Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.


Gastón Gordillo, Rubble

Before ruins, there was rubble. This is the startling and counter-intuitive claim at the heart of Gastón Gordillo’s magnificent new book. It is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of rubble as an extrapolation of ruination, ruination taken to the nth degree. Rubble is what we are left with when we don’t even have a ruin, when the forms of ruined structures are no longer comprehensible, leaving us with little more than shapeless masses of material and debris. Rubble is what ruins ultimately become, if left to their own devices; they are what ruin the ruin itself. If ruins are a palimpsest, rubble is their holocaust. If in the ruin, as Walter Benjamin observes, “the idea of the plan speaks” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama 235), and we can think we imagine a completed building, a unified structure, by contrast in the mound of rubble little can be discerned. Rubble is illegible, seemingly mute and expressionless; it defies representation. Or if rubble speaks, surely it tells us only of the extreme violence that has silenced it, that has erased the history that it once incarnated? No, says Gordillo: quite the opposite. Rubble’s apparent formlessness is an indication of its generative potential. From heaps of rubble mighty ruins spring.

Gordillo’s book, then, is a wide-ranging account of the production of ruins from rubble across a swathe of Northern Argentina from the foothills of Andes to the Paraguayan border, in the once forested plains of the Gran Chaco. He shows how diverse forces, from the Spanish conquistadors to the colonial Church or the contemporary state, have at various points tried to seize hold of the rubble that litters the region and capture it to produce what (following David Harvey) we might call a “spatial fix” to cement power, shape memory, and organize bodies, human and material alike. For even “naming something a ruin” is, as Gordillo quotes Ann Stoler saying, “in itself a political act” (196). Ruination is a process of selection that negates certain potentialities that remain virtual within rubble, even as it actualizes and celebrates others to produce “deceivingly positive landscapes” (16) punctuated by fetishized monuments to an official version of the past. If there is anything negative in the ruin it is this: the ruin sets out to negate rubble and with it its generative power and complex multiplicity. Against the flexibility and fluidity of what seem to be unformed mounds of material, scattered here and there in all manner of combinations, ruination produces “rigid objects presented as nodes of memory” that “transform space by gathering bodies around them and organizing and modulating their gaze and affective disposition” (206). But with rigidity comes brittleness. It’s no wonder that these ruins become objects of ritual veneration that require “repetitive ceremonies that something worth remembering happened there” (206). Ruins have to be endlessly (at)tended, reconstructed, shored up, rebuilt. Hence the irony that there are no structures more carefully conserved and preserved than ruins, supposed monuments to impermanence and decay that are in fact shaky bulwarks of projects to ensure stability and purity. Ruins have to be kept “whole” to hide the fact that all great structures are only ever ruins in waiting, and that everything tends to return to rubble. Ruins are the precarious legitimation of sovereign power; built on rubble, in the end they are not so mighty after all.

For the transformation of rubble into ruin is not a one-way process. Ruination is not rubble’s destiny, and Gordillo’s history is also the tale of constituted power’s constant battle with rubble’s perennial resurgence. While the elite battle against rubble, perpetually in fear of the ways in which it manifests “the fragility of state power” (57), or indeed the failures of any other would-be hegemonic project, in and around the debris itself arise other practices, other memories: subaltern reappropriations of place, such as the wild parties (“fiestones”) and “exuberant events of a Dionysiac nature” that one of Gordillo’s informants tells him used to take place in an abandoned Jesuit mission. It is this same informant, a local man called Alfredo, who first shocks Gordillo into realizing that if “we aren’t afraid of ruins” (as his Conclusion has it), it’s because we fear rubble even less. Calmly breaking off pieces of stucco, “enthusiastically eroding the materiality of the wall” (4), Alfredo happily demonstrates the vulnerability of ruins, their susceptibility to a subaltern counter-violence. Sous les pavés, la plage; beneath ruins, rubble.

