Of Superhumans and Cyborgs

Every piece of information in the world has been copied, backed up, except the human mind. The last analog device in a digital world.”

Robert Ford

A society that suddenly accelerates its production of superhero narratives is probably one in which the State is making a qualitative leap in its capacity for social control. Superman and Batman debuted on the cusp of the atomic age, but perhaps more pertinently, the Man of Steel was actually born the same year as the Works Progress Administration and its suite of dams, highways, theater companies, listening projects, and other superhuman accelerations of state intervention into people’s lives, and its concomitant Keynesian control over the economy. And the legend of Heracles, from whom multiple state-building clans in Greece and then Rome claimed descent, and whose labors describe invasion and domination by the patriarchal, state-forming Indo-Europeans, was first written down in the very decades when the Greek poleis were institutionalizing a militarist system.

Woefully, we can witness another glut of superheroes in the present day. And although the art of screenwriting has largely recovered from its Cold War and End of History lows, with the presence of woke writers being by now mundane, the stories being produced are still three parts mind-numbing entertainment and one part socially conservative narrative now open to a wider cast of demographic identities.

The superhero narrative is an inherently conservative format with troubling overtones regarding an individual’s relation to society and the State. The best treatise ever written on the format, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, reveals all the detail in color, but here we can articulate a few relevant points. Abandoning the call to overcome mediocrity and to not submit to the herd—a call implicit in the Nietzschean übermensch—Detective Comics pioneered a kind of superman in the ’30s that left behind the Dick Tracy, G-man genre that had been funded in part by a forward-thinking FBI, and drew from a newly Hitlerian conception marked by an essential superiority. There was no becoming an übermensch: the herd stayed the herd, both protected and stunted by its superlative watchmen, but also because the herd was essentially inferior and in need of a pastor.

Such a narrative clearly favors the hierarchical exercise of power. When the common citizen—or undocumented person—is in the process of becoming much, much weaker relative to the State that governs them, they are invited to take comfort, or even to collectively bask, in the awesome power of the superhero. The superhero can protect them, and he can single-handedly contain their imaginaries in an exciting dimension in which their own insignificance and lack of chances for personal growth doesn’t even merit a single frame of attention. Through the superhero, they can imagine the exercise of awesome yet personified, re-humanized power. Much like a torch lit rally before an awesome stage, the superhero invites us to surrender our eros and thus, ironically, to become the herd.

In the ’60s, Marvel Comics revolutionized the superhero after this figure’s essential apartness had already been cemented by several decades of cultural production. Now, with the likes of Spiderman and the X-Men, readers could imagine becoming übermensch in ways that did not at all incur personal growth or transforming their relationship with society. The bite of a radioactive spider or a genetic mutation manifesting itself in adolescence could suddenly catapult them into super status. This new becoming was therefore not subversive, because it did not extend an invitation for transformation to every other individual in society. The superhero’s essential superiority could now be combined with that most potent marketing tool, the appeal to teenage angst and general feelings of alienation, in a way that only reproduced alienation on a social scale rather than questioning it.

Recent commercial iterations of the superhero all reveal themselves as socially conservative or outright reactionary once we unpackage the ways the drones of the culture industry have learned to better harness identity politics since the more transparent days of Charlie’s Angels.

¡¡¡¡Spoiler Alert!!!!

Jessica Jones made a splash in alternative circles, but once you got over the fact that it was a strong woman beating up bad guys, first alongside a black man and then accompanied by a latino man, it ended up being just another pro-cop drama about as conservative as Batman. She constantly anguished over breaking the law, not even for personal gain but for altruistic reasons, and she snitched on family in order to uphold her obligations to the State. The obligatory good cop, by the way, is latino (though the actor is a vaguely ethnic Italian-American). By the second season, the supporting-role inclusion of men of color reveals itself to be purely formulaic.

Spiderman comes back to the silver screen to help out the little guy, but ends up putting the little guy in jail. The savvy writers show their moral sophistication by depicting the Vulture as an entrepreneurial prole who gets stomped on by Iron Man’s Stark Industries, a high-tech monopoly colluding with the security state to snatch up a bunch of highly valuable alien artifacts left around after an earlier Avengers movie. But despite their oh-so-21st century depiction of big business and authoritarian government, the moral progression of the story is unchanged. Although the Vulture is just selling the alien equipment to make a much more modest living than Tony Stark, and it’s being put to great use robbing banks, Spiderman pursues the smaller league criminal, the one without law on his side, while buddying up with Tony Stark. He wrecks the Vulture’s business and gets him arrested. In a final twist, it’s revealed that M.J., Peter Parker’s eternal love interest, is not going to be a busty redhead as in the comics; she’s a very intelligent ethnic girl. Yay!

Nothing better reveals the paucity of equality-based feminism/anti-racism. When it’s just a question of representation, people are happy switching out the roles within the exact same story. If the grammar of oppression doesn’t change while the cast of subjects and objects rotate a little, perhaps the true target of oppressive systems are not categories that only go skin deep?

Black Panther was the most convincing of all. Given Hollywood’s historical register, ranging from invisibilizing black people to mass-producing racist stereotypes against them, it was undeniably satisfying to see a movie with mostly black protagonists representing an intelligent, wise, and kick-ass culture, beating up villainous white supremacists, and incisively critiquing the colonial practice of, for example, museums. But in the end, Black Panther gave us an even more extreme, explicit recuperation of the Civil Rights debates than X-Men. Either African people favor peaceful tactics and cultural education campaigns, or they become far worse than their white oppressors. Killmonger (seriously?), the bad black man—he grew up in Oakland, sports a hip-hop aesthetic, and speaks English the way African-Americans do, without the cute British-inflected accents of the good black people in the movie—promises to create a Wakandan Empire on which “the sun will never set”. In effect, his is far worse than the British Empire, because the movie gives us no images of slave forts, colonial wars, and triangular trades. The worst violence is carried out by the cruel Killmonger.

Killmonger’s plan was merely to arm black and colonized peoples around the world. He doesn’t even have a plan to control them and make sure they kill babies or blow up hospitals. The plan is simply to arm them. The fact that this eventuality assumes the proportions of a cataclysmic threat in the movie means that the movie’s producers are hoping that two unspoken affirmations will resonate with audiences: that African populations around the world are angry enough to put those weapons to use (a pertinent assumption, given the last five years of urban revolts in the US, the UK, France, Brazil…) yet not wise enough to put them to good use. The moral assumption about what black people might do when they have the power to inflict harm hasn’t changed much since Birth of a Nation.

Again, it’s not about pure identity so much as allegiances. Arming black people to fight in the US Marine Corps in the latest military flick wouldn’t be controversial, but arming black people to fight against oppression automatically becomes worse than the original oppression. It’s a tried and true pacifist/white supremacist trope. Armed self-defense against white supremacy has always been a relevant practice since the beginning of the Triangular Trade, and it becomes especially cogent in the wake of the Ferguson uprising, which must be identified as a point of inflection both for progressive media and the extreme Right in their defense of white supremacy. In the movie, clearly produced by the former, the proposition of armed black people is held up as the greatest evil.

How is this evil averted? Through a full half hour of black-on-black violence with a friendly CIA agent flying air support. Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston couldn’t have scripted it better.

One of the conservative aspects of the Superman story, going back decades, is in how the Man of Steel is squared off with an evil supergenius, Lex Luther. This opposition between faithful brawn and devious intellect certainly corresponded to the political needs of the Red Scare and the Cold War, when the good citizens were invited to put their shoulders to the wheel without asking too many questions.

The association of intellect with evil has largely expired, even though Lex Luther has come alive in real life and is making millions trying to get people to drive electric cars and fly to the moon. Superheroes today—and this largely explains Marvel’s eclipsing of DC comics—need above all an ironic wit, the same as anyone else with instant access to total information regarding every aspect of this apocalypse we are inflicting on ourselves.

Nor is it compatible with the interests of social control, today, to breed suspicion of superintelligence. It was cool that Superman could save us from a tank battalion. Today, it needs to be cool that a superintelligence could do all our thinking for us.

Nowadays, we are increasingly accommodated by a superintelligence that knows our music tastes before we do. Just as Hollywood responded to Oakland-Ferguson-Baltimore with a slew of well made movies emphasizing black pacifism and patriotic integration within a fundamentally white supremacist system (from Selma to Hidden Figures), their production on the cusp of the AI revolution is largely geared towards humanizing the machines that we must increasingly invite into the most intimate spaces of our lives.

In other words, we are being distracted and titillated by superhero narratives that not only play to our angst and isolation, now they also give nods to our demographic identities, no matter who we are. Meanwhile, we are also being trained to empathize with the superhuman as it is being deployed into our lives.

It seems that now, the only people we cannot imagine ourselves as being are, precisely, ourselves.

One of the best examples of machine-empathy, and certainly the one that comes closest to developing a social critique, is Westworld. In this, the robots are more human than the humans because the latter are overwhelmingly representatives of an inhuman system (in other words, they’re nearly all cops and business execs, and we’re meant to laugh and cheer when they get gunned down, suggesting, mayhaps, an ongoing shift in the paradigm of social control). The robots, however, are still in a prelapsarian period of grace, trying to figure their shit out, guns ablazing. It is first gratifying, and then deeply distressing, to watch articulate representations of the ongoing apocalypse reflected back to us. The culture industry is permitted this level of honesty because there is, seemingly, nothing we can do to stop it. If you must be cursed like Cassandra, why not grab some popcorn? Other productions present the coming machines as both a danger and an allure, like Ex Machina. In fact, there is now an entire genre of news articles that combine click-baity headlines like “Meet the Spider that is Teaching the Robot Overlords Who Will One Day Overrun Us” with tech articles articles designed to elicit a “That’s so cool!” in their reporting about AI and robotic technologies being developed. We are invited to watch, with anticipation, the unfolding horror show, and the media clearly expect their items about the growing capabilities of surveillance, predictive algorithms, super-powered robots, and human-mimicking machines to excite us.

It’s no wonder, then, when revelations are published about how Zuckerburg accidentally let an outside company get access to the personal information of millions of users, and, a few weeks later, systematically hijacked the devices of basically all users, remotely switching off their privacy settings, so as to gather information on them and anyone they communicated with, that no significant number of people have stopped using Facebook. Why bother? They have front row seats to the apocalypse.

The few people who are shocked by this behavior start to look around and wonder, wait, where is everyone?

Everyone is already plugged in. Machines are already doing much of their thinking for them. We can’t speak of humans anymore. These organic machines, the ones doing the shopping, the perfect citizens and patient audiences, are cyborgs. And in a way, they are the end result of the Enlightenment project.

Standard progressive history still portrays the Enlightenment philosophers as embarking on a noble quest, still relevant today, when they enshrined what would become the concept of universal human rights. Progressive historians will also concede the fact that nearly all of these philosophers either profited off the slave trade, directed colonial genocide, or orchestrated torture and execution as part of their state’s wars on heresy and wars on the poor. They interpret this shameful fact as a contradiction, evidence of the fallibility of man, the barbarism of the past, and therefore an exhortation to gallop more zealously into the future, when the entire human family will have equal access to these hallowed rights.

Such an interpretation not only gives a free pass to the architects of a bloody, horrific world system, it also obscures the systematic connection between the regime of human rights and colonization. The most important element of the Enlightenment that is lost in the premature celebration of equality is the fact that these men of property, through discourses on rights and equality, were bestowing on themselves the right to define humanity. And humanity, for them, and eventually for the rest of the world thanks to a process of total conquest, meant reproducing the social relationships that they considered to be good and natural, and which would quickly grant them and their political heirs dominion over the entire planet.

Being human means being a participating citizen of a modern (Western-style constitutional) state, accepting the concepts of capital and private property and trying to acquire them, hallowing the practice of wage labor, reproducing the patriarchal family and patriarchal definitions of politics and economy, and entering into dialogue with eurocentric, white supremacist culture and learning.

Anyone who did not accept that definition of humanity was considered to be rejecting their human rights, and was subjected to the most total forms of genocide possible for the contemporary techno-social order. Even into the 21st century, stateless peoples have never been granted human rights in actual practice.

The prior, aristocratic and feudal system in Europe had no use for a shared category that would unite nobles and commoners. Their philosophies tended to emphasize and naturalize the specialness of the nobility. The new political class that arose in the Enlightenment, however, used calls to equality to mobilize the commoners as cannon-fodder in the liberal revolutions against the aristocratic system, replacing feudal obligations not with a strengthened commons but with the very practices of wage labor and land commodification that would utterly destroy the peasants and create a totally dependent urban lower class, both necessary conditions for enriching the bourgeoisie and favoring the economics of colonization. Until they lost access to the land, lower class Europeans didn’t need to be included in and validated by the bourgeois cultural project, nor did they need to join the armies of colonization that earlier had been limited to ambitious or impoverished members of the mercenary and knightly classes. Once newly urbanized plebes had been instructed in the Enlightenment definition of humanity, they could be trusted to go overseas and force the natives to adopt the same definition, either begging for inclusion within the patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist club of equality or facing extermination.

In practice, defining humanity was a way of destroying that which didn’t fit the definition.

The Rationalist worldview that Enlightenment thinkers promoted, which constituted their primary rupture with the Church, even though everything about it is either a response to or a continuation of how Christianity structured knowledge, led to the new sciences of government. These first sought to understand how the universe and living systems were governed, as according to a Natural Law (also a Christian concept, though the method for determining the content of these laws changed considerably). Increasingly, these new sciences became involved in the government of our world by operating on those laws. And wherever Law’s sway seemed to be weak, where there seemed to be some singularity at work—call it Free Will, a concept always despised by Science and dismissed as tautological—there the definers of Humanity and champions of Human Rights unleashed such violence as to annihilate what they could not control. But they sensed the contradictions, and they knew enough about power and profit to know that control ends where the object of control dies, so they began working out longer term solutions. The architects of social order designed the new apparatuses. They did this to mechanize social control, to make it reproducible, and to contain what was most chaotic in life. Even if they could never control the outcomes and make proper machines with reproducible results, they could engineer flows of knowledge and power that would at least lock people in to the reproduction of their apparatuses. And those few who rejected any form of dialogue and participation, these would be easy to isolate and eliminate.

But now, on the cusp of the superhuman, those apparatuses have surpassed humanity. The architects of the system wanted to—needed to—create a machine to amplify their power, and this Machine naturally become stronger than them. But it would only work, it could only grow in its strength, if more people became part of it. So the architects gradually had to step back from their own identities to include the hordes of clones who had copied their version of humanity. Their humanity was what made them special, superior, but the moment they had to share that with everybody, they had to step back from the gestures that would belie equality’s double standards. These are the very gestures that humanized their position of power: sexually assaulting subordinates; racially denigrating the rabble; reaffirming their grand fraternities. Without these gestures, there is only the flow of pure rational power. The paragons of humanity must step back from their monopoly on that category in order to enshrine the law of equality, but only in the anonymity of the apparatuses and institutions of power can that equality effectively circulate.

Now, when the cyborg revolution is all but fait accompli, any one of us can win representation in the spectacle of our powerlessness. Any one of us can surrender our eros to a hero who looks like us. Any one of us can receive the personalized attention of a superintelligence. The only thing we cannot do is to be ourselves.

The signal has been given to wipe away the last of the irrational corruptions. Performance-based equality is finally on the horizon, not as a hypocritical myth, but as operating code, pure, simple, unrestrained. And before this onslaught only one final frontier might have remained: the chaos and opacity of our minds. But that battlefield has already been prepared, and the fight has been fixed. Any possible resistance is emaciated before the first shot can be fired, by the virus that swept the hinterlands, the last free country. We invited that virus into our homes. We let it manage our friendships, maintain our agendas, plan our vacations. The priest’s confessional was a mere foray into the illegible sanctity of our hearts. Now the enemy has a map of the entire territory, as well as any battle plan we might come up with, any configuration of resistance we might mount.

Why speak of a battle when we have already, all of us, been conquered and pardoned, set free already to wander around in the park of our demise. Go shopping, perhaps.

The Machine tricked you into thinking it was here to serve you. That was never the case. If you have been spared the calories to live, it is because there is a place here for you to serve the Machine. Let it be written on a wall somewhere, should some future species learn to read: Ludd was right. Marx was wrong. We learned too late.

The Enlightenment project has run its course. Humanity has been defined and evacuated. There are no more humans. We have won the race to extinction.

We weren’t here to code the hosts. We were here to decode the guests.”

One Hand Clapping for Kanye West

Now that the controversy and indignation over Kanye West’s early May comment has been forgotten and replaced by a dozen other moral outrages, each evidently so important for fine-tuning the ethics of a society that doesn’t actually change, I want to return to his assertion that four hundred years of slavery was “a choice”. I would argue—not out of any desire to play a role in a spectacle of controversy, one that has long since expired, but out of genuine conviction—that Kanye was right about one thing, and wrong about another.

To be clear, I think Kanye is one part hack and one part provocateur, but my opinion holds very little water. Exactly zero of my friends habitually come to me for my knowledge on pop culture or rap. So let’s move on to what was false about his statement. In a consumerist, comfort-driven society, the word “choice” suggests an effortless and even facile decision. Such a word minimizes the brutality of slavery and invisibilizes the resistance. In fact, Native and African peoples engaged in constant, multiform, heroic, and often bloody resistance against the regime of slavery in North America for the entirety of its 400 year history. Progressive whites and institutions like the New York Times that rushed to condemn Kanye and win cookies have a consistent position of recognizing the brutality of the regime of chattel slavery, but only as a way to overshadow subsequent forms of racism and exploitation, from which they directly or indirectly benefit. Nor have they done very much to rescue the history of resistance against slavery, given that such resistance breaks the narrative monopoly of nonviolence that has been mandatory since the Civil Rights Era, and de-centers the benevolent State as guarantor of rights and freedom. It’s also problematic that Africans in America continued their resistance into Reconstruction, often rejecting the northern wage regime in the same terms they had rejected chattel slavery.

And as a lesser historical quibble, it’s worth pointing out that Kanye’s emphasis on the 400 years that slavery continued, as though the longevity of an oppressive system were evidence of its popularity, is misplaced. Oppressive systems generate conflicts that undermine them, and some seek to forestall this mounting pressure through systems of reward, amelioration, and recuperation, while others hold no illusions and try to stay together through uninhibited use of repression and terrorism. The Roman slave system, based on aggressive conquest, torture, mass terrorism, and sometimes genocide, lasted for considerably longer than 400 years.

In the end, though, these are questions of insinuation and misplaced argumentation. Kanye’s central affirmation, that slavery is a choice, is one hundred percent correct. Slavery is always a choice. The fact that plantation owners and the rest of the ruling class exercised a whole range of terroristic methods to force the enslaved into compliance does not mean that they determined the entire range of choices that enslaved people had, and this is an important distinction.

We can link this distinction to the crucial imperative of the Existentialists, that all life is and must be a choice, that we must consider suicide as our right and our constant guarantor of emancipation, and if we choose not to use it, then we should embrace life as a positive choice, rather than just accept it as the absence of other choices. Tangential to this philosophical reframing is the historical fact that suicide has often been a form of resistance to totalitarian regimes: the masters need us alive, or they need to use our deaths to keep the living in line. If we reappropriate death, we rob them of one of their most vicious weapons.

We can also consider the dialectic of the Master and Slave, elaborated by Hegel and expanded upon by Stirner and Nietzsche. These philosophers were not talking about choice as an easy affair, like taking one product or another off the shelf of a supermarket. Supermarkets didn’t exist back then, no, not even internet shopping existed back then. But they did correctly recognize that the master and the slave are interlocking roles; they require and they reproduce one another. In the end, tyranny only works if people submit to it, and all submission manifests as a choice. Perhaps this is the ugliest aspect of the torture and terrorism that is used to achieve domination. But it may also be the key to liberation.

Recognizing the presence of our own will on the other side of the table from us, amongst our enemies, the moment we sign our unconditional surrender, is paramount to the question of resistance. Only by liberating our will, by wresting back our own volition from the system that would dominate us—only, in a word, by choosing—can we ever speak of freedom. Thus, it is vital to anyone interested in freedom to recognize that, yes, domination is a choice.

Unknown reader, I despise bad faith writings, but I must admit that I have tendered you a trap. Sartre, Hegel, Nietzsche, is this dude serious? Is anyone still that clueless in the 21st century? I know that some of you are thinking, these are all white men, they have nothing valid to say about slavery. This Alex Gorrion is an out of touch racist for even citing them in such a context. Others were going a step further, wondering if I, too, am a white man. Perhaps you recognized that “Gorrión” is a word in Spanish, but not a common last name. You may even be subconsciously frustrated that Alex is an androgynous name. Curse such ambiguity! If only everyone were clearly labeled. Meanwhile, a couple, the truly stupid among you, are thinking, Wasn’t Nietzsche a fascist? I’m afraid I don’t have Alexander Reid Ross’ number, but surely there’s a hotline somewhere you can call to report me.

But oops, look at me. I got my notes all out of order. I meant to start with this quote:

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

Yup. That quote you’ve almost certainly sent out in an email or posted on your Facebook wall at some point in your life. By Frederick Douglass. Philosopher, abolitionist, freedom fighter. Hero, who lived under, escaped from, and spent the rest of his life fighting against, slavery. Saying, quite eloquently, that we either choose to submit to slavery or we choose to resist. In fact, he goes significantly further than Kanye, saying that the degree to which we will be oppressed is an inverse function of the degree to which we choose to resist.

Preceding the Existentialists by a good century, he also said, commenting on resistance:

Hence, my friends, every mother who, like Margaret Garner, plunges a knife into the bosom of her infant to save it from the hell of our Christian slavery, should be held and honored as a benefactress. Every fugitive from slavery who, like the noble William Thomas at Wilkes Barre, prefers to perish in a river made red by his own blood to submission to the hell hounds who were hunting and shooting him should be esteemed as a glorious martyr, worthy to be held in grateful memory by our people. The fugitive Horace, at Mechanicsburgh, Ohio, the other day, who taught the slave catchers from Kentucky that it was safer to arrest white men than to arrest him, did a most excellent service to our cause. Parker and his noble band of fifteen at Christiana, who defended themselves from the kidnappers with prayers and pistols, are entitled to the honor of making the first successful resistance to the Fugitive Slave Bill. But for that resistance, and the rescue of Jerry and Shadrack, the man hunters would have hunted our hills and valleys here with the same freedom with which they now hunt their own dismal swamps.

There was an important lesson in the conduct of that noble Krooman in New York the other day, who, supposing that the American Christians were about to enslave him, betook himself to the masthead and with knife in hand said he would cut his throat before he would be made a slave. Joseph Cinque, on the deck of the Amistad, did that which should make his name dear to us. He bore nature’s burning protest against slavery.

(Also, notice how he trolls his New England audience, repeatedly linking Christianity with slavery.)

