Wednesday, June 27, 2007


The Wednesday quotation, Part II: Neruda on the multitude.
Yo no voy a morirme. Salgo ahora,
En este día lleno de volcanes
Hacia la multitud, hacia la vida.
Aquí dejo arregladas estas cosas
[. . .]

Por fin, soy libre adentro de los seres.

Entre los seres, como el aire vivo,
y de la soledad acorralada
salgo a la multitud de los combates,
libre porque en mi mano va tu mano,
conquistando alegrías indomables.
(Canto general 478)

Saturday, June 23, 2007


The social order is merely the order of bodies: the habituation to custom and law that law and custom produce by their very existence and persistence is largely sufficient, without any deliberate intervention, to impose a recognition of the law based on misrecognition of the arbitrariness which underlies it. (Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations 168)

Para conocer a Pinochet, basta con leer sus declaraciones [. . .] sus palabras lo dicen todo. (Nelson Caucoto, in Luis Alejandro Salinas, The London Clinic 12)

“Tiredness and waiting,” observes Deleuze, “even despair are the attitudes of the body” (Cinema 2 189). We are some distance here from nomadic lines of flight, even if Deleuze’s point is to underscore the Spinozan maxim that “we do not even know what a body can do” (189). The body opens up a world of immanent resistance and Exodus: an “imperceptible passage of attitudes and postures to ‘gest,’” a Brechtian shock that is “necessarily social and political” as well as “bio-vital, metaphysical, and aesthetic” (192, 194). Yet, “obstinate and stubborn” (189), weary and worn down, often enough the body is simply a creature of habit. At its most reduced, most contracted, affect becomes habit. For instance, the tick inhabits “a world with only three affects, in the midst of all that goes on in the immense forest” (Deleuze, Spinoza 124-125). It seeks light, to climb a branch; smell, to detect and drop down on an animal passing below; and warmth, to burrow into that animal’s skin. These three affects are an index of the tick’s power, what its body can do; and they enable the tick’s becoming, its leap and clandestine submergence within a host animal’s hide. But these same affects also structure a profound passivity, a “tiredness and waiting” that reaches its apogee in the famous Rostock tick that, as Agamben reports, zoologist Jakob von Uexküll “kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment” (The Open 47). The tick figures the persistence of habit, a captivation or “remaining-inactive” in which everything continues the same (68).

For Agamben, we are closer to the tick than ever: “for a humanity that has become animal again, there is nothing left but the depoliticization of human societies” (76). We are hardly even bored any more, for boredom is at least the “awakening of the living being to its own captivation” (70), a realization of our own habituation. On television, we are obsessed with people like us who, as with the Rostock tick, are denied almost all external stimulus (reality TV’s Big Brother). On the Internet, millions surf listlessly, perhaps with half an eye on webcams of coffee warming ( or paint drying ( Ours is but a bare life, all the more so for the routines that fill it, captivating us as much as the tick is captivated by the meager affects that constitute its plane of immanence. Contemporary culture is pervaded with the sense that most of us are condemned to cubicles and McJobs, a world of blank indifference enlivened only by petty rivalries with co-workers or grievances towards employers. After its initial shock, even terror becomes routine: we adapt to the search procedures of airport security just as British shoppers in the 1970s adjusted to the inconveniences of IRA bomb threats. Few of us really believe either in the threat or, still less, in the measures taken to deter it (which is in part why terror maintains its power to shock); but we go along with the rigmarole, altering our habits accordingly. Our bodies become accustomed to waiting in line, to passing through metal detectors, to iris scans and security patdowns.

Few of us believe: habit persists even when ideology fades. Our contemporary condition is the cynicism outlined by Peter Sloterdijk, "a universal, diffuse cynicism," which is "that state of consciousness that follows after naive ideologies and their enlightenment" (Critique of Cynical Reason 3). The paradigmatic cynic is "an average social character in the upper echelons of the elevated superstructure" (4) who is aware that he or she is exploited in work and alienated in the face of the culture industry, but who continues on none the less, in the spirit of "a detached negativity [. . .] that scarcely allows itself any hope, at most a little irony and pity" (6). Now a host of books, from Timothy Bewes’s Cynicism and Postmodernity to Wilber Caldwell’s Cynicism and the Evolution of the American Dream, indicate that, in William Chaloupka’s words, “over and over, cynicism pops up as a description of our society’s problems” (Everybody Knows 5). Moreover, today this cynicism is more diffuse, no longer restricted to Sloterdijk’s “upper echelons.” In what is often regarded as a sign of widespread depoliticization, we are all cynical now, thanks to a “mass cultural retreat from politics itself” (Bewes 3).

Read more... (large .pdf file)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


