During a time of dangerous living…. The Condition of Politics

Are future events in some way predetermined, or is everything left open? In one sense, it seems that the creation of new assemblages will always be possible, and hence novelty can emerge.”
– Graham Harman

“We continue to raise with the Egyptian Government, as we do with other governments in the region, the imperative for reform and greater openness and participation to provide a better future for all.  We want to partner with the Egyptian people and their government to realize their aspirations to live in a democratic society that respects basic human rights.”
– Secretary Hilary Clinton

I wrote this a while back in the heat of the moment, during a time of “living dangerously” (Zizek).

What is truly going on in Egypt? As I watched the video on the Aljazeera site and saw through the lens of a sophisticated technology the empowering irruption of force that is a people’s revolution, an assemblage of disparate groups of individuals with their distinctive ethnic, social, cultural, ideological and religious affiliations all coming together to oust a dictator and his tyrannical regime I ponder just what is going on in Egypt. One wants to move through that screen and actually participate in this real struggle, instead of participating vicariously; yet, one has to ask the vital question: Is this my struggle? And, one has to say, both Yes and No; or, even, maybe both and neither. The ambiguity of this struggle is that it slaps us in the West in the face, as we watch our own governments foster the usual vein gestures of non-participation and stand idly by gazing, watching, wondering just what will transpire: situated like spectral ghosts in a movie where the flickering screen is stuck, a frozen frame without reference or history: instead this movie goes on without us, beyond us, realizing its own emergent dream event, one that we ourselves cannot and will not realize. For the Egyptian people are fulfilling an ancient dream, the dream of democracy in action: the engagement among equals immersed as they are advocating their right to be free from all relation to oppression. But even as we watch on, as we listen to these people: these brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, old and young, Islamist and Christian standing together, fighting together in a new type of non-violent participatory struggle we have to ask again: what is truly going on in Egypt?

Gilles Deleuze once told us that writing “has a double function: to translate everything into assemblages and to dismantle the assemblages.” He also stated the the two were the same thing. Graham Harman following Michael DeLanda tells us that an assemblage “covers all real entities, including humans, rocks, corporations, and nation states. If every assemblage can be termed a ‘‘person,’’ then every assemblage is made up of subpersonal components as well. There is no final layer of ultimate reality to which larger assemblages can be reduced.” Can we see this defiant multitude of individuals calling for the ouster of Mubarak and for the instantiation of the age-old dream of democracy as being part of that strange object we call an assemblage? Is this even relevant?  Is it true that death mobilizes us, catalyzes us? Does reminder of our own finitude liberates us, enabling us to act without fear—for nothing is more terrifying than the possibility that we could live out our dreams, that something is truly at stake in our lives. If only we knew that the world were ending, we would finally be able to risk everything—not just because we would have nothing to lose, but because we would no longer have anything to win.

As Afaf Naged, a former member of the board of directors of the state-owned National Bank of Egypt, said, to a reporter as he participated in the protest at Tahrir Square: “I came here for the first time today because this cabinet is a failure, Mubarak is still meeting the same ugly faces … he can’t believe it is over. He is a very stubborn man.”

As I think about the people of Egypt joining with each other in this momentary assemblage of democratic fervor as they defend their right to be and to be free against all forms of tyranny and oppression, I begin to think about politics and objects. I ask myself just what would an Object-Oriented democracy look like? As we in the West watch on through our twitterings, our blogs, our social chat rooms, and out televised news casts, or through the free press, and subversive avenues of this vast network of relations we call the web I ponder the future of this revolution. Our longings for more agency and participation have been granted, but inside a framework still fundamentally determined by that very assemblage we term capitalism. The demand that everyone become a subject rather than an object has been realized: now we are the subjects administering our own alienation, fulfilling the Situationist dictum that the spectacle is not just the world of appearances but rather the social system in which human beings only interact as their prescribed roles. Haven’t we all here in the West been reduced to reduced to passive spectators of a spectacle that is beyond our power to understand of to participate in? “We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.” (Larry Law, Images And Everyday Life)

Has revolution itself become a commodity? Are the the forces of late-Capitalism even now formulating a way through the strategies of capitalist efficiency to profit from this strange irruption/rupture that is the Egyptian peoples revolution? Are we not all anti-realists participating vicariously in a revolution that is not ours? Is this not just one more virtual experience that the late-Capitalist system of mediaville entertainment and non-events is bleeding off into a zone of opportunity for Capital rather than a truth-event in which the people of Egypt shall have their own real day in the sun realized? Or is there another alternative? Is there another path that is toward a speculative realism that can be true to the events that are emerging within Egypt at this particular moment in time?

