Savile, Silvio, Sandusky: The Abuse of Authority

From Italy, Britain and rural Pennsylvania, a triangle of the abuse of authority fills the news. The appalling allegations against the British celebrity (now deceased) Jimmy Savile now run into the hundreds. The leering Silvio Berlusconi was finally sentenced to a jail term that, regrettably, no one should expect him to serve. And it was reported that Penn State students are divided over the ethics of the Sandusky case.

By now we have to see this as systemic. From the Clinton-era scandals to the Catholic Church, and the priapic fantasist of the IMF Dominic Strauss-Kahn to this latest wave of abuse, it’s clear that there is a consistency.  In a perverse parody of the embodied claim to freedom represented by the Occupy movement, the neoliberal quest for dominance is being acted out on the bodies of those who everyone moves past and fails to see–the orphan, the sex worker, the disabled, the impoverished.

What is important to stress is that this has nothing to do with sex or desire. Dominance and submission as forms of pleasure depend, first, on the consistent possibility to end the play and, second, on the equal status of the participants. In the abuse of power, the abused have no such equality and are subject to verbal and media attacks if they speak up. This violence extends to journalists like Laurie Penny (@pennyred, a good friend of Occupy) or Suzanne Moore, whose thoughtful work on feminism and sexuality attracts amazingly vile comments: on the GuardianIndependent and New Statesman websites, note, not on some Tea Party discussion board.

In the university sector, an ethics class at Penn State is being taught around the Sandusky scandal. Depressingly enough, one student sums up the discussions on campus like this:

You either somehow support child abuse or you hate Penn State.

That’s reminiscent of the accusation of America-hating leveled against people bringing up the Abu Ghraib photographs, a discourse sufficiently successful that undergraduate freshmen at NYU this year did not recognize the photographs when shown them in class.

At Penn State, the discussions are lively around the case, pleasing the professor Jonathan Marks:

This was his role: to encourage, and promote, discussion. He never offers his opinion on the scandal, allowing the students to cultivate their own ideas.

Now, Marks is not quoted here and I suspect he might not put it quite like that. But the teaching strategy is familiar enough. I wouldn’t myself use it in this case because I don’t see an ethical dilemma here. It seems from the article that his intent was to give students ethical frameworks with which to analyze their existing tensions over Sandusky. Is that enough?

While these points may be salient, I have to recognize how abuse plays through academic life. In every department in which I have taught, male faculty members have approached me with comments about the attractiveness of some of the students. I’ve not joined the discussion or encouraged it but I have to realize that I did not forcefully condemn it. I eye-roll and change the subject. Again, to be crystal clear, I am certain that none of my colleagues engaged in abuse of the Sandusky kind.

As I write this, though, I now remember an incident long ago, in which the first discussion I had with a faculty member at an institution I had just joined was his request for me to sign a letter supporting him in a case of sexual harassment. He had tenure. I was a first-year assistant professor. I signed. I later met the victim and realized what a mistake I had made. Luckily, the university upheld her view and he was asked to leave.

What of Occupy? There were allegations of abuse, even rape, at the encampments. I never saw anything like that but I was not there overnight when the incidents were supposed to have happened. Do men claim too much authority, talk too much, always stress action over mutual aid? I wish I could say no.

This is an age of dominance without hegemony. Military power has failed to win the battle of hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wages of whiteness have been devalued. Certain men feel that their diminished authority must be acted out as dominance over the bodies of others. The impact of these rolling revelations is that such assertions of dominance cannot be limited to those negative spaces like the Army or the Church that radicals and liberals alike feel comfortable criticizing. It’s in media, in universities, in progressive politics and it’s not that we didn’t know but that we didn’t know it was still this bad. Or maybe that should be I didn’t know.

I just went for a walk. There was a fashionably dressed young man urinating against my building in full view of everyone at 10 o’clock at night.

The Empire and Its Gladiators

Over the past few years, the United States government has devoted enormous attention and energy to pursuing a set of malefactors. No, not the banks and other agents of the financial crash. Some sports players who are alleged to have been “doping” to achieve their results, as if all professional sport was otherwise a fair contest. The message is clear: all of the 99% are living precariously now, and if you think that any form of achievement makes you an honorary one per center, guess again.