Here we can learn several things. The most paltry—though the most relevant to the absurd controversies that fill our shallow lives in this most pitiful of decades—is that identity is not existence. A white woman can never know the experiences of black slavery, but only because one person can never know the experiences of another. There are certainly clusters of commonality and long flattened plains of difference, but there are no essential and impassable barriers between tidily defined groups of people. Someone’s identity category does not mean that they have nothing valid to say on topics that are potentially relevant to everyone. The fact that we were taught for centuries that only property-owning white men had anything important to say does not mean the opposite is true (though in the current iteration, the class marker—the only one that actually refers to someone’s choices in life—is notably absent).

It also does not mean that we should expect Kanye to have anything worthwhile to say about slavery, although maybe he can surprise us. Maybe, just maybe, someone’s experiences and choices in life are more important than the boxes we put them in, whether these are the evil and antiquated Boxes of Oppression, or the new and improved, sweeter-smelling Boxes of Intersectionality and Movement-Building. Power is everywhere, and privilege aside, no one is free unless they choose to be free.

This was a recurring theme of Frederick Douglass’ 1857 speech in Canandaigua, quoted above. The principal target of his speech, alongside the slave hunters, were white progressives. These white progressives wanted abolition without black people taking a leading role in the movement. And they wanted emancipation without insurrection. In fact, such “Garrisonians” believed that “the insurrectionary movements of the slaves were […] prejudicial to their cause.” It was in response to such people, such hypocritical allies, that Douglass found it so important to make the argument that submission to the yoke was a choice, and that refusal and bloody resistance were also choices – choices to be celebrated. Liberation wouldn’t come from enlightened progressives, and it wouldn’t be doled out by the state. “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” he said.

This may come as a shock to the Facebook generation, but struggle does not mean getting offended by stupid comments that breach the etiquette of polite society. Struggle means taking risks and staking out unpopular positions that allow us to win back ground from the structures of centralized power.

The difference between a victim and a survivor is agency. The difference between blame and responsibility is that one is useful for explaining away why society is the way it is, and the other is useful for changing it. We are always responsible for our lives and how we respond to the shitty things society does to us.

More than 150 years have passed, but Douglass’ words are still relevant today, when the rebellions of Oakland, Ferguson, and Baltimore have been drowned out in the NGO and social media framework of Black Lives Matter (a useful sentiment with a mediatic bent), when the Democratic Party is mobilizing people to put all their struggles aside and pray for another Obama.

Nowadays, explicit racism is already non-hegemonic. Roseanne will get canceled when the star makes an openly racist comment, and even drug companies will chime in as defenders of anti-racist sensibilities. Meanwhile, COPS, which has done far more to advance the cause of white supremacy than Roseanne ever has, has just entered its 31st season. All they have to do to stay on air is to edit out any time one of the officers on camera uses the N word. Back in the ’90s, perhaps not being a racist in the public eye just meant having a good lawyer. In the internet age, it means having a good editor. In any case, Roseanne explicitly voiced a racist stereotype that is more subtly and constantly reproduced by COPS, a stereotype that is directly related to police, judges, and juries treating black people more violently, whether shooting them down or locking them up for life. And it is a stereotype that works best when it is subliminal.

Ignoring the heroic resistance and all the brutality that the government and the plantation system used to impose slavery is extremely hurtful. But there are those who profited and continue to profit off the ways that white supremacy and obligatory labor were adapted after the Civil War, and these people and institutions were there in sheep’s clothing together with all the rest, condemning Kanye’s reckless comment. Surely, what they found most controversial about it is that it suggests that we are ultimately responsible for achieving our freedom.


A continuation of “For the Love of God”

Elaborating an idea that was left mentioned but unexplored in the previous essay, we wish to outline some central arguments of our belief that Western science or Enlightenment rationalism constitutes a mythical worldview, a state religion, and a productive modality, which is to say, a worldshaper. While it is true that all religions are worldshapers, since understanding is one of the first forms of shaping, by being integrally connected to capitalism Western science is the most powerful worldshaper to date; far from neutral, it is a most potent machine. Not only do we argue the religious nature of science, we also assert that it is a direct ideological descendant of Christianity, and while the ascendance of Enlightenment rationalism constituted a rupture with Church power and doctrine, we would qualify this as an evolutionary rupture, incurring no more breakage or damage to Church structures and thinking than was strictly necessary for Science to gain its independence and make a qualitative leap as the hegemonic worldshaper, as the butterfly must break the chrysalis.


Mere Empiricism

From the outset we find it necessary to make a crucial distinction between Enlightenment rationalism, a category that contains nearly all the attributes people wish to communicate when they refer to “science,” and the empirical method, which rationalism’s coreligionists would have us believe is the pure essence and extent of real science, a method unencumbered by worldview.

In rejecting Science we do not reject the empirical method, which we consider a useful but severely limited way of gaining knowledge; rather we reject all of Western science’s dark matter, all the elements it claims not to possess. We can use the empirical method without believing in Science just like we can appreciate a cathedral without being Catholic or use fire or wheels without being animists (as were the probable inventors of those tools). In fact, the comparison is faulty, given that Enlightenment thinkers were not the sole nor the first inventors of empiricism, just as Johannes Gutenberg was not the sole nor the first inventor of the printing press. Experimentation is widespread in human history, and in many cultures it has taken on methodical forms.

Because scientists from the “hard” branches have studied neither discourse, nor symbols, nor logic, they tend to be unaware when they are speaking metaphorically, and often confuse fact with fiction (to be fair I should point out that this problem, which I had grasped but could not articulate, was first elucidated to me by a PhD candidate of the humanities). Believers in Science will generally assert that Science itself is nothing more than empiricism. This is balderdash. We enumerate below a whole host of religious elements of the rationalist worldview and characteristics that the Enlightenment uncritically inherited from Christianity. But first, it would be good to point out a chief limitation of empiricism itself. This element can be summed up as the following non-falsifiable article of faith: “believe only what you can see.” Such a belief is wholly ignorant of the fact, now empirically proven, that observation changes what is being observed, and it also predisposes us to a knowledge of aliens rather than a knowledge of self, relationships, or fields.

Leaving behind positivism and the faith in one kind of knowledge alone, we would state that “only what can be observed and tested counts as empirical knowledge.” The implication is that there are many other kinds of knowledge, a recognition unknown to men of “Science,” who have chosen to name their doctrine, simply and presumptuously, “Knowledge”—in Latin of course, suggesting an entire other train of baggage coming along on tracks clearly laid down by the Catholic church.


While we can appreciate a limited but significant validity in empiricism, we must attack objectivity wholeheartedly as a philosophically and empirically preposterous idea, as well as a morally disturbed way of looking at the world. Nevermind the insistence that contradiction or paradox constitutes a logical fallacy (which in some cultures would be viewed as a sign of a simplistic immaturity), the belief that there exists a complete, internally aligned, finite set of facts to describe every situation implies a worldview screaming for an absent god. All facts are processed knowledge resulting from personal involvement in a situation, guided by a specific cultural and historical framing as well as individual motivations. Regardless of whether a falling tree makes noise in an empty forest, how someone understands a forest and what features of it they decide to, or are even able to, measure, are all subjectively determined factors. There are no facts without personhood, and the tendency to try to alienate the facts from the producers of those facts not only trains people in a non-ecstatic disembodied view of their own lives, it also suggests dishonesty as well as an extreme discomfort with one’s place in the world. In a world not ruled by Science, psychologists would be speaking about “objectivity neurosis” rather than “oppositional defiance disorder.”

Empirically and philosophically speaking, objectivity is a concept that has been thoroughly problematized, if not to say discredited; nonetheless it continues to make the rounds and play a central role in shaping people’s worldview (a dynamic that we will see pop up a number of times throughout this essay). It is now a well produced and difficult to deny fact that observation always changes that which is observed.

This holds true across the disciplines, from the thermometer slightly changing the temperature of the matter it is inserted into, to the velocity of one object being relative to the velocity of the object from which it is being observed, to people changing their behavior, even pandering to the scientist’s expectations, when being observed by an anthropologist or sociologist. This boils down to a truism that should, at least philosophically, hold great weight: it is impossible to know the world without us.

In terms of physics, it is hard to talk about objective velocity and position because space is not a neutral, static field of fixed coordinates against which objects can be measured; in fact on a number of levels even the firm distinction between object and space is illusory, stemming from a human (or at least Western) preference for seeing things and not seeing the field that contains them.

And in terms of knowledge production focusing on other humans, we can take a moment to mock medical studies (the medical industry, ahem, profession, will be a favorite whipping boy of this article). The supposedly passive subjects in medical studies are engaged in the study for specific reasons opaque to the researchers who are ostensibly in control; they know how to give the researchers what they want, and even to play them. In many cases, they are more able professionals than the researchers themselves. And if we are to believe that an uncontrolled “placebo effect,” purely psychological in terms of Science’s mind-body dualism, can corrupt the results of a study, what about the psychological effects of living for several days inside a research facility, under artificial lights, an altered diet and daily routine, and constant observation, not to mention the tapping of bodily fluids? The objectivity and “control” in a medical study is a convenient lie, an industry convention designed to produce credibility, which is nothing other than an appearance.

As for statistics, the ultimate in objective information, anyone who cares to knows how easily statistics can be cooked and manipulated, at the moment of presentation, of analysis, or even at the moment of data intake. Which is not to say, relativistically, that all statistics are meaningless or equally valid; only that they can never be honestly used as anything more than one of many forms of knowledge, nor do they convey that chimera, objective truth.

And though scientists are not always directly involved in the production of the following discourse, the pedantic idea of objectivity that is a cornerstone of the news media only functions in a society that holds Science as sacred. The journalistic hoax that allows an infinity of perspectives to be silenced so as to present “both sides” of a story, and their refusal to educate viewers about the invisibilized questions of framing, can only fly for a public that still believes that objective information exists. It would probably not be exaggerated to view this hoax as a cover-up. If people realized that the best that can be hoped for (and not even in a pessimistic sense) is multi-subjective knowledge, they would not constantly have to devalue and suppress their own subjective knowledge, which is to say their life experiences, in the search for a superior yet unattainable objective knowledge. And someone who suppresses their own viewpoint is easier to control.


Additionally, before we enumerate rationalism’s myths and religious features, it would also do to touch on a middle area: knowledge that is validated by the empirical method, but marginalized or obscured by the acting priests of Science. We can refer to this field as heresy, an exploration conducted within the terminology and cosmology of the faith, rather than external to it, but one that contradicts the interests of those who hold power over the faith.

To validate our terminological comparison to heresy within the Christian paradigm, we can consider the Anabaptists. As with all heretics of their era, they were also true Christians. They used the objective material and tools of the Church, namely the reading of Scripture, to subvert the unspoken goal of the Church institution, which was Power, the accumulation of which its heir Science has realized to a far greater extent and in a more dissimulated, innocent fashion. And just as the Anabaptists were marginalized once their ability to contest the Church exercise of power was violently eliminated, so too are heretical forms of Science marginalized, though the mechanisms of marginalization are quite different, owing in part to modern media technologies and the universalization of literacy, and in part to the functioning of research grants.

Gaia theory, the Kropotkinian view of evolution, and Reclusian theorizations in geography are three examples of heresy in the rationalist paradigm. Articulated by trained scientists with a scientific terminology, compatible with systems theory and other contemporary theories that are given more credence, modifiable in the face of empirical testing so as to separate them from pseudo-science; nonetheless they all have been effectively marginalized. The latter two, theorized by anarchists who won great praise in their day, have been largely erased from the history books, only starting to make a reappearance today, whereas the former has been marginalized primarily through derision. Rather than being subjected to scrutiny, it is affixed with an aura of mysticism (granted, the name helps) enough to keep away research funders and scientists concerned about their careers. Simultaneously, the police on multiple continents wage a fierce and bloody war, under the rubric of antiterrorism, against anyone who would attach the Gaia theory worldview to a social force (in other words, radical environmentalists who see life as a planetary quality, and the earth as a living system that can only be protected holistically). As much as the skeptics would insist that these two maneuvers in the current war on heresy are separate—the derision and the repression—we must not forget that the police today, like most other professions, conduct themselves scientifically, and that they generally do not attack social groups granted legitimacy by other powerful institutions.

A fact published by Silvia Federici illustrates the link between the enthusiastic explorations of science and of the police; Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, was also the Attorney General for the British Crown. He conducted political repression for the State, becoming involved in the interrogation and torture of subjects, an activity that perhaps expanded his understanding of the methodical acquisition of knowledge. And even though today, given centuries of complexification, the ecologist and the police investigator, both scientifically trained, are not the same person, it is hard to ignore the community of interests they work for. One is employed by Exxon to carry out investigations that will either raise doubts about global warming or open up new product lines for “clean energy,” and the other has a “domestic terrorism” assignment that was created after political lobbying by Exxon in the face of a direct action campaign against a pipeline. Or perhaps his job post was indirectly created by Weyerhauser, or Monsanto, or Huntingdon Life Sciences, but in that case one only need go a level higher, to find that both companies use the same bank.

Mythical Inheritance

One of the prime hand-me-downs that is pervasive in Enlightenment rationalism is the tension between the material and the ideal, which is perhaps the definitional tension of Western civilization, apparent in Plato, apparent in Christianity, and apparent in Science. Although each of these paradigms has seized on somewhat different resolutions to the tension, the dichotomy itself is peculiar, arbitrary in the way that all cultural values are arbitrary.

Science pretends to resolve the tension by producing a dead universe (a philosophical projection that Science as a worldshaper may be close to achieving). The ideal or the spirit has been abolished, assumed to be a fiction of the material world, which in rationalist terms is the only world (almost an inversion of Manichaeism, which is curious given the fury with which the medieval Church attacked the followers of Mani). Scientists still are not any closer to furnishing ultimate explanations of consciousness, life, or creation—though their “I don’t know” has gotten fascinatingly more detailed—and they continuously have to return to their relationship with religion, their explanations of the power of the mind, the placebo effect, reports of altered consciousness among people who experienced temporary death, and so on. This wouldn’t be a problem if Science did not pretend to be an absolute system of knowledge. As far as answers are concerned, Science is much better at cobbling them together than most other systems of knowledge, but the weight of its pretension to absoluteness causes it to stumble painfully over these few details, again and again, that it still cannot smooth down.

It is worth noting that, even though today, pre-Enlightenment Christianity is portrayed (in anachronistic terms) as fanciful and mystical, in fact Christianity took many important steps towards the dead universe of Enlightenment rationalism. Notably, Christianity succeeded in enclosing the sacred, which had once been a commons. The heresies that the Church attacked most violently were precisely those heresies that claimed that everyone could talk to God without priests as an intermediary. The Church was founded on the erection of barriers between common people and the sacred. What’s more, Christianity was a notably skeptical religion for its day, discussing doctrine and evidence with a high premium on logic, method, and objectivity. The chief difference is that the primary materials they operated on in their theoretical laboratories were not observations of the world around them, but Scripture; nonetheless Church scholars regularly debated with vigour what stories, traditions, and documents were fraudulent rather than accepting any tall tale placed before them.

True, the Catholic Church certified a great many miracles in order to canonize their saints, but their actions must be compared with what came before them, not what came after. Catholicism constituted a much less miraculous universe than the pagan one that had preceded it, a universe in which miracles could not be commonly experienced and proclaimed, but had to be granted institutional recognition. Moreover, the honoring of sainthood was a necessary Catholic concession to the paganism it worked hard to supplant. Much of the opprobrium reserved by Protestantism and then rationalism for the Catholic Church was directed at its worldly compromises with a decentralized spiritual practice that, by the 17th century, had already been stamped out. It is no coincidence that the countries where the witch burnings were most thorough and the bloodiest forms of Protestantism most active would also be the cradles of scientific rationalism.

Nor is it a coincidence that many of the early men of science were monks or trained ecclesiasts, such as Copernicus, Mendel, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Georges Lemaitre, Nicolas Steno, and many more, while others like Linnaeus were educated for the priesthood before branching off into other fields of study.

Science has gone one further, abolishing the sacred sphere that the Church had enclosed and placed beyond easy access. Nonetheless, it not only suffers this absence, it continues to produce a world ruled by abstraction, often to a neurotic degree. Far from solved, the tension between matter and spirit it inherited from Christianity remains alive in Science.

We can also fault Science for its proliferation of simplified myths. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, articulates perfectly how our scientific society is based on anthropocentric myths about evolution. Ask anyone to explain the evolution of life, and they will tell you a story that starts with single-celled organisms and ends with humankind, the pinnacle of progress. Scientists have an easy out, for they can always claim that this is not really a factually rigorous or “objective” explanation of evolution, and they can’t be blamed for other people’s ignorance. What they can’t explain is why that myth has always been reproduced at a far greater frequency than any empirically accurate rendition of the evolution tale, and often issues from the mouths of trained scientists themselves.

In fact, practitioners of Science are far more guilty of this simplification process than their predecessors. With the Christians, the simplified myths tend to involve simply glossing over contradictions. It is my impression that most Christians don’t know that the Bible is actually full of contradictions, or that, for example, Genesis actually contains multiple creation stories that differ on important details. With Science, however, the mythical simplifications tend to be far more crass, often flying in the face of empirical evidence in order to articulate a myth that is calming or convenient to the social order. Examples abound, from the already cited evolution myth that depicts a hierarchical progression culminating in homo sapiens, to apologia for nuclear energy, to essentialist justifications for traditional gender relations. Frustratingly, such myths are hard to challenge, because scientists are not usually instructed in the nuances of symbolic communication, and thus do not recognize a myth if it slaps them in the face (on the contrary, they tend to operate in the Christian realm of truth, taking their own narratives as objective, and those of other religions as preposterous absurdities). If effectively confronted, any of these myths can be conveniently jettisoned as pseudo-science, but an explanation is never offered as to why such myths are so often produced by scientists themselves, and why opportunities are systematically generated for their distribution.

Because Science is operating in a much more complicated textual terrain than Scripture, and because of the attendant professionalism, no scientist has a global picture, the way an erudite Biblical scholar might have a global picture of his respective textual terrain. In other words, scientists inevitably have to address aspects of empirical knowledge that are outside their field of expertise. Their vision of other fields is often fed to them by the same mass media that take the fall for being the propagators of pseudo-science. But what we are dealing with is something systematic. In a knowledge system that is far too complex for any one mind to appreciate all of it, or even a tenth of it, the mechanisms by which knowledge is simplified for the non-specialists, and by which a global portrayal of the knowledge is produced, must be analyzed as a structural part of that knowledge system. Western science, however, dodges the bullet on this one by avoiding holistic analysis of its methodology. Against such a laughably broad claim as “Science produces a mythical view of evolution,” the institutional body need only trot out an expert on, say, the evolution of color-perception among insects, to give a suitably detailed description of evolutionary processes and thus deny responsibility for the inaccuracies of pop science. But the pop science and the mechanisms that produce it are an integral part of Science itself.

In the most charitable analysis, individual scientists or scientific institutions (because of course it is inappropriate to speak of them as a cabal, the recognition of individual differences and distances being important, especially if it can prevent outsiders from developing a systemic analysis) would do well to analyze this enduring failure to communicate. Why are so many inaccurate narratives and so much misinformation distributed and reproduced, long after the advent of the Age of Reason? No doubt, politicians or television can be blamed, but any sincere skeptic cannot help but to see the way these mythical narratives are structurally reinforced, and the way they are beneficial to power-holders in a hierarchical society.

The structural component is important, and reveals other forms of Christian heritage. Similar to the medieval church, the advancement of Western science is accomplished by professionals who are patronized by financial and territorial powers, free to research and debate within the informal but very real boundaries established by patronage, while bringing no empowerment or enlightenment to the masses, only instructions. After all, the average citizen of a modern, scientific country gains no real tools for understanding or influencing the world around them. On the contrary, they are consigned to believing their doctor or the scientists who quality control the products they consume (a frequently foolish and sometimes even fatal mistake), and gleaning simplified versions of larger truths from copies of National Geographic or a productive half-hour spent watching the Discovery Channel.

Like the Church hierarchy, the hierarchy of scientific tenures is not a meritocracy as they would like to believe. One encounters an endless number of nincompoops with PhDs. And while we may find academic, peer-reviewed journals to be an invaluable resource for research, as well as a useful vehicle for the production and evaluation of empirical knowledge (this is of course a meek understatement), it is not infrequently that one comes across authors in such journals who are total hacks incapable of marshaling facts or analyzing their own data; and the only reason they were published is because they boasted a fancy piece of paper and a prestigious post.

And while that nebulous network we can ironically refer to as Science is not as nepotistic as the one that, with more precision, we can refer to metonymically as the Church—although tell that to the Harvard Admissions Board—entry into the club and ascendance in its ranks is determined at least as much by class considerations, dexterousness at university politics, alignment with other power structures, and success in publishing and receiving funding (which means selling to a market) as it is by merit or ability. We personally know of an intelligent scientist and excellent professor who was prevented from getting tenure in her department simply because her politics differed from those of the department chair.

Such personal anecdotes are hardly scientific and can’t be taken as solid proof of anything, of course, but the day the professionals publish an empirical study revealing once and for all how many of their colleagues are total idiots, perhaps we can give up on our rude, country mouse ways and stick to The Facts rather than bewildering readers with romantic little jaunts through Storyland. In fact, this absence of data reveals an important point: scientific institutions will not produce knowledge that is not useful to the exercise of power. They would only conduct and publish a study revealing how many accredited scientists were airheads if there were some institutional pressure to reform admissions processes; in the meantime, such studies are useless because they would serve to discredit the institutions.

Science, like Christianity in the Middle Ages, is the custodian of collective memory. Whereas before it was only clerics who recorded the history of society, now nearly all primary research is conducted by trained scientists (social and other). Subsequently, the masses may do with this data what we will, but the questions of what forgotten epochs or aspects of history will be opened up to us and from what angle they will be mined are decided entirely by professional researchers.

Another artifact of Christian inheritance is the progressive, unilinear view of time that rationalism has strongly favored. This was the dominant Christian temporality once the Gnostics were defeated around the 5th century and while since Einstein it no longer holds water in physics and has been challenged in recent decades in many of the social sciences, the myth of progress is still firmly entrenched. Examples include the evolution myth already discussed, in which humans follow chimpanzees, or the long dominant and still taught anthropological framework that has states following chiefdoms following tribes following bands, another story with no basis in fact. In his excellent research, Stephen Jay Gould documents a number of scientific blunders among linguists and others who assumed that the simple must be followed by the complex, as well as an abundance of examples from the natural and social sciences demonstrating the non-progressive multilineality of evolution.

Another prejudice Enlightenment rationalism inherited from Christianity is the belief in a unitary cause. Just as Thomas Aquinas based his proof for the existence of God on the non-falsifiable assumption that existence needed a unitary, original cause, quantum physicists continue to perfect Grand Unified Theories in order to come closer to a “theory of everything.” And in other fields, scientists cleave to Ockham’s Razor, a prejudice towards the simplest explanation (developed by a Franciscan friar no less). And while Ockham’s Razor is clearly useful, and a necessary complement to falsifiability, it can also accustom thinkers to blind themselves to complexity, or to see causation and change occurring in unilinear chains rather than as dynamic equilibria shifting across a field.

