Jewel’s Perfect Teeth

I just finished dancing around my room listening to the 1995 album, Pieces of You, by Jewel, and I feel exhilirated. It was just a year ago that I was finally forced to admit my appreciation of pop music, and less than eleven months since I finally knowingly listened to a Lady Gaga song. Lately I’ve recovered an awe of how great the music was in the ’90s, and it’s on this ground that I’ve been able to return to an old guilty love affair of mine, the debut album of the pop star from Alaska with the crooked teeth who would soon become a flash in the pan.

Pieces of You is the quintessence of its genre, and as perfection would imply, offers absolutely nothing new to the form it renders so well.

Listening to it again, I’m struck to rediscover what made me play this album over and over again my first year of highschool. It’s not the musical clarity or the romantic earnestness, though both are necessary accompaniments. It is, in fact, the unformed, idealistic, but nonetheless radical rebellious critique that lies at the heart of its better songs. The message is prepolitical, underdeveloped, but clear and undiluted, and that’s exactly what spoke to the part of me that would become, that already was, an anarchist.

People living their lives for you on TV

they say they’re better than you and you agree

[…]

Another day another dollar another war

another tower went up where the homeless had their homes

[“Who Will Save Your Soul”]

In a rudimentary but unmistakeable way, Jewel excoriates the world we inhabit for its spiritual poverty, while at the same time rejecting religion (“so afraid that God will take his toll that we forget to begin”). In a song that criticizes morality, the police, work, leisure, the media, it may not be an exaggeration to interpret the line “Who will save your soul, if you won’t save your own?” as analytically equivalent to the anarchist slogan of a hundred years ago, “The liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.”

Other songs on the album speak out against beauty standards, homophobia, sexism—the song “Little Sister” draws a connection between drug addiction, consumerism, and alienation—but Jewel’s perfect childishness steers her clear of the propagandist pamphleteering and directionless sarcasm that defeated the majority of the punk music of that decade.

I remember hearing from my closest friend at the time how Jewel had horribly crooked teeth and she refused to get them straightened, like the record label wanted. It was obvious to us that this was her dearest feature.

But I soon forgot about Jewel. Her place in my heart was taken by Ani DiFranco, and then by musicians I’m not ashamed of. Ani DiFranco makes an interesting contrast. She is recognizably political, her feminism is more intelligent, and this many years later she remains committed to the positions that first made her famous. But at the same time, those recognizable politics were always there, of her own making, to mediate any rebellion she might have sparked; Ani DiFranco never ventured into more rebellious territory than that of G.I. Jane, so it’s laughably perfect that she ends up in bed with her polar opposite, Eminem, using her music to get out the vote against conservative politicians in the 2008 elections.

Jewel, on the other hand, much less sophisticated, is intuitively right on. Lacking any recognizable political position, her unadulterated rebelliousness senses just what’s wrong with the world, and she points it out. She doesn’t have complex language to describe it, and no real suggestions for what to do about it, but she is unable to replace one mask with another. In my fantasy world, Jewel is unable to recuperate herself; she can only destroy herself.

Once I see her face on a huge sign outside Tower Records, advertising her next album, all glitzed up, she is dead to me. I imagine the personality evident in Pieces of You steadily becoming disenchanted with itself, its straightened teeth and carefully managed appearance abhorrent, its life’s work meaningless. I imagine her dropping out and disappearing after just one more album.

There’s something beautiful about that trajectory, some similarity to the story of King Midas, but with a reluctant lover of his as the protagonist. In the war of cultural production, the victims are much more beautiful than the traitors or the reformers. The so-called true artists are too delicate for the meat-grinder of the culture industry, and after they fall to pieces capitalism has to search about for the next raw material.

I’m thoroughly disappointed to find out, years later, that Jewel only disappeared from my world, and not from the world stage. That in the end, she was tough, and innovative, and compromising. Capitalism’s capacity for redemption is almost limitless—this is in fact one of its points of conflict with the State structures it relies on. In exchange for her participation in the commercialism and official rituals she condemns in her debut (she would go on to sell millions more records and sing the national anthem for the Super Bowl) she is offered a pseudo-community among the creative class, and opportunities, via her newfound wealth, to do right by founding an NGO and generating money to fight breast cancer and help poor communities around the world get access to water. Critics claim her music shows stylistic development, and it pampers consumer expectations enough to go platinum, but it lacks that naïve spark of honesty that shone out in her first songs.

I’m reminded of Against Me!, who had the grace to start sucking once they sold out. As a band they just can’t fake it: after Reinventing Axel Rose they spent two albums working through an existential crisis—their sense of guilt and meaninglessness—and now they’ve come full circle as punk grandfathers, dribbling out some senile admonition about “When I was yer age…” and yelling at us whippersnappers to come back and listen to the end of their inane story. The next time someone writes a comprehensive history of punk rock, Against Me! should constitute the final chapter. Moving beyond the frozen, eternalized commercial posture of the Sex Pistols, they represent evolution, the end of the dialectic, coming of age.

It’s heartening, actually, to see how everything capitalism touches turns to shit. AK Thompson, writing in the last issue of Upping the Anti, argues that in fact capitalism’s ability to co-opt countercultural expression is limited. I would agree and strike off in a different direction to say that cultural creation is fundamentally at odds with cultural production, and that we as rebels sit right next to the mouth of that cornucopia, that fountain of youth that capitalism always seeks and can never find. Those who do find it come towards us. Yet somehow, we almost never meet. Instead, they fill up their cup, fail to notice us or stay and chat a while, and then they trot back to the Market, where what they have is quickly spent on a system parched and desperate for vitality.

Creation is a fundamentally rebellious act. There will always be new artists who call attention, in the simplest of terms, to the poverty of existence within this system. And nearly all of them will sell out, because that is what artists do. The very best will be crushed by the culture industry. They will lose faith in their life’s work, they will burn out, and if they have any fortitude, get a job in a restaurant or a garage; if what they have instead is honesty, they’ll kill themselves.

I have to admit I don’t fully understand what this means for an anarchist struggle. My mind keeps straying from the more serious questions of co-optation, of cultural defection, of the contingencies that determine the resonance of radical messages, of the possible centrality of bravery and cowardice in explaining the actions of the millions who buy a record but would never be consequential, would never be true, to their own passions.

I keep turning back to a childish fantasy that would overtake me, all those years back, when I’d listen to that album, of—I know, I know, this is trite—meeting Jewel, telling her I understood, and letting her know her crooked teeth were beautiful. But isn’t it the very promise of meeting that keeps the culture industry running, that hooks the artist as much as the consumers, guaranteeing the one an audience and the others the words they lack? How much of a sucker am I to feel sorry for someone like Jewel, trapped in an industry that makes the meeting, the overcoming of alienation, which she evidently also yearned once, impossible?

There are plenty of musicians who come from within our circles and play just for us to the very end, but that doesn’t at all address what is lacking here. What’s more interesting, in relation to the topic at hand, is how instinctual desires bring many artists in the direction of social rebels (the true artists searching, the careerists faking), but the Market deflects them just as they get close. They’re offered a larger audience, and we reject them for completing the role we already expected of them. Selling out is a narrative whose realization is encouraged by capitalism and by anarchist purism alike. But if what we want is not a world full of anarchists, if anarchy is distinct from the generalization of anarchism, then why can’t we accept those with superficial politics, if they’re good musicians and some of what they say expresses our own feelings? The truth is, we live in a world of crooked teeth, and there is something worthwhile in seeing our existence reflected in broader society, especially given a climate of isolation.

First, the Spectacle ignores what threatens it, and if this ceases to function, it recuperates it. But too often, anarchists have a victimistic approach towards recuperation. I have never seen a convincing argument that recuperation can function without the participation of that which is recuperated. Unless I’m wrong, that would mean that no musician with a superficial analysis could recuperate anarchist politics. If they popularized their version of rebellion, they would just make us look stupid, but that would only be a concern to us if we weren’t doing anything else to counter such an image.

In other words, pop musicians should not be measured by their proximity to an anarchist ideal but by their distance from the mindnumbing standard in pop music. Therefore, when Radiohead (brilliant fucking musicians) speaks out against intellectual property and releases an album of theirs for free, we have every reason to be excited. When Chumbawumba sings, “give the anarchist a cigarette,” or brings a fugitive from the law up on stage, that, in fact, is pretty effing sweet. And when Broken Social Scene donates the money from a concert to anarchists facing trial, they’re being reasonably down.

To suggest they be held to different standards than, say, Chomsky (who presents himself as a theorist) when judging the superficiality or profundity of their analysis, is tantamount to validating specialization in human vocations, though I think even a primitivist would choose not to hear Noam Chomsky sing or Thom Yorke deliver a speech on capitalism. The main problem with the critique of specialization is that it fabricates human societies in which no specialization existed, and fails to make a distinction between specialization and professionalization, but that’s the topic for another essay.

The point that we’re come to in the consideration of this business with the musicians is whether popular musicians present a danger (I argue that they do not, because we would have to participate in a recuperatory process and we’re all too smart for that) and whether there is a benefit in them expressing radical sentiments at a simple or superficial level (I argue that there is, both because it feels good to exist outside our political enclosures, and because it beneficially alters the context in which we elaborate our discourses, creating more common reference points and a sort of protoplasm for a rebellious ethos).

If this line of argument is not tragically flawed, then is there a possibility for encouraging defections within the culture industry, a possibility for meeting those who come to this unruly fountain of life for their inspiration, before they are diverted, offered their fake audiences and their marionette NGOs?

What would such a meeting look like and in what circumstances would it become possible? What kind of strength do we need to build up in order to encourage cultural defection, to offer something that the promise of a career couldn’t shine a light to? If we could hold a street party all day long, or occupy a huge concert hall, could we get the ghosts of Jewel and Against Me! to come sing to us?

My thirteen-year-old heart is beating like a bird in its cage.

I was thinking that it might do some good

if we robbed the cynics and took all their food

that way what they believe will have taken place

and we’ll give it to everybody who has some faith

[“I’m Sensitive”]

Love You Too Much

Hope the rising black smoke carries me far away and I never come back to this town again

The gnostic priests of Capital, who wish to see in everything only their imperfect, evil God, can nail down the torrential force of romantic love within their flat cosmology by referring it to the nuclear family, which exists only to reproduce labor power, and thus will disappoint the desires that justify it; or they can claim, and not without evidence, that love has been commoditized, and the consumption of a commodity extinguishes its value and produces, again, disappointment. But they are as inadequate as their nemeses, the priests of the Market, who assure that every ill will be worked out by an Invisible Hand. Capitalism’s effect on the emotions is nearly always dulling. The anticlimax of Christmas, that most condensed gifting and extinguishing of commodities, does not lead to bloodbaths, but to boredom. The violence born of love does not climax in the formation of the family, as it would if its cause were the inability of a labor-power factory to satisfy human emotion, but accompanies it every step of the way. To understand the wrath that hides behind the mask of that most tender sentiment, we need to seek out older, more jealous gods.

Perhaps it is the way pop music conditions our expectations that kept me from realizing, at first, that Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” (featuring Rihanna) is not a macho glorification of domestic violence but rather one of the few honest love songs to ever top the charts.

It’s an easy song to hate or to fear, because it protagonizes someone who beats his partner, and climaxes with the following lines:

Next time I’m pissed
I’ll aim my fist
At the dry wall
Next time
There will be no next time
I apologize
Even though I know it’s lies
I’m tired of the games
I just want her back
I know I’m a liar
If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I’mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire

Rihanna, singing the chorus, responds periodically with:

Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that’s alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Just gonna stand there
And hear me cry
But that’s alright
Because I love
The way you lie
I love the way you lie

The song follows a moral compass that unequivocably signals domestic violence as wrong. But it also presents such violence as an inevitable tragedy, which the beater as much as the person beaten reproduces. The song itself explains their love as an irrational, overpowering addiction.

I can’t tell you what it really is
I can only tell you what it feels like
And right now there’s a steel knife
In my windpipe
I can’t breathe
But I still fight
While I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right
It’s like I’m in flight
High off a love
Drunk from the hate
It’s like I’m huffing paint
And I love it the more that I suffer
I suffocate
And right before I’m about to drown
She resuscitates me
She fucking hates me
And I love it
Wait
Where you going
I’m leaving you
No you ain’t
Come back
We’re running right back
Here we go again
It’s so insane

I can’t remember if it was the comparison to addiction or the line “I love you too much” that forced me to recognize this song had more validity than my fears wanted me to admit. It’s a commonplace that songs on the radio pine “I can’t live without you,” “I never want to leave your side,” and other statements of absolute codependency that decorate the elaborate myth of romantic love, in which two people complete each other in a static and unending congruity. How many of these songs are honest enough to mention the abuse that logically accompanies this kind of love?

