The visible and the temporal

by Arran James

I share Steven Hickman’s concerns with Paulo Virno and Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s politics of exodus/withdrawal. Its essentially the same tactic that Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone articulated in the 1990s; an intoxicated vision that is still appealing and perhaps necessary as a defensive position/conservation policy but that only really acts as a poetry of the social center, the squat, and the occupation. Viewed differently, from another angle, is also the textbook language of the psychdisciplines diagnostic and symptomological speech; the absence of poetry in the descriptions of depression, post-traumatic disassociation, schizophrenic alienation from the sensus communis of participatory meaning production. There is nothing inherently emancipatory in these conditions, the language for which is now transposed onto the political; a perverse justification of Bifo’s analysis of contemporary alienation of psychopathology.

Describing the TAZ, Hakim Bey writes that

FOUCAULT, BAUDRILLARD, ET AL. have discussed various modes of “disappearance” at great length. Here I wish to suggest that the TAZ is in some sense a tactic of disappearance. When the Theorists speak of the disappearance of the Social they mean in part the impossibility of the “Social Revolution,” and in part the impossibility of “the State”– the abyss of power, the end of the discourse of power. The anarchist question in this case should then be: Why bother to confront a “power” which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence by the emptyheaded shit-for-brains who’ve inherited the keys to all the armories and prisons. (Perhaps this is a crude american misunderstanding of sublime and subtle Franco-Germanic Theory. If so, fine; whoever said understanding was needed to make use of an idea?) [1]

This is the primary way in which we ought to understand the temporary autonomous zone. It is ‘a tactic of disappearance’ that allows the insurgent, who has abandoned hopes for a social revolution, to evade the state. The revolution and the state having both become simulacra- although the armories and prisons still seem to be in operation, and violence still remains very real- it is naturally pointless to attempt to reckon with them. If such a reckoning, with its invocation of violence, meant direct armed struggle against the state then I couldn’t agree more that we ought to abandon that way of thinking; armed struggle, as opposed to revolutionary self-defense, has a history of bloody failure in Europe and North America, and to contemplate violence against the state is to already loss sight of the fact that the state manifests itself in such violence through the corporeal human bodies of the very people who radicals ought to seek to get on board. Elsewhere, Hakim also speaks of spectacular violence, the mediatised image of violence that reifies particular instances of political conflict into eternal images of Terror or deliquency. Again, it would be foolish to step willingly into these stereotypes.

Regardless of the falsity of the assumption that the state is a simulcrum and that power is mere simulation, neoliberal capitalism actually requiring a strong security state and an austerity commanding an open and largely uncontested exercise of power, the fact is that the TAZ is predicated on disappearance. Just as the state and power have ceased to exist as anything other than images, so we have ceased to exist. Yet it is at this point that Hakim Bey also states that the tactic of disappearance has a positive moment. The example given is the withdrawal from state school system and the positive re-articulation of that withdrawal in forms such as home schooling. Here, it is not so much that disappearance implies a ceasing to exist but, instead, that there is a vanishing from view. The body of the child in the school is countable and counted, can be disciplined and set into motion in the circulation of the post-Fordist network of economised existence. When the child’s body no longer appears within an element of this network at the proper time and at the proper place then the entire circulation is threatened. While Hakim’s suggestion is one I like (my partner and I intend homeschooling her son- most of the time), homeschooling does not escape a regime of visibility.

Having disrupted a certain distribution of the sensible it has, just as all strategies of refusal risk doing, invoked a recuperative redistribution. Here in the UK, homeschooling has been integrated into the state system to the extent that parent’s are required to inform the local school and council of their intentions; the council might then make informal inquiries about the form of education your child is receiving and, if they have concerns, will issue a ‘school attendance order’. Further to this, to evidence that your child will receive a good standard of education and that you aren’t just a lazy good for nothing, the state requires that parent’s produce an education philosophy. This involves a whole lot of research into educational philosophies and pedagogy for parents who are often not academically inclined, working part-time, and maintaining a household whilst doing the work of having a child with them whenever they are not working. In other words, if feminists correctly identify that affective labour has always been a component of women’s domestic labour then homeschooling requires that an added dimension of cognitive labour be extracted. There is also the fact that homeschooling is expensive and is, in the main, the preserve of the relatively affluent. Homeschooling is clearly not an option that enacts a tactic of disappearance anymore, if it ever was, and it also seems to be an option that the majority of people simply couldn’t take.