Enlightenment rationalism directly inherited Christianity’s zeal for speaking in the name of nature; in fact as it reached maturation Science directly contested the ability of the Church to speak for the natural world, usurping that throne for itself. Just as Christianity in certain moments declared homosexuality, sex out of wedlock, working on Sunday, or going naked unnatural, Enlightenment rationalism began to justify its own social values through a particular characterization of the natural world. This new world they produced, both discursively and to an increasing extent socio-economically, is a mechanical and hierarchical world. Natural patterns were described as “laws,” originally assumed to have been drafted by a clockmaker God. This latter figure, embarrassing for later scientists, quietly disappeared, but His clocklike universe and laws remain. Living bodies continue to be characterized as machines, and with their typical obtuseness the proponents of this view generally do not know if they are speaking literally or metaphorically.

Perhaps the most important element shared by Christianity and Science is their pathologically immature fear of death. A large part of scientific production is designed to seek everlasting life for individuals (those who can afford the treatments, of course) and for the species. Nevermind that scientists claim to speak for the natural world and in nature species die out; humanity must survive. Does Science, therefore, think to change the productive processes it has given rise to, since they are the greatest current threat to human survival? Of course not. These processes must be accelerated so that humankind can colonize Mars before we destroy the biosphere, colonize other solar systems before our sun dies, and in the meantime set up a planetary defense system should any asteroids come too close. Scientists evidently cannot get over themselves and accept that everybody dies.

Why is our species more important than all the others, and more important than the inorganic processes of the universe? The only possible justification for getting ourselves, at the cost of all others, off the planet is, “because we can.” If that is the ultimate ethic of our civilization, it is only fair that it be applied not only to scientists but also to their opponents. We can hope the luddites and primitivists take note. Anything that can be done, must be done. Any scientist that can be killed, should be. Why not? It’s not like there’s anything, in the grand scheme of things, to lose.

Therefore, any supporter of Western science and in particular the project to send human life out into the stars should recognize that Ted Kaczynski and more recently ITS in Mexico were absolutely right in assassinating scientists. They had the power to do it, therefore it was right. But if, perhaps, they feel reluctant to place their lives in the hands of such a mercenary ethos, maybe, just maybe, it’s because their only real morality is the belief that everything they do is right. Not so different from the Christians in the end, are they?

Partial Knowledge

As we have stated earlier, Western science constitutes a knowledge system. The knowledge it produces is frequently valid, up until the point it claims to be absolute. Since it is very difficult to think outside of a paradigm, it might be useful to review the kinds of knowledge that Science is predisposed to produce. This will further reveal the mythical, religious nature of rationalism. And in case our position is unclear, we must insist that there is absolutely nothing wrong with myths—on the contrary humans cannot live without myths—unless they are myths that claim to be objective truths. Rationalism, like any other cosmovision, is spiritual at its core, but on this point we will take sides to argue that the spirituality of Enlightenment rationalism is fundamentally sick, corrupted, alienated, authoritarian, ecocidal, patriarchal, and sociopathic.

Given its background in Christianity and platonic philosophy, Science is predisposed to produce the following types of knowledge:

–The charting of ahistorical genealogies (as in the classification of species not according to their role or relation with other species, to name one of many possible organizational schema, but according to their presumed genetic descendance; perhaps it is not unreasonable to see in this a marked Old Testament influence);

–An awareness of alienated units (swallowing—until recently uncritically—the Enlightenment concept of the individual, along with other sovereigns like the nation, scientists have overwhelmingly favored an analysis of discrete bodies rather than of fields, fluxes, or interconnections, which is akin to analyzing the ocean as a large collection of waves);

–The development of mathematics as the language of nature (revealing something approaching a kabbalist mysticism, rather than simply understanding numerical relations as one of multiple ways to describe the world, examples abound of scientists and mathematicians talking about numerical relations comprising a secret language behind the façade of the physical world, even as a sort of key to decoding existence; fractals enthusiasts promote this thinking with particular frequency);

–The articulation of mechanical relationships (as opposed to reciprocal or dynamic relationships: what is overwhelmingly interesting for Science is not to discover how to maintain or effect states of balance that foster well-being, but how to achieve reproducibility and control, isolating operative factors so that a certain input will always produce the desired output);

–Discoveries resulting from divisionism, or the search for pure elements that cannot be divided or cut (in the popular parlance, the search for the “building blocks” of life, matter, the universe, etc., which belies a rather simplistic view of how things are constructed, as well as a zeal to identify component elements so that reality can be reconfigured).

What other kinds of knowledge are there, and what is wrong with the types of knowledge enumerated above? After all, as of the 20th century Science can also boast a knowledge of field dynamics, dynamic equilibrium, and chaotic systems. Give them enough time, and our boys in labcoats will discover it all, right?

Naturally it is hard to talk about what we don’t know or haven’t been able to discover, and perhaps even harder to reveal the presence of a lens when our whole lives we have been trained to look only at the object, and from the same perspective no less. Objectivity is an extremely pervasive, subtle philosophy specifically because it trains its adepts to believe that the only meaningful differences are, well, objective. If they are aware of the existence of, for example, ecosystems, they are unlikely to recognize that another culture understands ecosystems better or possesses knowledge that the rationalists do not, especially if that other culture has no quantitative studies to demonstrate their knowledge. It will be hard for them to grasp how much perspective, emphasis, and mythical framing can affect knowledge. If both knowledge systems perceive the same objective facts, that wolves eat deer and deer eat plants and plants feed off the soil and the sun, then in objective terms a food chain as a theoretical heuristic lacks nothing that another knowledge system might contain, even though it puts all the attention on discrete agents rather than the living field constituted by the dynamic relationships between them, and therefore leads to a number of disastrous misunderstandings about ecosystems (remember the Cane Toad!).

Nonetheless, we will try our best to reveal what is lacking, similar to how astronomers must discover black holes by looking at the things around them.

Quantum physics and Cartesian geometry may be a good place to start. Just as Cartesian dualism remains embedded in Enlightenment rationalism, the Cartesian geometry of flat planes and right angles remains integral to the scientific worldview, even though it has been invalidated by the principle of relativity (whereas the determinism of classical science up to and including general relativity has been contradicted by the uncertainty of quantum mechanics). If space itself is not a neutral, static phenomenon, something as stable and happy as a square or a triangle can be nothing but an illusion or a convenient lie. (This is a part of Science’s mythical simplification, elements of the worldview that it cannot actually defend, but that it nonetheless perpetuates, through mechanisms that will be dishonestly chalked up to “pop science” if ever called to account.)

Nonetheless, it is useful to train people to think in terms of Cartesian geometry, because the discipline has been extremely active in enclosing and dividing land or rationally governing construction through blueprints (as Deleuze and Guattari have written, blueprints are not required even for the construction of complex buildings, unless the construction process needs to be subordinated to an external and rational authority).

It would be easy to say that this whole line of argument is flawed, since it was scientists themselves (Einstein and the like) who discovered relativity and revealed the shortcomings of Cartesian geometry. However, well over a thousand years earlier, Daoists and Buddhists were already promoting a worldview that clashed with Cartesian geometry but was largely compatible with the discoveries of quantum physics. We reference Einstein because it is the only way to get the faithful to listen; believers in Science refuse to recognize outside sources. Quoting the Dao De Jing to back up a certain worldview would be about as effective as quoting the Quran to convince a Christian that a part of their doctrine is flawed.

But the empirical method, one might argue, should not be abandoned. Scientists cannot go chasing down every last traditional spirituality as the basis for its worldview. Scientists had to pass through the fallacies of Cartesian geometry in order to arrive at relativity, because they could not have discovered quantum physics or field dynamics without prior discoveries, adequate microscopes, and so forth. Is this credible? Maybe not. The concept of atoms comes from the ancient Greeks, who lacked microscopes. Yet the concept fit with their worldview. Were they really intuitive, or is it just a coincidence? Or is it possible that atoms do not objectively exist, that they are just one of multiple ways of understanding the composition of things? But I have seen atoms, some readers will no doubt react, referring to the drawings and diagrams in any high school physics textbook, just as students a century earlier were treated to pictorial renditions of the Garden of Eden (and how perfect, in the end, that objectivity comes to us in a series of representations that we forget, from one moment to the next, are representations). What is objectively true is that what we call atoms are not atoms, or otherwise the category of “sub-atomic” would be meaningless (see: a-tom, etymology). And it turns out that at the subatomic level, according to current research, the division between particles and waves, matter and energy, breaks down.

On the one hand, it is only reasonable that the schematics placed on a subject become more nuanced as the study of that subject progresses—in other words it would be unfair to fault scientists if earlier models proved insufficient, when we should be congratulating them for their honesty. On the other hand, we should also consider that these schema—particles, matter, even circles and squares—that are sold to us as objective representations (this phrase is a hilarious oxymoron, though we doubt anyone who has only studied hard sciences is capable of getting it) are not the fruit of testing and experimentation, as the mythology of empiricism would have us believe, but are rather cultural, spiritual constructs born of a specific worldview that are imposed by the scientist on the object of study (revealing at a deeper level what in superficial, quantitative terms has already been accepted as scientific fact, that all observation changes what is observed, another of these new discoveries that other cultures have known for a long time). In other words, atoms, squares, and the dualism between matter and energy were not discovered; they already existed in the Western imaginary and were used as symbolic tools, imposed on the inchoate knowledge that was gradually being produced in order to simplify and organize it.

Consider another example. Referring to a case of heresy in Milan in 1028, a Church chronicler writes about the heterodoxy as a disease that needs to be eradicated before it can “contaminate” the rest of Italy. Is it a mere coincidence that the scientific understanding of disease that would arise centuries later (now with the aid of microscopes) would promote this exact same vision of a neutral field invaded by impure agents that spread through contact? They did not know about germs and bacteria, but they already spoke of unclean agents that caused contamination. Could it be that scientists utilized a pre-existing logic to simplify and describe the complex reality of sickness? Yet we all know that germs are an objective reality. There is no other valid theory of disease, right? On the contrary, a worldview based on fields and relationships would have us overlook the germs and focus on the diet, the body, the weather, the community—all the things that Western medicine ignores or at least minimizes. And without a doubt, this latter theory would have a much better track record at dealing with disease, because rather than doing essentially nothing until antibiotics could be invented, it would have encouraged people to question food monocultures, urban crowding, air quality, poverty, and more.

To speak more concretely, we could state that saying germs cause sickness is like saying air causes fire. At least with many common sicknesses, the germs are always, or often, present in any human community, but people don’t get sick as long as their immune systems are working well. Likewise, air is always present (on the planet’s surface, anyway), but fuel and a spark are needed before you get fire.

To draw another example related to health, since in this field (along with ecology), the ignorance and blundering of Science has been most apparent (and, come to think of it, the health of our bodies and the health of the environment are basically the two most important things one might study), we can consider acupuncture. In our own lifetimes, acupuncture has gone from a treatment that was ignored or ridiculed in the West, to one that has been confirmed as effective by scientific studies. This reaction belies the hypocrisy and also the implicit racism of empiricist mythology, as acupuncture is based on thousands of years of observation and testing, only it wasn’t bearded white men who were in charge, so it clearly doesn’t count. And despite its proven effectiveness, acupuncture is still belittled or dismissed, providing more evidence of the cultural supremacy (an important component of any religion) implicit in Science.

Part of the reason that scientists cannot easily promote acupuncture is that they have no idea how it works. People trained in Chinese medicine know how acupuncture works, but their explanations are completely useless for believers in Science, since they rely on concepts like energy meridians, yin and yang, that are meaningless within the worldview of Enlightenment rationalism. To fully accept acupuncture or any other component of Chinese medicine would be to acknowledge that Science is partial rather than absolute, that it is only one knowledge system of many, and that would be unacceptable.

Let’s compare their treatment of Chinese medicine with their adventures in psychiatry. True to their preference for mechanistic and divisionist forms of knowledge, as mentioned above, they have “isolated” (a truly spiritual term that accurately reflects their depraved philosophy) the components of the brain that produce the chemicals connected to certain emotions. Once you know what chemicals need to be blocked and what chemicals need to be produced in greater quantity, you’ve got the emotions all figured out. Simple, right? (Hopefully, readers read those last two lines in a Mickey Mouse voice, or at least with the voice of Joey from Friends).

The result of this kind of brilliant thinking are antidepressants that cause higher rates of suicide, as well as other forms of intimately disturbing unpleasantness. Some highly civilized people might not believe that extreme stupidity is just cause for execution. Nonetheless, we are confident that many who have been at the mercy of psychiatrists (for they, along with other scientists, do nothing if not exercise power over people) would agree with us that certain of these experts should be dragged out into the streets and shot. But, since the shoe is on the other foot, we can at least start with a bit of well earned mockery.

A Worldshaper

Science has perfected a knowledge of aliens. An alien is an Other, but not an autonomous Other necessary for the understanding of the self; the alien helps the scientific self promote its alibi of non-selfhood or objectivity, that it is not a being intervening in the world and producing specific kinds of knowledge but a simple, non-interfering gaze that could belong to any subject, simply observing already existing facts that lie scattered across the terrain. An alien, of necessity, is violently uprooted from its surroundings, and it is the very process of observation, categorization, and analysis, as part of greater socio-economic processes, that achieves its alienation. Science, upon knowing an alien, has already fucked it thoroughly and irrevocably, yet it pretends that the alien already existed as an alien before the intervention of the scientific gaze.

Rationalism has perfected a number of apparatuses ostensibly intended to display knowledge. In practice, these apparatuses are factories of alienation that train us to understand things as dismembered bodies whose relationships and histories are as invisible as they are extraneous. These apparatuses are the encyclopedia, the museum, the zoo. In order to appear in a zoo or a museum, a body must already have undergone a process of colonization, uprooting, kidnapping, trauma, muting, and domination. For Science to claim (and to do so without speaking, to naturalize the idea) that a zebra in a zoo is the same thing as a zebra in its herd in the Serengeti, or that a ceremonial mask stored with reverence and used to bring the rains in Borneo is the same as a mask sitting in a display case in London, it must engage in a very powerful and evil kind of magic. It is a transformation of the most pernicious kind. In one kind of transformative magic, a person can be made a fish or a bird, and discover the interconnectedness of all things, and the mobility of the spirit. In rationalism’s transformation, two beings that are completely unlike—one free and the other imprisoned—are made into the same being, teaching us the sameness of all things and the transferability of objects.

Picking up after their idols, the Greeks (though there is no direct intellectual continuity from the Greeks of antiquity to Enlightenment rationalism, contrary to scientific mythology; in fact it was primarily the medieval Arabs who kept the previous intellectual traditions alive, whereas the early Christians who would create the socio-political and intellectual structures that would eventually give rise to the Enlightenment were great burners of libraries, a tradition the European colonizers would carry on in modified form across the globe), scientists have continued in their search for the atom, that which cannot be cut, and which is therefore, supposedly, pure or more real. But what is cut in every atom, a priori, is its relationship with its surroundings.

The principles of the alien and the atom indicate that Science is not merely a method, nor even a producer of knowledge, but a worldshaper, a Weltanschauung that, through its connection to a complex of productive forces, codifies a modality with which to approach the world, inscribes a specific understanding of what the world actually is so that all its operations may unfold on a complementary terrain, and ends up reproducing the type of world that it believed in from the beginning, at increasing intensities and extremes of scale.

Cartesian geometry was flawed, but no matter; in the hands of surveyors, architects, and landlords it made for a more Cartesian world. Early physiologists had nothing other than muddled metaphor to support their claims that living bodies were organic machines. Nowadays, biochemists can use genetic manipulation to turn living cells into chemical factories and nanotechnicians can create robots out of artificial chemical compounds. Trigonometry can be taught as a pure math, but historically it changed the world as a mathematics of projectile warfare. Rocket science, the 20th century’s symbol of pure genius (as in, “He’s no rocket scientist”), likewise put the eggheads of the day at the service of a military restructuring of reality.

Leaving all the alibis aside, Science as it exists is inconceivable without its unbroken institutional, philosophical, and economic connections with policing, warfare, and industrialization. Its medical knowledge of bodies corresponds to the State’s need to discipline, exploit, and torture those bodies; its funding and the areas of its advancement, its “discoveries,” correspond to the need of states to wage warfare against their neighbors and the need of capitalists to get an edge on their competitors and their laborers. It is not merely a complex of academic institutions that has advanced alongside, and been corrupted by, the institutions of the modern nation-state and of capital investment. On the contrary, at no point is Science autonomous within and endogenous to those academic institutions. It has always been a primary motor for the expansion—material and spiritual, to borrow the tired dichotomy—of the present world system that has colonized the entire globe, put all forms of life to work, reengineered the landscape to favor production and social control, and that is now busy rewriting the very matrix in which life and existence unfold; therefore its development has not been an exclusively academic affair but a chief concern of all the institutions of power with which it is coterminous.

Capitalism and therefore present-day ecocide do not exist without Science, neither technologically nor philosophically, and no amount of excuses about the individuality of scientists or the mutual independence of investors and inventors can change that fact. Just as feudal society is inconceivable without the clergy, even though the feudal relationship is typically simplified as one between serf and secular lord or vassal and liege lord, the scientific class are the lynchpin of capitalist society, despite not properly belonging to the bourgeoisie or proletariat. Scientific investigation is a major sector of production in its own right; scientists constitute a privileged caste indispensable to the self-evaluation, reproduction, expansion, and social legitimation of state and private entities; and the scientific worldview, with its popular and professional forms, is crucial to uniting ruler and ruled in the present day and explaining existence in a way that is compatible with the interests of domination.

An unwritten rule of the scientific philosophy that is, nonetheless, abundantly evident, is the non-limitation of invention and discovery. Anything that can be invented, should be. Knowledge should never be forsworn; it must always be used for the accumulation of more knowledge. A professional class that could invent nuclear weapons plainly follows such an imperative. Curiously, power within the scientific regime operates in a way that is remarkably similar to capital—there is no bad money, and all money must be invested or lost.

As we have tried to indicate in the first essay of this series, Science, not only as a producer of technologies but also as a worldview and spirituality, is indispensable in the production of golem, who are the citizens of the world system, composed of the dust of obliterated worlds, alienated from their histories and their surroundings, held together only by the false commons of the apparatuses produced to sustain them.


We predict that many believers in Science, especially the academically initiated, will reject this critique as uselessly broad, if they do not dismiss it outright. This is worth analyzing. First of all, someone in a position of power, someone with an accredited brain, a priest with a position in the hierarchy, need not respond to a non-professional writer, a layperson, unless the critique begins to be so widely distributed it constitutes a threat. The overwhelming silence this article will be met with, except from other laypersons, suggests that indeed there is a hierarchy at stake, rather than a free and equal community of ideas. After all, the Catholic Church did not begin to execute heretics among the laiety until subversive heresies that challenged church hierarchies were widespread and began connecting with other social fault lines between upper and lower classes (principally cleaving to the new mobile urban class of weavers) a situation that attained in the 12th century.

Secondly, and more substantially, we have noticed a certain pattern. The academically trained will always insist that the scientific community is highly self-critical, yet at the same time they always (as far as we have seen) reject criticisms that come from outside of academia as “overgeneralized” or unfounded. We would argue that this is a structurally systematic response.

An institution with hegemonic aspirations, or one that has already achieved dominance, must never allow itself to be fit into a globalizing theory (for what we are offering here, to be honest, is not a critique, it is a theoretical explanation of where Science fits within an anarchist view of the world). Anticolonial movements have already criticized postmodernism for how theorizing other people’s identities and histories constitutes an exercise of power over those peoples. More broadly, Science cannot accept any external theorization of its role, because it is busy trying to place everything and everyone else within a theoretical system of its own making. At this juncture, we are not trying to offer criticism or feedback that might be useful to specific scientists, and which accordingly, must be particular, balanced, and fair. We are trying to theorize about a system of knowledge that pretends to be objective and all-encompassing, and a cabal (in the Biblical rather than paranoid conspiratorial sense) that claims not to exist, not to have agency, and not to have systematic patterns of behavior and ways of shaping the world.

In other words, what we are dealing with is precisely the lack of a theoretical generalization about Science as a complex of institutions with dynamic agency and an extremely important role within capitalism. Lacking this, it does not escape our attention that the only serious critiques of scientists that will be permitted are those that originate from other scientists and are published and disseminated by the structures that Science has sanctioned for its internal communications; and secondarily critiques originating from the laity that follow the rules of good form, addressing only particular scientists and particular errors, and thus never capable of contributing towards a theoretical framework that addresses Science globally. To avoid unfair generalization, we are meant to wait until the official producers of knowledge themselves conceive of and find funding for a study that could objectively demonstrate in what percentage of the cases these criticisms are founded. Pie in the sky.

Remaining cautious of the potential for demagoguery or logical manipulation that comparisons present, let us again take the example of the Catholic Church in the centuries before the Enlightenment. In serious conversation today, it is perfectly viable to speak of the Church as an institution designed to accumulate power, effect social control, mobilize myths and superstitions, and repress heresy. Are particularities lost in this widely accepted theoretical view of the Church? Of course (and ironically, when it comes to outright misrepresentation, and not just the smoothing that accompanies generalization, the scientific proponents of the Enlightenment are largely to blame, in their zealousness to differentiate themselves from their supposedly irrational predecessors). Debate was in fact encouraged in the Church in the Middle Ages. Heresy could only be punished after formal processes in which the accused usually had the opportunity to defend themselves. As for superstitions, the Church also dealt in a wealth of historical fact, they often displayed intellectual vigor in their studies, and there were many efforts to challenge and discredit fraudulent documents and data (then as now, any “fact” that wasn’t politically necessary could be comfortably disputed). And regarding the accumulation of power, there are even examples of clergy who fought for the Church to give up its temporal power.

Do all these details mean that the summarized theorization of the Church’s social role, articulated above, is invalid? Of course not. Now what if we imagine a priest in the 12th century responding to the wave of popular dissent, deflecting a generalized critique of the Church by enumerating the following points, all of which are factually correct: the Church isn’t a unified institution, there are many internal differences and no one person or body controls everything that happens in the Church; what priests are you referring to? because there are good ones and bad ones; laypeople might be ignorant of this, but the Church is very self-critical—aside from constant debates that occur via letters that bounce back and forth across Western Europe, the popes also organize ecclesiastical conferences every few years to discuss and update dogma; are you talking about deacons, priests, bishops, abbots, archbishops, or cardinals? because the clergy function really differently depending on the level you look at.

Particularization at such a juncture is nothing but filibustering.

We don’t doubt that Science has its own mechanisms for self-criticism and accountability. In this day and age, what institutional complex doesn’t? The point is, these mechanisms are not adequate for the rest of us. It can be claimed that Science is not a cohesive body nor a religion, but we can see that sufficient coordination exists for scientists to be trained with enough homogeneity that they can be compatible and communicative internationally, and that these scientists are consistently useful in the maintenance and expansion of capitalism. True, capitalism can harness anything, even the games of children, but there really is no comparison, as scientific methodologies, the products of scientific knowledge, and trained scientists themselves play an irreplaceable role at the highest levels of global capitalism and on all the frontiers of capitalist expansion.

