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.

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.

Temperature Check: Needs Work

At a Strike Debt meeting yesterday, we discussed the joint call for action on O13. One person looked askance and commented: “We better not just get 25 people wandering around New York.” In other words, the tens of thousands that routinely turn out for Europe’s anti-austerity demonstrations are likely to be matched on a scale of one in a hundred at best in the U. S. Why are we still so marginalized?

It’s certainly true that the Eurozone disaster is extraordinary. And of course, Occupy is no more than a year old. In a broadside published today, Rebecca Solnit isn’t having any of it. She firmly blames the left for its own divisiveness and celebration of failure. Having begun to think about hope, she writes,

I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable.

This tendency to not only see defeat looming but revel in it is a familiar figure. The great heroes of the left from the Commune to the Spanish Civil War and so on all lost. It was the second edition of the first ever punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue that declared punk dead back in 1977.

Now, however, there’s an added social media snarkiness to it all. All over ZuckerBook you can read dismissals of OWS, its publications and campaigns as being insufficiently anti-capitalist and otherwise deluded. As if posting to Facebook was anything other than  a way of making money for its shareholders.

All that said, there are real contradictions here. As a number of people have pointed out, and I am well aware myself, my explorations in militant research are a part of my privilege. I tend to think it a better use of that situation than simply perpetuating the status quo but nonetheless it is fair to ask whether it helps people in the New Academic Majority. My hope is that by acting and writing in the way that I would prefer to do, I make it possible for others to do the same and use my project as a model or reference. That said, you won’t hear much from me after 12/31/12 for a good long time.

For Occupy more broadly, the feminist-inspired culture of trust, process and love has been one of its great accomplishments. But when I hear, as you do from time to time, someone yelling at someone else that they are “bourgeois” or some other infraction, it’s always a male-identified person defining a female-identified one.

At the first GA I remember attending in Zuccotti, I was impressed by a young woman of color talking about the way the assembly did not yet look like New York City. Well, what’s left of that body still doesn’t resemble its parent metropolis, and there’s a renewed bout of questioning as to why. Some people are criticizing the topics we’ve highlighted recently, such as debt, as if debt did not affect the poorest and most discriminated against in our society. Can we do better? No question. But there’s a real issue out there. Here’s a visualization of payday loan stores in Bushwick. There are a lot in a small area.

Here’s the Upper East Side:

Exclude A and C which are bank branches and you have three such payday loan places from 59th St to 106th St on the entire East Side.

So why is OWS in general and Strike Debt in particular still lacking diversity? Part of it stems from the bulk of Solnit’s article about the election. African Americans are strong supporters of Obama, with over 90% in most polls saying they will vote for him. If anyone was in any doubt that Republican hatred for Obama was motivated in whole or in part by race, the rash of “chair lynchings” that followed Clint Eastwood’s speech should have settled the issue. If you’ve missed this, a set of chairs have been hanged in trees with American flags attached to them. Given Eastwood’s identification of an empty chair with Obama, the message is as clear as it is repellent. In the 1960s civil rights activists carried US flags to claim equal rights in contrast with the Confederate flag. The Vietnam War put paid to that association and the flag can now be meaningfully tagged with racist murder.

So while how to vote is almost a technical debate in New York or California, at least at Presidential level, it’s not hard to see why people of color, women, LBGTQI folks and many others don’t see it that way. As Solnit trenchantly puts it:

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

The reduced numbers of active people in OWS need to heed such warnings and realize that we can’t turn things our way by hyperactive organizing alone. It turned out that the crisis was not of a brief duration and nor was there to be a revolutionary solution to it. Perhaps for a moment last October we glimpsed the mountaintop but we’ve slipped a long way down the slope since then. That’s OK. Instead of turning on each other, we need to turn outwards and start engaging with the constituencies we most want to be in dialog with.