Moving on to another example, Hakim talks about the refusal of work. This is a tactic that I think is radical if we follow the reflections on it that the autonomists, the Metropolitan Indians, and, more recently, Kathi Weeks have taken. Hakim’s discussion of it amounts to the idea that

Refusal of Work can take the forms of absenteeism, on-job drunkenness, sabotage, and sheer inattention–but it can also give rise to new modes of rebellion: more self- employment, participation in the “black” economy and “lavoro nero,” welfare scams and other criminal options, pot farming, etc.–all more or less “invisible” activities compared to traditional leftist confrontational tactics such as the general strike. [2]

These are tactics that don’t seem particularly reflexive. Absenteeism, drunkenness, sheer inattention: these are behaviours that are likely to take any refusal of work into the realm of refusal of employment, opening one up to the prospect of poverty, malnutrition, and homelessness. Maybe this is a perfectly good tactic for young unencumbered people, it hardly seems like a they’d work out well as a mass tactic against capitalism. It also doesn’t take into account what kinds of jobs people are doing. Sure, if I work at a video game store or a call center I can partake of these options, but if I’m a nurse, or distribution driver, or some other socially necessary worker? Sabotage is a tactic that I would think would also land most people in the situation of joblessness, unless they were very good at not getting caught! (I used to work in a particularly scummy office and always had daydreams about performing some “human sabotage”: injecting the water cooler with strong laxatives. I never could get the nerve- or the callousness?- to do it; but the thought did help get me through the day). As to the other options, I don’t want or need to reiterate Marx’s position on the lumpen-proletariat. That said, I have always defended people who have scammed the benefit system but today that is simply not an option.

The point of going over these two social examples of Hakim’s ideas on the temporary autonomous zones is simply to point out that disappearance isn’t a very good strategy. There are other ways of thinking about the temporary autonomous zone (the Munich Republic is mentioned; as are raves, squats, and altered states of consciousness) but these are a couple of the examples of the TAZ being more than a personal adventure. It may sound like I am against the TAZ but on the contrary I find it a compelling account of one possible mode of reworking our relationships and challenging the dominant organisation of the temporalities and spatialisations of our lives. A TAZ can disconnect us from the temporality of production and can be enacted in places where our bodies are not supposed to congregate; they can be times and places of learning new ways to relate to each other; they offer us zones of deceleration and destimulation that might ameliorate some of the impacts of our accelerative culture and attentional economy and thereby enjoin politics with a non-depolitising therapeutics; and they can become points of coalescence around which debate and organisation can occur. They are not unimportant events.

TAZs are necessary elements of resistance but they don’t and can’t overcome capitalism. Indeed, the kind of hymns to invisibility that Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee make are precisely the upshot of this kind of thinking. In The Coming Insurrection, a text by the Invisible Committee that is intimately associated with Tiqqun, we are urged to ‘Stay invisible. Put anonymity on the offense'[3]. Invisibility and anonymity are watchwords of the kind of politics that The Invisible Committee thinks is necessary today:

To be visible is to be out in the open – that is, above all to be vulnerable. When the leftists of all nations continually make their cause more “visible” – whether that of the homeless, of women, or of immigrants – in the hope that it will get taken care of, they’re doing exactly the opposite of what they ought to. To not be visible, but rather to turn to our advantage the anonymity we’ve been relegated to, and with conspiracies, nocturnal and/or masked actions, to make it into an unassailable attack-position. [4]

Ironically, The Coming Insurrection is probably one of the most famous texts written by the radical left in some time, and the Tarnac 9 have likewise been given not a little limelight after one of their acts of sabotage. I am not suggesting that the Tarnac 9 were wrong to have sabotaged the train lines that were vital to the logistics of capital in France, just pointing out an amusing and unfortunate side-effect of violence is notoriety, not anonymity. More importantly than that, is the fact that this hymn to invisibility is predicated on two refusals: the refusal of vulnerability, and the refusal of visibility.
The issue of vulnerability is one that many other bloggers besides me have made a point of emphasis. It is an issue that requires a brief diversion but necessary diversion.

