Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Thursday, October 30, 2008


I'm finding you everywhere.
Unidentified songs
   we hummed, 
back unexpectedly
in the oddest places
Such as when I'm leaving again

Someday I won't have to.

Monday, February 25, 2008

This House is an Act of Forgery

During the nascent age of loneliness
the boundary is emphasized.
The line of communication
is no doubt like a field of thorny thrush
that leads to a forged house;
This house is an act of forgery.
What merits this condition?
{ { I will wait seven minutes for them to invite me to sit for a beer. } }
Their house does have internal walls.
Maybe that's a consolation.
Their talk... I'm going to consider this wreck
Our Town.
{ { seven minutes is up. } }

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Ability to Look

To be published in the journal disCLOSURE: A Journal of Social Theory, April 2008


I think of myself as Coetzee’s tired magistrate
who is burdened by a historical palimpsest
of Empire.
If you recall, he would frequently sit
And try to identify with old stories and habits of peoples whose land he now administers.
He would look, and extrapolate,
but there was no object.
The magistrate was an Eichmann who desired
without reciprocity.
The magistrate would say,

"The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts,
new chapters, clean pages;
I struggle with the old story, hoping that before it is finished
it will reveal to me
why it was that I thought it worth the trouble."

But just like in Sartre’s fable of the voyeur,
the key-hole gazer is merely the object
an implicit being
without the Other looking back.
That is the ability to look.


Demott wrote about his own colonization.
About the hard man who invaded his head,
and a cultivation of a desire, to see a world
mired in violence and lost hopes.
This hard man in his head
is a spectator of pornography,
of bombs raining upon the already-dead,
and nightly news casts of escalating numbers
and progress.
Demott is also an old man of Empire,
a spectator, who can never be seen.
An object.
He is his acts,
“His consciousness sticks to his acts”
and it will never be known whether he is watching.
Demott can never be shamed.
That is the ability to look.


I often wonder about the victims of Empire.
About how they scream into the camera,
about dead families, lost children, and gods who look
I used to think that aspect of their struggle was futile,
but now I think
Their attempt is to create a social tie
To coalesce desires across mediums.
But that is the bitter irony.
The spectator
positioned far outside their circuits of desire
has no reality at all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Fate of Letters

What will soon become of historical scholarship when the access to personal letters becomes impossible? How can one write social and cultural histories or genealogies when the documents on which ideas are worked out, like correspondence between colleagues, is digitized (e.g., email) and without a paper trail? It would be impossible, for example, of writing a history of beginnings of psychoanalysis, such as Eli Zaretsky's brilliant Secrets of the Soul, without the important hand-written messages between Freud and his associates (Abraham, Jones, Jung, Adler, Ferenczi), where ideas emerged and sometimes waned without ever being printed in a book or article. How could one access, if one were interested in, say, the cultural turn in geography, the interpersonal correspondence between scholars if their epistolary relations are locked in the black boxes of personal computers and opaque networks?

In his analysis of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard understands part of the epochal shift of so-called "postmodernism" to be that moment when forces of information become centripetal, privatized, and consolidated into inaccessible spaces. While Lyotard's analysis may be laced with a hint of hyperbole, the very real threat to a more robust scholarship (and by that I mean the production of stories around the human condition) is of deep concern.

There has already been writings on the fate of libraries when they are digitized, particularly what is partly conceived as a loss of the library aesthetic. What is meant by this is the potential loss of strolling through a library aisle, and happening on books that are beside, on top of, or underneath the book you are looking for, not to mention those books that happen to catch an eye when one happens to walk up a wrong aisle or those books serendipitously placed on a cart near an aisle end. It is this tangible, perhaps supraliminal experience that is overcome when actions are determined by algorithms--such as the results that emerge on an Amazon or Google search. Of course, I am not trying to evoke an apocalypse; standing libraries will not be fossilized anytime soon. But I am more concerned with the expected ways in which one initially seeks out information in the first instance, not the fate of institutions, like libraries. In other words, the question is whether the library search becomes secondary to access knowledge and histories, treated pejoratively as a necessary chore if one wants to offer a nomothetic thesis on a social condition.

In sum, it is hard to see how email is going to make it into Selected Writings and Letters of So-and-So. Instead, it might just prove to be a starting point for another nostalgia industry, an industry recalling the good old days of the pen-in-hand, the stamping of an envelope, and the wait of receiving a response on an idea one took to the time to write down.

On the other hand, perhaps journal articles should turn into letters. Perhaps a journal should be started called Letters, where people can submit their feelings and thoughts around the unconscious, or the development of new conceptions of space in 1906, or the philosophy behind "giving an account of oneself." Perhaps, we should start a movement based on patience in letter writing, of working thoughts out slowly, of avoiding the keyboard. Which, of course, would mean journal would be, above all things, hand-written and with a paper-trail.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Experiencing Starbucks

In a neoliberal world of intense coffee consumption, it is nigh impossible to avoid the experience of the Starbucks behemoth. Thus, I find it prescient to write about my experiences with that institution. Through my visits, I have been able to distill two points of interest that ensure the continuity of Starbucks within my Lexington neighborhood.

The first point of interest is its disciplining of space, and the second point is Starbucks’ orientation towards ‘lifestyle’ consumption. The aspect that pointedly separates Starbucks from other coffee shops, is that the Starbucks model is reliant upon participatory line movement that is both productive and efficient. There is a naturalized expectation upon entering the door that ‘guests’ will walk in a straight line up to the cash-register, and will proceed to their left to pick up their drinks. All products are oriented towards this line movement, and one’s visuality is limited to product placement, the menu, and the ‘barista’ inquiring about your order. Placing an order is also based upon efficiency, and Starbucks has established a productive syntax in order to ensure a high yield of drinks in little time.

The syntax is as follows: quantity of espresso + size + ice, if any + type of milk, with 2% as norm + flavor, if any + externalities (e.g., ‘no whip’) + type of drink + ‘for here’, if customer specifies = order.

The fact that customers are not rewarded for saying their order ‘correctly’ indicates how customers are expected to be productive of this specific, albeit efficient syntax. Complications ensue for those customers who speak in generalities (e.g., ‘I will have a large coffee’), and they are immediately corrected, or better, translated into Starbucks speak. Starbucks is a site of uninterrupted training. It is obvious (or maybe it is not so obvious, and that is why it works) that this strategy of translation is related to the company’s seeming dedication to my second point, what I understand to be lifestyle consumption.

The apparatus of Starbucks presupposes certain ‘ideas of the self,' and Starbucks should be understood as an assemblage of technologies that presumes a certain relation between persons and products. The calculated marketing of Starbucks assumes a certain demographic that will frequent the coffee shop; a demographic that will not only participate in a simulation of a romanticized Italian atmosphere – ‘barista,’ a word hardly used fifteen years ago has now become ubiquitous – but will also consume/utilize products that will serve as signifiers of who one is. These products range from Starbucks staples (coffee mugs, coffee machines, coffee beans, and of course, the white Starbucks cup with a brown protective sleeve over it) to popular music, books, movies, and board games.

In other words, Starbucks has become a space of self-actualization. In my observation, it is a space where a certain type of person can desire a certain identity, and dare I speculate that this ‘type of person’ in a Lexington context is white and middle-class (although one should be careful to conflate the ideal demographic with all the people who shop Starbucks)? It is clear that Starbucks assumes (and calculates accordingly) that products have a certain power to shape identities, and further assumes that the company has been so successful in their calculations that they can advertise their health benefits to employees and their ‘corporate responsibility’ to ‘fair trade’ coffee to customers; i.e., they assume a demographic that will care. As Max Weber once intimated in a much different context, Starbucks has become ‘a virtuous liaison between happiness and profit.’ Starbucks shapes a style of life for customers who, through acts of choice, in turn shape themselves in a world of Starbucks goods.

In a cursory conclusion, I would argue that the Lexington Starbucks has become such a space (albeit privatized), or assemblage for a ‘community’ of frequent customers to exchange superficial stories of happiness, church, and family, which is bound up with Starbucks as a space of self-actualization. I use the word superficial because I have not seen a conversation between people who did not come in together last more than five or ten minutes; i.e., it is a space of short, efficient, and maximized conversation that will yield as much information about the weather in as little time as possible.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Rare Admission by the New York Times

There has been a plethora of commentary over the past week on the execution of Saddam Hussein, the taunts and brutality of his executioners, and the almost predictable aftermath of Sunnis throughout the Middle East turning Hussein into a martyr and symbol against the U.S. imperial project in Iraq. Of course, there has also been speculation about the timing of the execution, and its 'coincidental' synchrony with the news of the deaths of U.S. soldiers exceeding 3,000; i.e., about the same number of Iraqis that die every month.

