Political Concepts: The Trump Edition (Friday PM Session 2)

LEELA GANDHI: Thank you. Thank you, Adi. So I’m very happy to welcome
you to the final session of this day of
political concepts. Two speakers, in
order of appearance. Ben Parker, to my right, teaches
in the English department at Brown. He received his BA and then his
PhD from Columbia University, with a dissertation
on recognition scenes in the Victorian novel. In Victorian fiction, rather. He works generally on
the history and theory of the novel, and specifically
in some way on Henry James. He’s published many essays
in leading journals, such as New Literary
History, Novel, Mediations, Film Quarterly, n+1, The
Los Angeles Review of Books, Artforum.com, and The
Paris Review Daily. He’s currently
writing a book called The Awful Victorian Plot. And he will speak on
the concept disruption. Second speaker to my
left, Anthony Bogues, is a political theorist,
intellectual historian, writer, and curator, and
currently director of the Center for the Study
of Slavery and Justice at Brown University and the Asa
Messer Professor of humanities and critical theory. He is also an honorary
research professor at the University of Cape Town. His work focuses in
some very general way on Caribbean and
African politics, as well as Haitian,
Caribbean, and African art. And his numerous
distinguished publications include Caliban’s Freedom– The Early Political
Thought of CLR James, 1997; Black Heretics and
Black Prophets– Radical Political Intellectuals,
2003; and Empire of Liberty– Power, Freedom,
and Desire, 2010. Amongst his edited work are a
significant two-volume study of Caribbean intellectual and
literary history, After Man, Towards the Human– Critical Essays
on Sylvia Wynter, 2005; and, very recently,
The George Lamming Reader– The Aesthetics of
Decolonization. He will speak to us today
on the concept disobedience. Ben. BEN PARKER: Thank
you, and thanks also to Tim and Adi for organizing
this and inviting me. The concept is disruption. Am I speaking appropriately? Since the election,
The New York Times has published four
op-ed pieces about Trump with “disruption”
somewhere in the title. How is disruption defined
by these various writers? For Thomas Edsall, it is the
loss of traditional norms and institutional constraints
in the era of social media, especially the capture
of the Republican Party by outsiders like
Trump and Bannon. For Peter Wehner
and Greg Weiner– separate– who both invoke
Burkean conservatism, disruption is the chaos,
disarray, and entropy on display in Trump’s tumultuous
acts and chaotic temperament and his flouting of the
customs of his office. For Francis Fukuyama, continuing
the thesis of an earlier book, The Great Disruption, disruption
refers to the drawbacks to the risks and
hiatuses accompanying the thrust of an unbuffered,
globalized, technological capitalism to which the
rise of autocratic threats to institutional liberalism is
understood as so much blowback. So for the neoconservatives who
fill the back pages of The New York Times, the political
valence of disruption fits entirely within the
everyday meaning of the word, as a breakdown or a
halt in proceedings which you find in a phrase
like “service disruption.” Quote, “The act of
breaking asunder, a breach, rent,
dilaceration,” end quote. That’s all from Johnson’s,
Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, 1755. This same everyday
usage can also be found in Hillary Clinton’s
memoir of the election, What Happened, where we learn that
Bernie Sanders was not running for president, quote, “to make
sure a Democrat won the White House. He got in to disrupt
the Democratic Party.” End quote. What she means is that
Bernie played spoiler. He junked up the works
and upset her plans. She is not saying that
she found Bernie’s ideas catalyzing or innovative, which
is the second meaning that I now turn to. So sense two. During the Republican
primary, Jeb Bush, the pathetic once-front runner– now branded forever
as low energy after Trump’s insult campaign– attempted to promote
himself as a disruptor. In doing so, he was invoking
a familiar buzz word from Silicon Valley, venture
capitalists, and the empty hype of business school jargon. In this usage,
disruption no longer means a break in continuity. Disruption is instead the
restless Heraclitean flux itself. Innovation and
creative destruction now appear as the
continuous movement internal to economic
being, while stagnation and obsolescence become
sticking points, obstacles. This is all dizzying nonsense. As Jill Lepore wrote in
a 2014 New Yorker essay, disruption in this sense
is a circular repackaging of the ideologies of
progress or evolution, with the difference
that it purports to be descriptive
rather than evaluative. Disruption is, quote, “what
happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as
explanation and justification,” end quote. So it was laughable in one way
that Jeb Bush, the embodiment of the Republican establishment,
should market himself as unconventional
or an outsider. But in another way,
since disruption just names the nihilism
