What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?
A review of The Chicago Conspiracy

“We believe that the most honest position we can take is to reject any notion that a camera presents a detached and passive view of our world.”
Subversive Action Films

In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, one of the characters, an ex-hippy revolutionary who has dropped out of the struggle and into the Fed’s witness protection program, reminisces about her radical film collective in the ’60s, that naïvely presumed to use the camera as a weapon, turning it upon the ugly face of Authority, as though this ignition of consciousness would be enough to demobilize Power and encourage rebellion.

In their newly released documentary, The Chicago Conspiracy, the folks at Subversive Action Films have set themselves the project of surmounting the resident limitations and illusions of their medium. The Chicago Conspiracy tells of anticapitalist struggles in Chile in the years since the dictatorship, focusing on the students, battling neoliberal educational reforms; the residents of the poblaciones, struggling for the autonomy of their neighborhoods against the exclusions of capitalism and the incursions of police; and the Mapuche, fighting for their land and integrity against the continuing colonialism of the Chilean state and multinational timber corporations. The title of the film refers to the Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and who utilized the brutal Pinochet dictatorship to implement their neoliberal theories on Chilean society.

What are you looking at?
A review of The Chicago Conspiracy

“We believe that the most honest position we can take is to reject any notion that a camera presents a detached and passive view of our world.”
Subversive Action Films

In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, one of the characters, an ex-hippy revolutionary who has dropped out of the struggle and into the Fed’s witness protection program, reminisces about her radical film collective in the ’60s, that naïvely presumed to use the camera as a weapon, turning it upon the ugly face of Authority, as though this ignition of consciousness would be enough to demobilize Power and encourage rebellion.

In their newly released documentary, The Chicago Conspiracy, the folks at Subversive Action Films have set themselves the project of surmounting the resident limitations and illusions of their medium. The Chicago Conspiracy tells of anticapitalist struggles in Chile in the years since the dictatorship, focusing on the students, battling neoliberal educational reforms; the residents of the poblaciones, struggling for the autonomy of their neighborhoods against the exclusions of capitalism and the incursions of police; and the Mapuche, fighting for their land and integrity against the continuing colonialism of the Chilean state and multinational timber corporations. The title of the film refers to the Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and who utilized the brutal Pinochet dictatorship to implement their neoliberal theories on Chilean society.

With a skillful mixture of personal interviews, archival or media footage, and shots of riots, protests, festivals, and other events, the film gives the viewer an emotive and thoughtful impression of these struggles rather than an informational explanation. The filmmakers describe the situation through the contradictory words of students, parents, fugitives, combatants, youth, elders, news anchors, politicans, and economists, presenting a multifaceted range of analysis that includes the progressive, the Marxist, the anarchist, and the neoliberal. It is interesting that in a documentary that from the very beginning attacks the notion of objectivity, a narrator figure would be so minor of a character. The political voice of the film is neither hidden nor explicit. Much of the analysis is conveyed implicitly, through the juxtaposition of these interviews.

For example, the Chilean economists who provoke the film’s name are described only minimally, yet scenes of repression and street fighting are periodically interrupted by shots of a grandfatherly Milton Friedman, sitting in a comfortable room as an orchestra plays, using this civilized setting and a patronizing smile to construct a didactic and simplistic metaphor to justify the heartless mechanics of the Free Market. His arguments are never directly confronted, but they do not need to be; the rest of the film shows how the putatively natural and fair market mechanisms are imposed. The social war does not need to be justified or explained; it is unarguable. Here the filmmakers find an instance when filming is revolutionary, when the camera can illuminate, in the way a burning church illuminates.

Without fetishizing the abandonment of research and reason, we must still somehow dismiss the debates of Authority with the contempt they deserve. Friedman’s facile words of gifted children inheriting talent as property do not need to be debated because the words themselves are not the point; any argument would do. Capitalism expands itself not on the basis of considered reasons but on the basis of internal imperatives. The rest of us are meant to contemplate the discourses Capital’s technicians offer us to give an alibi to what already is, which is the continuous forceful rearrangement of our lives. Thus, not by picking apart his sophomoric syllogism but by showing the police forces that stand behind it, the rage provoked by it, do the filmmakers show that Friedman has a corpse in his mouth.

