Nope, not the postcolonial theorist.

Thanks to my recent membership in the British International Studies Association, I receive news of SAID, the “Sovereignty and its Discontents” seminar. Their purpose is as follows:

It is clearly the right time to reassess the value and meanings of the concept of sovereignty. Trends in world politics are contradictory, and more fluid than they have ever been. The SAID workshop situates itself at the forefront of this debate, and aims to push the discipline of IR into the twenty-first century. (BISA News 8)

They even have a website.

SAID are pushing (perhaps even inspired by) my friend Bill Rasch‘s book, which likewise goes under the title of Sovereignty and its Discontents. But Rasch’s perspective is basically Schmittian (albeit with all the caveats that such an assertion requires these days), while SAID’s would seem to be much more conventional International Relations, with an emphasis on (a global?) civil society.

Anyhow, they have a whole number of texts uploaded to their website. I’ll try to get through some of them one of these days.


I just received the latest issue (134) of Radical Philosophy. Though there is doubtless much else in this issue that’s worth reading, let me point you to David Murray and Mark Neocleous’s reaction to the news that Karl Marx was voted the greatest philosopher of all time. This is how their piece ends:

Marx did not win this poll at all. It was won by “Marx.” It was a shadow Marx, a spectral Marx, who was voted the Greatest Philosopher of All Time. The Marx who won this poll was an alternate being, a spectral being which exists in the ideological world, a figure in the phantasmagoria constructed by those who benefit most from having others buy this particular icon. “Marx” won, and so Marx–and Marxism–lost. Far from celebrating this as a victory, then, and enjoying the furious protestations of the conservative press, we should actually see it as a defeat. There must always be the shamshow of opposition, of a criticism that never takes to arms. (60; emphasis in original)

Of course it’s true that on the other hand, by way of Derrida, we might consider that Marx (and Marxism) has always been spectral, and that this is in part his (its) power. But still.


Reinaldo ArenasReinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls, the gay Cuban writer’s memoir, is saturated by death. It is as though, as far as Arenas is concerned, Castro’s revolution ushers in a reign of death.

Arenas reports that the fighting that preceded the Revolution was little more than a phoney war, “a war of words” whose “battles were more myth than reality” (43): Castro “won a war that had never been fought” (44). The killing, then, begins only once that war is over: “Many more were dying now than during the war that never was” (46).

So we’re told a series of stories almost all of which end, either integrally or as an afterthought, with an account of their characters’ demise. There’s the young man “escorted out of town and shot” for himself killing a young rebel (46). There’s Pedro Marinello, director of the course Arenas takes at the university, who “disappeared; he was said to be a CIA agent, the label pinned on anyone who shows any disagreement with Fidel Castro’s regime” (66).

There’s the Geography professor, Juan Pérez de la Riva, who tries repeatedly to kill himself but just when he had found happiness “got throat cancer; he no longer wanted to die, but die he did” (67). Arenas’s lover Miguel “was finally arrested and taken to a UMAP concentration camp. [. . .] I think they killed him at the concentration camp” (70). A Haydée Santamaría “ended up shooting herself” (71) while Héctor, Armando Rodríguez’s lover, “died in an accident while riding his motorcycle” (77).

Then the long episode describing Arenas’s time confined in the El Morro prison features a series of more or less spectacular demises, from those who jumped off the fortress rooftop to smash themselves to pieces on the rocks below (185) to La Macantaya, guillotined by other prisoners: “the headless body of the queer was discovered three days later because of the stench” (189). Another prisoner, La Maléfica, meanwhile, combines suicide and decapitation, swinging a “sharpened bar round and round and then, turning it with a fast sweep, cut[ting] his own throat. A self-beheading.” As Arenas rather dryly adds, “one witnesses such a scene once in a lifetime” (191).

But in fact he witnesses innumerable such scenes, such as the murder of Cara de Buey, stabbed in the back in the prison kitchen (194), or what happened to the boy nicknamed “El Niño,” killed while he slept by someone shoving “a metal rod into his back and it came out through his stomach” (195).

