Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jeff Derksen, The Militant Word


Following on the research I’ve done collectively on the militant image with Urban Subjects and our publication The Militant Image Reader (Camera Austria, 2015) that followed the exhibition “The Militant Image: Picturing What Is Already Going On, or, the Poetics of the Militant Image” (2014), I joined up with Brian Ang and others at the conference Poetics: (The Next) Twenty-Five Years in Buffalo to see if we could point to how “the militant word” or a militant poetics has formed today. The imperative of militancy has come to poetry from the pressures of the present and the inevitability of resistance, resiliency, and revolution. The question we hoped to open and foment was simply: How will the shape and energy of political movements and moments of social eruption be represented in and transform poetry? Retrospectively, my impulse was not so much thinking through our continual state of crises, but – thinking in the wake of an Indigenous resurgence in North America that is shining an undeniable light on our current state of “dying colonialism” (to use Fanon’s term) and looking to the transformation of European cities and states in reaction to and through the intensified movement of people – to ask openly what the intersection of the political poetry of the 20th century and the emergence of a poetry that wrestles with both the present and the future would sound and look like today. This was an impulse I have also been invigorated by through contemporary visual art discourse and practices. As Yates McKee has written about his inquiry into the new politicization of contemporary art, “this renaissance involves the unmasking of art as it exists within the discourses, economies, and institutions of the contemporary art system…. At the same time, it involves the reinvention of art as direct action, collective affect, and political subjectivization embedded in radical movements working to reconstruct the commons in the face of both localized injustices and systemic crises that characterize the contemporary capitalist order.”1 For poetics, I wished to collectively locate a similar set of reinventions and to ask: Where is the militant word today?

Not So Sad!

The term militancy may indeed be hard to recuperate today – even if militant acts take place every day. In his preface to Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault writes that Deleuze and Guattari provide us with an introduction to the “art of living counter to all forms of fascism.” Foucault proposes that an essential principle of this way of living is: “Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be a militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.”2 Writing thirty years after Foucault, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri also feel the need to distance the sad militant from “the life of the multitude”: at the end of Empire, they shift register to declare that “[m]ilitancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity” that makes “rebellion into a project of love.”3 This political and affective reassembly of the militant, brought forward from the entangled French context of the early 1970s and resituated via Spinoza in the networks of the present, aims to reclaim both the concept of militancy and the image of the militant. Yet, Hardt and Negri’s concept of militancy is a hopeful tale without a geography.

The term militant currently circulates largely as a negative construct, as a bad word,4 tied to forms of irrational violence and virulent populism that have risen up in the shadows of failed states, drastic imperialist ventures, and in the rogue militias claiming an ethical right. Through the mass media, militancy is framed as acts of agents of necropolitics rather than an articulation and convergence of people, places, actions, images, and ideas that fight enduring and new colonialisms, dispossession and austerity, and the micro-forms of fascism that are in “our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures” that Foucault identifies.5 Yet ceding to this new negative image buries an important history and potential of militancy, and what Ernst Bloch earlier defined as a “militant optimism,”6 as a force of liberation and decolonisation as well as a form of thought that is necessary today.

In an interview in the radical journal, Upping the Anti, geographer Neil Smith points to a change in political imagination from the late 1990s and the early 2000s: “…we need to recognize that political revolt is going to happen. That revolt is going to look different, have different meanings, and different implications from place to place, but it is going to happen.”7 The final project that Smith worked on before his untimely death was “the revolutionary imperative,” an optimistic project that argues, “Revolutions are a fact of life, revolutions are a fact of history…,” yet, as they cohere and overflow within the possibilities of a historical moment, the shape they build is not guaranteed.8 Revolutions, Smith argued, are guaranteed, but how they form and how they look is not. The debate, over the period of time Smith indicates, of how social movements should organize, of what models from the past they should reject or reinvigorate, of what tactics they should take on the street and what forms of relations they should take within themselves, as well as their relationship to the archive of political thought, has also intensified as a contested debate. From David Harvey’s reworking of Raymond Williams’ “militant particularisms”9 within a global context to Alain Badiou’s call for a “nonexpressive concept of political dialectics” that is “situated beyond the proposition between law and desire”10 and to John Holloway’s assertion that “The only way to think of changing the world is a multiplicity of interstitial movements running from the particular,”11 the sites, agents, and rhythms of revolution are being rethought. And from The Invisible Committee’s imperative to “find each other”12 and the call of Indigenous movements to decolonize all relations, to students in Quebec, Argentina, the UK and other places who universalized the challenge to the new divisions of knowledge, to the ferocious anti-austerity protests to Occupy’s resistance to media imperatives in favour of an inchoate structure, and to a politics based on “the relationality of bodies”13 and their aggregation, the possibilities, shape, form and look of social change are multiple and multiplying. It is precisely because the formation, networks, and paradigms of organizing politically have been shaken over the last 20 years that the possibilities of artistic engagement and the paradigms of media representation must also be rethought. This structural relationship, or a dialogue between the mode of representation and the shape and energy of political movements and moments of social eruption, is also part of a revolutionary imperative, for each new transformative trajectory and its tactics (as well as the mass media framing of this) produces a visual culture and a poetics of its own moment and of its own intensity.

