Green Nihilism or Cosmic Pessimism

 

Men have been so mad as to believe that God is pleased by harmony

Spinoza

Black_Planet_by_Ozone974

Some of us have read Desert, and opted to reprint it, to promote its discussion, maybe to promulgate (at least repeat) some of what is said in it.  Despite our efforts, I still feel it has not had the uptake it deserves. I am beginning to think that the issue is less about our limited ability to distribute texts and discuss ideas, and more about the limits of the milieu itself.  As to the reception Desert did get, the most one can say is that a few literate anarchists quickly processed it, either absorbing it into their position or rejecting it. This scanning-followed-by-yes-or-no operation pretty much sums up what many anarchists consider reading to be.  One sort of rejection was documented in the egoist newspapers The Sovereign Self and My Own (and responded to in The Anvil): it concerned the idea that the anonymous author of Desert was engaging in a pessimistic rhetoric for dramatic effect while concealing their ultimate clinging to hope, perhaps like those who endlessly criticize love, only to be revealed as the most perfectionist of romantics in the last instance. That exchange on Desert tells much more about the readers—what they expected, what they are looking for—than the booklet itself. As does the other, sloppier, sort of rejection of the writing, which has for obvious reasons not appeared in print. More than one person has been overheard to say something to the tune of: “Oh, Desert? I hated it! It was so depressing!” And that is it. No discussion, no engagement, just stating in a fairly direct manner that, if the writing did not further the agenda of hope or reinforce the belief that mass movements can improve the global climate situation, then it is not relevant to a discussion of green issues (which are therefore redefined as setting out from that agenda and belief). In the background of both exchanges is a kind of obtuseness characteristic of the anarchist milieu: our propensity to be as ready to pick up the new thing as to dismiss it either immediately after consumption or soon after another consumes it. This customary speed, which we share with many with whom we share little else, is what necessitates the yes-or-no operation. Whatever the response is, it has to happen quickly. (We are the best of Young-Girls when it comes to the commodities we ourselves produce.) To do something else than mechanically phagocyte Desert (or anything else worth reading) and absorb it or excrete it back out onto the bookshelf/literature table/shitpile, some of us will need to take up a far less practical, far less pragmatic attitude towards the best of what circulates in our little space of reading. In short, it is to intervene in the smooth functioning of the anarchist-identity machine, our own homegrown apparatus, which reproduces the milieu, ingesting unmarked ideas, expelling anarchist ideas. Of course all those online rants, our many little zines, our few books—the ones we write and make, and the ones that we adopt now and then—are only part of this set-up, which also includes living arrangements, political practices, anti-political projects, and so on. All together, from a few crowded metropoles to the archipelago of outward- or inward-looking towns, that array could be called the machine that makes anarchist identity, one of those awful hybrids of anachronism and ultramodernity that clutter our times. But, trivial though the role of Desert may be in the reproduction of the milieu, its small role in that reproduction is especially remarkable given that it directly addresses the limits of that reproduction, and, indirectly, of the milieu itself. Its reception is a kind of diagnostic test, a demonstration of our special obtuseness. If I am right about even some of the preceding, then the increasingly speculative nature of what follows ought to prove interesting to a few, and repulsive to the rest.

* * * *

I intend the or in the title to be destabilizing. It does not indicate a choice to be made between two already somewhat fictitious positions. (Quotation marks for each would not have been strong enough. To say this or that position is fictitious may seem to be belied by the advance, here or there, of those who present themselves as the representatives of positions. This is where we need to make our case most forcefully, arguing back that to take on a position as an identity simply eludes the what of position altogether, making it rest on a different, more familiar kind of fiction.) By placing the or between them I mean to mark a slippage, which I consider to be a movement of involuntary thought. Not being properly yoked to action, to what is considered voluntary, it is the kind of thought most have little time for. It has to do with passing imperceptibly from one state to another, and what may be learned in that shift. It is a terrible kind of thought at first, and, for some, will perhaps always be so, all the more so inasmuch as we are not its brave protagonists… Compare these passages:

The tide of Western authority will recede from much, though by no means all, of the planet. A writhing mess of social flotsam and jetsam will be left in its wake. Some will be patches of lived anarchy, some of horrible conflicts, some empires, some freedoms, and, of course, unimaginable weirdness. 

And:

The world is increasingly unthinkable—a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.

The first passage is from Desert, an anonymous pamphlet on the meaning of the irreversibility of climate change for anarchist practice. The second is from Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet<, a collection of essays that leads from philosophy to horror, or rather leads philosophy to horror. I bring them together here because they seem to me to coincide in a relatively unthought theoretical zone. As Desert invokes the present and coming anarchy and chaos, it admits the weirdness of the future (for our inherited thought patterns and political maps, at least); when Dust of this Planet gestures to the weirdness and unthinkability of the world, it invokes the current and coming biological, geological, and climatological chaos of the planet. They should be read together; the thought that is possible in that stereoscopic reading is what my or intends. (I mean to gesture towards the passage from one perspective to the other, and perhaps back.) If Desert sets out from the knowability of the world—as the object of science, principally—it has the rare merit of spelling out its increasing unknowability as an object for our political projects, our predictions and plans. Dust of this Planet allows us to push this thought father in an eminently troubling direction, revealing a wilderness more wild than the wild nature invoked by the critics of capitalism and civilization: the unthinkable Planet behind the inhabitable Earth. As we slip in this direction (which is also past the point of distinguishing the voluntary from the involuntary), all our positions, those little compressed bundles of opinion and analysis, practice and experience, crumble—as positions. No doubt many will find this disconcerting. But something of what we tried to do by thinking up, debating, adopting and abandoning, positions, is left—something lives on, survives—maybe just the primal thrust that begins with a question or profound need and collapses in a profession of faith or identity. That would be the path back to the perspective of Desert (now irreparably transformed). What is left, the afterlife of our first outward movements, might be something for each to witness alone, in a solitude far from the gregarious comfort of recognizable positions, of politics. To say nothing of community.

* * * *

All our maneuvering, all our petty excuses for not studying it aside, there is still much to be said about this wonderful, challenging booklet, Desert. To wit, that it is the first written elaboration of sentiments some of us admit to and others feel without confessing to them. And, moreover, that it hints repeatedly at an even broader and more troubling set of perspectives about the limits to what we can do, and maybe of what we are altogether. If the milieu’s demand were accepted and these feelings and ideas were narrowed down to a position, it could indeed be called green nihilism. In this naming of a position the second word indicates one familiar political, or rather anti-political, sense of nihilism—the position that views action, or inaction, from the perspective that nothing can be done to save the world. That no single event, or series of events clumsily apprehended as a single Event, can be posited as the object of political or moral optimism, except by the faithful and the deluded. Moreover, that the injunction to think of the future, to hope in a certain naive way, is itself pernicious, and often a tool of our enemies. As to green—well, those who have read Desert will be familiar with the story it tells. Irreversible global climate change, meshing in an increasingly confusing way with a global geopolitical system that intensifies control in resource-rich areas while loosening or perhaps losing its grips in the hinterlands, the growing desert… It is the story, then, of literal deserts, and also of zones deserted by authority or that those who desert the terrain of authority inhabit. But let’s be clear about this: Desert does not name its own position. It is less a book that proposes a certain strategy or set of practices and more a book about material conditions that are likely to affect any strategy, any practices whatsoever. What is best about Desert is not just the unflinching sobriety with which its author piles up evidence and insights for such a near future, without drifting too far into speculation; it is the way they do not abandon the idea of surviving in such a decomposing world. It is neither optimism nor pessimism in the usual sense; it is another way to grasp anarchy. That is why I write that much remains to be said about it. One way to begin thinking through Desert is to concentrate less on what position it supposedly takes (is there a green nihilism? for or against hope?) and to consider how to push its perspective farther. This means both asking more questions about how it allows us to redefine survival and taking up the possibilities for thought that it mostly hints at. For example, to say the future is unknowable is a pleasant banality, which can just as well be invoked by optimists as pessimists; but to concentrate on what is unknowable in a way that projects it into past and present as well is to think beyond the dull conversation about hope, or utopia and dystopia, for that matter. Here is one example of how such thinking might unfold: Desert seems to offer a novel perspective on chaos. There have probably been two anarchist takes on chaos so far: the traditional one, summed up in the motto, anarchy is not chaos, but order; and Hakim Bey’s discussions of chaos, which may be summed up in his poetic phrase Chaos never died. The former is clear enough: like many leftist analyses, it identifies social chaos with a badly managed society and opposes to it a harmonious anarchic order (which, it was later specified, could exist in harmony with a nature itself conceived as harmonious). This conception of chaos, which is still quite prevalent today, does not even merit its name. It is a way of morally condemning capitalism, the State, society, or what you will; it is basically name-calling. Any worthwhile conception of chaos should begin from a non-moral position, admitting that the formlessness of chaos is not for us to judge. That much Hakim Bey did amit. What, in retrospect especially, is curious about his little missive “Chaos” are the various references to “agents of chaos,” “avatars of chaos”, even a “prophethood of chaos.” It is a lovely letter from its time and perhaps some other times as well;  I have no intention to criticize it. It is a marked improvement on any version of anarchy is order, and yet… and yet. It comes too close, or reading it some came too close, to simply opting for chaos, as though order and chaos were sides and it were a matter of choosing sides. The inversion of a moral statement is still a moral statement, after all. What is left to say about chaos, then? The explicit references to chaos in Desert are all references to social disorder. But a thoughtful reader might, upon reading through for the third or fourth time, start to sense that another, more ancient sense of chaos is being invoked: less of an extreme of disorder and more of a primordial nothingness, a “yawning gap”, as the preferred gloss of some philologists has it. The repeated reference to a probable global archipelago of “large islands of chaos” is directly connected to the destabilization of the global climate. And this is the terrible thought that Desert constructs for us and will not save us from: that from now on we survive in a world where the global climate is irreversibly destabilized, and that such a survival is something other than life or politics as we have so far dreamt them. The meager discussion we’ve seen so far on Desert revolves around questions such as: is this true? and, since most who bother thinking it through will take it to be true, does the “no hope”/”no future” perspective (the supposed nihilism) which Desert to some extent adopts, and others to some extent impute to it, help or hinder an overall anarchist position? A less obvious discussion revolves around two very different sorts of questions: what myths does exposing this reality shatter? and, if we are brave enough to think ourselves into this demythologized space that has eclipsed the mythical future, is an anarchist position still a coherent or relevant response to survival there? The myth that is shattered here is first and foremost that wonderful old story about the Earth:

Earth, our bright home…

Shelley

There are two main versions of this story. In the religious version, a god intends for us to live here and creates the Earth for us, or, to a lesser extent, creates us for the Earth. In either case our apparent fit into the Earth, our presumed kinship with it, usually expressed in the thought of Nature or the natural, has a transcendent guarantee. In the second version, which is usually of a rational or scientific sort, we have evolved to live on the Earth and can expect it to be responsive to our needs. Here the guarantee is immanent and rational. It is true that this second story, in the version of evolutionary theory, also taught us that we could have easily not come to be here, and that we may not always be here. That is why Freud classed Darwin’s theory as the second of three wounds to human narcissism (the first being the Copernican theory, which displaced the Earth from the center of the cosmos, and the third being Freud’s own theory, which displaced conscious thought from prominence in mental life). But a certain common sense, or what could be called the most obtuse rationalism, seems to have reintroduced the religious content of the first version into the second, and concluded that it is good or right or proper for us to be here. Natural, in short. In any case, the lesson here is that the psychic wound can be open and humanity, whoever that is, may limp on, wounded, thinking whatever it prefers to think about itself. What Desert draws attention to is a congeries of events that could increasingly trouble our collective ability to go on with this story of a natural place for (some) humans. Irreversible climate change is both something that can be understood (in scientific and derivative, common-sense ways) and something that, properly considered, suggests a vast panorama of unknowns. It is true that Desert makes much of its case by citing scientists and scientific statistics. But the real question here is about the status of these invocations of science. This is where a subtler reading shows its superiority. If the entire argumentative thrust of Desert relied on science, the pamphlet would be fairly disposable. Desert invokes science to put before the hopeful and the apathetic images of a terrible and sublime sort. We could say that its explicit argument is based on science, plus a certain kind of anti-political reasoning. But its overall effect is to dislodge us from our background assumption of a knowable and predictable world into a less predictable, less knowable awareness. After all, it would be just as easy to develop a similar narrative in the discourse of a pessimistic political science, emphasizing massive population growth and social chaos: an irruptive and ungovernable human biology beyond sociality. Let’s try it. From a red anarchist perspective, this could mean more opportunities for mutual aid, for setting the example of anarchy as order; chaos would be a kind of forced clean slate, a time to show that we are better and more efficient than the forces of the state. From an insurrectionary perspective, the chaos would be an inhuman element making possible the generalization of conflict. General social chaos would be the macrocosm corresponding to the microcosm of the riot. For them chaos would also be an opportunity, in this case to hasten and amplify anomic irruptions. In sum, one could make the same argument about the biological mass of humanity as about the Earth—that its coming chaos is an opportunity for anarchists because it is a materially forced anarchy. This does not mean that we are inherently aggressive or whatever you want to associate with social chaos, but rather ungovernable in the long run (or at least governed by forces and aims other than the ones accounted for in political reasoning). It does mean, however, that the idea we are ungovernable in the long run, the affirmation of which is more or less synonymous with the confidence with which the anarchists take their position, is now closely linked with another idea, that in the last instance the Earth is not our natural home. It may have been our home for some time, for a time that we call prehistory. Indeed, Fredy Perlman marks the transition from prehistory to His-Story, or Civilization, as the prolongation of an event of ecological imbalance, a prolongation whose overall effect is destructive, even as the short-term or narrowly focused results along the way are to make the Earth more and more of a welcoming and natural place for humans to be. And now our parting of ways with Hakim Bey may be clarified, for, even if he did not simply take the side of chaos, he did write: 

remember, only in Classical Physics does Chaos have anything to do with entropy, heat-death, or decay. In our physics (Chaos Theory), Chaos identifies with tao, beyond both yin-as-entropy & yang-as-energy, more a principle of continual creation than of any nihil, void in the sense of potentia, not exhaustion. (Chaos as the “sum of all orders.”) 

He was making an argument about what is stupid about death-glorifying art which, parenthetically, still seems relevant. But I simply don’t see why chaos (or tao, for that matter) is somehow better understood as creation than as destruction, or why it is preferable to invoke potentia and not exhaustion. In the name of what? “Ontological” anarchism? Life? And the sum of all orders… is this a figure of something at all knowable? And if not, why the preceding taking of sides? The chaos that Desert summons is not ontological. No new theory of being is claimed here. The effect is first of all psychological: stating what more or less everyone knows, but will not admit. If Desert deserves the label nihilist, it is really in this sense, that it knowingly points to the unknowable, to the background of all three narcissistic wounds. (This is my way of admitting that talking or writing about nihilism does not clarify much of anything. If it was worth doing, it is not because I wanted to share a way of believing-in-nothing. I see now that I was going somewhere else. The analysis of nihilism is the object of psychology… it being understood that this psychology is also that of the cosmos, wrote Deleuze.)

* * * *

In the Dust of This Planet introduces a tripartite distinction between World, Earth, and Planet. Thacker states that the human world, our sociocultural horizon of understanding, is what is usually meant by world. This is the world as it is invoked in politics, in statements that begin: what the world needs…, and of course any and all appeals to save or change the world. It is the single world of globalism (and of global revolution) but also the many little worlds of multiculturalism, nationalism, and regionalism. But one could argue that our experience (and the gaps in our experience) also unfold in another world, the enveloping site of natural processes, from climate to chemical and physical processes, of course including our own biology. This is the Earth that we are often invited to save in ecological politics or activism. A third version of what is meant by world is what Thacker calls the Planet. If the world as human World is the world-for-us, and the Earth as natural world is a world-for-itself, the Planet is the world-without-us. Visions of the World and the Earth correspond roughly to subjective and objective perspectives; but what these are visions of, the Planet, is not reducible to either, however optimistic our philosophy, theory, or science may be. In terms perhaps more familiar to some green anarchists, the World corresponds to the material and mental processes of civilization, and the Earth to Nature as constructed by civilization. Civilization, so it would seem, produces nature as its knowable byproduct as it encloses the wild, leaving fields, parks, and gardens, along with domesticated and corralled wild animals, including, of course, our species. Does the wildness or wilderness of the green anarchists then correspond to the Planet, as world-without-us? Only if we can grasp that the wild, like, or as, chaos, is ultimately unknowable—not because of some defect in our faculties but because it includes their limits and undoing. When green anarchists and others invoke the wild, we must always be sure to ask if they mean an especially unruly bit of nature, nature that is not yet fully processed by the civilized, or something that civilization will never domesticate or conquer. Planet is an odd category, in that it seems to correspond both to the putative and impossible object of science (a science without an observer) and an inexplicable and strange image emergent from out of the recesses of the unconscious (which itself raises a troubling question as to what an unconscious is at all if it can be said to issue images that exclude us). I think about this third category in terms of Desert as I read this passage from Thacker:

When the world as such cataclysmically manifests itself in the form of a disaster, how do we interpret or give meaning to the world? There are precedents in Western culture for this kind of thinking. In classical Greece the interpretation is primarily mythological—Greek tragedy, for instance, not only deals with the questions of fate and destiny, but in so doing it also evokes a world at once familiar and unfamiliar, a world within our control or a world as a plaything of the gods. By contrast, the response of Medieval and early modern Christianity is primarily theological—the long tradition of apocalyptic literature, as well as the Scholastic commentaries on the nature of evil, cast the non-human world within a moral framework of salvation. In modernity, in the intersection of scientific hegemony, industrial capitalism, and what Nietzsche famously prophesied as the death of God, the non-human world gains a different value. In modernity, the response is primarily existential—a questioning of the role of human individuals and human groups in light of modern science, high technology, industrial and post-industrial capitalism, and world wars. 

