zora said there are years that have answers
but I can only find them in fugitive windows of time
night constellations stringing my insomnias
into a garland
of anxieties that begged articulation
pleaded with me to chase the frames
to find the ways of seeing
(did we ever learn to do that?)
until one moment one night perhaps an incipient morning even as if those demarcations absolve us of something
something breaks quietly imperceptibly and gently spills
an offering at my feet
a surfeit of words
that write me
Over the past week, the news media have made noise about the unlikely but certainly not unwelcome prospect of an end to the Syrian war. If the general attack on the Syrian state does end, however, it will not likely bring an end to every arena of conflict in Syria. Among those arenas is that of the much-discussed Kurdish liberation movement. Less commonly discussed are Syrian liberation efforts against Israel waged in occupied Golan Heights. In this arena, the substance of colonialism and resistance are being shaped for the future. It is an arena worthy of serious attention, as it informs other aspects of the war, the region, and the information in circulation.
For starters, those Syrian liberation efforts in the Golan account for much of the context of recent propaganda targeting Hezbollah in the Western press. For unbeknownst to far too many Western observers, including those on the left holding a…
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Two aporias and an exegesis.
An unfortunate lapse in historical sensibility compels us — once again — to return to this question. First, let’s take one facet of the issue in the abstract, since that’s how it’s been presented to us by all the dedicated journos and self-appointed legal experts: is the barrel of a gun more lethal than a pen? Preempting the too obvious and expected (embarassingly misappropriated) Marx quote on “Freedom of the Press” (let’s keep in mind Marx was writing on political developments in the Prussian Empire and not a modern liberal republic having in fact already established the goals he was advocating under the historic conditions of the bourgeois revolutions of the time, that is to say, we are no longer battling feudal overlords in Germany or France–but what is specificity for the 140-character-frenzied reaching of dedicated experts?), I will merely point out that in our current historical moment, pens (keyboards, other such metonymic figures of ‘expression’) facilitate, some would say produce, lethal results. In the context of what is sadly still considered journalism these symbols of enlightenment might not sign off on orders to kill, bombs to drop, sanctions to impose, but they can repackage dominant tropes that further enable the dissemination of imperialist mantra. Satire, one should say, only works if it is subversive, and to be subversive means to challenge–not reinforce–hegemonic symbolic orders. All this, of course, does not a “censorship” necessitate–one does not even have to broach that subject–but it does belie the notion that the executed staff of Charlie Hebdo were martyred in the name of freedom, progress, and modernity.
Second, not so abstractly and more crucially I should say, the inability to interpret acts of terror in a non-caricatured light is painfully ironic, and in perceiving this irony Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons seem less a satirical commentary than a realist take on a caricature-infused popular imaginary. It comes with great shock to the average European citizen to hear that speech might not in fact be the issue; that the “ISIS” PR campaign might have nothing at all to do with the…hypocrisy of liberal values; even less to do with some reaction to the tropes of racist empire. This last point arrives to the great dismay of European Trotskyists and beautiful “left” souls who seem hellbent on convincing public opinion that takfiri insurgency is an “indigenous reaction” to empire, which more or less reproduces Cold War discourse and hasbara on Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. More cynically, the offensive content of the images could even be highly strategic a choice for targeting, as it will polarize precarious segments of the popular classes, and such a target functions well both strategically and symbolically for the purposes of war. The French state armed and trained FSA “rebels” in Syria that would later be declared terrorists in both contexts of domestic security and “defection” to Nusra and ISIS in Syria. That is, volatile situations where shifts in location and allegiances (the Islamic Coalition that saw the convening of all the Syrian opposition groupuslces into a belligerent front) curiously transformed their epithets. This inability to get past the clash of civs vernacular is more a reflection of Western “left” myopia, a refusal to look past cartoonish tropes it steeps itself in as well as the tropes it manhandles Others into, than such looming threats to “our civilization.” That is to say, all that has been discussed in the broader echo chambers of French “how could this happen” is that modern secular values are imperiled at the hands of intolerant cave dwellers.
Fruitless it would be to engage in another debate teeming with contextual acrobatics over if the cartoons were *really* intended as commentary against the right or meta-critiquing the racism contained within the images, when such images are so ripe for ideological re-purposing, such pliable clay as to be so readily appropriated by the French state in its current demands for national unity. The endless hand wringing in capitalist democracies over free speech, its martyrs, and the necessity for such freedom’s “redistribution” totally and deliberately elides some inconvenient facts: a) that freedom of expression, like any other right in bourgeois law (to assembly, property…), is form without content, scarce and highly concentrated (like capital, to the propertied); b) that terrorists seek out precisely those avenues of action which heighten and sharpen social tensions and foment precarious conditions–that is to say, by playing right into the hands of expanding French fascism they actively engender a situation where the most vulnerable Muslim citizen and immigrant workers will be alienated by the increasingly xenophobic and violently racist community of “national unity.” That is, perhaps, acting in hopes that they will be rendered vulnerable enough to sympathize (it is no wonder then that, already, IS, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Al-Qaeda in Syria have scrambled to compete for the spotlight). This desperate refusal to see potential strategy in deep-state collusion with domestic terrorist incursions is more a reflection of your own decayed-civilization complex, one that is being exploited to oil the war machine and continue plundering Syrians. And these stubborn facts, so unfortunately overlooked, sort of totally neuter Europe’s mighty pen.