and valuelessness of neoliberal ideology, he was
perfectly correct to do so. The rhetorical move here
is to arbitrarily position, for example, charter schools
as disrupting the entrenched interests of teachers’ unions. So the agent of
austerity is thereby cast in the role
of guerrilla cadre, and its opponent becomes
the Maginot Line. The first meaning of
disruption, the neoconservative and everyday sense, is an
undesirable external break, especially the violation of
pieties and cherished norms. The second meaning, Silicon
Valley and Jeb Bush, reconceived disruption
is the heedless churn of innovative subversion in
which the catastrophic waste of capitalism is
simply ontologized as the fact of incessant
transformation. A third meaning we
could then deduce is their pseudo-dialectical
synthesis in which disruption becomes the
ascendant negative moment that solicits a contrary saving
movement under the guise of seeming loss and injury. Recall, then, one of the
memorably idiotic and shameful moments of the left
during the election, the Lacanian-Marxist philosopher
Slavoj Zizek’s endorsement of Donald Trump. In an interview
for British news, Zizek echoed Trump’s own red
faced and rambling campaign rhetoric, namely, that
Trump’s insurgent candidacy marked an end point for the
stagnant elite governance of the status quo. Quote, “Trump disturbed
the implicit consensus of the political
order,” end quote, opening up a space of
possibility and reorientation. If Trump were to win,
Zizek prophesied, quote, “it will be a kind
of big awakening. New political processes
will be set in motion, will be triggered.” End quote. Where Hillary
Clinton, by contrast, stands for absolute inertia. Of course, this
paradoxical logic of preferring the greater of
two evils, not the lesser, has its classic statement in
Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy, when he writes, “It
is the bad side that produces the movement
which makes history by constituting struggle.” Going even further back,
it is a restatement of the “fortunate fall”
in Christian theology, prophesying that all
Trump’s malice served but to bring forth infinite
goodness, grace, and mercy. But on himself, treble
confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured. So while Zizek sees Trump
as a menace and a calamity, he detects behind
the Trump phenomenon a cunning of reason where
impulses of collectivity and justice will be
solicited and asserted in the fray of history. And defined in this
way, disruption means something like a
painful but necessary detour into contradiction and disarray. Before turning to
conceptual matters, it is worth introducing here
an empirical counterpoint to the above
descriptions, namely, the claim that Trump
has not been disruptive. Corey Robin has argued that
Trump’s presidency so far has been spectacularly
weak and ineffective. Trump has, quote, “given
up or has been beaten back on multiple fronts of foreign
policy, on free trade, on infrastructure spending,
on the wall, and more. He suffered at the
hands of his party a humiliating defeat
on health care.” End quote. And Samuel Moyn writes, “The
President’s most outrageous policies have been successfully
obstructed, leaving largely those any Republican president
would have implemented anyways through executive
order,” end quote. It is also worth noting
areas of continuity. Despite Trump’s
isolationist positions, the Senate overwhelmingly
passed a $700 billion defense bill, which was more
than Trump had asked for, with only four
Democrats voting nay. And in August it was reported
that the US was deporting fewer people under Trump
than under Obama, a rate of 17,000 deportations
per month, which is about half of Obama’s peak of 34,000. Did this in Trump
seem disruptive? It would be foolish, of
course, to say that everything has been business as usual. But I’m not enthusiastic about
the most commonly proposed measures to oppose the supposed
Trumpian disruption, either a call for the steadying hand of
lifelong military professionals or the immolation of
impeachment proceedings. So my preliminary
contentions are that the widespread
understanding of Trump as disruptive is
incoherent and debilitating for further analysis; and that
oppositional strategies that invoke, alternatingly, the
vulnerability of norms, institutions, and order,
and then turn around and grant sweeping powers
and great dignity to same, are also inadequate. In all of the above
usages, disruption is essentially
descriptive, in the sense of the play-by-play commentary
in a sports broadcast. It rehearses the inventory
of existing positions, the strategic
alignment of forces, but then substitutes
labeling for analysis. I submit once something has
been labeled disruptive, we have learned precisely
nothing about it. For the rest of my
time, I want to propose a concept of disruption
starting instead from the analytical
lever of subjectivity, rather than the
play-by-play approach of labeling Xs and Os and
their stultifying collisions. And to be sure,
although Zizek speaks of a big awakening, which has a
certain subjective ring to it, he means it only as a kind of