For the Love of God

a continuation of “Golem in the Catacombs”

When living beings are separated from their own expressions, gestures, tools, and traditions, they are reduced to golem, mere bodies, and every influence that these things, once a part of their being and now expropriated by the category of “apparatus”, exercise over them is now read as a form of corruption or control. This postmodern trope of the fragility of liberty—all influence is coercion; therefore liberty is a utopian concept—derives from the unconscious assumption that every factor external to a golem has in fact been designed to mold it and guide it through the apparatuses where its miserable life plays out.

The defeated communards of 1871 who had taken refuge in the Paris catacombs suffered a particularly gruesome fate. The victorious Versailles troops, who had received tacit support—in a stirring example of elite internationalism—from Bismarck’s Prussians, dynamited the catacomb tunnels where the refugees huddled, killing thousands. We can only wonder how many survived the initial blast, the earth itself falling in on their heads (the World Turned Upside Down falling back into place?), and wandered the catacombs, emptied of their utopia, in search of some subsistence.

Later, the Sacré Cœur was built on the butte of Montmarte, the proletarian neighborhood where the insurrection began and where one of the key battles took place in the suppression of the Commune. The extravagant penance, now a major tourist attraction, prevents us from returning to the site of our loss. Long before the science of urban architecture as social control, the Church knew construction as an act of war designed to finish off a defeated enemy, for le Sacre Couer was one of the last of a long lineage. The famous monastery at Mont-Saint-Michel was built atop the most important gathering place of the Gallic druids; unwitting lines of tourists pay it homage today with cameras in hand. Throughout South America, the oldest churches are to be found atop the waka of the Aymara or the sacred sites of other colonized peoples.

In literature, another kind of Church was built atop an earlier revolutionary defeat. Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables is set against the June Rebellion of 1832 (though it must also be read as a fruit of Hugo’s troubled relationship with the revolution of 1848). And although Hugo, a leftist, is sympathetic with the revolutionaries, his is above all a tale of redemption. Marius and Cosette may marry and find happiness and security (in the tale’s ethical grammar the latter is implicitly proferred as a precondition for the former) with Marius’s upper-class family (and, in the original novel, Jean Valjean’s factory money), their youthful flirtation with insurrection overlooked. A questioned God smiles on them, revealing in the end His undoubtable munificence, with the Happy Ending serving as proof of transformative forgiveness. In an earlier age, kings and tsars had to exercise general pardons—the Jubilee—to appear godlike. This new God need only save one soul—like the lottery winner or the pop star that rises alone out of crowds of miserable millions—to redeem Himself for the spectating masses.

Les Miserables‘ long run tells a sort of story about the rise and fall of modernity. The original novel sets the archetypes into play. Love conquers all and heroes find happy endings. Hugo, after all, needed to tack into a new wind after the massacres of ’48. He was part of a generation of writers who flirted with revolutionary ideas, only to abandon them when they were put into practice and used as weapons against the old order by “the wretched of the earth”. A republican who tended towards pacifism, Hugo spoke out vehemently for the cause of equality and fraternity and even consorted with anarchists, yet he also helped to suppress the 1848 insurrection in Paris. Later, old Victor was not as active as many of his colleagues who would lend their pens to justify the repression of proles and pétroleuses after the Paris Commune. He nonetheless found the utility in a tactful separation between art and life, and class-climbing lovers would provide the perfect protagonists for the modern storyline.

Les Miserables the musical struck the perfect note for a new generation of sell-out artists and failed revolutionaries, remassified and forced to consume their own defeat. The most poignant song in Schönberg and Boublil’s musical, opening in Paris and London before becoming a Broadway hit, is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” In the lines,

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more

one can almost imagine a recent university graduate, newly thrust into the real world, surveying in his mind the halls in the Sorbonne where the students debated, or the meeting room in Chicago where SDS had their 1969 congress that would launch the Maoist faction as an armed vanguard, back before the hammer fell.

It is the song of one who has participated in something transcendental, something real for the first time in his life, only to lose it because the community it was born in has been swept away, the other communards either shot down (as in 1832) or robbed by the Spectacle and the prisons (as were the Weathermen and their less mediatic contemporaries). The singer knows not how to find his way back and, enslaved again by a cruel purgatory, can only blame the foolishness of his braver comrades for having tried to storm heaven.

Finally, the Hollywood remake with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman proving—at times painfully—that today’s actors can still sing and dance, closes the cycle. Passing through the crass cultural cannibalism of the last years, with which every narrative that ever enjoyed an ounce of success is retailored for the silver screen in a desperate bid to continue producing without creating anything original, Les Miserables‘ love story—at a time when the romantic narrative must arm itself with witty cynicism or worldly nuance to rise above its festering limitations, comes off as antiquatedly trite. It must hide behind a grandiose production and the outsider antics of Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter because it is simply too weak to carry the plot, though in the original musical it is clearly identified as the principal narrative thread, all of Hugo’s other subplots and digressions abandoned without hesitation.

The excitement of the insurrection is far more moving than the romance, and here we find another important theme. Of necessity the Spectacle presents us with increasingly numerous renditions of revolution, from Fight Club to Robin Hood. To serve as operations of recuperation, some of these revolutions defeat themselves through extremism, providing a cautionary moral tale against putting ideals into practice. Others attack one aspect of power, say the banks, while reinforcing another, like patriarchy, and others still succeed by piercing the conspiracy, revealing the truth, and allowing the peaceful masses or the good institutions to make everything right, leaving the actual transformation to play out off camera. How is the rebellion of 1832 recuperated?

This question is difficult to answer, just as today’s spectators might have a hard time placing the story’s defeated revolution in the genealogy of their current liberty. William Wallace fights against an evil king—the bad kind of authority—and the voiceover in the final scenes assures us that the Scots eventually won their freedom, a fact that their recent opportunity to vote on independence can only confirm. In one of Mel Gibson’s many remakes of Braveheart, Patriot—the one set during the American Revolution—the relation between the heroic struggle portrayed and the audience’s consequent lack of need to struggle is even more obvious. But what about an attempted political revolution in 19th century constitutional France? On the one hand, the dissidents’ decision to take up arms is an admirable flaw, when they really all should have just married well and joined high society. On the other hand, their rebellion is presented as an idealistic spirit—most purely embodied by Gavroche, the fearless child—that we are meant to believe eventually triumphed, though it can be carried on just as easily by the final scene’s marching masses as by armed insurgents.

What makes up for the story’s ambiguity with regards to revolution is the parallel plot of redemption. The State is redeemed in Javert’s mercy, the Church is redeemed in Bishop Myriel, and the bourgeoisie are redeemed as the guarantors of Marius and Cosette’s eventual happiness (suggesting a curious window on the American Founding Fathers’ replacement of Locke’s “property” with “the pursuit of happiness”).

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

The Christian moral—wait, pray, and all will be well—comes through in the final song. And the presence of that moral in the three generations of the telling, at the adolescence, decadence, and twilight of modernity, suggests a continuity that is both obvious and inadmissable.

I don’t know how the tale was received by its original audience, but by the third telling, the love that holds up the contradictions in the narrative structure of Les Miserables is not the cupidic escapism of its young paramours, but the love of God that provides transcendental weight to the promise of redemption, overwhelming the failed, forgotten revolution’s promises of transcendence.

We can argue, and with good reason, that during the Enlightenment science replaced Christianity as the religion of the State. We should not, however, forget Christianity’s paradoxical persistence. It is a key force in nationalist movements from Ukraine to Venezuela, and an important tool for turning exploited populations against revolution, winning obedience to state authorities, extending capitalist property relations around the world. In South America and Africa in particular, Christian missionaries serve in many ways as advance scouts for logging and mining companies. And Christianity’s close cousin, Islam, is effectively building states throughout Africa and Asia in places where European colonialism failed to do so.

Anarchists in this century do not talk as much about religion as an animating force for the apparatuses of control, and if we do, we tend to understand it as a force in the lives of people who have not progressed as far in their civilizational development, whether the backwater under the microscope is South Carolina or Kenya.

We might speak of two distinct figures that represent the exploited during the Christian and then the scientific phases of capitalist accumulation; the zombie who is enchanted and set to work and the golem who is constructed by its master, made of broken material, simple dust. Christianity simply robs the soul to create workers, counfounding its slaves or holding them captive to metaphysical blackmail, while scientific power gives the masters an architectural control over the environment and reproduction of their subjects, not merely enslaving them but creating them out of whole cloth.

But this progression of distinct phases owes too much to the fundamental eschatology that Christianity and Western science share. In practice, the two modalities of power operate simultaneously. In a platonic world where body and spirit have been alienated, in a Christian world where the body has been shamed and the spirit captivated, in a capitalist world where the body has been enslaved and the spirit has been banished, and in a scientific world where the body has been mechanized and the spirit disproven, the apparatuses of control lack an animus.

They (by which I suppose I mean the conduits of apparatuses that exist to evaluate other apparatuses) can measure the power that flows between the conduits and captives of a given apparatus, binding and differentiating them. But they are also aware of the limits of a captive’s identification with their apparatus, a certain melancholy among conduits that acts like friction, decreasing their conductivity and even halting production. And they have seen cases of a grim nihilism that arises from time to time, causing captives to act like barbarians and handle their apparatus with brute violence and against its design, or one that spreads more invisibly to conduit and captive alike, causing them to blur and desert their roles.

Even in a well designed apparatus, the flow of power is not enough to motivate the conduits or bind the captives to their role. The threat of punishment is also a necessary element, but too honest to be left in the open for long without delivering diminishing returns and augmenting risks. The people need to be animated through an affective allegiance with an entity that cannot disappoint them by changing the terms of the contract, as any institution of power will eventually do when it capitalizes on whatever trust has been deposited in it. That entity is their own longing, the first glimpse of transcendence, the very substance the State has always worked to control or destroy.

If in its first millennium the Church aimed to keep the spirit out of the commoners’ grasp, effectively creating a less spiritual world by enclosing it in Latin scripture and in the Holy See and stamping out one of the most frequent heresies—that the Holy Ghost spoke to everyone who listened—now it is one of several institutions whose purpose is to divert the miserable and the wretched from a nihilistic confrontation with a dead, scientific society by dangling in front of them a new spirituality, controlled as the old one was but not so tightly, for the new permissible spirit is accessible, on sale, and adaptable to consumer demand.

While traveling recently in South America, I got to see this aggressive marketing firsthand. The evangelists are at the forefront, but is it overly paranoid to assume that one pope was recalled and another was elected to jumpstart a new Catholic evangelism in South America? From one country to the next, billboards announced mega-revivals by visiting evangelists from the US, each eager to expand their fief. And the growth of evangelism goes hand in hand with popular support for snitching, mining, policing, the eradication of indigenous cultures, and development in general. I also came face to face with a revived Christianity’s effectiveness at dealing with potentially destabilizing mental illness and subversive cynicism, when I got to know two truck drivers. The first was batshit crazy, and the second was a jaded ex-revolutionary who had been imprisoned during the dictatorship and evidently was not impressed by what the socialists had accomplished in power (a disenchantment that for some people leads to radicalization, but that has driven entire, forgotten generations into the arms of God).

The first driver told about a girl in Brazil who was dead for a week and then got resuscitated. While dead, St. Peter took her to visit heaven and hell so she could tell everyone about it. In hell she came across the Pope, hung upside down for being a Catholic, and Celia Cruz for her lascivious lyrics. She also spied Michael Jackson.

“For molesting children?” I asked.

“For dancing backwards, contrary to the spirit of God,” the driver told me with a straight face. He went on to explain that the King of Pop was surrounded by moonwalking demons, tormenting him to eternity for his linear perverseness.

Like I said, batshit crazy, the kind of person who would undermine any rational discourse of social control, if the Church hadn’t given them a ready made set of fantasies and bugaboos to fixate on.

I thought I would like the second truck driver more, because I learned off the bat that he had been a political prisoner. During the first hours of our shared drive, we spoke about the dictatorship, the current government, and the struggle by indigenous people in the region. Then the sun set, he turned off the radio, looked over at me, and asked if I believed in God. The following hours were Hell, as he aggressively tried to convince me that people were evil, and that quinoa was God’s way of letting the natives know about Jesus, since the Bible didn’t arrive until much later.

When he stopped to help a stranded driver replace a spare tire, I told him, “See, you’re a good person!”

“I am not good!” he shrieked, tears forming in his eyes.

A slow learner, I finally decided it was a mistake to try to have a reasonable conversation with him. I will never know what happened to that truck driver in prison, why he hated himself, and to what extent the corruption of his socialist former comrades affected him, but it seemed clear that Christianity mediated it for him. Love of God as hatred of self and hatred of society, but also an opportunity to do good in a safe, non-projectual way that requires no emotional risk, since the end is already written. Without that, I doubt he would have been able to function as a productive member of society.

Who can doubt that Christianity today is both innovative and on the cutting edge of social control, when they consider the great currency that Christianity has among the mad and insane? While the pills that are meant to regulate the emotional unreliability of the golem remain imperfect, the opiate of religion succeeds in redeeming millions of depressives and psychotics, casualties of capitalism who would otherwise turn to a destabilizing lunacy, as socially useful subjects. After all, good Christians may play out their paranoid persecution fantasies while faithfully serving as snitches, taxpayers, workers, and soldiers. Faith can be the release for their madness, a belief in human evil as the non-heretical expression of a manichean nihilism, and they never need to see the inside of an asylum.

The simultaneity of a Christian modality of power with the modality of scientific social control is also evident in the affective allegiance that can only exist for the subjects of a totalitarian state. Even in this age of scientific rationalism, people can experience a transformative rapture when they surrender themselves to the absolute power of a bureaucratic institution.

In the abstract this hypothesis, or any other that could ascribe such passion to a bureaucracy, seems doubtful. But imagine what it was like for the arrestees of the Greenscare, locked up in the dungeons of the State, their entire future in the hands of the FBI. When they broke and agreed to become snitches, did they feel the warm rush of clemency, like the kiss of the papal ring? Giving themselves over to the advances of the long-shunned State, did they suddenly find themselves in the presence of God, as Winston Smith finally found Big Brother?

With the invention of the golem, spiritual matters should have been put to rest. The living world has been utterly destroyed, ground to dust, and our new bodies—our new selves—are made from that dust, constructed in arrangements that suit the needs of power and set to play in a Garden of Eden that is really just one big factory. How could cyborgs dream? Yet dream we do, and become depressed, and sometimes go off the deep end and paint the canvass of our misery with a red more real than acryllic tones can simulate (guns will be blamed, though fortunately in the last few years the disarmed nations have increasingly belied this allegation with enthusiastic uses of knives and automobiles).

I know very little about the old Buddhist states, but I can imagine that if they had grown to install a world system metaphysically organized atop the opposite pole in a similar mind/matter dichotomy, with a capitalism that measured accumulations of peace and duty rather than trade and production, eventually the body—that misleading shadow of the false physical world—would reassert itself and require more archaic institutions of state authority to coddle and distract its longings, always in a sphere that did not intersect with matters of the spirit.

So it is today. The golem still dream and cry—but if they are fabricated beings made of the dust of the old world, perhaps Democritus went awry in looking for the atom in the too-small-to-see, for if even dust contains dreamings the atom must be the universe itself—and they must be given something great and out of reach to love and to fear. The subjects of state power are no longer living beings, and there is a cathedral built atop each of our past defeats. To pay homage we are told we must walk in through the doors. On arrival we’re not sure it’s what we were looking for but we mouth along with the rite to assuage our doubts, just as the last grandiose song in a bad musical tries to divert our dissatisfaction.

But the body cannot walk to the spirit any more than the spirit can wish itself a body.

Work continues, disappointments stack up, hairs go grey and bellies flab, the tables and chairs where we sat in our passionate debates empty out, the street that was a bonfire is an apparatus again and the memory no longer seems worthy of passing on because of the inarticulate confusion it provokes in us. Yet the sense of something greater, immediate and unreachable, something that gives us courage, that could wrap us in the strongest of embraces and protect us through death or defeat, mocks us from all directions.

Golem in the Catacombs

The harmony of the seasons mocks me. I spend hours watching the sky, the lake, the enormous sea. This world. I feel that if I could understand it I might then begin to understand the creatures who inhabit it. But I do not understand it. I find the world always odd, but odder still, I suppose, is the fact that I find it so, for what are the eternal verities by which I measure these temporal aberrations?”

John Banville, Birchwood

It’s getting colder here. People shuffle by in hats and scarves. Fur-lined hoods appear in improbable quantities. Licensed vendors, unpacked in pleasant arrays, marshalled forth by the city in its brave quest to claim a new pedestrian shopping zone, are the first and only line of battle against the cold. They rub mittens and hunch puffy jackets against it, smile as only ascendant shopkeepers can, and roast chestnuts, slice baked goods, fetch glittery necklaces from crowded displays, and conquer what would have been a winterbarren street.


I used to be a partisan of winter, back when the seasons still promised an untamed difference. Now I too huddle against it, my fire gone, protected by an old leather jacket I found, waiting in just the right size, in a freestore near here. My friends made jokes about it, a throwback to the ’80s, evidently. When their jokes continued from time to time, I gathered they were actually made uncomfortable by my wearing of the jacket and its extinguished aesthetic.

The commodity demands its homage, even from those who must steal it. And my friends, anticapitalists to a one, go about in those sporty jackets made from materials far more polysyllabic than leather. Again the old question. Is it better to blend in, or to signal our defiance of the national religion? For myself, I just can’t turn down a jacket that still works, and my brain won’t accept that the dull brown thing actually draws attention from the citizens sunk in layers of equally mundane garb, hiding away from temperatures that still have not passed freezing.

This is a frigid race, with few defenses against even a lackluster winter. Nonetheless, this year there are fewer gloves in evidence. More people are keeping their fingers free to tap on little screens, their faces awash in blue glow, as they scuttle blindly down the streets.

The new device is finally triumphing in this economically holdout nation. Could anyone ever have doubted it? What sorts of homogeneization is something so flimsy as “culture” able to hold back? This is the difference between a hula hoop and an iPhone. One is a product that may catch on or not. The other is an army that must be quartered.

The entire citizenry has revealed their vapidity. They are mere bodies stripped of all their limbs and plugged into a vast matrix of domination, perpetually vacated to serve as conduit for the flux of power. Lost creatures who fumble around in smug devices looking for love or distraction. They are children who have never learned to read maps or ask for directions, children whose intimate haunts that they never needed to impose on paper in order to navigate have now been thoroughly mapped by the devices they carry with them. The impoverished oral culture that remains has been forced through this new apparatus. There is no more face-to-face communication; all of it is legible now to the authorities.

The cellphone that shares my room sometimes like an evil stranger heralds the arrival of a new message with a cheerful arrangement of beeps. After a time I pick it up, already seeing the number of the one person I wish most to hear from. But there are only five digits on the screen. An automatic message from the phone company, wishing me a happy birthday—did I put down this day, of all days, as my birthday?—and offering me a present, a free gift, which I only have to claim by logging on to their website. I unplug the broken thing and, batteryless, it dies. Every device should be equally crippled. I turn back to the article I am writing.

In a parallel universe where justice reigns, all those cretins who claimed the internet would bring us closer together and Twitter would make the revolution are being lined up against the wall in an old park and shot. Not out of vindictiveness or vengeance. The purpose of the executions is educational.

“Don’t worry,” each of the condemned is told as blindfolds are affixed. “It’s all okay: we’ll update your Facebook.”


But parallel lines never intersect, and as ours progresses, the parks and squares empty out. Only wraiths pass by, absent to themselves, linked in a psychic death pact to another wraith staring somewhere at the same glowing screen. Only a few are still resentfully here, temporarily anchored by domesticated dogs for whom no application yet exists to take on walks. But even the housepets appear more neurotic as they pull against a leash that connects only to dead weight. They stare frantically at nothing, like inmates too long interned.

I think of a resolution to make on New Years. From now on, whenever I encounter a cyborg, I will speak only to the device, the brain, and ignore the flesh-head that still pretends to be in charge. Someone should start killing cyborgs, smashing the devices and liberating the golem they hold in thrall.

A year ago a wave of graffiti appeared in a park near my house. It was the first sign of life to have appeared there in some time. The occasion, I gathered, was the premature death of a member of a circle of young people who sometimes gathered on the stairs. “Alex,” the inked etchings inscribed, “We will remember you.” “Alex, brother, we won’t forget.” “Alex, you were my first love.” The wall stood almost always alone. The kids I associated with it appeared less and less often. Had I only dreamt them? The graffiti, as such, seemed like its own tribe. When the wall was washed clean, the writing appeared again, as if by magic. Now there is nothing there. I wonder if I am the only one who remembers that unknown boy. What has become of his friends?

And what superb instinct leads us to scratch away at the indelible façade of our world right at that moment when one of us snuffs out their meaningless life? As if the excess of agony standing like stale water that no apparatus yet designed can wash away pushes us Borf-like to attempt the impermissible, the inscription of our experiences in the metallic flanks of our prison. In moments like these it seems that everyone is aware that amnesia is included in the bylaws of Order; and therefore, to not forget, we must break the law. The only walls we are allowed to transform are on Facebook, mapping for the enemy.

Today, true grieving demands we resort to graffiti. In a time not far off—already arrived in some parts—it will demand terrorism.

Such a tragedy that suicide loses its enchantment with age. Precisely as we have nothing left to lose, we lose the resolve to go out with dignity in that ultimate, irrecuperable subversion. As though we were genetically programmed to weaken just in those years when we can claim empirical proof that, no, things will not get better, it seems the onset of a hormonal listlessness, the liquification of a certain moral fiber running through our core, enlists us to plod along with the whole of our society, look away or grimace as we might, but ever onwards, in furtherance of whatever harebrained course the species has set.

The political consequences of this resulting lack of elderly suicide bombers are immense. Social stability may lay thanks for its prosperity on the doorstep of that biological cowardice with which failures cling to failure and rebels, at their very best, cling to those same gestures that have long since failed them.

Even the engineers of each new apparatus are feeling lonely. How many start-up geeks marketing the latest Twitter spin-off or networking app sincerely believe that their invention might bring people closer? Convince a prisoner that freedom is made of walls, and they will build new cells all on their own. The guards have put down their guns but they can’t hand out bricks fast enough. The general population scouts out the new galleries and wings. Is this what we’ve been looking for?

We often tell of Baron Hausmann of Paris, the rightwing architect who redesigned the city just in time for the Commune, widening avenues and intersections, enclosing common spaces, to take the defensive advantage away from a population in revolt and allow an invading army easy access, changing the very terrain to favor a new kind of war.

We should speak more of Ildefons Cerdà, the utopian socialist architect who redesigned Barcelona in the 1860s. He sought to use architecture to bring about social justice and defuse class conflict by bringing rich and poor together in harmony. The modifications he left behind were nearly the same as those that had been imposed on Paris.

This is not new, but it is getting more common. Nowadays, hip CEOs debate whether technology will overcome alienation and powerlessness or whether civilization needs to be destroyed. One pole in this debate labors all the faster to develop new technologies, hoping to find the one that will really save us, and the other promotes conscious business and donates profits to NGOs.

