No Spectators

Over the last few days, the idea of the “wild” has, as it were, “accidentally” cropped up repeatedly, from questions of climate change, to Beasts of the Southern Wild and gaga feminism. That’s one of the intriguing things about a durational project of this kind, how ideas arise unexpectedly that you would not otherwise have spent much time on. So what would happen if we bring the three figures of wilding, walking and occupying together? You would not be spectating, that’s for sure.

Occupying is not in itself walking but it is moving in both senses. It creates (a) movement and it is emotionally stirring. The Zapatista koan of “walking while asking questions” has seemed a good way to describe it. If “walk on the wild side” evokes the subcultures of the 1970s, Occupy is not quite that. Subcultures had codes that were recognizable to themselves but mysterious or off-putting to others, from Oscar Wilde’s queer green carnation to punk safety-pins. They invited people to look but not to understand the internal dynamics of the subculture.

Both during the encampments and the “movement of movements,” Occupy has sought to change people. Or more exactly, people have made the Occupy movement into a vehicle for change. For many of us, this is the most important aspect of the project, like feminist, queer and other variants on “the personal is political.” In this case, the dynamic was intended to change those already there and draw others in.

Writing in the fifth edition of Occupy!, filmmaker Astra Taylor describes how this has worked for her as a stepping off the sidelines that

has stripped me of the self-righteousness and surety that comes with being a spectator.

As a filmmaker who has worked with Zizek we can safely assume that Taylor is not unaware of gaze theory. Yet she puts herself into the place of being looked at as part of her decision to be involved in the process, realizing that

people are complicated, that the way to achieve profound political change is not clear, but that we must move forward nonetheless, adapting our thinking and our strategy along the way.

This may not sound “wild” but that’s what it is– a refusal to define a “line” that we must follow, to make the now infamous demands, or to assume that clarity is the greatest of virtues.

By resisting the politics of representation, we have found, almost by accident, a performative practice that is unplanned, unscripted and seen only by the other “performers.” It couldn’t be further from the currently hegemonic vogue for Marina Abramovic-style staged performance, putting the self-styled artist fully in control. To occupy, to be wild, or to walk with questions is instead to perform the right to look, in which I invent you and vice versa, a fully mutual engagement.

So far, so hooray for us. Doing “not spectating” has worked for a year. We’ve countervisualized to good effect. What we have not yet done is get fully beyond the militarized tropes of visuality. We march. We lay siege to Wall Street. We do this in the name of direct action as opposed to symbolic action.

But it’s all symbolic. After all, very few of the one per cent actually work on Wall Street itself: they’re in mid-town or Connecticut but everyone gets why shutting down Wall Street is symbolically powerful. Better yet are symbols that do not rely on a rhetoric of power and force and do not mimic military tactics. They exist: the Occupy Town Square events, the Free University, guided walks around Wall Street to tell people hidden histories of the financial district, and many more. Within and without the movement, though, there is a sense that these are not “real” actions and that confrontation equals realness. As Lady Gaga can tell you, realness is way overrated.




Becoming Wild

Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a dense, emotional film that has the dramatic achievement of being perhaps the first film to create a means to visualize climate resistance. We already have films like the mediocre The Day After Tomorrow that depict climate disaster. Beasts of the Southern Wild gives us a way to begin to imagine wild alternatives to governmentality, without sentimentalizing the prices that have to be paid for that. By mixing magical sequences with cinematic realism, it does for climate resistance what Pan’s Labyrinth did for anti-fascism.

The plot is intricate and so most reviews have concentrated on describing what happens in the lives of Hushpuppy (Quvenshané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) to the detriment of what is seen, heard and felt. Its scenario depends on the transformation of the climate and rising sea levels. But this is a visceral film, often quite literally, as in a lingering shot of an animal’s intestines, or the disease that kills Wink. It is filmed very tight, meaning that the screen is filled with whatever we are looking at with nothing else to distract us or any means to set it in context. Piles of crustaceans fill the screen, or thickets of dense vegetation, or masses of melting glacial ice. Even the air is thick with dust motes, glinting in the sun, or insect life. The crisp, empty space of the modern cinema is here overflowing with what Jane Bennet calls “vibrant matter.” It’s wild, unbounded and undomesticated.

