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

the bride wore black 2Is she be a member of the black bloc?

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.

Regarding the police, however, 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; 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 world and those who want nothing short of bringing about its swift end. 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 is them who have also made recent attempts to reiterate the need for bringing about an end to this world with other slogans such as tout le monde déteste la police. While this slogan 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 centres 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. It is for this reason that 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.

‘THE BLACK BLOC WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN IN HAMBURG’

black bloc vending machines (Marais)Perhaps this could be the black block?

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)

hafenstrasse 1987 hamburg
the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.

The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape

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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”

Cinema In The Age of Control Societies

machinesoflovinggrace

(Incredibly rough draft of part II of an article for Carte Semiotiche Annali 4, IMAGES OF CONTROL. Visibility and the Government of Bodies. Part I can be found here).

Given our critique of the affirmationist interpretation, and while Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is Patton’s exemplar of something that approximates a Deleuzean ethico-political program, we should turn our attention to Godard’s 1965 sci-fi noir film Alphaville as the measure (and critique) of this affirmationist reading. Turning to Alphaville is crucial since it is the film where Godard achieves in cinema what Deleuze himself would only put down to paper towards the end of his life: the problem of how one makes revolution from within the contemporary paradigm of control societies. Not only were societies of control emerging as the latest form of capitalism’s ongoing globalization in Deleuze’s own life time; specific for our purposes here, what Deleuze understands as the technical and material conditions of control societies is precisely what Godard explores through the figure of an artificially intelligent computer (Alpha 60) that regulates the city of Alphaville as a whole with the aim of ensuring ‘civic order’ and dependable (i.e., predictable) citizenry. It is Alpha 60 who surveils, polices, and determines the guilt or innocence of the citizenry; that is, this AI form of governance is the perfect instance of those cybernetic machines at work in capitalist-control societies. Additionally, this emerging problem of control was a consequence of the shift from the ‘movement-image’ to the ‘time-image,’ as Deleuze notes. It is a shift to the paradigm  that “registers the collapse of sensory-motor schemes: characters no longer “know” how to react to situations that are beyond them, too awful, or too beautiful, or insoluble…So a new type of character appears” (Negotiations, 59).

However, what Deleuze leaves implicit and under theorized in his concept of the ‘time-image,’ is the following: after the second world war, where we see a shift from the ‘movement-image’ to the ‘time-image,’ there was a simultaneous shift in how nation-states began to conceive of the role of global strategies of governance. During and after the war, information theorists, scientists, and academics were employed by the American government to develop the technological means for establishing a certain degree of civic order in a world that has proven itself capable of succumbing to the ever looming threat of global war. It was this emerging group of scientists and academics that would construct the very means for actualizing societies of control (Deleuze) and were the real world correlates for the social function of Alpha 60 (Godard):

the very persons who made substantial contributions to the new means of communication and of data processing after the Second World War also laid the basis of that “science” that Wiener called “cybernetics.” A term that Ampère…had had the good idea of defining as the “science of government.” So we’re talking about an art of governing whose formative moments are almost forgotten but whose concepts branched their way underground, feeding into information technology as much as biology, artificial intelligence, management, or the cognitive sciences, at the same time as the cables were strung one after the other over the whole surface of the globe […] As Norbert Wiener saw it, “We are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we make look forward as worthy of our dignity.” Cybernetic government is inherently apocalyptic. Its purpose is to locally impede the spontaneously entropic, chaotic movement of the world and to ensure “enclaves of order,” of stability, and–who knows?–the perpetual self-regulation of systems, through the unrestrained, transparent, and controllable circulation of information” (The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, p.107-9).

In the last instance, whether we speak of the paradigm of control in contemporary modes of governmentality or Alpha 60 in Alphaville, both Deleuze and Godard are concerned with the possibilities for the radical transformation of social life from within this context of cybernetic governance. Thus, it is against the background of societies of control that Patton’s affirmationist interpretation, and the politics that logically follows, will be measured and tested; if only to underscore how the affirmationist’s Platonism demonstrates that the application of metaphysical and epistemic truths into the domain of politics culminates in a praxis that is impotent at best and reactionary at worst.

Continue reading “Cinema In The Age of Control Societies”

HOSTIS: A Short Introduction to the Politics of Cruelty

Circles & Grids - Eva Hesse

[This is a brief excerpt from the introduction to Hostis Issue 1. A PDF of the full issue can be found here.]

THE PROBLEM with the social is not that it fails at its intended goals. There is no use in disputing the advances in education, science, or medicine brought by scientific planning of the social – they work. We instead take issue with the means through which the social brings social peace. As French historian Michel Foucault points out, the social was invented simultaneously with the science of the police and publicity, or as they are known today, Biopower and The Spectacle. The former ensuring that everything is found and kept in its proper place, and the latter making certain that everything which is good appears and everything which appears is good. The historical effects is that within the span of a few decades, the governmentalized techniques of the social were integrated into contemporary life and began passively making other means of existence either unlivable or invisible.

Today, the social is nothing but a de-centered category that holds the population to blame for the faults of government. Prefiguration fails to question the social. This is because prefigurative politics is: the act of reinventing the social. Socialist radicals come in a number of flavors. There are dual-power anarchists, who believe in building parallel social institutions that somehow run ‘better’ (though they rarely do, or only for a select few). There are humanist anarchists, who believe that when most styles of governance are decentralized, they then bring out human nature’s inherent goodness. There are even pre-figurative socialists (“democratic socialists” or “reformists”) who believe that many equally-allocated public resources can be administered by the capitalist state. Ultimately, the social functions for prefigurative politics just as it did for utopian socialists and now the capitalist present – the social is the means to an ideal state of social peace.