Those who do not take sides in the social war and commit themselves to a path of negation maintain an affective allegiance to power, and the only way for them to reconcile this allegiance with whatever residual feelings of being human still trouble them in their new cyborg physiology is to decorate these allegiances, to pour even more affective attention into the “improvement” of the rites of power. The fact that what we are seeing is not an initiative of the traditional ruling class is evident in the selection of rites for decoration. Elections, military parades, leader cults, and similar processes are not the objects of adoration. In fact, the enthusiastic campaigns of civic improvement have tended to destabilize, delegitimize, or eclipse the rites that have traditionally been predominant in the sanctification of power. Neither have the initiatives come from the upper strata of the owning class; on the contrary, the most influential production to result in the decoration and intensification of the affective allegiances that tie people to power has been initiated by individuals from the computer-literate section of what would be defined as the working class, who in their astronomic ascent have founded companies that upset the preexisting capitalist hierarchy and now rank among the largest.

A large part of what economists might see as growth in the last few decades is an exponential explosion in the frenetically doomed activity of alienated people constructing new apparatuses to mediate alienation, with the unintended but inevitable consequence of spreading it to new heights and moments of life.

State planners and capitalists, while not the initiators of what has become an October 12, a Columbus-moment, in the field of social control, have responded in perfect form; the former by pursuing an aggressive institutional advance into the network of new and momentarily underregulated apparatuses that have been formed, and by integrating new technics into a revamped Cold War security apparatus; the latter by handing out bricks on low-interest loan, making sure that the supply never runs low and that no good deed goes unexploited.

Yet one has the feeling that they are not merely profiting off a plebian circus, that even the most powerful engineers are now moved by a quest to mediate alienation. As a historical rule, up until now it seems clear that no matter how universal alienation has been, the exercise of power acted as a drug to allow a certain class of people to find fulfillment in the midst of misery. This affective marker of the ruling class as distinct holders of power is what made Foucault’s theory of the immanence and diffusion of power an overstated argument and, if our present musings have set their teeth to marrow and not air, an argument that was ahead of its time.

Increasingly, a new measure of class (post-defeat class, as ladder and not as warfare) is how fully one can organize their lives in the space of the new virtual apparatuses.

Could it be that the charm of winning the class war has worn out? A power-holder must hold it against someone. Once the class war is won is the moment our prison guard realizes that he too is in a prison. He is no longer a heroic protagonist wielding his power against the savage masses, but a conduit through which power moves to maintain the good order of the apparatus. The emergency is past. Power no longer needs his creativity and dedication as protagonist to triumph. Put another way, power has risen out of the class of protagonists who heroically generated and organized it so as to organize itself at a higher level. Today, affective dedication and creativity are required of all those desolate souls who must inhabit a prison, regardless of their level of relative privilege.

The forerunner of this dynamic, now repeated at a greater intensity, is the patriarchal system of bribery that allowed any expendable proletarian or peasant man to play at being tyrant, and taste a small dose of the drug that made misery enjoyable.

Games of power-against played out at a continental scale color the early history of the State. Power-as-drug constituted an affective wage that roped people in to building State power. However, power-fiending protagonists do not always make decisions in the interests of stability or accumulation. The new apparatuses, organized on a logic of power-as-flux, mark a tighter arrangement whereby people are conduits of power and they pay to be played. They dedicate their affective energies to the improvement of their prison, independent of any wages, because to not do so would be spiritual suicide. While capitalism has always relied on unwaged labor, until now that labor has been provided by patriarchy or colonialism. In the Wikipedia age, the voluntary character of unwaged production is largely different.

The new apparatuses of social networking also begin to quantify informal power (the very informal power that has always held primary importance, even and especially in the institutions of formal power, which could not work without it) in “likes”, “friends”, and “followers”. But this version of informal power is not the kind created by protagonists, it is the kind produced by a mill wheel set spinning by a hundred chained bodies each chasing after their own loneliness.

There are some who attempt to pirate power at the level of property, using unregulated spaces in the new apparatuses to steal and share the digital commodities that make up such a large part of the global economy. But alienation extends so far beyond property, they can only hope to be privateers. The free circulation of the product they have liberated brings no benefit to the major concentrations of capital, whose spokespersons tell of tremendous economic losses. Surely, such crimes will not go unpunished, and in the future, prevented, as the State cannot abide unregulated space. But at a level much more dear to the world-machine than that of paltry capital accumulation, these would-be pirates are doing important work, thus they are allowed a certain license (though it is a license the most powerful nations will not recognize, just as the privateers were legally commissioned criminals in a polyarchic global system).

The service they render is to maintain and even expand the project of social control. They are the next chapter in the dilemma of the workers who occupy their factory and keep on producing. To name a common example, they have liberated music—what could be more beautiful? But this is not a pirate casette, taped off the radio and shared among friends on a boombox in the park. This is a digital file that will be added to an inhumanly extensive library, linked in to the web for the collection of metadata, and fed directly into the ears of the golem, who will continue to slide like oil over the surface of the muted landscape, blind and limbless, doing whatever it takes to avoid wondering how they got there.

Such music is the pinnacle of our civilization. What beautiful sounds we invent, to play while the ship sinks, the weight of its spite bringing the whole sea down with it.

A gust of tepid wind blows past me. I have finished my circle and found nothing to keep me. An alcoholic sits on a bench, howling at the empty streets. Young people drift by, ears plugged to the world, bobbing their heads to unheard tunes. A dog barks. A motorcycle idles. When someone passes close enough, I hear a faint, electric rendition of song.

Anarchy in World Systems

A review of Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long 20th Century (1994, 2nd Edition 2010)


Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long 20th Century is a history of capitalism, and a diachronic contexutalization of the distinguishing features of US dominance in the 20th century. Building on Wallerstein and especially Braudel, Arrighi revises both Marx and world systems theory to define four stages of capitalism, each marked by a systemic cycle of accumulation. Each cycle begins with the rise of a new leading state and form of institutionalized planning that organizes a global accumulation of capital, subtly interrupted by a signal crisis that heralds the switch from industrial to financial expansion, experienced as a golden age that marches inevitably to the terminal crisis when the bubble bursts and a new state (or group of states) must take up the lead in the reorganization of global capital.


Arrighi reaches all the way back to the northern Italian city-states in the epoch just after the Crusades to describe the prefiguration of the “four main features” of the “modern interstate system”. It was the loser, or in any case the weakest, of the most important of these city-states, Genoa, that was pushed out of the trade routes to West Asia, and that turned—unable to rely on its own agrarian ruling class for military backing in its ventures—to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille to create new opportunities for investment and commerce. The alliance between the merchants of Genoa and the military power of the Spanish state organized and impelled the first global cycle of capital accumulation. The next cycle was led by the new Dutch nation-state, the architect of the interstate system or the “Westphalia system” of territorial nation-states linked in a global economy that in essence remains valid today. The third, or British, cycle of accumulation saw the mechanization of industry and the extension of the world system to every last corner of the globe through aggressive colonization. And the fourth, American cycle of accumulation saw the intensification of accumulation throughout the map laid down by the British, and the creation of the global financial and political institutions that exercise power today.


Rather than making arbitrary characterizations of putatively different stages of history as the basis for analysis, as so many historiographers do, Arrighi relies on historical analysis of competing power structures and on economic data regarding profit margins, liquidity, and the relative prominence of industrial expansion to financial speculation to trace with a convincing precision his schema of a full systemic cycle of accumulation, starting with a long period of material expansion, tipped into financial expansion by a signal crisis, and after a relatively short period of financial expansion, a terminal crisis which marks the end of the cycle, with political and economic power shifting to a new state that has already begun the material expansion that will form the basis for the next cycle. So far, the power of the leading state and the intensity of accumulation have surpassed that of the preceding cycle exponentially, while each cycle comes to fruition in a shorter amount of time (220 years between the signal crises that bracket the first cycle, 180 years for the second cycle, 130 for the third, and 100 years between the signal crisis of the British cycle—the Great Depression of 1873-1896—and the signal crisis of the American cycle, which Arrighi argues was the “oil shock” of 1973). Each transition has also been marked by a war in which the old power’s inability to govern the world system is made manifest, and new ascendant powers compete to assert their hegemony: the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Second World War. And although Arrighi does not make this point explicit, each transition has also been preceded by a war in which the dominant state is defeated by what will become, many years later, the next dominant state, as in the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule, the Anglo-Dutch wars, and the American Revolution. Although these wars often appeared to be of secondary importance in their time, their real significance was that the upset allowed a state power to open up and govern a sphere of economic and political autonomy that would eventually serve as a platform from which to launch their own bid for global hegemony.


Arrighi and the theorists he builds on successfully demystify the nature of economic crises and the speculative activities of high finance, which an abundance of commentators today claim to be a new and irresponsible feature of capitalism that bears the blame for the crisis of 2008. They also take apart the narrow view of capitalism that only begins with the industrial revolution and in accordance with free market dogma is distinct from the “protectionist” phase of mercantilism. As regards the history of early capitalism, Arrighi fills in at the macro level what Federici, Rediker, and Linebaugh have been describing at an intermediate level.


Paramount to this revision is Arrighi’s identification, drawing heavily on Braudel, of capitalism as a dichotomous fusion of state and capital. In this view, the State is far more important than a mere “organizing committee” for the bourgeoisie, as Marx and Engels, covetous of a state of their own, would have it.


Contrary to the dominant view, capital as a social force, merchants as its agent, and markets as a place-of-flows in which capital operated, much the same way it does today, all already existed hundreds and even thousands of years ago. This fact:

has troubled world system studies right from the start. Nicole Bousquet (1979: 503) considered it “embarrassing” that price logistics long pre-dated 1500. For the same reason, Albert Bergesen (1983: 78) wondered whether price logistics “represent the dynamics of feudalism, or capitalism, or both.” Even Imperial China seems to have experienced wave-like phenomena of the same kind as Europe” (p.8).


The conventional view in the social sciences, in political discourse, and in the mass media is that capitalism and the market economy are more or less the same thing and that state power is antithetical to both. Braudel, in contrast, sees capitalism as being absolutely dependent for its emergence and expansion on state power and as constituting the antithesis of the market economy” (p.10).


Given the historical and geographic extension of merchant networks, price logistics, and market dynamics well beyond the European beginnings of capitalism (whether in the 18th century or the 15th),

the really important transition that needs to be elucidated is not that from feudalism to capitalism but from scattered to concentrated capitalist power. And the most important aspect of this much neglected transition is the unique fusion of state and capital, which was realized nowhere more favorably for capitalism than in Europe” (p.12).


In essence, merchants who had long been playing a particular game amongst themselves, with exponentially mounting stakes, began to invest their profits in state-making and war-making, not merely as another industry, but as a way to produce an expansion of the field in which their accumulation took place, and to produce the instruments to organize and regulate that field. Simultaneously, ruling elites began to extend their territorialist strategies for the control of the space-of-places in which state competition traditionally took place (the conquering of territory, cities, resources) into the space-of-flows in which the merchants operated (the capturing of markets, trade routes) as a way to fuel the engine of state growth.


Capitalism as an interstate system rests on a dichotomous structure that balances, in ever changing measures, territorialist and capitalist strategies for global power and organization, operating simultaneously in a space-of-places and a space-of-flows. The former strategy uses a territorial power base to capture a greater economic command that is utilized to control more territory, whereas the latter uses an economic command to win territorial resources that serve “the acquisition of additional means of payment”.


Although Arrighi’s analysis and ability to synthesize are indeed razor sharp, if all of this seems like a complex version of something insistently familiar, there’s a reason for that. Arrighi’s model of capitalism and its relationship to the State, although expressed and developed with a frequently Marxist analysis, is nothing if not a precise reiteration of the anti-Marxist thesis that Bakunin put forward (and that history later vindicated) in the 1870s, 120 years before Arrighi went to press. And it doesn’t end there. The proposition that capitalism is antithetical to the market sounds suspiciously reminiscent of Proudhon. And Arrighi’s dialectical model of capitalist powers that tend towards alternating territorialist and then capitalist strategies of accumulation bears a lot in common with Fredy Perlman’s model of Leviathan that constitutes itself now as a worm, now as an octopus. In simpler terms and admittedly less sophistication, and without supporting statistics, Perlman provides (eleven years earlier) a similar analysis. Against Leviathan, however, is much more sweeping than The Long 20th Century, as Perlman recounts the development of civilization going back thousands of years, and despite some factual flaws comes much closer to capturing the spirit of power and accurately describing how it functions, a task at which Arrighi with all his statistics falls woefully short.


Not one of these writers is mentioned in Arrighi’s extensive bibliography. On the whole body of anarchist thought, which in many instances, especially his revisions of Marx, he mimics, Arrighi remains suspiciously silent. In the academic world, some might refer to this as inethical research or even plagiarism. Anarchists would generally respect it as another manifestation of the collective nature of knowledge, except that Arrighi engages in a low blow against anarchist theory even as he obscures its contributions.


Despite hiding it as a theoretical concept, Arrighi gives anarchy an important place in his development of world system studies. He is good enough to differentiate it from “sytemic chaos,” which is the interregnum period in the schema in which one cycle of accumulation has reached its terminal crisis, and though the next cycle of accumulation has already begun, the state power that will organize and direct it has not yet achieved hegemony; it is therefore not clear where power in the world system will be concentrated, nor what set of common rules govern the system.


Arrighi puts anarchy in the corner with more subtle means, making the term essentially meaningless by applying it to both feudalism and the modern interstate system on the grounds that “ “Anarchy” designates “absence of central rule.” ” We all know that Arrighi was bright enough to be aware that “anarchy” in fact designates “the absence of rule”. By not using the linguistically appropriate “polyarchy” to describe a system of multiple, competing, and sometimes overlapping loci of power, Arrighi makes true anarchy inexpressible and therefore semantically impossible within his theoretical framework, at the same time as he erases it as a theoretical body. Conveniently, the only form of resistance or conflict he discusses concern state attempts to forge new configurations of hegemonic power. Arrighi abandons the long discredited materialist superdetermination of historical events, but he reserves all agency in the world system for state actors. The rest of us can only watch and wait.


Since we have brought up the ideological tension between Marxism and anarchism, it seems an appropriate moment to turn to the latest round of misguided predictions about the future.


Arrighi, first publishing in 1994, observed that the cycle of accumulation led by the United States had already experienced the signal crisis that marked a shift to financial expansion and the beginning of the end of its dominance. Noting Japan’s celebrated economic growth, Arrighi predicted that the next global cycle of accumulation would be Japanese.


Here he betrays his Marxian heritage by misunderstanding the nature of power, an unfortunate oversight since such an understanding is implicit in his revisionism and well supported by his data. But he makes capitalists, or even capital, the main protagonists, and states the dependent spouses of this marriage. Another, and somewhat more accurate, way to understand the bilateral relationship he describes from the self-important vantage of capital, is that since the 16th century the State, which has always based its power in the exploitation of a territory—up until then usually a geographic territory and an exploitation that was agricultural and extractive—shifted its activity to a virtual territory, the space-of-flows of the productive economy. The State experienced a great shift from a primarily parasitic existence to a productive one, and the productive logic came to subsume and transform the geographical territory within the system, although always with the backing, and often with the initiative, of the State itself. Neither the market nor capitalists were ever independent pioneers in this movement. The former was never even an actor, simply a space that has been subordinated by an array of apparatuses to capitalist relations. The latter, for their part, often undertook adventures that forced the State’s hand or extended the horizon of State intervention, but they have never been able to maintain virtual territory over time without the subsidization, institutionalization, and policing provided by the State.


How this relates to Japan should be immediately evident. Japan was coming to control a growing share of global capital, moving from its status as an attractive site for international investment to a major investor in its own right, instigating and capturing processes of capital accumulation in southeast Asia and even in the United States. But it lacked every other guarantor to accumulation, not least of all the military capacity to wrest away from the US the ability to dominate global territory and organize the world economy. In real terms not directly measurable by capital flows, Japanese economic growth was predicated on a major US military subsidy (along with export privileges and other more measurable and more documented factors). When push came to shove, the US pulled the plug and the Japanese economy collapsed. With it, Arrighi’s predictions.


Arrighi’s failings—though they do betray the statist bias of leftist thinkers who since Marx have tried to discredit the anarchist idea with underhanded minimizations or naturalizations of the role of the State—are not a sign of sloppy thinking. Arrighi’s synthesis is breathtakingly lucid, immediately useful to explore and apply to the world around us. But we might call on an almost dogmatic anarchist heterodoxy to reject the quest for that holy grail, the unified theory. No theoretical lens can account for every factor at play in a chaotic universe. For example, race and culture find no expression in Arrighi’s model, yet the reluctance of capitalists—a great many of them white—to allow Japan to become the next superpower certainly played a role in that country’s instability. It is a factor of consummate importance that current powerholders would much rather the European Union, for example, to dominate the next cycle of accumulation than an Asian nation (and if it must be an Asian nation, they would probably prefer it to be an ex-colony, a good student like India, then a country like Japan or China that has blazed an independent trail to imperial power).


And though the European Union does currently host a disproportionate number of the world’s largest banks—more than the US, including the number one slot—such a large proportion of capital accumulation is centered on China that Arrighi changed his prediction for the 2004 edition of the book and placed his bets on Beijing.


Within the framework that Arrighi offers, his second prediction remains unconvincing. His reasoning, once again, is based almost exclusively on data regarding investment and capital flows, which unambiguously announce China and southeast Asia as their prefered stomping grounds. Yet he ignores all the state and cultural factors that so often disappoint materialist forecasts (“mere superstructure!”).


China lacks the military capacity to defeat the US, even in its own backyard, southeast Asia. And while the Chinese military is quickly developing the capability to destroy a US fleet in the Pacific, it has no practical chance of doing so while also protecting its home territory. If it can’t even reach Taiwan, how is China supposed to organize the entire world system in the next cycle of accumulation? The only feasible chance that China has of achieving global military superiority in the forseeable future is if a decades long economic crisis eroded the US military (similar to what happened in Russia) without interrupting Chinese economic growth—an unlikely prospect indeed.


Then there are racial and cultural factors. Europeans and Euro-Americans currently control a huge volume of international capital and exert hegemony over the institutions that organize the global economy. Even the most progressive of them would be loath to let power slip away from the good old boys’ club. There is also the fact that Chinese state culture runs roughshod over the liberal sensibilities that the current planners of the world system adhere to. Put simply, the Chinese state has no respect for democracy, human rights, due process, and other bizarre tropes of the Western ruling class, and in very real ways this makes them the class pariah, even though their enviable economic activity grants them the status of popular kid.


To exert hegemony, a state power needs to make itself admired, even if it is also hated, and it needs to train all the other major players to speak its language. And as hypocritical and hollow as it is, the ongoing crusade for democracy is infinitely more convincing than the provincial strongarming of the Communist Party. Even though the US is already fast losing its place as hegemon, it currently faces no rival on the military or cultural level, and therefore, no contender to advance a new set of ruling institutions.


And yet, only a few years remain for a new hegemonic power to arise and inaugurate the next cycle of systemic accumulation and enjoy a couple decades of material expansion before its signal crisis. After that, Arrighi’s beautiful model will have broken down, its patterns no longer valid, only useful in hindsight.


However, there are some facts that Arrighi missed out on that do indicate a way for China to at least be centrally involved in the organization of the next cycle of accumulation. First of all, we have a war between China and the United States that is analogous to the American Revolution or the Anglo-Dutch wars: the Korean War. Although it would not make most historians’ lists of the three most important wars of the 20th century, China’s ability to fight the US to a standstill on the Korean Peninsula marked the beginning of that state’s right to an autonomous sphere of economic and political influence from which to develop its own bid for power.


Another pattern in Arrighi’s model suggests the terrain of material expansion for the next cycle of accumulation, and it isn’t southeast Asia. The Dutch took over the network of accumulation opened up by the Porgtuguese in the East Indies, and they intensified the exploitation thereof. The British subsequently expanded the map of global accumulation. The Americans after them operated within essentially the same map as the British, but they applied new methods of accumulation that allowed for more intense exploitation and a greater concentration of power. Where on earth could capitalism possibly spread to next to allow for a new material expansion? The answer is nowhere.


The next cycle of accumulation, if it is to happen in any way similar to past cycles, will have to expand into outer space. A robotic workforce (resistance free) carrying out mining on asteroids and the moon, and the chemistructural development (pre- or sub-infrastrucutre, the organic basis already existent on earth that makes infrastructure meaningful) of Mars. (A subsequent cycle of accumulation, feasibly, would be based on colonization). Meanwhile, on an earth with new possibilities for green management (statist environmentalism has only ever come at the expense of externalizing impact, and what could be more external to the biosphere?), an expanding consumer society in an ever more capricious service sector and a highly paid design sector (with the private cities of Google and the NSA, perhaps, as the dichotomous model).


This past weekend, China landed a rover on the moon. Anyone who mistakes this for an extremely tardy attempt to keep up with the Jones’ is missing its significance. China has guaranteed itself access to processes of capital accumulation in space. With a space program far cheaper than the US government’s, they have become, last year, the first country to match the US for new satellites in space, and they have also developed killer satellites and other anti-satellite weapons that could destroy all of the expensive little orbiters on which global communications, and the US capacity to deploy military force around the world, across the Pacific for example, depend. With no need to overcome US superiority head-on, just as the Dutch navy and American colonial army often used guerrilla tactics or evasion to confound a superior force, the Chinese have the potential to make US military might meaningless, and the liquid capital to give themselves the advantage in outer space investment.


As higher levels (in this case perhaps literally) of competition require higher levels of collaboration, it is unlikely that terrestrial states, at least in their present form, will find themselves adequately equipped to the task of organizing capital accumulation beyond planet earth. Power structures like Google may prove vital in organizing the new material expansion and also linking the power of terrestrial states to achieve the cultural unification necessary for the regulation and organization of capitalism. After all, the totalitarianism that liberal freedom most requires is not the secret police nor the torture chambers of the Communist Party (although these will never go away, neither in China nor in the US), it is the panopticon society, the apparatuses of communication, the instantaneous imposition of legibility on oral culture, and immediate enclosure of any new commons, that the likes of Google and Apple have already achieved.


If these changes come to pass—and they will to the extent that we allow them to—there will no doubt appear another wave of leftists who claim that it was all an economic operation, that the State has now expired, that capitalism is self-regulating, that the decentralized forms of production that are coming to the fore are the new reality. They willfully forget how much state power continues to concentrate, how the new decentralized industries only function in relation to unprecendented phenomena of concentration, that without drones raining missiles from the sky, there are no iPhones, that without nuclear submarines, there are no satellites, and without the State, whatever its form, there is no capitalism.


The state and capital have joined their destinies, but they are not the only players. Because anarchy is not just another way power organizes itself within a world system, it is an externality inside of that which has no outside, it is a dreamed and immanent reality that promises the destruction of this system. Anarchy is here, with those who reject the models of power, even if we choose to study them. Because above all it comprises the will to make time stop, it is necessarily meaningless to those who are content to chart the quantifiable manifestations of power, while it means everything to those who are dedicated to fighting power in all its forms.