Such visualization of wild space is resistant to neo-liberalism’s passion for order and its terror of a profit-less wilderness. The commodity drive exists to fill space, whether the private house or the public domain with commodities. To suggest that wild space is always already “full,” or perhaps better, occupied, is to say that maybe the need is not so clear.

In the houses built by the residents of the Bathtub, as they call their low-lying Gulf island, poverty registers as an accumulation of material objects in a small space. The risk of romanticizing deprivation is clearly present. It is negotiated by a contrast with the spaces of governmentality, when the Bathtub is evacuating for “health” reasons after a hurricane. The sanitary but depressing geometric spaces of the shelter show those who don’t have to live in them why homeless people often avoid such spaces. It further suggests that having Hushpuppy narrate the story is not a “child’s eye view,” as most reviews suggest, but the wild view, the untrained and unrestrained way of seeing. Like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, Hushpuppy sees differently because she refuses the discipline and domination around her.

Wild seeing allows Hushpuppy to visualize her absent mother as or at a lighthouse. There’s a seeming dream sequence when she and the other children visit the lighthouse and find it to be a kind of speakeasy-cum-brothel, where the women all desire to mother the children. They don’t stay, it’s just a trip. And then there are the aurochs, prehistoric creatures, frozen into the ice, who come back to life as the glaciers melt. Hushpuppy can see the aurochs, just as we all breathe atoms of prehistoric air released by ice melt.

The Bathtub folk choose to remain in their flooded and devastated wild dwellings, even at great cost to personal health. The vibrancy of this vitalism is expressed by the driving Cajun soundtrack, one of many similarities between Beasts and Treme. Disaster survival and the physical deprivation that comes with it can, it is suggested, generate meaningful alternatives.

For all the dynamism of this wilding, Beasts is a film about loss and it leaves you feeling devastated. Wink dies and Hushpuppy walks across a flooded causeway into our mutual uncertain future, where the waters are rising, and we don’t know what to do or how to live. This isn’t a perfect film. It begins the possibility of imagining a re-wilding of social space, of the costs we are going to pay as living bodies for the climate change caused by the phantoms of financial debt, and of new ways to visualize that situation. Go see it.

Imagine No Borders

Very early this morning Australia time, I saw John Lennon singing “imagine no possessions” as part of the Olympic closing ceremony. Kim Gavin has used the often blander-than-bland Olympic ceremonial to restate a case for Britishness as a form of collective and international experience. It’s a revisualizing of the national imagination (hence “Imagine”) that was surprisingly effective, recapturing some of the energy of the Make Poverty History and Jubilee 2000 campaigns. What’s next? How about this: “imagine no borders.”

For this positive version of the national was then undermined during the course of the day by a dispiriting debate in the Australian media about immigration and asylum seekers. It seems that the 4500 asylum seekers a year who reached Australia last year has gone up to 7500 this year. Actually, they make their way to a piece of land that is “Australia,” not usually the mainland but a remote island, or get picked up by Australian navy vessels at sea. When I was last here in 2001, the country was convulsed with a debate following the decision of then-Prime Minister John Howard to turn asylum seekers away. A vessel named the SS Tampa was the flashpoint, with Howard falsely claiming that asylum seekers had thrown their children in the sea to compel a rescue by the Norwegian vessel.

Since then, Australian government has taken a series of repressive measures against immigration, forcing asylum seekers to be “processed” offshore for a period in locations like Nauru, an island threatened by sea-level rise, devastated by mining and desperate for revenue. Today the Labor government accepted a report proposing that asylum seekers again be processed on Nauru or Manus Island. The opposition are against this, not for humanitarian reasons, but because they want the boats to be turned back altogether. They all agree that having a family member in Australia should no longer be grounds for asylum. Only the Greens are willing to denounce the whole affair.

