What is it to Live and Think like Gilles Châtelet?

consume produce die

– What is To Live and Think Like Pigs about?

[Châtelet:] It’s a book about the fabrication of individuals who operate a soft censorship on themselves…In them, humanity is reduced to a bubble of rights, not going beyond strict biological functions of the yum-yum-fart type. . .as well as the vroom-vroom and beep-beep of cybernetics and the suburbs. . .So people with entirely adequate IQs don’t become free individuals. . .instead they constitute what I call cyber-livestock […] All fresh meat, all fresh brains, must become quantifiable and marketable. 

In the opening pages of his foreword to Gilles Châtelet’s To Live and Think Like Pigs, Alain Badiou repeatedly emphasizes the need for preparation on the part of the reader. In spite of Châtelet’s critical violence, poignant sarcasm, and general disenchantment with the present state of affairs, we readers must prepare ourselves for the encounter with that “rage to live,” which “animated Gilles Châtelet” (‘What is it to Live?’ 5). A rage whose urgency makes itself felt already in the books Preface. However, remarks Badiou, this was always a rage bound to and tempered by a melancholy felt in the face of the fact that more and more each day “we are solicited (and increasingly so) to live – and to think – ‘like pigs’” (5). What is more, adds Badiou, what is additionally exceptional and worthy of note is the fact that despite Châtelet being someone better known for his expertise in the history and theory of the sciences and the philosophy of mathematics, the fundamental commitment and impetus that guides his thought is better understood as one in which “every proposition on science [i.e. principle of Thought] can be converted into a maxim for life [i.e. principle of action].” Thus, if Châtelet is to be remembered, it will be as an individual whose life and thought will forever remain irreducible to the concerns of a pure epistemologist or professional academic. And for Badiou, Châtelet’s is a thought whose chief concern was always the question what does it mean to live? Now, to demonstrate why this is so, Badiou proposes the following five principles that are to serve as an introduction to, and outline of, the architectonic of Châtelet’s life and work as a whole: the principle of exteriority, the principle of interiority, the principle of determination, the principle of the indeterminacy of Being, and the principle of invention.

Principle of Exteriority: Thought is the unfolding of the space that does justice to your body

According to Badiou, if we were to identify the single theme that unifies Châtelet’s range of interests, which span from the arts and sciences to questions of revolution, it would be the idea that “thought is rooted in the body;” where body is “conceived of as dynamic spatiality” (5). What does it mean to say that thought is rooted in dynamic spatiality; that the grounds for thought is the body? It means that Thought finds its “origin” (this is Badiou’s formulation) in geometry whereby “all thought is the knotting together of a space and a gesture, the gestural unfolding of a space” (5). In other words, if Thought is rooted in the body or that what grounds Thought is a certain spatial dynamism, then ‘to think’ necessarily means to engender a particular act (gesture) within a particular organization of space (geometric plane) – Thought, says Châtelet, was never solely the domain of the mind and necessarily involves the conjugation of the points of one’s body with those of a plane. And it is this image of Thought as the conjugation of a body with a plane that leads Badiou to claim that Châtelet’s first maxim was as follows: ‘Unfold the space that does justice to your body’ (5). And it is this maxim of finding the space that does justice to one’s body that is the practical correlate to Châtelet’s own image of Thought as being founded upon a body (i.e. spatial dynamism): insofar as we are thinking and thus rooted in a body, we are simultaneously compelled to act in such a way that the conjugation of body and plane does justice to the body of Thought (the body which is the ground for Thought): “Châtelet’s love of partying obeyed this maxim. It is more ascetic than it might appear, for the construction of the nocturnal space of pleasure is at least as much of a duty as a passive assent. To be a pig is to understand nothing of this duty; it is to wallow in satisfaction without understanding what it really involves” (6).

Principle of Interiority: Solitude is the ‘Intimate Essence’ of Alterity

If Thought is rooted in the body and establishes the obligation of determining the space which does justice to one’s body, what we discover is that for every process of realisation there exists some, “virtuality of articulation that is its principle of deployment. Geometry is not a science of extrinsic extension…it is a resource for extraction and for thickening, a set of deformational gestures, a properly physical virtuality. So that we must think a sort of interiority of space, an intrinsic virtue of variation, which the thinking gesture at once instigate and accompanies”(6). In other words, the fact of Thought being grounded upon the body (as spatial dynamism) has as its necessary consequence the fact that the very function of any given process of realization (or actualization) can only be grasped by understanding its raison d’etre; by grasping why and how a given phenomena was able to be realized in the first place. That is to say, realization or actualization is a process that is not determined by that which it produces (i.e. the latent potential of any social phenomena can in no way serve as reason or cause for that which has been actualized). That said… how does Châtelet view this maxim of Thought as a maxim that also holds for the question of ‘what does it mean to live?’

