The Naked Now
For the last week, I’ve been thinking about Adorno who I haven’t thought about for a long time.
There are a number of reasons for this, many of which are personal and banal (e.g. I’ve been reading Aesthetic Theory again along with Robert Hullot-Kentor’s brilliant Things beyond Resemblance which I’ve only just discovered.)
However, over and above such trivial things, the reason I’ve been thinking of Adorno is because of the ‘Occupy Melbourne’ Movement and the terrible things that happened last Friday, when the current mayor of Melbourne gave the police license to not only brutally “remove” (there’s nothing as hard nor as cold as a euphemism, no?) the 100 or so people who had been bravely, joyously and proudly living, talking and thinking in common for the previous 6 days in the City Square, but also to herd, arbitrarily arrest, opportunistically punch and generally terrorise those protesters who later turned up to peacefully show their solidarity with the occupiers and their outrage at the latter’s treatment earlier in the day. (If you don’t know what I mean, please see this and this.…) Oh, and this too.
As the “rooftop collective” has said today, this violence was in many ways predictable, in that it is a a cliche of politics that those who try to expose or contest the structural violence that underlies “our way of life” (TM), almost invariably coax, by the simple act of constituting themselves as a people, that violence from its hiding place; becoming, through their actions, the first victims of this violence in all its naked glory and terror.
N.B. In speaking here of this provocation of violence, I do not, for a moment, mean to criticise the protesters.. On the contrary, I say this by way of saluting the courage of those who have risked and will continue to risk injury and arrest so that they (and others) can maintain the power to say ‘we’, those who are prepared to dedicate themselves to what Badiou calls one of the great (forgotten) projects of the 20th century: the attempt to find new forms of the ‘we’ that cut across all extant, visible, ‘counted’ lines of filiation or any (pre-conceived) notions of communal substance.
In saying this then, I am really doing little more than making the general (and unoriginal) statement that “Power” in the Arenditan or Spinozist sense — the power that comes from the gathering of people under conditions of equality and under the auspices of Reason — “provokes” violence, because it fills (i.e. occupies) the space which violence seeks to dominate. It is the Red Flag to Oppression’s Pharsalian bull. But, the power that comes from bringing people and ideas together is, to paraphrase St. Paul (and, in a way, Antonio Negri) -stronger- than the violence arrayed against it, even in its weakness. We have already seen this, in the Saturday following Friday’s horrors, when those who had been thrown over barricades, dragged as if they were to be drawn and quartered, rose up again to speak before a (much larger Assembly) with new vows to continue and to extend the domain of the struggle. (In a way very different from what Michel Houellebecq meant by the title of his first novel.)
Now, it might be objected that this is desperately naive. “It is all very well to shout about the’triumph of love’ and ‘people power’ slogans in the face of batons and capsicum spray, but don’t batons crush flowers, even when we’ve called for a thousand of them to bloom?” In a word, no. Or, rather, only if you are far too literal in your grasp of metaphors.
Putting it differently, if it’s true that it’s difficult to contend (as another friend of mine put it at Saturday’s rally) with the forces of the State (as he put it “the Masters of Territory”) when it comes to occupying a -particular- territory, this doesn’t mean that Territorial Masters (who would count themselves “democrats” while showing themselves willing to, quite literally, turn the dogs loose on the demos) will win just because they are so callously willing to strike at the fragile bodies (literal and figurative) that are coming together to oppose present injustice in the name of a different future than the one that seems laid out for us. Instead, I have hopes that the movement’s power (i.e. the power of the -global- movement, beyond its merely local avatars) will exceed it’s own (or anyone’s) capacity to occupy, or ‘hold’ a particular territory. As my friend said, and as we have seen in Oakland, in Sydney and elsewhere, the movement — through no lack of determination — will have trouble holding a space once the police are unleashed and given impunity to prevent their doing so. But the real political power of the movement is not limited to the capacity to conquer/liberate territory, even if the initial gesture of occupying space is crucial for making visible the opposition which the powers that be would render invisible.
On this note, I am quite sure that, as I said a year ago, we are on the cusp of a new epoch in progressive politics and that new and stronger movements will rise from the ashes of today’s struggles. What I think cannot be denied is that the sad hegemony of neo-liberalism is starting to fray.