Through all this, somewhat ironically, the one person who seems unable to die is Arenas himself, despite attempting suicide once by taking a quantity of pills (“the doctor told me it was a miracle I was alive” [179]) and once by hanging himself on the end of his bed board (“the same prison doctor [. . .] told me, ‘You’re out of luck, you failed again'” [200]).

Arenas emerges as the great survivor, while all around him is death and destruction.

Of course, Before Night Falls was written in the shadow of Arenas’s own death, as his health declined from AIDS, and shortly before he finally (successfully) killed himself, in New York, in 1990. It’s no great surprise, then, that it should include such a meditation on death and on those who have died before him.

This biographical framing also, therefore, adds extra weight to the link that Arenas establishes between beauty and danger:

Sexual pleasure often exacts a high price; sooner or later we pay with years of sorrow for every moment of pleasure. It’s not God’s vengeance but that of the Devil, the enemy of everything beautiful. Beauty has always been dangerous. Martí said that everyone who is the bearer of light remains alone; I would say that anyone who takes part in certain acts of beauty is eventually destroyed. Humanity in general does not tolerate beauty, perhaps because we cannot live without it; the horror of ugliness advances day by day at an ever-increasing pace. (194)

Putting to one side, therefore, Arenas’s controversial anti-Castro stance, what’s interesting is the way in which he here raises his own (and others’) suffering at the hands of the Cuban regime to the level of a cosmic struggle between the Devil and beauty.

Beauty is precious and endangered: El Niño is killed because of his pristine innocence, his “face where terror had not yet left its mark” (194). Beauty is easily crushed by the restrictions of politics and confinement: “prison is a monstrosity where love turns into bestiality” (187).

Though his life could easily be seen as a tale of tragedy and waste–poverty, imprisonment, censorship, illness, suicide–and though his memoir scarcely flinches from horror, monstrosity, and death, Arenas suggests that these hardships have come from his perpetual struggle for life, for beauty. That he has always rather been true to his “own being’s innermost desires” than be “a poor, resigned creature full of frustrations with no urge for rebellion” (197).

And that, in the end, his has been a life well lived.


José Piedra’s “Hip Poetics” is a dense web of analysis and allusion, tracing the double displacement of the rumba, from Africa to the US (and so the world) via Cuba, the first of a wave of “Afro-Latin rhythm[s] serving and eroticizing the world” (113). Piedra is particularly interested in the sexual politics of this dance dialogue, which is both a complex exchange between male and female dancer, and a spectacularization (and commodification) of the female, Afro-Latina, body. He argues that

ultimately, what the rumba contributes to the deadly challenging course, intercourse, and discourse of the marginal is a tradition of awareness tucked away in a poetics of desperation that is capable of generating a subversive hip poetics both at the national and international level. (108)

His reference to the “desperation” of those who use this often seedy, ostensibly demeaning dance to establish some sense of place in the world indicates that Piedra’s intent is far from simple celebration: “the rumba is not, per se, a solution to feminist calls for liberation; it remains a choice and a challenge for certain women who pay dearly for it” (108).

Hence the rumba’s “heroines” (from the now anonymous prostitutes who popularized the dance in Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s to Carmen Miranda, Celia Cruz, or Gloria Estefan) are also “‘martyrs’ of a desperate language of convulsive bits, beats, and bites” (113).

Celia Cruz
“In the realm of the rumba,” Piedra claims,

women superficially hyperact, and thus subversively claim for themselves and counteract demeaning traits that have been traditionally assigned to, revoked from, and theatrically imposed upon them by a predominantly male-run establishment. (124)

In other words, Piedra’s argument is (not so far from Diana Taylor’s) about the ambivalent possibilities of performance, of what he here terms “hyperact[ing],” to put into sharp, and so critical, relief the gender roles to which subaltern women are condemned.

Encoded within the rumba, or rather encoded within its masculinist code as “a hidden code within another code” (122), Piedra finds embodied self-assertion. The dance’s characteristic jutting hip serves as “a feisty source of poetics” (96) and also warns patriarchy that, in the words of an Akan proverb, “women’s violent shakings of the hips kill (that is, give them power over men)” (98). The rumba “turn[s] a meaningless body part into a signifying bodily attitude, compliance into defiance” (96).

