Dark Passage

A review of the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu which records the rapid passing of a man who has been living day to day an impoverished lonely life of drunken stalemate in a decrepit Bucharest apartment. The logic of his decline ends with his death on a trolley in a hospital’s operating theatre prep room.

A review of the film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu

Some things shrill as they are about to cross a threshold. But it is strange how the ringing becomes melancholy; like a knell, when it heralds departure…

Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project(c3,5)

Every cultural artefact both internally records and externally actualises passages between different states. The artefact’s content records threshold transitions and border skirmishes: from life to death; from drunkenness to sobriety; from love to indifference; from revolt to acceptance; from one formal tone to another. At the same time it records the failure to traverse the connection between any, or all, of these  –  every passage closes. It also records those passages which do not manifest as oppositions or serial developments but which are purely associative in nature (As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella). And without reference to any content, the artefact opens (inviting palynology) passages between its production as a historical object in the world and its subsequent receptions. That is to say, the artefact becomes a means for mediating social relations through multiple channels.

The film The Death Of Mr Lazarescu records the rapid passing of a  man who has been living day to day an impoverished lonely life of drunken stalemate in a decrepit Bucharest apartment. The logic of his decline ends with his death on a trolley in a hospital’s operating theatre prep room. Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu has liver cancer, but he also suffers a bleed on the brain following a drunken fall into his bath. After a long initial delay, he is eventually picked up by ambulance following the intervention of neighbours. From the outset, he is evaluated as a low medical priority. His type, as an old single male, with chronic alcoholism and a terminal illness, triggers every latent hostile reaction in the nightshift clinicians who attend upon him. No cure is possible in his case; within the discourse of medicine there is no answer to Dante Lazarescu’s problems; and where there is no hope, levels of care also dwindle. Therefore, in the logic of the film, Mr Lazarescu must function in his own story as Dante without a Virgil. His descent into non-existence, without hope of redemption, appears simultaneously in the domain of his own biology and in the register of institutional process.

From a paramedic’s first contact and filled in questionnaire, the responsibility for Mr Lazarescu’s existence passes from his own capacities, and that of the care of interested others, to the discretion of the ‘healthcare provider’ apparatus. At this point, the communist critic reaches for the theoretical term Biopower in his attempt to describe the absolute technical capacity for scrutiny of the individual’s existence by the institutional apparatus which seems always to be coupled with the delivery of that intimate indifference which such power engenders. As soon as he embarks on his long journey, Mr Lazarescu experiences the exacting procedures of institutional dehumanisation by which his person is deconstructed into his component organs. And each of his organs being the responsibility of a different departmental specialism.

Mr Lazarescu is also plunged into the internal politics and resource scarcity that consume the greater part of the health system’s energies. He is shunted between four different hospitals as a low priority case and receives no care over a 6 hour period whilst his condition steadily worsens. The structuring of the system ensures, rather than militates against, the neglect that he receives. That which appears as a right to the individual person, in this case the right to an appropriate and standard level of hospital care, is supplied, in the interest of the institutional service provider, as a secondary product of the healthcare apparatus.

The cybernetised institution prioritises the delivery of ‘rights’ (individual packets of care) in the form of a quantifiable output of its engineering of life processes at a population-wide scale, and responds not to individual claims upon it but only according to modifications of its written targets and protocols. The delivery of its product to individual consumers proceeds from the rationalisation process of its technocratic structure, that is to say, it manufactures a standard product for society-wide distribution, it does not enter into a nuanced patient-centred relation.  Any subsequent discrepancy between individual expectation and the system’s actual delivery may only be recorded within the system as an inevitable, if anomalous, consequence of standardised procedures. It monitors its effectiveness solely in terms of successfully meeting a mean distribution for achieved minimum thresholds. There is no inbuilt corrective feedback of, no interactivity for, complaint.

The patient is subject to, and has no capacity to rectify, a layered hierarchy of system management, the great accumulated force of which is only delivered by ‘front-end’ staff to patients at the end of a very long cycle of strategic intervention at the population level. State targets and programmes are strategically planned by the designated departments and delivered on an integrated province wide scale according to assigned resources; tactical implementations and administration loops are effected on an institution by institution basis; and the priorities and limits placed on patient to patient decisions are made through a window on clinical intervention as that appears to medical staff under enormous topdown  directive pressure (proceeding always from abstract planning to individual case). That the optimum window, as far as the patient’s interests are concerned, is often missed is a direct consequence of the character of such ‘provison’. Institutionalised services in the end, and at the beginning, always serve as a matter of priority the programmed requirements for the processive reproduction of the systems themselves as distinct from any stated goal of the service; which becomes just one measurable output to be set against others. This means that the tolerable level of patient mortality is indexed to cost thresholds.

Within this, already weighted, environment, the patient becomes subject to those twists of fate and luck which highly rationalised systems seem to generate as decisive components of the apparatus. At the level of individual experience, what might be called, after Chekhov,  ‘Ward Six’ phenomena, immediately come into play. These are the extremely capricious variables in both care and outcomes which transform individual experience within  rationalised environments but which register as statistical exceptions for the systems’ monitors: one might, by stroke of life-enhancing luck, encounter the good nurse on the ward with a terrible reputation; one might, unluckily, have had a swab sewn into the wound; a norovirus outbreak might lead to the shut down of wards, having a ‘knock-on’ effect on operation timetables: or one might be reduced to a sort of football kicked between departments, none of which wishes to pick up the cost of treatment at a time where cut-backs are imminent and cost-cutting efficiency measures are demanded. The patient always appears within an institutional circumstance defined by its tumultuous turnover (of staff, of material, of patient flow, of money) which leads him to understand that if he had been taken ill one year, one month, one day earlier (or later) then his case might have turned out so much the better (or worse).

We are left in no doubt that Mr Lazarescu would have received different and better care, if he had not encountered those doctors at that moment under those conditions.  His situation is openly compared unfavourably with that of the victims of a coach crash who arrive at the hospital at the same time. From the perspective of those attempting to deliver an impoverished service, coach crash victims appear as innocent patients whereas Mr Lazarescu has nobody to blame for his misfortune but himself. He is an object of barely disguised disgust and revulsion. Medical staff criticise and mock him. He is incontinent of urine. There are never sufficient staff available to adequately attend to him. He is at the back of the queue until he is moved to the back of another queue. There are not enough operating theatres or MRI scanners. He is refused an operation because he cannot give consent to it. He is incontinent of faeces. He passes into an acute confusional state and his words make no sense. Doctors pull rank over the paramedic accompanying him and refuse him treatment even as she insists on it. They send him back out into the night. There will be no consequences. There will be no inquest. There will be no protest. Every decision has been made according to the protocols. The ambulance’s progress through tunnel-like streets of the Bucharest night is uncertain and directionless. By the time the paramedic has located a hospital which is prepared to treat him, he is in a coma, and it is too late.

The process by which Mr Dante Remus Lazarescu becomes neglected, is also that by which the film connects him to a dying potentiality which could only be realised through him. This flickering potential, a shadow in his shape, a shadow that is the image-object to which the care of others might be attached, and which has hitherto only appeared within a set of relations defined by his insignificance, is both realised by the film and closed out unrealised by the institution which it portrays.