It almost goes without saying that the execution was a farce. As I have stated before, it is not only a fiction to suggest that there is anything resembling a 'government' in Iraq -- since 'P.M.' Maliki has barely any power within the Green Zone, and no power outside of it -- it would be laughable if it were not so serious to suggest that the judicial process that Hussein and his cohort have been subjected to could be called 'fair' or 'due process.' President Bush described the execution as a 'just act' that resulted from a 'fair trial.' One can only agree with Richard Falk when he suggests that Bush's description of Hussein's trial as fair is either a critical insight into what Bush understands to be legitimate legal procedure (which is not far-fetched given the Bush Administration's impetus to suspend habeas corpus to those suspected of being 'terrorists' or 'enemy combatants'), or it is a most sinister P.R. stunt of Orwellian proportions by the Administration in order to discursively construct an illusory image of the Iraqi 'government' for the American public.

But alas, illusions are like faith, and can only be maintained when facts can knowingly or unknowingly be rejected when they do not square with one's world-view. But, the world-view constructed by the Administration has long been imploding from without, with the results 'from the ground' exceeding the explainations given by the Bush Administration. And now, we can find little nuggets buried within the New York Times that encapsulate the situation without resorting to hegemonized media norms. Just today, we can read the following in the New York Times in an article on the effects of Saddam Hussein's execution in the Middle East:

"Here in Beirut, hundreds of members of the Lebanese Baath Party and Palestinian activists marched Friday in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood behind a symbolic coffin representing that of Mr. Hussein and later offered a funeral prayer. Photographs of Mr. Hussein standing up in court, against a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem, were pasted on city walls near Palestinian refugee camps, praising 'Saddam the martyr.'

'God damn America and its spies,' a banner across one major Beirut thoroughfare read. 'Our condolences to the nation for the assassination of Saddam, and victory to the Iraqi resistance.'

By standing up to the United States and its client government in Baghdad and dying with seeming dignity, Mr. Hussein appears to have been virtually cleansed of his past."

That last sentence, "the United States and its client government in Baghdad," is significant because Baghdad is never discussed in that manner in either media or policy circles. Much effort is made to make Baghdad seem as if it is operating independently, but by acknowledging that it is a client government, or rather a client 'government' (it really only operates in a symbolic manner, with the U.S. as its primary militia), the whole process of Hussein's trial and the 'hand-over' to the Baghdad authorities is undermined and exposed for what it really is: a U.S. imperial project that is pulling the strings.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Pop-Torture in the 'City on the Hill'

*This commentary appeared on Znet

"To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability". Susan Sontag

Under the auspices of a so-called ‘war on terror,’ we often hear critics discuss serious matters pertaining to the geo-political and geo-economical consequences of the war on U.S. foreign policy, as well as the ramifications of the war for future diplomatic relations with the Middle East and the world. Those analyses typically point to the destructive construction—by both the Bush Administration (and their pundits) and al-Qaeda—of geographical imaginaries that cultivate an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality—a policy tactic whose precedence lingers from a Cold War-based statecraft. The global public witnessed the ugly result of this cancerous us/them dyad when the Abu-Ghraib photos were clandestinely released to CBS in April 2004.

The significance of these photos is complex, and is the subject of this brief commentary. But already we can see that the complications posed by the Abu-Ghraib photographs are far beyond geo-political and geo-economic concerns; instead, we have to enter into the realm of cultural significance. For, as the late cultural critic Edward Said reminds us, ‘culture underwrites power even as power elaborates culture.’ Ever since Edward Said’s publication of Orientalism in 1977, there has been a renewed focus on the power of culture in producing difference (‘us/them’) because, as Derek Gregory argues in his masterful The Colonial Present, ‘culture involves the production, circulation, and legitimation of meanings through representations, practices, and performances that enter fully into the constitution of the world.’ Therefore, the significance of the Abu-Ghraib photos is that they are insignificant—they are redundant images born out of an Americanized ‘architecture of enmity.’

The typical response to the Abu-Ghraib photos in the popular media was one of spectacle ‘shock,’ because the images of tortured Muslims having canines on the verge of attacking genitalia, or nude men being stacked in a pyramid with a smiling Lynndie England and Charles Graner giving an affirmative thumbs-up, flew in the face of an American exceptionalism that understands itself to be a beacon of democracy, freedom, and due process—as Reagan famously stated, the ‘City on the Hill.’ Instead, the American and global public witnessed in those images representations of dehumanization, humiliation, and physical brutality; in other words, a mentality of guilty-until-proven-innocent.

There are two significant features to these pitiless photographs that merit discussion. The first feature concerns the reaction of ‘shock,’ and the second underscores the insignificance of the photographs. This may seem like a strange combination seeming that shock usually implies a degree of significance, but I think the contrary is true, that it is in fact the insignificance of the photographs that provoked such a reaction, which I will now explain.

Shock and Awe

In order to understand the implications of the Abu-Ghraib photographs, we must first consider the mutable nuances of American war-imagery over the past thirty years. Ever since the images of naked Vietnamese girls running through field with their flesh aflame with napalm and American soldiers coming back in body-bags from the Vietnam War, the U.S. government and media have carefully managed war-imagery because of its power to negatively affect public opinion towards U.S. wars of aggression (Vietnam, Nicaragua, Greneda, and Iraq being examples par excellence). Since Vietnam, war imagery has moved away from a corporeal, embodied, subjective mediazation of war, to a more distanced, de-corporeal, objective experience of spectacular violence; in other words, there has been an erasure of the human body from the picture. This objective experience ranges from distanced, night-vision experiences of bombs downpouring on cities, to embedding journalists with the military in order to ensure coverage of only one side, to the insidious refusal to enumerate Iraqi casualties (though a recent John Hopkins report states that an incredible 650,000 Iraqis have been killed since the most recent invasion by the United States). Media coverage of flagdraped caskets of soldiers has also been strictly censored. As University of Chicago art historian WJT Mitchell argues, like the first Gulf War, ‘this [has been] a war without bodies or tears for [and from] the American public, but one filled, at the same time, with a sense of danger, paranoia, and spectacular violence.’

It is within this context that we can understand the unconventionality of the Abu-Ghraib photographs: they were a reintroduction of bodies back into war imagery. In a mediatized world where the political stakes are the power of fascination, it was only after the corporeal imagery of real suffering and humiliation depicted in the Abu-Ghraib imagery (and in New Orleans for that matter) that the support for the war dwindled. It is no coincidence that Rumsfeld’s first response to the public disclosure of the Abu-Ghraib tortures was to ban the possession of digital cameras. But what made these photographs seem significant? I would argue that this unconventional war-imagery was what Jacque Lacan would call a veritable ‘answer of the real.’ In other words, the unsanitized photographs revealed more about American culture than was too comfortable to acknowledge.

The Insignificance of Torture

One of the more interesting responses to the disclosure of the Abu-Ghraib photographs came from the right-wing pundit Rush Limbaugh, who attempted to do his part in quality control by likening the images to something that happens in ‘fraternity houses all the time.’ Even though Limbaugh was criticized heavily for this reaction, it was precisely his insinuation that Abu-Ghraib was unexceptional that provoked the rage, and I think he is more right than his critics suggest, though not in the ways he might believe. What makes the Abu-Ghraib photographs insignificant is the fact that they are indeed banal—they are like images that are depicted on television ad nauseum, as well as routinely performed and practiced in American culture. In other words, they fall in line with what I would call the conventions of American pop-torture.

As social theorists Bulent Diken and Carsten Laustsen argue, the pictures ‘are a testimony to the extent of voyeurism and brutalization present in today’s society… the pictures signify a normalization… of the extreme exercise of sado-masochistic ritual (e.g., Lynndie England leading a naked man around on a leash).’ One needs to look no further than shows like 24 and Battlestar Galactica (where ‘terrorists’ are routinely tortured for reasons of ‘national security’), and movies like Pulp Fiction and Hostel to see that it is no secret that the United States celebrates fantasies of ‘cool’ violence as ‘good entertainment.’ As Susan Sontag suggests, ‘depicting orgies of torture is being normalized, by the apostles of the new, bellicose, imperial America, as high-spirited prankishness or venting.’ I will never forget a commercial that was shown recently for the show 24 that started with ‘America never backs down from the threat of terrorism’ flashing on the screen, followed by the image of U.S. soldiers breaking into Iraqi houses. The commercial then continued with ‘And neither does Jack,’ followed by Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) choking an unnamed ‘terrorist.’ This kind of spectacular pop-torture has become so ubiquitous that it barely merits mentioning.

