How this is going to begin

From Firefly to Wikileaks, the Liberal Revolution as Conspiracy Revealed

In Firefly, (Joss Whedon, 2002), the TV series and movie that blended Western with Sci-Fi and features the best use of a Baldwin since, well, ever, rebellious narratives make an interesting appearance. The main characters were on the losing side in a defensive war against an expansionist political entity known as “The Alliance,” which, at the start of the storyline, is the ultimate force in the solar system. Multiple aesthetic cues evoke the Civil War showdown between the Yankees and the Rebels, but without that whole embarrassing slavery thing (the series protagonist not only has black friends, he has a black co-star).

Now that the war is lost, the two ex-rebels go Han Soloing about the star system in a space freighter, smuggling stuff and doing things with the help of the typical unlikely cast of crewmembers. Aside from providing what may be the best anti-authoritarian line from B-Grade film since Charlton Heston’s 1973 “Soylent Green is people!” (the new titleholder is “I aim to misbehave,” delivered by Nathan Fillion with a sexy sneer), there’s hardly anything novel in this embarrassingly amusing series and film.

What we find instead is a common liberal archetype of revolution as conspiracy revealed. Besides the authorities and other criminals, the only bad guys in the Firefly star system are known as “reavers.” Well beyond Faulkneresque, these reavers are ultraviolent, marauding freaks whom the movie reveals to be the accidental product of a secret government program to engineer perfectly happy, perfectly obedient citizens. The attempt to remove free will unpredictably turns them into psychopaths bent only on destruction. Denoument is achieved by broadcasting this suppressed truth, with the help of a rogue hacker, throughout the system.

The assumption is that once people realize the truth, they will rise up and the old regime will fall. The advantage of this model of rebellion is that it can be singlehandedly executed by a lone individual or a small group (making things easier for the scriptwriters) and that it never requires the building of collective power or the negation of deeper structures of domination (making things easier for the governments whose citizens regularly consume this storyline). Nearly every book or movie that deals with conspiracy and protagonizes rebellion makes at least some use of this model of revolution.

The ongoing controversy involving Wikileaks and the trials and tribulations of Julian Assange provide yet another test case for the effectiveness of this model in the real world. It would be a hilaroius sequel to Firefly in which our hotshot space pilot were arrested as a sex-offender while all the lower class Alliance citizens negatively impacted by the reavers, which is to say by their government’s policies, tsked and shook their heads and debated whether such openness were harmful to national security.

The real secret that liberal discourse hides, the great conspiracy, revolves around the nature of knowledge itself. I’m not sure if Foucault’s analysis of knowledge-power is adequate to this situation, because what is at stake is not merely the categorization and mobilization of knowledge. Such a paradigmatic approach discards the possibility of subversive agency or externality to power. While we are presented with the interaction of fragments, this is a productive interaction, such that contradiction, and thus the need for suppression, is minimized.

At every moment the leaked State Department cables are being presented within the category of policy, never translated out of the strategic language of government nor even the institutional dialects in which they were written, so we are not dealing with pure and external facts that challenge a reigning paradigm but with a dispositif’s own descriptions of its operations.

So far, vanilla. The controversy that is playing out in real life does not reflect a paradigmatic conflict. However, the debate centers around the question, “Should we know these things?” The psychological underpinnings of this question reveal that, in a way, everyone already knew that the military was running death squads, that every government everywhere is conniving and petty, that Israel was up to no good, and so on and so forth. And they knew only so far as this knowledge already belonged to the hive mind of society. When Wikileaks released the cables, hardly anyone acted surprised.

Rather, there was a spontaneous transition from the debate (which admittedly had faded into the background years ago) about whether the US military is torturing people to a debate about whether we should know the US military is torturing people. No double-take, no stuttering, no process of transition, but a smooth replacement of one argument with another, despite the contradictory bases of those arguments.