It was the look in his eyes as he beat her. As though his dearest illusion had shattered, and he had snapped with it. She wasn’t his, she never had been, and she never would be. Up until now, she had chosen to accompany him, and after today, clearly, she would not. “Whatever happened to ‘Until death do us part’?” he muttered confusedly, on one of the few occasions he ever talked about it with me. He didn’t understand the kind of love that changed, the kind that was contingent on choice.

I continued to love them both, not with the propietary love of a husband or a mother, but with the love of a child who wants everyone to be okay. By loving them I learned a number of things. I learned that she was strong, that we may not get to choose if we get beaten, but we can choose whether we become victims, or whether we walk out. She never hated him, either, but unlike Rihanna’s character in the Eminem song, her sympathy was not a weakness, not a resignation to being abused. I also learned from her that abuser and survivor are flexible categories, that one is very likely to become the other, and therefore neither of these can define someone. Someone who has been hurt very often wants to hurt others, or to turn them into protective appendages. The patriarchy I grew up in never taught me that my gender entitled me to abuse without being abused. What I was taught is that you gotta pay your dues.

And what I learned from him is that his story was also important. He was not evil, but hurt. What happened in that cold family he never talked about? He was clearly scarred. Now I was too. I was sure that I would be much better than him. I wasn’t entirely correct. The story that’s never spoken is sure to be repeated. Hate it, fear it, ban it from the radio. It’s going to come back around.

A singleminded critique of capitalism cannot possibly explain the vehemence of love, and must neglect love’s central role in perpetuating the harm we do to ourselves. Love is something more than desire and its misplaced satisfaction in commodity form. But the traditional understanding of patriarchy, as a hierarchical system with men dominating women, is also inadequate, because love is also something different than hierarchy. Love does not end in the domination of the other but in the mutual destruction of self and other. Its most uncensored expression is the murder-suicide.

N was starting to lose it. S became the object of his obsessions. They had been comrades and lovers. Once it got undeniably unhealthy, she ended it. But he couldn’t walk away. He became unhinged, but she refused to call the police, because she cared about him, and hated the state. The rest of us couldn’t provide the support they both needed, neither the friendship that would have given him the strength to heal, nor the accompaniment that would have saved her. I lived in a different town: that was my excuse.

One night he killed her, walked up the hill to watch her house burn down, opened his wrists, and spilled his guts out on the ground in front of him.

I understood those who hated him for it. But I couldn’t find it in myself. He already hated himself enough, and that was the part that finally triumphed.

In our society, love is the perfect mask for self-hatred. I don’t believe that self-hatred is a product of capitalism, but an inevitable companion to the anguish of living. However, work, politics, colonialism, deforestation, and the patriarchal family give us many more reasons to hate ourselves. And they deprive us of means to heal ourselves. Strength is collective property. No one is alone. The illusion of individuality, where it succeeds, leaves us constantly bleeding. All the nodes on our body that connected us with the world—my hand that gripped yours, my lips that kissed his, my feet that held up the earth, my lungs that traded secrets with the leaves in the trees, my belly that was a furnace transmuting one living thing into another—become open wounds.

By promising us one intimate relation with another being, they in fact take away all those other relations, and they produce a silence that exiles us into one another, often destroying the affection of the couple by demanding the world of it. When the opium must also be food and water and shelter, the user destroys, ultimately, her love affair with the opium as well.

Patriarchy doesn’t reproduce itself as a hierarchy, but as a network. What will be most hard to accept, and most easily dismissed as a dangerously sexist idea, is that it is a fully participatory enterprise.

Some patriarchal societies have practically imprisoned women. Others, such as ours, offer mobility. What contradicts the theory of a hierarchical patriarchy is that whether or not a society offers this mobility, most people still don’t walk out. Regardless of whether a woman would get stoned for leaving her husband, or whether she’d be able to get a job and an apartment, the abusive relationships don’t end. Because they are not predicated on enforcement. The content of the gender roles differ wildly from one patriarchy to the next, and although a duality and some kind of privileging of the male half are features common to all of them, the means of enforcement, and even the availability of centralized coercion to enforce these roles, are inconsistent. The universal feature that could guarantee the reproduction of these roles with or without enforcement is their complementality.

You’re the same as me
But when it comes to love
You’re just as blinded

Patriarchy would either have aborted capitalism or been abolished by it long ago if its functioning required that any power or autonomy remain in the hands of its male half. Capitalism can brook no independence. No radical feminist can deny this. Yet a misunderstanding of privilege has done everyone a disservice, by painting women as too weak to break out of this system if they actually wanted to, and men as the monsters who keep the whole thing going. Privilege means, among other things, that male perspectives and experiences are the default, but this could only be possible within an oppressive system if it were impossible for men to live within their own prescribed experiences. In other words, male perspectives are the default, but they do not belong to or serve the interests of those categorized as male.

And this is exactly how it works. As an oppressive network system that supplements structurally enforced hierarchies (such as capitalism and the State), patriarchy functions like an addiction, by fostering dependency, casting incomplete parts to seek completion in an impossible way, and in so doing to articulate a web of mutual theft or destruction of value. It is, if you will, a scarcity machine, in which people keep the treadmills running by stealing from those closest to them to fill their own holes, like four people in a bed with a blanket big enough for two. Love is this machine’s dynamo. Its violence arises when people can’t live without exactly what is destroying them, when one thinks he is completing another and actually he is filling up his hole by eviscerating the other.

You ever love somebody so much
You can barely breathe
When you’re with them

I told her from the beginning that I didn’t think monogamy was healthy in a romantic relationship, at least for me. She considered this an unhealthy, selfish attitude. Consequently, she was always right, or at least excused, when she looked through my address book, read my old love letters, searched the files on my computer, screamed at me, in order to discover my infidelities. And when she broke the rules she herself had laid down, it was only an error caused by the stress of loving a selfish bastard. Our own imperfections are always easy to understand.

How long it took me to discover that healthy love is only possible when we take responsibility for our own emotions—expropriate them from these networks of codependency, as it were. And in fact I can be most grateful to the lovers who treated me like shit, for teaching me this. They took good care of themselves. Beyond that: “If we meet, it’s marvelous. If not, that’s alright.” I could either choose to take care of myself, and not demand anything of others but what they gave as a gift, or I could choose to be a victim. I chose the former, and our love existed where we coincided. When we stopped coinciding, we went our separate ways, each stronger and wiser.

We love in order to destroy ourselves, and build ourselves back up again, a heartbroken friend tells me in a moment of hope.

Despite her more herculean vocals, Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is tawdry next to Dolly Parton’s original. This may in fact be a result of Houston’s earthshaking glottal vibrations actually drowning out the quieter sentiments that make this song so beautiful. Parton’s romantic love is perhaps the only kind that truly can live forever, because it is the love of a memory, the love for a person who is totally independent, totally safe from that love, because they have already left.

Once the affair is over, we’re free, until the end of our days, to think about the person we loved, to care about them, to wish them well, to wonder what part of ourselves must be broken that it turned out this way, to malign the nature of our love that it became a weapon against our lover; where it should have completed, it only hurt and controlled, and we will never be able to make it right, nor reconcile the sincerity of the concern we feel for that person with the damage we caused in the intensity of our passion. Perhaps the best way to go on loving them is to love the next person better.

Both the idea of romantic love and many of the radical responses to its inevitable abuses are implicitly predicated on the idea of human fragility.

Love runs perpetually from a fear of loneliness, but only by embracing this loneliness and—not conquering it; it will never be conquered—make our peace with it, can we love not as a parasite but as one creating a joyous project among companions. Accountability, meanwhile, often unknowingly fosters moral and judicial frameworks of blame. In this paradigm, pointing out that patriarchy is participatory will be interpreted not as the first step towards a strategy of liberation, but as blaming the victim.

This defensiveness is perfectly understandable, given how judicial processes impose themselves on us, and in these processes the person with less social privilege usually takes the blame for whatever disorder has interrupted the illusion of social peace.

But if what we are setting up is not a courthouse but a commune, a conspiracy among friends, the embodiment of our dreams, we have to permit ourselves to talk about things that could never be said in a society in which “everything you say will be used against you.”

One of these unmentionables is that sometimes we choose to be abused. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes we “like the way it hurts.”

As we move from a world of imposed desires and addictive relationships to one in which relationships express our paradoxical agency and independence as subjects of the world and interlaced hubs in a network of mutual aid, play can be as important a tool as destruction.

Patriarchy is a game that solidified and forgot its own rules. Queer theory and some of the libertarian psychologists who preceded it have taught us that suppressing what troubles us only perpetuates it. By playing with power dynamics, playing with pain, even playing with torture, we make them our own, and we can make them harmless to us.

We are not so fragile that by having our partner tie us up and having her whip us or choke us with a dildo we lose something to her, we become dominated.

A consensual scenario is a world apart from an abusive relationship, but the hidden connection between the two, and the one thing that would allow us to move from the latter to the former, is that in both situations we have agency, whether we recognize it or not, and that our own desires may well be contradictory and frightening.

Compare the Eminem song to “Kiss with a Fist” by Florence and the Machine. Though the singer croons that “A kiss with a fist is better than none,” and, just like Eminem, promises to set her lover’s bed on fire, only a dogmatic second-waver could claim “Kiss With a Fist” is a fucked up song that apologizes for abuse or victimization.

I broke your jaw once before

I spread your blood upon the floor

you broke my leg in return

so I sit back and watch the bed burn

love sticks, sweat drips,

break the lock if it don’t fit

[“Kiss With a Fist”]

The Eminem song frightens us because it protagonizes the batterer, and to a lesser extent also the survivor who chooses to remain. It refers to emotions all of us have felt, and thus forces us either to reject it as incorrect, or to acknowledge our own capacity to abuse or to choose to be abused, without judgment.

By suspending judgment, or at least mixing it with sympathy, the song creates the possibility of learning from a seemingly incurable situation. Judgment makes learning impossible. The judge is the greatest fool in the statist pantheon, because one cannot learn from those one condemns.

The picture painted in “Love the Way You Lie” reveals the violence of love not as a hierarchy but as a cycle. Perhaps what is needed to change this cycle is the recognition that abuse is a function of dependency and nowadays dependency is perfectly normal, but it is also an expression of our individual agency; what we need is no less than to be exceptional.

Saying Goodbye

I.
What could be more timeless than saying goodbye?

And what could be more proper to the present configuration of capitalism than the search for things timeless? Notions of love, family, gender, progress, and humanity are constantly presenting themselves as natural in the marketplace of ideas. Renegade intellectuals, dialecticians or postmodernists, make a game out of taking the eternal out of the timeless, such that everything is new.

Who knows what saying goodbye was like in the early days of capitalism, and earlier. What is certain now is that the very term “goodbye” conveys a sentimental finality that contradicts the lack of any finality in the physical movements built into the apparatuses of today.

I.
What could be more timeless than saying goodbye?

And what could be more proper to the present configuration of capitalism than the search for things timeless? Notions of love, family, gender, progress, and humanity are constantly presenting themselves as natural in the marketplace of ideas. Renegade intellectuals, dialecticians or postmodernists, make a game out of taking the eternal out of the timeless, such that everything is new.

Who knows what saying goodbye was like in the early days of capitalism, and earlier. What is certain now is that the very term “goodbye” conveys a sentimental finality that contradicts the lack of any finality in the physical movements built into the apparatuses of today.



The most common migrations of the past were those of primitive accumulation, modernization, and urbanization—the breaking up of communities, the massive reconfiguration mediated on the human scale with a great many goodbyes. It was a migration that necessitated permanence and prohibited the likelihood of reunion precisely because the place being left behind, the rural community, was ceasing to be, and if any individuals should cross paths again, in the city, in the New World, it was within a matrix of entirely changed social relationships.

This culture of departure inherited earlier notions of solitude that would fast become obsolete. The term of parting that is now so synonymous with finality, “goodbye,” is just a shortening, and probably a shameful, self-conscious one, of the metaphysical “God be with ye,” similar to the French “adieu,” the Spanish “adios,” and the German “grüß Gott.” What now connotes absence, a separation that multiplies loneliness, then was a giving over to another kind of accompaniment. The leave-taker, departing the protective graces of the community, was put in the hands of the supernatural, an earlier quality to solitude that made today’s loneliness impossible.