But why “signifying”? Surely, as Piedra himself suggests when he notes the ways in which “the man’s movements become the signified to the woman’s signifier” (103), signification is itself the capture of affect by social order. It is precisely in so far as the dance’s bodily affect is in excess of such signifying codes that a counter-code–or, better, decoding–is effected.

It is because this Afro-Latin rhythm is not exhausted either by its commercialization or by its patriarchal interpretation that it can preserve affective memories of the African deity Sikán, “a central anticolonialist source/force” and “the ultimate model for the transatlantic rumba” (120). Hence, beyond the critical distance that the fact of performance interpolates between subject and image,

the rite of the rumba advocates a performance and presence of women’s rights that should be sensed rather than felt, filled, or otherwise fulfilled–that is enough reason for her not to be named or otherwise rendered obvious, readily intelligible, or easily had other than as a scornful stripper on the other side of the lights. (123)

On the other hand, however, this article raises many doubts. I’m not convinced by the display of etymological roots and so rootedness that traces such a linear transmission of meaning from West Africa to the Miami Sound Machine or Carnegie Hall.

Nor am I convinced by Piedra’s own refusal of the “obvious” or the “readily intelligible,” his (desperate or other) attempts, by writing so allusively and eclectically, to appear himself so very “hip.”


The final chapter of Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception adds a third term for power to the couplet of constituent and constituted power: to potentia and potestas is added auctoritas, “authority.” I suspect that this concept is a useful corrective or addition to Negri’s theory of power, and that it might clarify some of what remains obscure or contradictory in his and Hardt’s theory of Empire.

Auctoritas is a figure of sovereign power, and yet it “has nothing to do with the potestas or the imperium of the magistrates or the people” (78). Auctoritas supplements and legitimates potestas: “the auctoritas patrum intervenes to ratify the decisions of the popular comitia and make them fully valid” (78).

At the same time, it is auctoritas that has the power to suspend potestas, to announce the state of exception, and it is auctoritas that is the force of suspended law (“force of law,” as Agamben calls it) that holds sway in the absence of constituted power. Agamben therefore concludes that

auctoritas and potestas are clearly distinct, and yet together they form a binary system. [. . .] auctoritas seems to act as a force that suspends potestas where it took place and reactivates it where it was no longer in force. It is a power that suspends or reactivates law, but is not formally in force as law. (78, 79)

The “essence” of auctoritas is that it is a “power that can at once ‘grant legitimacy’ and suspend law [. . .]. It is what remains of law if law is wholly suspended.” It is, adds Agamben, in this sense “not law but life–law that blurs at every point with life” (80).

Auctoritas is the very figure of biopolitics, the sovereign pole to be set against Agamben’s other paradigmatic image of the biopolitical, the “bare life” of the camps, of Guantánamo. Agamben can therefore contrast “the biopolitical tradition of auctoritas” to “the legal tradition of potestas” (84). Auctoritas is the biopolitical anchor for constituted power.

Caesar AugustusImmanent to life, auctoritas is fully embodied, incarnate in the collective body of the Senate or in the person of the Emperor. It is auctoritas that the Emperor embodies, not power as such:

The Roman principate [. . .] is not a magistracy, but an extreme form of auctoritas. [Richard] Heinze has described this contrast perfectly: “Every magistracy is a preestablished form, which the individual enters into and which constitutes the source of his power; auctoritas, on the other hand, springs from the person, as something that is constituted through him, lives only in him, and disappears with him.” (82)

Auctoritas is therefore an affective form of power, comparable to what Weber termed “charisma,” which also “coincides with the neutralization of law and not with a more originary figure of power” (89).

Incarnate in the leader, in the Führer, in the President, auctoritas is something like the shadowy mirror image of potentia, of the constituent power embodied in the multitude. It is as though, with the figure of auctoritas, sovereignty offered a biopolitical double for potentia, in order to ground its (un)constitutional order.

Auctoritas might also be the figure for what elsewhere goes by the name of hegemony: some kind of explanation to the question as to why constituent power so often ends up, alienated and inverted, as constituted power. (A question that Negri never answers.) It is in and through auctoritas that potentia is harnessed to potestas: auctoritas is the transmission mechanism that simultaneously gives constituted power its (borrowed) life and deadens, blocks, constituent power.