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
-Karl Marx. 18th Brumaire
It is no longer our ancestors who most haunt us. If anything, they seem but pale spectres compared to the horror which afflicts us daily in every paper, on every news channel and site, torn from the restless grave to be conjured up again and again for so many indignant statuses and tweets: the ghosts of dead children.
And what is the political significance of these dead children whose countless lurid stories permeate any and every discussion of current affairs? Perhaps the fact that to even broach such a question feels horribly inappropriate and heartless is somewhat indicative: by virtue of their a priori innocence, the death of a child is the universal tragedy par excellence, for which no rationalization or justification can be offered.
This very true fact, however, has been subtly elevated into a deafening taboo on contextualization: a child’s death is so utterly beyond explanation that to even discuss, in any meaningful way, its particular conditions is taken as a loathsome muddying of a crime so purely despicable as to make desperate handwringing the only remotely acceptable response.
But, of course, children do die in particular circumstances– as do many men and women often elided by this discourse for lacking the same ability to shock and disturb. And they almost always do so under conditions which intentional human acts played a significant part in bringing about.
However emotionally unpalatable a terrain it may be to navigate, the discourse of dead children which dominates so much media coverage and public discussion, particularly of foreign affairs, must be soberly recognized for what it is: part and parcel of a concerted war on context. If theory strives to grasp particular events in their dialectical relationship to a historical totality, ideology offers us the, at best, sterile juxtaposition of pure particularities and hollow ‘universal truths.’
The potency and utility of this coupling of the event devoid of context on the one hand, and the empty universality of the cliche on the other, should not be underestimated: it is often mobilized towards a sort of reactionary synthesis of thought without abstraction and abstraction without thought– the culmination of which is perhaps best illustrated in what we might call the growing phenomenon of ‘news’-cum-’Human Interest Story.’
For quite some time, one could say with relative confidence that few modes of ‘journalism’ were more attractive to the savvy media mogul than that of “Human Interest Stories.” Simple, vapid, neutered– no one to offend, no sponsors to upset, and some saccharine sweet takeaway, always ‘non-partisan’ and commonsensical in the most ideological way: “Wow, forget the big stuff, a few simple good deeds on all our parts, really will make the world a better place!” But perhaps a human interest story’s most attractive characteristic is precisely what it is not: news.
Human Interest stories are journalism without content, non-events in any sort of world-historical sense and as such offer much more pliable clay than those stubborn facts about this or that tricky geopolitical issue. To wrangle up the details of some real, important issue into a narrative palpable for sponsor and ‘base’ alike is no easy task, particularly for those with, say, a conscience or vague concern for the truth– somehow, bless their souls, dedicated journos from the New York Times to CNN do these fardels bear. But a man saving a cat from a burning building, or someone defending a homeless person, or founding another masterbatory charity: these are supple subjects, liable to all sorts of narrativization and presentation.
There is, however, one unfortunate setback to Human Interest Stories, at least in their traditional form, which severely delayed their ascendance: however naively, many journalists have quite stubbornly insisted on being able to call the bulk of their work actual journalism; the population, too, has persistently held on to the notion that they want the news, or at the very least held on to the warm, self-affirming idea that they’re ‘aware’ and ‘up-to-date’– have held onto the idea, that is, that they would very much like to be the kind of person who reads the news. Even what would probably best be understood as journals of imaginative fiction, like the Daily News, still come packaged in that old Newspaper format– a sort of ironic anachronism, like how you can buy iPod Cases that look like cassettes.
Of late, however, it must be said: something better has indeed been found. Instead of merely replacing news with Human Interest stories, it may very well be accurate to suggest that we’ve entered the era of News as Human Interest story. News as the universal outrage of ‘dead children’. News as the timeless tragedy of the depoliticized ‘refugee’. News as executed journalists and the grief of their families. In short, News not as facts, nor even stories, but as cliche morality fables.
This mode of presentation fixates upon the ‘relatable’ ‘human’ element in the event– in its more left-oriented guises, often under the pretext of using this to stimulate empathy or identification that might be mobilized towards some vague future action. In reality, however, these real events, in all their concrete horror, become transmuted into empty tropes easily stripped of such ‘cynical’ and ‘cold’ analyses of their broader causes and reconstituted as empty tropes easily absorbed into the dominant ideology which masked and enabled their occurrence in the first place.
