Monday, December 10, 2012

Bartholomew Williams,

the unarmed African-American graduate student shot dead on Sunday night by Cal State San Bernardino campus police, showed "superhuman strength" as he struggled with them, according to police. If that sounds familiar, that's because superhumanity is a lot more common than has been thought. Roberto Laudisio-Curdi, an unarmed student killed by police in Sydney in October, also had "superhuman strength." A man on a stolen motorcycle who resisted arrest in South Carolina last September had "superhuman strength" too, although it seems to me that it was more to his advantage that he had a gun, which the deputy through superhuman strength of his own got control of. Last summer in Maryland, a guy in a shootout with police "held on to his gun" after being hit by a bullet, which led a police spokesperson to remark, "The PCP just provokes superhuman strength." And at about the same time, police in Georgia said that a delirious man that they arrested "had superhuman strength and admitted being high on bath salts." (See also State of North Carolina v. Jonathan Howard Norton, No. COA10–1544, June 2011.)

Superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman. Like last spring's "bath salts" hysteria itself, the phrase "superhuman strength" reflects police discomfort with mental illness--or even just "irrationality"--on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other. People who are on drugs or mentally ill are more often "resisters" by default, since they are less likely to understand what's happening. Laudisio-Curdi had taken LSD, stolen cookies from a store, and was not wearing a shirt when he ran away from police. The man in Georgia was "half naked" (i.e., not wearing a shirt) and delirious, and was an African-American waving a golf club around on a golf course. We don't know what Bartholomew Williams was doing or saying, but it has been called "irrational behavior." The two seriously violent incidents above (in SC and Maryland) involved actual armed criminals resisting arrest. In their cases, superhumanity is invoked to explain their choice not to give themselves up, making it sound less like an ability and more like an involuntary condition. (Police officers themselves never show superhuman strength, even when they're agitated by adrenalin in struggle; they show fortitude and tenacity--at least when they don't cut matters short by shooting.) From the perspective of the police, resisting arrest is necessarily irrational: they perceive irrational people as resisters, even if that isn't their intention, and resisters as definitionally crazed.

Since superhumanity is not an actually existing condition, I wish I could say that it was not an actual diagnosis. But its perception has been officially encouraged by medical examiners and emergency physicians. According to the LA Times, medical examiners started citing "excited delirium" as a cause of death in the '90s, usually to explain how someone had died in police custody. Civil rights groups have been objecting to it ever since. The language police use today attests to the institutionalization of superhumanity, even as Excited Delirium arose in the first place in the medical examinations of those already killed. "ExDS" has never been adopted by the DSM, but was formally accepted as a "syndrome" by emergency medicine in 2009. With the announcement of this formalization, Emergency Medicine News showed a color photo of a bleeding black man being held face down by at least nine hospital staff. Pointing out that "the syndrome is often only diagnosed on autopsy" and admitting that "no clear definition or cause exists," the article nonetheless argues that it will be good for patients' safety that police be made aware of the syndrome because it is a medical condition that can lead to death in and of itself. While the public assumes that people are dying from tasers, in other words, they are dying from their own syndrome instead, or at least in addition: "Prehospital ExDS should be presumed, the task force said, if a patient is disoriented or not making sense, constantly physically active, impervious to pain, has superhuman strength, is sweating and breathing rapidly, has tactile hyperthermia, and fails to respond to a police presence [my italics]." Emergency physicians and medical examiners have almost as much of a conflict of interest here as police officers do, being liable for or pressured by official abuse respectively, and the circularity of their logic is telling. The list of symptoms fits precisely over the symptoms of undergoing police restraint itself, and resisting arrest is expressly associated with superhumanity. That something as figuratively vague, not to mention literally nonexistent, as "superhuman strength" could ever find its way into professional medical discourse is damning in itself. Part of superhumanity is being "impervious to pain," which explains why someone would continue to struggle even after being tasered a dozen times--once you've disallowed the thought that they are enraged because they are being tasered, and therefore need a new explanation. But how could this imperviousness be shown except by continuing to resist? Another "potential clinical feature" of "ExDS," according to the newsletter, is "lack of tiring": a description that assumes observation during counter-resistance. Since resisting arrest also counts as "not making sense," the list of symptoms really reads: resisting arrest, resisting arrest, resisting arrest, resisting arrest. Worse than the circularity is the reversal, in which suffering pain becomes imperviousness to pain as long as there is someone there who refuses to credit it.
image: Dirck van Baburan, Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan,1623

Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday, September 28, 2012

Death Race 2012

If you’re not voting in the Presidential election, you’ve probably been confronted with the strange desperation of an Obama voter who will not let go of your sleeve. This voter insists that you must vote for the President regardless of your analysis of the political situation and no matter what you think of his policies. This is remarkable, and hasn’t happened in quite this way before. Others have weighed up the reasons for voting for Obama or for anyone—again and again by now. The last thing I want to cogitate is why one should or shouldn’t vote for Obama or why one should or shouldn’t vote at all. I know and understand people on all sides of these questions. What I find worth reflecting on instead is why even raising the question is intolerable for a certain sector of Obama supporters.

If mass elections are always about coerced choice, more recently embracing the coerciveness itself as an index to reality has become a fetish. Apparently, a lot of Obama voters really believe that Ralph Nader supporters—Ralph Nader supporters—are responsible for the invasion of Iraq and its hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. 2,882,995 people voted for Nader, and about 118,990 civilians have died in Iraq so far. So every 24 Nader voters or so share between them the death of an Iraqi civilian. According to DOD, 11,473 Afghan civilians have died in Obama’s Operation Enduring Freedom through June 2012, and ~900 in Pakistan (meanwhile the government has narrowed what counts as a “civilian,” but never mind). In the calculus of the Obama voters, they are therefore responsible for less mass death than Nader voters. I’m filling in the details, but not exaggerating. I’m looking right now at a comments thread in Crooked Timber: “You have to consider the alternative. Last time people played this game we ended up with Bush for president and hundreds of thousands of people dead”; “bad as the Pakistani drone warfare is it can at least be said that . . . the number of casualties is lower than what [R]epublicans gave us. Pakistan can plausibly be said to have harbored Bin Laden”; “Obama’s horrible ‘drone war’ . . . is only a pale and wan reflection of Bush’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars,” and so forth.

Projecting the actuarial logic, the commenters figure that they stand to be less responsible than non-voters if Romney is elected and bombs Iran. Romney is seen as a weapon of mass destruction that will be unleashed against the Middle East, abortion and other civil rights, the Supreme Court, and the poor. The immediacy of this threat is so real that it seems wrong to them even to think about not voting for the President whom they freely call an imperial “murderer”: “It’s about minimizing the number of infants who die of shrapnel wounds in their mother’s arms . . . . You’re not choosing between ‘no infants’ and ‘some infants’; you don’t get that choice this election . . . . How many infants dying of shrapnel wounds in their mother’s arms would it take for you to change your mind and vote for Obama?” Ignoring the difference between, let’s maximize it, 118,990 shrapneled infants and 12,373 shrapneled infants is cruel, “purist,” idealistic, jejune, isolated, superior, personal, privileged, and self-indulgent. It’s “monst[rous],” because it disregards a savings of 106,617 shrapneled to death infants.

