Monday, May 09, 2016

ain’t no power like the power of the people

We chanted it at every rally I’ve participated in, every march I’ve marched in. Every community action I’ve organized. Every demonstration I’ve added my body to. Every sit-in I’ve sat in on. Every mass mobilization I’ve joined. In English and Spanish. It sounded great. (I’m sure it would sound great in any language.) It felt great. It always will.

The people
Will Never Be

El Pueblo
Jamás Será
Now, a new book has forced me to question the meaning of this always meaningful slogan. What is a People? offers six provocative philosophical turns (sandwiched between an introduction by Bruno Bosteels and a summation by Kevin Olson) on what it might mean for any group to be represented or to represent itself as a people.
It’s a highly debatable term. After all, as Alain Badiou notes in his opening foray, “The middle class is the ‘people’ of capitalist oligarchy.” For Badiou, the designation of being ‘a people’ is most often collaborationist. It’s a designation conferred from outside, like being inducted into an exclusive club. It’s a conservative expression of power and belonging. For this reason, Badiou finds a “dangerous inertia” at the heart of the word. For him, calling any group ‘the people’ “means only that the state can and must persist in its being.”

Two other essays in the book turn Badiou’s sense of inertia in opposite directions. Judith Butler offers a deep dive into ‘we the people,’ the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The phrase, she argues, simply ratifies what already exists. “If we imagine that a group must first assemble in a particular place, a public square or some equivalent, in order to proclaim ‘we, the people,’ then we fail to recognize that the act of assembling and reassembling is already doing the work of the phrase; in other words, assembling is already a performative political enactment even if it is prior to, and apart from, any particular speech act.” We show up at the rally before chanting the chant. We make ourselves ‘the people’ before declaring that we are the people. And we remain ‘the people’ even if we don’t chant the chant. 

“To show up is both to be exposed and defiant,” Butler concludes, “meaning precisely that we are crafted precisely in that disjuncture, and that in crafting ourselves, we expose the bodies for which we make our demand. We do this for and with one another, without any necessary presumption of harmony or love. As a way of making a new body politic.”

Tunisian activist Sadri Khiari, who has lived in exile in France since 2003, nudges Badiou’s inertia in a divergent way. “To claim to be part of a people,” he claims, “is … to assert one’s privileged relationship to the state.” Khiari notes that, for the most part, white residents readily define themselves as part of ‘the French people,’ while North Africans don’t—no matter how long they have been in France, no matter how assimilated they are. His analysis resonates on this side of the Atlantic as well. Is there room in Donald Trump’s America for Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans.? With his call for a massive wall between the U.S. and Mexico and a proposal to temporarily block Muslims from entering the country, the answer seems to be no. Not for nothing Khiari titles one of his sections, “How to be French without being French.” His implicit question: can’t ‘the people’ be plural?

Which is also what Jacques Rancière gets at in his short contribution to the book. ‘The people,’ for Rancière, does not exist. “What exist are diverse or even antagonistic figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembling, certain distinctive traits, certain capacities or incapacities.” In this view, what we talk about when we talk about ‘the French people’ or ‘the American people’ is the exact opposite of what we think we are talking about. We create separation, not togetherness.

Still, people all across the political spectrum continue to use the phrase. Georges Didi-Huberman tackles this in the essay that he calls “to render sensible.” He agrees with Rancière that the people “as a unity, identity, totality, or generality … quite simply does not exist.” And he confirms Khiari: “There is not a people; there are only coexistent peoples.”

The problem, in modern democracies, is one of representation. Politicians, we are continually told, represent the people. But what does this mean? And there’s a further question of how ‘the people’ are represented and represent themselves through history. Ultimately, Didi-Huberman calls for a new definition, one that lifts the lid on repression and separation – with ‘the people’ only intelligible as part of a process of becoming “sensitive to something new in the history of the peoples that we desire, consequently, to know, to understand, and to accompany.” In this schema, to be a people involves allowing ourselves to be moved in ways that will upend our sense of what it means to be a people. To be a people means being mobile, always changing, eternally in formation.