However, it is not just within the real of spectacular images that torturous violence is becoming normalized. As the famed Slovenian cultural critic Slajov Zizek enthuses, the insignificance of the Abu-Ghraib in the American context is due to similar photos surfacing in regular intervals in the US press. For instance, when ‘some scandal explodes in an army unit or on a high-school campus, where the initiatic ritual went to far and soldiers and students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures, to be pierced by needles, and so on.’ A telling example is the recent fraternity initiation gone wrong at the University of Oregon, when a rushing student had their anus penetrated in front of his peers with a beer bottle, which broke inside of him.

It is the logic behind torture that makes the Abu-Ghraib photos insignificant, because the logic of inflicting pain for security and/or fun has become all-pervasive. But why the reaction of shock that followed the release of the Abu-Ghraib photos? I would argue that it was due to their being out-of-place in the imaginary that caused the mass shudder. In other words, they exceeded the boundaries of fiction, and instead brought to bear the very real consequences of war that is more than distanced imagery. Further, those pictures revealed the surreptitious practices and performances that have become omnipresent within U.S. families and communities. Indeed, the pictures were a welcoming into the desert of the American subcultural real.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brief Thoughts on Harvey's The New Imperialism

In his book, The New Imperialism, David Harvey offers a post-classical Marxist account of what he understands to be the contemporary manifestation of imperialism. Harvey employs not only his theoretical greatest hit (the acclaimed ‘spatial fix’), as well as a couple of old Trotsky joints (‘uneven development,’ and ‘accumulation by dispossession’—though Trotsky is given credit for neither in Harvey’s book), but he also ‘develops’ two theoretical logics within the world-system (the ‘territorial’ and ‘capitalistic’ logics) in order to illustrate the spatial economy of imperialism (there is nothing really new about it). The case for imperialism is simple for Harvey: the (still) dominant U.S.—since it is in political-economic decline—must ‘accumulate through dispossession’ revenues from Middle Eastern oil in order to (1) buttress its military-financial position in relation to Europe and Japan, and (2) control the oil-spigot that is fueling a rapidly growing and threatening South-east Asia economic bloc, particularly China. One has to be careful when reading Harvey because he is masterful with his prose, and is very convincing despite his theoretical problems.

The restrictions in length with this blog entry unfortunately allow me to focus on only one of the theoretical problems of Harvey, though a thorough critical analysis of his oeuvre is a prescient book waiting to be written, especially given the scope of his ideas within the discipline. Nevertheless, I want to focus on Harvey’s ‘big Kahuna’: the spatial fix. The spatial fix is obviously the theoretical lynchpin for Harvey in this book, and it is clear that he wishes to employ it in order for the advanced reader to grasp the highlights of a geographical approach to (post)modern global politics. However, the question needs to be asked: would a ‘new imperialism’ make sense if the ‘spatial fix’ proved to be a largely inadequate theoretical concept?

Within the theoretical strains of economic Marxism, Harvey is situated within the ‘crisis theory’ school, particularly with those who emphasize a dynamic called the ‘tendency of the rate to profit to fall’ that was theoretically developed by Rosdolsky, Shaikh, Aglietta, and others from the French ‘regulation school.’ Harvey has accented the work of all these theorists in his books where he outlines in detail the mechanics of the spatial fix. Without getting into detail the complexities of and differences between these theorists, there is one common theoretical thread: that capitalists are incessant about seeking an appropriation of surplus value, and in order to ameliorate any pending crises of overaccumulation (i.e., the steadfast and essential contradiction in capitalism of the mode of production coming into contradiction with the relations of production) an investment into the primary (production), secondary (consumption), and tertiary (R&D; services) circuits must be made in order to temporally offset any crisis. It is with these investitures that new regimes of accumulation burgeon out of the spent infrastructures of the old (e.g., the shift from production-based Keynesian accumulation to consumer/financial-based flexible accumulation). It is upon this temporal fix that Harvey intervened with the spatial component by poignantly pointing out that molecular capital accumulates in clusters, and once it overaccumulates and exceeds its economy of scale, capital must, then, spatially reallocate resources—thus emphasizing the spatio-temporal side of the ‘fix’ equation. We can see that this is his basic premise in The New Imperialism: that there has been an overaccumulation of productive capital within the U.S. for the past twenty or so years (hence the need to export factories to the lowest paid worker sites), and the financial sector is now running into trouble, so there is a need to appropriate, or better, privatize through ‘dispossession’ those sectors that have remained outside of capital’s control, particularly those sectors that are critical for domestic interests: resources such as oil. This is where the intermingling and oft-contradictory logics of capital and territory—within the US—overlap in The New Imperialism, since capital wants the $$$$$, and politicians want happy constituents. One may ask, what is the engine behind all this, or that kernel of truth that is the essence of the spatial fix? Harvey says that we need to look no further than Marx for the answer (Marx has the answers for almost everything for Harvey): Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake; or what Marx famously called the “Moses and the Prophets of accumuation and production.”

This explanation seems simple enough, what could possibly be the problem? As mentioned above, Harvey’s convincing prose can often hide the theoretical problems that are at work. However, for Harvey, there is no room for contingency in the spatial fix. The moment the spatial fix is employed may be contingent, but the spatial fix embodies a paradoxical determinism; i.e., it is historically necessary that accumulated capital be spatially fixed (particularly in mechanized infrastructure/space), since it apparently has no other function or outlet. As Bruce Norton (2001: 35) has pointed out, there is an assumption at work of a historically necessary agent—properly known as ‘the agent of history’: the capitalist who exploits (appropriates surplus value) and expands (reinvests). Workers are largely irrelevant in falling rate of profit theorists’ writings, because they have no sincere agency; i.e., they are always working for the interests of capital. Workers have no agency, which postmodernists seem to not understand, and we must wait for the contradictions of capital to resolve themselves, which postmodernists naively avoid. We can see line of thinking in Harvey (63) when he boldly claims, “A wave of labor militancy swept the advanced capitalist world during the late 1970s and the 1980s as working-class movements [that is all they can be] everywhere sought to preserve the gains they had won during the 1960s and early 1970s. In retrospect, we can see this as a rearguard action to preserve the conditions and privileges gained within and around expanded reproduction and the welfare state, rather than a progressive movement seeking transformative changes [i.e., ‘they,’ all of them, were blindly working in the interests of capital].’ There is thus a necessary telos: appropriation that must be fixed. According to Harvey, there is no other dynamic of capital. Produce. Accumulate. Crisis. Fix. Produce. Accumulate. Crisis. Fix. Produce. Accumu… That’s it.

There are two problems with this formulation. First, is the assumption that capital is necessarily (re)appropriated and expands in order to reproduce itself. The work of Reznick, Wolff, Norton, and Gibson-Graham have all stressed ad nauseum that capital is not deterministic, and is allocated in ways where it does not reproduce itself, particularly in the multiplicity of class formations that are contingent and ever-changing (they focus on vols. 2 & 3 of Capital). This is something that needs to be dealt with at length in geography, and if I could do it all over again, this would be my thesis topic (maybe there is still time!), because it would insinuate that spatial fixes are not necessarily necessary. Secondly, there is the problem of agency, since it clear in Harvey’s work that the capitalist (TNC) is the dominant agent, and the State is the other (albeit secondary) agent. Again, Gibson-Graham have responded to this formulation at length. But, what would this non-historically-necessary spatial fix mean for Harvey’s new imperialism? In other words, what do we learn if the spatial fix is really only a minor, or even marginal feature in global affairs (assuming that all ‘molecular’ factors can miraculously align in order to produce an agency called a spatial fix on such a grand scale: that is a one big miraculating machine!)? There is a large bit of truth to Harvey’s formulation: the U.S. did invade Iraq and Central Asia in order to secure resources and control the growth of China. One would be naïve to think otherwise. But what Harvey seems to miss when he elides the ‘postmodern movements’ is the limits to his own formulation. It is now obvious that the U.S. has no power (in the traditional sense) in Iraq, and certainly never did. The government in Iraq has no power, and never did. The U.S. military is one militia among many (not even the most powerful) in a landscape were power is wielded literally on a neighborhood level. The so-called ‘Iraqi government’ (which is no doubt a fiction) has absolutely no power outside Baghdad, and certainly no power to speak of within Baghdad that would merit it as a ‘government’—Prime Minister Maliki (who has no militia) is completely reliant upon Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The Iraqi government has the limited power of words, since they have partial control over the media. What does all this mean? It means that one needs to seriously reconsider the way logics of capital and territory, along with their agents of history (the capitalist and worker), are represented in a world where they have increasingly declining power as proper categorizations of the social scene, especially when faced with the ‘molecular’ ‘multitude’ (if you will) that is being confronted on the streets of Baghdad. In other words, there needs to be a reorientation of ‘scale’ away from these grand schemas, to the actual molecular level: that level that Deleuze and Guattari understand to be the intensities on the BwO; that level that concerned Foucault; and that level that Hardt and Negri have identified as the multitude (though I hate this word as well). It is on this level that we can escape the historical necessity of Harvey, and instead grasp the contingencies that are playing out today.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Divine Violence: A Life...