But what comes before rubble? Or is history simply some kind of endless dialectic between rubble and ruin, violence and counter-violence? No. Gordillo suggests that before rubble is the void. But void does not here mean absence of any kind. It is true that Gordillo has much to say about negation, and in general his book is often dressed up in Frankfurt-School and particularly Adornian and Benjaminian rags. But his is an Adorno who, in proper Deleuzian fashion, has been well and truly fucked in the arse. So despite imperial or national depictions of the Chaco as some kind of savage abyss, defined by everything it supposedly lacks (culture, order, hierarchy), Gordillo stresses its plenitude, indeed its multiplicitous excess. This is what truly makes elites tremble: not that there is nothing there, but that there is too much, as is evidenced by the void’s power to create rubble. For perhaps it is better to speak not of the void, as though it were one object among many, but of voiding as an activity, as an insistent presence, a vital expression of the war machine as constituent power that (here Gordillo references Pierre Clastres) exerts its own violence to ward off the state, and in so doing creates rubble. The difference between the void and rubble is that the void is truly formless, a smooth space of pure immanence. Rubble, by contrast is organized (much as the state cannot see this or has to deny it) in zones of intensity, or what Gordillo consistently calls “nodes,” which themselves constitute “constellations.” This makes sense of the description of rubble as “ruptured multiplicity” (2), as opposed to the “ruptured unity” that more conventional accounts suggest. For it is not unity but multiplicity that is prior, and it is this basic (pure) multiplicity of the void that rubble ruptures.

Gordillo wants to persuade us not to fear ruins, in the name of a plea that we appreciate and affirm rubble. But should we not then love the void even more? Is this a radical call to embrace the war machine, reversing all the polarities of constituted power? Again, no, for this is not a book tainted with nostalgia for the so-called primitive, nor does it surrender to banal dialectics. There is something deeply ambivalent about the void. And we can see why if we look at the latest forces to shape the landscape of the Argentine Chaco: truly “primitive” accumulation in its purest state; neoliberal agribusiness as incarnated in the so-called “Soy Boom” of the past couple of decades. For what marks the process by which the forests are destroyed to be replaced by vast fields of soy is that the devastation is near absolute: not even rubble is produced or left behind, while the rubble that was once there is now consumed by fire. This is truly a smooth space. Moreover, there is something of the nomad, something of the war machine and even something multitudinous in these new multinational forces sweeping through the Chaco. Their voiding is certainly vigorous and active, and ultimately as threatening to state sovereignty as marauding indigenous bands ever were. These are the new spectres that haunt the Chaco, constituting lines of flight in pursuit of capital that (as Deleuze and Guattari comment in another context) “emanate a strange despair, like an odor of death and immolation, a state of war from which one returns broken” (A Thousand Plateaus 229). In the face of this latest challenge to the Argentine (but not just Argentine) spatio-historical ecosystem, it is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as “mere” rubble.

Posthegemony, Deconstruction, Infrapolitics

Bram Acosta, Thresholds of Illiteracy

Over at the Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective, an important project with which I have been (so far) rather peripherally involved, Alberto Moreiras comments on Bram Acosta’s Thresholds of Illiteracy. Specifically, he comments on that book’s introduction, which sets up a dichotomy between John Beverley’s Latin Americanism After 9/11 and my own Posthegemony. Acosta suggests that these two books “are already being used to establish the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). And yet it soon emerges that, in Acosta’s eyes, this would be a serious mistake. For despite their differences and even apparent disagreements, they are both, he argues, complicit in the same founding gestures. First, Beverley and I “identif[y] and conflat[e] deconstruction and subaltern studies” (20-21). Having done so, we then proceed on “the same disciplinary premise: the rejection or presumed exhaustion of deconstruction as a critical practice” (22). To which Moreiras adds that the two of us both “play to a choir of bedmates.” So there’s apparently quite a crowd under the sheets, and a noisy one too, illicitly consorting together.