Let us be clear, we are not calling for social war. Everywhere, the social is pacification. Even social war thinks of itself as (good) society against the (bad) state. This is just as true of an ‘anti-politics’ that pits the social against politics. Look to John Holloway or Raúl Zibechi, who focus on indigenous resistance to the imperialism of capital and the state. Both argue that the threat is always ‘the outside,’ which comes in the form of either an external actor or a logic that attempts to ‘abstract’ the power of the social. Holloway argues that when the state is an objective fetish that robs the social of its dynamic power (Change the World, 15-9, 59, 94), while Zibechi says that indigenous self-management provides “social machinery that prevents the concentration of power or, similarly, prevents the emergence of a separate power from that of the community gathered in assembly” (Dispersing Power, 16). Such a perspective is deeply conservative in nature, and they lack a revolutionary horizon – they reject whatever are dangers imposed from without only by intensifying the internal consistency of a (family-based) community from within, thickening into a social shell that prevents relations of externality. Without going into much detail, this is the largest drawback to already existing utopian socialist experiments – the same autonomy that allows a group to detach from imperialistic domination also becomes cloistered, stuck in place and lacking the renewal provided by increased circulation.

CIVIL WAR IS THE ALTERNATIVE TO THE SOCIAL. Against the social and socialism, we pit the common and communism. Our ‘alternative institutions’ are war machines and not organs of a new society. The goal cannot be to form a clique or to build the milieu. Insurrectionary communism intensifies truly common conditions for revolt – it extends what is already being expropriated, amplifies frustrations shared by everyone, and communicates in a form recognized by all. We fight for sleep, for every minute in bed is a moment wrested from capital. We deepen the hostility, for anger is what keeps people burning hot with fury during the cold protracted war waged by our faceless enemies. We spread images of insubordination, for such scenes remind everyone of the persistence of defiance in these cynical times. If we build infrastructure at all, it is conflict infrastructure. Most of the time, we take our cues from pirates, who would never strike out alone like Thoreau to invent something from scratch. They commandeer full-formed tools of society and refashion them into weapons. The other thing we have learned from pirates is that duration is a liability; abandon anything that becomes too costly to maintain – a project, a struggle, an identity – there are a million other places to intensify the conflict. But even in our life behind enemy lines, we agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who insist that war is only a secondary byproduct of the war machine; producing new connections is its primary function (A Thousand Plateaus, 416-23). We like how Tiqqun elaborates on this difficulty. If one focuses too much of living, they descend into the insulated narcissism of the milieu. If one focuses too much on struggling, they harden into an army, which only leads down the path of annihilation. The politics of civil war, then, is how exactly one builds the coincidence between living and struggling. Though most know it by its reworking, Call: to live communism and spread anarchy.

 

Between Cinema & Philosophy

alphaville-1
“There are ideas in cinema that can only be cinematographic. These ideas are engaged in a cinematographic process and are consecrated to that process in advance” – Deleuze, What is a creative act?

[…an excerpt from an essay on Deleuze, Godard, and control societies…]

In 1987 Deleuze delivered a talk on the topic of the creative production of works of art; specifically regarding creative acts as engendered in cinema and their difference from other creative endeavors such as philosophy and science. In this lecture, Deleuze develops a framework around the question of creative acts and their instantiation in different domains of activity through the language of “having ideas in” cinema, philosophy, etc., as opposed to having ideas about the works produced in each discipline. It will be clear from what follows that having an idea in cinema and philosophy amounts to combatting a set of habituated expectations (audience) and produced art objects (artist). If it is already well known that regarding philosophy Deleuze attributes the creative element of Thought to its antagonism against dogmatic Images of Thought (all those bad habits of cognition that treats reflection and recognition as synonymous with Thought and a thinking of difference-itself); regarding film, and aesthetics more generally, the creative element of artistic production combats ready-made images, the narrative presentation of images insofar as it is communicative and informative, and the celebration of the rote and banal development of the narrative structure at the expense of using cinema as a medium to present, interrogate, and pose questions that contain the force of necessity for both filmmaker and audience alike.

However, insofar as having an idea “in” cinema is not the same as having an idea “in” philosophy, for example, Deleuze intends to signal that cinematic ideas are necessarily bound up with the cinematographic process. However having an idea “in” cinema isn’t simply a solution to questions such as: How does one go about filming a society of control? What does this world look like? How best to present the lived reality of the citizens of Alphaville and the stranger who visits this city? Simply put, the having of ideas “in” cinema is irreducible to, and cannot be confused with, the solutions to technical problems regarding the cinematographic process.

In addition, says Deleuze, to have an idea “in” cinema is not the same thing as communication or the transmission of messages between screen and audience: “to have an idea is not of the order of communication” (p. 104). For Deleuze, the communication and transmission of information is the circulation of order-words; the circulation of the fundamental elements of certain discursive regimes of power, which polices and/or attempts to render us normalized subjects vís-a-vís the process of Faciality. How does this relate to the ideas specific to film? Precisely because there is a difference between, on the one hand, a movie that produces its audience by means of positing what is most necessary and profound in the film. And on the other hand, a film that produces its audience by communicating information regarding plot and character development while jettisoning the opportunity to address the problems that the films characters encounter as the most profound and urgent questions that act as their raison d’etre. That is, by formulating the problem of necessity in film, filmmakers create the sufficient reason and significance that pertains to a specific set of  problems encountered in both cinema and the everyday aspects of social life as such.  

