Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Alexandr Zholkovkii's short essay "Deus ex Machina" does not, rather fortunately, succumb so swiftly to the strange (and strikingly out of place) Romanticism that characterizes so many of the other texts that outline what he terms a "poetics of expressiveness". Here, instead of praise for the accomplished and inspired author and his or her techniques for better self-expression, his focus is on the literary machine itself and its autonomic tendencies.

Zholkovkii's thesis, he tells us, is that "any artistic text is a machine working on the reader: a 'machine' not only in the figurative sense, but in the strictly cybernetic sense as well--as a transforming device" (53). Soon enough, however, this definition has to be extended: there is no special privilege to the artistic text; all cultural productions and practices obey a machinic logic that amplifies, distorts, modulates, or transforms a whole series of inputs, often in unpredictable ways. Social and legal conventions, for instance, ensure that a contract is fulfilled (in one example that Zhlkovskii provides) even when one of the parties to the contract has, unknown to the other, suddenly died. Events have a logic of their own, that goes beyond individual agents. Plot consists in precisely such machinic logic that overtakes and determines the fate of individual characters.

In Zholkovskii's vision, every instance of a literary, artistic, or social machine still requires some kind of external input: the machines do not run by themselves. This is the residual trace of the notion of "expressiveness": the machinery is ultimately a form of expression. But the mechanism that enables such expression tends to become so dominant that individuals are soon subjected to the machine rather than its subject: Zolkovskii mentions the famous scene, for instance, in Modern Times in which Charlie Chaplin is physically "dragged into an assembly line" (57). "One is, of course, tempted" he therefore observes, "to think of a machine that would alone do all the plot work" (59).

A machine without some kind of prior input, however, is unimaginable: the whole formula of expressiveness would disappear and "such a machine would [. . .] completely replace and thus cancel the plot" (59); such a perpetual motion machine, that strictly followed its own logic and no other, would be the end of art and culture. The machine needs an external God, a supplement of some kind, to ensures that there is indeed God also in the machine itself. Zholkovkii's Romanticism never quite disappears, though here we see its limit point.

But what if there were nothing but machines? Or at least, other inputs that were not themselves already human. This, of course, is the provocative opening of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus:
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines--real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. (1)
This would be a machine that, like Athusser's "hailing machine," produced subjects (rather than being driven by them), though also so much else. Indeed, the subject might be perhaps the least interesting of its many products. And if a God remained in the mechanism, it would be immanent, fully part of the machine rather than the mere trace of some transcendent vision.

Meanwhile, I've written elsewhere on the machinic unconscious of literary texts: "Arguedasmachine".

Monday, February 21, 2011


[The other day there was a small book launch for Posthegemony here at UBC. My colleagues and friends Brianne Orr-Alvarez, Oscar Cabezas, and Gastón Gordillo all presented critical reviews of the book. Here, by kind permission, is Oscar's...]

This book is an attempt to re-think the concept of politics beyond cultural studies and political theories on civil society. In his approach to various Latin American cultural and political phenomena, Jon Beasley-Murray re-opens a debate on key concepts of politics —hegemony, civil society and the State, among others— in order to criticize any conceptualization in which the State excludes the Negrian concept of multitude. Through neo-Spinozan notions derived from Antonio Negri, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, and the Bourdieusian concept of habits, Beasley-Murray proposes to undermine not only Laclau and Mouffe’s Post-Marxist concept of hegemony, but also the understanding of ideology as the master concept of the Marxist tradition. Thus, posthegemony is not simply a transitional concept that overcomes the concept of hegemony, but also an alternative mode of thinking political theory and Latin American studies. Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America engages with the richest debates in political theory and simultaneously with the most paradigmatic events in Latin American history.

