean going elsewhere. We can pursue a line of flight while staying right here, by transforming the relationship of production and mode of social organization under which we live.” (emphasis added)

From two different NY Times articles:

“‘These big guys are stealing all the money,’ said Mohamed Ibraham, a 24-year-old textile worker standing at his second job as a fruit peddler in a hard-pressed neighborhood called Dar-al-Salam. ‘If they were giving us our rights, why would we protest? People are desperate.’
He had little sympathy for those frightened by the specter of looting. He complained that he could barely afford his rent and said the police routinely humiliated him by shaking him down for money, overturning his cart or stealing his fruit. ‘And then we hear about how these big guys all have these new boats and the 100,000 pound villas. They are building housing, but not for us — for those people up high.'”

“‘We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police,’ said Khalid Toufik, 40, a dentist. He said that he also took shifts in his neighborhood watch, along with students and workers. ‘It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or a Christian,’ he said, ‘we all have the same goal.’
‘I am glad, that they are all on the streets to protect us from robbers,’ said Hannan Selbi, 21, a student. ‘We are sure that it’s in the interest of the government to create chaos.
Soon after Mr. Mardini’s first tentative steps, committee members were recognizable by the simple white armbands they wore, often just strips of fabric. They created logos and distributed fliers asking for more help from the public. Some wear photocopied pieces of paper on their chests like marathon runners’ numbers. Mr. Mardini wore a badge that read simply People’s Committee in red Arabic. But the way people walked up to him and began talking, it appeared he needed no introduction.
The civic enterprise is now divided into four branches: traffic, cleanup, protection and emergency response.
Though others refer to him as the head of the committee, Mr. Mardini said: ‘We don’t have a leader. This is our country, and we all have to protect it.‘” (emphasis added)

Against sizable odds and the derision of at least one Columbia University professor, there looks to be exodus again in Egypt. I’m excited to see where they’re going.

*It’s worth noting that social media technologies, rather than enabling these insurrections, are produced by the same social forces.
**Cheap shot, especially if you’re going to call him “silly” and he did hard time for writing about joy.

These Five Kings

The Hand That Signed The Paper
Dylan Thomas

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand the holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

Twelve Ways of Looking at A Gorgon

From Wired‘s Danger Room:

“The award for best — and creepiest — military name of the week? No contest, that’s “Gorgon Stare,” the Air Force’s $150 million project to outfit its latest spy drones with super high-powered cameras.

By next year, 10 Reaper unmanned aircraft should have a Gorgon Stare sensor, which will film an area, two-and-a-half miles around, from 12 different angles.

‘Gorgon Stare will allow a combat controller on the ground, a commander at headquarters and an intelligence officer back in the U.S.
all to choose a different angle from the same Reaper,’ according to Air Force Times‘ Michael Hoffman.

The Reaper – and its little drone brother, the Predator – already have video cameras, of course. Gorgon Stare won’t replace those sensors. Instead, it’s meant to supplement the full-motion video with a jumpier, but wider, view.  That’ll allow airmen to “see the bigger picture” and have a better idea where to point full-motion video sensors,’ Hoffman notes.”

1. As stain. From The Washington Post “Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. ‘Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.'” The idea of more cameras is to better understand a situation’s complete reality as it occurs, but there’s a reason that for Jacques Lacan reality is “not-all.” The drone, with all the cameras the Pentagon’s best minds could possibly glue on, would still miss something. When it cruises over a population snapping surveillance photos the drone can never see itself, except as a stain on its split-screen high-definition recording. It will forever record one half of a war movie. Even if the Reaper flies above human sight, those for whom the device is named know the sky belongs to someone else. The drone knows it’s being watched, it knows it’s the reaper for someone else, and it searches for prey.

2. As honesty. When it comes to the names the United States uses for its drone projects, there’s an acknowledgment that we are the bad guys. Predators armed with Hellfire missiles, Reapers equipped with Gorgon Stares. Perhaps there’s something so cowardly about this form of war that the population would be repulsed by noble names. Birds and snakes, the animals of the underworld.

3. Toward completion. There’s this particularly post-modern idea that, through technology, we can “solve” the world. The next project camera project, “Argus” has 92 cameras, and next? 100? 200? Cameras until we reach an asymptote and the many becomes the single eye of the lord. Knowledge of a population is the first ingredient of biopower, the full realization is a camera and a bullet of Damocles for every man woman and child. Through the view of a drone camera, the choice is no longer to kill, but to let live, and once we are all equally in its sight, the world will be completed. The bad will be dead and the good alone, the rapture here on Earth brought to you by advances in military technology.

4. As Phallus. To paraphrase Freud, if the penis were the phallus, it wouldn’t need all the bells and whistles. The wings, cameras, and missiles don’t make the drones less dick-like, they render them inescapably phallic. How curious for a weapon whose main job is to receive rather than fire. Thus Medusa, whose snakes Freud could never handle – a castrating mockery of the penis (many where there should be one), and yet phallic in their magisterial strength and power. The drone is a queer bird indeed.

5. Ironically. From Matt Yglesias: “If you take current Air Force surveillance technology and ask ‘in what ways does this differ from the gaze of a gorgon’ the natural response is ‘when you look into a gorgon’s eyes, you turn to stone, whereas today’s USAF surveillance has no petrification powers whatsoever.’”

6. As altitude. As if only by elevating ourselves to the height of god will we know how to use his bolts of lightning, as if the fog of war is something you can fly over at 25,000 feet, hi-def photos from a mile high combine distance and proximity in a way we might call “I can’t believe it’s not omniscience!” Some really can’t.

7. As expensive. As a fraction of the total cost, we’re talking $15 million per camera here, which is over $1 million per sub-camera. It makes me think of the Josh Lyman approach to foreign policy: “Couldn’t we just pay them the money not to attack us?” But it’s not called “the military-industrial complex” for nothing.

8. As a game. Growing up, my mom never allowed video games in the house. She may not be willing to admit this, but there was always a 60’s-peace-movement conspiracy element to it, she was at least partly convinced video games were a military-industrial plot to desensitize kids to killing. This made little sense to me when I was a 12-year-old who just wanted to play Super Smash Brothers, but it makes a lot more now. The Gorgon Stare will produce images from twelve angles, like four game-systems’ worth of teenagers playing Halo. We can now switch the perspective on war from human eyes to a camera behind and above, mediated through screens. Drone warfare doesn’t just reproduce the same distance from the task of killing present in video games, it reproduces the same perspective.

9. As indicative of a larger literacy problem within the DoD. No seriously, did any of the people naming these things even read this? The only time the Gorgon’s stare is used by someone who’s not the kind of monster the U.S. government would pal around with is when it’s attached to a severed head. The snakes are a punishment from Athena, who according to one legend, killed the Gorgon and wore its skin. And Argus? Argus gets tricked by Hermes, killed, and his eyes are scattered to the feathers of peacocks. Not that there’s any important lesson that the U.S. military could learn from Greek history and myths . Nope, keep ripping off Magic Cards.

10. As a black/green instant for four mana.

I want to point out that this came out after I stopped collecting Magic Cards (like, many years after), but I knew it or some variant had to exist based on the game’s naming conventions. This probably says something important about the Department of Defense.