In The Chicago Conspiracy the filmmakers rarely speak in their own words, but rather in where they choose to look. Their anti-objective subjectivity is conveyed not in arguments but in sympathies. Solidarity spreads, after all, not through agreement but through the communalization of the lived experiences of struggle. One couldn’t agree, simultaneously, with both the student talking about rights and better education, and the anarchist talking about subversion, but one can sympathize with both, sympathize with the struggle, and choose one’s place in it.

Because the filmmakers choose less to inform and more to invoke, or so it seems to me, they evade some of the illusive traps that pervade the medium of film, especially in leftist usages thereof. They recognize that what we need to hold up to power is, to paraphrase Brecht, not a mirror, but a hammer. But is the tool itself adequate?

Some would argue that film itself is inherently spectacular. While I personally could not conceive of being in a riot and choosing to occupy my hands with a camera, I also acknowledge that in calmer moments I love to watch footage of social tempests occurring elsewhere.

It seems that a sort of wordplay has come to be the current interpretation of the spectacle; that any activity which includes the role of spectators is in and of itself spectacular, a manifestation of the spectacle. Before dismissing this hypersensitivity towards ever being a spectator of anything, I want to mention that the filmmakers frequently use narrative interruptions to subvert the narcotic effect of film and repeatedly resituate both themselves and the audience in the act of making and viewing the documentary, so that The Chicago Conspiracy functions as a sort of meeting rather than another displacement. They accomplish this by starting the film with the words “What are you looking at?” and a scene of a clash between a corporate photographer and their own subversive film crew; by calling attention, via interruptions at the beginning of each of the film’s three chapters, to the borders of the medium; by framing shots so that the shadows of the camera person and interviewer often appear on the ground next to the interviewee.

But clever tricks aside, is film inherently spectacular? While I disagree with Debord’s, and all other Marxists’, belief in the totality of their own ideas, and I would argue that the totality is in fact incomplete, I find it worthwhile to come back to the first chapter of Society of the Spectacle: the spectacle is “a means of unification […] the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation […] The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images […] The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies.”

When social conflict reaches a level that is undeniable, it is the function of the media to turn their cameras there, in order to unify the rupture with the common stream of the spectacle. How are these cameras different from the cameras of the activists and combatants? Often, as we have too often seen, they are not. But to argue that the problem lies in the camera itself seems akin to the perplexing argument that the master’s tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house, a turn of phrase so sloppy that it does not even make sense in its metaphorical clothes. By bringing weapons to a riot, are anarchists performing the same job as the police, who also bring weapons to riots? Be gone, pacifists, clinging to the cupboards of our mind like cobwebs!

The camera in the hands of a combatant can attack the spectacle if it is a means of separation that achieves a subversive language of unification. What does this mean, if I am not simply playing at opposite day? It means using juxtaposition as detournement, placing the narrative of the spectacle next to the images of its ruptures, its exclusions. It means using their words of social peace to explain our world of social war. In the spectacle, images of rupture are fragmented from their emotional reality and tailored into a unified narrative of senselessness and fear which calls for more order, more of the same thing that lies behind the rupture.

Attacking the spectacle with images means exposing social relations as they exist and moving towards social relations of solidarity and mutual aid, towards communalization. This documentary clearly comes out of relationships of solidarity developed between anarchists and filmmakers in Chile and the US, and audibly calls on the viewer to sympathize with those in struggle in Chile and to include them in our community of insurrection. It is a first step towards widening our struggle by becoming aware of other manifestations of that struggle. Awareness and sympathy—consciousness and emotional ties—are prerequisites for solidarity.

The film itself accomplishes nothing unless those who view it get up from their seats afterwards and build those relationships of solidarity. Whereas the spectacle is “the result and the project of the dominant mode of production,” a radical documentary is not a completed object but an invitation, whose project lies outside of itself, in the streets to which it beckons us. The effect of a film, the question of whether we are locked in permanent contemplation, it turns out, will be decided by us. The Chicago Conspiracy is well made not only as a film but also as a framing of exactly this choice. It seems most fitting that in the end we turn our critique not on the film, but on what we do with it.

