More on Conversations

Initiating a conversation is not always a matter of holding an idea inside of your mind and then releasing that idea into someone else’s mind for a shared time. Sometimes a conversation with its topic and type of participants is already there in the atmosphere, latent and easily brought to the forefront of our minds. It was in this second sense of conversations that I wrote an early little essay in my blog called On Conversations. The words and the ideas were already there and just waiting to be spoken. Someone or something had cracked the code of what people wanted to start talking about but couldn’t quite find the right avenue or opportunity to begin. And then all of the sudden it hits like an EMP, electrifying a crowd of people, and suddenly even timid individuals are transformed into loud-mouths.

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Electrified Stories

Electronic images pass through the mind, a plushy chair cushions a straight back.  Simpler times are conjured up by an graphic bits of light set upon a screen.  Sitting still, the imagination soars backward and we try place ourselves in a natural setting performing essential tasks.  I fetch water in a wooden pale from my own well dug up by my great grandfather, I buy a sickle to ease the next harvest, I feed the livestock with grain stored up in the barn, I head to the pub to find my neighbors – all of whom I know, I get into a brawl with my rival and nobody is actually hurt.  I am inside of a community and feel reassured by this sense of belonging as I lay me head to rest.  Night becomes day, day night, and “harmony” is won again.

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Taksim Commune: Gezi Park And The Uprising In Turkey

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from brandon jourdan

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Larval Ethics

To Begin With:
“Is it possible to form a community of strangers without identity and to still really have a community?”
-Levi Bryant
A Series of Further Questions of Mine:
The logic of identification – grouping individuals inside a boundary: if a community is named, does the naming inevitably produce another? Is the identification of the many under one name a antagonistic move? Or can the delicately crafted negotiation of inclusion/exclusion prevent such measures of paranoia and aggression?
If the blame for violence comes from the other group, would sympathies sway to the side of the non-aggressor? Or must both communities share the blame for structuring the relationship in such a way as to bring about this confrontation? Is there even such a thing as an ’aggressor community’ and a ’victim community’?
Regarding the Occupy Movement:
Can there be a name to identify with, whose transcendence never goes beyond the actions and immanent spatial “being there”, so that the attachment to the identity doesn’t generate violence?
Should violence be avoided or should the conflict be deemed “inevitable” and take the strategy towards clearly presenting the other as the violent aggressor?
How can strangers with diverse views get along together without dissolving in the face of external attack and misrepresentation without a title?
And Now:
Levi Bryant has been kicking ass in his blog Larval Subjects lately. Thinking ethics with realism and materialism in mind has the difficult task of avoiding the reification of particular social norms and describing ethical relationships physically. The overriding concern as I take it is to preserve an ethics towards others that includes strangers and the environment as opposed to just familiar faces and abstract symbols of attachment. Such a code that allows for an ethical commitment through symbolic allegiance often maintains one’s comfortable place and closes off the surprise of the coming of the other. This encounter with the stranger occurs at boundaries that separate them from me or my local territory from another’s – thinking spatially that is. So the ethical decision becomes one of letting the other cross into my comfort zone or abandoning my comfort zone for the strangeness of another’s. The ethical decision always made in the indefinite present must be undecided at the arrival of the strange thing that intrudes upon the casual movement of my routine affairs.
Bryant writes:
“A distinction implies boundary between inside and outside. The problem is that a boundary belongs to neither the inside nor the outside. Boundaries belong to both insides and outsides. This entails that boundaries are undecidable for any system. The real world consequence of this is that every system that attempts to form an identity (a self, a transcendence, an essence, etc) encounters an undecidable boundary between inside and outside that renders identity fraught from within.”
There is a lot of Derrida whisperings here that I am willing to acknowledge and appreciate. The question of ethical relationships becomes obscured when the task goes beyond deconstruction and on to a *mobilization* of something Deleuze & Guatarri might call a war machine (which may or may not have violent warfare as its object). Movement building that seeks a construction as its object: can this be done ethically by sticking merely to a proximal closeness of physical encounters and/or an abstract symbol with which one can identify? Would a movement be forced into a violent hegemony with a transcendent rationality of ’us vs. them’ by identifying with a name and claiming a territory for itself? Does the anxiety created by forming a solid identity doom them all to an aggressive hostility to the other?
I’m bombarding you (reader) with questions because I don’t really have an answer. But I think these are the right questions and I’ll go on speculating about them.
Ultimately I think, continuing in a Derridean manner, that these questions are unanswerable at the textual level, they must be worked out in the moment – the moment that forever eludes the writer and reader. It is in these tenuous moments that the flickering of attitudes, allegiances, and beliefs must play out. The outcomes that a carefully planned theory can never actualize completely but tries to prepare us for and teach us to think about is the scene of ethics. Coming up against the borders of who we are, who is included, what is the goal, how can ‘x’ be accommodated, etc. are matters of tactics and strategy when the growth and survival of a thing is at stake among hostiles. We all unquestionably bring our theoretical commitments along with us into the strategic/tactical discussion. But the decisions to go this way or the other, the collective movement forging along all the while, is not the direct result of the positions delineated in these discussions and often go completely off the expected course. The chaotic uncertainty of the occurrence frequently makes the best laid plans fail. Bringing up strategy and tactics highlights the difficulties of making ethical decisions when placed in the context of a survival game, complete with hostile strangers (enemies) and tentative alliances.
What alters ethical dilemmas into matters of strategy and tactics or what obscures the welcoming of the stranger is often a community with a shared understanding that differs drastically from another’s. One’s finger can be firmly pointed at the symbols conforming people into blind faith when they get in the way of mutual agreements. At this point whether or not subscribing to the name is a net benefit at all. The commitment to an abstraction can make matters worse, as Nationalism and Fascism have terrifyingly demonstrated. To organize and link people up into a single force carries risks. But if we are to forgo this option, preexisting forces without remorse will walk all over us and continue to reinforce a path towards oblivion. Perhaps there is a way to ethically forge a collective from disparate places and work on a better world without dogmatic labeling. I honestly don’t know. Would collectives be enough to halt a seemingly uninterruptible system backed by guns, jets, drones, and spyware?
Whatever the case, I think we should let tactics blend into our ethics.