In a way, these essays all point to the imprecision of our language. We use the same word for ‘the American people’ as we do for the people who, when united, will never be defeated. Yet those are two different kinds of peoples. I am part of ‘the American People’ by historical accident. I am part of ‘the people who, if united, will never be defeated,’ by choice – a choice born out of quixotic social hope. Truly, our vocabulary has shortchanged us. This is part of what Pierre Bourdieu points out in his contribution to the book (Bourdieu died in 2002 and his essay dates from the 1980s), that language itself can be an act of “symbolic aggression.”
The essays in What is a People? move in many thoughtful directions. They sent me scurrying back to a work I first read when I was in my early 20s but am now revisiting: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.

I found Sartre’s existentialism compelling. Here was a truly progressive ontology of what you might cheekily call the self-made man: existence precedes essence; we make ourselves as individuals through our motivated actions in the world. The existence of others, Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, is discovered through the body, and, because my being-in-itself can never be your being in-itself, can only be mapped in a partial and provisional way. “If then we succeed in making explicit the structures of our most primitive relations with the Other-in-the-world, we shall have completed our task” – which he defines with a stripped-down three-part schematic: “a relation of the for-itself with the in-itself in the presence of the Other.”
The Critique, however, shows just how much this initial tri-partite analysis is lacking. We don’t just operate as selves “in the presence” of others. Our world is far more convoluted and entwined. Indeed, you might say that the self hardly exists in everyday life. What exists, rather, are the innumerable ways we interact and reciprocate and are variously enmeshed with others who are themselves selves. This is the same insight that fueled Emmanuel Levinas’s proposition that “me” simply means “here I am for the others” (with this, ontology dead ends and the subject of philosophy reverts to ethics) and Jean-Luc Nancy’s declaration that all being is actually “being-with-one-another” – social in essence.
What distinguishes the Critique, however, is how Sartre attempted to worm his way deep inside the myriad ways we relate and respond to the unavoidable pluralism of the world: ensembles, organizations, collectives, collaboratives, cooperatives, communities, groups, etc.

Sartre is clear: “a nation is not a group.” Why? Because there’s a difference between the togetherness that’s created when people wait on line together for a bus, and the community created when people storm the Bastille. The first is serial: I happen to be next to all these other people who are forced, by the system and infrastructure that exists, to do the same thing I’m doing at the same time I’m doing it. The other is fused: we are together in action and, in that decisive moment, I can choose whether to risk my life in that crazed charge or not. In the Critique, Sartre calls this praxis. In Being and Nothingness, he calls it a project.

The key division in life, as revealed in both texts, is between the unmotivated and the motivated.

And this is where we find the difference between the inorganic necessity which makes you one of ‘the American people’ and the liberating action involved in joining ‘the people who, if united, will never be defeated.’

You don’t choose to be part of the American people: it’s a serial relation based on where you happen to live and when you got there and a bunch of other inert features of your life. And national identity is permanent. This is not to say it doesn’t expand and contract (think of “the American people” before women had the right to vote). But it never goes away until a nation goes bust. In fact, your own participation as a member of ‘the people’ is irrelevant to the survival of the term.

By contrast, you create the group by choosing to become a demonstrator or to join or cross a picket line or storm the Bastille. In Butler’s terms, this choice leaves you exposed and defiant all at once – and this will define you and the others you are with. Actions of resistance are temporary and provisional. You go to this demonstration, but not that one. You oppose the war, but continue to pay taxes to the government that is pursuing the war. Resistance continually comes together and falls apart. Your choices are ever-present and have to be made over and over and over again.

Of course, this quality of being motivated does not guarantee that anyone’s project is liberating. Consider organizations like drug gangs and the Mafia and ISIS. Their lure goes beyond the bare seriality of the bus queue. Their members are motivated – even if we do not understand the roots of their motivation.

In an unsigned preface, What is a People? situates the concept of ‘the people’ as “solidly rooted on the side of emancipation.”