Throughout the writings of Agamben, the reader encounters what can properly be understood as his ‘liberatory’ programme: a call for categorical ‘divine violence.’ But, before we can discuss the implications of such a programme for geography, we must first take a quick Benjaminian detour into the nature of such a violence. The term ‘divine violence’ originates in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Critique of Violence,’ whereby he confronts the problem of violence inherent to the matrix of law. By reflecting on the historical constitution of Western juridical structures (particularly those based in Germanic law), Benjamin discusses at length the traditional juridical distinction between natural law (a tradition concerned with justified ends despite the means), and positive law (a tradition that emphasizes justification of means despite any high-minded and potentially justified ends).

In a testament to Benjamin’s genius, it becomes clear that he is not interested in choosing between a juridical false opposition of natural and positive law, but rather in disclosing the ‘ultimate insolubility of all legal problems:’ namely their juridical foundation in ‘law-making’ and ‘law-preserving’ violence; i.e., law is founded [in/on?] violence. ‘Among all the forms of violence permitted by both natural law and positive law,’ Benjamin writes (1996: 247), ‘not one is free of the gravely problematic nature, already indicated, of all legal violence.’ But Benjamin is not concerned with alleviating a liberatory programme from violence. On the contrary, it is simply impossible, according to Benjamin, to ‘conceive of any solution to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence obtaining hitherto… if violence is totally excluded in principle (1996: 247).’ The ‘revolutionary task’ for Benjamin is to tap into those ‘kinds of violence [that] exist other than all those envisaged by legal theory;’ i.e., to employ a violence that is neither law-making or law-preserving, but rather ‘law-destroying.’ This ‘law-destroying’ violence is divine violence. Unlike the jurdicial violence inherit to natural and positive law, divine violence—pure violence—is a ‘mediality without ends’ (Agamben 2005: 62). Why a ‘law-destroying’ violence? Because, the bloodshed that results from legal violence, argues Benjamin, is the ‘symbol of bare life (1996: 250).’ In other words, the dissolution of legal violence, of sovereign juridical structures, is coetaneously the dissolution of bare life.

It is this dissolution of bare life that leads Agamben down the path originally set by Benjamin; i.e., for Agamben, divine violence becomes an immanent ‘true political action (2005: 88).’ Divine violence, or to use Agamben’s metonymic annotation ‘pure violence,’ is a relational action: ‘pure’ by its differentiation to juridical means, which in its violence, always has an end (law-making, and law-preserving). Pure violence, according to Agamben, ‘is that which does not stand in a relation of means toward an end, but holds itself in its relation to its own mediality… pure violence is attested to only as the exposure and deposition of the relation between violence and law (Agamben 2005: 62 our emphasis).’ Unlike legal violence, where ‘blood is the symbol of bare life,’ divine/pure violence is bloodless violence. What does this mean? The ‘true political action’ to Agamben is the ‘dissolution of the between the relation between violence and law (2005: 63);’ i.e., pure violence (i.e., pure means) is that which ‘severs the nexus between violence and law (2005: 88).’

To a word that does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, but says only itself, would correspond to a [political] action as pure means, which shows only itself, without any relation to an end. And, between the two, not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception (2005: 88;).

What does such a ‘pure’ political action mean for geography, or the theorization of space? Before answering this question, we need to re-address the topological nature not only of sovereignty, but divine violence as well. How should we understand the topological? According to Agamben, it can only be understood as potential. Potentiality: A central element in Agamben’s writings on sovereignty is a sovereign power that is at once topological and potential—a state of exception that captures zoe, naked life. Agamben understands potentiality to be ‘the presence of an absence; that is what we call “faculty” or “power” (Potentialities 1999: 179).’ Potentiality, according to Agamben, is intimately related to the ability—the faculty—to say ‘I can,’ without the action being materialized. To have a faculty, argues Agamben, means ‘to have a privation,’ i.e., the potential not to be. A central tension for Agamben in Homo Sacer is how the constituting/constituted power become indistinguishable, and Agamben looks to Aristotle’s two potentialities—the potential to be actual, and the potential to be im-potential—as central for understanding sovereign power as topological.

If potentiality is to have its own consistency and not always disappear immediately into actuality, it is necessary that potentiality be able not to pass over into actuality, that potentiality constitutively be the potentiality not to (do or be), or, as Aristotle says, potentiality be also im-potentiality (adynamia) (Homo Sacer 1998: 45).

This potentiality, argues Abamben, ‘maintains itself in relation to actuality in the form of its suspension; it is capable of the act in not realizing it, it is sovereignly capable of its own im-potentiality (1998: 45).’ Thus, the ban, that sovereign rationality of power that marks the exception is topological in that it has the ability not to be: it is potential; it is the zone of indistinction between constituting and constituted power.

Potentiality is that through which Being founds itself sovereignly, which is to say, without anything preceding it or determining it other than its own ability not to be. And an act is sovereign when it realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be, letting itself be, giving itself to itself (1998: 46).

In the denouement of his essay ‘On Potentiality,’ Agamben closes by stating that ‘the greatness of human potentiality is measured by the abyss of human impotentiality.’ What could Agamben possibly mean by such a provocative statement? This is a return to Agamben’s concern with ‘true political action’ (i.e., divine/pure violence), since Agamben understands the ‘root of freedom’ to be found in the ‘abyss of potentiality.’ To be free, argues Agamben ‘is not simply to have the power to do this or that thing, nor is it simply to have the power to refuse to do this or that thing.’

To be free is, in the sense we have seen, to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation. This is why freedom is freedom for both good and evil (Agamben 1999: 183).

Both the sovereign and the ‘purely violent,’ yet bloodless human praxis that refuses to be captured in the state of exception are found in the abyss of potentiality. But Agamben poses the following question: how is it possible to consider the actuality of the potentiality to not-be? This is the axial, the paramount question for Agamben’s revolutionary programme. If a potential to not-be, Agamben argues, ‘originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such. This does not mean that it disappears in actuality; on the contrary, it preserves itself as such in actuality (1999: 183).’ In other words, the preservation of potentiality within actuality is the contingent kernel of the ‘mediality without ends’ of divine violence—or to put it quite simply, the abyss of potentiality/impotentiality is means without end; a praxis that cannot be captured. For Agamben, this is ‘freedom’ without a nutshell.

It should come as no surprise that Agamben gives an affirmative nod to Gilles Deleuze in his chapter ‘Absolute Immanence’ in Potentialities, since the relation between immanence, divine violence, and ‘freedom’ are clearly entangled in Agamben’s writings. The importance of both Deleuze (and Foucault) for Agamben are their tantamount contributions to what Agamben calls ‘the coming philosophy’ on the concept of life, which weighs so heavily in his own works. Agamben’s concern in this chapter is Deleuze’s essay ‘Immanence: A Life…’, where Deleuze briefly outlines before his death what could—in more-or-less vulgar terms—be called a ‘liberatory moment.’ Following on his earlier life works on the historical tension between immanence and the transcendent, ‘immanence,’ Deleuze postulates without hesitation, ‘is the very vertigo of philosophy (1990: 67; quoted in Agamben 1999: 226).’

Immanence is immanent only to itself and consequently captures everything, absorbs All-One, and leaves nothing remaining to which it could be immanent. In any case, whenever immanence is interpretated as immanent to Something, we can be sure that this something reintroduces the transcendent (1994: 47; quoted in Agamben 1999: 227).

Agamben is compelled to turn to Deleuze in order to unfold the relation of potential divine violence and ‘a life.’ For Deleuze, Agamben writes, ‘we can say that between immanence and a life there is a kind of crossing with neither distance nor identification, something like a passage without spatial movement (1999: 223).’ This crossing, this ‘passage without a spatial movement,’ is a matrix of infinite desubjectification (1999: 232).