This is why decontextualization of this sort, it must be stressed, is not merely de-politicization, but re-politicization. If capital ‘vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks,’ the peculiar perversity of modern imperialism is its penchant for zombification: unsatisfied with leaving its victims mangled and lifeless, it re-animates and re-casts them as set pieces in narcissistic bourgeois morality plays.
This is why when the more virulently reactionary voices try to reduce Palestinian children to “little terrorists,” or inform us that unarmed teenage African American victims of police brutality are “no angels,” the left must resist the temptation to collapse in desperation into the liberal discourse of decontextualized innocent victims. Even the most cursory scan of one’s own twitter or facebook feed should be more than enough evidence of the fact that those of all sorts of liberal imperialist to reactionary political persuasions can join in the sanctimonious choruses impotently bemoaning these tragedies as such.
The whole framing must in fact be inverted: the geopolitical coordinates in which these tragic events occurred ought to be foregrounded, not made background noise, in our discussions of them; the melodramatic characterization of victims in terms of cliche archetypes not only repudiated but deemed irrelevant. The innocence or age of this or that victim of Israel’s wanton terror; the criminal record or lack thereof of the latest African American victim of the white-supremacist state– in short all these particular narratives which may be pulled in this or that direction (that is to say, between liberal and outright reactionary) have no bearing on the structural injustices of which the particular instances are particularly provocative manifestations.
The way in which we engage with ‘newsworthy’ events ought to be through the analysis of facts, not the consumption of stories steeped in ideology ripe for repurposing. There may be a certain practical utility to the striking anecdotes or statistics that are often absorbed into these discourses; their potential to do any good, however, hinges precisely on our ability to articulate them in the context of the politico-economic forces which undergird them.
What is more, these ‘victims’ which populate reports figuring either as the inhuman objects of reactionary contempt, or the helpless and innocent objects of impotent liberal pity, must be identified first and foremost as oppressed agents with a right to resist– which is to say, with a right not to be ‘innocent.’
“I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation…I took three or four stories of poverty: grinding, ruthless, unrelenting poverty, poverty that is not glamorous. We have always been trying to make poverty respectable, and dignified…You can find plenty of this in Bengali literature. As long as you present poverty as something dignified, the establishment will not be disturbed. The establishment will not act adversely as long as you describe poverty as something holy, something divine. What we wanted to do in CALCUTTA-71 was to define history, put it in its right perspective. We picked out the most vital aspect of our history and tried to show the physical side of hunger is the same. Over time, the physical look of hunger is the same. But there is a marked change in the people—their perception changes. In a way I call this the dialectics of hunger, the dialectics of poverty. How people move from resignation and from callousness to cynicism and being beaten-down, and anger and self-destruction… and finally to anger and violence which can become very creative in the process.”
It is under the overarching steel frame of the Howrah Bridge, amid the routes of the sedate trams that plod through the crowded streets, and within the amphitheatres of sport and leisure that Mrinal Sen’s sentient gaze in Calcutta 71 situates the corollary of centuries of humiliation, exploitation, and oppression – the history of Calcutta’s impoverished working class. Collating together the political sentiments of the urban workers, the rural poor, and the dispossessed lower middle-classes, Calcutta 71 emerges as a chronological narrative that charts the evolution of class-consciousness. Here, this development is located within a wide range of historical and geographical settings: the disintegrating slums where the urban poor strive to maintain a semblance of dignity as depicted in the 1933 episode, the vacated houses of the rich in which the lower middle-class family live in the 1943 episode, and the migratory route of rice smugglers from the countryside to the city in the 1953 episode. Though the separate episodes of Calcutta 71 are recounted in chronological order, they are distinctive in form and structure, and therefore defy the constraints of normative linearity. It is the very graduation of political consciousness necessary to overturn the existing order of post-colonial Indian society formed in the image of middle-class and elite interests that links them together.
In combination with the separate episodes and their distinctive plots, Sen uses a variety of techniques – depending heavily on collision editing where successive shots of the poor dying from starvation during the Bengal Famine of 1943, symbols of political parties (such as the Indian National Congress, Communist Party of India (M), and Communist Party of India (M-L), and stylised rock music are interspersed amongst the dialogues of the characters, most markedly perhaps in the fourth episode. In one particular instance, an upper-class young woman attending the politician’s party complains about the discomfort she underwent while collecting funds for Bangladeshi refugees on behalf of her organisation, she concludes with a laugh that afterwards they (the troupe of women engaged in the collection of funds) demanded that they each be offered a Kwality Wall’s ice-cream for their efforts. Immediately, the screen jumps to a tracking shot of bunker beds at a refugee camp where the starving either lie or sit huddled together, and the tempo of the background music from the rock band at the party soars coupled with the off-screen echo of the woman’s voice. This aforementioned example which illustrates the use of dialectic through the superimposition and interplay of contrasting scenes of poverty and prosperity is methodologically influenced by Eisenstein and Soviet Montage theory. In so far, the combined impact upon the viewer is that of the synthesis – where the hypocritical nature of elite philanthropic work is made visible. Through the lens of spatiality, the contrasting environs of elite philanthropy and the abject misery of the poor are at distinctive odds with each other, engendering a critique of social inequality that suggests it is enmeshed in the segregated geography of Calcutta. In this guise, the container of the filmic medium and the particularities of the visual techniques it offers can be read as the tools of a clandestine didacticism. The theatrical image of the assassinated revolutionary who appears in the final scenes serves to identify the dialectic, drawing from the collated experiences of misery that have been shown on film, a new experience, a gradual development of the revolutionary consciousness of anger.