Nick Land once told us ““To gaze upon the sun directly, without the intervention of screens, reflections, or metaphors—‘to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place’ has been the European aspiration most relentlessly harmonized with the valorization of truth.”  His ephebic pupil Reza Negarestani also stated ““The marriage between the sublunary terrestrial slum and the Sun has become a strictly monogamous model that regulates not only ethics, politics and art but also the entire history of thought and organic activities. It is time to return to the promiscuity of the Earth as a dense constellation of interstellar rubbish with dead stars.”

What if we are moving towards a situation in which the foundation of non-hierarchical society will not be permanent centralization of power, but the standardization of certain disempowering forms of socializing, decision-making, and values. What if the domination of citizens by politics and policing, or employees by administrators and bosses, is no longer imposed on them from some lofty central command center but is a “function of participation itself”? As the authors of Fighting in the Terrain state it:

“Simply to participate in society, we must accept the mediation of structures determined by forces outside our control. For example, our friendships increasingly pass through Facebook, cellular phones, and other technologies that map our activities and relationships for corporations as well as government intelligence; these formats also shape the content of the friendships themselves. The same goes for our economic activities: in place of simple poverty we have loans and credit ratings—we are not a class without property, but a class driven by debt. And once again, all this appears voluntary, or even as progress.”

What if what we are seeing in Egypt is no longer to be situated within the old politics of failure, but as the mobilization of a new paradigm, a new form of revolt? What if what we are seeing is not so much a rupture at the core of politics so much as the revolt of a people against the old ways of being? What if what we are seeing is that this is not so much a material attack upon the Mubarak regime as it is a struggle to affirm a new and different way/mode of being? The emergence of a new politics of being? Instead of reducing this event to a virtual screen that is already lost among its own mirrors, we instead begin to affirm the decisions of a new realism: one that guarantees that no thing, not even an assemblage of citizens in revolt can be reduced to their relations, but instead affirms this very assemblage as a set of “obstinate individuals that cannot be dissolved into anything else (Harman).” As Harman suggests, “It is not required that we shun the actuality of these individuals. What is required is that we develop a new theory of specific objects: withdrawn from their constituent parts and environmental wholes, yet somehow managing to engage in causal interactions with those neighbors anyway.” But if this assemblage is in itself an object, a force that cannot be reduced to any of  its relations, then what kind of object is it? And, more important, how can we understand such an object as a political assemblage in the ongoing struggle of the Egyptian peoples emancipatory mobilization and effort to gain  for themselves democracy as its truth-event?

Graham Harman explores a path toward a neo-materialist politics in his book on Bruno Latour where he tells us that we “must liberate politics from the narrowly human realm and allow prions and the ozone hole to speak as well” (91). The point being that politics is not just for us it is also for every thing as well. One might say that it is in the political sphere that objects truly begin to duel in earnest. In his commentary on Latour he reminds us that the “politician forever balances information, funding, threats, kindness, politeness, loyalty, disloyalty, and the perpetual search for ways and means. In this respect the politician is the model for every sort of actor. To declare oneself untainted by strife between conflicting forces is to deny that one is an actant” (21). Bruno Latour claims to go back to things (objects) by proposing gatherings of hybrid ecologies. He rejects institutional politics and claims for what he calls object-oriented politics, as a much more effective way to represent the contemporary pixelisation of politics. [2] As Latour says: “It’s clear that each object —each issue— generates a different pattern of emotions and disruptions, of disagreements and agreements. There might be no continuity, no coherence in our opinions, but there is a hidden continuity and a hidden coherence in what we are attached to. Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. Each object triggers new actual occasions to passionately differ and dispute. Each object may also offer new ways of achieving closure without having to agree on much else.” His point being that “we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible…” So in the case of these Egyptians who have assembled and formed a political ecology or assemblage, people who may even hold diametrically opposed views on religion or even ideological convictions have entered into a larger assemblage against the oppressive force of a current regime.

Jodi Dean on her blog I Cite has a four part essay on What is to be done? that is of course based on Lenin’s book of that title. All four are worth reading and relevant to the current situation in Egypt: read each at I, II, III, IV. She discusses and points to an article on The Atlantic journal site that discusses Egyptian Activists’ Action Plan. The journal published a set of images from a pamphlet: Egyptian activists have been circulating a kind of primer to Friday’s planned protest. We were sent the plan by two separate sources and have decided to publish excerpts here, with translations  into English. What is interesting is that this small object, this pamphlet guided an ongoing revolution, forged its secret message of hope, and gathered the force of a people into the assemblage we now see in Tahrir Square. We can only hope that this emerging assemblage of individuals for whom the ‘will of the depths’ is no longer just a dream but an actualized object of the real that is their lives being lived now triumphs over a corrupt and oppressive regime that has for far too long held them in bondage.