Now, I’ve already written at some length about Beverley’s book, and don’t plan to do so again. Suffice it to say, however, that I would point to differences between his project and my own that Acosta doesn’t even mention, not least a very different approach to politics. As I put it, and against Beverley’s trenchant defense of Latin America’s so-called left turns, in my view “politics is about indeterminacy, possibility, and potential. It is about what is not written or predetermined. Politics is about strategy, surprise, critique, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with the present state of things.” It might also be worth saying that I make this point in the light of an affirmation of subalternity, which I define both here and in Posthegemony in terms of “the possibility of betrayal, even self-betrayal” (cf. Posthegemony 266). In my book, indeed, I concur with and quote Moreiras on precisely this point: in arguing that “the subaltern is beyond representation, an insurgent betrayal of constituted power” (Posthegemony 234), I cite his characterization of “subaltern negation” as posthegemonic in that it is a “refusal to submit to hegemonic interpellation, an exodus from hegemony” (Moreiras, The Exhaustion of Difference, 126). I’m not sure if this makes Alberto a bedmate or part of the choir, but it does complicate things a little. As, for that matter, does the fact that the “deconstruction” that Beverley rejects is firmly intended to include me and my work. Indeed, according to Beverley I am “a product of deconstruction”. Even, then, if we were both rejecting deconstruction, it’s fairly obvious that it’d be rather different things we’d be turning our backs on, rather different partners we’d be kicking out of the bed.

Yet for what it’s worth, I may reject many things, but not deconstruction. When Moreiras refers to the notion that “Beasley-Murray and Beverley may not be now quite where they were a few years ago,” he may be thinking of my more recent “Rogue’s Take” in which I declare, perhaps to Beverley’s delight, that “I am now and always have been a deconstructionist.” But the most cursory reading would evidence that in Posthegemony, too, it is simply not true that (as Acosta argues) “the source of the problem” is deconstruction (21). Else why would I have spent so much time arguing about hegemony theory and civil society? Moreover, it should be equally obvious that, far from a rejection of deconstruction, let alone subalternism, my claim and my aim–in which of course I may or may not be successful–is to build on some of their key insights. In fact, in the introduction to my book on which Acosta’s reading mostly relies, what I am trying to establish is rather a genealogy of the concept of “posthegemony” that is absolutely indebted to both of them, and to the work of Moreiras (and Gareth Williams) in particular. Of course, I do indeed state that I am “not content” with deconstruction, but one doesn’t write books out of a sense of contentment.

Frankly, however, none of this seems especially interesting to me. I like Acosta’s book, and I think it is important and significant–perhaps even vital–in a number of ways. I hope to give a fuller account of it here at some stage. But I don’t think that this initial framing of its argument is either helpful or illuminating. Indeed, it does the book a disservice. Setting up my book and Beverley’s as conjoined twins that have somehow both (as he says specifically of Posthegemony) “misse[d] the point” (22) is essentially a rhetorical gesture that seems to clear the field for his own intervention. But it’s an artificial and unnecessary settling of accounts that relies on what is ultimately the straw man that together our two books have truly “establish[ed] the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). I may perhaps in my wildest dreams wish that this were so, but I’m rather aware of the many other positions and approaches that this backhanded compliment willfully obscures… not least, after all, the work of people such as Moreiras or others whose take on deconstruction is (arguably) less “rogue” and more unambiguous. Significantly, Acosta’s book, having set up and demolished its straw man in its introduction, then proceeds on the whole to ignore both Beverley and my work in what follows, probably much to its own benefit. Our books end up no more than what Moreiras calls “specter[s authors] must fight in order to establish their own legitimacy.”

But the more interesting question, I think, is this one, which would encourage a less spectral and more productive discussion: not so much that of the relationships between posthegemony, illiteracy, and deconstruction, than that of their mutual (possible) contributions to the notion of infrapolitics. “Infrapolitics” is a term that neither Acosta nor I employ, but I would argue that Posthegemony is indeed fundamentally concerned with the concept. It is so in the sense that infrapolitics is a matter of the non-political without which the political itself would be unimaginable or impossible. This is something that has long been a constant in my own work: the curious could consult a very early essay on “Ethics as Post-Political Politics”; or you could take Gareth Williams’s I think fair capsule summary of Posthegemony as a “critical discussion of the relation between the concept of the multitude and the underpinnings of the political.” The specific question then of Acosta’s book would be to what extent “illiteracy” is also an attempt to think infrapolitics, and then what this would say about the relationship between (il)literacy and politics in Latin America and perhaps elsewhere. The broader question would concern the varieties of infrapolitics and the extent to which posthegemony can inform (as well as be informed by) our notion of the infrapolitical. Presumably infrapolitics is not solely the domain of deconstruction (or at least non-rogue deconstruction, if there is such a thing). What arrangement of beds or bedmates, choirs or singers, does infrapolitics then suggest or allow?

