Coda to an open letter

Three follow-up comments on the London riots, drawn in part from astute comments from friends and strangers.

He was similarly untouched about looting: "How do I feel about it? Honestly. Nothing. It comes with the rioting. I feel nothing about it."


Something that should have been stressed more, and which went nearly unremarked, was that for all the shocked awe of alleged and real chaotic spontaneity, far more striking is how much cannot be understood as that.  Instead, how much can only be understood as emerging from concrete, committed organization.  No, it does not look like a party, coalition, or association.  No, it isn't "about Facebook" or BB Messenger, although those things sure help, anymore than it is about some new networked subject, other than the velocity of transmission.  And no, Cameron et al, as convenient as it would be to drag in LAPD-style practices, it does not look like a gang, regardless of the presence of gangs.

It is not "an" organization, but it is organization, insofar as it involved particular calls (i.e. those sent out over BB, etc) for masses of people to come to a particular place, "demonstrate" against an entire current order of law and property, and to hold strong against police that try to stop such a thing.  A long distant echo of what rallies are supposed to be might be heard ere.  As such, the accusations of irrational disorder, moral decay, or "getting carried away" miss the point that this is the creation of orders, that grouped together for specific purposes and disbanded.  Of a mode of attack (remember, there was a lot of smashing and burning that was not a means to the ends of looting), that involves commitment and, yes, the discipline of following through in full, beyond fear of retribution.

Even those who want to denounce it as barbarous, cowardly, misdirected ("if only they just took blankets or smashed up banks, then I could understand and support it!"), and pointless nevertheless must - and, I suspect, do - grasp that thousands of people coming to a predetermined location and acting in concert is not haphazard.  It is organization that takes as its common membership not votes, cards, or shared "principles," invariant or revised.  It isn't founded on being a set of subjects in common.  Rather, it temporarily forms on an ongoing basis, on the ground of those who are consistently denied any status whatsoever as "valid political subjects" and who have no interest in being incorporated into that order that has hated them from the start.  One doesn't have to join such "an" organization, because it does not exist.  It is a line, a gravitational fact, an axiom nearly, to which one either is or is not bound.  And in certain moments, it becomes much harder to ignore.

The question at hand, the real one, is simply what one does from that starting point, from being tied to it or not.  Those already recognized as political subjects either betray their position (treason against one's given position and class is, after all, the fundamental move in any real turn against the social order, the definition of the proletariat as what abolishes itself) or hug it close.  Those already excluded either wait and struggle to get recognized or wait and get busy doing regardless, against, and in spite of that exclusion.   And in this case, such a doing is a doing together, with a full awareness that whatever benefits may be gained individually (something looted, personal revenge taken against police), they are made possible  only by action in concert and their consequences will bear generally beyond anyone in particular.  (Including, for example, the way in which the sentencing to follow will be based on the entire situation, not whatsoever on the scale - taking a few pounds worth of bottled water - of one's crime.)

In brief, we should add: it's an equally unsatisfactory move to explain away by a simple recurrence to an account of economic-social determination, Marxist or otherwise.  To recognize the concrete historical impasse which can indeed only result in these moments is not, or definitely should not be, to reduce distinct decisions that were made to the simple adherence to what is predetermined.  Yes, historical thought aggregates choices and trends.  It does so in order to point up the basic strictures in which they are made and to think why, even in cases where someone feels she is making a "free choice," the very range of what's considered freely is restricted in a very specific way.  But the better question, the one that has serious consequences for how we orient ourselves, is not why didn't they choose this way, why didn't they go to Buckingham or Downing Street, why didn't they "make a revolution", but why do we choose what we do, what kind of life is that forging, however messily, however much it does not seem "constructive".

To return to the question of negation, a project of negation does not begin with the pseudo-negative of counterfactual questions.  It starts with knowing that those strange torsions and winds that get called will are not merely a subjective tinting of forced hands and sheer desperation.  They are a project, however unplanned.  And like all projects, they develop projections out of small, concrete, often obscure decisions.  The shadows of those small decisions loom tremendously over decades to come, far more than any hand-wringing over what could have been otherwise.

 To be sure, classical or contemporary notions of will, agency, and decision will have a damn hard time thinking such a moment.  That is perhaps a sign that such terms should be discarded.  But the time of their utility, at least in helping to note what has genuinely shifted, doesn't seem up.  Rather, their especially slippery purchase on these days is due to how very little these riots have to do with being seen, counted, represented, registered, or having one's dissent duly noted, all those actions which have tended to restrict and contain what is understood popular will as an expression or  burst limit of them.  More simply, being seen and counted is not the point.  It is a secondary consequence, the moment where something spills over into unmistakable visibility.

(See here the way in which politicians and commentators of all stripes, who previously had denounced what happened, nevertheless had to speak of "having our eyes opened", or, as Cameron put it in a rather startlingly splatterpunk turn of phrase, "social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face", such that revelation is analogous to an infectious spray of pus.  Not surprisingly, riots bring out the Cliver Barker in us all.)

When something becomes visible in that way, when it fully comes to light, it has a very brief window in which it can spread, during which it is catalogued, identified, labeled, and quelled.

What shouldn't escape us in this flurry of trying to pin individual faces, names, and carceral bodies on it all, is how regardless of the tallies of property wrecked or looted, cops injured or windows shattered, numbers arrested and charged, two things remain, and remain unquantifiable.  One, a genuine rage against law and the order it defends.  Two, a coming together, largely for the purpose of that rage, but which moves beyond it.  It doesn't take a communist to see that what so horrified much of Britain was a flickering, but incontrovertible, image of what the collective, willful action of the very poor can actually look like and how far from heartwarming, humanist, democratic, or "progressive" it actually is.