On Legitimation

Throughout the course of the global social movement, there has been a serious question as to legitimacy and the place of violence. When Tahrir Square was filled with revolutionaries, it was clear that Mubarak was no longer legitimate. There has been an extensive, if not terribly productive, discussion in Occupy about “diversity of tactics.” Now the situation has become tragic and farcical at once with the absurd statement of so-called “Representative” Todd Akin concerning “legitimate rape.” Suddenly, Anglophone countries are immersed in discussions about rape.

Much of this centers around Julian Assange. George Galloway has made an idiot of himself as usual. However, Seamus Milne in the Guardian argues:

Can anyone seriously believe the dispute would have gone global, or that the British government would have made its asinine threat to suspend the Ecuadorean embassy’s diplomatic status and enter it by force, or that scores of police would have surrounded the building, swarming up and down the fire escape and guarding every window, if it was all about one man wanted for questioning over sex crime allegations in Stockholm?

That’s probably true. But so is this comment by Hadley Freeman in the same paper under the forceful headline “Rape is Rape is Rape”:

Assange is dodging rape accusations from two women. Not Wikileaks. Women. Same first letter. Different things. Also, while you can – contrary to other certain beliefs – become pregnant if you are raped, you cannot become pregnant from Wikileaks. Just to clarify.

When I posted on Assange a couple of days ago, I must admit that I was not fully aware of the details of the allegations against Julian Assange and seeing them discussed in Australian media as sexual harassment, I passed that on without checking, as some commenters pointed out. As the quotes above suggest, there was a gender divide on Assange that I fell into without thinking.

So the one “benefit” of Akin’s ridiculous remarks might be that we can have a broader discussion about violence and legitimation. There is obviously no justification or legitimacy in any act of sexualized violence. Equally, Akin did not “mis-speak” because the radical right believe in the legitimacy of their own violence. It is the counterpart of the violence that seeks to dictate reproductive choice, sexual orientation, marriage equality and so on. But also the violence that ends occupations, breaks strikes, and fires bullets. All are considered legitimate because that is the effect of the force of law.

One reason that I have said that the right to look is an exchange between two that precedes law is precisely this force of law. It has compeled slavery and legitimized violences of all kinds. In the modern era, such violence has often used secrets as a further justification. However, revealing secrets is no more of a justification for violence, if the allegations against Assange are accurate (and we should remember he has not yet been convicted). Nonetheless, we need to remain against heroes.

The tactic of consensus within the Occupy movement has been much questioned. It does have the virtue of finding another path to decision making than the 51-49 process that so dominates official politics. It has not prevented (or, to be fair, in any way caused) allegations of sexualized violence within the movement. It does not, however, claim legitimacy, sovereignty or authority and that is at least an important step in the right direction.

This is also a movement of bodies: placing bodies in space and claiming the right to be in our bodies as we choose. It shows how much there is to be done that a person’s right not to have their body used by another person is still the subject of international debate.



Against Heroes and Hero-Worship

From cinema to university sport, not to mention the bankster disasters, it is time once again to be against heroes, whether they have the most wins in college football history, a fancy O logo, or strut around pretending to be Gordon Gekko.

In 1840, the arch-conservative historian Thomas Carlyle gave an incredibly influential set of lectures called On Heroes and Hero Worship. You’ve probably never read them but you know his tag line: “Great men make history.” This phallocracy is alive and well, from the 600 page biography that no-one reads but get published anyway, to Aaron Sorkin’s fantasies of liberal heroes, the cult of sport and the worship of the Big Men of Finance.

Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle exalted the capacity of the Hero to “visualize” history, something ordinary people were utterly incapable of doing. It was the hero or anarchy. Interesting choice, you might say. Carlyle was disgusted by the French Revolution, appalled by the ending of slavery in Haiti’s revolution and afraid it would spread. His work was read by Hitler and used to justify Mussolini.

As a result no one quotes him any more, but the desire for Big Men, for heroes, who have what it takes is still everywhere. It is literally the patriarchy. And it’s just as much evident in the call for OWS to have leadership and hierarchy as it is in less savory locales, so let’s not assume that somehow we are past all this.