Object-Oriented Ontology and Occupy

I came across an exchange between Levi Bryant (at Larval Subjects) and David Banks (at Cyborgology) recently that riled up my interest in occupy and its ability to confront systemic Capitalism. With a focus on place and territory, people of all stripes were drawn together to build a movement utilizing non-capitalist means while simultaneously hurling impossible demands at the plutocrats controlling our political process. How effective this tactic is: how far such a movement can grow and to what ends has been debated since it first caught fire – to an almost absurd extent. But measuring these things requires acknowledging the conceptual tools with which one is working and the limitations of those tools. This tracing out the limits of the theoretical framework within which one is working allows for a pushing of those limits further beyond and hopefully into radically new strategies.

 An Object-Oriented Ontology (like Bryant’s) would focus on and prioritize the material things, flows, and functions as opposed to identity based critique and the ’who’ of subjectivity. This new kind of materialism starts with the actual movement of objects and treats ideological constructs like capitalism, society, and so forth as “hyperobjects” without a fixed location. Hyperobjects are dispersed throughout the field and are a kind of ecological/environmental composition of material entities that organize those entities and invade their interaction with each other. A hyperobject, it could be said, operates in the interactional relations binding the web of a system together. Capitalism would be one such hyperobject guiding actual things into tightly bonded relationships, in distinction from just calling it an ideology perpetuating dehumanizing class-based divisions (which it indeed does). The OOO materialist’s concentration when dealing with Capitalism is in the effect it has on how and where things can assemble. The geographically ordered distributions of things takes priority over the ’who’ question of what is distinctly formative of a culture or community. This doesn’t negate who one is, their identity or affiliation, but it does ask that we look deeper into one’s ecological entanglement.
 The problem is about location and identification: how can a hyperobject be combated and challenged when it is nowhere to be found? The global connectivity of capitalism means that it manifests as a broad-based ’system’ instead of an object or fixed territory like a factory building or the walls of a city. Crucial though for the OOO materialist is that the system should not be critiqued as a transcendent object that crumbles upon unraveling its contradictions in a text but inhabits the world of objects in their pattern formation and transferring real entities to and fro. Without the distance preserving safety zone of textual analysis, the system gets under our skin – the hyperobject does the ordering and structuring of the material processes in our body and environment regardless of which belief inducing symbols I favor or don’t favor.


The argument Bryant makes is that to alter the functioning of something like the capitalist hyper object requires intervening in its material flows of goods: grinding the machine to a halt by disrupting its normal processes. His critique of protesting outside Wall Street and the meme community building is realistic (politically and ontologically) in that he contends that it only becomes effective in a struggle against capitalism in reaching a revolutionary critical point:

“a systems theoretical perspective suggest that these forms of practice are about forming revolutionary collectives or solidarities. While these collectives do not do much themselves to change governments and corporations, they could reach a critical mass capable of doing so.”

Bryant is claiming that identity-community based solutions alone can be more-or-less easily swallowed up or neglected by a highly efficient, co-opting hyperobject like Capitalism unless those communities take on an aggressive, uncompromising quality separating them from the normally functioning system. This is a demand for a tangible and clearly distinguishable disruption of that system. The OOO materialist it seems only sees positive gains from a redistribution and a regrouping of both human and non-human things – not just changes in consciousness or the “national discourse”.