In the light of the ongoing and growing disaster called irreversible climate change, Desert clearly exposes the theological-existential roots (the modern roots, that is to say) of anarchist politics, not particularly different, as far as this issue goes, from the panorama of Left or radical positions. What matters to me is the opportunity to strike out beyond these positions, elaborating an anti-politics thought through in reference to a point of view Thacker calls cosmological. Could such a cosmological view, he writes, be understood not simply as the view from interstellar space, but as the view of the world-without-us, the Planetary view? Desert might be one of the first signs of the paradoxical draw of this view, which, it should be clear by now, is something other than a position to be adopted. But for those who like the convenience names lend to things, consider the version Thacker elaborates (in a discussion of the meaning of black in black metal, of all things). He calls it cosmic pessimism:

The view of Cosmic Pessimism is a strange mysticism of the world-without-us, a hermeticism of the abyss, a noumenal occultism. It is the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups. Its limit-thought is the idea of absolute nothingness, unconsciously represented in the many popular media images of nuclear war, natural disasters, global pandemics, and the cataclysmic effects of climate change. Certainly these are the images, or the specters, of Cosmic Pessimism, and different from the scientific, economic, and political realities and underlie them; but they are images deeply embedded in our psyche nonetheless. Beyond these specters there is the impossible thought of extinction, with not even a single human being to think the absence of all human beings, with no thought to think the negation of all thought. 

Now the intention of my or will be clear for some (from the psyche to the cosmos…). In Dust Thacker does not draw many connections between his ideas and politics, so it is worthwhile to examine one of the places where he illustrates the paradox his view of the Planet opens up in that space. He cites Carl Schmitt’s suggestion, in Political Theology:

the very possibility of imagining or re-imagining the political is dependent on a view of the world as revealed, as knowable, and as accessible to us as human beings living in a human world. But the way in which that analogy [from theology to politics] is manifest may change over time … 

Thacker notes:

the 17th and 18th centuries were dominated by the theological analogy of the transcendence of God in relation to the world, which correlates to the political idea of the transcendence of the sovereign ruler in relation to the state. By contrast, in the 19th century a shift occurs towards the theological notion of immanence… which likewise correlates to “the democratic thesis of the identity of the ruler and the ruled.” In these and other instances, we see theological concepts being mobilized in political concepts, forming a kind of direct, tabular comparison between cosmology and politics (God and sovereign ruler; the cosmos and the state; transcendence and absolutism; immanence and democracy). 

The closed loop of politics:

The republic is the only cure for the ills of the monarchy, and the monarchy is the only cure for the ills of the republic.

Joubert

Thacker’s question follows: what happens to this analogy, which structures both political theory and ordinary thinking about politics to some extent, if one posits a world that is not, and will never be, entirely revealed and knowable? The closed loop is opened, and the analogy breaks down. What happens when we as human beings confront a world that is radically unhuman, impersonal, and even indifferent to the human? What happens to the concept of politics… It seems to me that a question of this sort is lurking in the background of Desert as well.

* * * *

The desert may be, or sometimes seem to be, what is left after a catastrophic event, but it has also always been with us, as image and reality.

In what passes for a moon
On the galactic periphery,
Here is an austere beauty,
Barren, uncompromising,
Like that which must have been 
Experienced by men
On the ice-caps and deserts 
As they once existed on earth
Before their urbanization
Harsh and unambiguous…

John Cotton

World-desert: the desert grows…

Earth-deserts: they are growing, too.

Cosmic deserts: on the galactic periphery… In a response to François Laruelle’s Du noir univers, Thacker elaborates on the various senses of the desert motif, suggesting both that it is the inevitable image and experience of the Planet, as a slice of the Cosmos, or what Laruelle calls the black Universe, and that it is a mirage, that there is no real desert to escape to. Hermits keep escaping to the desert, but their solitude is temporary; others gather nearby. The escape from forced community develops spontaneous forms of community. But for being spontaneous, such community does not cease to develop, sooner or later, the traits of the first, escaped, community. The issue for me is double: first, that to the two senses invoked in Desert (the literal ecological sense, and the sense of desertion) we may now add the third corresponding to the Planetary or Cosmic view, the desert as the impossible, as nothingness. Second, the ethical, psychological, or at least practical insight that some keep deserting society, civilization, or what have you in the direction of the desert and, as stated, sooner or later populating it, inhabiting it, somehow living or at least surviving in it. Even if these deserters headed towards the desert in the first sense, they were motivated or animated by the impossible target of the desert in the third sense. Now, this apparently closed-loop operation could be the inevitable repetition of some ancient anthropogenic trauma. Or it could be (we just can’t know here and now) the sane, wild reaction to Civilization: desperate attempt to return to the Earth (our bright home) via the dark indifference of the Planet or Cosmos. Of this return pessimism says: you will need to do it again and again. Is the pessimism about a condition we can escape, or one we can’t? Is it the anti-civilization pessimism of the most radical ecology, or is it despair, no less trivial for being a psychological insight, before the morbid obtuseness of humans? We just can’t know here and now. Masciandaro, Thacker’s fellow commentator on Laruelle, aptly terms this “the positivity and priority of opacity”—the opacity of the Planet and the Cosmos, Laruelle’s black universe.

O the dark, the deep hard dark
Of these galactic nights!
Even the planets have set
Leaving it slab and impenetrable,
As dark and directionless
As those long nights of the soul
The ancient mystics spoke of.
Beyond there is nothing,
Nothing we have known or experienced.

John Cotton

* * * *

In Desert we read:

Nature’s incredible power to re-grow and flourish following disasters is evident both from previous mass extinctions and from its ability to heal many lands scarred by civilisation. Its true power is rarely considered within the sealed, anthropocentric thinking of those who would profit from the present or attempt to plan the future. Yet the functioning of the Earth System is destructive as well as bountiful and it is not a conscious god with an interest in preserving us or its present arrangement—something we may find out if the Earth is now moving to a new much hotter state.

For his part, Thacker concludes his book by discussing a mysticism of the unhuman, what he calls a climatological mysticism. It is a way of thinking, and paradoxical knowing, modeled on religious mysticism rather than scientific knowledge. But it is not reducible to the former. He writes,

there is no being-on-the-side-of the world, much less nature or the weather. […] the world is indifferent to us as human beings. Indeed, the core problematic of the climate change issue is the extent to which human beings are at issue at all. On the one hand we as human beings are the problem; on the other hand at the planetary level of the Earth’s deep time, nothing could be more insignificant than the human. This is where mysticism again becomes relevant. 

This attitude of nonknowledge, as Bataille would have put it, informs life even as it decenters it. That the Earth is our place, but the planet does not care about us and the cosmos is not our home, is a thought of the ways in which we might survive here. Some will remember Vaneigem’s repeated contrast between vie and survie, life and survival. For him it was a matter of inverting the accepted, and to a large extent enforced, view in which one must survive first and live second. Some of this view seems to have been taken into the perspective that identifies life and nature, where the latter is understood as what we are or should be—that is, that there is something normative about life or nature that we can refer to. The perspective I am developing here suggests that we have no way of knowing what we are or should be, and that the wild is better conceived as that no-way, as the conditions that push back against our best effort to define ourselves, identify our selves, or know our world. Similarly, what is wild in us can only be conceived (though it is not really conceivable in the long run) as what resists, what pushes back, against any established order. But this might be closer to survival than to life. Survival has a positive value in that it is itself an activity, a set of nontrivial practices that refer back to life insofar as we know it. We survive as we can, not confident that we are living. It is this aspect of Desert that some insurrectionaries seem to have disagreed with, in that it often talks of plans for survival where they would have preferred to see plans for action, or at least calls to action. We can read there of

An Anarchism with plenty of adjectives, but one that also sets and achieves objectives, can have a wonderful present and still have a future; even when fundamentally out of the step with the world around it. There is so much we can do, achieve, defend and be; even here, where unfortunately civilisation probably still has a future. 

It is passages like this one, towards the end of the pamphlet, that probably left some with the impression that its author is still attached to hope, and left others with the sense of a form of survival that still somehow resembled activism more than attack. As for the former impression, that would be to confuse the climate pessimism of Desert with a kind of overarching and mandatory mood, as though those who had this view were of necessity personally depressed or despondent. There is no evidence for such a conclusion. As for the latter, it is a little more complicated. Yes, the author of Desert often sounds like someone addressing activists; and, yes, Desert explicitly rejects the cause of Revolution in several places. One could say this adds up to a kind of political retreat. One could also say, however, that some are too used to reading political texts that always end on a loud and vindictive note! No, this is where the question of rethinking survival from an anti-political perspective inflected by something like Thacker’s cosmic pessimism or reinvented mysticism is critical. We make survival primary, not so much inverting Vaneigem’s inversion of the norm in societies like ours, but rather by noticing what in our conception of life has always been a kind of religion or morality of life, easy adjustment to a familiar nature. Whatever its faults, Desert was written to say that such a conception is no longer useful, and that one useful meaning of anarchist is someone who admits as much. Can that meaning fit with the subcultures that most of today’s anarchists compose? Probably not. The subcultures exist as pockets of resistance, of course; but survival in them is indelibly tied to reproducing the anarchist as persona, as identity, as an answer to the question of what life is or is for. To make sense or have meaning this answer presupposes the workings of our homegrown identity-machine, our collective, repeated minimal task of discerning about actions whether they are anarchist or not, and, by extension, whether the person carrying them out is anarchist. It is our way of bringing the community into the desert. Announcement of one’s intentions to overcome the limits of subculture and reach out to others, or inspire them with our actions, is not different than, but rather a crucial part of, this operation. Survival, in the sense Desert suggests it to me, is something completely different, for in it any social group or kin network, as it attempts to live on, cannot draw significant lines of difference (of identification, therefore) between itself and others. It melts into a humanity collectively resisting death. Needless to say this is something entirely different than the revolutionary process as it has been imagined and attempted. There is no future to plan for, only a present to survive in, and that is the implosion of politics as we have known it.

To survive, not to live, or, not living, to maintain oneself, without life, in a state of pure supplement, movement of substitution for life, but rather to arrest dying…

Blanchot

… deserting life.

 

* * * *

A desert and not a garden: one remarkable aspect of the contemporary anarchist space is an open contradiction between two perspectives on what struggle is, or is for, that might be summed up in the phrases we have enemies and we did this to ourselves. There are countless versions of this contradiction, which at a deeper level is really not about political struggle at all, but about the essence of resistance. One version is the condemnation of the notion of enemy as a moral notion, and another is its silent return in the emphasis on friendship and affinity; there is also what a book called Enemies of Society may be taken to suggest from its title on. The contradiction surfaces most clearly in discussions influenced by primitivist positions or ones hostile to civilization, likely because of the tremendous temporal compression they require to make their case. In such talk, we zoom out from lifetimes and generations to a scale of tens of thousands of years. The enemy appears within the course of history, but the fact of the appearance of the enemy, the split in humanity, summons the second we, because of the need to presuppose a whole species in some natural state (balance, etc.) that, in the event or events that open up the panorama of civilization and history, cleaves itself into groups or at least roles. The positions we know better tend to revolve around trivialized versions of these perspectives, never really experiencing the tension between them. It is only in the play of the anarchist space as a whole (and precisely because it is not a single place, in which all involved would have to put up with each other for a few hours, let alone live together) that the contradiction unfolds. Some form of we have enemies is the great rallying for a wide array of active agents, from the remains of the Left to advocates of social war. And some form of we did this to ourselves is in the background of all sorts of moralizing approaches to oppression and interpersonal damage, but also the more misanthropic strains of primitivism. I would also argue that a modified form of it informs the deep background of egoism and some forms of individualism (splitting the forced we from the atomic ourselves). My question is, what happens if we zoom out farther? Here the virtue of invoking science as Desert does may be visible. For what is beyond history (the time of the World) and prehistory is geologic time, the time of the Planet, which leads us to cosmic time. There is a difference between invoking science and practicing or praising it. The latter simply produce more science. The former may be a way to encounter what our still humanist politics ignore. From the perspective of cosmic time, the contradiction does not dissolve (at least not for me); but its moral or political character seems to unravel. Something less centered on us emerges. Perhaps both stories—the story about enemies and the story about ourselves—ignore something much more disturbing than mere accidental guilt or immorality, something that disturbs us precisely because it is the disturbing of humanity.  (“It is not man who colonizes the planet, but the planet and the cosmos who transgress the lonely threshold of man”—does this odd sentence of Laruelle’s express the thought here, I wonder?) It makes sense for Thacker to invoke mysticism when he considers the cosmos or the Planet, because its otherness has most often been referred to as divine, and related to as a god. Now, that need have nothing to do with religion, especially if we identify religion with revelation; but mysticism is a good enough approximation to the attitude one takes towards a now decentered life. I call that attitude a thoughtful kind of survival. This is closely connected to a conversation one often overhears in the company of anarchists. Someone is discussing something they prefer or are inclined to do, and doing so in increasingly positive terms. Another person points out (functioning of the anarchist identity machine) that there is nothing specifically anti-capitalist or radical about the stated activity or preferred object, reducing it verbally to another form of consumption. Anxious hours are passed this way. About such inclinations I prefer to say that we do not know if they come from above or below; we know our own resistance, and not much more. That resistance manifests in unknowable ways, obeying no conscious plan. It could well be a particularly fancy kind of neurosis; but survival means just this, that we do not know the way out of the situation and we must live here with the idea of anarchy. Another way to put this is that if our rejection of society and state is as complete as we like to say it is, our project is not to create alternative micro-societies (scenes, milieus) that people can belong to, but something along the lines of becoming monsters. It is probable that anarchy has always had something to do with becoming monstrous. The monster, writes Thacker in another of his books, is unlawful life, or what cannot be controlled. It seems to me the only way to do this, as opposed to saying one is doing it and being satisfied with that, would be to unflinchingly contemplate the thing we are without trying to be, the thing we can never try to be or claim we are: the nameless thing, or unthinkable life. Which is also the solitary thing, or the lonely one. The egoist or individualist positions are like dull echoes of the inexpressible sentiment that I might be that nameless thing, translated into a common parlance for the benefit of a (resistant, yes) relation to the social mass. That the cosmos is not our natural home is a thought outside the ways in which we might survive here. To say we survive instead of living is in part to say that we have no idea what living is or ought to be (that there is probably no ought-to about living). But also that we resist any ideal of life, including our own. Becoming monstrous is therefore the goal of dismantling the milieu as anarchist identity machine. Being witness to the nameless thing, to the unthinkable life or Planet or Cosmos, is not a goal. It is not a criterion of anything, either. It is more like a state, a mystical, poetic state (though in this state I am the poem). It is the climatological mysticism Thacker describes and Desert hints at for an anarchist audience, both deriving in their own way from the weird insight that the Planet is indifferent to us. So read Desert again as an allegory of the self-destruction of the milieu, of any community that, as it runs from its norms, places new, unstated norms ahead of itself. Such is the slippage from green nihilism to cosmic pessimism, which gives us occasion to continue speaking of chaos. Well, one might say that I have merely imported some alien theory into an otherwise familiar (if not easy) discussion. Of course I have. My aim, however, was not to apply it, but to show in what sense one play that is often acted out in our spaces may be anti-politically theorized, which is to say cosmically psychoanalyzed. Our place is not to apply the theory of cosmic pessimism (or any other theory; that is not what theory is, or is for); our place is to think, to continue speaking of chaos, not being stupid enough to think we can take its side. There are no sides. We might come to realize that we, too, in our attempts to gather, organize, act, change life, and so on, were playing in the world, ignorant of the Planet, its unimaginable weirdness. 

