Jamming the Symbolic Machine of Empire: The Body in Direct Action

In his response to Butler in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Žižek challenges Butler’s notion of re-signification.  Žižek notes that it’s not that re-signification is never effective, it’s just that both the two imaginaries on the left – the democratic welfare state imaginary and the ‘really-existing-Socialism’ – have been all but exhausted (325).  Rather than resignify the symbolic coordinates of a particular identity, Žižek argues that one should transform the universal ‘principle’ that structures the existing symbolic order.  Žižek is not shy in suggesting why he thinks a full-scale re-structuring is necessary because “it is the very focus on the notion of Real as impossible that reveals the ultimate contingency, frailty (and thus changeability) of very symbolic constellation that pretends to serve as the a priori horizon of the process of symbolization (221).  On the next two pages, as well as in the last chapter, Žižek reiterates that his political project is one of hegemony, however.  To be more explicit, one part of Žižek’s strategy is to sacrifice all attachments and identifications in an ethical act so the ethical figure is not required to compromise her desire, draining the Symbolic’s ability to hold the subject hostage – mirroring the famous line from David Fincher’s Fight Club “It’s only after you’ve lost everything are you free to do anything” (Revolution 249-53).

While I agree with Žižek that the constitutive Real provides a possibility for going beyond resignification, his strategy of hegemony sidesteps the Foucaultian conception of productive power. An analytics of power changes if the productive effects of power are taken into account.  In a post-sovereign society, there is no longer a singular referent for all relations of power.  The production of power is relocated to a multiplicity of sites.  Instead of relying on a naïve humanism that would assume essential aspects of human rationality, desire, and sociality, productive power allows one to create a social topology that accounts for reproducing life (HS 92-100).  Additionally, productive power shifts the terms of debate away from freedom and repression.  Freedom implies that social, political, economic and cultural forces inhibit an otherwise unfettered subject.  Instead, productive power proposes that different potentialities are to be increased or restricted as they are produced (increasing efficiency or productivity at performing certain tasks, added responsiveness to certain discursive pronouncements), but in a manner that is always radically circumscribed by its conditions of possibility because they rely on their conditions of possibility for their reproduction.  Put another way, freedoms are produced, not liberated.

Rather than imagining the only strategy for political success as being through a struggle to seize hegemony, this Foucaultian reformulation points to an alternative strategy of the Real.  The Real could be a site for dispersing and toppling the hegemony of the Symbolic while simultaneously constituting new desire.  This formulation borrows from Hardt and Negri’s conception of biopotenza, which is in opposition biopotere.  Biopotenza is the productive life of the multitude that is constitutive and creative; but it is always trailed by the recuperative force of sovereign power, biopoetere (“Biopolitics” 17).  Similarly, I would like to posit a constitutive Real that jams the signifying machine of the Symbolic through an act of creation that can’t be immediately fulfilled.

Before discussing the constitutive Real of anti-war protest, let’s first consider war.  War has become increasingly mediated by the scopic, resulting on the elements of the war being increasingly mediated by the Imaginary.[1] In the giant mobilization of resources necessary to fight war, we see guns, bullets, and bombs, as well as bodies and equipment transported – all to prove that the fantasy of the state is actually a reality.  When clothed in the signifiers of Democracy, Freedom, and other nationalist imagery, it works to symbolically mask the trauma produced in the maimed bodies of soldiers at war.  The knot that ties going to war and sacrificing soldier’s bodies is complex; it’s not connected just to Symbolic and Imaginary identification when a nation goes to war but also the objet a that represents the impelled by the violence flattened and staticy that comes across on the TV screen.  We see images and pictures of death and destruction, but because of its unrepresentability, we are barred from the jouissance that it would deliver.  Like any desire, it produces different subjectivities in different bodies, and within the linguistic drive of the Symbolic it appears in strange indirect ways.  One quote, for instance, has risen to prominence despite its questionable origins: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”[2] Such fantasies are a paranoid attempt to reconnect “disembodied beliefs with the force and power of the material world” through the “massive opening of human bodies” (Body 129).  It seems that activists have quite a strong machine that they are up against.