Graham Harman once said that one of the reasons he shys “…away from political discussions in our philosophical circles is that they seem to be so awfully narrow. There is only one socially acceptable political position: not only the Left, but a Left devoted to Revolution, with everything else packaged as compromised “reform” that merely preserves the awful system it attempts to shape. But one of the reasons I love Zizek so much as a political writer (despite being nowhere close to him on the political spectrum) is that he refuses the “beautiful soul” position and wants actual politics rather than what your book rightly calls the hysterical extreme protest gestures that don’t really expect their demands to be met. I like Zizek’s call for finite, real demands rather than “infinite” ones, which merely allow the ruling powers to say “ah yes, wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a perfect world, but alas we do not.” I think Zizek made this point about Bush’s reaction to the Iraq War protests: “Isn’t this great? That’s what we are fighting for: the freedom for Iraqis to protest just like this.” And you’re right in your book that protests become a kind of carnivalesque background noise that don’t change anything.” (read more)

We can only hope that this is no longer a carnival and that there are moments in time when revolutions produce more that background noise: and, most of all, we hope that it produces the lasting change that is democracy’s legacy yet to be realized. Mark Fischer author of Capitalist Realism in the set of emails between him and Graham Harman that I quoted above remarks that “One problem with the reform-revolution binary – and I think this is absolutely relates to the point about finite versus infinite demands – is that it sets the bar so ridiculously high, such that anything short of a total and immediate eschatological transformation of society will count as a failure.” Harman chimes in with another pertinent statement latter in the email exchange saying “I’m not seeing enough evidence of people allowing their political positions to be falsified. It’s just a lot of fuzzy slogans about revolution and neo-liberalism, and the range of acceptable politics is suffocatingly narrow. Don’t people have any smart conservative friends? They ought to get some. It broadens your world and really challenges you to think. Otherwise, you simply get a party game where everyone is trying to outflank everyone in one direction. Your thoughts?”

Mark Fischer reflects on some of the ideas on Harman as well as Nick Srnicek, saying, “Nick Srnicek’s approach, the way that he instrumentalizes actor-network theory for leftist purposes. These questions are key: what are the actors in any particular network? How can these actors be affected? How can dominant networks be decomposed and new networks installed? The focus on this style of thinking in Prince Of Networks meant that, from my point of view, the book was buzzing with political potentials in a way that so much ‘political philosophy’ is not – all the more so because it wasn’t explicitly political.” The idea of a political philosophy that is implicit rather than explicit brings us to another aspect of Harman’s choice of philosophical hyperbole over critique. As he says in his essay of Michael DeLanda: “When reading an interesting new work of philosophy, I find myself asking not ‘‘where are the mistaken arguments here?’’, but rather: ‘‘if this work were the greatest of the century, how would our current thoughts need to change? And what would we still be missing?’’ This method avoids gullible hero-worship (if such a thing still exists) by identifying the empty rooms that are found in even the greatest philosophies. Yet it also does more justice to bold visions than the excessively admired ‘‘critical thinking’’ that finds 17 mistakes in Kant and 19 mistakes in some dry, forgettable article that risks nothing.” Continuing he defines philosophical hyperbole, saying, “The general principle is that exaggeration is a more useful method than respectable critical understatement, since the latter merely provides an alibi for the critic no matter what happens. Exaggeration means the willingness to be falsified, and an openness to surprise. Cagey ironic caution, by contrast, is simply a safe move by those seeking to avoid demerit points. But one day, death wipes the slate clean, and only the gamblers have a chance to survive in the dreams of their heirs.”

Politics doesn’t always need to be direct, it can at times relate itself indirectly just like all other objects. We can see that this emergence within the ‘will of the depths’ of the people of Egypt is just such an indirect openess toward the future. For these are people that have time on their side, and are awaiting the moment when those other objects (leaders) will begin the process of reconciliation and openness that will allow a true democracy to emerge in Egypt. So do we all.

1. Harman, Graham, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press 2009 )
2. Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, From Realpolitik to Dingpolitic: Or How to Make Things Public Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy’ (MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2005)

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s