Subversive Action Films

Websites with information and anarchist news from Chile (learn Spanish, US anarchists!)

http://www.ourwar.org/

http://www.hommodolars.org/

http://liberaciontotal.entodaspartes.net/

Human Nature

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.

If one function of ideology is to make things that have a history appear natural, then perhaps ‘nature’ is the ideological concept par excellance. On the other hand, if ideology forms a distorted or deceptive image of the real, something like nature is an indispensable correlate to ideology, without which a critique of the latter would be meaningless. This ambivalence is inherent to the concept of nature; for all the conceptual pairings it seems to so naturally elicit—nature/culture, nature/civilization, nature/artifice, nature/humanity—it refuses to be limited to one side of a pair. Nature, as much as ‘nature,’ is the ultimate colonizing force: it appears where it is least expected, even—I should say especially—when it was thought to have been banished. Not only is this as true of nature as it is of ‘nature’; more, the seemingly obvious distinction here between the reality and the concept of nature is dangerously unstable. Nothing is more natural than the unnatural.


The hilarious and thought-provoking Human Nature, with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote the equally hilarious and thought-provoking Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York) is a movie about the pathology of civilization, which is a common enough conceit; but it could equally be said to be a send-up of the idea of civilization itself, as it shows the latter to be a series of ideological justifications that skim along life’s surface while nature goes on about its business undisturbed, and at the same time a send-up of the idea of nature, as it continually mutates and forms itself into civilization, culture, art, and pathology, simultaneously inventing and undermining its own distinction from all of the aforementioned terms. Everything the characters in the movie do is perfectly natural, which is to say it’s often perverse, self-conscious, pretentious, absurd, and petty, and it’s almost always self-defeating.

Dr. Nathan Bronfman is a psychologist whose life’s work and guiding passion is to teach table manners to lab rats. “If I can teach manners to rats,” he explains, “then maybe I can teach them to humans, and maybe the world will be a little safer.” Presumably manners don’t come naturally to humans, then, but it really seems unnatural to see rats holding chairs for each other and selecting the proper fork for the salad. But nothing could be more natural than the system of stimulated responses Bronfman uses to teach the rats; after being shocked enough times grabbing for the wrong fork, a rat quite naturally gravitates toward the correct one. If nature can be manipulated in such a way that manners are the result, Bronfman reasons, then there is hope for the human race. Nature must be doubled back onto itself, and the result of such an operation is civilization. What experimental behaviorism demonstrates, above all, is that domestication is eminently natural.

Bronfman’s upbringing would seem to have been an influence on his choice of work. His overbearing mother drilled into him the maxim, “Never wallow in the filth of instinct.” Without civilization, she insists, we’d be just like the apes. In other words, human nature is just the same as any other old nature, something we must rise above. But if there is no difference between human nature and ape nature, how did we become civilized to begin with? The notion of human nature is rendered problematic once we reflect that, if our ‘nature’ is our specific difference, then that difference is, more or less, to be creatures of culture, which is to say creatures who modify our nature and thus come to have an idea like ‘nature’ to begin with.

If the preadolescent Bronfman so much as touched the wrong fork, his mother would send him to bed without his supper. In such a situation, nothing is more natural than to become obsessive about table manners; after all, Bronfman learned his manners the same way his rats do, by responding to repeated stimuli in a predictable manner. But Bronfman is contemptuously dismissive when his shrink suggests his childhood had anything to do with his choice of career: “Isn’t that a tad convenient, Wendell? You can’t reduce my passion to ‘childhood.’”