I don’t know whether this group of Obama voters is unaware of the darkness of their implications or rather, as they claim, perfectly “O.K.” with it—as perfectly comfortable as you can be, that is, with a world that is “imperfect” (imperfect!). No one questions the form of reasoning that is being supported so strongly here, even more strongly than the moderation of civilian death, to the point at which no other valid thinking is acknowledged to exist. The crudely quantitative form of mass elections feeds dangerously into the degraded utilitarianism that provides their content as well. If there are two candidates and one will be elected and both are likely to preside over the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, it becomes self-evidently “silly” (silly!) to make civilian murder one of your main concerns: “You’re pretty much stuck with ‘less murder’ or ‘more murder.’” Although I think the position that the entire notion of ethical adequacy can be dismissed out of hand because it is moralizing also symptomizes the destruction of alternative ways of life (in fact, the very notion of “ways of life”) that has occurred, the inadequacy of the Obama voters’ language to the situation they describe is not only ethical and “symbolic.” It’s historical and effective. Rational choice-driven political realism of this sort is part of the formal apparatus integral to the worst, and I mean the worst, projects of human management in the last two centuries. It’s neither natural and inevitable, nor merely mental. It is neither synonymous with realism (political realism shouldn’t be allowed to stand in for all realisms, which are plural and divergent) nor with organization. Of course, not all its uses are equivalent. But that doesn't mean that the armature of rational choice is neutral and ahistorical, and therefore outside the realm of contention. Other types of realism and even other principles of bureaucratization are not equally compatible with the projects of mass death and the imperial foreign policy of the U.S.: without this kind of political realism, the others cannot easily be neutralized and assimilated. Without it, we can’t see mass state murder as “imperfect”; without it, mass state murder cannot be orchestrated.

Instead of being critical of the reasoning of WMD, experience of which ought to have showed us how to dissolve a coerced choice into a more thought-provoking field of observations and possibilities, the Obama voters believe they have found real WMD: the simple, binary existence or not of people who bomb over fake WMD. “A lot of people who would live happy and healthy lives, all over the world, if Obama wins in November will die if Romney wins. This is very nearly settled fact.” By constraining, even terrorizing, what counts as value, such formulations numb dissensus. A coercive security discourse arises around the threat of the worse violence and the stricter security discourse that awaits you if you ever leave the circle of concerned citizens. But the circle is policed not only by the threat outside, which there are a variety of ways to interpret and deal with, but from inside.

This group of Obama voters is regretful, even angry, about the outcomes of his policies but militantly unapologetic about their political realism. They insist that all that matters is what they think, and not what they think with. They draw the political line not regarding any “issue”—those, as we see, are all negotiable—but between themselves and anyone who asks questions about how they view the process. They conflate raising such a question with a personalist turn toward intentions, when the challenge is rather about the effects of their machinery. Perceiving the barrenness of the choice on offer, they point out and embrace its coerciveness as a kind of hygiene, superior because it offers no grounds for "feeling superior." They act like people who are relieved to have touched bottom. They respect themselves for having shed their illusions. They don’t see the historical connection between the political realism they are proud to be able to use and the infrastructure of the killing, nor why they can seem to others to be going around in a death spiral.

Image: from Alexander Kluge, The Patriot (1979)

Friday, April 13, 2012

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.]

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Not Non-Violent Civil Disobedience"

UCB Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s statement rationalizing police beatings of unarmed and unthreatening protesters relies on a contentious contrast between those who “chose to be arrested peacefully” and are to be “honor[ed]” because they “were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience,” and others who “chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents” of their would-be encampment. The latter tactic, he writes, is “not non-violent civil disobedience.” Overnight the discussion of Birgeneau’s letter has focused on its willingness to defend beating in the name of non-violence and its fetishization of non-violence as such. In agreement with those points, I'm also interested in Birgeneau's falsification of the history he references and, positively, in the tensions it suggests when we don’t accept such a cheap edition of it.

Birgeneau’s double negative locution, “not non-violent,” acknowledges that the Berkeley protesters were, well, lacking in violence, if also lacking in non-violence. It frames an ambiguous realm between violence and non-violence, further partitioning a field already divided by the term “non-violent” in the first place. A program, or “tradition,” of “non-violence” is not automatically a program of peace. That’s why Birgeneau has to add “peaceful” and “peacefully” to his description; it is not redundant. “Traditionally,” non-violence is the realm of the march and the sit-in, which challenge opponents to commit or resist aggression on their own side. In the history of U.S. civil rights struggle by African-Americans, arguments like Birgeneau’s have often functioned to justify racist force by a white community on the grounds that the actions of African-Americans were provocative, if not violent. That is, the violence or not of protesters’ actions was part of the debate; acts were perceived as violent enough to warrant indubitably violent repression because of their contextual, subjectively perceived aggression. Protesters invited, or provoked, police violence through ambiguous “non-violence” in order to question the cultural norms beneath white perceptions of what felt violent (enough) to them. We miss part of the significance if we view the segregationist charges of provocation as completely disingenuous. The debate, and the genuine confusion, about violence and non-violence recurs in Birgeneau’s distinction between non-violence and that which is “not non-violent.”

Birgeneau has seen Eyes on the Prize and knows he cannot come out against non-violent civil disobedience. Yet he also seems to demur from UC Police Captain Margo Bennett's less subtle statement: "The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence." Pragmatically, he’s talking about the legal difference between being arrested and also resisting arrest. Traditional civil rights protesters, Birgeneau suggests, do not resist arrest. But this claim doesn’t bear scrutiny. It must be said that guides to civil disobedience often advise not resisting arrest on practical grounds: it’s an additional and gratuitous charge if you’re being arrested anyway, and conviction on resisting arrest disallows a civil rights complaint against police. It’s also difficult to say how often “traditional” civil rights protesters resisted because resisting arrest was so often charged to promote conviction in the absence of other persuasive offenses. What constitutes physical resistance is itself in the realm of perceptual ambiguity, to the interest of which this kind of protest calls attention. Even so, the docket records of civil rights struggle show too much resistance for it to be plausible to assert that it was no part of the tradition Birgeneau wants to honor. Chicago v. Gregory (1966), Pennsylvania v. 100 Defs. (1963), New York City v. 7 Defs. (1963), New York v. 17 Demonstrators (1966), and New York v. Gray, Vaughan (1966), to name a few, look like good places to explore further resistance to arrest within the civil disobedience "tradition." In New York v. 17 Demonstrators, for example, “50 demonstrators, mostly mothers on welfare, blocked doors of Dept of Welfare, seeking increased clothes allowances for school children,” and were arrested for “disorderly conduct, trespass, resisting arrest.”

Closer to home, Mario Savio was among a group of protesters who repeatedly picketed and sat in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco to protest its racially discriminatory hiring policies in 1964. They did so in violation of a court injunction that limited the time they could protest, and on March 7, 1964, were arrested “lying down with arms linked . . . blocking the exits of the hotel” (from Savio’s applications to the Mississippi Summer Project, King Center Library, Atlanta; quoted in Jo Freeman, “How the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights Demonstrations Paved the Way to Campus Protest,” Organization of American Historians, San Francisco, April 19, 1997; my italics). Freeman, who participated in the Sheraton Palace protests, remembers how their efforts were almost universally reviled.

In thinking about the reception of African-American civil rights protest and examples like Mario Savio’s together, we re-encounter in its most powerful form Birgeneau’s hoped-for distinction between heroic non-violent activists and undesirable, not non-violent students. It's the convenience of this that is at stake in the question of the incidence of resisting arrest in “classic” African-American civil rights protest. In a recent book on the photography of the civil rights era, Martin Berger and David Garrow ponder the anonymous photograph above, showing a woman in the Birmingham protest fiercely contesting her arrest. Berger and Garrow point out that the mainstream history of the era tends not to reproduce such photographs, and we can see the legacy of that pattern in the cliché version of the “tradition” mobilized by Birgeneau. “White publications in the North shunned such complicating photographs,” they note, and left it to segregationist journals to publish them. The “inactive-active opposition,” they argue, “structured the emotional and intellectual response of whites to photographs of dogs and fire hoses” ( Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011, p. 119]) and so regulated both their empathy and their understanding of protest. It is this very opposition that Birgeneau complacently repeats, at once narrowing the possibilities for activism and obscuring the complexity of the history he thinks he honors.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Manzanar by Night

Driving back to L.A. from the Owens Valley, we decided to take the turnoff to Manzanar even though it was already completely dark. We hadn't been there before. It was hard to tell what we were looking at, the camp had no lighting, and I had no adequate flash; I could only photograph what was directly in front of our headlights. But in the light, the remoteness and desolation of the place (except for many rabbits) would not have appeared in the same way, nor the gesture of the cemetery monument by Ryozo Kado, nor the isolation of the five graves that remain there.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Nameless Thing

Moses Hess’s phrase “the German misère” lends a name to the perception that Germany is continually waiting for its revolution, and to the absurd quality of this wait:

die deutsche Bourgeoisie scheint dazu verdammt zu sein, auf dem Stillen Ozean der deutschen Misere zwischen Furcht und Hoffnung so lange hin und her zu lavieren, bis der Sturm vom Westen losbricht und die Wogen des Proletariats aus der Tiefe herauf schäumend über Königtum, Adel und Bourgeoisie zusammenschlagen.

the German bourgeoisie seems doomed to tack back and forth, between fear and hope, on the Pacific Ocean of German misère, until the storm from the West breaks loose and foaming waves from the depths of the proletariat beat upon kingship, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie.

