Rancière’s Lesson

So what happened? While we were expecting a strong showing from the radical left in France, we got an unexpected surge by the racist National Front, and a less-than-predicted turnout for the Left (I exclude the “Socialists”). It seems that some of those who claimed they would vote left actually voted for the Front, because they know that such positions are disgraceful, but they hold to them nonetheless. Somehow, and this is the fallacy, it seems more disappointing from France because of their revolutionary heritage: let’s consider some of that legacy.

So because we don’t have good information on what has happened yet, today seemed like a good day to look at Rancière’s lessons from the contradictory aftermath of 1968, following from the discussion of his interview yesterday. I spent much of the day traveling (I’m on Central time for a few days) and read through several chapters of the recently published translation of his 1974 book Althusser’s Lesson. Rancière’s example shows how the force of a political rupture can change long-held positions: and the risks of such a change.

This book is part Oedipal separation from the bad father, part political testament and (unwittingly) part evidence of how not to deal with a crisis of political belief. Rancière was one of those who worked with Althusser on Reading Capital, published in France in 1966. When the events of 1968 unfolded, Althusser took a now notoriously qualified position, in keeping with that of the French Communist Party (PCF). In 1973, he published a long essay called Reply to John Lewis, a pseudonym used by a writer for the Communist Party of Great Britain in a set of attacks on Althusser published in the Party’s theoretical journal Marxism Today. Althusser’s response reasserted the theoretical position that seemed to have been undermined by 1968 and provoked Rancière to break with his mentor.

As he puts it in the Foreward to the English Edition,

I wrote the book as the efforts to give long-term life to the rupture of 1968 were succumbing to exhaustion and as the resulting disenchantment was taking the form of a radical critique of militantism.

Such critiques were double-edged: there were resistances to “its male and patriarchal forms of power” that most of us would agree with, while others denounced the entire revolutionary tradition in the name of the Stalinist Gulag. The key question for Rancière was not how to revive Marxism but an analysis of

the much broader logic by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order.

In the original text, he notes that Althusser’s return to orthodoxy came at a moment when post-68 radicals were defending the occupation of the Lip watch factory in Besançon and a union-based assembly against a military base in Larzac.

In the new Foreward, he puts the stakes thus posed unusually bluntly, stating his opposition to the idea that

the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant of the laws of domination….assign[ing] to those who adopt it the exalted task of bringing their science to the blind masses. Eventually, though, this exalted task dissolves into a pure thought of resentment which declares the inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions.

Rancière took the opposite approach, which based itself on the

inverse presupposition, that of the capacity of the dominated. It did so at the price of identifying this capacity with the slogans of China’s Cultural Revolution.

So while I can agree with the supposition, it’s sobering to realize that it was done in the name of such Maoism. It’s easy to see why he is now cautious about identifying his work with actually existing radical politics, having made a category error of such disastrous proportions. The important thing is not to throw his work out with the Maoist bathwater but to accept the Benjaminian lesson he draws:

there is no theory of subversion that cannot also serve the cause of oppression.

What does this history imply? It means that it is possible for a group of French voters to agree with a left critique of neo-liberalism: and then respond to the fascist solution. It does not mean they are stupid or puppets, but that we have not yet understood the way they visualize their situation to themselves. It suggests that there are not going to be what Rancière calls “‘heroes’ of theory,” who will solve such issues for us. If, as Rancière reads Marx, it is still possible

to invent a new world through their [the workers] barely perceptible gestures

then our interest is in how such gestures can be felt, seen and understood. And we would say yes to his 1974 claim to

contest the authority of knowledge on a local scale

while wanting to refuse

Cultural Revolution on a global scale.

I’m all for a revolution in culture that results from local contestations of authority. I don’t think we yet know what that means on a global scale, or even what the global scale would be. For Occupy, then, having again managed to reopen the question of authorizing authority, the time of defining a response has not come. Indeed, the longer it is postponed, or even permanently displaced the better, I suspect. It took five years for the 68 movement to become exhausted. Even if we assume that time passes more quickly these days, we’re not done yet.




The Spirit of Commune Past: A Picture Essay

Place des Indignés aka Place de la Bourse

When I arrived in Paris just after the 140th anniversary of the suppression of the Paris Commune last summer, its spirit was walking the earth. The Place de la Bourse, where the French Stock Exchange is located, had been renamed the Place des Indignés, the Square of the Indignant. Or Occupy the Square, as we might now say.

