Monday, 21 February 2011

Repression and invention: a warning from Brecht

Good article by Robert Fisk about the way security forces ape each other: "Three weeks in Egypt show the power of brutality and its limits" 

He writes, among other things:

If the people once – just once – lost their fear, and rose up to crush their oppressors, the very system of pain and frightfulness would become its own enemy, its ferocity the very reason for its collapse. This is what happened in Tunis. This is what happened in Egypt.
That's a thing we all want to believe. Still, I'm worried about Libya and I do hope things will work out well there. As for Iran, the situation is wholly different there. I see so much more than mere repetition.

A warning from Brecht:

The oppressors do not work in the same way in every epoch. They cannot be defined in the same fashion at all times. There are so many means for them to avoid being spotted. They call their military roads motor-ways; their tanks are painted so that they look like MacDuff’s woods. Their agents show blisters on their hands, as if they were workers. No: to turn the hunter into quarry is something that demands invention.”(“Against Georg Lukács”, pp 68-85, in Aesthetics and Politics, London & New York: Verso 2007, p. 82f)
And here's Albert Hirschman, again about the need for invention:
[C]hange can only happen as a result of surprise, otherwise it could not occur at all, for it would be suppressed by the forces that are in favour of the status quo. (A Propensity to Self-subversion, Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 136)

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?

Muen and gôko

The historian Higashijima Makoto’s publications about the historical construction of the public sphere in Japan and the idea of “rivers and lakes” (gôko or kôko, 江湖) provide a good example of recent attempts in Japan to reformulate the idea of the public without relying on the problematic notion of ôyake or I've already mentioned him in an earlier entry. Here I will have a closer look at how he relates his argument to Amino Yoshihiko's concept of muen in his book Kôkyôken no rekishiteki sôzô (The historical construction of the public sphere, Tokyo Daigaku shuppansha 2000).

Higashijima doesn't just reject notions of "public" that are too close to the idea of the "official" or state-related. He also rejects notions that retain too much of the notion of "community” (kyôdôtai), such as when the historian Katsumata Shizuo sees an early Japanese form of "public" opposed to official power in the kugai of autonomous town-communities” (machi-kyôdôtai) or popular federations (ikki). Higashijima objects that such communities might have managed to create a form of "common", but they never created a true "public" since community always entails closure. No matter how opposed these "communities" were to official power, ironically they could never achieve more than a new miniature “official” space reproduced on a smaller scale (Higashijima 2000:240f).

Not even Amino goes free from criticism, although his mistake is "merely" that he conflates the fake public of kugai with the genuine openness of muen .

What we need to question is the identification of kugai with muen. What in the end emerges as the problem in Muen Kugai Raku is the confluence between: a) freedom through the community, and b) freedom from the community. The dilemma that arises from the confluence between a, which is closer to kugai, and b, which is closer to muen, does not yet appear to have been sufficiently brought to consciousness in Muen Kugai Raku… It is clear that it is not the idea of kugai but precisely the idea of muen that must be the point of departure from thinking about the public in the sense of Öffentlichkeit, of being open to all. (ibid. 214f)
Higashijima is also partly critical of arguments that purport to find an affinity between the ideas of Habermas and Amino (e.g. historians like Hanada Tatsurô - for a text in English by Hanada, see his 2006 paper "The Japanese 'Public Sphere': the Kugai" in Theory, Culture & Society 23:2-3). Whatever affinity there in Amino's thought to the Habermasian idea of the "public sphere" (Öffentlichkeit), is found in the idea of muen, not in the idea of kugai.

Sarugaku performer (to the left) together with a dengaku performer. Sarugaku later developed into theatre. 

While rejecting the idea that kugai as an early Medieval approximation of Habermasian Öffentlichkeit, Higashijima is quite emphatic in his insistence that muen corresponded rather well with this notion. Thus he refers to Tsuda Sôkichi's description of sarugaku performances as open to the general public and as taking place in areans where all onlookers were supposed to be equal, regardless of rank or age, and thus similar to how Habermas describes the literary public sphere of the 17th century in France. In both cases, culture provided places where all participants were “free of status” - which in turn exactly corresponds to the notion of muen, the state of being cut off from relations to the community. Higashijima suggests that the fact (so hard to explain to many who are used to view Amino as a leftist historian) that Amino professed a preference to at least some of views of the liberal-conservative historian Tsuda over those of his own Marxist mentor Ishimoda Shô can be explained by his affinity to Habermas (ibid 2000:246).

