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Letters against Separation – Bahar Noorizadeh in London

March 31st, 2020

As the meme goes, even the apocalypse (in the Western genre) turned out to be banal, basic, underwhelming, in PJs paving supermarket aisles hunting for glutten-free crackers. This compared to a more gracious extinction, like being struck by a comet, that even the dinosaurs had. The shadow of a stranger coming towards you down the cramped shelves of pasta is suddenly posed as a great threat. How to avoid rubbing shoulders?

As an Iranian blessed by a Canadian passport writing from East London though, I can hardly waive the differential logic of apocalypse in the face of so many declarations of the level playing field of the global pandemic, declarations such as “We’re all in it together” or “all the same, for once." One needs only to open today’s chart of countries ranked by the number of infected and the dead to ask the question that Felipe Demitri asks via Judith Butler’s work on social grief: As the virus spreads far and fast, “Which lives are not being mourned?”

Since last November Iran has undergone a chain of grotesque events with one off-the-charts incident leading to yet another: An underlying absurdity that is unleashed only when the infrastructure begins to collapse on itself and with it the norms of the old “normal” go out the door. It was in this climate that the final bizarre turn, the Covid-19 crisis, surged as a combination of state inefficiency and mismanagement expedited by the Trump administration’s reinforced sanctions, preventing the import of basic pharmaceutical and medical items to the country of 80 million population. It is the sanctions, I stress, an ancient instrument of state warfare, not advanced high-frequency digitized finance that’s keeping countries like Iran—and the already penalized proxy landscapes of military conflicts like Yemen and Syria—outside the circuits of capital. When one’s left out of the global tempo of monetary flows, one’s relation to “time”—i.e. the standardized time of the market which we all live by in London and New York—is changed. Long before March 2020 many countries have been living a science fictional life par excellence, as homebound aliens of the planet Earth.

But if the 2020 pandemic is the first of globalization’s plagues, and if the virus voyages wherever money travels, how come the economic barriers wrapped around Iran did not suffice to keep the pandemic away, or at the very least to curb its effects? Maybe because one can’t ever, even metaphorically, “build a wall,” not even economically speaking. The experience of “setting boundaries” with a toxic friend is illuminating enough to shatter this fallacy, a desperate appeal to jurisdiction as if law itself was ever good at building lines of demarcation.

One distinct outcome of the sanctions, for that reason, has been the further consolidation of Iran-China trade relations, with Iran being a key site for the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. There is no coincidence that the Iranian patient zero was a businessman, traveling in the company of a hundred other entrepreneurs and executives, in one of the tens of direct flights from Tehran to Wuhan that despite public protests remained operational weeks after the outbreak began. And this is how the transmission chain rapidly traversed ideological grounds, literally speaking, from businessmen to statesmen to the religious sites in Qom.

If globalization is preconditioned on the complicity of states and markets, there is no surprise that Covid-19, the malady of this globalized planet, is infiltrating more and more world leaders, presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and monarchs—agents of our current world order who shake more hands than all of us combined, and apparently wash them the least.

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April 3rd, 2020

If we knew the world would end tomorrow, money would become worthless at once. That is because money is simply a mythopoetic device, part operational (real) and part a mere promise.

Since there are too many of such promises currently in circulation—in the form of credit, insurance, personal or public debt—it is likely that the future itself is constructed to keep the promissory order of money, now amplified and embodied in the figure of finance, in place.

This is possibly one reason why political operations and economic interventions will always influence us to be in denial of our own mortality. The future must carry forward regardless of pandemics, ecological catastrophes, genocides or natural disasters; and our human vocation today would be to safeguard the sanctity of the future, even if it requires us to dispose of our mortality. Paradoxically, the prohibition of death, necessary for the maintenance of the future, lodges us further into an infinite presence, i.e., a coma that is the apolitical, ahistorical time of the contemporary.

The last person I met before entering self-isolation earlier in March was the philosopher Federico Campagna (whose hands were the last pair of hands I shook in comfort before starting to submerge myself in soap and sanitizer). A mutual contact had put us in touch to exchange research ideas, but of course it was more an occasion for me to learn from Campagna’s very compelling thought. I have since been reading his book Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality-Continuum (2018, Bloomsbury.)

Technic, as Campagna defines it, is the reality-system of our capitalist age, and so to change the reality—for the purpose of any world-making exercise—we need to return to the postulates (or reality-settings) that our version of the world is founded on. There is no space here to recapitulate the book’s argument in full, but there is a point where Campagna brings forth the story of Faust, via the German historian Oswald Spengler, to highlight Technic’s obsession with infinity: “A man, dissatisfied with his life, exchanges his soul for infinite knowledge and hedonism” (p. 35). Today this desire for infinity has transformed into a desire for infinite life, for immortality. And immortality, Campagna says, "is not eternity, but merely the absolute form of presence” (p. 36). Technic, in this sense, forecloses the future and within it the mere possibility of an alterity becomes, technically speaking, unimaginable.

All that said, it seems to me that a political program that correlates with our environmental condition today, and that aims to decentralize the primacy of the human species, has to take it on to make mortality a fact of life.

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April 7, 2020

To my friends who are fatigued by their procrastination (these days or any other day)

After the collapse of the Berlin wall, Lemmy Caution wanders through the post cold-war landscape of Europe. It’s somewhat of a light-hearted nightmare, Germany’s littered with memories of ideological battles, and ghosts of the past events—of Don Quixotes and Mozarts—leave Lemmy behind in their cars, trucks, ships, and on horses.

Somewhere in Berlin under commercial Christmas decorations, Lemmy, by the end of the film, finds himself in a hotel room. The setting is familiar (Alphaville?) and the balance is finally restored (He asks for his mattress to be propped up with a bulky book on the history of WWII.)

Trapped inside a pristine decor, Lemmy seems to be resting at last.

The maid serving him with delight makes a definite remark, “Work brings freedom.”

The slogan from the Nazi camps, the cinema-goer of the 90’s would surely know, works just as well for communism and capitalism alike.

As the wall falls, different histories come together in its rubble.

They say in his later films Godard started talking to himself. “Germany Year Nine Zero” then is a testament to Godard’s confusion. The radical ambitions of his youth have proved him wrong. He is disappointed—disappointment, etymologically speaking, comes from the 1570’s “failure to keep an appointment.”

To work, to be disappointed, to be fatigued—a vicious cycle: It was in the 1940s while in a forced labour camp that Levinas, probably facing Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom) several times a day on the camp’s entrance, realized his concept of fatigue: Fatigue as not a condition acquired by the subject, but an a priori constituent part of the subject’s coming into existence. It physically manifests as “a stiffening, a numbness, a way of curling up into oneself.” Levinas counters fatigue with another state of mind: indolence. Indolence, he quotes William James “lies between the clear duty of getting up and the putting of the foot down off the bed.” Levinas confirms: It is “an impossibility of beginning.

From the perspective of 2020, indolence and fatigue seem to constitute the two faces of procrastination. If since Levinas fatigue evolved into the archetypal affect of 24/7 sleepless capitalism, indolence is that 24/7 procrastination everyone’s wary of confessing to. Procrastination, killing time with its implicit violence, is especially deplorable since one individual’s refusal to work, her rejection of productivity, appears (to the moralizing superego) to bear on somebody else’s work hours.

Ultimately Levinas privileges fatigue over indolence: “What fatigue apprehends and abhors in the very exercise of existence, what it impotently declines to shoulder, indolence refuses in refusing to shoulder its existence.

