Democracy, David Foster Wallace, and Me

Below is the (modified) text of the paper I just gave at the Political Geography Pre-Conference before the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.  It is drawn from my recent book (out any day now (sigh, Wiley is dropping the ball)).  It  is the first time I have talked publicly about Wallace in my work.


Democracy and the Literary Machine, or, David Foster Wallace and Me


In the last couple of years I have been writing about democracy. What I was doing, in retrospect, was trying to engage with a range of different writers-and-thinkers and to draw out the democratic flows in their work, and then to stream those flows together into my “own,” augmented, democratic flow.

I thought that the writers I should be engaging with, the writers that were appropriate to such a project, were political theorists: people like Lefebvre, Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Rancière, Laclau & Mouffe….I didn’t imagine that literary of fiction writers should be a part of group of writers-and-thinkers I was engaging with.

But I was reading David Foster Wallace as I was writing, and he insisted on being included.

And so I was forced to begin thinking about how literature and fiction can play a role in political thought.

Deleuze and Guattari argue that:

reading a text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of a signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring-machines, a schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force (Anti-Oedipus, p. 106).

I began to think, increasingly, that the “literary machine” is just anything that has been written and is being read. As I was reading and writing, it became clear that it was all making its way into my thinking: political theory, literature…and blogs, and journalism in magazines you’ve never heard of, and Twitter, and Facebook…I was discovering this revolutionary force in all of them.

One thing D&G don’t have quite right, though: it is not so much that you have to extract that force from the text, or at least it wasn’t for me, and especially with Wallace. It is more that this force presents itself to you. The desiring-machines in these texts “continue to make a hellish racket.” They insist. They stream their flows into your flow without you planning for it to happen. It is accidental, aleatory, emergent, what Badiou calls an event.

So this isn’t so much a rigorous exploration of method for the use of literature in political theory. It is more a story about how I actually did it. But maybe in presenting an account of how I actually used literature, I am making an argument for a particular way to approach it. Maybe my experience could be an example for others to follow. I guess that will depend on what you think of it.

So let me tell you about David and me.


As I said, I was writing about democracy. I understand democracy to mean this: a life in which we manage our affairs for ourselves, together. Directly manage our affairs, not manage them indirectly through intermediaries like the liberal-democratic state or unions or parties or banks. These entities are oligarchies, not democracies.  They are systems in which a few are set aside to rule the rest.  Democracy means something more, it means what Spinoza called “absolute democracy,” where everyone rules everyone, or, as I said, everyone manages their collective affairs together.

That idea may seem a bit too radical. Everyone managing everything together. Exhausting.  That’s why I came to believe that we need to think of democracy with Lefebvre (in State, Space, World especially). We should think of it not as an end state we expect to reach, not as a stable society called democracy.  Instead we should think of it as a movement toward a horizon, as a perpetual struggle, as a lifelong project of becoming-democratic.

So…a lifelong struggle. OK. But this conception of immediately raised the question of activity, of activation, of a necessary co-project to become active, awake, alive. And so the question of how we can do this, of how can we become active, came to pose itself as a central question for my way of thinking about democracy.

I needed help, and Lefebvre offered little.  His analysis of people becoming active leaves much to be desired.

Deleuze and Guattari (in Anti-Oedipus) were of some use here because they offer a negative insight: they say that we have within ourselves the desire to be inactive, to be ruled, to become oligarchic, the desire to let somebody else do it, the desire to be passive rather than active…this is what Foucault, in the introduction to Anti-Oedipus, calls “the fascism in us all.”

Rancière was useful too, because he makes an opposite point: he insists that when we encounter people who appear passive, we should learn to see the activity that is actually there. He talks in particular about spectators, about those watching the spectacle. He says they are not merely passive recipients of stimuli, rather they are people who are actively processing what they are seeing, and they are engaging with each other to make sense of it.

And so I learned that in thinking about becoming active, we should be attentive to both these insights: we want to be ruled and we want to actively rule ourselves.

Wallace, at last

Someone who combines both these insights relentlessly across both his fiction and non-fiction is David Foster Wallace. His work, and in particular Infinite Jest, is obsessed with the question of how we can become active and manage our own affairs for ourselves.  In the book he explores this question in the context of two different scenarios: “the entertainment” and drug addiction. “The entertainment” is a film that is so stimulating to the pleasure centers of the brain that people are literally unable to turn their eyes away. They die of starvation or dehydration, or if they are cared for they live in a catatonic state. Drug addiction is more mundane, but no less a struggle for survival. In both cases, failure to become active and take control of one’s own affairs will result in death.

[here I read a passage from The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy]

One of the heroes of the book, Don Gately, is addicted to painkillers. In a pivotal scene, he has been badly injured and is lying in a hospital bed in excruciating pain. But he can’t take any sort of narcotic. He has no choice but to lie there and “abide,” to be in pain. The struggle goes on and on in the book, for pages. Wallace describes Gately’s every thought, and he specifies Gately’s pain in great detail. The reader gets to the point of hoping Gately will give in and take the painkillers. We can’t see why he would put himself through so much suffering, why he struggles so heroically against the substance.