The turn to thinking about vulnerability is a way of rethinking politics altogether. It is a way of thinking about politics that follows from an ontological commitment to the primacy of the corporeal. Briefly, whatever exists, whatever is an affective being, exists as a body. I take this to be the fundamental contribution to philosophy made by the Stoics, and it is taken up again in modern philosophy by the phenomenologist of flesh Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Vulnerability names two aspects of bodies. First of all, it points to the condition of the openness, interwovenness, and interpenetration of bodies with one another. Under this condition we speak of corporealism as transcorporealism; bodies form intermatrices in conjunction, collaboration with, within, across, and despite other bodies. On the other hand, vulnerability also names the condition of being exposed to danger, disaster, injury, trauma, destruction and death. In this second instance we can think a range of specific vulnerabilities. I have touched on the idea of homelessness as a form of spatial vulnerability, and we can think of Marx’s analysis of capitalism as one of economic vulnerability, while psychiatry operates a lot of the time with a stress-vulnerability model of illness in which biological predispositions (vulnerabilities) to certain conditions may be triggered by social and existential conditions (stress). Ultimately, these vulnerabilities are carnal; they are vulnerabilities of the body that leave us exposed to that ultimate vulnerability: death.

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks, how is it that a collective can cope with the vulnerabilities that it is exposed to? She provides a pertinent answer for the current discussion when she suggests that

There is the possibility of appearing impermeable. Nothing about being socially constructed as women restrains us from simply becoming violent ourselves. And then there is the other age-old option, the possibility of wishing for death or becoming dead, as a vain effort to preempt or deflect the next blow. [5]

Butler will go on to discuss the commonality of bodily vulnerability, artificially limiting it to human bodies, but here she makes the argument that the desire for impermeability can take one of two forms: first, it can reproduce the violence done onto it, becoming the one who discloses and acts on the vulnerability of the other; or, secondly, it can emerge in the form of death or the dream of death. This tells us something about the invisibility recommended by The Invisible Committee. Like Hakim Bey, they want to disappear from the realm of spectacular violence. Unlike Hakim Bey, they want this to be the precondition of a denial of vulnerability. To be visible, they said, is to be vulnerable. Yet simply to exist is to be vulnerable. If The Invisible Committee were talking in terms of harm reduction, that is, of trying to reduce our exposure to vulnerability, then they might have a point. As it stands, I can’t help but read them as indulging in an idealism that thinks it can escape the condition of carnality through a tactic of disappearance (a move Hakim Bey would never have made). In discussing the events that followed 9/11 in the USA, especially in regards to its aggressive retributionist foreign policy, Butler goes on to note that this particular form of idealism has as its effect a kind of subjectivation that

seeks to produce itself as impermeable, to define itself as protected permanently against incursion and as radically invulnerable to attack. [6]

Butler rightly connects this to the logic of all nationalism and we could equally extend it to processes surrounding medical biotechnology, gated communities, and any kind of process of scapegoating. Indeed, in the work of Ernest Becker and the psychology of Terror Management Theory, it is the manipulation of one’s awareness of one’s ontological vulnerability that is often utilised in order to capture the state and/or win support for exclusionary and/or barbaric political parties and policies. Again, I see no reason not to extend this to almost all vulnerabilities. What was Hitler’s vision of a Reich that lasted a thousand years if not a dream of invulerability? Butler is right to suggest that

‘war seeks to deny the ongoing and irrefutable ways in which we are all subject to one another, vulnerable to destruction by the other…'[7]

and to identify this with Israel activities in Palestine and its security wall, effectively making it probably the world’s largest gated community.