While the specific aim of the isolation of bare life is to mark a division in the living being, such that a plurality of functions and a series of oppositions can be articulated (vegetative life/relational life; animal on the inside/animal on the outside; plant/man; and at the limit, zoe/bios, bare life and politically qualified life), a life [the figure of absolute immanence] thus functions as a principle of virtual indetermination, in which the vegetative and the animal, the inside and the outside, and even the organic and the inorganic, in passing through one another, cannot be told apart (1999: 233).

Absolute immanence—in other words, potential, bloodless pure violence in actuality (‘mediality without end’)—is call for Benjamin’s barbarians: those law-destroying lives that cannot to be captured in a sovereign’s state of exception. It is a life… whose principle is ‘infinite desubjectification,’ that cannot be striated into a subject. It is this life, a life… of immanent desire to itself, a radical desubjectification that runs counter to the potentially subjectified bare life of biopower—that succubus that currently haunts our political landscape. ‘Pure immanence, a life…’ Agamben states, ‘is pure contemplation beyond every subject and object of knowledge; it is pure potentiality that preserves without acting… a life… is potentially, complete beatitude (1999: 234).’

Which leads us back to the question posed earlier: what does a potential ‘pure violence,’ a principle of absolute immanence, mean for geography?
To Be Continued...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ritual Lies

Scar tissue torn back to ribbons
Gnawed by memory, I sit alone
Skin talk, speaking in tongues

My shelter,
My gilded cage
My pit of despair
It becomes ritualized,
becomes ritual lies
It takes all you have to break away
To end the compromise,
And to realize
You are going to carry your secrets
To the grave
Through the gauntlet of
revilers and despisers
For the rest of your life
Opium of cheap affection-
bought and paid for by infection

Never tear us apart
Never break us apart
Never let them come between us
Never throw it away
Tear us apart
Break us apart
Never let them come between us
Throw it all

I Corinthians 1:18-29

Through the confusion
You see an illusion:
In this world, of sex and leprosy;
God never said a word to me-
Your Eternal Soul,
reduced to flesh in disease
Run the race alone
soil and the sky
An echoing silence
to answer your cries;
I have one question to ask Him,
I know I've only got so much time…

Went out in the desert,
dragged myself through Hell,
Bent every muscle,
every nerve
to the cause
Only to come face to face with:

Everyone gets what they deserve,
Every gets their just deserts
Everyone gets what they want
Everyone's going to die
God wants some suffering,
God hates your lies
God grinds under heel when you try to survive
"So relieved to discover God loves you?"
Nailed to the cross of your hate for this life-
That's your faith?
Do you feel deserted?
You dragged yourself through Hell,
Believed in every word,
But in Death
Only come face to face with

The Kingdom of Heaven is Flesh,
To the ends of the earth and no more;
Every shudder,
every shivering night
Until the maggots come to carry you home
When your heroes are slaughtered
Your lovers are raped, in this world of shit:
No one gets out alive,
no escape
It's not hard to believe, is it…
That in death you will be Saved?
I Went out in the desert
Dragged myself through Hell
I have a growing suspicion
That there's no secret to tell

Reap what you sow
in blood red sex
Deathblood red and needle tracks
As your illusions kick the last nail in
You plead for mercy
Plead to just stop wanting
(But I)
Once waited to return to claw
Now transfigured in the fire I pray:
If nothing else is left for me,
To exalt in pain
I choose to bleed
To bleed

Born again O
ut in the desert
Walking in God's steps;
Whispered the secret to me-
Silence as sure as death
Knocking at Kafka's gate
I only come face to face with

Treatise on Nomadology

There was nowhere to sleep,
so I wandered the night
Saw the wreckage of life
to which we have been led
And all of the factories
that had ground to a halt
By the side of the ocean
boiling with blood

We are corpses
in their loving hands
Sleepwalking through a never-neverland
And when we wake
from dreams
there will be nothing left
Are you satisfied in your cage?
Feeling nothing
no love or hate or pain?
Will you settle for nothing?

There are those in our ranks
who would lull us to sleep
As they wrap the whole planet
in a skin of
They are the wolves
in shepherd's clothing
They sent
your sons to the tomb
put a flag on the moon
The stakes are the very
soul of humanity

When she drew back the shroud
from the remains of our age
She fled through the streets gripped by hideous fear
Until she knelt
at the foot of the sky
where it touches the sand
In the twilight
it felt like she was the last one alive
Choking on the ashes
borne in on the wind

When our flesh
fills the air and
softly like snow
And a red cloud rises
behind the earth
It blots out all the stars
and the sufferers below
That's the mere antechamber
of Their paradise
As we
in our death

Every Man for Himself; God Against Them All

Sacrificed yourself to the gods did you?
I'll cut out
your mother tongue,
sow salt
in the fields of the fatherland.

The wages of sin are freedom,
and though the wages of freedom
may be death
Is it not better
to live
with uncertainty
than to fear to draw an honest breath?
So scrape
the veil of faith
from your eyes
Your prayers ascend
like black smoke
to the empty skies
Under your
carnivorous god of deceit,
just maybe
do you feel incomplete?
A wheel of knives is spinning in me,
always up to our eyes in disease
Crawling through our darkest hours
Slow funeral march to the end
We've been led astray
once again
But I will serve a different master _______,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done
In heaven
as it is
Down here

Under the burnt out skull
of a sky that once shined
The snuffed out stars
aren't missed by the blind
And all of man will burn in your heaven,
eternal wretched life divine
But it's a minute to midnight in my mind, s
trike now
or hold your peace for all time
(For there is nothing I hate more than the stench of lies)
ACT 10:2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave
generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.

Lies in your head!
JOB 33:26 He prays to God and finds favor with him, he sees God's face and
shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state.

Lies in your head!
Will you ever dare to take a breath?
Will you ever dare to take back your
We've been led astray once again
But I will serve no gods
or masters
my kingdom come
my will be done
In heaven
As it is
Down here.


Cast out of so-called paradise,
I awoke among the dead
Sought in vain to scrape the
nightmares from my weary head
It ever so happens
that what I am inside
Is everything you call ugly, every love you despise
Now that you've laid me in the lowest pit,
shall I praise you from down here?
Am I to chant,
among the vermin,
prayers to fall upon deaf ears?

Take me in your arms,
take me to your bed
Set me a place at your table,
let me in your head
And I will betray you, I will desecrate you
I will be your worst fears
realized and brought to life
I will teach your withered nerves to writhe,
I will make you feel alive

When you have nothing,
you have no right to hunger
or to thirst,
to starve or
to suffer at all
Those who have what you have not will gather around to watch you crawl
When your heart's desires are unforgivable crimes,
blasphemous to the castrates and the voyeurs
They will parade your disgrace,
and spit back in your face
all the loves you held sacred
and pure
As a slave's only right is
As a thief's only right is
As a whore's only revenge is
If you are innocent
I will heap up enough sin
To buy the Kingdom of the Condemned

And I will walk among the dead
Fighting to scrape your nightmares
from my poisoned head
I will betray you
I will violate you
I want be your worst fears realized
Spend a night inside this cage,
and you will learn to hate the hand that feeds you
I will steal your heart,
I will steal your soul
your very nerves
So I can make you feel


The ones you thought beneath you
stand over you now
The ones you thought behind you
stand before you now
The ones you thought could not hear
are not deaf to you now
And the eyes you thought blind
are following your every move
The homeless will sleep warm tonight
The starving will be fed tonight
The cast outs come back to haunt tonight
The have-nots will get theirs tonight
The hopeless will have hope tonight
The worthless will have worth tonight
The weary will rest well tonight
The Holy sleep in Hell tonight
The first will be the last tonight
The last will be the first tonight
The mighty are brought low tonight
The have-nots will get

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Potentiality, or the Agamben/Deleuze Connection

In the movie The Matrix, there is a predominant tension between Neo (who disbelieves he is ‘The One’) and Morphius’s crew (who believe Neo to be ‘The One’). The augury provided by the Oracle concerning the ‘One’ is a prophesy about a hybrid being: essentially a human, who has surpassed the threshold of machinic enslavement and social subjection; a human that has become one with the enslaving computer program, the Matrix: a human that has become immaterial machine. The Matrix tows its audience through the conventional cinematic tropes of doubt, frustration, surprise, and eventually triumph on the part of Neo—how can one forget the scene where Neo finally surpasses his limit: he becomes raining code: his optifiliation to the program is realized: Neo now has eyes.