As most will know, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, a quasi-governmental body, published hundreds of pages yesterday, alleging a long running saga of banned drug use in Lance Armstrong’s cycling team. This follows close on the lengthy pursuit of Roger Clemens, the baseball pitcher.

It’s not like I don’t think this is probably what happened. But just look at professional sport. For example, since he was caught using banned substances Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez has “mysteriously” declined. Meanwhile, 40-year-old Raul Ibanez has had an “amazing” Fall, in which this .200 hitter has suddenly started hitting two home runs a game. Even an athlete that keeps to the rules is a highly produced machine, using extensive supplements and vitamins right up to the edge of the permitted, sleeping in oxygen tents, having zero body fat and so on.

In rugby, when they realized that people were always lifting each other in the lineouts (the ball is thrown in from the side and people jump to catch it), they just made it legal. But, we will be told, steroids and other banned substances are dangerous. Have you ever watched a crash in professional cycling? Or tried to ride a bike up a mountain? It’s all dangerous. And if danger were a serious category, we’d have to ban American Football at once.

So what’s happening here? In Slavoj Zizek’s interesting new book on 2011, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, he argues that well-paid people get what he calls a “surplus-wage” that has taken the place of the old surplus value:

The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers– managers who are qualified to earn more because of their competence (which is why the pseudo-scientific “evaluation” which legitimizes their higher earnings is so crucial today).

Zizek explains, in effect, why the division of 99% and one per cent seems innately right to people. The new capitalism of rent sustains even its elite class as paid workers, giving stock in companies but not ownership. Rewards for those getting the “surplus-wage” come as both money and as time. But they all come on sufferance.

Continued membership of those distinguished from the minimum-wage population, itself constantly being driven down by aggressive immiseration, is subject to constant review. From bankers to professors and nurses, continued status depends on passing what are usually called “performance reviews.” Such reviews consider all aspects of conduct at work, which is to say all conduct because work is never ending.

The working body is subject to constant self-review and assessment, indexed by obligatory gym membership and dietary modification. In this way, the performer will both be able to work longer, and require less health insurance. My employer is encouraging us to take a form of insurance with very high deductibles backed up by a Health Savings Account. In other words, I need to be able to amortize my own body.

The pro athlete is the exemplar of such self-fashioning. Their bodies are subject to review by fans and management every day. The conduct of conduct is Foucault’s definition of  governmentality. So it is too important to be left to such unpredictable entities. You can fix interest rates, share prices and mortgages with impunity, it appears. But never let a “banned substance” enter your body. It’s clear what we’re being told: these people are the gladiators of the empire. They serve at imperial pleasure and, just as in the Roman empire, the supreme power can determine (professional) life or death.

The disciplining of elite sportsmen makes it clear both that no one is above precarity but also that the decision as to who will suffer for transgressions is capricious. The bureaucratic state machine of the first era of the military-industrial complex was not concerned with the routine use of amphetamines by sports players of the period. At that time, the idea of a rebel gladiator named Spartacus became an anti-imperial theme. There’s a cable TV show called Spartacus now. Look at them:

These strange, porn actor bodies aren’t rebels, they are surrogates for empire. We can kill these curiously depilated and implanted bodies at will because no one believes that they are real. By the same token, they are no role models for rebellion.

There’s a reason the signature gesture of the global social movements has been refusal.


debt resistance/ gaga wildness

In his new book Gaga Feminism, queer theorist and activist Jack Halberstam calls for a new gaga feminism, represented by Lady Gaga, that is epitomized by

a politics of free-falling, wild thinking and imaginative reinvention.

It’s an “undoing” that Halberstam suggests might lead us to “occupy gender.” This isn’t a review of the book, because I’ve only just started it. It’s a riff on the possibility of such wilding in the debt society.

One of the reasons Occupy was so surprising to city authorities, especially in New York, is the successful containment of the possibility of “undoing,” a term also used by Gramsci to refer to spontaneous popular revolt. Would today’s NYPD allow a situation like Stonewall to unfold? Would ACT UP be able to stage a die-in on Wall Street, and, if so, would anyone notice? We know the answer that one: ACT UP were fully involved in the Occupy Anniversary and no mainstream reporting resulted.