Bronfman is, quite naturally, disgusted by his girlfriend, a nature writer named Lila Jute (author of a book called Fuck Humanity), when he discovers that she regularly shaves her entire body, which in its natural state is covered with fur. As ‘unnatural’ as this irruption of nature on Lila’s body is, this is small beer compared to the most unnatural character in the movie, Puff, who lives in the woods and thinks he’s an ape; or anyway, comes to think, in retrospect, that when he lived in the woods he was an ape. As Puff later tells a congressional committee, “I was an ape. I wasn’t really sure what type. Apes don’t think in terms of type. Apes don’t even know they’re apes…” If apes aren’t species beings who think in terms of type, this is as much as to say that nature knows nothing of nature; to an ape, the Empire State building, the atom bomb, and The New York Review of Books are just as natural (or as unnatural) as a ripe banana, although perhaps a bit less interesting.

Bronfman and Lila find Puff while out hiking one day. Bronfman tolerates these excursions into nature in order to keep Lila happy; in one of the funniest lines of the movie, when she gets angry with him for nervously laughing along with his mother as she denigrates nature, he protests “No, honey, I love nature! It’s my favorite!” Bronfman actually mostly hates nature, at least in the form of trees, babbling brooks, and hairy, sweaty, unruly instinct, but of course nothing could be more natural than his feigning a love of the wild in order to preserve his sex life.

Initially, Puff is devoid of language, but, using the methods he has honed working with his rats, Bronfman quickly transforms him into a fully-fledged man of the world, with the help of an electrical collar that is fixed around his neck. Puff is initially recalcitrant, but after seeing Bronfman and his assistant Gabrielle have sex in the laboratory, as unashamed as if Puff were a dog, he makes rapid progress. As he later tells the assembled Congressmen with a whimsically arched eyebrow, “To use the vernacular, gentlemen, I wanted me some of that.” Puff figures that learning the ways of civilized humanity is the best way to get out of his glass pen in Bronfman’s laboratory and get laid.
Being civilized, according to Bronfman, means “When in doubt, don’t ever do what you really want to do.” Accordingly, civilizing Puff for the most part involves repeatedly shocking him when he tries to hump waitresses, Lila, pictures of women, or anyone or anything else. Getting laid, Puff soon learns, mostly involves not getting laid. Now fully civilized (Bronfman remarks “He’s awfully well-read for someone who’s only been literate for a month”), Puff learns the intricate game that is perhaps what is most natural to human beings: deferring gratification in order to get what we want, acting against out desires, against our nature, in order to satisfy our deepest drives.
Although Bronfman is the most civilized of the three main characters in the sense of cultural refinement, he is also the most natural; everything he does is explainable by lust or pathology, covered with a veneer of half-baked idealism. Because Bronfman always has a selfish motive lurking behind his actions, he could be said to be perfectly natural: despite his upbringing, he is entirely motivated by instinct. Perhaps he truly pities Puff when he finds him; he ponderously muses, “That poor man…never to read Moby-Dick or marvel at a Monet!” But his insecurities are so strong that they motivate even his most ostensibly altruistic actions. He is thus demonstrably devoid of one supposed feature of the civilized human being: he acts entirely out of interest.
In any case, Lila eventually kidnaps Puff and forcibly returns him to the wild, retraining him to be an ‘animal’ with the help of the shock collar that remains around his neck. When Bronfman tracks them down, Puff kills him, but Lila insists she take the rap so Puff can return to the forest after telling his story to a congressional committee.
As painfully unnatural as the evening-jacketed, wine-sipping, opera-loving Puff must appear to us, nothing, of course, is more unnatural than a human being living in a forest alone and naked, without human company and unable to speak. When Puff decides to return to the forest, it can only be as a kitschy gesture calculated to make a point. He manages to capture the public imagination by appealing to our sanctimonious nostalgia for what we imagine to be a more natural lifestyle. Even the Congressmen are visibly moved, although Puff manages to shame them with a supercilious sneer when they titter at the juicier parts of his story. And Puff himself is carried away by the nobility of his gesture, captivated by an image of himself as no ape could ever be.
Puff marches out of the congressional hearing and trudges down the road until he reaches the path to his former home, shedding his clothes as he goes. However, as soon as the crowd of supporters who has followed him to the edge of the woods disperses, Puff sneaks back out into Gabrielle’s waiting car and the two ride off into the proverbial sunset. The naked and shivering Puff immediately demands some clothing, and announces that he needs to go to a restaurant. Puff forsakes nature for the ultimate trinity of natural needs: food, shelter, and sex, none of which are in abundant supply in his forest idyll.
What Human Nature shows is both the inescapability and the incoherence of nature, both as a concept and as a supposed thing-in-itself, if it’s even possible to tell the two apart. It’s not, of course, but the distinction remains indispensable. As that which is not a concept but nevertheless underlies all conceptuality, nature infects every concept just as much as it disappears at the first attempt to define it. In that case, the concept ‘nature’ is perhaps the fundamental concept, even as, in erasing the distinction between concept and reality, it undermines both naturalness and conceptuality. Nature needs something that is unnatural in order to appear at all, but having done so it immediately spills over into the unnatural, rendering it natural, thus effacing itself. Because apes don’t think in terms of type, they are not conservationists.
That is why, as the basis of any social critique, ‘nature’ is always an ideology. And ideology is, of course, perfectly natural. But the function of critique is to interrupt ideology, even if the latter cannot be ultimately banished from our lives any more than nature can. In order for that to be possible, it would have to be possible to finally disambiguate the two, and that is of course not possible. But without a critique of ideology, this very indistinguishability would not become apparent. If the critique of ideology is itself ideology, then, that does not render it any less necessary. Nature is necessary, impossible, and in any case unavoidable. But it mocks those who seek it in intuition or mysticism, or who promote it to a political fetish. The only adequate position toward nature (which is not the same as to say natural phenomena or the environing world) is not one of worship, veneration, protectiveness, affirmation, or contempt, but rather ruthless critique. That is above all because, as Heraclitus recognized, “Nature loves to hide.”

