Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Alamo

The point of legends is their adaptability. Freed from the requirements of realism, a legend can be reinvoked for diverse purposes as circumstances demand.

John Lee Hancock's The Alamo is, as Philip French notes, "clearly a post-9/11 movie," whose message, French argues, is that the war it portrays is "a war that should not have been fought, but having engaged with a monstrous enemy, it must be carried on, however reluctantly."

But if we can indeed follow contemporary parallels, then the movie is hardly the "decent, rather half-hearted liberal affair" that French contends.

The story of the Alamo is, in the first place, a story of traumatic defeat: the Mexican army's massacre of some 180 defenders holed up in the former mission near San Antonio. In the second place, however, it tells of the power of memory to stir a victorious counter-attack: Sam Houston's subsequent defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto, spurred by the shout "Remember the Alamo!"

And the prime ideological justification for the war against Iraq (especially now that talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction has faded) likewise invokes the memory of trauma to stir resolve against a "monstrous enemy": "Remember 9/11!"

The connection between 9/11 and Iraq is specious, of course, but in so far as The Alamo is indeed a 9/11 allegory, it naturalizes and secures the relation between this trauma and subsequent US bellicosity.

Santa Anna portrayed by EcheverriaAnd The Alamo's Santa Anna, played with some panache by Emilio Echeverría, is indeed the very model of a modern tyrant: cowardly and effete, more concerned with pomp and appearance than tactics or efficiency, he callously sacrifices his soldiers and ignores his officers' pleas to respect the rules of war.

For this is the trauma according to Hancock: the fact that Santa Anna plays "dirty" in his assault on the Alamo. (By contrast, for Christy Cabanne's 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo what's at issue is the threat that the Mexicans pose to the honour of Texan womenfolk.) The point, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Alamo's defenders are themselves not the most clean-cut of heroes: Jim Bowie is an unabashed slave-owner, William Travis a dandy with a shady past, and Davy Crockett a troubled character overshadowed by his own mythology.

In the end, though, there is one constant in all the various re-tellings of the Alamo legend: it is a tale about the constitution of an American people.

The mission's defenders are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers and regulars, brought together for a variety of motives, often disreputable. It is only in the face of a foreign aggressor that their internal conflict, essentially between the principle of a citizen militia and the imposition of military hierarchy, is resolved in favour of the state: both the state of Texas and statehood itself.

Ultimately, this is the narrative of how the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers and the New Orleans Greys and other disparate powers come together to defend the idea of a unitary power, which eventually will become the 28th State of the United States of America.

(Cross-posted from Latin America on Screen.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


A friend and I were chatting today, and he asked about disaffection. What kind of affect, or anti-affect, is it?

Disaffection is not simply an absence of affect. It usually has an object: people are disaffected with something. In some cases, disaffection can be the prelude to rebellion. It's a kind of low-grade insurrection, perhaps less focussed and less determined than refusal (for which the paradigm is always Bartleby), but more spirited than anomie.

Then there's boredom. I'm interested in boredom, as both affect and affectlessness. I remember Patrice Petro always suggesting that boredom was a feminist affect, indicating an impatience with the status quo and an unwillingness to hear the same old patriarchal stories told over and over.

Monday, August 29, 2005


Over at Long Sunday, there's an interesting post on Benevolent Global Hegemony, about the "power of ideas":
I am amazed (and horrified) that in the mainstream it is conservatives who talk about "ideas" and "liberals" talk about "solving problems."
But it's no surprise that conservatives should be "idealist," i.e. that they should erase or elide the importance of material (economic or political) factors in their own success. It's worth returning to The German Ideology:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. (47)
Marx's account has of course to be added to and complicated, but it's a decent start.

There remains, however, the question of what additional work ideas do. In what ways do ideas overdetermine political and historical processes?

The power of ideas has little to do with the extent to which they convince those to whom they are addressed, though this would be what hegemony theory suggests: that people consent to their own domination on the basis of the ideological discourse to which they are subjected. Rather, it's a matter of the conviction with which those ideas are held, the sense of confidence or presumption that they convey.

Brian Massumi writes about the confidence projected by Ronald Reagan. The coherence (or, more often, otherwise) of his pronouncements was unimportant. And people happily voted for Reagan even though they were aware that they disagreed with him. But Reaganism secured power through affect, not through ideology. Or, as Massumi says, he produced ideological effects by non-ideological means. Hence the Zizekian formula of posthegemony: "I know, but still I do."

Much of what Massumi writes about Reagan applies a fortiori to Bush the Younger. Liberals who pillory so-called "Bushisms" miss the point. The power of Bush's ideas resides not in their logic or coherence, but in the ways in which they are held: as folk wisdom, from time immemorial, imperfectly remembered in the present, but unassailable for that very reason.
There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again.
What's important here is the flexibility and mutability ("I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee") of ideas that are never meant to convince, to cohere, to secure consent.

The work that these ideas perform is, to poach a phrase from Hardt and Negri, a form of affective labour.

Sunday, August 28, 2005


A quick note...

s0metim3s asks, in a post well worth reading in full:
should the struggles against internment, war, etc be characterised as struggles which attempt to respond to the ’state of emergency’ or as struggles whose history has preceded the onset of the ’state of emergency’?
Isn't this also the question of "resistance"?

I was surprised when I saw Negri in London a year or so ago, that he so insistently used the term "resistance," which I had always thought signalled the reactive nature of social struggles: you resist a power that, in resisting, you already acknowledge is in some way more powerful than you are. That conception is very much the opposite of the way in which Negri otherwise frames the issue of what he terms "constituent power," for which it is the state and/or capital that has, ceaselessly, to react to the multitude's creative innovations.

In practice, I'd say, resistance and creativity are always mixed. Indeed, the most successful resistance turns to creativity, and so moves beyond the struggle against some prior power. Equally, however, even the most innovative and creative of constituent strategies needs to protect its flanks or its rearguard. To take the metaphor of "Exodus," is it not as though the Biblical Israelites did not resist Pharaoh, even as they carved a line of flight through the Egyptian desert.

Saturday, August 27, 2005


From The Independent:
"This is the path to victory: integration between the security secretariat, the police and citizens," said the state security secretary, Marcelo Itagiba.
So much, then, for any separation between civil society and state.

Friday, August 26, 2005

yet more piracy

Why pirates are in fact good for the world. The chart below is taken from Joshuah Bearman, who in turn got it from The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In the CotFSM's own words:
You may be interested to know that global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct effect of the shrinking numbers of Pirates since the 1800s. For your interest, I have included a graph of the approximate number of pirates versus the average global temperature over the last 200 years. As you can see, there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between pirates and global temperature.
chart correlating piracy and global warmingI should mention that the image file is named "piratesarecool4.jpg."

Otherwise, for more serious thoughts on piracy, head over to theoria.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


(Via The Square Circuit...)

Well, further to my earlier entry about the "Salvador Option", it turns out that just a couple of days thereafter Donald Rumsfeld did indeed compare Iraq to Salvador.

Setting everything else aside, I can't but believe that such comparisons will backfire. Comparing Iraq to Salvador in the 1980s can only further taint rather than boost the public image of the Iraqi regime now in (rather tenuous) power. Especially given what is commonly accepted about massacres and death squads in the Salvadoran civil war.


I've been leafing through Aldo Lauria-Santiago and Leigh Binford's collection Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society, and Community in El Salvador. It was Binford who organized a session at last year's Latin American Studies Association, in Vegas, entitled "Disputing the Post hegemony Thesis."

Part of what's at issue in the debate, such as it is, over posthegemony is a matter of differing definitions. Thus Binford et. al. draw on Raymond Williams and (especially) William Roseberry, whereas I prefer to read hegemony theory through Gramsci and Laclau. It became clear in the Vegas session itself that those declaring themselves against posthegemony were equally opposed to Laclau's reformulation of hegemony itself.

In many ways that's fair enough, but the signal service provided by Laclau is to provide a real theorization of the concept of hegemony. Binford and friends, by contrast, fall back on "hegemony" as a catch-all notion that sounds sophisticated but ends up merely confused.

church in Jocoaitique, MorazanHere's an example, from Binford's own otherwise very interesting essay "Peasants, Catechists, Revolutionaries," on the role of the Catholic church in Northern Morazán, which would come to be the heartland of FMLN territory during the civil war, and site of the FMLN's unofficial "capital," Perquín. Describing the conservative theology and pastoral practice of the region's only pre-war priest, Binford states that:
These beliefs established Catholicism as an important underpinning of the regional hegemonic order, defining hegemony here as a system of beliefs and practices that favor dominant groups and that serve as frames that shape people's lived experience, even their experience of struggle against oppression. (108; emphasis in original)
There follows a footnote that refers to Williams's Marxism and Literature and to Roseberry's "Hegemony and the Language of Contention," but to no particular passages from either work.

