Militancy, Power, Antagonism: Two Meditations on the Space of Politics

Below is a piece I put together w/ MLA of Prodigies & Monsters for presentation at the Potentials of Performance symposium in October 26 – 27th in London by a group of Greeks who have occupied a closed-down theater owned by the Greek state since last November. Please enjoy.

Occupy speaks not only to the occupation of space, but to the politics of place. This piece offers two meditations on the space of power. The first offers a virtual topography that thinks the role of the intellectual within the university. The second is a working out of that theory that questions Occupy’s spatialization of autonomy. Together, the mediations propose a return to militancy, facilitated by topologies of power that circulate struggle in and through a political antagonism that refuses the totalizing and authoritarian tendencies of command.

Keywords: militancy/antagonism, the academy, cartography/spatialization of power, program/anti-command

“Thinking and Living in Uncharted Territory”

Foucault and Deleuze told us decades ago that: ‘the intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself “somewhat ahead and to the side” in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of “knowledge,” “truth,” “consciousness,” and “discourse[1].”’ The same can be said of the university. As the intellectual is to refuse a position of command where he or she struggles against becoming an object of power, the institution that houses the intellectual is necessarily caught up in the imperatives of the struggle. But where Foucault and Deleuze’s words above clue us into the needs of the intellectual, resisting her or his instrumentalization and potential cronyism, what do they say about transforming the spaces of the intellectual’s labor? What is the relation between the intellectual’s transformation and that of the university itself?

What Foucault and Deleuze offer is, in so many words, a provocation towards militancy, but a militancy that refuses an absolute position of command. We are to militate against the very conditions of disciplinary knowledge that the neoliberal university further codifies and capitalizes on in the present moment, but we are to do so without indulging or internalizing authoritarian impulses. Unlike the imperatives of the for-university for example, as we are to produce ourselves and the space of the university in an antagonistic mode to financial and bureaucratic directives, we cannot dictate the future of academic knowledge and practice. For the intellectual, this means embodying a position of struggle that is anti-programmatic: a position of not telling anyone what to do, yet demanding that something must be done. Where the intellectual inhabits the space of the university, anti-programmatic imperatives over his or her militant transformation hold for thinking what potential future the university might take. But what is an anti-programmatic intellectual? Even further, what is an anti-programmatic university? Here, not only are we presented with the problem of demanding that the university transform without commanding its ultimate shape, we are presented with the problem of entering into an uncharted relation between knowledge and representation. We are called to act, but to act without producing ourselves, and the university itself, as arbiters and objects of knowledge. What Foucault and Deleuze’s argument above initiates is, at least where the figure of the intellectual and the university is concerned, a kind of academic terra incognita.

If we are to struggle against our instrumentalization and objectification in the arenas of knowledge, truth, consciousness, and discourse, then the transformation that occurs in and of the space of the university is neither teleological, nor nostalgic. In the same way that we cannot command the ultimate shape of our transformation, neither can we return to so-called ideal figures of the intellectual or the university from our collective past. The future of the university is, rather, virtual. Not the Internet. Not social media. Especially not the virtual classroom. The university and its future, against and beyond the conditions of the present, is a topography of potential encounters and practices of intellectual improvisation—it is a field of interaction that orients our thoughts and our actions, but refuses to command the shape and character of its subjects or its disciplines. The university is, oriented toward its future, a cartography of an unrepresentable power.

In their co-authored A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari theorize this precise relation as a characteristic of what is perhaps our most common and dominant tool for schematizing and understanding space: the map. Here, Deleuze and Guattari write:

The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation[2].

Cartography is not theorized as a practice resulting in a totality or transcendent perspective—the map simply cannot produce a total picture of a particular space and time. It is rather the opposite. Cartography is an orientation in and of a particular space and time that belies its claim, despite its most dominant uses, to authority over its own perspective and its practice. Indeed, cartography is an action that belies a position of command, even where it is intended to function precisely as a programmatic determination of a particular space and time.

Where Foucault and Deleuze’s arguments above clue us into the need for the intellectual to refuse his or her instrumentalization, Deleuze and Guattari’s thoughts on the map perhaps provide a link between a thought of anti-programmatic militancy and the transformation of space. Our struggle is diagrammatic, rather than representational. If we cannot lapse into a position of command, and in this way, produce a total picture of our collective future, we are compelled toward a practice of political transformation that aims to preserve an open and connectable cartography of resistance. We are called to a position of non-neutrality, and we are called to preserve it in thought and action. Clearly, Foucault and Deleuze’s argument above doesn’t indicate that we can’t have goals. Of course we can resist neoliberal imperatives on and over the university. Of course we can resist the state’s intrusion into our classrooms and research. We can certainly attempt to inhabit a position of co-learner, rather than arbiter or knowledge. Refusing a position of command over our actions doesn’t result in inaction. In the same way, refusing to command the orientation of a particular space and time doesn’t result in a void. What occurs is perhaps something much more dynamic.