The answer becomes clear in the last scene of the book. In his hospital bed Gately relives in his memory what we presume to be his precipitating event, the experience that got him to seek help. It is the most gruesome of scenes, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Gately is getting high with a friend, Fax, in an empty apartment. Fax has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from a drug dealer and used it to buy a massive amount of drugs, intending to start his own distribution scheme in another city. But the drug dealer finds out about the theft, and the scheme falls apart. Instead of fleeing, Fax gives in; he goes to the apartment he and Gately are squatting and begins to shoot up. Gately discovers him slumped in a corner of the living room, where he has been for days., Gately joins him in getting high, telling himself he is only keeping his friend company. They stay that way for days, still there in the “little corner, belts around their arms, arms and noses red from scratching, still at it, the ingestion, on a hell of a tear, cooking up and getting off and eating M&M’s when they could find their mouths with their hands, moving like men deep underwater, heads wobbling on strengthless necks, the empty room’s ceiling sky-blue and bulging…” (1996, pp. 934-935).

Gately and Fax continue on, not moving, getting high, hardly able to speak, with the TV on in the background, always on. They begin to wet their pants and just sit there watching the puddles of urine spread, occasionally rolling an M&M in the puddle to watch the dye corrode. At some point Gately tries to stand, but he crashes back down to the floor. Eventually, associates of the drug dealer Fax stole from arrive at the apartment. They are a whole entourage. They don’t merely kill Fax for his betrayal. They begin to have a party, drinking bourbon, everybody with their own personal bottle of Jack Daniels. They force Gately and Fax to drink with them, to join their party. Gately and Fax are so high that they have to be helped to find their mouths with the bottle. At one point the leader of the crew whispers in Gately’s ear that he knows Gately was not involved in the theft. They aren’t going to kill Gately, he says, and so all he needs to do is kick back and watch, to enjoy the party and let Fax face his own music. The leader puts on a CD of Paul McCartney’s band Wings from which all the tracks have been removed except Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine. Everybody else starts shooting up. So that Fax can feel pain, they inject him with a drug to counteract the effect of the pain-killers he has been taking. Then they sew his eyelids open with needle and thread and begin dropping liquid acid into his eyes. While this is happening, they inject Gately with a pharmaceutical-grade painkiller to render him helpless. As Gately slides into unconsciousness, he watches Fax’s face disfigure, his friend’s screams mixed with those of Linda McCartney.

This horrific scene is the very last scene in the book. Wallace has taken us through almost a thousand pages, and we have worked long and hard to come with him. And he rewards us with this. It seems cruel. But even though it is the last thing we read, this isn’t the last thing that happens to the characters. It is a scene from Gately’s memory, something that is helping him to ward off the Substance, to remind himself why he is fighting so hard to remain sober, why he is subjecting himself to so much pain in the hospital. This last scene is therefore incredibly heroic. Gately is struggling courageously to continually renew his determination to stay clean, to not give in to the Substance, to govern himself. Wallace makes clear that Gately must find that courage primarily within himself. He cannot struggle by giving himself up to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to God. To be sure, Gately does draw on the support of others, on his AA sponsors, on Joelle, his developing love interest. But the source of Gately’s strength is not located outside of him, in an entity to which he submits. At the same time of course, his desire for the substance, the source of his addiction, is also within him. His desire to stay alive and to govern himself struggles with his desire to submit, to concede, to be governed.




I think Don Gately teaches us what is involved in the struggle to become active. What it would take. And he teaches us this in our bones, way down deep, in a way we fully feel.

We learn from him that the struggle is vitally important. It is literally life or death.

And we learn from him that the struggle is unimaginably hard.

But we also learn from him, I think, that we are unimaginably strong. That we have an enormous reservoir of potential to become active that we may be only dimly aware of. Gately is a product of Wallace’s imagination, but he is nonetheless an actual presence in the world, a character in our lives, an example we can try to follow as we fight to become active, and as we struggle for democracy.

Deleuze and Guattari: the State is a “Terror without Precedent”


Biblical Seamonster

Exciting moment in Anti-Oedipus (Part 3, Chapter 5) when Deleuze and Guattari first introduce their analysis of the birth of the modern state (and their scathing critique of it). They draw heavily on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, especially his discussion of debt in Essay II. Deleuze and Guattari write (p. 192):

