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…”