On the one hand, this sentence is so banal as to be unarguable. Of course, Catholicism (or rather, the orthodox, pietistic Catholicism that preceded the changes initiated by Vatican II) played an important part in securing regional order. On the other hand, in so far as Binford purports to be explaining the mechanisms by which this order was secured, his statement here is opaque in the extreme.

For instance, what exactly is the relation between "hegemony" and "hegemonic order"? And why not, say, talk of the hegemonic underpinning of regional order? In other words, what is the relation between the Church and this "regional order" of which Binford writes? In what ways did Catholicism "underpin" this order rather than being itself part of it? What is meant by seeing beliefs and practices as "frames that shape people's lived experience," so apparently distinguishing them from experience? What is this metaphor of framing, and what does it actually mean?

In short, why does Binford wish to separate out hegemony from the other components of the society he is describing, putting it on another level (underpinning) or transcending (framing) that society? I think it's because he's trying to make the concept do some analytic work, to present it as some (semi-)external mechanism or cause to explain apparent peasant docility. Because peasants are themselves, of course, naturally rebellious, somehow in themselves endlessly "struggl[ing] against oppression." But even the very language that Binford uses ("beliefs and practices") gets hegemony entangled again within the experience and behavior that the concept allegedly explains.

Far from an explanatory concept, hegemony becomes "hegemonic order" and so little more than a redescription of the phenomena that Binford sets out to analyze. The terminological shift from "regional order" to "hegemony" to "regional hegemonic order" in fact explains nothing, adds nothing to our understanding of the relations between Catholicism, subalterns, and elites. It leads only to confusion masking as sophistication, bereft of any foundation beyond the gestural.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Hugo Chávez is in the news again, now thanks to Pat Robertson's outrageous call for his assassination. The Venezuelan president is no stranger to the headlines, of course, nor does he shirk them. He takes on his (many and vociferous) opponents directly and publicly, whether by baiting the so-called "escuálidos" who are his domestic opposition, or by taking on the US government, most recently accusing DEA agents of international espionage.

I've never been a great fan of Chávez. His personalist style is deeply problematic. In typical populist manner, he deploys his charisma to conjure away the fact of state domination. I have been ambivalent about his regime despite recognizing that anti-chavista forces are far more unsavory. I remember asking a friend, who was at the time editor at the excellent Caracas-based Nueva Sociedad, whether the military might come to power if Chávez were overthrown. "Ah, but the military is already in power," was his response.

And it's true that Chávez is an ex-paratrooper, who came to attention first as head of an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. Also, if the 2002 effort to unseat him failed in part because of the multitudinous uprising that ensued, another reason was the loyalty shown by the military rank and file, most of whom still see him as one of them.

Ironically, in that he depends so much on television to construct and maintain his popular appeal, complete with his own talk show, Aló Presidente, and given his direct, over-dramatic, evangelical style, Chávez is in some ways the mirror image of his latest critic, the tele-evangelist Robertson. And Chávez's tele-populism undoubtedly depends upon and engenders the power of popular belief.

But is there anything more to chavismo than its faith in a leader?

I was (quite by accident) in Venezuela during the 2002 coup and counter-coup. It was an extraordinary week. And one thing was obvious: Chávez's supporters, who constitute, as has now been repeatedly demonstrated, the majority of the population, expected a lot of his government; but it had yet to deliver. The regime had not made much of a difference to Venezuela's poor. It was long on rhetoric, but short on results. It had proposed a number of creative and controversial foreign policy initiatives (from seeking to resuscitate and reorient OPEC to improving links with Cuba), but had been mostly on the defensive domestically.

That may now be changing. The fact that populism still figures the people as expectant (and so dependent) on a power alien to them remains its great limitation. But at least the people are no longer simply waiting. And the reforms that the government is effecting, in the wake of the counter-coup, suggest further change may be on its way. In the space of a few months, Venezuela has come to attention for its empowerment of workers on the shop floor, its education and health programs, and its ambitious land reform initiative.

One could draw a contrast with the government over which Brazil's Lula presides. Unlike Chávez, Lula has long been the darling of the international left. His Workers' Party grew out of struggles against military repression in the 1970s and 1980s, his personal biography is compelling, he has made all the right noises in terms of regional solidarity, and has hosted and encouraged the Porto Alegre gatherings of the World Social Forum. But, also unlike Chávez, his government has become mired in a corruption scandal that, if it doesn't reach to the very top, goes pretty close to it. Meanwhile, Lula's much vaunted social programs, particularly the "Zero Hunger" program, have so far proved insubstantial and ineffectual. And his economic policies have been a continuation of the neoliberal orthodoxy already in place, which have kept the markets happy but done little to reduce his country's appalling wealth and income inequalities.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has two useful articles detailing how the mess that Lula finds himself in contrasts with Chávez's status as Latin America's rising superstar.

I've always found it strange that Venezuela, despite its strategic importance and economic weight, has commanded so little attention outside its borders. (The number of prominent Latin Americanists with expertise on the country can be counted on the fingers of one mutilated hand, compared to the myriads studying, say, Argentina, Mexico, or Peru.) It's time for us to take a little more notice. A good place to start is And Gregory Wilpert, as evidenced in articles such as this one, has for some time been among the more astute commentators on the so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

"We are the expression of the multitude", declare Venezuela's community media association. Well, maybe. Chávez continues to hog the headlines, but there may indeed be something rather interesting going on within the organizations that have been established under his regime's aegis, or in parallel with the regime itself.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Here's another snippet that will probably be dropped from the chapter. It deals with an issue I've discussed earlier, as k-punk has observed: the relation between terror and narrative.

There's hardly a better example of this (non)relation than Alan Clarke's film Elephant (1989), simultaneously the most and the least eloquent of statements about terror. The film is almost devoid of dialogue, and consists of a series of assassinations carried out by various un-named, unidentified characters in a depopulated, everyday suburban landscape of shops, factories, parks, gas stations and so on. The camera follows silent and seemingly ordinary figures who make their way determinedly through the city until they come across another equally anonymous figure, and then remorselessly, unfailingly, shoot.

still from Elephant
One assassination follows another, relentlessly, horrifically, without explanation or apparent meaning. More emphatically even than Krzysztof Kieslowski's Short Film about Killing (1988), Elephant makes no attempt to justify or explain its serial murders. But the film's silence is unbearable. We inevitably attempt to construct some kind of story, some kind of frame within which to situate the slaughter, and so to relieve (displace) the shock that it causes us. As Richard Kirkland puts it, "the discrete autonomy of Elephant's violence is fundamentally compromised by the viewer's endless and troubled search for narrative" (8).

So once it is "understood" (most likely thanks to its paratexts) that the film is set in Northern Ireland during the troubles, the viewer starts to elaborate a narrative that will give the meaning and logic to the killings that the film resolutely denies us: for instance, we might read them in terms of a "cycle of violence," "tit for tat killings" performed alternately by Loyalists and Republicans. An elephant never forgets. But in that the film has forced us, its audience, to come up with these clichés, it has also foregrounded the extent to which all discourse about terrorism is imposed upon events and bodies that otherwise stop interpretation short.

Even, in the end, the judgment that such killings are "senseless" (as they are so often described in hackneyed journalistic reports) is itself part of a narrative that aims to give sense to what otherwise subverts the distinction between sense and senselessness.

(At this point let me add a heartfelt recommendation of Robert McLiam Wilson's Eureka Street, an extraordinary novel that also makes the point that terror is most fundamentally narrative's interruption.)

Gus Van Sant's movie Elephant was inspired by Clarke's film. Unlike its predecessor, Van Sant's movie does feature dialogue. But what's interesting here is the way in which language becomes no more than sound, for instance in the scene with the girl in the swimming pool. Van Sant perhaps points to another possible source of Clarke's title, Bernard MacLaverty's description of the Troubles as like having an elephant in your living room: so incomprehensible that directly addressing the issue is impossible. All the talk around violence inevitably misses its point(lessness).

One could say much more along these lines about the killing of Jean de Menezes. I don't buy either the state's self-justification or the left's critique of the state. The left seeks explanation by invoking cover-ups, racism, or conspiracy theories. The police and government declare that the shooting in Stockwell was a "tragic mistake." But the distinction between truth and error, innocent and guilty, intention and accident, is now strictly undecidable in our contemporary control society.

Monday, August 22, 2005


I'm starting to revise another chapter of my book manuscript, and there are a number of short, fairly self-contained, readings that will most likely disappear. One is about Nancy Scheper-Hughes's Death without Weeping (a title that always reminds me of Nick Cave's magnificent "The Weeping Song").

