Thursday, July 20, 2017

Playing Dead posted by Richard Seymour

“The eternal silence of infinite space terrifies me.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
In 2014, Jo Milne heard a human syllable for the first time, and broke down into helpless sobs as though it were the first voice in the world. 
The noise rang, she explained, with a very high pitch. The sound, rushed through her body. Sounds became irresistible, addictive. The light switch clicking on and off, the throng of water. Hearing was not simply a mental event, but a powerful somatic event. 
It is always the same, when a nurse turns on the cochlear implant and the deaf begin to hear. There is a silent second of confusion and confirmation. Did I? Is it? A light switch clicks on. And then, water.
The first voice in the world, for those not born deaf, is that of the mother. We make a meal of her words. We must do so, as Hopkins implies, because we are hungry for them: “Wild air, world-mothering air … My more than meat and drink,/My meal at every wink.” We are hungry because we are missing something and are not at peace with the world.
The syllables which mothers begin to feed their children well before birth, might be just as overwhelming for the child to hear, and just as addictive, as they are to the congenitally deaf person hearing for the first time. Lacan called it lalangue: the sing-song, the music, of maternal babble.
The sing-song is a somatic event. The syllables, or letters, enter the body and mark it with enjoyment, just as Milne described. The psychoanalyst Serge Leclaire goes so far as to claim that, if you could accidentally sing these letters in a certain sequence and in a certain tone, you might plunge someone into rapture – since these letters are their unique formula for bliss.
Your relationship to speaking and silence, in other words, begins with your mother. And it begins before birth, before that first coming up for air, well before the words start to make sense.
It can be both the best and worst thing in the world when the words stop. Silence creates a space in which fantasies roam free. You can hear yourself think, whether or not you like what you hear. Pascal was terrified of what he might hear given infinite space and time.
To experience an abrupt break in the flow of words, then, might be to experience time in a particular way. The usual images of time – a river, an arrow – won’t help us here.
Suppose instead that you are traversing a giant, sticky web, and with each step a new thread attaches itself to you.
More and more threads stick to different parts of you, and pull in different directions, until eventually you have to pause and try to sort it all out. 
But the more you pull at this knot, or that snag, the more you get snarled and tangled up.
And you stop and think about your predicament.
And only then notice the silent observer in the corner of the web, still, implacable, waiting.
This is one way of thinking about the predicaments of life, and the temporal threads we are all caught up in, consciously or otherwise. We are all doing time, all working to various schedules, tangled up in the threads of expectation and commitment, some of which we know nothing of.
Silence in that sense can be a lag, a delay, a slackening in one of the threads. It takes a while to actually decide that someone is being silent, because silence is built in to the rhythms of conversation. Maybe less than a minute in face to face conversation, an hour or so on instant messenger, a day or so by email, depending on the context.
Once you’ve ascertained that there is, indeed, a silence, it snarls up all your other threads. What is going on? Is it passive-aggressive? Is there something wrong? If I nudge, will it be rude? Can I get on with other things? 
And if the relationship matters to you, and if you can’t just snap the thread, you might begin, after a period of irritation, to feel a cold anxiety creep over you. You might worry that they have died, which is a way of wishing them dead. The anxiety might seem to be about the loose thread and to what it pertains, but it also contains an awareness of that impassive, patient gaze.
The linguist Colette Granger tells the story of a five year old child, who did not speak any English. Having arrived in an English-speaking kindergarten, he was completely, disturbingly silent and non-responsive for five months. Until one day the class took a trip to the zoo, and passed by a display case containing a large, reticulated python. The child was suddenly animated, grabbed his teacher, pointed at the python and said: I know this! I know this! This is my home, teacher, this is my home!
When you learn a new language, as you usually do when you’re an infant, the first thing you do is fall silent. You might occasionally utter learned syllables, holophrastically. But for a time, there is no creative speech.
Experts on language acquisition call it a ‘silent period’, but they call it that as though they think of it as empty, an absence. As though nothing interesting is happening until someone starts talking. As though everything stops when the child is put to bed and the lights turned off.
For Granger, silence is filled with meaning: a symptom, which has something in common with the eternal oath of silence we all ultimately undertake. In dreams, muteness is a common symbol of death. In death, we are all silent, and silence is a death of the self.
But what kind of symptom could it be? In psychoanalysis, a symptom is a way of speaking; it is the grammar through which a set of existential questions are addressed to the Other. Am I female or male, subject or object, alive or dead? Silence, keeping mum, mummification, can be a way of playing dead.
Something is lost when we begin speaking. The linguist Roman Jakobson remarked that in learning a language, “the child loses nearly all his ability to produce sounds”. The infinite variety of noises made by a babbling child is lost forever in a kind of phonic amnesia, and only some of them are learned again. 
“Perhaps,” says the philosopher Daniel Heller-Roazen, “the loss of a limitless phonetic arsenal is the price a child must pay for the papers that grand him citizenship in the community of a single tongue.” 
But what is also lost is the unspoken existence which was hymned with this polyphony of babble. The unspoken being still bubbles over – one might say babbles – with inarticulate meaning, speaking in tongues, but is lost to conscious experience. In learning a language, we gain an identity, a place from which to speak – “a room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf had it. At the same time, we give up our previous accommodation, the unspoken self, the part of experience which words somehow don’t touch. 
When words are fed to us we are expected to eat, and forget about whatever it is that can’t be said. And for a while, we have no room of our own. We are in a liminal space, where the old has been lost, but the new has not been assimilated. We clam up, because there is no place from which to speak, and we are angry and troubled, and don’t know why.
