Cease pouring it out like a sewer and sing in your own voice

Here is the last of the talks I gave in Los Angeles at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in a session on Critical Urban Theory organized by Chris Baker and Justin Beaumont.

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“Goodbye Mr. Criticism”

negri

Negri’s title is Goodbye, Mr. Socialism. I can’t speak for Negri, but my guess is that he means what he says. Given the argument in the book, Negri would probably be happy to say goodbye to socialism once and for all, given of course that we understand the term to mean a State society in which a proletarian party controls the apparatus of government. If so, I am happy to stand behind him 100%.

I can speak for myself, though, and my title is polemical. That is, I am overstating to make a point. I don’t mean to say that we should say goodbye, once and for all, to critique and criticism in urban theory. We can have critique. There is a role for it. But we must always remember that its role must be subordinate, that it can never be primary. I want to say about critique what Lewis Hyde and David Foster Wallace said about irony.  Hyde says

Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.  That is why it is so tiresome.  People who have found a route to power based on their misery–who don’t want to give it up though it would free them–they become ironic (Alcohol and Poetry, 1986, p. 16).

And Wallace follows on:

This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….But irony is singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks…I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures…one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow…oppressed (“E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”).

So irony and criticism can play a role, but it can only be a limited one, a ground clearing, a removing of barriers that prevent us from growing and thriving. But there is a problem: this limited role is not so easy to maintain. Critique has a tendency to be voracious.  It has a habit of consuming us, of coming to occupy our entire political imagination.  Who can deny, for example, that our critique of neoliberalism has become almost obsessive?

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Its geography, history, logic, global spread, ecological consequences, ethnography, and even its recent crisis. We have become so consumed by destroying, by the ground clearing, that we have forgotten what else there is.

This is Nietzsche’s argument, about ressentiment. He says that we live in a system he calls “slave morality,” which teaches us relentlessly that we are oppressed, and that we should hate our oppressors because they are evil. In this way of thinking, we can only be good by disassociation, because we are not them. We stew in our ressentiment, we become obsessed by our oppressors, and we forget to do anything other than criticize their power. Nietzsche is worried that ressentiment can grow to eat up all other modes of thought, that it renders us able to feel only spite, bitterness, anger, and envy. Such feelings, for Nietzsche, mean we are on the wrong track, that we have come to accept our cage, to fixate on it. We are obsessed with neoliberalism, austerity, oligarchy. And here’s the thing, for Nietzsche: this obsession prevents us from discovering our own power, our own potential for creation, our own strength, our own will to grow and flourish, our own will to life. And so it is essential that we rid ourselves of ressentiment, he says, that we become instead those “whose task is wakefulness itself” those who say yes to life, those who discharge their own strength into the world. (This is all in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil).

To a troubling extent in geography, I think, we are awash in critique, we are macerating in our own bile. We need a way out. We need to take seriously what Henry Miller says: you need to

cease pouring it out like a sewer, however melodious it may sound to your ears, and rise up on your own two legs and sing with your own God-given voice [Numen]. To confess, to whine, to complain, to commiserate, always demands a toll. To sing it doesn’t cost you a penny. Not only does it cost nothing—you actually enrich others (instead of infecting them). . . .(Sexus, pp. 429-30; quoted in Anti-Oedipus, p. 334).

So what should we be doing instead? What would it mean to sing, to say yes to life? It is certainly not to learn to love neoliberalism, to appreciate its benefits. Neither should we pretend neoliberalism doesn’t exist, to turn to empty diversions, to feel-good stories about reggae or volunteering in Central America, to listen to NPR.

I think Deleuze & Guattari have it right: start from Hobbes. Hobbes realizes that the State has no power of its own. It only has the power the people agree to give it. For Hobbes, there is no way around it: the people are the source of all power; State power is derivative. Marx was just following in Hobbes’ wake when he told us that labor is the source of all economic value, that capital must suck out that value like a vampire. The State is not the source of power. Capital is not the source of economic wealth. We are. Begin there. Redirect our attention: toward what we can do, toward what we want to create instead. And then pursue it. And connect with others who are also pursuing their own strength, pursuing truths that feel the same as yours.

The Invisible Committee: “Attach yourself to what you feel to be true. Begin there.”

Scroobius Pip: “You see a mousetrap. I see free cheese and a fucking challenge.”

If the State or capital is impeding this project somehow, clear it. Critique can be useful in clearing obstacles. Moreover, if it is done right, critique can even be a way to search for and discover our own vital powers.

This is the way Deleuze and Guattari see critique too.  They tell us to

lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 161).

They say we should be attentive to the powers that constrain us, sure, just not obsessively.  And our goal in playing attention to the powers should not be  confront them and smash them. Rather we should examine them in order to know how to turn away from them, to know how to escape. “Don’t fight,” they tell us, “flee.” When we flee, we will have the chance to properly turn our attention to ourselves, to discover (or rediscover) our own power, to get to know our desiring machines, to find out what they can do, to see how they can produce flow conjunctions, to see how we might cultivate our small plot of new land.