I am not suggesting that The Invisible Committee is fascist or that it is in any way akin to Israel’s imperialist domination of it’s neighbor. That would be a hysterically overwrought. Instead, I am suggesting only that it is this delusion of invulnerability that The Invisible Committee is held enthralled to. In the case of The Invisible Committee rather than being a symptom of some latent fascism, this delusion is probably a kind of adolescent delusion. In fact, it might be a delusion that is particular to the adolescent male. I can remember being an adolescent and chain smoking happily, drinking stupidly, jumping off and into things, saying things sure to get my a kicking, taking substances I had no idea what they were, even throwing heavy objects into the air to see how much they’d hurt when they hit me on the head! I’m smiling thinking about it (that last one in particular), but we can see the logic at work. Death and serious injury don’t befall the young man; smoking doesn’t lead to cancer, and he could never become one of those alcoholics he derides; he won’t hurt himself, or if he does it’ll be a story; if he’s of a particularly nihilistic or depressive stripe (and I certainly was), he may even glory in his proximity to death and disease. In this ‘theory of a young man’ vulnerability is infinitely deferred as the condition of some other group, or else it is affirmed in a heroic disavowal of its reality.

I would suggest that The Invisible Committee and Tiqqun operate according to just such a “theory of the young man”. The young man withdraws into invisibility and thereby overcomes his vulnerability. His precariousness and precarity are superseded simply by disappearing from the gaze of the state and the diktats of capitalism. It is not the young man who is vulnerable, it is the homeless, the women, and the immigrants; groups who would do better to just keep out of the light, stay quite, and drop-out. I want to make an assumption that is probably unfair: for the young man the homeless should just think of themselves as partaking in the refusal of housing; immigrants should see themselves as refusing the national state; and women should think of themselves as…I’m not sure. On this point, we could remind The Invisible Committee that feminism and women’s struggle are fighting some pretty broad conditions from lower pay to a vast systematic and international trade in their flesh: the sexual market of rape. Drawing attention to this is making oneself too visible (a bad thing) and therefore too vulnerable (another bad thing). I think that it is less unfair to suggest that there is more than a hint of patriarchal attitudes underneath this formula. I am not the first to think that there might be some patriarchal assumptions at work in The Invisible Committee/Tiqqun’s work (cf. Nina Power’s review of Theory of a Young-Girl). And, as China Meiveille’s concept of unseeing brilliantly points out in The City and The City, many people are invisible because they are unseen, because people refuse to see them; including victims of state violence, when it chooses to look away.

In the adolescent delusion of the young man there is something about visibility provoking vulnerability itself. For the Invisible Committee, visibility is tied intimately with recognition. In the same passage as cited above, they continue to sing the praises of anonymity:

To be nothing socially is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition (to be recognized: but by who?), but on the contrary is the precondition for maximum freedom of action.[8]

I don’t want to seem like an uncool, unhip, ultra-theorist or anything, but could you imagine walking up to a trafficked sex worker, a homeless man having to degrade himself further to get into a shelter, or a psychiatric patient being refused basic dignities any other human being takes for granted, that they shouldn’t feel humiliated, that they are in fact free? I’m not suggesting that members of The Invisible Committee would actually do this, they don’t seem like stupid people. I can only put this down to being another symptom of the young man’s delusion. In fairness, they do state that to be “nothing socially” is the “precondition” of freedom rather than constitutive of freedom itself. Still, this is a bit like saying that being raped is the precondition for being sexually liberated. Of course, “to be nothing socially” is a reference to Marx’s early definition of the proletariat as

a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. [9]

In a sense then The Invisible Committee/Tiqqun are repeating Marx. Except that Marx doesn’t go so far as to see proletarianised existence as not being one that involves humiliation just because it is also the precondition for freedom. As Marx writes in his “Comments on James Mill”, under the credit system

Mutual dissimulation, hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness are carried to extreme lengths, so that on the man without credit is pronounced not only the simple judgment that he is poor, but in addition a pejorative moral judgment that he possesses no trust, no recognition, and therefore is a social pariah, a bad man, and in addition to his privation, the poor man undergoes this humiliation and the humiliating necessity of having to ask the rich man for credit.