equal and opposite reaction, on the model of
Newtonian billiard balls. My claim is that only
new forms of subjectivity should count for
us as disruptions. Anything else is simply moving
the food around on the plate. The Trumpian order, if it is to
be broken asunder or breached, cannot simply be resisted with
the positive elements at hand. I turn now to three
philosophical contributions to the thinking of disruption– the work of Giorgio
Agamben, specifically his terminology of
exception on one hand and deactivation on the other;
Simone Weil’s vocabulary of decreation as interrupting
what she variously calls force, gravity,
and necessity; and Alain Badiou’s
concept of the event, what he calls a perturbation
of the order of the world. For each of these
authors, we will want to know where
the disruption to the order of things is
supposed to come from, such that it be a disruption
and not simply the activity or proliferation of
that order itself, as in the Foucauldian
analysis whereby all interruption of power is
but a play of solicitation and recapture. At the same time, it is obvious
that a disruption cannot come from nowhere at all, as an
Heidegger’s despairing remark that only a god can save us. What I hope will emerge from a
consideration of these thinkers is a grammar of disruption
in Kenneth Burke’s sense of the word– its aspects of agency, scene,
agent, act, and purpose. So Agamben first. There are two important
senses of disruption in Agamben’s thought. First, there are the
disruptions constitutive of sovereign power, and indeed
of Western politics itself– paradigmatically,
one, the exclusion from the Greek polis of
zoe, bare, anonymous life; and two, the state of
exception in which zoe is then included or recaptured as
the object of political power by the sovereign’s decision. This decision
concerns homo sacer, the figure of bare life
always already excluded from the juridical order,
but entirely vulnerable, in the suspension of that
order, to sovereign power in homo sacer’s
capacity to be killed. So if exception is taken
as a kind of disruption, brutally wrenching– and this
at an explicitly metaphysical level– wrenching law out of nature,
relation out of being, act out of potentiality,
and so on, this is not a one-time affair but
rather an ongoing violence. Drawing on Walter Benjamin,
Negri, and Schmitt, Agamben refuses to separate
the legality and effectivity of political order– as constituted, for instance,
by a social contract– from an excessive and
all-encompassing constituting power. Disruption, therefore,
characterizes power itself. Or as Agamben cites
Pasolini, quote, “The true anarchy is that
of power,” end quote. For this reason, Agamben
sees no ultimate distinction between democracy
and totalitarianism, but rather an inner
solidarity between them. To do battle on the terrain
of legality, rights, and constitutionalism
would already be to give away the game, since
these terms are irreparably tainted from the outset. This sweeping condemnation
of all politics since Aristotle as
metaphysically contaminated would appear to be
supported by the painstaking philological exactitude of
Agamben’s textual exegesis. I, at least, am in no position
to dispute his readings of Proclus or Gregory of Nyssa. But his conclusions
are utterly paralyzing. First– this is my critique. First, his negative critique
completely eschews any work upon what Gillian
Rose calls the broken middle, the framework
of institutions and their flawed
actual configurations. Importantly, Agamben’s point is
not to roll back the exercise of the
state of exception to restore to the sovereign
only the ordinary powers of a constituted and
limiting authority, since for Agamben the problem
goes all the way back. The state of exception is
simply the constitutive paradigm of the juridical
order come to light. So the Nazi death camps
stand as a permanent horizon for the entire political
space of modernity. When Agamben comes to
his positive proposals, they also sound like disruption. His characteristic vocabulary
is of deposing, deactivation and inactivity,
destituent potential, and other syntactical
conjurations. It is clear that Agamben
intends inoperativity and the like to
disable or disrupt the force of law, where law is
crossed out or under erasure, as Heidegger sometimes
crossed out the word “being.” But what do we know
about inoperativity? What kind of notion is it? How can we discern
its operations? And by what criteria
would we judge whatever it brought about? At times, when Agamben
connects the state of exception to the very structure of
linguistic signification, we are as if returned
to Nietzsche’s saying that we are stuck with God as
long as we hold on to grammar. Thus, inoperativity remains
a transcendental postulate, a trace of the timeless
auto-differentiation of metaphysical
impositions, structurally prior to yet inaccessible
by our categories of experience and evaluation. “What remains as the fundamental
ontological political problem today is the exhibition
of the ceaseless void that the machine of Western
culture guards at its center.” That’s a quote. This exhibition is something