It took the FBI to finally prise Penn State’s fingers off their football heroes. A “sport” that should be banned for all the brain damage it causes to its players has now been thoroughly discredited–or at least it should be. As is the modern university system that lavishes money and facilities on sport, while classrooms are shabby and fees high. Penn State has one of the highest tuition rates of any state university at $15,500 for in-state students and an eye-popping $27,000 for out-of-state. So for all the alumni money that football supposedly generates, students are not seeing much benefit. Except that their Paterno Library is now revealed to be named after a child abuse enabler.

Banker worship was and is rampant in the Anglophone world. In Congress, senators and representatives fawn over Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan Chase, who revealed that their credit default swap losses in London were now $5.8 billion and, by his own estimate, criminal. The trader who dug this hole was known as The Whale or Voldemort, a hero to his fellow type-A macho men.

They believe they are unique human beings, capable of alchemy, as one banker characterizes his job:

an investment banker resembles a magician – his greatest trick is the disappearance and reappearance of money, an illusion he aptly executes with nicely designed and immaculate literature and an arsenal of free-flowing industry jargon intelligible mainly to his own circle

How thrilling it apparently is, all the champagne and bonuses awarded to those considered to be “Big Swinging Dicks” (to quote Michael Lewis’s characterization of Goldman Sachs).

How are the mighty falling. After all that “Dude, I’m opening the Bollinger“–the most expensive sort of Champagne–the LIBOR investigation is bringing things down to earth. Here’s a quick calculation by Sandy Chen reported in the Financial Times of the kind of damages a 5 basis points manipulation of LIBOR might entail over four years for one bank:

5bp x £1 trillion of notional contracts x 4 years = £2bn in potential damages. If these were covered by the US Sherman or RICO Acts, the damages/relief could be trebled.

Sherman and RICO are the statutes under which you prosecute organized crime, so the “mafia capitalism” meme has spread to the business papers! Total LIBOR related fines and costs are guess-timated at $22 billion without calculating for multiples under the organized crime legislation. Of course, there’s no calculation yet for what credit card holders, student loan or mortgage borrowers might expect back–but here’s my estimate: $0.00.

This all reinforces how important the anti-patriarchy aspects of Occupy’s strategy are and were to the movement. Whether it makes certain people impatient or not, such measures as circles, progressive stack and mutual respect are a pre-condition to creating an alternative to the phallocracy whose crimes and misdemeanors are becoming more evident on a daily basis.


I Fought The Law

Today is the seven-month anniversary of OWS. It coincides with a remarkable ratcheting up of pressure on Occupy from authorities of all kinds–personal, police, professional. At the place where these three roads meet is the Law, saying: “enough, time to concede.” The reply is given: “I prefer not to.” But it’s getting much harder.

Now some of my friends  and colleagues give me a look: “Occupy? Still?” As if you had just discovered deconstruction. So, yes, I am a bit obsessed. Since when was that a bad thing in professional life? and it’s been seven months, not years.

Federal Hall. Credit @mollyknefel

By unrelenting hostility and willingness to improvise the terms of the law, the police do now have the upper hand in the streets. The NYPD yesterday determined that you may not have “moveable property” on the sidewalk in New York– and that did apparently include a dog that one of the occupiers had on Wall Street. The primary target of the police is the cardboard sign, now that the tent has been outlawed. The revived “sleepful protest” has  been driven onto the steps of the Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights was first introduced. It is supposed to feel like a last stand. While I don’t think it is, I feel the pressure.

The Federal pen

As mentioned yesterday, the academic left continues to ratchet up its critique of Occupy. Jodi Dean posted a talk on her website yesterday, which is at once supportive of the movement for creating a new political subject, and wants to see it regulated by the Holy Trinity of Badiou, Lacan and Zizek. Here’s her summary:

Bluntly put, some of the ideas that most galvanized people in the fall—those associated with autonomy, horizontality, and leaderlessness—have also come to be faulted for conflicts and disillusionment within the movement.

I haven’t heard this criticism, except in what you might call the academic wing of the movement, but there you hear it all the time.