Although he doesn't mention it explicitly, it seems rather clear that Higashijima more or less identifies muen with gôko ("rivers and lakes"), the concept he himself focuses on as the most appropriate term (much more suitable than the common translations ôyake or kôkyô) for the "public" in older Japanese history. As I've already mentioned, the word gôko was popular in early Meiji times when it was used much like we would use the expression "public sphere" today . As one goes back in history, however, one sees that the roots of this idea where quite different from those of the "public" in Europe. To be brief, it originated in Zen Buddhism where it was linked to the idea of free "nomadic" wandering of people who had renounced the world. Among monks, it was used as a metaphor of freedom from ties to power and rank, and in popular usage it became used as a derogatory term for "people of no account" such as travelling entertainers (including sarugaku troupes) and paupers lacking a fixed domicile. Higashijima emphasizes the "nomadic" quality of this public by comparing it to what Karatani calls a Verkehrsraum (kôtsû kûkan),  a “space for traffic” or for intercourse between strangers outside the confines of the state (ibid 299).

Higashijima's account is indeed interesting and I will try to deal with it at greater length in a text I will present at a symposium in Kyoto later this month where I'm going to discuss how the "public" has been translated into Japanese.  

Let me close, however, with a few critical remarks.

Firstly, muen is not a “public” in the Habermasian sense. It is true that muen is radically divorced from community and more linked to nomadic mobility, but the Habermasian public is not. The latter goes well with community as well as with stationary bourgeois citizens.

Secondly, in his conception of the public Higashijima tends to put emphasis on a particular understanding of the “public” as an “area open to all” (bannin ni hirakareta ryôiki). However, openness is not necessarily a central feature of “public” in Western languages. For instance, while most influential accounts of the public - take Habermas, Arendt or Sennett for instance - stress the public as a forum where strangers interact, very few have claimed that a public must really be open to all. Neither Habermas’ “public sphere” nor Arendt’s “public realm” is open in such a radical sense. 

It's it fact terribly easy to find differences between the idea of "rivers and lakes" and the Habermasian public. The latter is not as closely linked as either muen or gôko to religious ideas. It is not as associated with marginal places and marginal populations as the latter either. Above all, neither muen nor gôko are very closely linked to the idea of a sphere for deliberation or public debate (this is something which will be a central topic in my talk in Kyoto).

Finally, I also need to address the idea of the "common". I wonder if it's really correct to describe the ikki as necessarily closed. Weren’t they in fact one of the few instances in which locality (village, family or clan) was transcended in medieval Japan? As many historians have pointed out, some spanned entire regions while others – the religious ones – even formed countrywide networks. That said, I agree that it is important to distinguish the “common” from the idea of true openness to all. That is why I myself distinguish the "common" from what I call “no-man’s-land” (a concept I think is rather close to muen and gôko). Unlike Higashijima, however, I would not identify "no-man's-land" or gôko with a Habermasian “public”, since such a “public” is not fully open. What we need to distinguish is, therefore, three different things: common, public, and no-man’s-land.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Mobility and politics: notes on Sheller & Urry

I'd like to make a short note about Mimi Sheller and John Urry's “Mobile Transformations of `Public' and `Private' Life” (Theory, Culture & Society 20:3, 2003). I read this text because I was interested in how it would treat the relation between public sphere and public space. 

The authors discuss various meanings of public and private - public and private interest, public and private sphere, public and private life, public and private space, and publicity and privacy - and argue that none of these conceptions is suited to capturing the mobility and fluidity of political action today, the age of automobility and electronic communications. To support their claim that these conceptions are "static" or linked to space they refer to a few examples, such as Habermas' discussion of coffee houses and Arendt's of the agora (p.114). Instead of thinking "in terms of ‘spheres’ or ‘spaces’, concepts that are often static and ‘regional’ in character”, the authors emphasize "the increasing fluidity in terms of where (or when) moments of publicity and privacy occur” (p.108). Along with the rejection of static conceptions, the authors also reject the complaint among thinkers like Habermas or Sennett that the boundaries of public and private are being eroded, “colonized” etc.
We show that cars, information, communications, screens, are all material worlds, hybrids of private and public life. Despite the heroic efforts of 20thcentury normative theorists to rescue the divide, the various distinctions between public and private domains cannot survive. The critical theorists reviewed above each in different ways diagnosed the erosion of boundaries between public and private as the cause of democratic decline; maintaining or restoring the boundary, they imply, is crucial to the continuance of democratic citizenship in the contemporary world. We argue, in contrast, that the hybridization of public and private is even more extensive than previously thought, and is occurring in more complex and fluid ways than any regional model of separate spheres can capture. Any hope for public citizenship and democracy, then, will depend on the capacity to navigate these new material, mobile worlds that are neither public nor private. (p.113)
In order to stress the political potential of mobility, the authors mention examples such as Reclaim the Streets. The “proliferation of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization social movements emerged within the context of new mobilities of bodies, capital, objects, money, information and images. Such fragmented and fluid temporalities of public and private exceed any simple notion of boundary erosion or colonization - if anything it is more like ‘creolization’” (p.121). 