like the coming into view of view behind structure
of undetermined life and its unwelcome
vulnerability and affliction, as much a figure of
abjection as of contingency. Hence, the emphasis on bearing
witness, as in Agamben’s book on Auschwitz. As Christian Haines
has noted, this bearing of wounds, quote, “without
social and historical determination can
amount to nothing more than the valorization of
unworldliness as such,” end quote. But unworldly, I would
add, in the strict sense of unavailable,
unspeakable, and so forth. Now I am going to talk
about Simone Weil. Agamben has said that the
critique of law carried out in the Homo Sacer
project has its roots in Weil’s essay translated
in English as On Human Personality. So indeed, Agamben’s
dissertation was on Simone Weil’s
political thought. And he subsequently borrowed
without attribution her concept of decreation for an essay
on Melville’s Bartleby. A lot of Melville
today, I guess. In an introduction he wrote
for a new French edition of On Human Personaliy,
Agamben aligns himself with Simone Weil in three ways. One, her situating
of human affliction beyond the threshold of
political and ethical thought. Two, her radical critique
of the sphere of rights. And three, her thinking
of the impersonal. But I would like to put some
daylight between these figures. First, for Agamben,
sovereignty is founded on an originary
rupture and separation. All law, and even being
itself, is subsequently conditioned by this
epochal exclusion and violent partitioning. For Weil, however, her entire
political and moral thinking depends on the continuity
and the shared mechanism of social force with
the inexorable necessity of physical laws, so that
human mechanics for her is explicitly modeled
on the law of gravity. She approvingly cites the
reply of the Athenians to the delegation from
Milo in Thucydides. Quote, “Tradition teaches
us as touching the gods, and experience shows
us as regards men, that by a necessity of
nature, every being invariably exercises all the power of
which it is capable,” End quote. In affairs of power,
therefore, there is never truly a
rupture of continuity. Otherwise, it
would not be power. So instead of Agamben’s founding
violence and disruption– exclusion– Weil argues for a founding
salvation built into creation itself, with God at both poles
of sovereign and afflicted body. So in Simone Weil’s
account of the passion, God went to the greatest
possible distance, effecting a supreme tearing
apart of His own being. And in between, there is only
an uninterrupted, anonymous necessity. The entirety of creation is
nothing but mechanically harsh matter without disruption. Second difference. Whereas power for Agamben,
following Schmitt, is centered on the decision– so that the sovereign
wielding the exception really is the decider in
George Bush’s sense– for Weil, power is a
sphere of blind impotence, since the stability
of power, howsoever it may be the object
of realist thinkers, she says is
ultimately a chimera. Quote, “Those one calls
masters, ceaselessly constrained to reinforce their power on
pain of seeing it stripped from them, are only pursuing
a dominance essentially impossible to
possess,” end quote. Because the nominal
control of power is a hot potato
ever changing hands, there is never truly a
rupture of continuity. And across her writings, Weil
sometimes supports this thesis with readings of Homer’s Iliad. Elsewhere, the Bhagavad Gita,
which she read in Sanskrit. Sometimes she credits it even
as an insight of Marxism, citing Rosa Luxemburg’s
characterization of the incessant structural
acceleration of capitalism, of capitalist accumulation
as a carousel in the void. Lastly, Weil’s term
for disruption, decreation, in so far
as it carries with it certain scholastic
investments concerning the Trinity and necessity, is
unrecognizable in Agamben’s use of the same word. The difference here is that Weil
is never a messianic thinker, whereas Agamben,
in his commentary on the Letter to the Romans,
The Time That Remains, reads his own concept of
a suspensive community into Paul’s messianism. Weil’s decreation is
by contrast explicitly an imitation of Christ. Quote, “An imaginary
divinity has been given to man so that he may
strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity. God renounces being everything. We should renounce being
something,” end quote. So as Gillian Rose glosses
Simone Weil’s decreation, it is, quote, “to move out
towards the world and to God without the recoil which is
self and possession,” end quote. Two important distinctions
have to be made here. First, Weil’s notion
of decreating the self to make room for
the non-subjective has nothing in common with
the ontological celebration of contingency, vibrancy,
and quantum indeterminacy in matter. It is central rather
to her thinking of the limitations
of power that matter lacks any agency of its
own, that it be sheer limit. She says, “All
forces,” which are for her the opposite of agency,
“all the forces are material.” And in this respect, she is
an unreconstructed Cartesian dualist. Second, decreation should