Fatigue fabricates repetition: from effort to work to disappointment to fatigue and all over again: A repetition so vital to psychoanalytic treatment. The compulsion to repeat, though dreadful, is an “insistence of speech” that can bring about change. To give in to the looping form, that is, is to break away from the fallacy of progress over and over again. Lemmy at the end of the film returns to the hotel, and Godard to the future he envisioned in the past that is Alpahville. Even cybernetics takes note of that.

Writing letters (against separation or really about anything) as an “insistence of speech” has the capacity to turn our indolence into fatigue, to set in motion a cycle that doesn’t abide by the myth called chronos—sequential time:

Each time one writes a letter, a phantom consumes its kisses before it arrives, perhaps before it leaves, so that it is already necessary to write another one.” Deleuze wrote this about Kafka, how he diagnosed the means of communication to manufacture ghosts.

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London is a ghost town. The rich are disappearing in flocks. Last week the French police returned a private jet of British vacationers on their way to their luxury Cannes villa. Others with family in the countryside abandoned the city at once and international students/workers have flown home indefinitely. From the look of it, most friends living in shared 4 or 5 bedroom houses even are having these spacious buildings to themselves.

This city of astronomical rental fees (fourth most expensive in the world by 2019) is so vividly vacant for once that it becomes unfathomable for homelessness based on a narrative of scarcity (an eerie rising figure of 40% in five years) to persist. Every building—house, store, bank, restaurant, hotel—these days is a location to squat. We can even picture a sci-fi resolution coming out of the crisis in which the homeless break into these properties en masse and claim ownership—the “fishing in the morning” and other outdoor activities might not be in order, but “critical reading in the afternoon” could be part of the program. It’s the counterpart to one of those early 70’s French anarchist flicks. Themroc, for instance, with Michel Piccoli’s stellar sober madness, who sparks his entire house complex to bring down their walls with mallets and throw their furniture out on the street and engage in unbridled incest: All sans a single word. If Piccoli’s character is a risk to containment—manifested in his urge to break out—the risk that the figure of the homeless and the stateless induce these days is of contagion—an urge to break in.

As many have noted, it took a crisis of this scale for Tories to endorse almost every single one of Corbyn’s campaign goals. Though the Johnson government—still very much in character—only exempted big business owners and landlords from their fiscal obligations at the outset, it then soon announced a 7b increase in welfare spending and rental holidays provided by housing councils. To be fair, the government has made 300 rooms available to “rough sleepers” known to charities since a few weeks ago. But this is a staggering low number compared to 3000-4000 sleepers on the streets per night.

There should be a meme for this twist in the neoliberal epic:

The punchline could even be:
meme2

The unsettling revelation of urban life these days has been the full subjugation of the social under the category of work—revelation as in revealing the obvious. Socializing in the 21st century is the other name for interacting with customers, coworkers, supervisors, employers, etc. Clearly those who’ve truly been socializing (before this mess) were the McDonald’s workers and the ones working on the till. Under such conditions, academia’s reclusive lifestyle has been a life-time of training for the times of quarantine. What social status affords the information class is the privilege to be exempt from the agonizing task of being “social”. This exemption has something to do with immunity.

In his book “Immunitas” (2002), Roberto Esposito demonstrates how the immunitarian mechanism—residing in law, computer science, linguistics, war, as much as medicine—incorporates within itself the community (the outside) it tries to block out. As we know, it is the introduction of a regulated and controlled poison that enables the body to build resilience towards intrusion. This very reciprocal gesture constructs borders as sites of conflict, but also renders them as essentially unstable and fluctuating. Immunitarianism in this sense is the dominant logic of democratic governance today. The risk of social interruption giving birth to an idea of neoliberal freedom. Immunity is always a matter of an external force. The outside is formed by the very introduction of the outside: Community and immunity are the two sides of the same coin.

It’s somewhat of a cliche how this dialectic, of community and immunity, has been coded into the flesh of the Brexiting UK. But what’s novel with bringing Esposito’s vision into this is to throw into relief where the old borders were and where the new ones are being drawn: The argument on self-isolation in order to “save others’ lives” is a case in point. Particularly since we see how in action the claim on the other’s life—bios—legitimizes a slew of micro and macro fascistic behavior. As a friend pointed out, quarantine-puritanism does not exist as long as there are pharmacists, shopkeepers, cleaners, medics who constitute the body politic of each locale. Since life and non-life have already infiltrated one another in many profound ways, we need to seriously confront the question of what it is that we are protecting and what community is being shaped as a result. Social isolation is necessary not for the sake of the “life of the other” (a reactionary approach with an arbitrary reduction of the social to the individual body), but precisely for constructing a community of scale and negotiating its terms of inclusion (an affirmative approach.)

It’s not too far-fetched that at some point we’d have to decide whether rodents have a say in this coming community. Apparently they have run amok at nights out of hunger, since most restaurants have been shut down for weeks and their resources have diminished. (We found one in our flat the other night ravaging a plant.) Another, not so implausible, finale could be a global insurgency organized by terrorist rats. Given our current state of affairs are we ready yet to figure in their agency in our utopian plots?

April 30th, 2020

For the longest time we wanted cybernetics to make logistics more efficient. So that cargos, bodies, data and cash could travel faster to the point of omnipresence. Cybernetics and governance find their etymological kinship in the seamlessness of this territorial venture, to steer the wheel of a ship so swiftly that the ship can be here and there at once.

With artificial general intelligence—known as strong AI—now something else is at stake. We want AI to mimic the faculty of contingent planning in the human brain: To gain the ability to act under conditions of uncertainty. We want AI not only to grasp the future uncertainty, but to get ahead of it. We want it to do what the humans could not ever do (otherwise what’s good with having it?) The artificial in the AI has to finish the emancipatory historical project that was once the exclusive vocation of humanity: We want AI to be the subject of revolution, that is, to act under conditions of uncertainty.

Cybernetics was the science of the conquest of space. AI is the cybernetic conquest of time. Its aim is to rupture the nautical map.

Can there be a revolution without its subjects (i.e. the revolutionary human subject)? From the global protests of 2019—a remarkable wave mobilizing the people of Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, and so on—to the 2020 pandemic the world has faced one such event after the other. With the lessons of the Arab Spring in mind, even with the most ardent optimists the question still remains: Are we encountering the emergence of a (new) collective will, or are these mere uprisings, devoid of a subject capable of resisting their subjugation to commercial and settler powers that remain indomitable. Powers that, as the institution of neoliberalism dictates, govern the most intimate aspects of our docile subjectivity even in the absence of a competent government. Powers that govern without governance.

The risk once associated with putting one’s life on the line in a moment of revolt is now surrendered to the weak AIs of hedge funds, financial speculators and security venturers. But while the risky play of algorithms unfolds in an investment bank in London, inhabitants of often further geographies take the toll of these games in the rapid rise (of prices) and fall (of national currencies) of their welfare. Contrary to the primitive forms of biophysical threat—heat, cold, a lion in the wild—our bodies do not process this type of insecurity immediately. And unlike the spectacles of warfare and insurrection, contemporary risk is rather prosaic and unphotogenic. The AIs that act as the sensorial skin of this financial risk are the ones that eventually get a feel—or even a thrill—of the future. For the rest of us earthlings who wear nothing but an organic epidermis, we still risk but without any authorship. If every moment of a “financialized daily life” has become a revolutionary time—a moment of absolute contingency—then the revolution carries on but we are no more its subjects.

There is no escaping the risk of being. We are going for broke every day at any rate, from our precarious individual conduct in the enclaves of the global north to the uncertainty of day-to-day survival in the Middle East. The necessity of “risking and speculating together,” as Erik Bordeleau writes, is imminent in our political horizon. But parallel to “re-engineering finance,” we are yet to engineer a concept of togetherness. This requires decoupling risk from its stakes at the sustenance of bare life, with its predetermined decree on who’s in and who’s out.

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