It is here that Nietzsche speaks of a break, a rupture, a leap. Who are these beings, they who come like fate?. . . .They are the founders of the State. Nietzsche will come to establish the existence of other breaks: those of the Greek city-state, Christianity, democratic and bourgeois humanism, industrial society, capitalism, and socialism. But it could be that all of these–in various ways–presuppose this first great hiatus, although they claim to repel and fill it. It could be that, spiritual or temporal, tyrannical or democratic, capitalist or socialist, there has never been but a single State, the State-as-dog that “speaks with flaming roars” (OGM, II, 16). And Nietzsche suggests how this new socius proceeds: a terror without precedent, in comparison with which the ancient system of cruelty [that Neitzsche has been discussing], the forms of primitive regimentation and punishment, are nothing. A concerted destruction of all the primitive codings, or worse yet, their derisory preservation, their reduction to the condition of secondary parts in the new machine, and the new apparatus of repression. All that constituted the essential element of the primitive inscription machine–the blocks of mobile, open, finite debts, “the parcels of destiny”–finds itself taken into an immense machinery that renders the debt infinite and no longer forms anything but one and the same crushing fate: “the aim now is to preclude pessimistically, once and for all, the prospect of a final discharge; the aim now is to make the glance recoil disconsolately from an iron impossibility”(OGM, II, 21). The earth becomes a madhouse.

Nietzsche Now!


Here is a cluster of (not entirely organized) thoughts raised by my revisiting Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality this week.

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche says he wants more philosophers of the dangerous maybe, more thought that unsettles the ground, that undoes the established wisdom (e.g. conventional morals).  This project will make us freer to act according to our own drives, our own will to endure.  The problem is (BGE 27) that even though we often think of philosophical ideas as being autonomous, they always grow up in relation to a system of many other ideas.  Thinking is thus more of a recognition, a remembering certain strains of what has already been thought.  And so it can be very difficult to break out of the established habits/channels/assumptions.  One can of course see the deep resonance with Foucault’s project here.  His is a very deeply Nietzschean approach to thought.

Moreover, Nietzsche says we are constrained in our thought by our language, a fact my students and I realized viscerally when we tried to speak after accepting Nietzsche’s argument that

a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.”  It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (BGE 24).

Immediately we started saying thinks like “I think…” or “Nietzsche wants…”, and we were not sure how to even construct a sentence if the subject is no longer the initiator of action, but is rather just an illusion we invent to help us make sense of a world where a thought or a desire just arises, or emerges, somehow, in the vicinity of our body.  Here, of course, as in Nietzsche’s idea of the multiplicitous soul, one can see the strong influence on D&G and their obsession with the process of subjectification (in TP) and the tyranny of the ego (in AO).

Nietzsche reiterates this desire to open up new forms of thought and action when he complains that Kantian and Platonic philosophy suffers from a will to truth, which “prefers a handful of certainty to a ‘whole carload of beautiful possibilities’ ” (BGE 16).  Here it struck me that his thought is important for inspiring, perhaps though Foucault, much of the obsession in contemporary political theory with the idea of possibility, or potential, with keeping possibility open, instead of settling on a certainty, on a fixed identity/determination.  Here I am thinking of Agamben’s whatever, but also Ranciere’s political ruptures, or the potentia of (Hardt &) Negri, or even Lefebvre’s own search for a path to the possible.

And lastly, I was struck this time by the remarkable resonances between these texts and D&G’s discussion of a breakthrough over into a new land (in AO (and TP)).  Nietzsche says that the dangerous ideas he seeks urge us to go beyond morality, to voyage past it, to cross over into a realm beyond conventional ethics (BGE 31).  Here we can recall the ubermensch crossing over, on his line, on his his tightrope, headed toward “an unknown country” or “new land” as D&G call it, toward what Nietzsche says is “a new domain of dangerous insights (BGE 31).

Nietzsche says his project is to “traverse…with new eyes…the hidden land of morality,” and thus “to discover this land for the first time” (OGM 21) which clearly echoes D&G’s approving description of Proust:

But the narrator-spider never ceases undoing webs and planes, resuming the journey, watching for the signs or the indices that operate like machines and that will cause him to go on further….Oh, the narrator does not homestead in the familial and neurotic lands of Oedipus, there where the global and personal connections are established; he does not remain there, he crosses these lands, he desecrates them, he penetrates them, he liquidates even his grandmother with a machine for tying shoes (AO 318).

Nietzsche prompts us to recall D&G’s lines of flight when he calls together those who want “to get–away.  A little more strength, flight, courage, artistic power, and they would want to rise–not return…” (BGE 17).  And things get quite unmistakable when Nietzsche says: We need “a new psychologist,” who “exiles himself into a new desert,” and “condemns himself to invention–and–who knows?–perhaps to discovery” (BGE 21).

Of course it is well-known that Deleuze loved Nietzsche; but it is worth remembering sometimes just how deeply Nietzsche’s thought is shot through the former’s work, not to mention the work of so much radical theory today.

More from Anti-Oedipus: Discovering Our Own Power


Is that Negri?