Scheper-Hughes picture of child in coffinScheper-Hughes's book (which also forms the basis for a special issue of New Internationalist) is a study of women in a Brazilian shantytown and their attitudes in the face of extraordinarily high rates of infant mortality, "the routinization of human suffering in so much of impoverished Northeast Brazil and the 'normal' violence of everyday life" (16). As such it is an investigation into affect. Scheper-Hughes aims "to recuperate and politicize the uses of the body and the secret language of the organs" (185). She shows how fear, grief, mourning, joy, anger, and so on, make up a "political economy of the emotions expressed in the somatization of scarcity and deprivation" (326).

Scheper-Hughes writes of "emotions," but I think it is better to describe her project in terms of affect. Unlike emotion, affect has no clear subject or object. So if I fear the dark, that is a feeling that I have about something. It is an emotion: personalized, individualized, tied to an object. In affect, by contrast, subjects are overwhelmed by and dissolved in a feeling that can seem to encompass the whole world. Emotions are personal; affects are impersonal.

Indeed, Death without Weeping indicates that emotion is secondary to affect. In the shantytown, individualized emotions expressed for a particular object by a particular subject are slow to emerge. Because infant death is so prevalent, feelings are not at first ascribed to persons. Infancy in the Alto do Cruzeiro (site of Scheper-Hughes's fieldwork) is fundamentally impersonal:
The women of the Alto are slow to "personalize" infants by attributing specific meanings to their whimpers, cries, facial expressions, flailing of arms and leg, kicks and screams. [. . .] Alto women do not scan the infant's face to note resemblances to other family members. Naming practices follow a similar logic: many Alto infants can remain unnamed and unbaptized until they reach their first birthday. (413)
Alto women avoid (or delay) interpretation and the attribution of meaning. They do not weep for what the death of a child means; the care of these unnamed children is not a cognitive process that would accord particular weight to their personal individuality.

But the lack of emotion does not imply that affect is absent; it is just that "the affection shown the infant and young baby is general and nonspecific. 'Who doesn't enjoy a baby?' people ask" (415). While neither the object (the baby) nor the subject (the mother) are personalized, an affect of enjoyment ("Who doesn't enjoy?") encompasses and supersedes individual persons.

See the photo above: the child is almost buried by the flowers that crowd his (or is it her?) coffin. Even his face, marker and sign of individuality, is half obscured. It is not that there is no affect attending the child's funeral; far from it, as the coffin is overflowing with these tokens of love. But the affect is general, depersonalized.

Depersonalization is not homogenization. Affect traces what Gilles Deleuze terms "singularities," here the whimpers and cries, kicks and screams, that make childcare anything but monotonous. Deleuze describes infancy precisely in terms of the prevalence of singularities over individuality: "very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face--not subjective qualities" (Pure Immanence 30). In rejecting the logic of representation, the women of the Alto emphasize these singularities of the infants in their care: by refusing to "note resemblances to other family members" (Scheper-Hughes 413), the mothers highlight the infant's incomparable power to affect and be affected.

Individuation would mean seeing meaning elsewhere: reinforcing filiality, referring infancy to adulthood (this kick or that smile finds its model in a paternal gesture or a shared familial feature), making individuals out of infants at the cost of subordinating them to a transcendent domestic hierarchy. Hence it is individuation and the social rituals of naming and baptism, not the impersonality of a generalized affect, that homogenize and impose social stasis upon the growing child. In the meantime, before this is allowed to happen, in the Alto "small children circulate among relatives and are often reared by more than one mother; on moving into a new household, the child may be given a different name or nickname" (414). Each Alto child is a multiplicity, flexibly adopting a number of different social roles and incarnating multiple identities.

Only later, and "gradually and slowly," does the Alto infant come "to earn his personal claim to full human status and with it his claim to a personal name and his right to the affections and passionate attachment of his mother" (415). But as multiform affect gives way to the attachments of a subjectified emotion (governed by rights) linking mother and child, the resulting humanization is also a limitation. Multiple and mobile singularities are reduced to a single, fixed identity. One of Scheper-Hughes's informants states that before this point "the infant is without history. The infant's story is not yet made up" (437). But we could also say that the child incarnates a pluriform history, or multiple potential stories, yet to be reductively shaped by the single linear narrative that will lay down the law for his or her future.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


Over the summer I read the (inaptly named) David Peace's "Red Riding Quartet". I am now reading his most recent book, GB84.

Peace is a compelling if rather over-stylized writer. Moreover, aspects of his style become tics, overused and so less effective the more you read of him. But he is worth reading.

My friend John Kraniauskas argues that his books are in fact treatises on the British state. In so far as the Red Riding Quartet is crime fiction, then they are clearly about the state in the ways that all such fiction is: detailing the state apparatus's attempts to reimpose order and rationality after criminality has upset the social order. Like many post-Chandler crime writers, Peace is also concerned to demonstrate that the order imposed by the state is, however, not so easily separable from the disorder against which it is apparently arrayed. The state, too, is delinquent.

Don McPhee photo of miner and policemanGB84 is interesting because it takes the style and motifs of crime fiction, and applies them to a situation that is more readily read as straightforwardly political, the 1984 miners' strike. The state here is faced with political protest, or rather a labour protest with strong political overtones, and its response is in part to criminalize protest and in part to become itself criminal. (Meanwhile, the union also takes on aspects of the state, as registered in the parody recorded by Don McPhee's photograph, and also in semi-jocular references to the "Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.")

Of course, the interesting question is why most people generally accept a firm distinction between police and prey, rather than questioning the state's legitimacy. Peace, like other crime writers, resorts to what are ultimately rather unsatisfactory responses: corruption, cover-up, manipulation of the press, ignorance, and so on. Like, say, James Ellroy (whose extraordinary American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand take the same approach to an epic sweep of mid-century US history), the important demarcation for Peace is less that between civil and criminal, law and outlaw, than that between insiders and outsiders, those in the know and those outside the loop.

The severest punishments, imposed by the state and the anti-state alike, are reserved for informers, those who threaten to break the code of silence and reveal the true mechanisms of power. Yet when word does get out, it can too often easily be dismissed as the fantasies of cranks, the ramblings of conspiracy theorists, or the delusions of paranoids. The greatest tragedy is always that of those who, Cassandra-like, are condemned to have their denunciations treated as another round of resentful crying wolf.

Or is it that the tremendous popularity of crime fiction in the twentieth century reveals that we do in fact know that the state is just another mafia, whose power is maintained by corruption rather than consent? But our silence, our complicity, is the open secret that finally binds society.

Meanwhile, here is a great review of Ellroy. I've yet to see such a good one of Peace.

[UPDATE: I see that k-punk has also been reading GB84.]


Just a quick note to mark the appearance of Theoria, a new blog whose concerns and those of Posthegemonic Musings are likely to overlap frequently.

Theoria's first entry, on Pirates, Terrorists, Homo Sacer, includes a link to a rather interesting article on how thinking of terrorists as pirates can help win the war on terror.

More on this, anon.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Over at Waggish, in an entry mostly on Bolaño, it is suggested that "As English, French, and West German writers seem often to have dealt with this theme [of literature's complicity in mortal crimes and political horrors] from too theoretical a standpoint (see Coetzee, Blanchot, Grass, etc.), the visceral approach of Latin American writers like Bolano and Augusto Roa Bastos makes a necessary counterweight."

Something's up with the commenting system at Waggish, so consider this a displaced comment: I'm not convinced by the notion that Bolaño and Roa Bastos, or indeed "Latin American writers" in general, are more "visceral" than other authors. (NB there is something at best quaint about describing Coetzee as English and Grass as West German.) As well as suffering all the usual weaknesses of such sweeping comments, and as well as buying in to the traditional neo-colonial ideology that allocates theory to the metropolis and corporeality to the periphery, the choice of Roa Bastos as an example is simply bizarre.

Roa Bastos's masterpiece Yo, el supremo is many things, among them probably the greatest novel written in twentieth-century Latin America. But to imply it is untheoretical is nonsense. And to label it "visceral" is, well, at best misleading.

Alfredo StroessnerThe novel opens with the declaration that also serves as the book's title: "Yo el supremo Dictador de la Republica" (7). This sentence would appear to be the first line of an official declaration, marked by its performative invocation of authority. "Yo el supremo" refers to the ultimate power in Paraguay, José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia, and the phrase apparently initiates another of his dictates to the Paraguayan people.

