Starting this month and continuing through March, the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London presents a weekly lecture series entitled "Informatics of Domination," organized by artist and writer Zach Blas. e-flux conversations will publish selected lectures from the series. Today we present an extended introduction by Zach Blas. The full lecture schedule is on the flyer above.
Text by Zach Blas
A section titled “The Informatics of Domination” sits halfway through Donna Haraway’s 1985 text “A Cyborg Manifesto.” At its start, Haraway gives a name to describe the transformation of power at the close of the twentieth century:
In this attempt at an epistemological and political position, I would like to sketch a picture of possible unity, a picture indebted to socialist and feminist principles of design. The frame for my sketch is set by the extent and importance of rearrangements in world-wide social relations tied to science and technology. I argue for a politics rooted in claims about fundamental changes in the nature of class, race, and gender in an emerging system of world order analogous in its novelty and scope to that created by industrial capitalism; we are living through a movement from an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system—from all work to all play, a deadly game. Simultaneously material and ideological, the dichotomies may be expressed in the following chart of transitions from the comfortable old hierarchical dominations to the scary new networks I have called the informatics of domination.
In her accompanying table, science fiction reigns, the future of labor is robotic, and white capitalist patriarchy is recast as the informatics of domination. Here, informatics can be defined as information grasped within its social conditions. Haraway’s insistence on framing power through informatics draws attention to the wielding of power in and through networked information machines. That is, if people are increasingly governed informatically, then white capitalist patriarchy is no longer a sufficient concept to elucidate the newer technical materialities through which such power dominates. Notably, Haraway’s articulation of the informationalization of power coincides with another theory, also marked by developments in computer science and digital technologies—namely, Gilles Deleuze’s conception of control societies (1992). Like control, the informatics of domination signals a historical shift from disciplinary societies and panopticism; but might the informatics of domination be the feminist analogue to control? Not only does the informatics of domination, as a theory, emerge within the context of feminist science and technology studies, but it is also a direct reworking of patriarchy.
Haraway further clarifies the mode in which the informatics of domination operate: “communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move—the translation of the world into a problem of coding” (164). This provokes something of a conundrum for minoritarian struggles, as strategies for political liberation have oriented around gaining representation and enabling the subaltern to speak, as well as a range of textual and visual tactics. When humans are transformed into code and brought into an informatic reign, mustn’t political, critical, and aesthetic responses to power necessarily reconfigure? I am reminded of a text by media theorist N. Katherine Hayles titled “Print is Flat, Code is Deep,” in which Hayles argues that the time-honored and honed skills of literary textual analysis, used to critique print works, fall short when considering a work of electronic literature because “the text” is constructed by software, code, and electronics—not print. Hayles defines her scholarly method as “medium-specific analysis,” and it stipulates that the informatic is distinct from the textual—and by inference, the visual. Thus, the challenge Haraway and Hayles present is to do feminist work by attending to the informatic transformations of power, which are specific and material. Resultantly, a flurry of questions and concerns demands confrontation, such as, how is information created and controlled? Theoretical terms like “mediation,” “capture,” and “protocol” are crucial to start formulating responses. Ultimately, opposing the informatics of domination requires a proliferation of informatic counter-vectors—an informatic feminism, an informatic queerness, an informatic antiracism, an informatic aesthetics.
Strikingly, Haraway invests in myth-making and fiction as a means to combat the informatics of domination. For instance, the cyborg is a feminist myth that has the agency to intervene into the political trajectories of networked information technology; it “is the self feminists must code” (163). Notice that Haraway does not state “write” or “paint.” Coding can also generate a resistant informatics that is grounded in social reality and aesthetics. Indeed, it is Haraway’s feminist framing of power and the arts that motivates the Spring 2017 Public Programme of the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths. By organizing a lecture series around the informatics of domination, I understand this as bringing together scholars, artists, and curators who are committed to investigating, critiquing, and reimagining the informatic dimensions of power and control today, particularly those engaging such issues from feminist, queer, critical race, and minoritarian positions. This approach necessarily leads to the queer science fiction of cyberfeminist Shu Lea Cheang, and also to the pioneering hacktivist work that Ricardo Dominguez continues to develop around electronic disturbance, Mayan technology, and the Science of the Oppressed. Other invited speakers advance the informatics of domination into the realm of twenty-first century urgencies: Heather Dewey-Hagborg uses bio art to explore futures of genetic surveillance; Mohammad Salemy critiques the “post-internet” and paradigms of artificial intelligence; and Rizvana Bradley thinks blackness’ relations to the internet and the digital. Some guests invest in many of Haraway’s initial concerns, by focusing on design, labor, and vision: Metahaven present films and a lecture that unfold the potentialities of “design research”; Seb Franklin traces the transformations of labor wrought by digitality; and Erika Balsom discusses capture and control in late film/video works by Harun Farocki. Still others detail longer histories of informatics and subjugation, such as Simone Browne, in her work on slavery and surveillance.
In 2017, the informatics of domination has only intensified: drone warfare, biometric governmentality, and mass securitization evidence as much. A key question has also intensified: What are the myths, fictions, and artistic practices that join together with social struggles to deliver an informatics without domination?
Los Angeles–based Penny-Ante Press recently republished Stewart Home's iconic 1991 experimental pulp novel Defiant Pose, with a new introduction by McKenzie Wark. Home is the author several novels that blur the distinction between pulp fiction and theory, including Red London (1994), 69 Things to do with a Dead Princess (2002), and The Nine Lives of Ray the Cat (2014). He is also a filmmaker, recording artist, and all-around adversary of pretentious cant. In 3:AM Magazine, Bridget Penney interviews Home about literary collage, Houdini, and how Defiant Pose has aged over the last twenty-five years. Here's an excerpt:
3:AM: In Defiant Pose, the texture of the narrative is disrupted not only by silently plagiarised passages from other sources but by attributed quotations from Marx, Hobbes, Richard Jeffries, and, as already discussed, Abiezer Coppe. These are ‘bellowed’ or ‘thundered’ by Terry Blake as he is fellated by various sexual partners…
SH: I didn’t want readers to miss the fact the text was a collage, so I kinda pointed this out. Attribution isn’t necessary, but some attribution draws attention to what’s going on. Also I rather liked taking passages from political works, as this had more potential to divide readers about what was ‘improving’ and what was not. I was also interested in drawing out the relationship between anarchist and fascist ideology, which I addressed in a more theoretical way in a text I wrote in 1997 entitled Anarchist Integralism. However, exploring this at first in fiction gave me a freedom to develop my ideas in ways that might have seemed unlikely if I’d tried to weave together a purely theoretical text back in 1989. Fiction, and even citation, became for me a means by which to obtain a firmer purchase on often slippery ideologies. Much of what is implicit in Defiant Pose I made explicit in Anarchist Integralism.
3:AM: I find the idea of a novel working towards ideas extremely interesting. And citation as a means of getting to grips with slippery ideologies harks back to pre-print ways of teaching, when students would be expected to copy out or learn selected passages by rote, then argue from them. Your use of ‘improving’ — definitely in quotes — intrigues me.
SH: I took the word improving from Iain Sinclair’s review of Defiant Pose, and a number of my other books, in the LRB. Sinclair described Terry’s citations as improving… Of course Sinclair went on to write an awful lot about me (and many others too, as he’s extremely prolific), but that was the first thing he wrote about me and I think possibly the best. When you decide you’re writing fiction it is very freeing and you don’t have to take responsibility for the views expressed. So there are racist and fascist characters (I prefer the term cyphers but I use character because I’m more likely to be understood if I stick to this terminology) in Defiant Pose, and that provides an opportunity to explore the way they think without having to endorse it. A largely glowing review of the reissue of the book has described it as racist, but I think that’s a misunderstanding. The racism is actually held back, I’m familiar with the terminology used by bigots but in the book I restrict it to terms like ‘ethnics’ and ‘immigrants’, I wouldn’t use the kind of racist terminology deployed by, say, Iain Sinclair in his books — not that I necessarily think Sinclair’s use is uncritical, I just prefer not to reproduce some of the language he uses. So racism and fascism (among other things) are explored in Defiant Pose, but it is neither racist nor fascist, but rather part of a struggle against these things that might be lined up with very different books like Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, that want to know (and understand) their enemy. That said, it is probably easier to let fiction see where it takes you, and once you’ve allowed that to happen theorise more successfully from there. Not that one can ever make a complete separation between fiction and non-fiction, stories and theory; the lines between them will always be blurred and unclear.
Image via 3:AM Magazine.
Adam Curtis, whose newest documentary film, HyperNormalisation, premiered on the BBC last fall, talks to the Creative Independent about power, individualism, and the perils of self-expression. His comments are characteristically incisive and bleak. Check out an excerpt of the interview below, or read the full text here.
Maybe there is a new radical way of looking at the world. A new exciting, fresh way which we haven’t seen yet because it doesn’t fit with our preconceptions. Every age has a thing that it deeply believes in that 50 years later people will look back and say, “My God, look how conformist they all were.” You look at photographs of men in bars in the 1930s. They’re all wearing exactly the same clothes and same hats.
We may look back at self-expression as the terrible deadening conformity of our time. It doesn’t mean it’s bad and it doesn’t mean it’s a fake thing. It’s gotten so that everyone does it—so what’s the point? Everyone expresses themselves every day.
We’re all self-expressing. It’s the conformity of our time. They’ll look back and say, “My God! It’s a bit like they all wore the same hats in the ’30s. They were all self-expressing.”
That’s the thing we can’t see. It’s not to say you can’t make art if you want to do it, but it’s not the radical outsider. It’s not the hipster cool outsider. It’s everything. It’s conformity.
Image via YouTube.
If you can see past the advertisements for multiples and fancy real estate, Artspace has published a lengthy and interesting conversation between Benjamin Buchloh and Lawrence Weiner. Buchloh presses Weiner on the links connecting his work in a dizzying array of genres—from painting to writing to music and sculpture—while Weiner explain how the philosophy of language was instrumental to his artistic formation. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
BB: There seems to be a peculiar contradiction: on the one hand, you insist that sculpture is the primary field within which your work should be read, yet at the same time you have also substituted language as a model for sculpture. Thus you have dismantled the traditional preoccupation with sculpture as an artisanal practice and a material production, as a process of modeling, carving, cutting, and producing objects in the world.
LW: If you can just walk away from Aristotelian thinking, my introduction of language as another sculptural material does not in fact require the negational displacement of other practices within the use of sculpture.
BB: But why would it even have to be discussed in terms of sculpture, rather than in terms of a qualitatively different project altogether?
LW: What would I call it? I call them “works,” I call them “pieces,” I called them whatever anybody else was coming up with that sounded like it was not sculpture. Then I realized that I was working with the materials that people called “sculptors” work with. I was working with mass, I was working with all of the processes of taking out and putting in. This is all a problem of designation. I also realized that I was dealing with very generalized structures in an extremely formalized one. These structures seemed to be of interest not only to me but to other artists at the time. I do not think that they were taken with the idea that it was language, but we were all talking about the ideas generated by placing a sculpture in the world. Therefore I did not think I was doing anything different from somebody putting fourteen tons of steel out. I said it was possible that I would build it if they wanted, I said it was possible to have somebody else build it, and then I finally realized that it was possible just to leave it in language. There was not a skill; art is not about skill.
Image of Lawrence Weiner via FAD Magazine.
Perhaps you've seen the above advertisement on your local bus or subway? In the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes about the furor that has been ignited by its earnest promotion of working yourself to death. She also examines how the American valorization of "self-reliance" is used the justify appalling treatment of precarious workers. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Fiverr, which had raised a hundred and ten million dollars in venture capital by November, 2015, has more about the “In Doers We Trust” campaign on its Web site. In one video, a peppy female voice-over urges “doers” to “always be available,” to think about beating “the trust-fund kids,” and to pitch themselves to everyone they see, including their dentist. A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding.” This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video. It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars. I’d guess that plenty of the people who advertise services on Fiverr would accept some “whiteboarding” in exchange for employer-sponsored health insurance.
At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear. Human-interest stories about the beauty of some person standing up to the punishments of late capitalism are regular features in the news, too. I’ve come to detest the local-news set piece about the man who walks ten or eleven or twelve miles to work—a story that’s been filed from Oxford, Alabama; from Detroit, Michigan; from Plano, Texas. The story is always written as a tearjerker, with praise for the person’s uncomplaining attitude; a car is usually donated to the subject in the end. Never mentioned or even implied is the shamefulness of a job that doesn’t permit a worker to afford his own commute.
Barbara Cassin is a distinguished French philosopher and philologist who was awarded the Grand prix de philosophie by the Académie Française in 2012. The interview below is a companion piece to "More Than One Language," an essay by Cassin on the value of multilingualism published in the March 2017 issue of e-flux journal.
I have heard that not all languages have the same number of words and I’d like to know if that means that some languages are richer than others, and if all languages have the same ability to create new words and thus to become richer?
Unlike Gilberte Tsaï who is hosting us here at the Théâtre de Montreuil, I don’t know enough really foreign languages. I don’t know anything about Chinese, for example. I don’t know Hebrew and Arabic, languages whose real differences inform one thinks. I know quite a few languages of Europe, Latin, and Greek. I have a little bit of Russian. To answer your questions within the limits of what I can have in mind, languages do not have the same number of words, that is possible and likely. But the first certainty is that the “global English” that we all speak is very poor in relation to the English of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or James Joyce. One must understand that a language is also made of authors and works. Culture is what defines a language. One language therefore already does not have the same number as itself. That’s the first part of my answer.
The second part of my answer is that certain languages sometimes have a plethora of words to designate the essential things in their world, so essential that they make distinctions in places where “we” never even imagine there are any. Inuit, an Eskimo language, has a greater number of words to say snow: each word refers to the different qualities of rain, or of snow—the kind one walks in, the kind one can construct an igloo with, the kind you can keep a trace of, the kind you die in. These are concrete worlds. But just because many words exist to say rain, this does not mean that language includes that many more words. There may exist fewer ones to say the sun.
That said, it is not simply the number of words that defines a language, but also the syntax it has. Languages can therefore be infinitely different because they don’t have the same kind of organization. This means that it is very hard to compare them, and even harder to know what richness or poverty means. For example, I think that Chinese does not have a verb for “to be.” When I gave a class several years ago at Beijing University on truth for Greeks, I needed to talk about the verb “to be,” I needed the words “subject” and “accident.” “The yellow table,” “yellow” is a predicate or an accident of this substance or subject that the table is, by way of the intermediary of “is.” How can one talk about this if not only are the analogous words missing but also the very anchoring constituted by the form of the phrase? It’s very hard. My translator did the best he could. An incredible student who seemed to be sleeping in the first row, and who apparently wasn’t entirely asleep, came to see me after the conference and told me that the translator was very good with the words but not on the meaning because when I would speak of an “accident,” the translator would translate a “car accident.” Obviously, without the verb “to be,” things got very complicated. It is likely that the number of words is not the same in one language and another, but that does not mean much given that from one language to another it is a matter of different ways of intertwining, different relations, different ways of being rich. What matters goes far beyond word count.
Do languages have the same capacity for invention? They do not have the “same” capacity for invention, but they are all “inventable.” A language is an energy and it is constantly inventing itself, according to its own modalities. In German, there is something I called, in that dictionary I told you about, the “metaphysics of particles.” What does that mean? That means that you take a noun or a verb and you put it before or after these little things, particles, in or aus for example. These particles designate the place, time, or manner, and that produces a new word. In French we have trouble, we can do this a little bit, but only a little bit. We can say “verdir” (“to turn green”) or “reverdir” (“to turn green again”), but we have trouble saying “déverdir” (“to decrease in green”) or “averdir” (“to lose one’s green”). In German, you can do this. Every language contains within itself its rules for invention and their possible transgressions. When Jacques Derrida said that a language is not something that belongs, he was speaking on the basis of his own personal experience: he was pied-noir (a French person born in Algeria) and his maternal language was French, but it seemed crazy to him that Arabic could be considered in Algeria as a foreign language, that it would be taught as a foreign language. He called this the “monolinguism of the other.” He then said that a language is not something that belongs and that, for that reason, it has to be respected. You have to move in its direction. We can invent within it, but there is a sense to the invention. We can be disrespectful with a language as long as we respect its secret law, as long as we have understood how it invents itself. I think each language harbors its own possibilities for invention.