Auctoritas, then, would be the fundamental articulation, “effective though fictional” (87), between multitude and state, “the fiction that governs the arcanum imperii [secret of power] par excellence of our time” (86).

But something has gone awry with this mechanism, in these posthegemonic times. Rather than articulating constituent to constituted power, auctoritas now stands revealed as the sole principle of power in the permanent state of exception whose roots Agamben traces in the period immediately following World War I. All that remains is the fictive embodiment of charisma, of affect, in individuals: Bush, Cheney, Blair (Saddam, Osama, Fidel?).

This is a mechanism that has “today reached its maximum worldwide deployment” (86), but only because it is simultaneously in crisis:

The ancient dwelling of law is fragile and, in straining to maintain its own order, is always already in the process of ruin and decay. The state of exception is the device that must ultimately articulate and hold together the two elements of the juridico-political machine by instituting a threshold of undecidability between anomie and nomos, between life and law, between auctoritas and potestas. (86)

But here Agamben has too quickly assimilated auctoritas back into potentia: for surely auctoritas is the fictive link itself, rather than one element in what it articulates.

And that articulating mechanism (perhaps, following Deleuze and Guattari, we would do better to think of it as a machinic synthesis) is predominant in the age of Empire, preserving only the remnants of transcendence in its immanent capture of potentia, found now in displaced form as charismatic gift of leadership, aura of self-confidence, but also corruption incarnate.


Pierre Bourdieu’s The Social Structures of the Economy landed on my doorstep today. I’ve had the briefest of skims through the book, which doesn’t at first sight seem all that interesting, but the following stands out, from the conclusion to the long first part (essentially a book of its own) on “The House Market”:

What we have addressed throughout this work is one of the major foundations on which the suffering of the petite bourgeoisie is built or, more exactly, on which are built all their little troubles and adversities, all the infringements of their freedom, the blows to their hopes and desires which load their existences down with worries, disappointments, frustrations, failures and also, almost inevitably, with melancholia and resentment. That suffering does not spontaneously prompt the sympathetic, compassionate or indignant reactions inspired by the great hardships of the proletarian or subproletarian condition. No doubt because the aspirations that underlie the dissatisfactions, disillusionments and tribulations of the petite bourgeoisie, who are pre-eminently the victims of symbolic violence, always seem to owe something to the complicity of the sufferers themselves, and to the mystified, extorted, alienated desires by which these modern incarnations of the Heautontimoroumenos conspire to bring about their own unhappiness. (185; my emphasis)

Now, it’s easy enough to see Bourdieu’s work as long preoccupied with the petite bourgeoisie, from, say, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art through to his sympathy for (and self-identification as) the “oblate” in Homo Academicus and even on to his particular brand of anti-globalization politics.

If Bourdieu has populist tendencies, then his is surely a populism of the petit bourgeois. He does here argues that “this ‘people,’ simultaneously petty-minded and triumphant, provides no source of comfort for the populist illusion” (186). But surely it was precisely the so-called C1s and C2s, the working class made good out in the Essex suburbs, that were the core of Thatcher’s populist base. And were not “Reagan Democrats” also quintessentially petit bourgeois?

But what’s most extraordinary is his description of the petite bourgeoisie as “pre-eminently the victims of symbolic violence.” To be fair, there’s an ambivalence here, perhaps introduced by the translation: Bourdieu could simply be saying that the petit bourgeois are more or less cushioned from physical or economic violence, and so feel the effects of symbolic violence all the more. But might he not also be suggesting that it is the petit bourgeois who are symbolic violence’s pre-eminent victims?

Say it ain’t so.

Meanwhile, I wonder about how all this connects with the burgeoning field of suburb studies.

