Thursday, October 27, 2011

Overcoming Shame: The Rhythm and Resonance of Occupation

John Protevi
Louisiana State Univeristy

Deleuze and Guattari say in A Thousand Plateaus: "Ideology is a most execrable concept concealing all of the effectively operating social machines." I take that to mean that we have to thematize political affect to understand "effectively operating social machines." From this perspective, the real "German Ideology" is that ideas are where it's at, rather than affect. It's political affect that "makes men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation."
Why won't "ideology" cut it? It doesn't work because it conceives of the problem in terms of "false consciousness," where that means "wrong ideas," and where "ideas" are individual and personal mental states whose semantic content has an existential posit as its core, with emotional content founded on that core, so that the same object could receive different emotional content if you were in a different mood. (There are lots of ways of thinking about cognition and emotion, without even bringing in the relations of this "analytic" vocabulary with that of the Husserlian noesis/noema scheme. Still, I hope this will suffice just to get some traction on the problem.)
Thus to take up the great poster, "Shit is fucked up and bullshit," the core act posits the existence of shit, and then we express our emotional state by predicating "fucked up and bullshit" of it, whereas we could have predicated "great and wonderful" if we were in a different mood. 
But that is "execrable" for Deleuze and Guattari, because it's far too cognitivist and subjectivist.
It's too cognitivist because it founds emotion on a core existence-positing act, and too subjectivist by taking emotion to be an "expression," something individual that is pushed outward, something centrifugal. For them, emotion is centripetal rather than centrifugal, or even better, emotion is for them the subjectivation, the crystallization, of affect. Now DG do have a corporeal / Spinozist notion of affect involved with the encounter of bodies, but they also have what we could call a "milieu," or "environmental" sense of affect. Here affect is "in the air," something like the mood of a party, which is not the mere aggregate of the subjective states of the party-goers. In this sense, affect is not emergent from pre-existing subjectivities; emotional subjectivities are crystallizations or residues of a collective affect.
To take a concrete example: what counts in the effective social machine demonizing welfare in the USA is the shame attached to receiving public aid without contributing to society with your tax dollars. It's shameful to have lost your job or your home; you're stupid, a loser to have been in a position to lose it, and you're a lazy, stupid loser if you haven't found another one, or if you never had one in the first place. You arrive at this American shame by aggregating individualized, subjectivized, packets of shame; you get shamed subjects as crystallization of the collective affect of shame in the American air.
And so you don't combat this shame by trying to change individual people's ideas, one by one, with information about unemployment trends; you combat it by showing your face, by embodying your lack of shame, by putting a face on unemployment or homelessness. You thus counteract the existing collective affect by creating a positive affect of, shall we say, joyful solidarity. Shame isolates (you hide your face); joyful solidarity comes from people coming together. It's joy released from the bondage of shame, to follow up on the Spinozist references.
Oakland Occupation Re-takes Snow Park, Holds Vote, Approves General Strike, Forces Mayor Kwan and Oakland PD to Back Down, Blares Michael Jackson's Thriller.
What's especially heartbreaking, then, about the We Are The 99% Tumblr site, is that so many people still have some shame, as they only peak out from behind their messages. Hence the importance of the Occupy meetings; shared physical presence, showing your whole face: these create the positive affect, the shamelessly joyful solidarity needed to overcome shame fully.*
Fighting the residual shame, the half-faces of private pictures sent to a website: that's what makes the collective occupation of space so important: bodies together, faces revealed, joyously.
This is a simple, powerful talk by Judith Butler at OWS, calling upon the classic "very well then, we demand the impossible" trope, and ending with the wonderful line, "we're standing here together, making democracy, enacting the phrase, 'We the People'."
And here's the text of a longer talk by Butler in Venice about constituting political space while acknowledging the material precarity of bodies, developed alongside a critical analysis of Arendt's notion of a political "space of appearance." The overall aim is set forth here, I believe:
a different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives.
A brief excerpt from the beginning of the talk sets out some of the main lines of thought: 
assembly and speech reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce, the public character of that material environment. And when crowds move outside the square, to the side street or the back alley, to the neighborhoods where streets are not yet paved, then something more happens. At such a moment, politics is no longer defined as the exclusive business of public sphere distinct from a private one, but it crosses that line again and again, bringing attention to the way that politics is already in the home, or on the street, or in the neighborhood, or indeed in those virtual spaces that are unbound by the architecture of the public square....
