Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some thoughts in response to a fragment of a dream



A number of months ago, I found myself woken from sleep early in the morning at perhaps five or six in the morning, possibly by a disagreeable dream, possibly by something else.  In either case, I found myself recalling a fairly familiar passage in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the often quoted ninth section of the essay, in that hazy space that creates a sort of barrier between sleep and wakefulness.

“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught under his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 258)

It was perhaps less than surprising that I would think of this passage.  After all, I had read the essay that it was contained in numerous times, have read even more references to the passage in other works, and even have written about the various sections of the essay.  But in that hazy semi-conscious space, the more immediate connection was made to the sense of disconnection that seems to define my present moment as I pass my second year out of graduate school and the interconnected ethical communities of which I was a part.  In their absence, I’ve felt a sort of void, a lack of what Hegel would call “Sittlichkeit” or the connection to the ethical life or community that is created by being embedded in a meaningful community life.  That isn’t to say that the past two years have been without meaning or social life, or that my time in graduate school wasn’t without its significant frustrations, but those frustrations were always linked to a communal life, even if it was marked by tensions, contradictions, and problems.  The temporariness of adjunct lecturing, which operates as a sort of waiting room between one’s life as a student and some potential future career, doesn’t help this sense of disconnection.

Through that process, I’ve found myself thinking about various moments in my past, whether in my roles in the anti-sanctions campaign, the anti-globalization movement, the anti-war movement, and the efforts to reform our local union or in my personal life.  I’ve found myself thinking back to dozens of moments where I wish I had handled a decision, a process, or how engaged with people differently.  At a basic level, I find myself being much more skeptical of my motivations in those past conflicts, and of the positions that I took in those conflicts.  But like the angel, I can’t go back to resolve those catastrophes, to avoid conflicts, to respond more generously, to fix what has been smashed.  To turn directly to the passage, the memories that make up that ‘pile of debris’ are a tied to a series of incomplete and failed activist projects, a variety of temporary successes, to projects that continue without me, often without even a substantial memory that I had participated in them.  The memory of those moments wind up lingering in my thoughts, perhaps haunting me, for the lack of a better word, particularly in that space between consciousness and unconsciousness.  They are, for the most part, unresolvable, not because of their significance, but frequently because of their insignificance, or because the people are out of my life, sometimes for reasons to do with the conflict, often for a reason that is completely unconnected.

To be honest, I don’t know what to do with this often unresolvable assemblage of memories.  After all, like the Angel, I find myself being blown into the future, one that remains occluded.  But it felt like it made sense to perhaps write it down, to express it, even if perhaps its own value is only of marginal and therapeutic value.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Some thoughts on the present moment

            In the proliferation of such a massive amount of political action within the past year, particularly around the Black Lives Matter movement, I found myself thinking of a passage within Rosa Luxemburg's treatise on the Russian revolution of 1905, titled "The Mass Strike".  Luxemburg exams the phenomenon of the mass strike within the revolution as both a critique of the top down notions of struggle as developed by mainstream of the main intellectual of the SPD, Karl Kautsky, along with the ahistorical concept of the mass strike as developed by anarchists.  In opposition to both, Luxemburg emphasizes the mass strike as a phenomenon that arises out of the self-development of the proletariat through the process of the class struggle.  Through that engagement, Luxemburg emphasizes both the multiplicity of the struggle, along with intensity of the struggles.  She notes:

            The mass strike, as the Russian Revolution shows it to us, is such a changeable phenomenon that it reflects all the phases of the political and economic struggle, all stages and factors of the revolution. Its adaptability, its efficiency, the factors of its origin are constantly changing. It suddenly opens new and wide perspectives of the revolution when it appears to have already arrived in a narrow pass and where it is impossible for anyone to reckon upon it with any degree of certainty. It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena. And the law of motion of these phenomena is clear: it does not lie in the mass strike itself nor in its technical details, but in the political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution. (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)

            At the most immediate level, we can see that Luxemburg recognizes what Louis Althusser might later refer to as a moment of revolutionary fusion as occurring within the years of her analysis.  An almost infinite array of discrete and concrete struggles or contradictions came together, aligned themselves in a manner to challenge the very nature of the empire.  But her insight moves beyond that initial insight.  If we see a moment of revolutionary fusion, it does not take the form of a synthesis.  Instead the struggles maintain their multiplicity, their inability to form a whole.  At the same time, the struggles are marked by a form of indistinction, of mutation, 'peaceful wage struggles' become 'street massacres, barricade fighting'.  Through this description, we can see an embrace of what Hobbes phobically linked to the figure of the multitude, a disjointed and militant mob that refuses to become a people and refuses to be governed.  Luxemburg draws on the naturalistic metaphor of the sea to describe the pervasiveness of the social movements of the time and their ability to adapt and mutate themselves in the face of a multiplicity of efforts to repress that refusal.  The movements ‘bubble forth’ ‘ceaselessly’ move, and constitute a ‘changing sea of phenomena.’  She ties that movement to the strength of the revolutionary forces in the country, to the logic running counter to capital.  One one hand, these movements reflect the multiplicity that is at the heart of the concept of use value, the multiplicity of needs that continually exists exogenously to the logic of exchange, even as exchange is absolutely dependent on that multiplicity.  On the other hand, the movements constitute a kind of counter flow to the flows of labor and commodities that define capitalist accumulation.  It’s a flow that refuses the coagulation into the logic of exploited dead labor, the infinite exchangeability of labor time.  Inasmuch, these movements point to an alterity always present within capital, the potential for another way of life.

