Saturday, 19 February 2011

The public and its undergrowth

The public sphere has an undergrowth. Outside there are not just the caves of intimacy we call the private sphere, but also a maze of passage-ways,  alternative arenas, temporary connections, informal openings and informal gates on which the light of the public seldom or never falls.

The undergrowth is a favorite locus of the postmodern political thought that rose to prominence in the wake of the radicalism of "1968". As the pretensions of attempts to change society through open protest - in the full visibility of the public sphere and in the light, so to speak, of the sun of history - became untenable, the undergrowth turned into a place of refuge for those who still advocated resistance. Thomas Pynchon puts this idea very well:

One popular method of resistance was always just to keep moving – seeking, not a place to hide out, secure and fixed, but a state of dynamic ambiguity about where one might be any given moment, along the lines of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (Pynchon 1997, “Introduction to Jim Doge’s Stone Junction”)
In the 70s and 80s, Deleuze & Guattari started to advocate “flight” as a way to undermine the system while a “strategy of disappearance” found proponents among thinkers such as Hakim Bey and Jean Baudrillard. Strikingly, the concept of resistance now revealed itself as wedded to mobility, to flight, to vast smooth spaces, to a room of maneuver far superior to the cramped public sphere. In all these respects, the concept also presented itself as an antipode to the even more cramped private space. Resistance, in any case, was possible. Not by protest perhaps, but by disappearing from public view and finding freedom like cyberpunks in the mazes of Gibson’s cyberspace, like rats in a big house, or like the poor hunted Slothrop, fleeing his persecutors in the Zone. If the system couldn't be altered by the use of "voice" in the public sphere, then it could be altered by "exiting" to the undergrowth. The state, in Paul Virno's words, would crumble "not by a massive blow to its head, but through a mass withdrawal from its base".

When I read articles like the one by Sheller & Urry which I discussed in a recent post, I can't help thinking that it's to this post-68 current - a "tradition" already - that they are linking up. Yes, it's all there - the attempt to redfine mobility as resistance, the mood of feeling fed up with old "static" notions of the public sphere...

The idea of exit as resistance should not be underestimated. It deserves careful scrutiny, at least from two directions. On the one hand it is fairly obvious that it serves an ideological function, legitimizing or rationalizing a withdrawal from political activity under the pretext of offering resistance. But on the other, it can't be denied that exit can be a quite efficient weapen under some circumstances (provided that the opponent is dependent on your participation and you have access to good alternatives - see Hirschman!). Besides, to a person traumatized by defeat, there might not be much more to do in the way of resistance than to withdraw and take shelter in the undergrowth in order to recover his or her strength, to pick up a gun while running, so as to fight another day. Running or taking shelter all the time, however, is hardly pleasant, and to a recovering person, it is crucial to identify the moment when flight can stop and offensive action is again possible.

Let me now turn to a specific problem. How can the "undergrowth" be specified theoretically in relation to the notion of the public sphere?

Towards the end of his life Deleuze sketched the theory of the control society. This theory shows how ambiguous the relation of the "undergrowth" is to the public sphere. For instance, he points out that the fact that communication is the life-nerve of control-societies means that “[t]he key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control” (Deleuze, Negotiations, Columbia University Press 1990:175). This sounds like an advocacy of exit from the public sphere, the latter being viewed as a site of pervasive control and monitoring. However, flight teems with possibilities of counter-forays into public communication in a way which both upsets it and marks a return to the public sphere. Viruses and computer piracy, he suggests, will replace strikes and sabotage: “We’ve got to hijack speech” (ibid). The question we should now ask is: is “hijacking” a form of participation in public communication or something opposed to it?

This ambiguity remains in Hakim Bey and Negri & Hardt. All these thinkers maintain the basic idea of flight into rhizomatic complexity as a preferred form of resistance. What they add to Deleuze is a clearer emphasis on the possibility of collective resistance. The rhizome is turned into a network. Bey pictures it as a "pirate utopia" with its islands, remote hideouts, and mini-communities living outside the law. The suggestive idea of a shady “network” that might take the place of the superseded public sphere builds on the idea of a society of such complexity that no single central power really has the ability to control it any longer. “For the strategic coalescence, complexity is not just an aesthetic but a necessity, a cognitive maquis or zone of resistance, a realm of ambiguity where the uprising must find its economy, its heartlands.” (“10. Volkways”, in Millennium). What is envisioned is the guerrilla tactics of striking and running away, in the manner of a nomadic war-machine. Negri & Hardt similarly pin much on the argument that the networks of the control society are open to the possibility of resistance, because their effectiveness and hence survival to a large extent depends on the freedom of movement allowed within it. “The same design element that ensures survival, decentralization, is also what makes control of the network so difficult” (Hardt & Negri 2000:299).

These three examples - Deleuze, Bey and Hardt & Negri - show that despite an ostentative use of the rhetoric of exit ("flight", "disappearance", "desertion", or "exodus"), none of them are actually advocating any pure one-way exit from the public sphere. In fact, it is even dubious if it can be said that they advocate exit as resistance at all.  Resistance comes when one stops in order to use the picked-up gun, when one occupies part of the enemy territory in the form of a T.A.Z or when the diffused multitudes suddenly converge again, fed up with "withdrawing from the base" and intent instead on "dealing a massive blow to the head" as in Seattle. As I've pointed out elsewhere, there is an ambiguity in the rhetoric of exit as resistance which is particularly glaring in the case of Hardt & Negri.
In Empire (2000) the main examples of desertion and exodus are refugees, migrant labour, escaped slaves, and the mass-emigrations that triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall. Resting on a myriad of individual decisions – a “diffusion of singularities” – rather than organized movement, the effect of these desertions is said to be to silently weaken the system of power, undermining it rather than fighting it. [...]. In Multitude (2004) and other recent texts the concept of exodus tends to be broadened into a metaphor of resistance as such, including voice and public confrontation. Simultaneously, the central image illustrating the concept shifts to the mass-demonstrations of the alter-globalization movement in Seattle and Genoa. The result of these changes is that the concept becomes more confrontational – what is needed is not simply to abandon or “undermine” power by depriving it of participation and support but actively to turn against it and topple it, through “a blow to its head” to use Virno’s words. This vacillation indicates a basic unresolved dilemma. The more they stress the undermining effects of the withdrawal of various subaltern groups from imperial control, the thinner the link to organized resistance becomes. Conversely, the more they connect their theory to the present surge in anti-corporate and anti-war activism, the more its empirical content tends to merge with the traditional movement repertoire of voice and public confrontation.
However, here I will try to present a counter-argument to myself. Perhaps the "undergrowth" is essentially contradictory. If that is so, then resting content with merely criticizing this contradiction will risk blinding oneself to the fact that this undergrowth nevertheless exists and fulfills a variety of functions. Seen from the vantage-point of the "public sphere" it will perhaps inescapably appear ambiguous and contradictory, as neither pure "exit" nor pure" participation". 

Let us ask, however, if there is any other vantage-point from which these ambiguous forms of resistance would appear natural, self-evident and comprehensible. Might not autonomy be one such viewpoint? Whatever autonomy might mean, it sure doesn't mean that we need to adjust - and all to often "participation" means just that, to adjust oneself to some form of rule. But neither does autonomy mean that we must confine ourselves to non-participation. That too would be heteronomy. To act autonomously means to act in ways that can't be confined to either participation or non-participation. Could we say, perhaps, that the "undergrowth" is a place for autonomy? Or if that is too strongly put: a place where we can expand our room for autonomy?

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