On the road, in travel, one fell into the jurisdiction of metaphysical connection to the world, as transcendence of the world. Goodbye holds its meanings equally well in the realm of death, in both the present and prior paradigms. Taking leave of the dead, before the rise of capitalism’s scientific worldview, was equal to welcoming them to a new world; afterwards, it is a final surrender to total loneliness.

II.
In today’s world, saying goodbye to loved ones is never final unless meaningless chance invites a death that prevents any reunion. Insofar as capitalism is globalized, people do not move between communities but between labor markets, which continuously fluctuate. Most migration into the US since World War II has been temporary, for the purposes of often seasonal work, and only the construction of a giant wall and the institution of an unprecedented regime of raids and deportations has the chance of changing this fact.

North of the border, departing itself has become permanent. The commute, the real-estate market, the mortgage, the internet: increasingly few people are from anywhere, belong anywhere, and, in any given moment, fully are anywhere.

A person can never be authentic. They can only see authenticity in hindsight, because authenticity requires recognition by external authority, which, in the case of people, never recognizes, only impels into more exploitable modes. What might once have been becoming is now moving-away-from, and because of the relativity of perspective, what one is moving away from, as long as it travels along the same axis, appears to stay still. Thus becoming is mistaken for being. Authenticity is born where place is lost.

Benjamin notes that in works of art, authenticity only becomes a categorical possibility when reproduction of the work of art is possible (thus creating an original, which was created somewhere and is housed somewhere, and the copies, which could be sent anywhere), but as the technical means of reproduction advance, authenticity is destroyed by the subsumption of reproduction into the art form itself. One cannot talk about the authentic print of a photo, the way one can for a painting. What is ultimately lost is the aura of an artwork, defined by Benjamin as a function of distance, and of its fixedness to a place and time.

As for goodbyes, what one encounters in the depths of nostalgia is one’s own exiled aura.

III.
There is a certain perverse truth to the fact that one discovers a great moment of freedom in driving down the highway at night. “A tank of gas is freedom, and a starry night and open road is hope,” according to a folk punk band of recent countercultural fame.

I am myself partial to the freedom one finds on a mountaintop, but I have to admit that certain external pressures constrict that moment. It is useful, because regardless of all plans or lack thereof time in wilderness is regenerative, and for all its potential subversive qualities also prepares the body for reentry into capitalist rhythms. And it is temporary, for all its efforts towards timelessness, because all wilderness is threatened by forces that cannot be blocked within its own realm.

On an empty highway, on the contrary, one is alone with the quintessential apparatus. The annoying imposition of other drivers is missing, as is the punctuality that weighs down on the commuter, and the pressure of impending work or the numbness of approaching dead-time. After hours, one can course through the hyper-controlled architecture with a certain tenderness. Even see the moon, perhaps, as yet beyond the touch of any apparatus, and equally too far to offer any real aid.

IV.
It is in this space, driving away, that saying goodbye can produce nostalgia of a tragic quality seemingly undeserved in this era of petty motivations. One has just left behind people who, in defiance of all the superficiality structured into our brief moments of collision, one has come to love, and does not know when one will see them again, but has little justification for fearing this goodbye to be permanent. After all, automobiles are increasingly safe, and why else would one die before 80?

The only real permanence we’re acquainted with is the permanent departure of hyper-mobilized consumer existence. But night-driving creates an unpermitted, unregulated space for fantasy that allows this nostalgia to imagine itself tragic forms that could justify the weight of its emotions.

One imagines death, or revisits sentimental movies and novels. Two of the most poignant goodbyes in English-language literature since World War II, in Return of the King and The Amber Spyglass, involve departing for other worlds, such that the goodbye is irrevocably permanent, but allows for both parties to continue existing and missing each other. What was had is not lost, but one can never go back.

V.
The force that might accompany us beyond the pale of the community, when we take our leave and entrust ourselves to the warm embrace of solitude, is the metaphysical existence of the world. With the world gone, the community is gone, friendship is gone, we are gone.

VI.
The reason these trivial partings and moments alone can leap to such great heights of sentimentality is because we do encounter a permanent loss within these networks of unending animation in the silent moments when we’re not distracted by the more obvious misery of our contemporaries being run through the chutes.

What we find is our own suspended death, our auras that we’d long since lost. Friends without fixedness are missed as much because they might never really be known to us as because they are no longer here. None of us are here; there is no there there. Without something subversive—even subversive to the common patterns of subversion—to fix us together, and through this fixedness, creating for the first time in our lives a solid ground, resurrecting place, hinting at the possibility of a world of places: without this, all our intimate connections are threatened by the measured temporality that has us constantly moving away from ourselves, or all of ourselves that does not fit within these vacated bodies. Capitalism is an immensely powerful thing. How sad that friendship should appear weak if it is not strong enough to stand up against the greatest god ever built.

In this tragedy, saying goodbye is a ritual that preserves the obsolete forms of friendship, community, being somewhere, and that only reveals its hollowness if one finds the silence to hear an echo.

dedicated to I-5

Has the insurrection come yet? My arm is getting tired…

A cartography of The Coming Insurrection, Tiqqun, and their Party

“I didn’t come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.”

The Emperor is missing some clothes

I want to critique The Coming Insurrection and some of the writings of Tiqqun not because I dislike these texts but on the contrary because I like them, because I find them interesting, and because they have become so popular. I focus on the weaknesses because I find their strengths to be self-evident and through this review I hope to encourage more people to read them, but in a critical way. The aura of fashion that has surrounded them encourages one to swallow these texts wholesale and uncritically, so that they become digested as a style rather than as an analysis.

A cartography of The Coming Insurrection, Tiqqun, and their Party

“I didn’t come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.”

The Emperor is missing some clothes

I want to critique The Coming Insurrection and some of the writings of Tiqqun not because I dislike these texts but on the contrary because I like them, because I find them interesting, and because they have become so popular. I focus on the weaknesses because I find their strengths to be self-evident and through this review I hope to encourage more people to read them, but in a critical way. The aura of fashion that has surrounded them encourages one to swallow these texts wholesale and uncritically, so that they become digested as a style rather than as an analysis.



The “Chicago Branch” of the Imaginary Party, for example, put out a translation of “Theses on the Imaginary Party” which is dotted with sentences so botched that the translators themselves probably did not understand them, as they are absolutely ungrammatical. (For example, in thesis 3: “It follows identically for the social war of which the combats can remain at their paroxysm perfectly silent and, so to speak, colorless.” And in thesis 17: “One does not insult a mode of unveiling like a fortress, even if one can usefully lead to the other.”) Despite this incomprehension, the Party members in Chicago found something so exciting in it that they “chose to reformat this text to give momentum to its North American circulation, and give it the aesthetic backing it deserves. And because we really like Tiqqun.”

How is it to be said?

While “Theses on the Imaginary Party” could probably be burnt to ashes without any great loss, the other translations I worked with were all poetic, and the texts thought-provoking. Theory of Bloom and The Coming Insurrection deserve to join the great works of philosophy of their respective centuries. But then, as they might agree, philosophy has often been nothing more than the justification of a certain ordering of things.

While the Invisible Committee’s writings are a sincere strike against a certain arrangement of lies, there are a number of operations they perform in how they communicate that exacerbate other of their weaknesses, and lead to a certain problematic ordering of revolution.

First of all, they communicate through resonance, rather than through argument. This is to say, they present a description of reality as self-evident, confident that some readers will immediately identify with their words, seeing in them possibilities they find attractive, or an apt description of their own experience they might not have been able to formulate for themselves.
“In our time of utter decadence, the only thing imposing about temples is the dismal truth that they are already in ruins.” [TCI, p.112]
This “truth” will ring true to some readers, thus any concrete proposition logically based on this truth will seem valid, but to other people, with other experiences, the temples—the institutions that manufacture power and meaning—may justifiably seem robust. This latter group are not presented with any convincing arguments, any evidence, to change their perception or question their experience. If the text does not resonate with them, it simply moves on without them.

The advantage of resonance is that it communicates, more than an idea, a certainty, an inspired strength, that reasoned argument cannot; and it bypasses the discourses of the Spectacle, the distracting alibis that don’t deserve to be taken seriously and argued with. Presenting reasoned arguments against the flows of Capital could be like sitting down to a debate with a Creationist or global warming denier; it gives them legitimacy.

The disadvantage is its high potential for demagogery. It creates an in-group and an out-group, based on who is predisposed to receive those words. Rightwing radio jockeys also use resonance, although with the crucial difference that they can rely on a mass fabrication of experiences to ensure a greater amount of resonance. The TV news is full of crime stories, so when they talk about fear of crime, their message will resonate with many in the audience who have a virtual experience of crime. Because the Invisible Committee cannot rely on the discourses of the Spectacle, the fact that their words resonate with so many people means they’re on to something.

However, on top of resonance they add a second problematic method of communication: the frequent use of untrue truisms. For example: “this same lack of discipline figures so prominently among the recognized military virtues of resistance fighters.” [TCI, p.111]. Actually, one finds in the biographies of many if not most resistance fighters a strict personal and group discipline, which only some do not share. But the Invisible Committee simply does not engage with facts on this factual level. And the resonance-blinded reader will be predisposed to breeze through these errors.

Another example: “Nothing can explain the systematic lack of remorse among criminals, if not the mute sentiment of participating in a grandiose work of devastation.” [Theses, thesis 20]. Actually, a great many criminals are remorseful, even when they distinctly should not be, and this reality tells us as much if not more about the functioning of power than the putative silence of the remorseless ones, into whose closed mouths the Invisible Committee is comfortable inserting entire soliloquies.

Thirdly is the element of totalization. Like their Situationist predecessors, the Invisible Committee is proposing a theory by which to understand the totality of domination, struggle, identity, and existence. Their theory is a very sound one, an interesting one, and an inspiring one, but it would be reductionist to understand it as the only one with any validity. Yet this, it seems, is what they do, confusing the finger with the moon like the fool in the old zen parable.

We can read, for example, statements like:
“That’s the reason for the well planned and public constitution of a lumpen-proletariat in all the nations where late capitalism reigns: the lumpens are there to dissuade Bloom from abandoning his essential detachment by the abrupt but frightening threat of hunger.” [Bloom, p.100].
Really? The existence of an entire class can be reduced to their utility in frightening others? And when were the lumpen-proletariat ever not publicly constituted, and what were the reasons for their constitution before the advent of Bloom, and why did these reasons fully disappear with Bloom? At what point did society change so thoroughly that one theory could disappear and another appear, having fully subsumed all the mechanisms of the former?

A fourth hallmark of the manifestos of the Imaginary Party is non-falsifiability. They go beyond offering poetic, inspiring, or useful descriptions of reality to argue scientific causality and propose (semi)concrete actions. It often happens something like this:
“Organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves.
“In truth, there is no gap between what we are, what we do, and what we are becoming. “Organizations—political or labor, fascist or anarchist—always begin by separating, practically, these aspects of existence.” [TCI, p.15]

The first two sentences contain interesting points. They do not need to be absolutely true in order to be useful. However, the writers go on to assert a causal connection between those two points; in other words by always enforcing this existential gap, organizations make themselves obstacles. Now they have moved from a poetic or suggestive logic to a scientific one, at the same time as they make a non-falsifiable statement about the origin of organizations. This assertion cannot be true in any empirical sense, it can only be true if you accept the insistence of its truth. You must accept their specific redefinition of a common word and the writers need not take any risks by clarifying which actual groups constitute organizations, by this new definition, and which do not.

“Organization” is now reserved as an ideological weapon to be used against those whose organizing one does not like.

Generally, and again like the Situationists, the Invisible Committee are careful not to make any falsifiable statements while offering up their total theory, even while they use a scientific or causal logic. And the few times they do let slip an assertion that can be factually checked, it falls flat on its face. For example:
“It is a rarely disputed fact: we know from experience that the violence of explosions grows in proportion to excessive confinement.” [Bloom, p.113].
This is another fact that is not a fact. Confinement often leads to greater passivity, to depression and unresponsiveness. This can be factually confirmed in a prison, at the zoo, in densely populated cities, during the Holocaust. Violent explosions are sometimes related to confinement, but the relationship is hardly so simple to justify such a facile correlation.