Taken together, what Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari propose is a kind of anti-method for living and thinking in the context of the university. It is an attempt to locate intellectual practice, and education itself, in a position of continual risk. The virtual character Deleuze and Guattari attribute to the map motivates this move into the unknown. Indeed, it attempts to preserve and forefront a condition of the unknown into our very practices of thinking, knowing, and acting. In attempting to encourage an intellectual space that is open to constant modification and experimentation, we risk failure, we risk not making sense, and we certainly distance ourselves from claiming intellectual authority. We risk thinking and living in uncharted territory, recognizing that our intellectual terrain is necessarily unstable ground.

The militancy and radical cartography we can trace in Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari’s arguments indicate that the future of the university is not one of our potential conquest, but one of a productive antagonism. As we locate ourselves in the struggle against our instrumentalization and objectification, rather than ahead or outside of it, we locate ourselves in a position that belies our exit or escape. Not headed to the promise land, nor going boldly where no man has gone before, we think and live from the middle of a hostile terrain. The university is, necessarily, our antagonistic ground. But our militancy is to produce, not prescribe, spaces and times of its opening. As we struggle against the powers of objectification and instrumentalization, we are not called to bring what is unknown out into the open, but rather, we are called to produce the unknown, and situate it at the foundation of our intellectual practice.

“Beneath the Streets, Autonomy”

This paper proposes that space is a function of power. From this basic idea, it suggests that Occupy was unable to gain a necessary consistency because of the tension between social activism, which wanted to spatialize power, and political activism, which wanted to weaponize it. It concludes with an ecological politics that reintroduces antagonism into autonomy.

[Call and Response]
Ten years from now…
The thing that’s going to be written about Seattle…
Is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner…
But that the WTO in 1999…
Was the birth…
Of a global citizens movement…
For a democratic global economy…
—This Is What Democracy Looks Like (2000), Dir.
Jill Friedberg, and Rick Rowley

Looking at the climbing heights of skyscrapers, the permanent grace of great cathedrals, and the largess of civic buildings, one quickly confirms that power finds profound expression in space. While the symbols of power spread through the easy language of words, or are represented in tokens found in the signatures or emblems attached to everything from uniforms to official documents, these signs can be easily reversed, replaced, or just plain pushed aside. In contrast, the physical presence of structures erected in the name of an abstract ideal not only turn those thoughts into reality, but also afford an unarguable certainty to the existence of such ideals.

Given the gravitational power of monumentalizing space, it is no wonder that social movements have mobilized their own monuments. In Buenos Aires, political discontents who were silently kidnapped, tortured, and executed are remembered by painting their silhouettes on sidewalks and walls. And during the Iraq War, peace groups set up model cemeteries that brought the war home.

Yet monuments, whether giving form to state power or challenging it, are basically the same use of space: to fend off the future by preserving either the present or the past. Through space, monumentalization slows down the infinite speed of thought to the geologic time-scale of rock, sand, and paint. And with those mineralized monuments, architects construct temples to power that appear as permanent as the mountains they are built from.

But one need not conquer the earth by moving mountains. Consider the basic element of architecture: the frame. The frame distinguishes between an inside and outside, and it is with these slices of the world that the built environment is made. A floor carves out a home from the earth. A window lets a little bit of the earth back in. And furthermore, a monument freezes a frame to preserve what it has captured inside itself while blocking out the outside.

Monuments are not wrong, in fact they are absolutely necessary, as all life depends on a minimal amount of preservation. But we deserve more than bare life, and life only thrives through a creative evolution of difference that expands its power.

gather in multiple groups
link up to each other
situate yourself and friends
form into clusters
identify your surroundings
define your boundaries and defend them
be mobile
Claire Fontaine, Gather in Multiple Groups (2011)

Occupy never achieved a high level of consistency, for better or for worse. Autonomous Occupy elements, each with their own local characteristics, quickly emerged across North America and the world. Despite their differences, a few refrains stuck and subsequently ping-ponged from site to site, mostly variants on “The 99% versus The 1%.” But the wide latitude for interpreting such a broad message made the term “occupy” a constant point of scrutiny.

Those unfamiliar or strategically ignoring to the history of occupations as a tactic – whether it be Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins, the American Indian Movement’s occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the recent wave of students occupying school administration buildings – questioned the rhetoric or strategy of occupying pieces of public space throughout corporate North America, and at times, the world. Some criticisms aimed to connect Occupy with local struggles, so some Occupy sites renamed the public plaza they were occupying to memorialize popular heroes, while others identified it as a decolonization struggle with the name “de-occupy” or “un-occupy.”