With a strategic focus on altering and challenging the material flows and standardized connection of things in the system, the object-oriented ontologist intentionally leaves open the subjective, class-oriented issues. It would seem that who subjectively takes the hit from all of this systemic disruption can be settled when the system-network is transformed, but David Banks has a rebuff. The vast inequality necessitated by a Capitalist economy, exacerbated by its latest crisis, leaves a great many vulnerable to its exploitation yet simultaneously more reliant upon its smooth functioning. When the arteries of a system are targeted, when highways are blocked, strikes are executed, and/or supply chains disrupted, those poor and underprivileged are hit the hardest. As more effective tactics are deployed in real, tangible ways the system is indeed weakened, but those most attached to the system under attack are those that are also alienated by it. Therefore, precise attacks aimed at the wealthy elite (or “the 1%” – just to give them a name) must go through the buffer of their expendable wage slaves unless they all rise up together. All classes are dependent on the current system’s continuance for their sustenance, but smaller guerrilla-style attacks seem to only agitate an already over-tapped people in the workers, unemployed, and marginalized. Does an object-oriented ontology miss this class disparity, the inequality of subjects built into the system in its insistence on objective practice and analysis?
Banks would say that it does: “[i]t is the poor that will suffer first and foremost. So when an Occupation decides to block a highway or stop a cell phone tower from working, they are disrupting the lives of the poor disproportionally more than the rich.” This is a check on radicals blocking the flows of the system for the sake of a real material consequence: the subjective analysis (so far bracketed) finds the oppressed even more damaged. Of course, no self-respecting anti-capitalist on the left or wherever would advocate letting things be as they are. The prevalent organizations of power and repeated exploitation of people’s labor and environmental resources are intolerable and we only have a short time before the damage is irreparable. The difference here is of which conceptual language and analysis will prove to create lasting and sustainable change. Banks takes the materialist flow-disruption another step by forcing one to acknowledge the harm done to the oppressed (if one is not already feeling those repercussions) and what to do about it. I can easily understand his protestation: “[i]f you block a highway, be prepared to offer (at least) a temporary alternative.”
The great thing about the occupy movement during its heyday was that it *did* offer an alternative in the inner-city camps experimenting with radically egalitarian social relationships. The anger-channeling mobilizations against banks, ports, summits, etc. did indeed attempt to disrupt business as usual and succeeded on some level. But these actions felt all the more righteous when there was a site, a *location* one could go back to and count on seeing some friends. The camps were like a beacon of hope that justified attacks against “the Capitalist system” because we had a non-capitalist commune to refer back to and provide assistance to anyone being eaten up by that system. The alternative Banks seeks in an inclusive “leftist politic that helps build coalitions and makes these struggles linked and meaningful for all concerned” seemed within reach and it charged up individuals into acting out against systemic violence – even in the face of immanent police brutality nobody else would hear about. The subjective ’who problem’ of the well-oiled capitalist machine and deemphasized by object-oriented ontology was less of a problem with a lifeline bringing those privileged and unprivileged together in a geographic location. Though the movement was largely fueled by middle-class youngsters only just recently feeling the pangs of precariousness, it still brought much needed vitality to the anti-capitalist struggle. They (we) were able to link up and, at least for the duration of the occupations, feel connected thanks to a common territory.
I sincerely wish more people had come out and physically occupied those camps when the evictions were all but certain. They were a crucial tactical component of the anti-capitalist struggle as seen through the eyes of the occupy movement, in spite of the problems a homeless encampment generates. More bodies in a tighter space (from the materialist eye) would have at least shown that this government action (coordinated nationwide) was against the will of its subjects (idealist eye).

So does the specific, local, territorial character of occupy camping and its empowering qualities derived therefrom negate OOO’s insights on hyperobjects? Can we gain from this insight when so much material support came about by starting from a very local, confined space? I think we can, but this means working through conceptually what object-oriented ontology and the occupy movement have in common, but has been slightly overlooked by Levi Bryant and Tim Morton (from whom the term ’hyperobject’ is borrowed). A local-territorial site with defendable borders (be it a park or building or one’s foreclosed house) mixed with solidarity actions connecting them together didn’t by themselves disrupt the systemic flows of Capital, but the did give a very real and solid glimmer of hope that things could and were being done otherwise than by Capitalist means. This provided the moral weight that energized collaboration on those confrontational projects: there was an alternative.

