Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Giorgio Agamben: What Is A Commandment?

March 2011

  • The Greek Arkhe contains a paradox: it means both beginning and commandment (chiefhood, order) simultaneousl
  • Archon is Greek for “main authority”
  • In the Bible, God created man and earth through the commandment

o A word which is stated in the beginning can only be a commandment, an imperative

o The translation, thus, should have been ‘in the commandment was the word,’ not ‘in the beginning was the word’

o The beginning is always also the commandment

  • · Arkhos, etymologically, means both chief and anus
  • · The origin never ceases beginning, governing and commanding. If it stopped, the world would collapse, because government must be a continuous re-creation of the world
  • · The German Anfang can never be a past—the beginning is always present
  • · An epoch has always been sent by an Arkhe
  • · In Derrida, the origin is neutralized while the commandment is maintained in the form of a pure injunction
  • · Philosophically, there has hardly been any serious meditation on commandment
  • · Power is not defined by its capacity to be obeyed but by its capacity to give commandment
  • · Aristotle presents us with a fundamental partition, which is the origin of the general disregard, in philosophy, for commandment. He divides language into apophantic and non-apophantic. Non-apophantic language is that which falls outside of the categorization of truth and falsehood, such as prayer. Such a discourse is disregarded by Aristotle because he said it does not manifest anything.
  • · This movement of disregarding non-apophantic discourse decided the history of logic
  • · Commandment was, thus, confined to the moral sphere and made to be seen as an act of will
  • · An example of a commandment is when somebody says, “Walk!” This utterance says nothing of no one. It does not describe a state of things.
  • · The commandment is valid by its very utterance and does not refer to something existing. It is not an “is” but an “ought.”

o Sein and Sollen is the binary upon which Kant based his moral theory

  • · Morphologically, the imperative could be the primitive form of the verb
  • · Benveniste criticized Austin’s opinion of the imperative, saying that it has no reference in the world—it is, rather, the “naked semantic code” of the verb without reference or denotation
  • · There is a split between the ontology of assertion (Gr. este) and the ontology of commandment (Gr. esto)

o The former governs science and philosophy. The latter governs law, religion, and magic, which were initially indistinguishable from one another

  • · Western ontology is a double (bipolar) machine. The ontology of the esto gradually is becoming more important
  • · In the esto, language is constantly in the imperative—to build a whole world in the form of a commandment

o In the West, oddly enough, one prays in the form of a commandment to God

  • · Paul said to the Hebrews that faith is the hypostasis (substance) in which hoped-for things exist
  • · In Austin, commandment is a speech act—the speech act realizes itself through its enunciation

o This marks a magic layer to language which linguists failed to explain

  • · The distinction of locutionary and illocutionary speech corresponds to the bifurcation of the Western ontological machine
  • · The centrality of the commandment is eroding and overcoming the descriptive, in a sort of “return of the repressed” of the commandment ontology
  • · In today’s culture, commandments are usually disguised as advice, suggestion, advertisement, question, so that people fail to recognize the commandment as such. This is especially relevant to politics. “the stupidity of the modern citizen is without limit.”

o Therefore, we tend to think in terms of the assertion when in fact the non-apophantic is in control

  • · Commandment is explained as an act of will or volition. Unfortunately, this is to explain something obscure with something even more obscure—“only crazy people can give a definition of will.” Nietzsche explains will as commandment itself.
  • · To will, in Nietzsche, is to be capable
  • · Philosophy is “an attempt to give a meaning to empty modal verbs and to graft one onto another”
  • · Kant wrote that “Man muss Wollen Konnen,” which is almost impossible to translate, but it would be something like “Man must can will.” This is an almost insane, absurd foundation of his moral theory and it marks the impossibility of ethics in our time. For him, ethics can only have the form of a commandment. When one says “I can,” one means, “I will myself to obey.”
  • · The concept of will was introduced to check and limit potentiality
  • · Theology has a fundamental problem of divine omnipotence. Could God undo the past? This became a theological question of favour

o Debates on this question fill thousands of pages of 11th-14th century texts

  • · The solution became to distinguish between absolute potential (in which God can do anything) from ordinary potential (in which God can only do what he has decided to do)
  • · Will, therefore, limited and controlled potentiality