Biopower forecloses on all discourses of redemption and seeks instead to realise, or manufacture, the tangible potentials which it identifies in individuals. Where no useful, achievable, measurable potential is identified its institutions find no purpose, nothing to work on – the shadow, the potential that is care for care’s sake, is dispersed. Mr Lazarescu’s lonely fate is also the fate of the potential that is his alone and which he might have realised in a life lived otherwise. At the end of his life he carries his shadow down into the void. And a potential for society, with him as one of its centres, an alternative circumstance structured on other relations, and other procedures, other means of caring and prioritising, dies with him.

So the tiny woman closed the shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and trembling from head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened a very secret place and showed the Princess a shadow… It was the shadow of someone who had gone by long before: of someone who had gone on far away quite out of reach, never, never to come back. It was bright to look at; and when the tiny woman showed it to the Princess, she was proud of it with all her heart, as a great, great treasure. When the Princess had considered it a little while, she said to the tiny woman, And you keep watch over this every day? And she cast down her eyes, and whispered, Yes. Then the Princess said, Remind me why. To which the other replied, that no one so good and kind had ever passed that way…

Dickens Little Dorritt

As is often the case with people in his position, Mr Lazarescu has effectively ceased to exist long before the moment of his death. All that is left of him, at the end, is a poor, bare, fork’d animal, trapped somehow in an arbitrary and unhomely place; head shaven, naked, alone, lying under a thin sheet on a trolley in the company of unfamiliar others for whom he is little more than the pretext of their work. He appears before them, in the crepuscular glow of their non-recognition, at that threshold between the night and morning shifts, in the prep room adjacent to the operating theatre, as nothing more than their work. They attend upon him because they are paid to do so.

Mr Lazarescu, as an individual, has lost his autonomy (as this is paradoxically defined by the caring intervention of others). He has nobody at the end to carry forward his identity, his uniqueness, the memory of him.  He has become absolutely subject to his environment. It is no accident that two other characters of the film are named Virgil, as the importance of the witness, the companion, the guide, the one who will plead the case, is demonstrated throughout the film by his absence. Dante is an alcoholic. He lives alone with three cats in a dirty flat. He has no wife. He has a daughter but she lives in Canada. His neighbours are ambivalent. He has nobody who will accompany him in the ambulance as it descends into his purgatory.

Benjamin writes problematically, So difficult is it for man to relinquish his place and allow the apparatus to take over for him (S5a,2). And yet, also so easy. The communist critic assigns himself the task of reopening those meandering passages to the question of the difficult individual as an end in himself, precisely those passages which have been progressively filled in by apparatus-rationale as it pursues frictionless operations at the macro scale. The critic’s purpose is not only to subject capitalist instrumental rationality to critique but also to problematise the use-value based assumptions of left ideology as expressed in the advocacy of workers’ self-management of production.

Within the field of his commitments, every critic illuminates passages between the internal opposites that are belonging to his field; he is an anarchist to the communists and a communist to the anarchists; he connects the profusions of spectacular wealth to the abject reality which sustains it. He seeks to open passages to the real world from the fantastical and to reveal passages to the fantastical, the life lived otherwise, from works of social realism. But he is not merely a mining engineer of latent social connection. He also explores the passages that lead to answerlessness, that come to a dead-end, the labyrinths of the mute and immobile; the very non-passages and disconnects which thereby threaten the project he has undertaken.

At the end, at the very end of a long row of booths, as if — ashamed — he had exiled himself from all of these splendours, I saw a poor mountebank, stooped, decrepit, leaning his back against one of the posts of his hut, a hut more miserable than that of the most most brutalised savage, and whose poverty was illuminated yet all too well by two dripping, smoking candle butts.

Everywhere joy, success, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for tomorrow; everywhere the frenetic explosion of vitality.  Here, absolute misery, misery decked out – as a crowning horror – in comic rags, upon which need rather than art had introduced contrast.  He didn’t laugh, this poor wretch!  He didn’t cry, he didn’t dance, he didn’t gesture, he didn’t shout; he sang no song, either happy or sad; he didn’t plead.  He was mute and immobile.  He had renounced, he had abdicated.  His fate was fixed.

le vieux saltimbanque Baudelaire

FD

Unborn Grandsons

It seems these masters found themselves caught between the demands of two indispensable and previously harmonious elements of their culture which had lately come into conflict. On the one side they understood, as is the tradition, that knowledge descended strictly through the epochs from named masters to those students they had specially selected as being worthy of it. Knowledge was only passed to the next generation of future masters via the closed conduit of the masters’ lineage. In this way, accession to knowledge reinforced the stability of social hierarchy and the ordering of the temporal universe, the past held the present tightly in its grip. But on the other side of this model, the masters discovered, or perhaps merely suspected, that a particular circumstance might cause the knowledge content of the lineage to become dangerous to the viability of the lineage itself. And in the contradiction that thus arose between the form of established power and the knowledge content held by that power which of the two, the masters’ asked themselves, ought to triumph over the other?

The painter and naturalist, Rosenhof travelled West, taking Route 28 out of the Carpathian Mountains via Przemysl, and followed the northerly edge of the pine forests of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship. A few minutes after the crossroads at Szymbark, he swung the rented Peugeot 206 northwards into a narrow lane that climbed steeply through another dense wood. Rosenhof stopped before a pair of elaborate wickerwork gates which he got out to open, keeping the engine running.  He left the gates open, cautiously advanced the car up the potholed drive,  and took a right-angled turn just as he emerged from the treeline. Rosenhof turned off the engine outside a brightly painted wooden chalet that was set just below the peak of the promontory. He sat in the car for a few moments watching Trakl’ s ghost  sitting on a bench drinking tea with a man he would introduce as Westermann, a postman, but who Trakl had previously described in correspondence as ‘Walser’s go-between’.

The bench was positioned to make the most of the view over the village of Grodek which nestled quaintly in the pinewoods. Trakl and Westermann were talking of an apparently unsuccessful trip they had taken to a tract of arable land east of Kazimierz in search of the elusive corncrake. ‘We did not need to see it so much as witness its voice throwing.’ ‘You would have needed to see it to judge that,’ said Rosenhof. ‘Not if we found the empty place where we thought its call had come from,’ Westermann replied. ‘But you had no luck?’ ‘Ah, it’s always the same story, the 3rd Republic, ‘89 and all that. The land is becoming a desert; natural abundance shrinks; the corncrake population is just one small crash drowned out by so many others.’

Trakl made space on the bench, ‘Tell us the news of the big city, Rosenhof.’  ‘What would you like to know? For example, you might be pleased that, as it is Spring, even in the 3rd Republic,  the white storks are still to be seen working on their nests.’ ‘Yes, but paint us a picture of the modern people, en miniature. We don’t get as far as Przemysl nowadays,’ Westermann winked, and flickered, ‘as all  our roads seemingly lead to black decay.’

Rosenhof had a talent for portraying unpredicted encounters, ‘I overheard a conversation in Przemysl concerning a countertrend in the tides of ancient Chinese knowledge. That is if you are interested in hearing of it.‘ ‘O Good son of Wittgenstein, speak of it and we shall pretend to sip more of this tea. Do you think it has gone cold yet?’