I can’t get into a full analysis of this paper because she asks us not to cite it, so you’ll have to read it yourself. In short, she argues that Occupy should accept its own condition of “lack” in relation to the “lack” it has identified in the political system (The Big Other) and thereby set about representing the overlap created. While I’m not fully sure what to make of this, I take it to mean that if Occupy is to create a form of collectivity, it has to respect the laws of kinship or disintegrate. Occupy should thus negate its own negation of the political system. I can’t help but feel that it would no longer be Occupy were that to happen and in considerable part that transformation would come from a reassertion of the traditional authority of the Law, as Lacan would have had it. Not to mention the law as the cops have it. What we could gain by the strategy is opaque to me.

Is this Law unchallengeable? By chance, I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s lectures on Antigone, where she discusses the possibility of a “post-structuralist” form of kinship that would not be dependent on the Law of the Oedipus complex. She notes that in Oedipus at Colonnus, none other than Oedipus himself berates Antigone and her sister for being out of place, even as they take care of him instead of their brothers, “in their place.” Even Oedipus gets to castigate Antigone for asserting a willingness to “live out of doors.” His curse on his children/siblings is the re-assertion of the necessity of staying in place. That is to say, anyone transgressing their alotted role will be punished. The place one must be is the place where three roads meet and Oedipal destiny is enacted.

What if the incest taboo is not the only form of establishing kinship? What if kinship is not destiny? As the results of incest, Antigone and her siblings all embody the failure of the Law and, while they are punished for this, they also claim glory and honor of their own. Butler interestingly footnotes here the enfant terrible of anthropology Pierre Clastres. Like Sahlins, Clastres refused to equate power with kinship. Clastres asserts that the kinship system tells us almost nothing about the social life of a people. He further argued that the Amazonian peoples he studied were determined to prevent the emergence of permanent inequality by means of careful safeguards.

These arguments have been developed by David Graeber, who also notes that Clastres’ romantic over-investment with the Amazon prevented him from discussing the widespread use of sexual violence in these same “egalitarian” societies. He astutely concludes

Perhaps Amazonian men understand what arbitrary, unquestionable power, backed by force, would be like because they themselves wield that power over their wives and daughters.

The point of the Antigone myth and the Amazonian egalitarians is, then, not that we want to be like them, but that these moments show cases where the “universal” Law does not apply, and is therefore not universal at all, but particular and backed by force of various kinds.

That’s why “I Fought The Law” is a counterculture classic: not because it celebrates a victory–the law won–but because it discovers that, unlike Bartleby who negates himself in the end, you can fight the law. And, yes, you can lose.

Occupy and “The Queer Art of Failure”

In Occupy circles these days, there’s a lot of discussion of success and failure. J. Jack Halberstam’s new book raises the prospect of what he calls “the queer art of failure,” creating a set of intriguing overlaps that I’m going to explore here. Yesterday, Halberstam introduced the book to a packed and boisterous audience in New York (his text will be forthcoming on Bullybloggers with those of the respondents!). So my thoughts are inspired by a combination of being at the panel and reading the book itself.

Failure is a provocative question for Occupy. Of course, the movement was a response to the catastrophic failure of neoliberal capitalism. But to suggest aspects of failure within is to seem disloyal to a project in which so many of us are intensely invested. Halberstam queers that logic by suggesting that in the search “to live otherwise,” it may be that

[u]nder certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing…offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.

In the OWS context, for example, any return to economic “success” by means of traditional growth would in fact be a disaster as it would still further accelerate the processes of climate change. Occupy needs to undo the imperative for “growth” in order to find ways by coexist and indeed to continue to exist.

Halberstam’s project again intersects with the way I have been thinking about these issues in calling not for success but for abolition. Abolition acknowledges that something has failed so utterly that it must be abolished and it is therefore a founding moment. Halberstam quotes one of my favorite essays at this point, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses:

Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society. The object of abolition then would have a resemblance to communism that would be …uncanny.