Perhaps the most succinct explanation I've read of "why people riot", one that gets to that difficult double condition  (on one hand, the willful and committed work of antagonism following both a concrete flash point and many, many years of being treated like shit, and, on the other, the sense of something that does comes unbidden and of its own accord):

"People are rioting because the riot is finally here."

This may seem a tautology, but it is not meaningless in the least.   It means that a lot of people both knew it would happen sometime and were ready for it. It means that a riot is something that is not just reducible to individuals rioting (i.e. it is a noun that doesn't just describe of something that people do).  It also means that it does not "come all at once."  Fast as it catches, it isn't an instantaneous acceleration from zero to stealing police horses.  Something starts, people make the choice to throw themselves at and into it, and at some point, it becomes clear that the riot arrived.  Those who have been waiting for it - as an opening - do or don't act, do or don't "copycat."  It is an opportunity to be taken, and it was.


The present "stage" of this, and the current debate, is the judicial fall-out and the seemingly disproportionate charges: six months for some bottled water, two months for some shorts, four years for Facebook events and comments, 1,000 charged so far, and proposed evictions for rioter.  (The truly nasty last of which has the rather strange structure of: you who went out into the streets en masse, we'll take away your housing, and you'll have to go back to the streets, if you like them so much!  What are you going to do, riot about it?  Wait a minute...)

But of course, without feigning any jaded bent, who can really be surprised?  Yes, it is a "bad calculation" (given the costs of jailing and the overcrowding of prisons), yes, their "math is off," and yes, it is vengeful.  Why would we act surprised at this?  Was there anything whatsoever in the prior behavior of those in power that indicated it would have been otherwise?  Did they make correct economic decisions prior, or at least those concerned with the well-being of the poor?  Playing up shock can have some rhetorical effect, but it's a fool's game of acting naive so as to augment the supposed new.  And in this case, very little is new.  There is just a bit more, as Cameron would note, in and on your face and eyes.

Nevertheless, there is something worth noting here, something that feels new, less because it is previously unseen and more because the severity of it has the scent of a sequence starting now and likely to last for many years.  That sense of horror is not accidental, as horror - the affect, not the genre - designates the blow to thought that emerges when cause and effect decouple.

(To take a fictional example, the horror of Freddy Kreuger isn't an index of what he does or does not do with his tongue or fingerknives.  It is the flimsiness of the revenge narrative, made all the thinner by its ceaseless repetition across films. In this way, any coherent causality, or calculation of how and why effects are distributed as they are, is lost in a muddy, gory storm of sheer effects without sources or terminus.  Because the horror at hand isn't just that he comes back, over and over again.  Springtime does that as well.  Rather, it lies in how that coming back maintains a cover story - for those who need a quick refresher, he's "taking revenge" against the children of town whose parents burned him to death as vigilante revenge for child murder after he was acquitted by the courts on a technicality regarding a search warrant - that it simultaneously blows.  Yes, they went "outside" the law, but yes, Freddy, you were killing their children.  Any semblance of moral, or symbolic, equilibrium should be roughly squared out here.  But instead, the effect of Freddy comes unmoored from the initial cause, and it is for that reason that it can neither be stopped nor reasoned with.)

In this case, the ridiculous, vengeful sentencing does two things.  First, it marks the riot as that something other than just individual decisions (as an event, as what arrives), such that you're charged not on the scale of what you did or took, but on the scale of something that is not a legal subject.  You are charged for having acted in a time in which the law couldn't do its job, and in retaliation, it makes itself something enormous, vicious, unjustifiable and unjustifying. 

Second, it declares not just the hours of that looting but the era of riots, as more than a few have called our years, as one in which measured causality has broken down and will continue to, along with a calculus of retribution and getting even.  It indicates a period in which effects beget effects, and in which the total incapacity to address the "root causes" (read: long economic downturn coupled with population growth) means that the blood-feud between state and population can, and will, have no natural terminus.  We're stepping into a long saturnalia of judgment, and judges, all too aware of this, will only lash out in the dark.

Many of us are convinced, with no joy in this fact, that this indicates one of the key structures of repetition on which the next decade, if not longer, is going to turn.  This seems especially so in countries that are used to a high standard of living (and hence are all the more caught off guard when that standard starts to seriously drop), which will continue to be so for a large portion of the population despite of a general worsening, and that have increasingly large populations who have never been folded into that standard or portion.  That is, in parts of the U.S., the UK, and throughout southern Europe.

In brief:

1. Riots without discernible direction (riots due in part to ceaseless policing of populations with particular flash points of murder and sentencing, due in part to the general unemployable status of those populations)
2. Attempts to retroactively place them in a causal sequence (which will read in them modulations of those two conditions, with conservatives saying "yes, we just didn't have enough policing, and they just don't want to work", liberals saying, "there will be policing, but it shouldn't be like this, and we need to find ways to create employment opportunities" and those with a head on their shoulders saying "there will only be policing like this because, structurally, employment of these populations is impossible")

3. Increasingly severe policing (see the potential replacements for head of the Met for indication of the desire to move toward "American-style", which indicates that perhaps general gun-toting may not be as far future as one might think),

4. Vengeful sentencing which a) demonstrates that disjunction of cause and effect and b) is symptomatic, and guaranteed to bring about a whole lot more, of the incapacity to properly draw any coherent linkage between policing and employment.

5.  To be taken up again from the beginning, but scrappier, meaner, sloppier, more exhausted, hungrier, and harder this time around.

1 comment:

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