Sunday, April 23, 2017
Mourning is movement; melancholia is stasis.
We live, supposedly, in an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’. This is a misunderstanding. ‘Pre-post-truth politics’ includes the era of the ‘war on terror’ and its deceptions, and the orthodoxies and falsehoods which led to the elite debacle of the credit crunch. It is technique, not truth, which has been found wanting. That is, the idea of a ‘fact’ as an objective measurement of reality, is losing ground in the post-credit crunch era.
‘Post-truth politics’ is what, until now, we have been living under: technocracy, in a word. The “monstrous worship of facts”, as Wilde called it, is nothing other than an avoidance of the question of truth. The category of ‘fake news’ describes a fusion of infotainment, propaganda, public relations and churnalism which has been long in the making, now accelerated by online advertising revenues. The moral panic which blames ‘fake news’ for the rise of fascism and right-wing populism misses the point that these degraded ecologies of information have triumphed in the vacuum of political possibilities produced by the post-Cold War consensus.
What the moral panic also obscures, by displacing it, is the fact that ‘fake news’ is just one symptom of the breakdown of the near ideological monopoly previously enjoyed by large commercial and state media outlets. The fragmentation of content, the rise of ‘narrowcasting’ on social media, the proliferation of producers — more people are published authors now than ever before, rewarded in ‘likes’ rather than cash payment — produces as many opportunities as pathologies. New types of information and new ways of sharing it, new literacies, new modes of writing, are becoming possible.
The problem is that we grope toward these opportunities in the shadow of catastrophe. The fall of the USSR didn’t signal the defeat of socialism so much as confirm it, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, curdles and turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
- [ ] In the beginning was the lie. Freud points out that it is a condition of our autonomy that we can successfully lie: once we know mum and dad can’t read our minds, we can think freely and rather subversively. Milan Kundera argues that the injunction not to lie is one that can never be made to an equal, because we have no right to demand answers from equals. Adorno argued that, “the injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to a sabotage of thought.”
- [ ] And if I’m top-loading this talk with quotes and intellectual armoury, it is because I’m aware of how merely common-sensical is, what Wilde called “the monstrous worship of facts” — exactly what we have been living under. A politics exclusively consisting of facts is a tyranny of technique and an avoidance of truth. The relationship of lies to truth turns out to be rather more interesting than we would assume.
- [ ] So when we talk of “post-truth politics”, with the implication that we have just departed from an era of unalloyed truth-telling, from Iraq to the credit crunch, we might be making a huge category error. In truth, it is not truth, but facts, which have been found wanting; facts, as somehow purely objective measurements of social realities which, because intrinsically relational, can never be purely objective. Expertise, as Michael Gove reminds us, has made us sick; its seeming commonsensical neutrality exposed as merely the prestige of the ruling ideology. Sir Humphrey Appleby can sound like a technocrat only for as long as the ends to which techniques are crafted are taken for granted.
- [ ] Those blaming the internet for this state of affairs run up against the difficulty that the internet doesn’t exist. It is by now a cultural commonplace that the Internet, as Internet jargon has it, it isn’t “a thing”: jokes about the internet in South Park and The IT Crowd make light of the tendency to reify the internet by representing it as a single broadband router. And we get the joke, because we know that what we call the internet is a series of processes and relations mediated by its technological bases and protocols. But we forget it, too, if we succumb to either cyber-idealism or cyber-cynicism, by reinforcing too strict a demarcation between the online and the offline.
- [ ] I think it would be useful, therefore, to start with the kind of activity that is involved in the internet, and particularly in social media: that is writing.
- [ ] We are all authors. Interrogate that we: the differential access to the internet is obviously raced, and classed, and in an interesting way, gendered -- it isn't just about affordability and bandwidth, it is about how much work you have to do. A consequence of the internet is that, we all write, and we are all published. Because of email, social media, and instant messaging services, we now spend more of our lives writing than we ever have. We are acquiring new literacies at a ferocious rate. We have yet to grasp the full significance of this vast expansion of literacy, this democratisation (and further commodification) of writing. One thing we do now is that we are all becoming amateur hermeneuticists, scanning quickly through acres of text, learning to discern, quick sharp, how to discern trolling and ‘fake news’, paid advertisements, charlatanry, and scams. We’re also learning the whereabouts of all kinds of invisible and rapidly shifting cultural thresholds; things that can and cannot be said and in what way.
- [ ] We are all, putting it slightly differently, artists of the self. When you write, you invent yourself, give yourself a specific embodiment. By putting some part of your being into the form of words, you're giving it a corporeal shape that it would not otherwise had. You are not just 'expressing' something that was already there, but creating something new. And you're doing this every day, all the time. The format in which you can do so matters. Rather than keeping diaries, many of us now metabolise our lives online, for a public. Our pets, our dating mishaps, our family lives, our jobs, our accidents, the quiddity of experience is inscribed in a public realm in the heavily stylised format of tweets and posts, with current moods, filters, hashtags, emojis, stickers and the rest affording us a convenient short-hand to make ourselves conformable to our peers.
- [ ] Of course, there is another form of writing that is achieving a degree of autonomy from human creators, and that is computer programming and script. It is completely non-phonetic writing which reminds us that writing began with the knot or quipu, read through touch, and it does as much to give us embodiment as what we may write in our phonetic alphabets.
- [ ] Social media is not new -- non-commercial leftwing popular newspapers in the past operated as a kind of social media -- but capitalist social media arguably is. The social media formats in which most of us do most of our writing is so structured as to make petty entrepreneurs out of us. Our writing becomes a form of corporate personality, a sales pitch seeking to attract eyeball attention and 'followers'. This both a democratic opening, and a property-based closure; both an unprecedented opportunity, and an acceleration of the ‘culture of narcissism’ that Christopher Lasch worried about. It supports to an extent Manuel Castells’ argument about ‘creative autonomy’, since it breaks the ideological monopoly of the broadcasters and print media; but it also supports the argument of Philip Mirowski and to some extent Evgeny Morozov that in its networked individualism (or entrepreneurialism), it is a playground for neoliberalism.
- [ ] Technologies are not socially and politically neutral. If nuclear power tends to support hierarchical, secretive structures, social media tends to support the opposite: a panopticon effect. Individually, this has both opportunities and costs.
- [ ] The internet is a rigged lottery. If our capitalist social media accounts are indeed set up like enterprises competing for eyeball attention, then going viral or 'trending' is like winning the lottery. And in principle, anyone can win. The potential audience for your writing literally is the entire internet. In practice, of course, the lottery is mostly won by well-placed media corporations and public relations firms dominating the terrain.
- [ ] Even if we do win, it can be the worst thing that happens. While most of us dream of going viral with that one insightful tweet or post, few of us are equipped to maximise any opportunities that arise from positive publicity, or to cope with the costs of negative publicity — which might include shaming or trolling campaigns, themselves a devolved form of tabloid expose and bottom-feeding culture. We may be treated as if we're small enterprises, but since we are not corporations with public relations budgets, we are vastly under-resourced to handle the attention we may potentially receive.