There's still no better name for the experience of the period from a Left perspective than the one Hess gives it. Writing in 1847, he makes misère ambiguously mental and environmental, inside and outside the bourgeoisie. Ever after, the term has been associated with the thesis of bourgeois failure, and in Germany, of German “backwardness.”

But as many critics have pointed out—most recently and incisively Rebecca Comay—the incompletion of revolutionary fulfullment is not a matter of German pathology. As Comay observes, it can take the form of a too late as well as a too early, an “after” as well as a “before.” If it seems strange that Germany manages a “restoration” without a revolution, as Marx complains, by the time of Louis-Philippe at the latest it is no less strange that France seems to have managed a revolution without a revolution, one whose core economic and political goals remain unfulfilled. Later in the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century, there would be similar debates about the “disappointing” results of Italian unification. Sixty years after 1789, Victor Hugo calls for attention to “la misère” in the Legislative Assembly. In response to a colleague’s reflection that “"Certainly there are 'misères' that can be abolished. But you cannot abolish 'la misère,'” Hugo replies:

“La misère’” is not suffering; “la misère”’ is not poverty itself; “la misère” is a nameless thing which I have tried to describe.... Suffering cannot disappear; “la misère” must disappear. There will always be some unfortunates, but it is possible that there may not always be “misèrables” on the Left.

Hugo mulls over the double meanings of “misery” and “poverty” within the French word “misère”—meanings also mobilized by Marx’s La Misère de la philosophie (1847), originally written in French as a reply to Proudhon’s Philosophe de la misère (also 1847). While the scale and indefiniteness of Hugo’s object may seem to presage interminability for the revolutionary project, Hugo dismisses that objection: the project is achievable, although not guaranteed; the goal is not impossible, only not simply physiological. That misery isn’t simply mental, either—that it’s a matter of material justice—goes without saying. Nonetheless, the provocation here is Hugo’s idea that the “Left” could cease to be miserable even in the face of poverty and suffering (up to some point).

Hugo ends up talking about the condition of “the Left” as well as of the poor, and we might ask why he needs to stake Left viability on the ontology of misery. Different entities are miserable in Hess and in Hugo. Hess’s “Pacific Ocean” of “deutsche misère” sounds vast enough to include everybody, although people have different places in it (the bourgeoisie sail on the surface and the proletariat lives in the depths). For Hugo, it is as a member of a political wing consisting of members of various classes, “the Left,” that one is “miserable,” and so implicitly as part of a political group that les misèrables would meet their goal of ending misery. In an ordinary kind of way, Hugo’s warning that things will not always be as they are now simply looks forward to getting the chance, someday, to govern. But through misery’s migration to the Left who are out of power, subtly and implicitly la misère comes to hold the place of Left ascendancy, as though it existed instead of it: la misère or us. So, to the objection that you can end specific “misères” but not “la misère,” Hugo responds that misery is not poverty and that the Left may not always be miserable. As Peter Stallybrass notes: “On the one hand, then, the Right with its claim that the poor are always with us; on the other, the negations and hesitations of Hugo—'not suffering,' 'not poverty,' 'a nameless thing’” (“Marx and Heterogeneity: Thinking the Lumpenproletariat,” Representations 31 (1990), pp. 69-95, 7). How do these ontological terms acquire the ability to drive the exchange?

Many radical narratives in the period assume that the problem of the nineteenth century is revolution’s failure: its failure to happen at all or its failure to take, to keep happening. By this logic the first remedy is Leftist self-criticism—looking back on concrete turning points and suggesting what should be done differently in future. One great relief Marx brings is his proposal that the main fault lies not in the failings of revolutionaries but in the structure of capitalism. What’s most devastating for radicals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, what makes them miserable, is the anxiety that revolution is neither failed nor merely absent at present, but that it is not real: that it does not exist, never really existed—even when it most seemed to—and cannot exist; that, ultimately, radicals themselves do not exist. Like Hess, one can think of revolution as structurally too early or too late right now, but the release that the trope of absence--faultless nonpresence—can deliver is fragile and collapses under the weight of anxiety or accusation. Then the moralization of failure returns with a vengeance, attached to the supposed privation of nonexistence. If we think about the whereabouts of revolution in this way—as being about nonexistence instead of local failure—Marx then brings a different but equally great relief by installing revolution inside capitalism, which (strangely) no one doubts exists. Capitalism is derealized by this, but possibly in a reinforcing way; and the Left is safe there, inside capitalism for now but more importantly bound to the dialectic of transition, which is the safest place in the world, the only thing that will continue to exist in a world of relentless transition. I'm not speaking of “determinism,” of confidence in its future actualization (an overrated problem), but of where revolution is thought to “be” before it is actualized—of Marx’s presentation of its elements, principle, and possibility. His presentation assumes something like the ontological anxiety of Hugo’s exchange with his colleague; it assuages by explaining the existence of revolution, not in the future but already, and therefore justifies ontologically the existence of the Left, since revolutionaries are themselves elements of revolution.

But, again: how did things come to the point where everyone agrees that what the Left needs to be doing is demonstrating its project's and its own existence? Why is there such a consensus on the ontological terms of the question, regardless of the merits of the style of the ontology chosen? If people say, as Hugo does, that that’s because neither the problem of misère nor the solution of revolution is strictly an empirical matter in the first place, that only reflects the way the accusation has come to be answered, not the source of the accusation itself.

Image: metamorphosis of the Tree of Liberty (1848), from Les quarantes-huitards, ed. Maurice Agulhon (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975).

Monday, July 11, 2011

Realism and Passive Revolution (with Gramsci)

Political realism is something larger than Cold War game theory; it's the grounding of political options in a hegemonic philosophy of reality, a system that is supposedly not political but just a reflection of the way things are, of which game theory was the midcentury style. (A hegemonic philosophy of reality would be one that coerces consent and does not recognize the existence of other realisms.) Those who sign on to political realism do so not only because they believe they can prosper as realists—indeed, they believe that there is no other way to prosper or even to survive—but also because realism brings along its own morality and therapeutics. Beneficiaries benefit psychologically as well as materially; they’re shielded by a realist therapeutics from what they might otherwise experience as psychic poverty. Doing the “only” thing becomes doing the right thing; it becomes the right thing to perceive and act on the belief that conditions recognized by realism are the “only” conditions there are, and to be outraged by the number of “stubborn” “deniers of reality” that somehow subsist in the world. (“UC Irvine Students Protest Against Reality,” wrote the right-wing blogs in my university’s neighborhood, during the 2010 demonstrations against budget cuts, restriction of civil liberties, and institutional racism. )

Theories of reality are always also therapies, and Hegel’s philosophy is, in a way that’s still insufficiently examined, a theory of postwar working through in an age of counter-revolution. His psychology is more powerful in effect the more it seems to form in response to a reality that Hegel’s philosophy has formulated to fit it. And the more responsive Hegel’s working through seems, the more it is able to cast the philosophy of which it is part as an insight into reality itself which by definition helps one live. The circularity of psychology and philosophy in Hegel’s work lends his conclusion, the Idea, the authenticity of psychic reality and the authority of externality: the Idea is the very model of the depth of field, multidimensionality, and ambiguity that modern reality is ever after required to have. Paying attention primarily to its psychological functions, then, presents Hegel’s way of thinking, his postwar strategy of thinking restoration transformatively as part of the work of spirit (a strategy which is not only his, not only inside Hegel), from an angle that shows the normative model of working through that drives it. Hegel’s working through calls on political realism to choose the actions that move the self through therapeutic stages. The “text” in question here, then, is not just what Hegel says, but what his sayings do. The cruxes of argument are not places where Hegel is wrong or contradictory in his own terms, much less whether his system is “open” or “closed.” Let’s assume for expedience a Hegel who’s “open”: what is at stake is not the consequence of his openness (as unclear as that is) but of the depth of the reality claim he makes for this open system.