Yet the book doesn’t bear that out. For Khiari and Badiou and Ranciere, the concept, as currently employed, remains almost inalterably conservative and separating. And anyway, no matter how much we may want to believe that ‘the people, united, will never be defeated,’ events show again and again that ‘the people’ can be overwhelmed and outflanked and beaten back. In 2011, 'the Egyptian people’ took over Tahrir Square in Cairo and toppled the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. And once the tide broke and the people receded back to their homes, they got the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. And when that democratically elected (though clearly not liberating or progressive) regime proved too much for the people and the military, they got General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The empire struck back. Twice.

Just after World War II – a decade and a half before he published the CritiqueSartre honed in on the odd twinning of freedom and oppression:

Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces every day – and we had to hold our tongues. They deported us en masse – as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners. Everywhere, -- upon the walls, in the press, on the screen, -- we found filthy and insipid images of ourselves which the oppressor wished to present to us. And because of all this, we were free.

In this analysis – written in the flush of victory – oppression annealed peoples’ freedom through their praxis/project of resistance. Would Sartre argue the same way today, that the Egyptian people are becoming increasingly free even as their oppression may be stronger than ever? That verges on doublethink. And there’s a deeper question lurking here: can liberating praxis ever result in liberation? Sartre worried about this. He wrote the Critique, in part, to determine “if it really is possible to devise a theory of reciprocal multiplicities in organized groups, independently of all concrete historical ends and of any particular circumstances.” And if it is, he continued, “do we not immediately collapse in the face of an inert ossature of the organization? And do we not abandon the terrain of liberating praxis and the dialectic and revert to some kind of inorganic necessity?” His fear was that every definition of liberation automatically calcifies into a new form of oppression.

This leaves ‘the people’ with no choice but to push onward, event by event, with body and mind, in hope and despair, exposed as well as defiant. As the Chi-lites and John Lennon put it (both songs, weirdly, coming from the same year, 1971):

(For God’s sake) give more power to the people.
Power to the people. Right now. Right on.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

It's Dialectical Reason Season

Every system of values rests on exploitation and oppression; every system of values effectively negates exploitation and oppression (even aristocratic systems, if not explicitly at least in their internal logic); every system of values confirms exploitation and oppression (even systems constructed by oppressed classes, if not in intention, at least in so far as they are systems); every system of values, in so far as it is based on a social practice, contributes directly or indirectly to establishing devices and apparatuses which, when the time comes (for example, on the basis of a revolution in techniques and tools) will allow this particular oppression and exploitation to be negated; every system of values, at the moment of its revolutionary efficacity, ceases to be a system, and values cease to be values: their character was due to the fact that they could not be transcended; and circumstances, overthrowing structures, institutions and exigencies, transform them into transcended significations: systems are reabsorbed into the organizations which they have created and the organizations, transformed by the overthrow of the social field, integrate themselves into new collective actions, carried out in the context of the new exigencies; and they disclose new values.
--Jean-Paul Sartre

Thursday, January 14, 2016

do you have the time?

Just outside Tram 83, someone rakes at
your arm and asks a simple question: “Do you have the time?”

Tram 83 is the hippest, loudest, most notorious and down-and-dirty club in the breakaway African republic known as City-State and it’s the title of the ingenious and unnerving new novel by Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila, released in English late last year by Deep Vellum Publishing.

“Do you have the time?” In Tram 83 -- the novel and the bar -- people interrupt conversations with this question, or start conversations, or  blurt it out though they're not exactly expecting a reaction. On the street, in the stairwells, at the train station, inside and outside the bars. “Do you have the time?” is the rumba of the city, the refrain of the book’s little-noticed Greek chorus, objectifying the ways in which the residents of this barely fictional locale cope with the destruction of the body of their city.

No, Tram 83 is not a Georges Perec-style tour-de-force that finds inexpressible horror and regret in the chronicle of a series of people running horribly late for some horribly punctual fictional Parisian streetcar line. And, though much of action is lubricated with alcohol, this is no nostalgic riff on the old American advertising slogan “if you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer.”

In this novel, “Do you have the time?” doesn’t mean “Do you have the time?” Rather, “Do you have the time?” means “I’m ready to fuck if you’re willing to make the right deal.”

