Enigma of Revolt

Kafka on Occupy.


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Over the past year or so, Occupy has provoked an epistemological break in the ontological morphing of our social, political, and economic life – that subtle, creeping shift of our being in the world.

In 1984, in his famous essay, “Post-modernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism,” Fredric Jameson announced, amongst many other things, something significant: “the abolition of critical distance.” Henceforth critical distance finds itself thoroughly outmoded and impotent. There’s no longer any without, only within, no repositioning of ourselves beyond what we culture jammers are critically analyzing, critically struggling against; there is now no way for us to get critical leverage on the beast shaping us.

This lack of outside – or reframing of what inside and outside might now constitute – likewise preoccupied Salman Rushdie in 1984. In “Outside the Whale,” Rushdie provided a thicker, more humane texturing to Jameson’s affirmation, taking on George Orwell at the same time. In “Inside the Whale” (1940), Orwell suggested there was an outside to this grubby profane world of ours, a safe haven somewhere, at least an outside for intellectuals who can find warm wombs, proverbial Jonah’s whales, within their texts and art. Inside this outside, great art is incubated, Orwell said, great art and literature that says bundles about our corrupt and venal political and economic system. But Rushdie was having none of this: “the truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places; the missiles have made sure of that. So we are left with a fairly straightforward choice. Either we agree to delude ourselves, to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the great fish … or we can do what all human beings do instinctively when they realize that the womb has been lost forever – that is, we can make the very devil of a racket.”

So maybe 1984 signaled the real end to the 1960s, sealed its fate. 1984 meant the end of the without, the end of critical distance, the end of 1968. Or maybe it meant the end of continuing its tradition using the same mindset, with the same frame of reference, and the same militancy. Making a racket 1960s style no longer seems tenable today, no more seems the politics required to tackle this beast that has absorbed us within it, wholescale and wholesale, lock, stock and barrel.

* * *

Our world is a different place to what it was in 1968. It permits different hopes and dreams, poses different threats and possibilities. Paradoxically, today’s reality is more easily critiqued than ever before using basic Marxist tools. At the level of analysis, it has never been simpler to adopt a classical Marxist stance and be right. And yet, at the level of political practice, that analysis seems far too facile, far too futile to lead us anywhere constructive. There’s little in this analysis and ensuing critique that leaves us with any guides as to political practice, to practical struggle, to how we might act on this knowledge. One of the difficulties is that the world we think about, the world that functions through a particular economic model, is classically Capital-ist in the sense of Marx’s great text; yet the world we have to act in, the world we have to organize in, is tellingly Kafkaesque. Marxists know how to analyze and criticize this reality; indeed, we know all too well, sometimes a little too well for our own good. But we know less about how to act, how to construct a practical politics from the standpoint of this theoretical knowledge. There’s no direct correlation between the two. We have yet to resolve the enigma of revolt.

The present conjuncture is Kafkaesque to the degree that castles and ramparts reign over us everywhere. These castles and ramparts are usually in plain view, frequently palpable to our senses, even inside us, yet at the same time they’re distant and somehow cut off, somehow out of reach and inaccessible; their occupants are evermore difficult to pin down when we come knocking at their doors, providing we can find the right door to knock on. Kafka was better than Marx at recognizing the thoroughly modern conflict now besieging us under capitalism. Marx understood the general dynamics of the production of castles and the trials this system subjects us to. But he understood less about its corridors of power and how its organizational bureaucracies functioned. Marx understood the difficulty of waging war against a process; however, he was never around long enough to imagine how this process would one day undergo administrative (mis)management, how it would not only get chopped up by massively complex divisions of labor: it would also beget even more massive bureaucratic compartmentalizations, done by unaccountable and anonymous middle-managers.