Something has been lost. We are at a loss.
In this sense, silence might not just be playing dead. It might betoken that something has actually died.
Self-formation, Melanie Klein thought, is a melancholic process; the self being produced out of the traces of objects that we have lost or been separated from. What we lose when we first gain language is, by definition, beyond articulation. It is an unrepresentable, unknowable object, and so it can’t be mourned.
Part of the mourning process involves bitter reproaches to the lost object which has let us down. But it is when we don’t know what it is we have lost in the object because our attachment to it was always narcissistic, that we direct the reproach at ourselves and experience a terrifying existential impoverishment. When, in addition to that, the lost object itself is beyond articulation, and so couldn’t even be represented as a loss, it remains unconscious. The trauma – and it is a trauma, insofar as it completely and irreversibly transforms your inner life – becomes a psychic landmine, awaiting activation.
Of course, the loss here is illusory. The pre-language ‘self’ is a retroactive fantasy, a product of what Freud called ‘Nachtraglichkeit’ (deferred action). Deferred action is itself just an everyday linguistic phenomenon. Lacan gives the example of a sentence; you don’t know the meaning of the first signifier until you’ve heard the last in the sequence. And if, at an unconscious level, the sentence is only finished ten years after it began, that is one of the ways in which a trauma can be belatedly activated. 
In second-language acquisition, we lose a fantasy of linguistic omnipotence. Not only because for a time we inhabit a language that we can’t master, but also because we realise that our previous linguistic self wasn’t all that we thought it was. This brings into being, activates, a primordial loss of pre-linguistic omnipotence; of the mythical time when everything was seemingly provided, sufficient, without the mediation of words.
A self is a fantasy, an image of ‘what I am really like’ by which we represent ourselves to the world. Selves are more-or-less skilful diplomats; they’re what we have to stop us from ripping each other to pieces. This is why Winnicott described the ego as a ‘false self’; but he also argued that it allowed for a ‘third’, transitional space to be created between ego and unconscious which could be the locus of creative freedom.
And what happens when you have to learn a new language, according to Granger, is that a self dies, a fantasy of mastery and competence, for a while the locus of creativity is lost, and so for all practical purposes you fall silent. You pull the coffin lid shut.
What would it mean to be addicted to words? 
Addiction is, in its own way, a kind of silence. Not a diction, but – as the addiction specialist Rik Loose puts it – an a-diction. Why bother speaking when you can bypass all that and get a direct line to enjoyment by mouth, nose or vein? 
Perhaps this is one reason why addictions are on the rise, in an era of atomisation. Toxicomania, the administration of so-called toxic substances, is but one variant of the tendency. The addiction to the noise of social media is a dependence on another kind of toxicity.
It is well known by now, though addiction therapists seem to have no idea what to do with the information, that the same quantity of drugs have widely varying effects depending on who they’re administered to. 
This suggests that the toxicity resides, not in the substance itself, but in the subject. The happy pills have no more magic than magic beans; they have a blunt somatic force but there has to be something else, a set of psychodynamics, to act on. It might be a form of unacknowledged depression, or anxiety. It might be that what the drug does is suppress a conflict, or disarm repression, freeing up a lot of psychic energy that can be experienced as euphoria. But whatever it is, the effect of the drug is meaningful, in that it has some relationship to subjective truth.
What does this have to do with sound and syllables? Let’s go back to those lines from Hopkins for a moment. The poem compares the air to the Virgin Mary. It is an act of erotically-charged idealisation. It hymns life, breath, maternity: the iambic trimeter is deliberately speedy and emphatic, the variation of couplets and triplets in the irregular stanzas conveying almost an improvised feel, as though he was singing this in prayer. But what are the unconscious conditions for this idealisation? 
If the Holy Mother, the idealised mother, is “My more than meat and drink/My meal at every wink”, this betokens an aggressive, cannibalistic impulse that is belied in the ecstatic poetics. The Holy Mother is already dead, of course, like all ideal mothers. “Not flesh but spirit now.” But that’s another sense in which idealisation is a convenient cover story: a refusal and transformation of the drives. To devour the mother’s words is to devour a bit of her. To make a meal of “world-mothering air” is to make a meal of the sanctified mother, and thus of the very conditions for life, including one’s own. 
The death-drive lurks here. 
Silence can be a form of playing dead. And as we know from the stillness of crocodiles in the wild, just before the jaws abruptly open and snap shut, playing dead allows one to eat the other. So, playing dead, we can wait for the other to speak: and then, if they venture too incautiously, snap the jaws shut with merciless force. 
However, there are many ways of wishing someone dead. And, from another point of view, cannibalism is a form of passionate identification. Or to put it another way, identification begins with eating. When orally evaluating objects as infants, we are deciding which we’d like to ingest, and which we’d like to spit out. We are deciding what objects in the external world should become part of us, or not. To eat someone’s words is to identify with them; indeed, to love them, to accept them as a master. Much as to eat the eucharist, and swallow the word of Christ, is to identify with a dead son.
What we are speaking of here, being played out in Hopkins’s poem, is a form of conflict – a contra-diction – known as ambivalence. It is, thanks to his diaries, no secret that Hopkins bitterly resented his violent father and, though more at ease with her, at least partly despised his mother for supporting the patriarch. In an unpublished rhyme, he had a character named Mrs Hopley refer to her children bidding their father goodnight: “Bid your Papa goodnight. Sweet exhibition!/They kiss the rod with filial submission.” 
It is also fair to say that Hopkins struggled with his drives, and desires – his ‘evil thoughts’ about animals, his ‘temptations’ regarding young men, his masturbatory ‘sins’, his refusal even to eat a peach out of aversion to its juicy sweetness. It was as though he felt there was a toxicity in him.