Rosenhof paused as a pair of woodpigeon rose, clapping in display, and then plunged again into the canopy that stretched out below the chalet. It was evening over Grodek and the autumn woodland rang with hunters’ gunfire. ‘I had stopped to revive myself in the Aquarium café, it’s on the north bank of the San, do you know it? I couldn’t help but overhear two very Polish followers of the Oriental mysteries who it seems were locked  in deep contemplation over certain, shall we say, incomprehensibilities. The first was puzzling over the history of Tai Chi as recounted to her by a teacher of that ancient art. The teacher had told her that Tai Chi, as a body of knowledge, once amounted to a formidable martial art but that over time  it had progressively lost its key manoeuvres coinciding with the deaths of successive generations of its masters.

‘It seems these masters found themselves caught between the demands of two indispensable and previously harmonious elements of their culture which had lately come into conflict. On the one side they understood, as is the tradition, that knowledge descended strictly through the epochs from named masters to those students they had specially selected as being worthy of it. Knowledge was only passed to the next generation of future masters via the closed conduit of the masters’ lineage. In this way, accession to knowledge reinforced the stability of social hierarchy and the ordering of the temporal universe, the past held the present tightly in its grip. But on the other side of this model, the masters discovered, or perhaps merely suspected, that a particular circumstance might cause the knowledge content  of the lineage to become dangerous to the viability of the lineage itself. And in the contradiction that thus arose between the form of established power and the knowledge content held by that power which of the two, the masters asked themselves, ought to triumph over the other?

‘The historical context of the masters’ predicament occurred in that period where the the fall of the Ming dynasty to the peasant revolt was quickly succeeded by the rapid collapse of the Shun Dynasty. The crisis took the form of a fleeting historical relativisation of the traditional forms and in particular was expressed in the temporary failure of Neo-Confucianism to fix the younger generation quite as fastly as it once had into their subjected role within the great scheme of traditional culture. Or that at least was the anxiety of the Tai Chi masters as they became uncertain as to whether they should transmit potentially harmful information to possible future enemies. Might not an inappropriate access to secret powers lead to the overthrow of the proper ordering of society? The masters decided to take the path where they had to withhold crucial moves from the young in order to retain their superior tactical ability which they might be called on to deploy in defence of the lineage, if a confrontation should later break out with their descendants.

‘We cannot know now whether this decision averted conflict or simply removed the necessity for it. But when the younger generation matured and were admitted to the status of masters, they gained access to a corrupted inheritance, into the heart of which was written their forebears’ code for withholding knowledge from their students. The lineage was no longer a conduit for supplying a legacy of certainties but had become defined, in its control of the present, by the withholding of what it knew. The new masters of Tai Chi naturally also held back knowledge from the next generation which they thought might prove most decisive in the defence of the past against the seemingly growing threat of potential corruption by the present. And as this went on, the very structures that were designed to preserve certainty became the means by which it was progressively destroyed. The major concern of the lineage passed from the conservation of what had been written before to anticipatory acts of erasure, and thus the nature of the lineage’s power was transformed.  Today, the formal lineage appears to us locked in a death clinch with the content of its own legacy. And its knowledge, its raison d’etre, has been lost forever.’

‘Where inheritance dominates social relations all improvisation is absent,’ Westermann said, ‘the adherence of the Tai Chi masters to the formality of an unbroken lineage excluded the possibility of developing  innovative new moves which might have renewed it in the face of external challenges. They, perhaps not mistakenly, thought novelty of content would undermine the formality of the lineage itself. It is a classic example of the question successful traditions are set by changing external conditions and how they tend to respond against their own interest.’

‘But that is not the point of the story,’ said Rosenhof, ‘which is not really about the to and fro between Neo-Confucianism and the Chinese Imperial Examination system but concerns our two friends in the café. You have not yet heard what the other said in reply. In stories such as mine, credulity always seems ridiculous so I think you will find this provocatively amusing. She had listened to her friend, perhaps with dismay, perhaps without concern. But in response she said simply, and in a lofty and mysterious tone which allowed for no further discussion, ‘But the secrets have not been lost.’‘

‘Ah yes,’ Trakl said, ‘the secret knowledge has been preserved but secretly. In fact, I think I can go so far as saying that we lost souls emphatically demand that the Chinese have not lost any of their secrets.’ Westermann joined in, ‘If we don’t yet understand their science, that is because we have not reached the place where its secret might be revealed to us. The certainty of the Unknown sets minds at peace, the quest of the spirit is affirmed and a certain fragment of café society may continue to distract itself with the ornate embellishments of café truths. And speaking of truth, we assume the veracity of the teacher’s account… but in the mirrored kingdom which is traditional culture, the original potency of this knowledge, and the account of its loss, might only perform the function of a creation  myth which explains the directly experienced ongoing reduction of today’s lesser men.’

Westermann paused for a moment and then said, ‘But this reminds me somewhat of a story my grandfather told me. He was employed in Kiel as a machinist in the shipyards, and at the turn of the century, job insecurity coincided with the constant revolutionising of the means of production. No sooner had he mastered the techniques associated with one machine, than the whole plant was stripped out and a new line was brought in to replace it.

‘My grandfather was not an educated man and he was well aware how his position was vulnerable to younger, better trained but cheaper workers. At some point he encountered the idea which I suppose occurs to every other worker in the same situation… he took advantage of being transferred to a more specialised section on the line, memorised the manual for the machine he worked on and then destroyed the manual. In effect he became the only man in the factory who knew how his machine worked and if anyone was directed to be trained on it then he was the one to do the training but listen to this…’

‘He only trained them up to a point, and withheld vital information to keep his edge and so preserve his job,’  said Rosenhof. ‘Voila, the end of the story. And now, the night surrounds us.’  Westermann seemed to pour his gaze into that of Trakl who scanned the black sea of trees below them, ‘A sister’s shadow sways through the still grove…

‘You say they are building their nests again? The white storks. In Przemysl?’ ‘Yes, as they always did, and no doubt in Kraków too,’ said Rosenhof. ‘But recently they have been seen, for the first time, also to be scavenging in the rubbish dumps at the edge of town.’

FD

Hum with the talk about these oppositional spirits

A polemical review of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

White has declared his intention of piling up as much pressure as possible on the Queen Bishop file and on the Queen Bishop Pawn. Black must meet that threat by bringing all his resources to bear on defense of th efile, or int=stitute a counter-attack vigorous enough to divert White’s forces from assault
Logical Chess: Move by Move Irving Chernev

“Resistance is the present state of an interpretation of the subject. It is the manner in which, at the same time, the subject interprets the point he’s got to. … It simply means that he [the patient] cannot move any faster.”
The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis Lacan, Jacques.

A polemical review of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

White has declared his intention of piling up as much pressure as possible on the Queen Bishop file and on the Queen Bishop Pawn. Black must meet that threat by bringing all his resources to bear on defense of th efile, or int=stitute a counter-attack vigorous enough to divert White’s forces from assault
Logical Chess: Move by Move Irving Chernev

“Resistance is the present state of an interpretation of the subject. It is the manner in which, at the same time, the subject interprets the point he’s got to. … It simply means that he [the patient] cannot move any faster.”
The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis Lacan, Jacques.

Before the internet there was “Blacklist: An Anti-Authoritarian Directory” published by the Blacklist Group in San Francisco around 1983-4. It listed active anarchist groups and individuals around the world in the expectation of communication between them and others. As is conventional with radical publications, the secondary visual requirements for Blacklist dragged up a hodgepodge of inadvertently telling images from various sources. One of these, in the form of a comic strip, portrayed a production line worker in a can factory. At the beginning of the strip, the worker is evidently dispirited by the repetitive tasks he must undertake… but by mid page he discovers a means by which to entertain himself. He inserts random objects into the cans. He then imagines with great delight the reactions of other people as they open the can and find what he has hidden.