A summary of the argument might look like this. The authors attempt to reduce the public sphere to static public space in order to more efficiently criticize it by directing attention to spatial processes that dissolve static space. They then try to suggest a new notion of the public more in tune with these processes.  

I have two criticisms.

Firstly, it strikes me as rather curious that the authors claim that all the conceptions of the public mentioned above are static and linked to space. This is a bit surprising, since the "public sphere" is usually thought of precisely as a despatialized concept. Arendt is explicit in pointing out that the public realm is not place-bound. "The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958:198).

Habermas, to be sure, talks of coffeehouses as places where the bourgeouis public sphere once took form. It is quite clear, however, that the public sphere cannot be reduced to deliberations going on in public space. It can occur in a lot of places, some of them private - at the breakfast table, for instance. "Every encounter in which actors do not just observe each other but take a second-person attitude, reciprocally attributing communicative freedom to each other, unfolds in a linguistically constituted public sphere" (Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, Polity Press 1996:361). In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas explicitly states that only certain publics are placebound (distinguishing between episodic publics that can arise anywhere, occasional publics that arise when people gather together in certain institutionalized contexts such as concerts or political meetings, and abstract publics that are held together by mass media). It seems strange to claim that cars or the Internet per se are enough to upset a public sphere conceptualized in this fashion.

Secondly, I don’t agree that all “static” or “place”-bound concepts of the public must be discarded. Here I agree with Don Mitchell – what is necessary for public visibility is often "static" public space. If homeless people about to be evicted from a park want to make a public issue of their struggle, they usually do better by staying put in the park and refuse to move than go for an Internet campaign. The uprising in Egypt today may have begun with mobile and elusive gatherings springing up in the alleyways and disappearing just as quickly when the police arrived, but as soon as the protesters grew in strength they started gathering at Midan al Tahrir, occupying the square and guarding it by staying there night after night. Not everyone is mobile, and not everyone wants to move. That's the problem with building a politics only on the idea of mobility and ignoring the importance of sometimes being stationary. What is needed is a combination of both. Politics is about friction. Where capital is already hypermobile, isn’t the most effective way to offer resistance often simply to stay put, to hold on to space, to refuse to go along and escape though the lines of flight? To say “no” when welfare is being cut or the homeless evicted? Isn’t the “public” often what flares up, like fire, through the friction created when capital or authorities encounter resistance?

So the authors are clearly at least half wrong: the idea of “navigating” mobility risks becoming a justification of those who want to obliterate public spaces or the public sphere, an ideology neglecting those who are not or do not want to be hypermobile.
But perhaps they are also at least a little bit right. The categories of public and private are problematical. There does exist a realm that is admittedly difficult or perhaps even impossible to theorize in the old terms, something like Deleuze’s nomadic “smooth” space and the new modes of politics that such a space would offer, or the half hidden network “hinterland” that Bey or Negri mention as an indispensible base for revolts. By trying to approach this realm, they sketch a politics for a possible future in which public spaces or static spheres have vanished, and instead everywhere has become a potential point where politics may again flare up on the global “public screen”. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Today’s the day of the ”march of millions”. The military has promised not to use violence. The new cabinet has started to talk about the need for dialogue, but the protesters want Mubarak to go. How analyze this? There are a variety of viewpoints: the diffusion of revolt (from Tunisia and on to Egypt and Yemen), political opportunity, cognitive liberation, emotional transformation, the role of communication technologies, the shape of networks, the question of how Islamist groups will position themselves in regard to the rebellion (they won’t hijack it as in Iran, but how about the fears of the Kopts?), the question of internal differences among protesters, the international politics viewpoint of how all this will shake the US alliance structure and scare Israel, the balance between exit and voice (the emergence in public discourse of things suppressed for decades), the problems raised by the fact that the movement is fuelled not only by disgust at ”30 wasted years” but also by poverty and the issues of food, energy, water and justice (problems that won’t go away just because a regime topples), and, finally, the sheer richness of how the street is transformed and experienced in new ways. There is happiness and anger in the air, it seems, and that emotional magnet is making people get out of their houses and out on the streets. How do we understand that magnet, that great collective bath in which accumulated disgust and cynisim is temporarily cleansed?

Postscript (mid-February): I still haven't got any answers - but I'm very, very happy! For some interesting analyses, please have a look at:

Mohammed Baymeh, "The Egyptian Revolution"

Andrea Teti, "The Politics of Fearlessness"

Daniel Byman, "Why the Mideast Tumult Caught Scholars by Surprise"

Let me end with a quote from the midst of it all, which I like very much:
“Egyptians right now are not afraid at all,” said Walid Rachid, a student taking refuge from tear gas inside a Giza mosque. “It may take time, but our goal will come, an end to this regime. I want to say to this regime: 30 years is more than enough. Our country is going down and down because of your policies.” (NY Times, 30 January)
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