Thursday, May 27, 2010

From Restricted to General Antagonism: Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War

The little books of Semiotexte’s Foreign Agent Series played an absolutely formative role in my intellectual and political development. They occupied a middle ground between my official philosophical education and the anarchist and situationist zines that formed my unofficial education. The little books offered an affordable and immediate introduction to the ideas of Baudrillard, Deleuze, Foucault, etc.: intellectually stimulating, but free of the excessive scholasticism that burdens American academia. Even though some of the names have faded, Baudrillard does not do much for me nowadays, the books still have a special place in my heart.

Thus I was pleased to see Semiotexte restart the format with their Intervention series. The first of these, The Coming Insurrection, has already received so much attention from Glenn Beck that it does not need my help. I have read The Violence of Financial Capital, but I must admit that I did so very quickly, so much so that I did not get much from my reading. What I really want to talk about is Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War.

One way to approach Introduction to Civil War is to address it at the level of its synthesis. Concepts and problems from recognizable authors make an appearance: Agamben’s concept of form of life and bare life appear, but in different sense, the same could be said for Schmitt’s concepts of friend and enemy, and the whole discussion of clinamen and encounter has a vaguely Spinozist orientation. Concepts from contemporary critical thought such as the “police,” in its Foucauldian expansion, micro-politics and macropolitics, and Empire also appear, but these too are transformed. One could produce an inventory of such borrowings, cited and implied, but it seems to me that would be exactly the wrong way to read such a book. It would be an act of academic neutralization.

What then is the best way to read this Introduction? What is intending to introduce, or introduce us to? Despite the epigraph referring to Solon’s The Constitution of Athens (“Whoever does not take sides in a civil war is struck with infamy, and loses all right to politics.”) this is not a history of civil war, and its various theorizations, from the ancient Greeks to Marx on France. This is an introduction in a much stronger sense, not to what has already been said about civil war, but to civil war as an originary condition. What does this mean? As the book’s initial, almost geometrical definitions spell it out, the elementary unit of human existence is the form-of-life, not the body or individual. Every form of life is affected by a particular inclination, a taste. These inclinations determine the various encounter that forms of life, encounters that follow a logic reminiscent of Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza, in which each encounter other increases power, constituting community, or reduces it. (I know I said that I did not want to do this, but it is hard not to see the traces of Deleuze, Spinoza, Agamben, and Schmitt in this conceptualization but the point to move beyond the names, to the fundamental assertion that they make possible.) The ethico-political is this relationship of friendship or enmity, or relations that either put a form-of-life in contact with its power or distant it from it. This terrain of encounters is the originary civil war, the conflict and community of forms of life. “Civil war is the free play of forms-of-life; it is the principle of their coexistence.”

Against this fundamental coexistence and conflict the State and Empire can only be understood as attempts to neutralize the conflict. As Tiqqun write, “The modern state, insofar as it still exists, defines itself ethically as the theater of operations for a twofold fiction: the fiction that when it comes to forms-of-life both neutrality and centrality can exist.” The state emerges from civil war, which it claims to end, but only continues by other means. At this point Hobbes becomes an unavoidable point of reference. However, that obscures the particular novelty of Tiqqun’s intervention. What they would like to stress is precisely this idea of a form-of-life, an inclination, as something irreducible to bare life. This is what the stand cannot withstand, it can only govern only individuals, over lives that have renounced their inclination, becoming interchangeable. “What at the molar scale assumes the aspect of the modern state, is called at the molecular scale the economic subject.” Tiqqun’s analysis cuts through the ethical, political, and economic by focusing precisely on this relation between a life and its capacities and inclinations. What Tiqqun insist is the political can only be thought from thinking precisely what is at stake in the sheer plurality and relations of the different forms-of-life, refusing the division that separates some individual, citizen or economic subject, from its constitutive conditions and relations. This splitting is central to politics, to the state, and to philosophy. The enlightenment division between free thought and obedience is the neutralization of both. As Tiqqun write: “Gesture without discourse on the one hand and discourse without gesture on the other—the State and Critique guarantee by the techniques specific to each (police and publicity, respectively) the neutralization of every ethical difference. This is how THEY conjured away, along the free play of forms-of-life, the political itself.” Such an assertion seems like a needed return to anarchist (or anarcho-syndicalist) themes of self-government, of the necessity of the practical dimension of every idea, on the terrain of contemporary ontological speculation.