Marx recognises that proletarianised existence is a humiliation and that it is humiliating. Even given this, the problem with visibility stands because to be visible is to demand recognition. In “Bloom Theory”, Tiqqun stake out a vision of a society of nihilism and detachment that many of us, in our darker moments, would share. It is also a world in which we are forced to cover-up the nothingness of ourselves through the wearing of masks. These ‘masked nothings’ are the identities each of us assumes; identities such as worker, student, father, citizen and so on. For Tiqqun

Being nothing, remaining outside all recognition, or presenting oneself as a pure, non-political individuality, is enough to make any man at all a being whose disappearance is uninscribable. However inexhaustible the obituary eulogies may be — eternal regrets, etc. — such a death is trivial, indifferent, and only concerns he who disappears; meaning, that is — in keeping with good logic — nobody. Analogous to his entirely private life, Bloom’s death is such a non-event that anybody can eliminate him. That’s why the expostulations of those who, sobs in their voices, lament the fact that Kip Kinkel’s victims “didn’t deserve to die” are inadmissible, because they didn’t deserve to live, either; they were outside the sphere of deservingness. To they extent that they found themselves in the hands of Biopower, they were already the living dead, at the mercy of any sovereign decision-making, whether that of the State or of a murderer.[10]

Here Tiqqun reiterates its agreement with Agameben’s frankly confused reading of the world as a concentration camp and of each one of us as an exemplar of homo sacer, the sacred man who may be sacrificed but who can’t be killed. Sacred Man, also referred to as bare or naked life, is the life that has been fully brought inside of the biopolitical order that constitutes itself as a zone of indistinguishability; always already somewhere between life and death. In such a situation recognition can only ever be the recognition of the sovereign. Thus, preferring to escape such a total subsumption of the corporeal under the sovereign’s power, Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee advocate simply not appearing. All that is left is to withdraw and, as Butler suggests, to play dead.

Visibility, appearing to power, seems to thus be fundamentally about the production of identities that the Blooms of this world must wear; masks that give us the appearance of a stabilised, substantial being but which elide the facts. It is for this reason that earlier in The Bloom Theory, Tiqqun state that all recognition is ‘recognition in and therefore of the spectacle’. Not only are we fully captured by the biopolitical regime but we are also fully immersed within the totally integrated spectacle. To be visible, to appear, is always to be visible within and therefore as the forces of domination, as one fraction of it set against another fraction of it, but fundamentally knowable, containable, and disarmed ahead of time.

This does not accord with the experience of activists or with the confused coverage of recent events. Since Tiqqun wrote these texts, there has been a student movement, a series of riots, the emergence (and yes, waning) of Occupy, a series of occupations, and public parties in the street. No one is suggesting these projects have become a coherent mass revolutionary movement, but they have challenged the picture of a totally invulnerable capitalist order. Instead, we have seen a certain distribution of the sensible challenged. Indeed, if the recent beginnings of a rewakening of the left have been anything then they have been a way of contesting temporalities, spatialities, and therefore also of visibilities. Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee tackle visibility as a unilateral and binary phenomena: either you appear or you disappear; either you enjoy spectacular visibility or you engage in invisibility. We might ask invisibility to whom, and to what? Invisibility at what time? This is to think tactically, and to recognise that any politics is going to involve a certain coordination of visibilities, or the carnal overlapping and interfolding of the visible and the invisible. It seems as though there is a kind of conflation going on between different kinds of visibility and the liberal quest for the recognition of identities. Yet, even among ourselves, those of us who read Tiqqun and might participate in temporary autonomous zones, must recognise one another. If not, then Tiqqun’s is going to be a lonely undertaking.

More interestingly, Paulo Virno discusses withdrawal as an exodus. When asked if he means a simply flight from the city or the factory or whatever location you’re in, he replies

No, I am not referring necessarily to a territorial exodus, but rather to desertion in one’s own place: the collective defection from the state bond, from certain forms of waged work, from consumerism. Some authors, like Albert Hirschman, affirm that sometimes in protests, the voices don’t manage to reach a change and are then only able to leave the game, run away. For that it is not only necessary to destroy certain things but also to construct, to have a positive proposal, so that exodus will no remain a solitary act.[11]

A desertion in one’s own place. In another interview Virno states that

By exodus was understood as a radical politics that does not want to construct a new state. In the end, it is only that and, then, is far from the model of the revolutions that want to take power, to construct a new state, a new monopoly of political decision; to the contrary, it is – in every case – to defend power, not to take power and, also the things that you said yesterday when you were speaking on the university – of the richness of relations – this positivity of experience as something that later deserves to be defended but that, in the meantime, should be [seen as] something already constructed in terms of sociability, productive relations, knowledges, networks of our part. [12]

So this desertion in one’s own place is a political desertion; a desertion of the political politics of those revolutionaries that seek to capture the state apparatus but, in its notable absence, this also implies that it is not the anti-politics of those who would seek to smash the state. There is also a sense in which, as it refers not to a taking leave of a space, a particular form of nomadism in which one does not have a place to take leave of except one’s own; and one’s own space is always the spatiality of the body.

Franco Berardi also speaks in this language when he states that he wants

To call forth a big wave of withdrawal, of massive dissociation, of desertion from the scene of the economy, of nonparticipation in the fake show of politics.[13]

Steven Hickman notes that these positions are all idealist. Yet it isn’t just that they are idealist it is also that it is a language a language of retreat. Even if we agree that the state isn’t what we want to win, is our imagination so impoverished that the state is the only way that we could think about taking power? Even the idea of living in the cracks isn’t as easy it was when Hakim Bey wrote the first treatment of disappearing. As Simon Critchley has discussed we need to produce the interstices that we can then occupy:

politics is the praxis of taking up distance with regard to the state…an internal distance that must be opened from the inside…[because] there is no distance within the state. [14]

I think that this is a worthwhile strategy if they it isn’t meant to be a withdrawals but an opening, a very visible opening, that tend to the creation of new publics. This is essentially what Occupy was, for a time, in its contesting of the distribution of the sensible and the coming together of bodies; they were also, temporary and partial no doubt, cleavages in the temporality of production- a kind of political economic strike. That thought, the thought of a combined political economic moment, is leading me to look at the traditions of council communism and anarchosyndicalism in more depth. These are traditions that emerge within and against the state as openings in the place where one already is: at work. Of course today, work time is all time, so the question would be whether or not something like councils and revolutionary unions could be established in places, until post-Fordist recomposition, were not considered workplaces. If all time is work time, and all places are work places then why not a mother’s union? why not a service worker’s council? why not a homeless union? As long as these unions are taken up as spaces within and against the state. The strength of these two neglected traditions is that they are a kind of desertion in one’s own place; they both support strikes (as either general or mass strikes) and neither of them involve a throwing off of the vast material ‘worldwide distribution systems of goods and services networks’. Instead they call for the self-management of these material networks in order to re-craft our relationship to production and to one another in a way that acknowledge the necessity of forms of visibility and seeks to find strength in the affirmation of our vulnerability.

[1] Hakim Bey. The temporary autonomous zone: the will to power as disappearance. Here.
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. Here. p.49.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Judith Butler. Precarious Life: the powers of mourning and violence. p.42.
[6] Judith Butler. Frames of War. p.47.
[7] Ibid. p.43.
[8] Op. cit. The Invisible Committee.
[9]. Karl Marx. 1844. Comments on James Mill: Éléments D’économie Politique. Here.
[10] Tiqqun. Bloom Theory. Homo Sacer/Sacred Man. Here.
[11] Paulo Virno. Between disobedience and exodus. Here.
[12] Paolo Virno. 2012. GENERAL INTELLECT, EXODUS, MULTITUDE – AN INTERVIEW WITH PAOLO VIRNO. Here.
[13] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. Political therapy. Here.
[14]. Simon Critchley. Infinitely demanding: ethics of commitment, politics of resistance. [hardback] p.113.

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