The Second Coming Insurrection

From its very title, the millenarian character of The Coming Insurrection becomes apparent.
“Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode. [TCI p.9]
“Whether [the collapse] comes sooner or later, the point is to prepare for it.” [TCI p.9]
“Everyone agrees that things can only get worse. “The future has no future.”” [TCI p.23]
The same imminence can be found in other texts of theirs. “We know at present that the denouement is close.” [Theses, No. 15]
“commodity society” has reached “its final age.” [Bloom, p.97].
The insurrection is coming. One can almost hear it panting out those very words in the exuberance of these writings. As we’ve seen, there is no need to argue this certainty. In the style of Appel (the earlier book by this crew), it is presented simply as “an evident.”

What is accomplished by this operation? Those with whom these texts resonate, which is to say, those who are predisposed to agree with them, will be inspired by the poetic language, the beautiful descriptions of their own isolated experiences, and empowered by the projection of strength, certainty, and confidence. For everyone else, the text will have no effect. Thus, the Invisible Committee’s chosen form of communication creates a strong divide between believer and gentile which is at its core thoroughly unstrategic, not because there is anything wrong with resonance over argument, but because the specific message the IC is spreading speaks of an impending civil war in which we will have to choose sides, yet the way they spread it forgoes the necessity of intervention, of influencing how others perceive that choice and what choice they make.

Our attention is directed towards the certainty of this insurrection’s arrival and away from what we might do to aid it. If we are predisposed, we will “break ranks.” If not, we won’t. And that’s not even worrisome, because we are presented (again) with a revolution that unfolds from an internal “dialectic”. If Blooms and the negative acts of desertion they are capable of are simply produced by the contradictions within the Spectacle, within the “empire of positivity”, then we are once again saddled with a mechanistic view of struggle.

The contradiction between dialectics and human agency is especially pronounced in Theory of Bloom. Tiqqun “is not the revolution that must be waited for, muchless the revolution that we can prepare: but the revolution that is taking place according to its own invisible pulsations, in a temporality operating internally within history.” [Bloom, p.102]. Here we are presented with a revolution wholly unaffected by our choices, plans, preparations, and strategies. A revolution we need not even be conscious of, and that is, in fact, largely inscrutable, according to the assurances of the Invisible Committee. This absence of strategy undergoes a curious shift towards an exaltation of agency, with such passages acting as intermediary: “Because [Bloom’s] strategy is to produce disaster, and around himself to produce silence.” [Bloom, p.115]. Since Bloom is a phenomenon and a condition produced by the Spectacle, the emptiness on the other side of alienated individuality, any strategy that is ascribed to him is a function of his characteristics rather than a choice of his desires. He is just another machine, but one that “produces” disaster.

Only at the rousing end of the text does Bloom gain his agency, and we suddenly hear about the “duty to make decisions” [Bloom, p.122].

This is neither incoherence nor creative paradox. An attentive reading of Tiqqun reveals that there is a run-of-the-mill Bloom and a becoming-conscious Bloom who is more equal than the others, just as, in a few paragraphs, we will infer the existence of an Inner Party and an Outer Party.

For now, Bloom is overwhelmingly an object, and his “fate is either to make his escape from nihilism or perish.” [Bloom, p.104]. Those who learn from history probably hear a little warning bell go off with this phrase. Didn’t some prophet of the past promise us a similar insurmountable contradiction that arose from the imperatives of the system itself? Hasn’t there already been an argument between those who saw revolution as something for us to make now and those who saw it as an inexorable product of history?

We simply have to ask ourselves: what if the insurrection doesn’t come? What if we’re just getting jerked around, and capitalism finds a way out, secures itself a future existence, as it has every time so far? Will our participation in this civil war, the morale we need to be insurgents, be staked on the “fact” that the catastrophe is here? The communists drowned themselves in a hundred year defeat by gambling that capitalism contained a contradiction it could not overcome. Is the grand carousel of history, well past the point of tragedy, looking to serve up a little farce?

Didn’t you hear? The event got defeated

A major problem with The Coming Insurrection is that it basically dresses up a tried and defeated strategy in new clothes, the strategy of a good part of the European autonomous struggles of past decades. Perhaps this is why it was way more popular in the US than in France: because its suggestions aren’t all that groundbreaking, except here, where there never was an autonomous movement. Knowledge is often created by struggle. Could it be that some academics (Agamben) were inspired by the new theoretical directions implicit in the ongoing social struggles of the ’70s and ’80s, gradually worked that inspiration into their theoretical production over the years, and then twenty years later some intellectuals, disenchanted with the failings of present struggles and cut off from stories of past struggles, read the new theory, which was just a digestion of the old struggles, and thought they had discovered something original (beef jerky)?

I wouldn’t even call that a hypothesis, but still one wonders how else European radicals could repackage the strategy of revolution through the networking of autonomous spaces as though it were a new idea.

Their analysis of the world is brilliant and moving. Their suggestions for what to do generally fall flat. They have replaced the term “autonomous space” with the old favorite, “commune” (neologism: it’s a great way to lose the same fight twice); they keep the emphasis on learning skills of self-sufficiency; they throw in a nice take on pacifism; they resolve the question around the General Assembly by calling for its abolition and clarifying the assembly as a place for talk rather than decision, which is a great point but hardly constitutes a correction to the autonomous strategy, since there were already strong segments of this practice who felt the same way. They’ve beefed up the importance of sabotage and the economic blockade, and they’ve thrown in a partially original call for invisibility.

They fail to answer or even ask what in my mind is the most important question regarding the defeat of this strategy: how to build the communes and the material basis for self-sufficiency—thus creating something to lose—while continuing to act like you have nothing to lose, which is to say, without falling into a defensive posture that facilitates recuperation or at the very least stagnation, seeking some uneasy truce with the dominant order. What they offer instead is a confidence that they will never sell out, which mirrors the confidence of the autonomen in the ’70s, although the IC has found more poetic language for it.

Thanks to the Tarnac 9 arrests, the most famous part of the book, though it only receives a few pages, is where they cosmetically alter the old autonomous strategy by adding emphasis to the idea of sabotaging the commodity flows. “The interruption of the flow of commodities […] liberate potentialities for self-organization unthinkable in other circumstances.” [TCI, p.119]. Elsewhere: “In order for something to rise up in the midst of the metropolis and open up other possibilities, the first act must be to interupt its perpetuum mobile.” [TCI, p.61]. Yet the examples they mention, in Thailand or in France, seem to indicate that this interruption is in fact a result of self-organization rather than a prerequisite. Strong movements with real popular support already existed, and were able to knock out infrastructure with a large part of society sympathizing with the inconvenience rather than becoming hostile towards the troublemakers. On the other hand, the countrywide train sabotage for which the Tarnac 9 were arrested did not seem to liberate any potentialities, and the massive blackout in Barcelona of 2007 was experienced more as a wasted potential than a liberated potential.

Of course I can’t abide any Marxist-Leninist “accumulation of forces” argument and I won’t suggest that these tactics are only appropriate or worthwhile once a mass movement has gained full popular approval and the petitions to prove it. The experience of the Argentine piqueteros shows that the increasing use of sabotage can be a useful tool in building up the potentials of self-organization and social presence over time. The point is simply that The Coming Insurrection exaggerates the effect of the blockade. Its greatest potential, evidently, comes not as an event but as a process. The authors also fail to make a useful point culled from the Greek experience: once a struggle becomes strong enough to precipitate a rupture, perhaps the principal infrastrucutral network to be sabotaged is the television.

The Invisible Committee does an equally good job of missing out on important lessons to be learned from the major social rebellions in Oaxaca (2006) and Kabylia (2001), though they make a really good point about how the communes can arise from the social movements, when talking about the French students’ struggle on page 121 of The Coming Insurrection.

Where did the rebellions in Oaxaca and Kabylia come from, and why did they fail? Important questions. The IC passes the buck. They include a critique of organizations, but it’s not nearly nuanced enough. The Oaxaca rebellion was largely co-opted by elements within the APPO—not the general assembly itself but its steering committee—but it was provoked largely by the teachers’ unions. In their brief mention of Kabylia, the writers diss the “interminable” assemblies, but fail to mention that some of these assemblies were a continuation of indigenous forms of self-organization and an important vehicle for the rebellion itself. Some of these forms of organization recuperated themselves, while others are still resisting the recuperation. The Coming Insurrection is trying to dissect a fly with a butter knife, and justifying it with a witchhunt logic: if it gets smashed, it was no good.

About as invisible as that elephant sitting over there in the corner

The Invisible Committee’s most characteristic modification of the autonomous strategy is the call for invisibility, to avoid recognition. “Flee visibility […] to be visible is to be exposed, that is to say above all, vulnerable” [TCI, pp.112-113]. “[W]e see appearing among Blooms not only a certain taste for anonymity, but at the same time a certain defiance towards visibility” [Bloom, p.111]. “From now on, to be perceived means to be defeated” [How?, p.11].

I’ll get the awkwardness out of the way, do the brutish, inappropriate thing, and say right off the bat that this is an odd argument, seeing as how the presumed authors of the text, once the state’s spotlight was turned on them, fled directly into the media spotlight, which has always been recognized as an at least partially effective way for people to save themselves from the executioners of the justice system. In the terrain of democracy, unlike the terrain of guerrilla warfare, people tend to be safest in plain view. As much as the Spectacle needs to be abolished, media attention that protagonizes rebels, though it is a poisoned apple, can build sympathy and provide protection from repression, and this is no more a contradiction than the fact that, while fighting to destroy capitalism, we often have to get jobs and buy commodities; while fighting to destroy the state, we use state infrastrucure. After all, we’re not vegans or anything, and we understand that the total boycott isn’t even possible. I also argue, and I’m not sure whether the Invisible Committee understands this, that although our theories may be unified and streamlined, the system we’re fighting against never is. There are contradictions among institutions of power that we can exploit.

One could counter that the arrestees only utilized a media campaign, with big protests, dignified academics writing in to the major newspapers and all that, only after they were already in the spotlight. The obvious answer is that going to the hills, dressing normal, and trying to avoid recognition didn’t work very well then, because it was relatively easy for the state to find them and slap on whatever ill-fitting label was in its own political interests at the moment, in that case, anarcho-autonome or terrorist.

The War on Terrorism succeeds as a repressive operation precisely when its victims cannot be recognized. Because recognition is not only to accept someone’s predicate assigned on the basis of an assemblage of social constructs, in this case, “terrorist.” It can also mean to assign someone a predicate based on a conflicting assemblage of social constructs (“good citizen,” “neighbor,” “human being,” “social activist,” “freedom fighter,” “conscientious objector,”), an approach which creates a strategic conflict that can neutralize the initial operation (exposing certain individuals and groups to greater repression by not allowing them to be recognized outside of the category imposed by the state) but one that also recuperates the recognizant defiance by maintaining it within the assemblages proffered by the system—in other words, a draw, a going back to square one. An honestly, fighting a campaign of repression to a draw is not all bad. But there is a third possibility for recognition: assigning someone predicates that are fluid and non-categorical.

In “How is it to be done?” the Party members talk about predicates in a way that could be optimistically construed as only referring to socially imposed categories: “it takes many assemblages to turn a female being into “a woman”, or a black-skinned man into “a Black”.” [How?, p.9], although phrases like “Let be the gap between the subject and its predicates” and “A “white horse” is not “a horse”.” [How”, p.9] suggest that indeed they are attempting to cut much deeper.

Elsewhere, they leave no room for doubt.
“As for the statement “a rose is a flower,” it allows me to erase myself opportunely from behind the classification operation that I am carrying out. It would thus be more suitable to say “I class the rose as among the flowers,” which is a standard formulation in Slavic languages.” [Metaphysics]
This structural argument is interesting as a passing, philosophical consideration, but it is theoretically useless and factually flawed. I can say with certainty that their assertion regarding the grammar of the Slavic languages is wholly untrue in Russian and Ukrainian. I’m waiting to hear back from some friends regarding Polish, Bulgarian, and Croat, and I’ll announce my error if my prediction proves untrue but the IC’s track record with facts leaves me with little doubt that they’re imagining things again.

While we’re at it, I want to point out that the structuralist hypothesis that language defines possibilities for thought, which is the assumption on which the IC is basing their point about predicates (they say the “to be” verb of Indo-European languages allows for a peculiar confusion between subject and predicate), has been soundly disputed. Research has shown that there is a weak effect—for example speakers of languages in which all nouns are gendered (“el tiroteo,” “die Tür,”) are more likely to assign feminine or masculine adjectives to inanimate objects based on the noun’s gender, when asked to personify those nouns in a survey, though not necessarily in everyday speech (i.e. the German speakers will personify “the door” with feminine adjectives). There is, however, no strong determination of language on thought. English and Spanish speakers do not have a profounder sense of time than German or Russian speakers because English and Spanish grammars contain far more tenses, just as English and Spanish speakers do not have a more primitive grasp of the interactional relationship between different bodies and objects just because German and Russian grammar contain far more developed cases. The human brain is everywhere the same in its range of differences, and language is something we constantly recreate as needed—given the necessity, children will create a brand new language for themselves in a generation. Faced with a restrictive grammar, we have a whole array of other linguistic cues to communicate all the nuance we need. Anarchy is the fundamental reality of linguistics as with all other spheres; every language has its black market amply provisioned with whatever needed meaning one cannot get through the more structured spaces of the tongue.