11. As tragic-poetic. The stare that reduces its object to stone. Or rubble.

12. As pain. “I never heard a corpse complain of how it got so cold.” – Richard in The Lion in Winter. Metal is metal no matter what the composition, so with fire, so with pain. An M-16, a Hellfire, a claw hammer: makes no difference to a body. For whom do we write on the sides of bombs? For whom do we name weapons systems? Who reads the words stenciled onto their handsome metal bodies? Not their targets.

Boy Meets Hookup Culture

There may be no lexicon more complicated and defined by its nuance than the one used to describe teenagers’ dating patterns. The struggle to define a relationship in commonly understood language once led a friend of mine to label someone “not my girlfriend,” which of course also meant “not not my girlfriend.” Each term comes with its own set of socially loaded connotations, adult speculation, and moral panic, none more than the one most used to describe my own generation: “hookup”.

This is a graph of the appearance of these phrases in English-language books from 1940 to 2008.*

There’s an easy way to read this chart, and it goes something like: “Wonk wonk wonk wonk decline in monogamous relationships wonk wonk kids these days wonk decline in values wonk wonk sluts.” One (of many) problem with this theory is that the best stats we have on teen sexual behavior don’t back it up. According to the National Survey of Family Growth (which actually has a pretty strong methodology as these things go), between 1995 and 2002, the only teen sub-group whose sexual activity didn’t decline was African American women. There was a staggering (almost disturbing, to be frank) nine percent drop in sexual activity among teenage men. Yet on the graph, this is where the discursive shift is, where “hooking up” overtakes “going steady.” I don’t think this a case of mere substitution – use of the term “dating” has stayed more or less constant since the early 80’s. If teen sexual activity has actually decreased, then the change in descriptive terms describes something other than society’s moral degeneration. What the graph does give us is somewhere to look, namely 1994-95, when the two lines cross. Luckily, I have a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of one cultural product of the time in question: Boy Meets World.

The sitcom about the Matthews family began in 1993 and ran until May 2000, capturing the segment on the graph of convergence and divergence. I’m going to look at a particular episode, “Pairing Up” in season two (1994), in which the brothers Cory and Eric learn “important lessons” about dating.

The problematic of the episode is this world of dating Cory discovers, girls are suddenly there in a new way. When Cory’s best friend Shawn suggests he ask out “the new girl,” I understand the character, who isn’t given a name until much later, as a synecdoche for all girls. The “new girl” is a recurring character in the show, but with the constant play of identities (Shawn telling the substitute he’s a 21 Jump Street style cop, later in the series Topanga shows up at a dance pretending to be a French exchange student), she may not be geographically novel so much as new as an identity. There’s something carnivalesque to the way the young characters experience their budding sexualities and developing personas at the same time.  It’s a story that is at least as old as Proust, but as a sitcom devoted to a particular episode structure, Boy Meets World gives us a nice view of the ideological elements at play.

When Cory asks out Topanga, she rejects him ostensibly because of their friendship, but she leans in explanation toward novelty – “Is there someone else?” “There’s everyone else.” Dating, she explains, is best practiced with people you don’t already know, because of the contradictory emotions involved. It’s her way of saying she’s not looking for anything long-term, but what then is she looking for?

These relationships are described as extremely fragile and short-term. Rebecca, older brother Eric’s date, goes from trying to get him alone to not wanting to see him at all because Cory walks in on them making out. Even though she turns from aggressive to icy, such a flighty response is portrayed as simple bad luck for Eric, not in the misogynistic rape-culture way we’ve all become accustomed to hearing (“What a crazy bitch, tease” etc.) in the decade and a half since. Her decision is not quite to put an end to something constituted, but rather ending her participation in a game. Rebecca chooses, basically, not to call him back. Nowadays we see this as a gendered pseudo-contractual violation, a mean thing that men do to women, rather than an understandable curiosity about “everyone else.”

The dating advice Eric gives Cory sounds absurd and vaguely douchey (not having to be actually interested in her, the corny adoration, etc.), but grounded in his reactions to Rebecca’s abrupt departure, it’s clear he recognizes girls as active players in the same game, not objectified prey. There’s a distinction between charm and trickery; when Cory asks out the new girl, she’s aware he doesn’t know her a bit (she is, after all, defined by her novelty) but doesn’t mind being told her hair looks nice anyway**. His hyperbole (“The most exquisite hair”) is more akin to flailing than deceit, but it works. She wants to go out with him too, because why not? (“Sure.”)

When Cory explains Eric’s dating strategies to their parents, they are disappointed that he would ask out a girl he doesn’t even know, which is quite the contradictory message. Eric is chastened and made to feel bad for making out with a girl he doesn’t know well, even though we remember that he was just planning on studying in the first place. It is the parents who identify the date with sex. Cory seems to learn the episode’s lesson here, that affection is something you can only honestly feel for people you already know. When he shows up for his date with the new girl, Cory confesses that he (now) feels weird about it being a date, and she agrees and asks if he wants to call it off. But he doesn’t. That is, he still wants to go somewhere and spend time getting to know her, exactly what they were planning to do in the first place, only without the label. The end result is a validation of Eric’s adventurism, despite the moralistic protestations of their parents. Cory learns Wendy’s name on the date, there’s nothing tawdry about it.

The consequence of the anxious parental intervention is Cory’s removal of the label “date.” Their outing becomes, in the dialectical parlance of my friend from the first paragraph, a non-date, impossible to describe in positive terms. If dating becomes something constituted, then teens may engage in basically the same behaviors but describe them differently. If the Eric-Rebecca date were to happen today (she comes over to “study,” they make out instead, she leaves), we’d call it a hookup. I don’t quite have the time to borrow my sister’s collection of teen movies from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but I have a hunch there’s a move toward seeing relationships in the parents’ terms – people who break up, don’t call back, or talk to attractive strangers are villains, while the good character is the one who “really” knows his or her beloved. Better the obsessive stranger than the charming one***.

Back to the chart: The decline of “going steady” doesn’t necessarily reflect a decline in steady relationships, it could be an indication of the opposite. If casual dating – a constituent process rather than the marriage-modeled “steady” relationship – declined as such, then there’d be little use for the term that describes its alternative. That is, there would be no need to differentiate, going steady becomes the whole of dating. Gradually, any non-steady relationship becomes so illegitimate that it ceases to exist discursively. (Who wants to be the jerk/slut who goes out with a different person every week? Who will admit to it?) Think of how Facebook alone eliminates the discursive space of casual dating. In its place we have “hooking up” the shamed version for teens with a lot less time and lot fewer public spaces than the ones who came before them.

This all strikes me as a rotten shame. Casual dating is, in a lot of ways, much healthier for young people than the intense contractual model. Not being tied to the relationship as object makes it easier for teens to get only as involved as they feel comfortable doing without being made to think of themselves as unloving or insensitive failures. There’s also good evidence that the “boyfriend story” about the one person who knows and loves you puts young women at elevated risk of dating violence. But perhaps most importantly, casual dating as showcased in this episode is more about exploring the world than defining it, about trying on different selves rather than settling into one. It seems unfair, almost cruel, to privilege the latter over the former.