The addict’s solution to this contra-diction is a-diction. It is to stop swallowing the word and start swallowing booze or pills instead. This is an oral short-cut, a bite through the knot of drive, desire and repression. But a short-cut to what? The junkie literature gives us the answer: death.
But this is not death as a scientific fact; it is death as psychic meaning, death-in-life. In the literature, poems and art made by men influenced by addiction, death is figured as a woman. 
Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written under the influence of opium, contains these lines: “Is that a DEATH? And are there two?/Is DEATH that woman’s mate? … The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,/Who thicks man’s blood with cold.” This is the repressed truth of Hopkins’s lines on the Holy Mother: “Laying, like air’s fine flood,/The deathdance in his blood … Men here may draw like breath/More Christ and baffle death…”. It is the Mother who is no longer alive, he fantasises, who can give life.
But to figure death as a woman is to turn death into a choice: an erotic object-choice. Properly speaking, this is a denial of death in the carnal sense, which is not a choice. It reflects the fact that, unconsciously, we don’t believe in the possibility of our own mortality. And yet it flirts with death, seeks a kind of fusion with it, just as the Catholic Hopkins saw in the Eucharist the possibility of a fusion with the dead mother. 
And it achieves a death. Entering into a relationship with a drug, one drops out of the web of history – one’s own past and future, and that of the world – and inhabits a liminal zone beyond time. This is what is meant, or one of the things that is meant, by a death-drive. After all, what gives you your stable, intransitive existence as a subject other than your relationship to others (the Other)? A relationship that is necessarily mediated by words? If a-diction is a way of bypassing conversation, getting a direct line to enjoyment, it is also where the subject goes to die.
Bibliomania (a-diction to books), of which lexicomania (a-diction to diction-aries) is a special type, is a way of being hooked on words. Historically, the idea was linked to problems of pedagogical control: children who read too much were apt to get out of line, their thinking becoming undisciplined. It was Coleridge who complained of “the mischief of unconnected and promiscuous reading”, a phrase that is doubly telling.
It is as though reading had, by the early modern period, become a way of having one’s cake an eating it. A spurious, ‘unconnected’, long-range intimacy was made possible by the printing press. The pace, volume and nature of reading is dependent in the first instance upon an economy of production. And the rise of the printed novel enabled a glut of solitary pleasures, routing around the Other.
The way in which technologies become part of the fabric of everyday life means that over time their effects become naturalised, such that they are no longer seen as being problematic. Indeed, the idea that you might separate yourself from the habits of everyday life and read a book in tranquil solitude doesn’t seem especially pathological. I am not suggesting that a certain relationship to reading can’t be problematic; but certainly a great deal of the initial reaction was moral panic.
The jolting break with print culture, has brought with it an entirely new mode of “unconnected and promiscuous reading” (and a new moral panic). The idea that reading leads to flightiness of thought, excessive lightness of foot, appears much less appropriate to a linear mode of reading such as the printed book, than to the associative, hyperlinked mode of reading found on the internet. A mode reading that is strangely both connected – which depends on connection, cannot do without the Other – and unconnected.
Almost all possible addictions have been subject at some point to the displacements and exaggerations typical of moral panic, and social media addiction is no different. But moral panic takes addiction as a given, known quantity, when of course it isn’t. What I want to suggest is that addiction to words in this sense might be similar to gambling addiction.
Compulsive gamblers play with a set of signifiers – the dots on a die, the suit on a card, the symbols on a slot machine – which in themselves are utterly meaningless. They ask of these signifiers a question – “what am I? what is my destiny?” – and they stake their being on the answer that those signifiers give. And when the answer is not what they wanted, they ante up; and when it is what they wanted, they ante up again, because this struggle is timeless, eternal. They get a strange pleasure from betting everything, tied to a terrible guilt over the debts they accumulate. Of course, in the long run the house always wins: and that is the answer given to the compulsive gambler. You are a loser, and your destiny is to die.
This is just a speculation on my part – a gamble or roll of the dice – but I want to suggest that if you were to conduct an analysis of tweets, quite a lot of their contents would include signifiers that are strictly meaningless (and not just phatic terms like ‘tbh’ and ‘fwiw’). In a sense, for social media addicts, tweets are combinatories of signifiers that are rolled on to the platform like dice, as a speculative test of luck. As a way of posing the existential question. 
Yes, the signifiers are not totally arbitrary, but nor are the choices that one makes in gambling (higher or lower, red or black, hit or sit, etc). No matter how random one tries to make them, they will always be determined by the laws of the unconscious. And of course, just like in gambling, in the long run the house always wins. The answer in the long run is always the same; and the addict always antes up. And having anted up yet again, against all advice and all evidence, the addict always offers the same rationalisation for doing so – one day I’ll have a big win and then I can quit. The unconscious fantasy behind such rationalisations is that they can master death.
This brings us back to another function of playing dead. It doesn’t just allow you to eat the other; it allows you to escape being eaten. Of course it is extravagantly paradoxical to describe a noisy activity like social media engagement a form of ‘silence’, a form of ‘playing dead’. To be absolutely clear, for many people it isn’t. But one way of posing the question of social media a-diction is to ask what this highly distracted kind of engagement, this unconnected connectedness, allows one to avoid saying? 
The mordant irony of the compulsive gambler’s unconscious fantasy of defeating death, is that the daily conflicts, debt and guilt they build up can become so horrifying to live with that they actually kill themselves. The spread of social media suicides allows us to think that something similar could be going on there.
Playing dead, ultimately, has something in common with the eternal oath of silence we all undertake.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