In the chaos of City-State, each interjection of “Do you have the time?” functions as a tragicomic repetition – an expression of just how commonplace the hustle of self-exploitation can be. Indeed, the phrase is part of the globalization of discontent. I first encountered it in 1993 (though I'm sure it existed long before that), in Cuba, when the peso had crashed and there were no more subsidies from collapsed formerly-communist Russia. Everyone became a jineteiro, selling everything, including themselves and their little sisters. So when someone came up to you on the street and asked – in Spanish or English – “Do you have the time?” no one expected you to look at your watch.

Tram 83 chronicles a moment of guarded reconciliation in the lives of two former friends – Requiem and Lucien – in a place so turnt by corruption and zonked on mineral money that people are assiduously buying and selling themselves at all times. Requiem and Lucien – as Mujila adroitly puts it, “two life forms adrift in a city become a state by force of Kalashnikovs” – had once been comrades-in-arms leading a youthful revolution (and pursuing the same woman, who married one and then the other, we are told, though she never appears in person in the novel.) But they have long since gone separate ways. Requiem quit the social change racket to become a soldier, and then a mercenary, before returning home to live by his wits, taking over a portion of the illicit trade in City-State. Given his new position, he dismisses “everyone who deprived him of his freedom of thought and action [as] armchair communists and slum ideologues.” Lucien also gave up activism, and is now pursuing the dream of being a writer (though Requiem might insist that is the definition of an armchair communist, the unnamed narrator simply points out that Lucien’s writing produces almost nothing for society and forces him to be a parasite, living off the largesse of friends.) There’s a third member of their fraternity – a renegade Swiss publisher and onetime exploitative mine-owner named Ferdinand Malingeau, who has a deep history of friendship and enmity with Requiem and who ultimately publishes Lucien’s work.

In the kleptocracy that is City-State – splintered off from the larger kleptocracy known as Back-Country that used to control it – power is held by a dissident general who compensates for a serious case of penis envy by ruling with carefree brutality. Which forces everyone within the boundaries of this hallucinatory republic to ditch their dreams (Mujila calls this “achieving closure of their previous life”) and start hustling -- in the mines, on the streets, or in the bathrooms.

This novel exists in an eternal and phantasmagorical now – you can’t call it a dystopia because people are working too hard and having too much frenzied fun. Everyone is fucking everyone else and fucking over everyone else (“It’s the new world here," one of the all-caps chapter headings accounces. "You don’t fuck. We fuck you.”) and no one is exempt from contempt.

From its first page, Tram 83 announces itself as a demented bible for the resource-cursed continent.
“In the beginning was the stone, and the stone prompted ownership, and ownership a rush, and the rush brought an influx of men of diverse appearance who built railroads through the rock, forged a life of palm wine, and devised a system, a mixture of mining and trading.”
A perfect meme for a number of African countries, with a nod to the immense influence the bible has for many on the continent. Mujila’s fictional testament contains a Harmattan of hilarious proverbs that blow away braindead colonial and post-colonial constructions. Tram 83 is emphatically post- post-postcolonial:

  • “Long live globalization! Long live American porn. Long live Russian porn.”
  • “Poverty is hereditary, just like power, stupidity, and hemorrhoids. It’s even contagious.”
  • “Foreplay is like democracy…If you don’t caress me, I’ll call the Americans.”
  • “The tragedy is already written. We merely preface it.” (Here, I’d say translator Roland Glasser, whose work here is smooth and sinuous, stumbled. His original version, from the uncorrected proof, was “The tragedy is already written. We are the preface” – far more direct and powerful, though perhaps less literal.)
  • “Profit equals retail price plus wholesale price minus packaging.”
  • “There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.”
  • “There needs to be fucking in African literature, too.”

And there is, off-stage, in the “mixed” – multi-sex, multi-culti – toilets of Tram 83.

Mujila also gives us fragrant descriptions that emanate from this chamber-pot world, like the man who speaks “in a hoarse voice like someone in a restroom stall who doesn’t want to be disturbed.” Or the dream of a man trying to figure out how to say “love” with the 5 words he is still permitted to use: “history,” “tonsillitis,” “truce,” “shame,” and “weld.” All of this punctuated by young girls asking "Do you have the time?" or declaring, with great solemnity, "I give great head."

