Theory, action, ressentiment, and puissance

Back in March I posted the text of my talk on Lefebvre and Democracy from the Association of American Geographers conference. I was also involved in another session organized by Caitlin Cahill at CUNY and Rachel Pain at Durham. The theme of the session was crisis, protest, and participation.  The abstract for the session was:

Moved by events around the world of the last year, including, among others, the “Arab Spring”, immigration rights movements, unionized worker struggles (in the US and Europe), student protests and the riots in the UK, in this session we aim to carve out a space for discussing participation in social change. Rather than simply showcasing research into these events, the session will question how they connect to and co-inform the theories and practices of participatory action research. What can we learn from the mass movements of organizing, and what role might research have in relation to/alongside these struggles?

The session was much more a conversation than a series of monologues, but here is the text that I prepared as my initial statement to the group.  What I actually said was briefer…

I come to this discussion as someone who has been, at least recently, primarily occupied with a project of mining political theory for ideas that we can put to use in the present context.

I want to try to frame my contribution in the form of two personal stories.  The first is that I had the experience of reading a book called Democracy in What State? in the summer of 2011.  The book came out in 2010, and what it is is a collection of superstars from left theory (Badiou, Agamben, Nancy, Rancière, Zizek, Wendy Brown, etc.) and what they are trying to do is to take account of whether democracy is still a useful political concept in the contemporary era.  The consensus that emerges in the book is the view that democracy is still worth preserving, but that it is now (in 2010) a very weak flame, about to be extinguished, tended only by these few priests in the ivory temple.  As you might have already guessed, there is in the book absolutely no sense of what was coming, of the explosion in 2011 of so many people in so many places demanding all sorts of things, one of which, and a prominent one, was democracy.  And for many involved in the uprisings, the demand was not just for liberal democracy, not just for elections and a more responsive state apparatus, but real democracy, democracy where people control their own lives, democracy as a way of living together in which people actively take up the project of managing their affairs for themselves.

The second story I want to tell has to do with how I lucked into much better timing.  I started writing my own book on democracy in 2010, just a little before Muhammad Bouazizi sparked the Arab Uprising.  I was drawing my ideas about democracy from the work of people like Lefebvre, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Rancière, Gramsci, Laclau and Mouffe, Nietzsche.  From those sources I assembled an idea of democracy, and that idea understood democracy as a struggle by all the people together to become politically active and directly manage their affairs for themselves: they do so without a state, without hierarchy, and without leaders.  Moreover, Lefebvre, for his part, insists on the importance of space, that it is crucial to claim, seize, hold, and use the urban center as an essential part of the struggle for democracy.  So of course, as I am writing, whole chunks of these ideas come to life, people becoming active, demanding at the very least to participate in political life and at the most to fully control their own lives.  In all cases they felt it was necessary to occupy and use a central urban space as part of their struggle.  Many of those who were active refused to engage the state, deciding it was bankrupt as a site of political action, and many were also experimenting with horizontal forms of leaderless organization and action.

These two projects grew up independently of each other.  The uprisings were entirely independent of me of course, and while I followed events intently, they didn’t alter what I wanted to say so much as add to the long list of historical instances of people struggling for the kind of democracy I was trying to articulate.  So what I think this second story can teach us is that it doesn’t make much sense to think in terms of a coherent separation between thought and action, or that the task is to bring them together.  The indignados were doing theory (explicitly and implicitly), and I was taking action.  So I think what I want to say about us is that we were all, each of our own accord, following a series of interlaced paths toward what turned out to be a very similar horizon.  That does not at all mean that I should not seek to connect with participants in the Spanish Revolution, nor that they shouldn’t read my book.  It just means that neither of us should think that we can’t live without making that connection.  We are both already mutually bound up, through thousands of ties, in a complex shared assemblage from which we both take sustenance.  Certainly we should work to multiply our connections, but we should also realize the multiple connections we already share.

The lesson we can learn from the first story, about the theorists not seeing it coming, is that sometimes there are systematic gaps or dislocations in these webs of connections.  One such gap I would point to, at least in what is often called critical geography and (critical traditions beyond geography) is a habit of mind to focus on the structures of power and their limitless ability to dominate our bodies and our minds.  This habit is more or less what Nietzsche calls ressentiment: we define the powerful as bad, and ourselves, the dominated, as by definition good because we are not in power.  The problem with ressentiment, he says, is that it blinds us to our own powers: because we only consider the evils of the structures of power, we never ask ourselves what we are capable of, what our bodies and our minds can do, as Spinoza says.  I think what this points to is the importance of what we might call a “vitalist methodology,” of a habit of mind that insists that we should pay attention not only, or even primarily, to the power of those in charge, but to our own power, and to our own capacities.  There is a long tradition of this—it gets called puissance, potentia, constituent power, poiesis, eros, conatus—but we forget to pay attention to it, we fall into a fascination with dominating power, and we forget what we can do–we ignore the power we are capable of discharging into the world.  This systematic forgetting undermines the struggle for real democracy, because that struggle requires not only that we pay attention to our own power, that we seek it out, narrate it, and celebrate it, but also that we cultivate it, that we struggle to help it grow, spread, and flourish.  Critique is needed to understand what we are up against, but we can only create something other, something new, something that moves us down a path towards democracy, by understanding and using the power that is already within us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s