Indeed, I now have eyes as well: I now see raining code: my theoreticofiliation is becoming realized. Realized = real eyes. Theory can become ritualized, but what becomes ritualized becomes ritual lies. Maybe ‘lie’ is a strong word, since I mean misunderstood. I misunderstood, but now I see raining code. I can no longer see theory as ritual.

In an interview, Michel Foucault once said, more or less in these words, that, like physicists who see little or no need to cite Newton in their work, he saw little need to cite Marx in his work because Marx was all pervasive—‘Marx’ wrote through Foucault. Most contemporary theorists, particularly Giorgio Agamben, obviously feel the same way towards Deleuze and Guattari; why cite when Deleuze and Guattari when they write through you? Paradoxically, the importance of Agamben becomes apparent is amplified only after reading D & G.

Potentiality: A central element in Agamben’s writings on sovereignty is a sovereign power that is at once topological and potential—a state of exception that captures zoe, naked life. Agamben understands potentiality to be ‘the presence of an absence; that is what we call “faculty” or “power” (Potentialities 1999: 179).’ Potentiality, according to Agamben, is intimately related to the ability—the faculty—to say ‘I can,’ without the action being materialized. To have a faculty, argues Agamben, means ‘to have a privation. And potentiality is not a logical hypostasis but mode of existence of this privation (1999: 179; my emphasis).’ Thus, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, the faculty is immanent, anticipated, potential. Potentiality is reverse causality without finality: ‘it is not at all in the same way [what] appears in existence; it preexists in the capacity of a warded-off limit; hence its irreducible contingency. But in order to give a positive meaning to the idea of a ‘presentiment’ of what does not yet exist, it is necessary to demonstrate that what does not yet exist is already in action, in a different form than that of existence (D&G: 431; my emphasis);’ i.e, it is the existence of a privation.

How does this relate to the problem of sovereignty? Agamben and D&G are fundamentally concerned with constituting and constituted power as political/ontological concepts. The central tension for Agamben in Homo Sacer is how the constituting/constituted power become indistinguishable, and Agamben looks to Aristotle’s two potentialities—the potential to be actual, and the potential to be im-potential—as central for understanding sovereign power.

If potentiality is to have its own consistency and not always disappear immediately into actuality, it is necessary that potentiality be able not to pass over into actuality, that potentiality constitutively be the potentiality not to (do or be), or, as Aristotle says, potentiality be also im-potentiality (adynamia) (Homo Sacer 1998: 45).

This potentiality, argues Abamben, ‘maintains itself in relation to actuality in the form of its suspension; it is capable of the act in not realizing it, it is sovereignly capable of its own im-potentiality (1998: 45).’ Thus, the ban, that sovereign rationality of power that marks the exception is topological in that it has the ability not to be: it is potential; it is the zone of indistinction between constituting and constituted power.

Potentiality is that through which Being founds itself sovereignly, which is to say, without anything preceding it or determining it other than its own ability not to be. And an act is sovereign when it realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be, letting itself be, giving itself to itself (1998: 46).

This formulation plays through ‘Apparatus of Capture.’ Capture, knotting, and nets are potential. A point of similarity between Agamben and Deleuze and Guattari is their conception of threshold. For Deleuze and Guattari, there is an intimate relation between limit and threshold, with the function of threshold being the moment when what is potentially anticipated taking on ‘consistency or fails to, and what is conjured away ceases to be so and arrives (D&G 432). D&G discuss threshold in two instances (both interrelated): (1) the macro convergence or emergence of forms of agglomeration/central power (States, towns, international markets, etc.) that were in tension with groups that sought to ward off such thresholds; and (2) micro overcoming of a limit, which leads to a change of assemblage, accumulation of stock, and eventually gives rise to the macro convergences of (2). After outlining the ‘three headed apparatus of capture’ (land, labor, money), D&G determine capture to be the ‘difference or excess constitutive of profit, surplus labor, or surplus product (446).’ What is interesting about this section on capture is that it is immediately followed by a brief discussion of state violence.

We have a moment when the mechanism of capture constitutes the aggregate of land, labor, money, which is transcended (in both the imperial and modern formations) by the State (which taxes and partitions). Deleuze and Guattari argue the ‘naked’ worker is faced with a violence that ‘posits itself as preaccomplished’; i.e., potential, and is signified by the master-signifier of the State (450). Law, in this sense, becomes tactical: it consists of ‘organizing conjunctions of decoded flows’ (451). But why would this be violent? It is precisely in the capture, the potentiality of topological violence on the part of a sovereign, that keeps the worker in line, disciplined, and ultimately leading to a ‘society of control’ predicated on violence. This is how law becomes indistinguishable from life, but we could never get this out of Agamben unless we understood the tactical/tactile law of D&G: a law that organizes but lacks content; a law in force without significance; with nomos, the presupposed power of the sovereign/State, ‘precisely the law beyond the law to which we are abandoned.’ I now see raining code: ‘I’ now have eyes.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Conversations with Laclau in an Historical-Materialist Dystopia

Report from the Rethinking Marxism Conference, October 26-28, 2006

The events depicted below are indeed true, and reproduced with the
greatest attention to accuracy as is humanly possible.

CONVERSATIONS WITH LACLAU: [Scene 1: Ernesto Laclau serendipitously
sits down at a table I am sharing with some Canadian Benjaminians.
Laclau's intent is obviously to talk to a Puerto Rican woman, Julia,
who befriended me earlier in the day after a brutal session on the
relevance of Foucault. I have had three beers on an empty stomach at
this point; Laclau enjoys big glasses of wine. Laclau strikes up a
conversation with me, since I am between him and Julia. Talk is
choppy because Laclau either does not understand English that well, or
he is hard of hearing; I did not ask him which one was the case.
Eventually, after a good, though intermittent conversation, I have to
ask him a favor.

Oliver: Ernesto, I need to ask you a question.
Laclau: A what?
Oliver: A question.
Laclau: I'm sorry, I did not understand.
Laclau: Oh, a question! [smiles] Yes, yes.
Oliver: Ernesto, do you want to be part of a joke?
Laclau: A what?
Oliver: A JOKE, Ernesto, A JOKE.
Laclau: Oh, you have a joke. What is it? I like jokes.
Oliver: No, no. Would you like to be part of a joke.
Laclau: [blank face]
Oliver: Ernesto, do you need some more wine? You are looking a bit
empty there.
Laclau: In a little bit, in a little bit, my friend. What is your joke?
Oliver: Well, I do not have a joke, per se. I am asking if you want
to be part of a joke.
Laclau: Oh, you want me as a joke? What is it.
Oliver: Well, listen, in my department, there are people who have
adopted many of your terms and seemingly unconsciously use them--or
pretentiously use them, I do not know which--in any case, they use
your terms in their speech…
Laclau: In my speech? I am not following.
Oliver: No, no Ernesto. I am not talking about your speech. LISTEN TO
ME. There are some people in my department who use some of your
phrases in their speech. They have a sort of Laclauian syntax-i-con,
if you will.
Laclau: I'm sorry, I did not understand that last word.
Oliver: Nevermind, nevermind. It probably comes from Zizek.
Laclau: [laughs, because him and Zizek are not on good terms at the
moment] Oh, he likes words.
Oliver: Well, who doesn't, besides Marxists. [Laclau laughs] Anyhow,
people use your terms a lot, which is not even my point. My point is
that I'm asking you to be part of a joke.
Laclau: Okay.
Oliver: So, I was wondering if you would write the following down on a
piece of paper…
Laclau: You want me to write something? [suspicious look]
Oliver: Well, I'm not asking you to publish anything. Come on. I am
asking for a kind of autograph.
Laclau: [looks around, possibly for an escape route]
Oliver: [picks up on Laclau's anxiety] No, no. I'm not asking for an
autograph. Please Ernesto, I am an anarchist; I don't ask for
autographs. Don't let the scarf and hat fool you. I like your jacket
by the way.
Laclau: Thank you, its a London Fog.
Oliver: Oh! I have a camel hair London Fog, but it looks terrible on me.
Laclau: [gives an agreeable head-nod, as if he understands the
tragedies of clothing]
Oliver: No, seriously, I'm asking you to write the following joke
autograph. Just hear me out. Can you write the following for me:
[Laclau listens] "Dear UK geography department: I am articulating an
autograph, and you can take that chain of equivalence to the bank.
Ernesto Laclau" Can you write that?
Laclau: [chuckles] No, I will not do that.
Oliver: [stereotypical Chomsky gestures are now flailing about the
table] Are you serious? You will not write that down.
Laclau: No, I do not do such things. [laughing]
Oliver: [raised eyebrows] Wow, well I know who's not making my
Christmas list this year.
Laclau: [laughs] You are a character, my friend. [gets up to get some wine]
Oliver: Hey Ernesto, can you get me a beer while you are up?