Do you know how to speak Greek?
I don’t know how to pronounce it because we no longer know how Ancient Greek was pronounced. We know certain generalities, we know certain accents (called “rough breathing”) mean that the vowel is aspirated, for example. When I wrote down Khaire a little while ago, which means “enjoy,” I put an h in to make the aspiration of the letter khi perceptible. It’s not the same thing as a simple k. I therefore know a certain number of things about pronunciation, but not everything. I cannot speak it, but I can read it: it is what we call a dead language. A dead language is a language that is maternal for no one. No one today is born speaking Ancient Greek and that makes for a very big difference between a dead language and a living language. No one can invent words in Ancient Greek any more. That possibility is closed off, finished.
Today, there is a modern Greek that is spoken in Greece, but it has changed a lot in relation to Ancient Greek, if only on the level of pronunciation. There was in particular the phenomenon of “iotacism”: lots of vowels and diphthongs are pronounced as “i” and not “e,” for example. And then the meaning of certain words has shifted. If I say metaphora, in Ancient Greek this means “metaphor.” When one says “the foot of a mountain,” I certainly see that a mountain doesn’t have a foot like you do, it’s a metaphor. The bottom of a mountain is called its “foot,” but the mountain will never have shoes. Today when I see metaphora in Greece, it’s on a moving truck. This is not at all absurd because, in a certain way, the word “foot” for the mountain had indeed “moved” in Ancient Greek, in relation to its “proper” sense of the foot of a man.
I do not speak modern Greek, but I understand it a little bit. Nobody speaks ancient Greek, but it can be read.
Why is it said that bilinguals have an easier time learning a language?
To start with, I would say it’s because they speak languages. They know it, and no language appears to them as a logos, as the only possible language. The certainty that at least two languages exist implies that there are still others that exist as well and that we can compare them, we have a hold on relations through them. In ancient Greek, the first meaning of logos is “relation”: a/b=c/d, logos, what today is called a proportion. Being bilingual allows you to establish relations and establishing relations is how we can define ability and intelligence. Being bilingual allows you to establish relations from one language to another, between several languages, and that is why it is easier to learn them.
Why is the language you speak the most the one that is spoken at school?
For example, you speak one language at home and one language at school? Tell me which languages you speak.
I speak French and English.
Why is it that you speak English, does one of your parents speak English?
Yes, my mother is English and my father is French. Why do I speak French more?
I think you almost gave the answer. You speak English with your mother, but because you live in France you speak French with everybody else. I think you speak with everyone more often than you speak with you mother, but that does not stop English from being a maternal language in the narrow sense. Maybe you dream in English?
I don’t know.
Pay attention the next time you dream, you may notice that you are dreaming in two languages. It’s possible. You speak in French with a lot more people than in English, but you probably speak very intensely with your mother.
At the beginning you talked about a sense of the invention of words specific to each language. With the globalization of English, is this sense going to continue? There are words in French that come from English, and words in English that come from French. Little by little will there only be one language for everyone?
It’s possible. Today there is already almost one language for everyone and I call it “Globish,” “global English.” When you want to order a coffee, you can ask for it in this language whether you are in Beijing on in Tamanrasset. It’s a language of communication, a vehicle, but you must not confuse it with English. English is much richer than Globish, it’s a language of culture and works, while Globish has no works except for applications for money from Brussels—even in France. I think Globish already exists, and that before it, there were other slightly comparable vehicular languages, with the very important difference that they were less summary both in relation to words and to their organization. For example, in what the Greeks called the “inhabited world,” people spoke koine, a Greek common to all (koinos means “common”). People spoke a common language fairly different from the Greek properly speaking that I mentioned to you earlier, even if it has the same basis. Later on, there was Latin as a language of Empire, then as the language of the Church. There is always a relation between the dominators and the language most commonly spoken. The common language was that of the dominant Greeks and the Roman Empire, and now in a certain way it is that of the Anglo-American Empire.
Will Globish be able to triumph over the maternal language?
I wanted to make this dictionary in order to avoid that. One of the major threats for Europe is that only Globish and dialects would remain, that maternal languages would not even be languages any more, but only dialects you speak with friends and at home, or in an expanded house, in a little village, a little city, a little country. The threat of a unique language of communication is real. Against this threat, each one of us must speak a language in addition to their main one. For example, one of the very concrete points of “anti-Globish” activism consists in producing bilingual editions and in making sure the manuals that teach language propose not only communication, but also culture, in other words beauty, texts to be heard in a language and not in one language, in Globish. This is why I insisted on Achilles’s sighs and Thetis’s tears, or on La Fontaine, because you hear in them something of each language, in each language. I find it sad that school books now only propose texts written in one language, and that they content themselves with teaching you to communicate with ease. A language is something other than an instrument of communication. Obviously, it allows you to communicate, but it is also something else, authors, works, inventions, cut-ups of the world. The danger is real, but it is also within our reach to make it so that languages do not become dialects; we just have to speak them, learn them, and value them.
What is the real danger in the fact that everyone might speak the same language?
It’s that it isn’t a real language, and we actually don’t miss it. Globish is not a real language because, for the moment, but this is part of its very constitution, it is only a means of communication. It’s a language of service and not a language of culture. The danger would be that there would only be a language of service and no longer any languages of culture. In what language does one write a beautiful text, a good text, or even just a text? Not in Globish! In Globish you can write reports, as a matter of fact that is how they make you write them. But how does one write a poem in Globish? The experiment can be fun, you can try, but it will always be a fairly ironic poem. A text in a language contains within it something of the history of that language, with the other texts that were written in it and that nourish it, texts that in a way are written underneath it. How can one make something on the level of culture and of the beautiful in Globish, something different from communication? This is a real question. Google claims that it is connecting even the monkeys in the trees and that it speaks to each one in his or her language. Bravo if that’s true! But I think it’s simply a question of “linguistic flavors” (Google uses that expression), like flavors of ice cream: we’ll make a French flavor, a French, Russian, Basque taste, etc. These are not languages in their strength and singularity. One must be very careful. I find this very dangerous.
When does a language become a dialect?
When it can no longer be exported. When the only way to invent is entirely private. A dialect is spoken in intimacy and cannot be opposed to the rest to the world. It’s on the order of the extended home and not of the public. A dialect does not produce a work but only speech. Careful, there are also languages that don’t necessarily have written, established works. It’s a complicated question, but I would have a tendency to say that a language becomes a dialect when it can no longer be opposed to another language, when there are no longer several languages but a global language and local ways of speaking that no longer come into contact with one another except through the global language.
I’m wondering how you explain the failure of Esperanto?
Because Esperanto is an absolutely artificial language that has neither authors nor works. I think the European community is wise not to want Esperanto and to want several languages for communication, even if they’re not very good at it, because Esperanto is a pure artefact and not a language.
However, if I take the idea of Esperanto all the way through to its end, I find a very generous and optimistic vision that resembles what Leibniz called the “universal characteristic.” Leibniz lived in Descartes’s age, in the seventeenth century. He was German, he spoke German, French, Italian, and English at least for reading, Greek, Latin, Hebrew no doubt, and he wrote in many of these languages. The “universal characteristic” is the idea that at bottom, all men have the same ideas, and that it is possible to take a big idea, the idea of “man” for example, and to reduce it into little component ideas. As if the idea of “man” was constituted by twenty primitive ideas—animal, language, laughter, death, etc.—and one could construct a whole language by combining a few primitive ideas. One would reduce everything to these atoms of ideas, and we would all talk to each other like that, in other words we would all calculate. Leibniz’s idea was to calculate instead of speaking, and the errors in thinking can be seen as mistakes in calculation. It is a failure, no one has ever successfully realized that, nor been able to think it all the way through, it’s an entirely ideal model from which Esperanto stems. One of the major esperantists was actually called Couturat; he was Leibniz’s editor. Esperanto is an ersatz of the universal characteristic. It does not work because how could one turn it into a language? Leibniz hoped that those who didn’t get along could sit around a table and say to one another, “let’s calculate and we will know who is right.” No, language cannot be reduced to a calculation, and Esperanto does not work because it is artificial, insufficient, without any thickness of history nor of the signifier, without authors and works—“desperanto,” as the poet Michel Deguy put it. As dead as a dead language, Esperanto is no one’s maternal language.
In the south of the United States, a language has developed that is now called “Spanglish,” a mix of Spanish and English. Can it really become a separate language on its own, and is it a danger for Spanish and English?
It can become a language of communication on its own, a medium for writing songs and works and, in that case, it will slowly become more and more of a language. I think it’s not necessarily dangerous, this is how a language is born and lives. A language is mortal, I am not a proponent of the fixism of species, otherwise we would still be speaking Latin. I think that French, English, and Spanish are like “Spanglish.” It’s very good, things have to move and live. Perhaps one day Spanish will become a dead language, but there will be several kinds of Spanish, amongst which “Spanglish.” In fact, there is a handsome dictionary today called Dictionnaire des espagnols. Today we think that Castilian, the versions of Spanish spoken in the diverse regions of Spain, the Spanish spoken in Cuba, the different Spanish languages spoken in South America, are not the same, and we are trying to see how they function, evolve, and intermingle, how a language “deterritorializes” itself. This is a lovely word that is kind of hard to pronounce, a new word in French invented by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Languages move, live, invent themselves, die, and communicate. I just got back from the United States, I heard “Spanglish” and, indeed, it may be a danger, but at the same time it is a good danger, a danger tied to the evolution of languages, a factor of invention.
How many languages do you speak in all?
Actually, there are many ways to speak a language. I have a passive understanding of a certain number of languages, but I do not really speak them. I can teach a class in French and English, I can answer questions in Portuguese or Spanish, and maybe in Italian. I can read Greek and Latin, but that is really all. When people explain things to me, I understand. That’s why I love bilinguals. In them there is a coexistence of the language you don’t speak very well but are sniffing out, and then its translation into the language you know well. It’s great for learning because you learn by relying on beautiful texts that actually have a consistency, instead of learning merely to ask your way to go to the movies, as I’ve seen in all the textbooks.
Why is there not one language that way we could learn languages?
I understand that there is already a language, there are already several others, and we can learn all of them but it takes a long time, doesn’t it? No language is worth all languages. I do not know an absolute language. What languages do you speak?
French and Tunisian.
Is Tunisian Arabic, or more particular?
And you speak both of them. That’s already a lot. You want to know what you have to do to learn yet another one?
Go to school, have good teaching, good books, work a lot, have fun learning, reading texts. Choose the other language that you want to learn, make friends who speak it and talk with them. If you want it, it will happen all on its own.
Is it possible to learn a language, and at the end of this to learn that the language becomes like our maternal language?
I don’t know, I don’t think so. Or rather, it all depends on the “like.”
I would certainly agree that one can forget one’s maternal language if, very early on, one no longer practices it with anyone at all, not even with oneself. So one must be able to live in another language “as if” (what does this mean?) it had always been one’s own.
You can no doubt also learn another language so well and love it so much that you end up as comfortable in it as a fish in water, as if you had always known an adoptive maternal language in a way. Why not.
But I don’t think it happens that way very often. I would like to take this question from the other angle, the resistant singularity of the maternal language. Hannah Arendt speaks of this very well. She is a philosopher who was the student of another German philosopher, Heidegger. She was Jewish and in 1933, she left Germany, she fled. Heidegger stayed in Germany and was a Nazi. She was his mistress and the whole thing was pretty complicated. She leaves, she gets to France and then to the United States. She spoke French, then English. For years, the whole second part of her life, almost thirty-five years, she lived in the United States. She tells of how she always kept her German accent in American and that she loved that accent. We have great interviews with her, particularly one with a journalist named Günther Gauss. The interview is called “Only the maternal language remains.” She says that German stayed “in the back of my mind,” always there, the German of her mother, the German of songs to sing her to sleep, the the German of the poets and the German of the philosophers. She is the one I was thinking of when I was trying to define what a maternal language is. Why is this so interesting? Because the German that is her maternal language became a terrible language for her, the language of the Nazis, the language of those who killed and who killed in language, like Heidegger to a certain extent when he uses German words with a sense that then makes them inappropriable for someone like Hannah Arendt. I understand this very well because my parents more or less forbade me from learning German. It’s crazy, but that’s the way it is. When I went to Berlin for the first time, I was sleeping in the train corridor because there wasn’t any room, and I was awakened by someone telling me “Raus, schnell!” I told myself that my parents were right, what a language: Hannah Arendt was aware that this language was the language of the Nazis and at the same time it was her maternal language. This happened to more than one person: in his poems, Paul Celan, a major poet, addressed the question of what can be said of and in that maternal language, after Auschwitz. In her interview Hannah Arendt exclaims: “It’s certainly not the German language that went crazy!” It’s extraordinary. At bottom, whatever the maternal language does, whatever it becomes, it remains the maternal language. For Hannah Arendt, the German language is truly the only thing that “remained” of Germany in spite of the horror and through exile.
But one must also read this in parallel with her Life of the Mind where she tells about the daily life of what goes on in her mind, what she thinks. In it, she uses the texts of philosophy that she has in her library, she cites Plato in Greek for example, Descartes in French, Kant in German. This whole mosaic of languages makes her aware of what she calls “the changing equivocity of the world.” She then writes that the fact that there are several languages, and that one can learn them, allows man to be in the best of human conditions, in other words a condition of “wavering equivocity.” So there is a maternal language that is forever unequalled but, at the same time, there is the presence of other languages. It is fundamental that they be there, too, because they allow for worry and set the maternal language into motion and, through that very mechanism, the world.
A crazed maternal language? If that interests you, read Victor Klemperer’s Diaries. A philologist and linguist, Klemperer was a Jewish professor forbidden from teaching, but he was able to stay in Germany in a house of Jews because his wife was non-Jewish, and he did not die. He watched the German language infuse Nazism, and he recounts this day by day. He was there for the transformation of a language, he closely watched how it moves, which words are all of a sudden invaded with another meaning, “organizing” for example, and that can no longer be used. He calls this language LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii, the language of the Third Reich. It is incredibly smart. I saw an analogous example in South Africa, where I worked a lot with people from the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that, with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, were able to avoid a blood bath after apartheid. The language of the Boers, the Dutch language spoken there, also in a way became a language infusing something terrible, apartheid. Antje Krog, a famous journalist, also wonders: how can one speak the language of the Boers?
I have gone off course, but I think a maternal language stays so forever, like a mother remains a mother. I also think it can go crazy, it can lose its head. There have to be several of them, mothers other than your own, in order for other people, other languages, other things to breathe, in order to put everything back into motion.
Why don’t we call “house” “eating” for example?
This is an extremely important question in philosophy that bears on what is called “the arbitrariness of the sign.” There is really no necessity that makes it so that “house” is not called “eating,” but a language only makes sense when taken as a whole. It is the differences that make sense. You could indeed call “house” “eating” but what is important is that there is a difference between “house” and “eating.” A language is constituted through a series of resemblances and differences more than through isolated elements with their own consistence. Actually what you call “house” in English is called maison in French, there is no necessary link between a series of sounds and an object in the world. This is what we call the arbitrariness of the sign.
However, if a house in French is called “maison” instead of “mange,” the reason for this is to be sought in the language’s history, in etymology. Where does the word come from, how is it made, what is its root, how did it evolve? Long-standing motivations are what determine signs. I do not know what the etymology of “maison” is. Actually, I do: manere, “staying” in Latin. The house is where we stay. But in the Latin language itself, the usual word for “house” is domus, which gives us “demeure” in French, not “maison,” from the same family as dominus, the master (of the house): the Latin house is a place where a master of the house reigns—where one rediscovers the difference between languages and representations. “Manger,” on the other hand, comes from mendicare, activating one’s “mandibles.” Words have histories that afford us a better understanding of what they mean and how we can use them. Each word is the result of a history and a series of representations, but it only takes on its meaning, designating one thing and not another, in its difference with other words from the same language.
In addition, for a word to have meaning, you can’t be the only one to use it that way. There has to be an agreement, a convention. If you choose to call the place you live “eating,” no one will understand you. If you say “I have eating covered over in red tile,” people might end up understanding but they will certainly wonder what is happening to you! So you see, there are ultimately lots of reasons what we don’t call a “house” “eating”, and it will be hard to change this kind of convention all on one’s own without looking crazy or becoming so. But there is no reason not to have these conversations to perfect, qualify, invent and, if we are really strong, to go against the grain by changing our ways of seeing, saying, and thinking. This is what philosophers, writers, poets, politicians, and translators do. Rappers, too.