Thus, to have an idea “in” cinema means the fabrication, creation, or formulation of that which is most urgent and therefore most necessary regarding the film itself. For Deleuze, it is the fabrication and formulation of what is most necessary and profound that guarantees films designation as a creative activity: “A creator is not a being that works for pleasure; a creator does nothing but that which he has need to do” (p. 102). In order to see how it is possible to have an idea “in” cinema and not simply about cinema (opinion), Deleuze provides two examples of what it means to formulate and engaged with the question of necessity, or what presents itself as the most urgent problem in the world.

A). The Seven Samurai

Deleuze offers us the example of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as it relates to themes taken up, in novel form, by Dostoyevsky. For both the filmmaker and the novelist; and what brings them into relation; their main characters live in a world where they constantly find themselves assailed by urgent situations. Whether it is the urgency of Dostoyevsky’s character who is called to tend to his dying beloved or it is Kurosawa’s samurai who find themselves torn between fulfilling their duty of defending a village or devoting their attention to the discovering the meaning of the samurai-in-itself, we find character’s in a world of necessity and urgency who are being weighed down by another, and more prior, preoccupation. This is a preoccupation  with what is merely urgent and important, but with what is the most urgent, and the most necessary. As Deleuze writes  

“The characters of the The Seven Samurai are taken by urgent situations. They have agreed to defend a village yet they are taken by a more profound question… “What is a Samurai? What is a Samurai, not in general, but what is a Samurai during this epoch?”…and throughout the film, despite the urgency of this question that is deserving of the Idiot – which is in fact the Idiot’s question: We Samurai, what are we? Here it is – I would call it an idea in cinema, it is a question of this type” (p. 103, my emphasis).

Here we see the idea proper to Kurosawa’s film: ‘What is a Samurai, today, in this historical context?’ Deleuze continues:“If Kurosawa can adapt Dostoyevsky, surely it is because he can say, “I have a common cause with him; we have a common problem; that exact problem.” Kurosawa’s characters are exactly in the same situation. They are taken by impossible situations. “Yes, there is a more urgent problem, but I have to know what problem is more urgent” (p. 103). Thus, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai confirms our earlier distinction between a film that produces its audience by means of necessity and a film that produces itself and its audience through the communication of information as the story develops along a plot line. Unlike The Seven Samurai that poses the existential and social question of the socio-historical function that is satisfied by the Samurai as social category, in films that operate by way of transmission follow a different logic:

“One communicates information, which is to say that we…are held from believing or not from believing, but to make believe that we are believing. Be careful: we are not being asked to believe. We are just being asked to behave as if we believe. This is information that is communication. And at the same time…there is in fact no communication. There is no information; this is exactly the system of control” (p. 105, emphasis added).

B). Between Speech from Image

Another instance of a cinematographic idea, can be found in the films of Sylberberg, Straub, or Marguerite Duras. What is common to these filmmakers is the following: each filmmaker creates “a disjunct between the visual and sound” (p. 104). It is through this incongruous relation of the audio and visual elements of film where we have, says Deleuze, “a purely cinematographic idea” (p. 104). This disjunction is a properly cinematographic idea insofar as it is something only cinema can accomplish. For example, Marguerite Duras’ Agatha and The Limitless Readings confronts its viewers with a dialogue between a woman and her brother on the one hand, and the images of beaches, avenues, and so forth, where the two characters in dialogue are completely absent from the screen. Unlike The Seven Samurai that makes explcit the gravity of the question ‘what is a samurai?’ Duras’ film engenders an idea ‘in’ cinema by doing something only cinema itself can accomplish – posing the problem of necessity, or presenting that which is of the utmost urgent/important matter for the characters, implicitly and without having to present the audience with the characters themselves. Regarding Duras’ work, Deleuze remarks:

“Simply stated, a voice speaks of one thing and we show something else…That which one is speaking about is actually underneath that which one is showing…To be able to speak simultaneously and to then put it underneath that which we see is necessary…The great filmmakers had this idea…That is a cinematographic idea” (p. 104).

For Deleuze, one can have an idea ‘in’ cinema in (at least) two ways. Either, by means of explicating the problem of necessity as we saw with Kurosawa, or by creating a disjunction between speech and image; by disrupting what we habitually expect in terms of a film’s audiovisual synchronization; disrupting our expectation of a one to one correspondence between speech and image (as seen with Duras).

Thus, if it is through cinema’s acts of creation; acts that are said to be acts of resistance according to Deleuze; when can we say the ideas created by filmmakers are also acts of resistance against the image of cinema as communicating information to an audience? It is clear that having an idea in cinema resists the cases where cinema falls back on the transmission of order-words; a situation where we are asked to behave like something other than the command to normalize and obey those commands is being communicated. This is the paradox of societies of control that Deleuze highlighted: it is a society based on the communication and transmission of information, where what is passed on is without content and simply an order, a command, or opportunity for the normalization of deviant subjectivities. If cinema can reasonably aspire to be an act of resistance against control society, it is because, following Deleuze’s remarks on Straub’s Not Reconciled,

“Her [the old schizophrenic woman] trace makes me realize the two sides of the act of resistance: it is human, and it is all an act of art. This is the only kind of resistance that resists death and order words, control, either under the guise of the work of art, or in the form of man’s struggles” (p. 107).