Solanas and Getino had identified the role of revolutionary cinema as engaged in the transformative process by “providing thrust and rectification” not simply illustrating or reproducing images of a pre-existing situation. Along this vein, Sen’s film is as much a representation of the socio-political causes that contributed to the growth and popularity of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta as it is in itself a call for mobilisation vis-à-vis a didactic interpretation of these causal events. In the denouement, the revived revolutionary who had been declared dead in the first scene of the film speaks out to the audience, both the audience of the party which he has interrupted and the audience of the film. He recounts the circumstances of his death but does not reveal the names of his murderers and instead explains, “I want you to find out their names on your own. And on this search even though you may feel pain and sorrow, at the very least you won’t be able to indulge in idleness. Tell me, why are you all so idle, why so worriless, why so blind? As citizens of this nation do not you wish to avenge my death? Do not you feel anger or even guilt?” A collaged trajectory of the previous episodes are presented in brief clips, at the end the disembodied head of the revolutionary emerges again floating in a sea of darkness, he prophecies that “A language is evolving out of the depths of death, it is the language of protest – it asks ‘How much longer?’” The screen jumps to scenes of public demonstrations and the figurative presentation of a group of advancing soldiers who chase the revolutionary down the streets, and eventually murder him again. In this sense both the visuality and aurality of the medium of film are conducive in producing the sense of unease, a deep-seated instinctual and emotional response. This is not a practice in the art of escapism, the grit of reality is juxtaposed with the jarring nature of the fantastical – the man who speaks from the dead and the advancing masked men who represent the killing force of the Indian army – the result is an agitation of the audience that morally draws them within the revolution itself. The camera, as Solanas and Getino’s called it, had become an “inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons” and the projector, “a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.”
 Calcutta 71 directed by Mrinal Sen (Calcutta: D. S. Productions, 1972)
 Getino and Solanas, “Toward a Third Cinema,” 6.
 Calcutta 71 directed by Mrinal Sen (Calcutta: D. S. Productions, 1972).
 Getino and Solanas, 8.
To indulge oneself in writing yet another piece about the western ‘left’ and its prospects, or lack thereof, feels like a bit of a faux pas; to suggest some solutions, a real outrage. Who, after all, has the heart (or stomach) to read the latest indistinguishable Jacobin, N+1, or New Inquiry-esque article about such embarrassing a topic anymore? Nonetheless, the outpouring of articles along these lines is not without cause: we are lost, and profoundly so.
This is not, as some would have it, merely a function of ‘bad theory,’ or, at the very least, bad theory is not the primary source of the current situation; though academics of all stripes miss no chance to remind us that ‘[w]ithout revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’, we must just as crucially recall what Marx informs us in The German Ideology: “the existence of revolutionary ideas in a particular period presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class.”1
In fact, we might go so far as to suggest that in a peculiar, somewhat inverted fashion, our predicament is not unlike that of Feuerbach and the German “True Socialists,” addressed by Marx therein– even the tedious pretensions of Karl Grün and company to a ‘true socialism’ bathed in the edifying verbiage of the idealist German philosophy and thus free of what they saw as the crude, overly political formulations of those French actually engaging in class struggle at the time seems to ring uncannily familiar to anyone acquainted with the vaunted claims of so many Trotskyite micro-sects and the like– or, even more so, the specious pretensions of this or that grad school leftist fed on an all too strict diet of critical theory.