Redefining the problem of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ postwars as a problem of hegemonic realism shifts the source of historical trauma during these periods from the failure of revolution to the inability to tell revolution and restoration apart. A look at part of Gramsci’s account of nineteenth century history can help here—a brief look that sets aside for the time being the deeper analysis of Gramsci scholars. –In 1933, Gramsci explores the historical process that begins in the Napoleonic postwar by inquiring whether it can be thought of as “revolution-restoration.” “Revolution-restoration,” also known as “passive revolution,” hypothesizes a type of political process that might also be discerned in the Risorgimento, in “the period . . . which followed the war of 1914-18” (Selections fron the Prison Notebooks 106), and in the U.S. after the 1929 economic crisis, and that becomes a “general principle” to consider in “similar situations [that] almost always arise in every historical development” (PN 109). The condensed term “revolution-restoration,” written with a hyphen or a slash, registers the idea that in this formation, there is

the necessity for the “thesis” to achieve its full development, up to the point where it would even succeed in incorporating a part of the antithesis itself—in order, that is, not to allow itself to be “transcended” in the dialectical opposition. The thesis alone in fact develops to the full its potential for struggle, up to the point where it absorbs even the so-called representatives of the antithesis: it is precisely in this that the passive revolution or revolution/restoration consists. (PN 110)

Revolution-restoration takes ground incrementally through the overdevelopment of the thesis during stretches when a society is not ready for confrontation. Gramsci associates it with incremental reformism and the political management of state transition by “moderate and conservative liberalism” (PN 119). In his related notion of the “war of position” (PN 106, 108), a kind of “siege warfare,” “concentrated, difficult,” and requiring “exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness,” takes precedence over the frontal “war of maneuver” (PN 239; Gramsci famously recommends wars of position, in contrast and in response now to passive revolution, as a working-class strategy for difficult times). Observing some similarity between revolution-restoration and his own idea of war of position, Gramsci asks whether at times they can be identified: “does there exist, or can there be conceived, an entire historical period in which the two concepts must be considered identical” (PN 108)? If so, then there could be an entire historical period when war of position is reduced to revolution-restoration, i.e., when the only possibility left is through the hypertrophy of the opposition. If so, for Gramsci revolution-restoration would still be bounded by an “until” that it is nurturing: it might hold “until the point at which the war of position once again becomes a war of maneuver” (PN 108). The identity of revolution-restoration and war of position would be the line where antagonism is everywhere and nowhere.

Two years later, Gramsci considers “The History of Europe Seen as ‘Passive Revolution’” and asks, “Are we in a period of ‘revolution-restoration’ to be permanently consolidated, to be organized ideologically, to be exalted lyrically?” (PN 118). The irony in the question implies that it is a rhetorical rebuttal to overconfident conservative-liberals and especially to Croce’s just published History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (1933). Croce’s book is the narrative of "Europe" as the product of reform: it begins “from 1815” and repeatedly “excludes the moment of struggle” (PN 119). But by this time, Gramsci’s own gradually expanding reflection has reached from the Napoleonic postwar to Italian fascism, even as it has remained hypothetical. Revolution-restoration is an “interpretation” of conditions, not a “program,” he emphasizes. But if Croce spins the totalization of revolution-restoration as reality, Gramsci traces in his wake the dominance of revolution-restoration as a way of thinking about history, as well as its actuality as a recurrent condition that presents itself for interpretation. (In fact, I am emphasizing the hypothetical character of Gramsci’s reflection more than most readers of these passages, who treat passive revolutions as objects of Gramsci’s cognition.) In 1935, he writes, someone could propose that fascist industry is creating kinds of “socialization and cooperation” that release economically progressive forces. Such a “schema,” he goes on, “is capable of creating—and indeed does create—a period of expectation and hope . . . . It thus reinforces the hegemonic system and the forces of military and civil coercion at the disposal of the traditional ruling classes” (PN 120).

The temptation of revolution-restoration is that by its logic “restorations in toto do not exist,” even and especially just when they would otherwise seem most totalized. Yet, the impossibility of telling revolution and restoration apart in the postrevolutionary narrative is more disturbing than any “failure” of revolution, because then revolution-restoration appears as that against which revolution, already thoroughly submerged in it, is definitionally incapable of doing more than it is already doing. The hyphen or slash between revolution and restoration recurs in Gramsci’s question about whether revolution-restoration, in turn, and the war of position that can be the working-class response to it could also become indiscernable. The increasing closeness, threatening identity even if Gramsci doesn't finally go there, between revolution-restoration and wars of position expresses the realism that relates both notions to Marx’s realist assessment that “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve” (Preface to Critique of Political Economy; PN 106). For Gramsci, the idea of revolution-revolution is a “critical corollary” to this passage of Marx, an impetus to the “revision” of hopeful fatalism (PN 114). But what if we see its critical purchase as affecting not only "determinism," but the hegemonic realism that may have captured in advance the theory of wars of position as well?

Image: Richard Long

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Soanyway River

Most of what’s has been written in English on Zabriskie Point was written when it came out in 1970. Commentators (mostly Italian) in the post-neorealist milieu taking Antonioni to task for not articulating a clear political position converge with those (mostly American, notably the narratologist Seymour Chatman) opining that the films are formal experiments crafted to be “incapable” of political argument (Chatman, Antonioni or The Surface of the World [1985], 78). Zabriskie Point incorporates this monotonic circle of realism and aestheticism when the male lead actor, Mark Frechette, complains about the “reality trip” his associates have been on. Asked “Were you in with that group? Why didn’t you get out?,” he responds in part: “I wasn’t really in a group . . . . But when it gets down to it, you have to choose one side or the other.” “There are a thousand sides, not just heroes and villains,” Daria Halprin, the female lead, responds. Her suggestion multiplies neorealism by a thousand, surpassing it by outdoing it.

Frechette’s character has been read as an object of criticism and even satire, but in many ways Antonioni does hurry to establish the film’s “side” and is not without sympathy for his need for things to happen before their time. Zabriskie Point presents group conflicts with unmissable crudity: right and left, white and black, man and woman, rich and poor, old and young, South and North. Although differences between black and white militant students are shown as tense yet susceptible to discussion, and a moment of mutual recognition seems to pass between the white, sexually exploited Daria and an indigenous-looking Latina housekeeper in a corporate villa, the capitalist developers, police, and tourists with bumper stickers from the South are caricatures of common enemies, linked by what Antonioni portrays as an incapacity for thought. There’s never the slightest suggestion that we should take the corporate elite or the Nixonian rabble seriously, nor see their kinds of lives as credible options: there may be a thousand possible sides, but those aren’t among them.

The problem that emerges only when “side” is not a problem is how to live one’s sidedness as part of the weaker side. Live doesn’t only mean “express”; in the conditions to which Antonioni repeatedly returns, it usually doesn’t get to. His dwelling on the problem of these conditions in almost pure terms is still hard to understand. He tries to register the intransigence of the times without, like Hegel or Marx or Deleuze or Lacan in different ways, suggesting that life does or will burst out of one's recognition of them. Frechette’s allusion to Marx, “People only act when they need to, but I need to sooner than that,” constructs an impasse where before there was a single historical process. Antonioni never shows the outside (nor radical inside) of the process, but only the legitimacy of the desire for one. The meeting of militants that opens the film debates the question of how to be on a side as one of political strategy and goal. When Frechette leaves the meeting, his exit line, “I’m also willing to die, but not of boredom,” fuels the charge of aestheticism (interest vs. boredom is more important than life vs. death). Read at the time as criticizing the immaturity of characters who don’t understand that political action is different from moral impulse, the film nonetheless implies that they have a “point,” even if it's only one point in the “center of nothing” (Antonioni’s interview with Roger Ebert [1969]). Antonioni seems to posit that something does happen when his characters finish their inventories of the limits that enclose them, and further--this is the part that bears more thinking about--that it’s not possible to say, only to show, what that something is.