Here is one of those aspects of the nation-state that elude me. I don’t get why America can’t do anything about guns, why Britain is obsessed with the monarchy and so on. By this token, why is a continent-sized country with a population of only 18 million so exercised about this small number of migrants, people so desperate that they are willing to sail the Pacific in small, leaky boats? Is it so impossible to imagine living together?

The glib answer would talk about long histories of Australian racism, and perhaps there’s something to that, but it doesn’t fit in so well with the current effort to visualize Australia not as part of the Northern Anglophone sphere so much as a key hub in the Asia-Pacific region. On the street and in the media, it’s a notably more diverse self-image than it was a decade ago.

Perhaps it’s all just too hard to imagine–or better, to make coherent from a single point of view. I remember standing on a beach in Rarotonga, part of the Cook Islands. At that low level, there’s an optical illusion in which the sea appears to be higher than the land and it gave me a kind of vertigo. It wasn’t that you felt that the sea would in fact drown you, but that it was overwhelmingly obvious what a minute data point one person is in relation to a space the size of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve had that sensation quite frequently during Occupy, when the sheer bulk of capitalism appears dizzying. It’s as if you are at risk of disappearing into the vanishing point of the perspective created by the nation-state.

I was reminded of the experience by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Tuvalu (pronounced Two-VAH-loo). This tiny atoll nation is only two metres above sea level on average and the reporter Matt Seigel experienced the strange effect of seeing the sea as “above.” Tuvalu has strenuously campaigned to make the threat to its existence from sea-level rise part of the international agenda, with limited results. Some islands have already been evacuated and the government wants to secure a destination for its population of 10,500. No one seems willing to admit them, although there seems to be an assumption that in the end New Zealand will do so.

Tuvalu is not a paradise (above, the garbage dump on Funafuti). There’s issues with water, garbage, fish supplies and so on. One thing is clear from interviews with local people. None of them want to leave. Instead of doing something to make it more likely that they can stay, government policies have been directed towards preventing them from leaving a flooded land.

But why is it so hard to imagine no borders? Money has no borders, it moves freely wherever people choose to send it. Yet the longer “globalization” has gone on, the harder it has become for people to go where they want. Border checks are longer, more capricious, and more overtly hostile than ever. There is, it seems, a certain comfort to be had from the smack of authoritarianism. You are not in charge, but at least someone appears to be. Can we imagine the vertigo of embracing the vanishing point, in which there are no borders, only people, and the not terribly complicated things that they want and need?


After Visual Culture

Remember when being interdisciplinary seemed cool? if you’re under 30 you won’t. There was a time in academia when crossing the formally defined boundaries of established disciplines was transgressive in and of itself. So when visual culture set itself up as a field about 1991, it was so exciting to challenge fusty old fields like art history and link to the-then new areas of film studies and cultural studies.

So exciting that we failed to notice the way in which new modes of visualization were being deployed in the Revolution in Military Affairs that was transforming global military strategy after the Cold War. In fact, some would argue that it was the RMA that ended the Cold War by making the Soviet Union and its allies feel compeled to invest massively in information technologies that could not compete with their Western counterparts.

A Visual Culture Reader that I edited appeared in 1998. Its opening section was a careful attempt to measure how critics had moved away from art history under the influence of feminism and Marxism. The book was used widely at first only by studio artists, who were and are far more open to new ideas than most academics. When the book was planned in 1996, I was using a browser called Mosaic and the Internet was not considered as important as the imagined future of Virtual Reality.

Second edition

Of course, very soon that was clearly a mistake. In 2002, a second edition of the Reader was issued that was conceived as addressing the Internet revolution and moving on from the disciplinary debates into the greener pastures of “the new interdisciplinary field of visual culture,” as the back cover had it. Just as I was drafting the introduction 9-11 happened. Visual culture became belatedly aware of its connections to militarization and the decade that followed was often known as the “war of images.”

The mantra

9-11/ Shock and Awe/ Abu Ghraib/ Hurricane Katrina

came to express the rationale for the field as well as constituting the core of any class or syllabus. So for a long time a Reader formed in the moment when the Cold War became global counterinsurgency served its audience very well.