The very assemblage of meanings, of cultural assumptions and conversations suppressed or already had, that form the backdrop to every conversation, allow us to surpass the confusions or limitations of grammar at any moment. A society that reifies scientific categories may be confused by the sentence, “a rose is a flower,” just as they may believe when they are told a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable (dastardly lie). But a society in which people talk about the relationship between language and the world, people with a humbly metaphysical appreciation of the act of naming would not be confused. They will still say “a rose is a flower” rather than “I classify the rose as a flower,” because the former is more streamlined, and a linguistic rule of thumb is that more frequently used formulations tend to be shortened.

Another example. Two paragraphs back, I hesitated before writing the phrase “feminine or masculine adjectives”. I thought about writing “adjectives considered to be feminine or masculine” but decided that was too bulky to put in the middle of an already long sentence. And it was unnecessary. The former phrase and the latter phrase mean the exact same thing, as long as the readers have already engaged with the idea that femininity and masculinity are always social constructs and matters of assigned value.

Suspending language, which does not exist without the assignment of predicates, can be vital in moments of meditation, hallucination, and ecstasy. But as a program or ideological argument the suggestion is the absurd fantasy of a totalitarianism of ideas, a hyper-intellectuality that has gotten so lost in its own cerebral cortex it has not heard that its mother has been calling it down to dinner for the last three days.

To talk of becoming anonymous or existing only in presence, avoiding recognition, on a practical level, means very little if this is not simply a strategy of boycotting the media and not adopting any identity category other than member of the Imaginary Party. The thing about “opaque zones” [How?, p.11] is that they are only opaque to the state, its media, its academy. Within these zones there is a great deal of recognition, of differentiation, and a flourishing of predicates. If the banlieue or Kabylia seem opaque to the Invisible Committee, this is only because they stand outside and above them.

The fact of the matter is, invisibility is only an option for the state agents spying on us, and the guerrilla who is willing to sacrifice her life to an existence of clandestinity. For the rest of us, it’s a question of appearance and disappearance: constantly learning to appear in the lives of others, and disappear from the traps, the enclosures of meaning, the Spectacle creates around us.

Here’s another thing about invisibility: the more you hide, the hipper you get. Case in point, Vice Magazine seeking out the Invisible Committee in Tarnac.

What is, er, sorry, how is the human strike?

While The Coming Insurrection may be excused for the weakness of its practical suggestions, since the greater emphasis goes to their analysis of the present reality, Tiqqun has given us a text specifically intended to address this question: “How is it to be done?” They start by making a haughty distinction between theirs and Lenin’s pamphlet of a similar name, provoking some interesting thoughts by outlining the difference between focusing on what to do and how to do it, though in the body of the text the difference proves to be basically meaningless, as their suggestions just as easily constitute a what as a how. The exception is in their discussion of recognition, which, as I already argued, is nothing to write home about.

On page 14 they offer a concrete suggestion that is equal parts what and how and advises, quite like The Coming Insurrection, a succinct reemployment of the autonomous strategy, “an expansionary constellation of squats[…] linked by an intense circulation of bodies”, without any idea on how to improve this practice. The fact that the autonomous strategy was defeated, though significant, should not in any way obscure all the possibilities it creates and capacities it develops. In fact, throughout France and Spain in particular, many people are still working at this expansionary constellation, tweaking it, maintaining it, giving it consistency, trying to push it in new directions, coming together in periodic encounters to share ideas and emotions. Curiously, at least some of the partisans of the Imaginary Party denounce these efforts as not whatever enough. Are they calling shots from the bleachers, or do they have anything to share from their own experiences of taking to the field?

“How is it to be done?” answers its eponymous question primarily through the suggestion of the “human strike,” giving the example of the Italian feminists who refused to be mothers, who refused to dedicate their care to the reproduction of capitalism. I’m confused by how this suggestion conflicts with the calls for invisibility and against recognition, because it seems that a human strike requires, above all, consistency, as we learn over time how to liberate care and create new relationships, but consistency, which is on some levels the creation of new rituals, would seem to allow for what the IC refer to as visibility, an opportunity for the Spectacle to recuperate these efforts by assigning new labels and dispatching new commodities.

The human strike is a building up of force that will most certainly be noticed as we withdraw our affective energies from the economy, and replace commodity relations with a mutual caring for one another. Even if the police agencies of the state somehow fail to notice all the new communes—not the easy communes of the riot but the persevering ones that build up new capacities through consistency—Revlon will certainly notify them when cosmetics sales start to plummet.

Yet the Invisible Committee admonishes us that: “Our appearance as a force must be reserved for the right moment” [TCI, p.114] Wait for the right moment?? These people seem to be re-ordering all the Marxist fallacies and trying to make them hip again. What gives?

And how are we to remain invisible (for now) while carrying out a human strike, when the Italian feminists got recuperated and the Tarnac 9 couldn’t even pull it off? They’ve let us know what to do, but the Party leaders just can’t pinpoint how we’re actually supposed to do it.

Precarias a la Deriva of Madrid give a more meaningful explanation of the human strike (see “A Very Careful Strike”), but they also seem wedded to the great communist defeats. Their analysis of care and feminine labor is brilliant, but they do just as the Marxists in adopting capitalist logics in their challenges of capitalist relations, in this case by seeing care in instrumental terms, as another form of production. What I want to know is, how can we liberate something we insist on viewing in mechanical terms? After all, care can only be plugged into capitalism in the first place when it ceases to be nurturing and comes to be reproductive.

It’s hard to say how the Invisible Committee view care because they’re so far removed from care’s gritty details. The statement, “We are not depressed; we’re on strike” [TCI, p.34], can only be true if this strike comes with its own picket line to hold back those who would cross into the recuperation of pharmaceuticals, its own support committee so that the misery of being out of work, affectively, becomes a joyful poverty. In the movement from absenteeism to the unlimited general strike, what we need is an expansive body of experience and experimentation to mobilize our boredom, reify our resentment, wear our open wounds with pride and heal them with abandon, and help one another make our bodies whole again. The IC call for this experimentation, but hell, so did the feminists of the ’70s, and even the activists of the anti-globalization era. All we get that’s new is a rhetoric that protects us from seeming like those who failed before us.

Whatever, dude

For the Invisible Committee, in the insurrection they prophesy, the real one, their insurrection, we are all “whatever singularities,” without predicates, an emptiness brimming with possibilities. It’s a beautiful dream, and I, for one, believe in fighting for dreams. But there is a certain ownership they exercise over their insurrection, a certain power of exclusion the Invisible Committee have vis a vis the Imaginary Party, that could make this dream nothing more than a maneuver identical to the one by which the communists suppressed difference by demanding adherence to the unified identity of the Working Class. There are no women, there are no blacks, there are only members of the Imaginary Party.

Something curious, of an understated significance, takes place within the pages of the English-language edition of The Coming Insurrection. On page 83, just a page after the French authors extol agricultural experimentation in Cuba and the artistry of auto mechanics in Africa as evidence of the fertility of catastrophe, they allow themselves to get excited by the Common Ground Clinic in New Orleans, as a fruit of the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. This is no doubt embarrassing for Party members in the US, as Common Ground is an example of “activism” and thus part of the Spectacle, the Party of Order, and not of the Imaginary Party. So, the translators insert a footnote to explain away the mistake and denounce the Clinic. They say its founder, Malik Rahim, used it for a Congressional campaign (they need not consider what Rahim’s relationship was to the Clinic during his campaign, nor the attitude of those who keep the Clinic running to political campaigns), and they point out that “one of the main spokesmen for the project, Brandon Darby, was an FBI informant” (ignoring that FBI informants have also cropped up in the most insurrectionary of projects in this country—let’s not forget what else Darby himself participated in).

The translators stumble blindly into a great irony that they themselves have dug, abyss-like, in their very path. They try to minimize the IC’s error of praising Common Ground with an easy truth: “A certain distance leads to a certain obscurity.”

I want to repeat that one: “A certain distance leads to a certain obscurity.” This little turn of phrase, like a sewing needle, pops the overinflated balloon of a good part of what the Invisible Committee says, of what the Imaginary Party itself stands for.

First of all, isn’t obscurity exactly what they were going for? Or is their a functional difference between obscurity and opacity? And if this is true, one might not be so brash in predicting that in the Arabic or Imazigh translation of The Coming Insurrection or Tiqqun texts, the translators would embarrassingly note that Kabylia isn’t such a good example because that struggle was full of recuperators, but the authors could hardly have known that because of the distances involved; in the Spanish translation of these texts the translators would embarrassingly note that experimental Cuban agriculture isn’t such a good example because so much of it was funded or at least permitted by the state, and Oaxaca isn’t such a good example either because the initial strikes were actually organized by the teachers’ unions.

Once you penetrate their opacity, it seems, all the little chapters of the Imaginary Party blow away in a puff of smoke.

Could it be that the Imaginary Party is, after all, imaginary? There can be little doubt, when one reads their assertion about “Japanese children, whom one might justly consider the most intense avant-garde of the Imaginary Party” [Theses, thesis 18].

Most whatevers aren’t good enough for them. Only what is farthest away is valued. They sling denunciations of activists, of leftists, of anarchists, of other ways of doing things, and their only suggestions are exotic. The analysis in the first parts of The Coming Insurrection brilliantly show how the civil war is all around us, but when talking about how it is to be fought, all they can do is make struggle even more distant, by creating a pressure, a higher standard, to fight effectively by being unrecognizable, by being anonymous, by being spontaneous, higher standards that only exotic examples can meet because they are unknown to the authors.

The whatever is just an ignorance of details.

And the ignorance is above all a philosopher’s preference for easy answers, an ideologue’s refusal to engage with complexity. In the theorizing of the Invisible Committee, there is a certain streamlining of resistance. Beneath the poetry exists an economy of thought that demands the excision of all but the most sleek movements towards insurrection. Everything that is not judged to be perfect on the plane of ideas is denounced as recuperation.

“RULE No. 2: You can never free yourself from an apparatus by getting engaged within its minor part.” [Metaphysics]. There is a logic to this. The identities, the subjectivities, they refer to can certainly be viewed as a “minor part” of the apparatus, and certainly creating counter-subjectivities cannot in and of itself destroy that apparatus and may often bind you to it more tightly, but the idea that only the most economic of motions in a struggle should be preserved ignores the messy reality of how people begin to desert and to fight, and it misses the opportunity for strength that is presented by an attitude of picking fights with the apparatus everywhere, in its most minor and major parts. Engaging with gender by redefining what it means to be a woman or a trannie or a man in this world is just moving around the prison bars. Attacking advertising that defines these roles for us (and realistically, such an attack would come out of a process in which we are also reading and writing and talking about gender identities) can be a step towards the insurrectionary, towards the war against domination in all its forms.

I, for one, do not see insurrection in the efforts of a Party that is increasingly warlike, precise, and correct, but in the messy, inefficient, contradictory ecology of resistance that already exists. A thousand forms of collaboration are contrary to the spirit of insurrection, true, but no person embodies this spirit wholly. On some key levels what’s important is to sympathize with it. We may and must critique and challenge the many compromises with existing reality, absolutely, but abandon them, never. Let the others fight the revolution from temple to temple. I’ll stay here in the swamp.

The Incompleteness of the Totality

The Invisible Committee presents us with a totalizing theory. In the very introduction of The Coming Insurrection, they tell us, “Everyone agrees.” In Theory of Bloom they assert that, “it’s how every being is the way they are […] it is precisely what gives consistency and possibility to each being. Bloom is the Stimmung in which and by which we understand each other at the present time” [Bloom, pp.22-24]. Bloom “experiences an ontological finiteness and separation common to all men.” [Bloom, p.105].

In fact, the affirmation of these truths is the necessary signifier for the creation of a new identity, a new milieu. It’s also the recreation of a working class, a universal identity that has room for everyone. But it’s a poor fit. There simply is no clean, unproblematic answer to the question of identity. Its very nature is as a question that will never be solved. True becoming can have no end point.