The parliamentary state of mind posted by Richard Seymour

And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night. -- Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

There is a claim in Christopher Bollas’s essay on ‘The Fascist State of Mind’, that theCommunist Manifesto, dixit Leo Kuper, enacts a “thoroughgoing dehumanisation of the bourgeoisie”. This dehumanisation  purportedly occurs in the lines on the bourgeoisie's tendency to drown everything in the icy water of egoistic calculation. 

Neither author bothers to evaluate the truth value of the claim, and nor of course do they interest themselves in whether there has ever been an acceptable, consensual interpretation of marxism which says that the bourgeoisie should be physically exterminated. Rather, the dehumanisation is (presumably) alleged to be there in the unconscious of the text.
Such a reading has to be symptomatic, however, eliding as it does lengthy passages of exaltation, lionisation and heroisation. The ironic structure of the text, the literary and political dialectic, depends upon the disappointment of real possibilities created only by the existence of capitalism and of the capitalist class. 
Kuper (and thus Bollas) fail as literary critics, political critics and psychoanalysts when they ignore the fundamental ambivalence of the Manifesto's attitude to the capitalist class. The passage from which the offending lines are extracted contains the following:
“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. … The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation. The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. … The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. … The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. … The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate … The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. … The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. … The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”
One can scarcely reconcile this with a thoroughgoing dehumanisation. I won't add more on the question of the text's ambivalence, since I have an essay covering this subject coming out soon.
To give the criticism its due, the lionisation makes the ensuing condemnation all the more compelling and forceful. And the creative and generative capacities of the bourgeoisie are framed within a context in which as a class it is held to be pitiless, calculating, without the ordinary human compassion. 
Yet this is not an analysis of human beings, but of class formation, and of the systemic imperatives of its reproduction. Class properties are relational properties; they are what you do, how you reproduce yourself, and only then, on account of that, what you are. To treat this as an act of theoretical dehumanisation is extraordinarily summary, gliding over the kinds of complexities which psychoanalysis generally finds it helpful to explore.
At any rate, framing Marxism in this way leads back to Bollas’s argument that the mind is “rather like a parliamentary order with instincts, memories, needs, anxieties, and object responses finding representatives in the psyche for mental processing” — and order of checks and balances, a “democratic order”. The metaphor is strained here, because the balancing of various interests is not the same thing as a democratic order.
Fascism, Bollas argues, involves at a psychic level a “killing off” of parts of the self, in favour of destructive narcissism. But this, again, is treated as an outgrowth of revolutionary ideology. Bakunin’s call for “tender feelings of family life, of friendship, love, gratitude, and even honour” to “be stifled in the revolutionary by a single cold passion for the revolutionary cause” is the cited as first example of this tendency. The argument might be slightly more interesting if it started off with destructive altruism.
The idea of an order of checks and balances is, of course, not so much liberal as conservative. It implies that we already know how the different ‘interests’ should be represented and balanced. It implies we know in advance that certain ‘interests’ have an intrinsic right to exist. It is an oddly a priori way to defend a parliamentary system of mental representation. It implies a kind of omniscience about what a good mental politics must consist of.
We might ask what sort of psychoanalysis it is that seeks the prototype for a healthy mind in an idealised healthy politics? What sort of psychoanalysis suppresses not only the ambivalence of its subject, but its own? What sort of psychoanalysis necessitates the suppression of class and history? There is a tendency in all psychoanalysis, Adam Phillips suggests, to become "a sophisticated form of adaptation," and that is a tendency that goes with omniscience.
There is no reason to assume that minds, whatever else they may be, are supposed to be 'balanced', or even democratic. What should a mind forged in oedipal capitalism look like, other than a struggle half in darkness, a knife-fight between shadows, a battlezone in which it is never clear what the stake is, other than the living body?

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On the Twelfth posted by Richard Seymour

As a boy, I went to most bonfire nights. 
They usually began at around 11.30pm on 11th July, with crowds of people gathering round a large stack of pallets, tires, old furniture, mattresses, and anything else that would burn. All of it drenched in petrol. At the stroke of midnight, someone would approach the pile, throw on some lit matches, and with a "yooo" from the crowd the giant stack would be rapidly engulfed in flames.
The children at these events would have enthusiastically participated in the recruitment of materials for, and building of the bonfire, raiding local factory yards and anywhere else with wood and tires. And seeing their efforts go up in smoke, they stood and gazed at the bonny blaze, or scampered around daring each other to jump over mini-bonfires dotted around the main event, or tried to steal stray cans of lager. Or, holophrastically blurted out slogans like, "fuck the Pope" (pron. "fawck the Poop"). Or, in a sing-song voice, "fuck the Pope and the IRA, doo da, doo da". Or tried to remember some lyrics from 'The Sash'.
There was always an ugly contingent of pissed Loyalist spides hanging around with the local UVF family who organised the blaze. And they were the organisers, or friends of the organisers. They were the ones who knew what they were there for, what the bonfire was all about, what 'R.E.M. 1690' meant, why "No King Barry Rule", and why it was necessary to "kill all taigs". Some of them might even have a certain, mythical, sense of history. They played dreary, murderous anti-Catholic songs, celebrations of the 'Volunteers' and of their proud history going back to William of Orange, while sinking can after can from stacks of 24 packs, followed by bottles of whisky and vodka. They worked themselves up for a night of petty terror. This might involve bricking the windows of some Catholic residents, for example. There was a family next door to us, whom we were good friends with, who never came out for bonfire night. Sometimes, I think, they made sure they were away for bonfire night. 
There was also the Parades next day to think about. Some of these young men were band members, after all. I remember one year, members of the Murray Memorial Flute Band found a Catholic bus-driver, and stabbed him repeatedly and left him lying on the roadside. An elderly woman tried to save the man: she just kept wrapping him in towels, ten or a dozen of them, whatever she had in her house. Of course, he bled to death in her arms before the ambulance got there. These people, our bonfire companions, were the scum of the estates: the psychos, the bullies, the bigots, the refuse. They terrified everyone, some more than others. They ignored us as we played, huddled in groups; we occasionally looked with fear and fascination at them.

It's hard to be sentimental about the working class when you've seen this side of it. Perhaps you can call to mind those ghoulish images of Southern lynchings, where there are white children, white parents, local notables, sheriffs, men and women, gathered around the hanging body of a black man, smiling for the camera. They have the atmosphere of some sort of macabre festival of supremacy, celebrating the confirmation of white dominance, the plenitude of white being, by means of a human sacrifice. On bonfire night, people were burned in effigy -- the IRA man, the Pope, the fenian, the fenian's fleg -- while the actual terror was carried out somewhere off-stage, out of the bright glare of the consuming fire. But no doubt it served a similar affirming purpose, only it's the British crown that is affirmed.
This culture, long-term, is on its way out. Younger people in Northern Ireland are increasingly anxious to get out of the cultural, political and economic sump. The exodus of people from the six counties every year tells its own story. Local councils, anxious to attract multinational investment, are increasingly embarrassed by the outward signs of Loyalism. Some of them spend a lot of time trying to erase its hallmarks -- the red-white-and-blue kerbstones, the bunting, occasionally the murals. It is not that they have stopped being sectarian, but there's a desire for respectability, and one really wants to go back to the war.
But there are quite a lot of desolate urban backwaters in Northern Ireland. Places which never had much to begin with, and have been losing hand-over-fist for decades. Places which, insofar as they had any life, were supported by a local factory that has long since gone out of business, or by small businesses which have given up in the face of out-of-town malls (shappin centres), or by army barracks or giant police stations which have been closed.