I live in Greenwich Village as a bonus part of my work. When I arrived here nearly a decade ago, some traces of a more resistant urban space could be seen. But The Little Red Schoolhouse, the “left” school at the end of Bleecker Street turned out to want $27,000 a year in tuition. Now it’s $35,000, somewhat higher than Harvard. The sign for the Village Gate Theater is still there but it actually closed in 1993. The Beat coffee houses like Le Figaro are closed and today punk venue Kenny’s Castaways shut. The Chelsea piers that once were a genuinely wild urban site are a frequently patrolled park.

Bleecker Street today visualizes the debt society. Between Laguardia Place and 6th Avenue alone, there are branches of Chase, Bank of America and Capital One. Every time rents go up, and that is often, another space becomes a nail salon, a fast food outlet or a pharmacy. The endless pharmacies all prosper on the medicalization of everything, the non-stop stream of prescriptions that are less and less often covered by insurance. Workers in nail salons rent their space from the owner of the store, meaning that every day they begin work in debt.

So when Halberstam suggests that it’s children under eight, women over 45 and

the vast armies of the marginalized, the abandoned and the unproductive

that are those best-suited to perform gaga wildness, he’s also measuring the margins of the debt society. A year ago when the Occupy Student Debt Campaign was created, debt refusal, or wilding debt, was a outlier position. On October 13, there will be debt refusal protests from Athens to Paris, Madrid, Mexico City, New York and Rome, to name a few. Wilding is happening.

Dis/Occupy the Olympics

Oscar Pistorius runs in his Olympic 400 metres heat

The orgy of nationalism and sentimentality known as the Olympics has been very much not in my mind. The notoriously awful NBC coverage reduces excitement to boredom–they even showed ads during the middle distance races. There was a moment today, though, for those of us dis/abled or otherwise differently embodied folks, when Oscar Pistorius of South Africa ran in a 400 metres heat. As most people surely know, Pistorius is a double amputee and runs on J-blades. He not only participated but finished second, putting him in the semi-finals.

His charming pleasure in this accomplishment contrasted with the usual Gold! obsession of the Anglophone media. It reminds me that different modes of embodiment  and body presentation continue to have to struggle for acceptance. One of the aspects of the Occupy movement that I love is its attachment and embrace of all forms of self-actualization. Pistorius’s lesson for us is that it’s not just an end to medical debt that we call for: we want everyone to be able to get what they need, whether that’s a signing school for the Deaf, gender reassignment surgery, prosthetics, insulin, whatever: regardless of income.

Pistorius has had to compete not only against his fellow athletes but the extraordinary assumption that running on prostheses might somehow be an advantage. The myth of the Terminator cyborg is perhaps to blame here. Vivian Sobchack long ago dismissed the enhancement fantasy from her own experience with a prosthetic limb. Pistorius himself put it like this:

I think often there’s a lot of debate about the advantages, but there’s not much said about the disadvantages. If this was such an amazing piece of equipment that’s been around for 14 years, then how come thousands of other Paralympic athletes aren’t breaking world records and challenging even a 45- or a 48- or a 49-second 400m?

Here then is the crux: in common with people of color, women and people of non-normative sexualities, the dis/abled are both assumed to be inferior but suspect for any effort that is made to make them/us equal. Pistorius cannot simply be a good runner who lacks lower limbs. He must be a “crippled” runner made into a superhero by his device.

I’m deaf, or technically hard-of-hearing because I can decipher sound using lip-reading and an electronic device. Being deaf is still assumed to be a personal failing by mainstream normative culture, who celebrate the occasional exception like the fabulous Marlee Matlin, but presume deafness to indicate stupidity as a rule.

Marlee Matlin in The L-Word

Consequently, the 50 million people with hearing loss in this country are a totally ineffective lobby because we are unwilling to identify ourselves. Signing Deaf people, who defend Deaf culture vigorously, are the exception we should learn from.

For example, an odd editorial in the New York Times presented hard-of-hearing people yesterday as being at a disadvantage in noisy spaces because their devices amplify all noise, making it unbearably loud. This was true for analog hearing aids, but digital devices all use a compression curve and most that cost as much those the article cited (about $3000) will have a setting for noisy spaces that eliminates background noise. So I find myself at an advantage compared to my “hearing” middle-aged friends in such spaces.

