Thursday, November 17, 2011

Following Up on the Double Negative

This is a different kind of post: a response to Jerry Z.’s response, which is broken into 4 comments on the previous post below, the resonances of which help to bring out the theoretical dimensions of the situation that Birgeneau’s language symptomizes. (The quotations all refer to Jerry's comments.)

(1) I’ve been interested in the “strange neither-positive-nor-negative realm” of the double negative for a long time. One of the earliest posts on WWD (written when I was very uncertain what I wanted posts to look like) deals with J.L. Austin’s idea that the real is signaled most persuasively by the double negative of the not unreal. The appelation “real” is redundant and defensive—itself negative—except when it distinguishes X from something being passed off as X. So, I don’t think that saying that something is not-not something else merely dissimulates alternatives that would otherwise be clear. Rather, it virtually admits that what counts as reality is always something that’s being decided socially, through representations. This realm is strange because such moments are like lucid dreaming, when what had seemed static and thinglike becomes dynamic and the fluidity of everything is illuminated. If we followed this line of thought it would eventually lead to a metaphysical argument about the inextricability and codependence of representation with the ability to think beyond it. On the local level, this is to say that Birgeneau backed himself out of the world of social fact (the “yes-or-no modality of violence and its absence, or whatever”) and into the zone of indetermination from which social facts arise and where they go to die.

(2) JZ recognizes as a recent phenomenon the “incapacity to think the changing conditions of politics as such” reflected in this kind of language: “the sense of simultaneously feeling like one cannot do anything but attempting at some kind of tentative action, is becoming more and more congruent with the terms of politics itself . . . . The conditions of this new formulation of political agency . . . is a figure of political agency as non-agency, not a kind of resistance but a kind of reaction.” As a figure (and I think we’re now talking about figures, not about metaphysics, and with no direct cause and effect between them, just a resonance), the realm of the not-un is associated with being between what you don’t want and is “already broken” and something you can’t and maybe don’t want to name and which you can’t exactly “do”: with (now I paraphrase/rephrase/double back) wanting the not-“already broken,” the not-false. I recognize this, too, as a good description of what a lot of people are experiencing and don’t want to be hurried out of. (A reference point here is Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, which keeps this particular space open.) It’s encouraging that this kind of space, formerly experienced or typed as intolerable, seems to be getting experienced (if wearily) as tolerable and more than tolerable. It’s interesting to think of the incapacity of the police to feel they know what they’re doing—they’re officially “confused”—as a reflection of the indetermination that is the mode of occupation.

(3) Bringing in the inability not to act (where “act” is understood to be qualified, shot through with incapacity) suggests that, as the not-unreal is the powerful form of “real,” inability not to act is the powerful form of “act” (here the reference point is Kant’s Second Critique, as Jerry implies; for [1] above it is the First Critique). Revolutionary theory takes up this thought whenever it assumes that the people will act only when they literally can no longer not act. Jerry’s associations to the nonhuman and the natural, the automated or spontaneous reaction, inflect this thought. That “the police are allowed to be violent not because they are claiming a kind of sovereign right but because they have been provoked into it” shows that there is no particular political valance built into this figure; the logic in which the double negative is stronger appears in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary discourse, in revolution from below and from above. Birgeneau’s and police statements applied while denying it, asymmetrically, to protesters. In the memo, protesters “choose to defy the policy” of banned encampments; within that choice, some further “chose to obstruct the police by linking arms” while others “chose to be arrested peacefully.” Additionally, “tens of thousands . . . elected [!] not to participate.” The administration and police, on the other hand, were “required” by their own policy to “forcibly remove tents and arrest people,” while the policy itself was “born out of past experiences that grew beyond our control and ability.” These past experiences have made them realize that they “are not equipped.” We could reply by saying that if the protesters had choices, the administration also had choices, recently and in the past. And we could also say that the administration is refusing to credit the fact that, given their own policy, born out of their own “past experiences,” the people who “chose to obstruct the police” felt they had no choice but to link arms. “The protests and its violence/nonviolence/non-non-violence becomes a kind of swirling vortex of non-agency, where the conditions for action always originate in the actions of another . . . . it seems here that violent or not, violence, when it occurs must always be framed as a kind of ethical reaction to a situation that is always-already outside of one's grasp. that is, not even the state has a legitimate claim over a proactive violence anymore.” This is both a description of conditions and a critique of sovereignty (<--allusion to the seminar taught by my friend Dina al-Kassim).

I totally agree with the implication (?) that there is some kind of slight of hand or slippage between the consciousness of the not-already broken, the not-false, which occupies (literally) the strange realm of decomposing social fact, on one hand, and the automaticity, returned spontaneity, and immanent if not sovereign action that would infuse the inability-not-to-act, on the other. On my reading, this slippage is not there in Kant, and thus perhaps doesn't need to be there if we're careful. Kant doesn’t say that you are ever unable-not-to-act; he says that you are unable not to know how you want to be acting, which is, in his view, how you ought to be acting. On my reading, getting a sense of what you are incapable of wanting (which will always be multiple) does not in and of itself close the interval to make an outcome inevitable (a logic that tends to make whatever is currently happening seem inevitable), but only moves it explicitly into the realm of indetermination so that the next act can be “free.”

[*The scare quotes mean that I don’t mean this in an absolute sense; rather, this is what counts as “free” to me and I think it deserves the word.]