be strongly distinguished from projects of
anti-essentialism or deconstruction that
amount to a negative theology of identity, where
the dismantling of fixed and stable
identity either valorizes ephemerality and
performativity or persists in the dour contemplation of
identities, impossibility, or failure. I’m being schematic only to say
that for Weil, such postures still take up the space
of the canceled self, whether in its wreckage of non– Sorry. For Weil, such
postures still take up the space of the canceled
self, whether in its wreckage of non-coinciding, or its
unmoored improvisations. Decreation is rather to
imagine that God, quote, “loves that perspective of
creation which can only be seen from the point where I am. But I act as a screen. I must withdraw so
that he may see it, to see a landscape as it is
when I am not there,” end quote. By contrast, the deconstructed
or radically undone identity is, on
her interpretation, like a piece of disassembled
home exercise equipment stubbornly filling up a corner
of the closet or spare bedroom but not truly done away with. That is to say, for Weil,
the only possible disruption is to really clear
the space of the self. Her sense of decreation is
not a nullity or a dialectic, but a space for the only
possible freedom, that of grace. Disruption is therefore
a subtraction, a kind of dropping out of the
reign of force or implacable material domination. Identity, then,
even under erasure, still belongs to mechanics. Like Agamben, Alain
Badiou’s figure of disruption, the
event, goes back to a pre-ontological void
or indifferent multiplicity, which has to be thought
before its objectivation in a specified world. Because being-qua-being
is absolutely homogeneous, there is always some
originary element from the multiplicity
of the void which is struck by inexistence. But where are the– these are all
quotes from Badiou. But where the inexistent
comes to exist with the maximal value, we are
dealing with an event, namely, a sort of delicate
and implacable break in the laws that
govern appearance. In such moments, what
organizes the distribution of the intensities of existence
and of the urgencies of action changes in an essential way. In his book The Communist
Hypothesis, Badiou specifies, quote, “An event is not the
realization of a possibility internal to the situation or
dependent on the transcendental laws of the world. An event is the creation
of new possibilities.” Likewise, in his new book
In Praise of Politics he describes the
political event variously as invention, creation,
or experimenting, putting on the agenda something
affirmative or positive. So to run Badiou over the
same ground as with Agamben and Weil, on the issue
of an originary rupture and separation– so Agamben– or a completion of
being in creation– Weil– Badiou sides with Weil. Being-qua-being is
undisturbed presentation. Undisrupted, to
use his vocabulary. Also like Weil, Badiou
does not grant state power, the democratic legal
order of which Agamben is so suspicious, he doesn’t
grant it any real control or decision, since
the real is simply the careening of capital,
heedless of any such authority. When it comes to
decreation, however, Badiou is on one side and Weil
and Agamben on the other. For these two, the entire
field of active intervention is fallen, already given
over to force or relation. For Badiou, however, the
event is a commandment to work on the
consequences of the new. The imperative is not so
much that an objective agent should be transformed into
a subjective power, as in traditional Marxism, but
rather the enforcing of, quote, “shocking displacements,
material and mental.” The ultimate
objective for Badiou, as with Hegel and Lukács,
is a normative concept of self-determination
as negativity. Not only does the subject not
disappear in disruption, but, he says, “the political
subject historicizes itself in its own deployment.” Here I would push back
against Badiou for what I see as his ultra-leftism. The disruption is to come
about from the subjectivizing or the self-organizing of
the inexistent, its becoming, rather than its positive
availability as agent. I’m thinking here of Lenin’s
scathing rebuke, “Left-Wing” Communism– An Infantile Disorder,
where he says, “We can and must begin
to build socialism, not with abstract human
material or with human material specially prepared by us,
but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.” But when Badiou speaks of
the internationalized nomad proletariat, the
deracinated population internal to each
country’s workforce, he never interprets this figure
in terms of political economy– the specific forms of
exploitation, expanded reproduction, and modalities
of capital that require and condition this figure– but only as a mass,
now laying disassembled in fragments and
detachments to be organized. In other words, the
disrupting figure is all too self-creating
and voluntarist, precisely what Lenin
is warning against. Elsewhere, Badiou
says that Marx never got around to an exhaustive
consideration of class and capital. What he misses
here is that class itself is completed by capital,