In order to answer your question, as you can see, I feel, for myself first and foremost, that I have to slowly unfold the whole history of philosophy and then of linguistics. And yet your question is a very simple one and your surprise is quite natural. In short, you’re a philosopher.
Translated from the French by William T. Bishop, with the generous support of LABEX Empirical Foundations of Language (ANR-10-LABX-0083). Originally published in Barbara Cassin, Plus d’une langue (Montrouge: Bayard Culture, 2012). Excerpt courtesy of the publisher and the author.
Image of Barbara Cassin via Libération.
France 24 reports that many Turkish academics who were fired from their jobs in the recent crackdown by the Erdoğan government have taken to the streets of Ankara to deliver free lectures to public audiences. These "street academies" have attracted people from all walks of Turkish life, including working-class laborers and middle-class professionals. Check out a snippet of the article below, or the full piece here.
32-year-old Yasin Durak is a co-founder of the "street academies". He holds a doctorate in sociology and worked as a research assistant at Ankara University before he was dismissed for signing the peace petition.
"I'm one of the 'academics for peace.' Because I wanted the war to end, I was accused of associating with terrorists. Ankara University transferred me to another institution in April 2016. I ended up resigning because I didn't feel safe. I'm currently the subject of five investigations, all of them for supposedly “insulting the president”—all because of an article in which I drew an analogy between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a dragon.
Today, my friends and I organise the “street academies” twice per month. At first, some of the other “academics for peace” told us: “It's impossible, you'll be arrested at the first class you try to give.” But now we're preparing our 8th class.
We watched the Iranian film "Blackboards", [a 2000 film about itinerant Kurdish teachers who carry their blackboards into small villages to find students] and right away decided to buy a giant blackboard and organise the first session on December 4, 2016, in Kuğulu Park. We told ourselves: “We are the university. We're going to do the same thing everywhere.” We gave lectures all over Ankara, from the city centre to the working-class districts on the outskirts.
At the Verso blog, Bifo has a piece declaring the death of the European Union project. It was killed, he writes, but the unaccountable financial bodies that imposed austerity across Europe—the same austerity that has led to a resurgence of fascism. Contrary to calls by Marine Le Pen and others, the solution is not a return to national sovereignty, writes Bifo. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Is there an exit-route?
Only idiots could point to the path of returning to national sovereignty, national currencies. This recipe would lead us to repeat the Yugoslav civil war on a continental scale.
The exit-route certainly does not lie in the never-explicit, weasel-word self-criticism that comes from the mouths of the leaders of the German, French and Italian Left. Nor does it lie in an improbable commitment to citizen income in a country – France – where the Socialists have almost no choice of reaching the second round (and even if their candidate Benoît Hamon did reach the run-off, the citizen income would be the very first thing he would cross out of his programme).
The exit-route does not lie in the campaign against Brexit launched by Tony Blair, the war criminal and executor of the neoliberal devastation of British society. Many voted for Brexit precisely because of their hatred for this Left, and out of revenge against it.
But is there, then, a way out of the European civil war?
The way out can lie only in a gigantic movement, in a conscious reawakening of the thinking part of European society. All that remains is the hope that a significant minority of the first connective generation will find the path of solidarity and sabotage. Only the occupation of a hundred European universities, only an insurrection of cognitive labour could drive a re-invention of the European project. This is improbable – but the possible is no friend of the probable.
Image via theinfluencers.org.
The inclusion of a Dana Schutz painting in the Whitney Biennial is causing a controversy across the art world. Titled Open Casket, the painting depicts Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral based on historical photographs made at the lynching victim's funeral in 1955. This Saturday the artist Parker Bright held a protest in front of the work, calling the painting "Black Death Spectacle" on the back of his t-shirt. According to Art News, the artist and writer Hannah Black has joined the protest by issuing an open letter addressed to the Whitney Biennial’s curators demanding that, “the painting must go.” She is also asking the Museum to destroy the painting, ensuring that it will not be sold or exhibited in the future. other art professionals have joined Black by signing the letter:
To the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial:
I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.
Ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began. Meanwhile, a similarly high-stakes conversation has been going on about the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as the public lynching. Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.
The curators of the Whitney biennial surely agree, because they have staged a show in which Black life and anti-Black violence feature as themes, and been approvingly reviewed in major publications for doing so. Although it is possible that this inclusion means no more than that blackness is hot right now, driven into non-Black consciousness by prominent Black uprisings and struggles across the US and elsewhere, I choose to assume as much capacity for insight and sincerity in the biennial curators as I do in myself. Which is to say — we all make terrible mistakes sometimes, but through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process. The painting must go.
Thank you for readingHannah BlackArtist/writerWhitney ISP 2013-14
Co-signatories:Amal AlhaagAndrea ArrublaHannah AssebeThea BallardAnwar BatteParker BrightHarry BurkeGaby CepedaVivian CrockettJareh DasJesse DarlingAria DeanKimberly DrewChrissy EtienneHamishi FarahJa’Tovia GaryHannah GregoryJack GrossRose-Anne GushMostafa HeddayaJuliana HuxtableAlexander IadarolaAnisa JacksonHannah Catherine JonesDevin KennyDana KopelCarolyn LazardTaylor LeMelleBeatrice Loft SchulzJacqueline MabeyMia MatthiasTiona Nekkia McCloddenSandra MujingaLulu NunnPrecious OkoyomonEmmanuel OlunkwaMathew ParkinTemra PavlovićImani RobinsonAndrew RossCory ScozzariChristina SharpeMisu SimbiatuAddie WagenknechtDominique WhiteKandis WilliamsRobert Wilson
Since the election of Trump, mainstream newspapers like the New York Times have enjoyed a surge in subscribers as readers turn to journalists to scrutinize and fact-check the administration's outrageous claims. But as Aaron Miguel Cantú writes at Real Life, uncritical support for such established media institutions has its perils. Amidst a flood of right-wing "fake news," it's easy to forget that mainstream media outlets are far from neutral or objective, insofar as their very funding structure requires a "tacit adherence to the global capitalist economic and political worldview," writes Cantú. Read an excerpt from his piece below, or the full text here.
The desire to define what is and isn’t fake news — to define narratives — should be considered an extension of these billionaires’ need to mold and configure people and their environments in ways they see fit. To adapt an old saying: Fake news is the symptom, but capitalism is the disease.
It would be a mistake, though, to unqualifiedly put Zuckerberg in the company of oligarchs like Dalio and Trump, who seek to discredit liberal institutions and damage the foundations of the contemporary press for what may be short-term power gains. Zuckerberg is also interested in growing his power, but he seems to believe the best way to do it is to maintain media conventions that uphold the status quo, in all its inequality and injustice. Recently, he and a cohort of other billionaires, including George Soros, Bill Gates, and Pierre Omidyar, pledged to fund the International Fact-Checking Network, whose responsibilities will include flagging false-fact news shared over Facebook. But checking facts without taking a position on the narratives they support, explicitly or tacitly, can only reinforce the existing distribution of power. It can confirm what the powerful ruling interests say, do, and believe, but it can’t interpret the agenda behind them. Fact checking is ultimately constrained by the patronage of the media companies and philanthropists that fund it.
The “alternative” press — short-lived newspapers throughout American history and less polished new sites today, often built and maintained by marginalized people cobbling their resources together or collecting small donations — does not face these same constraints. For contributors to these media outlets, some of which that were maligned as fake news after the election despite the wide respect they command, much mainstream reporting has always been a form of “fake news,” prone to racist and classist distortions from official sources that reinforce existing stratification. Yet for their distance from the status quo narrative and the supposedly “neutral” perspective it connotes, these journalists and editors are designated “advocate,” “alternative,” and “activist” — nonobjective partisans. Meanwhile the mainstream press, reliant on wealthy owners and corporate supporters and advertising dollars, is received as the only possible objective source, with its objectivity confirmed by the money it attracts.
Image via Business Insider.
In the March issue of Le Monde diplomatique, Perry Anderson assess the threat posed to the neoliberal status quo by so-called "anti-systemic" movements on both the right and the left, such as Marine Le Pen's Front National in France and Syriza in Greece. Anderson concludes that despite widespread popular discontent and some noteworthy exceptions, voters have tended keep established elites in power, as the recent Dutch elections illustrated. He suggests that they're more afraid of the unknown than they are of the hated status quo. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
In reality, there is a wide gap between the degree of popular disillusion with today’s neoliberal EU — by last summer, majorities in France and Spain expressed their aversion to it, and even in Germany, barely half of those polled had a positive opinion of it — and the extent of support for forces declaring against it. Indignation or disgust at what the EU has become is common, but for some time the fundamental determinant of European voting patterns has been, and remains, fear. The socio-economic status quo is widely detested. But it is regularly ratified at the polls with the re-election of parties responsible for it, because of fears that to upset the status, alarming markets, would bring worse misery. The single currency has not accelerated growth in Europe, and has inflicted acute hardship in the countries of the south worst affected. But the prospect of an exit terrifies even those who know by now how much they have suffered from it. Fear trumps anger. Hence the acquiescence of the Greek electorate in Syriza’s capitulation to Brussels, the setbacks of Podemos in Spain, the shuffling of feet by the Parti de Gauche in France. The underlying sense is everywhere the same. The system is bad. To affront it is to risk retribution ...
The British referendum and the US election were anti-systemic convulsions of the right, though flanked by anti-systemic upsurges of the left (the Bernie Sanders movement in the US and the Corbyn phenomenon in the UK), smaller in scale, if still less expected. What the consequences of Trump or Brexit will be remain indeterminate, though no doubt more limited than current predictions. The established order is far from beaten in either country, and, as Greece has shown, is capable of absorbing and neutralising revolts from whatever direction with impressive speed. Among the antibodies it has already generated are yuppie simulacra of populist breakthroughs (Albert Rivera in Spain, Emmanuel Macron in France), inveighing against the deadlocks and corruptions of the present, and promising a cleaner and more dynamic politics of the future, beyond the decaying parties.
For anti-systemic movements of the left in Europe, the lesson of recent years is clear. If they are not to go on being outpaced by movements of the right, they cannot afford to be less radical in attacking the system, and must be more coherent in their opposition to it. That means facing the probability the EU is now so path-dependent as a neoliberal construction that reform of it is no longer seriously conceivable. It would have to be undone before anything better could be built, either by breaking out of the current EU, or by reconstructing Europe on another foundation, committing Maastricht to the flames. Unless there is a further, deeper economic crisis, there is little likelihood of either.
Image via Le Monde diplomatique.
The Guardian talks to wunderkind French novelist Édouard Louis about his working-class background and Marine Le Pen, who is increasingly winning the support of French voters like his parents—people who once staunchly supported the Socialist Party but who now feel abandoned by the institutional left. Louis's best-selling 2014 novel En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (The End of Eddy), which was shortlisted for the Goncourt literary prize in France, is based on his hardscrabble upbringing in a small factory town in northern France. Louis suggests that for the working class, politics is a literally question of "life and death," whereas the bourgeois politicians of the Socialist Party are completely detached from this reality. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Today, Louis, whose account of his escape from a violent, joyless childhood has made him a bestselling author, can have steak any day he chooses. Back in his home town, meanwhile, just six weeks from a presidential election, his parents, like much of France’s underclass, are heeding the siren call of the poor’s new perceived champion, Marine Le Pen, and her promises of plenty in a France for the French.
Far from making him turn away from his background, Louis’s access to the literary beau monde of Paris has heightened his belief that politics remains a curse for what his mother would call the “poor, small folk”.
“The word politics means different things to different social classes. How can politics create a better life if the individuals who create those politics are so lightly touched by its effects, if politics doesn’t strike them in the way that it would strike the people of my childhood?” he asks.
“In the lower classes, politics has always been a matter of life and death. My parents were desperate at the idea of losing some badly needed social benefit, which might make the difference between whether we could go to the dentist. I was 15 when my father went to the dentist for the first time because the government created a new health benefit.
“On the day when the amount of the allowance at the start of the school year was raised, my father, with a joy we rarely saw because he usually played at being the man of the house who could not show his feelings, shouted: ‘Sunday, we’re going to the seaside.’ And indeed we went, six of us in a car big enough for five. I rode in the boot.
In Viewpoint magazine, Salar Mohandesi examines how the concept of identity politics changed from a radical analysis of interlocking forms of oppression to a superficial idea of "diversity." He begins his analysis with the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists in Boston in the 1970s who rejected the misogyny of mainstream leftist movements and who were the first to use the phrase "identity politics." Here's an excerpt from Mohandesi's important piece:
Over the next few decades, these insights were codified into what we now understand as “identity politics.” But in the process, what began as a promise to push beyond some of socialism’s limitations to build a richer, more diverse and inclusive socialist politics, made possible something very different. Rooting political action in the identity of subjects offered a promising response to the most pressing political problem of the time, but it left an opening that would soon be exploited by those with politics diametrically opposed to those of the Combahee River Collective.
This strategy was recently on display when Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s former communication director, attempted to explain the burst of anti-Trump protest following the inauguration. “You are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants $15 an hour,” she said in an appearance on MSNBC in February. “Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left … It’s all about identity on our side now.”
In Palmieri’s hands, identity politics no longer signals the fight against interlocking oppressions, but is now counterposed to struggling against exploitation, to improving all workers’ lives, whatever their gender, race, sexuality, or citizenship status. In this conception, politics is not about changing the world, but your consumer choice in fashioning an identity:
Women who are rejecting Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus are saying this is power for them. Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously, well, I’m showing you my value and my power, and I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering …
Far from helping to build socialism, identity politics of this kind is now explicitly wielded by the Democratic Party to keep it at bay. In this context, it’s understandable that many have come to decry identity politics as an obstacle to socialist unity. Forgetting the roots of identity politics in radical social movements, many critics have mistakenly come to see it as wholly alien to socialism, proceeding to denounce all its partisans – including other socialists – with a vehemence most of us reserve only for our vilest enemies.
To make matters worse, instead of offering a positive alternative, most of these critics resurrect hackneyed formulations, uncritically brandishing words like “class,” without trying to take into account the legitimate needs of many radicals who have come to rally behind some form of identity politics. The flaw of these critiques is their lack of acknowledgment of the emancipatory origins of identity politics, and the historical circumstances from which they emerged. To move forward, we have to trace how the emancipatory politics of the Combahee River Collective have given way to the reactionary ravings of Democratic Party hacks like Jennifer Palmieri.
Image: Members of Combahee River Collective, Boston, 1979. Via abolitionjournal.org.
The following conversation took place at Anthology Film Archives in New York on January 9, 2017, after the premier of Adam Pendleton’s video portrait Just Back From Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, commissioned by the Performa Institute. The conversation was moderated by the project’s curator, Adrienne Edwards. This text is a companion piece to Adam Pendleton's poem "Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer," published in e-flux journal 79, February 2017.
Adrienne Edwards: As a way to think through formal concerns in art-making and the complexity of doing so in the face of conditions that impose a certain kind of ethical imperative upon the work, I wanted to start with the program for The Mind is a Muscle in 1968, from its debut at the Anderson Theater here in New York. The program reads:
The condition for making my stuff lies in the continuation of my interest and energy. Just as ideological issues have no bearing on the nature of the work, neither does the tenor of the current political and institutional conditions have any bearing on its execution. The world disintegrates around me. My connection to the world-in-crisis remains tenuous and remote. I can foresee a time when this remoteness must necessarily end, though I cannot foresee exactly when or how the relationship will change or what circumstances will incite me to a different kind of action. Perhaps nothing short of universal female military conscription will affect my function (the ipso facto physical fitness of dancers will make them the first victims); or a call for a worldwide cessation of individual functions, to include the termination of genocide. This statement is not an apology. It is a reflection of a state of a mind that reacts with horror and disbelief upon seeing a Vietnamese shot dead on TV—not at the sight of death, however, but at the fact that the TV can be shut off afterwards as after a bad Western. My body remains the enduring reality.—Yvonne Rainer, March 1968
Immediately after this period, you do Trio A with flags. You enter into a moment of real coming to terms with an ethical imperative. I wanted to mention all this as a segue into asking what you thought about the film.