*Of course this is a ridiculous quantitative basis for the speculations that ensue, but if people like graphs, then they can have some graphs.
**There’s something terrible in the way we have constructed unsolicited compliments as socially inappropriate, as if kids didn’t hear enough unsolicited insults to balance it out anyway.
***”You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, She’s upset
She’s going off about something that you said
She doesnt get your humor like I do
I’m in the room, its a typical Tuesday night
I’m listening to the kind of music she doesn’t like
And she’ll never know your story like I do

The Cerebral Male Argument against Rape Denial

These are some miscellaneous thoughts on Julian Assange’s rape allegations and the responses. I’m worried that the issues Wikileaks raises regarding US imperialism and state secrets could be reduced to a tabloid story about its founder and mouthpiece and the establishment liberals who always seem to pop out of the woodwork with excuses for rapists with politics they like, but I think any opportunity to be critical of rape apology and the culture that makes it possible shouldn’t go to waste. There have already been a few great write-ups, and you really should go read them (Sady Doyle’s, INCITE!, Update: and Kate Harding!) because they’re important.

Every trial is a state conspiracy, and this one very much so. I am uninterested in the trial and legal proceedings. I don’t care what Sweden’s laws are, I care if Assange coercively and sexually used someone’s body without her participatory consent. The recourse to legal defenses by Assange and co. indicates the lack of a solid ethical argument.

Let’s imagine a scenario, an absolutely generic rape accusation. A woman accuses a man of rape, he denies it, you have no other information. Who do you believe? This may seem like a painfully abstract question, and it is. But it is also the situation in which we often find ourselves when we hear rape accusations. The partial information that we use to make that decision in real life (what she was wearing, her reputation, his reputation, whether she reported it, their comparative size or attractiveness, whether she stayed over after or saw him again) is more confounding than helpful. Rapists, survivors, and the incidents themselves don’t share enough in common for partial specifics to be indicative. We know certain populations are more vulnerable, but the chilling truth is that rape happens so much that knowledges about what kind of person rapes or is raped and under what circumstances are more a reflection of our rape-apologizing culture than the realities of victimization.

Nate Silver argues that the circumstances around Assange’s prosecution, both the prosecution’s unusual zeal and the obvious interests that various states have in discrediting Wikileaks, suggest that we ought disbelieve the allegations, or at least be skeptical of them. But if instances of rape share the negative commonality “not circumstances,” that is, if the circumstances of rape are so varied that the only abstraction we can make is “not,” then whether or not the circumstances are convenient doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not the rape occurred. Skepticism as to the state’s motives for prosecuting so zealously? Of course. But anyone who thinks criminal prosecution is generally apolitical is delusional and naive.

I think this use of partial specifics and faulty abstractions is a really bad idea, but what else do we have? The “assumed innocent until proven guilty” line doesn’t work for me, if Wikileaks has taught us anything it’s that the state produces truths about which we should remain skeptical and vigilant. Not to mention that for survivors who allege rape, the legal standard means “assumed lying until proven otherwise.” I am not a magistrate and have no pretensions of agnosticism. I propose an answer to the abstract question above: I believe her.

I’m not talking about at the gut level; like a lot of men, at the gut level I hardly believe any rape accusations. Unless I’m there to see it or its a really obvious case, my own horrific impulse is toward denial and apology. These responses are second nature in a rape culture like ours, especially for men. Think about the depictions: no one had to stretch to imagine a CIA “honeypot” plan against Assange, we’ve probably seen more of these scenes represented in media than powerful men (who aren’t “villains”) raping women. Which do you think happens more in real life? The same thing goes for false accusations: I’ve had friends accused of rapes that I knew first-hand did not occur, it does happen. However, whenever it does happen, we hear about it a lot. False accusations always happen out loud and knowledge of them spreads quickly and widely, so if the total volume looks comparable to rapes that occur, that assessment ignores the huge iceberg below the surface of unreported or undiscussed rapes. Statistically, I have female acquaintances, friends, and family members who have been raped and not told me about it. Rape culture doesn’t only excuse sexual assault, it makes it disappear.

The question we have to ask, especially men, is why our first reaction to an instance of rape, a social phenomenon that we know to be disgustingly prevalent, would be disbelief. That question, which nags in my head rather than my gut, leads me to a place where I can answer the abstract scenario. Rape denial is an illogical proclivity that indicates a deep ideological tampering; when it comes to rape, men (at least) don’t see clearly. It is the very existence and dominance of rape denial in the face of rape’s widespread existence that should make us pause and consider why we would, as a gender, think something so clearly dumb. Sometimes this kind of counter-hegemonic thinking makes me wrong and/or beat unconscious on the street in Oakland for failing to assume that a group of young black men would jump me, but blank empiricism and the prejudices we’ve been given (more or less the same thing at the end of the day) are wrong more often.

So I tend to believe rape accusations. I believe these ones. Truths are tactical, and until we accept that rape is outrageously common and that our culture and media obscure that, we’re all helpless to stop it.

I also think it is possible for rape to occur with only one partner’s knowledge, that is, a rapist can not realize what he’s doing. That doesn’t make it less rape or even necessarily less detestable, but it does highlight the problems with locking one person up for a social crime. As Dostoevesky puts it, “We are guilty of all, before all, and on behalf of all,” and as all is the only way we can stop rape. Any society that locks someone away causes itself more damage than any criminal ever could. No bars ever. For anyone. Not for Assange, not for Bradley Manning, not even for the perpetrators of the much bigger state crimes revealed in the Wikileaks documents. It’s not worth it.

On another note, I think it’s interesting that the argument that works for me is so cerebral. I’ve had some really important conversations with female comrades about the way men use academic knowledges (to which we have more access for a number of reasons) to dominate discussions and marginalize women. Here I can certainly finish the Dostoevesky quote: “We are guilty of all, before all, and on behalf of all, and I am the guiltiest of all,” and it’s something I’m always working on, but I find it interesting on a personal level that my most radically feminist positions come through analysis (like this post) that comes off as coldly intellectual. I think this is at least partly because our society is set up to confirm sexism in men through experience. The very way we see the world is distorted, patriarchy is supposed to “feel right” or seem natural or unavoidable to men (at least), and that’s how it keeps itself around. I’ve heard the argument from women that lived experience is more important than books or philosophy in developing a feminist pattern of thought, which I certainly believe about their lives, but as a cis class-privileged white guy, my lived experience is a really faulty position from which to understand rape and rape culture.

Please Stand Up

“In Russia, that Narodnik-Anarchists would sometimes forge a ukase or manifesto in the name of the Czar; in it the Autocrat would complain that greedy lords & unfeeling officials had sealed him in his palace & cut him off from his beloved people. He would proclaim the end of serfdom & call on peasants & workers to rise in His Name against the government.

Several times this ploy actually succeeded in sparking revolts.”
– Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone

The Masochistic Protester or No One-Sided Fight Lasts Long

I’ve been following a familiar debate about police violence around the round of student demonstrations in the UK. Mark Fisher has got himself into a little hot-water with his fellow leftists after tweeting that police attacks on student demonstrators were “a good thing, strategically,” a position that has drawn some ire. The most pointed critique I read was from Ads w/out Products titled “fuck(t)wittery.” Ads writes, “Anyone who advocates, you know, people getting run over by police horses in the service of a cause, however just, doesn’t need to be listened to. This ain’t the Terminator, version 1 2 or 3. Spend some time at an occupation, and you’ll see that  ‘strategic victories’ are achievable without weird Accelerationist ideas.”