Louise Michel Poster One

On the wide stone banister of the staircase leading up to the little apartment I had sublet in Montmartre, someone had flyposted an unusual poster. It depicted the plaque identifying the nearby Square Louise Michel–using the English word–commemorating the local hero of the Commune.

Louise Michel's Tomb Poster

Next morning when I went out for bread, I came across this much larger poster. showing Louise Michel’s tomb–her name was clearly legible on the headstone. The quality of the printing and the flyposting was such that at first sight I wasn’t sure if it had been painted. Feminist, ant-imperialist and later anarchist, Michel was one of the best-known Communards, once known as La Pétroleuse for the false accusation that she had been a fire-bomber.

It seemed that she and her Square were everywhere in her home village of Montmartre. She lurked above the head of casual tourists, equally oblivious to the plaque identifying the house as the former home of the artist Suzanne Valadon.

Gospel, Louise Michel, Suzanne ValadonFrom Valadon to the Gospel Dream to Louise Michel. Or the other way around? On the metro the next day, I saw an intense young man with a red beard reading a copy of Michel’s History of the Commune in a pleasingly old edition. Was this the flyposter artist? There was no way to ask, so I got off at FNAC and bought a less satisfying modern paperback.

The fly-poster gets creative

Whoever he or she was, the fly-poster was all over Montmartre. I sat in the café across the street and read Michel’s account of the Commune. She described being on field ambulance duty in Clamart, to the southwest of Paris in the direction of Versailles from where everyone knew the attack would come. With her was an African man with filed teeth, who was a veteran of the Papal Guard.

Later, she sat one night and had coffee with a young student who had brought a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, perhaps the “definitive” edition published after the poet’s death in 1868. They read Une Charogne [A Corpse] together, one of his most challenging poems, finding beauty in a rotting corpse. A shell descended from the enemy lines, destroying the book and their coffee cups.

Louise Michel's tomb

There was nothing for it but to head to Michel’s tomb. A Google later and I’m on my way to the quiet and upmarket suburb where she now resides. In typical Parisian fashion, you don’t get off at the stop called Louise Michel but the next one. Here the plot thickens nicely: the photograph of Michel’s tomb used by the fly poster is revealed to be antique. The splendid flowers are perhaps the gift of the trade unions who bury their leaders in the same corner of the cemetery.

My book on Michel's tomb

So I left my book as an offering. The spirit of the Commune was alive and well, occupying her old haunts. Michel was no spectre, nor a phantom, or one of the frightening revenants. I don’t think Michel was as gentle a spirit as a fairy, who tend not to carry Remingtons. Although oddly, Benjamin’s first subtitle for the Arcades project was A Dialectical Fairy Play. Michel put her body in harm’s way, knowing full well what was coming and her spirit survived then and now. Remember her.

May 22, 1871: the Commune's last days

In the streets of Montmartre, the unsung heirs of Michel’s ideas were still in action, getting ready. Regular meetings were being held to help the undocumented regularize their situation.

Help for undocumented immigrants in Montmartre

Vive la Commune, one hundred and forty-one years young this week, long live the common!

J16: Visuality is Slavery

Today is of course Martin Luther King Day. OWS observances included a gathering at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, followed by a march to Wall Street, where there was a slave market, established in 1709. This was not simply a historical recovery but a reminder that the authority claimed by present day claims to visualize the social derives from the power of the slave-holder.

The slave market on Wall St circled in red

New York was not a marginal place in the history of slavery:

the city contained the largest absolute number of enslaved Africans of any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina, and held the largest proportion of enslaved Africans of any northern settlement. By the first decade of the 1700’s, forty percent of New York’s households contained at least one enslaved African.

Its slave market was an unimpressive building designed for the rapid circulation of human property.

Print depicting the New York slave market

It is routinely claimed that such histories can safely be consigned to the past. There are three ways in which such claims are invalid.

1. Slavery and Capital

The Caribbean historian and decolonial politician Eric Williams established a key link between capitalism and slavery in his 1944 classic text of that name. In his recent magnum opus Debt, the OWS theorist and occupier David Graeber has shown that debt and money owe their very existence to slavery: “Money, then, begins, as [Phillipe] Rospabé himself puts it ‘as a substitute for life.’ One might call it the recognition of a life-debt” (133). Thus so-called “blood-money” is exactly the same as money that is used to arrange a marriage: money in exchange for a life. The “slave” is the person utterly alienated from life, so that to all intents and purposes they are socially dead.