It soon becomes evident, however, that authority and authorship are here more muddled and uncertain than first appearances suggest. For the declaration is fake--a subversive parody--pinned by unknown hands on Asunción's cathedral door. Who then is this "yo," this "I" who would be "supreme"? There is a double reference here: the text purports to have been written (or to have been dictated) by Francia, but Francia himself (and his secretary, Policarpo Patiño) are determined to discover the missive's true author. Someone, it seems, is determined to usurp the language that only the dictator himself may use, and so to infiltrate the place of power itself: "Remedan mi lenguaje, mi letra, buscando infiltrarse a través de él; llegar hasta mí desde sus madrigueras" (9).

Underlying Francia's anxiety is the assumption that a dictator's power is founded on language, on the ability to sign and give orders. It is after all language that enables the systematization of power, in the form of decrees, laws, and communiqués. "El Supremo Dictador habla siempre a los demás. Dirige su voz delante de sí para ser oído, escuchado, obedecido" (28). The novel analyses this process of dictation in its two senses of absolute power and inscription of the voice. Francia endlessly speaks, while Patiño listens, obeys, writes, and transmits the dictator's pronouncements.

Language enables power to be communicated and distributed, to become absolute throughout the territory. Language is social ("el sonido del pensamiento [...] nunca es un murmullo solitario por más íntimo que sea" [28]) and enables its dictator to manage the social.

Yet language's distributive powers are double-edged. Its transferability and communicability open up a gap between the subject and what that subject enunciates, or between the person and the grammatical subject ("yo"). As Francia notes, "Lo que significa es que en el Supremo por lo menos hay dos" (28). And in this division, in this doubling, availing themselves of the shifting quality of personal pronouns, other persons can present themselves as the "first" person. They can position themselves in the space of the grammatical subject. In the end, what is to stop anyone from declaring (in imitation, by repetition) "Yo [también], el supremo," I too am supreme, so mocking sovereignty's claim to uniqueness?

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Off and on, over the past couple of days I've been watching Helena Solberg's Bananas is my Business, a documentary about Carmen Miranda.

Bananas is my BusinessMiranda is (or was) a curious figure. She was, apparently, the highest paid performer (male or female) in 1940s Hollywood, and the highest paid woman (in any occupation) in the US at the time. She was extraordinarily popular: one of the first "crossover" artists, who brought something like what would now be termed "world music" to a mass audience in North America. But I'd be surprised if anyone actively sought out her films or her music now. Her image very quickly transformed from serious star to epitome of kitsch, and her films, while often entertaining, hardly stand up well compared to other classic musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Her acting was never convincing and her musical performances were seldom well integrated into the film narrative. (Oddly, an exception is probably Down Argentine Way, a Betty Grable vehicle for which Miranda's scenes were shot only after the rest of the film was finished.)

But the decline in Miranda's reputation says more about her audience, and perhaps still more about twentieth-century geopolitics, than it does about her.

She was, after all, always already a caricature, an exotic curiosity. On her first arrival in the USA, when she knew little English but a lot about what she had to do to become famous, reporters wrote up interviews with her as though she were some comic primitive but also idiot savant who gave voice to everyone's unspoken desires. Miranda declared that she knew only 100 words of English, among them "men, men, men and money, money, money." Her costumes, especially the famously elaborate headgear, were manic exaggerations of the clothing worn by Bahian market women, but they also resonated with sixteenth to eighteenth-century images of South America as a dusky maiden bearing the fruit of her fertile soil.

Her success owed much to US post-war "good neighborliness," a policy that emphasized and enhanced economic and cultural exchanges between North and South America. The cultural arm of the good neighbor policy was directed by Nelson Rockefeller, and also gave us films such as Disney's Saludos Amigos, a strange mix of documentary, anthropology, diplomacy, and tourist guide. Latin America was promoted as a region now coming to modernity, fresh and vital compared to a Europe worn out by world war. It could be a source of markets and raw materials, but also a site for the indulgence of otherwise perhaps repressed desires. Latin Americans themselves were portrayed as slightly shady but definitely fun: prepared to break a few rules here and there thanks to their irrepressible vitality and desire to make good. Miranda very much fit into this mold. Havana, Acapulco, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro were now portrayed as filled with high-class nightclubs with sparkling entertainment, the ideal locations for hedonistic holidays from the rigors of making money at home.

As well as a reorientation of US economic and cultural interest from the Old to the New World, the Good Neighbor policy was also a pre-emptive strike as the Cold War got off the ground. Latin America already had strong labor movements (e.g. in Argentina and Chile), established socialist and communist parties (for instance, Peru), and had shown stirrings (or in the case of Mexico, more than stirrings) of revolutionary impulses. But at the same time the region was far from the Soviet sphere of influence, and could be imagined as a showcase for the benefits of liberal, democratic modernization. The US therefore welcomed the democratization and modernization that swept Latin America in the mid to late 1940s.

But within less than a decade, good neighborliness had been discredited. Prompted in part by lobbying from United Fruit, whose banana plantations occupied large swathes of the east of the country, in 1954 the state department engineered a coup in Guatemala, bringing down a left-leaning regime that had, in US eyes, gone too far in suggesting that modernization should be accompanied with social justice, that the benefits of democracy and openness should be felt by peasants as well as party-goers. Toppling the Guatemalan government was the CIA's first major foreign operation, to be repeated soon in Iran. Both were viewed as great successes for a new, burlier and bolder, approach to international relations. Regime change came to be seen as an acceptable solution to problems that democracy and modernity could no longer be relied upon to resolve.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, the shift in Latin America's image and US tactics was soon complete. The Cold War was fully global and Havana was no longer the destination of choice for high-rolling gamblers or the emerging jet-set.

Carmen Miranda had died in 1955, but in any case nobody could now make a film such as Weekend in Havana. Orson Welles's 1958 Touch of Evil better portrayed the new Latin America: a place of real danger and violence, whose seedy and superficial pleasures could too easily lure the unwary tourist into incomprehensible peril. The border between North and South was both absolute (separating cultures that were incommensurably different) and frighteningly fragile. There might still be a need for Americans to go down and do business with their neighbors the other side of the Rio Grande, but this would be man's work, no job for a woman with fruit on her head.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Some days ago, Organic Warfare drew my attention to an entry on the so-called "Salvador Option". Unfortunately, his blog has all comments disabled, but you can see some of our subsequent discussion here.

More recently, I read a long article by Mark Fuller entitled "For Iraq, 'The Salvador Option' Becomes Reality", which draws on a whole number of sources, not least a January Newsweek article on "The Salvador Option" that summarizes this "option" as follows:
The Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal. [. . .]

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria
See also the follow-up article, "Death Squad Diplomacy", by Christopher Dickey, who was a long-time correspondent in Salvador during the 1980s.

Now, I think that it is worth comparing Salvador and Iraq, though not necessarily in the ways that the above articles suggest. Indeed, I agree with Fuller that there are many ways in which Colombia is probably a better direct comparison. Panama might be another, as one of the US's first experiments in "regime change" in the modern style, and so successfully so (from the US perspective) that it might have given false confidence to those who plotted the Iraq War. Panama's president Noriega had, after all, like Hussein been a strategic ally in a strategically important location--in Noriega's case because he was sitting on the canal. But the US turned against their former strong man in the region, bringing him down in a full scale invasion (ordered by Bush père) on the flimsiest of excuses, with the minimum of US casualties. More details can be found from The Panama Deception, a film that was the Fahrenheit 911 of its day, a controversial 1992 Oscar winner. See also John Weeks and Phil Gunson's Panama: Made in the USA.

At the same time, there are many differences between Iraq and Salvador, Colombia, or Panama. None of the three turned into "failed states" in quite the spectacularly implosive and dangerous manner that Iraq has done so. None of these Latin American conflicts had ethnic or religious components. None were about exploitable resources. (Though Colombia does of course have an export crop that has found a fertile market in the USA, there are as yet no multinationals poised to take over its production and distribution.) None was ever more than briefly the focus of world attention. Still here are some snippets of thoughts about Salvador...

What is it about tall buildings? They seem to provoke a kind of fatal attraction among those that, following Deleuze and Félix Guattari, we could call nomads--those homeless, mobile, components of the war machine for whom "weapons are affects and affects weapons" (A Thousand Plateaus 400). New York's twin towers had, after all, been attacked before, while the height of success for El Salvador's Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and perhaps the single most important moment of that country's ten-year civil war, was the guerrilla group's capture of the San Salvador Sheraton, one of the city's tallest buildings, in November 1989. As José Ignacio López Vigil puts it: "We attacked the big hotel because it was the highest point in the neighbourhood" (Rebel Radio 229).