 

If the earth must perish, then astronomy is our only consolation

Joubert

 

Post scriptum. I mentioned community in passing. Most anarchists I converse with regularly treat the word delicately or dismissively, either ignoring it altogether, putting it in quotation marks, or virtually crossing it out. I suppose that crossed-out sense of community is another name for the milieu. As crappy as it is most of the time, I will admit that the milieu is a space-time (really a series of places-moments, some of them taking place ever so briefly) where one can register, to some extent, what ideas have traction in our lives. Desert‘s explicit statements are certainly more pedestrian than Thacker’s theory; but the downside to Thacker’s exciting flights of intellectual fancy, at least from where I am writing, is that it is hard to know who he is speaking to, or about, much of the time. One imagines that people do gather to hear what he has to say, or read his books in concert. I do wonder to what extent they consider themselves to be a community, a potential community, a crossed-out community.

Post scriptum bis. I mentioned solitude. It would also be worthwhile to think about friendship along these lines.

 

References

 

Desert. LBC Books. 2011.

Laruelle, François. “Theorems on the Good News.” 

—. “On the Black Universe.” In Dark Nights of the Universe, [NAME], 2013.

Masciandaro, Nicola. “Comments on Eugene Thacker’s ‘Cosmic Pessimism’.” continent. 2.2, 2012.

—. “Secret” In Dark Nights of the Universe, [NAME], 2013.

Snyder, Gary. “The Etiquette of Freedom.” In The Practice of the Wild, North Point Press, 1990.

Thacker, Eugene. After Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

—. In the Dust of this Planet. Zero Books. 2010.

—. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent. 2.2 (2012).

—. “Remote: The Forgetting of the World.” In Dark Nights of the Universe, [NAME], 2013.

 

 

On Why Dr John Drury Is A Collaborationist Asshole: A Review of Cop-Out: The Significance of Aufhebengate

On many levels it seems almost pointless to write yet another text on Aufhebengate, especially a review about a book on the scandal and the controversies and collaboration-sympathizing that occurred in the vain, and inexplicable, attempt to defend John Drury from his own actions. Usually interpersonal issues point more to the poverty of the militancy and viability of certain circles of so-called “radical scenes” than anything of consequence. In these cases I would usually not waste my time writing a critique of a second-rate academic who writes for a generally obscure, though in the past sometimes interesting, journal. However, the case of Aufhebengate raises issues, both of the stakes and risks of insurgency and the tactics of writing, specifically writing on operations theory, that absolutely need to be addressed; and, on a separate note, there is absolutely no such thing as calling out a collaborationist too often. But, before getting into the critiques of Drury, his betrayal and the numerous tactical and political problems involved in this controversy, it is probably important to first explain, for those that have not been a part of this discussion already, some of the events that have occurred and some of the players involved.

aufhebengate

In January 2011 a small Greek radical group, TPTG, discovered that Dr John Drury, an editor with Aufheben, a supposedly militant left-communist journal, had been a part of a team of researchers that were publishing articles in police journals, and giving presentations at police conferences, centered on police crowd control tactics and possible ways that these can be improved through de-escalation and proto-counterinsurgency tactics. For obvious reasons, the group found this information to be disturbing, to say the least, and decided to contact people in England, where Aufheben is based, with an open letter discussing what they found and presenting some of this information. Many of us would think that the response should be relatively straight forward at this point, Drury should have been outed and prevented from coming into anarchist spaces, but then we would be mistaken. Rather than identify a clear case of collaboration as such, the “left-communist” milieu in England, specifically the rest of Aufheben and the admins at Libcom, began an increasingly absurd campaign to attempt to rationalize these actions, going as far as to censor discussion on Libcom to prevent the information from spreading. After receiving little response from others in England TPTG decided, along with the help of some others, to post the open letter, and accompanying information, onto the Libcom discussion forum. After the initial post was censored by Libcom another, more detailed, piece titled “ The Strange Case of Dr Johnny and Mr Drury” was posted on Libcom, and sent personally to some others active in the left-communist/anarchist scenes in England, setting off a firestorm of attempts to incriminate and discredit the authors of the piece and the claims that they were making. Through a series of confrontations, and a series of rewrites, this text became Cop-Out, which has now been republished and distributed by Little Black Cart.





The importance of Aufhebengate is not just that John Drury is a collaborator, or that there even needs to be another text espousing this position, which seems clear to many. Rather, in the process of this scandal becoming public, and widening in scope, a series of other, more fundamental, problems with the practices of some segments of the radical milieu have become clear. This is not a question of social drama or political affinity, rather, this incident comes to illustrate an almost complete inability on the part of some so-called “radicals” to understand the stakes and risks involved in insurgency, and a seeming inability to even think of themselves in this light, choosing, seemingly, to regress back into the roll of activists1. This points to an almost complete unwillingness to understand what we are in the midst of as warfare, as something that is immediate and tactical, and something in which tactical imperative trumps personal affinity and social nicety. We also cannot think this as a problem confined to the horrendous decaying corpse of British left-communism, these problems persist in the States as well2. The purpose of the discussion around this controversy is not just to write another critique for the sake of critique, but rather, it is to be able to discuss the failures that occurred, the reasons for some of these failures and illuminate ways beyond this seemingly irrational impasse.





In the text Cop-Out: The Significance of Aufhebengate, Sam FantoSamotnaf, departs from the point in this saga after the attempts by Libcom to censor the discussion of the collaborationist tendencies of someone that they consider a “friend”, and focuses largely on the resonance of these discussions and the illustrative role that they can play. On many levels the text is thorough, and engages with a series of important discussions linked to the overall situational framework that is being discussed. But, this winding discussion never becomes a coherent, linear, critique of Drury and his practices, largely existing as a series of vignettes about differing questions raised through the existence of Drury within academia and the failure of the politics of Aufheben and Libcom, with the controversy around Drury serving as the point of departure for divergent narratives and critiques. This structure creates a text that both reinforces, and at sometimes, undercuts its own narrative. In the non-linearity of the text, and in the ways that the narratives depart from a central point of reference, the narratives, at points, become disconnected from one another, while at the same time allowing the author to cover a lot more ground and approach the situation from a variety of angles. Of these vignettes some are much more well argued than others, some seem to cover old ground, such as a critique of Leninism, and some are structured around the attempt to speak about Drury’s internal motivations, deriving from a structural critique of academia and the positionality of the academic, which is not necessarily the relevant question here. But, at most other points, this text begins the process of moving beyond the recriminations and accusations, and into a critique that can actually point to the conditions that created this sort of collaboration, as well as ways beyond this impasse and recurring problem. In the structure of the text itself the author avoids the attempt to write a linear critique focused on Drury himself, which would be a useless, though tempting, endeavor. This is not to say that a thorough critique could not be written about Drury and his collaboration with policing, but this would almost be too easy, and would completely miss the point3. In centering a critique on Drury one would fail to set the stage to move beyond Aufhebengate and point to the parameters and shape of an insurgent tactical discourse, which can only exist as the inverse of Drury’s work. At its best Cop-Out accomplishes this through some well placed, well aimed, critique, while at its worst, there is a tendency within the text to collapse the argument into interpersonal irrelevancies, at least irrelevant for those outside of England, and minute theoretical criticisms. However, it is this structure of the text, for as inconsistent as it is at points, that can allow for these shortcomings, while at the same time highlighting the importance of the underlying critique.





The relevant question here is not about Drury’s motivations, or about his class position or something like this; rather the primary question raised here must center on positioning Drury’s work in reference to various dynamics of conflict in order to build a critique that can begin to identify a practice and discourse of radical intervention and tactical analysis that can avoid being of use to the “enemy”, and specifically avoids intentionally aiding the “enemy”. The fault in Drury’s work is not that he decided to write about police operations and operational theory, this is a needed discourse in the midst of insurgency. The absolute, total, failure of Drury’s work lies in failing to situate this work tactically in itself, as something that has effects in a material terrain of struggle. Central to the discussion around Drury’s collaboration is the question of the positionality of the writer and the act of writing, and publishing in itself, which becomes specifically important in the attempt to write on operational theory and tactics analysis, which if not done intentionally, with a direct political and tactical objective, can come to betray its own intent easily. In the most powerful points in the text this discourse rises to prominence, critiquing Drury’s collaboration and pointing to the discursive possibility of a discourse on the immediate dynamics of conflict that situates itself tactically, as an uncompromising site of struggle in itself, while also attempting to amplify the dynamics of that conflict. Throughout this text, and this review of this text, the focus is placed on this question of the positionality of the writer, specifically the tactics analyst, and the role, and possible pitfalls, of this discourse. As such, we will be working around some of the more interpersonal content and conceptual critiques of “left-communism” that appears in the text, and much of the controversy around the defense of Drury by Libcom and Aufheben4, while focusing on the aspects of the text relevant to the opening up of a space for a secure, intentional, insurgent discourse on tactics and operations. It is only by highlighting, and focusing on, the deficiencies in Drury’s writing practice and conceptual categories that we can move beyond the question of whether Libcom and Aufheben are supporting collaboration (they are) and into a discourse that can point our way to developing a more coherent, secure, intentional practice of insurgent tactical analysis and operations theory.





As such, we will be focusing here on two primary elements of the critique deployed in Cop-Out that are relevant to the attempt to develop an insurgent tactical discourse, the critique of Drury’s work on a conceptual level and the critique of the writing and publishing practice involved in this scandal. The background of Drury’s work goes back to research that he carried out on crowd psychology, as a faculty member at Sussex, with a team of researchers led by Clifford Stott, a well known British crowd analyst and police consultant. This research led to a series of papers published in Jane’s Police Review, among other journals, primary among these is a text titled Chaos Theory5, as well as presentations at police conferences and invitations to train police intervention teams to decelerate conflict at demonstrations. Their research focuses on two aspects of current police tactics, the theoretical basis in crowd psychology and the tactics that derive from this, with a specific focus on British police, and particularly the often-used tactic of kettling6. The primary claim in their literature is that police tactics, as they exist today, are based in a flawed concept of the crowd as unitary and dangerous, and therefore a body that must be dealt with antagonistically. Rather, Stott and Drury argue that crowds really have a series of factions within them, some more confrontational than others, and these factions of the crowd can be identified through the use of a police liaison team, which infiltrates the crowd in full uniform and attempts to identify the non-reconcilable elements within the crowd, then develops a strategy to contain and eliminate these elements while reducing confrontation with the remainder of the crowd. The goal of this operational set is to attempt to build trust within a crowd, segment off elements of the crowd that may erode this trust, and begin to foster an environment in which the crowd begins to police itself.





Though Drury’s defenders attempt to pass this off as a more or less paternalistic attempt to engage in a liberal mythology of policing as potentially nonconfrontational, this attempt points to the inadequacies latent in much of radical tactics discourse, specifically when addressing questions of police and policing, which tend to be viewed as unitary conceptual objects framed through the inscription of qualitative indictments, such as police brutality and police racism. This language of nonconfrontational policing, or policing that does not attempt to confront inert and harmless elements, directly mimics the language that many liberals use when attempting to defend community policing or counterinsurgency. This defense derives from the language in Drury’s work itself, which directly mirrors the language of counterinsurgency doctrine, specifically in Chaos Theory. To understand the relevance of this linguistic affinity it is necessary to understand the role that increased projection of force and the deceleration of conflict play in policing logistics. First, I should specify, all policing is an attempt to operate a certain sort of counterinsurgency; all policing is the attempt to operate a logistics of force in the attempt to impossibly define particular moments, and as such, only functions to the degree that it operates across the entirety of time and space, in all moments, as occupation. Here, though, the term counterinsurgency will be used in reference, specifically, to modern forms of counterinsurgency doctrine developed in the early 2000s within the US military, primarily through the work of David Petraeus, and its influences in the post-World War II world. Rather than an institutional reading of policing, which requires us to obscure actual police operations in the attempt to portray police as a legible conceptual object, policing only functions to the degree that it is deployed as a logistics of force in time and space, and therefore, must be analyzed through the lens of warfare, or a direct, immediate, material dynamic of conflict in time and space7. In thinking the police through the lens of more or less brutality we reduce policing to an ethical question, which of course has to assume a policing that can be ethical. As such, the problem, at the minimum, in Drury’s work here, and its attempted rationalization, is not that Drury may have been acting in a paternalistic way, but, rather, in engaging in the discourse of more or less brutal policing, his analysis necessarily departs from a framework based in the continued existence of, and therefore non-rupture, of police logistics, reducing police operations to an ethical question of more or less brutal police operations.





As we see in insurgencies, and counterinsurgency literature, there is always this discourse of the speed and multiplication of conflict in time and space. This discourse departs from a series of sources, primary among these are Clausewitz and Mao, but also military theorists like Galula and Petraeus. In On War8 Clausewitz directly positions warfare within time and space, as something that occurs, and therefore, as something that is completely uncertain. When we think the terrain of a demonstration, riot or armed confrontation, we are not just thinking the physical space or the numerical collision of magnitudes of force; rather this entails thinking these elements, but also the actual actions that occurred, to the degree that these can be mapped, the movements of force through space and the dynamics of collision itself. As such, the discussion of terrain has to not only center on physical space, in the sense of mapping, but also the ways in which this terrain is constructed through the dynamics of antagonistic actions in conflict and the effects of these actions. Tactical terrain, at this point, only becomes relevant to the degree that there is actual conflict in space, and there is necessarily a certain concentration of conflict in all space in all moments, and marks a point of unpredictable uncertainty, that becomes more so to the degree that the terrain becomes a site of concentrated conflict. This conflictual terrain becomes difficult to predict movement through, requiring higher concentrations of force and limiting projection. This is what we see often in street conflicts in the US, where the police tend to move in large groups, using heavy concentrations of force, while attempting to limit the amount of space that they have to cover.





There are two elements here that are of primary importance when thinking of Drury’s work in relation to insurgency and policing, the speed of conflict and the projection of policing. As Mao9 and Galula10 argue, insurgent conflict can be mobilized at any point to the degree that insurgents can maintain the ability to move, and can do so invisibly. This generates an absolute multiplication of the terrain of conflict, in the sense that, all of a sudden, the occupiers have to begin to take a defensive posture in all movement through all space; uncertainty generates a terrain of almost total potential conflict. As such, the primary task of occupiers is to both segment off movement through space, through policing, while also projecting their operational capacity into space11, through the use of informants, surveillance and “self-policing”. In Iraq, the first large-scale counterinsurgency operation of the 2000s, this involved a series of attempts; primary among these was the establishment of a network of sympathizers who received benefits for collaboration, the identification of irreconcilable elements, and the separation of these elements from the space being secured. This same mentality also appears in post-1968 negotiated management police tactics utilized in the US, aptly described by Kristian Williams in Our Enemies in Blue12. In negotiated management operations police attempt to identify sympathetic elements and begin to work directly with these elements, allowing them space to take action if the terms are negotiated directly with the police, while repressing elements that refuse to collaborate. We saw this play itself out during Occupy, where police collaborators in many cities were giving the police information on possible actions, without anyone else being aware of their activities, in exchange for the ability to “prevent repression’, which of course came anyway; in Pittsburgh we learned that a person named Carmen Elliot was giving information to the police about anarchists in order to guarantee that he would be able to have a march for universal healthcare, information that was then used to brutally repress anarchist actions throughout the winter of 2011 and into the summer of 2012.