For Tiqqun Empire is a continuation of this strategy of neutralization, it is predicated on the attenuation of forms-of-life. As such it embraces conflict and crisis, making the impossibility of the state’s neutrality the condition of its rule. It governs best in situations of crisis, when the neutrality of law cannot be used. “Nothing matters less to Empire than the question, “who controls what?”—provided, of course, that control has been established.” Empire than is even less of a figure, less of a subject than the state, which was always caught between its supposed neutrality, its transcendence, and its particular location. Empire diffuses this, ruling over the conflicts as such, but defusing them at every turn, inhibiting the possibility of them becoming something other than interests to be represented, markets to be cultivated. As Tiqqun write, “Empire does not confront us like a subject, facing us, but like an environment that is hostile to us.” It is possible to think of this as an antagonism without an enemy. This is the ultimate merit of Tiqqun’s little intervention: returning the idea of conflict to the center of political thought, of a fundamental antagonism that is at once economic, ethical, and political, in an age of consensus and neutralization. I should be more specific and say that its merit has to do with the way it returns conflict to politics without lapsing into Schmittian decisionism, it ontologizes conflict, removing it from the realm of decision. Ultimately, it is an analysis that refuses both nostalgia of old forms of antagonism, a search for an enemy, for a state that could still be party to struggle, and resignation to the disappearance of antagonism. Instead it seeks to interpret the disappearance of antagonism, of struggle, as itself a form of struggle.

Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War strikes me as a necessary book, and I am tempted to ignore its shortcomings and any disagreements I might have, to ask what I see as its fundamental provocation: how construct a politics from conflict again? To revive a mode of existence that would be against the state and Empire? To ask again what it means to live a life.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iron Man Versus Masculinity: Or, Writing Myths Backwards from Freud

The standard nomenclature for superheroes takes the form of “[blank]-man”, in which the blank, the variable, defines the qualities, powers, or theme (super, spider, or bat) and “man” in this case is simply generically human. There is little thought of the specific gender, except in the patriarchal manner in which man stands in for all of humanity. Invariably these superheroes are followed by their female variants, supergirl, spiderwoman, batgirl, in which gender is specifically marked, usually by a short skirt.

To the extent that gender does appear, it appears through the superhero’s origin story, a necessary component of all superheroes. This origin story appears, as it were, twice: once in terms of the superpower, the mutant spider, or cybernetic suit, and once in terms of the founding trauma that provides the fundamental motivation. The latter is decidedly familial, even oedipal, in that it is a story of lost love and paternal authority. The contemporary superhero is at once post-human, alien, mutated with superhuman strength, or at least possessing an array of gadgets, and all too human, still worried about what dad (or Uncle Ben) would think and still missing mom. (Ang Lee’s Hulk film pushed this furthest, moving into absolutely Freudian territory, complete with repressed memories of a mother, and an epic battle between father and son). Superhero stories reflect, in a pop-culture manner, Deleuze and Guattari’s argument regarding of the fundamental contradiction of contemporary capitalism in Anti-Oedipus, that as much as capitalist production confronts and transforms the fundamental nature of reality, unlocking the secrets of the universe and DNA, capitalist reproduction reterritorializes all of this on the relations of production, relations that include the family as the fundamental matrix of identity and desire. To cite the most distilled and concentrated passage on this point.