  • · We should open up a space for a third ontology in the machine, one which is neither apophantic nor non-apophantic
  • · Paul said that the messiah is the making-inoperative of the commanded law
  • · “I never give solutions. The solution must come from the neutralization of the dichotomy you have to cope with”
  • · “Kant’s ethics is just an incredible mistake. It cannot be saved. Ethics cannot have the form of a commandment.”
  • · Paul: “Languages will end, but love will remain.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

James Baldwin's Meditation on the Chromatics of Risk

From his most underrated, and last, work, The Evidence of Things Not Seen:

"It is time to realize that Europe--the West--which, out of an unspeakable poverty, created the delusion of color, has always depended on Black tribal divisions in order to divide and rule! In this endeavor, they have quite overlooked and forgotten the juggernaut of their tribal divisions, and nothing is more dangerous than to have one's history, relentlessly pursuing, at one's back. Georgia began as a convict colony and all the waste and terror and hope of love and life and joy and fear of death and dreams of everlasting life were loaded onto that beast of burden, the Black--the eye of the beholder!--and, in that dark face, that warm and inescapable presence, the orphan of the Old World saw, every hour of every day, all that he longed to be and hoped that he would never become. For to dare to hope to become--to dare to trust the changing light--is to surrender the dream of safety. It means doing one's utmost not to hide from the question perpetually in the eyes of one's lovers or one's children. It means accepting that those who love you (and those who do not love you) see you far better than you will ever see yourself. It means accepting the terms of the contract that you signed at birth, the master copy of which contract is in the vaults of Death. These ruthless terms, it seems to me, make love and life and freedom real: whoever fears to die also fears to live. Whoever fears to die also imagines--must imagine--that another can die in his place; hence, the compulsive hacking off of the Black/black man's sex, and the enforced sterilization of Black/black women. The dream of safety can reach culmination or climax only in the nightmare orgasm of genocide (102)."

In this excerpt, Baldwin begins to describe the indescribable, or make public that which was condemned to privacy: lynchings, castrations, forced sterilizations--genocide, perpetrated as a matter of programmatic necessity against not only the descendents of slaves but also American Indians. This kind of programming is written, Baldwin implies, as the cost of safety: in his short story "Going to Meet the Man," the white main character, a Southern sheriff, believes in the terrible cost of his duty. The rhetorics of safety are inseparable from the metaphorical meaning of whiteness, which is finally one with its meaning in general: purity, clarity, lightness. At the same time, the black (or native, or nonwhite) body becomes the "inescapable presence" upon which is written the violent terms of the "agreement" which was never Hortense Spillers writes, the black body
"brings into focus a gathering of social realities as well as a metaphor for value so thoroughly interwoven in their literal and figurative emphases that distinctions between them are virtually is as if neither time nor history shows movement...I would call it the Great Long National Shame...We might concede, at the very least, that sticks and bricks mightbreak our bones, but words will most certainly kill us. ("Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," Diacritics, 1987, 68)."
So the "Great Long National Shame," the truth of sexual gratification in and as theft, castration, allowing another to die in your place, is also the Great Secret Pride, the great open hidden secret, a wink and a nod, a slap on the back, fuel for the fire of the great projects of hierarchical establishment. This is why the women in Bill Duke's documentary on dark-skinned women say that they, in contradistinction to their lighter counterparts, tend to be seen as throwaway women, as flings or one-night stands, useful only for sex and not for marrying or commitment: the most disturbing thing about "Black is beautiful" is that Thomas Jefferson, against his own will and perhaps without his knowing, believed it, preferred Sally Hemings to his own wife, because there was something inescapable about the power relation indexed by color. Color became a crucial kind of therapy, as Derek Jarman would say, a means of assuaging one's fear and a sign which marked infinite love, infinite presence, a constellation which guided the nihilistic and psychotic drives and which held them as a reservoir.