The wonderfully written five chapters of this book develop the notion of posthegemony in the following manner. In the prologue “October 10, 1492,” Beasley-Murray analyses the legitimating mechanisms of colonization by the Spaniards in the 15th Century (the so-called Requerimiento). The author argues that the Requerimiento has nothing to do with the construction of hegemony but with a violent act of coercion. This preliminary remark leads to the first chapter, “Argentina 1972: Cultural Studies and Populism,” which contains a discussion of National-Populism in Argentina (1972). The author denounces the love-pact between people and the nation in its exclusion of the multitude. This chapter is not only a critique of national populism but also a critique of Laclau and Mouffe’s post-Marxist concept of hegemony. What the author denounces is the imbrication between the concept of hegemony and neo-populism. The second chapter, “Ayacucho 1982: Civil Society Theory and Neoliberalism,” offers a description of Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato’s theory of civil society and shows its failure in the study of one of the bloodiest Maoist guerrilla movements that took place in Peru (Sendero Luminoso). By the same token, it also shows the structural violence inherent to neo-liberalism in the Southern Cone. In the third chapter, “Escalón 1989: Deleuze and Affect,” one of the book’s best, Beasley-Murray describes the offensive of the FMLN in El Salvador as a paradox between political violence and “lines of flight.” He also develops the Deleuzian theory of affects as an attempt to de-territorialize the capture of the revolutionary movement into the state-apparatus. In the fourth chapter, “Chile 1992: Bourdieu and Habit,” the author extends the theory of affects in Deleuze through Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habit”. The chapter offers an analytical understanding of the correlations between power and bodies through the history of the traumatic Chilean transition from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship to a neoliberal democracy. In the concluding chapter of the book, “Conclusion: Negri and Multitude,” Beasley-Murray describes Negri’s concept of multitude as an opening to rethinking politics in Latin America. This chapter could be read side by side with the Epilogue, “April 13, 2002,” where the author shows how the constituent power of the multitude breaks the “fiction” of hegemony in the paradigmatic conflict of the so-called Caracazo in Venezuela.

Read more... (pdf file)

Saturday, February 19, 2011


The Saturday photo, part XIV: Alcatraz with its various clearly visible overlapping inscriptions, from the strident disciplinary to the militant indigenous to (below, rather more subdued) the museal sanctification as National Park:

Alcatraz is definitely a ruin that bears the multiple traces of its repeated reinscriptions. Even what might otherwise have been a rather sober audio tour has to take note repeatedly of the way in which the rock and its prison have been figured by Hollywood. Much is made of the escape attempts, which threatened drama but ultimately failed to disturb the penitentiary regime. In the end, it was a combination of banal economics (the place was too expensive to run) and the slow 1960s move towards different philosophies of incarceration that did for the showpiece of America's disciplinary regime.

The prison's internal architecture does not follow the panopticon model: it has but a single cellblock, with the cells laid out in parallel thoroughfares rather than radiating from a central core. But the rock itself, in full view from the shores of the bay, offers a literally spectacular fable of the price of criminality. Much is made of the fact that prisoners could see the city, and occasionally hear (for instance) the sounds of New Year's festivities at the Yacht Club. But nothing was said about the effect that having a prison in such plain view must have had on the psychic life of San Francisco itself.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Ha! A funny (but nice) comment on a talk I gave recently in Southampton:
Check out Jon Beasley-Murray’s talk here. Proof that you can turn up straight from the airport with too many bright yellow, text only slides and a low key presentation style and still carry an audience through lots of well grounded theorising accessible to non academics like me. If you want to explore why there is so much more to Wikipedia than meets the eye while side-stepping the cliched debates about its worth (reliability etc etc), then get a cup of tea and and enjoy this. (Paul Sweeney, "Southampton E-Learning Symposium 2011")
I was rather pleased with the yellow background for my Powerpoint slides; as you can see from this blog, I generally like yellow as a background for text. Oh well.

It's true that the trip was a little crazy: after a transatlantic flight we turned up at Heathrow and were met by a man with a hired car who drove us straight to the conference pretty much just in time for my talk. And then we took a lift back into London, only to be swallowed up for hours by rush-hour traffic, inching along somewhere in the environs of Barnes when we were hoping to be going to New Cross. Thirty-six hours later, we flew back.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