            In the past year, we have been seeing a similar moment in our own country, albeit with a smaller magnitude than the one that Luxemburg discusses, largely, but not exclusively around the phenomenon labelled Black Lives Matter[1].[2]  To rehearse material that is undoubtedly familiar to the audience, we have seen an explosion of demonstrations in response to police violence.[3]  That violence has become a focal point to challenge the ever-changing structures of white supremacy that at are so significant in structuring the logic of capitalist accumulation, both at the present moment and through the entire history of the country.  It’s taken the form of insurrectionary violence[4] in Ferguson and other cities, objects hurled at police officers, freeway occupations around the country, peaceful marches of school children, lock-downs of police stations, demands made to Democratic presidential candidates, and a variety of other conventional protest.  The truth is that any effort to document the rich variety of protest will necessarily fail in capturing the rich diversity of activities that has occurred in the past year, and any effort to demarcate these protests as being a part of a particular moment is necessarily going to erase the histories that feed into these protests and inform their logic.  At the same time, we can see a particular language of action, slogans, and social formations that are particular to this moment. And we can see the impact of those movements on the presidential campaign through the disruption of the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, through explosive protests against the racist authoritarian nature of the Trump Campaign.[5] Through those actions, it has introduced a genuinely democratic and agonistic dimension to the stage managed theatrics of the presidential campaign.  The movement has also challenged the connections between the traditional trade union movement and police unions, and has succeeded in creating a meaningful wedge between these formations.  It has also formed alliances with elements of those traditional structures.  But perhaps most significantly, it has transformed the freeway, that representation of the flow of labor, of commodities, into a representation of a profound refusal, through its blockage.  We’ve seen this tactic not only employed in cities traditionally associated with protest, but across the country.[6]

            Within this web of activity, we can see the possibility of a new form of live, although perhaps only in a negative form, through the refusal of so many to be governed by the same oppressive institutions that have committed such violence.  We can perhaps see the capacities of such a movement in its spectral form, in the phobic descriptions of the movement by the recent comments by Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke at the Republican National Convention.  Clarke marks the organization, along with the Occupy movements, as breaking an unspoken and unwritten code of conduct for the country, and therefore standing outside the respectable conventions of protest, and representing anarchy.  It’s initially difficult to negotiate this description with the often quite modest political reforms called for by the official representatives of the movements, but it makes sense when we look at the protests themselves, which have pushed far beyond these official demands in their radicality.  It also makes sense when we see the refusal of even the reform branch of the movement to be formally incorporated into the political system.[7]  If anything, we have seen an intensification of this refusal in the continuation of street protest, despite the calls for official calls for calm after sniper attack in Dallas.  Through such actions, we see a movement that is increasingly unconcerned with the preservation of the forces of the status quo.  At the same time, it would be a mistake to ignore the precarity of the contingent web of alliances that created this potential historic bloc.  At the most obvious level, there is the threat of the opportunistic incorporation of this formation into the Democratic Party, a threat that is most notably media personality and former mayoral candidate, DeRay Mckesson.  However, the conflicts that defined the freeway occupation in Minneapolis between activists seem like a greater threat.  Without getting into the details, the arguments represent long historical divisions that intersect questions of identity and tactics.  They represent the profoundly divided nature of the proletariat itself, and aren’t easily resolved through simple slogans.  The question the movement and those who wish to see it succeed have in front of them is how to make this multiplicity productive and grow.  We can see the violence of the backlash beginning to grow.


[1] Although it may actually involve more people than were involved in the insurrectionary activities in the Russian Empire at the time.
[2] Given some of the confusions around the slogan, I should note that I am referring to the larger movement that has congealed around the term, rather than the specific network that has named itself Black Lives Matter.  The distinction is important since the movement is far larger than the network and contains both elements far more insurrectionary than the network, along with highly opportunist individuals and groupings tied to the Democratic Party and Teach For America.
[3] There is a need more a more intense engagement with the logic of policing, one that could be informed by the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who draws from the earlier work of Marx and Foucault amongst others.  There is also a larger conversation within the Black Radical Tradition, as well.
[4] It’s important to note that this has been largely limited to property damage, but not exclusively.
[5] Which was produced by a large intersection of actors, but this could be said about the broad phenomenon, as well.
[6] The tactic itself deserves more discussion than provided here, and it would be a mistake to think of the action as a unified.  Instead, we have seen very different approaches to taking over freeways.  Some have been mass actions, while others have been controlled protests by small groups.  Some are deliberately designed as acts of civil disobedience, while others are taken up by parties who are not interested in being arrested. 
[7] Once again, we definitely see some opportunist exceptions, but the network has largely refused this incorporation.