The black children in my "multicultural," wealthy, cosmopolitan, liberal elementary school were those who bore the greatest number of epithets and were most ostracized for reasons which the white kids kept secret even from themselves: they never said, "we are teasing them because they are black," as we learned about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass in second grade...somehow, however, certain children were pushed to the margins of the circle, obsessively taunted. Fred Moten argues, against Hannah Arendt's simple, "commonsense" idea of American racism as the rejection of the unwanted black, that in fact the black is the obsessively desired. How else do we explain the massive influence of a figure like Quincy Jones, a form like jazz or rock and roll, a disparate idiom like ebonics, upon the world?

The idea of the open secret: the open secret of gratuitous violence, to use Saidiya Hartman's notion, against the black body, borne out in the cases of Oscar Grant and Mark Duggan, Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, Tupac Shakur, Sarah Baartman, and Malcolm X, is inseparable from and in turn creates other secrets. Yet these secrets, these privatizations of space and language, are created for different reasons: the white secrets, "little white lies," (like the myth of whiteness itself) are created because people choose not to confront their own pasts--other secrets are made as improvised means to survive beneath an empire of conceits. As Baldwin put it in A Rap on Race:

Negro speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand--or sleight-of-hand--by means of which Negroes express, not only their relationship to each other, but their judgment of the white world. And, as the white world takes over this vocabulary--without the faintest notion of what it really means--the vocabulary is forced to change. The same thing is true of Negro music, which has had to become more and more complex in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Paul Gilroy speaks on the riots, August 2011, Tottenham, North London

[Winston Silcott in his introduction, remarked that if London had a better welfare state like Sweden, the riots may not have occurred]

Gilroy: I don't want us to get too romantic about Scandinavia...[applause]. The last time I was in Malmö there was a laser sniper shooting at people of colour in the streets.

I want to say a few things in solidarity with the people who have suffered, the families including the family of Mark Duggan who have lost so much. I was sitting in Highbury magistrate's court this morning, watching the magistrate giving people who had no criminal record months and months before their case would even be heard. And those young people, some of whom were not with their families but were on their own, could not have been defended successfully even by someone like Michael Mansfield. It's a sham what's going on down there. For people who've been charged with violent disorder, 2 out of 3 of them have been remanded in custody, and that is a scandal, not justice.

We've heard a lot of surprise from our political leaders who say that they didn't know this was coming. I use Twitter, and I hope you do too, because it's a useful form of news now that we don't watch TV so much. One person I follow on Twitter is the leader of the police federation. The leader of the police federation has been saying consistently that he went to see [Home Secretary] Theresa May in the spring of this year, but before the student protests started. He went to see her after the election and he told her there would be problems, and she dismissed him and said he was a scaremonger. So I think we should explore this question of what does it mean to pretend you didn't know something was going to happen when you did know.

The question is supposed to be was there politics in this rioting, or was it just a cry for help or a cry for things. And I think the question shouldn't be was there politics in this rioting and looting, but is there politics in this country? Because when you have three parties who are saying the same thing...[applause] there's no politics in Britain. There's a kind of entertainment, there's a bit of theatre, which is delivered to people, in the face of what is a desperate situation, which can only get worse, and can't just be understood from a local perspective. It can't just be understood from what's going on here--we need to think about what's going on in other parts of the world which the crisis has touched.

Stafford Scott wrote a very lucid and a very brilliant analysis of what was going on in the paper, and he looked a variety of indicators to try to understand what's going on around us here: unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers...In terms of these things, the numbers are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago.

So the temptation is to say it's the same game as it was thirty years ago, or twenty-five years ago, and it isn't the same game. For instance, the police admitted that they've done a hundred thousand searches under the new terrorism legislation, and of those hundred thousand searches not one, not one, led to an arrest under the terrorism legislation! So I think we need to remember that the game has changed.

And in 1981 there was a sense that they knew there were particular areas of London that were places which could blow up at any time, and the solution was a very complex thing, which involved soft policing, and schools, etcetera. And what we've seen since 1981 is the militarization of that structure. The criminal justice system and places of incarceration have become blacker and browner places--the groups of people incarcerated in this country is a disproportionate phenomenon.

To me that data doesn't show, doesn't suggest, that the people, our people, are any more criminal than anyone else. What it suggests to me is that they've been subjected to processes of criminalization.