If there is a guiding principle to Latin American postcoloniality, it is surely that which is encapsulated in Juan Bautista Alberdi's famous phrase, "Gobernar es Poblar": "To Govern is to Populate." As the Argentine jurist put it in Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina, a book which outlines the structure of a future constitution of the country, the point of this maxim is to ensure that the constitution is not empty: "What name would you give a country, or what name would it deserve, if it comprised two-hundred thousand leagues of territory and eight-hundred thousand inhabitants? A desert. And what name would you give to the Constitution of such a country? The Constitution of a desert. Well, that country is the Argentine Republic, and whatever its Constitution may be, for years it will be nothing more than the Constitution of a desert" (525-526) Hence the exhortation to immigration, and not just any immigration, as Alberdi was at pains to explain even years later: "To populate is to enrich when you people the country with folk who know what they are doing when it comes to industry and who are accustomed to work that is productive and enriching. To populate is to civilize when you people the country with civilized folk, that is, with settlers from civilized Europe. That is why I have said in the Constitution that the government should encourage European immigration. But to populate is not to civilize, indeed instead it leads to brutishness, when one peoples the country with Chinese or Indians from Asia, or with blacks from Africa" ("Gobernar es Poblar" 271). Population has a qualitative aspect, as well as a quantitative one. It matters who or what constitutes the population, who or what gives flesh or life to the constitution.

In the first place, Alberdi's remarks indicate clearly that at least from the standpoint of those who charged themselves with envisaging the constitution of the new Republics that resulted from independence from Spain, Latin American postcoloniality involved less the region's decolonization than its recolonization. Argentina, Alberdi tells us, has still yet to be properly colonized; it needs to be colonized again, but now on the North American model, rather than along Spanish lines. Settler colonialism was to replace administrative hierarchy, wiping out the rigid division between a ruling caste on the one hand, whose roots were not truly in the country, and a vulgar mass on the other hand, who lacked all social or political responsibility. For in the second place, it is clear also that the act of population, for Alberdi, also implied the process of forming a people. "Gobernar es poblar" could equally be translated as meaning "To govern is to construct a people." Only the presence of a people would ensure that the new republic's constituted power was more than mere facade, deserted and empty.

And so the history of Latin American populism begins: as the injunction to construct a people that would give life to the otherwise hollow institutions of the new Republic. The people are never separate from constituted power; indeed, it is the architects of the constitution who dream them up and call them forth to take their (supposedly) rightful place. The problem, of course, is that the region is hardly in fact unpopulated. Nobody believes for instance that Argentina is truly a desert, truly devoid of population: Domingo Sarmiento would provide, in Facundo, what is in some surprising ways a remarkably sensitive anthropological account of at least some of the human settlement that already occupied the Argentine pampa, the uncivilized and (quite literally) unsettling gaucho who were an obstacle to true settlement, proper settler colonialism. The fiction of a terra nullius is always self-consciously just that: a fiction. And elsewhere in Latin America (Mexico, Peru, and so on), the notion that the territory was mere "desert" was always much more untenable still. The problem was that the population was not yet a people, no more than Asian or African immigrants could ever (in Alberdi and others' eyes) constitute a people and redeem the deserted constitution. The pre-existing population of Latin America were, rather, variously an unformed mass, barbarous hordes, or recalcitrant and atavistic Indians whose principle of (dis)organization did not fit easily with the political organization imagined for the postcolonial settlement. So the history of Latin American populism is not merely that of calling forth a people to flesh out the constitution: in recolonizing the territory, claiming it back in the name of the new Republics, the framers of political order would also have to deal with the multitude that always already precedes them.

The basic trope of populist rhetoric invokes what is apparently a primordial social division. Indeed, as Yves Mény and Yves Surel indicate, we can define populism precisely by its rhetorical maneuvers: first, it demarcates a fundamental cleavage between "the top and the bottom, the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled," in short, between "the good, wide, and simple people" and "the corrupt, incompetent, and interlocking elites"; second, "elites are accused of abusing their position of power instead of acting in conformity with the interests of the people as a whole"; and third, populism then insists that "the primacy of the people has to be restored." Direct democracy is encouraged: "The ideal populist political system comes close, at least on paper, to a 'pure' democratic regime where the people are given the first and final word" (Mény and Surel, 12, 13). So populism combines: a framework of an overriding distinction between people and elite; an analysis that presents this distinction as antagonism rather than mere difference; and a gesture of solidarity with the people, against the elite. And yet we will never fully understand the populist impulse if, like so many and not least Ernesto Laclau in his celebrated analysis, we are content simply to trace its rhetorical gestures, its apparent antagonisms and solidarities. For populism is, in the end, the attempt to construct political unity by positing the people as the basis of political legitimacy, and therefore by displacing or conjuring away a pre-existing multitude. The populist sleight of hand consists in recasting the multitude as people while at the same time presenting itself as somehow anti-institutional and progressive; in short by appropriating and converting constituent into constituted power.