Beyond strategic concerns, perhaps it is also that building upwards has been a defining mark of homogenizing unification from Babel to Taipei 101. Babel still epitomizes the dream of unimpeded and transparent communication, but it was also merely the first such project (and the first such tower) to fall. One may hesitate to call Babel "modern," but like the Pyramids (the world's highest manmade structures in the ancient era) its height required a kind of cooperation that ultimately only modernity would enable. It's no coincidence that Kuala Lumpur's city center, with the Petronas towers site of among the world's tallest buildings today, is an "intelligent precinct" set at one end of the world's most ambitious communications project, Malaysia's "Multimedia Super Corridor" (MSC), an area of land the size of Singapore that will be fully "wired" and will be site of two new "smart cities." Tall buildings epitomize the desire for transcendence, whether religious, state, or corporate; they enable surveillance and the dream of transparency; it is from the symbolic and material vantage point that height provides that social life can be stratified and ordered.

In El Salvador, the Sheraton proved to be the locus of far more than simply symbolic power. Attracted to its height, and so to its commanding position within the fashionable neighborhood of Escalón in which they were launching a counter-attack during the November 1989 offensive, the FMLN "had no idea who was inside: none other than the secretary general of the Organisation of American States, João Baena Soares, who was in El Salvador to learn about the war and ended up seeing it up close" (López Vigil, Rebel Radio 229). Still more significantly, also staying at the hotel, on the top floor, were twelve US green berets, who suddenly became in effect prisoners of the FMLN. The US president at the time (another George Bush) sent down an elite Delta Force special operations team from Fort Bragg, ready to intervene directly in the Salvadoran civil war for the first time. But after twenty-eight hours the guerrillas left the hotel of their own volition; as far as the press were concerned, they simply vanished: "Reporters who approached the hotel just after dawn [...] said there was no sign of the rebels who took over part of the hotel in the exclusive Escalon district of the capital" (Simon Tisdall, "Green Berets walk free from Salvador Siege," The Guardian [23 November 1989]: 10). Another report again emphasizes the sudden disappearance of the guerrillas ("the rebels were nowhere to be seen") and contrasts it with the US soldiers' territorial immobility and reliance upon direction from above: "The Green Berets, however, were still behind their barricades. 'We've had no orders so we're staying here,' one of them said to a large crowd of journalists" (Tom Gibb, "Sheraton siege ends as rebels withdraw," The Times [23 November 1989]: 10).

Across the country the offensive was now over. The FMLN had shown that they could mount and sustain an engagement at the very heart of middle class Salvadoran society--while, elsewhere, the government had shown that it had no qualms about bombing working class suburbs from the air, or about murdering some of the country's leading intellectuals, six Jesuit priests who worked and lived in the Universidad Centroamericana. State terror more than matched any "outrageous act of terrorism" (in the words of a US State Department spokesman [quoted in Tom Gibb, "US alert as rebels hold four in hotel," The Times (22 November 1989): 1]) that may have been committed by the insurgents. A realization on both sides of the resulting impasse led to the peace accords that ended the war.

Simultaneously, across the world the Cold War was now ending. The FMLN offensive (November 11th to 23rd) had taken place in the brief interlude between the fall of the Berlin wall (on November 9th) and the fall of the first East European communist regime--the Czech president quit and Dubcek returned to Prague on November 24th. The November offensive ("in all probability, the biggest guerrilla offensive ever mounted against a Latin American government" [McClintock, Revolutionary Movements in Latin America 84]), and particularly the incident in the Sheraton with which it ended, was then a hinge: both the last confrontation of the Cold War era and the first post-Cold War conflict, a premonition of future actions against tall buildings. In the incident at the Sheraton, the FMLN crossed the boundary that separates subaltern from hegemonic project, without for that entering into the space of hegemony itself. Rather, they provided a foretaste and example of posthegemony.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

por algo

During the so-called "dirty war" conducted by the Argentine military regime of the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase "por algo será" crystallized something like residual acquiescence to the state's legitimacy.

The Argentine death squads operated often with only the minimum of clandestinity: people were frequently disappeared in broad daylight, in the center of Buenos Aires. Little was hidden; the repression was out in the open. But people looked away. There's an amazing photograph in Diana Taylor's Disappearing Acts, for instance, of the moment of an abduction right in front of a downtown café's plate glass window. You can see a woman inside the café turning her head. Taylor terms this (self-)cauterizing of vision "percepticide."

abduction in front of a cafe
Percepticide was justified by the notion that "there must be a reason." The abductee must have done something wrong to have been taken away by the state. "Por algo será." As Carlos Mangone notes, "por algo será" was "a phrase that marked civil indifference (and objective complicity) in the face of repression"; it indicated "a social psychology that calmed individual consciences and displaced the specter of thousands of human beings who had once had their own social, political, and cultural trajectories." The extinction of these thousands of individual histories was explained by the singularity of an unimpeached state logic.

We can uncover a similar logic at work as details are revealed of the circumstances that led to the London police killing Jean de Menezes at Stockwell tube a couple of weeks ago. (See the ITV news report and coverage at Lenin's Tomb.)

We were originally told by eyewitnesses that de Menezes was of Asian appearance, wearing a bulky jacket, wires protruding, and that he jumped the station barriers, running down to the train. Now it turns out that all these details were wrong. He was Brazilian (and relatively light-skinned, for what that's worth), in a light denim jacket, no wires, who went through the barriers in the normal way, stopping to pick up a newspaper, ran to catch the train, and sat down in his seat.

The original accounts, then, are symptomatic of a social fantasy secured by the state. They are elaborated from the original acquiescence that assumes that "por algo será," "there must be a reason," and proceeds to conjure one (or here, several) out of the confusing series of sensations produced in the event itself.

But the police too are victims of this same social fantasy. Hence the detail of the de Menezes's alleged "Mongolian eyes" that lenin mentions at Lenin's Tomb. In other words, rather than conspiracy or cover-up (though it is clear that, in denying that there were CCTV images of the incident, the police have subsequently if rather half-heartedly attempted some kind of cover-up), we see how police and public alike are subject to the state's capacity to organize our perceptions, to secure our complicity with its violence at some level far beneath consciousness.

[edited, having found the photograph in question on the web, and so also to correct the fact I had (mis)remembered the person in the cafe being male]

Monday, August 15, 2005


The following reading is only partly against the grain, I think...

The state is the unacknowledged center of Laclau's theory of hegemony. In On Populist Reason, he declares that "social demands" are the "smallest unit" of political analysis (73). But these demands are addressed to an institution or authority, an "institutional system" (73), "the dominant system" (89), or an "institutional order" (116), that is presupposed in and through their articulation. These "democratic demands" are "formulated to the system by an underdog of sorts" (125; emphasis in original). Laclau's examples of such institutional systems include small-scale state structures such as the "local authorities" from which people might seek a resolution to housing problems (73) or, elsewhere, the "city hall" that could improve transport networks ("Populism" 36); his historical case studies, however, all involve nation states. If "a demand is always addressed to someone" (On Populist Reason 86), that "someone" is always, for Laclau, an institution already in a position to satisfy such demands. Indeed, the demand itself recognizes the pre-constituted power of the system that is addressed: "the very fact that a request takes place shows that the decisory power of the higher instance is not put into question" ("Populism" 36). The power of the state as "higher instance" is never questioned either by Laclau, who insists that social demands can be satisfied, and satisfied fully.

When a demand is satisfied, it disappears: it "ceases to be a demand" (On Populist Reason 127). When it is not, it gains "discursive presence" (128). Unsatisfied demands give rise to the people and power bloc as partners in an antagonistic relation: if demands addressed to the state remain unfulfilled, they accumulate and an equivalential relationship is established between them; "they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the 'people' as a potential historical actor" (74). Thus emerges "an internal antagonistic frontier separating the 'people' from power" (74). But this antagonism also displaces the object of its address. When "an extensive series of social demands" remain unfulfilled, these "popular demands are less and less sustained by a pre-existing differential framework: they have, to a large extent, to construct a new one." Hence, "the identity of the enemy also depends increasingly on a process of political construction" (86). That enemy may be given any of a number of names, such as "the 'regime,' the 'oligarchy,' the 'dominant groups,' and so on" (87). And as Laclau points out, names retrospectively constitute their referents: "the name becomes the ground of the thing" (105). But what is important is the displacement, by which a discursive antagonism replaces an institutional relation. An enemy constituted through populist discourse stands in for the state itself.