As a great part of society from all classes argue in favor of the compartmentalization of this classified knowledge within the authorized cells of the hive mind, it becomes apparent that we are not living and struggling in a terrain where rational debate is possible. What we are faced with, actually, is a society suffering from cognitive dissonance, that will replace its alibis as quickly as an alcoholic.

I stumbled across a test case on a much smaller scale that furnished identical results when an acquaintance who teaches a university course showed me his students’ responses to the question, “Is it okay to be a luddite?” Of about twenty responses, all but two answered in the negative, and the overwhelming majority of these argued that it was ethically wrong to be a luddite because “technology” was imposed on society and anyone who didn’t use it would be excluded. Only a handful bothered to claim that “technology” made our lives better. In other words, for most people right and wrong are pragmatic measurements of their antagonism or invisibility towards the power structures that can exclude them from society. Thus, if power is indeed reproduced by everyone, it is done so unevenly and in such a way that it exists as an intimate externality to each individual’s free will, like an abusive father for whom one is constantly making excuses.

This behavior suggests a primacy of social relations to which discourse is subservient. In general, people believe what they have to believe in order to get along. The ideal is to live in accordance with your beliefs, but if your life and your actions are disciplined and limited by the State, it will be easier to tailor your beliefs to the life you are already living. This process of building an alibi is in fact a central movement in the identity-formation known as “growing up.”

In some cases, the operation is an easy one. How many people would be able to find out on their own that people living outside of the State did not lead “nasty, brutish and short” lives? Other cases, such as the nature of the police, are harder to cover up, because people encounter contradictions to the official line in their day to day life. This is why you only have a few movies or news programs showing savages living in misery, and a damnable flood of cultural production that introduces “the corrupt cop,” “the good cop,” and the racialized or lumpen criminal in order to help the citizenry explain away the troubling episodes they may witness daily.

The idea of a continuous synthesizing between knowledge and power without any externality is contradicted by the occasional evidence of the world or the body asserting themselves against the discourses that attempt to mold them. Cognitive dissonance, regardless of the paradigm it is understood within, comes with disorders, perturbations, bad humours, however you want to call them, that demonstrate there is a limit to the ability of the ordering of knowledge to enlist us in the universal reproduction of power.

We can attest, therefore, to a world that is independent from knowledge but never separate from it. Seen in this light, the inability of knowledge of the government leaks to provoke substantive resistance reveals a particular relationship to knowledge within democratic society. Through the device of free speech, democracy has already accomplished the alienation of beliefs from actions. By allowing freedom of expression in exchange for the prohibition of free action, democracy expropriates us from our opinions and disciplines us to believe in anything as long as we act on nothing. This is a qualititative shift from the days of the Bogomils, the Cathars, and the Taborites, when heresy was the greatest threat to established order. Today, heresy is passé.

Therefore, within the current arrangement of power, it becomes necessary to distinguish between information and knowledge, with the former being the alienated husk of the latter. Xabier Barandiaran provides a useful analysis of the mining and acculturation of information as code to be plugged into developing socio-technological apparati. In this model, information is inert when not plugged into the mechanical operation it was encoded for.

So, when government documents are leaked, it is something like the spilling of God’s seed on this barren and fruitless earth—the faithful among us go running after those out-of-place tadpoles, fishing them all into a great basket so they can be returned to the only realm where they can find any use and thus where they have any meaning. Government secrets, the good citizens argue, belong with the government.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, requires interaction with the world, as mediated through symbol and discourse. Mediation here is not bad, it is not the stand-in for alienation, as though world and body were two separate entities, stumbling blindly towards some reunion (I recall the Ted Hughes poem “A Childish Prank”) and separated only by language and other mediating instruments—this is the image bequeathed to us by what has unfortunately been the predominant current in anarchist philosophy over the last decades (perhaps since Fredy Perlman, who was marvelous regardless).