- [ ] Far from simply challenging the ideological power of the old media, moreover, at critical moments it arguably amplifies and exacerbates it. The rise of narrowcasting and the proliferation of content producers helps to disperse the concentrated spectacle of broadcast news into the diffuse spectacle of Twitter and Facebook. This can even be more effective in securing consent, as Guy De Bord pointed out, because it works through seduction and commodity competition, rather than simple top-down violence. This is to stipulate a different form of presence of violence within the organisation of consent, rather than a withdrawal of violence.
- [ ] This is in part because capitalist social media isn’t an organised opposition or alternative to the mainstream but a formal extension of it looped into new economies of attention. If one thinks of the England riots and the role of social media in allowing certain points of view to be ‘spontaneously’ organised — pro-police and counter-subversive attitudes and campaigns — one can also call to mind those attitudes which were more effectively identified and punished, by looking at the case Azhar Ahmed, the #twitterjoketrial or any number of instances wherein social media users have been prosecuted under public order legislation.
- [ ] Whence then the fear of post-truth politics? And the moral panic about ‘fake news’? The category of ‘fake news’ starts to collapse from the inside when you examine it up close. The Washington Post, in its war against Russian-inspired fake news stories, has repeatedly published untruthful claims about Russian subversion in the US. It would be stretching credulity to say that Post’s falsehoods are less fake because well-intended: as if the newspaper of the DC establishment doesn’t have its own propaganda goals, or its own record of disseminating intelligence falsehoods. In truth, what we call ‘fake news’ is often either infotainment, PR, rumour, celebrity gossip, military or state propaganda, churnalism, or a combination of all of these — tendencies that were already well underway in the old media. So in what sense are we ‘post-truth’?
- [ ] We could start with the lies we tell, and the truths they inadvertently tell. Why should it be that the shift in political imaginaries means that people are more likely to be taken in by the idea that Mexican immigrants are rapists, than by fuzzy satellite imagery of weapons laboratories? Both of these lies displace colonial desire in different ways, but the shift almost repeats the shift from global white-supremacy to defensive white nationalism: each different ways of preserving racial distinction organised around the signifier of whiteness, as a signifier of limitless being, omnipotence and plenitude.
- [ ] And we could go back to Freud here: because lying on the couch, one can’t help but tell the truth one way or another. Indeed, it is when the patient stops reeling off the banal facts, whatever status they may have, and starts to lie, that the truth of her desire begins to emerge. The lies we are prepared to speak, and believe, says a lot about our desires, often thwarted and displaced: and that is why correcting a lie, fact-checking and all the rest of it, is often useless by itself. Though necessary, it does nothing to get to the other place, the place of desire, which is the place of political truth. That is how a well-informed but politically inept Nick Clegg could be so comprehensively defeated by a facile liar attuned to the dreamwork of politics named Nigel Farage.
- [ ] This place of desire is the nocturnal side of reason, on the side of what Adorno referred to as “pleasure and paradise”. But if desire is excluded from politics, if it becomes simply a matter of management of the status quo, and of assembling coalitions to prevent major changes, then desires which might project into the future, curdle and turn nostalgically reactionary.
- [ ] That is the real relationship of post-truth politics to the new far right. Post-truth politics is the triumph of managerial politics, of a politics in which after 1989 the long-standing defeat of communism was finally registered, with an immediate drastic contraction of the horizon of possibility. As Enzo Traverso put it, “an entire representation of the twentieth-century”, in which the disasters of the age were also the ground for revolutionary hopes, fell apart.
- [ ] One reason why social media couldn’t ever the Shangri-la of a new radically horizontalist activism predicated on a democracy of writing, is because of what it does to our writing. Twitter, for example, aims to mimic in some ways the patterns of speech, especially with its multimodal, digressive tendencies -- ironically, it is the non-phonetic aspects of writing that come to aid here, above all the emoticon. But of course, it also reduces speech to its tiniest molecules, 140 characters, and generates such a rapid turnover of content that it produces a tremendous pressure to fire off concise, immediate tweets and replies. And since the only incentive to participate in a conversation like that is because of the likes and retweets, attention and approval, this tends to mean that to an extent, people are only paying attention to what you are saying insofar as it gives them something to say, for the likes. This results on an insidious barbarisation of discourse, fractured, ungenerous, unrigorous, grandstanding, bullying, trolling, performances of whiteness, masculinity, repetitions of trauma -- if we are artists of the self, think what selves, personal and collective, this kind of writing permits us to fashion. We somehow have to be both in and against (capitalist) social media, somehow swimming against its currents, it's timelines, its temporalities and tendencies.
- [ ] But even if its protocols and structures had anything horizontal about them, even if they didn't favour marketing and accumulation, it emerged in the shadow of catastrophe. The eclipse of socialism was confirmed, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Letting go posted by Richard Seymour
— John Berger, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, p 55
“This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –”
— Emily Dickinson, After a great pain, a formal feeling comes.
Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks is a “counter-desecration phrasebook”: a vocabulary for valuing what we have just as we are about to lose it, just as we are losing it, just as we have already lost it.
It is as if the living world, of shivelight and suthering tides, of desire lines and whale’s ways, of glaise and drindle, sumping sea-lochs and high headlands, could be saved through re-description. As if it wasn’t already too late.
The last fourteen months have, one after another, broken global temperature records. Floods and droughts begin to assume Biblical proportions. Thousands of species disappear, forever, each year. Even on the mildest prognostications, they will disappear faster and faster.
With a 1.5 degree temperature increase above pre-industrial levels, 20-30 per cent of species risk extinction. With a 3.5 degree increase, the range is 40-70 per cent. We are already at 1.3 degrees, and 4 degrees is the current projected temperature by 2050, even if the Paris Agreement survives.
As the rate of acceleration increases, so does the probability of chaos. Scientists use the metaphor of ‘uncharted territory’ to describe this, since all we know for sure is what we are losing. What will never, ever be seen again.
Walking, in this way, becomes an urgent voyage, a pilgrimage, a visit to a dying patient. A stolen glimpse of what might have been won, had the earth ever been a common treasury.
But as Christopher Bollas points out, what we find in the environment is our own unconscious life — not in its narrative, nor in its scenery, but in keywords, objects. The more abstract, nonsensical and formless the terrain, the more we can project into it, and the more evocative it seems. Nothing is more evocative than what theologians, following Psalm 22, call ‘the night season’.
What you find in the burnt edge of a cool morning, the summer shimmer of riparian wetlands, clouds the size of cities soaking in a blue pool, or even in the literary outdoors, the cold mountains of Han-Shan, the freezing Yukon of Call of the Wild — is unconscious meaning.
Worlds of independence, adventure, possibility, decivilization, worlds teeming with potential, closer to birth than death. Oceanic immersion, the feeling of being held, protection. Phobias and anxieties. Screen memories. These private meanings always open out into public meaning. What Renee Lertzman calls “environmental melancholia” begins with lost worlds. Melancholia is a kind of freeze. Mourning is movement, and if you can’t mourn, you gather frost.
One of the biggest obstacles to mourning is that we can’t face our ambivalence: the extent to which we hated the lost object of our love. The ambivalence is complicated. On the one hand, it seems, no matter how much they meant to us, we’re always in some part of us glad to be shot of them. On the other hand, we also hate them for no longer being there. And there are the unconscionable pleasures and benefits that accrue from their absence.