Hey Italo, congratulations on your rediscovering the élan of molluscs!

A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics

’In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer forces of production but forces of destruction (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class. (…) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the changing of men on a mass scale is, necessary, a change which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it, can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages, and become fitted to found society anew.’
The German Ideology

Science fiction and pro-revolutionary literature share the same highest of high priorities, namely the separating out of moments of freedom from the reproduction of existing constrained relationships. Both discourses are most concerned with the image of an overflowing of activity which cannot be mapped back onto the co-ordinates of already established behaviour but which, on the contrary, defines itself on its own terms and may thus be presented as exceptional.

A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics

’In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer forces of production but forces of destruction (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class. (…) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the changing of men on a mass scale is, necessary, a change which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it, can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages, and become fitted to found society anew.’
The German Ideology

Science fiction and pro-revolutionary literature share the same highest of high priorities, namely the separating out of moments of freedom from the reproduction of existing constrained relationships. Both discourses are most concerned with the image of an overflowing of activity which cannot be mapped back onto the co-ordinates of already established behaviour but which, on the contrary, defines itself on its own terms and may thus be presented as exceptional.



Freedom is always novel and freedom always steps out of all established registers in its wilful creation of a new register. What is free is thus understood as traces of consciousness commingling with fragments of activity within a unified project; freedom is always to be evaluated on the terms it generates itself out of the mixing together of its constituent parts.

’The shock of freedom works miracles. Nothing can resist it, neither mental illness, remorse, guilt, the feeling of powerlessness, nor the brutalisation created by the environment of power. When a waterpipe burst in Pavlov’s laboratory, not one of the dogs that survived the flood retained the slightest trace of his long conditioning. Could the tidal wave of great social upheavals have less effect on men than a burst waterpipe on dogs?’
Vaniegem

But, once it has lost it glimmer, the image of freedom becomes that of caprice in relation to fate. As time lapses, the faded image of what it means to be free is transformed into the defining constraint on reproduced activity. Oppression is never more than freedom plus time.

Somewhere within that most esteemed collection of science fiction stories Cosmicomics Italo Calvino considers the freeing of shellfish from their submarine greyness. He notes that their achievement of colour is not complemented by their developing sight so that they might somehow gain benefit from their achievement. He represents this ‘just so’, the why it had to be, as a delicate process of accidental developments, of distribution of faculties, of the interplay of internalities and externalities, of constraints and the overcoming of constraints, of collapsing complexities and destabilised simplicities, of enticements and dead ends, of slow builds and sudden rushes.