And this, ultimately, is the history of Latin American postcoloniality, which is therefore fundamentally structured by populism even in those periods or places where populist movements are in abeyance, seem not to have the upper hand, or even appear to be definitively absent. From the nineteenth century to the present, with rare exceptions (and the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 1990s may arguably be one of those), governance in Latin America has involved the projection of unity in the face of the legacy of a Spanish colonial regime that had always been content (not least in its division between creole and Indian republics) to live with difference and duality if not multiplicity. Latin American postcoloniality has been an attempt to undo the basic structures of Spanish imperialism while preserving its constituent institutions (as well, of course, as its class and racial privileges) by recasting them along North American lines as somehow by (if not for) the people. To this end, it has projected a whole series of spurious hegemonies of integration, mestizaje, development, and so on, of which classical populism has merely been the most successful (perhaps because it was its purest incarnation) if only at the same time its most miserable failure. For the rock on which this project has founded has been the continual insistence of the multitude, the fact that the dream of a wholesale neocolonial resettlement could only ever be wishful thinking. The multitude has ensured that constituted power in postcolonial times has remained unsettled, hollow and deserted.

works cited

Alberdi, Juan Bautista. Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina. Obras completas. Vol. 3. Buenos Aires: La Tribuna Nacional, 1886. 371-558.
-----. "Gobernar es Poblar." Escritos póstumos de J. B. Alberdi. Vol. 8: América. Buenos Aires: Cruz Hermanos, 1899. 266-276.
Mény, Yves, and Yves Surel. "The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism." Democracies and the Populist Challenge. Ed. Yves Mény and Yves Surel. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. 1-21.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


In Mythologies, Roland Barthes takes up the challenge posed by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics: to elaborate "semiology" as what Saussure terms "a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life" (15). Or to put this another way: Barthes takes the world around him as a social text, which can be read more or less like any other and in which the elements that compose it are almost as arbitrary as any other.

But the social text is only almost as arbitrary as any other; for Barthes, we also need "to pass from semiology to ideology" (128), that is, to recognize that the myths that structure the text of everyday life are politically motivated. To adapt a line from Marx: the ruling myths of each age have ever been the myths of its ruling class. There is therefore often a rather complex play between arbitrariness on one level and necessity (or, at least, political motivation) on another.

Wine is a perfect instance of this combination of extreme malleability and narrow determination. As Barthes observes, in France wine "supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions" (58). For example, "in cold weather it is associated with all the myths of being warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling" (60). Indeed, Barthes notes that the fundamental characteristic of wine as a signifier is less any particular content or signified to which it is attached than that it seems to effect a function of conversion or reversal, "extracting from objects their opposites--for instance, making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative" (58). And yet however much Barthes makes hay of this chain of associations and contradictions, there is a point at which the arbitrary play of significations ends. For wine is still, fundamentally, a commodity; in fact, it is big business. The analysis therefore concludes with a sort of determination in the last instance by the economy:
There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation. (61)
Hence for this reason, if no other, Barthes is far from suggesting some kind of interpretative free play: there is clearly a right way to read the myth of wine, and a wrong way; if we leave out the fact of expropriation, we have ultimately not understood the myth or its social function.

Elsewhere the moment at which interpretation comes to an end is rather more complex, and perhaps more interesting. Take the essay on "Toys." This is basically a critique of realism. Let us be clear: the problem with conventional French toys, Barthes argues, is not so much that they are gender-stereotyped, that for instance girls are to play with dolls and boys are given toy soldiers. It is, rather, that toys are almost always loaded with meaning: "French toys >always mean something, and this something is almost always entirely socialized" (53).

Toys constitute, in other words, what Barthes elsewhere terms a "work" in contradistinction to a "text"; they limit the range of uses to which they can be put. Indeed, they limit children's activity and expectation of the world to one predicated on use, rather than pleasure; on interpretation, rather than creation. And for Barthes use and meaning are both forms of tyranny, and they are both essentially dead. As he says of modern toys that are "chemical in substance and colour," they "die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child" (55).