Vancouver SpecialA “Vancouver Special”
Bourdieu is certainly no fan of the suburb, as he reveals in his discussion of suburban deprivation and

the statistically ordinary case of all those inhabitants of prefabricated houses in the so-called residential areas who, lured by the mirage of falsely “individual” housing (like the semi-detached houses on estates, which have almost all the same restrictions as a council flat), experience neither the solidarity of the old working-class districts, nor the isolation of the better-off areas: these people, who spend hours each day commuting to distant workplaces, are deprived of the relationships that formed within their neighbourhoods, particularly in and through trade union campaigns, without being able to create–in a place of residence where socially very homogeneous individuals are gathered together, but without the community of interests and affinities that ensue from belonging to the same world of work–the elective relationships of a leisure community. (189)

NB I think there’s again something up with the translation here (surely “environs” would be better than “neighbourhoods” to describe the milieu of the workplace). There’s also a strange romance of workplace solidarity of the most traditional kind, which ignores the displacement of these same communities and conflicts onto what Mario Tronti long ago termed “the social factory.”

For what is suburbia if not the paradigmatic assembly line of twentieth-century modernity’s social factory?


Homeland Advisory Security SystemBrian Massumi writes about the US Department of Homeland Security’s “terror alert system”:

Life has restlessly settled, to all appearances permanently, on the redward end of the spectrum, the blue-greens of tranquility a thing of the past. “Safe” doesn’t even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception. Insecurity, the spectrum says, is the new normal. (“Fear (The Spectrum Said)” positions 13.1 [Spring 2005]: 31)

The Proudfully American Logo Museum (a site that’s well worth browsing) has a fine collection of threat logos. Here’s one that shines out for its dynamism:

Bush and Alert Spectrum
And it is our dynamic response to terror that, Massumi argues, the alert system seeks to calibrate and modulate:

The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety. In the aftermath of 9/11, the public’s fearfulness had tended to swing out of control in response to dramatic, but maddeningly vague, government warnings of an impending follow-up attack. The alert system was designed to modulate that fear. It could raise it a pitch, then lower it before it became too intense, or even worse, before habituation dampened response. Timing was everything. Less fear itself than fear fatigue became an issue of public concern. Affective modulation of the populace was now an official, central function of an increasingly time-sensitive government. (32)

Moreover, and like the other logos that are always at the edge of the screen, glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, this colour-coded alert system is aimed not at consciousness, but at “bodies at the level of their dispositions toward action [. . .] The system addressed the population immediately, at a presubjective level” (32, 33).

Television here takes on a new function, to become “the event medium,” distinguishing itself from the Internet though its “resurgent role as the privileged channel for collective affect modulation” (33). Bush’s is a televisual mode of governance, which takes advantage of the way in which TV hotwires a link between image and affect, bypassing persuasion or proof, conducting collective resonance or what Massumi terms “attunement” (32). As we tune in, so we are also attuned to the prevailing “affective tone or mood” (41), a modulated fear before an unknown future threat.

Massumi goes on to develop a sophisticated and complex account of what we could term the vicissitudes of fear in these post-9/11 times.

This account is too involved to detail at length here. Those who have access to Project Muse can download the whole article, and indeed the entire issue of positions, which includes a number of related articles such as Alberto Moreiras’s “Preemptive Manhunt: A New Partnership” and Marilyn Young’s “Permanent War.”

It’s interesting, however, that Massumi’s argument seems to reverse his position in the much-reproduced and collected article “The Autonomy of Affect” (which ended up as the first chapter of Parables for the Virtual). There, Massumi’s stress is on affect’s ontological priority, “its participation in the virtual,” but also the way in which “it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is” (Parables for the Virtual 35). Affect in this sense is a figure of resistance, and also of constituent power: “Something has always and again escaped. [. . .] Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. Their autonomy is the autonomy of affect” (35).

Here, in “Fear (The Spectrum Said),” however, Massumi emphasizes the initial co-presence, immanence or immediacy, of affect and action, the way in which “we have already begun to experience fear nonconsciously, wrapped in action, before it unfurls from it and is felt as itself, in its distinction from the action with which it arose” (36); it is only subsequently, “as the action unfolds” that “the affect of fear and the action of the body [. . .] begin to diverge” (37). Linearity (narrative) separates itself out from the nonlinear intensity of affect, and then recodes (reflects upon and recollects) that affect as, now, quantifiable emotion.