[Social Text 79, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 2004, behind paywall; I’ve extended the quote by a line beyond Halberstam, 114]

Halberstam’s book takes much energy from Benjamin, whose weak messianism can be understood as a form of abolitionism, in keeping with his concept of the general strike as an effort to return only to a radically transformed work, rather than to achieve a specific goal. As everyone should know, Occupy is supporting the call for a day without the 99%, a general strike and more on May Day. Much energy has been wasted, in my view, by trying to define what its success would mean.

For example, in a recent talk at NYU (also published in the Guardian) the philosopher Simon Critchley, very sympathetic to OWS, claimed:

Power is the ability to get things done. Politics is the means to get those things done. Democracy is the name for regimes that believe that power and politics coincide and that power lies with the people.

Thus Occupy would be a success if it “got things done” by means of restoring democracy. There’s much to question here, notably the surprisingly instrumental definition of power that seems to want to forget Foucault. But to continue, things would get done by articulating the:

infinite demand that flows from the perception of an injustice; second, a location where that demand is articulated. There is no politics without location.

The formula combines queer philosopher Judith Butler’s influential call for “impossible demands” with what, following Halberstam, we could call a “straight” insistence on being in one place and one place only. Enter Plato, the opponent of all doubling.

In the Republic, as Rancière reminds us, Plato instructs:

It is right for the shoemaker by nature to make shoes and occupy himself with nothing else.

That is to say, if a person has an allocated role and then they go and occupy somewhere else they are at fault. A person should be “in” the nature which is proposed for them and not “out” of it by being elsewhere. When we occupy, we are in and out at once–in occupation and out of place, in a nature we have chosen and out of the one allocated.

For Halberstam, to be queer is precisely to be out of place, being where one is not supposed to be, refusing normativity. If we follow the spatial implications, to occupy is queer, a way in which we can live otherwise. Certainly the “anti-disciplinary” politics of his project can be thought of as the refusal to conform to the order sought by the police, as the refusal to move on.

What would it mean, then, to think of the queer art of failure in regard to Occupy? One way to respond to this complex question might be to think about the way in which the encampments were considered “home.” This gave Occupy the location from which to articulate its demands and in more practical vein provided a literal place to live to many migrant and unhoused activists, as well as the space to form a community.

It might be suggested that some failures also came from the normatizing effects of making a home. There were persistent allegations of sexual harassment at many Occupy sites, despite the many queer, trans, LGBT and feminist persons involved. Can these incidents be thought through as part of the (hetero)normatizing that might come with making a home, a failure to create a different form of living?

Being based in a single place also makes you a target. It was and is relatively easy for the police to evict Occupy encampments once the decision to do so has been taken. The direct action organizer Lisa Fithian has encouraged Occupy to imagine itself as a shoal of fish, or a herd of animals, or a flight of birds–moving, transitory and fluid ways of living. Halberstam might point us to Chicken Run or the adventure of the Fantastic Mr. Fox or other “radical animations” as the means to imagine such “stopping and going, moving and halting.”

In discussion yesterday, Halberstam mentioned being intrigued by the way that The Invisible Committee describe the spreading of resistance as being non-linear, a “resonance” that takes on greater density

[t]o the point that any return to normal is no longer desirable or even imaginable.

This interface of desire, the failure of the “normal,” non-linear ways of moving, new forms of imagining, anti-disciplinarity is perhaps what it might be to occupy the queer art of failure.


The look of love

In the first paragraph of The Right to Look, I wrote:

The right to look is not about seeing. It begins at the personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each person inventing the other or it fails. As such it is unrepresentable. The right to look claims autonomy, not individualism or voyeurism, but the claim to a political subjectivity and collectivity: “the right to look. The invention of the other.”

I didn’t say much more about love in the book, partly because I wanted to avoid the imputation of voyeurism and all the other issues to do with the gaze. It was also hard to configure the narrative around the politics of autonomy with the questions raised by the look of love.