The totality is not a collection of identities (which could then be opposed by singularities) but a set of rules, often contradictory but arranged by mostly shared loyalties and similar visions of a common project, generated and imposed by numerous institutions, to define identities and regulate people’s movement between them.

So two people who call themselves “activists” (or mothers or militants) may have entirely distinct relations to the totality. One may indeed be a becoming, a whatever, as she asks herself questions about how to strike out from where she stands and lets herself feel doubts about both the ground she stands on and the weapons she has picked up; while the other may indeed be a recuperator, satisfied with activism as a reproducible practice, eager for the paths of promotion laid out within it.

The Invisible Committee presents us with an Imaginary Party that is homogenous not in any implied sameness but in its characteristic rejection of any internal differentiation. But I wonder how well this totalization encompasses all those who do not see themselves in Bloom, or who see aspects of themselves that the IC does not acknowledge, and seems to dismiss (I’m talking now about, among other things, race, gender, sexuality, as particularities). We can read an astute analysis of apparatuses that control us by mobilizing comfort [Metaphysics], but there is a subtextual hostility towards the discussion of the discomfort that is mobilized only against certain people. In fact, this sort of differentiation seems to contradict the poetic simplicity of Bloom theory and the idea of the Imaginary Party. They will take the effort to construct a theory of the Young Girl as a “model citizen” for consumer society but insist that this “is obviously not a gendered concept” [YoungGirl, iii] despite how odd it is to look at models of citizenship and commodity consumption without looking at gender.

Cat calls, degrading looks, insulting comments, men who follow you, every time you go out the door alone: the fact that certain people who are not cis male presenting as heterosexual will never be allowed to be comfortable in public space, when walking down the street, reveals a number of critical dynamics that any theory would be short-sighted to ignore. First of all, while the private sphere may indeed be socialized, because it holds a measure of security (though for some this may be a contractual security, such as that won through marriage) that the public sphere never will, we have to assert a continuing difference between the public and private spheres, one that necessarily precedes the Spectacle and links today’s apparatuses to classical Patriarchy. This is a link I have never seen the Invisible Committee acknowledge. Rather everything is new, freshly discovered and named (by them). Their favorite phrase is, “From now on…”

Secondly, through this gendered mobilization of discomfort in public space, or the racial segregation of neighborhoods, we see how people who are generally alienated exercise power over the bodies that pass through the space around them, the actual structure of which they are powerless to change. Much of the antisocial violence in public space, violence which is romanticized in several Tiqqun texts, is not so much a rebellion as an autonomous attempt to impose hierarchies in miniature. It may well be that the majority of casualties in this global civil war are the bodies that have fallen in the civil war being fought within the ranks of the Imaginary Party.

Another example: “The thread of historical transmission has been broken. Even the revolutionary tradition.” [How?, p.11]. This has not been my experience. Although I grew up ahistorically, Bloomlike, another lost child of the ‘burbs, I have sinced lived in places with historical continuities of struggle. I have been a recipient of historical transmission and it has been something qualitatively different, unlike anything I knew growing up, and it made me infinitely stronger. One can also see that places with history, with revolutionary tradition (e.g. Greece, Kabylia, Oaxaca) are generally stronger in their struggles.

On a specific point, this thesis about the end of history directly contradicts many indigenous struggles for freedom. A major element of some of these struggles is that the genocide has not been completed, that there is an unbroken 500 year history of resistance, which at times has been stamped out to the point of darkness, but never fully extinguished. The argument that historical transmission has been broken and recognition is counterrevolutionary means that these indigenous struggles are wrong in asserting that they are still fighting colonialism, that there is something liberating in recognizing themselves as members of this or that nation (not nation-state, eurocentric readers), that through centuries of genocide they have survived (though no one is saying they survived unaltered, which is the strawman the academics usually opt for).

In considering these struggles, one cannot simply dismiss them or sweep them without direct comment into the ranks of the Imaginary Party. One must either give them solidarity, or agree with the post-modernist academics who are reclassifying them in accordance with continuing colonization, or choose some third option that I have never seen elaborated.

Through their Bloom theory, the Invisible Committee make another of the same mistakes as Marx. Dialectical reasoning and their implicit assumption of a unilineal history make them look to the populations most advanced in capitalist development as the site of future revolutions. Scientific Marx predicted Britain and Germany, unscientific Bakunin predicted Russia, Italy, and Spain. Enough said. The IC, in their turn, predict that the Bloom figure, the total death of subjectivity, contains within it the necessary annihilation of the Spectacle. But it seems true that—generally, not totally—where Bloom is least present, rebellions and social ruptures are most common. They refrain from admitting it, but the most bloomified figure is the middle class white, who has no history and no identity left but an array of false privileges, which is to say an absence of certain blackmails that are, for everyone else, universal.

I spit on the politics of anyone who says middle class whites cannot be revolutionary, are not exploited and abused, and do not have their own truckload of reasons to hate and destroy the system, but someone who says they have the same experiences as everyone else, just as someone saying that everyone within one of these identity categories (“all women know that…”) have the same experience, is speaking not from their body but from the narrative of the Spectacle.

The Dictatorship of the Fashionable

In the days of “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” the Communists could play at vanguard by organizing a Party that would manipulate and dominate general assemblies, communes, soviets, and any other gathering point of what was a largely aboveground and solidaristic movement.

In the ’60s and ’70s, an aboveground Party could only be reformist, so one could only be a vanguardist by encouraging a hierarchy of tactics, whereby the most illegal, risky, and spectacular actions were understood to be the most important. That way, a miniscule group, whether the Weather Underground or the Red Brigades, could form guerrilla cells to carry out the heavy actions that would ensure that everyone else in the struggle would give them their due attention and read their lengthy communiques. The mass movement is replaced by the media, and the vanguard constitutes itself as such not through organizational relationships but through attention that places it symbolically at the cutting edge of what had been a diverse and multi-directional movement.

As the Spectacle degenerates from a reality based on news to one based on fashion, I wonder if nowadays, a postmodern vanguard could form itself only by being fashionable, by turning their Party into a fad and their analysis into a style. It’s interesting that the IC give us such a perfect explanation of hipsters [Bloom, p.55] when, at least in the US, many of their most avid partisans have come from the hipster wing of the anarchist movement. And what are hipsters but an elite in an age when integration is produced above all through consumption? And for the anti-capitalist palette, consumption need not require a large budget for shopping. In this economy of trivia, sophistication is enough.

I don’t want be alarmist, and certainly a vanguard based on la mode could never be as dangerous as one based on the cheka, but either way, turning a text like The Coming Insurrection that has good parts and bad parts into a cult classic, and tolerating for a moment a resurrection of the idea of the Party is nothing other than a good way to defeat ourselves, which I suppose is the role that communists have played in anti-capitalist struggles for over a century, so it should be no surprise that they’re coming back now.

The putsch that ushered in the October Revolution was led by anarchist sailors from Kronstadt and left SRs. It was largely orchestrated by the Leninists, whom the anarchists trusted in part because Lenin’s populist rhetoric was largely borrowed from the anarchists. They thought he was one of them.

Again, I believe that the danger this time around is miniscule, and the IC-as-thought have helped rejuvenate theorizing as a collective activity among US anarchists to an extent that far outweighs their disastrous effect, -as-style, on the plethora of hyperbolic communiques that announced various broken windows and occupied buildings with a mood of poetic rapture.

And on the other hand, the IC shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, let’s cut the crap: they’re basically CrimethInc. with a better vocabulary. Replace “deserting” with “dropping out” and there’s no denying it. They blatantly lack the humility that at times has allowed CrimethInc. to be such a positive thing; furthermore, they carry out a couple operations that would make me hesitate before starting a commune with them, much less a milieu or a Party. As I mentioned earlier, this Party is not just an ironic linguistic device but a group that has its inner circle and its mechanisms for exclusion.

It works like this: if you disagree with them, you’re out. “One would have to be a militant element of the planetary-petty-bourgeoisie, a citizen really, not to see that society no longer exists.” [How?, p.3]. They never define society, mind you, though I would guess they know, they’re so well read after all, that it is a central element of the praxis of other anti-capitalists that society in fact does exist, beneath all the chains and IV tubes of Biopower, and that this is a good thing. But I guess their ideological competitors are nothing but representatives of the petty bourgeoisie (say, haven’t we heard that one before?).

I predict the Party leaders might chide me for missing the irony of their words, but with such ideological absolutism, though they may not hand out membership cards they have still fallen for their own joke.

Curious thing: sometimes the Imaginary Party is an unconscious umbrella that includes everyone who chafes at their forced assimilation, and at other times it is a conscious group employing a singular strategy. “The Imaginary Party is the particular form that contradiction assumes in the historic period where Domination imposes itself as dictatorship of visibility and of dictatorship as visibility, in a word as Spectacle.” [Theses, thesis 1]; “In this sense, the Imaginary Party is the political party, or more exactly the party of the political, because it is the sole one which can designate in this society the metaphysical labor of an absolute hostility” [Theses, thesis 7]; “Therefore the Imaginary Party is known in the Spectacle as the party of chaos, crisis, and disaster.” [Theses, thesis 14]; “every Bloom, as a Bloom, is an agent of the Imaginary Party” [Bloom, p.114].

And now see how quickly this undifferentiated mass signs on to a common wisdom or a shared program, or becomes a Party with “conscious fractions” [Theses, thesis 27]. “[T]hose of the Imaginary Party work to hasten the advent of this by any means[…] They are besides freer to choose what will be the theatre of their operations and act at the point where the smallest forces can cause the greatest losses.” [Theses, thesis 15]; “The Imaginary Party can count upon this constant: that a handful of partisans suffices to immobilize all the “Party of Order”.” [Theses, thesis 21]; “the assumption of Bloom mean[s] […] to enter into contact with other agents of the Invisible Committee – through Tiqqun for example – and silently coordinate a truly elegant act of sabotage.” [Bloom, p.134]; “we can only desert the situation inwardly, by reclaiming our fundamental non-belonging to the biopolitical fabric with a participation on a more intimate and thus unattributable level, in the strategic community of the Invisible Committee” [Bloom, pp.135-136]. “Tiqqun is the only possible outlook for revolution.” [Bloom, p.102].

There are moments when one needs to argue against an idea, and moments when one need only present it clearly. Here it is: the Imaginary Party. We are told we all belong to it, insofar as we are alienated. It is the Party of our class. And it is a Party that has its partisans and conscious fractions, who will say we are the enemy if we disagree with them, or even, perhaps, use different words. The Imaginary Party: take it or leave it.

I thank the Invisible Committee for their writings, and I wish them the best of luck. If my words sting too sharp, I want them to know I consider them comrades, and I have participated in solidarity events for the Tarnac 9 (though the money went to others of the French anarcho-autonome who were arrested for bombing police cars and have gotten far less attention than the 9). When there are barricades in the streets or people in prison, we will always be on the same side. But I think it should be clear: when it comes to the Imaginary Party, I hope to be the first to be purged.
412!

Works Cited
TCI = The Coming Insurrection, Semiotext edition
Bloom = Theory of Bloom, anonymous 2010 edition
Theses = “Theses on the Imaginary Party”, Chicago Branch edition
How? = “How is it to be done?” Inoperative Committee 2008 edition
Metaphysics = “A Critical Metaphysics Could Come About as a Science of Apparatuses”, online version from the tiqqunista site.
YoungGirl = Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, online version from the tiqqunista site.

We Want to be Great Like Our Crime

We Want to Be Great Like Our Crime
The Criminal Ego and the Struggle in Society

On Isabelle Eberhardt’s “Criminal” and Renzo Novatore’s “Toward the Creative Nothing”

Quotes refer to the Eberhardt Press edition and the Venomous Butterfly Publications edition, respectively.

Crime
In “Criminal,” Isabelle Eberhardt’s memoir of land colonization in Algeria written around the turn of the last century, the farmer Mohammed Achouri cuts an interesting figure. A “tall thin old man with the face of an ascetic, his hard features set in an expression of constant preoccupation”, a quiet character who stands “a bit apart from the others”, he is not a likely hero. Though he stands out, and in fact his inability to fit in singles him out for downfall, his unheroic resistance fits well within the unheroic reality of the story; the French have colonized Algeria, and they force the people of Bou Achour to give their prime land to colonists, a double theft because the collective society of that region had never even had to buy and sell land among themselves or “resort to the system of inheritance.” They get mere pennies for their land, their complaints are rebuffed, and they have no choice but to work under the new landlords. At harvest time they watch the riches of their toil and their earth taken from them, but that night, the new barn burns down, and the harvest with it. Nonetheless, a suspect is arrested, nothing changes, and the power of colonialism continues its cruel exercises, unfazed.