In this novel, there's no reason to engage in palaver about the way things were and the way things might have been. There's only the way things are. Lucien’s sole lament for the past comes after he’s arrested for trespassing in a mine and despairs that City-State is not a more stable dictatorship, where the torture is an art-form. In this nouveau nation, he frets, torture is inflicted by “minor upstarts, plucked from here and there” and thus “ignorant of the basic techniques.” His jailer, a police department lifer who cues up Rimsky-Korsakov as he asks for a bribe, has rigged up speakers and floods the cells with a surreal mélange of Stravinsky, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Glazunov and Rachmaninoff. When Lucien refuses to pay up, he asks, “Do you know the pain I endure when I find myself with individuals like you? Potentially innocent?”

There are shadows of Ken Saro-Wiwa here -- Sozaboy, from 1985, written in pidgin English, featured a naive soldier lost in the torments and politics of the Nigerian Civil War who wants nothing more than to settle down with an ideal woman with JJC, or Jumping Jesus Christ: breasts that sway marvelously when she moves. The civil war in Tram 83 is a drawn-out economic battle, but the men drool over women the same way, admiring their “massive-melon-breasts” and “round-juicy-breasts.” And Mujila’s rancid but entirely believable story of a split nation made me think of Patrick Chamoiseau, whose novel Solibo Magnificent offers his country’s sclerotic history in microcosm through an obscure charcoal picker, storyteller, and drunkard who keels over and dies in the midst of one of his sensational orations.

Tram 83 offers an unapologetic take on modern Africa. It's a book for hustlers, with all that that implies. This book won't draw you into the characters' lives and emotions, but it will captivate you with its polyrhythmic surfaces. It’s a literary stop-and-frisk, too, because after you’ve enjoyed your energetic dalliance in Tram 83, you’ll discover that Mujila has also raised serious questions about whether a society based on hustling to the max has any social contract. You will notice your gears grind for a second as you ponder whether the novel is a joyous guidebook or a requiem for this messy reality.

By the end, the tin-horn despot who rules City-State has put a price on their heads, and Requiem, Lucien and Malingeau are wanted men. Together, they sneak into the rusting hulk of the colonial-era train station, seeking to make their way to the relative insecurity of Back-Country – though Malingeau, who, when he was at his most powerful, orating in the bar, insisted he was as African as anyone else on the continent (“If I am not African, what am I then? Did the first man not appear in Africa? Was he not my ancestor, too?”), now castigates Requiem: “Don’t speak to me in that tone! I was born in Geneva, Requiem. I was born in Geneva, you know.” You can’t go home again because you never left.

As Tram 83's three antiheroes clamber across the tracks in the suddenly empty station, the bar called Tram 83 is packed with people. The jazz-band's clamor bounces off the steel girders of the station. In the post-post-colonial world, as Lucien writes, with impeccable foreknowledge of self-exile, “all paths lead to Tram 83.” Places like Tram 83 help everyone scrape by -- while also helping to ensure that nothing changes.

One cavil: The book’s opening epigraph is “You will eat by the sweat of your breasts.” And, undoubtedly, this is what all the baby-chicks and single-mamas of the novel (aka, girls under 16 and more mature women between 20 and 40) do. But the world of Tram 83 is exclusively a man’s world. There are only two half-way elaborated female characters here: Émilienne, who makes her money running a bar and a brothel and who has the hots for Lucien (who rejects her), and The Diva, a singer who has developed an act that transports the crowd in the Tram and with whom Lucien performs (and from whom he borrows a bit of performative juju, too). But what about all those girls who bravely and brazenly interrupt the action to ask, “Do you have the time?” How did they get here? And even as they’re asking, they must be conscious that the liberation inherent in endless fucking for drinks and money offers little more than the prospect of more endless fucking for drinks and money. Until, if they’re lucky, they can perhaps look forward to owning an oasis dedicated to endless fucking for drinks and money. Somewhere on the continent, I hope, someone is writing a parallel post- post-colonial novel that emerges from this sweaty female milieu.

In the meantime, you’ll have to be satisfied asking yourself: “Do you have the time?” And when you've successfully answered, head on over to one of those mixed public restrooms also known as bookstores and make yourself a deal for Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83.