While the difficulty of narrative remains, I now think it was a mistake to underplay the power of the exchange of looks that is love. It resonates with audiences when I give this as a talk because it is something with which many are familiar and it makes sense of the difficulties of representing that exchange.

With the hindsight of Occupy, two further ways of expressing the right to look in and as love should have been developed: the hierarchies of patriarchy that prevent visualized expression of love; and the interface of poverty and love that produces the desire for democracy.

The phrase “the right to look” is my translation of Derrida’s droit de regards, often (oddly) translated as “rights of inspection.” Derrida was responding to the complex relations of looking at work in the photographs of Marie-Françoise Plissart.

Droit de regards

The cover shown here is from a recent reissue. Plissart’s images show two women in pursuit of each other, making love, escaping from men. Derrida’s suggestion is perhaps that in the context of 1983, eight years after Laura Mulvey had first published “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” it was between women that it might be possible to allude to the right to look. For a man looking at a woman would too easily become the other translation: the law of the gaze. The photographs seem a little dated now. Would that we could say the same about patriarchy.

Both Jacques Rancière and Antonio Negri develop the relationship of democracy to desire. For Rancière, the palpable “hatred of democracy,” which he describes in his book of the same name, in Western culture is motivated above all by the detesting of “the limitless desire of individuals in modern society.” By contrast, “good” democracy is about controlling and restraining both the extent of democracy and the passions of the individual. Thus the revisionist interpretation of the 1968 revolution is that it “really” expressed a desire for consumption. One could push this to it conclusion: a revolution is the love for democracy, a direct democracy between people that does not defer to representation.

This is precisely the move made by Negri in his poetic and philosophical text Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitude (translated in a volume called Time for Revolution). This is not the kind of writing one can easily summarize, building layer upon layer and allusion to allusion. The kairos, the instant, is something like the time of the right to look: always now, always predicated to the future to come. The “poor,”  or “those most exposed to the immeasurable” are the “biopolitical subject.” For unlike the emphasis on population or bare life in other readings of biopoltics, Negri stresses that it is “poverty that has always represented the common name of the human.”

The Kairos of the poor is love:

so what is “politics” today? It is the activity of production of the common name between poverty and love.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

In sight of the law

So I’m waiting for a Direct Action meeting to begin–probably my single greatest category of time spent at OWS has been waiting. I’m talking to an Occupy friend about the movement, who says something to the effect that it’s been like a relationship–all buzzy and idealistic at first, more complicated and argumentative later. From the media perspective, of course, we’ve broken up already. Perhaps that’s why cultural work that interfaces politics with law and familial structure seems so relevant to me now.

When I saw the Motus refiguring of Antigone (Alexis. A Greek Tragedy), Antigone’s complex defiance of the law and her incredibly complex family were somewhat in the background because the company had spent years exploring Sophocles’s and Brecht’s versions of the theme. Watching Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation (2011), though, these questions really can’t be avoided. Set in present-day (which is to say post-Green movement) Iran, A Separation shows a complex but open set of events that suggest a new form of spectatorship might be possible.

The opening shot of "A Separation"

The very opening shot establishes this new problematic. At the end of the credits, the screen fills with a man and a woman arguing about a divorce. It becomes clear–as perhaps would be obvious to an Iranian audience–that they are debating in the presence of a judge as to how the divorce might be carried out. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) cannot agree on their future: she wants to leave the country for an unspecified destination to improve the chances for their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), while he feels obligated to stay and care for his father, who has Alheizmer’s. As we watch the debate, our perspective is that of the judge before whom the hearing is being held, whom we hear but do not see. The screen, then, is the Law. But which law? The state law that requires both parties to agree to a divorce? The law of the (male) gaze that is held to structure narrative cinema? What kind of watching might be possible if legislated on the psychoanalysis that Judith Butler imagines as being derived from Antigone, rather than Oedipus?