[Scene 2: Later in the evening, Laclau and I, both obviously
uncharacteristically inebriated, are in an unmoving elevator together

Laclau: Hey, what was [garble, garble]?
Oliver: Excuse me, I did not catch that.
Laclau: I said, what was your name again?
Oliver: Oh, Oliver.
Laclau: Yes, Oliver. Oliver, the elevator is not moving.
Oliver: Yes, I noticed. [looks at the floor button panel] Did you
press a button?
Laclau: No. I did not. I thought you did.
Oliver: No, I thought you did. You didn't press a button. Try
pressing something. Sometimes I fear touching things that could be
over-germed, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I use my scarf to
press buttons in the winter time.
Laclau: [Gives blank stare to Oliver; then laughs; presses 'ground
floor' button]
Oliver: [laughs, puts hand on Laclau's shoulder] Well, I guess that solves that.
Laclau: What? I did not understand.

CONFERENCE: I am not a Marxist. I have been saying this to many of
you for months now, but it is now apparent after two days at the
Rethinking Marxism conference in Amherst that I _really_ am not a
Marxist. Remember that scene from Brazil when the police open up the
ceiling of a family apartment on Christmas eve, and the family starts
screaming and frantically falling over themselves at the sight of the
police kidnapping the father of the family, thus ruining Christmas?
Well, it seems that I am (along with a couple of other younger
'post-Marxist/structuralists') the bad cop at this conference,
stealing Marx from pink old men who are frantically screaming and
falling over themselves at the sight of discourse and any theory
written after 1979.

This conference is an invasion of the tyrannical Old-Pink-White-Male
Brigade that also makes its appearance at SEEDAG and in the demography
sessions of the AAG, but with a strange twist: conversations are very
much concerned with whether one can actually have a commodity outside
of capitalist society; whether Mao is actually relevant or just
marginally relevant; whether the machines are going to kill us all,
and how should we prepare for them. All the while, we can
rhetorically assuring one another that we are definitely living in an
imperialist state that is merely resolving its contradictions of
capital overaccumulation in Iraq (which is, of course, partly true).
Capitalism is doomed, the socialized humanity of Marx will prevail.
Don't fuck it up by reading Deleuze and Guattari, you pomo panzy brat.
And what's up with your sheek glasses, and Euro-style? Are you
stylistically wearing a scarf and newsie hat even though it is 55
degrees outside? More importantly, is that a
@#$&^!#&*$*#!$^(*@#$@!%@#$%@&!@!@#&!%$*^@#$&^ IPOD?!?!? Next thing
you know, this Lyotardian (i.e., tea-cup Marxist) commodified chump
will be smoking a pipe to make a fashion statement.

The strata of C-M-C is ever present and the strictest of mottos here.
Flighty Benjaminians, misguided Foucauldians, and vulgar Hardt and
Negri readers should never forget the lessons of C-M-C. If you do not
know what C-M-C is, well, you are not working hard enough! I lucked
out by actually knowing C-M-C when it was thrown in my face (I knew
all that reading of Marx would come in handy) in my session on
sovereignty in Hardt and Negri. How it was relevant, I still do not

But, in a strange twist of fate, I am an unwanted breed [how did this
happen?]. Marx, Marx, Marx… that is what we are supposed to be
concerned with. For example, I was at a session today where a woman
presented a very pleasant paper on Foucault and Marx. She was
concerned with the connection of genealogy and critical theory, and
she tried to argue that in later Foucault, one can see that Foucault
is 'going back to Marx,' by focusing on the 'arts of governing'
involved in political economy. The famous chapter on 'The Working
Day' in Capital represented, to this woman, a good example of a
Foucauldian analysis… which if one were to be nice, one could say that
this kind of reading of Marx is absurd—again if you are being nice.

So, I briefly comment on this paper with the simplest of critiques:
Marx is interested in sociological description, whereas Foucault is
interested in genealogical techniques; two very different approaches
to social relations.; the gaze is not literally alert everywhere;
Foucault should not be conflated with critical theory. Without
getting into the particulars of the ensuing conversation (this was a
session on Foucault, Marx, and Benjamin), the woman eventually said
the following: "I'm fine with Foucault. But there are those people
out there who say 'We need LOTS of Foucault and very little Marx'
(obviously directing this statement to me, apparently the only
'Foucauldian' in the room), but I say 'no,' we need LOTS of Marx and
very little Foucault" [followed by a succession of ISO-esque
head-nodding from the crowd]. Genealogy is now historical
materialism. This, I believe, sums up well the conversations I have
had thus far at the conference. Please, do not ever call me a
Marxist again.

SYNOPSIS: Nevertheless, there have been some very, very good papers.
Some of the arguments, especially by the Benjaminians from the
University of Alberta, are admirably sophisticated. In fact, this
conference makes me think of geography as some what a tragic
discipline, since there are so many people (including myself) who want
to intimately work with particular theorists, but there is this
hegemony at work that forces us to always feel as if we have to
reference the keywords of geography whenever we are engaging in
analysis… to the behest, I think, of developing more sophisticated

Even though most of the sessions here are discussing topics that I
feel to be absolutely irrelevant, this is conference that has a great
amount of potential, and should be taken over by poststructuralists of
all stripes. Especially those poststructuralists who are fine
dressers, and enjoy elitism and bourgeois taste (you know who you are,
don't be ashamed! Lauren and I just stocked up 8 lbs. worth of
gourmet cheeses for the winter!).

AMHERST FOOD: The Amherst micro-brewery here is awful, but the
northeastern version of BBC (Barefood Beer Company) has a very good
ESB and pale-ale. I have not at all been impressed with the food,
though there is a good coffee shop, Lou's Coffee shop, where one of
the employees sported a "Process over Product" arm tattoo. I also
want to give a shout out to Domino's Pizza, who drove me back to my
hotel the other night when I could not get a cab. I will never forget
that I delivered my first pizza to myself in Amherst, MA.

AMHERST 'LANDSCAPE': Le Corbusier and Van der Rogh utopia. Nothing
seems to have been built before or after 1969. I have counted ONE
brick building on the campus, THREE in town.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Body Without Organs?

Is the tortured body a ‘body without organs?’ In a recent issue of the New Left Review (May/June 2006), Susan Willis wrote a stimulating article on the new ‘symbolic-economy’ of deriving intelligence from torture victims at Guantánamo Bay for the emerging security industry. According to Willis, detainees present a new, idiosyncratic form of labor control in order to produce intelligence. ‘Shackled to the floor,’ Willis reminds us, ‘the detainees are farmed for intelligence in much the same way that the pharmaceutical industry “pharms” animals for the production of drugs, or even organs for eventual human transplant (2006: 124).’ Intelligence, Willis suggests

that is extracted from the Guantánamo prisoners is not a commodity like a kidney on the global organ market. Rather, it is cycled into the various agencies and institutions which produce security both in a material sense, along with infrastructures of personnel and weaponry, and as an ideology that suffuses our daily discourse. The CIA, FGI, NSA, Pentagon and other agencies compete for access to intelligence as capitalist enterprises compete for other sorts of raw materials. The American public consumes security ideology much as it consumes 24-hour cable news. The levels of this security are closely monitored and its hourly fluctuations gauged in terms of how they affect stock-market portfolios. The suffering and mental breakdown of the tortured detainees is traded against the wellbeing of Middle America: they must stay there in order to preserve the peace and prosperity of the citizenry. Security has become America’s daily vitamin supplement (2006: 125).

In this sense, Marx would argue, intelligence, ‘the inner—indeed, most intimate—resource’ (2006: 126) can be understood as formally subsumed into the relations of capital; that is, processes and resources that originate outside of capitalism’s domain (in this case, utterances that are physically beaten out of tortured prisoners) are incorporated into its relations of production. This derived intelligence is then materially circulated, accumulated, and consumed not only by members of the intelligence community and security industry, but by a consuming American public. But, Willis misunderstands the brilliance behind her discovery: the detainees are not the labor that is controlled. Rather, those that are in the act of extracting intelligence, the torturers themselves, are the disciplined and controlled labor in this relation of production. The intelligence officers/torturers farm and produce the intelligence-commodity that is then extracted by their respective institutions and marketed for circulation.