Rather, knowledge, which is always self-knowledge, requires a symbolic dimension, just as the physical phenomenon of reflection (synonym of contemplation) suggests both the possibilities of self-awareness and of symbolic representation. Thus, knowledge is not a pure body finding a pure world because world and body are one. Knowledge is the world, as the body, discovering itself. Therefore, when the State has expropriated the body from the world, knowledge becomes obsolete and the body becomes a cog that can either process information according to the code or not. By opting out, it is not attacking this process, simply removing itself from the flows of information and value (monetary as well as affective), whether by not going to work, not going to the pep rally, not laughing or sighing when the rest of the audience does.

And there are limits on opting out as well. One may survive only by serving as a conduit for these flows. By not going to work, by not going to the movies, one removes oneself from the community of commodities and affective allegiances to those commodities that, in the capitalist world, is the only means of reproduction, of survival.

Power, one might say, is not everywhere, but nowhere. This is a universe of powerlessness, in which power can only be born in a singularity such as is the seizing of agency, which in this universe is always a rebellious act. The idea that information could be subversive implies that people are already taking action in their lives, and new information would direct their actions in new directions. This never plays out because people are not taking action but serving as conduits (with differing degrees of enthusiasm) and transforming the code that passes before them into mechanical operation and back into code.

Events such as Wikileaks threaten the alibi but not the fundamental activity being covered up. New or different information cannot interrupt this mechanical process because it does not address people’s relationship to that information (which is one of alienation) or their essential powerlessness and passivity. In the end, all the subversive information in the world is only saying one thing: “You are powerless. You are powerless. You are powerless. You are powerless.” Learning this does not change a thing. It was already obvious. This is why people needed the alibis in the first place.

A revolutionary understanding of the nature of information is actually present in the Matrix trilogy, speaking of code. The significance of this film’s resonance should not be overlooked—it spoke directly to the alienation of millions of young and not so young people, touching them at the very level of identity, mediated, in most cases, by new aesthetic trends, but in no few instances by such outbursts as public shootings. When the first film ends, Neo informs the machine world that “Now, I’m going to hang up this phone, and I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see.”

This threat promises the typical liberal revolution as conspiracy revealed. But the continuation of the trilogy exposes the revelation’s impotence: the Matrix does not come tumbling down just because people have discovered its existence. The discovery only serves to strengthen those who are already rebelling; everyone else must still unplug and arm themselves, one by one. And looking back to the previous line at the end of the first film, we find that it was the genre and not this particular script that gave us these expectations: “I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end, I came here to tell you how this is going to begin […] I’m going to show them a world without you […] A world where anything is possible.”

Revealing the conspiracy has its value, but the conspiracy itself is not the framework for the evil authority, simply its alibi. Unmasking it can only be a beginning.

Getting Lost in Anarchism: Post-Anarchism Anarchy on Screen for Idiots

I respond to accusations of postanarchism’s elitism and offer an alternative conceptualization. Here I connect postanarchism to a broader cultural movement and demonstrate how this movement plays out in the hit American television show Lost.

I respond to accusations of postanarchism’s elitism and offer an alternative conceptualization. Here I connect postanarchism to a broader cultural movement and demonstrate how this movement plays out in the hit American television show Lost.

10 reasons that Sons of Anarchy works

as an anarchist fairy tale

Mainstream culture is not capable of using the A word in any context where it can be identified with or celebrated. The best one can hope for is farce. So would this program have been if it were on network television.

Television has come a long way from just being a wasteland of empty smiles and variety shows, or from a national fireplace where we all sit around and are delivered a package of Americana and late night blue humor. Approximately 70% of households subscribe to cable (and satellite) television, which have fractured the way that media is consumed, so much that while the quality of all mass visual media can still be debated, it can’t be argued that the place where experimentation happens (such as it is) is in cable programming.

as an anarchist fairy tale

Mainstream culture is not capable of using the A word in any context where it can be identified with or celebrated. The best one can hope for is farce. So would this program have been if it were on network television.