Now, in 1981, you could talk about racism. A judge was given the job of seeing how the events of 1981 [riots in Brixton, Handsworth, Leeds and Liverpool] developed. He said he had to discuss the question of racism in his report. Of course, he said "what institutional racism?"--I'm not a fan of his; I'm just saying, he had to address that question. And now we're in a situation where everyone says, "oh, racism? That's done with. That was before." And I don't think that that's the case.

When you look at the layer of political leaders from our communities, the generation who came of age during that time thirty years ago, many of those people have accepted the logic of privatization. They've privatized that movement, and they've sold their services as consultants and managers and diversity trainers. They've sold their services to the police, they've sold them to the army, they've sold them to the corporate world...go to some of their websites and you'll see how proud they are of their clients. And that means that, in many areas, the loss of experience, the loss of the imagination is a massive phenomenon. So that the young people in the courts today don't have a defence campaign. They don't have one yet, but I hope that one will develop.

So a lot of that leadership has been channeled into the local government, and has formed a kind of "consultariat." And if you want to understand what that means, you have to look at places like South Africa, where, in the process after the end of apartheid, a whole layer of militants, a whole layer of people went over, and they got their pensions, and they sold this, and they sold that, because the government, in changing that society, thought that having a Black middle class was going to be the way to do it. Well, that's not the way it's going to work here. [applause]

That privatization is also a privatization of the mind. Because in 1981 there were no computers, there were no mobile phones, so people didn't have all of that digital distraction. There was no porn saturating the world that young people move through, there was no place to upload your videos to. These are big changes. They point us to something that's important in understanding the difference between then and now.

The difference between 1981 and now is that the relationship between information and power has been changed, and our tactics for understanding our defence of our communities have to take those changes into account. And that means that we have to think very carefully about how we engage with the media. I'm very happy that there are people here who are independent distributors of information and news, who are circulating what goes on here and circulating interpretations of what's happened in this country. We have to get it to people outside of our country--we have to internationalize it. We have to think about how technology can work for us. And media is not something transparent.

Because what happens in the digitalization of media and privatization is the contraction and the impoverishment of our media. People talk about "dumbing down"--it's not just about dumbing down--it's something different than that. And that means that there's a much tighter control over what can be said.

And that technology which is so different from in 1981 is also part of what I'd like to call, tonight, a securitocracy, ruling us through security. And that means the DNA in your bodies, in your mouths, in DNA swabs, the CCTV cameras that are all around us here...And, and this is another interesting feature of last week, the way the spin operation works. The media, owned by people like Murdoch, have a 'golden hour' after the story breaks, in which they can fix the story, and then that fixed story grows, like a snowball rolling downhill.

What we need to understand is that this doesn't happen by accident. These things are techniques for making information meaningful, and we need to learn from them.

One of the other differences between now and 30 years ago, now and 25 years ago, is that the riots are no longer just a black-and-white story. It's a story that's complicated by all kinds of changes in our cities and our communities. It's a story that's been complicated by the development of political Islam in our communities--I mean, had it not been Ramadan, who knows what different kinds of events would have unfolded.

And it's no longer a story which can be explained only by reference to a Caribbean history, because the majority of the Black population now in our country are people of African descent, with a range of different experiences, a range of different stories and reasons for being here. We have a number of small business owners, shopkeepers, many of whom are immigrants who have arrived from somewhere else, and they're taking the position that people who own shops have always taken, and it's no surprise for them to be calling for vigilantism and other things to protect their property.

Our situation is made complex in a different sense by the presence of people from Eastern Europe. I mean, the woman who jumped out of the window in Croydon--she'd come from Poland to work in Poundland, because that was a better life for her. Imagine what that means, to come from Poland to work in Poundland, for minimum wage, searching for a better life.

So we have to find some way to recognize those differences too.

The government wants to introduce new laws to criminalize the wearing of masks. The only people who really get away with wearing masks in our society right now is the territorial support group [of the Met police]. [applause] I don't hear Jack Straw saying, "I can't see their faces." [laughter] So that suggests to me that there's a double standard at work here, and we need to pressure that.

And sure, there are gangs around in London, but this is not about gangs. And I think Gary's made a good point about the United States. We've been talking about poverty, and one of the worst forms of poverty that's shaped our situation is poverty of the imagination. And what happens in this country, and this is something that many of us in our communities share with [Conservative Prime Minister] David Cameron, whether we like it or not. When we feel the impact of our poverty of the imagination, we reach for what we think is the future, and that's always the United States of America.

