Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Vectorial Multitude

              For the past few months, a multitude of men, women, and children has been piercing through Fortress Europe by the mere act of moving and persevering in their motion. This motion is propelled by a striving to move away from places of suffering in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and toward the prosperous core of Europe and the promise of a better life. This directionality has disrupted the policed boundaries of Fortress Europe because it formed a human vector: that is, a bodily force in motion that has a direction, trajectory, and momentum. And the power of this vectorial multitude lies in the sheer numbers of human bodies that are determined to disobey the order that they ought not to move. 
Thomas Hobbes was fearful of the power of vectorial multitudes to threaten the state. He was a talented geometrician who was convinced that motion is as crucial to understand society and politics as it is to understand physics. Hobbes had met Galileo in Florence in 1636, when the latter lived under house arrest by the Inquisition for having argued that the Earth moved. Galileo and Hobbes had intense conversations about physics, motion, and geometry over several weeks. Hobbes left Florence a transformed man. The same way that Galileo, contra Aristotle, saw motion as the center of physics, Hobbes became obsessed with the idea that motion and its control are fundamental to the survival of the state. When he published Leviathan in 1651, he insisted that the idea of “freedom” should be stripped of idealized abstractions and defined exclusively as the freedom to move. But absolute freedom and mobility is the anarchic realm of the “the war of all against all.” Hobbes therefore argued that the role of the Sovereign is to calibrate motion. The point is not to prevent bodies from moving, he wrote, “but to direct and keep them in such a motion, as not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires, rashness, or indiscretion, as Hedges are set, not to stop Travellers, but to keep them in a way” (388). As an apology of the necessity of state power, Leviathan celebrates obedience and the self-discipline of a body that only moves through pre-set channels of mobility, such as “hedges.” Hobbes's horror of “the war of all against all” is the horror of a multitude that disobeys, jumps over the hedge, and adopts a vectorial thrust that makes its constituent bodies move freely and at their leisure.
               In his Willing Slaves of Capital, Frédéric Lordon picked up this same problem, if engaging with the materialist geometry of Spinoza rather than that of Hobbes. Lordon argues that one of the great mysteries, and one of the main powers, of capitalist hegemony is the ability of elites “to make others do things,” such as making millions of men and women move in a particular way and with a particular direction, primarily moving their own bodies from home to the workplace, “by getting them to put one foot before the other, as revealed by the striking spectacle of the daily migration toward factories and business districts…” (121). The political importance of the calibration of motion was also highlighted by the Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, who famously said that good citizens “go from home to work and from work to home.” The sign that the state is challenged is, precisely, the formation of vectorial multitudes whose constitutive bodies have broken from their previously predictable patterns of mobility.
               Vectorial multitudes have long been a crucial physical-political component of most revolutions in history. The vectors that charged against La Bastille in 1789 Paris, against The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg in 1917, or that entered Havana in 1959 have become celebrated historical icons, as symbols of the power of human bodies in motion to bring about the collapse of powerful states. Vectorial multitudes, certainly, can also be generated by the state. But these are vectors that obey orders. The clearest examples are troops charging ahead in the battlefield, like the thousands of Allied soldiers who charged against the German bunkers on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, or the swarms of cops that regularly charge against protesters in Baltimore, Cairo or Rio de Janeiro. Yet the main weapon by the state against vectorial multitudes are walls and fences, like the one being rapidly built by the Hungarian government to stop the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

           Categories such as “war”, “society,” “history,” and now “refugee crisis” are our attempts to name something that is hard to conceptualize and wrap our heads around: that in the most materialist sense of the term what we call “societies” are constellations of human bodies in motion coming together and dispersing following particular rhythms. These are bodies that walk, work, run, move in vehicles, come together and disperse, are obliged to remain in certain places by force… and, in epochs of unrest, have the capacity to coalesce in vectorial multitudes: assemblages of striving bodies that in “putting one foot before the other” and pushing forth can undermine our World of Walls

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