Television has come a long way from just being a wasteland of empty smiles and variety shows, or from a national fireplace where we all sit around and are delivered a package of Americana and late night blue humor. Approximately 70% of households subscribe to cable (and satellite) television, which have fractured the way that media is consumed, so much that while the quality of all mass visual media can still be debated, it can’t be argued that the place where experimentation happens (such as it is) is in cable programming.

This experimentation, namely with adult themes, began with HBO and shows like Oz and The Sopranos but networks like Showtime, Fox’s FX and even AMC (American Movie Classics) are programming for the adult audience that has been passed by in the blandification of network (over the air) television.

Each of these networks seems to have a different attitude that informs their choice of programming. HBO seems to have the long view, believing that box sets and subscriptions can fund the telling of long form story-telling. Their shows have dwelt on the ambiguity of morality (Carnivale), government failure in the inner city (The Wire), and human scale of military life (Generation Kill). HBO represents the height of a twentieth century liberal education.

FX inhabits the other side of a story telling and motivation. Perhaps in the same way that the documentary American Nightmare tells a story of John Carpenter’s Halloween as a conservative casting of the liberal mores of the seventies, FX recasts each television genre it touches. This makes compelling television in the case of the existential recast of the hero show (like Rescue Me) and disturbing television in the case of black hat civil servants (like the ones who populate The Shield).

Sons of Anarchy is the newest show on FX that falls somewhere, genre wise, between the A-team and The Shield with action, chase scenes, and a kind of cop-proof invulnerability real outlaws would love to have. Furthermore Sons does work as a kind of anarchist fairy tale (anarchist in the opposing State and Capitalism sense of the word), weaving together a rich set of relationships that has only a convenient and non-ideological connection to money and (state) authority.

In no particular order here are ten reasons why Sons of Anarchy is a modern anarchist fairy tale.

1. Female Characters

Finding consistent strong female characters is becoming more likely in the era of actual adult dramas, still it isn’t exactly common. Gemma Teller is played by Katey Sagal who was both the female lead in the atrocious sitcom Married with Children and the voice of Leela on Futurama. She serves as the lead female protagonist (next to Ron Perlman’s male lead) and the emotional center of gravity for the show. She is played as a believable, take no bullshit, queen of the gang. Tara is the second female lead who pales in comparison to Gemma but is clearly placed as the next generation. Maggie Siff (who plays Tara) doesn’t have the gravitas of Sagal but holds her own as a well-written strong woman. Additional strong roles are played by the wife of Opie, the “old lady” (Luanne) of Big Otto, and even the Federal Agent (ATF) Agent June Stahl (played by Ally Walker). This many strong women in a program is a testament both to the writer/producer Kurt Sutter (who also plays Big Otto) and Katey Sagal (who is his wife IRL).

2. Shakespeare

If you are going to make art that is designed to have staying power in this culture odds are pretty good that you are going to draw deep from the well that is William Shakespeare. He continues the be The Mythologist of Western Culture and sets the frame for our most prevalent understandings of ourselves including romantic love, revenge, treachery, familial relationships, and on and on. Sons of Anarchy is the story of Hamlet set in an imaginary California small town trapped in the 1950s. The protagonists are all the leaders of an empire in parts. Charming the imaginary small town placed somewhere between Sacramento and Redding. SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original) is a motorcycle enthusiast club with chapters across the west headquartered in Charming. Finally, through their ability to arm and disarm the different factions they rule the entirety of gangland Northern California.

3. Outlaw Culture

Anarchists position themselves, in literature and through their political strategy, on the fringes of the world that they live in. They play the role of firebrands and vagabonds, troublemakers and petty criminals, theorists of revolt and sabotage. A motorcycle gang is the self-organization of a life (or a set of lives) outside the law of man but in the world that man has created. For all the intellectual cover that anarchist provide lawlessness they are, by-and-large, mostly law-abiding and only lawless themselves in a few spectacular moments.