First of all, it’s definitely a stretch to say Fisher “advocates” police violence, he certainly never encouraged officers to beat students. I would say he probably “advocates” the police’s immediate surrender to the glorious student revolutionaries, unfortunately Mark Fisher has seemingly little-to-no control over any police department. This is what’s silly about the whole argument: riot cops don’t need the advice of a Marxist professor to attacked demonstrators. The tactics that resulted in police aggression are either strategic or not, and looking at the momentum these students have built, I’m going to have to agree with Fisher and say they have been. A blanket condemnation of tactics that lead to police confrontation would be silly and blind, and I don’t think that’s what Ads is saying. Which means Fisher is being critiqued for making the uncouth connection between success and violence, for thinking it out loud.

The intermediate value theorem states that a line connecting two points passes through every one between them. Anyone who thinks that, between the origin (current material conditions) and the goals of a revolutionary left, there is not a point of open state violence is either naive, delusional, or both. There isn’t a liberal capitalist democracy in the world that wouldn’t rather not beat its children in the street, not because they care a bit about us, but because that sort of violence is not supposed to happen here.  Beating protesters is for authoritarian regimes teetering on the edge of historical irrelevance, not for nations where history has already ended. The open use of police violence, especially against school kids, lays bare the lines of antagonism, it reveals an exteriority on the ground that’s always hard to be sure of otherwise. If they’re hitting you with sticks, it means they’re worried. If they’re worried, it means you’re doing your job well. Sure, the police’s collective surrender would be a better sign, but I don’t think today you get to one without the other.

I don’t know a committed leftist who hasn’t looked at a police line and, deep down somewhere we don’t all like to talk about, hoped it would charge. Not because of some macho desire to find a representative of capital and the state to punch in the face, but simply because it would mean you’re worth beating. Babysitter cops are usually far more demoralizing than aggressive ones, and they know it. Without confrontation, marches become pageants to the state’s security and restraint, complete with smiling police escorts. There’s nothing worse than feeling planned for, internal to the structures you protest. State violence is a sign of the struggle’s escalation, and is thereby validating.

When activists render the state’s deliberative mask unwearable, they move closer to open conflict and the possibility of bigger victories. As the comrades at the UCs have put it, “Behind every fee increase, a line of riot cops.” The connection between tuition increases and police batons already exists, and it unfortunately falls on the brave to make that relationship present in order to see it fractured. It isn’t Accelerationist to recognize this is where we are now, and as Greg Graffin might say: “It’s a dangerous stage/But the show must go on.”

Which isn’t to say anyone has to or ought to or can stand still and take it. One way or another, a one-sided fight doesn’t last long. When the reality is get knocked out or get shields and barricades, I’m all for the latter. Especially if they’re those Italian book-shields, the design for which really ought be online somewhere…

Ezra Pound: Far More Gangster Than You’d Think

Kelefa Sanneh has a piece in The New Yorker about reading (specifically gangster) rap lyrics as poetry. It’s an interesting question, but I’ve always been more captured by the opposite: reading poets as gangster rappers. Ezra Pound, for instance, is an ice-cold thug:

V

The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.

VI

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst The Leopard’s rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”

Sestina: Altaforte

Probably the whole deranged fascist thing. Anyone got another one?

Out The Window, Into The Sky

Leave Them Kids Alone

“Because it seems that no student can be so bad, we try to suspend judgment when we encounter a bad student—at least until the first paper is handed in. Although we believe that the student is, in fact, terrible, what if that first paper proves that he is simply not good at speaking up in class? What if it shows that she has a rich fund of ideas that she cannot articulate verbally but can pour forth onto paper?

And then the paper doesn’t show any of that. Ah, sweet reassurance. The world remains on its axis. In larger life, this feeling is called, “I told you so,” and it is always unwise to give it voice. In the privacy of your office, though, it gives immense pedagogical pleasure to know that your instincts were right.”
-“The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail” The Chronicle of Higher Education

When asked if charter schools might help solve some of the problems faced by public education, Deputy Education Secretary Anthony W. Miller told reporters the data indicated any difference they made would amount to jack shit.

‘Some charter schools perform better than their public counterparts, some don’t,’ Miller said. ‘You can’t change the fact that any school, no matter how it’s funded, is ultimately just another type of building to contain these goddamn monsters for seven hours a day.’

Miller added that more involvement from home was not the answer, either, as the little shits tend to have shithead parents who just make everything worse. The only findings from the study that provide a glimmer of hope, he said, are student absenteeism and dropout rates, which continue to increase.”
– “Department of Education Study Finds Teaching These Little Shits No Longer Worth ItThe Onion


Slate and Rape

Annie Lowery has an oh so typically Slate piece up on the site about the economics of teen dating. The article is about a recent paper from Duke researchers that found myths of teen dating were true: the researchers “found one classic economic tenet driving the byzantine high-school dating market: Scarcity determines value. Among freshman boys, what’s rare, and therefore valuable, are freshman girls willing to have a relationship and, even better, willing to have sex. Among senior girls, what’s valuable and scarce are boys willing to have a relationship without having sex.” Following in a long and noble scientific tradition, Slate is happy to publish uncomplicated stereotypes as long as they have numbers to back them up. But this article and study are more problematic than the average fare from even William Saletan; nowhere in either the study or the article do the authors mention rape.

In her excellent piece “The Boyfriend Myth,” Sady Doyle dispelled any notion that monogamous relationships are any good for young women by and large:

“According to a 2005 survey on teen dating abuse, 13 percent of girls who have been in relationships—girls, that is to say, who have had boyfriends—report being ‘physically hurt or hit.’ A startling one in four said that their boyfriends had pressured them to have sex they didn’t want. Twenty-six percent reported recurring, and severe, verbal abuse in their relationships. And then, there’s this, from a no less august source than the U.S. Department of Justice: ‘Young women between the ages of 16 and 24 in dating relationships experience the highest rate of domestic violence and sexual assault.’ The highest. What was that about Boyfriend Stories again?”

Here’s the narrative that Lowery sketches out: high school men want to have sex but don’t want relationships, the women want the opposite, a scarcity market determines their negotiation and the compromise of these interests. The assumption that everyone in this situation is an autonomous and rational economic actor pursuing different (and gendered) interests is dangerous. Lowery writes, “Though high-school girls don’t really want to have sex, many more of them end up doing so in order to ‘match’ with a high-school boy.” In economic discourse, we make these bargains to maximize our gains while minimizing our losses, and scarcity may make the trade for a relationship a good deal. The problems here are numerous; even leaving aside for a moment the writer’s blasé reaction to the conclusion that market coercion is the basis for a lot of teen sex, the words “rape” and “consent” appear nowhere in either the report or the article.

Among those girls who don’t want to have sex but do, what percentage of it was consensual? We know it’s greater than zero, would that fact damage the article’s cutesy appeal? What kind of world makes young women sacrifice in order to put themselves in situations where they’re more vulnerable to abuse and rape? This kind of micro-economic analysis can’t answer these questions, and so ignores them completely. Lowery pities the “legions of lonely 14-year-old boys,” but never mentions the 14-year old girls who are too afraid to tell their 18-year old boyfriends “no.” The sterility of economic language fails the violence of this situation. Here’s how the Austrian novelist and Nobel Laureate Elfreide Jelinek describes the same economic relationship in Women as Lovers: “brigitte has a body to offer. apart from brigitte’s body many other bodies are flooding the market at the same time. the only thing that positively stands by brigitte on this path, is the cosmetics industry. and the textile industry. brigitte has breasts, thighs, hips and a snatch. others have that too, sometimes even of a better quality.” Clothes and makeup improve a brigitte’s market position. So do starvation and submitting to her boyfriend’s violent desire. The market of bodies is not some natural equilibrium, it’s brutal and exploitative.