We can hardly help being ambivalent about what we call ‘nature’ and its nemesis, fossil capital. The former means desperate, hard, labouring lives and early deaths. The latter, to the extent that it is coextensive with industrialisation, means comfort, central heating, celerity.
So what is the greenhouse defrosting of arctic sea ice, the bleached death of a coral reef, and the disappearance of thousands of species every year compared to air travel, moon voyages, genetic science laboratories, and the internet. What is the silence of the remote croft, or the murmur of the forest, compared to rising life expectations and falling infant mortality?
The other side of this ambivalence, the nocturnal side, is the knowledge — because this is no mystery, and anyone who wants to know already knows — that we are preparing a mass wake for the human species. It is a planned obsolescence. There are some hubristic billionaires who, by investing in survivalist Xanadus, fancy they will survive the collapse of the food chain and the destruction of habitable territory. Few have the luxury of that conviction. So, put another way, the questions above become: what is species death compared to another fifty years of life for capitalism?
It is useless to berate the insufficiently woke. We are all sleep-walking, and all half-dreaming, even if we dream of being awake. We are all hastening toward the last syllable of recorded time. And the point of melancholic subjectivity is that we are already berating ourselves. Our experience of powerlessness in the face of loss, and isolation before gigantic, tectonic forces, has already become our mantra of self-hate. Adding reproach in the name of the future would only accentuate our resentment of future generations, and our desire to punish them.
But if mourning is movement, it is also work. The work of mourning is not the same thing as the sharp, icicle stab of grief one might feel, while walking, when you suddenly realise that some day and soon, nothing that looks like this world will exist. It is the painful, laborious task of revisiting each memory, each thought, each impression, of what has been lost and, like Poe’s raven, meeting it with the judgement, “nevermore”. Mourning is not an uplifting process. It is a kind of despair, because it means giving up. First chill. Then stupor. Then the letting go.
Only when we can separate the object that has been lost, from what has been lost in it, do we recover. In other words, we give up without giving up. We fully and relentlessly recognise the loss, but we hold onto the qualities we saw in the lost object, because we think we can find a way to revive them in a new passion, a new attachment. We despair, but we do not submit.
“Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat,” Berger called it, speaking of the Palestinians and their Nakba. “Undefeated despair.”
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Against nature posted by Richard SeymourWe are being asked to believe. That is the first thing to take note of. We are exhorted to put aside doubt in the existence of human nature, and believe. The very fact that the argument is put in these terms is surely no accident. If 'human nature' were a self-evident reality that we could all agree on, there would be no need to believe. I don't "believe" in water, or air, or the colour blue; I can only believe in things that I can't know. Belief, in a sense, belongs to the register of certainty, but not knowledge.
Now the article goes on to claim that 'human nature' is something that we can know, but the conception that it offers is comparable to that other chestnut of contemporary discourse, 'British values'. Humans need to eat. Well, what's so special about that? Lots of animals need to eat. Humans need warmth. So do cockroaches. Humans are vulnerable to disease and organic decay. So is vegetation. Humans need to drink. So does Nigel Farage. That isn't 'human nature', that's just 'nature'.
The argument only really becomes interesting, and germane to the human, when it claims the existence of a human need, rooted in nature, for 'dignity' and 'autonomy'. But these are surely not needs in the sense that food and air are needs. They are the names for preferences, or desires, which are proper to linguistic creatures.
But once we are talking about language and desire, we are no longer strictly speaking talking about nature, because language and desire are historically and socially produced. Language marks the point at which the human animal makes a half-leap from nature to culture. In other words, as soon as you get to the characteristic that makes us properly human -- the fact that we are linguistic creatures -- you're already no longer in the domain of nature (indeed, you were never really in it).
And it is just as well to recognise this, because otherwise the argument becomes terribly tricky for socialists. Since the terms 'autonomy' and 'dignity' are glittering generalities which everyone is supposed to believe in (if only for themselves), having no intrinsic, uncontested, unhistorical, natural, given content, you have to engage in some logical gymnastics.
You can try to give these terms some content, at which point you risk bumping into all manner of phenomena which contradict them. For example, you might find that some people (maybe some Trump voters) will give up what you have defined as 'autonomy', in order to deprive others of it. Having done that, you can then try to question-beggingly define all apparently unavailing phenomena as a thwarted, deflected attempt at achieving these ends. It becomes even more complicated if you do try to relate the more unsavoury aspects of human behaviour to 'human nature'.
Suppose we abandon the distinction between need and desire, and concede that we do indeed have a need for 'autonomy' and 'dignity', howsoever defined, because of 'human nature'. Shouldn't we also make space for such needs as aggression, violence, domination, sadism, and omnipotence? On what ground do we insist that these are not needs while autonomy and dignity are? Eventually, if we were to proceed like this, we could end up with a concept of 'human nature' that covered every possible type of desire by redescribing it as a 'need', and every possibly type of action by redescribing it as an attempt to realise a 'need'. But then it would just be tautologous rather than informative. We would 'believe' in human nature, but to no avail.
A lot of the persuasive power of these types of argument derive from the idea that to doubt the existence of 'human nature' is to subscribe to a "blank slate" thesis. This is an idea shared by Steven Pinker and the author of this piece. Of course, even a "blank slate" is never really blank. It must have certain active qualities which enable/constrain inscription. But the real problem with a "blank slate" thesis, is that a slate is fairly limited in what it can be. It is there to be written on, or not.
As the biologist Steve Rose puts it, humans are 'radically indeterminate'. In part, this is because it is in the 'nature' of living systems to be like that, but language opens up a new kind of indeterminacy. To say that we are radically indeterminate does not entail that we have no organic constitution, but that this does not determine whether we are 'good' or 'bad', kind or selfish, nurturing or violent, sexist or egalitarian, or whether we prefer protection to autonomy, or domination to dignity, and so on. These things, the desires and behaviours which are characteristically human, are the contested product of history.
This brings us back to the major problem with speaking about 'human nature', which is that humans are distinctly unnatural creatures. Indeed, the very separation of nature and culture becomes problematic once humans enter the frame (meaning, it has always been problematic, since this conceptual cleavage is a human invention). As soon as human beings learned to make fire, they became co-constituted by technology (the body being nourished and reproduced by digesting cooked food). There is not a single human organic capacity that is not intricated with technology, culture and political power. Haraway's term "natureculture" is a more apt way to describe the material realities of human bodies and their relevance to politics.
'Human nature' is a contradiction in terms.
Monday, April 10, 2017
The terrifying story of Assad's chemical attack on Syrian civilians, wrenched his soul. That, the paper says, is why he sent aloft a few dozen Tomahawk missiles, and bombed a half-deserted Syrian airfield. Love Trumps Hate, after all.
The collapse of the alt-centre media into adulation of a president who has waged merciless war on them, is stunning to behold. But at least now, the demented conspiracy theories and anti-Russian nationalism, can cease. Keith Olbermann can stop bellowing about Russian scum. Whatever else Trump is, he is not Putin's pet.
So what is he?
When it comes to foreign policy, he talked like a Bannonite. America First, bash China, smash Islam. Now, he is sounding a bit more like his Vice President, Mike Pence. There is even talk from his UN representative Nikki Haley, though quickly rebutted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, of prioritising the overthrow of Assad. That is unlikely to bear fruit, at least in the short term, because what is happening for now is not about Trump's heart, or convictions.