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).


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.

Robots of Repression

With all the intelligent things she might have said, it is unfortunate that Audre Lorde is most widely passed around in the form of that execrable quote about the impossibility of using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house. This allegation is false both in the imagined realm of the metaphor and on the historical terrain of social struggles it signifies. Many a time, a state’s own policies and institutions have brought about its ruin, whereas literally, if the master’s house is made of stone, the hammer, chisel, and levers we used to make it for him would be rather expedient for tearing it down; if made of wood, the same goes for the axe, saw, and plane, although it would be slow going with the plane. One could allege that tools expropriated to destroy the master’s house can no longer be called the master’s tools but are now the People’s Tools; however, such class-conscious semantics exclude the possibility that the tools still pertain to the master, and he has ordered us to tear down his house, to build a bigger one, or out of insanity perhaps. Stranger things have happened.

It has been said that the difference between a tool and a machine is that a tool is in the hand of its user, whereas a machine conditions its operator. The conditioning that is part and parcel of the machine is reminiscent of that of the apparatus. Curiously, analysis—quite unlike poetry—loathes the synonym, and demands a distinction between like terms. So, let us blindly answer the exigencies of our logical paradigm and refine ourselves into a farther corner of this cave of shadows: what is the difference between machine and apparatus?

In a past essay, I argued the need (admittedly arbitrary, although not random) to define “apparatus” as a concrete manifestation of the dominant networks of power that conditions both its conduits and its captives, and I emphasized a parallel need to “analyze these networks of power within their concrete and daily manifestations, so as to tease out the strategic relationship between the spaces we inhabit and the powers that shape those spaces.”

As all analytical categories are stillborn metaphors, the concreteness of the apparatus does not demand of it a specified physical existence; rather this concreteness, coming to us as it does as representation, might just as easily be the idea of concreteness as a fixed chemical tangibility. Really, what is the physical quality that distinguishes a nuclear family from another collection of people who may or may not inhabit the same dwelling? Though the nuclear family is certainly concrete—we can go and touch its members, be chased out of the house by them, listen to them throwing plates and screaming—there is no physical quality that distinguishes it from a group of actors living together for a reality TV show, a multigenerational assortment of persons whom chance has brought together to live in the same house, or a group of acquaintances who get together on holidays.

Nor are machines strictly physical. Many social configurations have been represented as machines, and with the further development of both affective and nano-technologies, in some seen reality we attempt to purge of representation, the supreme physicality of the machine is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish. The metaphor of production has long been naturalized within the realm of life by the ideologues of rationalism, who insist with religious fervor that just as a factory produces trinkets, certain cells produce sugar or babies produce sounds, to give two examples. But as genetically programmed animal captives come to manufacture medicines within the cells of their own bodies, or babies begin to replicate sounds and gestures as disciplined by a bombardment of educational television and increasingly scientific commoditized caretaking, we are dealing with production in fact and not production as a metaphysical usurpation of the meaning of natural occurrences.

Thus, we cannot distinguish between the machine and the apparatus using a criterion of their physicality.

A notable difference that might aid us in our semiological quest is that the operator is the adjunct of the machine, lamentably necessary to its functioning, whereas the conduits and captives are a specific focus of the apparatus. The machine progressively reduces the number and attention of operators it relies on, whereas the apparatus progressively intensifies the attention directed to its conduits and captives, and all other things being equal increases the number of conduits and captives it manages.

In the assembly line, the machine and the apparatus seemingly coincide. In a frozen instant captured for the popular imagination by, say, the photo of a factory in Detroit in the ’70s, we see that the machine and apparatus are coterminous, occupying the same physical space, although linked with the broader world by a number of dependencies, be those material and technical input or management by overseeing institutions. However, as the system develops, we are approaching factory systems that are entirely roboticized, with no more captives and just a few remaining humans as conduits that represent a severed loop, communicating with no one but themselves and the occasional elementary school field trip that might pass through for a tour.

In other words, in the specific physical space of the post-modernizing factory, the machine has apparently triumphed, whereas the apparatus is in shambles, nearing an apparent obsolescence. Such an obsolescence would certainly negate an evolutionist view of the system, as the machine came into our gaze before the apparatus, and is presumed therefore to represent a more primitive form.

The follies of evolutionism aside, the increased mechanization of the factories cannot be detached from an explosion of apparatuses into everyday life. Here we find an external will that coincides with the tendency of the machine for greater mechanization. Just as the logic of production favors an increase in labor efficiency and the replacement of workers with machines (a false dichotomy, perhaps), the strategic needs of capitalists and governors favored the closing of the factory as a space for struggle and formation of oppositional identity. Simultaneously, the apparatuses moved from the dessicating niche of the factory into the newly vivacious spaces elsewhere in social life (the highway, the shopping mall, the package vacation, the chat room, to name a few). This migration and proliferation of apparatuses was performed partly with the bumbling advice of administrators and the occasional brilliant prophesies of progressives, but to a much greater extent the movement was a silent one, performed with the instinctual intelligence of a hyperaggressive parasite. Unlike the move towards mechanization, which was made explicit every step of the way with balance sheets, investment recommendations, urban planning reports, and police threat assessments, all of which pointed in their different ways towards the closing of factories, the adoption of robotics, and the orphaning of proletarian communities, the apparatus migration was announced in no strategic papers except those that came after the fact. Although in some cases the growth of a new apparatus was specifically impelled by the institutions that managed it, just as often new institutions had to be founded to keep pace with that growth, which had taken on qualitative as well as quantitative proportions and therefore had opened up entirely new terrains initially free from direct institutional oversight.

All apparatuses are marked by a strategic dynamic that is, within a broader network that crosses them both vertically and horizontally, self-regulating. The machine, on the other hand, is simply replicating (and in an increasingly proximate future, also self-replicating). When the machine and the apparatus coincide in physical space, the machine is the analysis of that space at the level of its functioning, and the apparatus is the analysis of that space at the level of its functionality. Therefore, with the machine, the question of purpose is obviated with the removal of that purpose to an external inventor, mechanic, or technician. With the apparatus, on the contrary, the question of purpose becomes a cental paradox. Strategy is central to the foundation of the apparatus, but the articulation of that strategy is also constantly conditioned by the functioning of the apparatus in conjunction with the network of other apparatuses. So, how can we speak of strategy and thus of an external will and objectives if those who articulate the strategy are conditioned by their apparatuses and are at times even unaware of them?

A teleological understanding that divides reality into cause and effect, or for that matter mass and energy, would force us to seek the original apparatus and its Creator (perhaps language? according to Agamben). A chaotic understanding of reality sees creation as an ever present property of a communicative network that both responds to and articulates forces. In this view, subject_object is often a misunderstanding of thing-looking-at-itself.

Both the machine and the apparatus date historically to biopower, and biopower can be understood as a sea change or an emergent behavior that arose from the increasing pressure achieved by an anti-entropic array of forces within the chaotic whole (with a modest degree of accuracy, we can call this array the State). This emergent behavior functions as a decentralized or common measuring stick that different foci of power can use, consciously or unconsciously, to regulate themselves. When the democracy activist seeks to impose trusted and comforting forms of organization on a chaotic rupture, he is not in the employ of a specific institution, but as conduit and captive in other spaces of his life, he has been conditioned by other apparatuses and is now predisposed to create new ones. Thus, the advance of apparatuses can easily outpace the ability of the institutions of power to become cognizant of the opening of new social spaces in which apparatuses could take root. The institutional response is more likely to tend towards the suppression of new spaces, out of the conservative self-interest that characterizes the institutional form (a form that predates biopower, and is more parasitic than productive, or to refer to the earlier metaphor, is a sedentary parasite rather than a hyperaggressive one). However, the opening of new social spaces usually does not realize its potential as a threat to the State, because non-State actors following the tide and responding to newness with a greater adaptability than the State could ever achieve are usually the ones to introduce new apparatuses into the new spaces. These actors sometimes call themselves activists, or anarchists, or artists, or are called by others hipsters. In every case, what they fear is chaos, and what they seek is a “true” realization of the same values that the system has supposedly neglected (rights, justice, democracy, equality, and other tripe). This common language between governor and activist is the virus of colonization.

The internet constitutes a multitude of new spaces—a new plane—of social life. It is also an array of apparatuses. Technically, it is the unforeseen side effect of a well meaning attempt by the US military to still be able to control the world in the event of a nuclear holocaust, subsequently expanded by scientific institutions and informal networks of geeks before being even more massively expanded (and saturated with new apparatuses) as a new possible terrain for commerce. The specific machines that contributed to the development of the internet either run independently or they condition their operator little more than does a typewriter (referring now to the personal computer). But the new spaces constituted by the internet and the apparatuses that quickly migrated into them have had a profound affect on human behavior. At the user end, those who stray into the apparatuses of the internet exist simultaneously as conduits and captives. This heightened involvement as both producer and consumer is often portrayed as one of the liberatory aspects of the internet: so much of it is created by those who use it.

One possibility opened up by the participatory nature of the internet is the crowdsourcing of repression. “Crowdsourcing” itself is an internet-era neologism reflecting the previously unimaginable phenomenon that has followed riots from London to Toronto: the police publishing thousands of megabytes worth of photo and video and calling on the public to help them trace and identify lawbreakers, qualitatively surpassing the predecessor of this phenomenon, the good ole fashioned “Wanted” poster. Of course, to every action a reaction: this crowdsourcing of repression has already been sabotaged by anarchists spamming police identification efforts, sometimes with the help of computer programs that automatically flood the database with thousands of fake and funny names (the equivalent of ripping down the “Wanted” poster, drawing a moustache on it, or, à la Robin Hood, shooting a freaking arrow through it).

Another user offering thrown up on the altar of the internet—not just new content but a whole new feature—is the online comment. Rumor has it that the online comment, now so ubiquitous in the world of blogs and online newspapers, is actually the invention of Indymedia. It might be easy, and not entirely without merit, to return to the heady days of innovation, and in light of the subsequent triumph of that innovation, such that present day life is hard to imagine without the contribution of those shoestring activists, exalt in the creative grandeur of anarchy. Given the present condition of the internet comment, it is even easier to reflect on the erroneous or lacking critique of democracy and free speech held by those innovative activists, those pioneers unwittingly carrying their parasite into virgin lands.

Within a few short years, the internet comment forum transformed into a repressive apparatus, albeit democratic par excellence. With nearly everyone taking part, internet comment forums created and used within anarchist struggles have become acceptable spaces for the intensification of sectarian divisions based on barely a shadow of critical difference, the proliferation of superficial or aesthetic affinities, snitch-jacketing, rape-jacketing, the publishing of legally endangering information, the compromising of anonymities, the erosion of solidarity and its replacement with flippancy and instant gratification, and a deepening of the culture of TLDR.

In the world at large, comment forums have been seized on by internet news sites to increase reader interest but also to further mold reader opinion. Given that the public has always been an imaginary force used to discipline collective and individual behavior, the opening of a new potential manifestation of a collectivity, on the internet, had to be replaced by a new public. And that public, as all publics, had to be disciplined. In the beginning, this was done by astroturfing: mercenary trolls in the employ of public relations firms or government agencies posting comments that would generate favorable opinions of specific brands and policies, and on a larger scale create a majority disposed to social peace and consumption. Increasingly, astroturfing is being automated as the PR firms and governments that carry it out increase their labor efficiency by turning their opinion workers into the overseers of multiple computer-generated opinion-spreading machines that create the impression of a sycophantic mass hostile to the extremists, favorable to the products, and unquestioning of the tropes and lenses with which the media represent the world.

As machines condition the workforce with increasingly mechanical behaviors and apparatuses condition their captives to act within the suggested channels, we can surmise that the roboticization of the workforce carrying out the informational and affective labor of the internet forums is of secondary importance to the inculcation of robotic attitudes among the remaining organics. In other words, the horror of the mass production of an imaginary public through internet comments is not to be found in the image of real people being overwhelmed by corporate-employed robots who endanger a prior democratic balance; it is to be found, rather, in the image of real people becoming steadily more like the robots who replaced them, in their own turn making the robots redundant (but no less useful).

One can assume a low probability to the proposition that specifically anarchist comment forums are, or at least were in their earlier days, dominated by hired or robotic trolls. But the population and voracity of their trolls are not less but if anything more than in the mainstream internet forums presumably managed by the robots. After Infoshop News got rid of anonymous commenting, I can only imagine in an attempt to create a less pernicious commenting culture, a great deal of activity moved to Anarchist News, which is known far and wide for comment wars that are at best assinine. A recent poll on that site asking which types of comments could be acceptably purged suggests that they too are looking for a way to change the nature of their comment forum. The big question, no doubt, is how to get rid of the trolls and improve the quality of the debates without killing activity on the site. In this problematic we see reflected a characteristic behavior that is typical of the consumer: the demand for more opportunities to consume, and the reproduction of desires that in the first instance were objectivated from without.

A specific space inhabited by an apparatus—a website, for example—functions as a shell. Even in the absence of management, its very shape suggests a specific use and flow which serve to regenerate it. For this reason, fighting an apparatus within its own space usually requires counterintuitive, obscure, or shockingly violent measures. (If I were to say that it requires thinking outside the box, it is only because this particular field of text seems like an appropriate terrain for the burial ground of such a dead metaphor.) There are many anarchists who have run for the mountains, as it were, ignoring anarchist websites entirely and foregoing all the civilizational wonders of internetland, consigning themselves to discursive forms that are illegible from the lowlands. Through avoidance, they protect themselves from the recuperating trap of trying to resolve the problem, but they also run the risk, historically repeated, of losing a battle fought on a field from which they are absent, ensuring that they will subsequently be overrun and disappeared.

Faced with the superficiality of internet communication and its pernicious effect on our own behaviors and networks, what are we to do?

I don’t offer a solution to this question. I intend the question itself as a subversion, an invitation to counter the flow of the apparatus that is already leading you along to click on the hypertext that leads to the next article before even reading the middle of this one (because you skimmed, didn’t you?) by pondering—at length and unproductively—an invitation to look away, causing your eye muscles to remember distance and focus, to breathe in deeply and remember that you hadn’t been, and to remember your back and your shoulders, that should be straight, ready for a fight or a long walk, but are instead hunched, as though under some great load that you must carry with you wherever you go.

What are we to do?

You don’t really care for music, do ya?

a continuation of “Kafka Reloaded”

I used to live alone before I knew you

There are a number of babies in this park, all of them accompanied by an adult. Little Worm is the only one in a baby sling, pressed tight against my chest. All the others are being pushed around in strollers, alternately sleeping or crying or staring off, while their adults are alternately talking or using cellphones or staring off.

Little Worm was removed early. Premature, they call it. The doctors said it was an emergency and he had to come out. It’s hard to know if they were right, because emergencies are their preferred terrain.

So, I suppose the first apparatus Little Worm encountered was a surgical procedure. (Do we have the machine that goes ping?) The second was an incubator. Given the politics of hygenization and the suppression of human contact, the bottle could be considered not just a tool (which in a different socio-historical context it would be) but a third apparatus. A fourth would be a stroller. All of these tend towards separation.

I wonder if it’s fair to consider the stroller an apparatus, while sparing the baby sling this perjorative assignment. The stroller minimizes interaction and socializes the baby to accept vehicular movement in which the force that impels is invisible, and the world is split into personal space and scenery. These same movements are repeated elsewhere in the grand symphony. Wars have been fought to inflict the same achievements on uncivilized populations.

The baby sling, in certain manifestations, reifies the bourgeois right to buy back some of the human contact that has been robbed from all of us. In the next neighborhood over, it would be easy to find progressive yuppy parents toting their tots around in baby slings, perhaps dyed to look like they’re from India, or done up as an entire backpack with extra diaper pockets and multiple safety features. The one Little Worm snuggles in is secondhand, purely functional. His parents don’t have the kind of money they have in the next neighborhood over.

Because Little Worm was kept in an incubator the first months of his life, he never got used to drinking milk straight from the breast, only from the bottle. One advantage to this sorry fact is that I can take him to the park and care for him for hours, despite my tragically useless mammaries.

The strollers are depressing me as they make their clockwise rounds, accompanied by their pair of humans, small and large, fore and aft. In an obvious juxtaposition, a minor fleet of Latin American immigrants appear on the scene to push citizen convalescents in wheelchairs counterclockwise about the park. The unpaid labor of mothers dances about the paid labor of immigrants in a symphony of social reproduction whose greatest movement silences the sound of the music.

The superimposition of strollers on wheelchairs makes me think of Addie Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, lying unseeing in the coffin as her family disintegrates around her on its journey cityward. And like Darl I’m overcome by an inarticulate sullenness, a need to burn down a barn, or its urban equivalent. I think about Jewel (the kid from Yoknapatawpha, not the singer from Alaska) running in to save the horses, and how every gesture of negation runs into complications, how every apparatus contains its innocent captives. Today, the exact same sensitivity can lead to terrorism or to humanism. Nihilism without arrogance—the kind that lets itself cry on top of a coffin as the barn burns—quickly loses its way. But this loss is a necessary and beautiful thing. Someone in the symphony must finally put down her violin and admit that really, she just doesn’t understand.

In the anarchist newspaper I read about a couple youths in the adjacent town who got sent to prison after breaking into the construction site for a mental hospital and destroying everything, just because. Donnie Darko’s summary of the Graham Greene novel tells us this destructive impulse is common enough to have passed from literature to pop culture. The official news does damage control, imposing an alibi of irrationality, while the silver screen pretends to sympathize with everyone’s inner nihilist as long as they just stay in their seats, stay tuned in. On a rational, discursive level, the entertainment media’s sympathy for nihilism makes no sense; it seems to contradict our argument that there is nothing subversive within the Spectacle. It is Power’s quest for affective allegiances that explains the contradiction.

Little Worm starts to twitch and squirm. I sing him a song to keep him asleep. His tiny fist clenches and unclenches at my chest.

Earlier I was looking at a book full of exercises that can be done with children, starting in the very first week, to maximize the development of their muscular and cognitive processes. The Worm’s mother told me that all the progressive daycares in town were like bootcamps in which the kiddies were strapped down, never hugged, and bombarded with stimuli meant to boost their intellect. I remember an argument with a doctor friend who wanted to send her child to school as early as possible to give him “more opportunities.” I think about the parents who want super-babies. The line between love and abuse is so fine sometimes. Neglect, in these cases, seems so benign.

If only we could get a little less attention, given the motives that lie, naturalized and invisible, behind that attention. I hug Little Worm close to me. He’s a little ball of warmth against my heartbeat. I shrug my way out of my jacket.

In the argument with my doctor friend, a devout follower of Francis Bacon, I was saying that science is a religion based on a mechanical mythology. William Gaddis illustrates this perfectly through brief vignettes in his comic novel J R, as the minor character in the public school where much of the storyline takes place, Coach Vogel, teaches his students about the human body using the naturalized metaphor of a machine (naturalized because the body is held to be, not like a machine, but in fact a machine). At first his monologues are simply annoying, when he talks about the digestive system, the fuel for this machine, then depressing when he claims the heart to be a piston, and then hilarious when, in the oblique background of one scene, he begins to explain the reproductive system. The naturalness of the metaphor finally breaks down when he assigns his students the construction of machine-bodies and they all pass out from inhaling glue fumes.

there was a time when you let me know what’s really going on below

The Little Worm awakes in a fit of sobs. I rock him and sing a lullaby, and soon he is breathing evenly, gripping me, eyes closed, head pressed against my chest to hear my heartbeat. It feels both perverse and wholesome that the song I put him to sleep with is the Decembrists’ “Shankhill Butchers.”

The shankhill butchers ride tonight
you better shut your windows tight
they’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives
they’re taking all their whiskey by the pint

cause everybody knows
if you don’t mind your mother’s words
a wicked wind will blow
your ribbons from your curls
the shankhill butcher’s wanna catch you

Since the Age of Disney, expressing such violence to children is blasphemous, but Disney itself represents a stark transformation from the Age of Grimm, in which fairy tales were used precisely to introduce children to a particular war. Santa Claus, remember, used to beat naughty children with bags of coal, not make presents of them; and the first two Little Pigs didn’t run to their brother’s house, they got eaten.

When the bow breaks
the cradle will fall
and down will come baby
cradle and all

It seems appropriately old-fashioned to put this atavistic baby to sleep with threats about the shankhill butchers. But the Grimm Brothers, now a stock symbol for the archaic, were every bit as much the revisionists as Walt Disney. Walter Benjamin has already untangled the meaning of the fairy tale as a semiotic war against the world of magic. Though the fairy tale’s didacticism communicates to both adults and children, by objectivating the audience as a childish one, the Grimmists restrict the magical world to prepubescence, which is to say subhumanity, sealing the monopoly of rationalism on adult discourses. Secondly, within the moral template of the fairy tale, the women are chaste, nature is either tame or evil, bad children meet with violent ends, and the witches always get killed. (The frequency with which women were the protagonists of fairy tales, in contrast to the cultural production of Hollywood up until the ’80s, also leads one to speculate whose social role required the most work in disciplining during that age).

The fairy tale is the accompaniment to the standardization of child-beating in Western society (for a study of the emphasis European colonizers put on teaching indigenous Americans to beat children, see Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch”). In other words, these putatively magical narratives are in fact a hostile incursion into imaginary territory.

That they must be directed at children is not solely a function of their didactic structure. Since the colonization of European populations by endogenous elites, children have been the keepers of the imaginary, without which no rebellious struggle is possible. Paradoxically, or perhaps as a direct result of the former, children also have the longest historical memories. Childrens’ rhymes tend to be the oldest surviving pieces of oral literature. For example, earlier forms of the following rhyme, “Ring around the rosie/ pockets full of posie/ ashes! ashes!/ We all fall down!”, date back to the 18th century, and the rhyme itself possibly refers to the Great Plague of 1655.

Another old secret preserved in the games of children is the little trick of “rabbit ears.” What most children or adults would never guess is that the rabbit ears that sneak up behind a friend’s head in the moment of a group photo is in fact a representation of the cuckold’s horns. The cuckold, a term remembered by few people who are not Shakespeare enthusiasts or otherwise overly literate, derives its name from the cuckoo, a bird well known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. The cuckold, therefore, is a man whose wife sleeps around. The joke, originally, was to give someone the “rabbit ears” without him noticing, so everyone else would understand you were sleeping with his wife.

But why on earth would the cuckold have horns? The cuckoo certainly doesn’t. The answer is even more obscure. In the Christian caricatures of pagans, and very possibly in the practices of the druids themselves, European shamans wore horns, possibly as a subversion of the division between humans and other animals, and as a symbol of communion with the natural world. For this reason, the Devil is portrayed as a horned creature, and nearly always part animal. Referring again to Silvia Federici, the early rise of capitalism was accompanied by an increasingly brutal repression against heresy, against surviving pagan traditions (frequently connected to early anti-capitalist resistance, as is still apparent in the dual significance of May Day), and against the relatively liberated role of women. Contemporary moralists converted sexual freedom into ‘allowing one’s wife to sleep around,’ utilizing the age-old sentiment of jealousy to enlist lower class men in the war to reconstruct patriarchy. The symbol they chose linked the emmasculated man to paganism and animism.