At the same time, the populist leader, or rather the tendentially empty signifier that is populist articulation's nodal point, comes to incarnate the sovereign. First the leader is identified with the group: "the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader" (On Populist Reason 100). The more successful this process, the more that the populist leader can claim to represent the social whole, the "populus." Of course, in that a populist movement emerges in opposition to the state, this constitution of a "signifying totality" has to be distinguished from "actual ruling" (100): the latter would require institutional power, the power to satisfy or deny social demands. But in so far as a hegemonic project can legitimately claim to represent a "people," its leader can then argue that he embodies the popular sovereignty denied by the illegitimate rule of the "enemy." Indeed, for Laclau, it is by means of its characteristic production of an empty signifier that the logic of populism constructs sovereignty itself, as the "void [that] points to the absent fullness of the community" (170). The principle of populism's transcendent "empty universality" is also the principle that grounds sovereign power. And on this basis, the populist leader demands that his sovereignty is recognized, that he should assume the mantle of the state.

These, then, are populism's characteristic moves. First, it displaces the state through the construction of a discursive antagonist. In the process, institutional power, the power to grant or deny demands, is replaced by an image of power, projected onto an illegitimate enemy. In other words, the stakes of the political game become representational legitimacy, rather than the satisfaction of demands. Second, then, the populist leader assumes representational transcendence, and demands the right to be named sovereign. All this is accomplished by means of a sleight of hand that substitutes hegemony for other forms of politics, and sovereignty for any other conceptions of power. Hence populism can gain institutional power while still maintaining an anti-institutional critique directed at the displaced objects of its antagonistic discourse. But rather than offering a critique of this process, Laclau mirrors it, accepting as we have seen that hegemony is indeed politics tout court. This is true even in Politics and Ideology, ostensibly a work for which Marxism and anti-statism remain fundamental.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


The discussion over at I cite of Zizek's essay "Objet a as the Inherent Limit to Capitalism" raises a number of difficult issues:

If the multitude is not simply a function of capitalism, then surely it must also precede capitalism.

Is the relation between multitude and modernity the same as that between multitude and capitalism?

In any case, surely it is not capitalism per se that is at issue, but rather the state. Which certainly precedes both capitalism and modernity.

But what is meant by "preceding" here? Is the relation best cast as one between virtuality and actuality?

What's at stake is the historicity of the multitude, and of constituent power. But also (as Zizek points out) the possibility of Revolution.

And if we don't accept the possibility of Revolution, then we can and should reject Negri tout court. A "Negri lite" really is a celebration of the service economy, McJobs, contemporary capitalist globalization, etc. etc.

Anyhow, I'll have to return to these questions anon.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


A note added to a note...

In an entry entitled "Against my Better Judgment", Adam Kotsko ends with the following aside:
I'd just like to note, in closing, that people generally seem to me to misunderstand the term "hegemonic." They seem to take it as meaning "dominant" in some straightforward way, when in fact, the entire point of the concept of "hegemony" is that one exercises power to a degree that is disproportionate to one's means. Thus, the United States is a "global hegemon" precisely insofar as it does not directly rule the world.
But for a purported clarification, this formulation is remarkably muddled.

Hegemony may be dominance through consent, rather than coercion, but how is that "disproportionate to one's means"? Rather, the point is that hegemonic powers have means other than ("straightforward") coercion at their disposal. But the fact that power is able to solicit consent to power does not make it any the less powerful; most people would argue that it makes it rather more so. And the fact that it has other means to secure its power does not imply that it is without means; rather the contrary.

(Of course, in fact the very distinction between consent and coercion is unhelpful, and perhaps only establishes the idea of "consent" itself as some kind of "other" of coercion; which is not to say that violence does not exist, that torture is not bad, or in sum to deny all the differentiations that such a distinction aims to establish. Rather, the point would be to suggest that "consent versus coercion" is not the best way to understand the differentiated field in and through which power is exercised.)

The question of "direct" versus "indirect" rule is rather more interesting, however, if not in the way that Kotsko probably intends. The essence of sovereignty is rule from a distance, I'd say. Certainly so, if we see sovereignty in terms of the establishment of transcendence. But that distance is only an effect, a type of illusion. Sovereignty, like all other claims to transcendence, is illegitimate. Just as Foucault criticizes the notion that power emanates from a centre, its posthegemonic critique emphasizes how power is always exercised directly, immanently (through affect and habit, for instance), but in such a manner as to posit some transcendent centre as quasi-cause.

Meanwhile, to argue that power is not in fact secured through hegemony (not what Kotsko is arguing, though he does suggest that hegemony is somehow not "really" as powerful as other forms of power) is not to say that one can simply ignore hegemony, declare the Emperor is naked, turn one's back and hope it goes away. It means that one has to account for the effects that are ascribed to hegemony, but in terms of some other mechanism(s). A theory of posthegemony would not argue that so-called hegemons are in fact less powerful than they appear; it would argue rather that they are powerful in ways other than they appear to be.

To put this one more way: to say that constituted power derives from constituent power is not to say that constituted power is any the less powerful. I think many of Negri's critics miss this point (and perhaps Negri does sometimes, too).

Friday, August 12, 2005


I've been thinking a little more about habit, and what I said earlier, without wanting to go back and edit that entry.

I said that
in general terror and habit are opposed. Terror seizes up all the processes that had become habitual, semi-automatic: it forces us to rethink our habits, by making us self-conscious about getting on the tube, sitting in an aeroplane, doing our shopping, seeing people with rucksacks, or whatever. Terror shocks us out of our routines; that's part of its trauma and most of its objective.
Now, that too is ambivalent. Without becoming an apologist for terror, if it makes us rethink a thing or two, then that's no bad thing.

Prevailing political discourse is rather contradictory on this point. On the one hand, it would have us, if possible, ignore terror and go on our merry way without changing our habits in the slightest. The fact that tube trains were (almost) full a few days after the attacks on the London Underground was touted as a victory for British stoicism, common sense, the "spirit of the Blitz" and so on. Meanwhile, the fact that the bombings on the Madrid train system may well have influenced the subsequent election has been portrayed as "giving in to terror," as allowing the terrorists to win.

On the other hand, we are to be eternally vigilant, to "learn the lessons" that terror has taught. The same people who denounce Spaniards for "giving in" are likely also to describe the attacks on New York and Washington as a "wake-up call" to rouse us out of our earlier somnolence, finally to do something about, whatever, the threat of Muslim fundamentalism or (in the case of the London incidents) the precariousness of multiculturalism.

I think it might be more helpful to think of terror as a "shock to thought" (to borrow a phrase from Brian Massumi) that occupies two temporalities. First, in the event itself, time stands still. Habit is suspended. Thought (by which I now mean the whole biological nervous and synaptic apparatus) is paralyzed. A pause, a ghastly instant of indecision, of an impossibility to decide (run, hide, fight, flight). Confusion. Even sensation may be in abeyance ("I didn't even realize I'd been hurt.") This is the time of the bomb itself, and it is almost outside of politics.

Second, after the event, a new, narrative temporality emerges. This is the time of explanation and recrimination, the elaboration of justifications, apologies, denunciations, or retaliations. Here the non-political event of terror itself is politicized, narrativized, given sense and coherence. Old narratives and habits may be resumed, recycled, reclaimed, but this is also an opportunity for the articulation of new, post-crisis analysis or political projects. Which would also help engender new habits, new ways of being.

And if terror has been put to use by the right (as it undoubtedly has been, to provide justification for imperial adventures in the Middle East and so on), why can it not be put to use by the left?


Over at I cite, Jodi Dean has posted an essay on "Political Theory and Cultural Studies".

She's rather positive about British Cultural Studies, though only really discusses Stuart Hall's work on Thatcherism, and nothing that Hall wrote while he was at the Centre, for instance. She says of Cultural Studies that "in a context of struggle with Marxism, and as an effort to understand and contest a newly emerging right wing alliance that had come to power in the wake of widespread social, economic, and political disruption—'authoritarian populism,'" it achieved "analytical power and political purchase, indeed, truth" (17). Less mention is made, therefore, of the fact that for Hall it was Thatcherism that showed up Cultural Studies' (or at least the Centre's) manifest failure: Thatcherism's success as a hegemonic project was a rebuke to the Left's inability to do more than watch, appalled, from the sidelines.

She then argues that as some of the ideas and approaches of British Cultural Studies crossed the Atlantic and become influential within (at least some parts of) US Political Theory, "a sense of the dominance of cultural politics (as opposed to the marginality of a venture called cultural studies), on the one hand, with the demands of political science, on the other, formatted political theory’s cultural turn so as to distance it from the state" (17). In the culture wars, everything, and so nothing, became political. Rather, however, than lambaste either US political theory or US Cultural Studies, she argues that this mutation is itself determined by a new phase of sovereignty: "Despite the depoliticization the claim perversely effects, the notion that everything is political marks a change in the political situation of late-capitalism, namely, the decentering or changed role of the state" (21).