Yvonne Rainer: I thought it was great! I didn’t know what to expect. We talked for a couple of hours in that diner—three hours I believe. So when Adam told me he was going to make a fifteen-minute piece, I was surprised. But he really distilled a great many things into this work. And I am just amazed at how he took things from his own experience, too. Some of the quotations are totally out of context and fictionalized. He did research into my work and made it personal for himself, while also quoting me. So it is a very complex piece for me. As you saw, it brought me almost to tears at one point because it was so … I’m easily brought to tears these days anyway. As the title suggests, I had just come back from LA after having what was, for me, an extraordinary experience with two of my contemporaries, improvising for an hour in a gallery. So it was a very gratuitous moment that we came together and had this conversation. It brought the past and the present together. Where are we now if not at a point in the history of our country that is both horrifying and energizing and demanding of us. We are seeing the kinds of resistance, protest, and demonstrations that were almost everyday occurrences during the Vietnam War and before the invasion of Iraq and in other moments in my memory—demonstrations in which I participated. So it is amazing that Adam did all that in fifteen minutes.
AE: Adam, there is a kind of opacity to your Black Dada paintings. There’s a veneer you can’t quite get behind. That’s a bit like the way you work, too. There were elements and aspects to how you prepared this piece that I wasn’t a part of and Yvonne wasn’t a part of. I wasn’t there for the shoot, for example. When we had dinner together last summer to talk about what we might do together, Yvonne actually asked you to be as much a part of the piece as she was …
YR: Adam, you wouldn’t have done that yourself—put yourself in the picture—if I hadn’t asked you to?
Adam Pendleton: No. [laughs]
YR: Oh, thank god. I couldn’t have sustained it myself.
AP: Before I say anything else I want to say thank you to you, Yvonne, for agreeing to sit down with me and engage as another artist. As you hear in the beginning of the video, we don’t know each other that well. Making art is a kind of risk, perpetually, and sometimes it’s an honest one. When we sat down we had an honest exchange about who we are, where we come from, our difference in experience simply by the gap of time that exists between us. But there was a trust and empathy and that was greatly appreciated, so thank you.
On a more matte-of-fact note, you proposed a more interesting conundrum when you said that you wanted me to be part of the piece. This is the third video portrait that I’ve done. The first one was of Lorraine O’Grady, who is an African-American conceptual artist based here in New York. The second one was of David Hilliard, who was the former chief of staff and founding member of the Black Panther Party. I’m not in either of those. You can hear my voice in the O’Grady piece but you never see my body. So on the one hand I wanted to honor your wishes that I be in the piece, but I also wanted, as I often do, to disappear.
YR: But you didn’t.
AP: No I didn’t. [laughs]
YR: I mean you could have in the editing.
AP: Yes, I could have in the editing. There was a lot of whispering going on when we were shooting the piece because the camera guys knew they had a semi-directive that I didn’t want to be in any shots.
YR: There are no close-ups of you, right?
AP: We actually ended up with three cameras, which was a kind of solution and a distraction, because I also didn’t want you to think during the shooting that we were solely focusing on you. It’s not readily apparent, but interestingly enough the diner became a kind of a character. It gave us this activity of sitting down, ordering tea, eating together. These rituals were played out against a backdrop—against, if you will, a stream of content or a stream of language.
YR: I’m amazed at how much juice you got out of this old warhorse of mine, Trio A. I keep thinking, what else can be done with this dance?
AP: It’s far from an old warhorse. One of the things that interests me about how your work functions, and how my work functions, is a tendency towards radical juxtaposition. In this particular instance, I’m working within the confines of film. This is a single-channel piece, so I’m not able to have two things in the frame at once—you can hear something, you can see something, at least in the way I’m presenting it. But I think laying the gospel music over the piece—“I Am Saved,” which is a gospel song that no one really knows, from an album entitled This May Be My Last Time Singing—gives a different geometry of attention to the movement that Trio A captures. It gives the piece an honesty, a radical simplicity.
YR: What about the beginning song, which is so redolent with sentiment?
AP: When I was reading your memoir Feelings are Facts, I kept dog-earing the pages where you made references to music. The book was published in 2006, and I am not sure how long you worked on it before it was published, but it was interesting to me that music was often the vehicle or the device that would drive your memory. You mention watching films when you were growing up in San Francisco and hearing “La Mer” over one of them—I don’t remember which one. So in a strange way, my use of “La Mer” in the video is really a note from your own writing, from your own work.
YR: I don’t remember it.
AE: You both cite other texts as sources and references in your work. Adam, would you talk about how you came up with the actual text that Yvonne read? You mentioned that there were elements that came from Yvonne’s Feelings are Facts that you subjected to another assemblage—much like you did in the Black Dada Reader, where there’s an assembly of different writers who are also seemingly incommensurable, but you put them together.
AP: Some of the texts that you hear Yvonne read are from the Black Dada Reader, specifically Stokely Carmichael’s “The Pitfalls of Liberalism,” which he wrote in 1969. You also have “Shameful Conditions and Occurrences,” which Yvonne wrote. You have “The Ballot or the Bullet,” which was written in 1964 by Malcom X and delivered in Cleveland, Ohio; Yvonne only reads one line from this text: “They’re beginning to see what they used to only look at.” You also have a reference to Ron Silliman. And bracketing a text from a book about Black Lives Matter that was written by a Princeton professor. You have a letter to Yvonne from Barbara Dilley about Dilley’s experience performing Continuous Project–Altered Daily at the University of Missouri.
YR: Is that in there?
AP: That is in there.
YR: Do you have it here?
AP: I do have it. I brought the script with me. You were actually only hearing excerpts from a much longer letter and I ended up pulling the sentences that begin with “I remember.”
YR: Ah, that is from the letter that was published in Feelings are Facts. I thought you were making that up. [audience laughs]
AP: I took away a lot of the context, so it became a sort of parallel track for me.
YR: That’s why I said at the beginning that it was fictionalized, but there’s nothing fictionalized in the film. They’re all quotations.
YR: I just don’t remember my own stuff. Give me a break, wait until you guys are eighty. [audience laughs]
AE: I was struck by the fact that Trio A had its fiftieth anniversary last year. This made me think about all the things that were happening around the time that Trio A was made. There was the Vietnam War. In 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. expanded the Civil Rights Movement to think about issues affecting all poor people. It’s uncanny that we are still dealing with many of the same issues today. The National Organization for Women was established. The Black Panther Party was founded. There was the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia. So it’s an incredible moment. Yvonne, I sense that when you turned toward filmmaking you were somehow trying to address all these things happening around you. You addressed complexities around identity and how certain identities are challenged in this country—in particular, women. But you also talked about women of color, you talked about poor people. I would love for you to comment on that moment where you clearly felt a desire to address these issues somehow.
YR: In my work in the Sixties, there was a split between aesthetic rebellions or dialogues, and my activism around the Vietnam War. Steve Paxton incorporated some of that resistance into some of his pieces but I didn’t, which is why I had to move into film, where one is allowed more latitude to deal with social and political issues. Today, I can’t help thinking about how this country has been involved in the so-called “War on Terrorism” for over a decade. It’s beginning to look like another Thirty-Years War. It’s all being conducted by young poor people who don’t have another way to make a living in this country. It’s more appalling than ever. I tell my friends to stay calm …
AE: Adam, over the last year and a half your work has turned more and more towards ethical issues, from your decision to create a Black Lives Matter flag for the Belgian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, to the new work that you debuted at Pace this summer, Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy). How do you think about that evolution in your work?
AP: The simplest way to respond is to say that as artists I hope we are creating documents that matter. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, I had to respond to the absurdity of the situation, which is to also say, to the violence of the situation. There became an imperative to respond, but not so much to “deal with it” or to “address it,” but rather to bring it into a gracious space where the complexity that these issues deserve could reside. For me, that was the space of my work. So it’s a kind of call to arms, but it’s also, I would argue, a move towards abstraction, because there’s something ethical about being illegible, about the human project not being something that is readily reduced to “he’s a that” and “she’s a this.” There’s something ethical about the potential to understand the power of collective difference in general.
AE: I was thinking about this in relation to the Dadaists. We associate them with a desire to express a certain nihilism or anarchy, to create a nonsensical language. For them, that was revolutionary. But here we are one hundred years later trying to revolt against systems that are nonsensical. So what is revolutionary in the face of this? Is it a kind of measured reserve in aesthetics that allows us to be subversive, that allows us not to be so readily available? And is this problem particular to the US? Are we living through a peculiar form of Americana right now? Or is this true of Western civilization in general?
YR: I keep thinking of the juxtaposition between “BLT” and the killings by policemen, representing daily life in all its mundanity. I’m just amazed at how you got all of this into the same small pot, Adam.
AE: But that’s also true of your work, Yvonne. You also created an open container for such concerns.
YR: Well, in my current work with the so-called Raindears, they dance and I read. The reading is full of complaints and rants and humor. I stick a page in front of one of them, interrupting what he or she is doing, and they read. There’s a real split between movement and language.
AP: I think of them as parallel tracks as well. That was actually something I kept underlining while reading Feelings are Facts and interviews with you—I kept writing "process ... process ... process," and those were the moments where I …
YR: They keep intersecting. Well, in film you can do that.
AP: Right. You can do it in film and on a flat plane too. It’s just a different kind of resistance.
AE: Let’s now take questions from the audience.
Audience member 1: Yvonne, could comment on the section where you do the “arm drop” and how that interweaves trust and generosity?
YR: That was invented by Steve Paxton and me in the Sixties. I hadn’t done it with Steve or anyone else since then, but in the LA performance that preceded the conversation with Adam, Steve came over to me and offered his arms and we started to do it. He described the origin of it as we were doing it: “You invited me to dinner and made chicken, and we got stoned on pot and we just started to do the arm drop. We’d never done it before, it just sort of happened. And as we did it, I asked you what was in that chicken, and you said, ‘Chicken.’ And of course because we were stoned, we roared with laughter.” In the performance in LA, instead of roaring with laughter I started to cry because I had a kind of Proustian moment in the convergence of the sensation of the arms and the memory of that evening, which I hadn’t thought about for over forty years … It seems that Steve in his teachings still uses it, and and I probably will too in workshops from now on. It is a very satisfying move. Do you want to demonstrate, Adam?
AP: No, I don’t do it well.
YR: Yes, you do. We just didn’t do it long enough. It’s in the movie. So that’s the story. What was the question again?
Audience member 1: I think that game is about trust and generosity. When it’s folded into this piece, that’s what I think about. Maybe you could comment on the content that was put on the table, in terms of having that evoke this game?
AP: It wasn’t as explicit as that. I brought a text for Yvonne to read and Yvonne brought this gesture. It was an exchange in that way.
YR: We’d had about three hours and it was obviously the end of the conversation. I had to go off to Trader Joe’s. Which again is like BLT …
AE: … the ordinary is extraordinary these days.
Image: Still from Adam Pendleton, Just back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–2017. Single-channel black-and-white video. 13' 51." Courtesy of the artist.
The 2017 Whitney Biennial opened in New York this week, and The Guardian's Nadja Sayej writes that the show is saturated by the current political climate in the US. From pieces on immigration and refugees to a piece on debt, this survey of contemporary American art reflects how cruel and frightening American life is right now. Here's an excerpt from Sayej's article:
It’s a politically charged show on the state of America but without the predictable satire. Rather, this exhibition feels like a graveyard of the establishment’s broken promises with glimmers of hope from some of its suffering citizens.
In light of arts funding cuts, the art collective Occupy Museums, which was formed in 2011 alongside Occupy Wall Street, has created a mini group show in the biennial called Debtfair. The works of 30 artists are grouped by the corporations they are in debt to; JPMorgan Chase, Navient and the FirstBank of Puerto Rico. The artworks can be bought for the artist’s monthly debt charge.
What about art education, you ask? Puerto Rican artist and activist Chemi Rosado-Seijo took all the desks and chairs from a classroom from the Lower Manhattan Arts Academy and put the class inside the museum. The piece, called Salón Sala Salón, brings the high school art students to the museum for a weekly workshop, showing the importance the creative arts education in a time when its meaning is being diminished.
Image: Puppies Puppies, Liberté, performance at 2017 Whitney Biennial. Via The Guardian.
by John Hulsey
One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here
A few weeks ago, Jeremy Bendik-Keymer wrote a rebuttal to my essay “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Liberalism.” My article was a critique of his earlier piece “Reconsidering the Aesthetics of Protest,” and I wrote it primarily to remind people not to be dissuaded by our friends. I found in Bendik-Keymer’s original article a disdain for the tactics of civil resistance and a desire to dispense with them entirely in favor of what he considers a more righteous course of action—namely, compassionate conversation across difference. I found his dismissal troublesome for a few reasons. First, I saw friends in my networks sharing it. Second, I saw in his admonition the echo of various commonplace errors in thinking about protest today. Those who advocate for conversation as a solution to systemic societal problems tend to confuse principled and strategic action, and they tend to misunderstand the role of social struggle in producing large-scale political change. They take a prefigurative rather than a strategic approach to action, believing that we might simply talk our way into a more just world. On the eve of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, these views felt particularly infelicitous and unsound. I found myself compelled to address the problems with Bendik-Keymer’s argument not as a means to discredit the author’s work, but in order to take a step toward keeping us all from getting any more confused than necessary about a confusing subject in these especially confusing times.
I believed then, as I continue to believe now, that mass protest—civil disobedience, noncooperation, and strategic disruption—will be essential elements in the resistance to the Trump agenda in the months to come. I felt then, as I do now, that at the dawn of this new historical period, we need a rigorously engaged, imaginative, and courageous approach to resistance in order to help us achieve the society that we deserve. And I believed then, as I believe now, that this is an especially important moment to be exploring these questions from the vantage of politically engaged art. Throughout history, artists have demonstrated an immense capacity to reimagine the forms, gestures, and shapes that resistance takes, and I wanted to offer a few reflections on how these issues might most productively be engaged today. I suggested that our aesthetic tactics might take on a more strategic dimension by learning from the civil resistance traditions of the past. And I invited us to consider the ways in which the forms we deploy might be used to help shape a new common sense that will serve as the foundation for the society to come.
My essay was sharply critical of Bendik-Keymer’s argument, so it’s not surprising that he would want to defend his position. In his response, “The Neoliberal Radicals,” I expected to find an engagement with the historical dimension of protest that he had previously neglected—especially given the gravity of our present historical circumstances. What I saw, instead, was an argument quite similar to his previous one: drawing on concepts from philosophy and critical theory, he shores up his assertion that protest, as a tactic, shuts down communication and abrogates the ethical relationship with the other. Insofar as his argument is meant as a prescription for action that has both political and ethical dimensions, it will be necessary to understand how it falls short on both ethical and political grounds so that we might arrive, finally, at a clearer understanding of protest in our time of crisis.
But first, it’s worth summarizing Bendik-Keymer’s arguments so far. In his original article, he argued that instead of protesting, people should “go to where officials actually work, with prior arrangement, and stage an in-depth conversation aimed to educate all sides.” In my response, I argued that his proposal falls flat because it is blind to history. In divorcing his methodology from any coherent understanding of how political change has occurred historically, he renders his suggestions inadequate as frameworks for action. Further, in his aversion toward protest as a tactic, I noted that his argument aligns with certain tendencies in contemporary liberalism (and this, in spite of the leftist “pedigree” of his references), insofar as liberal thought tends to shy away from public confrontation in favor of conversation as a means of addressing entrenched political problems.
Bendik-Keymer’s response to me hinges on the claim that any form of strategic action is “alienated and alienating” because it engages in means-end calculations. In using strategic logics to achieve a political purpose, he argues that protest erodes the “relational nature” of human interconnectedness. Drawing on the pedagogical ideas of Paolo Freire, he maintains that the goal of political action should be to arrive at an understanding of the ways in which we are all implicated in systems of oppression so that we might transform rather than merely reiterate them. He argues that by using “shouts,” “threats,” or even “violence” (what he calls “counterpower-over”), protest shuts down that possibility by seeking to invert relations of power rather than transform them: instead of opening dialogue, protest is “a brick—or a hammer and a boot—through a window.” He argues, further, that this form of protest is actually “neoliberal,” because according to his definition of the term, neoliberalism is the deployment of means-end calculations and “power-over” dynamics. Thus, the view that I and others present is “neoliberal radicalism” because (i) it focuses on questions of strategy; (ii) strategic thinking is a form of “power-over” or “instrumental” logic; (iii) “power-over” or “instrumental” logics are “neoliberal”; therefore (iv) describing the strategic dimension of protest is “neoliberal.”