But in the case of public assemblies, we see quite clearly not only that there is a struggle over what will be public space, but a struggle as well over those basic ways in which we are, as bodies, supported in the world – a struggle against disenfranchisement, effacement, and abandonment.
Oakland Occupiers Trying to Help a Fellow Activist in a Wheelchair Escape the Tear Gas While the Oakland PD Fires Rubber Bullets and Lobs Flash Grenades in the Name of 'Breaking Up a Fire Hazard.'
I'd like to add something here about the way the human microphone works, quite literally, to amplify the constitution of political space by assembled bodies. The human microphone offers an entry into examining political affect in the enacting of the phrase "We the People" at OWS. It shows us how direct democracy is enacted by producing an intermodal resonance among the semantic, pragmatic, and affective dimensions of collective action.
For some time now I've been fascinated by William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Harvard, 1995). McNeill studies the political affect dimension of entrainment by collective bodily movement as in communal dance and military drill. J Scott Kelso has all sorts of small scale examples of entrainment, analyzed using dynamic systems modeling. A famous macro example is the Millenium Bridge episode. Colwyn Trevarthen has studied mother-infant inter-corporeal rhythms in terms of "primary intersubjectivity." I put a lot of this research together in an essay in Theory & Event.
The upshot of this research is that humans fall into collective rhythms easily and that such collective rhythms produce an affective experience, a feeling of being together, an eros or ecstasis if you want to use classical terms, the characteristic joy of being together felt in collective action.
So I wonder if the human microphone, an invention of the OWS assembly when NYC banned electric bullhorns, doesn't contribute a little to the joful collective affect of OWS. (Needless to say, the prospect that the human microphone might aid in the production of such collective joy frightens the right-wing commenters.) It's not quite a choir, but it's a chorus, and so the bodies of the chanters (their chests, guts, throats, eardrums) would be vibrating at something close to the same frequency, something close to being in phase. 
Now I'm not a reductionist; the semantic cannot be reduced to the corporeal; the message isn't dissolved into the medium. What interests me is how in the human microphone the message (enact the phrase "We the People") is resonant with and amplified by the medium (collective rhythm). In her Venice talk Butler analyzes the Tahrir Square chant translated as "peacefully, peacefully" in these terms: 
Secondly, when up against violent attack or extreme threats, many people chanted the word "silmiyya" which comes from the root verb (salima) which means to be safe and sound, unharmed, unimpaired, intact, safe, and secure; but also, to be unobjectionable, blameless, faultless; and yet also, to be certain, established, clearly proven[1]. The term comes from the noun "silm" which means "peace" but also, interchangeably and significantly, "the religion of Islam." One variant of the term is “Hubb as-silm” which is Arabic for "pacifism." Most usually, the chanting of “Silmiyya” comes across as a gentle exhortation: “peaceful, peaceful.” Although the revolution was for the most part non-violent, it was not necessarily led by a principled opposition to violence. Rather, the collective chant was a way of encouraging people to resist the mimetic pull of military aggression – and the aggression of the gangs – by keeping in mind the larger goal – radical democratic change. To be swept into a violent exchange of the moment was to lose the patience needed to realize the revolution. What interests me here is the chant, the way in which language worked not to incite an action, but to restrain one. A restraint in the name of an emerging community of equals whose primary way of doing politics would not be violence.
This is an insightful, eloquent analysis of the pragmatics and semantics of the chant. So it's not to undercut it that I call attention to the material dimension of the resonating bodies that accompany the semantic content and pragmatic implications of this chant. It's to point to the way in which an analysis of material rhythms reveals the political affect of joyous collectivity, and the inter-modal (semantic, pragmatic, affective) resonance such chanting produces.
So I'm going to propose that a full enactment of direct democracy means producing a body politic whose semantic ("we are the people, we are equal, free, and deserving of respect in our precarity and solidarity"), pragmatic (the act of respecting and supporting each other the assembly performs), and affective (the joy felt in collective action) registers resonate in spiraling, intermodal feedback.


1 comment:

  1. Nice. I can't tell you how many times I've been at protests here in the SF Bay Area that start, are, or end, with some yelling, "Dance Party!!!"

    The Oakland General Assembly approved the Nov. 2 General Strike. What happened after that? Dance Party!