Yet the central tension within Occupy was not the disjunction between local concerns and national narrative, but the struggle between social and political activism. Put another way: is occupation the window into a better world, or merely a political tactic? Furthermore, this is a fundamental disagreement over the spatialization of power. Social activism aims to improve social well being by immediately improving the material conditions of people lives, which it pursues by building institutions and social ties. Alternatively, political activism mobilizes partisan forces to transform the available ideologies and choices. And although it is possible to combine the two forms of activism, they often work at cross-purposes. Social activism contributes something new to the material world by reterritorializing gains but political activism provides a radical reorientation to what already exists through deterritorialization, which explains why political activists are willing to sacrifice material benefits that social activists fight to secure in order to get a potential political payoff, as in a strike or sabotage.

The tension between social and political goals were played out in the deployment of occupation itself, giving autonomy two different articulations. For some, Occupy was an experiment in self-rule, which could be described as anarchy in action. And such independence was characteristic of early anarchism, for instance Proudhonian social anarchists sought social solutions and refused all forms of political engagement. This autonomy is a search for pockets of separation that insulate them from the influence of other concerns, and therefore maintains that distance by avoiding re-engagement. In Occupy, this was expressed in a concern over holding public space, expanding the social services available at an occupation site, and experimenting in processes of self-management. For others, Occupy was a political movement, which followed a program of spreading anarchy. This approach does not concern itself with governance, and hence abdicates everything but disruption and critique. In its revolutionary mode, spreading anarchy uses whatever tools are on hand to provoke collapse, after which a new world will emerge. Autonomy here is the degree to which parts of a system can be used against itself, such as Occupy Oakland’s port blockade, or numerous bank disruptions.

When mayors and their police turned up the heat on Occupy sites across the country, the fault lines between the movement’s social and political elements turned into lines of fracture. Moreover, it made evident that occupying and defending space takes an incredible amount of time and energy. Barricades became anchors and activists were easily outmaneuvered by the overwhelming force of the police, though some Occupy sites were able to win short reprieves through legal channels, or even by marshalling temporary reinforcements to hold their ground.

Yet Occupy’s pitfall in spatializing power dramatizes what is perhaps its greatest contribution: discourse. The broad, ambiguous phrases of Occupy provided a near-immediate political reorientation. A year after the initial occupation in New York’s Zuccotti Park and many months after Occupy sites were cleared by force, the language of “The 99%” and “The 1%” still crowd the airwaves. “You can’t evict an idea,” a chant that first appeared as an empty gesture while Occupy’s were being expelled from their sites, has taken on a new significance now that Occupy lacks a physical presence but remains a major talking point. But now that Occupy’s power resides in name only, we are left with an important question: if social activism’s demonstration of a different world is over, does their path to autonomy remain, or was Occupy just a form of political antagonism all along?

Freedom has precisely this physical sense: “to detonate an explosive,” to use it for more and more powerful movements.
Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism (1963/1990) [107]

Through Occupy, the world caught fire, even if only for a moment. Yet it did not deliver its kernel of truth through a demonstration, whether its capacity to attract people to a park or to provide temporary housing for a diverse crowd, but through the common desire for a political reorientation.

This is not to say that spatialization was unnecessary, because it seems that the physical presence of protesters provided Occupy Wall Street the initial materialization it needed to transform a lofty idea into a credible reality. But once we lost count of how many protesters were in what cities, the success of Occupy stopped depending on spatialized power and started waging a war of position. And once the scales tipped, the hard job of occupying space began its slide into a game of cops and protesters.

Even as our memories of Occupy as a space of encounter fade, it lives on as a political weapon. As a demonstration of humans ability to cooperate and take care of each other, it had many inspiring moments, but its management power pales in comparison to the complex forms of neoliberal governmentality. Yet as share belief in upending the political system, or simply making it a little more equal, Occupy is one of the greatest challenges to the North American liberal consensus in recent history. And the fact that it held no demands (or sometimes too many demands to count, like the previous summer’s cottage cheese rebellion in Israel), Occupy did more to change the general environment of politics than to present a single demand, which would have limited its influence.

And ultimately, the ‘ecological’ question is decisive for any transformative politics. Power today does not confront us as a single oppressor, but as a whole environment that is hostile to us. While the generalization of power means that a strike anywhere is a strike against power, it also means that there is no definitive target, as hostility is a whole network of exploiters, each willing to pick up where the other one falters. Rather than simply preserving our survival by materializing the minimal gains to our social well being offered to us in a fundamentally exploitative environment, politics asks us to undermine how we currently survive in return for a better form of life.

Occupy showed that this new freedom is just around the corner. We already know the joys and struggles of quitting your job, crashing on friends couches, or travelling somewhere different. But now is the time to combine that autonomy with the political antagonism it affords us. Every chance to drop out is a potential strike, every new friend is a potential comrade in arms, and every new destination is a potential safe house – but only if power is the space what we just left behind.

[1] Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power,” in Language, Counter Memory and Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 207-208.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 112.


One thought on “Militancy, Power, Antagonism: Two Meditations on the Space of Politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s