In particular, Calvino presents the relationship of experimental engagements of the self (wherever this may be located on the circuit of material forces) within the context of a blank world as a series of subjectively achieved breakthroughs. He records how the evolution of sight does accompany the embodiment of visuality in the world but he also considers how the capacity to gaze is allocated to a different organisation’s line of descent than the developmental line of what is to be gazed upon – and yet, we discover, that far from having separate lineages the looking and the looked upon are necessarily integral to each other even if they do not inherit the same genetic patterning.

The object of my study here is Calvino’s displacement of the concept of work-activity from what is ordinarily understood as such (as encapsulated in the Theses on Feuerbach) to the works and activities of that which we have previously thought performs neither.

During those long moments of equilibrium in the world, when nothing much is happening, and everything slides gradually without a fanfare, my attention slides too and away from the agitations of those whose function it is to make a difference. Slipping further, my preparedness is then disconnected from the horizon where I had just now been looking for punctuating, emergent events, for extinctual crises and upfolding cataclysms, for any and all those eruptions which are going to shake new terms from out of the sky and down upon us. Quite unexpectedly, I pass into a state where I am neither looking for the signs nor listening for the prophets of the signs. And during such times I find myself engaged with, as if for the first time, all in the world that does not, and will not ever, change.

Because nothing is happening, my attention is drawn rather to the work, which is not a work at all, of that which is acted upon – to the stoney ground. That is to say, my attention is attracted to the passive role in the relation of the revolutionisers to the revolutionised.

My interest begins to attach itself to the receptor unit in communication, to the cloud of reactions which does not appear of its volition but is perhaps only ever defined by the actions of external forces. This cloud is divisible into two distinct modes:

A. affectiveness – by passivity, by reaction, susceptibility, suggestibility, responsiveness, pliability, permeability, mutability;

B. impermeability – by neutrality, by resistance, by inertia.

My interest in nothing doing, is primarily located in that substrate through which active principles either percolate down or flow across. Why is it that so much of the world does nothing but is content to either be changed from the outside, or even remain as it is? To focus the question more sharply, why is it that the communism as proposed by communisers is vulgar, forced, artificial whilst that which appears spontaneously within the communised is subtle, natural, well-proportioned? Why do we naturally prefer to find instances of communism than instigate it?

My interest then, is directed towards the work of receptor units, the passive bodies, the inert materials, the mute objects, the acted upon, in-themselves, subjects.

’I’m talking about sight, the eyes; only I had failed to foresee one thing: the eyes that finally opened to see us didn’t belong to us but to others. Shapeless colourless beings, sacks of guts stuck together carelessly, peopled the world around us, without giving the slightest thought to what they should make of themselves, to how to express themselves and identify themselves in a stable, complete form, such as to enrich the visual possibilities of whoever saw them. They came and went, sank awhile, then emerged, in that space between air and water and rock, wandering about absently; and we in the meanwhile, she and I and all those intent on squeezing out a form of ourselves, were there slaving away at our dark task. Thanks to us, that badly defined space became a visual field; and who reaped the benefit? These intruders, ho had never before given a thought to the possibility of eyesight (ugly as they were, they wouldn’t have gained a thing by seeing one another), these creatures who had always turned a deaf ear to the vocation of form. While we were bent over, doing the hardest part of the job, that is creating something to be seen, they were quietly taking on the easiest part: adapting their lazy embryonic receptive organs to what there was to receive: our images.’
The Spiral (from The Complete Cosmicomics)

The narrator, an unidentified mollusc, is describing how he has evolved a beautifully coloured and perfectly proportioned spiral shell. It is strange is it not, he observes, how his shell, this calcareous exoskeleton secreted from ectodermic cells within that part of his anatomy called the mantle, and supposedly developed as a mode of defence against predation, should also realise itself in terms of a visually pleasing logarithmic spiral growth, and an equally aesthetic complementary set of colours when he and his kind do not possess sight.