For, as Marx detailed, Germany’s relative backwardness, and thus their lack of a sufficiently developed working class with which intellectuals might form the relationship necessary for them to develop any sort of genuine “communist consciousness” — which, barring actual membership in the proletariat, can nonetheless arise, given the right conditions and a serious scientific commitment, out of the “contemplation of the situation of this class”2– gave rise to a so-called “socialism” which in reality served principally the needs of the “two most numerous classes of men in Germany” at the time: “the petty bourgeois with its philanthropic illusions and … its ideologists, the philosophers and their disciples.”3
Over the course of capitalism’s development, as the proletariat grows, and as the internal contradictions of capitalism progressively sharpen its antagonism with capital, revolutionary ideas arise from that struggle; to the degree, however, that such ideas are taken up by those who fail to orient themselves towards that class, they become misappropriated, co-opted, often even turned against themselves. Apropos, Aijaz Ahmad once very insightfully commented in an interview with Ellen Meiksins Wood on a certain very pernicious tendency in which :
“ … the more anti-bourgeois, and anti-colonial etc. one becomes, the less one talks about socialism as a determinate horizon. In the process, critiques of capitalism are also sundered from any necessity of working class politics. Indeed, one may use the word “bourgeois,” in a cultural sort of sense, but the word “proletariat” makes one distinctly uncomfortable, as if using such words is some kind of anti-social activity.” 4
Ahmad’s comments cut to the quick of a fundamental issue most evident, as he identifies it, in the ‘North American university’, but it must be stressed that the logic of his criticisms has profound implications for the left more broadly; for the opportunistic university leftists he assails are but a particularly obvious caricature of a much more widespread issue: the consequences of losing one’s orientation towards the proletariat, and consequently, the ‘determinate horizon’ of socialism which its existence entails.
There is a significant part of the western left which no doubt conceives of itself as in no way guilty of Ahmad’s charges: for countless Trots and other Marxists, Euro-communists, social-dems, Labourites, and even the odd Democrat, sincerely believe they are concerned with the working class– and this is precisely the problem, because the ‘workers’ towards which this left overwhelmingly orients itself is categorically not the ‘proletariat’ proper, but the labor aristocracy.
As recent interventions such as Bromma’s The Worker Elite and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class have helped to shed some desperately needed light on, the tremendous (and growing) gap between the lots of workers in the imperial core nations and periphery cannot be explained merely by the former’s historical militancy or greater productivity, and, perhaps even more crucially, their unwillingness to make revolution and tendency towards reformism cannot be ascribed to such activities’ successes, nor to ideological hegemony alone.
Rather, under fully developed imperialism in particular — rather than mere resource colonialism — a vast global transfer of surplus-value from super-exploited proletarian and semi-proletarian masses throughout the periphery to the core is enacted– and, crucially not merely to the ‘1%’ as common first-worldist populism generally suggests, but to a significant degree to large portions of those countries citizenry, even most of the organized workforce.
As Cope concludes from his rigorous study of the political economy of imperialism in Divided World, Divided Class, since “the amounts of super profits in the world economy exceeded the surplus-value produced by First World workers as a whole, the class interests of the latter could no longer be said to align with the socialist project.”5 Capitalists in the imperial core have historically been able to a) displace otherwise inevitable contradictions in the capitalist mode of production through constant expansion and primitive accumulation beyond their own borders and b) dissolve (temporarily) the antagonism between themselves and their own working classes through embourgeoisement and integration insofar as imperialist superprofits allow them to offer artificially high conditions to their domestic workers as the price of internal peace and stability, and even more fundamentally through the welfare state’s taxation or distribution of their wealth.
To recognize such facts is to recognize that the vast majority of western workers have a material stake in the ongoing imperialist project of their own nations– that they, so to speak, have very much more than chains to lose — and that any honest materialist must realize the implications of this fact: that most workers in the imperial core are not, at the current historical conjecture, a revolutionary class. It is not, after all, on moral grounds or sentimental appeals that Marxism posits the revolutionary nature of the proletarian proper (who, it must be remembered, likely include some 80% of the global working class), but because of their objective and irreconcilable antagonism with capital.
And it is precisely for this reason that the Western left, to the degree that it sincerely hopes to be any more meaningfully ‘left’ than Strasserism– that is to say, seeking only more egalitarian distribution of the exploited value of others within a parasitic class—, must ask themselves, not ‘who’s left?’, as seems to be the prevailing sensibility among those tedious leftists who wax nostalgic about the hay days of western labor militancy, and miss no chance to go on about their party or traditions historical relationship with those labor movements, the endless Owen Jones types blathering on about their credentials as ‘fourth generation socialists;” we must ask ourselves, whose left we are: in the interests of what class do we constitute ourselves as a genuinely progressive movement. This class cannot be the labor aristocracy, as their persistent chauvinism, first-worldism, and refusal of solidarity with the real global proletariat– the exploitation of which they materially benefit– has made all too clear.
We in the imperial core, are just as alienated from the proletariat as the German True Socialists of the 19th century, and as such we must with genuine scientific conviction analyze the real social makeup of our current historical totality– we must take up the, it must be said not only difficult but extremely uncomfortable task of seeking out the real proletariat wherever it exists. In large part, this means a much more serious solidarity with those movements in the periphery and semi-periphery– which, no doubt, will often be as offensive to lofty conceptions of pure socialism as the political movements of French workers in the 19th century were to their German counterparts, but vulgar third-worldism will hardly suffice. The whole labor-aristocratic edifice is built upon the stratification of workers in terms of race, creed, and gender, and internal colonies abound along such lines, particularly in the case of undocumented migrant workers.