I never thought that in a public forum I would agree with Sir Hugh Orde, the police chief of Northern Ireland, but he would say clearly that is not a situation that is going to be eliminated by the infiltration of American techniques. And I think he's right. I think we should remember that before we think that the Coach Carter scenario is part of our future and the solution to the problems faced by our young people. [applause]

If we go down that road, we're headed toward a society that's run on the basis of mass imprisonment. And that's not just about making the prisons bigger and fuller, making them engines for making money for private corporations, but it's also about turning your schools into prisons, and turning your streets into prisons, and turning your community into something that's much more like a prison. And we do not want that society based on mass imprisonment. That's not our future. We are not Americans, we are not Americans.

Lastly, I'd suggest that I think we need to put David Lammy under some pressure. [applause] In the same way, we should put the media under some pressure for controlling our information, and not just go running to Sky News and BBC. We need to put our political representatives under some pressure. I live in Finsbury Park, not too far from Tottenham, so I know where David Lammy lives. He's something of an outside agitator in your community. [laughter]

The last thing I want to say is that in 1981 and 1985 we knew we were dealing with a system. We understood the interconnecting parts. When I talk about the poverty of the imagination, I mean that we are thinking like people who approach these things through the lens of a privatized world. We only think of these things as individuals, and we don't see them as connected. The last week has been an amazing class, a primer, to give us the opportunity to understand how these things function today. You remember that party they all had, in the Cotswolds...and they were all there, the Milibands were there, the Labour people were there, the TV people were there (not the ones from David Starkey-land but the ones from Channel Four News), and they were all there together, and they're telling you something when they all congregate like that.

They're telling you that they're a class. And they think and act and conduct themselves like a class. They chat to each other, they marry each other, they go to the same places...And if we want to act as a body, if we want to act in concert, we have to learn something from the way they conduct themselves, even as we challenge what they do.

So the pieces I can see in this system, the role of information, of policing, of deprivation, of inequality...And we need to clarify that we have the resources we need in our community--we just need to use them in a different way. Thank you.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Not authenticity in the sense of a total act, or a meditative, natural state...not authenticity in any sense that could be called authenticity. Because as soon as it becomes an effort toward authenticity it sheds any sense of its own truthfulness.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

As the UK burns

"The reason the police are so hated in the ghetto is...because you don't have to be more than fifteen years old at the very most to realize that the cop is not there to protect you but to protect Mr. Charlie's property. And that makes his presence absolutely intolerable."

"When I was growing up it was...yes, it's true, there was a kind of resignation. The whole style came out of a certain kind of resignation which is gone forever...Even people who got educated realized that they were still in a trap. I knew too many people who had been to college who were shuffling around with garbage cans to be fooled about what education would do. And now it is very different. It is very different because the image that black people have of themselves has changed. It is utterly changed, and it has changed because of objective reasons. It has changed because the world has changed. It has changed because of what we have seen on television: black leaders, black riots, white liars. It has changed because the power of white people to control my mind--black minds--has been broken, and that is a very important shift. It is perfectly true: no one growing up now has before them the vista that I had when I was growing up. Though that, paradoxically, increases the poverty and rage, doesn't it?"

"If I were young I would find myself with no morals."

All quotations taken from A Rap on Race (1970).

It's strange to live in a place with ongoing political instability when that place is a place, like London, which is reputed worldwide for its safety and predictability. The importance of word of mouth grows by leaps and bounds as the media struggles along with the police. Watching a given few minutes of the live news updates gives you a palpable sense that the media is confused and vague, stammering, playing videos they found on Twitter or Facebook that are a couple of days old, interviewing a myriad of people, who, with the exception of a few voices, Darcus Howe, Nina Power, and Ken Livingstone among them, condemn the general situation in a vanishingly narrow variety of ways.