Antigone, as Oedipus’s daughter and brother, is decidedly “postoedipal,” as Butler puts it, “caught in a web of relations that produce no coherent position within kinship.” Just as Butler shows that Antigone’s position has no singularity, in A Separation everyone tries to do the right thing, only to find that there is no single way to be right, that the law breaks down against itself. To take one resonant example, a subaltern woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is employed to look after Nadar’s father after Simin leaves him. Perhaps confused by the change of circumstances, the old man soils himself and cannot (or will not) clean up. In her understanding of Islam, Razieh feels unable to look on a naked man other than her husband. She calls an authority–a rather interesting reconfiguration of the deus ex machina–who gives her permission, given the “urgency” of the situation. Here she fears god, her husband and her new employer in equal amounts.


The dilemma resonated with me in two ways. I once had a student who refused to look at images of naked bodies in a photography class for religious reasons. It turned out that she was a nurse and when I asked her what she did at work, she said that she imagined the bodies to be objects. Apparently this tactic did not operate in the classroom. Bemused, I found a workaround for her. In another context, we might recall the legend of Ham, cursed by God for seeing Noah’s nakedness. His “punishment” was to become “black.” This purported Biblical story was often used as a post-hoc justification for slavery.

In the context of Antigone, it resonates twice. Oedipus cursed Polyneices that he would not be buried with honor, a curse that further entailed Antigone’s claim to autonomy from law, when she buries her brother’s body, resulting in her own death. Antigone dies for a brother: but which one? In the story of Ham, God is Noah’s father–but also Ham’s, making them in a sense brothers. Ham’s “reckless eyeballing,” to use the Jim Crow term, is the alleged origin of the “social death” of slavery. A farmer named Matt Ingram was convicted of “reckless eyeballing” in North Carolina–in 1951. A white woman had not liked the way he looked at her from the distance of sixty-five feet. In Abu Ghraib prison at the time of the scandals, US guards yelled at the detainees: “Don’t eyeball me.” The law does not like to be looked at, it prefers to look.

Towards the end of A Separation, for reasons that I can’t go into without giving away the whole plot, the middle class family leave Razieh’s house to stare in horror at the screen. A cut shows them inside their car with a smashed windscreen. Suffice to say that all concepts of the law have been challenged by the pervasive interference of the state apparatus, the intransigence of multiple and divergent familial constraints and the uneven but thoroughgoing effects of the financial crisis. In the post-Green movement moment, gently but noticeably referenced in Nadar’s insistence on getting “change,” the final question of the film remains unanswered. It’s not as simple as breaking up, it’s not possible to go back to the way it was. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.

Jan 2 “The Talking Cure”

Yesterday I caught up with David Cronenberg’s new movie, A Dangerous Method (2011) about the Freud/Jung divide embodied in their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein.

Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein

For all its period film denial of the present, I found it haunted by the “talking cure” practiced by Occupy and the desires that it evinces. What does Occupy want? The answer most often given in relation to the talking cure of consensus governance would be “empowerment.” The trouble with such tactics is that, after the initial break-through, resistance is generated from within and without.

In A Dangerous Method, Freud is obsessed with the resistance to psychoanalysis and subjugates everything to promoting “the sexual theory.”

"Sometimes," Mr Cronenberg, "a cigar is just a cigar"

As a creature of the psychopharmaceutical era–so many people take anti-depressants in New York that the river fish have measurable doses in their bodies– the film finds Freud vile and uncouth and is forced to find in Jung’s favor. It is Spielrein who raises the truly dangerous questions of resistance and the death drive that are now forcing the OWS talking cure to consider a different form of practice.

The film is a palimpsest: based on a 2003 play by Christopher Hampton, derived from a 1995 book by John Kerr, itself inspired by the 1970s and 80s discoveries of Spielrein’s papers. As Michael Billington spotted in his Guardian review, the play always wanted to be a film. What does the film want? It wants us to once again reject the version of the 1960s in which freedom and free love and open sexuality were supposedly equated. Such ideas are traced back to the beginning of psychoanalysis and emphasized by an unlikely stress on the concept of “freedom,” not a very psychoanalytic concept, and the disruptive presence of Otto Gross, played as a mix of Van Gogh in Lust for Life and Abbie Hoffman. You could wonder again at the fascination in English culture with spanking and its odd mix of philo- and anti-semitism. But let’s stick with the talking cure and its object, Sabina Spielrein.