What's curious, however, is the reading that Barthes provides, by contrast, of wooden blocks. Such toys are closer to a text than a work: they have no pre-set meaning; they are not premised upon representation, and so do not depend upon interpretation; the child who plays with them "creates life, not property" (54). So far, so good. But the strange moment comes when Barthes associates the open textuality facilitated by such open-ended play with wood. In a sort of poetic reverie, he praises the many characteristics of a substance that is "an ideal material because of its firmness and softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal" (54).

It's not obvious, after all, that wood is any more "natural" (or indeed, any less "chemical") than metal. Here, the point at which the play of signification stops depends less upon a political analysis of exploitation and expropriation, and rather more on a very familiar contrast between nature and industry, tradition and modernity. In short, here at least Barthes seems to be caught in a myth that he has merely made his own.

Monday, February 07, 2011


A long, empassioned post from my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo over at his blog "Space and Politics" discusses "Resonance and the Egyptian Revolution".

More generally, Gastón is also engaged in an attempt to think what I have previously termed a politics of affective resonance.

There's much to say about and to respond to in Gastón's post, and surely we need to develop further a critical vocabulary of resonance, dissonance, damping, attunement (on which see Massumi), and so on.

In terms of the relationship between space and politics, I think it would be worth investigating the ways in which resonance is discussed in Physics or Engineering. And one would presumably have to distinguish between resonance as it functions in solids, liquids, and gases. (This would be one answer to Gastón's reasonable critique that my tendency is to emphasize spatial solidity.)

But I'd also emphasize that resonance enables an intersection between a concern with space and an interest in time or history. For rhythm or tempo immediately invoke a concern with temporality. A body that resonates moves in space but also in time... literally, "in time" with others.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


The BBC's Paul Mason (to whom I've linked before) has a rather interesting post on "Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere".

I'd underline the power of disenchantment, which I've discussed previously with reference to the protests against authoritarianism in Chile. At root is a series of broken promises.

Mason says:

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

[. . .]

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess - so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because - even where you get rapid economic growth - it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11.To amplify: I can't find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations - but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

This is also much like the reasons Bourdieu gives for France's May 1968. As I put it in Posthegemony:

Bourdieu argues that the May 1968 student protests were the result of ethical self-protection in the face of the inadvertent effects of increased 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 scholarly certification, 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.” 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 toward the educational system.” Hence the “anti-institutional cast of mind” that “point[ed] toward 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.” However much the events of 1968 drew “strength from ideological and scientific critiques,” 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. They were part of an ethical revolt that drew on habitual inclinations to confront the social order. (pp. 220-21)

The only thing I'd add, then, to Mason's analysis is the importance of habit and conatus, the instinct for survival or increase. And it is conatus that builds the multitude.

Friday, February 04, 2011


[From my prologue to Rodrigo Naranjo, Para desarmar la narrative maestra: Un ensayo sobre la Guerra del Pacífico.]

“Creative Destruction: Ruins, Narrative, and Commonality”

Marx and Engels long ago noted that capitalist productivity entails unceasing destruction and destitution. As they put it in the Communist Manifesto: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (38). Destruction is not a mere by-product of capitalist development; it is its fundamental pre-requisite as the formal subsumption of labor, whereby older technologies are maintained even as they are assimilated into capitalist relations, is replaced by real subsumption, which demands the fundamental transformation of all aspects of the productive process. But as a result, capitalism is also truly revolutionary: it abruptly does away with the hierarchies and injustices of earlier social formations, if only to replace them with a regime that is even more insidiously unequal and unjust. Ruins of the past may persist: more or less mute reminders of what has gone before, but these too are often enough caught up in the revolutionary whirlwind. If capital can profit from the ruins it creates, it does so, turning them for instance into historical theme-parks, sites for leisure or aesthetic contemplation. Ruined places and peoples can be treated with a certain exoticizing sympathy, at the same time as they are held up as object (and objectified) lesson in what happens to those who do not adapt fast enough to changing times. In short, they can be resignified as part of a master narrative of progress. More often, however, capital moves swiftly on, brutally unsentimental about the devastation it leaves in its wake. Still, there is something strangely creative about the destruction wrought by capitalist modernity, a fact analyzed by theorists from Werner Sombart to Joseph Schumpeter.