We’ve all gotten to that all too familiar yet irksome wall in heated political conversations where someone always remarks: “But you’re a part of the system you reject! Your actions depend upon this system’s workings too!”. For many I take it, the system is a whole instead of a process and the injunction spanning across our culture to “Work!” and maintain it is a duty. Without a collective imagination for how it could be otherwise that didn’t rely on a Communist, Anarchist, Syndicalist (or whatever imaginary society found in texts) theory the rebellious and creative of us were left high and dry. The Occupy Movement provided a ground (literally) with which one could bombard a corrupted system with impossible demands. The amount of concentrated political energy such a tactic infused into the populace hadn’t been seen in nearly 50 years, and it spawned the emergence of a new popular, mobilized community with its very own name. This all occurred because some dedicated people decided to camp out in front of the site where the major culprits of unregulated and exploitative Capitalist speculators; it couldn’t have happened without a specific location. These camps were (some, I think, remain) more than their locations though, they could be compared to singularities drawing large quantities of mass towards them. There allure was not to rest those concerned bodies in an arrangement forced by the singularity as a center, but charge them up with rational debate, radical speculation, and angry heckling. The open access of these assemblies and their tendency to attract radical dreamers led to some of the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping political theatre we as a country have seen in a long time and I have ever participated in. This was especially acute in Oakland, when there was a time that hundreds of people could be counted on to engage in a democratically dedicated public debate.

This all couldn’t have been done without an extremely bare-bones name (which ought to be granted to anyone “filling a space”… that is, everyone) and an easily located destination to provoke mass interest. So Banks has a point when he urges us to consider people bearing the brunt of the blockage of the system and “offer an alternative” for those most dominated by Capital (which Occupy did – there was free food, camping, ’interesting’ people (to say the least), and generally free everything). However, one can still understand Occupy thoroughly from an object-oriented ontologist’s perspective by viewing the bodies it put on the streets, the collective energy parading around the cities, its confrontational rejection of negotiating with cities (it was like a new city within the city), etc. The self-reproducing (autopoetic) system that occupy rejects is fought materially through a utopian-style separation and targeting the highways, shipping routes, city meetings, etc. (though less effectively now). We and I *did* this in the California Bay Area. But in order to get to that critical point where enough people are ready and willing to put themselves on the line, certain non-material factors needed to appear and galvanize those people into a collective force.

The ethical commitment, the righteous duty can be interpreted materialistically as a generator of energy and a solidifier of coalitions. This must be major concern if what is being built is to have an impact against a hyperobject that is “purely virtual or withdrawn” and “can’t be directly touched”, since a critique or action can so easily fall into co-option and sterility – a point Levi Bryant makes very well. But *getting to that point* that critical point of putting up a challenge and offering an alternative system – a new and competitive hyperobject as it were – requires utilizing abstractions that are believable; they compel subjects to become subjects of another kind.

For reference I would bring up Simon Critchley’s work in Infinitely Demanding and The Faith of the Faithless for an example of a concerned academic putting up convincing arguments and synthesizing a great deal of research in building that critical movement. I’ve written about it in this blog. He’s since spoken favorably about the Occupy Movement in interviews and articles here, here, and here but without giving speeches at Zuccotti Park like Zizek did, sidestepping the iconic vanguard possibility. That being said (err, written), we need all the academic intellectual input we can get if another system besides Capitalism is to rise.

Speaking of speech acts (in a written essay… Derrida!), the gesture of getting one’s message out to the general public and convincing them to come out in a mass assembly and risk police assault requires such a media campaign without immediate effects. Right-wingers understand this and shape the national discussion by saturating all available mediums with opinions I have no problem with calling retarded. My fellow Occupiers and I soon realized how supremely frustrating it is to get the mainstream media to report accurately and without an anti-occupy, pro-police bias.

But new technologies of vocal expression (the human microphone, the stack, and standardized stage-time) let voices be amplified to a greater audience and pushed occupy’s influence farther than was thought possible. The speech act has more material effects than a simple cathartic release in this context, it lets those arguments and those ideas passed over by the media behemoth be discussed by many individuals. It makes public debate at once attractive, effective, inclusive, and alternative compared to the mostly sensationalist garbage that gets passed off as news these days. This type of structured discourse allowed important but neglected ideas to be heard (the prison-industrial complex, financial fraud, the list goes on) and, most importantly, draw people into a common struggle against the forces of Capitalism. Though the sound waves disperse into thin air, a mouthpiece that shouts loud and with a communicable message is crucial to forming that struggle.

I know some will say I’m shaving with a dull blade and the energy from Occupy has fallen down. Was it all merely just a righteous wave that finally broke and fell back to the sea? (to invoke Hunter Thompson). Or did the mainstream media kill it by raising the question of its death ad nauseum when we stopped getting beaten up by cops? I think it has a lot to do with the locality of the camps and having an aberration in the system that we could feel proud of. It should be obvious to anyone and *is* obvious to those that experienced it that the crucial impediment to its thriving was and is the extreme military-police response coupled with reporting that favored the police regardless of what really happened. But anyways…

The materialist framework is a strong one in making positive headway against a Capitalism mangling the planet with an excessive production of commodities. The restrictions and demands it makes on people’s labour doesn’t simply “dehumanize” them but channels material flows (including bodies) in such a way as to close off the possibility of acting otherwise. Community building should not be an end in-itself when the existential threat of annihilation of life on the planet is looming predictably around the corner, and object-oriented ontologists are good at emphasizing this. However, without the illusory name or meme attachment connecting bodies to a place the materialist is left without the at least quasi-spiritual element that acts like the glue holding a force in shape. The occupy name itself is a kind of materialist-worthy logo: it really only means putting bodies in space with an emphasis on action.