2. “The New Jim Crow”

This is the name given by legal scholar Michelle Alexander to the extraordinary racialized disparities in the US “justice” system. One in three young African American men are in some way involved in this system. In Washington DC, 3 out of 4 such men will be imprisoned or otherwise subject to penalty, part of the 2 million in the current prison system. Such figures exceed even the ratios generated by the apartheid system in South Africa. As drug use is about the same in white and black communities, the cause is not outlandish substance abuse by African Americans. Alexander shows that:

A huge percentage of [African Americans] are not free to move up at all. It is not that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so…To put the matter starkly: The current system if control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. (13)

That is to say, the possibility of democracy is permanently impaired by a caste system, itself the direct descendant of slavery, as W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Y. Davis have shown. Any direct democracy must first be an abolition democracy, a democracy that refuses the caste system at a minimum and, Davis would argue, the prison-industrial complex itself.

3. Visuality and Slavery

Visuality is a means of suturing authority to power. Power can be reduced to the means to compel people to act or not act by force. Usually, however, people respect the authority of the state, even when they disagree with it. Authority is a separate category to power. It is derived from the Latin term auctor, meaning the head of a family. As head of this family, the auctor had control over the possible purchases of land, animals and slaves. His patriarchy depended on this power, just as his financial empowerment reinforced his patriarchy. This is why any questioning of authority sooner rather than later generates questions of gender and (in countries where Africans were enslaved) racialized difference.

This analysis still begs the question of why the auctor was held to have such authority. In the Roman historian Livy, authority is distinguished from power (imperium) by the ability to interpret signs. This ability to discern meaning in both the medium and the message generates visuality’s aura of authority. When it is further invested with power, that ability becomes the ability to designate who should serve and who should rule.

The rulers in these histories are the named, those whose genealogies are held to count. Those without part, who do not count, are the anonymous, as incapable of visualizing the social as they are of being themselves visualized. Abolition democracy begins with the history of the anonymous, a project for this week’s posts.

Visualizing the Square: A Performative Method

Alexis, A Greek Tragedy, a remarkable performance by the Italian group Motus, both investigated the transition to popular action and created a method for critical visuality studies to follow. The project creates a complex interface between, on the one hand, the theatrical Antigone and the historical legacies of her refusal to obey the law and honor the dead; and on the other, between the police killing of 15 year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Athens in 2008 and the current crisis.

Silvia Calderoni/Antigone

The result was expressed by the device of a square on the stage as the center of the performance space. It was taken to represent the square in the Athens district of Exarchia, near the Polytechnic, the long-standing center of resistance to the military junta. During the performance we were shown video of open public spaces in Exarchia like Nosostros, a performance/meeting/social space.

Alexis’s death on December 6, 2008 sparked what can be called an uprising in Exarchia that has now merged with the protests against the crisis to create a revolutionary moment in Greece. For Motus, the key question at stake is: “How to transform indignation into action?” The term “indignation” has been central to European Occupy projects from the Indignados in Spain to the Indignés in France. The key question here is the moment of transition and transformation in which that sense of frustration becomes concerted action. And then behind that is the question of what “action” properly means: how to move from refusal to something that is not a form of accomodation or replication with and of the status quo?

Ross Domoney’s video tells the story of the riots around Alexis’s murder and their interface with the current crisis.

Exploring Revolt in Greece from Ross Domoney on Vimeo.

Watching the film, there is a certain performative element as the police throw tear gas and the rioters throw Molotov cocktails. Although this is clearly violent and dangerous, the petrol bombs largely land short of the police and don’t hurt anyone. Many demonstrators came prepared for the tear gas as well. I do not mean to say that this is not “real”—what emerges is to the contrary a sense that the tension within Greece is under constant escalation and it is not clear what will happen next: “the waters are too dark.”

In short: how to visualize the square, the crisis, the movement? What’s coming next? As you know, my recent book has stressed the role of visuality in creating authority precisely by means of being able to engage in such visualizing and to apply force to sustain it. The word was coined in English by the conservative Thomas Carlyle, who wanted to see the military technique of visualizing the battlefield applied to the social as a whole. His “hero,” the great man of history, was Napoleon who first epitomized these qualities, according to Carlyle, when he turned his cannon against the Parisian revolutionaries in 1795 and mowed them down in the streets, preventing a radical journée, or day of action.