The perplexing, parable-like content of this cartoon and its portrayal of an antisocial form of resistance is perhaps the explanation for its continued resonance over the 25 years since its publication. The meaning of the strip seemed in no way to relate to what I understood as anarchism at the time nor to the project of communication as envisaged by the Blacklist group. It presented an act of sabotage that, given the context of poisoning of foodstuffs and cosmetics by animal rights activists in supermarkets at the time, seemed misanthropic, even perverse in its fetishism of the compensations of workplace alienation. The revolutionary potential of such acts is not at all clear as they are phenomena that are entirely expressive of the conditions that produce them… they are directed nowhere, they are pure reaction and occur at the end of a sequence of alienation — they describe perfectly, in miniature, the entirety of the relations of domination of which they are a product.

In general, even politically, even strategically, the range of acts of resistance that may be called up by those who are held within a set of relations from which there is no escape only serve to reinforce, as these acts are brought into play like a series of last throws of the dice, the existing boundaries on permissible activities. The transgressions which a strategy of resistance attempts to instigate realise in a more immediate and tangible form, as do all transgressions, the generality of the law. There is nothing within resistance that does not already belong to that which is being resisted. Resistant values are not only derivative of dominant values they are also, as they become well-established, dependant for their continued relevance on the relations that they refuse. Resistance is the realisation of an experienced powerlessness to transform conditions and occurs in that place where a practice directed at social transformation would otherwise appear.

But who would believe that the path of most resistance is also, from another perspective, the path of least resistance? That the energy discharged along it is lost from the project of social change? And who would countenance the idea that opposition conducted outside of the register of resistance iconography is actually more resistant of the relations of domination? Impossible. Or at least, a fantastical proposition! But if we accept that the resistance role is always designated within the relations of domination; and that all historical examples of that role seem to conform to this taxonomic type; and that the operation of this type, in all situations contributes to the reproduction of unchanging conditions; then perhaps there are grounds for further investigation.

The resistance of husband and wife, Otto and Anna Quangel, conducted against the Nazi regime in Hans Fallada’s novel Alone In Berlin and which is thereby translated into an image of militant refusal by the narrative, typifies the aesthetics which underly resistance rationales. Within narrative conventions, the function of such images is to serve as uplifting examples, they are fed back into an ideology which presents acts of resistance as moments of transcendence even where nothing objective can be demonstrated to have been achieved — shorn of the apparatus which circulates them, they become self-justifying and unimpeachable because of their apparent succinct and stand alone beauty. Resistance always just is and all requests for explanation are treated as suspect.

The ownership and circulation of images of resistance becomes a powerful means of political organising. The use of resistant acts, rather than the acts themselves, is an underhand means of participating in the political establishment whilst presenting an oppositional ideology. The aesthetic of resistance is fundamentally mystificatory because it is not conventional to subject it to critique. We observe, in acts of resistance, a curious example of the phenomenon in which the register of survival is occluded by a register of the immediate… within the image of resistance not only are the priorities of survival obstructed by the priorities of the moment, very often (as in the case of suicide missions) they are actively denied —never mind your life, this is the cause!

The means by which this occlusion occurs and its reason cannot be discussed in this context and yet the capacity for human beings to become caught up and exult in a logic of self-defeat, where an image of the frozen present subjectively dominates active existence, and where all alternative futures completely disappear from awareness, has to be considered a decisive characteristic of the socialised human being. Not to recognise the work of this destructive capacity for willing absorption into temporary exigency would render both acts of resistance and their conversion into political images incomprehensible. In other words, resistance is always the art of resistance.

The narrative of Alone In Berlin first presents the Quangel’s at the moment of their receiving the news of their son’s death in the war. It shows how their well-entrenched incapacity for expressing love renders them unable to adequately grieve for his loss — not being able to express any emotional weakness is of course significant within the Quangel’s historical context. Up to this moment Otto has been no friend of the regime but nor has he been an active enemy. However, from the announcement of his son’s death his principle of non-involvement is turned on its head and the image of his personal struggle against the Nazi state, powered by the absence of his personal grief, begins to take hold of him. He conceives of a long campaign in which he proposes to leave postcards denouncing the regime and the war in semi-public places… he imagines the postcards having immediate positive effect on his fellow citizens and their consequent eager discussing of his ideas. His wife is sceptical at first:

And what was he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet. Postcards with slogans against the FŸhrer and the Party, against the war, for the information of his fellow men, that was all. And these cards he wasn’t going to send to particular individuals, or stick on the walls like placards, no, he wanted to leave them lying in the stairwells of widely visited buildings, leave them to their fate, without any control over who picked them up, where the might be trampled underfoot, torn up… Everything in her rebelled against this obscure and ignoble form of warfare. She wanted to be active, to do something with results she could see!

Both Otto and Anna gain some partial insight in their analysis of the function of the cards — their mutual corrections of each other’s ideas fill out the underlying aesthetic of this shadowy figure at the brink of covert action. No image is more positively charged in politics than that of the resistance fighter and yet the components of this image often pass unexamined: it is about a lived drama; it is about a great gamble; it is about the neat encapsulation of the generality by the isolated individual; it is about the embodied contrast between homely and glorious principles; it is about not having enough resources and yet having no choice but to fight back; it is about being alone; it is about being tested by danger, above all danger; it is about the setting of one’s own pathetic status against the might of what cannot be changed; it is about hopelessness of one’s position, above all the hopeless; it is about actively narrowing everything down to the moment, the switch, the movement from this side of complicity to the other; it is about living as an image; it is about the play of social forces in one’s actions, in one’s own existence; it is about separating oneself, elevating oneself; it is about the ascetic as a plenitude; it is about binding oneself to an external purpose; it is about living in a moment without a future where every experience is suffused with death and defeat.

In their joint assessment of the project, Otto rightly understands that the cards represent his only realistic opportunity for prolonged activity given their limited resources whilst Anna rightly understands that the cards will make no difference to anyone but themselves. Unfortunately for them, the inflationary element in Otto’s vision of communicating with the masses and the imaginary movement that will result prove too intoxicating for both of them. The adoption of resistant personae, of becoming an image for themselves, has a radical effect upon their perception of the world:

Things that when they first had happened had struck them as barely censurable, such as the suppression of all other political parties, or things that they had condemned as merely excessive in degree or too vigourously carried out, like the persecution of the Jews — such things, now that the Quangels had become enemies of the FŸhrer, came to have a completely different weight and importance. The proved mendacity of the Party and its FŸhrer. And, like all converts, the Quangels had the desire to convert others […] Neither Quangle doubted for one moment that their cards were being passed from hand to hand in factories and offices, that Berlin was beginning to hum with the talk about these oppositional spirits […] They had so often thought and spoken about the great effectiveness of their work that the circulation of their cards and the attention that greeted them was, as far as they were concerned, no longer theoretical but practical […] And yet the Quangels didn’t have the least actual evidence for this.

