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.”

Read more… (.pdf file)

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space

Again let me point to my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo’s excellent blog, “Space and Politics”. And particularly to his recent entry “Una historia espacial del Kirchnerismo, 2001-2010”, which is essentially an outline of the movements of the Argentine multitude over the past ten years.


I do wonder, however, about the declaration with which he begins this entry, that “politics takes place fundamentally in the streets, in the struggle for the control of public space.” I wonder about it for a number of reasons:

First, and most banally (but not the less significantly), we have over the past few years seen significant public demonstrations, not least the million-person march against the Iraq war in London, which had almost no visible effect. Indeed, they were cynically used by the likes of Tony Blair as further argument for the war, with the notion that if so many people were against it then the so-called coalitions post-imperial adventures were clearly not merely opportunistic pandering to the people.

Or to put this in more theoretical terms, I fear as I’ve noted before that there’s a temptation to indulge in a spectacular politics (that very much includes an attempt to “take” the streets) when perhaps politics is really not (any more) about spectacle at all.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, not only does that assertion that all politics is fundamentally about the control of public space ignore the politics of the private sphere (to which feminism, for instance, has always pointed), it also passes over the homologies between private and public space noted by anthropologists such as Pierre Bourdieu in his analysis of the space of the Kabyle House. Control of public space is very often rooted in patterns established in what is apparently “private” space, in spaces that seemingly don’t count as political precisely because they are bracketed off as private.

Third, then, surely a still more fundamental political practice is the demarcation of the distinction between public and private. In other words, there is a prior (and still eminently political) struggle over the distinction between the two, and over who decides which spaces are public (and so, supposedly, political) and which spaces are “merely” private.

One of the distinguishing features of both neoliberalism on the one hand and the multitude on the other (and so one of the points of convergence between the two; let’s say for the moment that neoliberalism follows or reacts to the multitude in this) is that both tend to erase this mooted distinction between public and private. With the rise of biopolitics, and the society of control replacing that of discipline, all spaces are now equally and immediately political, not merely the traditional public spaces of the street or (archetypically for populism) the plaza. The plaza is empty, as Maristella Svampa observes, but politics continues.

kirchnerismo

My friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo has started a blog, entitled “Space and Politics” (“Espacio y política”). I highly recommend it.

To date, Gastón has been mainly concerned with what he calls the “birth of Kirchnerism,” that is, the multitudinous energies unleashed in the wake of the death of Argentina’s ex-president Néstor Kirchner, and the way in which Kirchner’s ghost now haunts (and energizes) Argentine politics.

In a post comparing Peronism’s mythic 17th of October 1945 to the day of Kirchner’s death on the 27th of October 2010, Gastón writes:

Just as after 1945 it was clear that Perón was not alone, the principle message of the 27th of October is that from now on Cristina Kircher is not alone. There is a multitude mobilized behind her, that within hours showed that it could take over the country’s main public spaces when it felt that the government was in danger in a moment of possible weakness. Obviously this energy didn’t just appear out of thin air, but it was only with the emergence of a multitude that occupied public space that such popular support was transformed into a political vector worthy of respect.

It’s worth reading the whole thing, though in short I’d say that Gastón’s tone is a little more celebratory than mine would be. In the UK over recent years there have been a series of high profile deaths (from Diana to John Smith or Robin Cook, or even David Kelly) that at the time seemed to change everything… but looking back at them now, the public affects that they provoked seem strangely anomalous. Indeed, if anything any changes that they provoked have been only for the worse.

None of which really goes against Gastón’s thesis that the death of Néstor Kirchner has provided a space for the multitude to appear in a new way. My doubt is not so much about that, but rather about the way that (as Gastón himself suggests) such affects are all too soon and all too easily re-channeled for the sake of constituted power.

headless

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s third film, La mujer sin cabeza, concerns a mysterious accident on a dusty road in the provinces.

Of course, the accident is only mysterious because the woman who causes it, the middle-class protagonist Verónica, allows it to be so. The quest that structures the bulk of the movie, and that turns around the question “Who or what did she hit?” really begs the more fundamental question of “Why did she run?”

We have seen, in the opening scenes, a trio of local kids playing with their dog in the road near a dried-up drainage ditch or canal. We then shift to a social event, full of inconsequential gossip that we strain to understand and contextualize, from which the bleached-blonde Verónica then heads home. As she is on the road, her cellphone rings and it is while she is distracted, trying to find the phone and take the call, that with a jolt and a lurch she runs over something or someone.