According to Badiou, the fact that processes of actualization are determined by their virtual components are, for Châtelet, indicative of the fact that the process of extensive unfolding of (‘just’) space proceeds via gesture is repeated but this time with respect to what is intensive and belongs to interiority. For, as Badiou remarks, Thought is comprised of “a set of deformational gestures, a properly physical virtuality” (6), i,e. the deformation of a space that remains unjust vis-a-vis our body, and whose movements are guided not by the requirements of realisation but by what is virtually possible and/or impossible. It is in this way that Châtelet’s first principle (Thought is rooted in the body) gives rise to its second: just as the ‘deformational gesture’ is the developmental or extensive function of Thought (the pure function which is to be realised), so too is it the case that solitude as the ‘interiority of space’ and which harbors that ‘intrinsic virtue of variation,’ is Thought’s enveloping or intensive function. Thus Badiou can write that, “[I]n terms of life, this time is a matter of remarking that solitude and interiority are, alas, the intimate essence of alterity…Gilles Châtelet knew innumerable people, but in this apparent dissemination there was a considerable, and perhaps ultimately mortal, dose of solitude and withdrawal. It is from this point of bleak solitude, also, that he was able to judge the abject destiny of our supposedly ‘convivial’ societies” (6). And it is in this way, then, that in affirming the maxim of unfolding the space that does justice to our body; a space that also serves as the very ground for Thought as such; we discover that the development of ‘just’ space is only made possible by preserving the interiority of space for solitude and withdrawal. While embodiment may define the Being of Thought, it remains the case that it is through the solitude of interiority that Thought-as-gesture-of-deformation possesses any degree of determinacy. And in the absence of any interiority; lacking solitude as that “intimate essence of alterity and of the external world;” Thought becomes capable of nothing more than its passive assent to the nocturnal space of pleasure:

At this decades’ end, a veritable miracle of the Night takes place, enabling Money, Fashion, the Street, the Media, and even the University to get high together and pool their talents to bring about this paradox: a festive equilibrium, the cordial boudoir of the ‘tertiary service society’ which would very quickly become the society of boredom, of the spirit of imitation, of cowardice, and above all of the petty game of reciprocal envy – ‘first one to wake envies the others’. It’s one of those open secrets of Parisian life: every trendy frog, even a cloddish specimen, knows very well that when Tout-Paris swings, ‘civil society’ will soon start to groove. In particular, any sociologist with a little insight would have been able to observe with interest the slow putrefaction of liberatory optimism into libertarian cynicism, which would soon become right-hand man to the liberal Counter-Reformation that would follow; and the drift from ‘yeah man, y’know, like…’, a little adolescent-hippy but still likeable, into the ‘let’s not kid ourselves’ of the Sciences-Po freshman. (Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 8-9)

Principle of Determination: ‘Be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty’

Now, if it is the case that virtual solitude alone is capable of rendering Thought’s deformational gestures (gestures which unfold a ‘just’ space vis-a-vis the body as foundation for Thought as such), then the question necessarily arises: What is the criteria or measure by which Thought attains a discrete and determinate existence? If the virtual is what guides the process of actualisation, to what end does virtuality as such aspire? According to Badiou, the virtual determination of actualisation, appears in Châtelet’s text as a form of determination that is oriented toward the ‘latent’ and/or ‘temporal’ continuum. As Badiou writes, “[T]he latent continuum is always more important than the discontinuous cut […] For Châtelet, the history of thought is never ready-made, preperiodised, already carved up. Thought is sleeping in the temporal continuum. There are only singularities awaiting reactivation, creative virtualities lodged in these folds of time, which the body can discover and accept (6). Now, just as the body is the ground for Thought, the latent continuum as that set of not-yet realised virtual-potentials provide the outline of that which the process of actualisation is to realise. To unfold the space that does justice to one’s body; to deform actual or realised space (i.e. to no longer passively assent to the present order of space); such that thought and gesture are explicated in accordance with everything that has not yet been given its actual and concrete form. Thus, Badiou concludes,