Now these are not even necessarily the poorest parts of the six counties. The proddy-gerrymandered eastern half has always been the more affluent half. It's where the infrastructure is built, where factories are built, where employment is concentrated. But there's less of what little there was to go around. There are a lot of dead town centres. And there are a lot of people who want 'their country' back. They want Britain to mean what they once thought it meant. They want to be British. They're beginning to think they lost the war. In a way, they're right, of course: but they lost to the extent that their side won. They lost because they're stuck in a polity which they fought to preserve, but which has no raison d'etre other than to be at war.

What would you do with this cultural rubble, this debris? Maybe you would expect me to advocate a salvaging operation. To go looking for tiny slivers of salvation right there in the DUP's fiefdoms. Maybe, because I'm like this, you would expect a bit of ecstatic nature writing, carolling the coast road, pine forests, volcanic causeway, Norman-era castles, county-sized lough, braids, six mile waters, round towers, irregular, poky hamlets and villages, viciously wind-whipped countryside, mountainscapes lined with ancient walls where you're apt to suddenly find yourself surrounded by rushing heavenly clouds. Why not, indeed, go up to the mountaintop?

But I have a better idea. What I suggest we do is this. We take the flegs. The guns. The balaclavas. The murals. The Britishness. The sombre, violent Orange pubs. The wee hard man prototype. The provincial evangelism. The bowler hats and sashes. The small town politics of respectability. The concern for "traditional mawrridge". The twenty-four packs. The smug, 'our wee country' attitude. The platitudinous veneration of community, and the lamentation of their 'division'. The pompous UTV newscasters. The under-serviced, jobless sink estates with their faded red-white-and-blue.
And we get it all together. In a neat, conical pile. And, at the stroke of midnight, as 11th turns to 12th, we burn it, with holy fire.

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Kafka's Castle posted by Richard Seymour

"That truly Kafkaesque Castle, the modern state." -- Nicos Poulantzas.

I. In ‘The Castle’, it is never entirely clear what is happening. 
There are officials who appear to govern. No one knows what they do, exactly. The only thing that gives them any sort of definition, any sort of concreteness, is the snow-bound castle at the centre of the village, from which they govern.
This is the outward face of the bureaucracy. In the story, it appears at first as a void. This blank, silent screen encourages the inhabitants to project their own fantasies onto authority, so that they all entertain elaborate, inconsistent theories about what authority is actually doing.
The main fantasy is one of omnipotence. Their paperwork, the authorities claim, is perfect, without flaws. In reality, as with any bureaucracy, it is riddled with dysfunctions, which are dealt with through expedients such as, for example, burning papers. 
The guarantor of the centralised unity of the Castle, its seamless perfection, is its worshipped ruler, the Count. But, as Kafka’s notes show, and those ruled by the Castle are unaware, the Count is dead. It is the supposed — hypothesised — omnipotence of the Castle which ensures that it continues to be obeyed. But it is also that same supposition which ensures that rules of authority make no sense, and impose impossible demands, since they can never be challenged.
If the Castle weren’t a physical object, we would have to ask what it is. And since, in the story, it stands metonymically for the authority, which isn’t a physical object, we’re still none-the-wiser. The authority, it seems clear enough, is a state. But what is a state? A state is something of a mystery.

II. Neither the policeman nor the truncheon, neither a subject nor an object, the state refuses to resolve into clear boundaries.
Thinking it through, what are the experiences we have of the state? Job centres, traffic wardens, council offices and hospitals. Schools, soldiers and army barracks. Police and police stations. Birth and death certificates. Road sweepers, rubbish bins and tax collectors. Border patrol and building inspectors. Laboratories, land surveyors and labyrinths. Speeds signs and spending targets. Parks, palaces and parliaments. 
Banks and corporations are entities provided for, legalised, by the state. Work is conducted and remunerated within a framework provided by the state. Sex is had, or not had, under the law of the state. Ingestion and egestion are functions regulated by the state. The scope of state activity is vast, ranging from end to end of the territory, from the sewers to the seas and skies.
What single logic, what single necessity, what single function or structure, holds all of this together? We can think of the Castle in this context as part of the theatrics of the state, much as the changing of the guard, or a presidential speech to a joint session of congress, or an inquiry or inquisition, are theatrics. They produce an image of the state which appears to justify the use of the definite article.
If we didn’t have these theatrics, we wouldn’t know what the state was.

III. As the plight of Kafka’s villagers makes obvious, knowing what the state is, isn’t much help. This knowledge is a fantasy. If we start by not knowing what the state is, we will get a little bit further.
Peter Bratsis, drawing on Gaston Bachelard’s Psychoanalysis of Fire, argues that “the state idea” is a bit like pre-scientific ideas of fire. A flame appears to be some sort of object or essence, and it has “palpable confirmations” — light and heat — that appear to support this idea. This gives rise to substantialist or animistic ideas about fire, wherein it is believed to be some sort of spirit or essence. Once the idea is established, it shapes how we register the palpable experience of fire, such that it is very difficult to let go of the idea.
The way out of this impasse was to analyse flame, not as a thing in itself, nor as a spirit, but as an outcome of certain physical processes. Only the analysis of these processes can tell you what fire is. Likewise, if we want to understand what a state is, we have to start with the processes.
This is, obviously, an argument for Nicos Poulantzas’s approach, in State, Power, Socialism, which describes the state as only the effect, the outcome, of those immense, complex processes of social production, reproduction, and contestation, which are summed up in the marxist phrase, “class struggle”. The state, in this sense, is a particular “material condensation of the balance of class forces”.
The thought is similar to Foucault’s contention, in The Birth of Biopolitics, that “the state does not have an essence”. Far from being “an autonomous source of power” in itself, it is:
“nothing else but the effect, the profile, the mobile shape of a perpetual statification or statifications, in the sense of incessant transactions which modify, or move, or drastically change, or insidiously shift sources of finance, modes of investment, decision-making centres, forms and types of control, relationships between local powers, the central authority, and so on. In short, the state has no heart, as we well know, but not just in the sense that it has no feelings, either good or bad, but it has no heart in the sense that it has no interior. The state is nothing else but the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities.”
Mark that: the state “has no interior”. The Castle has no heart, dark or enlightened.