Say that it’s Oedipus, or you’ll get a slap in the face.  The psychoanalyst no longer says to the patient: “Tell me a little bit about your desiring-machines, won’t you?”  Instead he screams: “Answer ‘daddy-and-mommy’ when I speak to you!” (p.45)

The psychoanalysis that D&G rail against forces desiring-production into the Oedipal triangle (daddy-mommy-me), and so it fails “from the beginning to see what the precise nature of this desiring-production is…” (p. 49).

But, they imply (and will say later), we need not limit ourselves to complaining about the failings of psychoanalysis.  We can ask ourselves what our desiring-machines are like, what the precise nature of desiring-production is….

And of course this is all bigger than psychoanalysis: desiring-production is our own human potential, our own power to produce, to create, to live.  And so D&G’s alternative, schizoanalysis, is a project whereby we 1) refuse to accept the channelling of our power into the apparatuses of capture (Oedipal psychoanalysis, God, the state, capital), and 2) come to be aware of and understand our power, learn what it is like, see what it feels like to use it, how we can “discharge it into the world,” in Nietzsche’s words.

Even when they are on the attack, when they are criticizing what is wrong with the world, they are always searching relentlessly for the positive alternative, for what we are capable of instead.  They don’t shy away at all from the project of destruction (they call for “a complete curettage” of the psyche Oedipus has built), but they only ever do so as a way to clear the path, to free up room for our own productive powers to operate on their own terms.

The Schizo Speaks

DCF 1.0

We are, to my great delight, reading Anti-Oedipus in the reading group I am a member of.  It is a great stimulation and comfort to return to this work, to find new ideas and rediscover old ones.  Here is one fabulous nugget (p. 23) that reveals D&G’s humorous-and-yet-dead-serious style:

There are those who will maintain that the schizo is incapable of uttering the word I, and that we must restore his ability to pronounce this hallowed word.  All of which the schizo sums up by saying: they’re fucking me over again.

Here we go again: Harvey, Eugene Holland, and OWS

This is modified reblog of a post of mine from another blog I participate in, Nomad Scholarship, which is a collaboration between two theory reading groups, one at the University of Washington and one at Ohio State.  We are trying to engage each other virtually, in writing, around a coordinated set of readings.  It is a new experiment for us–check it out!


OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece (an unpublished paper on OWS).  The Harvey chapters (5&7 from Rebel Cities) had me wanting to give up on the left.

The Harvey chapter on Occupy Wall Street is 99% ressentiment. He rails against the powers that be. They are evil, and we must resist. He gives no attention to what we are, what we are capable of, what kind of potentials the 99% has. In the chapter it seems we can only be good by negation, because we are not the 1%, and the 1% is evil. This is precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche decries in Beyond Good and Evil because, he says, it blinds us to our own powers.

Harvey characterizes people in Occupy as gathering together to talk about…the powers that be, about what the 1% is doing and how we can oppose them (p. 161). He says those that gathered wanted their opinions heard and their needs attended to (p. 162). He entirely misses the unique power of the movement: in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece, and also in NYC. The key was that people gathered not only to speak to, make demands on, and oppose the 1% (many did, to be sure), they also gathered to encounter each other.  Holland does well to emphasize the ways participants made real an alternative democratic society, though food provision, libraries, and general assemblies. So many participants did not come to make demands on the liberal-democratic state, because they knew, as Holland puts it, that the system was hopelessly corrupt (or, as the Spanish put it, que se vayan todos, (echoing the Argentinians ten years before)). So many came instead to ask each other what alternative they wanted to begin building together. The Greeks said this loud and clear in the First Declaration of the assembly in Syntagma:

For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

I guess we can’t give Holland too much credit for stressing this.  It was crystal clear and hard to miss.  How Harvey fails to see it is a mystery.  Ostrich-like.

But the thing I like most about the Holland is what I think D&G are particularly vital for now, what H&N pick up to a degree and what Virno’s idea of exodus gets at very well: that we absolutely must turn toward ourselves now.  We must wean ourselves from our obsession with the apparatuses of capture and their endless power to contain us.  We must leave off rubbing ourselves raw against the bars of our cage.  We must begin paying far more attention to what we can do, to the kinds of worlds we can make on our own, that we are already making on our own.  We must withdraw from capitalism, from the state, in a thoughtful and critical manner (lodge yourself on the strata, learn them, and then experiment with escapes), and we must, at the same time, begin-and-continue building the other worlds we want instead.  These other worlds must spread by contagion, as in Holland, or as I like to say, with Spinoza and Calvino, they must grow and spread according to their own internal drives.  Withdraw-and-create; exodus-and-invention.  Importantly, and true to D&G, I think, Holland hopes for a tipping point beyond which capital and the state begin to wither away because they are no longer necessary.  I share this hope, and I am currently trying to argue that this vision is something D&G offer that Ranciere doesn’t, despite the many strengths of the latter.