The maxim of life this time is: ‘Reactivate your dormant childhood, be the prince of your own unsuspected beauty. Activate your virtuality.’ In the order of existence, materialism might be called the desiccation of the virtual, and so Gilles sought to replace this materialism with the romantic idealism of the powers of childhood. To live and think like a pig is also to kill childhood within oneself, to imagine stupidly that one is a ‘responsible’ well-balanced adult: a nobody, in short. (Badiou, ‘What is it to Live?’ 6)

It is this latent continuity of the virtual that give form to Thought’s deforming gestures and render it as an act whose very significance is indexed to the not-yet realised potential of interiority. For if Thought is said to be disfiguring in its deeds it is precisely because what is realised are modes of being who remain in an asymmetrical relation to the currently existing order of things. Perhaps we could say that one of the inaugural gestures of Thinking is its disagreement with the structure, and thus reality, of the world which it confronts. Absent this disagreement, Thought confronts, once more, that passive assent which signals its imminent failure.

Principle of Indeterminate Being: ‘Love only that which overturns your order’

Now, while it is the case that Thought resides in the latent continuum of virtuality and orients its actualisation in accordance with ‘the prince of its own unsuspected beauty,’ it is also the case that Thought grasps Being only in moments of its indeterminacy. For Badiou, Being as indeterminate commits Châtelet to a certain “dialectical ambiguity” wherein “Being reveals itself to thought – whether scientific of philosophical, no matter – in ‘centres of indifference’ that bear within them the ambiguity of all possible separation” (6). For, as Châtelet writes, it is these “points of maximal ambiguity where a new pact between understanding and intuition is sealed” (7). However, one might ask, what does indifferent Being have to do with the virtual’s determination of actualisation? What is the relation between indeterminate Being and the determinations of Thought? For Châtelet, it is this confrontation of indeterminate Being and the determination of the virtual of Thought that acts as that propitious moment whereby the virtual acts upon the process of actualisation; for it is precisely in the absence of the self-evidence of determinate and definite space, which served as that which Thought passively believes to be “capable of orienting itself and fixing its path,” (7) that the virtual and the actual are drawn together to the point of their indistinction. Thus it is when Being is indeterminate (or ambiguous) that Thought increases its capacity of deforming space in the name of its body. Hence, says Badiou, this principle of indeterminate Being is given the following, practical, formulation: “‘Be the dandy of ambiguities. On pain of losing yourself, love only that which overturns your order.’ As for the pig, he wants to put everything definitively in its place, to reduce it to possible profit; he wants everything to be labelled and consumable” (7).

Principle of Invention: To live is to invent unknown dimensions of existing

Thus far we have seen how in beginning with the maxim of Thought as the unfolding of a space that does justice to the body as ground of Thinking, Châtelet goes on to develop the principle of interiority/solitude, which leads to the discovery that the virtual determines actualisation, and thereby obliging us to “love what overturns our order” insofar as Thought’s passive assent to a certain pre-established harmony of space is that which Thought must deform through its gestures. However, the question necessarily arises: is the logical outcome of Thought’s deformation of a predetermined space nothing but the naive celebration of disorder pure and simple? As it approaches the limits of what it is capable of when confronted with indifferent/ambiguous Being, can Thought be something other than the discordant harmony of deformed space and the idealized continuum of time? To these questions, Châtelet’s response is strictly Bergsonian. Following Bergson’s insight that it would be false to treat disorder as the opposite of order (since ‘disorder’ is the term used for the discovery of an order we were not anticipating), Châtelet argues that not only is Thought something more than the multiplication of deformed space and ideal time; it is precisely when the preceding conditions, or maxims, of Thought have been satisfied that “the higher organisation of thought is…attained” (8). What is this higher order of Thought? Badiou’s answer to this question, as lengthy as it is moving, deserves to be quoted at length:

As we can see: a thought is that which masters, in the resolute gestural treatment of the most resistant lateralities, the engendering of the ‘continuously diverse.’ The grasping of being does not call for an averaging-out…it convokes…the irreducibility, the dialectical irreducibility, of dimensions. In this sense thought is never unilaterally destined to signifying organization…But this is not where the ultimate states of thought lie. They lie in a capacity to seize the dimension; and for this one must invent notations, which exceed the power of the letter. On this point, romantic idealism teaches us to seek not the meaning of our existence, but the exactitude of its dimensions. To live is to invent unknown dimensions of existing and thus, as Rimbaud said, to ‘define vertigo’. This, after all, is what we ought to retain from the life and the death of Gilles Châtelet: we need vertigo, but we also need form – that is to say, its definition. For vertigo is indeed what the romantic dialectic seeks to find at the centre of rationalist itself, insofar as rationality is invention, and therefore a fragment of natural force […] It is a matter of discerning, or retrieving, through polemical violence, in the contemporary commercial space, the resources of a temporalization; of knowing whether some gesture of the thought-body is still possible. In order not to live and think like pigs, let us be of the school of he for whom…only one questioned mattered in the end-an imperative question, a disquieting question: The question of the watchman who hears in space the rustling of a gesture, and calls our: ‘Who’s living?’ Gilles asked, and asked himself, the question: ‘Who’s living?’ We shall strive, so as to remain faithful to him, to choose. (Badiou, ‘What is it to Live?’ 7-8)

For Badiou, then, Châtelet never faltered in his commitment to Thought as deformational gestures which allow Thought to grasp diversity as such; to grasp the multiple as “the production of a deformation of the linear [the order enforced by the pig who wants to put everything in its place; the space of consumption and circulation] through laterality [the time of inventing new dimensions of existence determined by the latent continuum of the virtual]” (7). That is to say, in every deformed and mutilated act Thought is able to prise open the rigid organization of commercial space and re-establish its relation to those virtual images over-determining the realization of actual object. Such is the manner by which Châtelet conceives of this relationship between deformation (of the linear) and organization (of the ‘continuously diverse’); between Thought’s gesture that introduces disorder into the highly ordered space of circulation-consumption. Moreover, and much in the same way as Deleuze understood the relationship of the actual to the virtual, so too does Châtelet maintain that the virtual image is contemporary with the actual object and serves as its double: “its ‘mirror image,’ as in The Lady from Shanghai, in which the mirror takes control of a character, engulfs him and leaves him as just a virtuality” (Dialogues II, 150).

Hence Badiou can write that at the height of its powers, Thought undergoes a transformation and comes to establish a new “pact between understanding and intuition” such that “separative understanding and intuition fuse, in a paradoxical intensity of thought” (6-7). For it is this moment of Thought’s intensive functioning wherein what is given in our experience of the virtual finds itself without a corresponding actual phenomenal object. And in instances such as these, Thought is obliged to invent or discover the forms by which the temporalization of what is virtual within laterality achieves an intentional and determinate deformation of the axis of linearity. Only then does Thinking reach the highest degree of its power, which is its ability to expose the form or exact dimensions of existence, which will serve as the criteria for the reorganization of space (discrete, discontinuous).  Not to live and think like pigs, then. To remain faithful to everything that is at stake in the question of ‘What is it to live?’ and to always inquire into who among us are in fact living. As we have seen, any possible answer to these questions begin with a gesture that desecrates what is sacrosanct in cybernetic-capitalist terrestrial life. And perhaps from the present vantage point we are not too distant from the position Châtelet found himself; thinking and posing these questions – ‘what is it to live? and who among us are living?’ – in the shadow of neo-liberalism’s Counter-Reformation; that era, says Châtelet, which came to be defined by “the market’s Invisible Hand, which dons no kid gloves in order to starve and crush silently, and which is invincible because it applies its pressure everywhere and nowhere; but which nonetheless…has need of a voice. And the voice was right there waiting. The neo-liberal Counter-Reformation…would furnish the classic services of reactionary opinion, delivering a social alchemy to forge a political force out of everything that a middle class invariably ends up exuding-fear, envy, and conformity” (TLTLP, 18-19). And if we were to pose Châtelet’s question for our historical present, one would find an answer from Châtelet himself; an answer that is, however, a negative response:

“…here lies the whole imposture of the city-slicker narcissism…the claim to reestablish all the splendour of that nascent urbanism that, in the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance, brings together talents, intensifying them in a new spacetime – whereas in fact all our new urbanists do is turn a profit from a placement, a double movement that pulverizes and compactifies spacetime so as to subordinate it to a socio-communicational space governed by the parking lot and the cellphone. From now on the spacetime of the city will be a matter of the econometric management of the stock of skills per cubic metre per second, and of the organization of the number of encounters of functional individuals, encounters that naturally will be promoted to the postmodern dignity of ‘events’ […] In any case, for the great majority of Turbo-Becassines and Cyber-Gideons, cosmopolitanism is above all a certain transcontinental way of staying at home and amongst their own by teleporting the predatory elegance that immediately distinguishes the urban monster as a bearer of hope…from the Gribouilles and the Petroleuses, afflicted with vegetative patience or saurian militancy.” 

(Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs, 67-68)

the educated consumer.jpeg


The Black Bloc Which Was Not: Comments in the lead up to the Hamburg G20

propbdeedMembers of the ‘black bloc’ or fictional characters in a film?

In the 1 July copy of the German newspaper Taz one finds the statements of two leftist organizations – Campact and Interventionistische Linke  – each of which expresses their desire to be distanced from anything seen as ‘criminal’, and especially anything that can be associated with the black block. In the words of one Interventionistische Linke representative: ‘We want a colorful event. [But] Black is too colourful.’ A scene such as this seems to be something of a tradition within the German (reformist) left and rehearses a similar situation when, during the 1988 convention of the World Bank and IMF in Berlin, the Greens sought out discussions with world leaders while the Autonomen rejected any type of cooperation/reformism.

Unlike today, one opens the September 1988 issue of Der Spiegel with a different tone being expressed regarding the arrival of world financial leaders to the capital: “While the Greens met to discuss alternatives to the existing world financial system…the Autonomen declined to cooperate with reformists vis-à-vis the IMF. Der Spiegel quoted one radical as saying: “A death machine can only be combated.” Just as it was the case for this ‘radical’ in 1988 so too is it the case for those of us in Hamburg. In light of all the media attention leading up to the G20 summit, all one can really gather from these reports is the anticipation of any agreement between the Merkel-Macron alliance and Trump, and the arrival of the ‘black block’ and their riots. However it must be said: against the temptation of treating riots as something that detracts from the legitimate form of peaceful protest, or as something doomed from the start due to a perceived limitation inherent to the riot-form, Hamburg should receive the G20 and its affiliates in nothing but riotous fashion. As Joshua Clover has helpfully shown in his study on the historical relation between the riot and the strike, riots are a mode of struggle that simultaneously address themselves to police, the state, and capital. That is to say, riots are not simply ephemeral and spontaneous expressions of discontent but are ‘a mode of survival that seeks to resolve the crisis of the reproduction of labor within the spheres of circulation and consumption.’ To détourn Stuart Hall’s formulation: riots are a mode through which class struggle is lived.

Additionally, riots respond to the reality of the function of policing understood as ensuring the security of an economic system that was born from, and needs to maintain, the subjugation of people of color, the poor, queers, women, migrants, and refugees. That is, the job of the police isn’t to ‘protect and serve,’ or to help any citizen whatsoever when they are in danger, but rather to secure, defend, and maintain lucrative economic conditions at the national level for value production, as well as enforcing the illegality of subsistence outside the legally acceptable market of waged-labour. Again, it is this defense of capital and criminalization of those who resist becoming part of surplus populations that is being encountered once more in Hamburg. And as if to corroborate this claim of the police’s inherent role in the protection of capital, Timo Zell, a spokesman for the Hamburg police helpfully puts to rest any remaining doubts: this year’s G20 will be “the biggest operation in the history of Hamburg’s police.” It is because riots are a form of struggle that is equally anti-state, anti-police, and anti-capitalist, that the particular combination of police and capital at this week’s G20 summit should be nothing short of a riotous affair.

So if riots should break out, don’t be fooled into thinking that these are the problematic ‘far left elements’ of this week of protests; don’t believe that there has ever been such a thing as a ‘good’, as opposed to a ‘bad,’ demonstrator. It is the State that divides the masses between the good-citizen and bad-criminal, especially since it is with these so-called ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ elements that anti-police and anti-state struggles are most effective. And, in fact, there has never been such a thing as a good protester as opposed to a bad one, just as there has never been such a thing as a good cop as opposed to a bad cop: in the confrontation with 20 world leaders there are only those who are for and against the G20’s raison d’état (securing the existence and relative stability of global capital); there are only those who aim to preserve this system and those who want nothing short of bringing about its swift end.