Illegalism, criminality in the service of anarchist passion and projects (like printing presses and social centers), has largely disappeared as an anarchist practice. To the extent to which it still exists, it has degraded into petty larceny and trespassing rather than burglary, assassination, and robbery. This is because the members of society who find themselves having radical political pretensions aren’t typically from the same socio-economic classes as those who find themselves felons. In a society where felons are media figures juxtaposed by cops and prisons, those whose understanding of themselves-in-the-world comes from a screen, rather than poverty, violence, and felonies, are naturally going to shy from felonious action.

The assertion of criminality, violence, and aggression into the practice of living isn’t an anarchist practice but will probably have to be for anarchists to leap off of the headlines (outside of spectacular protests) and into world-changing. SAMCRO is a presentation of this as plausible fiction.

4. Believable violence

Both the Sopranos and Oz, arguably the progenitors of our new wave of adult dramas, set the definition of adult themed as “having lots of extreme violence and explicit sex”. Since Sons is on FX and not HBO this option isn’t quite as available (as the FCC rules are different) but there is a fair share of violence and partial nudity on the show. Oz was the most extreme in its application of gratuitous sex and violence (it was set in a prison) but The Shield, also on FX, was in the same category of shock and awe violence (which clearly the FCC has less of a problem with than they do sex).

Sons is a violent show but the violence tends towards being appropriate (given that the context is outlaw culture). SAMCRO usually can be found pushing each other around, and maybe taking a swing at each other, about once an episode but there isn’t nearly the amount of bloodshed you would expect given that their primary money-making operation is gun running. They wave guns around more than they shoot them. They intimidate more than they beat people down. Taking the best lesson from chess, the potential of violence is used intelligently in place of action-scene after action-scene (unlike, for example, the unending barrage of implausible bullet dodging in The Shield).

5. Survival in this world

Any transgressive belief system has to come to terms with its own survival in a world not of its creation. For outlaws and anarchists, this means that a straight job is usually necessary and that transgression “adds to” rather than replaces survival. In Sons this question of survival is played out in a subplot involving Opie, a recent parolee, who has to cope with the question of whether working a shitty job (doing timber work) is enough, financially and existentially, to survive. His answer is the usual answer of anyone who tries to keep their foot in both worlds. It isn’t easy.

This experience, of being in this world and against this world, is both common and highly dis-functional. The modern phenomena of schizophrenia, of shattered people held together with duct tape and bailing wire, poorly acting out roles required of them, is the story of SAMCRO and the community of Charming. It’s also a major subplot of the show Mad Men but I’ll cover that another time. This survival-story isn’t one that ever ends, which is one of the reasons why the medium of television (with its traditional 24 part arc, cut to around a dozen for Sons of Anarchy) is a great way to share the story part of it. The twist for Sons, and what makes this an anarchist tale, is that survival is an assumption that most mass entertainment glides right over. For every Good Times there are 1000 Love Boats. Or perhaps to put this in the twenty-first century, for every Sons of Anarchy there are 1000 Desperate Housewives. To the extent that television entertainment is about escape it is exactly not about the misery of survival that its consumers face during the rest of their lives.

6. (anti)Manichean

SAMCRO is a gang in a world of other gangs. The mission of this gang is maintaining the burb of Charming as an enclave removed from the fabricated, processed, post-crack cocaine culture of the rest of the world. Naturally this defense is both hypocritical and conservative. As are the rival gangs and their missions.

Sons is a world of rival faiths. In the first season the struggle is a three way between Aryans, Mayans (a Mexican motorcycle crew) and SAMCRO, but other gangs include the Irish, a black gang (from Oakland naturally), the Feds & county law enforcement, and in season two, it’s between SAMCRO and high end Aryans (crewed up with Adam Arkin and Henry Rollins– !!!).