The issue here is in fact one of insurance. If you have good insurance, as I do through New York State (thanks to my partner Kathleen), devices are covered. If not, you have to pay for them, and for hearing tests, and they are very expensive. So although hearing is considered the indispensable attribute of the human, because of music and spoken language, hearing aids are part only of what is known sneeringly as “Cadillac” plans. All politicians now agree such luxuries must be dispensed with. Prosthetic devices like those used by Pistorius and myself will be for those who can afford them. Some have disparaged Occupy as being “medieval” but what could be more medieval than that? Free universal health care is not a demand. It’s a right.


Local Space, Local Bodies

Where and what is the local? We spend a good deal of time worrying about the global but the local seems obvious. Occupy is intriguingly showing that not to be the case.There are many ways in which physical localities can be configured, as we saw first with the encampments and more recently with anti-foreclosure and anti-school closings activism in the movement. Yet the concept perhaps begins with the most local space of all: our bodies.

At a meeting in New York today, Aaron Bady who has been active with Occupy Oakland discussed the clear differences between OWS and OO. In fact, locally Occupy Oakland is known as the Oakland Commune, not as Occupy. Most notable was his demonstration that OO operates in a media desert, where even the local “newspaper” the Oakland Tribune is simply assembled from press releases. So when OO activists participate in City Council meetings and tweet the proceedings, they are meeting a real journalistic need.

Bady further talked of his own personal experience and suggested that OO had made him feel like an Oakland resident for the first time, despite having lived there for four years. His account resonated with me. OWS has made me revise my psychogeography of New York in so many ways. In the interstices of a city that appears to be nothing but nail salons, banks and pharmacies, I have found my way to trade union halls, churches, artist-run spaces, and other spaces that are not usually imagined as being part of “New York.” It comes to seem as if the commercialized New York has been imposed on top of this other New York, sometimes squashing it altogether as in the transformation of the old CBGB’s into a fashion boutique.

At the same meeting, anthropologist Faye Ginsburg spoke of dis/ability activism, reminding us again of how central non-normative embodiment and self-actualization is to whatever it is that is Occupy. On March 17 at the re-occupation and re-eviction of Zuccotti Park, activists from the Disabilities Working Group were present throughout, some in chairs and one person using a ventilator apparatus. They were absolutely unintimidated by the cops.

Ginsburg showed a remarkable video made in 2007 by Amanda Baggs, in which she is shown first making movements and sounds characteristic of a person on the autism spectrum. Then the video moves to a “translation” into sub-titled and machine-generated English, in which Baggs explains that in her view she experiences the environment in a very different and  more extensive spectrum of feelings and connections. She scoffed at “expert” suggestions that other people “must” have made the video and reeled off a long list of software and equipment that she had used to a Wired journalist. The inevitable Internet sites that call her a “fraud” miss her whole point: it’s not that there are no differences but there are far more differences than is normally–and that’s the mot juste here–recognized.

In 2007, Baggs wrote about wishing there were an equivalent to the queer liberation movement for people with autism. Her video was part of the accomplishment of that goal. She now writes as a “political” or “ethical” blogger and has expressed balanced support for the Occupy movement:

most people (and therefore most people involved in this movement) fundamentally don’t grasp that disabled people are people. They’ll deny it, and they may believe they think we’re people, but their actions treat us differently than their words do. Even people who are against capitalist greed in theory, have usually not worked out that part of capitalism is valuing people differently based on the kind and amount of work they do, and the creation of a system that figures that if it can’t manage to exploit disabled people then we’re basically trash….I absolutely support the general idea of the movement…. but I also know that without disabled people’s voices getting heard the outcomes could still be quite bad for us even if their goals are totally met otherwise.

So while it has become quite popular, even standard practice, to say that the movements for recognition distracted from the struggle against capitalism, it’s starting to seem like the opposite: that a set of localized distinctions and claims is precisely what is forming the possibility of imagining a world without capitalism, something that many had come to think impossible.


Law? Or Theatre?

Another day, another few notches out of the right to assembly in Bloombergistan. A march against police violence was broken up  by–guess what? police violence. Learning from these repeated encounters, an action protesting climate change at the U. N. was a theater of the absurd of arrests, in which the cops had to arrest people claiming to be the one percent.