Counterinsurgency is based on attempting to limit the speed of conflict while maximizing the projection of policing through space. In attempting to police space, police logistics have to function in all time and space, but this quickly collides with a dual impossibility13. The first, and primary, of these impossibilities is purely numerical; there are not ever enough police to cover terrain completely. Take a city like New York, which has tens of thousands of police; this number is not nearly enough to actually cover all space simultaneously. As such, police logistics are largely based on the attempt to project throughout space. This, historically, has been achieved through the combination of four different technologies in modern police operations; transportation, communications, weapons and surveillance. Through the use of the combustion engine police were all of a sudden able to move through space quickly, and disperse across space widely. This ability to project the body through space at speed was amplified through the addition of the prosthetic weapon, allowing the force of the police to project outside of the reach of the arm to, with the advent of the conoidal bullet and the bullet cartridge, project force almost directly correlated to line of sight. Police dispersal became organized through the addition of radios in patrol vehicles, allowing police to disperse further while also coordinating response autonomous from dispatch, making response quicker and more forceful. Finally, with the addition of surveillance, and by surveillance I mean signals intelligence, human intelligence and visual surveillance, the vision of the police is able to increase and become more and more comprehensive, being limited primarily by the capacity to process information, rather than the ability to collect it. But, even at this point, policing still is unable to cover all space at all moments, necessarily leaving gaps in coverage, gaps which are amplified to the degree that the terrain is increasingly resistant to police movement and operations. In this attempt to project through space policing necessarily generates conflict; it is comprised of a series of more or less coordinated actions that occur in time and space, and thus have effects which change the terrain of operation. As such, primary to police tactical operations is the attempt to maximize projection while limiting conflict, which generates increasingly resistant spaces. We can see this interaction in every riot, and even on the streets of most major cities on a constant basis; the movements of police generate conflict, this conflict generates a more resistant terrain, forcing the police to concentrate force, in the form of saturation policing and SWAT for example, which has the potential to generate more conflict and so on.





The textbook example of this occurred in Mosul, after the invasion of Iraq, where David Petraeus was in charge of operations for the 101st Airborne14. At the beginning of the operations troops walked around in a non-defensive posture, attempting to identify reconcilable elements to support. But, the mere presence of troops caused friction, which eventually ended in a demonstration where Iraqi police shot 18 demonstrators, setting off a spiral of conflict. As conflict became apparent, and attacks on American troops began, troops had to move into a defensive posture, approaching every street as a possible site of conflict. This not only largely ended the attempt to find collaborators, but began to generate increased tension as house raids increased and people were stopped and searched at the checkpoints that began to sprout all over the town. This trajectory of conflict resulted in the attempt to separate insurgents from the “populace”15 through the construction of a wall around the town. A similar trajectory of events occurred during David Galula’s first experiments in counterinsurgency during the French attempt to suppress the uprising in Algeria; an operation that began by building schools quickly turned into an apprehension, information gathering and torture program.





This tendency for counterinsurgency operations to generate overwhelming security saturations and armed occupation is somehow forgotten in the assumption of the maintenance of policing within Drury’s work and the defense of this work by his sympathizers. The state is an impossible attempt to make moments defined, and thus inert, to generate peace, which only occur to the degree that all conflict, and thus all action ends. The suggestions given by the Stott/Drury team are specifically centered around the deceleration of action, the containing of conflict and the prevention of antagonistic elements from having any escalatory presence in a terrain of conflict. On this level, we can say that not only does Drury’s work assume the perpetuation of the police, we can also say that the entire framework of de-escalation, whether being written by police sympathizers or pacifists, is necessary to the attempt to perpetuate the functioning of the police. In assuming the perpetuation of policing, even if this perpetuation is meant to occur through a more humanistic lens, there is always a primary imperative to maintain police operational capacity in a space. Somehow, this attempt to generate a more gentle form of crowd control is separated by the hierarchy of force that this attempt exists within. Drury’s work exists completely within an attempt to amplify the projection of the police into conflictual terrain, an odd attempt for someone that supposedly exists to antagonize conflict, through both the gathering of intelligence by encouraging the police to be in direct proximity to actions, while also suggesting ways to eliminate antagonistic influences within conflictual terrains. But, the net result of this attempt is not only to provide the police insight into ways that projection can be increased, but also ways in which conflict can be de-escalated, by deploying a low-level of force at the beginning of this hierarchy of security and force.





If we follow Clausewitz and Schmitt on this point, all conflict involves an immediate and material differentiation of friends and enemies, and in assisting the police in the attempt to make police operations more effective and efficient16, Drury has made it clear what side of this antagonistic chasm he has decided to exist within. But this should come as no surprise, the very perspective of his work with the Stott team betrays this affinity for police operations through the very perspective through which his texts are written, from a cop’s-eye view, both on the level of the categories used and the spatial/visual perspective of the analysis itself. These texts are purported to be texts on police crowd control, and they are in a certain sense, they are written from the perspective of the police. If one reads Chaos Theory, the most infamous of the Drury texts, not only will one find that the language mimics the language one finds in police journals, which is not problematic in itself necessarily, but also does this through a mimicking of the categories of analysis that the police use, specifically the use of the anonymous unitary crowd. Now, there is a minor nuance added into this concept of crowd psychology, unlike in Canetti, where one is able to speak about factions within a crowd, but we have to be careful in thinking through these categories and understand that the only division between the reconcilable elements of a crowd and the irreconcilable elements in the crowd is the posture that certain particular people may take toward the police. As such, Drury’s work begins to construct a paradox; simultaneously obscuring the actual dynamics of tactical terrain through the unitary definition of the “crowd”, while at the same time operating within a framework structured around the immediate identification of friends and enemies in conflict, then assuming the operations of the police within this immediacy, betraying a sense in which the police are the sole point of reference in Drury’s analysis. This is an important clarification, as we can see, in this characterization of the crowd, as well as the perspective of the pieces, these texts operate only to the degree that police and policing are the sole reference point and point of departure.





Ironically, this discourse on the tactics of the police completely obscures actual tactics. If we follow Clausewitz17 here, tactics are the immediate and material dynamics of conflict in time and space, and therefore, tactics are unable to be spoken about in a unitary way. In this sense there are a series of aspects of Stott/Drury’s work that become specifically absurd, including but not limited to the attempt to project tactics from one space, and one series of dynamics, into a completely different situation; in this specific case attempting to project police tactics used against soccer fas in Portugal into British G20 police tactical analysis. The tendency in this work to project one set of operations, in one time and space, into another terrain indicates the development of modeling, or an approach to tactical analysis in which one essentializes tactical dynamics within set models and then attempts to impose models in other times and spaces. This is not just to point to a problem in conceptual framework, this sort of imposition of model is fundamental to police tactics and the deployments of police operations into space. Policing functions to the degree that two aspects of operations are in place, content and logistics. The content of policing is simply the aesthetic content of the state transferred into operational plans. We can see this before any trade summit demonstration, the police plan operations long before anyone is even on the ground, based on past actions and their analysis of past actions, the demands of the security apparatus on a national level and localized objectives. This also occurs through crimeostats and other forms of predictive policing, where arrest numbers begin to dictate patrol patterns and force allocation in space. But, outside of the operations of these concepts, or the attempted operation of these concepts, they mean absolutely nothing. The second aspect of this operational modeling is always the actual operation itself, which is nothing other than the mobilization of a logistics of force to attempt to define moments. In the case of Drury, his work begins to develop a framework through which policing operational models could be understood but, this only matters to the degree that these models are imposed on space, or that these models are operated through actual policing, which they have, and that this operational theory only speaks in reductionistic modeling, rather than actual tactical dynamics.





To construct the “crowd” as a conceptual object that theory can be built around implies that the “crowd” is an inert object that is predictable, definable and policable, and completely ignores the fundamental aspect of tactical analysis, at least in an insurgent operations theory, the particular dynamics of action in time and space, of which nothing essential or general can be said about. This particularity can never be made sense of in any total way. As Clausewitz, and later Schmitt, argue the particularity of actions are a dynamic that exist completely outside of theory; if all concepts are comparative, and moments are particular, meaning that they have never occurred before and will never occur again, then there is a necessary gap between concepts and moments. This infinite distance marks the very possibility of insurgency and the impossibility of actual policing, the impossibility of defining moments; but I guess it is pretty hard to get grants from police based organizations to do research around this premise. Drury’s work is suspect here, not only because of the form of publication and the uses of the work, but also because of the perspective of the texts, which are all written from behind the police and through the lens o the definable, predictable “crowd” as inert object. By “behind the police” I do not merely mean that the pieces have a politics that is framed in order to support the police, this is clear in the venues of publication, but also that the texts are literally written from behind police lines, from a perspective which is fundamentally grounded in a certain state-vision18, a perspective of oversight that mediates all action through the point of reference of the police, policing, and the continued logistical operation of policing. This contrasts, dramatically, from an insurgent’s-eye view, or a view from the other side of the police line, from a positionality of conflict and the amplification of conflict, and from a positionality grounded in the logistical rupture of policing, which must exist contrary to the concept of the unitary inert “crowd”, or any assumptions of mass at all19. In this form of operational theory20, one departs from the immediacy of conflict, the crisis presented by action, and the impossibility of policing projecting across the entirety of time and space and, rather than the attempt to foster de-escalation in Drury’s work, the attempt is to escalate, amplify crisis and multiply the terrains of conflict. This view can be seen in Che’s war journals, or Guillen’s Philosophy of the Urban Guerilla, in which the immediacy of struggle and the political intention is clear, and the posture toward policing is undeniable. The cop’s-eye view within Drury’s work is a result of a paradox within the claims in the text, in which the analysis of “crowds” is remarkably simplistic, but the insights into police tactics is relatively astute, almost by accident seemingly. If we should regard Drury’s work as relevant at all, it may be that these pieces are the theoretical backing of what police in England will begin to do in crowd control scenarios. This is an important point; even though it is clear that Drury is a collaborator, that does not make his work completely irrelevant, in operational theory research and tactical analysis material often comes from the “other side”. As Deleuze and Guattari claim, warfare always exists outside of the state apparatus, and is appropriated by the state apparatus, but always at the risk of the logistical capacity of the state to continue to function21; the trick is to figure out what material can be extracted and appropriated to more effectively understand what we are facing in conflict, and ways that this can be combated. We should view Drury’s work from this point forward as an inside view into the operational frameworks utilized by certain police, and through the lens that these pieces were obviously written, as a police sympathizer writing about the police.





Drury’s defenders attempt to portray this intentional collaboration22 through a paradoxical understanding of academia, one which the author does a great job of pointing out. On the one hand his defenders, as Cop-Out discusses, are claiming that his work is an attempt to make policing less brutal, but that would require that police read his work and that it is relevant. But, on the other hand, they also dismiss this work as pointless academia that no one pays attention to, which is both a contradiction with the initial claim, and, if he is being invited to police conferences, obviously not the case. The author addresses this in a long discussion about the role of academics within the university, the absurdity of the claim of academic neutrality and the role of academics in producing “knowledge” for the state, all of which are apt critiques. But, in much of the language about the class position of the academic a series of important dynamics involved in this story are obscured, specifically the positionality of the university as mode of production, and therefore, the position of the academic as potential saboteur. While the author is correct to note that academia is still wage labor, and therefore not a uniquely radical site of possible engagement with modes of production, the discussion about class position,which is constructed in order to be able to support the argument that Drury is a bourgeois academic, is problematic. If we follow Marx’s argument in Capital23 the “working class” are those with proximity to, and control over the operation of, the means of production, in this case the university functions as a primary site of production in the late-capitalist economy, a site in which degrees, research and credentials are produced. Academia, if nothing else, is a means of production that, like all others, is operated through labor, in this case largely underpaid adjunct and graduate student labor, and can, through the assertion of this control over the means of production, also serve as a site of resistance. This is not to engage in some semantic game over the meaning of “workers”, rather, this is fundamentally important to understand in order to grasp the non-neutrality of academia, and thus the scale of Drury’s betrayal. It is not that we can think academia as a disinterested site in which discursive possibilities open up. Rather, the university is a means of production, and much of its dynamics correspond to the economic and political imperative of funders. Like the non-profit industrial complex, the university functions on grant funding, tuition and public funds, and as such, has increasingly become, especially in the age of austerity, framed around a quantity of production; the production of prominence, the production of degrees, the production of “useful” research, the production of journal papers and so on. It is not that Drury can claim neutrality in the process of doing this sort of work, specifically when grant funding is involved. Rather, like in all moments, the university involves conflict and a dynamic of conflict, and is largely formed through this; the only question is what one’s positionality in relation to that conflict is, whether one attempts to perpetuate this means of production, or whether one attempts to sabotage it. In choosing to sell out his politics in favor of his academic position, Drury chose a side.





It is not that Drury is writing disinterested articles for disinterested journals, or that one can even claim that he was just incredibly oblivious to what purpose his work served. It is difficult to be published in academic journals, it is difficult to get grant funding and end up on a research team with any prominence, and the Stott team is prominent; these require intentional attempts on the part of an academic, the signing of contracts and the framing of grant proposals, none of these are passive processes. Drury, clearly, is attempting to hide behind arguments of “academic neutrality”, while these works are being targeted toward certain audiences, cops, and are actual writings with actual effects. The question of the university is never a question of the university as-such, if it were then Drury is just a symptom, someone doing a job. Rather, the question of the university, and the academic within the university, must center on the particular work of the particular academic and the tactical dynamics generated by a university which functions as a mode of production, both of skilled workers and research, as well as a site shaped by the inflows of capital generated by political and economic imperative, and funneled to those within the university that further this interest. Drury is able to maintain his position within the university, and even gain a modest level of prominence, go on research trips and publish in “respected” journals to the degree that he is not only not disruptive to the university as mode of production, but also to the degree that his work advances the operations of funders and readers, in this case the police.





This raises a fundamental question about writing itself, and the relationship of writing to our political investments. As Sorel24 argues, the act of discursive production, in his case the production of the myth of the general strike, is still an action, and thus something that generates an immediate and material effect, as with all other actions. As such, we cannot remove the discussion of writing, in this case academic writing, from the question of the tactical effects of writing; writing is still immediate and material. In the case of Drury this effect becomes amplified in two ways. Firstly, the writing he is doing has, and had, potentially negative effects on the dynamics of insurgency, and the relationship of insurgency to policing. At a time where the police in England have been attempting to contain a rising tide of discontent that is increasingly pouring onto the streets, in the form of massive riots and direct actions, the effect of writing about these dynamics must be done with a specific sort of care. As something that is material, and something that has effects, we have to acknowledge that writing has the potential to dramatically alter the tactical terrain that we are engaging in as insurgents. Therefore, the act of writing, and specifically the act of the distribution of writing, has to take the dynamics of the terrain into account. Secondly, this sort of writing, writing about police operations, carries with it a specific sort of risk, the risk of providing a potential tactical insight to the “enemy”. All conflict functions along the lines of differentiation and schism, a fundamental material dynamic of antagonism between bodies and identities, in this case between “friends” and “enemies”, with both sides defining the dynamic between the two in conflict itself. These are not conceptual designations, or identity in the sense of the transcendental identities posited by identity politics, but merely function as a positionality in and toward conflict, a posture in struggle. These investments become all the more acute when the writing is being carried out in an intentional attempt to logistically disrupt the operations of those that one considers the enemy. This should be simple, but then again I think security culture should be simple, and it seems to be misunderstood constantly; one should not give relevant information to the “enemy”. On both counts Drury failed horribly, not only was this work directly intended to aid the “enemy”, but the venues of publication were directly chosen for this purpose, let alone the even more egregious participation in a training conference for the police on the methods Drury’s team developed. It is not that we can ever take solace in just assuming that Drury is tactically incompetent, naïve and completely devoid of any sort of insurgent discipline; rather, these works were intentionally published in these venues and written for a specific purpose, which necessitates a form of intentionality, and could never be the result of oversight. Beyond this point, the motivations for doing so are irrelevant, all that matters is that Drury chose a side, and it is not our side.





This complete and utter failure on Drury’s part is not just borne from a poor framework of analysis that completely obscures tactics and operates from a cop’s-eye perspective, it is not just about a failure to understand the place of the academic within the means of production or about publication choices, which are dubious at best. Rather, what Drury, and his defenders, seem to fail to understand is that, in the attempt to write about police operations and tactical dynamics, it is specifically necessary to take into account the underlying material struggle that lies at the center of this work, and how, as a material struggle, this necessarily implies a delineation between friends and enemies in the immediacy of that struggle. This involves being extra sensitive to writing, and its resonances, and the need to think this action as one would think through the tactical implications of any other action. When writing about operations theory and doing tactical analysis it is essential to take both security and political trajectory into account. In other words, we have to assume that they are going to read our shit25. The point is to, therefore, maximize the antagonistic effect of the writing while limiting the ability of the enemy to derive beneficial insights from the work; this means being sensitive to how something is written, what information is being given out, what perspective and vision the piece is written from and what venue the work will appear. When writing about operational theory or tactics analysis , I will argue that it is alright to write about a series of things including the projection of possible police security operations in upcoming terrains of conflict from an analytic, and not prescriptive, perspective, theoretical pieces about “policing”, the development of weapons and the relationship of attempted police logistical coherence and terrains of conflict, historical pieces tracing the trajectory of the development of police tactics, analysis of actions that have already occurred and especially analyses of local tactical terrains26, of course all with an extreme eye toward security and possible readership. Notice how I will never veer into prescriptive discussions of possible actions one could take, and this is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are legal and tactical implications of suggestive tactical writing that I am not comfortable with, there are potential legal risks and telegraphing actions is just bad tactics; don’t do their intelligence work for them. Secondly, it is completely impossible to project the effects of, and terrain of, antagonistic actions which, to the degree that they are effective, serve to do nothing but generate contingency and disrupt police logistics. Specifically one (ahem…John Drury) does not write pieces for academic journals read largely by police on how police can be more effective in decelerating and containing conflict.