Capitalism can no longer be confronted from without: its influence has spread all the way around the globe. A strategically effective resistance must be cultivated from within. I actually do think Tim Morton is onto something with The Ecological Thought but I’ll take to his work in later posts.

The Nothing in Belief: Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless Part 2

In a brief sketch of the work as a whole, Simon Critchley states his idea about faith and, I am tempted to say, his belief about belief.  This meta-claim of his is that only those who doubt their faith can have it.  Only those placed in the uncomfortable position of lacking a guarantee of their affirmation can have faith.  Only those who are in a position of weakness and *subjection* (by another) can be truly ethical subjects: “[F]aith is the enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power” (p.18).  A subject, a self, is only what it is in relation to a demand that it act or believe this way or that.  Not a source in itself, something beyond the self pushes it, compelling it and driving it.

 Yet a great many of us now see this beyond now as a fiction, an illusion with its own manipulative designs.  To make an affirmation out of a something one cannot in good conscience believe would be dishonest, we crave the truth when we place our faith in something.  The trick is to find the energizing affirmation of the act of believing and couple that with the nihilistic disillusionment accompanying the loss of a believable transcendent being.  “The faith of the faithless cannot have for its object an external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, or transcendent reality” (p.4) says Critchley, because such an object lacks the rigor we demand today for believability due largely to the giant successes of the skeptical-scientific method (my analysis).  But such an object is not necessary for a work of faith and even a commitment to the other person in front of us – right over there – is a commitment of faith. The declaration of faithlessness and the basic denial of atheists and rationally minded individuals then goes too far too fast: faith appears in moments of trust, friendship, and collective (and individual) action.  Critchley’s “faith – as fidelity to the infinite demand – is not just shared by the denominationally faithless or unbelievers, but can be experienced by them in an exemplary way” (p.18).  This is a broad interpretation of faith and allows one without a definite belief a chance to partake in a empowering modes of resistance without compromising one’s integrity.
Critchley turns to Rousseau early on to get an articulation of belief in the context of a politically relevant civic attachment from a sovereign individual.  The individual citizen here in Rousseau constitutes the public by its freely made consent.  The public sphere, to be the legitimate will of it’s people and so be worthy of the name, must answer to the voluntary consent of those individual citizens in a non-representational assembly.  The paradox running through Rousseau is his insistence on the identification of the individual with the public at large meaning the sovereignty of each citizen is respected and present in the movement of the general public (as opposed to represented by another body).  In the state of nature, the essential goodness of the sovereign individual is unimpeded; to harness that goodness after entering civilization, the individual will must align non-coercively with the public.  Present not re-present.
 The problem now becomes one of consensus or agreement of all as a fulfillment of the unity of the people.  I won’t spend any time defending the claim that such consensus is fictional: disagreement, diversity, and deviance are facts of existence.  But stopping there blocks out what motivates liberal democratic politics, why people believe in it, and identify as citizens with real political power.  The act of giving into the general will, of agreeing with popular sentiment and participating in a consensus process with consensus as a goal is formative, it creates a subject or self out of the fiction of a equalizing and complete social whole.  The social contract is “not a contract based on an exchange between parties, but an act of constitution, a fictive constitution, where a people wills itself into existence” (p.40).  Both the ’subject’ and the ’people’ are fictions that depend on each other for their continued existence to keep either one from straying to far away and becoming alienated.  To proclaim public consensus and autonomous individuality to be fictions is true but together they form a subject into creation; a subject built around a facade but one that is a better equipped and more effective machine.
 This discourse on the sovereignty of the individual and the public good is thoroughly embedded in our culture and cannot be tossed away (if one were to wish it).  The positing of my being as an individual is only possible as an intense oscillation between two fictions, a negative negativity which then becomes a positive nothing.  One can still hold that real entities do exist regardless of one’s fantasies and historical conditioning but what Critchley is getting at here is the faith informing a *politically effective* body with subjects that move together as its parts.  The crux of such a body as it is communicated and believed by its subjects is “the fiction of popular sovereignty understood as association without representation, which is, for Rousseau – and I think he is right – the only form of legitimate politics that can face and face down the fact of gross inequality and the state of war” (p.89).  From a realist point of view, the body held together by a fiction is a more capable and effective force due to its ability to mobilize a large mass of bodies into a common faithful front.  The public commons must be believed in to exist, but it must exist for there to be a subject to make or hold a belief in it.
 This can be made clearer when one visualizes the bombardment of fantastic objects and cleverly designed slogans and images pervading our culture.  These advertisements and other media don’t just tell people (by coerce or persuasion) how to be unique and “their own person” but are formative – they create persons.  Even more than that, these categories and stereotypes paint a picture of society that is roughly accurate.  More so than ever a subject’s identity given a vast array of types of individuality and even encouraged to create their own.  But the choice of identification (and the idea that one creates it themselves *autonomously*) is a fiction: the available options, traditions, and happenstance attention grabs obscure a pure choice. We like to think that individual people are the true authors of their decisions and that our society is composed of these secular people, but the the fictional/divine creeps in all around us: “it might be said that fiction of popular sovereignty is a more fictional fiction than divine right” (p.85).
 The game of crafting subjects whilst maintaining the loyalty needed to keep the political body together is a game of magic tricks and giant spectacles using subliminal religious undertones if not overt preaching.  The divine fiction that tends to be covered over in the present lies in both the autonomous individual and the national whole: it is supposedly free individuals who affirm and constitute the nation in liberal democracy (which is actually a republic), but the disparate people only exist by virtue of the collective commons.  Each person is now sacred without diminishing any of the grandeur of the sacred nation.  A doubly divine fake-out means there is just the right amount of confusion for a self to bloom.
 This is merely the structure of faith within the context of an effective constitution of people.  To be and declare oneself faithless is to understand illusions in their negativity, but does not become creative unless one goes farther into the negativity of the one making the statement.  This opens up the potential for a new collectivity and, therefore, a new subjectivity to form in the wake of a loss of faith – rather than pure destruction or passive acquiescence.