So “Goodbye, Mr. Criticism” is a polemic, because there does remain a role of critique.  But only if critique is used to carefully examine the contours of the strata, to better understand the apparatuses of capture, so that we can flee.  And we flee only in order to make possible the other ways of being that we already have within us, ways of being that are latent, inchoate, dormant.

Let me give you an example.

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Whatever you think of Hardt & Negri, I recommend to you a crystalline essay by Michael Hardt in which he offers what he calls a “critique of political economy,” and he says that “any communist project must begin” with this sort of critique. He argues that in contemporary capitalism the composition of labor and the relations of property is changing. Labor has changed such that the leading edge of accumulation, the form all other forms will be forced to adopt, is immaterial labor: it produces ideas, knowledges, codes, and it produces affective relations among people. That is, it produces, as products, things like common understandings, common languages, and common sensibilities. Products that by their nature held in common by many people, products that are easily shared or reproduced. These products are increasingly hard to enclose as property.  Moreover, enclosing them tends to reduce their value. They work best when they are held in common. But of course expanding the common undermines the basis of capitalism. And so we see the increasing importance of efforts to reinscribe the idea of “intellectual property,” as a way for capital to expropriate the common and charge a rent on it (patents, copyright, SOPA/PIPA). What capital is doing here is scrambling desperately to discover new ways to control and profit by this production of an expanding common. Apple, for example, depends utterly on vigilantly restricting access to code that was produced in common by thousands of coders across many decades. Faced with this fact, we can be bitter about this, resent them for their hoarding a resource that should belong to everyone. Or, we might instead pity them: for having to hustle so hard, and employ such a large army of lawyers, to defend a sad model that is always on the brink of being swallowed up again by the common ocean from which it emerged. Hardt is saying that contemporary capitalism is becoming a world in which the leading edge of labor is relentlessly producing a new common that is increasingly hard for capital to enclose. If communism is properly conceived as the abolition of property as such, Hardt says, let us be attentive to the ways in which we are already producing communism in the world right now, all around us.

So, just a taste of what critique might be like when it sets out to discover potential rather than stew in ressentiment. One thing we should not do with Hardt’s critique is get sucked into a debate about how important or large or powerful or autonomous the emerging common is. He isn’t telling us that capitalism will collapse under its own weight tomorrow, that we need only stand by and wait for its fall. He is saying, I think, that capitalism is always struggling desperately to contain us, but it is also always, necessarily, unleashing us unintentionally. It is our power that it must control. The potential for its demise rests not in its internal contradictions, but rather in us, in our own strength, in the strength we are only just learning how to use. Hardt is offering us a methodological reorientation, away from the search for the ubiquitous and inescapable power of capital and toward the search for the ubiquitous and emerging power of the common.

So what kind of positive practices might such critique imply? Paolo Virno insists that what we need today is to conceive of and engage in a project of an exodus, a flight, a defection.

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But despite what it seems, Virno’s idea of exodus is not a negative one. For Virno we should leave, we should flee, but not in order to starve the powers that be, even though that might happen. Rather for Virno exodus is a positive act because we withdraw, we flee into smooth space, in order to discover and experiment with our own power. Exodus is a way to discover our own “latent wealth,” he says, our own “abundance of possibilities.” It is a project to learn how to use this wealth, how to begin putting it to work. Exodus

involves, therefore, a complex ensemble of positive actions. It is not a resentful omission, but a committed undertaking. The sovereign command is not carried out, because, above all, we are too busy figuring out how to pose differently the question…(p. 199).

Learn our legs, learn what they can do, learn what they can’t do, where we need to get stronger. Cease being obsessed with oppression; become obsessed with ourselves. Stop pouring out critique like a sewer, and begin to sing in our own voice.

In terms of what we might hear when we begin to sing, Virno proposes ideas like a “non-State Republic” (199), “a power that refuses to become government” (201), “leagues, councils, and soviets” (203), “a non-State public sphere,” and “nonrepresentative democracy”:

Democracy today has to be framed in terms of the construction and experimentation of forms of nonrepresentative and extrapaliamentary democracy.  All the rest is vacant chitchat (p. 202)

He doesn’t specify any of these new ways of living in detail. That is because they are all emerging, they are yet to be realized. We must decide what they will mean together. But we can’t do that unless we turn our attention to these new ways of living, unless we begin taking seriously the question of what we can do.

One last word, perhaps, on someone I have not mentioned yet.

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With all the emerging fascination with the idea of the planetary, with planetary urbanism, I want to end by insisting that we read Lefebvre as very much a part of this lineage, from Nietzsche, through Deleuze & Guattari, and on into the Italians. We tend to take up Lefebvre through Harvey (and Castells), and for years that tradition has missed the particular power of Lefebvre, stuffing him awkwardly into an orthdoxy that sanitizes his dangerous spirit. Lefebvre was clearly a thinker of possibility rather than limitation. He did not stew in ressentiment. He examined the industrial city and abstract space only in order to probe for the creative possibilities of urban society and differential space. He searched tirelessly for what could grow in the cracks of the dominant order. He didn’t see a mousetrap. He saw free cheese and a fucking challenge.