Massumi continues by tracing “the autonomization of fear” as, simultaneously, “a next natural step” (42; my emphasis) in a series of feedback loops (“from activation to feeling-in-action, from feeling-in-action to pure expression of affect, from pure expression of affect to branchings into perception, reflection, and recollection, then on to affective containment” [44-45]), and at the same time a politically-motivated mechanism of control that leads us eventually to “the wonderland world where the startle can come without the scare: body activation without the feeling [. . .] that it is” (44; emphasis in original).

So, two comments (and I suspect they’re related):

First, I’m not sure about this new topography of affect that Massumi presents here. Or rather, it’s not so much that the topography is itself new but that the conclusions drawn are very different. It almost sounds like a lament for the ways in which affect diverges from action through time, whereas “The Autonomy of Affect” had presented precisely that divergence (the fact that “something has always and again escaped”) as the very possibility of minoritarian empowerment.

Second, Massumi comes close, in presenting this series of “loops” as quasi-natural consequences of any shock to the system, to legitimating contemporary forms of power as simply the complex effects of unfolding immanent processes. This reminds me of the way in which Manuel de Landa eviscerates Deleuze and Guattari’s work of any political charge, by posing complexity theory as immanent justification for the world as it is.

I know that Massumi doesn’t want to leave us with this second conclusion, and to be fair I am sure that this article is simply part of a larger work in progress. But here at least the only gesture towards resistance or counter-power is, well, no more than gestural, coming in this piece’s one-sentence final paragraph, which reads in full:

Confusingly, it is likely that [the Bush administration’s fear in-action] can only be fought on the same affective, ontogenetic ground on which it itself operates. (47)

My own suspicion, then, is that some kind of counter-power only finds a place here as a residual “confusing[. . .] likel[ihood]” precisely because the main force of the article has been to argue that “all that is certain is that fear itself will continue becoming–the way of life” (47). Which is surely a resigned pessimism of the intellect if anything is.


MadreDiscussing the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine women who stood up to their country’s military regime of the 1970s and 1980s, demanding evidence about the whereabouts of their disappeared children, Diana Taylor suggests that “the Madres embodied ‘pity’ while the military males staged ‘terror.'” Taylor continues:

But pity and terror are inextricably linked. As the Greek theatre scholar Gilbert Murray notes in his foreword to The Trojan Women, “pity is a rebel passion. Its hand is against the strong, against the organized force of society, against conventional sanctions and accepted Gods . . . it is apt to have those qualities of unreason, of contempt for the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices, of recklessness, and even, in the last resort, of ruthlessness . . . It brings not peace, but a sword” (7). The military, quick to pick up the threatening quality of the Madres’ pitiful display of their wounds-as-weapons, branded the rebellious women emotional terrorists. (Disappearing Acts 200; emphasis in original)

Pity and terror are linked, above all, because both are affects; both pity and terror sidestep “the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices”; both are excessive, unreasonable, qualitative and intensive rather than quantitative or extensive.

But what would make the one a “rebel passion” and the other an instrument of state power?

Surely the key here is in the distinction between embodiment and staging that Taylor invokes by stating that “the Madres embodied ‘pity’ while the military males staged ‘terror'” (my emphasis). Embodiment and staging are two modes or aspects of performance (and Taylor’s book is ultimately about the politics of performance in Latin American contexts), but they are quite different ways of thinking the performative.

“Staging” refers first and foremost to the instrumentality of performance, the distance between actor and act, between agent and identity. Both the military and the Madres performed in this sense. Above all, the Madres performed motherhood. In part this was to justify their activism as springing not from some political agenda, but from maternal instinct. But as a result, Taylor notes that they also played into a “bad script,” an “Oedipal framing of events” that suggested that “equality and power [. . .] could only be regained by means of the restitution of the missing member,” the absent son, “the lost phallus” (203).

Staging is the performative politics of identity: the Madres’ presentation of themselves as pitiful (in both senses of the term) complemented rather than challenging the military males’ narrative that only they could save the nation, could take the paternal role of reinstalling order.

Chris Burden's ShootEmbodiment, by contrast, refers to the fact that performance is also an affective and bodily investment. An actor puts his or her body on the line: when a character takes a tumble, so does the actor who plays him or her. Performance artists have experimented with this non-representational danger incarnated in the performative, not least Chris Burden in works such as “Shoot” and “Deadman”.

The Madres knew only too well the risks that they were taking: as Taylor reports, in 1977 the military “infiltrated the Madres’ organization and kidnapped and disappeared twelve women, including the leader of the Madres, Azucena de Vicenti” (187).

Embodiment, then, is performance without reserve: this is the reckless pity (the Derridean hospitality?) that know no bounds, that refuses the cost-benefit analysis that strategizing and instrumentality require.

There is a connection here to the distinction between constituent and constituted power, between the Spinozan power that knows no distance between possibility and reality (in fact, the virtual and the actual), and the sovereign Realpolitik that bides its time and chooses its moment, its victims.

But I’m reluctant simply to valorize reckless affect over either the strategy of war or even the “strategic essentialism” associated with Spivak’s reading of the subaltern. There was, after all, something suicidal, hasty, and pitiful (something that went beyond a strategic miscalculation) about the Argentine junta’s decision to invade the Malvinas/Falklands. Recklessness and investment without reserve is not the sole prerogative of the powerless. It can also be the state’s most deadly transmutation.


Maria Luisa BombalMaría Luisa Bombal’s “The Final Mist” (“La última niebla”; a Spanish version can be downloaded here) opens in the aftermath of a storm, a storm that “had shaken loose the roof tiles of the old country house” so that, the narrator tells us, “when we arrived, the rain was leaking in every room” (3).

The story’s un-named narrator thereafter perpetually finds that she has somehow missed out on life’s Sturm und Drang, but tries to make the most of what gaps she can find in the barriers that pen her claustrophobically in.

Beyond, however, all is enveloped in a bewitching and befuddling mist that blurs any distinction between sleep and wakefulness, desire and drudgery: “I cross the garden almost at a run, open the fence gate. But outside, a fine mist hangs over the landscape like a veil, and the silence is even more immense” (7).

The narrator is trapped in a loveless marriage with her cousin Daniel. Neither offers the other any real affective contact. They know each other too well; they hardly know each other at all. Daniel, who initially casts his wife “the kind of hostile expression with which you always greet a stranger” (3), is before long “indifferent as a brother” (20); she for her part recognizes that he is still mourning the death of his first wife, but “move[s] away from him, trying to convince [her]self that the most discreet reaction is to pretend absolute ignorance of his pain” (5).

Even when her husband shows some little sign of affection, the narrator’s constant feeling is asphyxiation, a sense that she is half-drowning in the water-saturated air of her fogbound environment:

For the first time since our marriage, Daniel fluffs the pillows for me. At midnight I wake, suffocating. I twist in the sheets for a long time, unable to return to sleep. Each breath leaves me gasping for a little more air. Rising, I open the window, lean out–but the atmosphere outside is just as intolerable. (13)

At least Daniel has a public identity, tasks to undertake, a social role, a name. His wife never attains these markers of belonging, of recognition. Much like the narrator of Bombal’s The Shrouded Woman (La amortajada), her social position is liminal at best. She is in limbo.

If anything, indeed, the “shrouded woman” of Bombal’s other major work is better placed than the narrator of “The Final Mist.” She at least has children, and servants and retainers; she also has a personal history, youthful excesses to recall and relate; and she finds a strange power as she lies in her coffin, her dead form the object of attention, remorse, and regret, while she awaits “the death of the dead” that follows “the death of the living” (La amortajada 116).

In “The Final Mist,” by contrast, though “death seems a more accessible adventure than escape” (14), the narrator can’t even die, and her attempt to kill herself is a failure full of un-noted pathos: “What more repugnant and useless gesture than the suicide of a woman approaching old age!” (46).

If the mist that drenches this story is neither one thing nor the other, neither liquid nor air, our protagonist can at least find some respite in the fully liquid environment of her garden pond, where “warm currents caress and penetrate” her while “the fresh breeze kisses the nape of [her] neck, cools [her] feverish forehead” (10). The pond is a

mysterious world where time seems to stop, where light is solid as a phosphorescent substance, where my movements acquire a knowing and cat-like gracefulness as I carefully explore the dark windings in that cavern of silence. (23)

Here her identity can dissolve, as she becomes one with her surroundings, “sink[ing] down,” leaving only the trace of her presence, “a gentle eddy on the surface” (23).

The pond has its dangers: the gardener’s son, Andrés, sweeping dead leaves off its surface, tells her “How pale you are. You may faint if you don’t get out of the water soon” (25). But it is Andrés whose “livid corpse” is dredged up from the water, Andrés whose “ruined, putrid lips [. . .] death had rendered silent and water and time all but effaced” (34). And the narrator’s reaction is to ask “now, how will I go on?” (34).

For the boy has been the one link, the one witness (she imagines) to the story that the narrator perhaps half-invents, half-dreams, half-experiences, a story of release, of one night of real sensation, real life. Inspired and interpellated by her sister-in-law’s spectacular displays of desire and active sexuality, she tells a story of one night in the city when, out late walking, she met a young man whose shadow looms out of the fog, with whom she shares a wordless, consummated passion:

Under his attentive gaze, I lean back, a gesture that fills me with intimate well-being. Locking my arms behind my head, I cross and uncross my legs, each gesture bringing me intense pleasure, as if at long last my arms, my neck, my legs had a reason to exist. If this joy were the only end of love, I would consider myself well rewarded! (17)

So if Daniel has his mournful memory of his first wife, now the narrator has her own joyful remembrance of the one encounter that might make her life worthwhile: “with nothing but a single memory one can endure a long and tedious existence” (19).

But as time passes, and the fog of doubt and forgetfulness falls on her story, the narrator’s fear is that she may in fact have imagined or concocted this memory from her own unfulfilled desire. Back in the city, she searches out the house to which she recalls her lover had taken her, only to find it inhabited by a widow whose blind husband died many years earlier. She flees the scene and wanders the city

unable to distinguish anything through the fog [. . .] abandoning all further struggle against my fate. The house and my love and my adventure–all had disintegrated in the dark swirling vapor that now blotted out the moon. (43-44)

There’s no happy ending here. Bombal’s is a story of frustrated desire, of languor and ennui, of a life that is no more than germinal, that never rises above the habitual except in the narrator’s brief fantasy, cruelly dashed by the reality principle. “Perhaps that is best,” she concludes, reunited with her husband, “following him”:

Following him toward an infinity of insignificant tasks; toward a thousand trifling amusements; following him to live correctly–to cry from habit and smile out of duty; following him to die, one day, correctly.

Around us the fog settles over everything like a shroud. (47)

Or perhaps, perhaps the point is that her life does rise, all too briefly and inconclusively, above the germinal; that the narrator is interpellated, above all by her sister-in-law Regina, for whom she “feels envious of her suffering, her tragic love affair, envying even the possibility of her death” (45). By choosing to envy a melodramatic narrative of bourgeois adultery, rather than dwelling in her elemental pool, the narrator never achieves the true limbo of Bombal’s “shrouded woman,” never accedes to the immanence that Deleuze describes as

a moment that is only of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a “Homo tantum” with whom everyone empathizes and who attains a sort of beatitude. (“Immanence: A Life” 28-29)


I’ve written before about the relation between terror and narrative. But now my former student James passes me a link to Mark Danner’s essay “Taking Stock of the Forever War”, an account of the “global war on terror” since 9/11, which includes this observation:

A war that had a clear purpose and a certain end has now lost its reason and its finish. Americans find themselves fighting and dying in a kind of existential desert of the present. For Americans, the war has lost its narrative.

I don’t know whether or not Danner’s reference to a “desert of the present” is meant to be an allusion to Zizek’s “desert of the real”. I doubt it. On the other hand, it might as well be: the temporality of the real is, after all, alien to the chronology of narrative history.

At the same time, it is not as though the real–the real opened up in and by terror, the real of the war against terror, the real of the interplay of affect and habit–it is not as though this real were devoid of temporality or historicity. Any suggestion otherwise is psychoanalysis’s classic error, the imposition of eternal, unalterable forms onto the psychic life of power.

We need to invent new ways of thinking history adequate to what at first appears to be an eternal present. Deserts lack the recognizable features that otherwise orient us in space and time; but their shifting sands hardly lack differentiation. Indeed they are endlessly, intensively, immanently differentiated, rather than merely distinguished according to fixed relations of extension and transcendent identity.