Barba non facit philosophum; nor does a blue collar make a proletarian; nor, most certainly, does a red-flag and some tired rhetoric, divested of all real content or connection to its (previously) concrete basis, make a ‘left.’
1. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The German ideology, Parts I & III. Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011. p.40.
2. Ibid. p. 69.
3. Ibid. p. 81.
4. Wood, Ellen Meiksins. “Issues of Class and Culture: An Interview with Aijaz Ahmad.”Monthly Review: Oct 1996: 10.
5. Cope, Zak. Divided world, divided class: global political economy and the stratification of labour under capitalism. Montreal, Quebec: Kersplebedeb, 2012. p.256.
About a week ago on this blog, Nyusha explored the artwork of Mona Hatoum. She concludes that the piece in question, “is bound in power relations, discourses created by power and disseminated by power, and yet, it never supercedes this power. And in this vein, this power births multiple forms of resistance as well as being informed by resistance.” Nyusha here was speaking specifically to Hatoum’s engagement with the occupation of Palestine and articulation of diasporic identity. I would like to expand on Nyusha’s line of thought, though. What of cultural phenomena that guise themselves as “forms of resistance” or “subversive,” but are perhaps more in line with capitalism than they seem?
Nyusha elected to interrogate her subject with a Foucauldian analysis. Much of Foucault’s work touches on neoliberalism — a word that has carved its way into our contemporary political discourse, taking on a number of meanings. Sometimes it refers explicitly to the new efforts to liberalize market economies following the Reagan-Thatcher era. Other times it pops up in discourses about biopolitics and govermentality. Often it is a strange mixture of both. Much of it goes over my head, as I smile and nod. Many Marxists are abhorrently opposed to Foucault and the “postmodern” political trends that followed his work. In recent discussions with friends, I have been throwing the word “neoliberal” around to talk about the hyper-individuation of “our” lives and the depoliticization of the public sphere that has totally gutted prospects for an organized Left. It is not an uncommon complaint in Marxist circles. “The Left is dead,” I cry and then Evelyn reminds me of Walter Benjamin and what he had to say about Left Melancholy.
Ultimately, here I am not interested in debating which analytic and philosophical traditions offer the most value to “the” Left. Rather, I would like to briefly point to a contemporary musical trend that I will vaguely label “neoliberal.” Robin James dissects certain contemporary musical trends similar to the ones I am focusing on that she marks as neoliberal in an article on the New Inquiry. After arguing that contemporary Electronic Dance Music (EDM) represents a neoliberal distribution of safe risk to privileged groups in society by co-opting alterity — be it from misappropriation of Othered cultures or misrepresenting oneself as living precariously — she asks, “How, then, do you resist it?” I would argue that what James describes represents a certain type of “visage of resistance.” For example, Diplo’s foray into dancehall, bhangra, and reggaeton affects an alterity that poses itself as diverging from the norm, while still relying on what are ultimately racist or Orientalist tropes. This is what makes what she asks complicated — what is resistance to alleged resistance?
Similarly to what I have described above, I would like to present another phenomenon that I think is within the same family, but perhaps diverges from the broader project put forward by James if I understand it correctly. I have actually been thinking about this for some time, it is not difficult to notice in pop culture. This trend takes on the angst of contemporary life; it critiques alienation and often uses fashion that muddies heteronormative paradigms. What is lacking, in my view, and what makes the supposed critique it puts forward available and acceptable to contemporary capitalism is that it focuses on individually being “fed up.” It suppresses and rejects collectivism, then latches onto individual aestheticism and isolated expressions of rage that “subvert” the monotony, conformism, alienation, and repression of greater society. In a cruel twist that has been documented almost ad nauseum, capitalism sells us hatred of capitalism.
In the end, I may have just written this because I wanted to share some music that I happen to like even if I found myself thinking, “My God! Pure Ideology!” Here are some examples below:
We enter an abandoned, torn up building in neoliberal Greece as a group of disgruntled youth who have named their band “MOAN” sing about a rebellious rockstar-style love. Whiskey, drugs, vamps, crooked smiles, and razors find their way into an alternative Greek music scene as the country trembles with what are frequently described as war-like conditions. Hospitals and schools shut down en masse as unemployment, HIV-infections, trafficking of children and women, and so on and so forth skyrocket. Business as usual. They upload their first video to YouTube and the view count explodes when it is featured on the front page of The Pirate Bay where people go to torrent episodes of episodes Sherlock and pre-DVD recordings of The Lego Movie.
Somewhere presumably in New York, a Tehran-to-Brooklyn band plays with the dystopian boredom of suburban America a little more than a year before two members of The Yellow Dogs are tragically gunned down in a highly-publicized murder-suicide by Raefe Akhbar, “another musician with close ties to the band.” The video’s cast conquers their middle-American nightmare by lighting flares, carrying torches, smashing balloons, and tossing rocks.