Some people are angry and rude during this time, some are far more relaxed than usual. There are all kinds of emotional responses. The overwhelming sensation is one of dislocation, a rumbling tremor or a sociopolitical earthquake, something beneath the surface which is being released. That surface is the image of a society of propriety, a society too proper to suffer from any illegal relocations of private property on a massive scale, what David Cameron famously called a "Big Society," the most civil in the world. What lies beneath is not easy to name, but it has something to do with what has always been the subterranean, occluded engine of capitalism: the ignored, who by virtue of their condition both make possible and mark the impossibility of a society which profits from its capacity to beat them down, to attempt to convince them that their oppression is as natural and as just as the stars in the sky. The commentators have been using the word "monsters" to describe the youths, along with other epithets like "idiots" and "morons" (yet the term "anarchist" seems to be sidelined, seemingly reserved for the student [mostly middle class, mostly white] protestors earlier this year).

Certainly there are condemnable things that have been done by rioters, as in any situation when law is not enforced, such as the deaths in Birmingham and the people who lost their homes, as well as locally-owned business which were raided. But one must also inquire as to the long-term effect of chain stores like Curry's (The UK equivalent of Best Buy), Foot Locker, and Tesco (which owns Fresh & Easy and has a horrific labor relations record) on the poorest neighborhoods, the places where the riots first "kicked off." Poor neighborhoods like Hackney, Tottenham, and Peckham, Livingstone said on BBC, are both the same ones that have suffered the greatest public services cuts as well as the ones which are most occupied by massive, impersonal flourescent chain stores which regularly squash labor rights and pay minimum wage, maintaining high employee turnover as a way to keep afloat. As Dr Sofia Himmelblau wrote just now, "
It is no coincidence that the primary target of rioters, despite a media-narrative keen to play up the social impact of these events on small retailers, was large retail warehouse stores that cling parasitically to neighbourhoods at the periphery of inner cities."

In the media, the "critical" attention is focused on a false debate, between condemning and condoning the actions of the youths.
My flatmates disagree with me that this debate is false--they tell me that my refusal to engage with it is a kind of indifference or extremism, but I call it a false debate because there is really one side to it. That is to say, not a single public figure has come out in explicit support of the participants in the riots: even Darcus Howe, who was treated like a rioter himself by the BBC presenter because he tried to place it in the context of racial profiling and police brutality, condemned the riots from the beginning. One rapper from Peckham tweeted to his followers on Saturday that they should loot, perhaps sarcastically, and then deleted his twitter account because he was worried that the police, who already try to shut down each of his concerts, would punish him for it. The only public viewpoint lies within the boundaries of unequivocal condemnation, and the monopoly of opinion is such that those who try to explain the riots by placing them in context, just like figures who tried to place the 9/11 attacks in context, are either shouted down or ignored.

A major difference that may be hard to imagine for an American is the racial complexity of the situation. The UK is not segregated in the same way as the United States. While many social spaces are clearly white, there are a considerable number of so-called white people who live in city slums, which is quite different from a city like San Francisco or Oakland. The truth is that these youth are not all black but are to varying degrees responding to the way in which the police department treats both blacks and the poor, with several hundred suicides in their custody in the last decade. I say "blacks and the poor" because in a surreptitious way blackness stands in for poverty in the logics of neoliberalism, in the sense that people like Smiley Culture who were not or were no longer poor were still killed by the police with no government consequences. We cannot say that whites have not suffered from the climate of police terror, but we can safely say that wealthy whites (i.e. those millionaires who populate the cabinet and who run the country) have not found themselves in the conditions of pressure that these youth deal with every day, of which police terror is the most bare and hypocritical but not necessarily the worst. The conditions of pressure which led hordes of people, not merely youth and not merely black, to take what was not legally theirs were many and varied but have to do, broadly, with growing austerity measures designed to line the pockets of people like Boris Johnson and David Cameron and, in a bizarre "libertarian" paternalistic logic, to "motivate" them to be entrepreneurs by denying them any opportunities.

An American friend of mine just told me that her Dad didn't believe there were riots in London. This says quite a bit about the American perception of London but equally it might say something about London itself. On the one hand, why is it that Americans tend to imagine London as the relatively small space north of the Thames and south of Kilburn, west of Hackney, which is the most white and expensive part of the city? On the other hand, how does this completely false perception influence the climate of exasperation which led to the revolts?