This is not, of course, to say that victory is on the horizon: would that that were so. But I do think that the movements that are rising at the moment in Greece, in Spain, in Britain, in Chile and in the United States, will, at the very least, provide experiences from which all kinds of people (and perhaps an entire generation) will learn ways of continuing to struggle in the face of oppression, ways of adapting without compromising, of learning from the political -experiences- which have always been (as Rousseau said) the conditio sine qua non of political will.
Now, despite this praise, I’m not for a a moment suggesting that the “Occupy” Movement (globally and let alone in Australia) is perfect. It isn’t (and not only for small reasons like my — perhaps idiosyncratic — dislike of consensus-based decision making). There are problems, most of which — as Zizek has recently pointed out — are to do with the ‘morning after’ question, the vision of not just what to do in order to fight the iniquities of the present, but a vision of what kind of state, what kind of order we want to succeed the present one. At this level, I also agree – being constitutionally skeptical about anarchism – that we need a new vision of the State or of a just order that will not be found (or even thought about) if we put all our hopes on to the spontaneous, the carnivalesque, the explosion of ‘popular energy’ that comes when people first find out that they are powerful in being together. Now, note, I’m not trying to deride such experiences: it is a wonderful and important thing to find ways of overcoming our isolation, our anomie, our sense of being cut off from others: we are all of us (those of my generations -subjectivised- by the neo-liberal form of capitalism, and we can and must learn to become a different kind of creature.) I’m just saying that I can’t see that either the task of building a more just society (nor even the look of that society) will always be compatible with the affects or the activities of the carnival, anymore than it can (or even needs) to maintain constant exuberance, spontaneity and feelings of oneness. Doubtless, this is uncool of me, but I even see room for one or two bureaucrats in the New World.
But having said all this, and despite and even because of the brutal repression we’ve seen in the last few weeks, I do think that something is changing and that we live, in the best sense, in interesting times. It’s not, of course, that I see a fast train to utopia in the various ‘occupy movements’, but I do see the signs of a thaw, a sign that change is coming, a sign that certain aspects of the present system are so openly insane and open unjust that even the hysterical lies of the right-wing media won’t be able to hide from their most convinced consumers. It’s as if these movements are lighthouses with faulty beacons; fragile, but even their dim light can still remind storm-battered ships that they were -meant- to sail rather than to stay fearfully in a harbour decked out for someone else’s private enjoyment. It’s something that, against the bankrupt triumphalism of the last three decades of neo-liberalism, reminds us that a politics geared towards nothing but the avoidance of a particular kind of disaster (totalitarianism) is not enough, that politics needs positive goals, actual hopes, a positive conception of the good, a glimpse of the City on the Hill that we sometimes catch while contemplating a work of art, an aspect of nature or in the eyes of another.
But, anyway, you ask, what does any of this have to do with Theodore ‘Teddie’ Adorno.
The connection is with another violence, a second violence that I who was not (despite having traveled to the Occupation several times in the previous week) present for Friday’s terrible events, witnessed only in the aftermath of these events. It was a violence which, as my friend Ben pointed out to me in a letter, is in some ways as disturbing as the violence that was so visible on the streets of Melbourne on Friday. I’m speaking here of the reactions, on Twitter and elsewhere, of members of the Australian public, to what happened on Friday, not just the predictable front-page story and editorial in a certain (squalid Murdoch tabloid): but the hundreds and hundreds of people whose reactions to ‘protesters were beaten and dragged’ stories was ‘God bless the Police for doing their job/great to see these hippies beaten/they’re not the 99%, they’re the 1% — they’re disrupting my day’.