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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.

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

Introduction

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.

Democracy

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.

Conclusion

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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.

David Foster Wallace Syllabus

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I just ran across this syllabus for David Foster Wallace’s class at Illinois State University, “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction Fall 1994.”  This is two years before Infinite Jest came out.  Fascinating.  I get the sense that he was probably too aloof and hard-charging as a teacher, maybe like he was less generous and forgiving with his students than he was with his readers and with his characters.  In any case, what a treasure to have this window on Normal, Ill. in 1994.

Calvino, Wallace, Holland, (and me)

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Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, my translation:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is that which is already here, the inferno that we inhabit every day, that we create by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for most: accept the inferno and become such a complete part of it that you no longer know it is there. The second is risky and requires vigilance and continuous attention: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, and help them endure, give them space.

David Foster Wallace in L. McCaffrey, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, p. 26:

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the  definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as  dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

Eugene Holland, Nomad Citizenship, p. 172:

The task of nomadological utopianism is then to detect and reinforce such alternative instances [to capitalism and the State], distill and express the ideals informing them, then relay and propagate those ideals in additional institutions and practices throughout social life, in anticipation of pushing society to a tipping point beyond which they actually come to prevail.

Me, drawing heavily on the others, from The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy, p. 21-2:

Both Calvino and Wallace are saying that there is something already here, something good, breathing in the midst of human society. This good is not transcendent, or an ideal to come. It is immanent, incipient, coming. Calvino calls it that which is “not inferno.” For Wallace, it is those elements of “what’s human and magical” in the world,  elements that illuminate the “possibilities for being alive.” Even though we are surrounded by the actual world of the inferno, we can seek out the not-inferno and help it to grow. In a similar way,  Lefebvre’s transduction argues that a possible world is not “out there,” beyond our current situation, but rather it is already here, even if it remains inchoate. Our task as political thinkers and actors, Lefebvre argues, is to discover this good, this other world, to remove the barriers that prevent its growth, and to nurture it as best we can.

David Foster Wallace, on the land

The first paragraph of The Pale King.  Breathtaking, as usual:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Hardt & Negri, Representation, and Absolute Democracy

I am in the midst of copy editing my new book, and I found this passage particularly enjoyable on reading it again.  It outlines Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the contradiction between democracy and modern representative government.

For Hardt and Negri absolute democracy (a term they take from Spinoza’s Political Treatise (1677, Chapter XI)) is the first great modern innovation of democracy, and it functions to radically extend the ancient concept.  For ancients such as Aristotle, the demos did not mean the people as a whole.  Rather it referred only to the many poor who were not members of the elite classes. Aristotle assumed that these poor were always the majority, but they never constituted everyone in the society. Thus demo-cracy, the rule of the demos, was for Aristotle the rule of the many poor over everyone else. The modern innovation, Hardt and Negri argue, was to extend absolutely this concept of the demos from the many poor to everyone (2004, p. 240). As a result, modern democracy is understood to be the rule of everyone over everyone, or absolute democracy.[1]

Hardt and Negri argue that the second great modern innovation of democracy has to do with the question of scale. Rather than the polis-sized community of ancient democracy, modern states were national in scale.  But they still aspired to be democratic, and so they needed to invent a notion of democracy that was feasible at that larger scale. The solution that emerged was representation: everyone participates in selecting a few representatives, and those few govern in the place of everyone–they represent the whole.  Representative democracy thus connects people to their rulers through elections.  But it also separates people from their rulers because it opens a gap between “those who govern” and “everyone,” between rulers and ruled.  The representatives stand for everyone, but they can never be everyone.  But as we saw the first modern innovation of democracy imagines it to be absolute: in a democracy everyone governs everyone.  And so modern democracy cannot tolerate the gap between representatives and everyone. Representative democracy is therefore a contradiction.  Hardt and Negri write that “democracy and representation stand at odds with one another.  When our power [the power of everyone] is transferred to a group of rulers, then we all no longer rule, we are separated from power and government.”  However, they continue, “despite this contradiction…representation came to define modern democracy to such an extent that…it has become practically impossible to think democracy without also thinking some form of representation” (2004, p. 244).  For example, that association is now so taken for granted that Joseph Nye, a leading political thinker, asserts that “democracy is government by officials who are accountable and removable by the majority of people in a jurisdiction (Nye, 2002, p. 109).  Representation and democracy contradict each other, and yet the two have become entirely synonymous.

As David Foster Wallace once said, “what a fucking mess.”


[1] I should mention that Hardt and Negri are probably extending Spinoza beyond where he was willing to go.  He imagined absolute democracy to be a form of absolute state (Tucker, 2012), whereas in Hardt and Negri it is conceived of quite differently, as being beyond the state.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2004) Multitude. New York, Penguin.

Nye, J. (2002) The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go it Alone.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Tucker, E. (2012) “Spinoza’s Absolute Democracy,” Paper given at the University of Washington’s Spinoza Symposium, March 3.

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.