Hum with the talk about these oppositional spirits

A polemical review of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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