If it is trauma that works to jam the Symbolic, to make it spit and sputter, lose its breath and lose it words, does it not make sense that the most blunt source of trauma would work to clog the machine?  Regardless of all of the new an innovative forms of protest that have followed the tech boom of the twentieth century, the body has remained the predominate tool of protest.  One reason may be that the body has the most immediate access to the Real.  As Dean argues, the body is the primary site of encoding for the Symbolic – language literally cuts up and maps the body, placing grids and networks along its many complicated structure.  The body and the symbols placed on it never really match up, however, and those mismatches generate desire.  Good and bad fits abound.  Especially bad fits cause striking ruptures and intense flows of desire, like hysteria (59).

What if the body itself was used to physically block, impede, or jam the Symbolic?  At the Republican National Convention in 2008, Code Pink anti-war protests consistently interrupted John McCain’s acceptance speech for the nomination as the party’s presidential candidate.  As protestor after protestor rose to disrupt the event, it became a hassle for the convention.  In spite of loud chants of “USA! USA!” the protestors could not be ignored and had to be physically removed one-by-one.  The interruptions became so frequent that while stopped, McCain directly addressed the protestors, remarking “Please, please, please. My friends, my dear friends, please. Please don’t be diverted by the ground noise and the static.  You know, I’m going to talk about it some more. But Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, OK?”[3] Was this an interruption of the Symbolic, a hole, a zone impossibility opened up by the bodies and the presence of the protestors?  The Imaginary and Symbolic were failing; McCain had to stumble, stop, and repeat, being cut off and forced to start again.  Reassert control, dominance, and respond with more physical force, something that is inconspicuously missing from the Lacanian orders.  But are mere interruptions and physical force enough to warrant a rupture?

Or maybe the recent popularity of clowning can shed some light on the issue.  Summit protests, held at economic summits for various groups trying to strike trade agreements and work on economic globalization, came of age in Seattle in 1999.  In an effort to keep the tactics from getting stale, protesting trends wax and wane.  One that seems to have gained a lot of traction is radical clowning. In example, The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), dresses up in army fatigues and clown gear.  At protests CIRCA has funny chants and disorganization that works to distract, confuse, and disrupt police lines.  The general atmosphere at summit protests is pretty grim and the police are usually pretty psyched up and read to beat some ass.  Battles lines are drawn and Imaginary fantasies run rampant, often causing the worst kinds of conflict.  Clown interventions often lighten the mood and disrupt the normal boundary policing necessary for the state to do its job.  By introducing humor and hiccups into the Symbolic, it seems to somehow disrupt the hardened egos of the Imaginary.  It’s not as if the clowns introduce confusion into the Imaginary itself, it’s pretty easy to distinguish between yourself and someone in a rainbow wig and full facepaint.  In his field notes, anarchist academic David Graeber wrote about a protest where mass arrest seemed all but inevitable.  Pinned in by the cops, the bandana and mask-clad black bloc tried breaking through police lines on multiply occasions but their militant tactics had failed.  Yet when a group of goats, and other groups like puppeteers and the clown army began an impromptu carnival with streamers, horns, rubber mallets they “change[d] the tenor of the whole event” and the police lines gave (399-400).

Now consider the trailer for the activist film “Terrorizing Dissent.”[4] The film was shot and produced in order to publicly circulate an on the ground view of protests at the RNC.  Soon after the film begins, John McCain begins the famous line quoted above, “Friends…”  Juxtaposed behind McCains is the intense violence of full riot-gear clad police as they throw concussion grenades and chase, assault, and pepper spray a young woman trying to find her way out.  Clips of the state violence sidle lines of McCain’s speech that contrast or parody the events in the background.  Once removed from the scene of the events, the circuits of desire flow differently – mediated not just once by the faculties of immediate experience, the video puts the viewer in a septic space, cut off from all but a limited audio and visual slice of the event.  But even as the video reduces the events down to the essentials of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, there is still a supplement left over that pushes and probes at the unconscious from deep within the Real, hinting that while the Real is a lack of a lack and has no substance, it can be full of the constitutive force that is hard to forget.  Kinda like the first time you get tear gassed, it’s hard to watch protest footage without smelling it, over and over again.