IV. To leave it here would be to imply that the “state idea” is just an illusion and nothing more. But even in the Castle, that isn’t true. The idea has real effects in the organisation of power, and is made real in a sense through its effects.
In a recent book, Bratsis warns against the temptation to “take it literally.” Although he doesn’t say so, this could imply that the “state idea” is a kind of metaphor. As Raymond Williams tells us in Keywords, the modern term ‘state’ has origins in the conception of rank linked to political sovereignty: the dignity and status of the king. It came, through the seventeenth century, to be distinguished from another term, society, which represented an alternative order of being. The state came to signify the apparatus of political power, and society the association of free individuals. 
To this we could add reference to the peculiar etymology of the term “body politic” which in the medieval period was the second body of the monarch next to the frail physical body. For much of the time, this was treated literally, in law, in that the body politic was considered a real manifestation of the king’s corporeality. In the modern sense, the body politic simply refers to the realm, the domain of rule and governance.
So, the “state idea” contains embedded within itself the idea of rank and hierarchy, the idea of sovereign power separate from society, the idea of a body consubstantial with that of the king, and the idea of a realm. And all of these ideas have played an important role in the history of state formation, the elaboration of jurisprudence, the allocation of rights, the organisation of territory, and so on.

V. In The Castle, ‘all’ that is happening is a series of bureaucratic processes which organise political power. 
The Count doesn’t really rule: he is dead, his body is decomposing. That things go on as they were suggests that the Count was only necessary as a signifier, as a social location that people could believe in — or that they could at least believe others believed in.
Nonetheless, there is centralisation, there is hierarchy, there are chains of command and flows of information. As fissiparous and dysfunctional as the processes of the Castle are, the idea that the Count rules and that the system works perfectly, organises the processes of government.
But if the Count is dead, on whose behalf do the officials rule? Not ‘the people,’ surely? They are kept ignorant and excluded from power. Not themselves? They could do a lot better with their rule than organising this absurdist paper-chase. They, ultimately, are subject to the same ludicrous law as everyone else, even if they occupy a special rank.
The state is always a state under law. And law is what, exactly? It is, you could say, the dominant ideology in any society, exhaustively distilled into a series of axioms determining how things shall be done, and not done, articulated with the means of violence. The law is where the consent-coercion dichotomy breaks down, since the refusal to consent is met with physical force.
Being ideology, there is nothing intrinsically rational about legal axioms or the more-or-less predictable chains of juridical reasoning unfolding from them. Nor is there anything universally true about them. However, law selects the ontological and epistemological premises of the social order under law, and encodes them in the legal form which rationalises and universalises them.
Of course, the field of law isn’t univocal. It is always contested, and there is always room for the balance of legal forces to alter, to be pushed in a more liberal or fascist direction, but always in a form determined by the way in which the ruling class dominates in it.
And this is the final point. It is the law which says there is such a thing as ‘the state’. It is the law which appears to give it clear boundaries, a clear definition, in the separation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres (which maps onto the state-society dichotomy). It is the law which orchestrates the public-private dichotomy and which regulates the legitimate range of actions within each sphere.
But of course, the law is just the state speaking in its dominant register. The public-private dichotomy is a division internal to the state. It is the state giving itself the appearance of concreteness, of definite boundaries, of an interior. It is the state giving itself a body and a heart, the latter shrouded in darkness.
So, in this sense, whatever other functions and characteristics we might wish to allocate to the state, there is this one which is consistent. From beginning to end, from cradle to grave, from coast to coast, the state is process whose purpose is to make us believe in the state.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Labour and immigration posted by Richard Seymour

I.  Labour's policy on immigration is as yet unclear. 
Corbyn has said that, though Labour is not 'wedded' to 'free movement', he refuses to set reducing immigration as a goal, or set any targets. 
The Labour manifesto committed Labour to a "fair" system of managing immigration, without it being clear what that meant. There were some inclusive, humane signals such as a promise to review Britain's diabolical asylum system, and end income thresholds for residency. But what does 'fairness' look like when it comes to migrant labour? Is it even possible?
A Labour policy paper leaked during the general election indicated that the party would favour adapting the current five-tiered visa system, "including the currently unused tier applicable to those seeking low-skilled, unskilled or seasonal work".
This would imply that, rather than using the Schengenian 'free movement' system, Labour would operate a US-style 'green card' system. In such a system, those migrating at the bottom tier might have a shorter visa stay than those higher up. This might potentially change the composition of labour migration -- indeed, Nigel Farage might get exactly what he claimed to want, with more migrants coming from other parts of the world like India. But it need not necessarily reduce the total number of migrants, since Labour has made it clear that reducing net totals is not a priority. What it would do, unarguably, is significantly expand border controls.  