It is important, when writing about operational theory, to write this from a particular perspective and posture toward conflict, emphasizing certain elements of the text, in a blatant attempt to antagonize conflict and amplify crisis. This sort of writing, in both tone and content, makes its political form clear; the analysis always comes from facing the police, from a clear position on the question of friends and enemies. This is not a call for rhetorical excess, we all know that there has been way to much of this in anarchist writing as of late, merely a subtle undercurrent in the perspective of analysis which shapes the tone, content and venue through which one writes. If we were to accept Drury/Aufheben/Libcom’s arguments we would, literally, have to believe that during the day John Drury is a harmless academic, doing nothing more serious than collaborating in the formation of future police strategy, while at night he magically transforms into a generally militant left-communist who writes for a far-left wing political journal, which has been good at times. As the author of Cop-Out argued in a previous intervention into this scandal27, Jekyll and Hyde indeed.





Following the author, and his attribution of similar sentiments to TPTG, there does need to be a space for an insurgent discourse on operational theory and police operations, but it has to be done in the completely inverse way from the model presented by Drury, both on the level of conceptual framework and political investments. This work can be touchy, and has to be written and distributed with care, both for the security of the writers and analysts themselves, but also to prevent this analysis from being useful to the “enemy”, the police, state functionaries and their various lackeys. Most importantly, it is important to carry on this sort of work within the immediacy of struggle and the materiality of conflict, outside of this context all we are doing is pursuing an intellectual fascination. As such, this writing has to be intentional, targeted, positioned within the dynamics of struggle that we experience and politically uncompromising. This becomes much easier within an environment of mutual support and discursive engagement, and this discourse is absolutely necessary. Over are the days in which we can pretend that we can fight and “win”, for whatever that means, simply on the strength of convictions and feelings of self-righteousness, gone are the days where we rush from one campaign and action to another simply for reasons founded in political passion. An insurgent discourse on operational theory is useless outside of a materially intentional struggle, and the dynamics of that sort of concentrated conflict are cold, dispassionate and tactical. Our only relevance, as strategists and operational theorists, is to engage in a more or less effective discourse on the materiality of struggle and the dynamics of this conflict within immediate moments, if we obscure this then, at worst, we are writing from a perspective that ignores conflict, and at best, we are engaging in a discourse which in itself is nothing but academic nicety. To engage in material struggle, insurgency itself, means grounding analysis in the struggle itself, something that is absolutely necessary if we are going to leave the role of activist irrelevance and engage in insurgency. To transcend the politics of complaint and enter into material struggle requires nothing short of this.








Works Cited





Schmitt, Carl, trans. Kennedy, Ellen (1988). Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. MIT Press, Cambridge




Sorel, Georges, trans. Hulme, TE and Roth, J (2004). Reflections on Violence. Dover Publications, Mineola




Clausewitz, Carl von, trans. Unknown (1968). On War. Penguin Classics, London




Williams, Kristian (2007). Our Enemies in Blue. South End Press. Boston




Galula, David (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Praeger Security International, London




Kaplan, Fred (2013). The Insurgents: David Petraues and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. Simon and Schuster, New York




Weizman, Eyal (2007). Hollowland. Verso Press. London




Marx, Karl, trans. Fowkes, Ben (1976). Capital: Volume 1. Vintage Books. New York




Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix, trans. Massumi, Brian (1986). Nomadology and the War Machine. Semiotext(e). New York




Tse-Tung, Mao, trans. Griffith, Samuel (1961). Guerrilla Warfare. Praeger Publishers. New York




Scott, James (1999). Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. New Haven




FantoSamotnaf, Sam (2011). The Strange Case of Dr Johnny and Mr Drury. <dialectical-delinquents.com/?page_id=323>. <Accessed on 5/2/2013>




Stott, Clifford, Drury, John, et al (2009). Chaos Theory. Jane’s Police Review. 117. 6026





1Those that carry out actions for the sake of acting, in a calculation separated from the tactical effectiveness of engagement on any given terrain. Activist mentalities and approaches to action are primarily based in acting from a position of passion and conceptual philosophical imperative, rather than from a point of departure in the immediacy of tactical dynamics.




2Some so-called anarchists in Pittsburgh still support Chris Boetie, who snitched people out to a federal grand jury in Washington DC, simply because he is a “friend” and a generally “good person”.




3Critique is useless in itself, outside of some attempt to hierarchically rank thought based in some problematic concept of “truth-value”; rather, it can only be useful to the degree that it can be appropriated in effective ways within a discourse or conflictual dynamic.




4It is sufficient, at this point in the controversy, to just characterize the actions of Libcom and Aufheben as sympathizing with collaborators.




5Stott, Drury, et al, 2009; The article itself has been pulled from the Jane’s Police Review website (policereview.com) in the last couple months, but links to the article can still be found online.




6Kettling, for those that are not familiar, is a strategy in which the police attempt to demobilize and contain a crowd by creating a wide perimeter around the crowd, and slowly closing it in to prevent the crowd from moving. The theory is that, through the deceleration of action and conflict, the energy of the crowd will be disrupted.




7Schmitt, 1985; In On The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy Schmitt argues that the plane of engagement within the formal limits of the state is the attempt to functionally end conflict through the political process, which always maintains a conceptual unity that is materially impossible. Therefore, we have to create a separation between the rationalism of the conceptual unity of the political process and the attempt to actually operate the declarations of politicians, laws, as operational across time and space through policing, which is a material, immediate and particular dynamic, thus irrational. Note, irrationality is not being used in a pejorative way in this argument, and is only used terminologically to mark the space outside of the conceptual unity of the state, which can never function materially.




8Clausewitz, 1968




9Mao, 1961




10Galula, 1964




11This is the importance of checkpoints, which serve as ways to limit and control movement through space while also providing a logistical base to launch further incursions into space. We can see the importance checkpoints play in the Syrian uprising, where regime troops can only maintain control over some roads, and only through the use of checkpoints, which become frequent targets for attack.




12Williams, 2007




13Clausewitz, 1968




14Kaplan, 2013




15Of course within the assumption that “insurgents” and the “populace” were different.




16The term “attempt to” is the operative term here; I am not convinced, contrary to the author, that counterinsurgency tactics are overwhelmingly effective, or present much of a threat to us in conflict, to the degree that we move away from the seemingly pathological attachment many anarchists have to mass actions and concentrated numbers. As occupiers engage in counterinsurgency their footprint has to widen, and force has to be concentrated, limiting projection. There are two important aspects of this. First, it highlights the importance of asymmetric conflict in increasing uncertainty in terrain, preventing the movement of police, or at least forcing them to concentrate numbers in that movement. Secondly, counterinsurgency is remarkably fragile, a single attack, a single contingency, and the entire force posture has to shift into a defensive posture, which creates distance between the police and the terrain, in the sense that police operations become separated from the dynamics of terrain in their attempt to preserve their own functioning as a primary objective.




17Clausewitz, 1968




18Scott, 1999




19In this sense, mass organizing can be a tactic, but the weaknesses of this tactic, on the streets, must be recognized. In the concentration of force one also limits the dispersal of force through space, making one legible and easily containable. Anyone that has followed the tactical trajectory of IMF demonstrations in DC between 2005 and 2011 can see both the problems of concentrated numbers and the advantages of dispersal, especially when coupled with disinformation and communications.




20Tactics theory is impossible if one cannot speak of the particularity of the dynamics of moments, and strategic thought obscures the particularity of material action. Therefore, following the Operational Theory Research Institute, an IDF based think tank, there is only the possibility of operations theory, or an analysis of action that departs from the immediacy of action, while consequently acknowledging that it can never speak of this, and focusing, as a result, on the external effects of, and interactions between action within a tactical terrain.




21Deleuze and Guattari, 1986




22From experience, it is completely impossible to have a piece in an academic journal and not know about it; there are copyright waivers that have to be signed by each author, peer-review processes and editorial feedback that all have to be dealt with by each author on a piece. Unless Drury is signing contracts in his sleep, there is no way he did not know where these texts were being published.




23Marx, 1976; Volume 1, New Left Review version




24Sorel, 2004




25As Eyal Wiezman notes in Hollowland, the reason that the work that came out of the IDF’s Operational Training Research Institute is so interesting is that they attempted to understand space as a fluid dynamic of conflict, and to do so worked primarily through anarchist texts, situationist writing, Deleuze and Guattari and writing by Mao and Che.




26For example, analysis of the local police annual report, comparisons of police force saturation and arrest levels, patterns in the allocation of force, and even things like local political structures and so on.




27The Strange Case of Dr Johnny and Mr Drury


Žižek’s Gamble, and Ours

1

His

I have little patience for Žižek. To some he might be a critical provocateur, but he is really more of a philosophy-themed stand-up comic (whose verborrhea overflows into the writing of too many books). It is to be expected that the mainstream press, when they pick up on him, write silly things. It is also to be expected that more learned readers will respond with subtler interpretations. None of this really matters to most anarchists; it certainly matters very little to me. But, considering a recent piece of his and its repercussions, I was afforded an insight, a new way to say what some of us already know…

chp_crowd

In a 2012 article in The Los Angeles Review of Books Adam Kotsko described Žižek’s interventions (at least the more visible ones such as the one I am about to discuss) as strategic overidentifications:

One of Žižek’s primary tactics for shifting the frame of reference is overidentification. This strategy grows out of his experience under the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Observing his country’s political life, Žižek came to a paradoxical realization: the fact that no one “really” bought into the official socialist ideology was not an obstacle for the rulers — cynical distance was part of their strategy for maintaining control. In this situation, Žižek proposed, the best way to resist was to take the ruling ideology at its word, naïvely demanding that the leaders fulfill the promise of their ideals.

Kotsko recently invoked this overidentification strategy as a counter to the claim that Žižek is a fascist. This claim has surely surfaced many times (along with more predictable ones such as Stalinist, crypto-conservative, etc.), but it did so most recently in connection with a recent piece in The New Statesman (which Wikipedia describes as a center-left publication) about Margaret Thatcher. In the article, Žižek claims that the Left needs a Thatcher. That is, a Master:

…after the specialists (economic and military analysts, psychologists, meteorologists) propose their analysis, somebody must assume the simple and for that very reason most difficult act of transposing this complex multitude into a simple “Yes” or “No”. We shall attack, we continue to wait… This gesture, which can never be fully grounded in reasons, is that of a Master. It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it into a point of decision. The Master is needed especially in situations of deep crisis. The function of a Master is to enact an authentic division – a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not the opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.

I won’t go into the argument as to why Thatcher was a great leader, a Master. I imagine it concerns you as little as it concerns me. But I will cite Žižek one more time and at some length, here concerning democracy and decision-making. Žižek has been discussing leftist objections to economic policies under Thatcher. He then adds:

The other aspect of Thatcher’s legacy targeted by her leftist critics was her “authoritarian” form of leadership, her lack of the sense for democratic coordination. Here, however, things are more complex than it may appear. The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of “epistemological obstacle” to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system. These effectively read as a popularised version of Deleuzian politics: people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this, but only through their own continuous engagement and activity. So we need active participatory democracy, not just representative democracy with its electoral ritual which every four years interrupts the voters’ passivity; we need the self-organisation of the multitude, not a centralised Leninist Party with the Leader, et cetera. It is this myth of non-representative direct self-organisation which is the last trap, the deepest illusion that should fall, that is most difficult to renounce. Yes, there are in every revolutionary process ecstatic moments of group solidarity when thousands, hundreds of thousands, together occupy a public place, like on Tahrir square two years ago. Yes, there are moments of intense collective participation where local communities debate and decide, when people live in a kind of permanent emergency state, taking things into their own hands, with no Leader guiding them. But such states don’t last, and “tiredness” is here not a simple psychological fact, it is a category of social ontology. The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace.

Obviously anarchists will object to what I have just cited. But we will do so in more than one way. Leftist, pro-democracy, pro-consensus anarchists will simply rehearse their arguments in favor of direct democracy and whatever our version is of “the self-organization of the multitude” (some may agree with Hardt and Negri enough not to require their own version). Those of us who are not leftists and do not fight for democracy, however, will have a different objection, and have perhaps more to gain than the leftists when we engage with an argument such as the one presented here by Žižek.

The self-appointed activist leaders of the Left gesture towards consensus and collectivities, but in more or less public meetings they decide just as the military master decides in Žižek’s example (which comes from Winston Churchill). On the other hand, though I hardly agree that “people know what they want, they are able to discover and formulate this,” the truly damaging effects of ignorance and self-deception happen when they are integrated into massive political units. This is why it is so vital for us to sever our anarchy from the political project of democracy. And we accept the risk of incoherence in the eyes of many when we express ourselves along these lines. Consider the apparent contradiction in our response to a view such as Žižek’s: with the leftists, we are against the Master, against her authority. But, though we are sometimes very excited about group solidarity, sometimes we are incredibly suspicious of it. Then we are with Žižek against “the myth of non-representative self-organization,”if that is identified with a generic faith in the virtues of the Mass, grassroots populism, or democracy.

But even in this partial agreement, are we really with Žižek? It is easy enough to call Žižek a fascist given the tone of his call for strong leadership and true unity. But it is also simplistic, and Kotsko is probably right: any piece as mainstream as this one is more about the critique it makes possible than the apparent position it defends. In any case, that is Žižek’s gamble. Or if not, it is at least his job, which, as he writes, he wants to pursue in peace.

Given that Žižek’s strategy combines the negativity of critique with a psychological tactic, it might also be called propaganda. I don’t write that to dismiss it, but to be clear. And I also know that I can only be clear in this way here because I have some sense of who will read me, and am addressing myself to them. I know I am not with Žižek because he does not speak for me, and there is nothing I would publish in The New Statesman instead… our tactic has to be different.

2

Ours

What is the anarchist gamble? If Žižek’s tactic is overidentification, ours is obviously non-identification. If the specific risk that Žižek runs is that his joking Stalinism, fascistic posturing, etc. becomes more than a routine, then our specific risk is that we do not differentiate our positions and practices sufficiently from what Kotsko calls “cynical distance.” Our position might be lost in irrelevance or incommunicability—even incoherence.

I can describe the difference we need to communicate easily enough. Reading through Žižek’s article, it is expected and transparent that what is under discussion are forms of government. Shall the government be strong and authoritarian?  Shall it be participatory and democratic? What is the right form, and what is the right path to that form? And so on. Žižek aptly suggests, at the end of the last bit I quoted, that most people want to be left in peace (he includes himself to avoid accusations of elitism). Indeed. But why call this passivity? Why determine that the fatigue most feel after too much participation in deliberation and meetings is a justification for the authority of a government that works on its own? The true anarchist response, it seems to me, is that such fatigue is a healthy reaction to meetings and expected or required participation of any sort. For someone who continues to assume the necessity of government, the experience of such fatigue points either to the need to offload decision-making onto a Decider, or to the need for More Hard Work, more self-sacrifice, and so on. But for those of us detached from such a necessity, fatigue is one of many symptoms indicating that we should be considering our lives on other terms. To whatever degree we can act on this idea and communicate it, we are differentiating ourselves from “cynical distance” without falling into the mania for activism and participation that always eventually reintegrates us into governmental forms.

From there, I can move to describe the anarchist position that emerges in response to Žižek as follows. First, the Right-Left continuum as it is usually discussed:

—Right: authoritarian traditions
—Left: participatory/popular traditions
Then, on a perpendicular axis, another continuum, from government to non-government: On one extreme we get a kind of absolute politics:
—State communism, fascism, whatever Žižek seems to want.
On the other extreme, we get anti-politics:
—Non-government: communism, anarchy.

Interestingly, the absolute politics extreme might be described as containing the most exaggerated hybrids of the Left and Right traditions. It would be the monstrous composite of the historical trajectories of the political tradition as such. The anti-political position begins when the historical content of the Left as well as the Right is abandoned. This is true in the realm of ideas as well as the realm of action.