A new feature: the Wednesday quotation. Part 1: Celebrity colonalism and the end of the nation state.
Bono, Bob Geldof, and Kofi Annan
Bono has become a one-man state; more than that, he’s a one-man cross-border supranational institution. He presumes to speak for millions, not on the basis of a democratic mandate but on the basis that he – mystically, magically, and because Africans are apparently too poor and destitute to speak for themselves – really, really knows what Africans want. Thus we have the utterly bizarre spectacle of a rock star putting pressure on leaders who were elected by millions of people to do what ‘I WANT’ in Africa. British newspaper columnist Rod Liddle refers to him as "the People’s Republic of Bono," and wonders how long it will be before he is given "a seat on the United Nations security council" or makes an announcement that "he is developing nuclear weapons". (Brendan O'Neill, "Welcome to the People's Republic of Bono", from spiked)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Bourdieu sometimes prioritizes intellectual (above all sociological) reflection as the means by which to grasp what otherwise goes without saying. Sociology is a “science [. . .] of the hidden” (Reproduction xxi) that follows and interprets social crisis. But the crises themselves are not caused by any such enlightenment. Indeed, Bourdieu’s analyses of social action highlight a practical reason that is far removed from scientific rationality. Hence the tension between Bourdieu’s own political program, especially as outlined in his later work in which he champions a “rational utopia” where “scientists are no doubt the ones who have to shoulder the primary role” (Firing Back 63, 25), and his descriptions of social movements, in which ethical protest generated by habit trumps political action motivated by rational deliberation. No wonder Bourdieu also complains that social scientists are out of touch, though it is less obvious that it is the “social movements” that “have a lot of ground to make up” (Acts of Resistance 57). For Bourdieu demonstrates that resistance arises semi-spontaneously at the interface of habit and social field following significant changes to the rules of the game. Bourdieu thereby shows not only the ways in which power is secured beyond and despite ideology, but also how protest builds by means other than the construction of so-called counter-hegemonic projects. Moreover, the dissent engendered by and in habitus undermines any putative hegemony or other political articulations. Politics is a restricted practice of representation, counterposed to an embodied ethics that emerges from habitual practices.

Politics is subordinate to ethics, albeit an ethics that is close to biopolitics in that what is at stake is life itself rather than the forms in which events are represented. Politics as the inclination to articulate "political principles to answer a problem that is presented as political" (Distinction 398) is unevenly distributed, and concentrated among the dominant class. Elsewhere, and "for problems that have not been brought into a personal or party 'line,' agents are thrown back on their ethos" (420). This ethos an expression of the embodied experience of the habitus, and contrasts with the discursive realm of hegemonic articulation: "there is every difference in the world between the conscious, quasi-forced systematicity of a political 'line' and the systematicity 'in-itself' of the practices and judgements engendered by the unconscious principles of the ethos" (420). Ethical dispositions underlie but are never equivalent to political positions. The conservatism of habitus and its material ontology of embodied subjectivity means that ethical protest is similar to Foucault’s conception of ethics as care of the self, the constitution and maintenance of a subject “defined by the relationship of self to self” that goes beyond any “juridical conception of the subject of right” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject 252).

So Bourdieu argues that the May 1968 student protests were the result of ethical self-protection in the face of inadvertent effects of increasing access to the French educational system in the 1950s and 1960s. The expansion of secondary and tertiary education had led to "diploma inflation" and the devaluation of certificates, such that educational success could no longer be converted straightforwardly into social mobility. Yet “newcomers to secondary education [we]re led [. . .] to expect it to give them what it gave others at a time when they themselves were excluded from it.” Whereas “in an earlier period and for other classes, those aspirations were perfectly realistic, since they corresponded to objective probabilities,” in the wake of systemic expansion “they are often quickly deflated by the verdicts of the scholastic market or the labour market” (Distinction 143). The social field had changed, shattering habitual expectation, and provoking an ethical refusal that questioned the very rules of the game: “a whole generation, finding it has been taken for a ride, is inclined to extend to all institutions the mixture of revolt and resentment it feels towards the educational system.” Hence the “anti-institutional cast of mind” that “point[ed] towards a denunciation of the tacit assumptions of the social order, a practical suspension of doxic adherence to the prizes it offers and the values it professes, and a withholding of the investments which are a necessary condition of its functioning” (Distinction 144). However much the events of 1968 drew "strength from ideological and scientific critiques" (144), they were not themselves ideological; rather they constituted a suspension of (practical, embodied) belief in the wake of an interruption to the smooth functioning of social reproduction. Just as the explanation for social order is found at an immanent, corporeal level, so disorder is also explained at this same level, beneath ideology.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


There is nothing necessarily spontaneous or unconscious about the disruption of habit, and dehabituation can be taken on as a conscious strategy. Indeed, it is the avant garde gesture par excellence. During the Pinochet dictatorship, the Colectivo Acciones de Arte (Art Action Collective or CADA), comprising several prominent Chilean artists and writers such as novelist Diamela Eltit, poet Raúl Zurita, and visual artist Lotty Rosenfeld, staged a series of performances designed to intervene in and interrupt the establishment of everyday habits of neoliberal consumerism.

As Robert Neustadt’s CADA DÍA (literally, “Every Day”) documents, these actions included the October 1979 “Inversion of Scene” that aimed to “underline the transparency of everyday repression” by cloaking Santiago’s Museum of Fine Arts with a white sheet on the one hand and renting ten milk trucks on the other while taking out an advert in a daily newspaper that consisted in nothing more than a blank page (31). CADA’s purpose was literally to screen off the museum while touching upon familiar objects and practices (the newspaper, drinking milk) so as, in Nelly Richard’s words, “to modify both the customary perceptions of the city [. . .] and the social norms which regulate the behaviour of the citizen” (Margins and Institutions 55). Other CADA actions included showering the city with 400,000 fliers dropped from the air, in the name of “a fusion of ‘art’ with ‘life’” (Neustadt 35), and Lotty Rosenfeld’s conversion of the broken white line in the middle of streets and highways into a series of crosses. These are classic shock tactics of artistic defamiliarization, undertaken on a massive scale. Especially in their willful disarticulation of the signs of normality that the dictatorship wanted to convey for both national and external consumption they set out to force “the gaze to unlearn what the press habitually teaches it” (Margins and Institutions 56).

Lotty Rosenfeld
At the same time, and beyond the fact that the artistic avant-garde is all too easily recuperated into a familiar tradition of provocation that can never quite escape the aestheticizing gaze, surely any artistic shock tactic could be no more than pale reflection of the effects of the coup itself. If art is defamiliarization, then like it or not Pinochet was its greatest Chilean practitioner.

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.