Kafka knew how modern conflict wasn’t just an us against other people class affair, but an us against a world transformed into an immense and invariably abstract total administration. The shift Kafka makes between his two great novels, The Trial (1925) and the unfinished The Castle (1926), makes for a suggestive shift in our own supranational administered world. In The Trial, Joseph K., like a dog, stands accused in a world that’s an omnipotent tribunal, a sort of state-monopoly capitalist system. In The Castle, the protagonist K. populates a world that’s suddenly shrunk into a village whose dominating castle on the hill seems even more powerful and elusive than ever before. Perhaps in this village with its castle we can now glimpse our own “global village,” a world shrunken by globalization, a world in which a psychological drama of one man confronting a castle is now really a political parable of us all today – us having to conceive a collective identity to resolve the dark gothic mystery we ourselves have scripted, a mystery in which we are simultaneously inmates and warders.

“Direct dealings with the authorities was not particularly difficult,” K. muses, for well organized as they might be, all they did was guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters, while K. fought for something vitally near to him, for himself, and moreover, at least at the very beginning, on his own initiative, for he was the attacker … But now by the fact that they had at once amply met his wishes in all unimportant matters – and hitherto only unimportant matters had come up – they had robbed him of the possibility of light and easy victories, and with that of the satisfaction which must accompany them and the well-grounded confidence for further and greater struggles which must result from them. Instead, they let K. go anywhere he liked – of course only within the village – and thus pampered and enervated him, ruled out all possibility of conflict, and transported him into an unofficial, totally unrecognized, troubled and alien existence … So it came about that while a light and frivolous bearing, a certain deliberate carelessness was sufficient when one came in direct contact with the authorities, one needed in everything else the greatest caution, and had to look round on every side before one made a single step.

K. marvels at a world that sounds eerily like our own: “nowhere had he seen officialdom and life as interwoven as they were here, so interwoven that it sometimes even looked as if officialdom and life had changed places.”

It follows now that we too need the greatest caution in everything we do; we need to look around on every side before we can make a single step. The gravity of the situation isn’t lost on any of us. But the gravity of this situation nonetheless “pampers” and “enervates” us, as well, and tries to rule out all possibility of conflict by absorbing us into its “light and frivolous bearing.” It has integrated us into its reality, a reality that satisfies all our unimportant wishes and desires; it has integrated itself into us as an apparently non-alien force.

In our own times, the Kafkaesque castle has become the Debordian “integrated spectacle,” a phenomenon that permeates all reality. If the dynamics of The Trial exhibited the traits (and the leakiness) of the “concentrated” and “diffuse” spectacles that Debord outlined in The Society of the Spectacle (1967), then The Castle is late-Debord, and tallies with the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle he’d make twenty-one years later. “When the spectacle was concentrated,” Debord says, “the greater part of the surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.” The society of the castle and of the integrated spectacle is like a vast whirlpool: it sucks everything into a singular and unified spiraling force, into a seamless web that has effectively collapsed and amalgamated different layers and boundaries. It has created a one-world cell-form. Erstwhile distinctions between the political and the economic, between form and content, between conflict and consent, between politics and technocracy have lost their specific gravity, have lost their clarity of meaning: integration functions through a conflating process of co-optation and corruption, of re-appropriation and re-absorption, of blocking off by breaking down. Each realm now simply elides into its other.

Where K. goes astray, and where his quest borders on the hopeless, is that he’s intent on struggling to access the castle’s occupants; he wants to penetrate the castle’s bureaucratic formalities and the “flawlessness” of its inner circle. K. struggles for a way in rather than a way out. Using all the Cartesian tools of a land surveyor, he confronts the castle on the castle’s own terms, on its own ostensible “rational” frame of reference. K.’s demands, consequently, are too restrictive and too unimportant, too conventional and too self-conscious. He wants to render the world of the castle intelligible as opposed to rendering it unacceptable. Instead of trying to enter the inner recesses of our castle, of unpacking its meaning, of demystifying its fetishism, instead of trying to find doors to knock on and people to make rational complaints to, we need to rethink this enigma of revolt, rethink it on our terms, not theirs, not on the castle’s terms, not on the terms of any “logic of capital.”