VCR3 cover

Today a new Reader came out. It’s one that sets aside aspirations of transforming universities from within and returns to a perhaps older project of connecting to social movements outside and across universities. Motivated by a sense that it no longer served its contemporary moment, this new Reader was compiled as the Arab Spring was sowing the seeds for the Indignados and Occupy. So other than the last comments added in to my Introduction, the essays don’t directly address Occupy.

That said, many of the writers have been significantly involved in the movement in many different ways. And we all came together in agreement that when the police said to us “Move on, there’s nothing to see here,” we knew that they were lying. So in this volume, the concern is with visualizing and who has the authority to claim to visualize. How do we claim the right to look, prior to and outside of all law? What autonomy is there to be found in the mutual invention of each other? We decided that the collective name for these questions would be critical visuality studies. It’s an open name for an ongoing project. Given the current state of higher education, there won’t be university departments or degrees and perhaps that’s a good thing. Can we say, our eyes are open now? (not literally, in case the trolls are reading).

Just as with each previous iteration of this Reader, it has emerged into a moment of transformative change in which it may help some people see further and help them imagine what to do next. There won’t be another print version of the book. The time for bulky volumes is over. So we really went to town on this one with lots of pictures, full-length essays, photo essays, and fifty contributions, mostly written new for this book.

From here, the participants are taking up the challenge of the times by setting up militant research projects in New York and Los Angeles that will begin with the questions that the movement has posed to artists, critics and writers and work them out together.

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.


Now–the right to look

Today was the opening of a conference that I helped convene in New York called Now! Visual Culture. It’s not an Occupy event as such but it takes place in the context of Occupy and many people attending are involved in the movement. It’s in my academic area, the anti-discipline of visual culture.

Now! Visual Culture

It turns out that we know a good deal about what visual culture is now. It’s a performative network, by which I mean a network created by the actions of those humans and non-humans within it. There are visual subjects and objects within a regime of visuality. The visual object, something that is looked at in all senses, has its own set of desires, powers and possibilities. The visual subject can be human, a person that looks or visualizes, or non-human, such as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or an imaging satellite. These latter devices are the agents of necropolitics, visualizing those who must die, even if a human takes the decision whether or not to fire on the visualized target– no visualization, no decision.

The interplay of visual subject and object takes place in a situation that is not of their choosing, which I call the regime of visuality. A given regime attempts to classify what there is to be seen and to separate those so classified into the groups that it creates, such as insurgents and host population; settlers and natives; black and white. At present, we can, as it were, see this regime. So when the police say to us, as they have so often in the past eight months, “move on, there’s nothing to see here,” we reply: “I would prefer not to.” It turns out, then, that visual culture has not become a discipline (with departments and so on) because it is foundationally anti-authoritarian.

And so we occupy, physically and mentally. In so doing, we find each other. We invent each other. We claim the right to look. We have now seen each other face to face, on livestream, on Twitter, on Facebook, on social media and in hearing the call of the other, in its murmuring, its casseroles, its chants. And now the question becomes, what should we do with that right to look?

We began to address that question today with 15 five minute presentations, or lightning talks, a format I borrowed from new media conferences. People from France, Norway, Mexico, Iraq, Nigeria, the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany and the US presented. Presenters ranged from graduate students to professors, artists, and new media practitioners. They were more or less self-selected people who had asked to present. Yet four clear themes emerged

  • Now: Occupy from the US to Canada and Nigeria
  • Why: War, trauma and memory
  • Where: Interfaces in digital and analog culture
  • Here: Segregation and the (trans/post)national

I hate to single out any one moment but the image that stays with me in the context of this project was this extraordinary photograph taken in Lagos when the entire city of 14 million people rose up to Occupy Nigeria in protest against IMF/World Bank inspired gas price rises.

Lagos, Nigeria. Courtesy Awam Amkpa.