Cops playing their role at Disrupt Dirty Power

If you’re on the right kind of Twitter and Facebook feeds, you’ll have heard about the unnecessary use of force on the police brutality march. The use of some switchbacks by the marchers in NoHo seemed to irritate the police, who were themselves trying to prevent the march from reaching Union Square about a mile to the north. Of course, it’s not illegal to walk to Union Square but since the middle of this week it has suddenly become illegal to have a rally there, according to mysterious new “rules” that popped up overnight.

In a series of arrests was one of Messiah Hamid, a 16 year-old woman with her shirt lifted by the NYPD. Many present and looking at the photographs were reminded of a similar photograph, known as “the woman with the blue bra”, showing her being dragged away by the military in Egypt. I’m choosing not to reproduce the photograph of Hamid’s arrest because she’s a minor but there were many such scuffles (see below).

Just another violent arrest of a minor in NYC

The sustainability action called Disrupt Dirty Power was designed to force police to arrest participants as part of the action. A group dressed as business executives marched onto the grass at the United Nations and started proclaiming their adherence to free market principles and the pursuit of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Nukes. A ridiculously disproportionate number of police were present and leaped in to make the arrests. However, they had forgotten to bring their van, so the performers had a perfect stage to expound their views to assembled photographers and live streamers.

"The One Percent" address the media

The Disrupt Dirty Power action had a strong narrative to it that was about more than reacting to recent events. It suggested a “join the dots” strategy, in which the connections between social and ecological crisis and the profit-first motif of neoliberalism are visualized. It begins to look as if non-violent civil disobedience with the presumption of arrest is emerging as the next stage of the American Spring. Perhaps it’s better than volunteers who have been trained in civil disobedience should be those arrested than random teenagers. At the same time, is this law? or theatre? If law is a set of agreed principles  y which a society is organized, what’s happening in New York is not the rule of law. It’s an improvised way to maintain law enforcement, which is altogether different.

The contradictions in what the police are doing need to be stressed even in the U. N. action that was designed to involve arrests. For their intervention was so rapid that the second part of the action in which the 99% celebrated the just arrest of the one percent had to be conducted from across First Avenue.

The 99 percent

It’s not even clear under whose authority arrests are made at the U. N. which has autonomy–as anyone who has tried to park in New York knows–but is also subject to local and Federal law. One U. N. security person was present but was about as important as a Vichy cop would have been to the Gestapo. No comparison intended of course.

The action was intended to end with a projection onto the United Nations building by the intrepid OWS projections team. Somehow the police got wind of this and warned organizers that any projection would lead not only to the arrest of those involved but the impounding of the vehicle from which the projections are now done. In what sense is it a crime to project light onto buildings? Vacant buildings at that. By what law do the police get to confiscate expensive equipment and threaten to do so before it is used?

The law is a theatre it is a singularly monotonous one. There is only one line: “order.” The scenes are all the same. So every night at midnight in Union Square when the police put up their new barricade, the Occupiers stage a performance. Tonight: Animal Farm!


Seeds of Change

A seed is a dense amalgam of bioinformation. SInce Darwin did his first experiment on seeds, they have also been subject to biopolitics in the most direct sense. As Monsanto and other corporations seek to privatize the genetic commons, it’s time to join the seed revolution.

Sow Seeds Not Greed

Charles Darwin’s first published experiment was called “Does Sea Water Kill Seeds?” This apparently innocuous question concealed a major biopolitical contest. Darwin sought to prove whether or not seeds could germinate after being soaked in sea water. As he observed in his essay:

such experiments…have a direct bearing on a very interesting problem, which has lately, especially in America, attracted much attention, namely whether the same organic being has been created at one point or on several on the face of our globe.

Darwin spliced two related issues here: first, the debate prompted by British geologist Edward Forbes who asserted that Europe’s landmass had been far more extensive in the relatively recent past so as to account for the spread of plant varietals to islands like the Azores.

For the “common sense” of received science said that sea water killed all seeds. Therefore, if the same species was observed in different places, then it must have been “created” separately. Pro-slavery apologists used this argument to propose that there were distinct and different forms of the human species and it was therefore acceptable for white North Americans to enslave Africans.

Darwin’s simple test demolished the theory: seeds germinate perfectly well after an immersion in salt water, meaning that they could be disseminated by the ocean across the planet. Species thus originated once and not repeatedly. But other interesting questions opened:

But when the seed is sown in its new home, then comes the ordeal: will the old occupants in the great struggle for life allow the new and solitary immigrant room and sustenance?

Darwin’s language here is fascinating and provocative, showing that five years before the formal publication of Origin of Species, he was already thinking far down the road. His experiment did not, of course, demolish slavery’s logic but it removed one of its purported strands of “empirical evidence.”

Fast-forward to our own day, and the occupants are making very little “room and sustenance” for the “immigrants” in all senses. As the chart below shows, only 4% of the commercial vegetable varieties being grown in 1903 are still in cultivation today.

The decline in seed varieties charted

Whereas there were nearly 500 commercial varieties of lettuce in 1903, now we must choose from only 36–if you’ve ever wondered why your “Mesclun” always tastes the same, here’s your answer.

The reduction in variety is part of the effort to commandeer the food supply. Monsanto now  controls 93% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn growth in the United States by its seed monopoly and produces 27% of all seeds sold. Many of these, especially the corn and soy, are genetically manipulated and have worked their way into the entire food chain.

Activists have had some signal successes against this monopoly in Europe where France and Hungary recently joined Germany, Austria, Peru and Luxemburg in banning GMO seeds. Hungary insisted that sprouted plants from genetically-modified seeds be thoroughly destroyed.

French beekeepers demonstrate against GMOs at Monsanto HQ

In the US, while the seed industry remains in charge, organizers have created a brilliant alternative strategy: the seed library. The seed library stocks seeds of all kinds, “lends” them to a library user, who then “returns” them once the crop is harvested. One of the founders of this movement was Gary Paul Nabhan, co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Seed libraries are formal and informal, sometimes actually taking space in public libraries next to books as in Richmond, VA. The action combines two of the best internal projects of the Occupy movement: to offer nutritious, organic and non-genetically modified food to the Occupiers and others; and to create libraries.

On February 27, there is a day of action for Occupy the Food Supply. More exactly, following Darwin, the project is to un-occupy food, seeds and thereby our bodies. Their coalition of organic farmers, farm laborers, urban farmers, seed activists, librarians, foodies and all those concerned with personal health reaches far beyond the stereotype of Occupy.

Join them, support the action, plant heirloom seeds, join a seed library–it’s all fun and it’s all radical in the old sense: it goes to the root.

Civil Disability

If there is to be a new eugenics, it will return to a hierarchy of citizenship, in which some citizens are fully empowered members of the public and many others are not.  In English jurisprudence, this latter condition is known as “civil disability.” It has kept those perceived as not equal to the standards of citizenship from enjoying the right to vote or even the right to appear as a witness in a law case.  It has applied to the enslaved, Jews and women. It still applies to minors and those designated insane. In the current optic of power, civil disability permits corporations to have the standing of people, while individual people are the objects of kettling, spraying, scanning and other forms of classification.

The very diversity and dis/ability of Occupy—even if widely considered insufficient within the movement—appears to add to the vengeful force of the reassertion of authority. Such bodies are not supposed to be able to make political choices but only to be the grateful recipients of Lifetime made-for-TV movies and to supply “meaningful” roles for able-bodied actors to win Oscars. It is as if authority says, if you will not accept the ways we disable you once, then we will do it again. That is to say, disability is not a physical condition but a social one: it is the lack of accommodations that makes a person in a chair have difficulty negotiating space not an inherent incapacity. This disabling is now extended to all suspect bodies: which is often everyone.

I have not flown since Occupy began, unusually for someone who travels a lot. Today I had to submit to being kettled by the TSA at JFK airport in order to wait for the privilege of partially undressing and then being scanned while standing with my hands raised over my head by who knows what purportedly safe form of radiation. It was presumably designed to make people feel powerless and it does. While hygiene was the key to the original eugenics and still plays a significant role, the new eugenics takes its energy from the discourses of safety.

Later in the overcrowded container called “coach,” a fellow passenger was harangued by a flight attendant because the straps of his backpack, which he was forced to stow “under the seat in front” because no other space was available, intruded by a matter of two inches into our seating space. If we had to evacuate, we were told, we might get entangled. I rearranged my feet and the emergency was over because we had displayed sufficient passivity. As the Italian cruise ship disaster showed, actual safety has nothing to do with any of this—passengers were sent back to their cabins as the boat took on water.

In such situations, any challenge to the “move on” authority of the police results in immediate arrest, deportation or deplaning. (By the way, is there an uglier world than “deplane”? One candidate would the use of the term “designated receptacle” to mean bin.)  The demonstrators at Move In Day in Oakland were repeatedly hailed to “submit to arrest.” That is, it is not enough that you be arrested. You must submit to it, accept the authority by which you are arrested and reconfigure your own practice from civil disobedience to crime.

Traditional eugenics and civil disability were not at all interested in what the disabled citizen thought of themselves because by definition their thoughts were not important. If it matters so much to the new agents of civil disability that we submit to being “disabled” by them, it is because they have learned their trade from counterinsurgency.  Under the Petraeus doctrine of counterinsurgency, it was not enough for the occupying power to be able to dominate the population. That population must “actively and passively” consent to being ruled. So you must not only go through the security checkpoint, you must accept that the checkpoint is there for your security and is therefore right. It doesn’t work and what’s more it has never worked.

Interestingly, the military themselves have abandoned the counterinsurgent fantasy. They are withdrawing regular troops from Afghanistan, having abandoned Iraq to pick  things up where they left off in about 2007. Now ubiquitous anti-terrorism is the goal, with targeted missions being carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles or special operations troops. Just as the brief triumph of counterinsurgency rested on the apparent success of the “surge” in Iraq, so is this new paradigm clearly based on the bin Laden assassination. The administration is impervious to anxieties about the lack of due process of those targeted or even the “collateral damage” done to the by-standers. All of these people, whether by virtue of being insurgents or failing to remove themselves from proximity to insurgents, are under the prescription of civil disability.

Just so, a TSA agent said to us a while ago, “you have no rights here.” Just so, police launch a “surge” in the Wind City Reservation to reduce crime statistics. Just so, you may be evicted from public space because you are not considered part of the public or expelled from federal space because you are not a fully-fledged citizen. Buttressing the entire process is the longest-running process of civil disability in the United States, the mass incarceration of African-American and minority populations. Over two million people are part of the prison-industrial system that so patently discriminates by ethnicity that Michele Alexander has called it “the new Jim Crow.” More exactly, one might say it was the old Jim Crow. As Angela Davis has shown, the penitentiary and work-lease systems were devised as part of As “felons,” many of the released lose civil rights.

ACT UP Occupy

Gran Fury "Riot" (1989)

The opening today of a retrospective of the work of radical art collective Gran Fury during the AIDS crisis is timely and suggestive of what Occupy needs to learn from ACT UP. ACT UP’s first action in 1987 was a die-in in Wall Street. Gran Fury produced a mock newspaper called The New York Crimes, prefiguring the Occupied Wall Street Journal. ACT UP demanded change from the government but also change from its audience, whether men or women, gay or straight (to use the dominant terms of the 1980s). ACT UP operated an extensive direct democracy in its process, centered on the use of affinity groups. From the start, though, they had very specific demands in relation to the treatment of people with AIDS.

It’s easy to forget now how terrifying the disease was in the 1980s. The first person I knew with it, Mark, was diagnosed in London in 1986. He was active, out and activist but very soon caught the previously rare pneumonia, pneumocystis carinii, that killed so many early AIDS patients. He was dead within the week. The funeral was terrible, with hundreds of young friends and activists shut outside at the wishes of his Catholic family. It was not until 1996 that the “cocktail” seemed to offer a way to live with AIDS, at least for those with access to health care and the expensive pharmaceuticals.

In the midst of the AIDS crisis, Gran Fury expressed the anger and the militancy that came from so much mourning. I’d forgotten this one, though:

Gran Fury "Civil War"

In the current exhibition, the poster is landscape and takes up an entire wall at the 80 WSE gallery. It’s really worth getting over there just to see this, although the whole show needs to be seen. The question seems to want to be answered “hell, yes” all over again, in a different context. In the news today, it emerged that Freddie Mac, the government’s own mortgage guarantee company, has been buying billions of dollars of complicated derivatives that bet against people being able to refinance their mortgage. Is debt to Occupy what AIDS was to ACT UP?

The two subjects, in classic Occupy fashion, need not to be separated but brought together. On December 8, 2011, World AIDS day, Housing Works and OWS staged a Robin Hood action on Wall Street.

World AIDS Day 2011

Housing Works details why the slogan “Poor and HIV? Billionaire Mayor Doesn’t Care” has bite:

Mayor Bloomberg has cut more than $10 million for HIV/AIDS housing and services during the past year, plus an additional $3 million more in his November Financial Plan, while opposing the state 30% rent cap affordable housing legislation that would prevent homelessness for thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria just announced that it would not make new grants during the next two years due to broken pledges by donor governments.

Bond holders, of course, must be made “whole,” meaning get every penny back and so the pennies have to come from people with AIDS and other diseases.

It’s often said that ACT UP was able to motivate activism because people were literally dying. They’re still dying. What ACT UP did was make visible the connections of “greed and indifference” to those deaths. As the British queer activist Bea Campbell has pointed out this week, feminism (and ACT UP was distinctly feminist, I would argue) was at once about “recognition” and “redistribution.” Debt causes death. Time for (another) riot.




Photography 2.0

The revolutions in North Africa and the global Occupy movement have seen the emergence of what I call Photography 2.0 in which people and “the people” envisage and visualize themselves as having a name, a place and the right to look. This photography uses phones, graffiti, the Internet, the demonstration and Occupy as its means of self-manifestation. Sometimes it uses cameras as well.

In the moment of the general crash of 1929, Walter Benjamin suggested in his essay on Surrealism

For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in the space of political action the one hundred percent image space

“Organized pessimism” was Benjamin’s response to a series of failures by the Social Democrats in 1920s Germany. In the so-called Great Recession, it has been Occupy’s response to the failures of the entire political class: because there is nothing to hope for from them, we must organize ourselves. By (re)claiming space, a newly affirmed self-image is placed in the street, in the square, in the place of occupation. It challenges the idea that all there is to do is circulate, to pass by and to continue as if commodity fetishism can still save us.

Organized pessimism: 400,000 “likes” on the “We Are All Khaled Said” page in 2011.

Mural of Khaled Said on a piece of the Berlin Wall by Case

Khaled Said was a blogger, arrested and tortured to death by Egyptian police in 2010. The mural above was painted by Andreas von Chrzanowski aka Case, on a remaining segment of the Berlin Wall in 2011. The texts say: above,”Khaled’s rights are Egypt’s rights” written by Zahraa Kassem and below “We are all Khaled Said”, calligraphy by Mohamed Gaber (photo: Joel Sames/From Here To Fame). It has been proposed by the revolutionaries that Mahmoud Street, which leads from Tahrir to the Interior Ministry, should be renamed for Khaled Said: in their usage it already has been occupied by this revisualized naming.

The image space in the place of political action: “The people want the regime to fall.”

In this famous slogan, now almost a year old, a self-image has formed where there was none before. It organized a collective political subject with desires: not demands. The new general will forced the dictator to yield. In the US, it was the move from posting on “We Are the 99 Percent” to occupying.

In short, there’s a new kind of “photography” taking place. It is a countervisuality to the concept of history in which autocracy, whether the Egyptian dictator or the military-industrial complex, is the only entity capable of visualizing the social and its flows. In Thomas Carlyle’s exaltation of the Great Man or the Hero, the “camera obscura of tradition” that reinforced and supported that visuality.  This “photography” aspired to create a Medusa-effect for the modern, immobilizing change and fixing the social hierarchy as it already was. Photography 2.0, by contrast, is an apparatus to name and organize the anonymous.

It is first an extension of the body, whose signature gesture is the young woman photographing herself using her phone at arm’s length. This self-portrait is the counter to the ubiquitous surveillance of the age of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV). It asserts a presence and autonomy, from which can be derived the right to be seen and the right to look. Photography is becoming newly democratic, a literally direct democracy, beyond its first democratization of the means of mechanical visual reproduction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to a democracy of the self (image).

In Alexis. A Greek Tragedy, the Antigone character makes considerable use of the Mac PhotoBooth program to take pictures of herself and other characters as the play is taking place. Using the self-timer, she took a picture of herself jumping away from the computer’s camera, which, when rendered in the foreshortened view of the little lens in the MacBook, appeared to show her jumping headlong into the audience. In the same way, Photography 2.0 resolutely breaks the fourth wall and all the distancing apparatus of the Camera Obscura/Lucida. J25 is coming. There is more to follow.

Silvia Calderoni using the computer as a camera and projector