The intoxicating effect of a new belief system causes the convert to mistake his personal rapture for a widespread external phenomenon. The individual’s absorption in his works is mistaken for a corresponding absorption of those he thinks are consuming his message. It is impossible for anyone in such a heightened state to consider the possibility that it is not messages that are decisive, and that this message, despite its subjective exigency, is only objectively equivalent to all others. After all, it is not possible that a person writes this message (which cannot not be written) whilst also considering that it will be received by others in the same state of incomprehension and indifference as are all adverts for unwanted products.

Unknown to the Quangels, their ambitions are pricked from the start. They anticipate that perhaps a fifth of their productions will fall into the hands of the police when in fact almost all are immediately handed in. And where Otto and Anna assume they are communicating with a widespread readership their communiqu’s are in fact only monitored by the local Gestapo in the development of a psychological profile of them.

At its core, the image of resistance (that is those sequences of resistance which pass through a political cycle and which are deployed as a narrative) is defined by its ambitions for a direct route to power — of most concern is the way it by-passes those who it is supposed to speak to and for, and the manner in which it seeks to go straight to the top. The essence of the ideology of resistance is located in its search for an amplification of the beautifully succinct gesture into a lasting and meaningful gain — that is, the goal is the transformation by force of local instances into generalisable relations. Often this involves explosives but sometimes the narration of the mythologised act itself is sufficient — there seems an inverse proportionality between the pitiful character of the act and its suitability for mythic recuperation (the more puny the David, the more terrible the Goliath, the more potent the narrative).

For as long as he survives, the resistant can be sure that his resistance is recognised and catalogued by that which is being resisted… it is a game of cat and mouse, a sort of intimate dialogue which functions to further delineate the nature and the reach of the authorities. Without Winston Smith, O’Brien would not have had the opportunity to speak so eloquently. Without the Quangels, the Berlin Gestapo would not have known itself quite so accurately. Acts of resistance, to the degree that they come to the authorities’ attention, are the means by which the authorities’ knowledge of their own capabilities are appropriated through the works of others. It is also hoped by the resistant party, and this sometimes happens, that the extension of the authorities’ knowledge of itself eventually reaches a recognition of its own need to institutionalise its opponents as a function of itself.

Only the authorities take the Quangels seriously. Only the Gestapo register the potential threat of their postcards and this because of the absolute absence of all other significant internal opposition to the regime. If the postcards had indicated a network and expressed a wider set of relations which were constituted as something more than this particular gesture of opposition, then the method of the postcards would have been rendered immediately obsolete to that network (how might such a strategy have furthered the cause of such a network?)… but the fact that the postcards are utilised as the chosen method, the Gestapo rightly deduce, only serves to indicate the author’s isolation and thus prove the absence of any significant network. Acts of resistance illuminate, and bring into focus, relations of power as they are constituted in that moment, they succinctly express the extent of those relations — the Quangel’s cards confess the dead end in which they find themselves, their discourse banished to the top of stairwells in anonymous buildings.

He shook his head. “Dear, oh dear!” he said with mock disapproval. “You do make it so terribly easy for us! And you’d like to be conspirators? You’re trying to bring down the state with your childish games. The only people you’ll bring down are yourselves!”

Resistance appears where defeat is certain. Its miragic image only occurs in relations where an opportunity for transformation of those relations is absent. It advances a rationale, or justification, of worthwhile sacrifice but by this it also feeds into the state’s certainty of there being no alternative. The choice presented by state and resistant alike is always between suicidal “childish games” or consensual silence. The state seeks to provoke these premature confrontations on its territory and in its temporality — it is to its advantage that those who oppose it dissolve themselves in rushed images of heroism in defeat. And it is to the advantage of resistance ideologues that they focus all awareness of acts of resistance on the images rather than on the costs (great) or the material gains achieved (non-existent).

Where the motifs of resistance are rejected, a more careful analysis of the situation becomes infused by the certain knowledge that both the territory and the temporality of the state are themselves only temporarily held. The impersonal forces which brought such and such faction to power will soon also destroy it. Whilst the resistance aesthetic invests in the state’s own image of itself as a constant which terrifyingly fills every horizon, a Reich that will last a thousand years, the social critic by contrast, perceives this government as essentially fleeting and arbitrary in character.

The greatest victory of any powerful elite achieved over its opponents is where it dictates how it is to be perceived and engaged by them. By contrast, any true rejection of instituted domination must be based upon life lived in the certainty of time passing, in the intuition of the temporariness of this incarnation of domination, in acceptance of itscontingency, in the knowledge of its coming failure, and in the thought of its helplessness within its own decline. Set hard upon this awareness of domination’s mighty weakness is always the continued possibility of living other lives in an other future.

Escherich asked, “Do you know how many letters and postcards you wrote, Quangel?”
“Two hundred and seventy-six postcards, nine letters.”
“Which means that all of eighteen items were not handed in.”
“Eighteen items: that’s the sum total of my work of two years, my hope. My life for those eighteen pieces of paper. Well, at least they were as many as that.!”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Quangel,” said the inspector, Ôthat those eighteen circulated from hand to hand. No, it’s just that they were found by individuals so deeply compromised already that they didn’t dare hand them in. Those eighteen cards were just as ineffectual as all the others. We’ve never heard anything from the public at large that leads us to think they had the least effect…”
“So I’ve accomplished nothing?”
“So you’ve accomplished nothing – certainly nothing that you would have wanted to accomplish!…”

The exchange ends with the Gestapo inspector sketching out the odds of one man up against the state whilst Quangel asserts the necessity of his struggle despite it all. He ends by saying that if he had the chance he would fight again but he would fight differently. This insight concerning how the fight might be undertaken differently always occurs at the end of the logic of resistance and yet because resistance itself is conducted by isolated individuals either operating alone or directed by a remote leadership, the insight itself cannot be passed on… each resistant is presented with the same options in the inexorable logic of premature struggles, and each encounters the same endgame which must be played out wholly on the terms of the police. The resistance sequence always ends in the interrogation room. The problem for every opponent of instituted power is how to instigate an opposition that might be conducted, as Quangel wishes, “differently”. How is it possible for any opposition to avoid the trap of futile re-enactment of the established rituals and motifs of resistance which must always end in the same heroic defeat only later redeemed as rebel songs and folk sentimentality?

Quangel, whilst awaiting execution, and as he undergoes a sudden transformation in his personality, does gain profound insights, in spite of the novel’s narrative drift, into how a different opposition might be conducted — significantly this connection with himself occurs because his worklife has been forcibly suspended. But these insights arrive too late and are not communicable to anyone within the novel’s narrative:

“I sometimes think now, Doctor, about the gifts I had no idea I had. It’s only since meeting you, since coming to this death row, that I understand how much I’ve missed out on in my life.”
“It’s like that for everyone. Everyone facing death, especially premature death, like us, will be kicking themselves about each wasted hour.”
“But it’s different for me, Doctor. I always thought it was enough if I did my work properly and didn’t mess anything up. And now I learn that there are loads of other things I could have done: play chess, be kind to people, listen to music, go to the theatre.”

Quangel begins to understand that the image of resistance which he had dissolved himself into, and the appearance to him of the necessity of this resistance, the form it had to take, the effect it had to have, the engagement it sought out, all essentially belonged to the discourse of that which was being resisted Ð he perceives that he had been articulating its militarised codes and reproducing its exigencies within his own life. He was not so much resisting as playing out a role.