There are quite a few problems with Bendik-Keymer’s thinking, but I want to focus on three primary issues that will be crucial to explore if we are to arrive at a clearer conception of political action in this current moment:
1.) Any attempt to produce social or political change is necessarily strategic, even if the element of strategy is disavowed.
2.) Rather than seeking to merely invert systems of oppression, the great protest movements in modern history have, in fact, centered the ethical relationship both as part of their organizing methodology and as their horizon for political struggle.
3.) Any attempt to reduce the ethical complexity of political action is, itself, an abrogation of ethical consideration.
To elaborate on these points, I will draw on the writings of four figures whose work merits especially close consideration today: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the question of power; Paolo Freire on the dialectics of pedagogy and action; Erica Chenoweth on the history of strategic nonviolent movements; and Chantal Mouffe on agonism in democratic politics.
We are without doubt in the throes of political crisis in the United States. With the election of Donald J. Trump as our 45th president and the appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist, we are up against a frighteningly repressive regime, the likes of which many of us have not experienced in our lifetimes. The largest national security apparatus in the history of the world is poised to crack down on our most vulnerable populations: immigrants, Muslims, people of color, women, LGBTQ people. Families have been torn apart as refugees and Green Card holders from countries like Syria, Iran, and Yemen have been denied entry at our airports. Medicare, Social Security, and public education will soon be on the chopping block. Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee will attempt to repeal Roe v. Wade, and the revocation of the public school bathroom bill puts thousands of transgender students at risk. Jeff Sessions has said that he will scrap DACA, and Bannon appears to be yearning for a destructive crisis of world-historical magnitudes that will allow him to “destroy the state” in order to refashion it according to his own far-right designs. I say all of this because there is something a little bit perverse about engaging in a theoretical debate about “protest” without first acknowledging the immensity of the crisis in which we now find ourselves, the irreparable pain that this new regime is set to cause, and the tremendous amount of work that it will take for us to get ourselves out of it.
I say this, also, to get a few basic ideas on the table. If we are in agreement about the nature of the threat we now face; if we understand that our current political crisis did not emerge inexplicably out of Trump’s campaign but evolved out of decades of crisis in our world economic system, the racialized exclusions that have structured our republic from its very inception, and decades of GOP political strategy; if we are in agreement, in other words, about the nature of the problem and if we are committed to doing something about it—not simply to roll back the clock to Clinton-era “Third Way” politics but to give birth, for the first time, to a truly multiracial social democracy; and if we believe that in order to achieve this new society we cannot rely on hope or good intentions alone but on collective hard work; then we are, by definition, engaging in a strategic logic. If we are trying to achieve something—anything—then we are engaging in a means-end calculation. The question is not whether to think in strategic terms, but, rather, what kind of strategic logic is appropriate to the task of creating the world we wish to achieve. And to do this requires that we engage directly in the study of resistance movements so that we might understand how, when, and through what means they have been able to achieve impossible victories against repressive and authoritarian regimes.
Contrary to Bendik-Keymer’s assertion, this process of studying the art of social movements has nothing to do with “neoliberalism.” Strategic thinking is nowhere near a sufficient category for understanding the specific set of social, economic, and property relationships under our current financialized form of capitalism; the tactic of protest, moreover, predates the advent of neoliberalism historically.1 Were the lunch-counter sit-ins, bus boycotts, and mass marches of the Civil Rights Movement “neoliberal” because they refused back-door compromises in favor of winning the battle of public opinion, thereby paving the way for federal reforms such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Were the mass strikes and boycotts used by activists in apartheid South Africa “neoliberal” because they resisted a brutal racial caste system rather than trying to have “considerate” conversations with colonial elites? Was Gandhi’s Salt March, in 1930, “neoliberal” because it deployed civil disobedience rather than engaging in negotiation to challenge the legitimacy of the British Raj, thereby leading the way to Indian independence? Such claims are both conceptually incoherent and brashly ahistorical.
These movements understood that in situations of oppression, the condition of possibility for consideration, understanding, and equality is the establishment of a more just and egalitarian society. And they understood that, in order to achieve this society, they needed to engage strategically with dominant institutions that implement unequal relations of power. Here is Martin Luther King, Jr. writing on the subject in his important late volume, Where Do We Go From Here:
Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, the philosopher of the “will to power,” to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “will to power” in the name of the Christian idea of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.2
We can see clearly what distinguishes the thinking of King from the thinking of someone like Bendik-Keymer. For Bendik-Keymer, there are two types of power: “power-over” and “power-with.” Accordingly, there are two types of people: those who engage in “power-over” dynamics (both authoritarian governments and anti-authoritarian movements) and those who choose to center the ethical relationship as a foundational principle for action. For King, power is a vastly more complex force in public life. What matters is not a rigid adherence to “power-with” as a sort of categorical imperative—a rule to be followed independent of context—but the degree to which an engagement with power is animated by “love” and “the demands of justice.” Whereas for Bendik-Keymer the restoration of the ethical relationship will, itself, lead to a leveling of the political playing field, for King it was impossible to consider moving toward a more egalitarian society without, of necessity, working to transform our dominant institutions that encode and enforce violent dynamics of power. Whereas Bendik-Keymer passes over the question of institutional power in silence, King’s entire body of work is a testament to his recognition that, under conditions of institutional oppression, it is only through a strategic confrontation with our political, legal, social, and economic institutions that we might begin to restore the ethical relationship in the first place.
King makes clear that the orchestration of disruptive, confrontational, and polarizing actions such as mass protests, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins was never in the service of creating a “power-over,” “authoritarian,” and “alienated” society, one dominated by the “instrumentalization” of people and things. Rather, the endpoint of struggle was the foundation of the Beloved Community. In a speech following the desegregation of Montgomery’s busses in 1956 he said: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption … It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”3 In 1966, he elaborated further: “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think the end of that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”4
If we look at history, we can see how these notions of “reconciliation,” “redemption,” “friendship,” and the “brotherly society” reverberate across the literatures, oral histories, and practices of civil resistance movements worldwide. Revolutionary movements such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, for instance, instituted Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to formalize the process of national reconciliation.5 Others, like the Zapatista Movement in Mexico or the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil, fuse militant nonviolent tactics—the use of land occupations, road blockades, and other form of civil disobedience—with popular education methods meant to undo structures of hierarchy and oppression.6 In other words, the aims of the great resistance movements in modern history were not the mere inversion of structures of power but, rather, their transformation in a radically egalitarian direction.
Still, it’s not hard to empathize with Bendik-Keymer’s lament about the disintegration of the ethical relationship in our contemporary society. No thinking person can be blind to the sense of loss or grief that undergirds the case he makes for the restoration of relationship in the aftermath of its brokenness. It is this sense of interconnectedness that Edwige Danticat invoked in a recent essay about poetry and protest by way of Gwendolyn Brooks:
… we are each other’sharvest:we are each other’sbusiness:we are each other’smagnitude and bond.
The ethical relationship—the understanding that we are “each other’s/magnitude and bond”—has been ruptured by our political institutions whose leaders benefit from our separation; it has been fractured by economic calculations that serve a small minority over and against the many. This situation is a genuine social tragedy, and it is precisely because we refuse to live inside of it that we must think clearly about how to get out of it.
For practitioners of civil resistance, this question has never been an easy one to answer. King’s career as a movement leader was filled with excruciating dilemmas. In his Autobiography, he describes the decision to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, in defiance of a federal judge’s injunction, as “one of the most painful decisions I ever made.” In that instance, he had to choose between exposing his people to the full force of white supremacist violence—risking physical harm, trauma, arrest—or running the risk of losing the larger struggle for voting rights:
It is easy to decide on either extreme. To go forward recklessly can have terrible consequences in terms of human life … On the other hand, it is ineffective to guarantee that no violence will occur by the device of not marching or undertaking token marches avoiding direct confrontation.7
Nobody who reads the writings of King can conclude that he has been corrupted by the forces of capitalism, neoliberalism, or the instrumentalization of people and things. King understood that, at the heart of any political struggle, there is a core dilemma. Are we to expose ourselves to risk in order to achieve our political purpose, or are we to avoid confrontation and endure the indefinite violence of our present circumstances? A clear-eyed, undogmatic understanding of the ethical complexities of life under dramatically unequal conditions forces us to admit that no course of action is untainted by compromise. That we have to choose at all between risking harm and enduring inequality is devastating. But we must face that devastation, and then we must decide what to do.
This is precisely what the tradition of ethical philosophy is poised to help do: it offers us frameworks for action under impossible or contradictory circumstances. And it is for this reason that Bendik-Keymer’s argument is so disappointing. Instead of engaging the ethical complexities that emerge in the struggle to transform our political reality, he flattens them out in order to make the choice for action seem simple and obvious. Only those who disavow the structuring role of institutions in our lives can give themselves permission to ignore the contradictions that arise in struggling to change them. Only those who do not have to make the difficult decisions that people like King have had to make can pretend that the choice for action is simple, clear, absolute, and obvious. By setting up “power-with” as a rigid imperative for action, Bendik-Keymer shuts down the specific power of ethics to serve as a meaningful guide in the urgent and necessary task of struggling to transform oppressive institutional arrangements of power.
As King reminds us, “it is easy to decide on either extreme,” but if we are committed to confronting the world in its actuality, we must navigate the uncertain terrain that lies in between. It is for this reason that we must turn to the thinking of people like King, for protest in no way categorically guarantees anyone of achieving one’s political purpose, just as it in no way categorically contradicts the injunction to uphold the ethical relationship. What is needed—and what is absent from Bendik-Keymer’s critique—are guidelines for understanding the success or failure of protest as a form of political action. Protest can be transformative or reactive. It can be short-sighted or visionary. It can be disorganized or strategic. To actually consider protest, then, requires that we develop a methodology more nimble, nuanced, and historically grounded than a simple, reductive logic allows. It requires us to consider not only the ways in which “power,” “love,” and “justice” might be intertwined in any successful political project; it demands that we wrestle with the foundational ethical complexities involved in any attempt to transform dominant institutions that enforce unequal relations of power.
In arguing that political protest is opposed to ethical relationship, Bendik-Keymer draws extensively on his reading of the Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire. Here’s a passage that’s emblematic of his way of reading Freire:
Freire’s idea seems to be that in a society where people are set up in conflict with each other—some exerting power over others and all having their capacities for interpersonal relationship and human agency undermined to some extent—there will be a problem structuring the polarizations, tensions, and divisions around which sides and oppositions set up. People will disagree and disconnect around this problem, but only because they share it. The problem, then, both structures and conceals their shared life, recasting it in antagonistic terms and thus dehumanizing everybody to some extent. The limit situation is the point of decision within the problem where people divide in order to structure their lives coherently.
The aspect of Freire’s thinking that Bendik-Keymer seems to want to highlight here is that “antagonisms” (“disagreements” or “disconnections”) are in some sense distortions of social reality because they “conceal” that which is “shared” across the spectrum of social difference: that is, the structuring fact that all of our lives are organized around these “polarizations” regardless of where we fall in the hierarchy of power. It is this reading of Freire that enables Bendik-Keymer to suggest that any form of political action engaging in public conflict—including the militant nonviolence of movements such as King’s—is irreconcilable with the injunction to center “shared life.” And it is this reading that authorizes him to suggest that the goal of any democratic struggle must be to establish a seamless and all-inclusive “we” without anyone “being left out,” because in his view, the precondition for “democracy” is “saying ‘we’ and meaning it.”
The problem is, that’s not at all how Freire himself understood his own theories. For Freire, the pedagogical project does not replace the militant struggle for liberation; it is in dialectical relationship with it. Over and over again, Freire insists with razor-sharp clarity that “critical and liberating dialogue … presupposes action,” and that critical pedagogy “makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation.”8 Contrary to Bendik-Keymer’s suggestion that the revelation of “shared life” will, itself, create the democratic society that we desire—i.e., that in having considerate conversations over and over again we will talk our way into the world-to-come—Freire understands that the labors of learning constitute “a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liberation”: the process of developing understanding, in other words, “must become the motivating force for liberating action.”9
In a key passage that is redolent of King, Freire invites us to grapple with precisely those complexities of social and political struggle that Bendik-Keymer wants to erase. He argues that, “paradoxical though it may seem,” it is “precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found”:
Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love. Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.10
Freire makes clear that even a political struggle “as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors” can set the stage for undoing oppressive relations of power. Similar to King’s claim that power infused with love will create the conditions for justice, Freire argues that “the act of rebellion” does not contradict the primary aim of restoring the ethical bonds of human relationship. Rather, the oppressed must materially “take away the oppressors’ power” and, in so doing, they fight “consciously or unconsciously” on behalf of both the oppressed and the oppressor—to “restore … the humanity” that has been “lost” to both sides. The system of domination in which they have been locked has denied them both the ability to enjoy the fullness of that humanity, albeit in entirely asymmetrical ways, and this is precisely what revolutionary movements must fight to correct. This is what King, himself, meant when he insisted that the Civil Rights movement strove to not only liberate Black people from the bondage of oppression but to cure white America of the “poison of racism” that was eroding it from the inside.11
What we have in Bendik-Keymer, then, is a Freirian pedagogy purged of its revolutionary character, one that insists on dialogue, inclusion, unity, and the “we,” while dismissing the forms of action for which the pedagogical process was, itself, designed to provide a wellspring of resource. In fact, Freire warns against precisely the kind of reading that Bendik-Keymer seems eager to offer:
A mere perception of reality not followed by … critical intervention will not lead to a transformation of objective reality—precisely because it is not a true perception. This is the case of a purely subjectivist perception by someone who forsakes objective reality and creates a false substitute.12
According to Freire, we must not divorce the pedagogical method from a political praxis aimed to transform “objective” conditions—i.e., through collective organized struggle—for to do so would be to mistake perception for action and create a “false substitute” for political engagement.
In performing the sort of “subjectivist” reading that Freire is careful to ward off, Bendik-Keymer ends up recasting Freire as a merely humanist figure in a manner not dissimilar from the way in which King has been canonized, in recent decades, as an icon of peace and brotherhood, divorced from the visionary political aims of the movement he helped create. Likewise, a proper understanding of Freire not only requires that we read his writings but that we understand, in context, the movements that his ideas helped cultivate. The Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil is among the most prominent examples: in addition to incorporating critical pedagogy into its organizing methodology, the MST founded its Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes in 2005 as a school for political activists based explicitly on many of Freire’s pedagogical ideas.13
Insofar as Bendik-Keymer wants considerate conversation itself to serve as the preferred form of political action (rather than seeing conversation in dialectical relationship with politically efficacious action), his ideas must be understood as distinct from Freire’s. And insofar as he insists that his arguments be read as “normative” suggestions for action, we would need to evaluate them as suggestions. We would need to understand, in other words, how having “conversations aimed to educate all sides” might transition us to the world-to-come. What historical precedents or examples might serve as evidence for the legitimacy of this claim? And what happens when power intercedes or refuses to participate? When the police, ICE, DHS, or members of Trump’s cabinet decide that they don’t want to “talk” any more? When the violence against targeted populations increases? When an entire ethnic or religious subgroup is deported or detained, making it impossible for them to participate in the first place? When international conflict or a nuclear arms race erupts? Will we still be outside the legislator’s office asking for a meeting, hoping to engage in transformative acts of communication and mutual recognition? Bendik-Keymer thinks that protest is “tragic,” but I can’t think of anything more properly tragic (or tragicomic) than this.
Conversation with political elites cannot serve as a comprehensive theory for political action. The political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan offer an explanation in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, which studies the methods and outcomes of popular resistance movements worldwide from 1900 to 2006.14 Contrary to those who advocate for conversation as a tool for political change, Chenoweth argues that popular movements to do not generate change by “melting the hearts” of their opponents. They win by “changing incentives” and “constraining options”:
Dissidents rarely win because of appeals to their opponents’ conscience … Instead, a key insight from Gene Sharp’s work (and Hannah Arendt’s before him) is that no power holders can maintain the status quo without the support and acquiescence of thousands—or even millions—of people who routinely cooperate with them. This can include economic elites, civil servants, cultural authorities and security forces.15
Critical to Chenoweth’s understanding is the role of social movements in crafting a new common sense through sustained acts of civil disobedience that cause various “societal pillars” to withdraw their consent from an oppressive regime:
Successful movements tend to shift the allegiances of various elites and loyalists within these societal pillars. Defection, desertion or noncooperation by security forces can be especially important. For example, in one well-known episode, Serbian police refused to fire on protesters demanding Slobodan Milosevic’s resignation in October 2000. When asked, those police remarked that they didn’t shoot because they saw familiar faces—including their children—in the crowd.