Speaking of spreading, though, I would push back on Holland on at least one point that I think is not insignificant.  He implies in several places that OWS was somehow a starting point from which similar movements spread.  That is true within the States perhaps, but I think it is important to remember that OWS was a very late comer in a wave of such democratic desire that washed across the world.  Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries; Greece and Spain; Israel; Chile; all were at a full boil while NYC looked on.  The Spanish (May) had been loudly pleading with the US for months to join their revolution when OWS finally got off the ground (September).  I remember thinking, that September, that finally something had begun in the US (though I wrongly expected it not to amount to anything).  It is very important not to narrate the Greeks, Spanish, Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. into the background.  They were the first, the loudest, the most creative, and the best.  They faced the more dire political and economic situations.  They deserve pride of place in the narrative about the democratic uprisings of 2010 and ff.  OWS should be celebrated energetically, but it should also, to an extent, always stand humbly in the shadow of the other extraordinary movements that came first.  Sometimes America is last and least.

Nomad Democracy, or, Eugene Holland and Me

D&G's nomad chariot

It is quite a thing to run across someone who seems eerily connected to you in terms of their intellectual project.  That is the experience I had reading Andy Merrifield’s Magical Marxism, and I just had it again reading Eugene Holland’s Nomad Citizenship.  I tend to think in terms of the concept democracy, and Holland prefers citizenship, communism, markets, and general strike, but our overall projects are quite close.  We both draw on a similar stable of thinkers (Deleuze and Guattari, the Italians, the Invisible Committee, Marx) to imagine a politics that does not confront the state and capital, but rather seeks out the alternative forms of economic, political, and social life that are already being tried.  Our job (‘our’ meaning everyone) is not to create those new forms, or organize people and cause them to live those new forms, but to learn to recognize new forms as they exist now and figure out how to help them grow on their own terms and spread by connecting with other, similar initiatives.  I just tried to articulate this idea in a response to a comment made by Nik Janos on my post on Bakunin.  The idea is that these alternative forms of life must survive, grow, and, eventually, come to pervade society, to reach a critical mass, as Holland puts it, to become-general so that we arrive at a bifurcation point after which we spill over into a new land, one that is thick with the presence of democracy (for me, or free-market communism, for Holland).  It is not really a question of wanting to smash the state or capitalism, it is rather a question of “growing” democracy to a point where those oligarchical forms of rule appear quaint and no longer relevant to the needs of our lives.  Holland puts it like this (p. 163): we have to “produce a gradual but irreversible, and ultimately definitive, becoming-unnecessary of our abject dependence on both capital and the State….”  I would just soften his “irreversible” and “definitive” language: we must always understand that even if we reach the tipping point, even if we create a new land, capitalist and State alienation will always return, always re-emerge and seek to reimpose themselves on us.  We must understand the new land to be made up of our perpetual flight from these apparatuses.  Their defeat is possible, but it can never be irreversible.

To be clear, I don’t mean to imply I am at the same level as Merrifield and Holland, just that we are trying to articulate a very similar project.

[Holland and I also share an affinity for Richard Day's work, but don't like his penchant for ruling out forms of struggle once and for all, considering them "dead" or passe.  I have an exchange with Day on this point coming out soon in ACME].

On Method: We Are a Social Order of Many Souls

I am just checking the proofs of my forthcoming book, and I liked the section on my method for doing political theory, so I thought I’d post an excerpt:

My method in this chapter is to weave together an account of democracy from strands taken from a range of different political thinkers: Gramsci, Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Laclau and Mouffe, and Rancière. I argue that it is possible to discover in their work a shared and deep desire for democracy.

Before I make that argument, it is important to say a word about how I conceive of an exercise like this, a close reading and analysis of a set of works of political theory. I approach it from a very particular assumption: each theorist is multiple. This is how Deleuze and Guattari think of it too. They open A Thousand Plateaus with the line, “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus [their first book] together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd” (1987, p. 3). This perhaps appears to be grandstanding, but it turns out to be an important core of their thought, that those entities we think of as singular, like individuals, are in fact multiple. They are not self-contained monads. They are better conceived of as assemblages that open out into the world. They are something more akin to a particularly concentrated knot of connections in a vast network of social relations. By this thinking, each seeming individual is in fact made up of a multitude of people, events, ideas, relations, places, and experiences, each of which is connected to multiple other such people, events, and so on. The primary source of Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking here is Nietzsche, who offers a compelling argument on the matter. In Beyond Good and Evil, he insists that we must

give the finishing stroke to that…calamitous atomism which Christianity has taught best and longest, the soul atomism…the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science! … The way is open for new versions and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” and “soul as subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the drives and affects,” want henceforth to have citizens’ rights in science (1989a, p. 20).