C). Two Kinds of Resistance: Political & Aesthetic

While it may be intuitive for our all-too Western sensibility to identify an act of resistance as something that appeals to, and defends, some set of inviolable characteristics that constitute a humanist emancipatory politics, it still appears odd (on first glance) that acts of resistance can qualify as resistant to control societies in terms of their simply being a ‘work of art.’ That is, as it appears in his talk, acts of resistance have at least two poles: the political and the aesthetic. The former aligns itself with the various forms of ‘man’s struggles’ against violence and subjugation while the latter aligns itself with the presentation of necessity through different mediums. Thus, and to briefly end on this question of the aesthetic category of resistance, it is instructive to turn to what Deleuze says regarding the paintings of Bacon and the painters tension with clichés:

“Clichés, clichés! The situation has hardly improved since Cézanne. Not only has there been a multiplication of images of every kind, around us and in our heads, but even the reactions against clichés are creating clichés” (The Logic of Sensation, 89).

What Deleuze identified as one more obstacle for Bacon to overcome (the cliché) is already at work in his distinction between a film that poses the problem of necessity for an audience and a film that simply communicates and transmits information to its viewers. The cliché for painters are the order-words for filmmakers. In either case, works of art qualify as aesthetic acts of resistance insofar as they produce their audience in a way that obstructs their reliance on habituated expectations and sensibilities regarding aesthetic experience as such.

The work of art as an act of resistance means the production of aesthetic experience, or an appeal to immediacy of the audible, visual, and sensible, in a manner that forecloses an individuals possibility to simply rely upon and perpetuate habituated ways of encountering a work of art. Thus, whether we consider Bacon’s paintings or the various filmmakers Deleuze makes reference to, what is always at stake is this fight against clichés; a fight against those ready-made, socio-culturally overcoded images, in order to afford us the possibility of thinking, feeling, and ultimately being in the world in a manner other than that encouraged and perpetuated by our present state of affairs. Aesthetic, as well as political, acts of resistance are thus revealed for what they are: a veritable re-education of our affects away from those moments of overcoding, capture, and/or our perpetuation of the violence inherent to norm of Faciality in the name of a collective refashioning of our affects that produces the powers (affect/be affected) of subjectivity in a way that does not require the subjugation of others in advance.

‘5 Theses on the Politics of Cruelty’ – Hostis: A Journal of Incivility

cross-chair- josef svoboda

(A preview from the forthcoming Issue of Hostis: A Journal of Incivility)

I). The politics that seduces us is not ethical, it is cruel.

We contrast the politics of cruelty to the politics of ethics. Ethics goes all the way back to the Greeks, whose ethics was the study of ‘the good life.’ Our interests do not lie in being better than our enemies.There is only cheap satisfaction in telling yourself that you have more exciting sex, stronger friendships, or fiercer personal convictions. The point is not to be better, but to win. Perhaps this leaves a bad taste in some mouths. However, we ask: is ethics not just a last resort for the impotent? Are ethical people what is left after struggles collapse into impossibility, futility, or counterproductivity

If abandoning ethics leaves one disturbed, it is because ethics is a wholly personal affair. To be ethical today is not even reformist – it is politics rendered as fantasy, a live action role play of those who ‘mean well.’ The sphere of ethical life is a world of braggarts and bullies looking for others to affirm that they have made the right personal choices. Ethics valorizes the virtue of activist intentions while leaving the systemic destruction of globally-integrated capital intact. In other words, it is fueled by the elitism of ‘being better than everyone else.’ And the problem with elitism is that it plunges us back into the milieu.

Cruelty has no truck with the individualism of ethics. It does not guide political action with virtue or best intentions. We are not looking to win the respect of those we wish to defeat. Ethics is the trap laid for those who walk the earth searching for respite from the destruction and violence of capital and the state. There is no use in making peace with an enemy whose realized interests entail your subjugation. There was nothing ‘ethical’ about the colonial world. And as Fanon reminds us, it could only be destroyed by giving up on an ‘ethical’ method. It is in this sense that a politics of cruelty picks up the old adage that one must ‘destroy what destroys you’.

II). Few emotions burn like cruelty.

It is already old wisdom that emotions are at stake when we talk about becoming ‘politicized.’ Emotions are what render the speculative and abstract into a lived reality. Winning is not simply a question of having the right ideas or right principles, this is why we define politics as the transformation of ideas into a whole mode of existence where one’s principles are at the same time one’s impulsion toward the world. If the politics of cruelty follows from the belief that we must destroy what destroys us, the emotion of cruelty is revenge. Only this taste for revenge offers resistance to the voices of this world that tell us to put up with the daily violence done to us. To feel cruel is to know that we deserve better than this world; that our bodies are not for us to hate or to look upon with disgust; that our desires are not disastrous pathologies. To feel the burning passion of cruelty, then, is to reclaim refusal. We refuse to compromising ourselves and the million tiny compromises of patriarchy, capitalism, white-supremacy, heter/homo-normativity, and so on. As such, the subject of cruelty no longer convinces themselves to love the world or to find something in the world that redeems the whole. Simply put: the subject of cruelty learns to hate the world. The feeling of cruelty is the necessary correlate to the politics of cruelty; learning to hate the world is what correlates to the political task of destroying what destroys us all. And as we already noted, it is because these two principles have a long history behind them that a politics of cruelty does not posit itself as a novelty: The Women’s Liberation movements are correct in saying: We are not castrated, so you get fucked.