The narrator, and his kind, are visual objects and yet cannot see themselves. He goes on to explain, first in terms of love, and then in terms of the external evolution of sight, the work, his work, of passivity; he describes how the loved draws forward the lover, how the image catalyses the development of the eye.

The mollusc’s account of evolution here shifts its focus from the ‘active’ work of genes and instead emphasises the passive role of environment – sight is drawn out of bodies by the establishment of a visual field. Living beings develop the capacity to respond to visual stimuli, and this responsiveness enhances their existence, because there are things in the world to stimulate them visually.

By the same means, whilst the things I think about do not have to possess the capacity for thought for me to think of them, it is still the case that what seem like my thoughts actually belong to them as much as to me. And by extension, whilst the process of my existence is attuned to change in the world I do not record my attempts at change as changes but only as a continuation of the same terms of my self. So it is that whilst change is my project I am not able to satisfactorily effect it. I am waiting to be changed by that for which change is not, as far as I can make out, the project.

Why do we prefer to find instances of communism than instigate it? This has something to do with the law of unintended consequences. Every intervention into a complex system will produce outcomes that are both unpredicted and undesirable… we find we cannot successfully unify our plans with the actions which were supposed to realise the plans.

Whilst we are greatly satisfied with that which is undesigned (the shells we disinterestedly find on the beach whilst deep in thought on other matters) and whilst we are heartily pleased with that which we encounter outside of our own projects, that which surprises us and throws us back into a simple and unreflected upon relation with it, we are to the same degree discontented with that which we have authored – because it has spiralled irregularly beyond our intentions, because we are responsible for it. And we feel most responsibility for that which we are least contented with.

Transformation is typically described in terms of the actions of agents of transformation, and yet nothing would change at all if the passive figure in the relationship were not susceptible to the actions of that agent.

The world in which we live is not changing in response to the efforts of communisers and would-be revolutionaries and this has little to do with either the quality of their efforts or their selection of incorrect opportunities for intervention.

The world is not changing because the great passive, unchanging mass, is not receptive to, or even commensurate with, the messages of the agents who are attempting to act upon it.

And strangely, as soon as the work of passivity has been undertaken, that is, as soon the world becomes receptive to the works of would-be revolutionaries, it has already passed into a state of transformation in advance of the buzzing, exhortatory messages intended for it. And therefore, from the perspective of the agents of change, who would seek to lead it, the world remains equally impervious, passive, inscrutable even at its most revolutionary junctures.

frére dupont

Anonymous: That Most Prolific of Anarchist Writers

Without a doubt, Anonymous has written more than any other anarchist over the last 150 years. Sometimes she uses a pseudonym and sometimes she simply leaves the byline blank; we know it’s her. But because of the perplexing diversity of pieces she has authored, it becomes impossible to offer a coherent critique of this important writer’s canon. Instead, perhaps a look at her canonality will be of use.

While I don’t wish to discount her significance, after all I share much in common with her, I feel compelled to publicize her stylistic dishonesties. What are her signature styles?
Security: Anonymous is said to be untraceable, a bit like JD Salinger.
Modesty: Anonymous rejects any personality cult and focuses all attention on the ideas and not the messenger.
Sameness: Anonymous is the Everyman, the black mask. She could be any one of us.
Theft: Anonymous opposes intellectual property. She plagiarizes and shares freely.

Without a doubt, Anonymous has written more than any other anarchist over the last 150 years. Sometimes she uses a pseudonym and sometimes she simply leaves the byline blank; we know it’s her. But because of the perplexing diversity of pieces she has authored, it becomes impossible to offer a coherent critique of this important writer’s canon. Instead, perhaps a look at her canonality will be of use.

While I don’t wish to discount her significance, after all I share much in common with her, I feel compelled to publicize her stylistic dishonesties. What are her signature styles?
Security: Anonymous is said to be untraceable, a bit like JD Salinger.
Modesty: Anonymous rejects any personality cult and focuses all attention on the ideas and not the messenger.
Sameness: Anonymous is the Everyman, the black mask. She could be any one of us.
Theft: Anonymous opposes intellectual property. She plagiarizes and shares freely.