Without an analysis of the systems of power in which these interactions take place, without any attention to consent and violence, this article presents a disturbingly retrograde picture of high school relationships, where girls are expected to transactionally “give it up” to their boyfriends and no one concerns themselves too much with whether she went even so far as to say “yes.” An article like Doyle’s that actually interrogated the premises of the way we think about teenagers’ wants probably wouldn’t get as many hits as a cheerful validation of misogynist playground economics, but it might actually do young women and men some good.

Infinite Loko

“In August, an 18-year-old in Palm Coast, Fla., died after drinking Four Loko in combination with diet pills. The next month, a 20-year-old in Tallahassee started playing with a gun and fatally shot himself after drinking several cans of Four Loko over a number of hours … Finally yesterday, a year after it began reviewing whether energy drinks that combine alcohol and caffeine are safe or legal, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to take a stand on the drinks as early as tomorrow, according to law enforcement officials in several states … Four Loko is made by Chicago-based Phusion Projects. The company said yesterday that it is disappointed by the state’s plans, saying curbing alcohol abuse will not succeed by singling out a beverage category.”
Boston Globe

Maranthe smiled. There was some silence for thinking until Maranthe finally said, looking up and off to think: ”This U.S.A. type of person and desires appears to me like almost the classic, how do you say, utilitaire.
‘A French appliance?’
‘Comme on dit,’ Maranthe said, ‘utilitarienne. Maximize pleasure, minimize displeasure: result: what is good. This is the U.S.A.  … but precisely whose pleasure and whose pain, in this personality type’s equation of what is good?'”
– David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest

The Party & The Party

Alain Badiou argues that we can’t recognize a true event as such as it occurs, but I’ll be damned if the student attack on Tory headquarters in London last week didn’t look like one. There has been a large amount of quality writing on the subject within the past few days, the truly indispensable piece I read was Laurie Penny’s beautifully written account of the day from inside the Tower. In the rush to explain, it’s been interesting to see the words media outlets use to describe what was done and by whom. ‘Riot’ comes up a lot, and I’ll venture that the noun/verb’s relationship to its collective subject is part of what makes it appealing to headline writers. A riot is conducted by rioters, individuals whose inclusion in the group is based on a relation to the occurrence rather than to each other. An attack, on the other hand, requires not necessarily a plan, but an internally related collective subject acting on a direct object. Attacks have targets and those who target. Yet attempts to identify a scapegoat sub-group (“It was the Anarchists!”) as those responsible have been undermined by the reports from Millbank, where reporters saw students of all types joining together in raucous mayhem. Millbank Tower didn’t get trashed because it happened to be around, the building got wrecked because it’s the enemy’s fortress. The question then becomes: whose enemy?

There is a piece up at Mute by Heidi Liane Hasbrouck about how the official student union (NUS) responded to the attack: “We are not only fighting a battle with the government, we are fighting against the very people that are supposed to represent us … My run-ins with the NUS at the protest and their official post-protest statements criminalising the direct action by attributing it to a few infiltrating anarchists who ruined a peaceful demonstration exceeded my previous suspicions … When a union no longer represents its members, and is a corrupt source of power, what do you do? The ultimate question becomes, do you change the union from within or do you scrap it and start afresh?” The critique here reminds me of Antonio Negri’s 1973 pamphlet “Workers’ Party Against Work” in which he argues against the representative collectivities of unions and traditional parties and for something quite different in its constitution.

In an unorthodox reading of Lenin (some would say revisionist) , Negri produces an idea of “party” that is unfamiliar in its rejection of any pretensions of representation.”Too often,” he writes, “in defending the traditional concept of the party, we forget that the party is always an institution, that the institution mediates the class struggle, and that the mediation of the class struggle is a necessity for capital. At times, historically, the party mediated as an offensive function, as an agent of development. Today, the working class no longer recognizes the possibility of this function. The party of refusal of work can therefore be nothing but an organism of labor and struggle linked to the necessity of the clash.” Negri casts representative unions like the NUS in with reformist parties as “filthy mystifiers, shady operators who are reproposing the law of value in mystified ways.” It’s easy to read this nebulous unrepresentative party as simply a step toward the subject “multitude” which dominates Negri’s later work, but I want to propose an enduring place for the party in light of the Millbank attack.

In my defense of my undergraduate thesis, one of my advisors asked me for an example of a political action by an unrepresented (and as I argued, unrepresentable) collective subject, I responded with the first thing off the top of my head which happened to be the “electro-communist” dance parties that served as integral parts of the UC Santa Cruz occupations last year*. My advisor responded by reproaching me for being “morally unserious.” Unserious (and morally!) though I may be, I can’t help noticing similarities in the descriptions of the Millbank attack. Here’s how Penny paints the atmosphere in her New Statesman piece: “There are twice as many people here as anyone anticipated, and the barriers erected by the stewards can’t contain them all: the demonstration shivers between the thump of techno sound systems and the stamp of samba drums, is a living, panting beast, taking a full hour to slough past Big Ben in all its honking glory. A brass band plays the Liberty Bell while excited students yammer and dance and snap pictures on their phones. ‘It’s a party out here!’ one excited posh girl tells her mobile, tottering on Vivienne Westwood boots while a bunch of Manchester anarchists run past with a banner saying ‘Fuck Capitalism’.” It seems to me there’s a lot to be gained from projecting a number of different meanings onto the excited posh girl’s utterance. We have the celebratory occurrence object noun, the celebratory verb (e.g. “Come party!”), the contingent collective subject noun (as in a raiding party) and even the institutional object noun (“It’s the party out here!”). We can do the same interpretive violence to Negri. When he writes, “The party must reveal the given class unity, the recomposition that has taken place within the proletariat, from within and below, not from outside and above,” what would it mean to change “party” to its celebratory occurrence meaning? This revelation, of an organic unity from within and below, is exactly where we find the Millbank party’s value. This party, although unserious, has begun to do its job as formulated by Negri. Since the representative parties have nothing left to offer, no helpful mediating left to do, the term “party” is most useful in the present moment in its multiplicity, as varied noun and verb, subject and object. We can see the party in London moving fluidly through these forms, from dance party to war party until the distinction collapses and people boogie through windows.

This unhosted party is not a means of mediation, but a molecular organism of insurrection. I am tempted even to see smashing windows as an act of appropriation by the party, turning the enemy’s property into resources for collective enjoyment. The crack of glass is a beautiful music, the only fitting soundtrack. The morning after a destructive rager, isn’t “the party” the responsible party? With the unstable meaning, we gain a properly descriptive flexibility and contingency for a collectivity whose internal composition shifts unceasingly.

Any endorsement of the mob form yields the valid objection of pogroms and lynchings, where the party differs is in its inspiration. As Negri writes, “We draw our reason to hate the bosses and our inflexibility in struggle not from despair but, rather, from desire, from satisfaction, from wealth.” The party is a realization of that common wealth, and it finds itself in mortal conflict with barriers to its enjoyment. It is as yet unclear whether Millbank marks a turning point in a domestic and/or international student movement away from Negri’s mystifying representatives, but look at the picture above, does it look like those kids are protesting for cheaper education? It’s something else, the joyous necessity of clash, a gyrating unity from below and within, shattering appropriation. In the words of Penny’s posh girl, “It’s a party out here!”