With respect to the G20’s raison d’état, it is important to highlight that its mandate of securing the global economy is not something people voted for. Rather, the political project inaugurated by the G20 is marked by its two ‘birthdays:’ the 1999 and 2008 financial crises, the latter of which has served as the justification for the composition and program of the G20 as it exists today. In other words, the absurd display of diplomatic tug-o-war that has been playing out in the media between global superpowers just so they can lay claim to the title of ‘leader of the free world’ overshadows the G20’s inseparability from previous and future ‘crises.’ That is, the G20 uses economic crises not only to justify its economic existence but also to maintain a monopoly of political control that has come to define the Western world and at least as far back as the fall of the Berlin wall. For us, the G20’s very existence is proof of what the Invisible Committee outlined as the contemporary mode of global governance:

If some commentators made fools of themselves by hastily proclaiming the “death of neoliberalism” with the explosion of the subprime swindle, it’s because they failed to understand that the “crisis” was not an economic phenomenon but a political technique of government. We’re not experiencing a crisis of capitalism but rather the triumph of crisis capitalism. “Crisis” means: government is growing. Crisis has become the ultima ratio of the powers that be…The present crisis, permanent and omnilateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of the actual collapse, and for that reason a permanent state of exception. The current crisis no longer promises anything; on the contrary, it tends to free whoever governs from every constraint as to the means deployed. (Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 25-6)

If ‘crisis’ is the definitive mode of governance of groups like the G20, then the State’s response to the demonstrators who were in Hamburg should be of no surprise since ‘they [the G20] speak of “crisis” in regard to what they intend to restructure, just as they [State/police] label “terrorist” those they are preparing to strike down.’[6] Now, even though it was the Invisible Committee who recognized the emerging consensus among various leftist currents regarding slogans such as ACAB or tactics such as riots (“It seems that the epoch has even begun to secrete its own platitudes, like that All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) which a strange internationale emblazons on the rough walls of cities, from Cairo to Istanbul, and Rome to Paris or Rio, with every thrust of revolt”[7]) it was the Parisian youth who, during last summer’s anti-labor law demonstrations and riots, would respond to the Committee’s insight with their own statements of intent tagged across the streets of Paris. And it is one particular slogan that interests us: tout le monde déteste la police. While such an assertion in English would read ‘everyone hates the police’, we find that a more literal translation is appropriate: the whole world hates the police.

The whole world hates the police because the police are the ones who, anywhere and everywhere, ensure the ‘stability of the global economy’, who call for ‘peaceful and reasonable protest,’ and who even claim that hosting the G20 in a big city shows the world Germany’s celebration of liberal rights despite the fact that the police have built detention centers and prisons specifically for those arrested during the protests and at the camps. If police officers can prepare spaces of confinement for those who exercise their state sanctioned ‘rights’ (the right to voice dissent through public assembly being the most relevant liberty in question vis-à-vis Hamburg) it is only because the kind of society afforded by Capital and its nation-states is one where the State claims to act as the guarantor of a set of universal rights while simultaneously arresting its citizens when the exercise of these rights conflict with the interests of the State. Thus, what should be obvious by now is the fact that everyone on the streets of Hamburg are all potential criminals from the point of view of the police, the state, and of capital. For this reason we should not be duped by a discourse on the ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ elements of the demonstration, since everyone is potentially already one of the ‘bad ones.’

And what of the reports predicting the biggest black bloc in history? Surely those individuals who are only recognizable by their all black, masked up, attire would qualify as the rogue elements of civilized protest? For us, however, it would be better to ask the following: is there really such a thing as this so-called ‘black bloc’ that we hear of so often and have allegedly witnessed on our computer screens? We ask this for the simple reason that, to this day, we are not certain if we have ever seen a black bloc.


black bloc vending machines (Marais)While not in Hamburg, the ‘black bloc’ can be found inside the Palais de Tokyo in Paris

Already in 2007, the ready-made artist Claire Fontaine identified why we feel the need to inquire into the existence or non-existence of this thing called black bloc. As Fontaine writes, ‘the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.’ And what led Fontaine to draw such a conclusion about this thing we hear so often about are the very reasons that allow us to say, in good faith, that we haven’t seen a black bloc. For us as well as Fontaine, the black bloc is defined as ‘that which exists only insofar as everyone stops believing in its existence’ because, today, it seems one can encounter the black bloc everywhere one goes. This includes everything from the evening news (“4 February 1007, on the 8 o’clock news I see what appears to be a male figure…throwing stones in a night lit by flames. He is wearing a very elegant Dolce & Gabbana bomber-jacket with a big silver D&G on the back and an immaculate white ski-mask”) to mundane yet unexpected places such as one boutique brand name (as pictured above) in the Palais de Tokyo (“While my eyes follow the footsteps of customers going to the Black Bloc boutique at the entrance to the Palais de Tokyo…Agamben’s words about the souls in Limbo automatically pops into my head: ‘like letters without addressees…they remained without destiny”). In other words, the black bloc exists insofar as we understand that it is a word without image, a word that can be tied to any number of images and regardless of whether the images we associate with this term contradict the very things it comes to signify. Thus, if it is to be anything, the black bloc is that term that exists without an image:

…giving a place like that a name that evokes transgression or even the destruction of merchandise, while here we are selling our merchandise at high prices and we’re loving it. Or maybe the black bloc sounded a bit like the opposite of the white cube, or the idea of a block bloc is suggestive, martial, what do I know?…It’s not just appearances one shouldn’t trust, one shouldn’t trust words either. Or more specifically, the link we imagine exists between words and images…For example, we believe we’ve found the illustration of this concept in photographs of marching people dressed in black, black bloc is a word with an image. The term black bloc alludes to a manifestation of desire for collective opacity, a will not to appear and to materialise affects that are increasingly hard to take. The black bloc is not a visual object, it’s an object of desire. (‘Black bloc’, 18)

Thus it is not a question of what black bloc really means and rather a question of subjective utterance: who is it that speaks about a so-called black bloc, and by doing so conjures up a correlating image to give meaning to their discourse? And for Fontaine, it is the State, more often than not, that has a vested interest in constructing the political significance of this term by relating word to image:

Instead let’s ask what ‘this is the black bloc’ means? Who says that? Wouldn’t that be a definition like an imaged filmed from a window, like the one from the 8 o’clock news…a definition shot from above, taken from the viewpoint of a watchtower, from some panopticon? What we are describing is always a block of ant-men, cockroach-men, a black block, which is black like the earth because it is seen from afar. But the carabinieri, they are also a black bloc. Baudelaire said that his contemporaries dressed in dark clothes that no painter enjoyed depicting, were an army of undertakers, that they were all celebrating some funeral. Enamoured undertakers, revolutionary undertakers. (‘Black bloc’, 20)

Just as we shouldn’t be fooled by the State’s discourse on ‘riots’ and its participants from the ‘hardcore fringe of the left’, we shouldn’t be duped into the State’s paranoia surrounding the arrival of the black bloc as well; especially since it is the State that has constructed what this term has come to be known as in the popular imagination. That is, the ‘black bloc’ that we have come to know through news reports and media outlets are the images of window smashers characterized as rogue individuals acting opportunistically in the midst of the majority of good, peaceful, law abiding citizens. And, according to the State, it is these individuals that come to stand in for what it once meant to dress in all black.

If this is so, then what it means to dress in all black, to wear masks, to de-arrest friends and fight to ensure their safety, what it means to engage in our mutual defense and a collective attack against the various ways this world does violence to us, means that these modes of composition are not the black bloc. It means that this thing we do with each other in the night where all demonstrators look alike isn’t and never was the black blocToday, then, it would be better to say that the one’s who arrive in Hamburg dressed in all black and take to the streets to protect their friends and comrades, that they too are not the black bloc. And if these actions and images are not the black bloc, then, we would do well to recognize the fact that, perhaps, the black bloc will never have been in Hamburg at all. So, when you read some article about the black bloc at this weeks G20 summit, or when you overhear strangers talking about masked up hooligans destroying the city, or when you see images taken by helicopter of far away bodies shown to be causing chaos in the streets, remember that you are hearing about something other than what dressing in all black actually meant; and particularly what it meant not for the ‘black bloc’ but for what, at one time, went by another name:

On the other hand, schwarze Block means something, it roots us in a history of resistance bound with the two 20th century Germany’s […] I could tell you that schwarze Block was a tactical form, that it was a means of preventing the police from identifying and isolation who committed what gesture during a riot. I could tell you that dressing in black meant: we are all comrades, we are all in solidarity, we are all alike, and this equality liberates us from the responsibility of accepting a fault we do not deserve; the fault of being poor in a capitalist country, the fault of being anti-fascist in the fatherland of Nazism, the fault of being libertarian in a repressive country. That it meant: nobody deserves to be punished for these reasons, and since you are attacking us we are forced to protect ourselves from violence when we march in the streets. Because war, capitalism, labour regulations, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, those things are not violent, however you see those of us who want to freely live our homosexuality, the refusal to found a family, collective life and abolition of property as the violent ones. So, if you want to arrest me instead of my comrade just because we are wearing the same clothing, go ahead, I accept that, I don’t deserve to be punished because he doesn’t deserve it either… I could go on like this, and even provide you with more specifics, by supplementing it with the history of demonstrations, of victories, with dates to back it all up and everything, like the time a band was playing around the rioters in the deserted streets, or the time when the police took off running… I could go on for pages and pages, but that’s not the issue here. All this isn’t the black bloc. (‘Black Bloc’, 19-20, my emphasis)


black bloc barricade hamburg…the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.