I'd argue, by contrast, that Cultural Studies had lost sight of the state long before its 1980s or 1990s expansion to North America. Where, after all, is the state in Culture and Society? Pretty marginal. If there was a flurry of attention to state processes at the Centre in the mid 1970s, for which the best example is probably Policing the Crisis, this was above all thanks to the influence of Althusser (whom Dean never mentions). Once Althusser was sloughed off, in large part thanks to Hall's appropriation of Gramsci via Laclau's endorsement of populism as politics, Cultural Studies (British as well as American) could return to its populist impulses, and leave the state behind with hardly a glance in its direction thereafter.

What's most interesting is the slippage or sleight of hand at the heart of a movement such as Cultural Studies, and indeed at the heart of all populisms: a movement that claims to have the state in its sights, as it champions popular expression against domination from above, but which at almost the last moment loses sight of the state, putting a fetishized conception of culture in its place. And it is, of course, the concept of hegemony that enables this depoliticizing substitution.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Back over at Fuller's Speed Shop, in response to a post of Glen's about "alternative security", I mused a little about "habit."

Habit has something of a bad press. Radicals (I mentioned Massumi's User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, but there are plenty of other examples) see habit either in terms of clinging on to the remnants of convention and subjectivity or (in Marxist vein) as conformism and false consciousness. Meanwhile, liberals and the right too have a hard time with habit: it's regarded as pernicious by the ideologists of the market and the theorists of rational choice. After all, as soon as you do something out of habit, you are exhibiting some kind of unreason. Overall, habit is equated with addiction, with weakness, with bad faith, and with unadventurousness by both left and right.

But habit is simply a form of incorporated memory. I don't see it as essentially problematic in itself. Without the security (to use Glen's word) that habit brings, we would be essentially paralyzed. And while, as I said in a previous entry, being terrorist can and does become habitual, in general terror and habit are opposed. Terror seizes up all the processes that had become habitual, semi-automatic: it forces us to rethink our habits, by making us self-conscious about getting on the tube, sitting in an aeroplane, doing our shopping, seeing people with rucksacks, or whatever. Terror shocks us out of our routines; that's part of its trauma and most of its objective.

And habit goes every which way: it's a posthegemonic mode of control, but could surely also be a means of constructing posthegemonic community.

For while there are certainly (politically) bad habits, such as the unconscious sexism of men interrupting women, or the everyday racism that draws assumptions from skin colour, one could also imagine a political programme that saw itself as the inculcation of good habits: solidarity, say, could be a habit we might want to work on a little more. A solidarity that went beyond consciousness and good intentions, policy-making and self-dramatization, that was a habitual, affective mode of relating to the "other."

(Which somewhat circuitously brings us to "I'm alright, Jack", a recent and rather bizarre entry at Harry's Place that claims that the pro-war left has somehow assumed the mantle of internationalism. I contributed some comments to the discussion. It is a little odd to think that Harry's logic would lead one to nominate Oliver North as one of the foremost internationalists of the twentieth century. Well, I suppose in a way he was, but then we might want to distinguish better between internationalisms.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


In another context, Glen Fuller of Fuller's Speed Shop points me to an entry of his about "dead wood", near the end of which he writes briefly about the affect of airports:
there is an announcement broadcast continually over the PA at Sydney Airport that begins with: "Due to increased security measures..." This message has been played over the PA for a long time, I noticed it about 7 months ago. It captures the affective of the 'to-be' journey in pretension with itself. That is, the futurity of the present is in an affective tension with the eventuality of the future. The word 'increased' increases the polarity of the tension across scales of temporality - of coming and going bodies with various anticipations of the future. The anticipating body is in tension.
I'm not entirely sure what he means, but it has got me thinking...

Airports are often portrayed as very neutral, affectless environments. Think of Brian Eno's Music for Airports, for instance, as the semi-subliminal soundtrack for a place that tries to be as characterless, blank, and unremarkable as possible. I guess that this results in part from the fact that the architecture of airports is characteristically modernist--form following function--unlike the ornate neo-gothic ornamentation that characterizes the great railway stations of the late Victorian period. (Is that the problem with Euston? It's a train station masquerading as an airport; or vice versa. In any case, it sticks out like a sore thumb compared with the other London terminals, not least its nearest neighbour, St Pancras.)

Of course, airport architecture is also at times spectacular, and supposed to be visually impressive. But still usually its affective tonality is cool. Concrete and curves, glass and grace. Think of Stansted or Vancouver International, two very fine airports, at least the first of which was built by a notable architect (Norman Foster), and the second of which is full of impressive native art: none the less, both aim at quiet seduction rather than brashly drawing attention to themselves.

Of course, too, airports are increasingly becoming bustling bazaars, with barely a square inch of peace (apart, that is, from the VIP lounges) as more and more of their space is given over to commerce. If you thought malls were nightmares, meet the mall without an exit.

But still, the affective image of the airport remains that of unperturbed modernism, a dampening of affect rather than its exacerbation. This is the affect of the "non-place" of liminal insubstantiality.

Yet at the same time, and perhaps here's the reason, these blank backdrops are the setting for an unending series of affective outbursts. Airports are sanctioned sites for the display of a fairly complex range of emotions, and as such quite different from most other public spaces. Notably, there are the hellos and goodbyes of that membrane separating "airside" from "landside." "Public displays of affection" are permitted, even expected, here: the lingering embrace or frantic snog of boyfriend seeing off girlfriend, the balloons and flowers waiting for visiting relatives, the tears of the bereft, and increasingly the anxiety of those not merely afraid to fly but reminded to be vigilant, suspicious.

Tiredness and waiting (the bodies draped over chairs as their flights have been delayed), sadness and elation, even drunkenness as somehow when you have a early morning flight to the Algarve 8am is never too early for getting in some lagers at the bar. All possible attitudes of the body are to be seen here.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Another placeholder...

In an entry on "Freelance Freedom Fighters" (which also mentioned a post of mine from a few days back), the folk at Lenin's Tomb point to an article by Loretta Napoleoni on "The New Economy of Terrorism".

I think the point of Napoleoni's article (as is the point of most such articles) is to instruct us about the power of contemporary terrorism, and our powerlessness to do much about it. Lenin's Tomb comments (after some further references to Iraq) that "it looks as if the occupation is fucked."

But Napoleoni's first example is the Red Brigades, and she tells us effectively that soon enough the financial tail was wagging the terrorist dog:
Just to give an idea of the vast amount of money required by an armed organization to function, in the 1970s, the Red Brigades had a turnover of $8 to 10 million, equivalent to about $100 million today. This figure was equivalent to the turnover of a medium size Italian company. Generating such vast flow of money required constant attention and absorbed the bulk of the time of the full time members of the organization.
If this was indeed the case, one might argue that it was all to the good that the Red Brigades had their hands full trying to keep their financial show on the road, and so had little disposable time to engage in much real political violence.

At the very least, the picture Napoleoni provides is of a rather inefficient organization, more concerned with striving to maintain its overheads than with engaging in the activity to which it was purportedly dedicated.

Back to my earlier post, it would seem worth investigating the "tipping points" at which a political organization is transformed into what is effectively a mafia-style commercial (or better, perhaps, financial services) operation. Is that also the point at which such an organization ceases to be politically effective?

Of course, the violence continues. The FARC and the IRA (to use examples I invoked before) continued and continue to terrorize their respective populations in more or less everyday, low-level ways. But they have lost sight of their political goals and, more importantly perhaps, are in any case no longer in a position to accomplish them.

If I were a convinced free marketeer, I might even suggest that at this point (if not before) the best way of combatting such terrorists-turned-financiers would be to ensure that there were other more profitable, legitimate, channels for their financial investments. I.e. follow the money, and construct economic mechanisms (oh, I dunno, reducing taxes, say) to allow it to flow elsewhere. But I'm not, in part because you can't overlook the importance of affect and habit: as being terrorist, even growing up terrorist, becomes a way of life, it also becomes a habit or lifestyle that's hard to shake off. It shapes your affective and emotional life. (Look at the trauma when guerrilla groups disband, as in the Salvadoran case.)

Anyhow, more on this anon.

Oh except, and this does vaguely tie in with what I'm supposed to be doing, all this reminds me of the anecdote that opens Jorge Castañeda's Utopia Unarmed: the question, in the 1970s, of what to do with the Montoneros' $70 million in unspent ransom money, which ended up in trust with the Cubans after an earlier financial arrangement went wrong. The Cubans tried to get the Argentines to give the money to the Sandinistas, but the Argentines initially refused until under pressure they agreed to hand over $1 million, but on condition that the Nicaraguans would spread the word and set up some photo ops to give the impression that the Montonero leader Firmenich was a key figure fighting to defeat Somoza. The principle being that this would cheer up the chaps back home: the fight might be going badly in Argentina, as the military junta busily eliminated up to 30,000 people under the Proceso, but at least the head Argentine rebel honchos were helping out the Revolution elsewhere, rather than simply getting lazy and unfit sipping Havana Club on the Malecón.