Chenoweth’s work is especially interesting to consider in the US today. Multiple layers of civil society as well as local, state, and federal agencies have declared their unwillingness to cooperate with the Trump Administration’s plans. Immigrants have staged nation-wide strikes in protest of his immigration policies; the first of many general strikes took place last month; the Women’s Strike built on the Women’s March; and cultural institutions, such as e-flux, observed an art strike on inauguration day. Cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and New York have declared themselves sanctuary cities; the governor of Oregon has declared Oregon a sanctuary state, and California is expected to follow suit. Employees at multiple federal agencies, including the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency have already indicated their unwillingness to comply with certain of the administration’s demands, setting new precedents for civil disobedience within the ranks of the federal government itself.
The question then becomes: at what point will sustained noncooperation at all levels of civil society and local, state, and federal government effectively shift the political direction of the nation? Chenoweth has some interesting data to consider. Her research suggests that there is a crucial tipping point that resistance movements need to reach in order to be assured of victory:
Researchers used to say that no government could survive if five percent of its population mobilized against it. But our data reveal that the threshold is probably lower. In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.
She argues that it is specifically through the use of strategic nonviolence—including highly disruptive tactics such as strikes, boycotts, blockades, occupations, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience—that movements have historically increased their odds of reaching this critical tipping point. In fact, she found that nonviolent movements over the past 50 years were on average four times more likely to succeed than movements that incorporated violent tactics. On the one hand, the exclusive use of strategic nonviolence allowed resistance movements to claim moral legitimacy over and against the repression of the state; and on the other hand, it shifted the struggle away from modes of conflict in which the state has the obvious upper hand, thereby lowering the general requirements for participation on the part of the general public. “Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate,” she says, “including the elderly, people with disabilities, women, children, and virtually anyone else who wants to. If you think about it, everyone is born with an equal physical ability to resist nonviolently … [whereas] for lots of people, violent resistance is much more physically demanding. You have to train to be good at it.”
Chenoweth’s analysis is helpful in cutting through many common misconceptions about protest today. It is significant, for instance, that Bendik-Keymer tries to lump my argument together with an article by Natasha Lennard on the use of black bloc tactics at the Disrupt J20 protests. In fact, he is so eager to conflate these arguments that he chose as the banner image for his essay a screen grab of masked activists smashing a Starbucks window during the Disrupt J20 protest. In so doing, he ignores the real—and actually interesting—differences between alternate theories of political change. As my discussion of the work of Chenoweth, King, and others indicates, the tradition that I am drawing from is the civil resistance tradition, which includes movements like ACT-UP, Black Lives Matter, the United Farm Workers, Occupy Wall Street, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, Otpor in Serbia, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and the Civil Rights Movement. I chose to focus on this tradition both because I think it offers the most compelling model for organizing today and because it was the one that Bendik-Keymer critiqued in his initial article.
For practitioners of the civil resistance tradition, the most important questions to ask about Disrupt J20 (or the more recent protest in Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos) would be: did they polarize public opinion in a direction that encouraged greater numbers of people to support the resistance movement than defect from it? And did they strengthen the movement’s legitimacy over and against the legitimacy of the state? I have not seen a comprehensive analysis along these lines, but certain popular accounts appear to reinforce Chenoweth’s claims about the adverse effects of violent flanks16: while they can have evident positive effects, such as protecting undocumented students from being outed by white nationalists, they also come with disadvantageous consequences, such as legitimating state repression and discouraging future participation in resistance actions especially among those vulnerable to threats of police reprisal.
The fact that Bendik-Keymer chose an image of property destruction over the thousands of images of nonviolent protest from the past month is symptomatic of the problem. Uncommitted members of the general public who encounter protests primarily through media imagery tend to fixate disproportionately on depictions of violence and property destruction. Some will extrapolate, from there, that all protests contain this kernel of violence, and they use this false presumption as a pretext to undermine, critique, or disassociate themselves from the broader aims of the movement. Succumbing to this associative style of thinking leads them to assert that “protest is a brick—or a hammer and a boot—through a window.” Such leaps in logic, moreover, play directly into the hands of the opposition. Citing the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart on the ascendancy of fascism in Germany, Chenoweth writes that it was frequently a “relief” for Nazi party leaders “when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action,” because it made it “easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time.”
There are, of course, other forms that protests have taken since Trump’s victory. Last month, hundreds of Yemeni-American bodega owners across New York City closed their shops in protest of the administration’s travel ban. Gathering in Borough Hall with thousands who came out to support the strike, they prayed in public, protested, waved American and Yemeni flags, and chanted “USA, USA, USA.” Watching the events unfold, I recalled how, a few weeks earlier, I had witnessed a throng of Trump supporters in DC shout, “USA, USA, USA,” and had been chilled by their expression of nativist fear and rage. Through a simple act of reappropriation, the Yemeni-American protesters—who are, by any reasonable measure, under ruthless assault by the current regime—gave Trump’s expression of far-right nationalism an entirely different meaning, recasting for us all the very notion of national belonging.
This is a poignant example of what Antonio Gramsci called the hegemony process in action. Through protest, the bodega owners effectively redefined the meaning of “we” in phrases such as “We the people.” If part of Trump’s power resides in his ability to equate allegiance to him with the very idea of “USA,” the Yemeni-American protesters understood that in order to win the fight for the soul of the nation, we must pry those concepts apart. And they did this not only by expanding the “we” to include Muslims, immigrants, and people of color; they did it by redefining the “they” of collective struggle. In the crowd, there were signs that spoke out sharply against Trump (“The Unconstitutional President”) as well as the militarist segment of the political class: “If you don’t want refugees, stop creating them.” The “they” of the current struggle—the group standing in the way of “us” achieving a more just society—is both the Trump administration and an entire swath of political elites who, allied with the interests of capital, have destabilized regions of the world for economic and political gain.
Contrary to Bendik-Keymer’s desire for a single, seamless, and uninterrupted “we,” the importance of a clear “we” and “they” is described by Chantal Mouffe, who offers several arguments against any claims that would erase this foundational opposition. First, any notion of a “we” is conceptually incoherent without a “they” that simultaneously delimits it and summons it into being: “the constitution of a ‘we,’” she writes, “requires as its very condition of possibility the demarcation of a ‘they.’”17 Second, the task of democratic politics is not “the overcoming of the we/they opposition but the different way in which it is established.”18 That is, rather than suppressing the we/they polarity, social movements must redraw the lines of conflict so that the “they” is no longer understood as an “outside” group that is marginalized and scapegoated for underlying problems; the “they” must be understood as the leaders and beneficiaries of a rigged political and economic system who seek to divide and neutralize a very real “we” from actualizing its full political potential.
Third, any universalizing articulation of a “we” is necessarily a fiction. Following Mouffe, Jonathan Matthew Smucker argues that the universalization of “we” phrases, such as “We the people,” are fictions that mask the political interests of a particular class:
The Preamble to the United States Constitution disguised the particular interests of white male property owners by projecting them as the universal will of “We the people.” Abolitionists and suffragettes understood this intuitively and resolved themselves to fight to expand who is included in “We the people.”19
Finally, to negate the “they” is, in Mouffe’s view, to suppress the “political” dimension of politics itself by conjuring the notion of “a harmonious and non-conflictual ensemble” that can only ever be a fantasy.20 “Denying” or “wishing away” the we/they opposition is “the typical liberal gesture”:
[it] only leads to the impotence that characterizes liberal thought when confronted with the emergence of antagonisms and forms of violence that, according to its theory, belong to a bygone age when reason had not yet managed to control the supposedly archaic passions.21
The “impotence” of liberal thought here echoes King’s characterization of a love rendered “anemic” by its disavowal of power. We might consider Mouffe’s words in light of the emergence of the Tea Party—a political faction that knew all too well how to leverage “the supposedly archaic passions” for political gain. The Democratic Party, as the party of “reasonableness” and “compromise,” proved itself to be unable (or unwilling) to defend its own purported liberal democratic values against the passionate assault by a newly invigorated populist right. This was all the more notable given the strength of Obama’s mandate in 2008, which was nothing if not the articulation of a gorgeous, soaring, and poetic “we”—precisely the sort of all-encompassing articulation of unity that people like Bendik-Keymer seem so passionately to desire. Yet the sweeping “we” of “Yes We Can” revealed itself to be a hollow bit of rhetoric in the absence of a “they” that would have defined it and given it force. This “we-without-a-they” narrative set the stage for the vast demobilization of Obama’s campaign juggernaut following his electoral victory, and it proved powerless against a right-wing congress that had forgone the politics of civility and compromise in order to become a radical agenda-setting force in American public life.
We might contrast the weak “we” of “Yes We Can” with the stronger “we” of Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99%.” Occupy’s rallying cry defined the protagonists of history (“the 99%”) in an unusually broad way, setting up an agglomeration of economic and social interests over and against those who would stand in the way of a more egalitarian society (“the 1%”). Smucker describes how this reframing of the we/they opposition allowed for broad inter-class solidarities, creating the conditions for “heterogeneous and fragmented social elements, whose various struggles may have hitherto seemed disconnected,” to suddenly share “reference points” and “a name for their common interests,” insofar as they all saw “the 1%” as their explicit political adversary.22 This narrative, of course, did not consider the ways in which matters of economic class intersect with race, gender, immigration status or nationality, which subsequent movements have since taken up; the point is that rather than serving as a totalizing truth claim, any we/they opposition is a site for social struggle.
In the US today, one of the primary political battles is over the very idea of the nation. For Trump’s supporters, “USA” conjures a nativist vision of a pre-globalized state animated by the haunting specter of white Christian ethno-nationalism. For the Yemeni-American grocers, “USA” summons the image of a multiracial democratic society comprised of people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. Implicit in either vision is both a strong “we” and a strong “they.” For Trump and his supporters, the “they” is Muslims, undocumented immigrants, people of color, women, LGBT people, and other groups who can be scapegoated for underlying crises in the capitalist world economy. For the Yemeni grocers, the “they” is the Trump administration, white nationalists, and hawkish factions of the political establishment who are standing in the way of “USA” fulfilling its mission of becoming a multiracial democracy. The struggle now under way is over which “we” will appeal to the widest swath of the general public—which “we” will serve as the basis for cross-class and cross-race solidarities, which “we” will build the greatest amount of political power, which “we” will shape the national common sense, and which “we” will be able to usher in a new form of society against a “they” that seeks to stop it from coming to fruition.
Bendik-Keymer doesn’t want there to be a “they” because he wants us all to “say ‘we’ and mean it”—he wants to conjure a “we” without anyone “being left out.” This idea reflects his broader tendency to treat the relational principle as something like a categorical imperative. Yet as I’ve said, his position is not only predicated on a misunderstanding of how political change has occurred historically; it is based on a misinterpretation of the texts he cites; and it brackets ethical philosophy’s ability to meaningfully guide human action under complex historical and political conditions.
Ultimately, Bendik-Keymer’s mode of inquiry dramatically constrains his ability to meaningfully address the pressing requirements of our historical moment. It is significant, for example, that he prefers to substantiate his claims about protest by referring to critical theorists and philosophers rather than to political or social struggles themselves. There are at least two explanations for this. First, there simply are no historical examples that would illustrate the power of ethical dialogue as a singular strategy for transforming social conditions at a mass scale. Those who are committed to transforming our economic, political, and social institutions have no choice but to examine, on the one hand, the actual historical conditions in which they find themselves and, on the other, the dynamics of past struggles in order to determine how and when people have been able to win victories against nearly impossible odds.
A second explanation would hold that Bendik-Keymer’s methodology, like any methodology, inherently limits what he is able to say. His disciplinary training and theoretical predilections lead him to leave out precisely that which is most salient in any convincing normative claim about political action: that is, a discussion of political strategy. It is no coincidence, therefore, that he is able to read Freire as merely an advocate of relational consideration divorced from any notion of political struggle—because it is precisely matters of political struggle that his methodology excludes. While Bendik-Keymer might be well positioned to offer theoretical considerations on questions of ethics, his ambitions clearly exceed this task. If he wants to offer prescriptions or suggestions concerning the application of ethical theory in the realm of political action, his methodology would be required to expand to include a consideration of historical context—for without a historically grounded understanding of political action such theories will remain, at best, abstract and academic or, at worst, dangerous and misleading. For people on the left-to-liberal spectrum, there is perhaps only one thing more irresponsible than sitting on the sidelines of history in times like these and pretending that inaction is a way of taking the moral high road—and that is attempting to use your power and access to convince others to join you.
The emerging progressive social movements in the United States understand the lessons of Mouffe and King. Formations such as the Indivisible Guide, AllOfUs, and WeWillReplaceYou know that in our current political climate, an important pathway to a more just society will require an engagement with, rather than a suppression of, the rift between the progressive and neoliberal wings of the Democratic Party in order to galvanize the country against the Trump agenda. By developing an insurgent progressive faction within the Party, these groups hope to transform a centrist institution beholden to Wall Street into a political entity that is accountable to working people, immigrants, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Other groups are organizing general strikes and campaigns aimed to build a Sanctuary Movement. Among them, Movimiento Cosecha has organized walk-outs, protests, and shut-downs under the #ADayWithoutImmigrants banner, and they are currently gearing up to use mass boycotts and general strikes to exacerbate the contradiction between Trump’s anti-immigration policies and the country’s economic reliance on immigrant labor and consumer power. It is precisely by confronting these contradictions and by rewriting the we/they opposition along new lines that these groups seek to do today what King and others were able to do in generations past.
The degree to which these and other organized efforts will succeed in transforming the very nature of our social contract will depend not just on how they are discussed in forums such as this, but the degree to which each and every one of us is willing to put ourselves on the line and get to work generating the kind of society we actually want to live in. Conversation—including this one—is a necessary but insufficient means of achieving that goal. To see our way to the other side of this historical period, we will need, as Freire tells us, to not only change our “perceptions” but to intervene critically on the “objective” conditions that constitute our reality. This requires, on the one hand, a recognition of the structuring role that institutions play in the landscape of social and political life and, on the other, a methodology that is up to the task of helping us transform them. I look forward to picking up the conversation with Jeremy Bendik-Keymer when we encounter each other on the picket line, at the protest, or on the front lines of the general strike. For it is only in crafting a theory that is rigorously informed by practice and a practice that is carefully shaped by theory that we will be able to meet the urgent challenges of our present reality. Now, more than ever, our energies are needed in this task. Let’s get to work.
Image: A strike by Yemini-American bodega workers, Brooklyn, Feb. 2017. Via munchies.vice.com.
NOTES1 For a historical discussion of neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Robert Brenner, The Boom and the Bubble: The US in The World Economy (London: Verso, 2001), 24-93; James Crotty, “The Effects of Increased Product Market Competition and Changes in Financial Markets on the Performance of Nonfinancial Corporations in the Neoliberal Era,” Political Economy Research Institute Working Paper, 2002. The notion that “power-over” dynamics should come as a defining feature of “neoliberalism” ignores the obvious ways that relations of power are built into both capitalist social property relationships prior to the advent of neoliberalism and the way that these dynamics emerge in the context of other political and social formations. On the subject of “neoliberal radicalism,” there has been a lively public debate in recent years about this idea—but the term doesn’t mean what Bendik-Keymer wants it to mean. See, for instance, Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and The Attack on Democracy (Boston: Beacon, 2012); Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Limits of Anti-Racism,” Left Business Observer, 121 (2009) →; Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum, 22, (2013) 49–57 →. Similar lines of thinking surface in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comments on Twitter →, Jack Halberstam’s discussion of trigger warnings →, and bell hooks’ recent rejection of Hillary Clinton’s brand of feminism →.2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 37.3 Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Charles Marsch, The Beloved Community (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 48.4 Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Vincent Harding, “Community as a Liberating Theme in Civil Rights History” in New Directions in Civil Rights Studies, ed. Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 27.5 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999); Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and The Challenge of Truth Commissions (New York: Routledge, 2001).6 See, for instance, Angus Lindsay Wright and Wendy Wolford, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (New York: Perseus, 2003).7 Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998).8 Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed., trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000), 65, 48.9 Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, 49.10 Ibid., 56.11 King, Where Do We Go From Here, 67–107.12 Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, 52.13 See, for instance, Mônica Dias Martins, “The MST Challenge to Neoliberalism,” Latin American Perspectives, 27, no. 5 (2000): 33-45, or Freire’s own remarks in Paolo Freire, “Making History and Unveiling Oppression,” Dulwich Centre Journal 3 (1999): 37–39.14 Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).15 Erica Chenoweth, “People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump. But when does protest actually work?” Washington Post, Nov. 21, 2016 →.16 Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect The Outcomes Of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 2:4 (2015), 427–451 →.17 Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (New York: Verso, 2013), 5.18 Mouffe, Agonistics, 9.19 Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap For Radicals (Chico: AK Press, 2017), 219.20 Ibid., 3.21 Ibid., 4.22 Smucker, Hegemony How-To, 232.