The religious-moral justifications made by his cellmate in response, that he has retained his dignity and that he has not been corrupted, do not convince him. He seems to perceive that thousands dying alone only indicates a wasted opportunity for the establishment of other sets of relations, for other forms of organisation which do not require that level of individual purity and dignity which leads ineluctably to the grave. It seems that in this passage he begins to grasp that he has colluded in promoting the priorities of an instrumentalist logic in the place of his own humanity, that by (in Sixties terminology) “going underground” and adopting a clandestine, semi-militarised existence he has refused human relations and the register of human experience in order to achieve a political end, an end which in fact could only be realised by living it as a prefigurative means. It is the predicament which is presented to every pro-revolutionary — the operational values of the most militant rebels come to resemble most the values of the dominant order.

Whilst the character of Otto Quangel seems to encounter these thoughts, the narrative direction of the novel does not adopt them, it cannot portray his resistance as a dead end but instead adopts a transcendent, even supernatural, tone of release at the end. Alone in Berlin romanticises the wretchedness and underplays the delusions of Otto and Anna. Where, in reality, their interventions have literally no social impact, the novel interjects the postcards into the psychological processes of leading local Gestapo officers and thereby bestows upon them an aura of objective political significance which they simply cannot have — crackpots may prove troublesome to the authorities but they do not constitute a realistic opposition.

Just as Melville deploys mental illness as a distancing device in Bartleby the Scrivener, so as to reveal social conventions and create a liberating “different point of view” from which the character of Bartleby himself gains no benefit so Fallada portrays the resistance of Otto and Anna in a heightened aesthetisised register so that, for the reader, their executions appear an acceptable cost for the glory that has been gained, and by implication that such activities should be emulated. The affect-benefits of all martyr narratives are experienced only as a sort of reflected glory by those buying into the ideology of martyrdom and evidently not by those who are sacrificed. The martyrs do not live on in the cause. They are just converted into images and become a sort of currency — images being so much more persistent than human life. Heroes do not go to heaven. They just die.

Introspective acts of resistance (i.e. those political acts which manifest the actant’s psychology in the external world) require an external narrative to circulate them as images in order that they might be consumed from the outside (i.e. in a form where the psychological aspects have been erased.) The miracles of Jesus, as acts of resistance, in which redemption is supernaturalised in a context where social and political transformation is impossible, only make political sense if understood as instances of mental anguish in a context without hope of change. That Jesus felt a profound empathy and wished he could feed, unblind, cure, raise-up those who were suffering around him is only recorded because he was unable to conceive of such transformations in any terms but as miracles (inexplicable images of transformation) — the chasm between the register of suffering and the capacity to do anything about it is mystified in the image of transcendence.

The supernatural appears within relations where an opportunity for transformation of those relations is absent — supernature resists the limits of reality by means of images of transcendence. And the aura of the supernatural still suffuses the images deployed in modern resistance narratives, even where explicit supernatural references are removed. The image of resistance mystifies that space which nonetheless remains empty and which should be taken up by the process of social transformation which as long as change is conceived in terms of fighting, is materially absent from the practice of subjected populations.

If Otto and Anna had set up a reading group, or a discussion network, their grief, their relationship problems and their political impotence, i.e. their actual problems, would have had to shape their participation. Beginning from the constraints of their actual social position they would have had to engage their conditions without recourse to fantasies of wildly disproportionate effect. Whether this approach would have succeeded or failed in any register at all is impossible to say, but it would at least have retained the object appropriate to their engagement, i.e. the question of changing their lives, an object only encountered by Otto on death row.

The intoxicating power of the image of resistance is the result of its framing within a narrative context that grants to isolated gestures an external heroic aura. For it to work effectively, the image which is collapsed into an act-person-strategy amalgam has first to be extracted from the actual wretched people, the actually wretched acts, the actually wretched thinking and the actual wretched context where the act first wretchedly appeared. The image is intended within the context of the narrative to induce an immediate and thoughtless identification. The narrative assumes a form of consumption in which there is an already established proclivity to exteriorise political consciousness and perceive struggle in terms of simplified heroic righteousness.

The act-person-strategy amalgam is an aestheticised image which proposes redemption from inescapable wretchedness … it is the mechanism by which oppression by heroes is constructed, and normative myths promulgated. Fetishised gestures of resistance are bought into by other equally wretched individuals who are equally unable or unwilling to face up to the real problems that they face. Desperate resistant acts are also premature discharges along paths of least resistance — avoiding the most awkward problems and seeking out resonant images to supplant them with.

It is a strange argument that upholds itself in these terms: where that which purportedly resists in fact, within a different register, does not resist at all and where that opposition which does not seek to express itself in the images of resistance in fact is most resistant to domination. How difficult it is to put forward this idea and how fraught with inevitable misrepresentations. How might it, for example, be promoted to a Palestinian freedom fighter? Impossible. Impossible. What a terrible force of will it takes not to fight back and yet who would believe that?

By what means might it be communicated that there is always another alternative, a more felt, even more painful register that is directed away from the discourse of the rigid imagery of feuding and towards the full complexity of human beings living lives distinct from images? There are no such means. Only within the discourse of resistance itself perhaps, at the end of its logic, on death row as it were, and facing its own defeat, can non-resistance seem an alluring political possibility. Otherwise, it is taking political opposition to the point of absurdity to suggest that this other non-resistant/more resistant alternative is constituted less in terms of the “tightening” aesthetic of striking back and taking the fight to the enemy and more directed towards an ongoing practice of relaxing constraints, the releasing of binds and the redirection of life’s energies into other relations and structures. Truly, a quixotic enterprise.

The Ibn ‘Arabi effect

Dear T,

They left as night let its curtains down in folds. – Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi

I am neither an authority on, nor a partisan of, Camatte’s worldview and am thus unable to confidently recommend to you one of his works above the others. In my life, I have found that I am unable to perform either the role of teacher or student and so habitually avoid all approximates of such relations. Equally, as I do not know what questions you wish to ask in your readings of these, or any other works, I cannot even make a guess as to how to best inform your curiosity.

Instead, and I admit this is quite unlooked for, I am able to discuss other more immediate but still related matters. The question I wish to raise with you is the nature of the breaking away of individuals from the elective relations which, to a great extent, have formed their characters. The reason I have discussed Camatte here, and elsewhere, is that he fits this model very well, he is the most readily recognisable and accessible embodiment of the tendency to depart from our milieu on a personal voyage. In fact, I am almost tempted to term this tendency, ‘the Camatte effect’ but it seems a little unfair to utilise the name of someone still living for such purposes… for want of a more apt term, I have therefore settled on the almost arbitrary, ‘The Ibn ‘Arabi effect’ as he is an exemplary figure who voyaged spiritually and then was unable to return home – he is a person who found himself in a different place.

Dear T,

They left as night let its curtains down in folds. – Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi

I am neither an authority on, nor a partisan of, Camatte’s worldview and am thus unable to confidently recommend to you one of his works above the others. In my life, I have found that I am unable to perform either the role of teacher or student and so habitually avoid all approximates of such relations. Equally, as I do not know what questions you wish to ask in your readings of these, or any other works, I cannot even make a guess as to how to best inform your curiosity.