Posthegemony in Peru

I was fortunate a few weeks ago to be able to present my book at a “Mesa Verde” at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Lima.  Guillermo Rochabrún and Juan Carlos Ubilluz provided stimulating comments, and there was a spirited discussion session at the end.  Herewith, the video of the event.  Many thanks to Patricia Ames for moderating and making it possible.

Only Disconnect!

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test].

Infinite Jest is a book of both set pieces and discontinuous strands. On the one hand, there are relatively self-contained episodes: the opening scene of Hal’s inquisition by the college authorities, for instance; or the Eschaton game, or Joelle van Dyne’s (attempted?) suicide, or some of the tennis matches, such as the exhibition put on between Hal and Ortho Stice. These stories-within-stories have their own narrative arcs, their own climaxes and dénouements, and they leaven the strain of having to keep tabs on the novel’s broader, ongoing plot (or plots). On the other hand, there are many intervening strands (which sometimes break up the set pieces themselves) that recur without necessarily seeming to take us anywhere in particular, but that occasionally unfold snippets of information or otherwise resonate with what is happening elsewhere, at another point in the broader narrative.

Marathe and Steeply

Perhaps the most notable and peculiar of these strands is the long conversation between Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (triple? quadruple?) agent, and Hugh/Helen Steeply, transvestite operative for the United States “Office of Unspecified Services” and would-be seducer/seducee of Hal’s brother, Orin. For almost six hundred pages (so far) we have periodically returned to Marathe and Steeply as they perch on a mountain ledge high above Tucson, Arizona, talking through the night, neither daring to doze for lack of trust in the other. Here, there is no climax, just the long, more or less patient wait for dawn to come while the two men chat, sometimes friendly or curious, more often guarded and suspicious. Their talk turns increasingly to the “Entertainment,” but in some ways there is little less entertaining than this encounter in which, quite literally, almost nothing ever happens. Something is going on down at the valley floor, but they are (here at least) only spectators who can but dimly discern the main action.

As the book proceeds, these various disparate elements gradually start to contaminate each other, or to reveal the ways in which they are already mutually contaminated. We learn, for instance, that the figure dimly spotted at the edge of the Eschaton disaster, lurking in a Ford sedan by the dumpsters, is Helen Steeply herself, posing as a journalist for Moment magazine who is writing a “soft” profile of Orin Incandenza. The tennis academy staff are wary of giving her the access she wants to what the narrator calls (highlighting the real reasons for her visit) “the samizdat Entertainment director’s other son” (675), but she is permitted to sit in on Hal’s match with “The Darkness” Stice, at which she hears a long disquisition on what makes one tennis player better than any other. It’s all about having a “complete game.” For the boys have “different strengths, areas of the game they’re better at” (679), and for instance “Hal can’t lob half as good as even Possalthwaite, and compared to Ortho or Mike his net-play’s pedestrian” (679-80). But what makes the younger Incandenza a bright hope for the professional “Show” is that his “strengths have started to fit together” (680). And so perhaps it is for the novel at this point: it is starting to fit together.

“Only connect” is the motto that E M Forster used as the epigraph for Howard’s End. This is shorthand for the idea that, even in a modern society torn apart by industrial change, demographic mobility, and the loss of master narratives, it was still possible (perhaps heroically) to envisage at least the shadow of an over-arching totality. Or as Forster expands upon this theme, via his character Margaret Schlegel: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” By contrast, what often distinguishes postmodern writers such as David Foster Wallace (but also Thomas Pynchon and James Ellroy, say) is the more cynical notion that of course, like it or not, everything is always already connected–by money, or power, or some strange subterranean conspiracy–and that tracing the webs of influence or intrigue leads not to exaltation, transcendence, and love, but to a disenchanted (one might add, posthegemonic) understanding of the way the world really works.

It would be a surprise were Infinite Jest to be leading to a sense of “human love [. . .] at its height.” Its very title suggests otherwise. Indeed, there’s little in the way of any kind of love to be found here: relationships are more likely to follow what, in the case of Orin’s multiple hook-ups with “subjects” (who in fact are treated as anything but), is described as “the Excitement-Hope-Acquisition-Contempt cycle of seduction” (574). Moreover, the image we are given of family lives is almost always of silence and abandonment, atomization if not outright abuse. Steeply’s conversation with Marathe, for instance, ends with a long semi-confessional disquisition on the part of the US agent, in which he describes how his own father gradually became a recluse, obsessed by “M*A*S*H” in a manner that anticipates the devastation allegedly wrought by Jim Incandenza’s “Entertainment”: “every night late at night, for the nightly hour, the old man too wide awake, and hunched over weirdly, head out, as if pulled toward the screen” (640).

