Monday, October 26, 2009

Hopelessly French

Lest you think I do nothing but take pictures of autumn leaves, a quick report on something I read over the weekend. It came at the recommendation of a colleague in cultural studies who described it as the best account of the crisis of culture in thirty years. That seemed worth following up, especially as this work seems to be one of the inspirations of our campus anarchists. I scored further cred by ordering it at my local bookstore Unnameable Books.

L'insurrection qui vient appeared in French in 2007 and is a hopelessly French book - hopeless, that is, in a very French way. Words sing, paradoxes gleam, totalities are exposed, and nothing less than civilization (or its impossibility) is at stake. True life, impossible to describe without falsification, is found not in ideas, structures, movements, relationships or identities but in the interstices, the demimondes, perruques and black markets of the real. The team of writers (they think of themselves as a commune) are anonymous - one of the "zones of opacity" they encourage readers to "multiply" (107). But they're the same anonymous people whom the police arrested as they tried to sabotage the electricity of the French rails. This manifesto calls for acts of disruption of this kind all over, which they hope will break through the institutions of security, management and control which hide the emptiness of our endeavors from us. This will lead us from the thoroughly bankrupt present - which includes entirely bogus political, personal and intellectual struggles - to... well, where? The closest they come is in a parenthetical:

The interruption of the flow of commodities, the suspension of normality (it’s sufficient to see how social life returns in a building suddenly deprived of electricity to imagine what life could become in a city deprived of everything) and police control liberate potentialities for self-organization unthinkable in other circumstances. (119)

Don't think I didn't enjoy it. (I confess, I read some of it aloud with a French accent.) Some of its insights - as work, self, economy, environment, politics, organization, etc. are exposed as hollow - are electric. Some tastes, on city/country, environment, and the "clash of civilizations":

We’ve heard enough about the “city” and the “country,” and particularly about the supposed ancient opposition between the two. From up close or from afar, what surrounds us looks nothing like that: it is one single urban cloth, without form or order, a bleak zone, endless and undefined, a global continuum of museum-like hypercenters and natural parks, of enormous suburban housing developments and massive agricultural projects, industrial zones and subdivisions, country inns and trendy bars: the metropolis. Certainly the ancient city existed, as did the cities of medieval and modern times. But there is no such thing as a metropolitan city. All territory is subsumed by the metropolis. Everything occupies the same space, if not geographically then through the intermeshing of its networks.
It’s because the city has finally disappeared that it has now become fetishized, as history. … Control has a wonderful way of integrating itself into the commodity landscape, showing its authoritarian face to anyone who wants to see it. It’s an age of fusions, of muzak, telescoping police batons and cotton candy. Equal parts police surveillance and enchantment! ... The metropolis is this simultaneous death of city and country. ...
There still remain some fragments of the city and some traces of the country caught up in the metropolitan mesh. But vitality has taken up quarters in the so-called “problem” neighborhoods. It’s a paradox that the places thought to be the most uninhabitable turn out to be the only ones still in some way inhabited. (52-55)

There is no "environmental catastrophe." The catastrophe is the environment itself. The environment is what’s left to man after he’s lost everything. Those who live in a neighborhood, a street, a valley, a war zone, a workshop—they don’t have an “environment;” they move through a world peopled by presences, dangers, friends, enemies, moments of lie and death, all kinds of beings. Such a world has its own consistency, which varies according to the intensity and quality of the ties attaching us to all of these beings, to all of these places. It’s only we, the children of the final dispossession, exiles of the final hour—who come into the world in concrete cubes, pick our fruits at the supermarket, and watch for an echo of the world on television—only we get to have an environment. ... What has congealed as an environment is a relationship to the world based on management, which is to say, on estrangement. ... No material habitat has ever deserved the name “environment,” except perhaps the metropolis of today. The digitized voices making announcements, streetcars with such a 21st century whistle, bluish streetlamps shaped like giant matchsticks, pedestrians done up like failed fashion models, the silent rotation of a video surveillance camera, the lucid clicking of the subway turnstyles, supermarket checkouts, office time-clocks, the electronic ambiance of the cybercafé, the profusion of plasma screens, express lanes and latex. Never has a setting been so able to do without the souls traversing it. Never has a milieu been more automatic. Never has a context been so indifferent, and demanded in return—as the price of survival—such an equal indifference from us. (74-75)

There is no “clash of civilizations.” There is a clinically dead civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that spread a peculiar plague into the planet’s atmosphere. At this point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own “values,” and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a provocation that should and must be taken apart, deconstructed, and returned to a state of doubt. Today Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the “It all depends on your point of view”; it’s the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who’s stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all. … A century ago, scandal was identified with any particularly unruly and raucous negation, while today it’s found in any affirmation that fails to tremble.
No social order can base itself for long on the principle that nothing is true. Yet it must be made secure. … Containing all affirmations and deactivating all certainties as they irresistibly come to light—such is the long labor of the Western intellect. The police and philosophy are two convergent, if formally distinct, means to this end. (92-94)

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