[1] For more on the how affect, pacificatory power, and visual modalities of perception figured into the Gulf War see Chapter 2, “Virtuous Bombs,” in my MA Thesis “Producing Pacification: The Disciplinary Technologies of Smart Bombs and National Anti-War Organizing.”

[2] Goldberg, Jonah. “Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two “ National Review Online Apr 23, 2002 http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=YTFhZGQ4Y2IyZmNlY2QyNDkwZTlkZjFkYjZiNWY0YzU=

[3] “McCain: Change is Coming” CNN Sept 4, 2008

[4] Terrorizing Dissent: RNC08 Election Cut Trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5eDQKaKLYE


2 thoughts on “Jamming the Symbolic Machine of Empire: The Body in Direct Action

  1. Your discussion of the body and its potential to disrupt the symbolic is interesting, but I would be careful not to conflate the body with particular tactics employed by activists. For example, I am not sure I follow how the body fits in with a clown army intervention at least within the terms of your discussion. “Humor and hiccups” to me do not seem to be necessarily the same thing as the body in direct action. How might you better distinguish between the two without presenting an instrumentalized take on the body?

  2. i think there are few different ways to distinguish between the creative use of “bodies” and their instrumentalization.

    first and foremost, i think badiou’s politics of the “count” might be most useful. only those who stand up to be counted are included within the political process. liberal protests take this political logic to the extreme, focusing on photo ops and head counts. the ontology of politics-as-politics breaks down when there are those who cannot be counted. so ranciere’s strategy of posing the principle of equality (based on ‘the part of those who have no part’ or even better, ‘those who don’t count’) is a way to leverage the existence of actually existing bodies (in the general, spinozist sense) against a political system that cannot ever fully accommodate for them. i don’t know the lacan-badiou nexus as much as i should, but i think this would fit in there pretty nicely.

    but to clarify the ‘humor and hiccups’ – the way i’ve understood the real has been that order in which resists symbolization (and the imaginary). and rather than defining it positively, it’s topologically a category of everything that negates the symbolic. so i guess i was trying to find a part of CIRCA that the symbolic cannot adequately mediate. so in a lacanian formalization of freud’s dream interpretation, we might say that certain forms of humor (slips of the tongue, plays on words) originate from a experience of the Real – unconscious material that the symbolic hasn’t/can’t completely systematize. humor in politics is necessarily interesting then, it both resists easy recuperation into Imaginary explanations (many stories of deep-seated personal issues are easily avoided with a slight twist of irony) and cannot be explained by a simple mechanical application of the rules of the Symbolic. i guess this is why the ‘actions’ of CIRCA don’t necessarily need to be non-linguistic, but they need to have enough slippage to avoid immediate symbolization — you don’t get it, but you have to engage it, so you consider it (think about it, try to understand it, etc etc). and to the extent that CIRCA actually creates humor, it’s able to constitutively produce a new result in a situation that’s been otherwise prefigured by already established geometries of power [which is my quick reading of the the david graeber story from Possibilities which left me wanting a more thorough explanation].

    so to tentatively answer your question: i think the only way to tell if it’s instrumentalized or not, is through experimentation and retrospective evaluation.
    1) try a new use for a body.
    2) did it do anything?
    3) did it produce an unexpected result, did it break through any deadlocks or blockages?
    4) or was it easily anticipated and feed back into the ‘accounting’ machine or get lost in transmission?

    ps — Daniel Heller-Roazen’s book Echolalias is a pleasure to read. I think it might be an excellent creative avenue to explore.

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