Instead, and I admit this is quite unlooked for, I am able to discuss other more immediate but still related matters. The question I wish to raise with you is the nature of the breaking away of individuals from the elective relations which, to a great extent, have formed their characters. The reason I have discussed Camatte here, and elsewhere, is that he fits this model very well, he is the most readily recognisable and accessible embodiment of the tendency to depart from our milieu on a personal voyage. In fact, I am almost tempted to term this tendency, ‘the Camatte effect’ but it seems a little unfair to utilise the name of someone still living for such purposes… for want of a more apt term, I have therefore settled on the almost arbitrary, ‘The Ibn ‘Arabi effect’ as he is an exemplary figure who voyaged spiritually and then was unable to return home – he is a person who found himself in a different place.

Up to this juncture, those who have broken from their milieu, to follow their own path, have tended to disappear from its records… how many radicals have joined and then departed from the organisations that they thought best expressed their interest? The loss of these individuals is an occurrence that is little discussed – perhaps we are more tempted to contemplate how the organisations themselves operate homeostatically and always somehow maintain the same numbers even though these numbers are constituted by a constantly replenished membership of individuals. The great problem of this breaking away of individuals is not the schism itself so much as the constant rate of loss of knowledge that these individuals have gained in their intellectual journeying – this has developed to such a level that it functions as a critique of the specifics of membership itself. And the result for the organisations concerned has been catastrophic in that they are perpetually bound to a fallback set of principles only new recruits are capable of adhering to. The endless circulation of membership and the hanging on of a grizzled old guard induces organisational inflexibility. By contrast, we know by experience that where there is a constant long term relation, there is always, tinkering and internal modification of the terms of that relation.

I mentioned above, this juncture because for the first time those who have set off on their own journeys from the milieu are being registered as a positive phenomenon by those who do not wish to see them disappear. The problem has been that those who broke from organisations had no structures to ensure the continuity of their ideas… and so the milieu has been consistently losing the insights (and occasional theoretical breakthroughs) which were not aligned to any particular group or party. For the first time, the opinions of those who break away from the milieu’s organisations are being sought out and also organised in order that they cannot be so easily lost again. But why should I presume that those who break from the party are its most intelligent elements?

My understanding of the movement of human consciousness is that it is based firstly in a tendency to band together and secondly, in contradiction, in a tendency to divergence (hence, The Ibn ‘Arabi effect). We might say that Intelligence is thus always defined in terms of divergence from what is established whereas interest is expressed in terms of a reverted to solidarity. From this understanding, it is a small step to perceive ‘organisations’ as structures whose unrecognised function is, in reality, to produce embodiments of the Ibn Arabi effect, that is, they are devices for the production of dissent and breaking away.

I belong to a speculative (i.e. non-existent) group called Forward Unit, the purpose of this group is to engage those individual bearers of fragments of consciousness who have undertaken journeys away from the milieu orthodoxies which have formed them. The purpose of this engagement is to feed their knowledge back into the milieu so that such voyages have their social content returned to them.

Camatte’s break with marxism is remarkable for two reasons: a. that he did not fall silent (which is most significant for the work of [Forward Unit as the not falling silent of those who are intellectually dissatisfied with the given forms of pro-communism is the highest of its priorities); b. his break produced a number of concrete theoretical problems (i.e. the total subsumption of the proletariat/the community of capital; the rejection of organisations and politics). Specifically, in my opinion, Camatte’s greatest contribution is found in an almost nondescript sentence in The Wandering of Humanity in which he states, (I paraphrase), communism is the return of all of human intelligence in non-traumatised form.

In other words, the invariant commitment of communism to humanity is not to be found in the adherence to a particular ‘communist’ theory (as this produces numerous unintended political, ethical and psychological side-effects, not the least of which is a destructive compulsion to heresy) but rather it is the structural and practical facilitation of other people’s intelligence within a safe and supportive environment. For myself, Camatte’s account (which he opposes to Marx’s later celebration of the development of the forces of production) was something of a revelation, as I have always found the certainty of pro-revolutionary groups embarrassing and counterproductive (i.e. the very forms they operate within are bound to produce violent and unhelpful disagreement both internally and externally)…. and the idea that communism is the realisation in the form of social relations of a set of principles is equally abhorrent as it denies the basic subjective content of all other human forms, past and present, that have appeared in the world.

What then is the status of the findings of those who break from the milieu? It seems to me that the Ibn ‘Arabi effect is some sort of embodied expression of the external world’s corrective of internal subjective formations and the sticking points of consciousness that belong to them (i.e. overvalued ideas, overvalued relations, overvalued objects, overvalued histories). Those who take an individualist turn in their activities renew the appropriate form of subjective thought within the milieu which habitually seeks an objectivist perspective despite its minority status. The individualist turn, as it expresses the generality’s corrective of small group pretensions, asks, ‘what is it of that which defines you, are you now prepared to give up?’

Up to this point in time, the pro-communist milieu has not had to actively engage with the Ibn Arabi effect, the fresh and eager enthusiasm of new recruits has simply supplanted the radical non-commitment of those departing. But now, it is possible for those have become disillusioned with the milieu to examine what it is that has caused them to undertake their voyage away from it without their having to renounce the entirety of the problems of social transformation which they previously were so engaged with.

If communism is not the realisation of a set of principles then perhaps it is a set of recuperative practices which attempt to field and process other people’s tendency to the Ibn ‘Arabi effect… this assertion is based, as I remarked above, on the assumption that disagreement (or, the filling in of not occupied space) is fundamental to the human species and that the therapeutic relating of the components of disagreement are of greater liberatory value than the content of the disagreement itself (or put another way, there is a commensurability between the freeing up of the different levels of discourses and the maximisation of those who have access to them.)

What happens when, through the efforts of Forward Unit, the findings of those who have voyaged away from it are fed back into the milieu? The first implication, I think, will be a reduction in the over-influence of clichés in young masculinity (that cycle of initial Hotspur militancy and denunciation followed by rapid decline into indifference); the event of radical divergence will also become less traumatising (i.e. it will not be so understood as alien or as a ‘betrayal’) and will be more generally welcomed as contributive. There is also the question of commissioning those who have not yet deserted the ranks to undertake their independent divergences… Overall, after long contemplation of Camatte’s (not-complete) marginalisation within the pro-revolutionary milieu, it seems that the preferable option (if we are to include such vital intelligences within our schemes) is to construct organisations that are actively and positively productive of divergences in place of those which have previously valued conformity. Divergent ideas and themes must be re-circulated within the milieu to be always up for their reconsideration in a new light – this work of reconsideration is the very core of a living social relationship.

I view the class struggle in its most totalised form to be more productive of, rather than receptive to, conscious intervention in its great churnings. No subjective consciousness has the capacity to successfully divert the flow of the struggle at that level. The process by which ideas are circulated on the largest scale is, under stable conditions, tied to capital expenditure on communications machinery (although even this is no guarantee of success of particular ideas). But during unstable periods, the means by which a new idea becomes popular is a mystery. Nobody could anticipate the linking of Camatte with Ibn ‘Arabi for example. The territory of communist intervention therefore is extremely narrow and I have come to see it in terms of a form of pastoral care undertaken at a very small scale. Camatte was the first marxist (since Marx perhaps) to reintroduce the individual’s scale in the question of opposition to capitalism… it is the individual who most resists quantification, abstraction and his interchangeability as a unit of the economy. More precisely, it is the role of communists to re-present to the most militant anti-capitalist formations of the moment, the centrality of the individual.