The Nothing in Belief, Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless p.1

Reading Simon Critchley’s latest book The Faith of the Faithless is like receiving some of the most relevant currents from past intellectuals for our problems today. Government and consent, autonomy and violence, faith and ethics weave together into a story informing the trajectory we are racing along, all the while the impetus to act responsibly with thought and careful reflection race along with us. The central concern to the book as I read it is to articulate the basis for a faith that we can believe in today, even amidst the seemingly insurmountable apathy and nihilism preventing a commitment to a positive future. Nihilism is not a mode of thinking to be rejected in favor of a happy optimism or a comforting belief but thought through. The pervasiveness of disenchantment with the state of the world, the rush of stimulation at the sight of the latest thinly-veiled fantasy apocalypse story followed by an “oh well, I got to go back to work”, is a serious concern not to simply attack but grapple with. Such is the over-arching motivation behind this work: to provide a theoretico-religious faith when faith is in such short supply and understandably so.

This is the work of painstaking commitment. To not condemn, to not write or proclaim the next messiah, to not command and determine action according to a ruler’s program; but to search the landscape for signs when added up point in a direction of hope. This can also be a work of immense joy and even ecstatic humor.
Taking a survey of the time we find ourselves in, feeling and observing organizations of power and the road they are taking us on can have the overwhelming effect of despair and disbelief. I’ve got a mind to think that many would rather avoid this thought and reserve it for “the artists” – if they aren’t busy with immediate survival and crushing debt. The despair and disconnect come from a general sense of powerlessness: the trembling in the face of a system that operates so smoothly that even one’s most uplifting moments still cannot rearrange its highly stabilized movements. But this powerlessness is precisely what Critchley seizes on in defining ethical relations: effective political resistance against a dominating power is created in fusing infinite demands into a local struggle allowing weak forces to exceed their *realistic* limitations.
The infinite demands so often mentioned stand for a call from beyond – somewhere else. The reserve from which a subject gets its energy to act responsibly (to one another, society, or country) comes from a fictional source. This fictional source transcends the local conditions of an environment and persuades the subject to act otherwise than what is expedient and immediately rewarding to it. It is all too easy for pragmatists, political realists, atheists, and nihilists to point to the fictional, fantastical, and incorporeal nature of these demands and turn instead to effects as they are felt immanently. And they have a good point; believing in something transcending what is viscerally right in front of you, weighing down on you in direct contact requires a leap into strange territory. At worst this can result in dogmatic attachment or a cultic following that abolishes all deviancy. But to ignore the power of the faith-based fictions circulating both now and in our history or outright combating them is to deny who we have become and how we got here. Our culture and history are saturated with symbols of otherworldly beings and imaginary constructions that people believe in wholeheartedly. To take an opposing tract and settle with non-belief, to only deal with *real* beings in *this* world, misses an essential point about what it means to believe and have faith.
That being stated, to believe in the era of information overflow means one must get through, step inside of, or at least consider the nothing of nihilism – the gap that persists in all acts of belief. That mystical facet reserved for many in a super-sensible world seems to have crashed into the physical world, organizing it with statistics and other formally precise symmetries making us feel trapped. Believability has become flexible, bending and stretching our commitments and pursuits across a wide spectrum yet inside a totalizer whole. To isolate a local place and allow for something infinite to combine with that place is perhaps *the* most pressing matter here on a planet under the threat of a global capitalism tightening its grip on a uniform measurement of wealth.
Again, this is no reason to throw oneself into whatever beliefs provide a momentarily inspiring spark: the nothing hanging over the shoulder of belief *must* be affirmed. Critchley’s brilliance is in affirming the nothing twice as a double nothing (he calls it meontology) that everyone is caught between. This highly charged zone between two nothings is actually what it means to believe, in contrast with a one-way attachment to a figure representing reality. The differing structure of an affirmative nihilism to hierarchical beliefs puts the subject in a tenuous spot where the only reprieve is a constant movement until a new self might emerge in conjunction with the infinite demand calling for it. This call comes from somewhere, as in the face of the other that confronts me, and the otherness of this place or thing *assures* all belief of a nothing. But this infinitely demanding belief is “a massively creative nothing” (p.245) which when affirmed in its nothing forms the groundwork for a critically uncompromising belief.
This is the work that prepares for a belief that does not fall into a apathetic laziness or a violent destruction of *the* system (which can be made to stand for anything and everything). Both of these positions risk feeding the systems that do predominate and in effect align with the beliefs anchoring those systems.
More to come on this later with deeper textual analysis.