The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape


Transcript of a short talk I gave @ b-books for the German book launch of Dark Deleuze in Berlin. 

Introductory Remarks

The terms of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility are perhaps three of the most essential concepts that constitute the lexicon of Dark Deleuze; a lexicon that seeks to refute and replace the consensus of Deleuze as a thinker of affirmation, of joyous affects, and lover of rhizomes. If this is so, readers may find the text’s development of these terms merely suggestive, especially since the notion of escape is given its most interesting treatment in the final passages of the text’s concluding chapter. However, as I hope to show, these concepts of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility, gain in significance insofar as we understand them in relation to the interlocutors Andrew brings together in his reading of Deleuze; and particularly the work of the Paris based art collective Claire Fontaine (and to a lesser extent Tiqqun) whose names appear at key moments in the development of this politics of escape.

1. Escape, Opacity, Indiscernibility

To begin, we can ask the following question: how are we to understand a politics of escape in light of Dark Deleuze’s argument that Deleuze, has always been, a partisan of the anti-state communist tradition? At the outset we can say that escape is not to be confused with some generalized notion of deterritorialization or even with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of lines of flight. To escape requires lines of flight, but the two are not one and the same. For Andrew, escape is given a decidedly political inflection where lines of flight pertain to the objective tendencies of the world that, if taken to their logical conclusions, force a qualitative change of the situation:

Escape is never more exciting than when it spills out into the streets, where trust in appearances, trust in words, trust in each other, and trust in this world all disintegrate in a mobile zone of indiscernibility (Fontaine, ‘Black Bloc’). It is these moments of opacity…and breakdown that darkness most threatens the ties that bind us to this world. (Dark Deleuze, 70)

Regarding this passage it is worth noting the reference to Claire Fontaine and her writing on the black bloc, which suggests to the reader that between Fontaine and this Dark Deleuze there is something in common. What both Fontaine and Dark Deleuze hold in common is their antipathy toward those who envision the task of Thinking being one of adequate description, or the verification of conceptual representations. In contrast to these positions that equate thinking with representing/describing the world, Fontaine and Deleuze assert that before all else Thinking is a response to a problem whose nature is political. Or as Deleuze and Guattari write in the 8th chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘…politics precedes Being’ (ATP, 203). Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the reason for the reference to Fontaine’s work is because it is Fontaine who develops a key distinction that is implied in Dark Deleuze’s conclusion and one that will allow us to understand how the three terms of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility relate to one another. In her essay ‘This is not the black bloc’ Fontaine distinguishes between what is ontologically indiscernible and that which is politically indiscernible. As she writes:

A distinctive feature of one who finds themselves in what we call a black bloc is to demand nothing for themselves or for others, to cut across public space without being subjected to it for once, to disappear in a mass or factory exists and public transportation at rush hour…In this night where all demonstrators look alike there is no point in posing Manichean questions. Especially since we know that the distinction between guilty and innocent no longer matters, all that counts is the one between winners and losers. (Claire Fontaine, ‘This is not the black bloc’)

A world of difference, then, keeps apart the fabled ‘night in which all cows are black’ from the night of insurrection ‘where all demonstrators look alike’. Regarding the former, we find ourselves disabled in the face of pure immediacy. In this situation, there is nothing about the world that allows us to distinguish something from anything else; a cause from its effect; a principle from its consequences. However, in the night where all demonstrators look alike, we find ourselves enabled in our confrontation with capital’s imposed daily rhythm and its state apparatuses of capture. For example, while one may ordinarily be subjected to ‘random’ stops by the police or even the violence that always arrives at demonstrations, the indiscernibility of the black bloc affords this mass of individuals more opportunities for attack and resisting arrest than if they were to assume the transparency model of peaceful protest and orderly conduct. Fontaine continues:

Continue reading “The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape”