Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Human Chain as a Non-Violent Weapon

One of the main weapons of non-violent uprisings are human chains. The latter's power is, as with all chains, its continuous physical form: a line of protesters interlocking arms and blocking the mobility of state agents. This is the breathing, striving material form of a collective body unified in its aim to wrest space from the control of the state. Paul Virilio wrote that “a place changes in quality according to the facility with which it can be crossed” (Bunker Archaeology, p.19). Human chains qualitatively transform and politicize space because they make it hard for state agents to move, cross that space, and control it. This striation explicitly made against the state may in most cases be purely local and temporary; but it can disrupt the fake smoothness of corporate space deeply enough to expand, as it happened at Davis, the spatial reach of insurrections.

The pepper-spraying of protesters sitting on the ground with their interlocked arms at the UC Davis campus made apparent the physical and affective power of this bodily weapon. This is a form in which bodies are no longer dispersed but become interconnected nodes within a physically continuous assemblage. Only a few days earlier, the police had tried to violently disarticulate the solidity of exactly the same type of assemblage at UC Berkeley, recurrently hitting it with batons. In both Davis and Berkeley, individual bodies on the chain were hurt and the chain was briefly shaken. But the spatial striation was not broken. Furthermore, the affective shock generated by the images of violence on bodies that were in no position to cause harm provided the insurrection with a formidable media weapon.

The images of the UC Davis police officer calmly pepper-spraying human bodies as if they were insects went viral because the most defining feature of the human chain is that it is defensive in nature (see this great piece by Rei Terada). By interlocking and immobilizing the main parts of the human body that can be used to cause physical harm, arms and hands, this is an assemblage that because of its form cannot be a source of violence. And human chains that sit on the ground make this defensiveness even more apparent, for even the legs of protesters are purposely immobilized.

Few images affect more than images of violence inflicted on people who are clearly unable and unwilling to inflict harm. And this power is enhanced when those people offer their bodies to be targets of the violence of the state without intention to strike back. The courage and discipline of the bodies making up the chain at UC Davis reveal the determination that guides the occupy movement. But that the pepper-spraying backfired does not mean that the chemical violence against the human chain was random or irrational. The police officer, following orders, attacked the chain because of its power to prevent the state from having full control of the local terrain. Those interlocked bodies partly diminished the state’s capacity to act and move. It is therefore not surprising that the UC Berkeley Chancellor argued, in a brilliant illustration of Orwellian double-speak, that the formation of a human chain at Berkeley was “not non-violent” and, therefore, that it was violent. Officials are often keen to redefine violence not as the production of bodily harm but as the interruption of the mobility of state agents and capital. For the state, anything that disrupts its spatial flow is framed as “violent” and therefore in need of eradication by state violence.

Human chains have a long historical genealogy. In being created by people firmly grabbing each other’s bodies, this form materializes the multitude as a physically interlocked entity made up of multiplicities. This collective chain was made famous in the United States by Martin Luther King claiming space from state repression. Human chains were also central to the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, where protesters created more solid, hard-to-break assemblages by protecting their inter-locked and chained arms with long tubes. The relative resilience of this form was key in its power to shut down key street intersections and access to the buildings hosting the WTO on the first day of the protests. And some of the images of police officers calmly pepper-spraying human chains sitting on the ground in Seattle anticipate the spatial and bodily composition we now see recreated, twelve years later, at Davis.

The physical fragility of the form of the human chain is certainly that of the human body. Its efficacy is therefore lower in authoritarian political contexts. Under conditions of state terror, the state can easily destroy human chains and turn them into lines of corpses. If the human chain at UC Davis had been formed in Cairo, it is likely that some of those students would be now dead or severely wounded. The over 30 deadly victims of state violence in Egypt in the last few days speak volumes of the uneven terrains in which the global insurrection unfolds. Yet both cases differ in degree, not in substance. The teargas and weapons used to hurt and kill protesters in Egypt are “made in USA.” And in both Egypt and the US the state is determined to suppress dissent by dispersing those collective bodily forms that prevent the state from controlling space. The shock and disbelief that many Americans have expressed at the surge of police violence against the occupy movement (“This can’t happen in America!”) also reveals that they have been affectively secluded from the fact that the US government has always been ready to unleash deadly violence to protect capitalist interests, at home and abroad. It is to be seen, given the growing unrest, whether state violence in the US streets remains non-deadly for too long. The Obama administration, it should not be forgotten, recently declared that it has the right, using its sole discretion, to kill citizens deemed enemies of the state in the name of the state of exception.

The dismantling by the police of the node of resonance in Liberty Park in New York only seems to have accelerated the spread of the rebellion and its adoption of even more rhizomic, mobile, unstable, unpredictable lines of spatial expansion. This expansion is leading to the creation of myriad human chains to protect encampments, to prevent families whose homes are foreclosed by banks from being evicted by the police, and to shut down banks, corporate offices, and university buildings. The occupation of everywhere is no longer just a slogan but an actual physical struggle for the control of myriad nodes of the national and global space. And one of the main weapons the insurrection relies on to challenge the police in public space has been the human chains that striate the smoothness of state space. The other fundamental weapon have been the images of state agents trying to violently disrupt these collective spatial occupations. The police attack on the human chain at UC Davis has triggered a massive call to occupy the whole of the spatial fabric of the University of California system on November 28. And yesterday in New Hampshire, protesters were able to reach the body of the President for the first time: by interrupting his morally empty speech with a "mic check!" and by handing him a note telling him that his silence condones state violence on peaceful protesters. The occupation of spaces on the terrain continues unabated and has even reached the tightly secluded, scripted eyes and ears of the Head of State.

The most important moment of the pepper-spray incident was not the act of chemical violence now immortalized in popular culture; it was the reaction of the multitude that surrounded the human chain and was deeply affected by an attack that they could personally see, hear, smell, and touch (it is worth watching the video of the whole sequence in detail). For several minutes and without interruption, the whole of the space was saturated with screams, cries, and chants of “shame on you! shame on you!” aimed at the cops. The chants gained momentum and made an indignant yet composed multitude slowly move onto the space held by the police. At one point, the cops could not but slowly begin retreating. But they did not retreat orderly, in a straight line and facing ahead, following formal training procedures. They backed away gradually but in relative disarray, looking nervous, intimidated, confused. Many moved their heads left and right, as if waiting for an unexpected attack. A few raised their guns, as if they were fearful soldiers on an imperial patrol chased by savages, moving in a terrain made hostile by a sonic and bodily saturation they did not understand. But the protesters were only armed with myriad filming devices pointed at them, the resonance of their chants, and the physical form of their massive numbers occupying space. After the police had been slowly retreating for several minutes, the chants shifted to "Whose university? Our university!" The final chant was the coup de grace. And it was an order: "You can go! You can go! You can go!" The police officers promptly obeyed the loud command to abandon that space that emanated from the multitude. They turned around and went away, relieved it was over. The students cheered and chanted, "Whose quad? Our quad!" They had secured, with the help of the human chain, the occupation of UC Davis.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street as a Node of Resonance

The North American insurrection began when a handful of people occupied public space and began producing resonance. This is the material force that toppled three political regimes in North Africa and can only be produced by multitudes coming together on the streets. Liberty Square became a human assemblage that debates, eats, sings, drums, marches, sleeps, and dreams together and, in doing so, turns space into a machine of resonance generation. This resonance is embodied in the human mic that makes bodies speak in unison and vibrate together. The node of resonance in New York has radiated its force in all directions and precipitated the emergence of a continental political movement whose spatial form is the rhizome: a de-centered, horizontal, multi-sited assemblage of myriad other nodes interconnected with each other and recognizing no authority other than the collective power generated by the nodes.

The temporality of this spatial form, also generated in Tunisia and Egypt, seems historically unique and deserves closer scrutiny. In what follows I seek to examine the shifting spatial form and affective pulsations of the nodes that make up the local articulations of a leaderless anti-capitalist network.

Nodes of resonance expand by affecting people elsewhere and making them resonate. But this expansion only takes place if it involves receptive audiences. Countless nodes of resonance dissipate because they encounter a limit in audiences that are not affected, or are affected negatively. In North America, the inspiration created by the node of resonance on Tahrir Square and the despair generated by Obama’s unapologetic embrace of the capitalist looters finally created a more receptive political topography, a fertile ground for the expansion and multiplication of anti-systemic spatial nodes.

The power of the resonance first created on Liberty Square on September 17 has been its sustained temporality: the fact that it has been reverberating continuously for almost two months. Yet the temporality of resonance expansion is not linear or predictable and never will be. Political resonances do not simply “propagate” in a smooth space free of material and affective obstacles, as if they were waves created by a stone falling on a pond. Resonance expansion is uneven and a permanent arena of dispute involving multitudes on the street, messages and images circulating at high speed through media networks, and state violence. And this temporality is not Bergson's, unfolding on dead, unchanging space. The occupy movement is not acting on a fixed spatial matrix; it is transforming the material form and affective nature of space. The rhizome of nodes of resonance now interconnecting hundreds of sites all over North America has changed the political climate because it has changed the shape of space.

In a recent and important piece, Judith Butler wrote that while demonstrations depend on the prior physical existence of streets and squares to exist, “it is equally true that the collective actions collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture. As much as we must insist on there being material conditions for public assembly and public speech, we have also to ask how it is that assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment.” Butler poses the right question, but does not get to answer it in full. Nodes of resonance, indeed, gather, animate, and organize parks and squares and reconfigure their materiality. But to say that a node has changed a “space” or a “place” gives us only a limited glimpse of this material transformation. These concepts prevent us from seeing that what changed is the form and affective pulsation of what I propose to call the terrain. This essay, inspired by the occupy movement, is my first attempt to outline the principles of a theory of the terrain, which I first began exploring in my review-essay on the documentary Restrepo.

The terrain is space as physical form. The exploration of its political salience in the global insurrections that are changing the world demands an approach to space as form first articulated by Henri Lefebvre. In The Urban Revolution, he wrote that the urban should be conceived as a particular form, “that can best be appreciated at night from an airplane.” When we see the urban form from above, we can identify a spatial density that organizes mobility around a core. Cities are distinct shapes of that form. It is not surprising that New York City is usually represented visually from the sky: a dense conglomerate of tall buildings (with a green rectangle in the middle) saturating an island on the edge of the Atlantic and surrounded by a much wider urban density sprawling in all directions. The form of the twin towers, likewise, was inseparable from their destruction ten years ago, because their distinct vertical form at the tip of Manhattan attracted the hijacked planes like a magnet. Paris is equally inseparable from its form (which is also best distinguished from above): the waving course of the Seine, the flat horizon extending over buildings of the same height, the verticality of the Eiffel power.

But the view from above is also the eye of the state, which is reified on the two-dimensional flatness of maps. And this panoptical field of vision evokes transcendence detached from actual bodies. Alfred Korzybski said it in 1931, “the map is not the terrain.” This is why the terrain, once it is appreciated as form from above, can only be examined in its contested ruggedness from the ground level, where the eyes and bodies of non-state actors move, act, plot, and face the violence of the state.

The people currently generating nodes of resonance all over North America know all too well they are fully immersed in the three-dimensional forms of the terrain: the park, the tents, the buildings around them. More importantly, the terrain of the nodes is a space in flux, first, because bodies in motion are profoundly physical (if clearly distinct) components of its materiality. The terrain is, in this regard, inseparable from human action and mobility. The node of resonance in New York is a striation of the spatial smoothness of Liberty Square that is “real, physical” (as Reverend Billy described the occupy movement): a maze of bodies, tents, sleeping bags, laptops, food, and signposts that make up a form of an elastic nature, made and remade by patterns of movement.

These patterns involve not only protesters but also the efforts by the police to disrupt and dismantle this form using physical force. The same way the creative labor of the protesters produced the node as a physical living form, the violence of the police is aimed at physically destroying the node as a particular collective form that striates public space in uncoded ways. This is why the the police violent attacks on nodes of resonance creates widespread bodily damage and material debris: the ruins of the node.

But the form of the node is also made up of the built environment, which is in each case distinct. A distinct dimension of the spatial form of Occupy Wall Street is that it is surrounded by tall buildings: the corporate verticality that defines much of the form of the Manhattan grid: the phallic form of abstract space. The history of this park reveals how this space was secreted by capital: a corporation built Liberty Square in exchange for being authorized by the city to build, next to it, a tower above city-approved limits.

A public space under corporate sovereignty was the form that this corporation was asked to create in exchange for a further pull toward the spatial smoothness of the sky, where the capitalist fantasies of absolute speed on smooth space seem more real. That is the verticality brilliantly parodied by Stephen Colbert, who gazed at Occupy Wall Street from above in a nearby building, safe in the heights of corporate space. The state has its own panopticum on Liberty Square, an odd, vertical robotic structure that looks at the node from above through dark windows, permanently observing the form of the node.

That protesters, unlike the state, look around them horizontally (rather than above) also signals that the field of vision of the insurrection, unlike the panopticum eye of the state, is grounded on the affective, shifting, mobile materiality of the terrain. This is a rhizomic eye that, armed with myriad recording devices and connected to the web, creates a non-state panopticum: the eye of a multitude scanning the streets for images of state violence that can be then disseminated globally and used against the state.

The current material form of Liberty Square can certainly be called “a place.” But treating it as a place and not as a node with a distinct form abstracts, first, the bodily and resonant presence that has remade it and, second, the myriad material relations and flows that interconnect Liberty Square with the rest of the city and the rest of the world. A node is not just any space but a point of entanglement, thickness, and articulation that opens relations with other nodes in the rhizome and with the multiplicity of the global elsewhere. And a node is a space whose form is not temporarily stable.

What the concepts of place and space cannot really account for is that the material form of the terrain has a temporality that changes the very form of space. In many parts of the world, the materiality of the terrain changes dramatically from one season to the next. In the South American Gran Chaco (where I have conducted most of my anthropological fieldwork), the rainy season that begins in December transforms a flat, semiarid region into a vast and impassable swamp. The terrain becomes so saturated with water that for a few months space is at points defined by viscosity rather than solidity. Russia in the winter epitomizes how the freezing of the ground and the massive presence of solid blocs of snow alter the form of the terrain in an equally material way. And these shifting forms severely restrain human mobility. The seasonal striation of the Russian flatlands was crucial in the defeat of a Nazi war machine stopped on its tracks by the huge physical obstacles planted on the terrain by “General Winter.”

Likewise, the arrival of colder temperatures throughout North America has transformed the form and pulsation of the nodes of resonance. In late October, a snowstorm fell over the east coast and covered many nodes, including Liberty Square, with snow and freezing temperatures. A sensory affect, cold, created a new priority: to protect the bodies from it by further transforming the form of the terrain. Contradicting many pundits’ predictions, the early arrival of winter conditions precipitated not the end of the nodes but their physical transformation into more solid winter quarters. In Occupy Toronto, protesters set up three Mongolian wood huts with a heater inside and rapidly insulated tents with rolls of foam thermal sheeting. At Occupy Wall Street, the confiscation by the police of their fuel generators changed the node in a different way: through the introduction of a dozen bicycle-mounted generators. These generators that transform bodily energy into electric energy graphically illustrates that the node is the bodies sustaining it through their own resonances. The resonance animating the node is the same used to recharge batteries, create heat, and provide the node with “people’s power.”

The temporality in the physical changes on the terrain, however, is primarily the product of political forces that reveal the affective nature of the terrain, i.e. its power to affect. Political resonance usually expands in bursts produced by affective shocks. In both North Africa and North America, insurgent resonances expanded dramatically when the public was exposed to images of state violence against peaceful protestors. These images affected thousands and made them act, creating a terrain more receptive to anti-status quo resonances and producing further changes in the form of the node. As in Egypt, attempts by the state to shut down the nodes of resonance on Liberty Square and elsewhere have backfired and made them bigger and stronger, even if some nodes are indeed temporarily disrupted. The rhizomic form of the occupy movement is most apparent in its leaderless and multi-centered spatial elasticity, which has been disrupted here and there but only momentarily and without disrupting the rhizomic whole. “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines”; and these lines “always tie back to one another” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 9).

Because the spatial nodes of the occupy movement are outward-looking, adaptable, and elastic, they have propagated the physical presence of their anti-capitalist resonances elsewhere in the urban fabric through regular marches and demonstrations. This reveals that the material transformations on the terrain generated by the rhizome are politically expansive and work through lines of spatial saturation: the saturation of space with a high density of bodies and sounds. This spatial saturation is the "Occupy Everywhere." It was the spatial saturation of the streets, after all, created by huge multitudes all over Egypt on February 10 2011, which overwhelmed the Mubarak regime and its media modulations.

This saturation is disrupting, even if only locally and for brief moments, the material and ideological flow of the capitalist-state machine, creating striations on the smooth space of capital. A case in point is the explosive rise of the node of Occupy Oakland, which shut down a node in the flow of the global capitalist current (the port) and has now spilled over onto the UC Berkeley campus. At a smaller scale, this is also the saturation created by protesters who infiltrated manicured indoor spaces where Republican politicians (such as the Wisconsin governor or Michele Bachman) were propagating the usual capitalist propaganda. Those spaces were immersed in, and disrupted by, the collective resonance of the “mic check!”

The state has responded with spatial saturations of its own, which at the level of the street involve massive police forces and the use of teargas. Teargas is the smell of all insurrections. Its smell and cloud form reveals that the state has lost control of the streets to multitudes that need to be dispersed with chemicals. The use of teargas by the Oakland police in late October marked, for this reason, a threshold: the coming of age of the occupy movement as a coast-to-coast insurrection and the consolidation of Oakland as the main node of resonance on the west coast.

These multiple and ever shifting forms of spatial saturation create dissonance: ruptures in the everyday flow of the corporate ordering of the world. And hereby lies the political negativity guiding the affirmative presence of the occupy movement: the creation of widening cracks in the corporate spatial fabric. Yet this expansive resonance is immersed in a permanent field of struggle with the state machine, which is recurrently trying to shut down the nodes both physically and through the creation of its own affective shocks: news reports about drug abuse, sexual abuse, and violence at the nodes that seek to make the public fearful and less receptive to the resonances generated by them. The media tells the public what the state wants to hear: that these are nodes of dissonance devoid of positivity; sources of anti-systemic instability that are threatening, dangerous, dirty, polluting. The recent wave of attempts by the state to shut down nodes all over North America, including the raiding of Liberty Square which is happening as I finish this essay, make apparent what protesters already know: that the future of this incipient but growing insurrection depends on their capacity to keep these nodes resonating so that their expansive dissonances begin disrupting the global capitalist machine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Corpse of The Sovereign

The global circulation of the images of Gaddafi’s corpse and the long lines of people eager to see it in person reveal, rather than a generic fascination with gore, that this cadaver embodied a state that had been destroyed. The power of Gaddafi’s corpse to affect millions reveals that the state itself is a bio-political assemblage. A man who saw the corpse on display articulated how he was affected by it. “Before, when we watched him on TV, he always seemed so strong. Now he looks so weak.” It’s that simple. The sight of the corpse of the sovereign shatters, even if briefly, the idea of the state as an all-powerful, transcendent force; it brings to light the immanence of the state, a human-made and therefore perishable political contingency that in Libya acquired bodily form. Bio-politics is not a regime of power generated by a state immune from it. Bio-politics also involves the breathing tissue that makes up the body of the sovereign. This is why, as Giorgio Agamben reminded us, the public execution of Louis XVI in 1793, and the exhibition of his head, was a turning point in the history of European modernity.

The power of Gaddafi’s body when he was alive was apparent in the political liminality of the two months that followed the fall of Tripoli. His elusive body and the resilience of his last military forces in Sirte were enough to erode the power of the new regime, despite the latter's control of the vast majority of the Libyan territory and despite the military and financial support of its imperial patrons. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime, first announced back in August, only became real when the body of its sovereign suddenly appeared in public as a corpse. The Libyan NTC announced that the appearance of the corpse signaled that the Gaddafi state was at last finished and that celebrations of victory were now in order. The new state, therefore, inadvertently admitted that it had been weakened by the spatial elusiveness of the body of a sovereign.

Spinoza famously argued that all bodies have the capacity to affect and be affected. Yet corpses mark the threshold after which bodies can continue affecting without being affected. And few objects affect the bodies of the living more powerfully than a corpse. This is why the display of images of corpses, as Alan Klima argued in The Funeral Casino, releases affective energies that are often hard to master. And the same way that different bodies have different capacities to affect, some corpses can affect more viscerally than others. Being the embodiment of the state, the corpse of the sovereign generates affective excess that spills over the attempts to control it.

The insurgents who captured and executed Gaddafi sought to channel the affects released by the corpse of the sovereign through the language of revenge. The mood of many Libyans was not only one of exultant celebration at the death of the sovereign but also of indignation at the asymmetry of the affects they had exchanged with him. As a living body, Gaddafi had profoundly affected their lives for over forty years. The way his body had been affected by insurgent violence seemed, in comparison, insignificant. The corpse was turned not just into a trophy on display but also into an object of communication to highlight an unpaid debt. A remarkable number of the people who entered the improvised morgue to see the corpse expressed a strong urge to communicate with it: insulting it, gesturing toward it, talking to it, affected by the presence of a cold mass of dead tissue that could not be affected. This was a communicative practice performed in front of other bodies and cameras but aimed at the petrified carcass of the state. And in attracting so many living bodies eager to communicate with it, this dead organic form revealed its afterlife; it also affirmed the corpse's ongoing power as a fetish.

The debates in the media about the appropriateness and ethics of displaying the image of Gaddafi’s corpse silence that the western media has always been eager to show corpses as long as they are not white. We regularly consume images of lifeless dark bodies from Haiti to Iraq and from Rwanda to Afghanistan, but the taboo to show corpses of “people like us” remains in effect as if it were law. Imperial forces learned their lesson in Vietnam: the image of the corpses of US soldiers on TV affected too many people at home and eroded the support for the war. Even the flag-wrapped coffins that hide those corpses from view were deemed by the Bush administration as having too much affective power, and were banned from being visually represented. The differential affects generated by corpses racialized as different are not unlike the old unwritten rule according to which showing the breasts of indigenous women on National Geographic was not real nudity. Those non-white bodies, after all, affect us differently. Similarly, the western media has socialized its public to be relatively disaffected by the images of non-white corpses. The widespread presence of the corpse of an Arab sovereign on the cover of myriad western media outlets is part of this racialized imperial genealogy.

The affective power of this corpse has elicited the predictable hypocrisy of the imperial powers that regularly send death squads and drones to execute countless people without due process, including their own citizens, yet expressed outrage at the fact that Gaddafi was executed. In Libya, not surprisingly, these hollow calls have been met with scorn. “Did anyone complain when the Americans shot Osama bin Laden in the head?” asked a rebel leader to The Guardian, reminding us that the shot in Gaddafi’s head simply followed the standard operating procedure established by imperial forces.

The insurrections of North Africa have now toppled three different regimes. Yet the spatial trajectories followed by the bodies of the three deposed sovereigns have been markedly different. The first toppled dictator abandoned the national space of Tunisia to avoid popular wrath and lives in exile; the second did not leave Egypt, yet popular pressure has been strong enough to force the military to put him under arrest and begin his prosecution; only in Libya the insurgent forces killed the sovereign on the streets after having captured him bloodied but alive. The execution of the ruler highlighted the insurrection’s power but also, inadvertently, empowered the ruler’s corpse. They did so, first, by fulfilling Gaddafi’s pledge to die in his country. The affective force released by this particular corpse may not be easily dispelled.

Spinoza famously said that we don’t know what the body can or cannot do. This is probably more so with corpses. What makes corpses affectively unpredictable is that their power to affect is liberated from the capacity to be affected. This gives corpses, and especially those that embody the state, a potent political afterlife. Gaddafi’s corpse was buried secretly in the depths of the desert, the same way that the cadaver of Bin Laden was thrown into the depths of the ocean, because their executioners don’t really know (and hence fear) what a corpse can do.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the State of Exception

On Friday, September 30, 2011 the United States announced it had legally murdered two US citizens without due legal process in Yemen. The following day, the police kettled and arrested 700 anti-corporate protesters who were marching peacefully on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Seemingly unrelated and spatially distant from each other, these events nonetheless reveal that the US citizens taking to the streets to challenge the capitalist looting of the commons are also confronting a state that has just declared that it can assassinate, without recourse to courts, citizens deemed hostile to the state.

The Bush administration's abandonment of due process to torture and assassinate non-citizens, allegedly because of the “exceptional” nature of the war on terror, is well documented. Obama has now extended this principle to US citizens by suspending the Fifth Amendment, the one that says “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Further, Obama seems to have ordered to put an end to the torture and rendition of suspects under Bush so that those suspects could be executed. This is an extraordinary turning point, for the murder of citizens without due process of law is now decreed legal. The same way that for George Orwell the clearest examples of authoritarian double-speak under Big Brother were the slogans “war is peace” and “slavery is freedom,” now the motto under the Bush-Obama paradigm is “ignoring your constitutional rights is legal.” As Giorgio Agamben has argued, this state of exception also defined the Nazi state, which in its twelve years of existence was under a constitution suspended by Hitler in the name of defending the German nation. The political regimes of North America and Europe seem to be moving in a similar direction, ruled by constitutions that are recurrently suspended because the state of the exception, as Walter Benjamin once argued, is no longer the exception but the rule.

“Imperial sovereignty means that no point of space or time and no element of the bio-political tissue is safe from intervention” (Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War, p. 157). The bio-political tissue of US citizens was never safe from imperial intervention, yet this intervention was at least partly regulated. In the 2007 film The Bourne Ultimatum, a secret CIA program is shut down, and its directors prosecuted, when Jason Bourne revealed that its hit-men had assassinated US citizens without due process. The movie, and its message of accountability for state terror, represents a paradigm of the past. The last obstacle that put limits to the reach of imperial death squads, US citizenship rights, has been declared void. Now the bio-political tissue of every single human being on the planet can be destroyed with impunity through an executive order based on classified evidence.

This de-facto dissolution of the distinction between citizens and non-citizens also means that the very nature of the global geographies under imperial sovereignty is shifting. In extending the reach of the state of exception, imperial formations are also creating globalized political subjects that are equally vulnerable to state terror irrespective of nationality. While imperial violence continues being racialized and directed largely at non-white bodies, we are moving toward a paradigm of sovereignty in which all human bodies on the planet are potential expressions of what Agamben calls “bare life,” bodies that can be killed without breaking the law.

This is a somber reminder that the protesters on Wall Street are challenging not only corporate America but also a state that has fully embraced the regular use of death squads in the name of national security. As we know all too well, in the imperial order of things the difference between non-violent activists and terrorists is often a question of language and labels, as was apparent when Joe Biden argued that Julian Assange is a “high-tech terrorist.” But the official announcement this past Friday that the state of exception has entered a new political phase also confirms what the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been saying all along: that ordinary US citizens have been reduced to a disempowered underclass whose democratic rights are recurrently overrun, and made meaningless, by the hijacking of the political system by corporate power. And that they have been inspired by similar protests in Egypt and Spain reveal that they see themselves as part of a global multitude striving for universal forms of justice. The same way that the state of exception tends to equalize all humans as potential targets irrespective of their citizenship, the protesters on Wall Street are responding in kind and embracing a more universal political subjectivity, embodied in their slogan "We are the 99%."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Revolution Is Not Being Televised

During the Egyptian insurrection, the Mubarak regime tried to counter the multitudes on Tahrir Square by avoiding mentioning them on the state-run TV. The so-called liberal media in the United States highlighted that this authoritarian media blackout brought to light the freedom of expression we enjoy in “the West.” This is why the US media silencing of over a week of protests on Wall Street reminds us that New York City and Cairo, despite the different scale and tone of the unrest, are not that different from each other after all. Further, the power of the media in the United States to silence political events that may disrupt the status quo is comparatively vaster and probably more widespread and effective. And in the nation that defines itself as the land of the free, media blackouts are created not by the state but by that peculiar branch of corporate America that, with the full support of the state, profits from the creation of what qualifies as news.

For the past eight days, a remarkable grassroots movement against the capitalist looting of the commons inspired by similar protests in Spain, Greece, and Egypt has disrupted Wall Street, the spatial core of the global financial system. A crowd has camped out in public spaces, staging protests, and organizing assemblies to debate the social devastation created by the bankers based in the surrounding buildings. From day one, the blackout of the protests in the US media was eerie. Whereas a handful of wacky Tea Party activists always receives widespread coverage, “occupy Wall Street” was treated by all major corporate media outlets as a non-event (with a few exceptions that highlighted the media blackout, like Keith Olbermann). On Friday, September 23, as the protests entered their first week, The New York Times confirmed where its priorities are in the production of what is (and what is not) newsworthy by running on its front page an article about the worrisome rise in the theft of pigs in rural Illinois.

On Saturday, September 24, The New York Times was finally forced to partly lift its Pravda-esque silence. But this only happened because protesters became dangerously mobile and began marching uptown spreading their noisy anti-capitalist message and were arrested by the dozens for no other reason than protesting. The article trivializes the protest as a quasi-hippie gathering led by “noble” but confused and misinformed youths who “say” that the financial system “favors the rich and powerful over ordinary citizens.” The abrupt and unambiguously hostile coverage reflects the shift from what Michel-Ralph Trouillot called a formula of erasure to a formula of banalization, which are both operations of silencing. The silencing is the mandate by corporate America to treat potentially threatening political movements as non-events.

In other entries, I analyzed how the spatial spread of the insurrections of North Africa and the Middle followed a process of resonance expansion, through which thousands of people coming together on the streets created politically affective messages that resonated with countless other bodies elsewhere, often through alternative media that evaded state censorship. This is why counter-revolutionary efforts in those countries sought to contain the expansion of those insurgent resonances by all possible means, including violence, censorship, and the transformation of the official media into a machinery set out to prevent the spatial expansion of those resonances. In the United States today, more so than in any other country on the planet, the political machineries that work tirelessly to prevent anti-corporate resonances from expanding are owned by the same corporate forces that profit from the devastation that is wreaking North America and Europe. As Michael Parenti forcefully put in the film The Panama Deception, “The media is not associated with or allied with corporate America. The media is corporate America."

As in Egypt or Tunisia, the protests in New York are spreading and growing through alternative media and the internet. But this expansion has so far been largely contained by the media blackout. Maybe it is time for the protesters in NY to follow the lead of protesters elsewhere in the world and challenge the blackout not only by calling and emailing news stations (as many are doing) but also by protesting at the gates of those stations’ buildings. In Egypt, the multitudes in Cairo eroded the censorship of the state-run TV by simply surrounding its main building and demanding to be heard. Hours before Mubarak fell, these multitudes forced those inside the TV station to turn their cameras onto the streets and change the tone of the coverage. The same happened in Caracas, Venezuela, on April 13, 2002, when millions of people took to the streets to oppose the US-sponsored coup against Hugo Chávez. As protests raged all over Venezuela, the private TV stations that were involved in the coup and controlled all airwaves played movies and soap operas. This Orwellian erasure of the insurrection by the corporate media only came to an end when thousands of protestors surrounded the stations demanding that their opposition to the coup be shown on TV. Indeed, The Revolution Will Not be Televised, as Gill Scott-Heron wrote in the 1970s. Except that we should probably change the tense of the verb in this now famous phrase, for this is not a silencing that will happen sometime in a distant and abstract future but is happening right now, in the year of the beginning of the globalized insurrections against the imperial order of things.

The popular insurrections in Cairo and Caracas remind us that the seemingly deterritorialized power of media conglomerates is ultimately grounded in the actual spaces where a select group of individuals manufacture and disseminate “news.” And those events reveal that under conditions of media censorship it is ultimately in those spaces that these actors are politically most vulnerable and, in the US, most sensitive to their public image as sources of news. Any such protest at the gates of The New York Times will no doubt trigger, aside from aggressive tactics by the NYPD, predictable accusations that it involves “fascist thugs” trying to curb the media’s “freedom of expression.” But the past eight days in New York have made apparent that this is just the freedom of corporate America to shut down the growing grassroots opposition to its ongoing looting of public wealth.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Capitalist Looters Don't Wear Hoodies

The global media has been nervously covering two simultaneous forms of destruction: the obliteration of wealth in the financial markets and the destruction of property in the United Kingdom. This destruction involves different actors, objects, temporalities, and spatial scales. The looting by youths in the UK had a short-term temporality and has been territorially contained within one nation. But this destruction had a profound affective impact because of its power to temporarily wrest the streets from the control of the state and because it can be immediately represented, visually and live, on countless screens. The corporate media promptly mobilized these images of burning shops, burning police cars, or wounded passersby to scare and enrage the “normal citizens” and modulate their attachment to state authority through the image of looters in hoodies.

But the media are simultaneously covering another form of violent looting, one that operates on a much vaster temporal and spatial scale and creates much deeper forms of social and material devastation. The sacking by the global financial elites of the collective wealth of myriad countries, from the United States to Greece, has been going on for much longer and is ruining not just property but millions of lives. As Paul Krugman has repeatedly argued, the main outcome of this neoliberal devastation is pain. The debris that testifies to this pain is there for anyone to see: dozens of millions of jobs destroyed, millions of homes foreclosed, public services reduced or shut down in hospitals, schools, and public libraries, pension plans evaporated, social security eroded. In Europe, the UK has led the way in this hugely destructive transfer of wealth away from the commons. Yet this devastation and those responsible for it are harder to represent visually in the 20 second-clips that the media cultivates. Being scattered in countless places, this is destruction that the corporate media hides from view or dilutes politically as the product of ever-uncontrollable, faceless and ghostly market forces.

Yet this capitalist sacking can and should be represented. And we should start calling it by what it is: looting, as many people in the critical blogosphere do. This capitalist sacking has accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis and has become a destructive appropriation, supported with the repressive power of the state and in most cases against the will of the majorities, of what used to belong in the public domain. Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, the UK, the US are all variations of the same story.

The looters in hoodies are being promptly punished by the state. With over 1,000 arrests, the British courts are at capacity and overwhelmed. The capitalist looters in Armani suits, in contrast, destroy with impunity. They know they are above the law because they are the planetary elite, what we should probably call (resurrecting an old-fashioned but also crystal-clear political concept) the global oligarchy of the 21st century. Oligarchs are, after all, actors so wealthy and powerful that they control the state and do as they please with impunity, even if they act against of the will of the majority of the population. Our oligarchs devastated the world economy in 2008-2009 yet landed on their feet with a grin on their face, knowing all too well that this destruction not only left them unscathed but actually made their wealth thrive. These looters supported by the military might of the state that follows their orders thrive on destruction. And they continue calling the shots and preaching the wonders of free markets, as if millions of homes had not been already devastated under their watch. Obama, after all, put the US economy in charge of the men from Wall Street (i.e. Larry Summers) who deregulated the financial markets and led them to their collapse (as the film The Inside Job crudely shows). These professional looters in suits do not have to fear being called “thugs” by the British prime minister despite bullying whole nations into destroying their social safety nets and shutting down hospitals or daycare centers. Like zombies insensitive to the ruins piling up around them, they keep preaching their old credo, and they keep cashing in big time, as we enter yet another destructive economic turbulence of their own creation.

It’s about time to stop calling the devastation created by capitalism “creative destruction,” as progressive thinkers like David Harvey often do. Popularized by Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s, the term “creative destruction” appropriates the negativity of Marx’s view of capitalist destruction in The Communist Manifesto yet rephrases it as creative, thereby depoliticizing it. Through a subtle yet decisive ideological sleight of hand, capitalist destruction is redefined as innovative, positive, desirable: an unavoidable outcome of its thriving dynamism. It is therefore not surprising that neoliberal economists and corporate apologists often celebrate the “creative destruction” of capitalism, for in this usage the positive element, creation, subsumes and neutralizes the negativity of destruction. But there is nothing creative in capitalist destruction for those who live amid its rubble. Capitalism certainly produces enormous amounts of goods, wealth, and technological innovation, but as part of a destructive system of production that, as Ann Stoler would put it, ruins the lives of millions. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story can be seen in this regard as a gripping journey to the experience of people whose lives have been destroyed by unregulated financial capitalism in the United States.

This capitalist global devastation dwarfs the destruction of property by kids in hoodies in the British streets. In an interview on BBC that has gone viral, Darcus Howe forcefully articulated (to the horror of the anchorwoman) that in the UK this devastation is profoundly racialized and supported by police brutality. This, he explained (while the anchorwoman was trying to shut him down), is the affective terrain that created the rage behind the riots. Many analysts have emphasized the obvious: that riots are complex social phenomena that respond to multiple factors and determinations. But the action of looters in hoodies in thousands of different places all over England is definitively not disentangled from the capitalist looting that has eroded social services and opportunities in those same spaces and is taking, again, the global economy onto the edge of the abyss.

The capitalist looters, needless to say, don’t want us to connect the dots. A certain Andrew Roberts on The Daily Beast wrote, with indignation, a piece on the riots entitled: “Stop blaming the wealthy.” He proposes, instead, to blame the poor. The core reason of the riots, he says, is the welfare state and the “entitlements” that make poor people lazy. This “uprising,” he tells us, is that of “the non-working, anti-working, would-do-anything-sooner-than-work class.” The cheerleaders of corporate power hate it when people point their fingers at the oligarchs. It’s much easier to point to youths in hoodies and call them “scum.”

The English riots explosively articulate aspects of the collective angst that has marked most of the affective political currents and the many insurrections interconnecting different parts of the world in 2011. In their purely destructive form, they shattered and subverted the fetishized form of the commodity world, even if failing to create in those ruptured streets positive political solidarities like the ones emerging in Greece and Spain (or the ones created in the previous wave of anti-cut protests in the UK). The lack of a positive political message tends to be read by much of the public (through the lens of the corporate media) as mindless, criminal violence one needs to be afraid of. The right-wing celebration of state repression tends to benefit from this type of destruction as long as public debates do not place it firmly amid the much larger wave of capitalist destruction. The insurrections at the Paris working-class suburbs in 2005 were, unfortunately, a gift to the capitalist looters. As Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy demonized the rioters as “rabble” and became the champion of a scared middle-class who shortly thereafter elected him as president. He then proceeded to hand the government over to professional looters (the crème of the national oligarchy) committed to sacking and eroding the national pension plan, despite generalized and massive political opposition on the streets. In France, the bogyman of the hooded kids setting cars on fire served the capitalist looters well.

But this doesn't need to be the case elsewhere. The riots in the UK were dramatic ruptures in the texture of the neoliberal order that also offer spaces for political and theoretical illumination. As the Situationist International argued in reference to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles: "Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence." The English riots reveal with brutality that there is nothing orderly and calm behind the façade of everyday consumerism most of these youths feel excluded from. And they make it clear that capitalist devastation is taking a toll. Its affective and material outcome are eruptions of violent destruction. As Paul Lewis and James Harkin from The Guardian put it after talking with several rioters, capturing the rudimentary but anti-status quo politics of their actions: “This is unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui. It's a provocation, a test of will and a hamfisted two-finger salute to the authorities.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, as Naomi Klein has shown in The Shock Doctrine, Latin America was the terrain on which the global elites first experimented the extremely unregulated capitalism that is now wreaking havoc in the US and Europe. This is why many people in and from Latin America, myself included, are following the news coming from Europe and North America as déjà vu. Privatizations, brutal spending cuts, default, riots? Been there done that. By the early 2000s, the capitalist sacking of Latin America had been so devastating that it led to several popular insurrections and a wave of democratically-elected left and center-left governments that, despite their differences, have partly reconstructed the welfare state, put limits to the reign of corporate power and the IMF, and set on a course of sustained economic growth. And many of those responsible for the capitalist looting of the 1990s had to flee the continent. Most found a safe haven on ivy league campuses in the United States.

In 2000-2001, I had a first-hand, often surreal experience with some of these former looters in exile when I was a postdoc at Harvard and kept running into them on campus. Most of these former officials could simply not live in their home countries anymore because they were rightly seen as responsible for widespread social destruction. I once attended a talk, for instance, that included in the public the former President of Ecuador Jamil Mahuad (toppled by an insurrection in January 2000), his former finance minister, and a former minister of Menem’s cabinet in Argentina. They were all Harvard fellows. But I was still not fully prepared to stomach a speech by the then president of Harvard, Larry Summers, who had just deregulated US financial markets under Clinton. In the spring of 2001, Summers praised at a public event the recent nomination of Domingo Cavallo as finance minister of Argentina for a second time. He condescendingly argued that Cavallo’s Harvard education guaranteed the success of his tenure, failing to mention that the then rapidly-worsening situation in Argentina was Cavallo’s own making (when he engineered the neoliberal sacking of the commons as Menem’s finance minister). A few months later, Cavallo had to flee Argentina amid a devastated economy and a widespread popular insurrection that toppled the government and included a crowd of thousands surrounding his home in Buenos Aires angrily demanding his resignation. Cavallo joined the other elite Latin American expats at Harvard, which always opens its arms to looters of all stripes, as long as they don’t wear hoodies.

The case of Latin America simply confirms that there is nothing natural or inevitable in the capitalist devastation that is now descending, again, upon the northern hemisphere. It all comes down, as is usually the case, to political relations of force created by the presence of multitudes on the streets. And the former financial oligarchs now in exile at elite US universities remind us that what the capitalist looters fear, and what in some cases makes them literally run away to escape popular wrath, are resonant multitudes taking over public space and negating the neoliberal order through an assertive defense of the commons. And this is why, at this particular historical conjuncture, in order to gather further political strenght it is important to shift the debate away from the kids in hoodies shattering windows and toward the capitalist looters.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

El asco y el macrismo

El asco. Estado corporal definitorio de la política argentina. Los cuerpos de nuestras elites, por empezar, parecen tenerlo incorporado en su código genético. Los indios y gauchos le daban mucho asco a Sarmiento. A los terratenientes del centenario les daban asco esos inmigrantes anarcos y rotosos que venían de Europa. A las clases atemorizadas por el auge del peronismo les generaban asco esas masas que pusieron sus patas en las fuentes de Plaza de Mayo. A los militares les daban asco esos zurdos extranjerizantes ajenos al ser nacional. Y a los votantes medios del PRO les dan asco tantas cosas que a veces los marea ese vértigo de náuseas formado por villeros, gente de la calle, piqueteros, laburantes, bolivianos-paraguayos, el kirchnerismo y por supuesto “esa mina”.

El asco como fenómeno corporal es por definición reactivo, reaccionario: la sensación de náuseas que genera en un cuerpo el ser afectado negativamente por otros cuerpos. Uno no necesita hacer absolutamente nada para sentir asco. Es el otro con su acción y mera presencia el que genera asco en uno. En la historia argentina, este asco reactivo ha sido inseparable de la violencia. Las grandes masacres de la historia nacional han sido producto de un asco que el cuerpo burgués y pequeño burgués siente, primero, en las tripas y que luego piensa ideológica o políticamente (como “conquista del desierto” o “lucha contra la subversión”). Nada mejor para terminar con ese vacío que perturba las entrañas que liquidar los cuerpos que dan asco: los indios con sus malones, los gauchos con sus montoneras, los inmigrantes gringos con sus huelgas, las masas levantiscas con su manía de ocupar plazas y calles. En la antropología sabemos desde hace tiempo, gracias a Mary Douglas, que la suciedad no es más que materia fuera de lugar. La fuente de asco por ende suelen ser cuerpos que permanentemente se salen de lugar, espacial y políticamente y se vuelven contaminantes, peligrosos, insolentes, nauseabundos: negros, piqueteros, villeros, indios, estudiantes, laburantes, inmigrantes, sindicalistas, activistas...