The purpose of communist activity after Camatte is to increase the conscious proportion in decisionmaking process at all levels and to thereby diminish the influence of this hostile environment. And where there occurs within the milieu an identification with the forces of production and the ideology of progress, where it is demanded that some individuals will necessarily be destroyed to achieve the realisation of some greater process – the communist must step in, even where he has no power to effect the outcome and argue, ‘’not this individual and not this process.’

I also think a new theory of the proletariat becomes possible at this juncture, a theory which accepts Camatte’s insight into domestication but does not consider it as the end of the matter. Domestication, or real domination, is productive of further contestations but on a different terrain, we still find evidence of objective (i.e. non-conscious) class struggle. However, the struggle is now occurring, as a friend has put it, beyond politics and at the level of affectivity… that is at the level of the proletariat’s recent acute sensitisation to its environment, at the level of its incapacities, of its multiplying illnesses, of its dependency, its lack of agency and non-productivity, its deskilling, its flight from responsibility and politics.

It seems that capitalism cannot survive without the continual reproletarianisation of the world’s population, and yet within vast numbers of humanity this process has induced a terrible enervation and incapacity for productive work… Beginning from Camatte’s perception of a condition of total domination we see that if communism cannot now occur in the form of a supercession of and through capitalist production then it may begin materially as a collapsing away from the productive relation altogether.

If in the past the mighty workers movement could not subdue capital and bend productive forces to its will then the proletariat’s current high maintenance costs and its increasing uselessness may indicate a separation of humanity from its domination by dead labour – we see here how the Ibn ‘Arabi effect works out on a society wide scale – the proletariat is diverging from its productive role and is passing into a condition of errancy, or listless wandering.

The therapeutic attempt to realise all this unarticulated alienated drift as a radical and conscious incompatibility with capitalist forms and then link it to a project of total social transformation is central now to pro-communism’s historical role – although at first, before this therapeutic intervention may occur, it is likely that even more pain, loss and anguish (or ‘austerity’) must be passed through.

You asked for a reading recommendation and instead I have provided you with a reading of my own. Did you expect anything else?

Aimiably,

frére dupont

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

A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics

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

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

A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

frére dupont

PM: Bolo Bolo

A novel concerning the fitting together of macro scale to interpersonal scale relationships in different essential fields of activity and without any defined protagonist.

The plot is set ‘in the future’ between 1984 and 1987 and describes the process by which capitalist production is overcome by the Bolo Bolo network.

Whilst the jargon occasionally grates (I adopted the tactic of not even attempting to learn it) and the fine detailing of survival becomes rococo and tedious by the last pages; and whilst the introduction sets up the critique of capitalism in rather facile terms… i.e. positively valued ‘intentional’ activity set against negatively valued inherited processes; and whilst it greatly overvalues, and on their own terms, the post-60’s countercultural milieu (rather than evaluating it as an aspect of capitalist restructuring), despite all of this, I still found the book well-researched, of its time, provocative, pleasingly written, honest and real.

A novel concerning the fitting together of macro scale to interpersonal scale relationships in different essential fields of activity and without any defined protagonist.

The plot is set ‘in the future’ between 1984 and 1987 and describes the process by which capitalist production is overcome by the Bolo Bolo network.

Whilst the jargon occasionally grates (I adopted the tactic of not even attempting to learn it) and the fine detailing of survival becomes rococo and tedious by the last pages; and whilst the introduction sets up the critique of capitalism in rather facile terms… i.e. positively valued ‘intentional’ activity set against negatively valued inherited processes; and whilst it greatly overvalues, and on their own terms, the post-60’s countercultural milieu (rather than evaluating it as an aspect of capitalist restructuring), despite all of this, I still found the book well-researched, of its time, provocative, pleasingly written, honest and real.

I particularly enjoyed the footnotes and the statements concerning the (at the time) pertinent critique of externalisation and armed struggle,’let’s not forget, we are parts of the machine, it is us’, ‘we’re never facing an enemy, we are the enemy’ and ‘when the struggle can be put on the level involving the police or the military, we’re about to lose. Or if we do win, it’s our police or military that will have won, not us.’

During an extended footnote on the number 500 as the basic unit of human social organisation, which culminates in a discussion of those authoritarian traits which are always generated within proposed ‘designed’ communities, i.e. communities which come into existence in accordance with decision, PM’s most telling sentence precipitates thus:

‘I am frightened of Bolo Bolo.’

Fear, yes, the author is spooked at the point where he senses that what he proposes might magically come to be. If we are not frightened by the proposals we make, if we do not consider how what we propose might be even worse than what we have now, then we have not performed the basic tasks that are necessary for making any proposal. It is necessary to grasp how our unspoken reservations appear at the same moment, and contradict, our planned interventions. It is necessary because this describes precisely the fullness of the object.

Blankly stated: our intentional interventions produce unintended consequences, for ourselves and for others. We find ourselves in situations which we did not foresee, and yet, still we are responsible for them, we created them – what are we going to do about it? It is not feasible, in the real world, for outcomes to follow our plans and so we should be ready to adapt or resign. True, this is a rudimentary strategy, and yet, how many radical groups have honestly adopted it?

What we do escapes us. We cannot maintain a hold over the multiplying and elaborate sequalae of a deliberate intervention and yet almost every radical structure does attempt to contain or liquidate such complexity. In the end, realistically, it is only possible to intervene again in the new changed circumstances as a new force. But even when we know this, it is difficult to factor such precognition into our original theory, which anway, tends to map the past, rehearsing strategies from the last war, rather than anticipate the future. Maybe Bolo Bolo is not about the future at all, but rather describes the autonomous milieu of the early ’80’s, which even as it was being described was passing from its most viable stage and thus becoming an image of what could be.

It is for this reason of external relativisation that truth-orientated structures withdraw into a state of internal vigilance and sect dynamics – for such structures, whilst there is an acceptance that the message, the context, the relation changes the group’s truth cannot be revised. In the face of external relativisation, if not outright negation, the temptation is always to uncover that motive force which was only ever barely concealed in the first place, namely the justification of holding true to an identified tradition which is assailed from the outside.

One is most true-hearted, the motive for continuing the struggle states, where one holds to ‘invariance’ under circumstances of perpetual mutation; external falsification is thus taken as final proof for holding out. The logical outcome of this tendency is the fetishism of tradition for its own sake, an allegiance to the image of allegiance. Strangely, this loyalism tends to initiate a process of ossification and mineralisation which supplants, with pure objective form, that internality which once had been worth defending. The upholders of tradition and defenders of the thin true vein, have still not learnt that the Red Death is always and already inside.

The impact of planning on relationships i.e. the entirety of the ‘revolutionary’ project, is very little examined by that milieu. It seems to me that one’s own appropriate response to one’s own modest proposal should always be an intuitive, conditional, fright – ‘don’t lock me in here with this monster.’

We should always be careful to arrange within our ideas a back door, so as to change our mind when confronted with the unexpected results of that which we have advocated. The project is not to establish a line of truth which must be realised so much as a field of worst/best case scenarios, or a conceivable array of tolerable possibilities, arrived at from basic propositions. However, it is precisely this immediate self-revision which is absent within the ultraleft – which must always possess the truth, and which always externalises faults. There is so little readiness to be surprised, which is surprising within a milieu that so highly values the lived and spontaneous.

The following problem remains, and but for the one sentence quoted above it goes unaddressed in Bolo Bolo, how is it possible to theorise and express uncertainty in projects directed towards the truth?

FD