Tactics, Community, and a Movement in-between

I’ve got this question that I always seem to come back to yet never answer: is the occupy movement a mere tactic for attracting people into a common space for protest? or is it a radically original community with its own procedures for collective decision-making growing right inside a state it rejects? Due to the horizontal, leaderless principles upon which the it operates (in theory), answers to these questions depend on who is asked. The respect for personal autonomy of opinion and action is a shared *principle* that works to keep any one person, group, committee, or body from crystallizing the occupy movement into a unified party. Yet there are still principles that we have in common: no demands, no leaders, no hierarchy, just a transparent public space and a respect for the (non-inpinging) differences of others. These principles are not easily upheld in practice however, they require diligence and much tiresome arguing to prevent a power dynamic from becoming a power structure.

I’m constantly drawn to the community vs. tactic question which was more obvious when the camps were still raging. If the movement is just a tactic, it will lose relevance in absence of a name (would anyone care if I, you, we are ’occupiers’ otherwise?), if the movement is a new community, it risks conformity into binding principles of behavior isolating the autonomous element. How can this ’we’ maintain respect for each other’s autonomy when ’we’ must reach some form of consensus on what is officially endorsed by this-or-that occupy? Is such a consensus necessary at all, or can these assemblies be merely action announcements and places for radical tactics discussions without losing the name?

(tactics – movement – community)

(autonomous bodies in space vs consensus-based commune)

That this is a movement is without doubt. It marches, it camps, it is wildly creative in the slogans, chants, costumes, and it consistently draws masses of people to protest the injustices of today. It is invigorating and intense to march with both strangers and friends, asserting our collective power in the face of overwhelming oppression in plain sight (police) and lurking behind the scene (1% bankers & lobbyists wielding economic authority for political gain). The righteousness of the cause, the bonds that form in these open spaces all lend to the revolutionary spirit drawing crowds together and ensuring this idea will not be evicted. It is rather the internal quarrels and/or co-option from established groups or parties that pose the greatest endangerment to continued participation. Maintaining the motivational liveliness that encourages people to come on to the streets in the face of blatantly aggressive police and surveillance strategies is of the highest concern. This is mainly done through internet articles & videos and direct, gonzo-style journalism (because lord knows the mainstream media is doing everything it can to suppress it) which provide unprecedented access to the action on the streets. This sense of righteousness could be lost along with the number of bodies marching in the streets if the decisions consented on are by and for a mere group of General Assembly goers.

The main impediment to keeping people coming back and gaining new support is self-destruction by way internal conflicts that don’t get a chance to be aired out in open discussion. There’s been a number of people who ”quit occupying” before writing incendiary articles on why they became frustrated with meetings, tactics, principles and so on. This is alarming considering their dedication now being lost to the movement, but is this movement only shedding people with a vision for the whole community, who simply can’t abide by the autonomous actions of others, or is something else going on here? If these attacks are out of despair from a feeling of voices not being heard, if the consensus process itself is passing proposals that only cater to what a comparatively small group in attendance can agree on, then this process is silencing dissent. Collective dissent, disobedience in the face of corrupted political (mis)representation is what got us moving together; if we have people criticizing the process but also leaving, we are no longer channeling critique to change the world but spiraling into a black-hole.