Zabriskie Point is an outlook in Death Valley from which there’s a panoramic view of a prehistoric lake bed. The notion of "Zabriskie Point" as a "place" involves a Cartesian emplotment of the necessary and the arbitrary, a piece of language nailed to a vast expanse to privilege one of a thousand possible, in many cases equally grand, views. Rather than commemorating a significant human history, it points to a geological formation that indexes time itself. “This is an area of ancient lakebeds deposited five to ten million years ago,” Halprin intones, reading from the actual State Park sign, after which the camera shoots what one can see from the outlook. This bit of Parks and Recreation boilerplate is deadening erasure from a historical point of view. As a shred of the actual, one of the many documentary elements of Zabriskie Point, it’s part of Antonioni’s analysis of the reality trip: a “blind spot,” if you’re one to believe in the impossible Real (cf. Fabio Vighi, Traumatic Encounters in Italian Film [2006], 78). Like Marker in La Jetée and Guzman in Nostalgia for the Light, Antonioni plays with the idea that a portal to the scarcely knowable can expose the contingency of human acts. What Halprin can see from Zabriskie Point is the almost arbitrary power in its naming. It makes her think, a little later, that “’Soanyway’ ought to be one word—the name of a place or a river. Soanyway River.” (The name here is a shortcut past still slower changes in grammar.)

Halprin's “ought to be” mode amplifies in her vision toward the end of the film, in which she imagines, and Antonioni imagines her imagining in loving 70mm from thirteen different angles, how it would look if the developers’ modernist architectural paradise were blown to bits. This famous sequence works like the still more famous sequence in L’Eclisse when a minute of silence on the Bourse passes in real time, Alain Delon whispers to Monica Vitti that the minute is costing money, and the viewer realizes that every passing minute of a film production also costs money. In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni’s realization of a destruction that is counterfactual inside Zabriskie Point is the opposite of the almost-free documentary moment of reading a State Park sign. Showing assets blowing up, Antonioni is also really burning cash in “the biggest controlled explosion ever filmed” up to that time (Barry Miles, Hippie [2005], 351).

Fictively virtual, the explosions (but not the destruction of the house) are literally actual. We know they are supposed to be virtual within the logic of the film partly because the house blows up again and again, violating a chronology which until now has been paratactic ("so anyway") but linear. The thirteen or thousand realities of destruction project the film’s technical capacity into Halprin’s “inner” space of transformations and vice-versa. She doesn’t need to be able to see each angle physically in order to be able to imagine them, while Antonioni gathers them in one place--serially instead of spatially as the geological Zabriskie Point gathers slices of time--so that we can see them. I can’t work my way around to reading the sequence as claiming that its crossing of the virtual and the real is efficacious or inefficacious, or even that it is pre-efficacious. Showing what people wish for without suggesting that because it is impossible, they should wish for something else, the scene stops short of making us feel that this is wish fulfillment. So anyway . . . .

Within the plot, Halprin doesn’t have the leverage over naming exercised by the Borax Company, which got Zabriskie Point named after one of its early 20th-century mining executives; but behind the plot, Antonioni did. Even though no one liked Zabriskie Point at the time—or maybe because people hated it so spectacularly—the spot refers to the film now. They say Foucault took acid there in 1975 (James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault [1993], 245). I don’t know what the radical architect Paolo Soleri made of Antonioni’s use of his house to exemplify the corporatization of avant-garde art; he started building his visionary desert community, Arcosanti, in the same year. He’s 92 now and it’s still unfinished, and that still cuts two ways. “One gets the strong impression that these different shapes and arrangements must mean something” (Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, 45).

Zabriskie Point's final sequence:

Friday, July 1, 2011


Among the alarmingly familiar-sounding things that Marx observed in the wake of the “failed” 1848 revolutions, the most familiar-sounding at the moment are his reflections on credit and “confidence.” In his writings on both the French and German revolutions, Marx finds that the “most eloquent” barometers of the post-revolutionary times are “its financial measures” (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850, trans. Paul Jackson, in Surveys From Exile, ed. David Fernbach [London: Verso, 2010], p. 49). In his 1850 analysis of events in France, Marx notes that the provisional government sealed its political allegiances when it became anxious to “remove even the suspicion” that it might not honor the debts of the previous government (49). Paying out interest on its bonds before it was even due, the government exacerbated the financial straits of the state and missed the chance at “the bankruptcy of the Bank” which “would have been the deluge which in a trice would have swept from the soil of France the financial aristocracy” (50). Instead, it acted like a “harassed debtor,” so that “credit became a condition of its existence” (52)--or at least was reaffirmed as a condition of its existence.

In December 1848 Marx had written something very similar about the German post-revolution. Reading closely speeches by the Prussian finance minister, David Hansemann, Marx selected for special sarcasm Hansemann’s call for “the strengthening of the state power, which is necessary for the protection of the freedom gained . . . and for the restoration of the confidence that has been disturbed” (Neue Rhenische Zeitung, 31 December 1848, trans. Ben Fowkes, in The Revolutions of 1848, ed. David Fernbach [London: Verso, 2010], 202; Marx’s italics). Marx notes the necessary proximity of police power to investor confidence, and the rhetoric by which Hansemann assured the working class that its condition would improve along with confidence, and so depended on restoring confidence first by “put[ting] a stop to its political agitation” (203).

In the German case, Marx wants to show that Hansemann’s explicit foregrounding of financial over political (and all other) motives was weakening the monarchy even if it was strengthening a new liberal state. Marx points out that between 1847 and 1848, Hansemann’s deployment of bottom-line logic, favorable to his own mercantile interests, changed its main target from the aristocracy to the people. Put another way, Hansemann “change[d] passive resistance against the people into an active attack on the people” [200]. Still, in 1848 as ever, Hansemann’s straightforward emphasis on financial results showed that “the monarchy had become a ‘matter of money’ in Prussia” (204). Implicitly, the monarchy could be switched out when it became insufficiently unprofitable just like anything else. Chez Hansemann, what survives of the old state is “police” and “treasury,” where “police means treasury” (207). So, the finance minister kills confidence in the government and actively reduces its scope at the same time that he attends, in more of Hansemann’s own words underlined by Marx, “to the establishment of confidence, and to the resuscitation of the trading activities which are at present languishing" (205).

Now, Marx predicts that the current ministry will expire by the same bottom-line logic by which it rose. Here Marx himself takes up the financial metaphor of “guarantees” on investment: “However, we have a guarantee that the more active part of the bourgeoisie will have to awaken again from its apathy, in the shape of the monstrous bill with which the counter-revolution will surprise the bourgeoisie in the spring” (212). The idea here is that since everyone is agreed that the reason for doing things is financial, Hansemann’s own credit will be downgraded as soon as society finds out how much it has to pay for his ventures--pay literally, in cash and not only in social bonds. Threading its way through Marx’s witty analysis is Marx’s own increasing investment in the logic of self-interest. Here at the very beginning of his economic turn, the potential to lose in this speculation, this bet on the overriding nature of interest, already appears. Marx believes that Hansemann was mistaken “in the nature of this ‘state power’” that he thought to enhance: “he believed he was strengthening that state power which is worthy of credit, of bourgeois confidence, but he only strengthened the state power which simply insists on confidence, and, where necessary, obtains it with grape-shot because it possesses no credit” (203). Marx plays with the homophony of middle-class confidence in government on the basis of its capacities and investors’ confidence in credit, and apparently wants to imply that the two together are stronger than the latter trying to survive without the former. He seems to be trying to draw a distinction between the stable and capacious government whose economy would merit investment and the state of gangster capital that makes an “offer you can’t refuse.” Hansemann, he suggests, confuses the two and does not notice the real meaning of his moves. But perhaps it’s Marx who’s confused in supposing that any such distinction matters pragmatically, not Hansemann, who was indeed attacked by both conservatives and radicals, and soon departed the political scene, but only to form a hugely successful banking society that eventually merged with Deutsche Bank (“die grosse Fusion,” 1929).