The bombing in Syria is not a significant departure from existing policy. That is because Trump's policy is the one left by the Obama administration. When he came to office, bragging that he had a great plan to destroy ISIS, what he meant was that he would tax the generals with producing one, and would support it. The plan they gave him, within his 30 day deadline, was one devised by the previous administration, and included a number of lines of escalation and expansion within the terms of the existing strategy.
That strategy, with regard to Daesh, can be summarised as: medium footprint, with aerial bombardment supporting local auxiliary forces. In relation to Syria, the Obama policy was what the 'Realists' of the Pentagon would call offshore balancing. In this context, it means supporting the weaker side just enough to prevent it from collapsing, thus allowing both sides to bleed one another to death. It also means, of course, tolerating Russian support for the regime, which may be the only thing keeping it alive. And in the context of the rise of Daesh as a parasitic factor on the military stalemate, it means a de facto military alliance with Russia, a multilateral bombing campaign targeting Daesh (and also Jaish al-Nusra). Thus, the Syrian revolution has been drowned in blood and reduced to brutal struggle for survival led by reactionaries, but Assad's army has also been decimated, and is almost entirely dependent on outside forces. Trump hasn't broken with either, thus far.
The only major difference is that Trump has relaxed the fairly exacting political oversight exercised by the Obama administration on the military's actions. He has loosened constraints on targeting, which were already abysmal, with the recent major bloodshed in Al-Yakla, Mosul and Raqqa being notable byproducts. He has expanded the war along lines indicated by his predecessor, in Somalia and Yemen, and has changed the rules of engagement so that parts of these countries are deemed 'war zones' which can be targeted under the laws of war.
The major significance of bombing the airfield is that, by punishing Assad, it is a slap in the face to Russia -- although a very gentle one, it seems, since Russia was carefully warned beforehand. There is a risk that the neo-Cold War hawks will start setting the tone and, in the context of Syria, prepare the ground for a dangerous and potentially disastrous inter-imperialist confrontation. Naturally, this would be less of a surprise if so many people hadn't inhaled the laughing gas about Trump being Putin's puppet. In fact, whatever connections he has to Russian capitalism (on this, see Jordy Cummings in Salvage) his amateurish pre-inauguration diplomacy with Russia seems to have been an ineffectual attempt to get Putin to relax support for Iran and Syria, and enlist him into a confrontation with North Korea. Indeed, though it is not widely reported, it is North Korea that has been the subject of Trump's rhetorical escalation in recent months. There is a reason why the Chinese government regards the Syria strike as a form of sabre-rattling against North Korea, and Rex Tillerson has been explicit about the connection.
The shift in register and rhetoric, however, is also linked to the resistance to Trump coming from within the state, 'deep' or otherwise. First, they engineered the ousting of General Michael Flynn, who was responsible for the organisation of the National Security Council which included Bannon as a permanent member and demoted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence. Briefing and leaking against Flynn ultimately ensured his resignation, even though the charges seem relatively trivial. The old military and intelligence leadership regained their dominance. This decisive change also led to Steve Bannon's departure from the National Security Council, and the tempering of some of Trump's rhetoric -- his acceptance of the Iran deal for example.
Many mandarin liberal pundits talked, in the early days, about a possible military coup against Trump. Such a move would have reflected sheer panic, indicating a complete breakdown of the embedded knowledge, cohesion and technological sophistication of the old state elites. Now, the foreign policy commentariat speaks of Trump 'learning' -- and that is the correct term. The pedagogy has been crude in some ways: a ferociously alarmist media campaign fed by intelligence leaks and more or less open dissent in the apparatuses of state. But it has still showed far more patience and guile than a simple coup, and there is probably more afoot. So, what has been achieved on the empire front is not the recomposition of forces at the top that Bannon et al were aiming for, but a consolidation of the Pentagon's priorities.
The empowerment of the military elite is, in itself, dangerous enough -- particularly if it is linked to the creation of new far right networks within the state. Add to it the fact that this is the Trump administration. This is not business as usual, and it won't be until it is effectively a lame duck administration. The military establishment has succeeded in reining Trump in for now, but Bannon is still his chief advisor, and his team is still dominated by lunatics of various stripes. Such an administration, I suggest, is almost definitionally a war administration.
The obvious thing to do, as their agenda falls apart on a number of fronts, and domestic support collapses, would be to organise a major war. That would consolidate the chief executive's authority. It would give an organising impetus to the administration, cohering the apparatuses of the state and, if done well, summoning a degree of popular support. It would license a major augmentation of repressive capacities, and justify renewed aggression against the media: 21st century fascism finds the diffuse spectacle superior to the concentrated spectacle. And, of course, it would filter new loads of racist ideology into civil society. Syria may not be the front in which they choose to embark on that war, given the range of state and other agencies already embroiled in that situation, and the huge potential for calamity.
So what is Trump, if not a Russian puppet? He is a pure, concentrated expression of the culture of US imperialism.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
The Canary posted by Richard SeymourI don't normally plug my review segments here, but The Canarification of the Left needs to be resisted.
Monday, March 27, 2017
The whites, David Starkey observed, have become black. This was his explanation for the multiracial, working class England riots that began as a rebellion against police violence, in 2011. He was no doubt articulating a widespread anxiety about the collapse of racial distinction. Five years later, Thomas Mair would give that anxiety the force of arms.
In a 1991 article on 'The Mind of Apartheid', J M Coetzee looked at the writings of one of apartheid's major thinkers and activists, Geoffrey Cronjé, whose work covers the intersection between supremacy and separation, between 'privilege' and the unconscious. The latter's obsession was with race-mixing, with the idea that low-income whites would develop a feeling of equality with South African blacks out of their shared conditions of existence, and would engage in so much inter-racial socializing as to produce "a single South African mishmash-society".
Coetzee doesn't invoke Frantz Fanon, Octave Mannoni, Marie-Cecile Ortigues, Wulf Sachs or any of the twentieth century psychoanalysts working with/against the colonial situation (and always to a greater or lesser extent imbricated with coloniality), instead preferring to conduct his analysis along straightforward Freudian lines. And this is an interesting choice because those analysts all, from different points of view, tried to give salience to the historical, political and social bases of mental illness -- in Lacanian terms, the role of the Other. However, it is a useful point of departure for analysing what Fanon called, in a theoretical dépaysement, "the neurotic structure of colonialism". The "pathogenic nucleus" may be "wired through" the unconscious, dreams, sexuality, personal failures, etc., but it has its origin in the colonial situation. We can begin with the individual through which the neurosis is refracted, only to arrive at a "sociodiagnostics".
We can return to Cronjé momentarily, and through him return to Thomas Mair, the Britain First butcher, who engaged in the intimate, passionate slaughter of Jo Cox, one week before the Brexit vote. But what one wants is not a psychologism, but a sociodiagnostics of Mair. The displacements and disguised repetitions of colonial desire will tell us something about the symptom of 'Britishness' and the country we live in.
What is the point of psychoanalysing the colonial situation in the first place? Doesn't psychoanalysis itself have an ineradicable whiff of its colonial genealogy? Hasn't its relative silence on race, and its habitual reproduction of colonial tropes (the concept of the primitive, of regression, of the infantile native, and the background of evolutionary theory informing its more stageist iterations) been complicit in the ideological power of colonialism?