is transformed as a concept. Further, he doesn’t see how
class is reproduced by capital so that the proletariat
is not simply a point of radical negativity. This is, again,
to make disruption all too subjective
and transcendent. I realize in saying
this I am only repeating an old chestnut– “Men make their own
history, but they do not make it as they please. They do not make it under
self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing
already, given and transmitted from the past.” To wrap up, what does all
this have to do with Trump? Taking these three
thinkers together, first, at the level of
language, we should be circumspect about the
metaphors and the ontology behind the twofold
characterization of Trump as disruptive and the
right-minded as the resistance. For the philosophers
I’ve been discussing, there can be nothing
truly new or liberating so long as we remain within
the domain of physical forces and their interaction or
law-like consequences, what Badiou calls being’s
prohibition of the event. Second, and closely
related, these authors all criticize the
discourse of rights. The entire field of rights
and claims about rights is always already fallen,
and the gaining and securing of rights as such is a
game not worth the candle. In this sense, they
are all the heirs of Marx’s criticism
of Bruno Bauer. Now, one consensus about Trump
is that his administration is stampeding over rights,
with the Muslim ban, the moves to suppress voting rights,
the ban on transgender persons in the military,
the rights of the press, abortion, and so on. On the other hand,
the reactionary forces make their own claims
in terms of rights, as in their attack on
affirmative action, which they don’t present as nakedly
racist, or the frequent appeal to the Second Amendment. Then there is the
worry that Trump is stacking the courts
with conservative judges for an entire
generation to come. So I flag this as an
open question, where we stand with rights today. I will only add that the Black
Lives Matter movement, which dates from Obama but
is the true north of all anti-Trump
activity, is not in its basic claim about rights. It really is close
to the distinction Weil makes between the person
of rights claims and the way a human being counts. This is in her essay
On Human Personality. Third, and following
from the criticism of the subject of rights
raised by all three authors, what different kind of political
subjectivity do they envision? Here they are strangely
unanimous, if enigmatic. Citing St. Paul’s first
Letter to the Corinthians, but winking all
the time at Lacan, Badiou urges that one
must therefore assume the subjectivity of refuse. I think this word came
up in an earlier talk. For Agamben “bare life”
and for Simone Weil “the afflicted” are
synonyms for refuse. As I read these authors,
these are their terms for the positive
subjective figure of disruption or
disturbance, basically for political possibility. I’ve also criticized
these authors for their illegitimate
derivations of this figure as a mere ontological postulate. In closing, I want to suggest
a path that conceptual research might take, which is
to rigorously show how this negativity,
this refuse, this figure of disruptive injury, is
produced, produced even as an outside or as
unincorporable by the grind of material causality. But precisely here we have to
leave these thinkers behind and turn to a different
kind of analysis of the specific form
of negativity produced and reproduced by
the dominant order. Thanks. [APPLAUSE] ANTHONY BOGUES: Thank you. I want to begin by thanking
Adi for the invitation to think aloud about this
particular concept, word, one which is complex,
that is, disobedience. LEELA GANDHI: Microphone. ANTHONY BOGUES: That
is, I want to begin by thanking Adi and others
for inviting me to think aloud about disobedience. I would begin with
two epigraphs. One is an epigraph by the reggae
singer Bob Marley from the song Babylon System where
he says, “We refuse to be what you want us to be. We are what we are, and that’s
the way it’s going to be,” end of quote. The second is from the Greek
mythology, [INAUDIBLE],, where he says, “I
would rather be chained to this rock than be an
obedient servant to the gods.” I use those two– one Greek mythology, the
other one twentieth-century Rastafarian thinking– because I think the
question of disobedience is a central political
issue for today’s world. To think about
disobedience is obviously to think about obedience. Why do we obey? And how are we obedient? The why is obviously
related to a long history in Western political theory. It has to do with questions
of sovereign power and the relationship
of sovereign power to issues of representation. And it also has to
do with the questions of how law are
constituted and how we are represented within the
so-called constitutive order. It also has to do with
political order and whether, how we can break
political order or how we obey in political order. All of that, in my view,
circles and is constructed around some notion
of representation that is held together by an