Visual History of Militancy

Another history of militancy exists that supplies a route and a strong set of political attachments as well as a visual politics. A counter-history of the visual politics of militancy does not have to overcome such an ideologically and philosophically bound sadness. In their reflection on the militant image, Kodwo Eshun and Ros Gray propose that “the film-making practices dedicated to the liberation struggles and revolutions of the late twentieth century” should be understood “[e]xpansively, capaciously, [and] exorbitantly” at this moment. These images can ignite “a revision of the historiography of the present”; they emphasise by making an “afterlife” for the militant image through recirculation.14 Along with film, forceful documentary photographs and enduring artistic works have, over the twentieth century, represented the eruption of revolution, the gathering of liberation struggles, the concatenation of social movements, and heroic or overlooked moments of resistance and refusal—and even acts of courage and love—that give us a visual archive of images of how acts of militancy have derailed history from a trajectory guided from above. This archive of representations of militancy holds committed and inspirational moments that jump out of militant particularisms which echo in the present: the ciné-geography of anti-colonial film; the militant graphics for the Black Panther movement by Emory Douglas; the images of the American Indian Movement (AIM) by Dick Bancroft; the anti-nuclear protests in northern Germany that Günter Zint documented; Margaret Randall’s photographs of Sandinista women during the insurgence in Nicaragua; Allan Sekula’s photographic engagement with the Battle in Seattle in 1999; and the growing archive of images and graphics from the Indigenous insurgence from the 1990 Oka (Quebec) stand-off to the inspirational anti-pipeline action in North America today. Alongside this history, what is a poetics of militancy that runs through liberation movements, anti-colonial struggles, and the resistance to a heteronormative politics of fear and neoliberal redistribution?

New Militancies

Even with the positive history of these previous modes of picturing militancy, the representation of militancy is now opened to new situations, spaces, and political possibilities precisely because militancy has shifted, transformed, and rejigged itself at all scales in relation to neo-liberalism. Militancy is never static, for it cannot afford to be if it is to live: it is generated by new conditions and lives within a hybrid space that is both place-based and online. Within the digital and material geography carved out by neo-liberalism, these spaces of militancy are not necessarily more indistinct or porous, but they are—in this period of surveillance, migrancy (forced and “economic”), and biopolitical and state power—shaped by a variety of processes across the spatial scales that can overlap with, but do not necessarily correspond to, the spaces of modernity which were dominated by the nation-state. Over the past few years, militancy has been the most visible in cities, in urban space: New York’s Zuccotti Park and all the other spaces that Occupy inhabited globally; Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the area around the Pearl Monument in Manama, Bahrain; universities united against the closing of education such as in London or Berkeley; squatted buildings in Vienna and Berlin and many other cities; and the decolonisation of space by the Indigenous “Idle No More” movement in many Canadian cities. Today we also see mass militancy building out of forced migrancy and blocked refugee routes: in the camp near the tunnel at Calais, France, where refugees are held back (and which was just destroyed by the state), or the internal “open” borders of the European Union, or the Island of Lesbos where 25,000 [in March of 2016] refugees wait on an island steeped in Western myth. These examples show that, politically and spatially, militancy is ignited both by and in the disjunctures within neo-liberalism, in the spaces it has opened to privatisation and the spaces it has closed down by the ideological closure of a political outside to market capitalism and by the massive widening of surveillance and force. This evacuation of even the promises of a future built through liberal democracy, along with an austerity of the state’s soul, has created a palpable and escalating sense of a historical tectonic shift.

The political and aesthetic consequences of this shift make the task of representing militancy both more vital and more layered. The mass media is saturated with images of insurrection, of protest, of revanchism, and of the violent enforcement of biopolitics; and images rippling with protest and pushback reverberate in galleries and museums, at biennales, and through social media. But does this proliferation of images of militancy produce militant images? Is quantity now a quality? Or, dialectically, does this geography of protest and reaction also conjure up new “protest paradigms” which reframe and contain the potential of such images, no matter how widely and bravely they circulate? This situation produces a compelling question: In the political and visual terrain of the present, what makes a militant image or poem?