Where psychoanalysis becomes a story of progress and adaptation, of how children become successful adults, wherein the analyst is supposed to know in advance how the story reaches a happy-ever-after, then it is arguably at its most reactionary, most class-blind, most patriarchal, most colonial. Sachs and Mannoni, but not Fanon, believed in the 'dependency complex' according to which indigenous people were in some sense essentially children at the level of the psyche. Where it reduces pathology to the individual ego, or a sum of individual egos, it is at its most complicit. To an extent, psychoanalysis can't help individualising problems, because its clinic is predicated on the suffering subject making a demand for a cure from the analyst. If the analyst tried, as Sachs did, to try to make a revolutionary subject out of the analysand, he would as Jacqueline Rose put it, lock "the patient into the imaginary world of his own demands". So, however much psychoanalysis might be amenable to a wider analytics, its concepts were devised for the one-to-one cure.
But, of course, while those are all potentialities in psychoanalysis, it also has its loyalties on the other side: the side of the unconscious, of sexuality, of rebellious thoughts, and the dismantling of spurious sense. Inasmuch as it talks of development tales, it also subverts them. Inasmuch as it deals with the individual ego, it also splits it and decentres it and traces its dehiscence along a fissure made by the Other. Psychoanalysis hasn't yet been fully decolonised, but it contains at least some of the resources for its own decolonisation.
The strongest case for psychoanalysis is that it is, like marxism properly speaking, a logic of the symptom. It works with the grain of breakdown and failure and the non-sense, which is always abundantly evident in the colonial situation. If we try to situate the analysis exclusively in terms of political economy, we will miss some of that. We might be able to describe the strategic relationship of white-supremacy to capitalist production and its dysfunctions, but the strategic failures, the subjective derangements, of colonialism will not be seen. There is no way to make Thomas Mair's murder of Jo Cox make sense, but there is a way to redescribe the situation, to trace the connections, the "wiring through".
The "neurotic structure of colonialism" involved, according to Fanon, two desires: "The black man wants to be white. The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man." The colonial situation designates whiteness as the "rank of man," the only position from which full humanity can be assumed.
Geoffrey Cronjé was concerned, above all, to protect whiteness, and block race-mixing. He was vexed continually by the themes of contamination and purity, mixing and 'miscegenation'. He worried about a "mishmash" or "mengelmoes" of races -- the loss of the specific structure and character of races, and their reduction to an undifferentiated, pulpy mass: to shit. The low-income whites were the source of his greatest anxiety. He fretted that the whites would become black.
As with the red-hunting white-supremacists of the American South, the fear is that whites "feeling equal" with blacks, and being willing to mingle with them and marry them, will so compromise whiteness as to produce a fundamental loss of being, since from this point of view it is only whiteness that gives access to full being. Any loss of whiteness is a loss of the phallus -- "social castration" in Derek Hook's terms. But worse, if this castration is linked to the collapse of the very principle of racial distinction and intelligibility, the loss of being brings one to the point of oblivion. The image of mishmashing, for Cronjé, is an image of death.
Of course, to say that he was 'concerned', that he 'worried' and 'fretted', is an enormous euphemism. He was obsessed. Coetzee uses the term, 'obsession', in its full Freudian clinical sense. The obsessive-neurotic isn't just worried about death, but obsessively concerned with the organisation of habits and rituals to stave off death. The image of death that he has (and it will tend to be a 'he'; obsession is typically a male subject-position) is the imago of his own unacknowledged drives and desires. The prohibitions he works to preserve, pulse with proscribed desire. The ritualisation of cleanliness and non-contamination in obsessive-neurosis is a war on wants, a "counterattack upon desire" as Coetzee puts it.
One finds this obsessive structure quite a lot in colonial situations. John Barrell's classic account of Thomas De Quincey, opium-eating memoirist of the British empire, finds De Quincey compulsively projecting the horrors of his unconscious, deriving from childhood trauma but linking to the symbolic register of 19th century Orientalism, onto fantasmatic Eastern hordes. Hence, his role as an agitator and propagandist for British intervention to repress and govern the Oriental.
Thomas Mair was engaged, if nothing else, in a struggle for being.
Little is known about the murderer. We know very little about his life, his childhood, or even most of his adulthood. More is known about the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist magazines he read, the letters he wrote to them, the training manuals he bought, the newspaper clippings he kept (Breivik fascinated him), than about the texture of his everyday existence. It is said that he was a "loner" -- the police's term -- who seemingly never held down a single job, or had a romantic partner, or friends to speak of. He seems to have connected his long-term unemployment to his feelings of worthlessness, and mental health issues.
One thing that stands out in the small amount of material that there is about Mair, apart from the absences (no job, no friends, no love), is that he was a genuinely obsessive personality. His residence was kept in an extraordinarily neat and ordered condition. Inside his kitchen cupboards, The Guardian reported, "tinned food was carefully arranged in precise rows, with each label pointing in exactly the same direction". As well as stacks of impeccably tidy Nazi publications, books about Hitler and the white race, and a few Michael Burleigh histories, he kept stacks of toilet paper, neatly arranged, as if to wage war on shit. The police describe obsessive-compulsive behaviour, while neighbours say he had to scrub himself compulsively with brillo pads, sometimes until he bled. His counterattack upon desire entailed an obsession with cleanliness and contamination.
But his obsessions were also politicised very early on, cathected to the signifier of whiteness. And here, as is so often the case, he is less frightened of non-white people than of the white people who sell out, who compromise on their whiteness. Indeed, this is a staple obsession of the far right in Britain today. Tommy Robinson was quick to rush to Westminster amid the lockdown following Khalid Masood's attack, in order to declare before the fascinated cameras that "this is Islam ... this is reality. This has been going on for 1,400 years and while it's going on the police leaders and the political leaders want to invite more." His associate, an alt-right film-maker called Caolan Robertson, took the opportunity to castigated leftists and liberals for their betrayals. Former leading BNP member Mark Collett, in a classic instance of imperial projection, complains that Muslims are colonising Britain, and that liberals will sell out everything to them.
So it was with Thomas Mair. His persecution fantasy was that liberals and leftwingers had betrayed the white race. His key references were South Africa and the United States, where he felt that segregation and apartheid could have been preserved were it not for the white traitors. He seems to have long fantasised about killing a 'traitor', and his interest in Breivik could be interpreted in light of the latter's focus on murdering "cultural marxists" -- those he labelled "category A and B traitors".
But while the Guardian described him as a very "slow-burning" killer, his fantasies long in germination, escalation is arguably built into the obsessive-neurotic structure. The counterattack upon desire is experienced as a struggle against death, for being; but it is in fact an attack on life, on the Real of the drives. The more one ritualises the warding off of death, therefore, the closer one comes to death, and the more one has to fight. The life of an obsessive is an anxious one, and the circulation of libido in perpetuating this struggle is likely to manifest as depression.