Some have celebrated capital’s tendency to build on ruins, seeing it in Darwinian terms as an instance of the survival of the fittest. As Schumpeter argues, “the essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process” (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy 82). Others have been more ambivalent or even downright critical. Recently, Naomi Klein has revived the notion of creative destruction with her observations in The Shock Doctrine, but with a twist. For Klein, catastrophe is not so much endemic to capitalism as a necessary supplement for the particular hyper-capitalist ethos that goes by the name of neoliberalism. What she terms “disaster capitalism” arises in the twentieth century with the Pinochet dictatorship, only then to spread around the world. Klein argues that the successful implementation of neoliberal “reforms” depends upon a catastrophic “shock,” whether that be imposed from above (as in Chile) or whether it be an apparent “Act of God” (such as Hurricane Katrina) from which capital can opportunistically profit. In this version, it is not capitalism on its own that engineers the destruction upon which its creativity depends: some external force or sovereign violence intervenes to pave the way for economic restructuring, which is in turn devastating in its own way. But the shock comes first: the political has priority, and contemporary capitalism is rather more Leninist that its proponents would like to believe.

For Marx and Engels, the effects of capitalism’s creative destruction are epistemological as much as they are social, political, or economic. “All that is solid melts into air,” as they famously observe, “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind” (38-39). Intrinsic or extrinsic to capitalist production, it is crisis that allows us to see the truth of bourgeois society--and perhaps the preconditions of any society--clearly for the first time. The continual catastrophes that mark modernity allow an opening to capital’s posthegemonic kernel: every trace of ideology is swept away. Indeed, all narratives are briefly disrupted and we are left with a glimpse of what Giorgio Agamben would call bare life. Not only therefore does creative destruction do away with the oppressive social structures of the past: for all the neoliberal dictum that in the face of disaster “there is no alternative” to free-market deregulation, it also suggests that capitalism may not be the only beneficiary of the very crises that it lives and breathes. Catastrophe offers a turning point. It provides space for the rearticulation of well-worn mantras, which may gain renewed purchase when our defenses have been downed. It may also subsequently provide a mythic origin for new narratives and new articulations, perhaps more sinister than hitherto. But further, crisis has the potential to allow something genuinely unheralded (if perhaps long felt) to emerge: in laying bare what Marx and Engels term man’s “relations with his kind,” it reveals what we have in common. However much it hits some more than others, the propensity to be touched by calamity is ultimately a condition that we have in common with others. Moreover, disaster tends to exert a brute levelling, to provoke shared affects and induce fellowship. So as Rebecca Solnit argues, “extraordinary communities” are built on the very ordinary experience of common practices and habits that emerge out of destruction.

Read more... (.pdf file)

Thursday, February 03, 2011


While I'm posting videos and thinking about Neruda...

Here are the Brazilian Girls (perhaps my new favorite band; incidentally, they're neither Brazilian nor, for the most part, girls) with a rendition of "Me gustas cuando callas":

Sadly the visuals for the above video are far from inspiring. It's worth seeing the song live. Here's a performance from a couple of years ago in New York:

One of the things I like here is that this rendition is something of a performative contradiction: though the poem speaks of absence and a woman's silence, in the person of singer Sabina Sciubba we see a woman very much present and the focus of attention (while the male members of the band hide behind their instruments) and it is her voice that sounds out, rather than being hushed.

Indeed, is she telling us to be quiet?

Meanwhile, Sciubba is renowned for hiding her eyes. So while making herself the center of visual attention, she also seems to want to resist the gaze. In her words, "I can do whatever the fuck I want because nobody is going to recognize me in the street."

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


After a fun class yesterday on Neruda, in which students acted out Poem 15 from Veinte poemas de amor and then wrote letters or poems to the poet from the point of view of the woman or women he addresses (my favorite: "¿Pór que no te callas tú de vez en cuando?"), I was extolling the virtues of UBC undergraduates to some friends.