How do we communicate our abandonment, our abandon? Let me repeat Žižek: “The ongoing popular protests around Europe converge in a series of demands which, in their very spontaneity and obviousness, form a kind of ‘epistemological obstacle’ to the proper confrontation with the ongoing crisis of our political system.” While I am not entirely sure what counts for him as a protest, what he considers to be a demand, and especially what he means by an epistemological obstacle in this context, I will simply note that abandoning the terrain of politics as we knew it must mean ceasing to be concerned with the “proper confrontation” with the crisis of politics (of states, of their economic systems, of their official cultural forms, etc.). For us, demands in the traditional sense are useless, and usually contradictory to our very ways of life. In practice this might mean one or more of the following: no demands, impossible demands, ridiculous demands, and vague, useless demands.[1] Indeed, any of these other sorts of demands or non-demands can and should form something like an “epistemological obstacle” from the point of view of the State and statist politics. The only confrontation we will participate in is one that the State (and States in waiting) will judge improper.

Whether any of us knows how to live out our position without succumbing to incoherence or irrelevance in the long term is another matter. That the position is currently weak is only an argument against it in terms of conventional politics. It is our gamble to exit those terms.

An afterthought:  provisionally, in terms of our current situation, it occurs to me that the only way to approach the mainstream press would not be to place propaganda there (be it of the traditional or clownish Žižekian sort), but simply to fill any space we can occupy with detourned text and images. Beyond that, supposing increasing autonomy and momentum, we can either aim to withdraw completely from the medium, or to neutralize it, doing whatever it takes to remove it completely from our sphere.


[1] Such as the ones from Tiananmen Square Agamben refers to in the final section of The Coming Community: “what was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands.”

A Predictable Journey

The Hobbit, the Chase Scene, and the Suspension of Imagination

The first cinema installment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was visually stunning, technically faithful to the book (even in its revisions), and benefited from having at least a few serious Tolkien geeks working on the project. Notwithstanding, everyone who collaborated with the film, and this goes for Lord of the Rings as well, deserves to be hung from a tripalium and flayed to death, as any reasoning person would agree. For its fundamental faithlessness goes far beyond its replication of the original plot, although The Two Towers struck out on those grounds alone, when Aragorn fell off a cliff (in a part of Middle Earth where, I’m pretty sure, there are no cliffs) just so he could come back in a touchingly Hollywood, “Hey bra, I’m not really dead!” scene; when an army of elves marches (lockstep, no less) up to Helm’s Deep to help fight off the Uruk-hai; and when a fickle Faramir kidnaps Frodo and Sam and hauls them all the way back to Osgiliath before having a change of heart (“Oh Faramir, I knew you wouldn’t let us down!” the seasoned reader and the unread moviegoer are meant to say in unison).

aragorns-cliff

Nor is it the weakness of two central characters: Bilbo, whose particular mix of timidity, decor, and wanderlust is missed entirely by the screenwriters and actor Martin Freeman; and Thorin, whose actor looks far less like a dwarf than Richard Lee Armitage looks like a troll; nor the juvenile subplot of mistrust and acceptance that passes between them.

This last defect, however, points to a deeper problem. The cheap Hollywood fake-out infests these movies like orcs plague Moria. It is there when Aragorn falls off a cliff in The Two Towers, it is there in The Hobbit when the dwarves ride a collapsed scaffold down about a hundred meters of chasm in the bowels of the Misty Mountains with nary a broken bone, a veritable roller coaster ride that may have been, a friend suggested to me, deliberately inserted into the movie in preparation for the inevitable theme park attraction and video games. It is there when the stubby-legged protagonists successfully outrun warg-riding orcs, as the faster villains close the distance only to lose it again each time the camera cuts. And it is there when a human-nosed Thor (did his agent stipulate that he got to act without any facial prosthetics?), looking more like Rasputin than the son of Thrain, approaches a newly heroic Bilbo as if to rebuke him, only to embrace him in a painfully predictable repeat of that well known Hollywood ploy.

The fake-out is everywhere. It is hard to imagine Indiana Jones, and most other action movies, without it. In the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, for which the book’s own author writes the screenplay, one of the few deviations from the original comes in the form of a chase scene fake-out. Instead of encountering the wolf creatures at the relative safety of the “cornucopia”, Katniss and Peeta encounter them in the woods and have to outrun them, something they can only accomplish through the munificence of the camera work.

The only tasteful occurrence of a fake-out I can think of comes to us in The Empire Strikes Back, when an estranged Lando Calrissian berates Han Solo and then suddenly hugs him. In this case, neither the audience nor Han knows how old friend Lando is going to receive him, and Lando is introduced as someone both dangerous and mysterious, qualities which his subsequent affability does not erase.

Bilbo, on the other hand, has just saved Thorin’s life (this never happens in the book, so the whole scene is gratuitous from the get-go), so we all know that honorable Thorin is going to thank him, not mistreat him. Nonetheless, we are forced to sit through a long moment of contrived tension as the dwarf approaches Bilbo in apparent anger before suddenly embracing him. Likewise, when Aragorn falls off the cliff or the dwarves fall down the chasm, we all know they are going to live, not only because most of us have read the book, but because the movie has signaled to us from beginning to end which genre rules it follows; in this case, that no character will be killed off until a sufficiently dramatic, conclusive point in the narrative.

The real Thorin is too grave a person to toy with the poor hobbit’s emotions, for the same reason that he is too gruff to spare Burglar Baggins the emotional conflict the filmmakers have unfortunately decided to exaggerate. The relationship between Thorin and Bilbo given to us by J.R.R. Tolkien is already full of strife. Why invent petty conflicts to exaggerate it, or bring it up to an infantile surface?

The puerile emotional play of the fake-out reaches its cheapest extreme in the Hollywood chase scene. The minimum requirement for an intense chase scene is the close getaway. If the villain travels at 30km an hour and the hero at 15km and safety is 100 meters away, why start them off at a distance of only 10 meters? Is the audience assumed to be sensorily incapable of realizing that the warg travels much faster than the dwarf? Kropotkin outran his faster guards and escaped imprisonment in St. Petersburg using geometry, the problem of the hound and the hare. Movie heroes only ever outrun orcs, T-Rexs, avalanches, and meteors, thanks to the fact that every time the camera cuts, their pursuer loses at least a good 10 meters.

By contemplating the largely subtextual conflict between Bilbo and Thorin, by imagining Kropotkin’s escape, a reader may have as much excitement as their imagination permits. But imagination is precisely what the movies kill as they provide stimulation through an almost mechanical milking of the viewer’s adrenal gland, offering up stimuli at the most basic reactive and chemical levels: a vision of falling, the image of pursuit, raised voices and gestures of anger suddenly reconciled. Why the atrophied adrenal glands, when most viewers have lived far less adventurous lives than Bilbo Baggins even before Gandalf carved a sign on his door? He at least gardens, an exercise in hope and suspense foreign to the most veteran players of video games.

One is reminded of the junkie, whose only pleasure comes in more frequent doses.

It is not disbelief that is suspended, but imagination itself, for a robust imagination finds no marrow in such petty provocations.

The true faithlessness of the movie derives from the use of cinema to fix imagination. Ours is not a caricatured Luddism that hates and fears the movie form itself. The movie as an art form can do things that the book as an art form cannot, even when the former is a rendition of the latter. No less than Edward Abbey said that Lonely Are the Brave was better than his book (The Brave Cowboy) in everything but the title. In recent years, the Coen Brothers have excelled in crafting original pieces inspired by literary works that are neither superseded nor trampled, that are left untouched on a parallel plane of artistic creation.

Ours is a principled and historic Luddism that strikes back at that which assaults us. The greatest strength of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are that these are tales within a mythical cosmos that is highly developed yet unbounded, known through completed stories and unfinished fragments rather than through encyclopedic certainty. They form “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths” in Tolkien’s own words. In truth, the movies are a greater travesty for the participation of Tolkien geeks who have been drawn to the power of the silver screen like Easterlings to Morgoth. For those geeks can fill in the backcloth, bring it closer, define it and thus limit it. Radagast and Dol-goldur unmet were left to the imagination. They were a distant mystery both to wee Bilbo and to the reader. Brought into the foreground of The Hobbit‘s narrative, however, they are cast in megapixels, frozen as though in the dragon’s gaze.

The movies have surpassed the might of the old books. Now, there is a website, thehobbit.com which opens with Martin Freeman’s face and music from the film. Googling any of the characters from the books will bring up interviews and images of the actors from the movie. An image search for “The Hobbit” brings up, in the first hundred hits, only images of the recent film. None of the amazing book covers that have appeared over the years, none of the hundreds of renditions of characters and scenes from various artists, not even stills from the 1977 cartoon movie, which, despite a few factual errors, is far truer to the book.

Evidently, the idolization of The Hobbit is nothing new. But contrary to how the earlier engravings did not preclude a reader’s own imaginings—and those imaginings retained sovereignty—the new movie overwhelms all the prior renditions and imposes a definitive set of images.

In one of the important philosophical debates of the 5th Century BC, idolization was attacked in part because it fixed divinity in a bounded, concrete image. A counter to this argument is that the attempt to universalize divinity as an amaterial abstraction is to alienate the physical world and to flatten an array of places that had been defended from their subsumption to any rational, administerable grid through the exceptionality of localized relations of worship.

Curiously, both abstraction and idolization serve to substitute an active practice of spiritual commoning. Spiritual interaction with a boundless world requires one to take imaginative initiative in forging the intangible relationships they feel a need for. Interaction with an idol requires merely ritualized appeasement (which, it should be noted, is easily taxable—probably why the Catholic Church brought idolization back). Interaction with an abstracted divinity requires obedience to commandments. In this latter case, one no longer even chooses their relationship with what has become an omniscient higher power.

Once the abstraction of the divine had alienated the world of its divinity, free relationships take refuge in the imaginary. As the State advances, our imagination takes us to increasingly distant worlds. These worlds also need to be enclosed.

In the movie theaters, The Hobbit was preceded by an advertisement for tourism to New Zealand that tantalizes viewers with images of mystifying mountains, spiritual journeys, and constructions from the film itself, open to visitors. Just as an authentic hobbit village is constructed on fixed ground, the geography of Middle Earth is fixed to the film’s shooting locations. In a perhaps unconscious, perhaps inevitable twist, Tolkien’s explicitly European imaginary is imposed on colonized land.

In an alienated world, idolization becomes the process of fixing the imaginary, bringing the many flights of fantasy back into contact with the commodity form. But it’s not about making money. The reason the State is busily sending its apparatuses into the imaginary goes far beyond a vulgar economism or any simple need to take advantage of the success of Tolkien’s ouevre and make some money off of it. The present enclosure is every bit as much a measure of social control as the “strategic hamlets” set up in the Vietnam War. Even when imagination is used as nothing more than a harmless form of avoidance, apparatuses will arise to bring it back into the fold. Capitalism permits no escape.

A story well told encourages the audience to imagine themselves in it, and to invent stories of their own. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in particular, is a structure that invites fantasy, because rather than a story he created an entire world with the power to draw one into it. None of Tolkien’s narratives are closed structures; they all invite further exploration, opening more questions than they close. An active imagination is powerful precisely because it can create new worlds and allow us to travel between them, whether these are worlds of escape or worlds that contest capitalist reality and the State’s designs on our future.

A variety of institutions, from MGM, to Google, to the New Zealand tourism department, have converged to fix the imaginative world of Middle Earth to a specific geography and set of images. The result of all these maneuvers is to atrophy the mind’s eye under a barrage of hyper-produced, objective stimuli. And just as the commodity substitutes the satisfaction of a desire, the apparatus of the movie theater, with its immersive experience, now in 3D, substitutes the joy of imagining with the pleasure of sensory stimulation. The movie succeeds in this underhanded endeavor precisely because its representation of Middle Earth is so thorough.

Tolkien’s storytelling creates an intense longing to visit the magical place he has constructed. This longing is a special feeling, as it can never be satisfied. The reader will be enticed to imagine themselves a bridge to that world, but the visit cannot be definitive. The tension caused by uncertainty encourages further imagination, and the longing causes discontentment with the lack of magic in the present world. The sounds and images of the movie, convincing in their fullness and even backed up by a real hobbit village awaiting exploration in New Zealand, provide the illusion of visiting that unreachable world. Their effect is to extinguish longing. Just like a commodity, whose value is extinguished in the moment it is possessed, the movie appears to satisfy the desire to know a fantastic world when in reality it kills it. While this is happening, the viewer is overwhelmed by stimuli. But when the film is done, they are numb. The fantastic world has proved to be hollow. There is nothing left but to seek another fix. One more year until the sequel, and in the meantime, there seem to be some good apocalypse movies coming up, and of course, the video game.

The mechanical milking of the adrenal glands the movie accomplishes with its frequent use of the fake-out clues us to the fact that this imagination-destroying act is in fact a productive process. The apparatus of the movie theater uses its power to reproduce an unreachable world, and thus gives the audience the simulacram of the appeasement of their longing, to create an emotive bond. This is a case of power/affect. By allowing themselves to be enticed by the idolization that is accomplished within the theater, relieving themselves of the need to formulate their own relations with the imaginary, the audience surrenders their fantasy world, they turn their imagination over to the proper authorities, allowing its enclosure and alienation.

The result is not merely the chance to make a few million bucks off a story that before was only minimally commoditized, or a few million more off of tourism to New Zealand. What is produced is a generation of captives who are incapable of imagining other worlds, and who are dependent on a host of apparatuses to manage their yearnings.

Notes on the Context and Positions of Hello

In its look, organization, and some of its concerns, the recently published pamphlet Hello could be a distant echo of the Call, which is now ten years old. From this we might surmise that there is an intention on the part of its author to update the Call, to modify its position, or at least to echo its rhetorical force and its anonymous spread. I do not think Hello can be reduced to a repetition of or response to the Call; but the connection allows for some context for Hello.

 

phone2 (1)

One way to discern the positions at work in Hello would be to consider how it might be connected to the texts gathered in the 2011 collection Communization and its Discontents. I will not be the first to note that the Call, Tiqqun, and especially anyone moved or excited by reading them appear as the proximate enemy in the pieces in the first part of that collection, especially the prominently placed “What are we to do?” by Endnotes. There is probably but one text in the rest of the collection that presents any of the above-mentioned in a positive light. There, are, of course, details and debates as to how the various writers involved and invoked in the collection conceive communization, but, at a macro-level, the first lesson of the “communization debate” as framed here seems to boil down to grasping that it is Call/Tiqqun/their fans vs. everyone else. Once that distinction is made, the debate may proceed with due seriousness. The entire collection may perhaps be seen as a corrective that attempts to respond to enthusiasm for the Call and Tiqqun’s writings, as they gain increasing prominence in the US (and perhaps the Anglosphere generally).

Due to its family resemblance to the Call, Hello will be perceived as being on the “Tiqqun side” of the communization debate (considered in its macro form). Its writer may have taken this into account, since Hello will frustrate those who share the position elaborated most prominently by Endnotes in Communization and its Discontents.

Call and Hello both set out from an analysis of the situation: not the constructed situation, but what can be known in one’s everyday life. Though Hello does not use this term, it discusses the communicative (or usually non-communicative) situations of everyday life from the title on. Their skepticism is first of all a skepticism about communication and connections with others. Beginning from the situation, the Call advances to organization, to communes; Hello proposes, after its relentless questioning of all social and political life, including friendship, moralism, organization, and representation, what it calls “commitment to commitment.” This phrase seems to refer to a moment anterior to forming a position; it is something more on the order of a criterion concerning positions. That said, one can discern positions in Hello despite the lack of familiar jargon. And in these positions we might locate, not so much a new contribution to the “communization debate” as a strange response to or intervention into it.

First, Hello has an individualist/egoist streak that is illegible in terms of the positions set out in Communization and its Discontents as well as the Call. Hello evidences this in its concern with moralism as well as in its reiteration of the classic egoist’s troublemaking stance that one is free to leave a project at any time. One is reminded of the way Debord dismisses individualist anarchism out of hand in Society of the Spectacle, even though the individualist/egoist practice of joining and leaving groups more or less at will (announced as far back as Stirner) provides a glaring contrast with and problematization of the problems of all the groups and parties Debord criticizes in the long fourth chapter of his book, but also, pre-emptively, of the workers’ councils themselves, well before Théorie Communiste or anyone else pointed out that they retained the form of capitalist management, merely swapping out the managers.