Mair seems to have found some temporary respite from depression in volunteering as a gardener, but this didn't last. When checking into an alternative therapy centre for his depression one evening, he was told to make an appointment and come back the next day. This suggested that his symptom was breaking down. Instead of attending the centre the next day, he hunted Jo Cox, a pro-migrant centre-left member of parliament. He stabbed her in the chest with a dagger, shot her twice in the head and once in the chest with a sawn-off, and then stabbed her again, repeatedly.
As he attacked, he shouted, in an evident reference to the EU referendum: "Britain first, this is for Britain. Britain will always come first. We are British independence. Make Britain independent." In court, he gave his name as "Death to traitors!"
Even if we knew more about Mair's childhood and whatever traumatogenic kernel that was subsequently chained to the signifier of whiteness, a "sociodiagnostics" must look for the pathogenic nucleus of his obsession in the structures of British society. Indeed, it may be a misnomer to say that trauma was 'subsequently' cathected to whiteness. One of the insights of psychoanalysis is that trauma need not have any basis in real life events: it can be rooted in fantasy, which is to say it can be rooted in the cultural imaginary received from the Other.
In a viral video from late 2011, shortly after the England riots, a woman is filmed on a tram in Croydon complaining about the tram being filled with "a load of black people, and a load of fucking Polish" . "My Britain," she declaims to horrified passengers, "is fuck all now". In his analysis of this video, Paul Gilroy links the outburst to the complex he has designated "postcolonial melancholia" -- a melancholia associated with the unmourned loss, not just of real possessions, but of fantasies of limitless being, of global omnipotence, which served to shroud lack. Noting that the racially abusive woman, Emma West, was possibly self-medicating, he refers to her depression, her background of mental illness, and then asks "why, if Emma was mentally ill, her illness would have presented itself in this particular set of symptoms? Why was it that her evident unhappiness, palpable anger and bitter resentment could be articulated spontaneously as a heartfelt commentary on race, nationality and belonging?" The class injuries which are disarticulated from any wider sense of class belonging in her discourse -- she is no scrounger, she insists -- likewise somehow segue smoothly into an argument about black and white.
In the immediate political background of the outburst was David Cameron's intervention against "state multiculturalism" in favour of "muscular liberalism" -- a trope that gained ground during the 'war on terror' and the backlash against multiculturalism among some of the New Labour intelligentsia. The muscular liberal believes, in short, in a hierarchy of cultures and 'values, in which 'the West' is the proprietary holder of the best. For Cameron, this self-evident truth risked being repressed by a tyrannical multicultural perspective that allowed non-white people to get away with "objectionable views" while white people were hauled over the coals. And so, he put it starkly: "to belong here is to believe in these things". Since these things turn out to be semantically empty 'values', which are hardly specific to Britain, one could infer that what Cameron really insisted on as a condition of belonging was in the underlying presupposition that Britain, as part of the West, was the historical bearer of a superior culture.
Cameron had presented a racial fable in which whites were victimised and non-whites able to get away with murder, as it were. But the unconscious of his discourse was its unmentioned coloniality, the roots of this cultural hierarchy and its underlying racial metaphysics in the British Empire and its ways of knowing the native. Here was a displacement, a disguised repetition, of colonial desire: to restore the full sense and authority of whiteness, to establish a kind of national monotheism around its munification, amid British military and economic decline.
The eroticism of Mair's overkill, the physical proximity he chose as he set out seemingly to physically annihilate his victim, is hard to miss. It suggests a passionate identification with what he was trying to destroy: a counterattack upon desire.
Purity and the fear of contamination have been touched on, metaphorically, in several recent reactionary campaigns, from building walls to taking control. On the day that Jo Cox was murdered, the 'Leave' campaigning organisation, 'Leave.EU', produced a widely criticised poster showing an image of refugees trying to cross the border into Slovenia, with the slogan, 'Breaking Point' superimposed on it. Eliding the difference between refugees and migrant workers, it suggested, "we must break free of the EU and take control of our borders". The visual strikingly linked the idea of a breaking point, to the arrival of a phalanx brown-skinned refugees, many of them likely to be Muslims.
This was a nodal point in the campaign, but hardly unique in its tone. The breaking point was insidiously linked to public services, especially the NHS, which has been pushed into severe debt across the country by austerity policies. It was linked to the idea of overpopulation, and the loss of landscapes. The Daily Telegraph lamented, citing Chris Grayling, that "Britain’s Green Fields Will Have to Be Built Over to Provide New Homes for Migrants". This distantly echoed the melancholic poetics of Philip Larkin -- "And That Will Be England Gone". And it was linked to the idea that Europe was in existential peril, not because of any crisis tendencies that might be being worked out in European capitalism, but because it was weak and decadent and surrounded by "swarms" and "hotbeds" of hostile forces. Turkey turned out to be a quilting point in all this. It was the status of Turkey's possible EU accession, the imagined arrival of millions of Turkish migrants to leech of the NHS and occupy British jobs, and the idea of Turkey as a vector through which the phobic racial other would arrive, that gave the campaign its final boost in its final week as Conservative support for 'Remain' tumbled.
It is important to stress how compromised the leaders of the 'Remain' campaign were in the face of this campaign. It spoke in a language they had validated: they were mainly austerians and 'muscular liberals' in the Cameronite mould. It was Ed Balls who first mainstreamed panic about unskilled Turkish workers taking British jobs. It was Cameron who had spoken of a "swarm" of refugees and given resentful nationalism a mandarin patina. It Theresa May who had agitated against the threat to cohesion, public services and employment from migration. It was the government who had, no doubt in some measure negotiating with its own right-wing, who had mounted a stout campaign against "benefit tourism". It is too easy to ascribe to this form of reaction a kind of befuddled "white working class" upsurge, but this is scapegoating. Research shows us that resentful nationalism is for all classes, and is most attractive to those who have been on a downward trajectory -- losing ground, as it were. But the compensations of 'Britishness' to which they are passionately attached, and its metonymic associations with 'Englishness' and above all 'whiteness', had to be produced.
Nonetheless, the idea of a breaking point, through the master-signifier of whiteness, metaphorised and operated on an ensemble of griefs and grievances, class injuries, and trauma (real or imaginary). What was at breaking point, it might be suggested, was the symptom of Britishness: the melancholic symptom which preserved a little bit of colonial jouissance while forestalling a confrontation with the real-world loss of the colonies, and the fantasy loss of omnipotence.
And for Thomas Mair, that was very clearly the case: his symptom, the rituals through which he prevented the contamination of whiteness and averted the confrontation with his own lack, was clearly at breaking point. Time had run out: he acted out his fantasy, to prevent its loss.
Friday, March 24, 2017
Acts of violence posted by Richard Seymour
It makes no sense.
How could it possibly? You slam a fast-moving car into a group of people, crash the vehicle, clamber out and dash toward the Houses of Parliament with two huge knives, stabbing a police officer, before being quite predictably and efficiently shot to death. In a densely peopled, heavily policed, high-security tourist zone, where the odds of actually making it anywhere near the parliament building were negligible, and where the only likely victims were those who actually died: school students, passers-by, police officers. Four dead, nearly thirty injured. For what net gain, to what end?
This was a lone wolf suicide attack. What distinguishes it from other suicide attacks, globally, is its low level of resources, technology and sophistication. There is also the attacker, Khalid Masood, born Adrian Russell Ajao to an English mother and a Nigerian father, and a convert. The literature on suicide attackers has tended to find that they are likely to be better off than the reference population, highly educated and altruistic in motive -- the level of planning and commitment involved necessitates this. But, while the 7/7 attackers arguably fit this profile, a number of jihadis in British society over the last few years have demonstrated a slightly different pattern.