We Want to Be Great Like Our Crime
The Criminal Ego and the Struggle in Society

On Isabelle Eberhardt’s “Criminal” and Renzo Novatore’s “Toward the Creative Nothing”

Quotes refer to the Eberhardt Press edition and the Venomous Butterfly Publications edition, respectively.

Crime
In “Criminal,” Isabelle Eberhardt’s memoir of land colonization in Algeria written around the turn of the last century, the farmer Mohammed Achouri cuts an interesting figure. A “tall thin old man with the face of an ascetic, his hard features set in an expression of constant preoccupation”, a quiet character who stands “a bit apart from the others”, he is not a likely hero. Though he stands out, and in fact his inability to fit in singles him out for downfall, his unheroic resistance fits well within the unheroic reality of the story; the French have colonized Algeria, and they force the people of Bou Achour to give their prime land to colonists, a double theft because the collective society of that region had never even had to buy and sell land among themselves or “resort to the system of inheritance.” They get mere pennies for their land, their complaints are rebuffed, and they have no choice but to work under the new landlords. At harvest time they watch the riches of their toil and their earth taken from them, but that night, the new barn burns down, and the harvest with it. Nonetheless, a suspect is arrested, nothing changes, and the power of colonialism continues its cruel exercises, unfazed.



It was not until I read the story the second time that I noticed it was Mohammed Achouri who played the instigating role in getting the other Arabs of Bou Achour to protest the low prices they were given for their land by the French colonizers. The author mentions no rousing speech on his part, or natural charisma. He simply cannot stomach the indignity, and suggests they protest. The gesture is unsuccessful, the colonial administrator is powerless to change the decision that has come down from Algiers, and many of them, including Achouri, must go to work for their new landlord. Achouri alone is described as “openly sullen.”
At the outset Mohammed Achouri had placed a great distance between himself and the Frenchman, to whose good-natured sallies he remained wholly impervious. When the barn was burned down, suspicion pointed to Mohammed Achouri[…] They found him guilty. He was a simple, unyielding man who had been robbed and betrayed in the name of laws he did not understand. And he had directed all his hatred and rancor against the usurping colonist.

“Crime, particularly among the poor and downtrodden,” concludes Eberhardt, “is often a last gesture of liberty.”

The Human Frogs
In his poetic rant “Toward the Creative Nothing,” Renzo Novatore, an Italian individualist anarchist active from 1908 to his death in 1922, addresses another social tragedy, World War I, with much more heroic terms. He glorifies those who resisted, those “who died with stars in their eyes,” with a Nietzschean exuberance, while saving extreme contempt for his fellow proletarians who heeded the lies and marched off to war. “The human frogs knew neither how to distinguish their own enemy nor how to fight for their own ideas […] They fought against each other for their enemy.”

In Novatore’s writing, one finds a clear contempt for the masses, not out of any aristocratic notions of inherent worth, but because they have behaved despicably and idiotically, going even against their own interests to participate in their own meaningless slaughter. Novatore will not excuse anyone who is less than great, and he certainly will not romanticize them simply for belonging to a mass. His judgments are harsh, and he could be accused of insensitivity to the many complex reasons members of that mass had for going off to war, but also in the interests of sensitivity one must imagine the horror of his generation and understand that at bottom there was no good excuse for obedience to that degree. Populism only becomes a form of justification. Yet some people cite this antisocial contempt, this Nietzschean adulation of those few who do not follow the herd, to argue that the individualist anarchists were counterrevolutionary elitists, or even fascists.

Eberhardt, very much a kindred spirit, evinces a similarly antisocial attitude. She writes of the need “To be alone, to be poor in needs, to be ignored, to be an outsider who is at home everywhere, and to walk, great and by oneself, toward the conquest of the world.” She tersely dismisses “the slavery that comes of contact with others,” and it is precisely in such phrases that she can be written off as dangerously impractical. Useless. How could solitude possibly be applied as a social program? The conclusion is that there is nothing revolutionary in hers or similar writings.

It is precisely the hidden totalitarianism of this line of reasoning that I want to unmask.

Against What Does the Antisocial Direct Its Attack?
I’ll start with the disingenuous claim of a connection between individualist anarchism and fascism. Novatore, one of Italian fascism’s most energetic opponents and earliest victims (he was shot down by police in 1922), had some bold thoughts on the matter. In talking about how socialism functioned to control the revolt of the proletariat by promising a base material equality while stifling talk of true freedom, he writes:

Because, if when the nation, if when the state, if when democratic Italy, if when bourgeois society trembled in pain and agony in the knotty and powerful hands of the “proletariat” in revolt, socialism had not basely hindered the tragic deadly hold—losing the lamps of reason in front of its wide-opened eyes—certainly fascism would never even have been born[…] Because fascism is the stunted and deformed creature born of the impotent love of socialism for the bourgeoisie. One of them is the father, and the other the mother.

In fact, we see in fascism not the heroic ideal of Novatore but the very populism he attacks. In order to save the bourgeoisie, fascism makes them indistinguishable from the masses by replacing Nietzsche’s superior individual with a superior race, integrating labor unions and industry, combining socialism with nationalism, creating the perfect herd.

The other arguments against individualism are rigid and insensitive precisely because they do not understand these thoughts as a process, a movement, rather than a fixed position or staked territory, as ideas are taken to be by many other thinkers. When Isabelle Eberhardt talks about nomadism and denounces the sedentary life, attacks in multiple forms the very staking of territory, how could one not guess that her thoughts would be equally nomadic? In the writings collected in “Criminal,” one finds not a static view of society but a tension, a need to depart in order to arrive, to lose in order to find.

I do not know anymore[…] But the inner voice that drives and disturbs me, that will tomorrow push me again along the paths of life; that voice is not the wisest one in my soul, it is the spirit of agitation for which the earth is too narrow and which has not known how to find its own universe. Eberhardt recognizes a multiplicity of voices in her own thinking, and acknowledges that the force that sets her life in motion is also impractical. Unprogrammatic.

The parallel misogyny of both writers reflects the untenable nature of their relationship with society, with femininity standing in for passivity, nurturing, the reproduction of culture. But even more it reflects that their writings represent a spiritual quest in process, a search for peace in turmoil. The fact that Isabelle Eberhardt was born female and socialized as a woman, but passed much of her life as a man can add credibility to the hypothesis that what they hated was femininity as a social value. Are we to read Eberhardt, for her misogynistic writings, as a self-hating woman, or to consider that she hated those women who resigned themselves to their socially assigned roles rather than taking on the dress and customs of men and venturing to the far corners of the earth? The language of the time could not adequately express gender identities, so we cannot know if Eberhardt’s passing was a strategy or whether he was actually a trans man, but the question is an interesting one.

The Social Assumptions of Individualism
Beneath all the antisocial venom and harsh criticism in Renzo Novatore’s “Toward the Creative Nothing,” a sensitive reader will notice certain social assumptions that mirror Eberhardt’s sojourn being in some ways an ultimate search for community. Deep in a passage that begins by calling for “the liberation of the individual”, Novatore has buried a pithy couplet.
To communalize material wealth.
To individualize spiritual wealth.

Novatore devotes no time to elaborate this process of communalization; he merely takes it as a given. In other words, what for social and mass anarchists is the end goal, and what they accuse is lacking in individualist anarchism, is for Novatore just a starting point.

Other indications of the communal or collective assumptions of this idea of struggle further clarify that as much as these writers posit a conflict between the individual and society, it is not a dichotomy or a choice between one and the other, and certainly not a call for annihilation and unification. Early in the text we find the following admonition: “our individual ‘crimes’ must be the fatal announcement of a great social storm.” And towards the end: “We have killed ‘duty’ so that our ardent desire for free brotherhood acquires heroic valor in life.” Far from hating any notion of community or solidarity, Novatore expresses an “ardent desire for free brotherhood”. The distinction is that for society to exist free of all the lies, conventions, and hypocrises that imprison it (and it is these corruptions that Novatore spends the most of his time addressing in this text), individuals must embark on an unending process of personal or spiritual liberation simultaneous to the material struggle for collective liberation that will destroy the state and the bourgeoisie.

Eberhardt, for her part, shows an obvious sensitivity and compassion for the tribulations of the community in her writings about the tragedy of colonization in Bou Achour, in her clear sympathy for their custom of sharing land without inheritance or title.

The Winged Monster
Around the same time Renzo was penning “Toward the Creative Nothing,” Franz Kafka wrote in his diary:
Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate… but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.
It is worth mentioning that I’m drawing this quote from Hannah Arendt’s essay on Walter Benjamin, another person whose life was fraught with the antisocial tension.

In my mind the most beautiful image anarchists have given to the world is that of the abundance of these ruins, whether that be in Durruti’s “new world” or in Bakunin’s “creative passion.” In one missive, Isabelle Eberhardt talks about a “winged monster, come to destroy us all” and the most striking thing about the image she paints is how beautiful it is, the fantasy of destruction. And it is immediately followed by the sound of rain in the desert. On a literary level, this is a cathartic release from the tension she has built up between creation and destruction. Symbolically, it is rebirth.

A similar monster appears in Novatore’s passages on the carnage of the War, but this is “a Death without wings”. With both of these writers, values are shifting, creation and destruction are inseparable, neither death nor life are inherently good or bad. The reason Novatore’s monster is an obscene thing is not because it is Death but because it has no wings, because the manner in which it dances, the manner in which it mows down its victims, is vulgar, and because its victims themselves are unworthy of a heroic death, not having lived heroic lives.

“I’m quite aware that this way of life is dangerous,” writes Isabelle, “but the moment of danger is also the moment of hope[…] When my heart has suffered, then it has begun to live.” Renzo echoes her: “And if our ideas are dangerous, it is because we are those who love to live dangerously.”

Again and again, Eberhardt and Novatore use similar language to tease out this contradiction, this inversion of conventional moralities. Politicians of all stripes have coined another term for that winged monster, that dangerous life. They call it “adventurism.” But it goes much deeper than that.

The Control of Madness
Eberhardt: Many times on the paths of my errant life, I asked myself where I was going, and I’ve come to understand, among ordinary folk and with the nomads, that I was climbing back to the sources of life; that I was accomplishing a voyage into the depths of my humanity.
Unsurprisingly, Novatore gives us a similar image: “In the bottom, we want to live the reality of sorrow; in the heights, the sorrow of the dream.”

The heights and depths that these two simultaneously inhabit are a guerrilla’s mountain hideout which the armies of sedentary morality arrayed on the plains can never penetrate. The antisocial, individualistic thoughts of these writers are not useful, not practical, not static, not reproducible, not programmatic. They are real, and they are threatening.

They say: because I am crazy, no stable state of being will hold me. Because I cannot hide my sullenness, no barn will be safe from me. Because I am shifting and crazy, no treaty or written law will pacify me. For this reason, they are a threat to the politicians of the mass movements as much as they are to the gatekeepers of the present order. Because as much as they will participate wholeheartedly in the revolution against the state and against capitalism, they will not be content with the commune. They will continue to rebel because they understand freedom as a process, as a constant renegotiation of itself and an unending attack on any definitional boundaries.

In Chiusi a Chiavi Bonanno writes how, with the triumph of the reformers, the prisons may well be replaced by mental institutions. Those who break laws may be forgiven, but those who can never follow them cannot be trusted. After all, what better definition of craziness than the absence of self-preservation, the imperviousness to both the carrot and the stick? So conditions will improve for those who can be programmed, while those who are wholly insubmissive must be increasingly isolated.

The reason that the politicians of the mass cannot understand this antagonism between the nomadic and the sedentary is because they try to ascribe it a fixed position. And if there must be a right and a wrong, the right has to lie with the sedentary, because their programmatic existence makes possible the infrastructure and the production on which the nomads depend. So if there can only be one, it must be the ordinary folk. The nomads are marginalized, the villages with their stable families multiply and spread, the future is theirs, but they are plagued by inexplicable rebellion. Each time the rebels are cast out, to protect the social whole, which must be. That stability is scientifically proven as the base for all material existence, so what threatens it must be controlled. The administrator, a pleasant man, raised his hands in a gesture of powerlessness. “I can´t do anything. I told them in Algiers it meant the ruin of the tribe. They wouldn’t listen.”