III). Those motivated by cruelty are neither fair nor impartial.

Fairness is the correlate to the ‘ethics-as-politics’ paradigm. Why? Because fairness suggests that we relate to everyone in the same way. There is nothing about this world that encourages universal fairness or acting according to mutual support of any and all interests. Rather, we live in a world where everyone is pitted against each other – we have a structurally determined interest to be mean and to succeed at the expense of others. Fairness, as it currently exists, is the fairness of neoliberal competition; a state sponsored ‘state of nature’. Impartiality is the counter-tendency to the subject of cruelty. Unlike the cruel subject who understands that there can be no agreement made between capital and its dispossessed, the impartial subject furthers the myth that agreements can and should be found between the two parties. Impartiality is the idea that power is symmetrical and that a social contract can give this symmetry its proper force through law.

We know that we are in the midst of a civil war. We act as partisans. And as in any war, we have friends and enemies. For our enemies, we have nothing but disdain, hatred, and cruelty. Our only engagement with them is when it strategically advances our side in the conflict. For our friends, we extend care, support, and solidarity.

Some say that capital and the state operate through cruelty; and contrary to their cruelty, our struggle is to take the higher ground. This is to misunderstand what few things are unique to our position. Our enemies must reproduce their bases of power, which is takes a costly investment in corrupt political systems, crumbling industrial infrastructure, and expensive wars of ideology. As anarchists, we do not need to reproduce much  – we do not need to justify our actions, we do not need to be consistent in our activities, and we need not defend any of the institutions of this world. To limit ourselves even more than our enemies by following the narrow path of ethics is to give up our only advantage.

IV). Their actions speak with an intensity that does not desire permission, let alone seek it.

There is a qualitative difference between the cruelty exercised by us and the cruelty of capital and its State(s). In the United States, there is the idea that the 18th amendment guarantees the protection of citizens from ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ This was to juridically curtail the power of the State over and against its citizenry. But due to the explicitly bourgeois heritage from which it emerges, this guarantee against State-cruelty only goes as far as the eyes of the State can see; that is, only insofar as two isolated individuals are coming into conflict with one another, and where the State intervenes impartially as the mediating third term. It is in this way that the curtailing of State-cruelty remains within the logic of recognition: metrics of intelligibility only pertain to situations of isolated actions. State recognition ignores situations of collective antagonism. What is more, is what we gain via the channels of State recognition (e.g., desegregation in the 1950’s) was already being eroded through other State sanctioned economic mechanisms (e.g., redlining as early as the 1930’s). The conclusion should be obvious by now: State-recognition is nothing more than the continuation of war by other means.

Thus, if our politics of cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us coupled to its subjective correlate of revenge – which means our learning to hate the world while staving off the internalization of those norms which teach us to hate ourselves – then it is clear that our political-cruelty cannot treat the state and capital as reliable sources for recognition since what we want and need cannot be tolerated by globally integrated capital and thus pre-emptively renders us all variations of pathological, trouble-making, hysterical, killjoys alike.

V). While social anarchism sings lullabies of altruism, there are those who play with the hot flames of cruelty.

Altruism comes in at least two variants. The first is already well known; the emphasis on collectivist ethics that diffuses any antagonism through its criteria of absolute horizontalism. The second, more insidious, is a zealous altruism; here the emphasis is placed on the absolute destruction of the individual put in the service of actualizing an Idea. These are not the actions of the dispossessed. Rather, it is the altruism of an anarchists crucifixion. If the latter at least agrees that struggle is an ineluctable fact of politics, the zealous altruists weakness still lies in his belief that to engage in civil war means to burn out in the process. For every form of communal horizontalism that defers the moment of attack there is a correlating tendency to collapse heroism and martyrdom. Additionally, it is true that we have said that our political-cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us. However, this does not necessitate the assertion that real transformation means our own self-destruction. There is a world of difference between converting structural oppression into a fight for abolition and identifying existential abolition as the proper means toward the abolition of capital as such. In a word: “Even if we had the power to blow it [the State] up, could we succeed in doing so without destroying ourselves, since it is so much a part of the conditions of life, including our organism and our very reason? The prudence with which we must manipulate that line, the precautions we must take to soften it, to suspend it, to divert it, to undermine it, testify to a long labor which is not merely aimed against the State and the powers that be, but directly at ourselves.”

That said, the first iteration of altruism should not be given scant attention precisely because of its prevalence. In place of weaponizing our feelings of cruelty, social anarchism substitutes a straight forward Habermasianism sutured to the mantra of ‘returning to a class based analysis’. This helps some sleep at night. Contra these political sedatives, we again confront the history and cruelty of our politics. What is at stake is the feminist lesson we must never forget: that the personal is political; that few emotions burn and catalyze collective insubordination like those of pain, vengeance, and cruelty. The lesson is that the efficacy of political-cruelty lies not in the never ending reflections and discussions on what pains us; rather, that emotions such as cruelty are what constitute the armature of our collective antagonism.

Frankenstein Revenge Poster

A Brief Note For Enemies And Allies:

We could care less about those whose politics amounts to being a good ‘friend’ to those who struggle, or being a good ‘ally’ by reading up on the history of people of color, queers, and so on. A politics of cruelty is not a politics of friendship; since we do not see a softer world here because sociability has its cruelties, friendship has its rivalries, and opinion has its antagonisms and bloody reversals.