*For more on electro-communism, I strongly suggest friend and comrade Kyle’s presentation “What is ‘electro-communism’ and what is it good for?” at the Beneath the U conference last April. The archived video is here.

Tattered Ruins of that Map

“. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”
– Jorge L. Borges “On Exactitude in Science”

“Google Inc. said Thursday its mapping service goofed twice by attributing a disputed islet off North Africa first to Morocco, and then to Spain, when the company’s goal is to be neutral. The two countries, close neighbors and allies who are prone to outbreaks of disagreement, inched toward military confrontation in the summer of 2002 over the rocky outcropping. The islet was inhabited only by goats when Moroccan troops occupied it, but Spain promptly sent warships to eject the soldiers. Both countries claim the islet, which Spain calls Perejil, or parsley, and the Moroccans call Leila, meaning night. But, under a U.S.-brokered deal that ended the crisis the islet’s status was declared under review. Google Spain spokeswoman Marisa Toro said the search engine learned in July that its mapping service erroneously assigned the islet to Morocco. It is only about 250 meters (yards) off the coast of the North African kingdom, which is separated from Spain by the slim Strait of Gibraltar.”
Huffington Post (emphasis added)

Tired, Scared, and Dangerous

What gets me about these two images (the right a painting by Danish artist Torben Ribe and the left a still with title from the 1957 movie) is how easily one could switch the written components. On the left, the two figures look far more tired (and scared) than dangerous. His body is turned away from what’s coming, whatever has so transfixed his companion’s gaze. He is contorted, twisted, with a weariness in his eyes that indicates a desire to turn back. The raised brow prevents him from looking hardened or ready, as if he’s staring in spite of himself. She holds herself back with her own hands round her bust, even as she’s dragged chin-first into whatever is coming. His arms hold her, not back because he doesn’t possess that kind of strength,  but like an anchor, to the middle point between something gone and the unavoidable to-come. See how their necks crane forward together, not in anticipation, but in fear and resignation, while their torsos twist away. Her right shoulder naked and retreating, dragging her body by the right breast, as if an estranged limb. Young and tired (and scared), they are torn through their eyes into a future against which their feeble bodies strain with futility.

And Ribe’s eggs, rocking violently back and forth. The harsh black lines speak of a destabilizing power with which the present will have to reckon. There is movement, but not a subject to be found; we have unconscious jerks, the locomotion of pure potential. A hatching egg is like a quickly ticking bomb, a coming explosion of alterity that shifts the landscape around an emergent presence. There is to be something where there is not, and this imminent something promises to rip asunder the world without it. Young and dangerous, the shells crack with a roar.

What would it mean to be all of the above? It would be to know that the looming future into which we, though exhausted, are dragged, is not ready for us. Those eggs are tired (and scared) in the same way Beckett’s Clov is in Endgame: for them the earth is extinguished though they never saw it lit. And yet the two contorted lovers are dangerous, as is anything young and alive. They are anchored on each other as they’re pulled forward into what may come, tired, scared, and dangerous like a time-bomb.

Make Total Explain

In the run-up to the spectacular promotional event that is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, the two hosts have been promoting it like Avon representatives. In last night’s segment, they talked to Washington’s indigenous protesters, including one prominent DC anarcho-cutie. When asked to write an encapsulating slogan on a piece of poster-board, the masked anarchist wrote “MAKE TOTAL DESTROY.” (Watch the clip here)

Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee says, “That makes no sense,” but that’s because she’s not familiar with contemporary ultra-left mythology. Here’s the way I remember hearing the story, I don’t know if it’s true per se, and I don’t suppose it much matters. There was an anti-IMF consulta in DC, and representatives from all over the world were discussing what actions their communities would take locally. Person by person, they detailed comprehensive plans for direct actions, balancing risks and possible rewards, the various statements they would be making, the composition of coalitions, etc. These kinds of meetings can stretch on and on, and are often filled with all sorts of bullshit posturing and rarefied code words. In short, they can be insufferable. The discussion finally gets around to a Greek anarchist group.  The Greeks are internationally known for being especially militant (and awesome). Their spokesman addresses the assembly and says simply, “We will make total destroy.” Everyone looks incredulous and confused. The Greek spokesman, fearing he has miscommunicated, excuses himself to confer with his group. He speaks with them in hurried Greek, and the rest of the assembly seems relieved that there will be further explanation. After the short clarification, the spokesman turns to the room again and says, “Yes, we will make total destroy.”

That phrase, bridging the gap between strategy and tactic, has become a slogan. “Make total destroy” is a step past the ossified anti-neoliberal struggles, with their summits and counter-summits, and summits to plan the counter-summits. Eschew bureaucracy, embrace bricks. So Samantha Bee, that is the story of “make total destroy,” or at least one of the stories. For those who will be in town for the rally and are looking to make a little total destroy themselves, check out the parallel “rally” Million Molotov March on Facebook.

Aggregate Supply

Values: Liberal, Conservative and Otherwise

The New Yorker‘s Hendrick Hertzberg has an interesting series of posts on his blog about the respective core values of liberals and conservatives. A dialog began when a conservative accidentally picked up Hertzberg’s book Obamanos and found his straightforward description of his liberal values refreshing. His third post is the richest so far and provides what I see as an opening in the conversation to suggest a system of values that is neither liberal nor conservative.

In this post, Hertzberg responds to a conservative by writing about the instrumental value of voting rights: “Voting is generally a good thing not because elected governments always make wiser policy decisions than absolute monarchs, but because experience shows that countries that elect their governments are more apt to have freedom of thought, conscience, and speech than countries that don’t. I’d rather live under a hereditary monarch who tolerates those freedoms than an elected president who doesn’t.” What Hertzberg seeks to protect is the freedom to speak and think freely, and he does so through a democracy or popularly elected government because that is the regime most likely to guarantee those as rights – as they are theoretically more dependable than the whims of a monarch. But what I want to question is what exactly freedom of thought and speech are good for. In Hertzberg’s set-up, voting is the instrumental right designed to best protect the non-instrumental rights of conscience, but this system breaks down if we can imagine a situation in which these rights are of no use. That is to say, if free speech and thought are not intrinsically valuable, then they make for a shoddy foundation for a system of social organization.

The idea of freedom of thought as separate from speech is a bit of a red herring here. If the Stoics proved anything, it’s that brute external force is incapable of eliminating independent thought. For the Stoics, life was about extending that external control to the whole being, which is how Epictetus could advise the slave to calmly tell his abusive master “If you continue to do that, my arm will break.” But that doesn’t seem to be the kind of thought Hertzberg is thinking about. He considers these individual rights of conscience socially, pointing to them as “civil freedoms.” For the purpose of this argument, I’m going to look at freedom of speech.