* * *

Two young lovers sit near the window of a dazzling new café, lining one of Haussmann’s newly-minted boulevards. They’re inside, sharing one another’s company, admiring one another, yet they’re able to survey through the window the gaiety outside, the street activity, its delightful bustle. After a while, a ragged homeless family passes by. Enamored by the café’s garish opulence, they stop. They peer in. “How beautiful it is!” Baudelaire has his ragpickers explain the poem Paris Spleen. “How beautiful it is!” But they know it’s not for them, not for their type. Their fascination didn’t carry any hostile undertones; it is sorrowful, not militant, not resentful but resigned. “These people with their great saucer eyes,” Baudelaire has the young female lover declaim, “are unbearable!”

A precedent had been set, a new reality of public-private space. In Haussmann’s privatized urban reality private joys sprung from wide-open public spaces. One can henceforth be private in the crowd, alone yet amidst people; one can be inside while outside, and outside while inside. There are walls and there is transparency. There is social closure and physical openness. There is private invisibility and public visibility. Marshall Berman says that Baudelaire’s “Eyes of the Poor” poem evokes a “primal scene,” a primal scene “that reveals some of the deepest ironies and contradictions” of modern capitalist urbanization. For Berman, the setting that now “makes all urban humanity a great extended ‘family of eyes’ also brings forth the discarded stepchildren of that family. The physical and social transformations that drove the poor out of sight now bring them back directly into everyone’s line of vision.”

Haussmannization and its neo-Haussmannization counterpart share a historical and geographical lineage. But the primal scene of its progeny nowadays needs updating and upgrading; now it involves superstructural software as well as infrastructural hardware. Neo-Haussmannization is now a global-urban strategy that has peripheralized millions and millions of people everywhere; Baron Haussmann’s spadework pales alongside it. Neo-Haussmannization has peripheralized so many people, in fact, that it makes no sense anymore to talk about these peoples being peripheral. Yet it’s a process in which centers and peripheries oppose one another, even if the fault lines and frontiers between the two worlds aren’t defined by the old hoary dualisms of urban versus rural, of North versus South, of public versus private; rather, centers and peripheries are now somehow immanent within the accumulation of capital itself, immanent within accumulation by dispossession, and on a planetary scale. The significant change is how today’s grand boulevards flow with energy and finance, with information and communication; they are frequently fiber-optic and digitalized, ripping through cyber-space as well as physical space. Those “great saucer eyes” are now digital media eyes, all-seeing, and, with the internet and WikiLeaks, often all-knowing too. People can now see the global elite along this global information and communication boulevard, see them through the windowpanes of postmodern global-urban life. We might even say that a global family of eyes now truly encounters itself as a family, as an emerging citizenry, as an affinity group that yearns to repossess what has been dispossessed. Their big saucer eyes now look on with indignation, in the public-private realm, doing so with animosity as well as awe. Now, there’s not so much a world to win as a whole world to occupy. A whole world that’s really peoples’ own backyard.

* * *

One of the most interesting things about the Occupy movement, about why it is potentially so radical as well as so potentially flawed, is that it has reframed the whole nature and language of revolt. To begin with, it doesn’t make any demands and has no designated leaders. It has unnerved the enemy because it has tried, inadequately for the time being, to utter a different vocabulary of revolt. It does everything that Kafka’s K. tried not to do. K., after all, was obsessed with demanding his rights – “I want no favors from the castle, I want my rights” – obsessed with cracking the secret interior of the castle, of gaining entry. He became so obsessed with the castle that he’d begun to internalize its logic, was suffused by its logic to the extent that he could only think via its logic. Above all, he wanted clarity, wanted to clear up that which was unclear. It was the wrong question to ask. K. wanted to embody the castle, to get into the castle, to penetrate its ramparts; he sought out its physical presence, its representative: Klamm. K. had to humanize the castle somehow, wanted to deal with it on personal terms.