The Woolwich killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were working class British men of Nigerian background, who converted in their late teens. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, was a working class British man of Jamaican background who had been through the prison system and converted. It is not known when Khalid Masood converted, but it is clear that he went through the criminal justice system many times, garnering convictions for serious violent offences -- one of which was reportedly incurred after he was subjected to a racist provocation. We are still working with the bare minimum of information, but it is possible that conversion was his way out of a pattern of chaotic violence, for a while.
But the role of conversion here, one way or another, is probably quite important. In the wake of the collapse of political Blackness, a contingent form of coalition built around groups of people whose experiences converged at a particular moment after the fall of the colonial empires, race-making has taken a new turn. Islam, you might say, is the new Black. The racialisation of Islam, and all the apparatuses of violence and surveillance built up around it, seem to have created a situation in which some people want Islam to do the same sort of work as political Blackness, forming a unity among people across continents, and among Britons whose parents or grandparents migrated across continents.
In this way, the violence, condescension and exclusions of Britain's racial order can be linked to violence against others in the Umma, and a kind of transnational identity can somehow be formed around that. It's easy to see why this might appeal to people of a certain generation, who have lived through the death of political Blackness -- the trauma of racial injury is perpetuated, but the compensating fantasy of community provided by such coalitions is lost. There is, though, a structural impossibility here, because global race-making processes just aren't overlapping in that way; there is more fragmentation than unification. The al-Muhajirouns and Saviour Sects and al-Ghoraabas and so on, who appeal to the most criminalised and reactionary men among Britain's racial minorities, arguably represent the impossibilist wing of Islamism; just as Thomas Mair was an impossibilist lone wolf of "Britain First" nationalism. There, at least, would be somewhere to begin making sense: with impossibility.
We can admit that there is enough humiliation and anguish in everyday life, even if you aren't on the losing side of white-supremacy, to fuel a lot of violent rage. Research suggests that most people have experienced violent, murderous fantasies. The fact that most people never try to act on these, let alone act out something so spectacularly and indiscriminately bloody, is in part a function of forms of political and social embodiment that, however flimsy, mostly sustain the prohibition on violence and redirect that rage elsewhere.
On that basis, we could simply take the capacity for murderous violence, which we see acted out everyday in this country, for granted. We could follow the literature on suicide attacks, and analyse this tactic along rational choice lines, as a logical tactic within the political purview of jihadism. However, Masood's attack is almost the opposite of a tactic -- it is a means to thwart tactics, to disrupt planning. It may be linked to a definable political objective, but what it seeks is the unpredictable: it solicits chaos, panic, the undefinable. It makes no sense.
It seems, on the face of it, quite different from another act of violence on the same day, directed by the US air force against a school near Raqqa. That attack, which killed thirty people, was no doubt approved by President Trump, but also devised in line with long-standing bureaucratic imperatives, plans and strategies developed by the Pentagon. No doubt, it was a tactic choreographed as part of a wider campaign intended to win a strategic objective toward winning the war against Daesh. A state murder carried out within a certain jurisprudence, along the lines and trajectories of military bureaucratic decision-making, is surely not the same thing as a suicide attack. It makes too much sense.
That, at least, is what the ideology of war and terrorism tells us. The point of 'race' -- and the ideology of terror/war is integral to current race-making practices -- is precisely to make a spurious sort of sense out of violence and exploitation. The ideology of terror/war tells us that the violence of imperialist states is constrained within reason, justice and humanity, while that of its opponents is nefarious, groundless, unconstrained by law or decency. In a sense, that ideology merely re-states Albert Memmi's dictum that the colonial can have his arsenals, but the discovery of a rusty weapon among the colonised is a just cause for punishment. But there is always a point in the life of white-supremacy and imperialism where the sense-making apparatuses breakdown. And it is the failures and nonsense of this system which are most enlightening. They can be opportunities to change, or they can produce blind panic and grotesque, violent reactions.
And in fact, US imperialism doesn't make sense; it doesn't add up. There is, for example, no mystery about the fact that its bombings raids and invasions always exceed any plausible strategic purpose. Drone attacks murder dozens of non-combatants, and they are instantly reclassified as 'militants'. Iraq was devastated, systematically, defiled-city-by-defiled-city, with everything that could support human life being pointlessly demolished, perverse institutions of torment being set up in their place and new forms of statecraft built around sectarian parties, death squads and televised show trials. Afghanistan experienced even higher rates of aerial bombardment, coupled with a ridiculous campaign of crop poisoning (supposedly to stop the opium trade which, of course it didn't), while a statelet rump composed of warlords and patriarchs and religious fundamentalists was mobilised behind a useless war against other warlords, patriarchs and religious fundamentalists. In both contexts, groups of US soldiers repeatedly went on racist killing rampages, deliberately hunting and killing non-combatants.
There is something frighteningly volatile and supererogatory about these situations. Yes, of course, there were strategic objectives; yes, of course, there were things to gain; yes, of course, capitalist imperialism has its own imperatives which have nothing to do with reason, justice and humanity. And there is no such thing as a perfect strategy. The world is never completely lucid, never transparent, and there is no point from which totalised knowledge is possible. Yet the consistency with which US military ventures have produced bloody chaos for, predictably, no net gain, is not an accident. And Trump, though he is worse than his predecessors, is not in this respect undertaking a sharp departure from established policy.
All of this -- imperialist chaos, securitarian crackdowns, and demented lone wolf blowback -- is obviously not reducible to a relationship between coloniser and colonised: but it can't be abstracted from that relationship, with is still with us today.
"The ghost of the former colonial subject haunts (without their being aware of it) relationships among whites who have never left Europe." -- Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban.
In Ellis Sharp's short story from 1991, Dead Iraqis, the charred, scorched bodies of Iraq take a strange detour. The surrealists used to talk of dépaysement -- dislocation, disorientation -- as a way of describing how things go astray, are taken out of their usual habitat, and in so doing demonstrate capacities that it was never clear they had. Travel was one way of achieving a kind of dépaysement, breaking old habits, forming new ways of being. But wherever the traveler goes, as the surrealists knew all too well, the colonial agent may not be far behind. In Sharp's story, the bodies come back with him. They are taken out of their habitat, and appear on the kitchen floors of English householders. They don't haunt, so much as get in the way. They're a nuisance.
Mannoni's observation was based on the strange fact that the dream life of white Europeans who had never visited the colonies, was often populated by black colonial subjects: one wonders whom white British subjects dream of today, whether in fact the spectre of 'the Muslim' doesn't haunt their dream-life. It is not surprising that the ghosts of colonialism and a certain type of white-supremacist sovereignty which passed with it, are still with us: trauma passes on, as abundant clinical evidence shows, intergenerationally. But how? Mannoni's account, which for good reasons was criticised sharply by Fanon, is unsustainable. Prospero and Caliban represents an early and only partially successful attempt by Mannoni to analyse and decolonise himself, an attempt which would go on being a work in progress, and it still contains a lot of unusable colonial tropes. But it has the considerable virtue of stressing the nonsense, the breakdown, the failure of colonial life -- he was writing as a former colonial official in the aftermath of the French genocide of the Malagasy, the very experience that led him to seek his first analysis.