Friendship is already too Greek, too philosophical, and too European for our politics of cruelty. In its place, we should reinvigorate the politics of the Guayaki in Paraguay or the many tribes in that territory known as Zoma. That is, political cruelty does not seek to be included into the universality proposed by the history of Western capitalism and instead seeks to find the means of escaping from a universality that was never ours from the start. For those who would prefer reductive formulations, we could say that while the West continues its process of inclusion and expansion, our political-cruelty maintains its relation to the Outside. To our enemies who get off on finding contradictions that abound in this politics of cruelty we say to them ‘all the better!’ For them, whose desire is to be the intelligible subjects of globally integrated capital, these contradictions are mere impasses on their road to being exceptions to the rule. To our allies, who opt for a politics of cruelty, we say ‘savor these supposed contradictions!’ From the point of view of political-cruelty a contradiction simply means that we have a weapon with more than one side.

ON DESTROYING WHAT DESTROYS YOU: Hostis interviews Thomas Nail

'Close The Detention Centers!' - Sans Papiers Image

An interview with Thomas Nail. For original piece click here.

Hostis: One may see the aims of Hostis and feel a tinge of moral discomfort when it begins to ask questions regarding the status of migrants, of refugees, and of exiles [1], if only for the very reason that there remains some commitment on our part to the idea that to be content with a politics of recognition and a strategy of representation perpetuates the illusion of emancipation when all that can be achieved is Statist inclusion. In other words, once recognition as political strategy is exhausted, the very people who are indexed by this representation are left wanting. In this same vein, then, we might say that the question of representation, recognition, and the figure of the migrant forces us to go one step furtherto say that “the real content of the demand ‘citizenship papers for all!’ could also be formulated as: everyone must have citizenship papers so that we can all burn them.”[2] How does your concept of “migrant cosmopolitanism deal with the potential merits and many shortcomings of this exhaustive and truncated application of Statist inclusion?

Thomas Nail: Historically, there have been numerous figures of the migrant. For example, the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat are four major kinds of migratory figures. For me, the figure of the migrant is not a class or identity; it is a vector (a position in motion). As such, anyone can move into and out of it as territorial, political, juridical, and economic factors change. This position is one defined by the primacy of movement and can be formulated in the following way: the figure of the migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power.

Migrants are the true movers of history and political transformation, but this does not mean their movements are immune from cooptation by states, capital, or other forms of expulsion. In fact, it is their captured motion that is the very condition of social power in the first place (slavery, serfdom, waged labor, and so on). In this sense I think it is too simplistic to say that all of their movements are either antistate or reformist, in part because the difference between reformist acts and revolutionary acts is not an essential or formal one, it is a contingent and material one. An act is revolutionary when it results in revolution. Burning passports may or may not be revolutionary; it depends on the collective effects.

However, what is interesting to me about the figure of the migrant is that it has produced some pretty incredible collective effects that are completely outside territorial, statist, juridical, and capitalist circuits of social motion (slave and maroon societies, vagabond collectives, workers communes, and so on). If we want to think seriously about the possibilities of some kind of social organization distinct from the reactionary forces of territorial nation-states and capitalism, then we should start with those historically invented by migrants. Cosmopolitanism is the name often taken by the reactionary forces of states toward “including” migrants. This is not the worst thing that could happen, but it also does not accurately describe the tendency of what I am calling “migrant cosmopolitanism” to create nonexpulsive social structures outside such structures of representation.

H: Do you see “migrant cosmopolitanism as something distinct from more reformist and liberal notions of seeking the inclusion of, and the granting of rights to undocumented persons? The occupation of the Saint Bernard church, which you have thought a lot about and which lasted from June 28 to August 23, 1996, strikes one as being something more than a politics of recognition. You also mention the No One Is Illegal migrant justice group based in Toronto as embodying the subversive and more radical aspects of the struggles around immigration, political refugees, and exiles. Obviously the tenacity of these struggles came from their level of self-organization and their ability to gain various forms of popular support, both materially and symbolically. What is it about these examples of migrant struggles that point beyond the shortcomings of a type of liberal approach to piecemeal reformism?

TN: What is so exciting to me about these movements is that they are not just asking for rights, they are demanding the abolition of citizenship altogether in a very specific way: by creating autonomous communities open to anyone regardless of their status. The slogan “Status for All” can be interpreted in two ways: “Everyone who lives here should have legal status within the juridical nation-state” or “If everyone has status, no one has status.” The latter is consistent with No One is Illegal’s demand for the abolition of nation-states and borders. Universal status undermines the territorial and national aspects of the state, and therefore undermines the state tout court. I have written elsewhere about the details of their Solidarity City campaign in Toronto.[3] The aim of this campaign is to bypass the state altogether and organize migrants, social service providers, and allies into mutually supportive relations, regardless of status. Another example I have written about in Returning to Revolution is the Zapatistas.[4] The Zapatistas are indigenous people in Mexico expelled from their land. As migrants in their own country, they have decided to not simply demand rights from the state or migrate to the United States, but to build autonomous communes with their own nonexpulsive social structure.