El otro día, Fito Páez usó (entre muchas otras) la palabra “asco” para decir lo que sentía por los porteños que votaron al PRO seducidos por los globos de colores neoliberales que les promete el marketing de La Buenos Aires Blanca. Concepto desafortunado, que no debería tener lugar en el vocabulario de quienes ven a la política como campo de acción transformadora antes que como usina de miedos reactivos. Por ello le diría a Fito: "Entiendo (claro está) que lo contundente del voto por Macri te provoque una profunda desazón sobre la ciudad donde vivís, pero dejáles 'el asco' a ellos, los que votan por el PRO, que son los que dependen de esa náusea para definirse afectiva y políticamente como lo que son: pura reacción y negatividad, puro gesto anti-K sin densidad o positividad propia. El aluvión de votos del PRO debería generar muchas cosas (indignación, preocupación, tristeza, análisis, crítica, mucha auto-crítica) pero nunca 'asco', afecto corporal negativo que deshumaniza y que proviene de la genealogía política reaccionaria que vos cuestionás con razón, cuyo cuerpo colectivo agoniza en su eterno asco por el populismo plebeyo".

Por ello lo más destacable del artículo de Fito Páez no es lo que él dijo sino la reacción indignada por parte de quienes son los más apasionados apologistas del asco garca que alimenta a La Buenos Aires Blanca (Mempo Giardinelli analiza muy bien esta misma hipocresía). Quienes no hacen más que expresar cotidianamente que les da asco todo lo que huela a “populismo K” saltaron cual carmelitas descalzas a denunciar que Fito sintiera asco por ellos. ¡Qué atropello a la democracia! ¡Qué mejor muestra que detrás de Fito se esconde el fascismo-estalinismo y autoritarismo K! Tipejos como Rolando Hanglin, cuyas columnas en La Nación son una apología del sentido común más discriminatorio de la derecha porteña asqueada por el gobierno K, de pronto denuncian el “fascismo” de Fito y por ende de todo el kirchnerismo por usar esa palabra, "asco". ¡Esa palabra! Qué asco que les da Fito a los que fundan en el asco su identidad política. Este asco reciprocado hacia Fito hizo explosión en el (virtual) espacio natural del macrismo, los foros online de La Nación, donde el número de comentarios dejados sobre el tema fue el más alto en la historia del diario. Señal de que Fito metió el dedo en la llaga.

No hay nada de nuevo en esta hipocresía ciega de sí misma. Recordemos, por ejemplo, cuando en septiembre de 2010 Cristina Kirchner dijo que la clase media no debería sentir que “separándose de los morochos” le iba a ir mejor. "¡Racista!", le gritaron en coro los columnistas de La Nación, indignadísimos de que la presidenta usara ese término mesurado y eufemístico, “morochos.” En el sentido común de La Buenos Aires Blanca, cuna del macrismo, sólo se es "racista" cuando uno osa nombrar el racismo de quienes sueñan con una ciudad sin negros. Muchos de quienes pusieron el grito en el cielo, ofendidos porque Fito tuvo las bolas de nombrar el poder político del asco, en realidad se alimentan políticamente de sus propias náuseas. Ese asco colectivo carcome y define a la vieja corporalidad conservadora y temorosa hoy hecha carne en el macrismo: la gran esperanza de La Argentina Blanca que se siente cercada por el chavismo kirchnerista.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Vancouver Riots and the Global Zones of Rage

The Vancouver riots were a moment of rupture of the sanitized image that our local elites cultivate about Vancouver The Beautiful as a global brand. The corporate media lost control of the huge collective energies it contributed to releasing on the streets by glorifying sports as the main source of collective fulfillment. The media and all the decent citizens now blame the riots on “criminals” and “anarchists” and feel good about the “real Vancouver” that allegedly had nothing to do with them. And the usual suspects are now calling for a bigger and more repressive police state, with more cops and more restrictions on the use of public space. The mandate is clear: Vancouver The Beautiful, global jewel of the Pacific Rim, had nothing to do with the riots that violently emerged from within its urban core.

The riots were indeed a social phenomenon of pointless destruction and negativity, with nothing positive to offer. But those who blame the violence on “criminals” who are not part of “real” Vancouver are fooling themselves and do not know the nature of the city they live in, transformed by profound neoliberal reforms. As Jon Beasley-Murray pointed out on his blog, the crowds Wednesday night represented Vancouver’s social, gender, and ethnic diversity very well (I left downtown right before the riots started and got the exact same impression). And the nihilism that fueled the riots is that of a popular culture that places victory in sports above anything else, in an expensive and corporatized city that does not offer its youth other sources of collective passions and identifications.

The riots in Vancouver took place almost simultaneously to huge rallies in Athens that led to clashes with the police over the EU-imposed neoliberal sacking of Greek public assets. The images of people confronting riot police, of clouds of tear gas, and of urban debris in Vancouver and Athens were produced by radically different local conditions: defeat in sports and opposition to austerity measures. And the multitudes in Athens were guided by a positive defense of public interests against corporate encroachment that was indeed missing in the streets of Vancouver.

Yet riots are always social events that express wider affective and political conditions. And the Vancouver riots represent the alienation of large sections of a youth that faces a corporatized, privatized life and believed (and had been led to believe by the media that now demonizes them) that their cherished collective heaven (the Stanley Cup) was, at last, around the corner. The riots were partly produced because the huge, resonant multitude that had taken over downtown Vancouver (and of which I was part during most of the game) was not affectively prepared to face defeat. And many reacted to the abrupt end of their collective dream like a wounded, confused, betrayed creature, which could only vent its frustration through the random destruction of property. And this destruction targeted the material phantasmagoria that Walter Benjamin identified as the petrified life of the bourgeois dream world, solidified in the form of the corporate city. This is why the media now demonizes the same passionate, striving, but politically hollow creature it contributed to creating. Because it points that underneath Vancouver The Beautiful there is an affective current of despair, which the Canucks defeat transformed into collective rage.

While totally different and unrelated to each other, Vancouver and Athens are two sides of the same coin: the uncoded flows of collective affects that make up the neoliberal world in which we live, and the localized ruptures they create. These riots are events that bring to light our collective zones of rage, despair, pain, alienation, and, in Athens, hope.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On the Imperial Edge of the Void

Tim Hetherington’s and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo is an enthralling journey to the edge of Empire, a space in which the imperial fabric folds to reveal a hostile outside, the Korengal Valley and the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. This outside is a spatial and affective vortex, the territorial sanctuary of an insurgent war machine that has worn out the imperial military for close to a decade. But this outside is within Empire, for there is no space on the globe that is beyond imperial sovereignty and its violence. The valley is relentlessly bombarded from the skies and scrutinized from above by the imperial field of vision (drones, helicopters, jets, satellites). Yet this vertical mapping gazes at an opaque terrain.
              “The map is not the terrain.” Alfred Korzybski said this in 1931, but we have not theorized this distinction profoundly enough. I draw on Restrepo to begin exploring some of the tentative layers of a theory of terrain. The troops on the Korengal Valley know damn well that the map is not the terrain. They know that terrain can hardly be represented. The terrain of the valley affected them viscerally the first time they saw it from the helicopters that flew them in. “Holly shit. We are not ready for this.” They were not ready for that terrain. They were affected by the void.

                Restrepo documents the affective power of spaces constituted by unrelenting violence. It documents how bodies are affected by the abrupt folding of Empire and by the violence emanating from a hostile spatial outside, so hostile that it adopts the form of a vortex. Restrepo opens a gripping (and censored) window into those invisibilized spaces in which imperial forces are taking a beating and bleeding. It is also a stunning ethnography of the texture of a terrain defined by striations that limit the mobility of imperial troops horizontally and vertically (more similar, for this reason, to the rugged terrain of the anti-French insurgencies in the Algerian mountains than to the jungles of Vietnam). And those same striations on the landscape (rock formations, bushes, forests) are the material forms that hide and protect insurgent bodies. There is nothing that imperial militaries hate more than fighting insurgencies in striated space. They would much rather fight in spaces they fully control: the oceans, the skies, or open savannas. Smooth space.