Second, Hello also has an even more prominent nihilist position, evident first of all in its silence concerning organization and utter skepticism towards representation and all political forms, parliamentary or extraparliamentary. Not to speak of the business about everything and Everything! This nihilism appears somewhat more subtly in its “corrosive” skepticism about historical justifications and explanations (though Hello contradictorily indulges in some of that in first proposition and elsewhere): this includes the sorts of periodizations all marxists and most communists engage in. Conversely, what is more certain in Hello, namely, the communicative situation or its impossibility, their immediate surroundings and personal relations, will seem trivial for Endnotes and company. For Endnotes such evidences amount to “the self-affirmation of a self-identifying radical milieu.”[1] On the other hand, given the fact that it is so critical of everything from the individual’s comfort in belonging (to a couple, for example), to crews or groups, to subcultures and, yes, milieus, could one not say that Hello has absorbed this critique, and opted for a highly skeptical relation to the milieu rather than its infinitely more vague alternatives?

This last issue is perhaps the crux of the “debate” from the point of view of Hello. The pamphlet does seem to advocate some version of friendship and perhaps, as “commitment to commitment,” some version of adherence to the milieu (though it never uses this term positively). This as opposed to… the mysterious mass deployment of communizing measures by the soon-not-to-be proletariat. But it will be difficult to associate Hello entirely with Endnotes’ real or imagined antagonists, because it does not advocate sharing, withdrawal, or making communes in any way. Hello is openly anti-political, and there is nothing of what Endnotes refers to as “alternativism” in it. (“Alternativism” is defined as “practices which aim to establish liberated areas outside of capitalist domination.”)

For Endnotes, the Call falls into the trap of not naming capitalism in favor of “an ill-defined generic nobodaddy (capitalism, civilization, empire etc.) that is to be undone by —at the worst points of Call—the Authentic Ones who have forged ‘intense’ friendships, and who still really feel despite the badness of the world,” and not discussing a praxis at the level of the totality. The same criticism could be leveled at Hello, with its playful opposition to everything/Everything—but this leads to the oddest thing about it. It begins in agreement about the second point, deeply questioning friendship and communication, and then precariously reconstructs them at the end. This could be because more than capitalism is at stake. Could this be the third and most subtle position at work in Hello, an unstated but influential green or anti-civilization perspective?[2] From this point of view Hello might be suggesting that something greater than what any history or periodization could name is at stake. Perhaps for them nothing is comprehensible at the level of the totality; Everything is by definition ill-defined. (From this point of view one could even interpret the references to an Outside and especially the conclusion of Hello as mysticism.)

Hello is, in the realm of manifestos, minimalistic: it only calls out what its author says they have done, and greets others from that situation. Its apparent positions are ways to maneuver towards that greeting. Its attractiveness, its potential success, is that it requires less belief (and, incidentally, less study) than the positions of Endnotes and company to be entertained. But is the author totally skeptical about mass action, or do they just see what they are doing as so separate from such events that they prefer not to comment on them?[3] One might say the Hello position is one so skeptical that it is not disposed to talk about mass anything. It remains concerned with the communicative situation itself, and how we are bound or unbound in it (the entire matter might be described as a bifurcation between two uses of the prefix com-; one might instructively consult the respective etymologies of commune and commit).

 

 


[1] One wonders if all of the spite directed at such a milieu or milieus on their part has to do with 1) nostalgia, however well hidden or repressed, for the vanguard 2) resentment, however well hidden or repressed, about the non-dissolution of the focused radical acts of such milieus into a mass scale (“the level of the totality”).

[2] The title Communization and its Discontents echoes the well-known title given by James Strachey to his English translation of Freud’s pessimistic Civilization and its Discontents. The German title of the latter might more literally be rendered The Uneasiness in Culture. This uneasiness, Unbehagen, manifests sometimes as a guilty conscience, sometimes as inexplicable anxiety, and is, Freud proposes, something like the price one pays for belonging to Kultur, civilization. Well, Hello seems concerned precisely with that feeling of uneasiness, guilt, or anxiety; its anti-politics perhaps begins there, perhaps, in a refusal to carry on as though that feeling were not there.

[3] The same question could be asked of the non-connection between communization theory and communizing measures, at least according to the usual predictions on who might undertake the latter.

The Savage Fruit of Alienation

Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford, Verso (2011).

Architecture, for all its aspirations, is usually far too dated. Even for the untrained eye, it is easy to spot when most buildings were designed. And yet, after the luster of newness fades, architecture still casts its long shadow on the future. It is on each side of this phenomenology of time and structure that the Situationists and their inheritors lie. The Situationists, enraptured by rapid mid-century urbanization, tore up cobblestones to find the beach beneath the streets. But after all that work, the beach was not paradise but a desert, and so they turned their rage on a deserving target: the police. Yet today, the life of the Situationists is not on the streets, but has been ossified into wooden art objects and thick academic tomes.

11

Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, an anthology of the ‘zine that the Londoner published from 2005-2009, runs Situationism in reverse. It is like that dumb joke about what happens when you listen to a country music backwards – the cowboy gets his pickup, dog, and wife back. By the end of Savage Messiah, the utopian impulse of Situationist urbanism returns while the city is smashed, and even the police seem to fade into mere afterthought. The legacy of Situationism is obvious in Savage Messiah, as Ford explicitly names her project a dérive, the Situationist’s psychological exploration of the subjective experience of urbanism, and passages from situationist-related writers, theorists, and urbanists (Baudelaire, Bataille, Benjamin, Simmel, Ballard, Deleuze, Negri) are peppered throughout the text. But even more generally, the book offers a picture-perfect rendering of Situationist psychogeography because it presents a journey through a city that is too full of discontinuous times, spaces, and images to ever fit on a map.

Savage Messiah begins where the original Situationist International fell apart; the cover depicts riot cops emptying out whatever space might still exist outside dilapidated 60’s estates. This is disorienting at first, as the zig-zag history of architecture that structures the narrative hardly provides a stable set of reference points. Yet one needs not be from London to get the book. And perhaps it would even be best to never have been there at all. This book is better for swimming in than reading. Once the reader crosses the thick black edges that define the book’s own private world, Ford’s images, thoughts, and language remain only partially penetrable. Cut up and pasted side-by-side are many hand-drawn portraits, lists of punk shows attended or d’n’b songs overheard, occasional histories of revolt, stories of quick trips to a bar or flat, photos of empty hallways, recollections of strong smells, cleverly detourned graft slogans, shots of towering buildings, and many tales of being kissed by a new acquaintance. Despite the richness of the world presented, however, it would be a mistake to look for the numerous strands of the book to form a totality.

Rather than providing a fully-knowable totalizing perspective, the seemingly disconnected pieces of Savage Messiah make up an immersive environment that expresses the subjective experience of the city: alienation. The ideal reader is then an outsider. Replicating the experience of walking down the street, the book recalls times and places you have not experienced and never will. Its many people are strangers that you will never meet. Yet being alienated from this nowhere that is populated by nobodies does not produce a non-experience, but in fact, it presents the exact form of experience that dominates modern life. Run-ins and strange connections still occur during encounters with other alienated beings that drift through an environment beyond their control, but these unions are always temporary and feel more like an ongoing series of accidents than cosmic fate.

Yet the alienation of living in a shitty flat or being stuck in the rundown part of town is not something that the book laments. However, it is not something that the book celebrates or protects either, as Ford heaps out disdain for both yuppies lording it and encroaching Olympics 2012 development. Rather, the alienation that comes with city life is presented as fact, though that fact also bears an accompanying range of feelings and urges. Boredom, aimlessness, excitement, frustration, and rage become creativity, exploration, pursuit, destruction, and violence. And this potent mixture is neither more natural nor more inauthentic than mixes found elsewhere, whether it be in the heat of the factory or in wild country air. Rather, these feelings are simply how it is and the question question is only how to put them to use.

Savage Messiah is not without its commentators and critics. And in this regard, Ford’s work suffers a fate similar to the Situationists. On the one hand, the book gets accused of failing at dull stale leftist tasks. But it would be idiotic to read it as a field guide with organizational schemes (for it has none), or worse yet, to vulgarly reduce its richness to a rhetorical screed against gentrification. And on the other, the book gets reduced to art object or documentary archive that simply preserves forgotten or marginal aspects of the city for display. What both these interpretations miss is the purpose of Ford’s text: to fashion crumbling architecture into missiles and barricades. London is not to be saved from the developers but transformed into a punk war machine that screams “Estate Agents! Up against the South facing wall!” as it steamrolls through fascists.

It takes time in Ford’s boozed voyages past various people and places to build up a clear notion of what she finds beneath the city streets. But as the book begins to close, Savage Messiah is clearly set on its warpath. After an exhilarating description of riots, the book ends with a photo of Ford and her crew that is followed by a long coda of pitch black pages. In the final picture, a man casually stands over an upended monitor in triumph over The Spectacle, another two pick up a sofa as if moving it the barricades, and Ford poses in the foreground with a molotov cocktail in hand. The message of the image is clear. But what do the fully-saturated pages at the end suggest? A future too dark to depict? A future more rich than images? Or a future yet to be written?

Bring Back The Metropolitan Indians!

You have built the Reservation for us, and now you want to chase us back into it, into the ghettos of marginalization and despair. No more is this possible! Because it is precisely out of the ghettos that our Rebellion has exploded. Today Human Beings have found themselves again, have found their strength, their joy of collective living, their anger, and their thirst for communism.
-The Metropolitan Indians of North Rome, 1977

metro_indians_city

Some say that a certain distance lends itself to a certain obscurity, but a certain distance can also lend itself to certain clarity. When Franz Kafka wrote Amerika, his final novel, he had never been to the United States and in his book he describes the Statue of Liberty holding a sword in her hand, not a torch. Max Brod, the man who ensured that his friend’s work would become immortal after his death, did not edit out this error. We can only speculate as to why Kafka believed the statue held a sword. The torch in her hand is meant to be a symbol of freedom, a beacon for the poor and hungry immigrants of the world to flock to. But as we all know, when the immigrants arrived, they found the sword hanging above their heads.

We have no idea who the Whitherburo are but it is clear they are not from the United States. Their name is a combination of the English adverb whither and the Spanish word for donkey, one of the most dependable, stubborn, and burdened animals on the planet. Together, their name could be taken to mean, “to what place, donkey?”

The Whitherburo have pierced directly into the heart of the United States with their new book, simply titled Whitherburo. Their ideas of this country (a place they despise) are informed by history books, radical literature, the internet, a few conversations, a few visits, and a surprising amount of inspiration. But like Kafka, they have inserted one strange item into their text: the idea of the Indian.

They dwell often on the counter-culture that emerged throughout the developed world in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this upsurge of revolutionary activity, they find a desire to evoke, channel, or otherwise manifest the spirit of the earth and the forces of life that were being suppressed by fascist/colonial culture.

In the section of the book titled Indians, the authors write “the Americans unnaturally wiped out a people who loved and respected nature and integrated it with their lives. Now the Americans wander about, talking constantly about spiritual belonging, organic food, and so forth. They killed the Indians and paved the land only to regret it later. This is nihilism.” The forces of life that were suppressed during the colonization of North America are constantly struggling to return, to reverse the tide and push back “the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people (Symbionese Liberation Army, 1974).”

When the authors use the term Indian throughout the text, they are referring to these suppressed natural forces, the eternal antagonists to the American project of total fascism. Their use of Indian as a term potentially ripe with antagonism is perhaps intentionally ironic, or perhaps naively so. Regardless of their purpose and motivations, it revives a history of the fetishization of Native cultures while simultaneously asking us to consider how the symbol of the Indian might constitute the spirit of anti-fascism. In the section titled Digression on Nazism and America, the authors make clear that the nihilistic death culture of America is not accidentally, but consciously fascist. “If America brings the Nazis into its own country, puts them back in power in West Germany and Greece, and helps them come to power all over Latin America, Africa, and Asia, it is because America has an affinity with Nazism.

Franz Kafka was to die before the horror of the Nazis exterminated his entire family in the furnaces and death camps of fascist Europe. In regards to our dear Franz, the authors offer the following words. “Kafka well understood America, even though he never visited, and his book Amerika certainly deserves a higher estimation than it receives amongst Americans, who in their typical stupidity treat it as some sort of comedy unique amongst his works, instead of reflecting that he, as an early chronicler of the emerging bureaucratic nihilism, hound his only real country for study in America.”

Every metropolis is created by the forces of death. It surrounds and enslaves the forces of life, the rebels, the insurgents, the people who simultaneously inhabit this web of domination and struggle to destroy it. This war is constant and never ending, and the Indians suffer long defeats and sudden victories that threaten to engulf the world. The upsurge of revolution in the United States that took place in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a moment of possibility that revealed the continued existence of the spirit of life.

In the 60’s, the fun Americans were having is contextualized by remembering the horrific, earth-crushing sadness of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. When we hear of the street theater of the Diggers, the joys of Woodstock, of the counter culture, we see that Americans were finally starting to enjoy themselves, which meant a break with the Protestant death culture of willing nothingness…The nihilism of American life swallowed up the return of the Indian children, for a brief time at least. But it will only re-start, and this time in a more virulent and final fashion.

While their use of the word nihilism may not synchronize with the common, contemporary understanding, this author finds it to be appropriate. To them, America is the triumph of nihilism. It is nothingness made material and virulent, spreading across the entire world. It hollows out the minds of the population, turning them into dead shells who are concerned only with aesthetics, appearance, image, and representation. When these poor shells first dream of rebellion, they always start by imitating and appropriating the appearances of the rebels that the death culture has extinguished. They do not make this point to forever condemn all potential rebels, but merely to highlight the long and difficult process of decolonization.

In 1975, Bommi Baumann, a former fighter in the June 2nd Movement, published his memoir How It All Began while living underground. In the book, he explains the multiform, diffuse, and ecstatic counter-culture that came to be known as the “support base” of the various guerrilla groups that operated in Germany. Before it took on such a militaristic and lifeless character, the counter-culture was its own weapon of liberation against the forces of death. But all of that began to change.

In the second half of his memoir, Baumann laments this turn that the counter culture took. Before, people would smoke hash, grow their hair long, express their sexuality, commit irrational acts on the street in large groups, and burn things they did not like whenever they were possessed to do so. Life was the guiding force, the spirit that made Baumann quit his alienating job and become a freak. However, as a guerrilla in the J2M, Baumann suddenly found himself forced to dress like the people he despised in order not to be apprehended and remain underground.

Suddenly you’re right there again. You’re standing there with short hair, with a suit, with everything the same again as where you came from; and the people around you react in the same way, they’re just as hardened as you. So you wore yourself out all those years, and did everything, and suddenly you arrive right back there again…the more you make yourself illegal, that is to say, the further you isolate yourself, the more secret the things you are doing become, the more you fall right into this consumerism. Of course, you can’t run around like you did before, so you keep getting more velvet suits, and at the end you look like you’ve jumped right out of Playboy.

The authors of Whitherburo are correct in believing that most Americans (including American radicals, anarchists, etc.) have no knowledge of people like Bommi Baumann or the lessons that others like him tried to pass on. To them, Americans are a largely stupefied and ignorant mass of nihilists with no connection to the past and no hope for the future. The hatred of America that courses through this text cannot be overstated.

Unlike the Americans that they despise so deeply, the authors do offer a clear suggestion to their readers. They believe the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the Indian, will lay waste to the nihilist void threatening to destroy the world. Although the revolutionaries of the 60’s and 70’s might have imperfectly understood this spirit and appropriated forms that were not theirs to have, the authors do not discourage similar efforts. And nor does this author, for that matter.

Before we offer one final quote from the book, I would like to clearly state that we need a return of the freak, the mad, the irrational, and chaotic, and the wild. No more stupefaction, hollowness, depression, or frigidity. We need life, love, joy, rebellion, madness, and laughter. Bring back the Metropolitan Indian! Channel the spirit of the earth! Go wild, be free, and destroy what destroys you!

It is very appropriate that some revolutionaries of ’77 called themselves Metropolitan Indians. These groups knew unconsciously that their real enemy was America, and that the real enemy of America is not the proletariat but the Indians, who represent the power of spirituality returning to a world from which it had apparently been banished. When the factories crumble and reveal their spiritually transient character, all the magic, the metaphysics they had repressed from the world returns to a new and everlasting life. Now the next revolution in this historic chain of appearances will in its turn annihilate historical nothingness, the American Way of Life.

The Reign of Stupidity

Carnival and Cannibal, Ventriloquous Evil
Baudrillard, Jean.
London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010
92 Pages.