Given the shifts in how political movements imagine and shape themselves—shunning the dead promises of top-down democracy and modernist modes of the politics of representation—the militant image also has to be rethought, from the ground up. What aesthetic and political tactics are necessary to picture militancy when militancy coheres through networks of resistance and affinities both material and dispersed? Despite a productive and poetic hope that has marked the positive aspect of militancy (the un-sad version!) which held a belief in the ability of the militant image to both represent and produce acts of militancy—to be the image of a condition and to create that condition—the militant image today can be understood expansively and exorbitantly as an image that reacts to the contingent conditions of its possibility and also disturbs the expectation of representation while it builds a visual politics that circulated widely and at various tempos. But this militant image is not necessarily an image self-identical to militancy. The militant image or poem cannot assume that it can construct an active and affectively engaged viewer by picturing militancy. The militant image comes with no guarantees. Therefore it is necessary.

Sparking off of the conditions of our present as pressure, contingency, and potential, the militant image or poem gathers a political, social and affective weight that presses on the imagination of future acts of militancy. As an aesthetic form, the militant image or poem is made militant through its relation to its historical occasion and through circulation within an affective counter-economy that allows it to join with, and join others. As an intensity within an affective economy, militancy does not reside solely in the image or a word or a poem “but is produced only as an effect of its circulation,” to paraphrase Sara Ahmed.15 The militant image or word therefore cannot ever be singular or iconic, but it must be, as Mikhail Bakhtin said of the word, at least half someone else’s.16 But fast and varied circulation, and being part of an economy of intensities, does not guarantee an effect for the militant image or word. If we speculate that “sets of photographic relations and the complex purposes and practices that entangle the photographic image have the capacity to mobilise new material realities,” as Elizabeth Edwards encourages, then we must also ask how this materially takes place.17 An image or a poem—like any discourse that must run through the crooked path of determinations and mediations, never arriving at a final “final instant”—becomes militant once it aligns with existing potentials and affects within and through communities, moments, and sites. Here, the militant image or poem can be seen as an element in an encounter—an encounter that is contingent on a particular historical moment, and on a set of conditions that lead (even against all odds) to a coherence, a flash, or a slow burn that gives the image a political and affective presence. Andy Merrifield describes the encounter in this way: “History takes hold because of encounters between immanent objective forces—resultant of past, contingent encounters that somehow lasted—and a subjective reality that is even more uncertain and unpredictable.”18 Within this possibility (and optimistic inevitability) of the encounter, the militant image and the militant word both takes shape and gives shape.

1 Yates McKee, Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (New York: Verso, 2016), 16. I’ll just note that “commons” is not a concept that can be used when we speak of unsurrendered and unceded Indigenous territory.
2 Michel Foucault, “Preface,” Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xiii.
3 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 413.
4 Denise Riley gives us a framework for recuperating bad words; “It is the very thing-like nature of the bad word which may, in fact, enable its target to find release from its insistent echoes. “Bad Words,” diacritics 31/4 (Winter 2001), 44.
5 Foucault, “Preface,” Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, xiii.
6 See Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986). For contemporary reworkings of Bloch’s concept, see Andy Merrifield, “Militant Optimism and The Great Escape,” in Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 105-133; Jill Dolan, “Militant Optimism: Approaching Humanism,” Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope in the Theater (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 139–65.
7 Neil Smith, “Revolutionary Ambition in the Age of Austerity,” Upping the Anti 13 (2001), 82.
8 Ibid., 81.
9 David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 55-56, 241-244.
10 Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Militants, trans. Bruno Bosteels (London: Verso, 2012), 63-64.
11 John Holloway, Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 11.
12 The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 97.
13 Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 178.
14 “The Militant Image: A Ciné-Geography,” Third Text 25/1 (2011), 1. Eshun and Gray define ciné-geography in this way: “Ciné-geography designates situated cinecultural practices in an expanded sense, and the connections—individual, institutional, aesthetic and political—that link them transnationally to other situations of urgent struggle” (1).
15 Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 79 (2004), 3.
16 “The word in language is half someone else’s.” In Dialogical Imagination, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 294.
17 Elizabeth Edwards, “Objects of Affect: Photography Beyond the Image,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012), 223.
18 Andy Merrifield, Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest Under Planetary Urbanization, vol. 19: Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 55. Merrifield does this through a productive synthesis of aspects of Henri Lefebvre’s perspective on social transformation and the later work of Louis Althusser. As a historical note, these two did not like each other, but only one strangled his wife.

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