Faced with this (in ever more vituperative forms) I couldn’t help thinking of the fundamental Adornian motif of ‘regression’: i.e. of the idea that because all thought, all ‘culture’, all subjectivity comes, ultimately, from an attempt to conquer an irrational and threatening nature (both inside and outside us) the process of conquest gives rise to two kinds of remnants, whose unreconciled status emits a banshee-like howl throughout psyche and society. The first is strictly atavistic and manifests itself in fear-laden violence against others, in resentment, hate, the desire to make others ‘pay’ for the suffering that we at a deep level of corporeal memory know we’ve undergone on the road to making ourselves into the kind of people who can ‘get on with and get over things’, who can accommodate and adapt ourselves to the demands of ‘reality’, who can ‘let go and have a good time, can settle down to working, being normal, having fun, working on ourselves’, putting aside our memory of the cries that we might have omitted during the process by which we were tempered into something ever colder and harder. Who could not fail to see this ‘return of the repressed’ in all those noble, humanitarian cries praising ‘the police and the mayor’, in the joyful exclamations that greeted the news of people being dragged and punched and scared so that they shook? Who could fail to read — in the predictable and lame cries of ‘Get a job!’ — a sentiment like: “I am made to suffer and to renounce enjoyment, ergo, so should everyone else!” This unmistakable ressentiment is even more obvious, given the fact that – as has been pointed out – the idea of the jobless protester is, of course, a vacuous and false stereotype that the critics of the occupiers hardly examined before they embraced it. Indeed, what is truly remarkable about the obvious fear, insecurity and resentment behind so many of the “anti-occupy” sentiments is how naked they are about their desire to have violence done to others who are thought, by their actions and retention of ideals, to have ‘escaped’ the violence that the rest of us have learnt to bear as part of the normal course of things. This nakedness of aggression then finds its exact parallel in the glib posturings of the mayor (and the right-wing news) which, disdaining to deny either the violence or their own endorsement of it, embrace it as the result of a good days work: “We did this.”, they say, avowedly proud, “We’ll do it again.” If this is horrifying, it is also, I can’t help thinking, the sign of a collapsing hegemony: a sign that those like Robert Doyle are, perhaps even at a conscious level, aware of the vacuity of their ideological position, of the fact that they stand for nothing, and thus that they respond to a challenge — even a whiff of real democracy — with nothing but force and that lamest of all appeals: ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things work!” But, it can’t be too long before those who’ve perversely turned their anger randomly towards those protesting the suffering caused by an economic system that favours the 1% over the 99 realise that the causes of their own suffering (at work and in the broken remnants of what was once a society) lie more with those who are ready to take a fist to the face of real democracy than those who call for it in the streets. Put differently: if the naked violence we’ve seen is frightening, I can’t help thinking that it is also frightened….
P.S. Another time, I might talk about the second kind of ‘remainder’ (the ‘memory of nature’) that Adorno talks about and how this, potentially militates against the tendency for ‘regression’ that I have — very superficially — outlined here.
But for the moment, I should just note that though Adorno has much more to say on this, he’s still (unfairly) unlikely to be read in all kinds of progressive circles because his reputation as an elitist mandarin (a Jazz hater no less!) — blinds people to his critical merits.
On this point then, I leave you with the following quote from the very talented Hullot-Kentnor:
“But it was a complete misunderstanding to suppose that Adorno would cast his lot in with a movement to spread culture. He carried no torch for culture, and least of all for musical culture. When he arrived in the United States what was fresh to his mind was the thought of a Bildngsbuergertum — the culture-prizing bourgeoisie — then to be found in the streets of the “homeland of culture” carrying real torches. This capitulation of German culture had not been an utter surprise to him. On the contrary, German culture had failed to ward off the worst, just because, as Adorno once wrote, it had long been an ally of the worst. Adorno had seen it coming in the deep perspectives of the opposition drawn by all radical art, since romanticism, to bogus culture. The music with which Adorno was most allied, the idiom of free atonality in which he composed, had inherited that jagged radical tradition. The concerts of the Second Viennese School had their own legitimacy confirmed, inadvertently, in the outrage, catcalls and whistlings brought down on them by audiences sworn to higher things…
(Hullot-Kentor – Things Beyond Resemblance, p. 107)…
*Update 31/10: Some links: 1) Zizek in the Guardian discussing the Occupy Movement. Particularly clear-sighted in its rejection of the false-choice between what he’s criticised elsewhere as the tactic of ‘bombarding the system with impossible demands’ (a willing or unwilling ‘hysterical’/'beautiful soul’ position) AND b) ‘being realistic’ and having ‘concrete’ (i.e. innocuous) demands. 2) Ont his last note, c.f. this from Dr Tad of “Left Flank”: worth it for the title alone.