Gay Science, III, 249

The sigh of the search for knowledge.– “Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs of eyes and hands–a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” –Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.


Nietzsche +1

Gay Science, 321:

New caution.–Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight — and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.

Chaos and Control: Mark Rothko

I have always been a Mark Rothko fan.

There is no telling why. That is part of the deal. It is supposed to be an emotional experience, reasons can’t be given.

(I have always thought it had a lot to do with the game Candyland, a game I think I played a lot growing up. In that game, you didn’t roll dice and use the total to know how many spaces to advance, you used color. Each square on the board had a color, and you would draw a card, which would have a block of color on it, and you would advance along the board until you arrived at the next square of that color. Sometimes, though, it seemed like only very rarely, you would get a double, a card with two blocks of the same color on it, and so you would be able to advance two instances of that color on the board. I suspect that Rothko’s paintings, on some very deep level, struck me as the world’s most gigantic version of the Candyland cards I coveted most.)

There is an exhibit of Rothko’s paintings in the Tate Modern in London. I have been lucky enough to visit London a fair amount of times, usually on my own, and I have been free to walk around wherever I chose. But every time I am there I go to the Tate to see the Rothkos. It would be easy to object to this, to say what are you thinking, there are an infinite number of things to see and do in London, don’t re-see something you have already seen. But I don’t even really think twice. I go straight to the Tate. Unlike most galleries, in which Rothko’s pictures are mixed in with others in a series of rooms devoted to a theme or a school of painting, at the Tate there are 9 Rothkos in one room, one very dimly lit room.


It takes time to see them, both because your eyes have to adjust to the low light, and because the paintings are very subtle. They are made almost entirely of blacks and maroons, and the forms on the canvas make themselves visible to you only gradually. At first the pictures look like mostly indistinct fields of dark. But over time, if you wait for it, the windows appear.

The windows. Or maybe they are frames. Or scaffolds of some kind. As I sat there at length, and the pictures presented themselves to me, it became clear that what was going on was that Rothko was trying to create for us a way to contact chaos without getting hurt. Let me try to explain that one. The paintings are huge, 8’x8′ or so, and the basic set up is that there is a field of dark red on which Rothko has overlain black rectangles, each of which is bisected, making them look like window panes. The dark red is clearly the background, and the black is laid down on top of the red. In the ones that struck me most, the red background is darker at the edges of the canvas and lighter in the center, so one has the clear sense of an almost infinite depth receding into the middle of the picture. It is like staring into the void, or looking into a blizzard, or peering over the edge of a very, very deep chasm. But for the windows. They provide a frame, a defense, a buffer that somehow keeps you safe, that somehow prevents the terror of the chaos from fully reaching you. The frames of the windows vary in thickness. In some pictures we are relatively more exposed to the chaos than others. Sometimes the frames take up most of the picture, and the sliver of red background is more occluded. Other times the frames are thinner, more delicate, and we feel far more nakedly exposed to the chaos.

I know from being a big fan of the movie Six Degrees of Separation that Kandinsky has a two-sided painting, with chaos on one side and control on the other. What Rothko is doing here is offering both on the same side of the canvas, setting down one layer that is chaos, and then making sure it is muted or mediated or moderated or by a layer of control, the latter of which is closer to us, protecting us, keeping us safe, standing between us and chaos. But at the same time it allows us to see chaos, to connect with it, to really *feel* it.

The drama here isn’t really one of good and evil, of the destructive force of chaos against the control that keeps us safe. That would be a Hobbesian imagination. If we are to believe Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari who followed in his wake, chaos is not evil, it is everything. It is both destruction and production. And it contains within it all of those forces, all at once, all in one place. It is all of life and all of death all mixed together. It is not a negative power, power as a threat, but power in general, force that can change the world. Chaos is the source of life, of energy, of creation, but also the source of death and destruction. We absolutely must have it to live, to survive. But of course it also brings death as well. If we confront it nakedly, without mediation, if we are immersed in it fully, it will overwhelm us, swallow us up into its swirl. But, again, we must contact it, must connect with it, must draw from its power in order to continue living and growing. We must figure out a way to draw creative/productive energy from chaos without getting so close to it, so immersed in it, that it swallows us up.

These paintings, if they were all frame, would lack any connection to the chaos, and thus lack life. If they didn’t have any frames, they would precipitate us into chaos, and shut us down. But they are neither. They connect us to chaos without overwhelming us. I sat in the room for an hour, and I was intensely alive emotionally the whole time. But I never broke down and cried, the way Rothko sometimes claimed people did when confronted with his paintings. I was always on the verge of that, but the frames always brought me back. I was feeling alive, as intensely as possible, without being overwhelmed by it. It was a powerful and sustained sense of wonder. Maybe these pictures are great pictures because they find that balance, a semi-stable mix between the inspiration and vivacity that comes from chaos and the calm and reassurance that comes from control. For me, Rothko got it just right because I felt exhilarated and secure at the same time, in a constant play of forces where one never overwhelms the other. It was an incredible experience.

Cold Monster

Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not where we live, my brothers: here there are states.

State? What is that? Well! Now open your ears to me, for now I shall speak to you about the death of peoples.

State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

–Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, On the New Idol

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.


“Goodbye Mr. Criticism”


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?

g  e d c ab f

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.