The process, the means, the model we are building must remain critical of the governing forces we may reject while simultaneously embodying the change we wish to see. This name we have adopted – occupiers – holds us loosely together seeing as it is a tactic which really just means taking up space. As the name becomes more notorious throughout the world and the friendships we have made strengthen, we too also risk degenerating into an insular group if we ’fetishize’ the GA – as folks have been saying lately. The openness, transparency, and inclusiveness many of us pride ourselves on becomes difficult to keep propped up if dissenting opinions are rooted out by a model seeking maximal agreement. The agreements reached could pander to the lowest common denominator which then represents the official stance of ”the occupy x movement”; the name helps attract people, but that could be reversed to repulsion if the consensed proposals only get those who voted to show up (if they even do themselves).

I hear the problems raised about consensus and understand the frustrations of holding people accountable when mistakes are made, along with the dangers of mob rule. But these issues demand attention that cannot be given if people don’t show up. I’m arguing for a minimalist interpretation of what it means to occupy and putting faith in the relationships that are forged by convening in the streets. I’ve never really taken the decisions consensed on by the general assembly as absolutely binding, for the real impact comes from showing up. This takes nothing away from the committees and working groups that plan, coordinate, and report back to the GA whose work is vital to keeping us moving. This opening statement of Oakland’s General Assembly is important: ”the bulk of the work at Occupy Oakland does not occur at the GA”.

To sustain this energy, to continue gathering people for liberation of the commons that have been ripped away by capitalist forces backed by oppressive police enforcement, I believe we need to remember that the name ’occupy’ is little more than an attractor for getting bodies out to assert their rights. What happens when we get there can be hashed out and argued on-site and leading up to it, but is ultimately up to individual decisions. The arguments that ensue actually help fuel the fire and build relationships as long as they don’t come to blows; but a structured exclusion of certain people or behaviors would be more violent (says me). The warning message I’m trying to get across is of exclusion as well as co-option: affiliation with occupy, the name, should mean little because there will be less to seize by third parties with their own agenda.

So far, the line between community and tactic has been straddled pretty well. Falling off on either side would weaken our resistance, but an exclusive community distinguishing the ”real occupiers” from the fake seems the greater risk now.


Don’t Let Them Unify Us!

I will try to be brief and clear:
With the J28 battle of Oakland fresh in people’s minds, the PR battle is in full swing. Many are worried of the “radical fringe group” that threatens the “whole movement” with scaring away support and giving protesters a bad image. The media loves to frame a conflict and divide people into easy to comprehend camps: hence, peaceful/violent. This debate will not go away despite the injustice of centering the hugely ambiguous conceptual distinction on protesters instead of the state – which is the obvious perpetrator here. The conversation-controlling media won’t stop typecasting protesters as violent until they pose no threat to the established order. Since a vast majority opposes this order, we need to silence the voice of the corporate reporter/anchor and cease the biased demand to be a strictly peaceful protest while riot cops control and easily disperse us.
Though an “occupy movement” is freely spoken of, it need not be a united, whole movement. It can split and diverge without one attacking the other, one can choose actions to participate in without recourse, mass strikes can occur one day with a small band of marchers chanting ”fuck the police!” another. There is no whole movement to be put at risk of failure; the gravest danger comes from playing into the 1%’s hand by becoming a unified, peaceful (and therefore exclusionary) movement posing no challenge to those authorities in cahoots with big corporations. In short: co-option of the name/tactic ’occupy’.
As to the question of violence: peace is something all desire, at least amongst friends, but a forced adherence to the abstract principle of non-violence generates conformity: pacifism. Rooting out the vandals or the ones willing to resist police oppression in the name of “peace” is actually a more violent act than breaking windows. It would be doing the police’s job for them, and it would fulfill the wishes of corporate, divide-and-conquer news reporters. It would keep police enforcement of the interests of the 1% out of the spotlight and maintain the status quo.
Occupying is a tactic. That a movement has been built on such a brilliantly simple idea epitomizes the urgency of the multiple struggles faced across the world. Taking back public space with physical bodies utilizing virtual technologies from elite private corporations (manipulating politicians) inflicting debt-peonage: why must this be a united front with a guiding principle of non-violence? The totalized nature of capitalism today has made conventional confrontations impossible; the diversity of struggles and beliefs roughly getting along at occupy camps and events is the beginnings of a critical community. Multiple resistances are connecting together in communication, for alone none could stand against the behemoth staring at us. This is a divided revolution (as I argued here) that will only be conquered or rendered impotent if one faction tries to become the whole. We have the momentum and the resilience to survive; conversation, angry dialogue, impassioned debate can and must continue without silencing the other.
We should all be open to critique and convince each other about tactical effectiveness. But this is all to often done in the name of saving the movement as a whole from bad PR. The terrible journalism constantly attacking occupiers and siding with authorities must be countered and anticipated; but picking sides in their terms and standing against or in conflict with others due to tactical differences will take pressure off the real enemy. They want us to defeat each other: we must see this as an coordinated attack by dominant oppressive leaders. Occupy Oakland has done a terrific job of letting disagreements continue, and keep victories & defeats out of arguments. In short, respect diversity of tactics, constructive criticism, and tough love.