In particular, what Mannoni brought to the fore, which Fanon drew upon, was the pattern of violent transference in the colonial relationship. “The observer,” Mannoni observe, is “repelled by the thoughts he encounters in his own mind, and it seems to him that they are the thoughts of the people he is observing.” The European "personality type," had discovered through its dépaysement, its dislocation in the colonial relationship, new qualities, a new inferiority complex, which it transferred onto "the negro" -- making the colonised its symptom. This imaginarisation of the colonial relationship was organised by "racial differences" which, having "absolutely no meaning in the natural order," nonetheless had a real material, social basis, and persisted beyond all sense.
And, he argued, this logic had become so enfolded into the existing psychic tendencies of Europeans that it would persist beyond even the demise of racism.
Racism is far from dead, and race persists, like an automaton. Sheldon George, in his book on race, slavery and trauma, argues that the discourse of race today is organised by an "automaton of racial signifiers". This striking metaphor suggests that one might be, as Lacan put it, the "slave of a discourse," in which, or under which, our place is "already inscribed at birth".
Whereas Mannoni and Fanon, both of them indebted to Lacan, argued that the idea of the 'native' or 'savage' provided an image (imago) of the European subject's own drives, George suggests that the image itself is given its place and meaning by signifiers. Taking his cue from Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, who has provided by far the most rigorous updating of Fanon's analysis, he argues that in a racial order of white-supremacy we are slaves to the signifier of whiteness. This signifier, introjected into the unconscious, promises a plenitude of being and enjoyment for white subjects, establishing whiteness as the pinnacle of being. But this depends, necessarily, on the non-being, or lack, of the black subject.
The signifier of whiteness, of course, is a fetish -- like the phallus. The logic of the phallus is that you either have it, or you don't; women are assumed not to have it, and men are assumed not to be without it. Likewise, whiteness is something you are assumed to have, or not: black people are assumed not to have it, white people are assumed not to be without it. And as with the phallus, the truth is that no one has it, because it is a fetishisation and objectification of power and being, qualities which are intrinsically relational. So, the signifier of whiteness, this fetish, is the pivot around which a certain kind of objectification of black bodies around contingent facts of skin, hair, bone length and physiognomy, is organised.
This analysis brings George's position quite close to that of Mannoni and Fanon, albeit within in a new perspective that foregrounds the symbolic, rather than the imaginary. In the context of slavery, George argues, black bodies were reduced to an exchange value, and a jouissance-value. Slaves were constantly confronted with their lack, their not-having, and denied access to the fantasies of being through which white masters covered over their own lack. This relationship freed white masters to engage in shocking acts of violence, freeing up the “evil desires that agitate around the internal emptiness characteristic of the subject,” since the denial of black subjectivity meant that their shaming gaze, and their testimony, could have no effect. The jouissance of whiteness was a jouissance of plenty, without limits, procured through the production of black destitution.
If, at first, black subjects had to develop alternative fantasies of being through religion, which guaranteed that there was a fragment of God's being in every slave, and that all could be redeemed, George argues that after the trauma of slavery, race itself began to provide certain satisfactions for African Americans. It became possible to identify with race as itself both a confrontation with and a displacement of lack. Personal lack, which is universal, was conflated with the slave's suffering and trauma. One could come to believe that it would be redeemed through a redemption of the race, even while acknowledging the evil of race. Ironically, says George, those who took this step bound themselves, ambivalently, through the signifiers of race to the historical trauma of slavery. The automaton of signifiers, he argues, perpetuates, repeats this terrible traumatic jouissance, a repetition which will not lose its grip until race, and its ability to organise both our life chances and our politics, does.
But that also raises the question of what is going on with whiteness, when the connection to the racial past established through this automaton of signifiers is disavowed? The answer to this is never straightforward, since all racial identifications materialise in different ways at different times. But repetition follows an implacable logic, and I want to suggest that for those out on the imperial frontiers, raping and butchering Afghans and Iraqis for fun, before returning to the United States to live comfortably disturbed lives, one of the things they are doing is repeating a relationship established in colonialism and slavery. And it would be worth thinking about how much the apparatuses of the American state, built through struggles over just these relationships, continues to circulate that kind of jouissance, such that sense can break down repeatedly in imperial ventures.
The suicide attacker, as Richard Boothby has written, short-circuits this relationship between master and slave. The uneven dialectic is based on the formula: your freedom or your life. But it is uneven because, if you choose the former, you can't have either. In a suicide attack, the attacker abruptly proves willing to give up her life to end the stand-off; turning her corporeality, her body, into a weapon. Jacqueline Rose made the point, writing about suicide attackers some years ago, that every such attack is "an act of passionate identification -- you take your enemy with you". Which could be interpreted as meaning, you take a bit of their whiteness, their being, with you. You claim a share of being, seemingly always precarious, always endangered, through death.
Lone wolf suicide attackers may not kill many people compared to the apparatuses of military full-spectrum dominance, or militarised policing. But they evoke a particular horror because they upend the (racialised) political and strategic calculations through which this assymetrical stand-off was assumed to be manageable. It is the precise opposite of 'risk-transfer war', in which the eroticised embodiment of death and killing is eliminated through drone abstractions, and policed out of national imaginaries both by borders and security apparatuses and by the working of ideology. Facebook users were grimly amused, during the fall-out from the Westminster attack, to notice people from far afield marking themselves as 'safe'. Only a very small number of people in this world are actually entirely safe; we are all continually living the crisis, to a greater or lesser extent, a precarious situation in which our lives can be blown apart by recession, austerity, violent crime, family breakdown, or a major social conflict. Only when people start being murdered is it possible to think of oneself as 'safe'. The appearance of the dead, the unpredictable irruption of a form of violence that belongs elsewhere -- what ITN called "Baghdad-style violence" in the wake of the Woolwich attack -- reminds us forcefully of the ideology according to which we are indeed safe.
But this abstraction itself, Boothby notes, is like a "pure tincture" of the Freudian death-drive. Rather than being eliminated through repression, it is chemically concentrated in the clarity of the remote aerial visuals beamed back to the Situation Room in Washington. Talal Asad, writing about suicide attacks, wondered if what horrifies us most about such actions is the seemingly "limitless pursuit of freedom", even a freedom to carry out marauding, unconstrained attacks on pedestrians, children, anyone in the way of an almost arbitrary path of destruction. What the suicide attacker brings into stark relief, from that point of view, is exactly what has been repressed and distilled in the 'war on terror'. The limitless jouissance of the master.
It doesn't make sense. It shouldn't make sense. The sense-making of white-supremacy and imperialism, which is not a one-way street but a relationship, is continually breaking down. The immediate, mantra-like revival of deadening slogans about "values" and "stoicism" and "pride" which will "never be defeated", is an attempt to restore, through sheer nonsense, through absolute meaningless waffle, the apparatuses of sense-making. But their breakdown, rather than being a cause of panic, could be an opportunity for change. We who didn't choose this violent, chaotic, oppressive relationship, are still inhabiting it, still driven by the automaton. But we don't have to be.