Spielrein is not allowed much presence in the film as an intellectual, compared to the extensive scenes of her in hysterics or sexually involved with Jung. Here it’s worth noting that, as she wrote about the “essential homosexuality” of women, perhaps Jung and his male surrogates have protested too much?

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender)

In a brief scene, Spielrein presents the idea of her paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” to Freud. The film can’t do much with this, because to acknowledge that Freud cited Spielrein in Beyond the Pleasure Principle would complicate the caricature of his being obsessed by pleasure/sex. Similarly, Spielrein’s own essay is a widely-ranging, hard-to-summarize assemblage of Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Wagner, the Talmud and her own case-study of schizophrenia (you can find it on Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing behind a pay-wall).

Within the film, what Spielrein wants is to be married to Jung and this her tragedy–not, as the last intertitle notes, that she was shot by the Nazis in 1942. What she herself wanted is a question beyond my scope here but it’s intriguing to think about a woman that inspired Freud, Jung and Melanie Klein and went on to organize child services for the Third International. And maybe read her letters alongside those of Rosa Luxemberg, recently translated?

What she seems to have known very well is that desire is complicated, indeed articulated by complexes. So to ask, as everyone does, “what does Occupy want?” is to revisit Freud’s least successful question: “what does a woman want?” Here Occupy is figured as the recalcitrant woman, demanding,  but refusing to say what it is precisely that she wants. Such narratives refashion the complex anti-hierarchical and multi-tasking practice of Occupy into inarticulate need. It reduces the layers of feminist thought around Occupy from Arundati Roy, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Naomi Klein and many others to a simple demand line.

The “docile minds” desired by Big Pharma and neo-liberal governance alike supposedly have no such thing as an unconscious. The repressed cannot return, in this view, because there is nowhere for it to go. Spielrein argued otherwise, quoting her patient Martha N:

‘The suspicion can come into being in the real world in order to prove its right to exist.’ I have come to the conclusion that the chief characteristic of an individual is that he is ‘dividual’. The closer we approach our conscious thoughts, the more differentiated our images.

In this view, it’s not so surprising that Occupy has run into resistance as that its initial tactic of talking in groups was so successful. The anti-hierarchical group discussion was a tactic used by anti-psychiatry from Frantz Fanon’s experiments in Algeria and Tunisia to Félix Guattari’s clinic at La Borde, France, just as Deleuze made much of the “dividual.”

In a recent article on Deleuze and Guattari, Adam Shatz has pointed out how Deleuze asserted in an early essay that:

inner life (la vie intérieure)… was a bourgeois delusion: not for nothing did it sound like ‘domestic life’ (la vie d’intérieur).

Is it too semiotic and old-school to wonder if the very act of being outside, refusing interior life in the domestic sense, facilitated transformations in inner life? Again, we might stress the crucial presence of LBGTQI people in the Occupy movement, those unconstrained by what J. Jack Halberstam calls “family time.” The movement has placed a premium on “safe spaces” for discussion, calling out transphobia and able-ism as being every bit as disruptive to that safety as the old mantra of “race, gender, class.”

At the same time, Occupy encampments became spaces for those once offered care, such as the mentally ill, drug and/or alcohol dependent, and homeless people, to find space. The talking cure was stretched to its limits to deal with these “unmet needs.” Recently, at OWS, the General Assembly, and its operations twin the Spokescouncil, have all but ground to a halt thanks to the blockers. That is to say, one key element of consensus is the ability of any person to “block” a proposal on ethical or safety grounds that might cause them to leave the movement. However, some have taken to the block as a permanent tactic to disrupt all governance with the explicit goal of destroying the Spokescouncil.

Where do we go from here? There are proposals for rules, for hierarchy, for demands, for a third party, for links with the Tea Party and so on. The least fashionable, least exciting and different proposal is still the right one: keep talking.