Unfortunately, Anonymous is not as secure as she clearly likes to believe; she leaves her fingerprints all over nearly everything she writes. Just as Canada’s Direct Action were tracked down on the basis of language used in their communiqués, just as The Coming Insurrection was traced to the Tarnac 9, Anonymous’s potent name does not protect her from State surveillance. Authors who use characteristic language, authors who communicate in any way with the publisher, can be connected to their work. They are only hiding themselves from the public.

On those few occasions Anonymous takes all the necessary precautions, above and beyond what she signs to the byline, she is truly untraceable. But the rest of the time what she actually accomplishes is to create a false image of security. Those who don’t fit this image, who write under their own names, are painted as unsafe and unhip. In fact, the strategy of hiding in plain sight deserves to be considered on its merits and accepted as a legitimate choice. This strategy entails, rather than hiding from State surveillance, being so public that the State would be afraid to target you, because the repression, which is meant to isolate, would instead create even more links of solidarity. But in the meantime, Anonymous is so cool, in her shroud of secrecy, that anyone opting for a different strategy to avoid repression just seems like a sell-out.

This coolness reveals Anonymous’s lack of modesty. While on many occasions, she does effectively stay out of the spotlight, just as often her invisibility makes her even more an object of attention. Take the Invisible Committee, as an example. In my opinion, they’ve written some intelligent things, but many of their adepts don’t even seem to notice. They’re too busy grooving on how damn stylish those rogues are. Or, we could compare someone like Derrick Jensen with a faceless group like CrimethInc. Sure, there are plenty of people who go gaga for Jensen, but he could never acquire the brand status of CrimethInc, cause he’s just one dude, but CrimethInc, by depersonalizing themselves, have become a phenomenon. And then there’s the Zapatistas. Their idea of wearing a mask in order to become visible is admirable, but a side effect of the inherent sexiness of masks has been the creation of the antiglobalization movement’s greatest superstar (yes, even greater than Bono) in the person of el Subcomandante.

Named anarchist writers are more likely to be careerists, but Anonymous and her ilk are by no means immune to fame. A mask, in this case, is much like a gun. You can use it when the situation calls for it, or you can pose with it. The mask in itself is no guarantee to modesty.

When Anonymous writes without a persona, leaving the byline blank rather than signing multiple pieces with the same pseudonym, she does indeed accomplish the sameness she strives for, and this can be empowering because it erodes the idea the separation between professional anarchist writers and rank and file anarchists. However, I would attach the caveat that there is something to gain from the consistency lent by a persona, whether it’s a pseudonym or not. Not only is it personally satisfying to see a specific writer develop over time, or to see how someone’s works communicate with one another—to see patterns in a coherent body of works, but it can be politically useful to trace how people influence one another and develop over time.

Finally, there is the matter of theft, which I wholly support. But I want to drop a little word that will make our more illegalist brethren shudder: accountability. While it is true that ideas are collectively created, the individuals who do the actual creating should not disappear within this collectivity. If we renounce the separation between beliefs and actions, we acknowledge that people bear responsibility for the arguments they send out into the world—both the good ones and the bad ones. It’s less a question of taking credit, and turning this credit into some kind of ideological capital, and more a question of providing a sort of traceability to ideas: allowing a reader to reference the influential writings where a theme was elaborated in more depth, or in another historical and cultural context. There’s also the issue of taking responsibility for what you write so you can face the consequences if your research is sloppy or if you’re making unfair criticisms and false assertions.

I don’t wish to establish a new norm, or to discourage the intentional mixing of ideas with total disregard for their origins, just to suggest that Anonymous’s much lauded style has disadvantages as well as advantages.

I sincerely hope Anonymous keeps her pen in motion, scribbling her sometimes brilliant, sometimes half-baked thoughts across the pages of our times. But even such a multifaceted writer as this one cannot express all the thoughts and necessities of anarchy. My favorite writings have always been her communiqués, writ large with shattered glass and hasty spraypaint. But Howard Zinn and Emma Goldman are pretty good reads too. We could use more of all of them.