Civilized modern societies are defined by processes of decoding and deterritorialization. But what they deterritorialize with one hand, they reterritorialize with the other. These neoterritorialities are often artificial, residual, archaic; but they are archaisms having a perfectly current function, our modern way of ‘imbricating,’ of sectioning off, of reintroducing code fragments, resuscitating old codes inventing pseudo codes or jargons…These modern archaisms are extremely complex and varied. Some are mainly folkloric, but they nonetheless represent social and potentially political forces…. Others are enclaves whose archaism is just as capable of nourishing a modern fascism as of freeing a revolutionary charge…Some of these archaisms take form as if spontaneously in the current of the movement of deterritorialization…Others are organized and promoted by the state, even though the might turn against the state and cause it serious problems (regionalism, nationalism). (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 258/307)

On this reading superheroes are the personification of the contradiction of capital. At the level of their powers, their masked selves, they unlock the secrets of the universe, of spider DNA, and bat-a-rangs, but at the level of their secret identities they are burdened by Oedipal subjectivity, by a father who never showed his love or parents who are lost with the true alien homeworld.

The first Iron Man film was relatively free of any Oedipal coding. Iron Man created himself, with the help of the military industrial complex, in the desert. Its myth was more Prometheus than Oedipus: the first movie’s tagline was, “Hero’s aren’t born. They are built.” The only father figure was Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, which opened up the general question of inheritance and legacy, a theme that the second film continues. The second film is all about inheritance, of property, legacy, etc., but more on that in a minute. Some people have argued that the film suffers from too many villains, Rourke’s Whiplash, Sam Rockwell as a rival arms manufacturer, Don Cheadle as War Machine, and an army of drone soldiers. However, it occurred to me while watching the film that Iron Man’s true enemy is masculinity itself. We learn early in the film that the technobabble in his chest is slowly poisoning him. He reacts to this situation with a combination of stoic isolation, refusing to tell his closest friends and confidantes, and all the clichés of a midlife crisis, racing a car at Monte Carlo, dancing to Dr. Dre, and hiring a young attractive redhead as his personal assistant.

All of these actions drive Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) friends away, further exasperating the situation. He is finally rescued from both his technical problem and his existential malaise when Nick Fury gives him some old home movies of his father. In a brilliant bit of casting his father is played by John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling on Mad Men, thus borrowing the latter’s nostalgia for a “simpler” time when men were men and women did not study mixed martial arts. These home movies provide Stark with the necessary science to solve his problem and with the reassurance of his father’s love, which powers his new suit making it possible for him to defeat the enemy and get the girl. Oedipus complex successfully resolved.

Iron Man is a cold war creation, and his place in the Marvel pantheon has generally been to outdo Captain America in jingoistic nationalism, so one would not be surprised to see Cold War themes in the film. The first film dispensed with these references, rewriting Iron Man’s origin in the “War on Terror.” They return in the second film. We learn that Iron Man has his origins in the cold war arms race, and that his new nemesis, Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, is the son of his father’s one time collaborator. What is strange is that we learn that Iron Man’s father had him deported when he learned that he planned to exploit the technology for profit, a definite case of a pot calling a kettle black. Whiplash seeks revenge for a legitimate wrong, but the film does not address that. The only sins of the past that need to be addressed are familial, political wrongs can simply be overcome with superior firepower.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

De te fabula narratur: Reflections on Middlesex

For the past week I have been preoccupied, perhaps even obsessed, with Middlesex University’s decision to close its internationally recognized program in philosophy. This is in part because I know some people affected. I have been fortunate to meet some of the faculty, graduates, and students at Middlesex, all of who have impressed me with their intelligence, passion, and generosity. More immediately, as someone who teaches philosophy, I know students, or former students, who have aspirations to attend graduate school at Middlesex. All of these people will be immediately affected by this change.

My preoccupation with this particular tragedy, and I can think of no other word, to describe it, extends beyond the immediate effects on friends, colleagues, and students. First and foremost I see the loss of Middlesex (and the center and journal that it hosts) as a loss to philosophy, specifically to the study of contemporary continental philosophy. One of the positive developments of the past ten years (such things do happen) has been the development of an immediate global context for philosophical discussion: conferences go up online as they are taking, or are at least quickly summarized in blogs and online discussions. One no longer has to wait for journals and proceedings to learn what is being thought elsewhere. Middlesex has been an important node in this network, relaying crucial discussions and conferences, and often serving as a transfer point between francophone and English debates and discussions. Its loss will thus be immediately felt. Beyond this I fear that this particular UK case, despite its idiocy and the fact that it is caught up in the specific and somewhat arcane bureaucracy of the UK university system (summarized in part here) is but a portent of a global situation. As Marx once wrote to his German, readers regarding his own analysis of a specifically British situation, the rise of the factory in the early industrial revolution, “De te fabula narratur” (the story concerns you).