A little over a year later, Marx would write of the French post-revolution:

Both public credit and private credit were, of course, shaken. Public credit is based on the confidence that the state will allow itself to be exploited by the financial sharks . . . . Private credit was therefore paralysed, circulation restricted, production at a standstill before the February revolution broke out. The revolutionary crisis intensified the commercial crisis. And if private credit is based on the confidence that bourgeois production—the full range of relations of production—and bourgeois order are inviolable and will remain unviolated, what sort of effect must a revolution have which calls into question the basis of bourgeois production . . . . Public and private credit are the thermometers by which the intensity of a revolution can be measured. They fall, the more the passion and potency of the revolution rises. (The Class Struggles in France, 49).

Marx again divides, yet still aiigns the two kinds of credit--credit a state may merit in substance, even if the criteria are limited to those pertaining to the overall economic condition of the state, and credit as measured by investors, which reflects only the prospects of the investors themselves. This is where Marx’s text gets especially, distressingly familiar. In the ongoing Euro crisis many commentators have pointed out the non-relation between a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio and its credit rating. In debt-to-GDP ratio and annual economic growth, Argentina currently outperforms Ireland, but Argentina’s credit rating remains five levels below investment grade and “Ireland’s credit rating remains eight levels above Argentina’s” (“Ireland Follows Greece as Fernandez Beats Euro Nations: Argentina Credit,” Bloomberg News, January 4, 2011). Argentina’s “credit remains constrained by events such as the 2008 nationalization of pension funds and rate freezes on subsidized public utilities,” according to securities expert Siobhan Morden; “You’d need to remove these policies in order to say that Argentina is on the path toward investment grade” (Bloomberg News). What drives the credit rating is not the condition of the economy but the promise to investors that they will be paid no matter what happens to the economy. Similarly, before the Egyptian revolution Standard & Poor’s praised Egypt’s “fairly strong banking sector, which has been well insulated against the recent global financial turmoil”---although this wasn't enough to counter what it called “uncertainties concerning presidential succession” (Arab Finance Brokerage, March 28, 2010). Analysts openly discuss the fact that European assistance “to Greece” actually means assistance to the European banks that would lose money in a Greek default (e.g., Greece is being “helped” only so that it can repay the banks, not to enable it to recover. The main reason that Greece is supposed to go along with this is that otherwise it, like Argentina, will not be able to get credit in the future (“As Greece Ponders Default, Lessons from Argentina,” New York Times, June 23, 2011).

Since repaying the IMF in 2006, Argentina has not borrowed from the IMF again, which “has enabled the Kirchner governments to avoid the agency’s typical prescription of cutting state spending,” The New York Times points out. Argentina wants to repay more and re-enter the credit market; Marx’s comments on confidence, though, suggest that with friends like investment banks, no society needs to arrange for its own counterrevolution. If credit falls “the more the passion and potency of the revolution rises,” of course that doesn’t mean that the more credit falls, the more potentially pro-proletarian a state or a society becomes. Meanwhile, the beginning of Marx’s theoretical conclusion--that the calculus of interest must be brought over to the side of the people, by the process of elimination if necessary--casts its own lot, maybe fatally, with the perceived “reality” of economic interests.

* * *

P.S. July 12:

European officials who've expressed little regret at the economic suffering of ordinary EU citizens are now enraged at the credit rating agencies for downgrading Portugal even though it has met every "austerity" demand of the IMF. "Wolfgang Schauble, German finance minister, said there was no justification for the four-notch downgrade" (, my italics). "Heiner Flassbeck, director of the UN Office for World Trade and Development, said the agencies should be 'dissolved' before they can do any more damage, or at least banned from rating countries" (ibid.). For its part Moody's has "said it had little choice once EU leaders began to insist on 'burden sharing' for private holders of Greek debt" (ibid.). Since the downgrade of Portugal, Irish bonds have been junked and Italy and Spain are "being targeted by the financial markets" ( The EU notes that the Irish rating "contrasts very much with the recent data, which support a return to GDP growth this year, and the determined implementation of the [austerity] programme by Dublin" ( The EU is protesting business as usual as applied to non-European countries now that they are experiencing the ability of private enterprises to undermine all the hard work they've been doing and the very stability of their states. Still, it's nice that Viviane Reding and José Manuel Barroso have joined the indignados. There's room in protest camp for everyone.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Exaggerated Sense of Deprivation

If, wanting to know more about Israel’s increased razing of Bedouin villages in the Negev this year, you visit the electronic home of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, you will see a curious piece of writing called “The Bedouin in Israel.” It’s dated 1999 and is by a Yosef Ben-David, who is identified as an associate researcher at the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies but is no longer at that institution (a think tank). The document doesn’t reveal anything new—even by 1999 standards—about the situation of Bedouin in the Negev, and as a nonexpert, I bring it up not to perform a scholarly analysis but to reflect on the tensions of enunciation that appear in it, and which may call out specifically to the casual reader.

It can’t be a surprise that this officially approved account of relations between the State of Israel and its Bedouin population does not really count Bedouins as Israelis. “Bedouin citizens” are described as though their citizenship has not yet made them into Israelis. Their ongoing “integration” is assumed as an imperative, and Bedouins are said to be resisting to a greater or lesser degree—greater in the Negev, lesser in northern Israel—because of the “‘natural’ difficulties experienced by this cultural group.” Involuntary verbs bear too much weight: the transition “entails relinquishing values, customs and a traditional economy”; “the Bedouin have to cope with the process of urbanization”; “it became necessary to move an airport to a locality inhabited by 5000 Bedouin,” and so forth. Unlike the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, however—to make a rather random comparison to another agency historically responsible for the impact of colonial settlement on indigenous populations—the Foreign Ministry is personal and hectoring, as though the website were a place to air grievances and international readers could be sympathetic referees. Ben-David’s paternalism is overweening, but it may be more remarkable that he insists on telling us—an audience assumed to be composed of visitors from the English-literate West—all about it, and that this presumes, in turn, that Bedouins themselves are not reading. It is not a matter of course that the role of Foreign Ministry literature as such is to offer (tendentious) facts about domestic groups to the outside. The U.S. Department of State website is not filled with demographic tidbits about U.S. populations, much less opinions about their anthropological stages. It explains U.S. positions and initiatives on other world regions. The Bureau of Indian Affairs makes a demographic report on the state of the tribes available, but any ideological bias in what it’s doing is buried in the particulars of its quantitative methodology; there is not a colorful adjective in the entire text, and the BIA knows better than to attempt a historical overview. You understand I’m not praising the State Department or the BIA; I’m saying that they write differently. The generic possibility that a ten-year-old soft-social science text by an individual researcher could be on the website is out of the question. A ten-year-old piece that points to the “increased attention” the issue has been receiving “in recent years” is embarrassing before it has even said anything.

But then it does start to “speak,” and the oral metaphor, which I don’t usually like in dealing with any writing, is for once apropos. Although there is no literal first person in the text, against the norms of government literature this text is far too close up. Ben-David wants international readers to be impressed by his omniscient view of Bedouin conditions and perspective, and has a egotistic faith in the ability of individual “expert” testimony to legitimate authority: the “last two governments,” he assures us, were “well aware of the difficulties of the Bedouin and based on a thorough knowledge of the subject . . . have begun taking steps to solve the problems.” He becomes confidential. He’s in our intimate space, and has been in Bedouin heads. “The Bedouin to some extent fail to distinguish between objective difficulties and those connected with their changing sub-culture and thus feel an exaggerated sense of deprivation,” he opines. He is even in a position to tell us what the Bedouin cannot, since “the Bedouin themselves have difficulty in articulating their wishes in planning terms.” A Bedouin woman who goes to a hospital for delivery not only is “eligible for a grant” but will receive “unaccustomed pampering.” Northern Bedouin have “pleasant social and political relations with their Jewish neighbors,” conditions that, Ben-David notes with schadenfreude, do not obtain in Arab villages (“Israeli Bedouin enjoy conditions that their [Arab] brethren lack”). So governmental policy implementation is also, complementarily, invested with affective attitudes: “tents and light structures . . . built illegally are treated forgivingly”; “Israel's attitude towards its Bedouin citizens has always been positive”; Northern Bedouin join the armed forces “believing that the Jewish state would be generous to them,” and indeed, as a result of their assimilation and especially their military service, “the Bedouin in the North are rewarded with a friendly attitude, both from the establishment and from Jewish society at large.” What does it mean that Ben-David wants to characterize state policy by its attitude? The structural inequity of the relation modeled is blatantly racist; only one side is considered able to judge and condition the other, and to define what constitutes “the willingness and goodwill of both partners.” Yet what Ben-David wants the policies to be evaluated on instead—their sentiments—is equally blatantly racist, and nothing makes this clearer than characterizing state policy as “forgiving” or “generous.” The oddity is that Ben-David, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry by keeping his text on the public record, does not do what the BIA does and simply not mention history at all. Rather, he insists on drawing our attention to the psychological, resentful, intimate manner in which racism toward Bedouins subsists. And why does he do that? Because he believes that he is speaking to interested, English-speaking Westerners as friends and equals; he really hopes we will agree, since we have so much in common and all. The rhetoric here would be impossible without triangulation. Ben-David’s disdain for Bedouin Israelis is the other side of his trust in his audience, as he constructs it; he craves its forbearance, if not its approval, despite the state’s land restrictions’ being “at times depicted in the media as cruel.” To that extent, the display of racism (as opposed to the racism itself), in the form of would-be conspiratorial superiority, is a kind of gift offered up to us.

This text hits the note of the commandant in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”—that of pretending to admire for our benefit rusty equipment all too familiar to local administrators. It’s haplessly blind to the reader’s modern taste for gleaming corporate prose and easy multiculturalism. Not anomalously so; being in its eleventh year of official status, this text has been copied all over the place, for example by tour sites that reappropriate its vulgarity with fresh obliviousness. As in “The Penal Colony,” we want to detach these provincial fingers from our sleeve. And as in the story, we turn away and cast off without any further regard for those we stop thinking of.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Now We Are Perfect

Stranded in Canton (2008) has been assembled by Robert Gordon from approximately thirty hours of videotape William Eggleston shot in the ’70s in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi. The video has been screening as part of “The Democratic Camera,” the recent retrospective of Eggleston’s photography; I was lucky enough to see it on a big screen at Cinefamily, at an event affiliated with LACMA’s mounting of the “The Democratic Camera.” Gordon, the author of a cultural history of Memphis, has done a sensitive job of crafting a film out of something larger than a film--the archive that came to be known as “Stranded in Canton”--yet the Stranded in Canton we do have can’t help but make us think of the outwork we don't have. The next thought, though, is that even if I could see every moment Eggleston shot--which I might well want to do--I still wouldn't “have” “Stranded in Canton,” because “Stranded in Canton” is neither an object nor a story.

Gordon starts the film with Eggleston’s long takes of his young children and his then-girlfriend, Marcia Hare. He uses titles and light retrospective narration by Eggleston to introduce the friends and relatives, which is also to say the drug addicts, transvestites, and exhibitionists, who are its protagonists and whose powerful performances of art-as-life and vice versa compose most of the film. He builds up to some of the intenser scenes, creating a musical texture of variation and refrain, tension and relief; then the film crescendos again and stops with a bang. Before too long we understand that the opening scenes of loved ones are emblematic, that they have been chosen because everyone in the film loves and is loved by Eggleston. The children are puzzling at first, since we may not immediately grasp that they are Eggleston’s children, and their actions are otherwise incomprehensible. Physically beautiful (in a classical sense) and apparently accustomed to the camera, a little girl and boy approach and seem to try out expressions, but they're not the stereotypical ones that children deploy for home video. They’re slow, meditative, and tonally unparaphrasable, seeming to border on pain without completely going there; it's like Warhol's Screen Tests for children. The girl may be wearing makeup and is vampish. (She grew up to be an actress, it's said: but in this film, there's no difference between acting and not acting.) Family relation appears here as a nonpejoratively perverse, sideways complicity. The girl’s intense gaze and symmetrical beauty spill over into another early scene which features Marcia Hare smiling on her back on a bed. Eggleston touches her lips: “There's a little bit of ash . . . . Now you’re perfect.”

While we will need to think about the unequal burdens of erotic community, Stranded in Canton presents such a community, which exceeds the family but does not exclude it, from a perspective that has come to rest in its warmth. The warmth is entirely literal, since Eggleston equipped his camera, the early Sony PortaPak, with infrared so that it could run on heat instead of light. To get more light, Eggleston had to come close enough to a body for the camera to sense more heat. Much of Stranded in Canton is shot at night, which means that many of its closeups are very, very close; so close that often only part of the face can be in the frame, glowing white as a light bulb where it’s hottest. But we don’t get the impression that Eggleston would want to be any further away. The camera seems to be constructed as it is to give him an excuse to stay close (as his photographs also often are). It sways and lingers in beautiful ways in the space between meditation and actually touching. There is no “establishment” of any environment or contrasting it to another. There is a kind of real-time, on-the-fly editing, but it would be difficult to describe in conventional vocabulary the protocols that shape it. Even when his angles are diverse, Eggleston mainly looks at the people performing at the time as if no one else existed.

Gordon’s setting up the film as he does hints to the audience that it should transfer the erotic pleasure, aestheticization and even idealization—“perfect[ion]”—of these opening scenes to all the scenes that follow: scenes in which self-denigration runs to self-glorification, nothing seems more eloquent than modes of expression that are obviously inadequate, and failure ceases to have any social meaning. Afloat in alcohol and various blood-contaminants, Eggleston’s friends display and comment on their bodies, dilate and divagate, argue, and most of all improvise verbally—with indefatigable invention—their mythically proportioned abjection. They act out the significance of their exploits, the audacity of their sexuality, and the heroism of their continuing to exist at all while “stranded in Canton”—a figure for wreck that turns into a festive wail. (Simultaneously a city in China, a town in Mississippi, and many other towns, “Canton” is a nowhere, a Utopia. The Egglestonians distinguish it from Canton, Mississippi by pronouncing it Canton.) People give each other the time for long soliloquies, although they may also yell and talk over one another. The sense of solidarity is both impressive and claustrophobic. While it’s entirely possible for people in the Eggleston circle to die from drugs or bullets in the course of the life depicted—as we are told they sometimes do—it doesn’t seem possible for them to elicit any material judgment from one another or from Eggleston. That fact seems more important than the part about living or dying. Here Eggleston is the antithesis of Diane Arbus, in whose work people who don’t know each other stare at one another with incomprehension. In Stranded in Canton we experience what it would be like to have a surfeit of understanding. It would mean re-approaching the infantile world of imagined omnipotence, in which each surface is animate and sparkles back when we smile at it. No doubt this world is a little creepy; but we don't think so when it's our experience and we're in love.

Maybe only one sequence is anthropological, defined against the rest. In that passage, a group of young guys in a New Orleans alley bite the heads off some live chickens, which is apparently something that goes on from time to time in certain New Orleans subcultures. No regulars are included in the action and Eggleston comments in a framing remark that he is "not too fond of the geek scene; too many other people were involved; it was not nearly as personal--like a circus act.” This value axis—personal/ impersonal—is the only one still operating in Stranded in Canton. “Personal” doesn’t mean “real” or “natural”; in the film people are personal in various kinds of costumes and altered states or while lying about themselves. But the very fact that the “geek scene” is a scene with a name means that a ritual determines the action to be taken. Because Stranded in Canton is not about that, it is not a film about "the South" (it "isn't about anything but itself," as Eggleston phrases it) and its action cannot be explained away by supposing that it's like this in Tennessee, that people are melodramatic and have a more casual attitude about guns, etc. For all that Eggleston’s friends use local props and in-jokes, they continually exceed or fall short of their own frameworks for meeting. "The South" is in many ways what they are challenging and reality-testing; they go nowhere, fall and are caught in their own idiosyncratic net of deadpan rapture.

Thus the paradigmatic scene of the film--juxtaposed by Gordon to that of the "geeks"--is one in which Eggleston’s friend Randall, who is corpulent, wild-haired, and maybe thirty years old, stands out in the kind of weed field that adjoins the gravel parking lot of the bar on the edge of town in a lot of places. He weaves, sheds some clothes, then seems to get an idea, the idea to put his half-full beer bottle into his ass--"Regardez-la!"--at which he makes a nominal effort, and then triumphantly, getting to the other half of the idea, he brings the bottle back around and takes a comprehensive swig. "It's like love for the asking--love for the ass king--for the ass skin!" In all seriousness, it's a sacred moment, one that merits an address to Posterity (the receiver of a lot of the dialogue in the film): “I'm gonna tell you one god damn thing. I'm tired of hearing all that bullshit about--bring that, bring that thing over here--bring that right down here." (For whom is he calling this press conference? Eggleston doesn't need to be told, and there is no audience beyond as yet; Eggleston isn't famous yet, the MOMA show is in the future.) "I'm tired of hearing all that shit about queers. I'm tired of it. You gotta realize that it's all right, baby." In effect, Randall summarizes what he wants realized through his gesture: this representative act, the "it," is right in its entirety; further, the equivalence of orifices and homophones it mobilizes exemplifies a larger system of equivalences that makes up the all: one could just keep going and it would still be right, all of it. It’s more than all right, it’s grand. He looks weary for only a moment, then it's on.

This episode strangely joins the trust specific to a (relatively) private relation with a dramatic publicity of utterance that offers the self as representative. The fact that the offer is made to no one seems to allow it to be made to everyone. The unpredictability and contingency of this occurrence, its experimental means as well as its content, puts to shame the narrow construction of “public” discourse, including the contributions of art and cinema. The seeming conversion of inconsequence into almost astral significance is one of the big paradoxes of outsider art and life, and it tends to push the audience toward a transcendental construction of truth as that which is usually invisible. We don't need to take such romanticism at face value in order to admire its ability to criticize what passes for public. Commentators predictably assert that because of the purity of the conditions of production (embedded filmmaker, unobtrusive camera, no art-market motive), Eggleston gives us a reality. But no world can give us that. Instead, he constructs a fantasy of the virtual as a space uniquely protected from any evaluation short of indifference to the impersonal. Now we are perfect.

The balance is fragile. At one point a couple of “normals,” as Erving Goffman would call them, wander into a bar in the middle of a song being murdered by Lady Russell, whom Eggleston calls the “travesty of transvestism.” Eggleston notes their horrified, self-protective bafflement. Their presence creates a slight anxiety, something to get over, a reminder to the audience that sociology indicates an infinitesimal level of support in Memphis, 1973 for the kinds of activities in the film. Lady Russell's performance could be physically dangerous in only slightly expanded circumstances. So the tightness of Eggleston’s closeups is also a defense. Another uncomfortable example, not of exclusion but of inclusion that nonetheless draws attention to the radius of the circle: Gordon incorporates Eggleston’s footage of the blues musicians Furry Lewis and Johnny Woods. The footage itself is neither token nor racist, but the appearance of tokenism is created as soon as “Stranded in Canton” the archive is edited into Stranded in Canton the film. For editorially, no choice is right. Leaving it out would give the impression that Eggleston was only interested in white people, while including it creates either a false continuity or an undue contrast with the Eggleston regulars: unlike a couple of other African-American men who appear more passingly, Lewis and Woods are not pursuing the derangement of the senses, and in no way cultivate ruin as a form of expression. That doesn’t mean that doing the latter is necessarily elitist and elective; rather, Lewis and Woods are not barometers of authenticity, these options are not necessarily comparable at all, and no one would be comparing them if it were not for the fact that the film had to either include or exclude these dignified men. Under those circumstances, if you've got footage of Furry Lewis, you can't leave it out. But in the archive, they are neither in nor out of anything--no claim and therefore no comparison is made. The passage from nonart to art here destroys value ambiguity. It is not that the archive is whole and the film is not; just the opposite, the film is a whole film, and thus necessarily partial, while the archive is no whole and does not order our reaction. Further, even though a stack of videotapes in a box is the logical conclusion of, the adequate form for, Eggleston's project, as I pointed out before the edited film doesn't show reality just because it came from the box. Similarly, what is in the box is not reality either, even if remains unopened. It's only the image of perfection, the construction of perfection projected by Eggleston's desire.

So I return to the creepiness or not of the desire for polymorphous perfection: can we endorse its pursuit? It must be said that Marcia Hare’s beauty isn’t perfect in the same way that Randall’s beauty is perfect. Hers bears the pressure of change and of noblesse oblige to men. Hare is the muse of plenitude, whose generosity has to be as even as Eggleston’s sustaining glance. At one point she is sitting on the lap of an elderly man, V.L. Richards, as though allowing him to take pleasure in the (unaccustomed?) proximity of her young body. She lets him touch her breasts, and declines when he asks if he can kiss one. “I’m not a wet nurse,” she says, as gently as though she were in fact talking to a baby. “Well, I think I can make you a wet nurse,” he returns, and everybody laughs, especially her. I know that laughter: it's called on to demonstrate that the fact that she is "not a wet nurse" does not mean that the man has to act like a grownup. She does not have to have sex with him, and yet he can and will keep on wanting her to. She accepts that state of affairs and absorbs the tension of it; on the ground of her acceptance, the group founds a community of erotic innocence. In Freudian thought civilization is supposed to be a compromise, forever unsatisfactory, with the asymmetry of desire—the fact that people want all of their wishes granted, but not all of everybody else’s. In "Canton" there’s a consolation prize: you may not get your wish, but you are supported in continuing to wish it. (This appears to be the conspiratorial message that passes between father and daughter, as well, in Gordon’s opening move.) The fantasy is that this group’s relations have refined themselves to the point where that is possible without cost. The issue of Hare's wet-nurserie shows where the cost is, and who is likely to pay. Play with a loaded gun at the end of the film similarly indicates the border of Canton--what non-contingent event could possibly break up the community. Still the sense that something important is going on between the members overrides any attempt to look ahead. They tacitly agree not to expose the fact that the omnipotence of desire is fictive. To keep it up, they have to push, pull, and experiment; but the underlying agreement holds, like a natural right.

Although Eggleston’s video seems to complement his photography—black and white where the photography is in color, unfocused rather than sharp, dealing with people dynamically instead of with objects or people-as-statuesque-objects—it may also suggest that the photography too treats objects as animate. At least, an animating desire turns toward these objects despite their mass production and sometime neglect. Each is the center of its universe, dryly lodged in eloquent muteness and adequate inadequacy. Far from exposing the “real” world, Eggleston is constantly subordinating the rest of the world to the right of the singular to assert its pre-eminence, and refusing to dwell on the contradictions in serial omnipotence. Eggleston’s voice is seldom heard in his own video, but when Eggleston’s loquacious dentist friend T.C. opines that “You don't want to go around all fucked up all the time,” it’s Eggleston who responds, “Why not?” There are a lot of ways to answer that. There are a lot of reasons to decline the fantasy of Stranded in Canton, yet room to wonder whether anyone really does.

Thanks to Eyal Amiran, Michelle Cho, and Toshi Tomori.