H: Between 2008-2010 there was some publicity around the notion of migrant struggles taking up the idea of “demanding the right to stay home.”[5] This idea of trying to force a situation on the State where migrants don’t have to leave, don’t have to live the vicissitudes of migration itself also strikes us as something of interest, primarily for two reasons. First, the demand is situated in terms of an initial refusal to migrate, the demand to not be forced to live the life and fate of migrants moving from the global south to the global north; and second, because this initial refusal also refuses what capitalism has increasingly gained ahold of, namely, public imagination and a people’s way of investing and/or desiring a certain future. As Guattari said, “In my view, this huge factory, this mighty capitalistic machine also produces what happens to us when we dream, when we daydream, when we fantasize, when we fall in love, and so on.”[6] So this initial refusal of being forced into the life of a migrant also acts as a refusal of investing in a future that coincides with whatever capitalism codes and reformulates as a desirable life for everyonemoving to a Western country, living a suburban lifestyle, replicating the heteronormative narratives found in Hollywood/Blockbuster cinema in one’s own personal life, or what have you. Simply put, this “demand for the right to stay home fights at the level of “forms-of-life, and not simply at the level of Statist recognition of certain rights. What, if anything, has your work on these issues helped you clarify for yourself and others regarding this difference between struggling for State inclusion versus struggling for a ‘form-of-life’? Or do you perhaps find this distinction unhelpful, outdated, conceptually ineffective, and so on?

TN: This is a great example and I deal with it at more length in The Figure of the Migrant.[7] But in short, let me make two points. First, the “right to stay home” is a migrant movement and not the rejection of migration. Most folks involved in this movement are people who have already been expelled from their homes at one point or another. “The right to stay home” could just as easily be called “the right to return home” since most are already migrants. Take for example the millions of Mexican migrants in the United States who would much rather be back home in Mexico with their families. Or think of the millions of indigenous people around the world who are being expelled from their land by the capitalist accumulation of agricultural land. Even if they are not yet territorially expelled, they are already juridically, politically, and economically expelled from their social status in order to facilitate their geographical displacement. Even if some people are allowed to stay, what does this mean if everything around them has been destroyed by mining companies, monocrop farms, hydroelectric dams, and so on. One can become a migrant even if it is only the environment that changes.

Second, the idea of a migrant social movement around the right to stay or return home is a very old one. This strategy was the invention of the ancient figure of the migrant: the barbarian. The ancient world (Sumer, Greece, Egypt, Rome) is absolutely filled with slave revolts by captured barbarians, only a fraction of which were recorded in any detail, unfortunately. The primary demand of almost all of these revolts was the same: to return home or find a new home. In fact, this is the etymological meaning of the world “revolt” in the context of mass slavery: to return home. There is a fascinating reason why this becomes the dominant form of counterpower in the ancient world. For me this is less an issue of “form-of-life” than the “form-of-motion” proper to the migrant.

H: In Means Without End, Agamben presents the refugee as a figure of the threshold. Agamben’s other chosen figures are quite tragic, the most famous being Bartleby and the muselmann of the camp. This is all to say that theoretical takes of the refugee routinely associate them with the power of incapacity. We’re curious about why popular media seems all too ready to also characterize them in this way. Most high-profile news events, such as the recent migrant boat disasters in the Mediterranean, depict them as helpless. What is the form of power you find most useful in your analysis?

TN: Ah, yes. Agamben has this great line in his essay “Beyond Human Rights” that is very inspiring to me. He says, “It is even possible that, if we want to be equal to the absolutely new tasks ahead, we will have to abandon decidedly, without reservation, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of the political (Man, the Citizen and its rights, but also the sovereign people, the worker, and so forth) and build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.”[8] It’s too bad he never followed up on this claim. I agree with the spirit of his point but I disagree about the content and method of this claim. This quote is one of the reasons I wanted to write The Figure of the Migrant. Agamben is on the right track, but he does not see the refugee as only one among many other figures of the migrant as I do, and therefore as part of a much larger philosophical project focusing on political motion and migrant counterpower.

But to your question: The refugee is an ancient figure of the migrant related to the barbarian. The two emerge at roughly the same time in history in the context of widespread slave revolts. Only when there is barbarism and slavery can there be the escaped slave who seeks asylum. The refugee (from the Latin word fugere) is the one who reflees: first being forced to flee one’s homeland as a captured slave, and then having to flee one’s captor in favor of the refugium, or ἄσυλον (asulon, asylum). But the political limit of the figure of the refugee is that it does not follow the same imperative to revolt or “return home” as with barbarians like Spartacus, the Goths, and others who tried to fight their way to freedom. Instead, the refugee remains tied to the refugium. In this way the refugee was simply bound to a new master: the god, temple, and priests that managed all the first refugee asylums for escaped slaves in the ancient world.

Of course, I do not want to say that this means all refugees are helpless! My point is simply that the political figure of the refugee has a long genealogy that is still active today and tends to imply in its genealogy someone who is simply looking for a new master, a new nation-state, church, or refuge. Nation-states prefer dealing with this figure and would like to keep this historical meaning. Compare this to the refugee’s historical twin, the barbarian! The barbarian is wild, chaotic, destructive, mobile, active, powerful, and so on: the destroyer of civilization. Historically, the barbarian is to be feared and the refugee is to be pitied by the gods. On this point I am against Agamben and on the side of Nietzsche, Benjamin, Hardt, Negri, and many of the anarchists of the nineteenth century: we need a new barbarism.

H: We are quite inspired by migrants’ penchant for burning down the detention centers in which they are held captive. High-profile events include riots where inmates have taken over or destroyed large parts of facilities, as in Texas, Australia, and across the EU. Most political commentators have nothing positive to say about these events, though sometimes a litany of abusive practices come to light. Hostis is happy to celebrate these moments as a collective demonstration of the anarchist principle “destroy what destroys you.” What do you see in this insistent desire to rebel?