So everything is connected, the game is finally coming together, but it appears to be a game nobody can win, or one in which winning is only another form of losing. The best we can expect, and the mission of the tennis academy, Steeply is told, is “self-transcendence through pain. These kids [. . .] they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them. [. . .] To forget themselves as objects of attention for a few years and see what they can do when the eyes are off them” (660). As with the (hideously) beautiful Joelle van Dyne, the challenge is to become invisible, to ward off the gaze and disappear. A more suitable motto than Forster’s, then, might be the (perhaps equally heroic) exhortation: “Only Disconnect!”

The Everyday Multitude

This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”

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Oscar Cabezas, Postsoberanía

Oscar Cabezas’s Postsoberanía: Literatura, política y trabajo is a provocative and important contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. Not that Cabezas’s view is a rosy one: though he ends with a rousing homage to Communism as the “irreducible horizon of emancipatory thought and social justice” (281), the rather more lasting impression this book leaves us with is of the extent to which the logic of the market has so thoroughly permeated and colonized everyday life. As he puts it in his final chapter, which is essentially a phenomenology of the contemporary labor process by means of readings of Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Sergio Chejfec, what he calls “post-sovereignty” is far from sovereignty’s demise but rather the “total, totalitarian, and totalizing sovereignty” of money as general equivalent (277). Not only our everyday experience but language itself is subject to the colonizing principles of money and calculation such that “language communicates nothing beyond instruction functional to the relation between capital and labor” (265-66).

This is, then, a somewhat apocalyptic book that, despite its historical range (from 1492 to the present), argues that capital has already abolished history in a “bad infinity” of perpetual production and absolute depersonalization in which the “eternal worker” is absolutely alienated by being pressed into service as organs without body (261-62). Despite the centrality of alienation to Cabezas’s argument, there can be no relief in humanism, which is merely the “aestheticization of poverty, of differences, which are transformed into mercantile cult” (270). Little prospect here for cultural studies! Moreover, the talk of “organs without body” shows, perhaps more interestingly, that however much he draws from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cabezas up-ends many of their categories and gives us a kind of perverse version of posthegemony in which nothing escapes. This is, in other words, a Deleuzoguattarianism without any line of flight, or a dystopian recasting of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire in which Empire is all, the multitude nothing. “We know,” he says,” that there is no community outside of capitalist society”; and yet the (would-be) communitarian subject within capitalism is absolutely dependent upon an eternal spiritualized debt, an “effect of neo-imperial domination” (272). Any such community “under the neo-imperial dominion of post-sovereign capitalism is community of debtors” (272; emphasis in original). Cabezas thus also gives us a thesis on the primacy of debt à la David Graeber in which, however, “occupy” is unavailable as a slogan for resistance.

Cabezas may argue that all this is precisely the point. For the main argument that links the four essays that comprise this book is a protest against political theology in all its forms. The opening line of its introduction notes that it is inspired in part by Jacques Derrida (who, however, scarcely gets a mention thereafter) and in part by Carl Schmitt’s famous observation that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (13). Cabezas then presents himself as absolutely anti-Schmittian: drawing above all on the work of Argentine theorist Leon Rozitchner, he sets out to extirpate political theory of every residue of the sacred, wherever it is to be found. As such, we should not then be seeking anything resembling redemption. And it is precisely the desire for redemption that therefore damns cultural studies and even such unlikely bedfellows of cultural studies as Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri. Hence perhaps Cabezas’s absolutism, his condemnation of just about every aspect of the contemporary worker’s (and consumer’s) experience: our alienation is absolute; “within the space of post-sovereignty, capitalism administers and controls from heterogeneity or, to put it more precisely, from language made up of residues, of transnational mixtures, of mercantile innovations, of fragments of erased memories and incomplete legacies that even so do not escape the production of surplus value” (238). This indeed is the novelty of post-sovereignty, the means by which sovereignty becomes absolute: difference and hybridity proved an obstacle to modern, more conventional forms of sovereignty; but they are no bulwark against the post-sovereign. Quite the contrary, post-sovereignty thrives on difference. And again, there is no escape: post-Fordist language (and presumably also literature) is now “completely subordinate to the [. . .] post-sovereign accumulation of capital” (239; my emphasis).