In fact, the antagonism between the sedentary and the nomadic, between “the human frogs” and those who inhabit at once the heights and the depths, cannot be understood with fixed positions. Nomadism is relative. It defines itself in opposition to an other. Unlike ordinary folk, the nomads do not seek to erase that which does not have right on its side. The nomads trade with the villagers, just as Novatore’s “Free Man” may fight alongside others to communalize material wealth, at the same time as they turn away from society, to seek, to explore, to plumb the depths and climb the heights, because life, like rebellion, is unending. Its contradictions outnumber any dialectical process and to be crazy is simply to feel those contradictions and act on them, without permission from society. And this maligned adventurism, and nothing else, is the moment of hope.

We will avenge them.
We will avenge them because they are our brothers!
We will avenge them because they have fallen with stars in their eyes.
Because dying, they have drunk the sun.
The sun of life, the sun of struggle, the sun of an Idea.

Dedicated to Mauricio Morales, a year after his death.

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/

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.

Networks, Colonization, and the Construction of Knowledge

a review of Marianne Maeckelbergh’s The Will of the Many and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies

Both Marianne Maeckelbergh and Linda Tuhiwai Smith are social scientists, but both identify first and foremost as members of communities in struggle: the alterglobalization movement, in the first case, and the Maori, in the second.

Maeckelbergh is an incisive thinker and concise writer, and in her debut book she handily tackles the premise that the prefigurative networks used for information-sharing and decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement constitute an effective challenge to the exclusion and authoritarianism of representative democracy. I approached her book with trepidation, wondering how an ethnography of our struggle could possibly help us more than it helps the state agencies tasked with dissecting and controlling us. Somehow, she pulls it off. The result is not a blueprint of “the movement of movements” but a theoretical deepening of our understanding of networks that can only deepen our appreciation for the ability of what we are doing right now to confront and replace the current regime.

a review of Marianne Maeckelbergh’s The Will of the Many and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies

Both Marianne Maeckelbergh and Linda Tuhiwai Smith are social scientists, but both identify first and foremost as members of communities in struggle: the alterglobalization movement, in the first case, and the Maori, in the second.

Maeckelbergh is an incisive thinker and concise writer, and in her debut book she handily tackles the premise that the prefigurative networks used for information-sharing and decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement constitute an effective challenge to the exclusion and authoritarianism of representative democracy. I approached her book with trepidation, wondering how an ethnography of our struggle could possibly help us more than it helps the state agencies tasked with dissecting and controlling us. Somehow, she pulls it off. The result is not a blueprint of “the movement of movements” but a theoretical deepening of our understanding of networks that can only deepen our appreciation for the ability of what we are doing right now to confront and replace the current regime.

Tuhiwai Smith brings a persistent, thorough criticism to bear against the Western production of knowledge and the colonial role of scientific research in indigenous communities. As a researcher, she subsequently explores how different understandings of knowledge and approaches to research can be made to benefit indigenous communities, and how non-indigenous researchers could engage in research in indigenous communities responsibly. I found the book valuable for its anticolonial analysis of science and knowledge, and for the thoughts it can provoke regarding research, for anarchists who may never be researchers, but whose theories often refer to human geographies and ethnographical accounts of indigenous societies.

Academics for the Struggle

Precisely because scientific institutions and scientists themselves are a vital force in directing and advancing capitalism, while certain individual scientists have made crucial contributions to revolutionary struggles, it is useful to review these two books simultaneously. Each author, writing as a social scientist and as a member of a community in struggle, challenges academic norms in subtle but significant ways.

What Tuhiwai Smith offers is intuition and reflection. While scientists of all types thrive on criticism, the process of criticism remains very much within their control and is formulated by others of their kind using in-group rules. Tuhiwai Smith frequently mentions, and puts great weight in the fact, that Maori or indigenous peoples more generally feel suspicion or outright contempt for the prying activities of scientists on their lands and in their communities. She makes this statement not on the basis of statistical data, but as a Maori. In other words the scientific community is called to acknowledge how it is viewed through the eyes of a group it has consistently dealt with as an Other-to-be-studied, and to take responsibility for what it has done collectively to deserve this view. The collective feeling of rejection toward the scientific community is not legitimated or dismissed through comparison to objective data or a postmodern atomization and analysis of the forces that shaped this view; rather, an autonomous body of knowledge is allowed to exist alongside the Western methodologies of knowledge and to be granted validity.

Maeckelbergh offers humility, portraying alterglobalisation movement actors as intelligent, as producers of their own analysis, as a collectivity from whom other people can learn rather than an Other upon whom we impose our own analysis. Even while she teases out the intelligence of networks or describes patterns and norms within the movement in brilliant and original ways, she always does so in the spirit of sharing what alterglobalisation networks have created themselves. In other words, she subtly reveals that it is the activity of people, and not the scientific production of specialized institutions, that is responsible for the creation of knowledge. In both cases, these authors introduce what I would call anarchist values regarding communication, analysis, and criticism into their work. Tuhiwai Smith explicitly shapes her criticisms along the lines of what she identifies as indigenous values lacking in the Western scientific tradition; in my view these indigenous values have much in common with, and much to offer to, anarchist desires for a horizontally organized, decentralized or communal world free of state, capitalism, and patriarchy.

The result of the efforts evident in these two books could well be the liberation of necessary theoretical work from the colonial baggage that has long corrupted it.

Divergent Epistemologies

One of the most enlightening aspects of each book was their framework for understanding the creation of knowledge. Tuhiwai Smith analyzes the capitalistic production of knowledge in Western society, arguing that the accumulation of knowledge-as-resource during the process of colonialism was in fact the motor for the development of Western science. The religion of the colonizers, although a deterritorialized spirituality, was inadequate for the globalization of the 16th century and onwards because it had no way for assimilating the histories and biologies of the rest of the world. The agrarian, temperate climate economics and regionalistic 5000 year history of the Bible could do no better than write off the rest of the world as the habitat of the devil, failing to provide the needed level of nuance and technical instructions for colonizing and governing diverse peoples and bioregions. Science thus arose primarily as a system for alienating knowledge into information, classifying it, making it separable from its context, transferrable, mechanical, repeatable.

In other words, colonization, the process of encounter with and domination of the Other, is central to the history of the development of the West, yet curiously, it is peripheral in the accounts of both elites and radicals in the colonizing countries.

Tuhiwai Smith goes into more detail explaining how Western ethnographic accounts of colonized peoples had less to do with their lived realities than with the Western need to justify their own self-image and history through the invention of a convenient Other who confirmed preexisting assumptions.

Maeckelbergh talks about the creation and sharing of knowledge in the alterglobalisation movement, and the M.O. she describes seems to mirror what Tuhiwai Smith identifies as indigenous ways of viewing knowledge. Namely, that knowledge is not property, rather it is collectively created through relations, in the connections and communication between different people or different nodes in global networks, with greater, more diverse participation and communication leading to better quality of knowledge, better decision-making, and in turn a stronger network. And far from being absolute, knowledge is context-specific, and often contradictory; it cannot and should not be homogenized or routinized.

The Western Individual

Tuhiwai succinctly restates perennial indigenous criticisms of the colonizers imposing categories of individuality, personhood, economy, governance, and land ownership that simply could not apply to indgenous worldviews. Maeckelbergh expands recent theoretical work (from the last few decades) on the individual, delving into the very best part of Western science and philosophy, which is the point at which it succeeds in deconstructing core Western values. Every time one of these sacred cows is imploded, I’m pleased to find it does so in a way that seems to confirm a premise of anarchist thought or revolutionary indigenous views as articulated by Zapatismo or Magonismo.

The case of the individual is no different. Western philosophies have long considered the individual as something reproducible or homogenous, alienable, mechanical, and even internally divisible (as in the dualist traditions). Maeckelbergh, in order to show the intelligence of horizontal networks, modifies complexity theory, which arose in the physical and life sciences to explain how an incredible complexity could arise spontaneously in chaotic systems (think the ordering of molecules, beehives). To make this theory applicable to social movements in a non-deterministic way, she combines it with a view of agency not as residing in an alienable individual but in relationships, in communication between diverse individuals. The result is that the individual is still an empowered agent, is not subsumed and lost within some greater, abstract community, but neither is the individual separable from her context, displaceable, transferrable between the cubicle, prison cell, and private home with demarcated, universal rights than inhere in her person, her body, and no further. Rather, the individual exists in and through her relations with the world and other individuals.

For anarchists and other people in struggle, the implications of this challenge to the categories of the dominant system are unending; although Maeckelbergh does not state most of these implications, they especially become apparent in the context of the alterglobalisation movement’s challenge to democracy. The constraining liberal discourse of rights disappears immediately, as soon as we are our relationships. Fighting against the pollution of the local aquifer is an act of self-defense. Criminality or social harm becomes a problem of the community, not a problem of law enforcement, without reducing the criminal to a mechanical victim of social circumstances. Knowledge is common property. Centralization can no longer masquerade as a practicality or necessary inconvenience or anything other than a violent imposition.

These are values that many anarchists have always held, as have, it seems to me, indigenous nations fighting colonialism, though as an outsider I can’t say that in any objective way. However, neither Maeckelbergh nor Tuhiwai Smith pretend to offer anything new (even though on a number of counts they do, and brilliantly); rather they present us with the knowledge our own communities have created, in an articulate fashion that confirms the best of our practices and experiences, renews confidence in our analysis, and helps us to understand, express, and expand that analysis. Many anarchists and other activists continue to limit their struggles by placing them in the confining, maladaptive parlance of liberal democracy, which is after all the system that dominates us. With our own theories so eloquently and solidly given back to us, we can leave the rhetoric of individual rights and legality in the dumpster of history, and then, better yet, set it on fire and wheel it into the street to block the dominant flows of knowledge and ideology.

Prefiguration and Cultural Survival

It is this character of militancy that I found most lacking in both books, which is especially problematic since passivity has long been one of the key weaknesses to academic efforts for social change. Curiously, Maeckelbergh phrases the combative networks of the movement as an attempt to reformulate, rather than abolish, democracy. Even though she demolishes the theoretical underpinnings of democracy, she keeps the term itself in a positive light, which is especially strange considering that the title she chose for her book is a reference to a Zapatista quote about how foreigners applied a eurocentric word, “democracy,” to something they had always been doing. I don’t want to renew any form of political correctness in the anarchist tradition and add to the list of words we are not allowed to say, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about anarchy as a better form of democracy when trying to win over well meaning reformists, but why preserve that one key link to the dominant system in a book that otherwise consistently undermines or challenges dominant values? To make it easier to communicate? To whom? Evidently not to the rebels of Chiapas whose phrase came to give title to the book.

Both of these books are marked by a minimization of struggle that to me seems to reflect that pernicious habit of academia, which seeks to breed itself into even the most sincere and intelligent enemies of oppression, to seek compromise with the dominant system.

Tuhiwai Smith mentions violent struggles against colonialism in the past, but similar battles don’t appear in her portrait of the current realities of indigenous communities. I can’t say whether counterattack against the dominant system is currently an important part of the Maori struggle, but it most definitely is of other indigenous struggles which she references. How can one write about the dangers posed by research and researchers to indigenous communities without stressing the centrality of state counterinsurgency programs which employ social scientists? Unless one doesn’t want to give the idea that the 500-year-long war of cultural survival is by no means metaphorical in many indigenous nations… Granted, it is a much more complex topic, how responsible researchers should conduct their work in a war zone, but it seems irresponsible to downplay or ignore the topic entirely, given the role geographers, anthropologists, and sociologists have played in recent years to aid the repression in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Chile, and elsewhere.

Maeckelbergh focuses on consensus in order to give useful ethnographic boundaries to her study of prefiguration in the alterglobalisation movement. Prefiguration sounds awful nice when it is written about in an eloquent book, but it is precisely the practice of “movement actors” to pick fights with the system, to be disruptive, to encourage illegality and support prisoners, as part of their prefigurative strategy, that gives vital meaning to the global mobilizations and consensus meetings. I find this oversight typical of the academic particularization or atomization needed to accomplish the pacification that is an important part of colonization and repression.

Nonetheless, it is an error of omission. Maeckelbergh is by no means a pacifist, and Tuhiwai Smith does not seem to be; they are not advancing the pacification process that employs so many other academics, simply failing to address what is in many people’s minds a key component of anarchist prefiguration or indigenous cultural survival. It is easy enough for the reader to benefit from their writing, which on the whole is very good, and to plug in the missing emphasis on struggle, on fighting back, in order to improve our strategies and deepen our practice.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People (Zed Books, 1999)

Marianne Maeckelbergh, The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of the Democracy (Pluto Press, 2009).