TN: This brings us to another figure of the migrant: the vagabond. The masterless men and women of the Middle Ages (serfs, peasants, beggars, witches, rogues, and so on) significantly developed the migrant art of rebellion in its strictly etymological sense: turning back in direct violence. Since barbarians are kidnapped from their home, their counterpower is related to their desire to return home. All violence is a means to the ends of escape. While barbarian slaves could potentially escape the limits of their empires, by the Middle Ages there were fewer and fewer places left to flee outside the jurisdiction of some lord or another. Thus, vagabonds increasingly began to directly confront authority from within, by rebelling. This is not to say that there were not also raids or revolts of some kind, or that direct violence was missing from raids and revolts in previous ages, but simply that during the Middle Ages the primary goal of most migrant counterpower was less about supplies (raiding) or radical escape (revolt) than about direct assassination, political murder, burning, revenge, and desecration from within society without the goal of leaving it. Today the figure of the vagabond persists in migrant attacks on detention centers, the burning of passports, squatting, theft of electricity, property destruction, violent battles with police, and so on.

H: To hazard a deceptively straightforward postcolonial question: what does the migrant tell us about ourselves?

TN: Well, for one, we are all becoming migrants.[9] People today relocate to greater distances more frequently than ever before in human history. While many people may not move across a regional or international border, they tend to change jobs more often, commute longer and farther to work,[10] change their residence repeatedly, and tour internationally more often.[11] Some of these phenomena are directly related to recent events, such as the impoverishment of middle classes in certain rich countries after the financial crisis of 2008, subsequent austerity cuts to social welfare programs, and rising unemployment. The subprime mortgage crisis led to the expulsion of millions of people from their homes worldwide, 9 million in the United States alone. Foreign investors and governments have acquired 540 million acres since 2006, resulting in the eviction of millions of small farmers in poor countries; and mining practices have become increasingly destructive around the world, including hydraulic fracturing and tar sands. This general increase in human mobility and expulsion is now widely recognized as a defining feature of the twenty-first century.[12] “A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration.”[13]

However, not all migrants are alike in their movement.[14] For some, movement offers opportunity, recreation, and profit with only a temporary expulsion. For others, movement is dangerous and constrained, and their social expulsions are much more severe and permanent. Today most people fall somewhere on this migratory spectrum between the two poles of “inconvenience” and “incapacitation.” But what all migrants on this spectrum share, at some point, is the experience that their movement results in a certain degree of expulsion from their territorial, political, juridical, or economic status. Even if the end result of migration is a relative increase in money, power, or enjoyment, the process of migration itself almost always involves an insecurity of some kind and duration: the removal of territorial ownership or access, the loss of the political right to vote or to receive social welfare, the loss of legal status to work or drive, or the financial loss associated with transportation or change in residence. For all these reasons, the migrant is becoming the political figure of our time.

Thomas Nail is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and author of The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015) and Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). His publications can be accessed at: udenver.academia.edu/ThomasNail

Hostis is a journal of negation. Fed up with the search for a social solution to the present crisis, it aspires to be attacked wildly and painted as utterly black without a single virtue. Hostis Issue 1: Cruelty is available from Little Black Cart. It is currently accepting submissions on the topic of “Beyond Recognition.” More information can be found at incivility​.org.

 

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Endnotes

1. For instance, in the CFP for issue 2 we begin by asserting the following: “Seeking recognition is always servile. We have little interest in visibility, consciousness raising, or populist pandering.”
2.Tiqqun, Untitled Notes on Immigration
3. Thomas Nail, “Building Sanctuary City: No One is Illegal–Toronto on Non-Status Migrant Justice Organizing,” Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action no. 11 (2010): 149–162.
4.Thomas Nail, Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
5. See David Bacon’s 2008 article ‘Immigration and the Right to Stay Home’ (http://www.alternet.org/story/92639/immigration_and_the_right_to_stay_home) & his 2010 piece ‘All Over the World, Migrants Demand the Right to Stay Home’ (http://inthesetimes.com/article/15793/all_over_the_world_migrants_demand_the_right_to_stay_at_home)
6. Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolutions in Brazil
7. Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
8. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights” in Means Without Ends (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 16.
9. With the rise of home foreclosure and unemployment people today are beginning to have much more in common with migrants than with certain notions of citizenship (grounded in certain social, legal, and political rights). “All people may now be wanderers”: Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 87. “Migration must be understood in a broad sense”: Nikos Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization, and Hybridity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000), 2.
10. World Bank’s World Development Indicators 2005: Section 3 Environment, Table 3.11, http://www.worldmapper.org/display.php?selected=141.
11.International annual tourist arrivals exceeded 1 billion globally for the first time in history in 2012. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “World Tourism Barometer,” vol. 11, 2013, http://dtxtq4w60xqpw.cloudfront.net/sites/all/files/pdf/unwto_barom13_01_jan_excerpt_0.pdf.
12. I use the word “expulsion” here in the same sense in which Saskia Sassen uses it to indicate a general dispossession or deprivation of social status. See Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 1–2. Many scholars have noted a similar trend. For an excellent review of the “mobilities” literature on migration, see Alison Blunt, “Cultural Geographies of Migration: Mobility, Transnationality and Diaspora,” Progress in Human Geography 31 (2007): 684–94.
13.Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 213.
14. Bauman, Globalization.