This is not a world that is black and white, or Good cop/Bad cop. It is tectonic with factions pushing on one another using the means at their disposal. The relationships are meaningful and the costs have metrics that would still be measurable in a world where Capitalism did not exist.

7. Motorcycles

As an adjunct to gang culture, which is generalizable as a form of social organization, the culture around motorcycles adds a couple things to Sons. Setting aside Harley culture(largely degraded into a very expensive hobby for the yuppie set), the act of riding is an actual form of anarchist practice.

Anarchists valorize Solidarity, Mutual Aid, Direct Action and individual autonomy. All of these can also be found in motorcycle culture. Solidarity in even the simple act of greeting every other rider on the road with a wave (sidebar: Harley riders don’t actually participate in this greeting other than with other Harley riders). Mutual Aid in the simple acts of sharing rides & resources, pulling over when you see another stranded, and an atmosphere of mutuality not seen in car culture. Direct Action and autonomy in the simple act of riding and being physically connected to moving quickly through the world.

Mostly riding a motorcycle is exhilarating and fun in much the same way as those moments when one is unleashed from the order of this world; when the cops are in retreat, when you eat shared food that no one paid for, when you ride for free.

8. Ambivalence of this world

Sons is set in a world much like our own. There is a USA, there are mortgages and parole, there are bills to pay and federales to avoid. To the extent to which SAMCRO is ideological it is in the style of the classic Marine hierarchy (God, Country, Corps), which makes some sense as most of the original members of SAMCRO were paratroopers in the Vietnam War. Rhetorically SAMCRO are true Americans while practically they are outlaws, parochial, and non-ideological. This distinction is the difference between ideas-above-experience and the practice of everyday life. Self-described anarchists often get lost in these distinctions.

In Sons there still is a world of greed and power-over, but it is outside of the club and, largely, outside of Charming. It is the world that is being defended against and is at the heart of the myth. This ambivalence toward the conceptual framework of the world of Globalization, Finance Capitalism, and Nation States isn’t a dialectical relationship but an argument for The Stroll, life as the journey shaped by ideas of a small scale.

9. Charming

The hypothetical town of Charming has no box stores or chains. It has a main street where people meet, barbers clip hair, and the police station stands at one end. Drug dealing and prostitution only exist outside of town and there is plenty of motorcycle parking.

It is also a town where you actually grow up, live, and die. It isn’t filled with a million transplants or lost souls passing through. Charming is a place where your high school sweetheart marries a buddy of yours and you still see each other at picnics. Where a person having problems isn’t a plot device to demonstrate how inhumane the central gang is but an opportunity to develop diverse relationships. One ongoing plot device involves a character who has a problem controlling touching himself and the character is still used to the extent of his abilities in productive capacities. Charming is a mythology for the obvious superficial reasons but also because it is a place where broken people can find places to fit in.

10. Anarchy

Sons of Anarchy is deeply influenced by Hamlet. The protagonist of the show stands in for Prince Hamlet, his mother (Gemma) is Gertrude, his step-father (Clay) is King Claudius. The ghost of Jax’s lost father is played by a journal of his fathers writings, a manifesto about the kind of club he wishes SAMCRO would become. One of the central alliances in the second season is between Jax, his father’s ghost, and Piney, one of the founding members.

This ghost could also be described as the anarchist heart of SAMCRO and the Sons of Anarchy. The most explicitly (politically) anarchist things in the show are in the narrations from the journal. The ghost uses this manifesto to loosely direct Jax. In one episode the ghost leaves a note for Jax on the wall of an underpass:

Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion and liberation of the human body from the coercion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals…

-Emma Goldman

Sons is not an anarchist show. Its politics aren’t explicit and aesthetically the show has as much in common with modern anarchism as a show set in high school locker room or law office. But the presentation of a community with, at its heart, a complex set of relationships, protected by outlaws, who are ambivalent toward the illusions of this world, is one where an anarchist can see themselves.