So we return to the question of the intrinsic value of free speech. For an example of useless free speech, I turn to that great theorist of rights: Franz Kafka, specifically his novel The Castle. It is the story of the land surveyor K who finds himself in a village attached to a castle. He quickly and surprisingly finds himself employed by some level of the castle bureaucracy to preform a series of tasks it is clear no one understands. K engages himself by trying to understand the strange hierarchies and touch the highest level he can. In this pursuit, the foreigner K is given to rashly disobeying social conventions he doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand, breaking all sorts of formal and informal speech codes. No castle official ever condemns him for his impudent speech, but it gets him no closer to the centers of power. The lack of a “say” in one’s own future leads to a learned helplessness: “Of course all that useless standing about and waiting all day, and day after day, and going on and on without any prospect of a change, must break a man down and make him unsure of himself and in the end actually incapable of anything else but this hopeless standing about.” K comes to understand that his place in the village will remain unchanged, regardless of his right to speak. We can see he speaks a different language, for although no external force shuts K’s mouth, he is unable to use his speech to change the world in which he lives or his role in it. I want to call this ability to affect change through struggle “negotiation.”

There is a distinction here between the instrument (speech) and the goal (negotiation). A prisoner can speak freely to the walls, but the bars do not bend. We could call this situation one of helpless speech. A prisoner’s freedom to speak is useful (or not helpless) when it is used as a tool of negotiation – whether through writings that others read or a riot or escape attempt. Hertzberg asks in what kind of twisted values system the right to vote or the right to property is more important than the right to speak, but the question I think begs asking is in what kind of foreclosed system of thought is the right to speak more important than the ability to have a say? Rather than taking the former as a base principal (as the liberal Hertzberg does), I propose the latter. I’ll grant Hertzberg that democracies are relatively good at preserving the popular right to speak, but does electoral representation have a good track record at enabling useful speech? When I search for the best in the American project, what jumps out is not moments of democracy, but negotiation beyond the demos or people. The fights for independence, emancipation, suffrage, and civil rights all came from subjects whose rights of conscience were not protected in legal or real terms. The very use of the phrase “civil rights movement” is an acknowledgement that it was fought by people who lacked these rights. It is not the rights that enable the action, but the action that forces the catachrestic break in the popular subject and expands the application of rights

.

These acts of militant negotiation happened in spite of the democracy from outside its protections. We can give democracy credit for flexibility insofar as it can change the composition of its demos in reaction to attacks from outside, but it does not get credit for the actions of those it persecuted or whose rights it refused to safeguard. Democracy is not to thank for the courage of Medgar Evers and the impact it had on a society he never lived to see. There’s a rose-colored way of looking at America that sees all its conflicts and antagonisms as internal to the state, even though it was the state’s jails that have housed generations of people deprived of useful speech. The corpses of Sacco and Vanzetti showed up on a public electric bill. The democracy takes sides and does not blush when pulling away those cherished rights from its supposedly internal enemies.

The market is certainly no better. A right to property also invites a right to poverty; one could always own nothing. We are well aware – this being election season and all – how the market constrains useful speech to those who can pay for it.  What the market, democracy, and monarchy all share in common is that they are forms of meta-negotiation. All three are decisions about how social negotiation will take place and who will be entitled to more or less say i.e. useful speech. Any of these forms suffers from outside attacks by those who would live otherwise, against whom the institutions act. Guy Debord’s description of the spectacle as “absolument dogmatique et en même temps ne peut aboutir réellement â aucun dogme solide” (absolutely dogmatic and at the same time unable to come up with any solid dogma) applies to the permissive systems. The proliferation of discourses afforded by these institutional forms is seemingly wide but severely limited: the market gives us Hot Topic anarcho-punk to J. Crew prep, and our civic free speech provides both Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly-flavored commentary. But communism is not for sale any more than anarchy is on the ballot.

I think the practice of social negotiation is one way to phrase that which I value above (below) all else, the ability for people to determine their common existence, as creatures who are irreducibly alone together. Speech and thought are vital parts of this negotiation, but it has historically not been these rights that have been vital for what we think of as the advancement of democracy, but the practice of useful speech beyond the realm of government-given rights. So what system of meta-negotiation could preserve everyone’s right to a full say in their society? One that is open to negotiation, always contingent and variable. Instead of a social contract, a common dance. In the penultimate words of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco “Viva l’anarchia!”

No Boss But Cody Ross

The fourth game of the National League Champion Series is in the third inning, with my beloved San Francisco Giants up 2-1 in the series and 1-0 in the game. My joy is out of control such that I am able to overlook any feelings of personal inadequacy I may have developed as a reaction to the Giants’ starting pitcher being younger than I am. So in honor of the 2010 National League West champions, here are four Giants players with obvious rapper names:

4. Cody Rick Ross

3. Matt Big Daddy Cain

2. Aubrey Huff Daddy

1. Busta Posey

Go Giants

Dat New New

(What I imagine is not a very large) public service announcement

As much as I’ve become attached to it, this blog is no longer the only home for my writing. I was lucky enough to land a job at Shareable, a web magazine that publishes some outstanding content. Plus they let me write about things like occupations. Additionally, I’m going to be contributing a regular (two/month) column to The New Inquiry. Rachel, Rob and everyone else there have started a great project, and I encourage people to go check it out. I’m not sure how these other commitments/opportunities are going to shape the way my writing is distributed on the interwebs, but I remain committed to maintaining this blog, at least as a place for my otherwise unpublishable thoughts.

Also, I have reformatted the ‘readings‘ sections with categories so that people will have some idea what they’re clicking on. After careful deliberation, those categories are: ohgodwearesofucked, orarewe, the multiversity, art, “sex, relationships, and other forms of play, and doxy! Go check them out, if only for the thrill of seeing things arranged into categories.

Into the Closet

Today’s “National Coming Out Day” seems particularly resonant because of a recent spat of high-profile acts of anti-queer violence. A wave of gay suicides and the torture of three men in New York have put many of us who don’t hate queers on the offensive, publicizing Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project and donating Facebook statuses to the Human Rights Campaign for the holiday. And yet, the response feels misguided. The brutal assaults in New York provide a counter-point to the assimilationist rhetoric of Savage and his cohort: Does it get better, really? Coming Out Day seems, rather than being a corrective to homophobic discourse, part of what’s wrong with the way we discuss queer sexuality. Here is an example of the HRC status, taken from one of my many dear Facebook friends who decided to give the HRC some free advertising:

“X is a straight ally and today is National Coming Out Day. I’m coming out for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality because it’s 2010 and you can still be fired from your job in 29 states for being lesbian, gay or bisexual and in 38 states for being transgender. Donate your status and join me by clicking here: http://bit.ly/a2jqLo

There are different variations depending on how the poster identifies him or herself, but the declaration is especially anxious for “straight allies” who posit their own straightness before “coming out” for lgbt rights. There’s been much debate over the idea of coming out and a lot of good criticisms, including that such a phrase assumes a heterosexual “in” to which we all originally belong, but I want to focus my critique on lgbtetc. identifiers as ontological characteristics. Coming Out Day requires that someone – gay, straight, whatever – declare his/her sexuality as a static identity, as a component of being. In this logic, being gay is not a choice, but a characteristic like hair or skin color. Coming Out Day asks that people make visible those components that are hidden, putting gay, straight, and whatever other options the HRC gives you, on the same level. It positions a natural view of homosexuality against the conservative discourse in which queers choose an “alternative lifestyle.” The HRC and mainstream lgbt defenders quote Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative.” Sexuality is ontology, to be gay is not a choice but a natural state of being no less legitimate or alternative than being straight. Gays will be gays, heteros will be heteros, all equal.

I don’t buy it.