Grimes and her entourage carry heavy weaponry as they traverse the desert in a luxury Cadillac SUV. Brooke Candy pops, locks, and swings her braided pink extensions while she is clad in some form of bionic, metallic body armor. Candy’s affected, cyber-hood aesthetic is matched by Grimes’ pseudo-dreads and soft voguing topped off with a flat-brimmed cap that reads “PUSSY” in bold, while another hat seems to read “QUEER.” The posse stomps and struts down the cleanly paved roads of Los Angeles, lined with meticulously planted palm trees, disturbing the peace and disrupting monotony. More flares.
With perhaps a little more funding and a smidgen more notoriety, the eponymous Rihanna finds love in a hopeless place. She and Dudley O’Shaughnessy hop from table to table in a fast food restaurant, smoke at least a dozen cigarettes simultaneously as he breathes smoke into her pursed lips, and make out in the mud as a wild group of miscreants fist pump to EDM. O’Shaughnessy tattoos her ass “MINE” on a couch in their shitty apartment in what seems to be their mutual drug-induced madness. The beat picks up again, everything goes wild, we watch another pupil dilate, the romance ends and Rihanna closes the door after finding her lover curled up on the ground. Were there flares in this video too? I cannot remember.
P.S. Also worth exploring is the recent trend in music videos that mimic anarchist and other unorganized, sporadic forms of clashes with the police or State more generally following the various recent global mass protests that can be seen off the top of my head in the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” Beyoncé and Frank Ocean’s “Superpower,” as well as Azealia Banks’ “Yung Rapunxel,” although I am sure there are many other examples worth mentioning that I am unaware of. Even Lady Gaga clashes with a corporate elite in “G.U.Y. – An ARTPOP Film.”
A simple grid-like fabric lies on a horizontal vitrine in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Without Boundary”. This grid contains the intersectional lines typically found in its aptly named title, “Keffieh”. However, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum has created a complex framework through the addition of her own hair woven into the fabric. Indeed, a whole set of discourses informs this action and a whole set of discourses grows out of the piece as well. We must ask, why is an art piece created by the artist and what is at stake? It is commonly argued that the modernist temple of MoMA’s inclination towards deeming the artist as an Individual creator of a transcendental atemporal piece is erroneous and dangerous. And yet, as Foucault mentions, “It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared.” Foucault opens certain discourses that later Jaleh Mansoor continues in “A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction” (2006) in regards to “Keffieh”. Through Mona Hatoum’s “Keffieh” we can question how art pieces are both shaped by and shape discourses centering identity, subjectivity, and authorship. Particularly, Hatoum’s complex diasporic background points to the ways in which the author as well as the art piece is produced through a variety of political discourses. In addition, the grid itself undoes structural binaries of universality and particularity, abstraction and materiality. Finally, the placement of this grid in MoMA points to the role of institutions of power in circulating and legitimating discourses brought to bear by “Keffieh”.
Hatoum is both Palestinian and not. Never having traveled to the land associated with her identity, there is a sense of flux and ambiguity common in diaspora communities. These are significant political issues, and yet it would be facile to attribute the production of “Keffieh” solely to Hatoum’s personal life. Foucault points to the artist not as sole creator but as a production of various discourses. If we consider that there is no prediscursive reality, we can question the power of the creator, and subsequently upheave this power: we decenter humanist thought in order to challenge the idea that we are the sole agents of our futures. This temporal and existential helplessness is reified in Mona Hatoum’s work in reference to her lack of legitimate agency on her own land. Certainly, Hatoum is the product of the discourses concerning identity, citizenship, and mapped territory. There is a theme of flux present in Hatoum’s identity that is also present in the question of discourses concerning the author and the art piece. When Foucault says in reference to authorship, “a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears,” the grid in Keffieh manifests this abstract universality. The artist is lost within the atemporal cage-like lines. However, it is not enough to say that the piece is devoid of subjectivity. This not a grid that transcends history: there is political symbolism of struggle within the grid. Hatoum’s grid signifies her own struggles in the search for a lost homeland. But it is not a singular struggle. The grid is also a representation of resistance in many forms. Particularly, it is a resistance that points to a space found more directly in the West Bank, but also found wherever we speak of Palestinian resistance. It is the resistance of providing a singular definition to an identity, any identity, especially the Palestinian one. It is the resistance necessarily brought out by a Palestinian identity that refused to be defined and furthermore refuses the formation of a universal signified “human nature”. Universally, the grid points to a resistance of the neutralization of subjectivity. As such, the subject and the artist do in fact disappear and reappear constantly and we can never ignore the immensity of the discourses that have shaped Hatoum’s work, as Foucault would mention, her “name seems always to be present” in “Keffieh” “revealing, or at least characterizing, its mode of being”. As Mansoor relays, there is a spectrality of the author that constantly resists the grid: this is the cyclical struggle of authorship.