The Verso blog has an interview with Italian historian Enzo Traverso, author of books such as The Origins of Nazi Violence (2003) and Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2017). Traverso adds some valuable nuance and historical perspective to ongoing discussions about the re-emergence of fascism in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. He uses the term "post-fascist" rather than "neo-fascist" to describe parties like the Front National in France. "Post-fascist," he suggests, captures the link these parties have to the historical "fascist matrix," while also recognizing their divergences from historical fascism. For example, the Front National positions itself as a defender of democracy, whereas twentieth-century fascist parties in Italy and German denigrated democracy. Check out an excerpt from the interview below:
Why call these parties "from the fascist matrix" post-fascists and not neo-fascists? How do you characterise this post-fascism?
It is a transitional category. Post-fascism is a concept that attempts to grasp a mutation process that is still underway; the Front National is no longer a fascist movement, but it is still far-Right and xenophobic, and it has still not broken the umbilical cord that links it to its fascist matrix. We do not know what that will produce. This could end up — if the European Union were to break apart and the economic crisis were to deepen — transforming into a clearly fascist alternative. That has happened in the past. Or it could take on new characteristics and integrate into the system, like the Movimento Sociale Italiano did in the 1990s, becoming a component of the traditional Right. This is an open process, for within the tendency I call "post-fascist" there are also political movements born in recent years that are not fascist in origin, for instance UKIP in England or the Lega Nord in Italy, which are converging together with this current; indeed, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage have good relations with the Front National. This notion does not seek either to play down the danger or to make it more acceptable, but to understand it, the better to combat it more effectively.
Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism as the major preoccupation of the far Right — especially in France — even if militant anti-Semitism has not gone away.
In the FN there are still nostalgists for l’Algérie française and old-guard anti-Semites. But anti-Semitism has disappeared from political discourse. Or better, Marine Le Pen presents herself as a rampart against the new anti-Semitism of the youths in the banlieue and against jihadist "Islamo-fascism." Like other European far-Right parties the FN is trying to establish good relations with the State of Israel. From this point of view there is an evident break with the old fascisms. Even so, there is an analogy with the 1930s. Just as Jews then appeared as a minority rotting away at France from within, infiltrating the state and the circles of power, so too are Muslims in France presented as a body foreign to the nation yet eating away at it: the enemy within. That is how the Jew was presented in the 1930s, working in concert with the Bolshevik attacking the nation from the outside. Today, they say, the Muslim works away from within, while Islamic states — rich foreign powers like Qatar — try to gain a monopoly hold on France with their money. From the 1930s to today, the far Right has needed to set up a threat that it can oppose.
Does populism — in which we can also sometimes note left-wing hues — make up part of this same dynamic?
The rise of these movements poses semantic problems. How should we characterise them? How should we define them? The notion of "populism" is used for convenience’s sake, but we should be wary of it, too. "Populist" is an adjective that defines an often-demagogic political style, in its both left-wing and right-wing variants deploying the rhetorical tool of the people against the élites. But the notion of populism does not define the political nature of a party or a movement. When it is used to equate Sanders with Trump or Mélenchon with Le Pen it is a mere mystification, because instead of helping us understand reality, it deforms it.
Image: A bunch of fascists.
At the website of the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen cautions against focussing excessively on the almost daily leaks that suggest a connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The allure of this potential conspiracy, writes Gessen, distracts attention from Trump's more open and arguably more harmful attacks on American democracy. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.
More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines ...
Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban. It would not get rid of Trump, but it might mitigate the damage he is causing. Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.
Image via The Independent.
Today, Dutch voters go to the polls in national elections that could have far-reaching implication for the rise of neofascism in Europe and beyond. In the English-language edition of Der Spiegel, Alexander Smoltczyk investigates the changing political loyalties of Almere, a Dutch city of 200,000 people outside Amsterdam. Long a stronghold of the social democratic party, Almere has drifted rightward in recent years, with many residents telling Smoltczyk that they plan to vote for Geert Wilders. As Smoltczyk's article shows, the factors driving this shift are strikingly similar to those driving supporters of Trump and other neofascist candidates: increasing economic insecurity created by neoliberal capitalism, which is instead blamed on immigrants and people of color. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
If a model railroad enthusiast were hired to design a city, Almere is what the result might look like. There are car-free areas of the city that are named after flowers, fish species or cinematic legends. There are networks of bicycle and bus routes along with small community centers on seemingly every corner, dedicated to gezelligheid, the Dutch take on communal well-being, with billiards, bingo, folk dance and even half-marathons, depending on one's proclivities. It's a place where every neighborhood has its own library, church and shopping mall, and where senior citizens buzz around silently on electric scooters. The buses are on-time and cost nothing. Everything seems to work well.
Why, then, is there so much anger? Why are so many people in this ideal city so upset about everything? So upset that they already voted to make Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) the biggest party on the city council? They are likely to do the same on Wednesday, when the the Netherlands holds parliamentary elections - a vote that many in Europe are watching with deep concern.
What is it that the people of Almere want?...
Riny van Boxtel, 69 years old, used to work as a de-boner in an Amsterdam slaughterhouse. He moved to Almere, just a half-hour's drive away, 37 years ago after starting a family. As he does every morning, Van Boxtel is standing on the Almere market square with his friend Jan Hoefakker, 72, a former firefighter. Both were once classic constituents for the social democratic PVDA.
"When I go back to visit East Amsterdam, people say to me: 'Oh, a Dutchman - we haven't seen one of those in a long time.' There are so many Turks and Moroccans there. But I speak to everyone here. There's such unease. Normal people don't even dare to say some things. But Wilders says it. I estimate that 80 percent of the people think the same way he does. Something has to change. I'm willing to give him a chance for four years."
Image: The PVV party room at Almere City Hall. Via Der Spiegel.
In The Nation, Alice Kaplan tells the story of Éditions Barzakh, a remarkable Algerian publishing house started in 2000. Releasing mainly fiction and poetry, Éditions Barzakh has sought to use literature to negotiate the complex legacy of Algeria's colonial past. It even came under fire for publishing the novel L’Effacement by Samir Toumi, which questions the entrenched social privileges of veterans of the Algerian war of independence. As Kaplan writes, Éditions Barzakh seeks to give voice to a new generation of cosmopolitan Algerian writers, while remaining firmly Algerian in outlook and sensibility. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Whereas postcolonial critics in American universities read Algerian literature for politics and for position, for a desire to see literature finally “decolonized,” Barzakh’s ambitions are different. For Hellal and Hadjadj, a decolonized literature is not necessarily a literature intent on striking a blow at the colonizer; it’s a literature that enjoys the freedom of its formal, stylistic choices, a literature that can escape the political stereotypes still at work in Algeria, where what you wear and which direction your satellite dish is aimed—east toward Mecca, north toward Paris—mark a person religiously and linguistically.
In 2013, Hellal and Hadjadj published a book that, to their astonishment, was embraced around the world as a supremely political work of literature. In Meursault, Contre-Enquête, Kamel Daoud recast Albert Camus’s The Stranger, giving a voice to the brother of the Arab killed by Meursault on the beach. The combination of very precise contemporary Algerian references and Camus’s familiar plot endowed the book with an astonishing plasticity and made it immediately relevant in any country struggling with senseless violence and “othered” populations—which is to say, most countries in the world. A full year after the initial Algerian publication, the novel was published in France by Actes Sud, which promoted it as if it were a brand-new book. It began to win prizes, and missed the biggest prize of all, the Goncourt, by one vote. In Algeria, 16,000 copies of the novel have been sold. In France, Actes Sud has sold a total of 242,000; and in the United States, sales of The Meursault Investigation, John Cullen’s translation for Other Press, have reached over 53,000 copies.
Now translated into more than 30 languages, Daoud’s novel has departed the closed system of Algerian literature in which, with the help of Barzakh, it was created. But the book’s commercial success hasn’t changed Barzakh’s fundamental mission. “In the end,” Hellal says, “the question that truly preoccupies us is this one: how to get someone to read, how to get them simply to hold a book in their hands. For us, every day, this is a deeply personal and social imperative.”
Image via The Nation.
In Mute magazine, O. D. Untermesh writes about recent accusations that a London art gallery, LD50, has been covertly advancing a white nationalist agenda through its exhibitions and speaking events. Untermesh argues that the helter-skelter pastiche of much contemporary art is in fact uniquely conducive to the "rebranding" of fascism, since this aesthetic can be used to conceal fascist content that, if expressed more directly, would not be allowed in most galleries. He goes on to offer nine theses on how to recognize and confront the emerging "art-right." Read an excerpt below, or the full text here.
5.) It would be possible to argue that the dissolution of fascist symbols into a larger flux of anachronistic text and visual elements is reactionary only in the sense that the former conceal the latter, or because placing Pepe the Frog next to (e.g.) the Andrex puppy or a pixelated image of an elf indicates an indifference to the larger historical significance of the uses to which Pepe is now put. But the argument from disproportion misses the deeper receptiveness to fascist attitudes of much visually overloaded, deliberately obsolescent or backward-looking contemporary visual art, since the tendency of artists working in this mode to conceive of the past in terms of relentless nostalgia for a fantasised world of undamaged safety or protection (symbolised in old video games or TV advertisements), is perfectly continuous with the tendency of white nationalists to fantasise what was in fact a history of imperial aggrandisement and class struggle in the terms of undamaged communal integrity and social cohesion. In other words, in contemporary visual art, the larger the pixels, the narrower the range of historical intelligence.
6.) By contrast, the more fully self-organised and the more hostile to the marketplace of personal reputation a culture becomes, the easier it will find it to identity and to root out fascist tendencies.
7). Fascist artists are likely to proliferate over the next few years with traditional organic fecundity. The tendencies will be crypto and overt, technicist and pastoral, cyborg and social conservative, they will speak ‘from the left’ or they will claim to be apolitical, they will have great plans or they will be nihilists, they will emit notes of irony to perfume their racism or they will let racism waft insensibly into their irony. The dizzying variety of aesthetic tendencies will replicate at the level of the genre the formal overloadedness of the ideal-typical work of conservative post-internet art, and it will match the diminished attention span of an artworld whose own art of the deal is now defined by the principle that it will buy absolutely fucking anything. There are good reasons for this hyperactivity, just as, in yet another domain, a proto-fascist president has in his own terms good reason to proliferate with seemingly organic fecundity an endless series of hateful executive orders. Put simply: for those whose politics revolve around the defence of an historically regressive form of domination like the capitalist nation state, frenetic activity is the only possible means of simulating real historical dynamism. And just as with any other grotesque farce in the Rabelaisian tradition, the farce of national protectionism that Trumpism represents will lead to no more progressive development in art or politics than an unprecedented new growth in innovatively trapped wind.
Image via ld50gallery.com.
The newest issue of the New Left Review contains a series of articles reflecting on the geopolitical consequences of Trump's election in the US. Although many, many publications have addressed this question in the months since the election, the NLR's take benefits from sustained reflection rather than knee-jerk reaction. It also boasts a clear-eyed materialist analysis. Perry Anderson's piece in the issue, entitled "Passing the Baton," is especially compelling. Among other things, it argues that if the US is to experience a revival of left-wing radicalism under Trump, it must eschew the cult of Obama that has arisen since he left office. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
There is a further, obvious obstacle to reconfiguring the Democrats with even the weakest ‘social’ and hyphen before their name. Standing in the way of that is not only the whole history of the party since the inception of the Cold War, and its contemporary machinery of billionaire donors and fixers, but its principal icon. Obama, still resident in Washington, will be active—behind the scenes or from a cloud above them—in lending the party he neglected in office suitable guidance and energy to ensure the Democrats remain a congenial, avowedly middle-of-the-road vehicle for capital in 2020. He, not Trump, is likely to be the leading impediment to any expansion of a Sanders-plus insurgency uniting downwardly mobile millennials, hard-pressed workers and restive minorities on any more radical and genuinely internationalist platform of a sort that would merit the term left. Without keeping him steadily in its sights, there is small chance of that. Not only because of the position he will continue to enjoy within the party, but the legend that has accrued around him. The panegyrics of his departure, combined with the execration of his successor, risk a political padlock on anything better than what he supplied. The traditional reason always given for left accommodation to the DP was that it was a lesser evil. With Trump converted into evil of an unimaginable magnitude—fascism round the corner, if not already in charge—the halo around Obama annuls the argument: this is good against evil, pure and simple. How far this ideological effect reaches, and how long it persists, are beyond current calculation. But certainly, penitent nostalgia for a ruler criticized in power, now rued out of it, is liable to afflict much of the left for some time.
Image via Washington Post.
In Mute magazine, Jamie Woodcock compares modern-day call centers to "gig economy" company's like Uber, tracing recent developments in labor discipline and workplace surveillance. He also highlights new forms of worker resistance that are emerging along with these new employment relations. There's a tendency to think that the extreme casualization of labor achieved by company's like Uber has rendered worker organizing nearly powerless. But as Woodcock shows, this organizing has not disappeared; it has just evolved. Check out an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
My interest in the ‘gig economy’ began from a similar starting point to the project with call centres: here was a new and rapidly growing form of work, which had clear grievances but no signs of traditional workplace organisation. Just like in call centres, the possibility for workers in the ‘gig economy’ to organise has been written off too quickly. The refrain with Uber drivers was that they had no physical workplace, no way of meeting up, so could not form the networks needed to organise. It is perhaps more accurate to say that these doubts were held by people thinking they could not reach Uber drivers to organise them, a defence from the perspective of existing trade unions about why they could not justify campaign resources. Instead, what Deliveroo shows is that often these platforms require workers to collect at various points – meeting points – so that workers are in the prime position to start a delivery. Even without this, Deliveroo drivers meet at various points around the city, from popular restaurants to busy junctions, now a ubiquitous sight across London. Uber recognised that it was easy to find Deliveroo drivers, with multiple reports of Deliveroo orders to the Uber headquarters, where managers tried to recruit drivers to the rival service. These workers are not completely fractured across digital platforms, but remain embedded within the streets and roads, very real parts of the city. It should also be noted that Uber drivers also have to present documents, and the offices where this happens provide an important point of potential contact, despite the fact an Uber driver is only ever a short drive, and a request on an app, away in London.
Unlike the call centre project, where I worked undercover for six months, I’ve been involved in an activist ethnography with Deliveroo workers since last year. This has meant taking part in some campaigning before the strike, along with more activity that followed the wildcat action. As I have detailed elsewhere, the self-organisation of the Deliveroo workers, along with the support of the couriers’ branch of the IWGB, has been hugely inspiring. The six-day strike was a spontaneous response to Deliveroo’s unilateral attempt to remove the hour rate of pay and replace it with only per-drop payments. This action was organised primarily on WhatsApp, building on pre-existing networks, some of which were formed at the meeting points assigned in each area by Deliveroo. What followed was a lively campaign which was widely circulated on social media.