I had heard of Occupy Nigeria via Twitter but I had no idea what it had really been. Even Montreal seems “small” by comparison.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the horizontalism that I first experienced at unconferences organized by hackers, and is now the process of Occupy, was well received by the people at the event. What was pleasantly surprising was the large turn-out, requiring people to stand and sit on the floor in the largest auditorium we have available. More exciting than that was the positive atmosphere, the sense of excitement that I have felt so missing in academic life. Perhaps, as horizontalism disseminates away from the sites of occupation into the disciplinary institutions it can work a form of internal revolution by anti-discipline.

More follows.

How to do horizontal learning: two projects

Sometimes I feel that it would be useful to be an anthropologist. I’ve spent the past day oscillating between organizing two different kinds of horizontal learning projects, one with Occupy, the other in academia. It would be great to be able to analyze why and how the projects get constrained. So here’s my amateur take. Both are trying to work horizontally with different sets of constraints. In academia, there are some financial resources but a lot of vertical bureaucracy. In Occupy, there is the possibility to do whatever we want but it all must be done in the gaps of people’s personal and professional lives. It’s not as simple as Occupy: good/Academia: bad. The question in both instances is really: why do we do all this anyway?

Yesterday was the beginning of OWS Summer Reboot. If that sounds a little familiar, there was indeed a similar process back in January. If the sense then was that different groups needed more autonomy within the architecture of the movement, now people are concerned that we lack co-ordination. Without a GA or spokescouncil, and with announcements of events coming over Facebook and other social media to which not everyone has access, it can be hard to determine what’s going on–as we shall see!

There was an impressive run-down of all the activities people are involved in now. OWS may not have the mass movement of Quebec but there is so much interesting work happening. Facilitation broke these activities down into breakouts and there was one on education and the student movements that I attended. While some of us had been involved for a long time, there were also people from Occupy Latin America (yes, I know it’s already been occupied but these people are from there, can we move on?) and Canadian students brought in by the recent events.

The result was a great meeting in which we talked about connecting all the different actions going on around our areas by means of a hemispheric emphasis and talking about education as a whole from K-21 (ie kindergarten to grad school). In practical terms, we discussed an aggregating website to pull together all the different threads of education activity, and it turns out OWS Tech Ops has already made tools we can use. We decided to hold assemblies to begin a discussion as to what values we place on learning as we go forward. There’s been so much negative talk about debt and unemployment that it sometimes can feel unclear why we do this at all. And then we want to start planning for September so that when the school year begins we have plans in place.

Everyone left with great enthusiasm for the new project. I had a flashback to the moment when back in September I went to the Liberty Plaza information tent–there was one! next to the Red Thing–and asked where the Education meeting was, and the slightly scary looking person gave me excellent directions to 60 Wall Street. Only eight months ago, it feels a lot longer. Anyway. We all then went off and organized three separate events for this Sunday in Washington Square Park. A mad round of emails and calls later, the assemblies were consolidated for 12pm Sunday and it’s going to be very interesting. There’s some serious co-ordinating and web work to be done to prevent this kind of organizing chaos from recurring–it was not a disaster but it took a lot of time, which is a resource most of us don’t really have.

My academic project on the current state of visual culture is a participation event, meaning a conference that emphasizes participation over papers, no keynotes, lots of short presentations, workshops and discussions. There are sessions on debt and academic labor and a general assembly, none of which would  have happened before the Occupy movement. There’s training in digital skills, which, as we can see, we definitely need.

The real question hovering over us is more substantial. For a long time we got credit, or gave ourselves credit, for being “interdisciplinary,” which is not that hard to do, and even more so for being “political.” This usually meant saying things hostile to the Bush administration that troubled them not very much at all–again, this is self-criticism, yes.

Now we face a dual challenge. On the one hand, conservatives have started open calls to shut down departments that don’t send students into well-paid jobs. This is close to government policy in the UK. At the same time, debt model of financing has become unsustainable and immoral. On the other hand, we need to be taking part in the messy, horizontal discussion of what we now mean by politics and by education, a conversation in which our hard won credentials don’t count for much. We’re going to need some humility and openness, qualities not often associated with academia. Nonetheless, the thousands that are demonstrating across the hemisphere believe in the value of what we do, and it’s time to reclaim that from the bureaucrats.