Thankfully, the Occupy movement does none of these things. In fact, it doesn’t pose questions at anyone in particular, doesn’t personalize its grievance; instead, it indicts the system, has tried to infiltrate its capillaries and arteries of power as an abstract entity. And if protagonists occupy space somewhere, these spaces of occupation are curiously new phenomena, too, neither rooted in place nor circulating in space, but rather an inseparable combination of the two, an insuperable unity that is redefining what a 21st-century public space might be, could be. Squares like Tahrir in Cairo or Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are urban public spaces not for reason of their pure concrete physicality, but because they are meeting places between virtual and physical worlds, between online and offline conversations, between online and offline encounters. That is why they are public: because they enable public discourses, public conversations to talk to each other, to meet each other, quite literally. They are public not because they are simply there, in the open, in a city center, but because these spaces are made public by people encountering one another there. The efficacy of these spaces for any global movement is defined by what is going on both inside and outside these spaces, by the here and the there, by what is taking place in them and how this taking place is greeted outside them, by the rest of the world, how it inspires the rest of the world, how it communicates with the rest of the world, how it becomes the rest of the world. It’s a dialogue between inside and outside that knows all the while that the dichotomy represents only different moments within a unity of process, à la Marx’s “Introduction” to the Grundrisse. Marx’s famous schema of how capitalist production begets distribution, how distribution begets exchange, exchange consumption, consumption more production, distribution more exchange, exchange more distribution, distribution more production, etc., etc., now has to be vision of the circulation of revolt, of its production and virtual circulation, of its emotional and empathetic exchange, of its consummation, of how all this hangs together in some complex, enigmatic global flow of counter-power.

And if there is a theoretical project here, it is mapping these flows of revolt, figuring out how to make revolutionary theory more affective and effective. Affective, in the sense that it touches us as human beings, affects us sensually, makes us joyous and angry, compassionate and caring, pissed off and performative; effective, not through understanding these emotions, but by putting these emotions into practice, making them matter in action, through action; how we can not so much organize this action as coordinate this action, coordinate it horizontally, manage the radical fusions between people in specific places. Within this project there is no going backward, no invocations of old truths, old desires for a clear-cut public sector as the antidote to private greed; it is too late to go back now.

The yearning for a steady job, as in the good old days, with benefits, belonging to a union, with old forms of vertical organization, done through representative bodies, via old labor institutions – all that seems quaintly nostalgic. More than anything else, there are no more expectations, no system to count on, no bosses or governments to guarantee anybody a living.

Now, we are left with bare life, with the naked truth: how to resolve the enigma of revolt ourselves, how to do so without safety nets, without the welfare state, without paternal capitalism; how to do it without subsidization. (The revolution will never be funded, of course, even if it might get televised on YouTube!) An all-new vocabulary is required to resolve this enigma, a new way of seeing, a new structure of feeling. The enigma of revolt is tantamount to discovering (or inventing) a superstring theory of revolution, making it empirical, real; a radical Higgs boson whereby some secret dimension unites all hitherto dissociated struggles, an unknown dimension and patterning of space-time. Like particle physicists, we know, theoretically and mathematically from our radical hypotheses, that this collective reality exists, even if we have never yet witnessed it empirically. We are 99% sure that the figures stack up, that those in this Higgs boson will be the 99%. If that ever happens, we will see before our eyes a beautiful kaleidoscope of sorts, a passage into another political reality. But the passage isn’t achieved through analyzing what they do, what capital does, as much as self-analyzing what we do, what we might be able to do inside what they do, beyond what they do. It involves a change of heart as well as of tack, an effort to address pragmatically and programmatically that great Kafkaesque question: How do we escape The Castle within us?

Andy Merrifield is an independent scholar currently based in the UK. He has written numerous books including a biography of French philosopher Guy Debord. His most recent books are Magical Marxism (2011) and John Berger (2012). Contact him at [email protected].