A bit later he argues that “our body is but a social structure composed of many souls” (Nietzsche 1989, p. 26). Deleuze and Guattari’s claim—“each of us was several”—is a direct heir to Nietzsche’s idea of the soul as social structure. Nietzsche is railing here against the Christian conception of the monadic soul, one he thinks has been the default conception for as long as anyone can remember. But the idea of a multiple soul actually has quite a tradition. It goes back all the way to Plato, who is, it is fair to say, obsessed by the problem. In The Republic he argues that the soul is tripartite, made up of reason, spirit, and desire. A central argument of the book is that in a good soul, reason must rule over spirit and desire. He returns to this question continually, articulating it in many different forms, perhaps the most evocative of which is when he represents reason as a human, spirit as a lion, and desire as a many-headed beast (Plato, 2008, p. 588c).[1] It is a matter of vital importance for Plato that reason is able to impose order on this soul composed of many souls. For his part, Aristotle accepted this multiple soul also, as well as the idea that reason should rule, although in the Ethics and Politics he usually presents the soul as having two parts rather than three (e.g. 1998a, pp. 1102a-1103a). While we should reject, with Nietzsche, the hierarchy of the soul that places reason at the top,[2] nevertheless Plato and Aristotle demonstrate that the idea of soul as a multiplicity turns out to be quite an old idea that was very much assumed as a starting point by the seminal political theorists.

Thinking about individuals this way allows us to see each theorist as multiple. Doing so leads us to also think of each piece of a theorist’s work as multiple as well. Each essay or book is driven by many desires, drives, and wills, some of which contradict others. And of course each thinker’s whole body of work isn’t a coherent body at all, but many different discrete pieces of work, written over decades. And yet—and perhaps this now seems strange—we tend to think of each essay or book and each theorist’s body of work as a coherent and internally consistent mass.[3] Or at least we seem to want each theorist’s work to have that kind of coherence. We argue over the underlying and most-important theoretical or political desire, the single soul of the work. This tendency leads us to ask unproductive questions like, “was Lefebvre a Marxist?” or “are Laclau and Mouffe post-Marxists?” If we follow Nietzsche and give the finishing stroke to the soul atomism, if we think of each theorist and their work not as integral monads but as teeming multitudes, then such attempts to attach a singular label become pointless. Lefebvre was very much a Marxist. He was also very much an anarchist. But he was not only one or the other, and the terms are not at all mutually exclusive. There is a powerful strain of explicit Marxism in much of Lefebvre’s work; there is also a strong element of what looks quite a lot more like Bakunin than Marx.

What I am doing here, following Deleuze and Guattari (esp. 1987, Chapters 6, 7, and 10), is taking my own default conception of each thinker as a coherent body and trying to pull it apart, to prise open the seeming unity of its structure, and think of each more as a loose cluster of multiple wills, each of which is in motion and continually connecting with other wills in other agglomerations.  I am trying, in short, to imagine each theorist as a figure in the Jackson Pollack painting (below), Summertime Number 9A, as a wild tangle of many wills, always moving, almost dancing, always sending out connecting tendrils into other tangles. I am imagining the Pollack figures rather than the figures in the photograph, each of whom appears to be a discrete body.



But notice that the Pollack painting is not one of his abstracts. It is not a seemingly random tangle that extends fairly uniformly across the canvas (like for example One: Number 31).


Rather in Summertime there are brush or knife strokes and blocks of paint that indicate discernible figures amid the wild tangles. These figures may be faint, you may have to squint a bit to see them, but they are there. We could walk up to the painting and point this one out, or that one, and our companion would likely agree with our assessment. But at the same time each figure is not clearly distinguishable; there could be some debate over which is a figure and which is not, or where one figure ends and another begins. Along these lines, I am not saying that each thinker I examine is entirely formless, utterly random, or a collection of every human thought or impulse in history. Even if the work of each is not a perfectly coherent body, even if it is stuffed with contradictory desires, nevertheless each thinker does have some sort of consistency, each is a particular cluster of wills or qualities that distinguishes him or her from other thinkers. And each also has boundaries to their thought, even if those are often fuzzy. Lefebvre was an anarchist, a Marxist, and probably a libertarian, but he wasn’t really a Maoist, and he definitely was not a liberal or (even less) a Stalinist. Even if each author is a teeming multitude, that multitude is not infinite, and it does take on a perceptible form, a discernible consistency, that gives his or her thought a character we can identify and communicate to others.

So if we imagine each thinker as a figure in Summertime Number 9A, as a discernible cluster of wills linked in complex ways to a multitude of others, it becomes possible for us to makes choices, to engage with some wills and not with others. We can latch on to some of a thinker’s wills and desires, we can worry them out of the tangle of other wills and desires, and we can connect them up with other wills and desires from other authors, other strands from other traditions. And as we do so, we should not imagine each will as a fixed point that we connect to other fixed points in a static net or mesh. Rather each will is like one of the wild loops in the painting: a moving vector, an energy following a line. We should think of each will as a flow that we can stream together with other flows, increasing their overall speed, stoking their revolutionary force. In this approach we seek out desires and wills in an author’s work that resonate with our own, wills we think can augment the flow of our own ongoing project to the point where we have enough energy and speed to achieve a breakthrough.