The current conjuncture in terms of both its immediate crisis of capital and long term restructuring has lead to an assault on higher education. Of course the immediate crisis and long term restructuring can only be separated heuristically, only in the sense that we face both immediate cuts, cuts justified in and through their immediacy (No time to talk, to discuss, to plan, we need to cut now!) and long term transformations, as the university becomes less and less a place of reflection and research and becomes more and more of a job training center, or some supposed miraculous engine of growth. The latter has been going on for some time, and is part of both neoliberal restructuring and the changing dynamics of labor in post-fordism. The current crisis has only exasperated this tendency, creating a sense of urgency and scarcity, the idea that everything must go into fixing the economy. Thus, making the short-term crisis an alibi for the acceleration of the general transformation, for the general reduction of everything to an economic logic of competition. It is worth noting that things could have gone otherwise (and still could) the economic crisis could lead to an interrogation of precisely what counts as knowledge in these fields. Instead all we got were some vague ideas of teaching ethics at business schools.

Middlesex was not the first philosophy program cut and it will not be the last. Moreover, this trend is not just limited to philosophy, but includes classics, literature, women’s studies, and basically everything that cannot justify itself in terms of grant money and private donations. The question that we need to ask is how best to counter this tendency. How best to fight it? What actions and words can we use? As far as I can see there are three strategies.

The first is to claim that the skills taught in the humanities, in the liberal arts, critical thinking, various literacies, reading and writing, etc., are useful for the world of business. They are the cultivation of the general intellect as intellect in general: the development of flexible skills that can be applied to any situation. This strategy seems to be incredibly shortsighted, and risks losing the war to win a few battles here and there.

The second strategy is to make an appeal to tradition, to the ideals of the university as free inquiry, and citizenship. This liberal tradition has stronger tactical merits than the former strategy which accepts, but inflects, neoliberal justifications. There is something to be said for the claim that a university without a philosophy program, without languages, without literature, and so on, is not a university at all. However, these words, citizenship, liberal arts, seem to be empty in the mouths of the very people who utter them. Moreover, they risk contributing to the general division between schools that will be concerned with such lofty goals and those that will dedicate themselves to practical matters. What is so striking about the Middlesex case is how quickly the administrators in question dismissed any claim of its excellence.

Finally, there is a third strategy emerging from the sites of struggles themselves, from the takeovers in the University of California system and from the response to Middlesex (see the picture above). This strategy is to see the university not as some exception to society, as an ivory tower, but as fully a part of the social factory, of the production and reproduction of knowledge, which is to say wealth, in society. Thus, in the short term, the struggle for the fate of the university cannot be separated from the immediate question of how the crisis is paid for: the slogan “we will not pay for your crisis” encapsulates this nicely. More importantly if we are living through a knowledge economy then there is no separation between the struggle over knowledge, who gets to learn, who benefits, etc., and the general struggle for the economy, for the production and circulation of wealth. To put it briefly the contemporary university is an object lesson in the inseparability of the economic and the political. Cutting funding, increasing loans, immediately curtails curiosity, steering students towards those subjects that will supposedly guarantee an ability to pay loans back: academic freedom without resources is meaningless. The existing struggles go beyond this lesson in what Balibar calls “equaliberty” to become a crucial site for the construction of a commons, of an economy based on openness and access rather than scarcity and competition.

Clearly I am in support of the third strategy, a strategy and politics that is already underway without my meager support. It is perhaps the most difficult, the most radical, but paradoxically it is also the most practical. After all, the connections are already there.