II. Schengenian 'free movement' is a liberal institution that is also racist in principle. Free movement, so far as it goes, is desirable, and something is lost by ending even this limited form. The answer to Schengen racism is not Little Britain racism. However, it is analytical dereliction not to grapple with what 'free movement' actually means.
The Schengen Agreement is one of the laws of the European Union, originally developed in 1985. Incorporated into the EU legal structure with the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, this law allows for the free movement of people within the Union. 
It is one of the famous "four freedoms" in the Union, the others being freedoms for capital. Free movement of people was a logical extension of the plans to create a single market: in effect, to treat the members of the Union as parts of one interlocked capitalist economy.
But freedom within meant raising walls and razor-wire to the outside. Coterminously, therefore, there was a tightening of border controls around Europe, and new systems such as FRONTEX were created to help prevent what it called, and continues to call, illegal migration
The majority of 'illegal' migrants arrive with passport and visa by plane, and work in the jobs they were hired to work in. But that is not what the labelling was getting at. If states, is it were, 'state', one of the ways they do so is by creating social classifications and giving them normative and juridical force. Any naming in this sense is performative. To call a particular group of immigrants illegal if you are a state is, in a way, to make them so. Certainly, insofar as the states of the European Union preemptively deemed the vast majority of asylum seekers to be 'illegal', it treated them as such, and developed expanding systems of surveillance and monitoring to arrange speedy deporttations.
The Dublin Agreement, struck in 2004, stated that refugees had to place their asylum claim in the first country they arrived at. In practice, since refugees travel overland or by sea, often the first country they arrive at will be Greece or Italy, so that countries of north-western Europe like Germany aren’t bothered. Their fingerprints are taken where they land, and fed into a database so that they can be tracked.
Since 2009, the unelected executive of the EU, the European Commission, has been developing new protocols under the rubric of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, tightening up frontier controls and mandating deportation of all ‘illegals’ in all member states. These changes were informed by the increasingly securitarian and Islamophobic drift of many member states, especially France which then held the EU presidency, in the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’.
And, of course, the system is currently supported not only by FRONTEX raids on refugee boats, resulting in a spike in mediterranean drownings, but also by the biggest of all illegal pushbacks, consecrated in the deal between Merkel and Erdogan.
If you take the approach of Domenico Losurdo, there is nothing particularly paradoxical in a fundamentally liberal institution, free movement, having this fundamentally racist obverse. Liberalism has always been distinguished by its logic of exclusions; there is always someone for whom the universal doesn't apply.

III.  There has, since the 1990s, been a significant increase in labour migration in the United Kingdom, the great majority of it coming from within the European Union. The percentage of foreign-born workers in the UK increased from 3 million (7.2% of the total labour force) in 1993 to 7 million (16.7%) in 2015.
About a third of these live and work in London, on the pattern of 'global cities'. The low-paid among them, the majority, have become a racialised 'reserve army of labour' in the classic marxian pattern. This has been accompanied, not by the thinning out of the middle expected by 'global cities' literature, but by professionalisation of occupations in the London labour market, with a growing number of managers and professionals. Nonetheless, there was some occupational polarisation with an absolute increase in top jobs, and a complementary absolute increase in the number of low-wage jobs at the bottom.
Why has this happened? There is a marxist political economy, rooted in the study of migrant economies in apartheid South Africa, which can explain some of it. In particular, the costs of reproducing migrant labour in a 'free movement' zone are much lower than the costs of reproducing domestic labour. The price of labour is suppressed by a number of factors, including the fact that for short-term migrants, the inputs are determined in part by prices in Warsaw or Bucharest -- so, if you have a family to send money back to, a little extra money made in London counts for a lot more back home. There are also the collective conditions of housing and transport for many workers, which reduces costs even more.
But, of course, 'the economy' is never free-standing, never exists apart from its political and legal constitution. The impact of welfare policies, labour market laws, and 'managed migration' collectively help constitute hierarchies in work. Successive British governments since the Thatcher-era have made a competitive advantage out of low wage labour, relying on supply-side improvements to reduce the 'natural' level of unemployment. They have rolled back state protections and wage bargaining, imposed competition in local services, and relied on markets to discipline the bottom end of the labour market and impose flexibility. Changes to the welfare system, hailed as 'workfare', have been designed to promote this flexibility and low-wage culture. This means that where labour markets are tight, and shortages need to be filled, it is less likely that they will be filled by raising wages: that is not what is meant by 'making work pay'. 
It is within this broadly neoliberal growth formula that it makes sense for employers to turn to low-wage, insecure migrant labour. The Work Foundation, a think-tank initially set up under Will Hutton's leadership, elucidates some of the assumptions behind this. In short, it argues that given the government's macroeconomic commitments, the choice was between turning to migrant labour, or using high interest rates to deflate wage pressures arising from tighter labour markets at the bottom.
In other words, this racialised form of labour market segregation is not just a product of economic processes, but is a result of a whole orientation of statecraft -- what David Harvey somewhere called a "spatio-temporal fix" for capitalist dysfunction.

IV.  Does this mean, then, that UK-born workers are in some sense being undercut by migrant workers? Not so fast.
First of all, remember that many of the new low-wage jobs which have been created simply couldn't be filled by workers born and permanently residing in the UK, given the costs of reproducing their labour. The jobs market is not, in that sense, a zero-sum game. Migration allowed for a significant expansion in total employment, some of which otherwise would not have happened.
Second, insofar as there is increased competition in the labour market, there is very little evidence for any generalised wage-depressant effect. Research suggests that there is no net negative impact from migration on wages. Many studies, for example by the centre-left IPPR think-tank, suggest a moderate net increase in wages, as does a similar study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CRAM) at UCL. 
Third, there is, however, plenty of evidence that migrant labour itself is exploited by this system, and that insofar as there are wage-depressant effects at the bottom, migrant workers are the ones to suffer. This is indicated by LSE research, which finds that "the only sizeable effect of increased immigration is on the wages of those immigrants who are already here."
The CRAM analysis suggests that in fact the moderate overall growth of wages is concentrated at the top of the wage structure, and that one possible explanation for this is that as migrant workers are being paid less than the market value of their labour in the UK, there is an additional surplus that is redistributed up the chain.
On top of this, some of the redistribution is worked out through the social wage. The net fiscal impact of immigration was estimated by the Migration Observatory at Oxford to be small but positive. And the OBR estimates that higher rates of migration, by increasing the working age population relative to the dependent population, reduces the pressure on government borrowing. This doesn't mean migration in certain areas didn't increase the load on local services; it just means that there was no reason why the government couldn't have more than covered any additional outlay necessary.
In the last analysis, in marxist terms, all state expenditures are a deduction from profits. Even if they're funded by consumption taxes, that merely tends to push up the price of labour. Of course, things in the real world are never as pure as in the last analysis, since raising consumption taxes can be one moment in a wider process of ruling class struggle intended to cut working-class consumption overall. That is, after all, what austerity is all about. And it is quite possible that concretely, in the actual rhythm of political struggle, an increase in revenues to the Treasury would have helped offset the pressure to cut expenditures. But, from the point of view of this last analysis, we would have to say that the net contribution of migrant labour to British coffers is a net saving to profits.
However, all of these effects are minor relative to the total labour market and to total state expenditures. What I am describing is a situation in which a combination of 'workfare', 'flexibility', privatisation, competition, 'free movement' in some areas, and 'managed migration' in others, increased the rate of exploitation of migrant workers to the benefit of the capitalist class. But it is also a truism that labour market segregation harms the bargaining power of those supposedly in the 'privileged' position in it.