So that is my project here, to draw out strands from various theorists of whom I have made a close study, to stream together the desire for democracy in each. My aim is to produce a strong flow, an overstuffed concept of democracy that can serve as a virtual object with which we can cut a path out of the present context and toward the possible. I will not claim that democracy is the predominant or defining desire in any one of these theorists, that they are not really Marxists or anarchists or liberals but rather democrats. I will only insist that the work of each exhibits a strong will to democracy, and it is that will I try to draw out. My approach here accords with Deleuze and Guattari, who argue that

reading the text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of the signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring machines, the schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force (1977, p. 106).

Of course I take seriously the responsibility of developing a rigorous understanding of each text, but my analysis of each text is not intended to be a thorough exposition of the true meaning of the work-as-a-whole. Rather it is intended as an act of extrapolation, of exegesis that can draw force from the text, force I can stream into my concept of democracy.

Let me offer just one last word about my selection process. At various points throughout the book I examine the work of Lefebvre, Laclau and Mouffe, Rancière, Gramsci, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Aristotle, Plato, Italo Calvino, and David Foster Wallace (I know, that last one pops out—see Chapter 4). That is already quite an extensive list, perhaps overly so. Nevertheless, each reader no doubt will have in mind one or more theorists that I leave out but who are nevertheless critical to the argument. Those readers will very likely be right. People like Marcuse, Habermas, Benjamin, Arendt, Jameson, Butler, Badiou, Nancy, Derrida, Lefort, Tronti, Agamben, Debord, Vaneigem, Virilio, Castoriadis, Fraser, Wolin, and Young receive only passing mention or do not appear at all. I could certainly have drawn on their work to augment the force of my conception of democracy. I do not exclude these thinkers because I think they are less relevant, or of lesser quality. Rather it is because a serious study of work like this requires considerable time and effort, and I have not yet spent sufficient time with these thinkers to properly mine their work in the depth it deserves.

[1] Nietzsche of course picks up the image of the lion, which Plato uses often, and runs with it. It becomes his “blonde beast” (1989b, First Essay, Section 11) and serves as the standard for his mission to rediscover and champion, almost verbatim, the argument of the sophist Callicles in Gorgias (Plato, 1998).

[2] For more on which see the section on Deleuze and Guattari in this chapter.

[3] The case of Marx, in which there is extensive scholarly debate about the possibility that there are different Marxes, is perhaps an exception.

Democracy, Squatting, and My Forthcoming Book

Here is one last piece from the recent Association of American Geographers conference.  This was for a session organized by Pierpaolo Mudu and Miguel Martinez called “Squatting and Social Centers: Resistance and Production of Critical Spaces.”  Unfortunately, because of travel challenges I was unable to be at the session in person, but the benefit of that is I prepared a more polished text to be read at the session, which I will paste below.  It serves as a good preview for my forthcoming book, The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy, which I hope will be out sometime early next year.  Here is the text:

What I want to contribute today is an idea of democracy that I hope is useful in thinking about popular struggles in general, and about squatting and social centers in particular.  The idea is taken from a book I just completed on democracy.  In the book I examine a range of theorists—particularly Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Gramsci, Laclau and Mouffe, Hardt and Negri, Rancière, and Nietzsche, as well as the work of David Foster Wallace.  I argue that it is possible to find in all of them a deep desire for democracy, and this desire is remarkably similar across the various writers.  So the idea of democracy I offer in the book and today is a kind of bricolage assembled from the work of these multiple theorists.

For me, the point of thinking and writing about democracy at all is to help build a conceptual frame, a way to think about a larger political project in the contemporary era.  By “contemporary era,” I mean right now: the financial collapse and the wave of austerity policies that seems to be the best the state and the financial oligarchy can come up with as an answer to the crisis.  Certainly austerity is not only the wrong approach, it is in fact so preposterous that we should respond with indignation, as so many have.  That’s easy, but I also want to suggest that our long-term goal should not be to merely return to social democracy, or the welfare state, or Keynesianism.  These strategies aim at rebuilding a strong state as a means to mitigate (or even, for some, to overcome) the problems of capitalism.  Whatever the value of those strategies in the current moment, I want to argue that they are not really democratic strategies.  We are capable of much more than the welfare state.  We are capable of democracy.

So then clearly I want to argue that the liberal-democratic state is not the democracy we should seek.  In that state, a relatively few people are selected, separated out from the population, and designated to govern the whole.  In other words, the few rule the rest.  This arrangement is by definition an oligarchy.  And more generally, the state, any state, is what Hobbes said it is: it is an arrangement where people alienate their own power to an entity outside themselves, and that entity uses their own power to rule them.  Liberal-democracy gives people a voice in choosing the oligarchs, but it doesn’t change the state’s fundamentally oligarchic structure of rule.  This structure is equally true of all state institutions: elections, parties, laws, bureaucracies, and representative bodies.

