Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Resistance arises as a friction or interruption to the regularity and predictability of habit. The very notion of performance, after all, implies also the possibility of breakdown. The difference between watching a film and going to the theater or the circus, say, resides in part in a certain unpredictability: this time, unlike almost every other time, an actor may fluff his or her lines, or the trapeze artist may lose his or her grip and fall. The fact that a performance is “live” means that we are always half-holding our breath, wondering what could go wrong. The beauty of a live event is its imperfection, the rough edges that constitute its singularity and that fact that it is never an entirely flawless reproduction. Flawlessness is deadening: the liveliness of a concert or show derives from the fact that it allows for elements of spontaneity or creativity, whether that be the jazz musician’s improvisation in which new resonances, riffs, and rhythms are explored, the banter between a stand-up comic and his or her audience, or an inspired performance by an actor who goes beyond what the script demands. For performance is never fully representational: even if there is an original subject to imitation, what is essential is the difference between copy and model, not the similarity.

Social reproduction, likewise, is never truly flawless. It is always somewhat hit and miss. Judith Butler’s theorization of performativity as embodied enactment of identity roles stresses the ways in which such roles can also be “queered”: bent out of shape if not necessarily fully avoided. In Excitable Speech, she takes issue with Althusser's notion of interpellation, insisting on the possibilities of failed interpellation (for Althusser, unimaginable) to show that the voice of power, the state's "hailing," and the order of bodies are not fully synchronized, that the body always falls short of or exceeds the voice. Hence she argues that "useful as it is, Althusser's scheme [. . .] attribut[es] a creative power to the voice that recalls and reconsolidates the figure of the divine voice in its ability to bring about what it names" (Excitable Speech 32). In other words, although Althusser's essay is a critique of the fetishism that imagines that the state alone authorizes and inaugurates subjectivity, Butler suggests that he remains within precisely this paradigm. For Althusser, not only is "ideology in general" necessary and eternal; so therefore is the state that acts as the essential lynchpin of the double circuit of ideology, command and habit. Butler points, on the one hand, to interpellation's citational quality: the fact that the state endlessly has to back to previous instances of interpellation in order to legitimate its attempts to constitute subjects and so can never fully establish its claim to originality. On the other hand, Butler is also concerned with what remains always unvoiced and unspoken. Censorship, for instance, "produces discursive regimes through the production of the unspeakable" (139), and more generally the gap between what may and may not be spoken also determines "the conditions of intelligibility" of any regime of power. "This normative exercise of power," she argues, "is rarely acknowledged as an operation of power at all. Indeed, we may classify it among the most implicit forms of power [. . .]. That power continues to act in illegible ways is one source of its relative invulnerability" (134). Here, then, Butler turns to Bourdieu, as the theorist of "a bodily understanding, or habitus" that does not depend upon the voice or upon speech. For habit describes what exceeds interpellation, whether that be the state's biopower or a possibly insurgent biopolitics.

As life itself becomes fully subject to power, it becomes therefore the terrain of political struggle, a differentiation between distinct forms of vivacity, ways of life that are at odds with each other. For Agamben, for instance, totalitarianism signals that “life and politics [. . .] begin to become one,” and what is at stake is the increasingly blurred distinction between biopolitics and “thanatopolitics” that plays out in the space of “bare life,” pure potential or habit, in which we all now find ourselves (Homo Sacer 148, 122). Biopolitics describes then both the apogee of politics, its ubiquity and immediacy, and also the effort to preserve a space for politics against its dissolution, to show that there is a life beyond the law. In Agamben’s words, “to show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of ‘politics’” (State of Exception 88). This “nonrelation,” then, is the struggle by which biopolitics opposes biopower; it is a gamble on autonomy even within immanence, on a detotalization that unlocks the power of creativity. It is the deployment of what Michel de Certeau terms “tactics” implicit within “the practice of everyday life.” Habitual but far from routine, against the functionalist tone of Bourdieu’s theorization of habitus but in line with the allowance that he makes for unpredictability, a tactic is a “guileful ruse” by means of which agents carve out spaces of autonomy immanent but ever so slightly off kilter to the norm, “mak[ing] use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers” (The Practice of Everyday Life 37). Or in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s words, “playing different tactical games in the continuity of strategy” might open up “two conflicting recognitions: one organizing the desire of life and the other the fear of death, biopolitics against biopower” (Multitude 356). From the friction of resistance, the strategy of refusal and tactics of differentiation, to the “multitude” as “a diverse set of singularities that produce a common life” (Multitude 349). This is a liveliness that breaks from life as usual. But can biopolitics and biopower be so easily distinguished? Again, old habits of sovereignty and social reproduction die hard.

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