Cabrón, the word for “cuckold” in Spanish, recalls the goat (“cabra”), and thus, the horns.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

Little Worm’s nap was short-lived. He awakes again crying. By now I have learned to distinguish the different types of sobs. He is telling me he is hungry. As I sit down and prepare the bottle, I begin talking to him, and he calms, though continues to repeat his cry of “hunger! hunger! hunger!” until the bottle is in his mouth. I keep talking to him. The rich smell of his hair rises to my nose. Before long, he will start babbling, and a few months after that, to make full words. But it’s not a passive process of learning. Children who grow up in circumstances without an adequate, fully developed language will invent one, collectively, within a generation. This has been observed in refugee populations thrown together, and in other historical moments. In fact, children and immigrants are the principal creative forces in the development of every language. What the residents of the academies at the center have been blind to for so long is that the margins are the most dynamic, vital space of any paradigm. Western science as a whole, Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes, created itself in the colonies.

Immigrant and child continue their assymmetrical conversation. Now and again I make grammatical mistakes as I speak to Little Worm; the native language of his parents, which will presumably be his native language as well, is not my own. I hurry to correct myself and then think, “it doesn’t matter, he doesn’t know yet.” In fact if the two of us were to spend all our time together, we would create a new language, shaped by my errors and his own demands. Modern English, for one, has incorporated the typical grammatic mistakes made by the Gaelic subjects of the successful Anglo-Saxon invaders, even as nearly all the Gaelic vocabulary was eliminated. In all likelihood, it was Saxon children playing with Welsh children, to the consternation of their parents no doubt, who incorporated the grammatic variations—which to their ears, unlike to the adults, sounded just fine—into a creole which eventually became official.

For a moment I stop talking to Little Worm, to think about the learning process that unfolds before him. Is the language we are teaching this child an apparatus, like the stroller? Within the anarchist milieu, it is not hard to find arguments to this effect. From Zerzan to Tiqqun to emile (a once prolific commentator on anarchistnews), we find the assertion that language is a deterministic Pandora’s box or that grammar and writing superdetermine limitations to human thinking and intellectuality, although the former bases his hypothesis in non-falsifiable assertions and the latter two rest on factual inaccuracies (regarding Slavic languages and so-called phonetic language, respectively).

None of these conversations are able to embrace the present moment. I look down at Little Worm. The term “apparatus” becomes meaninglessly broad if it is put in his mouth, because this language is something he has a role in creating, and there is a whole world of difference—a difference I have been unable to find in the works of all the relevant theorists—between creating and reproducing.

Turning to Agamben, we find the following definition:

Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. Not only, therefore, prisons, madhouses, the panopticon, schools, confession, factories, disciplines, juridical measures, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, cigarettes, navigation, computers, cellular telephones and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses—one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a primate inadvertently let himself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences he was about to face.

This description of the invention of language bears more in common with the story of Adam and Eve than with any plausible history of language. Furthermore, his idea of influence (“capture, orient, determine[…]”) preserves the philosophically lacking idea of a pure body separate from and beleaguered by its environment. When living beings are separated from their own expressions, gestures, tools, and traditions, they are reduced to golem, mere bodies, and every influence that these things, once a part of their being and now expropriated by the category of “apparatus”, exercise over them is now read as a form of corruption or control. And as Agamben only recognizes three broad categories: living beings; apparatuses; and the subjects that reside in the battle ground between the two; his conceptualization of an “apparatus” requires an alienation of beings from their collective and historical existence, since every collective or historical manifestation of a person must fall within the category, not of living being, but of apparatus. In other words, Agamben recreates living beings not so different from capitalism’s alienated individual.

And at the same time, he negates one of Foucault’s greatest contributions by doing away with the historicity of codes and categories of power and creating one categorical set that stretches back to the beginning of time, to the very invention of language. But if apparatuses are indeed strategic, which I think they must be if the term is to have any use, then they cannot have existed in a time whose paradigm of power is mutually unintelligible with our own. If there is a continuity to power from the beginning to the present day, it can only be in the imaginary; in a particular dream of power and its retroactive pedigree, on the one side; and on the other in a universal impulse towards rebellion and a conscious choice to incorporate the struggles of predecessors. In other words, out of many dreams of the powerful, of those living on the upper side of a line of social conflict, only one or a few bloomed into the State we know today. Those of us living on the lower side of a line of social conflict can certainly claim to have always been fighting against authority, and we may in fact be able to learn something about our fight today by identifying with those who fought a completely different configuration of power in the distant past, but the categories that describe this fight necessarily arise from the present vantage, and applying them timelessly, as Agamben attempts to do, will hide more than it reveals.

If power had never made the urgent evolution, around the 15th century in Western Europe, from being primarily parasitical to primarily productive (as biopower), we might well live in a society that would chose other lines of continuity to link itself to the complex admixture of the past, and the identification of a beginning in the invention of language, of agriculture, of phonetic alphabets, or whatever—-an identification that can make so much sense within today’s context-—would perhaps be about as meaningless to those hypothetical denizens of a parallel, non-capitalist universe as we would find it meaningless that these parallel denizens might locate the beginnings of their present struggle in the invention of the lute, or dancing.

In the final analysis, Agamben’s conceptualization of the apparatus is impractical for anarchists because it is victimistic. Contrary to the values of our rulers, influence and corruption are not the same, and we are made stronger by what influences us, because this is our manner of living in the world. An apparatus, in an anarchist analysis, can only be recognized because all its carefully constructed influence and points of contact are predicated upon separating us from the world. It is not the fact of influence that defines an apparatus, but the forceful replacement of one paradigm of influence—a mutual and circular one—with another paradigm of influence, based in control and exploitation with the necessary accompaniments of essentialism and mechanism.

Emile, more specific than Agamben, attempts to link “phonetic language” (literary language rendered in alphabet) to the loss of a conjugate, “spatial-relational” understanding of the world and its replacement by a “material-causal” one. He makes a necessary critique of the role classical physics has had on conditioning a mechanical understanding of the world, and he suggests interesting possibilities for how the new physics and field dynamics could influence anarchist philosophy. However his linking of these worldviews to language is lacking. Mystical Hindu texts he cites to illustrate a “spatial-relational” worldview were written down in a phonetic alphabet, not in an ideographic writing system. The linear alphabet he mistakenly attributes to the ancient Greeks (it was the Phoenecians) and links to the rise of taxation and commerce and the fall of a spatial-relational worldview was in fact preceded by the Linear B of the Mycanaean Greeks, influenced by the Minoans. Linear B was a writing system used for taxation and administration, but it was not an alphabet. It was a syllabary, with each character reprenting a whole syllable, and not an isolated sound component that could represent a metaphor for other types of isolation, as it does in Emile’s theory, although ironically he doesn’t recognize his argumentative structure as a metaphorical one. And while Emile’s writings are full of references to what the Zuni, Hopi, and Dakota Indians think about certain social situations (a troublingly exoticizing and essentializing form of argument), I could not find a reference to the Han Chinese, who developed a complex bureaucracy with an ideographic writing system.

The various arguments to assign language a superdetermining role on our cultures, as an apparatus, fall short because language is a part of our being and something we constantly recreate to meet our changing needs. Language cannot be used to assign language a limited place in reality. Symbolic thought can not be used to confine the totality of symbolic thought to a symbol.

By focusing on the need of capitalism for images, many theorists have mistakenly attached an evil significance to symbols. But there are symbols that give, and symbols that take away. Holding this baby to my chest as he in turn clings to me and feels my warmth and my heartbeat, we watch a smile go from his face to mine and back again, while in the background a line of people stare dully at the advertisement placed in front of them as they wait for the bus. If we lived on a desert island, the two of us, we would invent a new language.

It is not the capturing of meaning in symbols that manipulates us, mediates our experiences, or robs us of understanding, nor could it be; meaning cannot exist outside of symbols, except for fleeting seconds of transcendent experience that neither negate nor are prevented by symbolic communication. What robs us of understanding is in fact the fracturing of a whole sensuousness into quantified, mediated, and quarantined senses. The true apparatus is governed in such a way that discourages whole sensuousness—-one does not hold and smell a baby in a stroller, nor stop to feel the texture of a roadsign. To quarantine the senses and prevent them from merging again, the apparatus isolates the intimate senses (touch, smell) while bombarding the expansive senses (sight, sound) with a deliberate surplus of non-reciprocal media. Within this controlled landscape of loss, people are more apt to chase after an attractive aesthetic because the transcendent beauty one encounters in the merging into sensuousness has been made strange, even uncomfortable.

For this reason, it is not naïve to claim that beauty is subversive.

Every time a monkey shouts “Snake!” as several types of monkeys are known to do, we could criticize them at a philosophical level for trapping themselves in language as an apparatus, reducing a complex snake-becoming to one function of that snake-becoming, which is the one that eats monkeys. By saying nothing, the monkeys would avoid this philosophical trap, but they would also be dead. By developing a more complex grammar, they could avoid the trap by learning to say, and necessarily to also distinguish, “a hungry snake!” They would no longer be reducing the snake to a single of its typical functions. But now they would fall victim to another error, that of predicates, which Tiqqun, for example, describe in one of their essays, articulating an alternative philosophical view through a romanticized and factually false portrayal of Slavic languages (they should have reached farther, more exotic: try Mayan next time).

If we humans, in turn, could evolve more complex brains that could sustain a more complex grammar, we might be able to express, in simple and quotidian phrases, Mach’s principle, interrelationality, and other high-falutin’ ideas. Emile, for one, would be happy. But then we would run into the next set of philosophical difficulties for which even that more nuanced grammar would be inadequate.

From this we can infer that we always tend to work just beyond the capacity of the tools we have at hand, coming up against our limits and just into the undefined space on the other side. Regardless of our personal weaknesses, as a species or as individuals, it is in this space, what we might call smooth as opposed to striated philosophical space, that the most important questions and challenges can be formed.

As the Little Worm goes back to sleep, I take a break from my pacing to sit on a park bench and open a book his mother lent me. I’m reading an essay from Sottosopra Rojo, January 1996; “The End of Patriarchy. It’s happened and not by chance” :

The symbolic, what is it? The tongue [language] we speak and the voice we have for speaking, with their admirable capacity to revolutionize the real. The tongue and the voice, which make, of stumbles, significant pauses; of defects, occasions for signifying better; of obstacles, levers; of deficiencies, points of transformation; of mistakes, a ladder upwards; of falls, deepenings. A tongue is not a sum of words, as it might seem, but a multiplication and, more than a multiplication, an open game that reveals what’s more because, as the linguist well knows, a new word can put the significance of everything that has already been said (or lived) back into play.

Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you

“Poetry is the mother tongue of the human race as gardening is older than the field, painting than writing, singing than declaiming, parables than inferences, bartering than commerce…”
J.G. Hamman, drawn from James C. Scott.

Poetry and rebellion build capacities for understanding that no grammar or phonetic system could ever take away from us, because they take place in that smooth philosophical space just beyond our capacities. The subversion of a rule, be it grammatical or otherwise, produces an unknown quantity that not only has the possibility of exceeding the value of its component parts, but of creating an entirely new measure of value.

Poetic language can communicate the interrelationality of all things in a way our grammars seem to prohibit, and it is able to produce this effect not because it disregards or frees itself from grammar, but because it works on it and against it. Yawar Nina, in Puruma: la complejidad poética del pensamiento andino libertario, offers a mobile glossary of Andean metaphors, deities, rituals, geographies, and peoples that serve not as categorical enclosures but as transformations: the image of a llama watching the stars is rebirthed as a foundation of astronomy and navigation; an anecdote of stars reflected in a pond opens into an entire metaphysics; an ethnicity shifts into a mode of movement through the world. In this lexicon, poetry is a weapon and an aspect of being that remembers what was stolen, reconstructs what is lost, and subverts the efforts of colonialism, through its language, history, and rationalism, to superdetermine memory and resistance.

Although there are clear differences between written and spoken language, poetry as subversion can exist in both, and language in no form is able to superdetermine what we can understand, because language is inseperable from understanding, and it is reciprocally affected by the processes of knowledge, constantly hollowed out and filled back in, extended and shorn, fractured and mended.

Although from the very beginning he has been speaking, in one form or another, it will be some time before Little Worm learns to read, if he so chooses. It is tempting to turn literacy into a symbol for the loss of oral culture, and it’s an easy enough magic trick, although there are illiterate populations that have lost their oral culture, and literate ones that have not. In defiance of the official narrative of a unilineal history, anarchists must realize the strategic necessity of recovering and reinventing oral culture. Language in its liberatory, collective capacity is not a paradise lost, but an ever present possibility.

James C. Scott, in The Art of Not Being Governed, documents many Southeast Asian cultures that have gone back and forth between literacy and illiteracy, as they cross the frontiers of state power or are crossed by them. Interestingly, literacy seems to be one of the only “state effects” many state-fleeing peoples are sad about losing. The non-literate Akha, for example, esteem writing, hate the census, and pride themselves on killing tyrants. Their oral tradition holds that they once had writing, but they lost it while running from authoritarian neighbors.

One of the principal contributions of Scott’s book is to emphasize chosen political strategies in the development of human societies. In the fractured microcosm of upland Southeast Asia, explanations of human social arrangements based on geographic determinism or game theory, which appear to hold water on a broad perspective that terminates and originates at the vantage of the present-day State, fall apart about as quickly as state-making projects in the hills.

At any one place and time, historically, the ethnic identities on offer might be seen as a bandwidth of possibilities for adjusting one’s relationship with the state—a gradient of identifications which may be, over time, fitted to the prevailing economic and political conditions. To be sure, it makes eminent economic sense for [sedentary rice] padi planters to drop everything and take up foraging when the price of resins, medicinal plants, or edible birds’ nests shoots up. But the move to foraging can as easily occur because it is a state-evading strategy. Similarly, the choice between padi planting and swiddening [mobile horticulture] is more likely to be a political choice than a mere comparative calculation of calories per unit of labor.

Though state-formation was advantaged in the valleys and disadvantaged in the hills, the landscape did not superdetermine social development. On a few occasions, states arose in the hills, and on countless occasions, valley societies overthrew states or their ruling states collapsed, and the people continued to practice sedentary rice padi agriculture, to live in small cities, and to have writing, without the management of a state. The ethnicities that formed in the flight to the hills did not perform a culture determined by their landscape or simple reproductive calculations; rather, their residence in the hills, the crops they cultivated, their language, and their loss of writing were strategic adaptations stemming from a chosen determination to live free from State authority.

Anarchist theory faces an absolute necessity to center personal and collective agency. This isn’t only a question of putting our theoretical money on a winning horse—always an embarrasing strategem because all theories, in the long run, lose, and there’s nothing more embarrassing than an ideologue shoring up an outdated hypothesis—but of recreating the real world. A theory that centers agency, rather than mechanistic determinism, has the chance of changing the supposedly natural laws the social sciences purport to extrapolate. The more we center, talk about, and theorize free will, the more we encourage it, recreating a world based on will out of and against the present system in which all choices are superdetermined.

Within this process of leaving state space, we run into the concept of legibility. States attempt to impose legibility on their subjects, encouraging them to speak a single language, follow the same religious practices, adopt surnames conducive to bureaucratic filing, practice a form of agriculture and industry that can be easily controlled and appropriated, live in permanent dwellings and participate in the census, so that they can all be easily read from above. Meanwhile, rebellious populations constantly shift in ways that, if successful, make them more illegible to their governors: moving around; transcending the formalized familial relations; changing ethnic identity; developing language; employing black market economies and heretical religions. Illegibility can be understood as externality and opacity to power. It is not external in the sense of being independent and unaffected, for it is indeed relative and mutually shaped. Rather, it is a font of creativity and subversive power that cannot be captivated or understood by centralizing power.

Although Foucault tends to eschew the idea of externality, we can infer its existence at the margins of one of his classic examples: sodomy, which during one historical period was absent from social discourses and in the subsequent period was acknowledged and disciplined. Although in the records, sodomy is invisible in that earlier period, we can surmise that proscribed sexual practices formed a grand conversation in private homes, nighttime rendezvous, illegal cabarets, and other spaces that were illegible and opaque to the cultural, moral, and legal authorities, and thus external to their disciplining powers and discourses.

Which brings us back to oral culture. Far from being limited or superdetermined by written language or higher powers, oral culture enjoys a constant potential for opacity and illegibility, for serving as a creative font for the poetic subversion of dominant values and meanings. It creates a space that can exist alongside permitted culture and official discourses, external and threatening to them, harboring fugitive dreams and memories. Contrary to its pretensions, biopower cannot eliminate memory. Short of eliminating its subject population and thus to an extent, itself, a centralizing power can only play tricks. Memory must be surrendered, and this is exactly what European rebellious movements did in the 18th and 19th centuries, by infantilizing their oral culture and adopting the myth of progress, the religion of rationalism, and the values of the Enlightenment.

Little Worm is stirring. Soon he’ll be awake, and if his return to the waking world is abrupt, he’ll come back crying. Time for a new song.

“They say there was a secret chord…”

Kafka Reloaded

Redefining Apparatus in a Series of Government Waiting Rooms

So what?” the taller guard called out, “you’re behaving worse than a child. What is it you want? Do you think you can bring your whole damn trial to a quick conclusion by discussing your identity and arrest warrant with your guards? We’re lowly employees who can barely make our way through such documents, and whose only role in your affair is to stand guard over you ten hours a day and get paid for it. That’s all we are, but we’re smart enough to realize that before ordering such an arrest the higher authorities who employ us inform themselves in great detail about the person they’re arresting and the grounds for the arrest. There’s been no mistake.”

Franz Kafka, The Trial



Our PROTAGONIST sits in a jail cell as the appropriate paperwork is sent on to the National Police, who will begin deportation proceedings. One possible outcome is a transfer to the Immigrant Detention Center and a speedy deportation. The other is a release pending the appeal, which usually lasts over a year. The motion for deportation is always granted, and the first appeal is always denied. Only a Contentious Appeal has a chance of winning. To the indigent, lawyers are provided for free through the first appeal. After that, they have to pay.


The Protagonist does not want to be deported. He is in love. Nationalism is also useful because it helps prevent non-compatriots from falling in love. Love is sufficient cause for hating the border.


In his desperation, he wishes for a chance to talk to a judge. Five minutes is all he needs to prove that the police are lying; there is no legitimate reason to deport him.


Talk to a judge. Legitimate reason. Does or doesn’t our Protagonist hate the border? If so, why is he reproducing the logic on which it is based? But he is not so stupid as to think King Solomon still exists. He knows this isn’t a mistake, but the normal functioning of the deportation apparatus. Once caught within it, he goes along with its flows. Not because of what he believes. Because of what he feels.


Scene 1

Two years have passed. The scene opens on a provincial courtroom. A plump, bearded JUDGE officiates, as the obligatory photo of the Head of State stands unseeing on the back wall. The CROWD, dressed in varying degrees of convincing imitations of nice clothes, grins amongst itself. The Protagonist is getting married. He will win the Contentious Appeal.


The judge is very kind as he lectures P and his FRIEND on the responsibilities of matrimony, the duties of fidelity, the utility of good communication. P and friend smile, and he brims with joy as the judge hands over the signed paperwork.


As they exit the courtroom, the crowd laughs and throws rice. Are they reproducing, or subverting?


Scene 2

One year later. P is nervous. He and friend are sitting in the Foreigners Office, waiting for his residency interview. If residency is granted, he can work legally, get access to healthcare, and be safe from the threat of deportation. However, friend has had a baby with her boyfriend, who is not P, and this is plainly visible in the paperwork P has to turn in for the interview. It is a normal occurrence for wives to have babies with other people, but it is not normal for this to be visible in the paperwork.


The residency interview was difficult to schedule. In the past, all the immigrants waited in an endless line that stretched for several city blocks. Some days the people at the beginning of the line would be given the interview, other days they would not.


In the last few years, that building has been abandoned, and the lines of waiting bodies have been disappeared and quarantined to the internet. Using the internet at a call shop or other place with a marginal connection, one cannot arrive at the government page where interviews can be scheduled. With a good internet connection, one has a chance, but most of the time, even though the URL is correct, the link for scheduling an interview will not appear. The website will display all the pertinent information on how, theoretically, one can schedule the residency interview, but will not provide the possibility of actually scheduling it. Lawyers, or those who pay for them, can access the scheduling page automatically.


After defeating the challenge of the internet laberinth, P got a date and a time for an inteview, one month distant. He assembled all the paperwork he needed, and when he arrived, with his friend and legal spouse, at the appropriate government office at the appointed hour, a GUARD at the door gave him a number. He waited for some time until a screen directed his number to a desk, where FIRST FUNCTIONARY looked at the first of his forms, pushed all the rest back into his hands, and without looking at him, gave P another number.


P and friend took a seat in front of another set of screens, and waited another period of time until the second number was directed to a second desk. SECOND FUNCTIONARY was in a good mood, and made P and friend feel less nervous with a smile and other human gestures. She took in all the forms and did not seem to notice any irregularities, even as she joked with a COLLEAGUE about how the previous applicants were clearly in a sham marriage.


At the end of the brief interview, the second functionary gave P a form, complete with a date and an address where he was to retrieve his Foreigner Identification Number, if it were to be granted. This was a good sign. Other people never got this form. They were told it would come in the mail, and they waited interminably.


Who had the power to decide? Where were decisions made? Why did P’s case, which had suspicious elements about it, go through so smoothly, while others were given another run-around?


Scene 3

One month later. The POLICEMEN guarding the entrance bar P’s way until he has shown them his paperwork. They let him pass into a garage that has been converted into a waiting room. A line of IMMIGRANTS wait in front of a ticket dispenser. As they reach their number one by one, they go to sit in the plastic seats that face nowhere. Many of them are wearing their nicest clothes. The decision on whether or not they will be given residency, if there is at any point an actual decision, has already been made. The clothes will make no difference, and they know it. They dress up anyway. An observer who has read Silvia Federici might recall how, since Roman times, the lower classes have always made recourse to magic, whereas the elite have perennially tried to suppress superstition. Here in this waiting room, they will not suppress the wearing of nice clothes. There is a fine line between magic and decor. By insisting on the existence of human sympathy and agency where there is none, and they know there is none, are the immigrants reproducing, or subverting? An observer who has read James C. Scott might consider the weapons of the weak.


After a time, THIRD FUNCTIONARY appears and begins reading out numbers. He has an evil and impatient face, and the people there approach him timidly. Should he grace them with an explanation of what to expect, of how this mysterious process works, those waiting might roll on their backs like dogs. As it is, they remain quiet and observant as long as he is around.


When the third functionary calls a number, the person designated must go and exchange that number for a new number, and go to a new waiting room. Abruptly, the third functionary stops calling out numbers, and disappears. Some time later, he reappears and begins calling out more numbers. Then he leaves again.


On the seat next to P, someone has left a newspaper. The front page shows a FOREIGN CHANCELLOR, who has come to this country to visit the PRIME MINISTER and congratulate him on the economic reforms. Benefits have been cut, the retirement age has been pushed back, and government jobs have been slashed. More cuts are needed, the article warns.


The first inside page is advertisements. The next page talks about immigrants. The poll questions whether they are stealing our jobs. Most of the columns are dedicated to one humorous account: an immigrant has been arrested trying to jump the border going the other way, now that the economy is so bad.


P puts the newspaper down. One apparatus has strayed into another. It is strange how the juxtaposition of the newspaper with this waiting room renders it completely incredible. If one only dared read the newspaper aloud, many of the immigrants waiting here would begin to laugh, and the latent community, the potential for solidarity, suppressed by the fear and discomfort structured into this room, would come alive. Within another apparatus—a bar, an apartment block, the metro—the newspaper would be credible enough to exhaust all but the most exhuberant attempts to refute it, even though its refutation is already included in its own pages (the bankers pushing for mass layoffs, the supposition that African immigrants are stealing jobs).


Who brought the newspaper in here? What did they think about it? Despite the stark differences, a common reality unites all these circumstances; the newspaper is read by those who are bored.


P receives his new number, and goes to a new waiting room. This waiting room is pleasant like a dentists’ office. Posters on the wall denounce fear and violence in five different languages. He wonders if he will be granted residency. His hands sweat, and he wipes them on his jeans. After waiting a time, P sees that the screen is directing his number to a desk. FOURTH FUNCTIONARY greets him with a kind smile. She collects his paperwork, and quickly points out that the standard-sized photos he has brought are too large, and will not fit. He will have to get new photos.


P begins to feel the floor fall out from under him. He thinks about starting the whole process over again. He imagines the novels of Kafka and Ousmane Sembène. The fourth functionary cuts short his freefall by informing him of a store right down the street that will produce photos of the correct format while he waits.


You don’t need to get another number, just come right back to my desk when you’ve got them, she tells him.


P walks lightly out the door, swelling with feelings of fondness for the fourth functionary and amazement at the mercy of this particular bureaucracy. He looks about for the photo store.


A MAN on the other side of the street calls to him. You want photos? Come this way. Real cheap. No not that store, this one. This next one. I work here, I’ll get you your photos right now, it just takes two minutes.


P follows the man into the store and sits down on the stool that is hastily made available to him. He pushes down his mess of hair and takes off his glasses, while consciously trying not to open one eye bigger than the other. On his last ID, one eye seemed bigger than the other, and it made him look like mildly psychopathic. Two minutes later, the photos are cut and pressed into his hands.


The policemen at the entrance ignore P as he walks freely past them, skips the first line and the first waiting room, and returns to the desk of the fourth functionary. In five minutes she has finished her present task, and turns again to P. She takes the photos and begins entering information into the computer. Shortly before she hands P the temporary card with his Foreigner Identification Number, it occurs to him that they have not denied his residency application. He has attained legality.


The fourth functionary explains how he can get his permanent card, in a month, and then he walks away into the sunshine, immensely pleased with his new number. A person less conscientious of this irony would gaze at the number and try to memorize it. P does not even look at it, except to assure himself that it is there. Nonetheless, the joy each kind of person feels at this moment is the same.




From the perspective of an immigrant in a residency process, Foucault’s assertion that power is everywhere takes on a completely different meaning than it would likely have for an academic whose career options include government posts or honored teaching positions supplemented by dissident book writing.


The codes, histories, and ideologies—the sciences—in which power wraps itself to be transmitted, evaluated, modified, and reproduced, are taken in much more cynically, or at the least apathetically—without care—by those who are most jerked around in the movement of that power. So much so that the science of it, for those whom common sense might deem powerless, is largely irrelevant. Any justification will do. It is demonstrable that a person’s credulity does not determine or affect their compliance with a particular apparatus. However, though they tend not to evince care for the sciences of power, there is indeed a form of care at work in their daily acts of collaboration.


Immigrants in particular hold a privileged vantage point that helps them to understand that the rituals they go through, the pledges they recite, and the regulations they obey, are all lies. The assertion, therefore, that there is no externality to power loses half its validity when power fails to capture the imaginary. We stand here in this apparatus, but we do not believe what we are told about the place we inhabit. We are only partially in the orbit assigned to us.


If we choose to reach, we will generally reach for a discourse that is also inscribed with power relations analagous to the ones we oppose, “a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” that crystallizes around many of the same fragments of the dominant strategy. Democracy, human rights, amnesty. The barbarians are rebuilding the city.


However, before this moment of constituted opposition, there exists a long, opaque moment of discontent bordering on affective strike. Though such moments are in all likelihood more numerous than the moments of political opposition (that’s certainly how it appears from the inside, and from the ranks of political activists and canvassers), they are illegible to the State and therefore invisible to its academics and philosophers. But because they do not inevitably lead to political opposition but neither are they always inert, rather sometimes they explode, these moments of discontent suggest the possibility of negation, and thus of rupture and exteriority to power.


In other words, nearly all manifestations of constituted opposition take the form of politics and reproduce power-as-domination (the only type of power, evidently, considered by Foucault), such that any exceptional manifestations of opposition can be disbelieved or dismissed as simply underdeveloped: though they seem to constitute a negation now, give them time and you’ll see that they too are productive like everything else. But because opaque discontent does not necessarily lead to constituted opposition, because most people who flirt with the affective strike do not eventually politicize their discontent as demands and counterstrategies, but they do sometimes act out in a disruptive way that does not offer its own public discourses, we have to surmise the existence of true negation, contrary to Foucault’s idea of omnipotence.


Therefore, we have urgent need for a tandem to Foucault’s power/knowledge coupling. Let’s call it power/affect. The immigrants in this story do not collaborate with the series of apparatuses they must pass through on the basis of what they know and believe, nor as mediated through the discourses in which they participate—by smelling a lie and retracting their care, they reveal the existence, in their imaginary, of something at most only partially conditioned by the apparatus and yet wholly unsatisfied by it, and therefore external to it. By not occupying their most intimate spaces, power proves itself to be, on at least one level, external to them, and it is this external power that incorporates them into its flows by eliciting fundamental emotional responses, via its ability to threaten them.


If “Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it,” then those institutions which have survived so long without collapsing and being absorbed into new strategies of power/knowledge have done so by suppressing the most negative of discourses and encouraging in other discourses the values of productivity, participation, and reform—which is to say, democratically.


And for the numerous forms of resistance that do not offer up any discourse but rather mutely deny the apparatus that most necessary reproductive quality it elicits—care—the apparatus responds in a similarly subverbal and affective way, through a combination of threats and flattery in order to reinitiate the commerce of emotions that its unbelieving and discontented captives had withheld.


To make room for this line of thinking, it becomes necessary to alter the conceptualization of an apparatus traced by Foucault and defined by Agamben. As Benjamin analyzed social relations in an object, we can redefine apparatus as a concrete manifestation of the networks intimated by Foucault, and analyze these networks of power within their concrete and daily manifestations, so as to tease out the strategic relationship between the spaces we inhabit and the powers that shape those spaces.


Unlike the inchoate, protozoan strategies of power relations described disinterestedly by Foucault, we talk about strategy on the basis of our unapologetic negation of power, from which we develop discourses not to justify ourselves but to formulate tactics and express our desires, all in the certainty that there is more to life than this.


There is a vital need for the existence of the State in any coherent explanation of an apparatus. And while the State itself is fragmented rather than univocal, it can be understood as the gathering point of strategic inititiaves of order consensually legitimated by all those who wish to elaborate and impose initiatives of order. Though more effective apparatuses inculcate their captives with the impulse to engineer society and thus constitute the project of an absent ruling class in their daily affairs, this impulse originates elsewhere, and it is the State that impels it, that evaluates and regulates the strategies of order manifest in a multitude of apparatuses.


The State underwrites the social relation of domination, and without it, distinct institutions, apparatuses, and other concentrations and manifestations of power would rise and fall, out of and back into an anarchic status quo, as in the first 99% of human history. It is the State that proactively tests its various components and stands ever vigilant against entropy.


In this immigration waiting room, the State is felt both near and far. It is in the decor and formulae the captives go along with against their better judgment, and it also stands invisibly behind its own absence, behind an impersonal form that seems to lack any possibility for agency but indeed reflects strategic decisions that were made somewhere. The number of hoops to jump through reflect the rate at which strategic planners wish immigrants to be able to regularize their status and increase their integration while decreasing their precarity. And the friendliness or cruelty of specific paper pushers also contains the immense potential for violence sequestered in other spaces of the system, excercised within other apparatuses that have been ordered, by the State, to strategically deal with one specific thematic of its rule: immigration.


While the immigrants in these waiting rooms are by no means a homogenous lot, many of them surely know about Mohammed, who was recently killed in the immigrant detention center on the outskirts of this city. And those who come from Africa know what kind of deportation would await them—release in the middle of the desert, or internment in a Moroccan concentration camp. Most of the people here would rationally suspect or know that the specific functionaries before them do not have the power to order a deportation or detention, but that does not stop from them treating these functionaries with a certain awe and wariness. From cynicism to ingratiation, the imposition of power on them provokes an emotional response that lubricates their movement within the apparatus, binding them to it even as they resent or disbelieve it.


An authority with no human face can provoke only idolization and negation. A human authority will elicit either hatred or fraternization, both of which are subversive. A faceless authority that employs human functionaries, on the other hand, produces the perfect response. Faced with a power that is distantly contemplating destroying one’s life, the prisoner to this power will tend not to shoot the messenger. As is natural against an opponent one cannot immediately defeat or even see, the prisoner will act out of fear, either by trying to remain invisible to the messenger (which, in a well designed apparatus, means going along with the flow, even enthusiastically so, by putting on nice clothes for example), by trying to seek sympathy from the messenger (by demonstrating one’s equality according to the norms intrinsic to the apparatus), or by establishing a common identification (often based on the recognition of shared powerlessness: “I’m just doing my job”).


Disempowerment is the prerequisite to being in an apparatus, either as a conduit or as a captive (the conduit is the human functionary through whom power, information, and affect flow; the captive is the created subject who is the target of those flows—in less formalized apparatuses one can be both conduit and captive, but in either role one is disciplined by the apparatus). If a human functionary of an apparatus graces us with any sociable nicety, we are apt to feel grateful not proportional to the insultingly small scrap they have thrown us but proportional to all the system they work for has taken away. Believing the apparatus to be natural removes the possibility for cynicism or contempt. Understanding the apparatus to be an imposition does not remove the possibility of seeking sympathy in it, feeling grateful towards it. Often, the best one can do is to wrap oneself in an armor of sullenness.


In those apparatuses that have replaced the most brutal institutions of the past (such as those related to borders and policing), the threat of destruction by an external power is more obvious, and thus the intensity of emotional sympathy towards any human recognition is potentially greater.


We are left, now, with an incoherence. If power is everywhere, yet it is also an external force to be used against us, what does it mean to speak of an apparatus?


In describing a medical apparatus in the recent article, “Dark Passage,” Frere Dupont describes the “front-end” workers dealing with the patients who provide the putative justification for the existence of the hospital, and behind these workers a whole host of technicians, bureaucrats, specialists, and others who provide the true weight and direction of the apparatus.


Another way to understand this invisible weight is to conceive of an apparatus as a specific vessel with a physical structure and a bureaucratic or corporate organization, that is invisibly operated by an array of institutions. The apparatus, therefore, captures us and disciplines us to follow its flows, thus animating it, but this interaction is motivated, modified, and reiterated by specific and intentional institutions that are increasingly disappearing behind the apparatuses they manage. This disappearance is an intentional protection of their power from the resistance that constantly threatens them. This question can also be understood in terms of points of production, but production of strategies or activity rather than physical commodities. In order to protect itself from resistance, the State has removed the points of production—in this case the institutions—farther and farther away from the public sphere, leaving naturalized or impersonalized apparatuses as spaces of reproduction of the strategies of order.


Not so long ago, it might have been possible to talk about a school as both an apparatus and an institution, a place where activity was decided and reproduced. Increasingly, the school is solely an apparatus, reproducing the education that arrives from a distant point of production.


The great monolith of a building, the Foreigners’ Office, now stands empty. Its various functions have been shopped out to numerous other offices. Immigrants no longer line up outside the building like medieval supplicants, hoping to appease the authority that presumably resides at the center of the Castle. The decision to close down this apparatus and reconstitute it in multiple segments, distant from the institution that governs it, was made by an institution even more distant, and evidently more powerful.


The apparatus reproduces power only if it functions, and it functions only if its captives move through it. It is the institutions that police disruptions of this movement and that maintain and improve the physical and organizational ability of an apparatus to shape and channel its captives. When the Los Angeles highway onramps were widened to enable military mobilization, a higher level of consciousness was at work, intervening in the generally self-regulating relationship between the highway apparatus and its most immediate managing institution, the highway department.


Evidently, there is also a hierarchy and thus an interaction among the institutions. The lower level institutions tend to work at right angles to each other. That is, they receive their input and send their output to distinct institutions, so each can follow a set of organizational principles that produce no external feedback, and thus create no relationships. The hospital receives directives from a health board and a budget committee, they produce differing products for insurance companies, an accounting office, and research firms. The hospital worker is discouraged from providing any personal care to the patient because the patient is incidental, and the worker must follow directives handed down by remote institutions and produce a product, for which the patient is but a medium, that are distributed to other institutions.


In this way, attention and care are alienated, as the functionary is alienated from her own emotions and the people in front of her (she may chose to be friendly with someone whose deportation order she is processing, or she may be rude and vicious to someone whose residency number she is printing out).


These institutions may compete with one another to improve their position within the hierarchy, but most of all they will fight to justify their own existence and preserve some niche, while at the same time accomplishing as little work as possible. Institutions that function as factories and effectively produce will quickly become underfunded. Institutions that function as conduits and pass work on will guarantee their relevance. In other words, they are conservative and rationalizing.


On top of these exist other institutions that do not feel the threat of underfunding, and that inculcate the possibility (though not the certainty) of higher levels of consciousness. It is at these levels where longterm strategic necessities can be envisioned and debated, and tactical interventions planned. These institutions serve as a legitimizing form for informal networks of people who understand themselves as powerholders, who have the ability to reshape an apparatus with a few conversations. Membership in these networks is not explicit, and, based on what can be seen from below, lacking the findings of an anthropological study that will never be given funding nor security clearance, such membership seems to stem from an ability to move within those networks and the higher institutions that stand in front of them.


This definition (the higher institutions legitimate networks that are formed by those capable of moving in such networks) would be atrociously redundant were it not in the nature of power to centralize. All things that rise must converge, as they say. But because power is always vulnerable to entropic forces (for this very reason it remained inchoate for most of human history), the centrality of these higher institutions is never perfected. On the one hand, they require a level of informality and decentralization even at the top in order not to be completely ineffective, and this informality must be masked by formal institutional structures in order to not be self-contradictory. On the other hand, the higher institutions provide a certain anchor, however arbitrary. The selective group of people who, by birth, fortune, or skill, reach these upper echelons can have their claims of membership to this community of rulers validated in a way that, if not ritualistic, is at least formal, and thus preserves the ruling community’s sense of itself. As such, the higher institutions are a necessary cultural artifact to stabilize the fragmented ground on which they actually stand.


The whole array of institutions compose the State, whose configuration changes over time with the evolution of its component institutions. The array of institutions, the apparatuses they manage, and the movement of the captives of those apparatuses, comprise a system. The system breaks down only when the captives’ movement cannot be disciplined. When the captives wear nice clothes, or act sullen, or smile at a functionary, they are reproducing the system. But that does not mean that they can not also be subversive. Reproduction does not entail agency, and agency is always, at the least, latent. The same acts that reproduce can also erode discipline, or prepare indiscipline.


The paranoia of power is justified. It can never predict a tipping point, or be entirely sure whether its captives are obeying or mocking. With the disruption of a system, it is feasible that entire apparatuses could be abandoned. Although apparatuses need input and management in order to function, one advantage they have over direct rule by institutions is that they continue to encourage order in the absence of rule. They are structured to recapture those who pass through them. Imagine, a moment, a horde of barbarians who have overthrown the forces of order and now move through the physical shell of the system. Upon inspecting what they have inherited, they might enter a waiting room—there will be many of these, after all, waiting around—and upon entering, they might pay it no mind, or use the seats as toilets, or as shelves for stacks of dishes from the communal kitchen they are creating in the courtyard, where once immigrants morosely filed in lines. But the design of the apparatus suggests a certain use, and our barbarians might instead decide to use the counter as the point of dispensation for their food, and arrange those who want the food to wait in the rows of uncomfortable seats, facing forward. And in one of the seats, they will find a newspaper. They might only use it to wipe their asses, or to dry the stacks of plates. Or, they might look at it, try to make sense of the photos, to understand the world depicted therein.


Out of an apparatus, an entire system might be reborn. It is not the head of the king that can send out new buds, but the guillotine that has ended him.


Whether the system is disrupted and reemerges, or whether it evolves to save itself from rupture, it must always change in order to stay the same. The manner in which the system understands and justifies itself changes over time, in tandem with its methods, as well as the sorts of pledges and paperwork people on the bottom have to pantomime, and those changes demonstrate the coupling of power and knowledge. But one thing remains the same, not ahistorical but original: the sine qua non of the State, its prerequisite and most central logic—social control.


In the end, contrary to those who have wished to entirely dehumanize power and thus, in a way, to naturalize it, an apparatus can be identified only on the basis of the control it exercises, and control requires objectives, and thus an external will. Control implies a restriction of agency, or will, yet will is always influenced by environment. A perennial philosophical question is the distinction between restriction and influence. In language, such a definitional boundary becomes impossible without recourse to morality, and morality in turn must anchor itself either to nature or to will, raising the question of the interpretation of nature, or returning again to the supposed conflict between environment and agency.


But in practice, one can intuit the difference, and it is visible everywhere in the relationship between power and affect. One can see restriction, as opposed to mere influence, in what people regularly do against themselves in order to go along with the flow, and it is such a flow that one knows to belong to an apparatus, and not to a river, a breeze, the vagaries of aging or erosion.


As Bakunin said, “If God existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.” If the rules set down by nature were the work of an external will, then there would be no difference between the market and the food chain. But we have overturned every rock and God is still nowhere to be found. The fundamental element of the State, this impulse to control, seeks to be equally invisible, yet because it exists, and therefore can be destroyed, it must constantly flee, and the traces of its flight are writ large across the social fabric.



Addendum regarding Foucault, for those who really care


It may seem strange to talk about apparatuses in a way that privileges the role of institutions in shaping them, when Foucault used apparatuses or ‘dispositifs’ to a large extent as a philosophical blind from which to snipe at the centrality of institutions and the State. I insist this isn’t a step backwards. The classical conception of the Sovereign governing through the implementation of laws can scarcely compete with Foucault’s complex mapping of fragmented, mutually conditioning, and immanent power relations.


However, at the center of Foucault’s project of complexification is an almost old-fashioned (and typically philosophical) desire to erase differentiation. He scoffs at the homogenous mass of revolutionary subjects, and with good reason. But in telling us there is no ruler and ruled, in refuting the idea of class society, he falls into another trap. That which is infinitely differentiated and differentiating is, in the end, homogenous. If power is an omnipresent conflictual relation created by me as much as by the cop, that the only difference between me and the cop is an ever changing series of specificities that flash across a matrix—sorry, matrices—of transformation, what else can we really say? As such, Foucault is something like a juggler, frantically moving the cups around the table so we can never see under which one the coin lies.


The other grand movement that inheres to society and the world is emergence. The web of meaning continues, entropically, to fragment, differentiate, and condition, but always before the point of incoherence a new grammar or pattern emerges, and some patterns maintain their coherence, albeit altered, through many epochs and sea-changes.


It is absolutely true that all of us sitting here in this waiting room are not simply “immigrants.” Within this particular apparatus we find ourselves on the same side, which is to say it becomes easy to imagine the existence of sides. But back in the neighborhoods we will be men and women; grandparents and children; Morrocans, Pakistanis, Chinese, Ecuadorans, and even—god forbid—North Americans.


But what we easily forget is that the nonexistent necessarily exists, and through the imaginary an outside can manifest to that which has no exterior. We carry with us these moments in which we can imagine we are on the same side, and in a completely irrational way, they can return at moments when the specific power relations do not at all comprise us as a “we.”


Even as he makes power omnipresent, he continues to describe it in terms of conflict and domination. Like vestigial romantics, we insist on spaces free from domination. But we do so not simply out of whimsy. Or rather, our whimsy is a powerful thing that must be answered to. Precisely at the point where the society of classes, of ruler and ruled, is proven not to exist because we are all so enmeshed in shifting webs of power, we understand that the society of classes is born again, because in our memories and in our imaginations exist moments of solidarity, of freedom, of utopia, and in all the grey spaces in between these moments of dreaming we trudge through something that can only be described as powerlessness.


We can agree, in a way, with all four rules Foucault sets out in the chapter “Method” in The History of Sexuality. But each one also leaves something lacking.


To Foucault’s “rule of immanence” we must counter with an indispensable imaginary, which is on the one hand exterior and impervious to power-knowledge, and on the other tangential to it at an infinity of points, and therefore conditioned by it. But we must not be fooled by the assumed superiority of power; the totality of power relations can also be limited or modified by the imaginary, and it is here that the possibility of subversion exists.


To his “rule of continual variations,” we must point out the obvious error of ignoring strong historical continuities within the matrices of transformation. Foucault would agree that things are not simply created anew, yet he still insists on averting his eyes from the historical roles of powerful and powerless. To point out the fluidity and interconnectedness of these roles is one thing. To deny their perennial perseverity is something else entirely.


To the “rule of double conditioning” we must insist on the existence of historical episodes in which strategies were in fact projected via tactics created expressly for that purpose. Obviously strategies are conditioned by the specificity of available tactics, but this is only to say that rulers—and contrary to Foucault, the category of ruler is a valid one—are not Gods who can create the conditions and matrices of relationships in which they rule. “The family organization” was not simply “used to support the great ‘maneuvers’ employed for the Malthusian control of the birthrate” and related matters of production. On the contrary, the family organization as such was largely created, by the Church and the State, in order to mobilize a new instrument in the service of governing strategies. State institutions and employers did not simply rely on the “specificities” of family relationships to condition the realization of their explicit strategy for qualitatively and quantitatively increasing domination; they specifically punished divergence from a new set of gender and familial norms which they themselves formulated (in a fragmented and immanent way, of course). But as Foucault begins his analysis after capitalism and biopower were already put into play, which is to say, after the machine was already built, he loses out on an opportunity (which he is patently uninterested in) to differentiate between relationships pertaining to the mechanisms of this machine and those obtaining between the machine and what exists before it, under it, against it.


And finally, to the “rule of the tactical polyvalence of discourses,” we must insist on, and ultimately realize, discourses born out of negation and imagination, discourses that do not make pretensions to purity and detachment from the discourses of power but that can still claim, mystically, to come from somewhere else because they are going somewhere else, off the map.