How do you countervisualize when your goal is not to mow down the other side in the street but to catalyze a sense of alienation into social transformation? In Alexis, a cross historical identification of the abandoned body of Alexis was made with that of Polynices, Antigone’s brother for whom she sacrifices herself. The widespread A for Anarchy in Exarchia was read as also signifying Antigone. Giorgio Agamben’s question: “what life is worth being lived?” is understood as a reading of Antigone’s refusal to submit to Creon’s law and the current questioning of ways of being.

The square was visualized as the interface of four projects:

  • the interface of the ancient text of Antigone with Brecht’s interpretation and the historical legacies of the theme in Greece
  • the multi-year performance of Antigone by Motus
  • the already “historical” events of 2008, an event already forgotten by the media when the group began to investigate them in 2010
  • the moment of Occupy, from Tahrir to OWS and beyond

The method that emerges here is fascinating. The interface of formal work and questions of technique or theory is one “side” of the square. The group discuss theatre technique with the audience, reveal some of their methods and invite the audience into the performance. The play reflects over and again on its conditions of possibility: how can a part be performed? How should the words, even the punctuation, be rendered? Should an actor playing dead body have his mouth closed or open?

This interface was redoubled by the remarkable physical theatre: the performance opens with Silvia Calderoni edging across the stage, one half-step at a time, and at each step, jack-knifing her body–it was a stunning depiction of the pointless frustration of mundane labor under the Law. Calderoni brought the physique, self-possession and technological skills of Lisbeth Salander to Antigone, while also managing to be a welcoming presence.

Double down: one “performer,” Alexia Sarantopolou, is a resident of Exarchia and expresses her skepticism as to whether events such as this can be rendered as art. I was reminded of the disdain expressed  by the former revolutionaries who appeared in The Battle of Algiers, for whom the film was a “game” compared to what they had experienced. Calderoni agrees but then suggests that doing this work is all she can do, while stressing that the formal pretense that the “outside doesn’t exist” has to be abandoned.

So the performance describes and visualizes the events of 2008 and the space of Exarchia in detail, relaying visual images, interviews and film by means of projections from a computer and acting out their encounters. In Motus’s description:

the stage becomes the place of a choral presence, emotionally moving, which acts on a polyphonic and stratified text of a hybrid and lightning-swift nature: dialogues, interviews, solitary reflections, attempts at translation from Greek into English and Italian, audio and video fragments from the web, descriptions of atmospheres and landscapes, political statements and testimonies…

In this visualization, Antigone becomes the sound of Exarchia, the sounds of the revolt and the form of the transformation from subjected to subject.

Of course, it’s only a play. If you were to measure the success of the transformation by the number of people who accepted the performers invitation to join in their visualization of protest, you’d see only a small group–young Occupy types, older people of the all-experience-is-good variety, a few middle-aged hybrids like myself. Would a fully successful performance mean that there was no audience left? or does it mean accepting the immersive performative challenge inherent in the project: one of tarrying with the subject, one of staying with it after it is “current,” learning to countervisualize as we go?

For those few of you still reading, that’s what we’re trying to do here: a durational performative effort to stay with the moment, to understand what transition means and how to visualize it. Already the audience has dwindled. It’s OK. In fact it’s good. It’s all I can do.

Jan. 3 Occupy Cultural Studies

Two very contrasting approaches to Occupy from British cultural studies have recently been published. One thinks that Occupy still has to reach 98% more people. The other sees it as a new expression of the “general will,” by and against which decision making is measured in democracies. While both measure their distance from OWS, it turns out I am involved in the dispute.

Sunil Manghani, reader in cultural and critical theory at York St John University, takes my blog post “Occupy Theory” as a key point of reference and critique for his op-ed in the Times Higher Education Supplement. We learn first that the students in his course did not recognize the #OWS hashtag or find their field trip to Occupy London very exciting. It’s not clear why this is so important. Manghani opines “it is the ‘theory’ behind Occupy that is the wider preoccupation.” Yes, folks, we’re back in the theory wars, I’m afraid.

Manghani then muses over my post, finding it “conceptual” despite my explicit claim that Occupy is a performative. The clincher for Manghani was watching a video of Judith Butler speaking at OWS, in which she read her remarks from an iPhone. There are a couple of things wrong with this.

Butler reads her text to Occupy

As the picture shows, Butler read her talk from old-fashioned paper: I was standing next to her, I remember it.