They arrive in the outpost at the valley, clinging on rocky and steep slopes. The defences protecting the perimeter resemble a fort in Apache territory. The site is permanently under fire. “I could not believe they were taking machinegun fire every single day.” The permanent cracks of firefights, four or five times a day. As if a whole multitude was shooting at them from everywhere. “Did everybody in the whole of Afghanistan come here to shoot at us?!” The terrain around the outpost seemed saturated by that bodily multiplicity that scattered, moved around, dissipated, and regrouped, always coming back. Always invisible. “You never saw the enemy. It was like we were fighting ghosts. They were so well camouflaged and know the land so well. It was like fighting ghosts. Eerie actually.” They know the land so well and were so well camouflaged. "We don’t belong there."
                Restrepo the man dies. Restrepo becomes the name of the small outpost built on a nearby hill (they were shot from there all the time). Restrepo was a bold move that created a walled compound surrounded by even more hostile space. Firefights everyday. Patrols occasionally leave the outpost, always in trepidation. The landscape is opaque. A small village is not far off, clinging on the side of mountains. They could be anywhere, everywhere. The patrols regularly make contact. “Make contact,” military talk with Spinozian sensibility. Assemblages of bodies moving in heavily striated space and getting closer to each other and finally unleashing their firepower onto each other. Contact is literal. Bodies are hit. Combat as an intensely bodily and violent affectation.
              This is how they learned about boundaries. The absolute limit is right there. Pretty close. Impossible to go farther. Their violence seems unrelenting. One soldier wonders if the insurgents ever rest. Staring at the mountains, an officer hosting a visitor points to a rocky ridge a few hundred meters away. That is the edge. Beyond, he says, it's “Enemy Sanctuary.” Several people mentioned that word. Sanctuary. They did not go there. That is the edge of the vortex. An edge produced by violence.
               Based on their personal correspondence, Alain Badiou wrote that Gilles Deleuze saw the expression “on the edge of the void” as the intersection between the territory (the space of actualization) and the process of deterritorialization, the “overflowing of the territory by the event” (Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, p. 84). Restrepo is an intersection between the territory of imperial sovereignty in the Korengal Valley and the deterritorialization created by the war machine (Deleuze and Guattari), which overflows the valley with the event and the negativity of an anti-imperial insurgency. Badiou adds something else. He tells us that Deleuze commented that “this is the point at which what occurs can no longer be assigned to either the territory (the site) or the non-territory, to either the inside or the outside. And it is true that the void has neither an interior nor an exterior.” The void is outside and inside at the same time, without interior or exterior. Territory and non-territory. The vortex as high-speed, uncoded movement. A fold perpetually folding upon itself.
            They are asked about their most terrifying experience of their deployment. No one doubts what the answer is. Operation Rock Avalanche: the jump into the void (the operation’s name accurately anticipated what affectively fell on them). They were told it was time to flex some muscle. The swarms surrounding the outpost were getting way too close, even stealing the gear and weapons of fallen soldiers. Enough of playing perpetual defense. Troops were to jump off the edge on Chinook helicopters and be dropped off somewhere in the insurgents' “safe haven.” The soldiers were stunned. That is the fucking void! “Those are areas we haven’t previously been.” They did not know the terrain. They had heard that others that ventured there were “fucked up.”
             They get there, the helicopters take off, they move in the dark. They do not know the terrain. They carefully trek through forests that in another universe could have been beautiful but that are opaque, eerie, suffocating. It’s now daylight. Jets and attack helicopters give them cover by pounding the slopes of mountains as if trying to punish the terrain. Civilians get killed. Bodies of American and indignant but fearful Afhganis interact in a village. A bad encounter. Bodily affects regulated by dissonance.
              Imperial velocities support them from the air, but a few hundred meters below the terrain opens up into the void of the vortex. They know they are being followed. They feel, often hear (or think they hear) bodies encroaching on them. “I saw a lot of professional tough guys weak in the knees.” Bodies that they can’t see but that are affecting them, making them jumpy. They could make contact at any minute. Their bodies captured on film say they can feel the swarm nearby, encroaching. The swarm was also waiting for them.
              It was a textbook ambush, with two heavy machine guns flanking them. They fire back. Screams. Branches blow off. Bodies hit left and right. One body does not move. It is now a corpse. It is the corpse of their very best combatant. “If he dies what about us?” One man breaks down, asks the corpse to get up in desperation. The whole platoon is affected. The KIA is evacuated. They still don’t know where the enemy is.
              The void has its own temporality, which in folding space as an outside of Empire slows imperial forces down. It is also the patient temporality of the long war of attrition, “the peasant method of combat” (as Paul Virilio called it in Bunker Archaeology, p. 22). The imperial military machine prefers short, high-speed wars. A two or three-day war (Panama, Grenada) is the perfect imperial war. But in the void the war machine draws the heavy militaries of Empire into a vortex of slowness, as it has happened in the striated terrains of Algeria or Vietnam. And in the same striated terrains disliked by imperial militaries insurgencies thrive on their own velocities: the rhizomic, multi-polar speed of swarming, which has outmaneuvered modern armies since Napoleon’s defeat in Spain (in a future essay I hope to examine the crucial relationship that exists between rhizomic speed and striated space).
             They learn that Chosen Company took heavy casualties somewhere else. Nine dead, many wounded. Everyone is affected. The commander rallies the men, tries to modulate their affective despair. He strikes a call for vengeance. “I say we go and make them feel the way they make us feel.” It is official. The war is also a war of affects. We are going to make them feel the same way they are making us feel. We want to affect them. It is part of the vortex. A wall of mirrors creating violent patterns of mimesis and alterity that feed on each other (Michael Taussig explored this spatial void in his famous ethnography on the Colombian and Peruvian Amazon).
              Yet another attack on Restrepo. Everybody is shooting at something. Thousands of bullet caskets pile up on the ground inside Restrepo. A sniper shoots repeatedly and hits a body in the distance. From his facial expressions, we notice that he got him. The kill affected everyone around him. They cheer and scream, over and over again. “Motherfucker. Shoot us again!” The corpse cannot move but is still affecting the living. The corpses of their enemies and those of their friends, all of them having the power to affect them. “Whenever we got to kill someone and see it, it was a good day. It was a good day.” It was a good day because they had killed a ghost and gave it a bodily form that they could fucking see. Seeing the corpse confirmed those ghosts are human, they can get killed after all. On the anniversary of Restrepo’s death, they fired a flare in the night to commemorate their friend’s death in the place where he was killed. A space affected by the presence of his ghost.

              “Everyone was scared all the time. We were fucking scared all the time.” They hated that place. Restrepo. They felt bad at first for naming such a lousy place after their comrade. They hated that place. The men are getting ready to leave. “Leaving Restrepo is too good to be true. We were going to die here.” It is hard to believe they survived the void. They want to leave and never be back. “Never coming back, never coming back.” They board the helicopter. The camera rises up together with the chopper and we see from above the outpost getting smaller and smaller amid the immensity of the valley.
              “A fifteen-month deployment in Restrepo is going to affect you,” someone had said earlier. Deleuze said that you don't need to be versed in philosophy to intuitively understand Spinoza's geometry of affects. The men understood. They were leaving Restrepo, but that terrain had already affected them. They left, but haunted by affects that sucked them back into the void. The outpost that haunts them does not exist anymore. It has been overflowed and deterritorialized by the outside.

In memory of Tim Hetherington, 1971-2011