It may be too easy (if still warranted) to point out that Cabezas’s apocalypticism and absolutism remain wedded to a quasi-religious eschatology that posits Communism as a City of God utterly distinct from the City of fallen, post-sovereign Man. Indeed, Cabezas’s recourse (via Rozitchner) to a mater-ialism that plays on the notion of feminine embodiment (mater/matter) as what is repressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition draws on a long religious lineage that is not entirely foreign either to Judaism or to Christianity. Perhaps more significantly, I find Rozitchner’s version of cultural psychoanalysis unconvincing, picking up as it does on the least interesting aspects of the late Freud, and Cabezas’s exposition (which seldom if ever takes any distance from Rozitchner) does little to make it any the more compelling.

By almost any measure the best chapter of the book is the final one, in which Cabezas finally finds his own voice. Even here, however, he maintains the habit of incorporating long quotations more or less undigested from the texts that he is discussing: as such we have not so much discussions of the texts as recapitulations and extrapolations from what is too often treated as holy writ. The first part of the book would have benefitted from more and more sustained readings, both in quantity and in closer attention: the opening chapter on the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Spanish Jews is particularly skimpy on the historical archive, and doesn’t even cite the text in question; the second chapter’s approach to (anti-)Peronism is similarly unsatisfying. But as I say, the final chapter’s engagement with Chaplin’s Modern Times, Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Chejfec’s Boca del lobo is provocative and important. Still, however, the ghost of Derrida perhaps haunts the book even here, as these texts are not so much deconstructed as presented as evidence for thesis of the modern (non)subject absolute alienation. In the end, Cabezas’s methodology is strangely reminiscent of cultural studies, albeit that rather than seeking traces of resistance to celebrate, he is instead combing these works for proof of the awful situation we find ourselves in. But I am not sure that the (post-)sovereignty of capital is so total: look simply to the state’s interventions following the financial crisis of 2008 and since, for example. For me, the crux of posthegemony (and this is a posthegemonic book) is neither celebration nor condemnation per se, but ambivalence. These are dangerous times, and Cabezas does signal service in pointing to some of the tendencies inherent in capital’s real subsumption of the social, but these tendencies are not the whole story. Absolutely not.

Update: This post has now been translated into Spanish at Lobo Suelto.

Demanding Deconstruction

A position paper that is my contribution to the conference “The Marrano Spirit: Derrida and Hispanism” at the University of Southern California…

Jacques Derrida, Rogues (cover)

“Demanding Deconstruction: A Rogue’s Take or Offering”

What does deconstruction offer? Does it–should it–offer anything at all? Is this very question impertinent, unduly utilitarian? Or to put this another way: what can or should we ask or even demand of deconstruction? And how does this relate to whatever deconstruction might, in turn, ask of us? What can or should deconstruction demand of us? What do we have to offer, if indeed we should think of ourselves as offering anything at all? What can we take from it? What does it take from us? What do we have to offer to this conference, to deconstruction, to Hispanism, or to any other party, interested or otherwise: for instance the people, the subaltern, or the state? What, in turn, do we have the right to demand of Hispanism or of the people, the subaltern, and so on, and what do they have the right to demand of us? How much are we, or should we, be accountable to them? And how might deconstruction contribute to our offering, help us to respond to whatever demands are made of us, or help us think differently about the very notion of demand?

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It is not always entirely clear who (if anyone) or what is the tragic hero(ine) in Sophocles’s Antigone, or what exactly is the nature of their tragedy. One might have thought that the tragic figure was the eponymous Antigone herself, but the Chorus suggests otherwise. Their focus, at least as the play ends, is rather on her uncle, King Kreon, who likewise seems to feels the burden of tragedy lies mainly on himself: “No, no! / I’m rising on horror, and horror flies. / Why don’t you hack me down? / Has someone a sword? / I and grief are blended. I am grief” (71). And as for the cause of his downfall, the Chorus has already proposed that “Kreon has shown that there is no greater evil / than men’s failure to consult and to consider” (69). Hence perhaps their conclusion, that “For their grand schemes or bold words / the proud pay with great wounds” (72).