Will either of these projects work? Watch this space over the next couple of days.

The rhythm of the global movement

The new wave of global protest is inventing public space in global cities. Global capital likes space to be isomorphic and consistent–like a McDonalds hamburger, it should look, taste and feel the same wherever you actually happen to find yourself. In this world-view, there is no such thing as public space in global cities. The global precariat–meaning precarious workers, or everyone who doesn’t benefit from capital investment– is inventing it. It’s a globally mediated combination of certain sounds and certain actions. The “movement” is about learning how that goes and what to do about it.

Since 2011 we’ve seen a wave of efforts to reimagine bodies, spaces and lives resistant to, or outside of, the flows of finance capital. The first tactic was “take the squares,” a specific effort to reinvent the space of circulation into one of belonging. It flowed from Tahrir to Sol, Syntagma, Zuccotti, St Paul’s, Pershing and many more. Zuccotti was the exception that proved the rule, a fragment of striated space in the frictionless smooth zones of hyperpoliced finance capital’s capital. Otherwise these spaces were well-known locations in historic centers of power. As such, they were in many cases all too easy for determined police to retake with the obvious exception of Tahrir. Indeed, since the revolution, the military regime has isolated the revolution “in” Tahrir, that is to say, the conceptual space of the movement.

So when we say that the movement is about “bodies in space,” we’re saying a set of interrelated things that we’re learning to understand as we go along:

  1. That the body is any body, not one (un)marked by codes of ethnicity, race, gender, able-ism, sexual orientation etc.
  2. That this body “moves,” both literally in the ways that it can depending on its age, capacities and desires, and also conceptually in that it refuses to stay in its “place,” the place allocated to it by authority.
  3. That this movement, which is also a refusal to “move on” as the police want us to do, invents mediated public space that did not previously exist, whether by occupying, marching, dancing, or displaying.
  4. That this movement is not any movement whatever but has a rhythm, one that is altogether different to the metronomic beat of capital’s 1-2-3-4.
  5. That this rhythm reclaims and invents the time that gives the new public space dimension.
  6. That these interactions are disseminated globally by video/photo/MP3 using social media and that this mediation is constitutive of resistant global space.
  7. It is unlimited/illimité/ilimitado.

In this video from Montréal that everyone loves, you can see this process at work. Filmed two days ago, edited yesterday, a global talking point today:

What if you don’t happen to have a thousand people available? Since 2008, the Spanish anti-capitalist activist collective flo6x8 have been reterritorializing the “any space whatever” of global capital. They use Spanish regional music and dance to disrupt its smooth flow with rhythms and sounds that cannot help but recall their North African origin.

Yesterday they intervened at a branch of Bankia, the nationalized amalgam of savings banks (thanks to Matthew Bain for pointing this one out to me).  Bankia announced that the 11 billion euro bail out they need is more like 19 billion. While this sum may seem minimal to those of us accustomed to the staggering amounts handed over to US and UK banks, in Spain, caught as it is between falling revenues due to the crisis and European Union-mandated austerity, this is a real number.  flo6x8 adapt a flamenco to lament this and to draw bank customers into their dance:

Here, just for fun, is an action from February this year in Barcelona, where the bank customers really get into it:

OWS is starting to work in this frame. It’s important to point out that the Spanish actions have roots in the long anti-fascist struggle and the depth of Spain’s financial crisis since 2008. Canadian organizers have been pointing out that their student strike is the result of two years hard work and the historical situation of Quebec.

The “New York” that is imagined as the epicenter of neo-liberal finance capital has visualized itself outside of historical space and time since its neo-liberal reinvention in the 1980s. Activist movements have been localized and divided. So OWS was, as many have pointed out, enabled in considerable part by the global experience and diversity of its activists. We still have much to learn.