As further evidence, my buddy Alec mentioned the following video, produced by a UBC class in response to a now somewhat infamous article in Maclean's arguing that Canadian universities are "too Asian":

For more, see Tetsuro Shigematsu's account of the making of the video, "Too Asian?", and Brian Lamb's take, "Is UBC 'too Asian'? Let’s sing and find out".

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


[Some notes on Althusser, taken from Posthegemony.]

The everyday, routine, and almost invisible politics of habit contrasts with the often spectacular display that characterizes politics as it is more usually understood. The politics of habit is not the clash of ideologies within a theater of representation. It is a politics that is immanent and corporeal, that works directly through the body. Yet habit is primary; it is not an effect or a consequence of political processes that take place elsewhere. Rather, other forms of politics depend upon the dispositions and attitudes that habit inculcates. If we were to think of habit as ideology (and I agree with Bourdieu that we would be better off calling it something else), it would be closer to Louis Althusser’s “ideology in general” than to ideology as the “system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” Ideology in general precedes and underwrites specific ideologies, in that it constitutes the subjects who then conform to or recognize a system of representations. For Althusser, ideology in general consists in the mechanism of interpellation whereby Ideological State Apparatuses such as the school or the family call subjects into being, subjects whose condition of existence is that they recognize the power of some other, transcendent Subject (capitalized by Althusser) that is reciprocally produced in the same operation. Hence, although interpellation is material, in that it takes place in institutions and through practice (in his illustration, the subject comes into being by turning to face a police officer who hails him or her, and who comes to incarnate the Subject), what it produces is ideal. Physical gestures and attitudes such as kneeling at mass or standing at school assembly construct a doubled subjectivity, in which many subjects turn to face the one, transcendent Subject that appears to be mediated though ideas and representations. But the display, the theatrical (or cinematic) separation of Subject from subjects, is a product of the process that it subsequently appears to have produced. It is an effect that is taken to be cause; a quasi cause that arises through habit.

The habits that structure ideology in general constitute the state and its institutions, and also establish a relation to those institutions that appears to be ideological. The subjects that emerge through interpellation act as though they were following their consciences, as though ideas governed actions. Hegemony theory discloses that these ideas are not free, that they are orchestrated elsewhere. But it still stresses belief and consent. This does not go far enough: it does not recognize that belief arises from habit. Althusser cites the dictum of seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.” A Catholic will go to mass, a school pupil sing in assembly, a citizen enter the voting booth, and it can appear as though these practices were an effect of free will or, alternatively, of willing if deluded consent to a hege- monic project. Althusser insists, by contrast, that interpellation is a practice, and therefore already corporeal: always already acted out or performed, a subject’s ideas are “material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.” The ideal is at best contingent: its con- tent irrelevant, it is effect rather than cause. Belief in the power of ideology is itself ideological; ideology is at best a quasi cause in that everything happens (only) as though ideology were in fact determinant. Hence “the ideology of ideology” is the conviction that ideology matters, that our actions follow on from the ideas that we hold or even from the ideas that hold us and so from the ruses of some hegemonic project. And when this ideology of ideology wanes, when it becomes apparent that subjects “know very well what they are doing” but are still doing it, we have entered posthegemonic times. (pp. 181-82)

[. . .]

Social reproduction is never truly flawless. It is always somewhat hit and miss. Philosopher Judith Butler’s theorization of performativity as the embodied enactment of identity roles stresses the ways in which such roles can be “queered”: bent out of shape if not fully avoided. She takes issue with Althusser’s notion of inter- pellation, insisting on the possibilities of failed interpellation (only glimpsed in Althusser’s brief reference to “bad subjects”) to show that the voice of power, the state’s “hailing,” and the order of bod- ies are not fully synchronized. 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.” Although Althusser’s essay is a critique of the fetishism that imagines that the state alone authorizes 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 return to previous instances of interpellation so as to legitimate its attempts to constitute subjects reveals that it can never fully establish its claim to originality; the fact that it continually has to repeat itself shows that it is forever incomplete. On the other hand, Butler is also concerned with what remains unvoiced and unspoken. Censorship, for instance, “produces discursive regimes through the production of the unspeakable,” and more generally the gap between what may and may not be spoken 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.” Here, then, Butler turns to Bourdieu, 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 an insurgent biopolitics. (pp. 214-15)