Shaken, she sits in the car while the radio discordantly plays an upbeat melody from the 1970s. A handprint on the car window reminds us both of the world she has just left (where we saw a young child leave the imprint on the glass) and also of the possibility that what she hit might well have been one of the kids we saw playing earlier.


But, recomposing herself slightly, Verónica drives on and only some yards further down the track stops to get out and wonder what kind of mess she has left behind her on the road. The camera captures only a blurred image out of focus; it looks perhaps like the dog, but there’s no going back to investigate.

For the rest of the film, then, we are caught up in the protagonist’s hazy sense of guilt and uncertainty about what might have happened. We have no direct access to Verónica’s consciousness–there are almost no point-of-view shots–but somehow her confusion is contagious as we are never quite sure about the social relationships around her.

There’s a husband, a brother, a lover, friends, and an endless stream of hired helps who do everything from cooking to massage. But if in some ways Verónica’s class and social status (she’s a dentist) seems always to have kept her insulated from the poverty of the broader society that surrounds her, now that insulation has turned to isolation and anomie.

Shortly after the accident, a rainstorm had set in and flooded the roadside canal at the scene. This is no cleansing shower, however; if anything, it merely muddies Verónica’s tracks and makes it all the more difficult for her to figure out subsequently what she could so easily have ascertained before the rain set in.

After some pause, she confesses her sense of guilt to her husband. He and his friends reassure her that of course she must have hit some animal rather than the child who does indeed prove to be missing until his body is dredged up from the swollen canal. But for all their reassurances, it turns out that Verónica’s intimates have carefully done the rounds to ensure that any trace of the collision and its consequences soon disappear: they quietly repair the car’s front fender and wipe the record of Vero’s subsequent hospital visit.

So Verónica is left with a sense of guilt, of doubt, but also ultimately of complicity. She dyes her hair as though she had something to hide, even if perhaps her true secret is that her doubts are in fact unfounded.

She has acquired the habit of deception even if there’s nobody to deceive or nothing to deceive them about.

Shame, in short, need have no final cause. In what is an allegory of attitudes towards the past and the legacy of Argentina’s dirty war, Martel seems to be suggesting that those who act as though they are guilty should indeed be treated as such. There is smoke without fire, and those who run even though they didn’t hit anything do so because they know that, carelessly insulated and distracted in their SUV, they might have killed a child, and that’s how they would react if they had.

YouTube Link: the film’s trailer.

punished

The Saturday photo, part X: Daniel Santoro’s “Eva Perón castiga al niño marxista leninista.”


In English, “Eva Perón Punishes the Marxist-Leninist Child.”

This is merely one of a series of extraordinary paintings on Peronist themes. A selection is available all on one page here, and there are still more to be seen at Santoro’s website.

Now I simply have to get hold of his Manual del niño peronista.

Many thanks to Ana Vivaldi for pointing me in Santoro’s direction.

authoritarianism

When Latin American modernization projects fail, or when their ideological legitimation falters, authoritarian regimes often step in to complete (or to further) their agenda. Though authoritarianism is defined by its contempt for consensus (for which it substitutes coercion), it does not give up on discursive legitimation altogether; it merely prioritizes efficiency over hegemony. Authoritarianism’s legitimation may still take its cue from populism’s project of national popular redemption. Authoritarianism comes to be the pursuit of hegemony by other means once populism has defined hegemony as the model for the political–or rather, once populism has defined hegemony as politics by other means. Military rulers seeking justification by appealing to populist understandings of hegemony give an ironic twist to the martial understanding of politics implicit in the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Authoritarianism literalizes what, in cultural studies at least, is the figurative conceit of defining the pursuit of hegemony as a war of position. Thus the Argentine military president Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966 appeals to national unity, arguing that “the cohesion of our institutions [. . .] ought to be our permanent concern because that cohesion is the maximum guarantor of the spirit that gave rise to the republic” (qtd. in Loveman and Davis, The Politics of Antipolitics 195). Equally, handing over to what would become Perón’s second administration, “in his farewell address to the Argentine people in 1973, General Alejandro Lanusse felt obliged to thank his fellow citizens for their patience with a government that had not been elected” (Schoultz, The Populist Challenge 20).