 More than others, Anarchists seem to suffer most under the Reign of Stupidity.  Stupidity reigns, has always reigned and according to Jean Baudrillard, it is virtually a perk of holding office.  Stupidity is what he says Power does to people, as it rules over our highly complex, scientific, techno-information-society.    Jean Baudrillard died before Barak Obama was elected, but it is certain that his conceptualization wouldn’t have changed:

rollercoaster

…a majority of [voting] Americans desire the presence in the White House of someone whose stupidity and banality underwrite their own conformism. The more stupid he is, the less personally idiotic they will feel…In this ‘stupid’ hereditary function, power is a virtual configuration that absorbs any element and metabolizes it to its advantage. It may be formed of countless intelligent particles, but that will change nothing of its opaque structure: it is like a body that changes its cells but continues to be the same…America will have become Black, Indian, Hispanic or Puerto Rican [and I would add Asian] without ceasing to be America… it will be all the more integrist for having become, in actuality, multiracial and multicultural. And all the more imperialist for being led by the descendants of the slaves. This is how it is. It is a paradox…” (pp.16-17, brackets mine, fj).

 Throughout his life, Jean Baudrillard was concerned with the effects of Wealth/Power on the life of the mind. Nearly alone among French philosophers, he took the Situationists’ Society of the Spectacle at its word and his work is a logical extension of theirs.  For him, ‘Spectacle’ is the whole of Western socialization: as it is taught in schools; seen in films and TV; propelled in advertisement;  built in architecture; legislated in representative democracies; meted out in punishments in courtrooms and jails; researched in laboratories and forced onto others by the actions of its military apparatus.

… We may ask ourselves whether these Whites…are not already figures in a masquerade; we may ask whether they are not already caricatures of themselves, characters taking themselves for their own masks. The Whites may thus (be) said to have carnivalized – and hence cannibalized- themselves long before exporting all this to the whole world. We have here the great parade of a culture in the grip of a profusion of resources and offering itself for its own consumption, with mass consumerism and the consumption of all possible goods merely providing the most current form of this self-devouring…It is all a great collective spectacle, in which the West decks itself out not only in the spoils of all the other cultures – in its museums, fashions and art – but also in the spoils of its own culture.” (pp. 7-8, parenthesis mine-fj).

So the first part of this book is called Carnival and Cannibal.  Both words are shorthand for Jean Baudrillard’s 30 page depiction of the legacies of Western bourgeois culture.  “Carnival” is the parade of modernization: all the Western technical, economic and political values marching to the tune of evangelization, colonization, decolonization, globalization and hegemony.  “Cannibal” is the increasingly obvious sense that what is being produced by Carnival is a parody which devours itself (pp.4-11).
Everyone is ‘decked out’ in the signs of the master race, its fashion, its art, its technology, its free market, its ‘digital imperative’, but in the same moment, we falsify ourselves in our mimicry. One thinks immediately of college students and academics, of Bono, of Asian kids in German luxury cars, of “Bureau Indians”, of American puppet governments in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, of the new Billionaires of India and of course, of Barak Obama. Carnival and Cannibal are two movements of the same Westernization, from proselyte to self-parody.

 The previously held values of tribe, caricole, family, religion, temple, church and zen monastery all dissolve in the Carnival’s flood of words, images, lessons, attractions and commodities.  What’s left is the human fall-out we have today, a Disneyfied, Bollywoodized, Wall Streeted and 5th Avenue’d control society with its disoriented, demented participants: everyone in their places and wanting more, unable to think differently and destroying their own environment.  

The white missionaries of Wealth/Power hadn’t counted on the fact that they themselves are also their own victims. Western socio-political theory is thereby emptied out: no one (except maybe Zizek) believes in it anymore and the term ‘growth’ has a cancerous and pollutionary sense to it.  Cannibalism is a company against its employees AND its customers AND its environment (Wall Street). It is a country against the others AND its own people AND its own land (the US and the PIIGS countries). One thinks immediately of the French-Algerian rescue mission at an oil installation on 1/18/2013 which began by killing most of the hostages it was supposed to rescue. http://news.yahoo.com/deaths-escapes-algeria-hostage-crisis-still-not-over-141658716.html

Part Two of this book is 56 pages and is called “Ventriloquous Evil”. It is an address that was given in Quito, Ecuador in September 2006. Jean Baudrillard died the next spring, in March of 2007. In this part, Ventriloquous Evil is concerned with what happens after Western bourgeois cultural thought has been emptied of all meaning. It begins with an expression of the problem of ‘hegemony’ versus ‘domination’:

Domination is defined by what it is opposed to, by relations of force and internal contradictions. It is defined by a negativity, and, in order to exist, the master has as much need of the slave as the slave has of the master. Hegemony, by contrast, no longer has need of the opposite term; it does not need its contrary in order to exist – that contrary for which, unlike domination, it has no definition (which is why the concept of ‘liberation’ has no meaning for it: it has meaning only in the field of systems of domination). (pp. 35-36, parentheses in the original text).

Ventriloquous Evil is what happens when the Western “Good” wins and achieves hegemony. For those who might read this small book, it is best not to ruin it by telling the ending. Suffice it to say that Jean Baudrillard, right until his death, held out hope for humanity and he finds the solutions to these problems in the writing of Yukio Mishima and Alan Sillitoe among others – in the literature of Events. Jean Baudrillard’s symbolic realm of gift and potlatch opens a door for all of us:

There remains, also, the nostalgia cultivated by all heresies over the course of history – the dream, running parallel to the course of the real world, of the absolute event which would open on to a thousand years of happiness. The heightened expectation of the single event that would, at a stroke, unmask the enormous conspiracy in which we are immersed. This expectation is still at the heart of the collective imagination. The Apocalypse is present, in homeopathic doses, in each of us. (p. 89)

f. jones

To Beach or Not to Beach

He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of an intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” –The Road, (130)

The Road is a post apocalyptic sci-fi novel, a love story, and a dark and inspiring metaphor for the nihilist project of destroying this world. Contained within this metaphor are meditations on myth, identity, symbolic culture, innocence, why we do what we do, and how we evaluate the consequences.

molotov

The story takes place roughly ten years after a nuclear war has devastated nearly everything on earth. Almost everyone is dead, and almost every last can of food has been scavenged. Dead naked trees pock the ash blanketed landscape falling one by one as time goes on. Seeds no longer germinate and there don’t seem to be any living animals, bugs, birds, or fish. The only remaining life as far as we can tell are the handful of humans who have survived the immediate aftermath and now wander about choking on ash as they forage and/or hunt other humans. There is talk of the existence of communes but we never encounter them or learn anything about them other than the fact that those exiled from the communes can be identified by missing fingers on their right hand. McCarthy tells us nothing about why the bombs went off. This is not a story about war or global politics. It is a story about a Man and a Boy, a father and a son, and the love between the two of them, “each the other’s world entire”(6).

We encounter these two characters just as they determine that where they are offers nothing but grim certainty, “There’d be no surviving another winter here” (p.2). They set out to change their conditions by venturing into the unknown; heading towards what is for them merely a vague notion, The Beach. Without knowing what to expect and with no way to accurately calculate an outcome, they decide to risk everything in order to create a condition for themselves in which new possibilities can emerge, rather than endure their current situation in which only one thing is possible. All they have to guide them is an old torn up roadmap that is difficult to decipher, partially because it was made for navigating a world that has since changed significantly. The road is dangerous and promises nothing, but the misery heaped on them by circumstances over which they had no control has made traversing it necessary.

Along the way the Man and Boy struggle to stay fed and hydrated. The stores and houses they search through have already long since been ransacked many times over. They have to remain hyper vigilant because there are marauding bands of cannibals. Natural selection seems to have favored those most willing to be organized and vicious:

He woke in the morning and turned over in the blanket and looked back down the road through the trees the way they’d come in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. Red or orange, as close to red as they could find. He put his hand on the boy’s head. Shh, he said.
What is it, Papa?
People on the road. Keep your face down. Don’t look.
…An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings. Lanyards at the wrist. Some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon…Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks…The phalanx following carried spears or lances tasseled with ribbons, the long blades hammered out of truck spring in some crude forge upcountry…Behind them came the wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number, some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites ill clothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.”(P 92)

At one point they stumble upon a pill box buried in someone’s yard fully stocked with food and water and various other supplies and sundries. Compared to life on the road, this comfortable hiding place resembles heaven on earth… Here they can enjoy the same basic material comforts as a prisoner, three hots and a cot, and about as much freedom. They stand no chance of improving their situation – of realizing any desires beyond mere survival. And the danger remains, any minute they could be caught helpless. On the road they can see danger coming and hide or run in any direction, they can also spot tracks and see if someone is on the road in front of them and avoid them, whereas in the bomb shelter they would be trapped like rats, one way in one way out. They decide they want more. They want the Beach.

The story flashes back briefly from time to time, sometimes to the Man’s memories of life before the fall, other times to a third person narrative or earlier events that lend context to the story. Some flashbacks are to what the author refers to as “the early years” in which “The frailty of everything [was] revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night.”(28) One is to the day when the bombs went off, and another is to a couple weeks after that when the Boy was born. One of the more profound and disturbing flashbacks is to the night the Boy’s Mother decides to take her own life “…with a flake of obsidian…Sharper than steel. The edge an atom thick.”(58)

Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is.”(Schopenhauer, Studies In Pessimism)

The Mother’s suicide shatters the Kantian imperative regarding humanity as an end in itself (although she might affirm that this would be a fine act to “universalize”). Her existence combined with sentience produces only tension, which she resolves with a nihilist cadence. She openly acknowledges that this is a selfish act that will have an impact on those who care about her and she does so not just unapologetically but in a way that is callously triumphant. She mocks what she perceives as wounded manhood in her soon to be widowed husband and the absurd notion that he could somehow provide a life worth living for her and her son. She tells him death is her lover who will give her what he can’t. She is the one with the courage to embrace the nothing. “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart. He didn’t answer. You have no argument cause there is none.”(57) Here, McCarthy takes that vulgar concept ‘sanctity of life’ that still haunts our culture, that serves power in its quest to erase the option of ‘nothing at all’, and iconoclastically ridicules and thrashes it. “And she was right. There was no argument.”(58)

Sci-fi authors have a way of using fiction to critique culture and power that is similar the means used by more academic social critics. For instance, what scholars like Nietzsche and Foucault offer with their genealogies that is of value to us iconoclasts is a means of rendering arbitrary and contingent the concepts and power structures we engage with in our daily lives that societies take for granted as being legitimate and sacred, universal and immutable. By examining and deconstructing the historical processes, the material and political conditions in which certain concepts gained utility for serving power and control (i.e., normalization) we can see how for example: normal and deviant, sane and insane, able bodied and disabled, masculine and feminine, white and of color, super-ordinate and subordinate, guilt and innocencen, etc., are not pure natural existential states but mere reifications acting as currency within a specific economy of power. And once the grid on which these elements operate is altered or destroyed they can all cease to exist or take on entirely new meanings and functions (like how paper currency became wallpaper after Argentina’s economy collapsed). Sci-fi authors do a similar thing by constructing a hypothetical future or an alternate past or present in which they can playfully imagine other social contexts where these concepts might have either different uses and meanings or possibly none at all.

The characters in The Road exist in a world that has already been destroyed. The material basis for the social relations that created the world we know has been annihilated by nuclear warfare. McCarthy shows us in his fictional scenario how–without having some social utility or institutionalized power structure to serve–once seemingly universal acontextual truths of human existence like justice, time, identity, morality, history, sanctity of life, innocence, community, progress, etc. all become useless anachronisms. There is a part when the Man points a gun at an attacker and explains a bunch of esoteric neuro-science about what is going to happen to the attacker’s brain when he pulls the trigger. The attacker asks, “What are you a doctor?” the Man replies, “I am not anything.”(68) No identity predicated on any category can have any meaning absent a symbolic culture in which to contextualize it. None of the characters in this story have names, “Who is it? Said the boy. I don’t know, who is anybody?” (49) McCarthy eulogizes in this story not just the death of people and infrastructure, but also the death of symbolic culture itself:

He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought…The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”(88) “The last instance of a thing takes the class with it.” (28)

Beneath the veil of abstractions, of spectacle and hyperreality, of social relations mediated by images, of culture and politics, we inhabit a world of bare ahistorical chaos and pure possibility just like the characters in this novel. The amenities in the world you and I live in are more abundant than what these characters have available, but the universe of abstractions that make up culture and meaning and a moral order are just as arbitrary and made up in both worlds, except that the characters in The Road have more control over the mythologies around which they orient their lives and gauge their decisions.

The man pretends to the boy that their life is given meaning by some cause that precedes and anticipates them, that exists outside of them and that can still exist even if they’re not alive to conceive of it. He tells the boy that he is appointed by god to protect the boy. He creates for the boy some millenarian myth of them “carrying the fire”. Carrying the fire protects them from harm and as carriers of the fire they do not engage in the behavior of the marauders, they don’t rape, kill, or cannibalize. The Man knows there is no such fire; he is only interested in protecting and comforting the boy. He does not do this because he believes their world contains any possibility of restoration or redemption. He is simply concerned with creating the least tortured existence he can for his son which sometimes means offering him a myth laden with hope, sometimes it involves holding a gun to his head ready to kill him before the cannibals find him. This is not a religious man. The closest he comes to prayer is a soliloquy in which he asks god if he has a neck by which he could throttle him. He has witnessed not only the death but also the cremation of god, the scattering of his ashes. But as Bataille tells us “The absence of god is no longer a closure: it is the opening up to the infinite.” It is greater and more divine and “(in the process I am no longer myself but an absence of self; I await the sleight of hand that renders me immeasurably joyful.)”(Absence of Myth, 48) For the boy, “the fire” is that sleight of hand.

We create myths for ourselves as anarchists, historic ones, they tell us where we came from and where we’re going and why our suffering is meaningful and redeemable. At times we even secularize the fundamental principal of eschatology: that history is not complete until God’s plan is fully realized in a human dimension. This myth-making can be helpful for us in the same way it is helpful for the Man and the Boy, it is a means of making sense of our choices within the context of conditions that are utterly absurd. But we are not agents of redemption here to restore humanity after its fall from grace. There is no state of grace and innocence to return to. There is no predetermined order that awaits humanity’s arrival at which point everything settles into its place and history stops. McCarthy’s story refuses any narrative of hope or redemption; he simply reveals choices and actions and consequences that occur in a chaotic ahistorical vacuum for no reason. Worlds come and go and the end is never the end and even if it is one day, it won’t mean anything because there will be no one around to conceive of it.

Where men can’t live gods fare no better…Things will be better when everybody’s gone.
They will?
Sure they will.
Better for who?
Everybody.
Everybody.
Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.
That’s good to know.
Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there will be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out on the road there with nothing to do and no one to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?”(173)

After watching the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, in which a giant planet crashes into the earth destroying it, I stood on a hill overlooking the entire bay area and imagined seeing a planet beyond the clouds hurtling towards the earth and contemplated a sudden fiery end. As I watched the machines below with their lights and smoke crawling over the gridded landscape as well as the flying ones above, I tried to imagine what this place looked and sounded like two hundred years ago. Armageddon has already come and gone here. I didn’t notice because I wasn’t around, just like the Boy who never experienced the world of the Man. For those who lived here for thousands of years, the entire world as they experienced and understood it has been obliterated by a series of catastrophic events that still continue. All I’ve ever known is the aftermath, that is my world. Like the boy, I’ve heard stories of what it was like before but those are “…thing[s] which could not be put back.”(287). To us these characters seem to be simply running out the clock in the hopeless futureless debris of the old world. I imagine we might look the same way to someone from the destroyed world that used to exist where I live now.

The choices we face are similar to the ones faced by the characters in this story (which I’ve chosen to read as a parable) . Sometimes we want to hide out from the worst of it in the shelter, hoping to just comfortably enjoy each other’s company unmolested for a while. Sometimes we wish to opt out entirely like the Mother did; when all our options seem to only promise terror and tedium, choosing nothing seems like the most sensible thing to do. And sometimes we make a run for the Beach, even though we know we’ll probably not arrive there and could die trying. “He said that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that all of this was empty and no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that.”(29) And it’s possible that it’s already or always has been too late, that we could remove the last paving stone and beneath it discover a Beach that’s not at all like we imagined: “Beyond that the ocean vast and cold and shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash. He looked at the boy. He could see the disappointment in his face. I’m sorry it’s not blue, he said. That’s okay, said the boy”.(215) But no matter what we choose on any given day, we have the ability to mythologize about our choices and their consequences however we please.

The next time you light a rag sticking out the end of a bottle half full of gasoline and motor oil ready to destroy everything that stands between you and the Beach, remember, nothing bad can happen to us because we are carrying the fire!

References

Bataille, Georges. The Absence of Myth. New York: Verso, 2006
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Studies in Pessimism. ebooks. Adelaide. 29 Jan. 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012

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