Starting today, OWS is holding Summer Disobedience School at a variety of locations in Manhattan, combining non-violent direct action training with skill shares and teach-ins.

I’m going to go even though I don’t do many of the disruptive direct actions because what the rhythm of the movement from Montreal to Mexico City is teaching me is simply that we have a lot to learn.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

Twilight is when the shadow city can best be seen and unseen, moving in and out of perception at the corners of our eyes. To see it is to see otherwise, an altervision. You may be called mad. For seeing inside and outside is a way of thinking alien to the police. As Brian Thill writes in his wonderful journal today, describing the scene in Zuccotti Park the day before the confrontations of March 17:

And this was the one thing that struck me most about the nature of the police in this twilight time, as they leaned against their cars or cracked jokes with their co-workers: “the police” is really the name for the conjunction of brute force and the absolute inability to imagine.

The twilight–my favorite time, the noir time of day, linking Baudelaire’s crépescule to The Twilight Zone, a time for imagining.

Let’s try some twilight visualizing, as an exercise in not thinking like the police–whether the disciplinary, thought, political, or what have you police.

In Walter Benjamin’s noir set in Paris, The Arcades Project, the altervisionary was the color-blind engraver and colonial explorer Charles Meryon. His city was cross-hatched, full of revolutionary shadows.

Meryon--The Ministry of the Navy--Fictions and Vows

At the left, jutting into the space, is the Ministry of the Navy and the Colonies, with whom Meryon had long disputes following his service. On the ground, horsebacked troops or police, with some footsoldiers, spin in confusion. For above them, there where there should not be anything to see, is an advancing formation of marine creatures.It is a work of artistic revolt–the engraving, like the marine painting, was considered a “minor” genre, irrelevant to the grand work of History painting.

The scene is also one of memory work–the Ministry abuts the Place de la Révolution, where the guillotine had done its work. Renamed the Place de la Concorde by the Directory in 1795, it was colonized by Napoleon with the placement of an Egyptian obelisk that he had removed from Luxor. There’s another one in Central Park. In 1858 the Ministry of Navy and Colonies had begun the French colonial venture into Vietnam with what they called the Cochinchina War, leading to the establishment of a fully-fledged colony in 1864 with its capital in Saigon. We know how that turned out.

Meryon’s liminal engraving with its deep cross-hatched shadows visualized the intersection of empire and revolution with its sky-borne multitude, not quite real and yet clearly visible to the ground-bound police. Shortly after he completed this piece, he was interred in the Charenton, a notorious “asylum” for the insane.” He was released only to die.

Cross-hatch a bit further: the Ministry of the Navy was the Kreigsmarine under the German Occupation. I remember standing in the Place in 1984 at an anti-racism rally where a group of outraged French Resistance veterans pointed out the former Gestapo headquarters right next door to the Ministry. One of them was Stéphane Hessel, whose manifesto Indignez-Vous! [Get Mad!] (2010) was a formative influence in the Indignés movement that prefigured Occupy. In short, that’s us, up in the sky in the Meryon.

Cross-hatching was a term adopted by the novelist China Miéville for his noir/science fantasy The City and the City. Two cities co-exist in the same topographical space. Some spaces are total (in one city only), while many others are cross-hatched–partly in one, partly in the other. Citizens learn to negotiate this space by “unseeing,” a willed avoidance of attention.To fail to observe the divide is to “breach,” entailing catastrophic intervention by a mysterious uber-police known only as Breach.

Miéville insists that his work is not an allegory and we’re coming to understand why. Reviewing the book a year ago, Henry Farrell pointed out in the Boston Review:

Middle-class Americans and Europeans commonly unsee the homeless who are around them, affecting not to perceive them except as physical impediments to be circumnavigated. The homeless are recognized by their clothes, their gait, their way of being in the world, and in that act of recognition are dismissed.

Change “homeless” to “Occupy” and we have a good assessment of how the mainstream media and citizenry are dealing with the movement by “unseeing” it. If we stir, it is as a “remnant,” a twilight manifestation that is not quite real and should be avoided for fear of “breach.”