Some people did read from iPhones at OWS, though, like Angela Davis. What’s wrong with this? For Manghani, the practice evokes Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history in the form of liberal democracy, leaving our choices as solely consumer options. Fukuyama himself has backed away from this 1990s position and now critiques such neo-conservative positions. Davis herself spoke of the general strike being organized by Occupy Oakland and a revolutionary turn. She answered questions in the cold for over an hour–without referring to her phone.

For Manghani, the Arab Spring that so exemplifies the end of the end of history is a proper movement, to be visualized, bizarrely, as a Tracey Emin artwork: “gritty yet faltering.” I’m not sure how Tahrir Square evokes the tabloid heroine of British art and her unmade beds?  I certainly prefer to be a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, Manghani’s visualization of the “fringe” that is Occupy.

A very contrasting position can be found in a striking piece by Nick Couldry and Natalie Fenton, “Occupy: Rediscovering the General Will,” published on the Social Science Research Council website. Couldry and Fenton, Professors of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, see Occupy as a reconceptualization of democracy in the context of both the financialization of everything and the crisis of [Western] democracy. Bringing Foucault to bear on the rise of neo-liberalism, they argue that “markets” are a modern invention (as does London-based Occupy theorist David Graeber), which have become predicated as natural, producing “democracy” as their natural outcome. Yet there is a palpable gap between the promise of democracy’s voice and what it can now offer its citizens: “We have grown used to living in democracies that aren’t working, that is, don’t work as democracies.”

While their argument is centered in the UK, it clearly applies very well to the US, where the Obama election in 2008 seemed at first to reinvigorate the possibilities of representative democracy and has now come to represent the falseness of its operations. Many Occupy activists were inspired by the idea of fundamental change in 2008–and perhaps in 1997 in the UK, with the first Labour victory. What is now, as Couldry and Fenton have it, “so striking about the Occupy movement is that it is a peaceful, collective attempt to face up to that unwelcome ‘post-democratic’ truth and to explore new ways of experiencing the general will.”

The proliferation of Occupy newspapers, journals, blogs, essays, commentaries and other thought-provoking materials is visible evidence of this new general moment, centered, as I suggested yesterday, on exterior discussion. If the general strike is the first moment of refusal, the “no” to markets being everything, the general “yes” is always and already in formation: “Nothing could be harder than this.” Everyone agrees on this at least, including Manghani.

Couldry and Fenton recognize the challenge for those who have the chance to work full-time in universities: “our main task perhaps is to go out from our institutions and listen on the streets, and then, on return, to open our doors.”

The implications of such general, open listening might include:

  • free, open, libre publishing
  • not publishing Occupy materials with for-profit publishers, especially Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Times newspapers
  • learning to listen not “teach”
  • not referring to “my/our” students
  • maybe not using the word “student” at all?
  • working for free, public, universal pre-K to postdoctoral education.

And no, those are not demands.

Jan. 1 “Occupy My Generation”

Patti Smith at the Bowery Ballroom in 2010

“The transformation awaits.” Early in her New’s Year Eve set at the Bowery Ballroom. Patti Smith signaled that this was no golden oldie retread session but an evening devoted to evoking the historical crossroads that is Occupy. In the 1929 building completed weeks before the crash of 1929 and left vacant till after the Second World War, Smith hailed her old avatars in the new context. She was a shaman, conjuring pasts that seemed forgotten and making them newly alive.

A song was dedicated to Charles Baudelaire, somewhat to the mystification of one section of the eclectic crowd. She talked about Verlaine and Rimbaud, she read from “Howl” and she sang “The Drifter’s Escape” from Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding. Then she told a story about how she and Robert Mapplethorpe had bought the album while both were working at different branches of Brentano’s bookstore. She talked about CBGB’s, site of New York punk, about a mile up the road.

Then the word “occupy” started to appear, as if by coincidence. Over and again, the idea resurfaced. At midnight there was “People Have the Power,” followed by a roof-lifting version of her Who cover from Horses, retitled “Occupy My Generation.” In a cascading version of “Fade Away,” Smith announced that this was (maybe) the last of her fourteen years residency at the Ballroom for New Year’s Eve. Insisting over and again that “the future is now,” it was fitting that the last words sung were the iconic “outside of society” with which she and other punks had scandalized New York in the 1970s.

One of the stranger liberal complaints about Occupy is that there are no new songs from the movement. Patti Smith replied that we have two centuries of music to draw on, to repurpose and reimagine. As she stepped down from her position as Queen of Downtown, she passed the legacy to us, to Occupy.

You might be reading this thinking that you wish you had been there. You were. You still are.