In “What is the Author?” Foucault works to challenge the idea of universality by pulling the artwork away from the transcendental and grounding it in the material through contemplation of discourses. Hatoum has created an art piece that does not fall easily in universality or particularity, however. As Mansoor explains, the grid demands an initial structuralist explication. The “Keffieh” may be a representation of a grid and all the universal attributes it signifies, however, Hatoum defies this universality by incorporating her hair. This hair is deeply personal and visceral—it magnifies its right to be there—and is not a representation of a thing, rather it is that thing. Through unpacking this structuralist binary of the material and the universal the “Keffieh” itself produces discourses. Mansoor mentions “Hatoum occupies the diasporic condition of simultaneous identification and dis-identification with the site of her cultural heritage. The artist’s work speaks to this condition, complicating any claim to identity by noting that its terms are contingent upon a set of abstractions. The concreteness of location, of place, no longer obtains in enforced diaspora.” The “Keffieh” parallels this very ambiguity and this simultaneous concreteness and lack of concreteness; the grid identifies with universality but also dis-identifies with it through the hair’s identification with a set of material particulars. We can think of Foucault’s biopower—the right to maintain power over one’s body, life, and death–when we think of the placement of the hair in the grid. This biopower is manipulated in capitalist systems wherein institutions hold power over bodies. The grid is perhaps a symbol of the late modernist capitalist moment, a need capitalize the body and its labour and to maximize efficiency. The mode of production involved in an art piece implies a certain cyclicity. The threading of the keffieh is a very monotonous, cyclical, laborious act. By placing her own hair in “Keffieh”, Hatoum is breaking the cyclicity of the mode of production, perhaps gaining agency through biopower of her own body, a body that has been alienated through deterritorialization. To think of all the wars that have been fought and legitimized by the displacement of bodies is tremendous and we realize that power is exercised very overtly at the level of bodies. The material qualities of “Keffieh” thus also dialectically serve to produce abstraction—an abstraction of diaspora, of the power associated with controlling bodies. This is done through this very structuralist binaried use of material hair framed in an exact efficient grid.
The art piece may be fundamentally discursive, but it is also important to study the power implicit in the valorization of these discourses. Foucault would ask us to consider the power associated with the mode of production involved in art. Art relies on resources and who has control on these resources. It is institutions that distribute meanings, and the museum, MoMA, that have the power to legitimize this art piece. Hans Haacke, in his work “Museums: Managers of Consciousness”, defines the museum as an industry, a controller of power in the distribution and manipulation of “consciousness” or discourses. It is especially important to note the extreme complicitness of the museum in the production of discourses and the danger of an institution’s moral opaqueness. As Haacke mentions, “An institution’s intellectual and moral position becomes tenuous only if it claims to be free of ideological bias. And such an institution should be challenged if it refuses to acknowledge that it operates under constraints deriving from its sources of funding and from the authority to which it reports.” The “Keffieh”’s placement in MoMA is particularly radical act in the proliferation of discourses. When we think of MoMA, there is a sense of the static universal: we think of the great artists who are dedicated to modernist affirmations of the present moment. And here is Mona Hatoum’s work, a piece that is transgressive in the sense that it is very much bound by a chain of political particulars. The fact that the variety of discourses that grow out of this art piece–the discursive power of the author and of identity, the structuralist binaries of abstraction and materiality—are legitimated by MoMA, an institution that is typically associated with atemporal modernism presents a very explicit act of political deviance. The juxtaposition of the discourses associated with “Keffieh” as well as those associated with MoMA serve to amplify the incredible role of power in art institutions.
In the Foucauldian spirit, “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power”. “Keffieh” is bound in power relations, discourses created by power and disseminated by power, and yet, it never supercedes this power. And in this vein, this power births multiple forms of resistance as well as being informed by resistance. Mona Hatoum resists hegemonic oppression in her homeland; multi-faceted “Keffieh” resists the ahistoric universalist agenda of MoMA; human hair resists the atemporal grid; particularity resists universality; materiality resists abstraction; identity resists any means of definition. And simultaneously, this resistance does not produce a clean relief or a transcendence. This resistance is necessary completely because power will always be present and as its antagonist resistance will continue.
Foucault, Michael. “History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge” (London: Penguin, 1976), pp. 95-96.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” (1970) in Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, (New York: Panthenon Books), pp. 101-120.
Haacke, Hans. “Museums, Managers of Consciousness” in Hans Haacke, Unfinished Business (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987), pp. 61-73.
Mansoor, Jaleh. “A Spectral Universality: Mona Hatoum’s Biopolitics of Abstraction” in October Magazine, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010), pp. 49-74.