V.  All of these claims and measurements are, of course, relative to a set of prevailing macroeconomic assumptions. If you make a different set of assumptions about how economies work, then different conclusions are entailed.
What I mean is this. The debate about migrant labour is structured around the red herring of whether 'free movement' undercuts UK-born workers in terms of employment and wages. Even if there were significant evidence of it doing so, it would be a red herring, since the grammar of the question is wrong. There is no abstract 'free movement', only the freedom of movement within a given economic and policy context. You can have free movement on a neoliberal and racist-exclusionary basis -- which, indeed, is part of a system which does disadvantage UK-born workers as well as migrant workers -- or you can have free movement on a socialist, or at least social-democratic, basis.
For example, suppose a Labour government were to reverse decades of neoliberal orthodoxy. Suppose that, in place of counter-inflation it privileged full employment and high wages as its main economic policy priority. Suppose its goal was to create competitive advantages through state investment, rather than eke out competitive advantages from low-wage labour. Suppose it rolled back anti-union legislation, so that the long decline of union representation was reversed. Suppose it reorganised the welfare state, abolishing workfare and sanctions and all the forms of coercion designed to make people more available for low-wage work. Suppose it rolled back privatisation and competition measures, and introduced collective bargaining where possible.
Setting aside the difficulties in actually achieving this against entrenched opposition from the business class, such an approach would have to imply an attack on labour market segregation. If anyone is tempted to say this means ending free movement, let me say they've missed the point entirely. Creating new legal restrictions on migrant labour simply increases its precarity and vulnerability. 
By expanding the remit of the border men, and intensifying surveillance, one wouldn't even necessarily reduce the total amount of migration -- and Labour has said this isn't a priority -- but it would help drive migrant workers further into the shadows where they are more susceptible to violence and hyper-exploitation. They would end up with less pay, with more immiserated existence, living in even worse death-trap accommodation. It would create more "illegal" migrants, and thus more misery. That doesn't suppress wage-competition. It might give it a new, more segregated structure, with a sharpened, racialised set of advantages and disadvantages -- but that would in aggregate intensify labour market competition and strengthen the bargaining position of employers, particularly the cut-throat poverty employers.
Rather, for a leftist growth model to work, one would need to give up completely on the idea of squeezing a competitive advantage out of a bargain basement economy. One would need, if anything, a far more egalitarian labour market policy. One would need to proactively suppress labour market segregation on all axes. One would need various measures to ban exploitation along gender and racial axes. One would need all workers, regardless of origin, to have equal pay for the same work, equal access to the state, equal protection under law, equal access to housing and welfare, equal access to union representation, and so on. 
Breaking with neoliberalism means breaking, not with free movement as a goal and principle, but with a racially segregated labour system. This isn't uncomplicated. Suppressing competition through state intervention reduces the 'pull' factors for migrants. From a certain point of view, it reduces their opportunities. But it does so, precisely by levelling up, by attacking labour market segregation as a principle.

VI.  It would be completely unrealistic to expect Labour to embrace an open borders policy. The balance of forces in Labour, let alone the wider country, simply wouldn't let that happen. I'm not even sure who would be able to organise around such a demand, or what the political effects of doing so would be. "Momentum for Open Borders"? I can't see it.
However, that doesn't mean progress cannot be made, and reaction resisted. To an extent, it already has been. In the New Labour era, we had what proved to be a toxic combination; a 'free movement' system organised along segregated patterns supported by labour market and workfare policy; and a set of political triangulations in which every other week a minister would expound on the need to control immigration and enforce integration, especially of those troublesome Muslims. Taken alongside the breakdown of large, unionised workforces as Labour allowed manufacturing to go bust, and the concomitant growth of racial segregation among UK-born workers in the labour market, this contributed to gains made by the far right.
The last general election abruptly changed the dynamic. Labour didn't win, but it surged to a degree without precedent post-1945. And it did so, despite (or because of) the fact that Corbyn was widely depicted as someone who wanted an immigration free-for-all. Despite (or because of) the fact that he was attacked day in and day out as an alibi of foreign terrorists. Despite (or because of) the fact that he systematically repudiated the very right-wing arguments on immigration to which all previous Labour leaderships have grovellingly deferred. Despite (or because of) the fact that he refused to set a target for reducing immigration levels.

Yes, Labour's official position was ambiguous, and yes that may have softened the attitude of some of the 'red' Ukippers, and defused some of the attacks. But in retrospect, and in future, I don't think it can be taken for granted that a broadly pro-immigrant stance is an electoral liability. I think, with the electorate changing, it is possible over the medium term to a) win the argument for maintaining such free movement as we currently have, b) win the argument for de-stigmatising refugees, abolishing the detention centres and ending the appalling conditions in Calais; and c) addressing the decades-long, systematic, racist exclusions aimed at citizens of what used to be called the 'New Commonwealth'.
At the very least, the election showed that provided it has a radical agenda that excites its supporters, Labour doesn't have to be scared of the Crosby smear-and-dog-whistle machine, of tabloid poison, or even of Ukip. The Left can be confident, rather than cowed, in its arguments. It doesn't have to accept either a defensive posture of uncritically crawling to the EU and its version of free movement, or an even more defensive posture of demanding an end to free movement. 

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