Back with Laclau, now trying to think through the relations between Politics and Ideology, his and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and On Populist Reason. These three books span his career, and indeed are his three major works, in that New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time and Empancipation(s) are both collections of essays, while Contingency, Hegemony, and Universality is a (rather unusual) collaborative but also competitive project.

(This is not to say that Laclau's essayistic output is not important; in fact I think more and more that it is very much so.)

Anyhow, what's interesting is that there are some very basic continuities between the three books, but that they are combined, in a fairly unusual way, with some radical breaks and changes of direction.

As far as the breaks are concerned, most obviously, of course, whereas the early Laclau is an apologist for Marxism, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is a manifesto for post-Marxism, while the word "socialism" hardly features at all in On Populist Reason. At the same time, I don't think there's any real "rightward drift" in his political stance; throughout his main concern is to define and defend a space for (his conception of) the political, which he understands in terms of the discursive articulation of diverse demands that are made to some degree equivalent through the insistence on a basic antagonism. This is the logic of populism, and it is also the logic of hegemony.

But the enemy that is seen as threatening that political space changes at least between Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and On Populist Reason. In the former book, he and Mouffe stress the importance of democratic demands, in the face of a new right populism incarnated above all in Thatcherism and Reaganism; in the latter book, he's more concerned about the potential death of politics at the hands of New Labour administration. Yet in each case it is the logic of hegemony that is best placed to combat that enemy. In the process, however, the fundamental virtues of hegemony are shifted: in Hegemony, "it is clear that the fundamental concept is that of 'democratic struggle'" (137); in On Populist Reason, by contrast, he even has to go out of the way to defend the notion that "democratic" demands are worthy of the name, given that his stress is so much on the populist aspects of political activity.

You could say that these changes are driven by context: it is New Labour that is dominant today, whereas it was Thatcherism that held sway in 1985. (And the fact that Laclau's politics are determined by his antagonism towards the power bloc, whatever the nature of that bloc in a given conjuncture, reveals another aspect of his populism.) You could also say that that such changes demonstrate the essential arbitrariness of hegemonic politics: either (what Laclau would term) equivalence or difference can come to the fore, depending on circumstances and (perhaps) whim.

One person's flexibility is another person's slipperiness, of course. And there's no doubt that Laclau exhibits both qualities in spades.

I suppose that Laclau's response might be that an insistence on either equivalence or difference is a fault, and a form of anti-politics. Any political movement has to acknowledge the contradictory tension between these two tendencies. But in that he would also say that pure equivalence and pure difference are both impossible, and so that anti-political dreams are mere fantasies, one wonders why bother struggling to prevent what is in any case never going to happen? Why not simply sit back and watch the inevitable failures of anti-hegemonic projects (that is, projects to undo the logic of hegemony itself)?

Well, perhaps because the thought of hegemony's obsolescence is not such a crazy notion after all...

Friday, August 05, 2005

more piracy

This is mostly a placeholder.

A blog by the name of Organic Warfare has two recent entries on contemporary piracy and insurgency: Piracy in the Malacca Straits and Piracy and the Global Insurgency.

"Organic Warfare" states that "modern pirates are now using tactics similar to terrorism to capture ships and goods." By contrast, of course, I'd suggest that the relation is inverse: it is the terrorists who are the inheritors of piracy's historic tradition. Which does not preclude feedback and cross-contamination between the two forms of activity.

UPDATE: John Robb of Global Guerrillas (I'm not sure what the relation is between his two blogs) points to an article in the Sunday Herald on private navies, also in the Malacca Straits.

But as I point out in my comment on Robb's entry, the irony is that "private navies" are far from being "a radical new solution." After all, "privateers" were, precisely, private military forces that flourished before the nationalization of naval warfare. So from privateers to pirates, and back to privateers...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

black globalization

Blood & Treasure offers an analysis of what the author terms "black globalization" based on an entry taken from "Global Guerrillas".

The Iraqi resistance is, we learn, characterized by flat management structure, portfolio careers, free agency, continuous improvement, delivery cycles, learning organizations, skill set development, and outsourcing. The very model of a modern multinational.

At the same time, a comment to the earlier, "Global Guerrillas" post states "As I read about the strategies mentioned above it suddenly hit me where I had heard of them before, from a book I read in the 80's called 'The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism' by Hakim Bey." To which the "Global Guerrilla" blogger links his own analysis of Fallujah as a TAZ.

I think this undecidability, or rather the cross-mutation between commerce and subversion under the sign of terror, can also be seen in classical piracy, as I mentioned earlier.

Is there really a difference between "black" globalization and any other form of globalization? Is not "black" globalization the "truth" of a putative "white" globalization, which is held back only by the remnants of transcendence and command?

What's at issue is also, in the sixteenth century as much as today, the relation between Multitude and Empire.

The question is precisely whether what we have here is an identity, an undecidability, or perhaps a complex series of potential "tipping points" between different forms. Is there in fact no real distinction between the two (between globalized insurgency and networked commerce), except for their overcoding by the state discourse of a "war on terror"? Or is there in fact a real difference, whose contours can only be mapped contextually and historically, i.e. in terms of effects (does, for instance, piracy encourage or slow down the slave trade) rather than by examining the movement itself? Or can a line be drawn between Multitude and Empire, albeit with the acknowledgement that one may easily and at almost any time be converted into the other?

Certainly the pull of commerce is very strong. One could imagine a number of guerrilla groups (the FARC, the IRA, even Sendero) that have become dominated by what had perhaps originally been an instrumental use of illegal trade networks. Smuggling, extortion, and protection rackets may have originated as means to raise funds to continue the armed struggle, but their logic overtook the instrumentality of political violence.

Is this how the multitude becomes "corrupted"? Whereas Empire becomes corrupt through the hypostasis of state command?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Having finished reading Gilroy's book, I'm now about halfway through the review.

For the review, I'm interested in Gilroy's notion of patriotism, and how it connects with his conception of cosmopolitanism. Because Gilroy would seem to want to hold on to both of these concepts. Strangely, indeed, it is Orwell who is perhaps the key figure in the book, the only one to bridge its two halves, "The Planet" and "Albion." Orwell, we are told, combines "worldly consciousness" with "parochial attachments to England's distinctive environment" (76-77). So, it would seem, does Gilroy.

Patriotism in Postcolonial Melancholia is not, then, or not always, the last refuge of a scoundrel. It can be, in Orwell's own case, "authentically geo-pious" (96); it can also be, now in Ali G's case, a "daring act of . . . love" (135). Of course, Gilroy's advocacy of patriotism is far from unequivocal. He's certainly opposed to the "state-sponsored patriotism and ethnic-absolutism [that] are now dominant" (25). But the fact that, especially towards the end of the book, he often refers to "ultranationalism" as the enemy (as in the "artificially whitened, comprehensively rehomogenized national community to which ultranationalist discourse casually refers" [109]) appears to leave open the possibility of a dignified, modest brand of national adherence.

There's a tension here, though, between adherence and the "estrangement" that Gilroy also praises, for instance in what he calls Montesquieu's "carefully cultivated degree of estrangement" (70) or Freud's "intuitive estrangement" (68), even Eric Auerbach's "observation on the perfection of the man for whom 'the whole world is as a foreign land'" (24). This is, again, where Orwell comes to the fore, because there are few who have been as estranged either from their own country or even from the poor with whom he sought solidarity (as even a cursory glance at The Road to Wigan Pier shows) than this Old Etonian turned colonial bureaucrat turned tramp turned anarchist turned writer in the lonely isolation of remote Jura.

Gilroy half acknowledges that such estrangement is the very model of the modernist intellectual. "Distancing can sound like a privilege and has sometimes been associated with the history of elites," he says, "but I am not convinced that it is inevitably tainted by those association" (67). I'm not convinced that it isn't, either, but perhaps this could be another way of reading the irony and cynicism that are such denigrated features of our postmodern condition. With the universalization of irony, are we all now able to be "stranger[s] in [our] own country" (135)? Is that indeed what a website such as i am fucking terrified is all about?

Gilroy is no friend of postmodernism--far from it, it is modernism he tells us he wants to reclaim--but there's a sense in which his ironic, distanced patriotism can only be postmodern in its generalized assumption of modernism's aesthetic distancing plus its premodern appeal to territory, belonging, and even authenticity.