Jerry said...

Amazing - it seems there are two possible threads in these strings of reflections. The first concerns the question of agency or action, and the second concerns the question of sovereignty. I like the effective irreality (and not un-reality) of the lucid dream here because it points to a situation that is neither inside nor outside of control, rather making the figure of control itself the locus of a kind of confused, bemused kind of experiment. I guess what is interesting here for me is that to point to the kinds of dissimulation, doublespeak, and general stultification of meaning involved in the use of the double negative here gives two possibilities, when we use this as a starting point for thinking about 1) the enterprise of 'critique' and whether that is what we ought to want to be doing, and 2) the changing grounds in which sovereign right is figured.

Jerry said...

The first is to point to the obvious hypocrisy and idiocy of the statement and to present this as critique – the stake for the question of sovereignty is essentially to show that there has been a breach of a kind of social contract, that power has exceeded a threshold and that its feeble self-defense is equivalent to a kind of implicit admitting of blame in the conceptual wasteland of the double negative. If this were taken further, one might argue that the double-negative enacts a fantasy of sovereign agency as non-agency, a kind of have your cake and eat it, too, on the part of the powers that be, who, in framing police violence as regrettably inevitable, can act without admitting to acting. This is one way of thinking about a kind of sovereign right that defines itself not through a first, self-originating constitutional act, a claim of legitimacy that is exercised against those whose rabble-rousing only gives an opportunity for power to perform again their subjection to it. Rather, as we have pointed to above, it is a kind of right that is defensive, formed out of passivity or the working of a political domain rewrought in the figure of a physical system. This is the first possibility of critique, and insofar as we find ourselves specially positioned subjects (if one indulges in the fantasy of a responsive and powerful academic public sphere!) it remains, our first line of action, perhaps a reflex of certain deeply entrenched modes of thinking action. Critique, then, is what we do, and we work to expose the shaky foundations of the matter of any sovereign power, mobilizing critique to open a space for airing grievances, exploring other possibilities, etc.

Jerry said...

A second possibility would be to start by asking whether what we are witnessing invites, or perhaps induces, us to re-figure not only the conditions of a transforming contemporary form of power but also whether ‘critique’ is the task at hand. I think of Rei’s reference to revolutionary theory here, wherein through a kind of absolute objectification, wherein some set of circumstances crushes one into a kind of passivity outside of agency, a politically proper (if not metaphysically guaranteed) response is the reassertion of a revolutionary capacity to action. This depends on a reversal which is also a rejection, where incapacity is vitiated through an emphatic exercise of agency. But I wonder what revolution would look like, and then what power would look like, if we were to reconsider the revolutionary act not as the assertion of capacities, but rather a dance with incapacities that are nonetheless effective. So, starting at the kinds of critiques above, what if we were both to critique the obvious attempts at both exercising and disavowing force, but then think about the form of this disavowal not essentially as a form of dissimulation, but also as a challenge to our very conceptions of what power is, what a revolutionary program is, what the way forward could be? If political programs cannot be figured merely as a competition of assertive capacities or agencies, if we take the challenge of political incapacity seriously, what possibilities are there? For in the meantime, it occurs to me that the form of politics itself goes unchallenged, even if the content and techniques are changing. If this is the case, then I am not sure what we are supposed to be doing.

Jerry said...

Here is an example. Let’s both reject and take very seriously this claim that Rei references, that the police had ‘no choice’ (against the abundant choices of protesters) but to use force, through a reference to the ongoing calcification of ‘experience’ as well as the bind of ‘policy.’ Without forgetting the social nature of all these things, I find the police position interesting because it unfurls without ultimate authorship, in the sense that police action is not self-originating, it derives from a mix of circumstances that sets off policy responses. One thing to remember in all of this is that the powerful claims that protesters make about the police depend on a figure of misplaced or proxy agency – that the police are always acting for someone else (and therefore being duped into the service of banks, Wall Street, the Administration, etc.). Police agency is here always a deferred agency, and the police are the extension of some other author. But if we take seriously this figure of police response as a kind of reaction, then it is also a form of activity that has no origin except in the quasi-physical reshuffling of circumstances that sets it off. The police thus cannot so easily be merged into some other target, but rather figured as some kind of Robocop non-agency (I am sorry for the circularity of this language, and in this I sympathize with those users of the double-negative!).

Jerry said...

One thing I’ve been mulling over is whether or not this is fundamentally a conservative position, or whether this can found something besides a politics that starts from the position of a wounding. This remains a question to be seen, but it should be remembered that incapacity is not the same as ineffectivity..

RT said...

Your comments get it and clarify it, and it definitely needed clarifying. ;> Yes, so: one response is "the police/admin/authorities are hypocritical." And they are, they are hypocritical. The second response is that the space of incapacity and indeterminacy is something that CAN be used by BOTH sides, against the "police" as well as by them. And is already being used, and works. I don't view it as the effect of being wounded or of loss. "Power" might not be the right word, but if so, it's something even better.

etc said...

this essay (``What Bartleby can teach us about Occupy Wall Street by Lauren Klein, points to a moment of ``pause`` between passive resistance (as a resistance to meaning) and an articulation of meaning, which i think is part of the figure the double negative, or minimally of the resistance/reaction discussion.

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