My first real moment of comprehension on this issue is when a dear queer activist friend of mine confessed that her sexuality – about which she is quite outspoken – was very much of her own design. For someone for whom any discussion of choice around sexuality meant far-right fundamentalist bigotry, this was a shocking turn. But as she described it, her choice started to make sense. Coming Out Day is a kind of counter to the (supposedly) universal ability to “pass” as straight; under this discourse, queer folks who live as heteros are “living a lie.” I think it’s not quite so simple. I have plenty of queer friends who have at least some attraction to members of the opposite sex and could choose not to live an alternative lifestyle without also choosing romantic, sexual, and desirous poverty. For them, to be queer is very much a choice and very much an alternative to mainstream heterosexuality, even if it does include ostensibly “straight” relationships. Queer is here a pattern of action, a vow and a practice. Rather than a pre-determined sexuality, this queer-as-identity-critique posits attraction and desire as permanently unstable. Here’s how Gilles Dauvé describes the basic insecurity of heterosexuality in “For a World Without Moral Order“:

“What is gay? A man who only goes out with men, convinced he will never feel the attraction of the opposite sex? How should he know? How can he exclude the possibility of being overwhelmed by the desire for and of a woman? Isn’t it part of the essence of desire to come without warning? (Faced with a declared definitive heterosexual male, the gay will always suspect, and not without reason, that this too-sure-of-himself person is shielding himself from the possibility of his being attracted to another man…)”

Honest desire is characterized by a fundamental unknowing, and doesn’t it sound more fun that way? To be always open to the unsuspected pounce of desire, regardless of the inspiration, is an alternative to the ontological model. This queer practice certainly requires a lot of effort, but I think it’s probably time and energy well spent, especially considering how many hours people spend reading bad sex advice tips in glossy magazines. Here’s how my college housemate Joe responded to the “coming out” status updates:

“I am coming out tomorrow because coming out is a perpetual act of self-invention, because my desires morph with the seasons, because every rendezvous, each serendipitous encounter I have with an unexpected cutie, fucks with my sexuality. I am coming out because I am queer, because I want everyone to be queer, and because I want to swallow the world in a bodily praxis of resistance.”

This is a brilliant articulation of most of what I think, but I want to put a little pressure on the concept of “out.” If we think of the closet not as a hiding place of deception, but a space where desire always gropes in the dark, where society crams together the queers and deviants, where all self-described abstract attractions are lies, then I want in. I want everyone in, until the closet is a bumping nightclub with lines stretching through the rest of the house. If we want something better than an anesthetized sexuality (whether hetero or homo), then we must resist the sexual “end of history” and proclaim an alternative. And then choose it.

Aggregate Supply

- Evo-psych on monogamous impulses that doesn’t make me want to stick my head in an oven? How can it be?!

- The St. Petersburg Times shames its cruel internet trolls with a piece that is either heartbreakingly sincere or schmaltzy crap.

HUH. Magazine is my new favorite source for contemporary art, and I owe those folks for introducing me to Torben Ribe. Read Miléne Larsson’s interview with the Danish artist here.

- Vice Magazine interviews Paul Virilio on the always pressing topic of catastrophe.

- AK Press has an excerpt from AK Thompson’s new Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent.

- Music critic Alex Ross’s new collection of essays Listen to This is out, and on his blog, he put up accompanying audio clips. Useful for those of us who don’t know the works of Schubert or Monteverdi by memory. Bookforum has a review.

- This is the best/funniest one-minute critique of consumerist feminism I’ve ever seen

Sentencing Aliens

“‘Priests, professors, masters, you’re wrong to hand me over to justice. I’ve never been part of this race. I’ve never been a Christian: I’m of the race that sings under torture: I don’t understand the law: I’ve no moral sense, I’m a brute: you’re wrong…’
Yes, I’ve shut my eyes to your light. I’m a beast, a black.”

- Arthur Rimbaud “A Season in Hell”

“I open the Lamborghini hopin’ them crackers see me
Like look at that bastard Weezy
He’s a beast, he’s a dog, he’s a motherfucking problem.”

- Lil Wayne “A Milli”

Weezy is set to be released from Rikers early next month, despite being sent to solitary confinement for possession of contraband headphones. I wonder, did he ever contemplated using the Rimbaud/”We are not the same/I am a Martian” defense? Surely stranger things have worked.

Wiki-Boycott Malcolm Gladwell – Whatever That Is

There have been a number of thoughtful responses to Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece about social media, so I’ll keep my comments relatively brief, but the article’s flaws are just too embarrassing not to write something. I honestly expect more from Gladwell’s employer than this when it comes to researching on an article of this prominence, and it’s clear he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In this interview with Katie Couric, Gladwell confesses that he doesn’t use social media and doesn’t write about it because there are smart people already working on it. As he says, “they don’t need me.”

But he went ahead and did it anyway, and the resulting article about the relative insignificance of social media in effective activism reads like a lifetime teetotaler writing authoritatively about the importance of alcohol in party situations. Not only don’t you know what drinking is like, you don’t even know what a party is. Here’s a vital paragraph:

“Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide”

The simple criticism is that Gladwell clearly has no idea what the fuck a wiki does. To make a comparison between the bus boycott and a theoretical wiki-boycott, one has to imagine what a wiki-boycott could possibly be. There is no such thing as a wiki-boycott, nor is there any possible interaction between the two hyphenated terms that doesn’t just mean a refusal to use wikis. The comparison is ignorant, non-sensical, and irrelevant. But far more importantly, Gladwell doesn’t understand that this isn’t the South in 1960. Gladwell pulls a tricky move in order to justify the comparison: “Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.” I wrote whole arguments about the misuse in this sentence of “no doubt,” “infinitely,” and “contented,” before deciding none of that was the point. Here’s the kind of tweet that would have been useful at the time: “Cops r taking MLK to jail @ corner of X and Y, hustle!” And if you think any 60’s activist wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to post a blog instead of spending all night at the mimeograph machine, you’re nuts. Twitter is not, in and of itself, The Revolution, but I’ve never heard anyone make that argument. Gladwell proves these technologies are useless tools – when used incorrectly.

The question for activists is always how to use available tools effectively. So blogs are for sharing longer ideas, Facebook is for spreading basic information and links, and Twitter is for sending small amounts of information publicly on the go. We even use phones sometimes. The internet can’t hammer a nail, but that’s what hammers are for. But there are some tools that don’t stand the test of time as well. Gladwell writes, “… what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” Of course, this is a completely useless question. What good would Twitter have been for dinosaurs? THEY COULDN’T EVEN PRESS BUTTONS! By putting the historical comparison on his opponents (who would “no doubt” make it), Gladwell attempts to dodge responsibility for an absurd line of argumentation. He writes that MLK needed discipline and strategy because of certain exigencies of the particular movement (the need to maintain a moral high ground for the white viewing public), but never explains why those tactical decisions should carry over. In fact, Alain Badiou has argued that while patience was the cardinal virtue required in the past, right now we need nothing so much as courage. Fetishizing the 60’s is a bad idea because we don’t live there any more. Material conditions change; so should our strategies, so should our tactics, so should our methods of communication.

The truth is, ninety-eight percent of the people with whom we need to organize don’t go anywhere in common but online, so that’s where we’ll go to find them. But protests in the 60’s didn’t end (or even necessarily begin) in the churches, why should activism that takes place partially online need to stay there? Is it because Gladwell thinks no one will ever risk injury or fight cops because of a Tweet or Facebook message? Allow me to conclude with the flash mob:

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