China Miéville is now working on a revived 1960s DC comic, Dial H for Hero. In the original comic, anyone who dialed H-E-R-O on the special phone would become a hero. For visualization, this is no ordinary word. Generals began visualizing battlefields in the late eighteenth century and then the idea was (as it were) generalized to “heroes,” Thomas Carlyle’s own fantasy about all-powerful autocrats who alone could “visualize” history (his word). The concepts that leaders have “vision” and that “great men make history” are still central to mainstream notions of authority. Carlyle argued that the modern hero Napoleon first demonstrated his visuality when he turned his artillery on the revolutionary crowd in Paris in 1795. Bloomberg, Kelly and their ilk likewise imagine themselves to be heroes.

Dial H for Hero

In the new twilight of Miéville’s version of the comic, the heroes are just as hostile to the citizenry as Carlyle’s monstrous autocrats. The background of this image seems to be a cross-hatching of psychogeographies, the Situationist way of attaching feeling to space.

Don’t Dial H for Hero. There are none waiting in the shadows. It is us who wait there, unseeing, learning now to unsee our unseeing, and finding that we don’t recognize the twilight zone we have emerged into.


The American Spring: Debt, Segregation and the Limits of the Unspeakable

Sign in Union Square

If there is to be an “American Spring,” as so many of us hope, it is now possible to see its emerging boundaries: a refusal both of the failure to change the real conditions that provoked the Civil Rights movement, and of endebted or indentured life.These boundaries have become literally unspeakable in everyday life. There is no racism, we are told, and any infringement is severely reprimanded. Debt, on the other hand, is purely and simply a moral failing on the part of the debtor, unspeakable because it is shaming.

These, then, are the boundaries of the unspeakable: debt and segregation. If there is the living legacy of chattel slavery on the one side, there is the present existence of debt servitude on the other. Many are on both sides of this sorry equation, which is resolved and kept stable only by the existence of the prison-industrial complex, which is so discriminatory that it has become known as “the New Jim Crow.” This is the true “American exceptionalism”–the willingness to imprison millions, have millions more in the criminal justice system, and countless multitudes in permanent debt. None of this may be spoken, except in terms of particular cases of failure, known as “tragedies.”

The Million Hoodie March, Union Square

If there is an American Spring, it will have the name Trayvon Martin. Just as the Egyptian uprising took the name Khaled Said to symbolize police oppression and the Tunisian revolution took that of Mohammed Bouzazi, the fruit seller who immolated himself in protest at the failure of the state. In just the same way, Trayvon Martin’s death is not a “tragedy” in the classical sense (in which the “hero” would come to grief over a tragic flaw) but the tragically likely outcome of a segregated punishment society.

The key form of that punishment other than prison is debt. By making personal and systemic endebtedness “speakable,” activists and writers from the famous, like David Graeber, to the most anonymous “We Are the 99%” Tumblr poster, or Occupy sign-maker have opened another side of the new space for political action. Personal debt from student loans, cars and credit cards now stands at $2.5 trillion. Add in mortgages at about $13 trillion and you have a good approximation of US gross national product, about $15.3 trillion. No one can imagine this to be sustainable or solvable, yet it cannot be discussed.

By giving a name to the persistence of segregation and racialized division in this country, despite and/or because of Obama’s election, the senseless death of Trayvon Martin has given that space another dimension. Please be careful to note that I do not think his death was thus “useful” in any way. Rather, this pointless act of violence has simply given a name to the pointless persistence of racialized punishment that subtends the policing of the United States.

As of this writing 1.4 million people have signed the petition for justice in Trayvon’s case in a remarkably short time. The unspeakable persistence of segregation now has a name and a moment. It does not exist as a single question of rectification. When George Zimmerman is convicted, it will be a rupture in the systemic structure of “move on, there’s nothing to see here” that has so hegemonically policed the social as a whole.

At that point, a new space to see and speak, to say what there is to see, will have formed. It will be the space for a politics in which the limits of possibility will be redrawn. The American Spring will have happened.