And yet Kreon shows little of the complexity and ambiguity that we associate with the tragic hero. For modern audiences especially (but not only), the focus of the play is surely throughout on Antigone, torn between the edicts of the state and the responsibilities of kinship. She is, on the whole, a far more sympathetic figure, even if–or perhaps because–we recognize from the start (as she certainly does) that her principled stand is bound to lead to her destruction. She sacrifices herself for the sake of loyalty to her dead brother, whose corpse Kreon has declared should remain unburied because he died fighting against his own city. But though it may just be true that the Chorus’s final lines are directed at her, too, it is surely a harsh judgment to blame her for “grand schemes or bold words” or to accuse her above all of pride. Or rather, though she has indeed spoken boldly and refused to renounce her pride in familial identification with her kin, to pinpoint these sins seems to miss the mark or misjudge the tone of all that has gone before. We may justifiably feel that the Chorus perhaps hasn’t really understood Antigone, even by the play’s close. Which leaves us with a curious sense of irresolution at the end.

One response to this problem is to point out how wrong, perhaps in this play above all, is the common notion that the audience is expected to identify with the Greek tragic Chorus. For in Antigone there is from the outset something discordant and misguided about their pronouncements. That sense that they are somehow out of tune and don’t really understand is palpable at the time, and not merely in hindsight. Indeed, unlike Oedipus the King, this is not a play about hindsight at all–at least not for Antigone herself. She knows exactly what she is getting into, and we do, too, when she declares to her sister, Ismene: “Leave me alone, with my hopeless scheme; / I’m ready to suffer for it and to die” (25). Kreon may not anticipate the results of his ill-thought edict (and so for him it is perhaps a tragedy of hindsight), and the Chorus may be likewise blind to what is coming, but for the rest of us this is a play that holds few if any surprises. We see a woman march, with open eyes, towards her fate. To put this another way, we could say that this is not a play about hegemony. At least, it has to be admitted that Antigone is outside of any hegemonic relation; this is what constitutes her subalternity.

But is then Antigone in fact a tragedy of hegemony by default? It is Kreon’s tragedy precisely that he thinks he can institute a hegemonic pact with his citizens? And perhaps the Chorus’s tragedy that they think so, too… and indeed continue to think so to the last, never less than in their conviction that the moral of the story is that rulers should rule with more consultation. Here, then, is perhaps the source of our distance from the Chorus, our strange sense that their discourse has little purchase on the actions we see unfold before us, little relation to the speeches that other characters make–and that this is the case right from the start and on beyond the play’s closing lines. The tragedy of hegemony is its irrelevance, the way in which it (here, literally) misses the plot and continues to do so.

Renaming the Desert

La teta asustada poster

“Renaming the Desert: Sound and Image in the Films of Claudia Llosa”

For a film-maker, whom one might suppose to be more concerned with the visual image, Claudia Llosa shows a perhaps surprising interest in language and, indeed, sound. In the first instance, this is manifest in the prominence of indigenous language in both her films, Madeinusa and La teta asustada. In each case, the movie opens, with very little else in the way of preliminaries, to the sound of a song sung in Quechua. In fact, in La teta asustada that is all there is: the screen itself is completely blank. It is as though, instead of the traditional cinematic establishing shot, a panorama that would establish a spatial milieu and setting within which the narrative is then to unfold, we have rather an establishing sound. In Llosa’s films, the action is situated acoustically or linguistically before it finds physical space or a visual field. And in that the specific sound in each case is Quechua folk song, the characters and plot are therefore located in a sonic space defined by the Andean highlands, even when, as in La teta asustada, their physical location is the outskirts of Lima, in the desert littoral. In this film, then, we soon find that there is an ongoing tension between sound and image, language and the things it is to describe or name. If the plot of La teta asustada is driven by fundamental physical and geographical displacement–it revolves around the task of returning the corpse of the principal character’s mother (who sang the opening song) back to her highland village–this is duplicated in its formal structure, by the slippage between what is heard or said and what is seen.

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