At the UberEATS strike, which followed soon after the strike at Deliveroo last year, a similar approach was attempted. There was a special offer for the Uber service that meant the first order received a £5 discount. The workers on strike, along with some from Deliveroo, realised they could take advantage of this offer. They started making orders for less than £5 worth of food, getting both a free meal and another driver who could be convinced to join the wildcat action. Those on strike crowded around the driver cheering and chanting ‘log out’ – the ‘gig economy’ equivalent of downing tools – in a spontaneous picket line. Uber, who were well aware of the action taking place, found a workaround to stop orders to the demonstration, preventing any further drivers joining that day. As one of the drivers I interviewed about this explained, as well as the entertainment the strikers got out of the action, they also showed they could ‘occupy the system in a way... if it’s a wild cat strike... it’s like a sit-in.’ This was followed by discussions of how the platforms could be used against themselves, similar to the use of ‘call attacks’ in inbound call centres in Turkey, where activists organise mass phone calling to call centres in order to spread information and try to organise them.
Image via Mute.
Opening Weekend Public Programme / DAI Roaming Assembly #12 at Contour Biennale 8 in Mechelen, Belgium
March 11–12, 2017
DAI's temporary editorial office: Florencia Almirón, Alaa Abu Asad, Sara Benaglia, Luca Carboni, Clementine Edwards, Sonia Kazovsky, Wayne Lim, Ines Marita Schärer, Isabelle Sully and Wilfred Tomescu. Editor-in-chief: Federica Bueti
The Dutch Art Institute's Roaming Assembly is pleased to present live coverage of the public program on the occasion of the opening of Contour Biennale 8. The two-day symposium will include presentations, talks, and performances by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Susanne M. Winterling, Susan Schuppli, Elizabeth A. Povinelli; Ana Torfs, Judy Radul, and Sven Lütticken; Aimar Arriola, Buenos Tiempos, Int. (Alberto García del Castillo and Marnie Slater), Grégory Castéra, Carlos Motta, and DAI students; Filipa César and Louis Henderson; Denise Ferreira da Silva; inhabitants; Michel Feher; Wendelien van Oldenborgh, and Rana Hamadeh. With moderation by Natasha Ginwala, Rachel O'Reilly, and Denise Ferreira da Silva.
See the full program and synopsis of each presentation here
*Introduction to Planetary Records: Performing Justice Between Art and Law
As a system of rules constructed and enforced through institutions to regulate behaviour, negotiating legacy relations between particularity and general application, while being maintained through textual and oral interpretation, law is a space of great—if denied—aesthetic deliberation. Justice, quite differently, might be figured as an intractable entanglement of relations, intentions, affectabilities and adjustments between ever-moving, never-global, densely articulated bodies.
The law’s modernization in the colonial epoch consolidated limits for possible relations between justice and law, in its ontological set-up of male persons with base units and rights of property in contractual relation. Engendered and ethnocidally arranged through this fractal abstraction, juridical modernism foreclosed the order of land-based life and literacies. Its decrees of ‘right’ expansion continue to be built upon and innovated, while it secures and distinguishes only particular subjects, objects, and things, into investment-worthy relations.
When artists engage procedures of witnessing, testimonial production and the performativity of the trial, allegories of justice and modes of theatricality surface to haunt the past and present. These spectral zones must constantly be inspected and contested, just as ghosts must be evoked in order to deal with their unfinished legacy. Film and performance are vehicles among many that carve out alter-civilizational images and conceive legibility for eroding matters of injustice. Working from Mechelen, this co-curated programme invites artists, theorists and filmmakers to explicitly unpack the technicity and asymmetrical power of European legal infrastructure. Over two days the program examines artists’ role in challenging normative legal foundations while transforming our understanding of response-ability to double-meanings of law/lore, and tracing the inevitably formal dimensions of present day struggles.
How do ongoing planetary rebellions determined through existing value forms and categorizations, including the racial categorization of “no body / no thing” aim at legal rupture when placed before the courts, without falling into mimetic disfigurements within this very same insufficient order? What does it mean to take an eye or ear to scenes of struggle that reverberate well beyond as well as inside legal institutional terrains? How can artists’ own literacy in post-media conditions—very much at play inside the contemporary law court—make sense of possible realisms against and beyond juridical modernism’s reproduction of capitalism and its increasingly death-driven function?
The artists of Contour Biennale 8, Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium, are connected through their attention to aesthetic contestations of the juridical beyond its present coding, their productive dealings with a planetary regime of impermissible evidence, and their ritualistic as well as counter-analytical engagements with an expanding, expropriated archive. The “record” here is often not data that can be positively marked up or collected in advance, but instead, what is lived while being judged to be outside of proper adjudication. To cultivate flexible imagination around these juridical-aesthetic impasses is to work through the persistent constraining of just realisms, where survival is constantly at stake. Here, justice itself becomes the medium through which we cannot avoid moving through, within and around.
Public Program Schedule:
Saturday, March 11
11:00 Mining for Ringwoodite, screening by inhabitants
11:15 Trace Environments: Sovereignty, toxicity and the littoral
Panel discussion with Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Susanne M. Winterling, Susan Schuppli, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, introduced and moderated by Natasha Ginwala
13:30 Lunch break
14:30 Performing the Trial: Re-enactment, Ritual, Remediation
Panel discussion with Ana Torfs, Judy Radul, and Sven Lütticken, introduced and moderated by Rachel O’ Reilly
17:00 Council presents The Against Nature Journal
Contributions by Aimar Arriola, Buenos Tiempos, Int. (Alberto García del Castillo and Marnie Slater), Grégory Castéra, Carlos Motta, and DAI students. Design by Julie Peeters
19:30 Refracted Spaces: An Archaeology of Optics
Performance-lecture by Filipa César and Louis Henderson, introduced and moderated by Rachel O’ Reilly
Sunday, March 12
11:00 Compost Archive, by Filipa César and Louis Henderson made for inhabitants
11:15 Notes Toward a Theory of Transformative Justice
Keynote lecture by Denise Ferreira da Silva, introduced and moderated by Natasha Ginwala
13:00 Lunch break
14:00 Hobby Lobby vs. The Allegory of Justice, screening by inhabitants
14:15 Deceptive Authoritarianisms: Between Artificial and Discredited Personhoods
Lecture-presentation and panel discussion with Michel Feher and inhabitants, introduced and moderated by Rachel O’ Reilly
16:30 From Left to Night
Screening by Wendelien van Oldenborgh, introduced by Natasha Ginwala followed by a conversation with Wendelien van Oldenborgh and Denise Ferreira da Silva
18:30 Can You Make a Pet of Him Like a Bird or Put Him on a Leash For Your Girls?
Performance by Rana Hamadeh, introduced by Natasha Ginwala Venue: De Maan Theatre
Writing in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines three recent scholarly books that try to explain common examples of irrational human behavior—such as "confirmation bias"—and she uses them to illuminate the irrationalism that seems to have gripped American politics. The books suggest that certain forms of irrationalism used to have evolutionary advantages for the human species. But since then, humans' environment has changed so rapidly that these irrationalisms are longer advantageous, yet they're still with us. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.
“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe. The two have performed their own version of the toilet experiment, substituting public policy for household gadgets. In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
Image via the New Yorker.
At Real Life, Phoebe Boatwright compares the image-saturated culture of the US and other developed countries to image culture in Cuba, where access to the internet—and thus to an ocean of social-media-driven images—is restricted. What she finds is that the comparative scarcity of image culture in Cuba creates a richer relationship to those images that can be obtained. Check out an excerpt from the piece below, or read the full text here.
By stepping away from the countries saturated with images, a different sort of potential collectivity through images — one less caught up with consumerism, profit-seeking platforms, and their incentives — can perhaps be perceived more clearly. In Cuba, social media and image proliferation have been suppressed and the media industry is still almost entirely state-controlled or state-sponsored. Economic isolation and Communist Party ideology has militated against the development of individualistic image culture. Fidel Castro had long insisted that all forms of expression be tied to a collective view of the self in relation to society: “The revolutionary puts something above even his aim to be creative spirit. He puts the Revolution above everything else, and the most revolutionary artist will be that one who is prepared to sacrifice even his own artistic vocation for the Revolution” ...
In the U.S., the relative absence of censorship and strength of free-speech norms has the paradoxical effect of making the origins of images more obscure: The profusion of images diminishes the comprehensibility of any particular one. All images exist in an increasingly crowded, provisional realm where one can easily be distracted and where an emotional or aesthetic experience can be fleeting. With information proliferating from so many different and often unidentified sources, shaped for so many different purposes — from the official channels of advertising and entertainment, news, and politics to the individually driven channels of social media — meaning becomes more opaque and more elusive. Rather than poor images, we have poor content. The efficacy of fake news stems from this degradation. Image proliferation encourages both uncritical consumption and total skepticism. What is true? Not only are emotional and aesthetic experiences blunted, but any sense of truth is also lost in the din.
Image: Future Relic by Daniel Arsham. Via Real Life.
In The Baffler, Thomas Frank traces the transformation of "curating" from a specific role in the art industry to a catch-all prestige term for anyone—from chefs to editors to university administrators—who selects or aggregates things for a given audience. Calling this phenomenon "curatolatry" (i.e., the worship of curation and curators), Frank argues that it even extends to the political sphere, with liberals embracing curation in its many guises, and conservatives avoiding it like the plague. Read an except from the piece below, or the full text here.
What is a curator, and why is it the admired cultural position of the moment? Why is this the word that springs to our tongues today when once we would have said “DJ,” or “blogger,” or “expert,” or just “snob”? And why is it persistently associated with liberals?
Consider the most basic aspect of the word as we use it today. A curator is an arbiter, someone who distinguishes between what is good and what is bad. Curators tell us what to welcome and what to exclude, what to keep and what to toss. They make judgments. They define what is legitimate and what is not.
But curators don’t make these judgments subjectively or out of the blue, as would chefs or gourmands or other sorts of fussy people. No, curators are professional arbiters of taste and judgment, handing down their verdicts on news stories or pot roasts from a position of dignity and certified authority.
The word is deeply associated with academic achievement. Gallery curators are often people with advanced degrees, and “curation” and its variants are sometimes used to describe certain kinds of university officials. The highest officers of the University of Missouri, for example, are called curators, and at Bennington College, even prospective students are encouraged to think of themselves as curators—curators, that is, of their applications to associate with this illustrious institution. As Bennington’s magazine puts it, they are invited to “curate their submissions and engage in the admissions process as a learning experience.”
It’s all about social status, in other words, and the eternal desire of Americans to claw their way upward by means of some fancy-sounding euphemism.
Image copyright: Lindsay Ballant. Via The Baffler.
At Fusion, Katie McDonough reclaims the origins of International Women's Day from "lean-in" feminists and corporate marketing campaigns that have blunted its radical edge. She tells the story of militant self-organized labor actions by women in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries—actions which led to the establishment of International Women's Day, and which resemble labor efforts of today, such as the Fight for $15 movement in the US. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
A little more than nine months before the idea for the first International Women’s Day was introduced in 1910, a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Clara Lemlich incited what would become the Uprising of 20,000, a strike of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 garment workers that stretched out for more than two months in New York City.
According to records of that meeting, Lemlich, a young revolutionary who was a familiar presence at other strikes and had recently had her ribs bashed in by anti-union thugs, demanded a work stoppage for better wages, hours, and labor conditions. Later that day, Lemlich, along with thousands of other women, reportedly took the oath to strike in her native Yiddish: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” The Uprising of 20,000 won a series of concessions from management on wages and hours, and set the stage for broader institutional reform in response to the deadly 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
In a 1965 letter to a graduate student about that time in her life, Lemlich recalled that her earliest efforts at organizing had been in the company of other women: “The girls, whether socialist or not, [had] many stoppages, and strikes broke out in many shops,” she wrote. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses. In 1906, some of us girls who were more class conscious called a meeting… where we organized the 1st local of the waist makers [garment union].”
Lemlich’s legacy, which remains closely associated with the earliest manifestations of the women’s labor movement in United States, is still niche history. But it “shows the ways in which women workers have always linked the economic strategy of striking and the political strategy of labor standards,” Jennifer Klein, a professor of History at Yale University, told me in a phone interview. It also shows a lineage of women who fought—literally fought—from places of great precarity to reshape institutions and improve the conditions of their own lives and communities.
Image via Fusion.
Der Spiegel talks to Paul Wilders, the brother of far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Paul reveals that his brother was a centrist at the beginning of his political career, but veered to the right due to his increasing hostility towards Islam. He also suggests that a "thirst for power" motivate his brother as much as Islamophobia. You can read an excerpt from the interview below. Dutch general elections are scheduled for March 15, and Geert Wilders's Party for Freedom is currently running neck and neck with the party of the incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte.
SPIEGEL: And yet he is surprisingly popular among the Dutch.
Wilders: He is a master of short messages. And in this complex age, that is precisely what many people want: a simple political vision without any nuance. Geert gives them that. He creates an identity: We, the Dutch people. And he also creates opposite poles: Muslims, the European Union, the elites. Terrorist attacks, refugees and the euro crisis engender fear and dissatisfaction. My brother, French populist Marine Le Pen and others take advantage of this mood and offer seemingly simple solutions: out with the migrants, close the borders, exit the EU. But our problems are far more complex. Geert peddles illusions to people.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Wilders: For instance, in his campaign platform he pledges to close the mosques and ban the Koran. How is this supposed to work, from a practical standpoint? It violates our constitution, which means it would have to be approved by both chambers of parliament with a large majority. Given our political landscape, with its many parties, he'll never succeed. To become prime minister, Geert would need several coalition partners, or he would need the support of several parties in a minority government. He would have to make compromises and break campaign promises.
SPIEGEL: Does your brother really believe what he preaches, or is it all just show?
Wilders: He is a staunch opponent of Islam. But there is, of course, plenty of strategy and thirst for power in the mix. Geert doesn't have much left in life besides politics. His fortunes hinge on his political success.
Image via Der Spiegel.
The Evergreen Review, which was originally published between 1957 and 1973, was a legendary magazine in the English-language literary underground. It featured writers like Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, and Susan Sontag before they achieved mainstream acclaim. The editor of the magazine, Barney Rosset, was also the head of Grove Press, famous for publishing sexually explicit literature by the likes of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. This week the Evergreen Review was revived as an online magazine edited by Dale Peck. It's first new issue in over forty years includes pieces by Gary Indiana, Yoko Tawada, and Barney Rosset himself. Below is an excerpt from Peck's editorial for the new issue. You can read the full editorial here.
What if art could point out the ways in which culture alienates us from ourselves, from the truth—could maybe even reveal our true nature to us, rather than immerse it in the flow of cutlure? What if art could expose the self-destructive nature of civilization rather than succumb to it?
I believe that not only does this impulse exist, but that it’s art’s true, indeed defining, purpose. It’s always there, but has to fight to make itself heard above the din of million-dollar advances and Nobel prizes and Twitter followers, to stand out from the banner ads and listicles and requests to renew your subscription at an unbeatable savings or donate to support the best writing ever anywhere in the history of words! And of late we’re losing that fight. It may be that it’s a fight we can only lose, and lose again, and lose over and over again, but life itself is a fight we’re destined to lose, and still we hold on to it for as long as possible.
(And let’s not let writers off the hook. Because let’s face it, most writers write things to sound like writers—they employ literary tropes and techniques not to reveal truth but to conceal it in the proverbial spoonful of sugar, in the mistaken belief that this makes the truth more palatable, when all it makes it is a spoonful of sugar.)
In Hatchet Jobs I said that most contemporary writing could be categorized as either recidivist postmodernism or reactionary realism, and I stand by that assertion. Nevertheless it’s probably more telling to say that literature, like visual art, has succumbed to the judgment of the marketplace. I have nothing against popularity, which is just another word for a whole lot of readers: readers are why we publish our work rather than hide it in a drawer. But more and more writing is produced in the name of mercantile approval, and the market, though composed of readers, is not the same things as readers. The market directs readers to read not as individuals but as members of a group and to regard books not as individual texts but as selections from, representations of, a genre. More insidiously, it directs writers to pitch their books to the genre rather than to the needs of its subject. A book that strives for popularity in the name of universality isn’t joining the ranks of art but, rather, the political order, and thus, as Chomsky has pointed out time and again, its masters will always be money and power, not truth, not morality. When a so-called literature of resistance can only point out the obvious, when it doesn’t rise to the level of action, then it becomes nothing more than an analgesic to the oppressed rather than an irritant to the oppressors, let alone an agent of change. It becomes soporific. It becomes accommodationist. It becomes complicit. And so do its readers.