So then what is democracy?  Let’s try this: democracy is a mode of living together in which people manage for themselves the conditions of their own existence.  People in a democracy are thus autonomous rather than heteronomous; that is to say that in a democracy people “give themselves the law” rather than having the law given to them by another.  People rule themselves instead of being ruled.  Moreover, in order to be autonomous, they have to be politically active rather than passive.

One predictable objection to this way of thinking about democracy is a practical one: it is impossible for all the people, everyone together, to govern themselves directly.  This objection holds an element of truth, and in response we might revise our original idea: we should think of democracy not so much as a state of being or as a perfect political community at the end of history.  Drawing on Lefebvre’s Urban Revolution, we can think of democracy as a horizon toward which we travel, one we can never reach because a horizon always recedes, but one that suggests to us a direction in which we must move.  Or drawing on Deleuze and Guattari we could think not in terms of “democracy” as a state of being but in terms of “becoming-democratic” as a process, as a struggle, as an ongoing effort to manage our affairs for ourselves as much as we are able.  This idea is precisely what Lefebvre means when he says in State, Space, World that democracy is nothing other than a permanent struggle for democracy, an ongoing striving toward the horizon of democracy.  Becoming-democratic.

So of course such a struggle to become democratic would require that all people also “become-active,” that they continually refuse passivity, refuse the temptation to “let someone else do it,” that they continually cease to be the political spectator and become the political actor.  Here Rancière’s Emancipated Spectator is quite useful, but even moreso is David Foster Wallace’s exploration of this very issue, most famously in Infinite Jest.  In that book characters engage in courageous struggles to remain active, to manage their own affairs against overwhelming temptations to give in, temptations to let themselves be carried away, in their case by drugs and by entertainment.

What we find in Wallace is a vivid sense of the personal struggle to become active and autonomous.  And that individual struggle is critical.  But of course the struggle must also be collective.  We must struggle together to become democratic, to rule ourselves as a community.  So it is essential to consider what kind of relations we should have in that community, what kind of collectives we should be trying to create.  This is an enormous question, of course, so let me offer just a few points.

In the theory I have been working with, as well as in the many popular initiatives we have seen in 2011, there is much interest in creating leaderless groups whose members engage each other in horizontal, non-hierarchical relations.  Deleuze and Guattari talk of rhizomes, centerless assemblages in which any can connect to any other.  They also talk of “bodies without organs,” which are collectivities that are able to operate effectively without specialized nodes of organization.  Such groups try to avoid developing fixed organizational centers that are responsible for certain tasks (research, strategy, communications, logistics, etc.), since such centers would be oligarchies, rendering the rest of the body passive and ruled with respect to that function.  Deleuze and Guattari are imagining, in other words, a body (politic) without (party) organs.  Such organ-less groups would need to develop a kind of emergent intelligence or consciousness so it can act.  Here Deleuze and Guattari, and many others, have turned to the natural world for models.  A wolfpack, a flock of starlings, and a bee hive are commonly cited as masses of individuals that act without a centralized leadership.  But there are models in the human world too: Hardt and Negri have argued that the human brain functions as a rhizome, as a leaderless network of neurons that coordinate themselves whenever “a person” makes a decision.  And we could say too that at certain moments the crowds in Tahrir, Sol, Syntagma, and Zucchotti (not to mention Tiananmen) operated spontaneously in this way as well.  And that does not even take into account the conscious experimentation with leaderlessness and horizontality evident in Sol, Syntagma, and in the Occupy struggles in the US.

As with becoming-democratic more generally, we are unlikely to achieve this kind emergent organization as an end state, as a stable state of being.  Rather, we should think of ourselves as engaged in an ongoing, collective struggle to become-leaderless and horizontal, to become-starling and wolf, to become-Sol and Syntagma.  To return, over and over, to Tahrir Square.

As a final thought let me try to link all this back to the question of squatting and social centers.  Lefebvre insisted that the struggle to become-democratic, the struggle to increasingly manage our affairs for ourselves, was necessarily a struggle over space.  That is, for Lefebvre democracy was nothing other than the struggle to manage for ourselves the production of space.  Living as we do in a city and a world where inhabitants are alienated from the space they live in, where that space is managed for them by an oligarchy that cleaves to the dominant logic of private property and market exchange, what we need is a collective struggle by inhabitants to re-appropriate space.  This is a struggle to reclaim space for their own use, yes, but it is also a struggle to reclaim the management of space, to reclaim collective control over the complex processes of its production.  “Any revolutionary project today,” Lefebvre writes, “must…make the reappropriation of the body, in association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda” (Production of Space, p. 166-7).  Certainly it seems clear that squatting and social centers are attempts by inhabitants to reappropriate space.  In part, this reappropriation is in order to use the space.  But it is also often an attempt to reappropriate control over the management of space.  It seems to me, and I think Lefebvre would agree, that this latter effort is the key.  Becoming-democratic means not only an effort to seize and occupy space; but also it requires that we become autonomous and active though an ongoing struggle to manage the production of that space for ourselves.