shock

I’ve been thinking a little more about habit, and what I said earlier, without wanting to go back and edit that entry.

I said that

in general terror and habit are opposed. Terror seizes up all the processes that had become habitual, semi-automatic: it forces us to rethink our habits, by making us self-conscious about getting on the tube, sitting in an aeroplane, doing our shopping, seeing people with rucksacks, or whatever. Terror shocks us out of our routines; that’s part of its trauma and most of its objective.

Now, that too is ambivalent. Without becoming an apologist for terror, if it makes us rethink a thing or two, then that’s no bad thing.

Prevailing political discourse is rather contradictory on this point. On the one hand, it would have us, if possible, ignore terror and go on our merry way without changing our habits in the slightest. The fact that tube trains were (almost) full a few days after the attacks on the London Underground was touted as a victory for British stoicism, common sense, the “spirit of the Blitz” and so on. Meanwhile, the fact that the bombings on the Madrid train system may well have influenced the subsequent election has been portrayed as “giving in to terror,” as allowing the terrorists to win.

On the other hand, we are to be eternally vigilant, to “learn the lessons” that terror has taught. The same people who denounce Spaniards for “giving in” are likely also to describe the attacks on New York and Washington as a “wake-up call” to rouse us out of our earlier somnolence, finally to do something about, whatever, the threat of Muslim fundamentalism or (in the case of the London incidents) the precariousness of multiculturalism.

I think it might be more helpful to think of terror as a “shock to thought” (to borrow a phrase from Brian Massumi) that occupies two temporalities. First, in the event itself, time stands still. Habit is suspended. Thought (by which I now mean the whole biological nervous and synaptic apparatus) is paralyzed. A pause, a ghastly instant of indecision, of an impossibility to decide (run, hide, fight, flight). Confusion. Even sensation may be in abeyance (“I didn’t even realize I’d been hurt.”) This is the time of the bomb itself, and it is almost outside of politics.

Second, after the event, a new, narrative temporality emerges. This is the time of explanation and recrimination, the elaboration of justifications, apologies, denunciations, or retaliations. Here the non-political event of terror itself is politicized, narrativized, given sense and coherence. Old narratives and habits may be resumed, recycled, reclaimed, but this is also an opportunity for the articulation of new, post-crisis analysis or political projects. Which would also help engender new habits, new ways of being.

And if terror has been put to use by the right (as it undoubtedly has been, to provide justification for imperial adventures in the Middle East and so on), why can it not be put to use by the left?

state

Over at I cite, Jodi Dean has posted an essay on “Political Theory and Cultural Studies”.

She’s rather positive about British Cultural Studies, though only really discusses Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism, and nothing that Hall wrote while he was at the Centre, for instance. She says of Cultural Studies that “in a context of struggle with Marxism, and as an effort to understand and contest a newly emerging right wing alliance that had come to power in the wake of widespread social, economic, and political disruption—’authoritarian populism,'” it achieved “analytical power and political purchase, indeed, truth” (17). Less mention is made, therefore, of the fact that for Hall it was Thatcherism that showed up Cultural Studies’ (or at least the Centre’s) manifest failure: Thatcherism’s success as a hegemonic project was a rebuke to the Left’s inability to do more than watch, appalled, from the sidelines.

She then argues that as some of the ideas and approaches of British Cultural Studies crossed the Atlantic and become influential within (at least some parts of) US Political Theory, “a sense of the dominance of cultural politics (as opposed to the marginality of a venture called cultural studies), on the one hand, with the demands of political science, on the other, formatted political theory’s cultural turn so as to distance it from the state” (17). In the culture wars, everything, and so nothing, became political. Rather, however, than lambaste either US political theory or US Cultural Studies, she argues that this mutation is itself determined by a new phase of sovereignty: “Despite the depoliticization the claim perversely effects, the notion that everything is political marks a change in the political situation of late-capitalism, namely, the decentering or changed role of the state” (21).

I’d argue, by contrast, that Cultural Studies had lost sight of the state long before its 1980s or 1990s expansion to North America. Where, after all, is the state in Culture and Society? Pretty marginal. If there was a flurry of attention to state processes at the Centre in the mid 1970s, for which the best example is probably Policing the Crisis, this was above all thanks to the influence of Althusser (whom Dean never mentions). Once Althusser was sloughed off, in large part thanks to Hall’s appropriation of Gramsci via Laclau’s endorsement of populism as politics, Cultural Studies (British as well as American) could return to its populist impulses, and leave the state behind with hardly a glance in its direction thereafter.

What’s most interesting is the slippage or sleight of hand at the heart of a movement such as Cultural Studies, and indeed at the heart of all populisms: a movement that claims to have the state in its sights, as it champions popular expression against domination from above, but which at almost the last moment loses sight of the state, putting a fetishized conception of culture in its place. And it is, of course, the concept of hegemony that enables this depoliticizing substitution.