Which brings us backs to our original question: is the tortured victim a ‘body without organs?’ Can that wretch that is shackled, tormented and beaten to a pulp on a concrete floor be understood as a deterritorialized, full-bodied inversion of the despotic body? In other words, in our sinister torture complex, does the torture victim not code the very flows of desire that are brought against him, which is the basic premise of the socius and the ‘body without organs?’ In his devastating discussion of the political foundation of ‘naked life’ and the ‘state of exception,’ Giorgio Agamben argues with clarity the following point:

‘At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures that have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially hominess sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns (1998: 85; my emphasis).’

How then can we account for this material inversion of the despotic-sovereign, the tortured ‘body without organs?’

Deleuze and Guattari speak briefly of torture and pain, a fact of life in the primitive territorial machine. Following Nietzsche, D & G outline a ‘theater of cruelty’ that is based on an economy of credit/debt, whereby the primitive bodies become the surface of the corporeal inscription of the socius (190). Since the voice and ‘graphic action’ (writing, monumentation, etc.) are mutually exclusive in the primitive territorial machine, the primitive body becomes indebted to and serves as an inscribed equilibrium between the socius-earth and voice of the primitives (191). However, this discussion of torture becomes irrelevant to us once the despotic body comes from without, and the independence of the voice and graphism are collapsed.

A unique dynamic occurs when the barbarian despot comes from without: even though the despotic machine confronts the primitive lateral alliances and extended filiations with a new incestual alliance and direct filiation, the primitive disposition does not disappear. Rather, the despot overcodes those alliances and filiations of the territorial machine. But what is the consequence of this Romanesque overcoding/marginal preservation (connective synthesis) of the conquered? Here we see another correlation between Agamben and D & G. ‘Man must constitute himself,’ D & G write, ‘through the repression of the intense germinal influx, the great biocosmic memory that threatens to deluge every attempt at collectivity (190).’ In turn, Agamben famously tells his readers: ‘once brought back to his proper place beyond both penal law and sacrifice, homo sacer presents the originary figure of life taken into the sovereign ban and preserves the memory of the originary exclusion through which the political dimension was first constituted (1998: 83; my emphasis).’ Here, the tortured primitive body that can be killed but not sacrificed (since it is in debted to and inseparable from the socius-earth) is preserved as a memory in the despotic machine, just as homo sacer is preserved in the juridico-political dimension of society.

In both Homo Sacer and Anti-Oedipus, the sovereign-despot is operative on the limits of society, detached from the chain of signification: he is a deterritorialized full body. This brings us back to the importance of the conflation of the voice and graphism. Unlike the territorial machine, graphism ‘aligns itself on the voice’ and becomes writing/law, or the representation of the despot (205), or rather, the despot becomes the ‘master signifier’ within and without the law (206).

This graphism of the master-signifier is still at work today. In the case of Guantanamo, who are the perverts who ‘spread the despot’s invention, broadcast his fame, and impose his power (193)?’ How do these perverts employ the master signifier in the practice of torture? More importantly, how does the torture victim become a ‘body without organs’ that is symmetrical figure of the despot? In light of D & G and Agamben, we must look at how the torture victim is an extractable entity. Following D & G’s use of Lyotard’s theory of pure designation, the torture victim is, through words, ‘transformed into a sign the things and bodies they designate (204);’ i.e., the torture victim is graphically inscribed by the necessary despotic voice in order to become legible to the torturer, since the inscription necessarily must refer back to the master signifier (infinite debt). In the ‘realm’ of pop-culture, we can see how this perversion is reproduced in contemporary social relations—consider a sample dialogue from Pulp Fiction where the hit-man Jules confronts the petty-thief Cookie in the diner:

Jules: Cookie, tell me something. Do you read the bible?
Cookie: Not regularly.
Jules: Well, there's this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you." I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never gave much thought what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass (my emphasis).

Jules is acting and speaking through the master-signifier, though not the anachronistic master-signifier of God (since God has been appropriated by the governmentalized State, just as the primitive territorial machine was appropriated by the despotic machine), but through the governmentalized master-signifer of ‘cool’ violence. In the documentation on practices of torture, this acting in the name of ‘cool’ violence is the more than pervasive.

But something special happens in the torture complex. The interaction between the tortured victim and the torturer(s) is never one of intimate familiarity, where the victim is merely inscribed. The tortured victim is approached as an object, an object that, along with the master signifier, constitutes the constellation of knowledges that are employed against it. The torture victim is merely experimental earth: something that can be farmed, something that can be inscribed, something that is not understood to be a body, or rather, a body that is meaningless. In the eye-pain of the torturers, it is a resource for intelligence extraction, an inverted body without organs that codes the decoded knowledge that is circulated in the decoded flows of the intelligence community, security industry, and the general public matrix. This is how the torture victim becomes an object of desire, and has a hand in producing a desiring-machine. When those decoded constellated knowledges employed by torturers approach the coding torture victim, and through their sinister encounter in that malevolent place of Guantanamo, ‘and [in] their conjunction in space that takes time, [these] decoded flows constitute a desire—a desire that, instead of just dreaming or lacking it, actually produces a desiring-machine that is at the same time social and technical (224).’

Of course, these decoded flows are not one-sided. They escape the imperial machine, and become privatized within the social field. While the tortured body without organs codes a certain kind of intelligence that is circulated within the intelligence community and American media realm, another type of coding can unexpectedly occur, becoming manifest in other undesirable desiring-machines. Willis concludes her article by citing the figure of Mackandal in Alejo Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo. Mackandal is the leader of pre-revolutionary rebellions in Santo Domingo. ‘Captured and condemned to be burned at the stake,’ Willis writes, ‘Mackandal’s auto de fé is witnessed by plantation owners and slaves alike. The former sees the body consumed in the fire; the latter see body and flames metamorphose into a butterfly. Neither martyr, nor sacrificial victim, Mackandal instead becomes myth (2006: 135).’ Myth, which ‘always expresses a passage and a divergence’ (D & G 219), is always residual and consumed, and in the case of Guantanamo, constitutive of the immanent desiring-production that will create revolutionary butterflies of us all.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Chavez Ally, Not Foe

This guest editorial was published in the Kentucky Kernel on 9/25/06
I read with interest the Kernel's 9/22/06 Letters to the Editor section, which chastised the "madman" Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for calling George W. Bush "the devil" in front of the United Nations last week. The "madness" of Chavez pertained to his speaking against Bush on US soil. Much media attention has been given to those "smells of sulfur" comments by Chavez (along with his plug for Noam Chomsky), but I encourage others to read the full text of his speech before making an ill-informed judgment of the Venezuelan leader.

In his speech before the UN, Chavez correctly asserted that this Administration approaches the world as if they were imperialists: "As the spokesman of imperialism, Bush came to share his nostrums [at the UN], to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world."

Chavez was critical of Bush's model of democracy: "It's the false democracy of elites, and, I would say, a very original democracy that's imposed by weapons and bombs and firing weapons."

"What kind of democracy," Chavez wonders, "do you impose with marines and bombs?"

Chavez also had words for Bush's penchant for creating an environment of fear: "Wherever Bush looks, he sees extremists. And you, my brother -- he looks at your color, and he says, oh, there's an extremist. Evo Morales, the worthy president of Bolivia, looks like an extremist to him. The imperialists see extremists everywhere. It's not that we are extremists. It's that the world is waking up. It's waking up all over, and people are standing up."

These comments by Chavez merit reflection, not only because of their accuracy, but more importantly because it lets Americans know how they are understood in a volatile world.

I do want to point to what I consider to be madness, and it is not Hugo Chavez the person, but rather his actions. I consider it to be madness that our society provides such little protection for it’s poor (e.g., Katrina victims) that Chavez has to provide free oil to lower-income families within the United States so that they can heat their homes in the winter.

As the New York Times reported last week (9/21/06): "Mr. Chavez offered to double the amount of heating oil Venezuela donates to poor communities in the United States."

"CITGO," New York Times notes, "is owned by Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., and delivered free and discounted oil to Indian tribal reservations and low-income neighborhoods in the United States, including the Bronx."

Indeed, this is madness. It is madness that this nation's resources go to making war on people across an ocean instead of maintaining levees or providing heat for the nation's poor, while relying free resources from other countries. It is madness that funding for education is in crisis, yet the military receives an annual budget of $440 billion a year.

Despite this madness, it is little surprise coming from an Administration which seeks to re-interpret international human rights agreements in order to justify torture; or seeks to cut taxes for the rich while incarceration rates have doubled in urban poor areas since 2000; or refuses to acknowledge the health care crisis where 1 in 3 people between 18 and 35 are without health insurance. All this in the richest nation in the world.

That is madness, not a South American president who is popularly elected and donates resources to the urban poor in the United States.