ideal of political equality. The question of how we obey– not just why now,
but how we obey– is perhaps a little
bit more problematic. In Western thought, the
question of obedience, as Foucault makes very clear
in his essays in Subjects and Power, really
relates to questions of what he calls pastoral
power, salvation of the soul, and the confessional
and the relationship between confessional
and submission. Within the liberal self, the
issue is not so much submission but rather a certain
kind of self-regulation, a certain kind of ways in which
we have to develop techniques of rule which requires
hegemony or certain forms of interpolation, á la
Althusser’s formulation. Of course, there is
another tradition of thinking around questions
of obedience and disobedience, particularly in
the United States. It is around the business
of civil disobedience, Henry Thoreau and
others, and the ways in which he begins
to think about, what does the civil mean? And when you put civil and
disobedience together, what exactly are you calling for? I would argue that
Thoreau’s work, which is in the 19th century,
really has some influence. But perhaps the
sharpest postulation of forms of civil
disobedience can be seen in the work of Lloyd
Garrison, the abolitionist, who argued that the Constitution
was made in hell and therefore should
not be obeyed. Or can be seen in the work of
various black abolitionists, can be seen in the ordinary
ways in which runaway slaves attempted to run
away, or can be seen in the various marronage
communities that were formed in the Americas, in the
Caribbean, and Latin America, and the way in which these
marronage communities disobeyed the actual plantation
economy and attempted to set up alternative
forms of sovereignty. My argument here, though,
is that in the 19th century, the question of disobedience,
particularly in the Americas, really was also tied
to an ethical question, was tied to whether or
not the law was right, was tied to whether or not,
even if the law was right, was it morally wrong? And therefore, should we obey? Obviously, the question
at that point in time was the business of slavery. And therefore the argument
was around a certain kind of constitutive power
and whether or not constitutive power
had a moral efficacy that we should actually obey or
that some people should obey. Disobedience in this particular,
thought about in this way, is related to the questions
of what kind of conscience do we have, is related to
questions of moral authority. And even if you fast
forward to the 20th century and think about the work of
Martin Luther King and the way in which King thinks
about disobedience and its relationship
to nonviolent action, nonviolent action as
some kind of positivity against Jim Crow,
that underlying his understanding of nonviolence
as a form of disobedience was whether or not the
law was right, or whether, underneath that– Sorry, wasn’t about
the law was right, but whether or not the
law was morally just. And therefore, from
that perspective, he would then argue that
one needs to disobey. And if you read
particularly his letter to the clergy people,
Letter from Birmingham Jail, you will see a defense of a
certain kind of disobedience that has to do with
questions of moral– with a certain moral assumption
as ethical understanding. And therefore it
would seem to me that thinking through
this question, often we think of disobedience
as a matter of ethics, a matter of ethics working
against some form of wrong. I want to make another move
and to think about disobedience not just as ethics but as a form
of explicit political action, as a refusal to be ruled,
not just for moral reasons or for wrongs, but
really as a refusal to be ruled in a
certain way at all. And that is a
disobedience, therefore, as a form of action which
is generative of freedom as a set of practices. I begin thinking this way by
making a very quick distinction between resistance, rebellion,
revolt, and revolution. There is a clear relationship
between these three concepts and practices– rebellion,
resistance, revolt, and revolution– and their enactment. But all of these, in my
view, are tied together, or circle around, if you
wish, some notion of refusal, around a notion of disobedience. And it is around a
notion of disobedience that then leads on to the
creation of something else. In sociology, there
is all these books, and we know them by
heart, in which people think about rebellion, revolt,
resistance, and revolution as part of some historical
process in which revolution is the pinnacle, opening a
certain kind of logic in which Hannah Arendt would say,
describing modern revolutions, that new beginnings could occur. Obviously, disobedience
calls for resistance, and if necessary
rebellion and revolution. It is therefore a matter
of a refusal that says no. It is a negative, a
negative which calls forth a certain kind of positivity. It is a negative
which is generative of certain kinds of action. To have disobedience,
in my view, requires the following
three things. There are many more,
but I would do three. Firstly, it requires a certain
break in the consensual forms of governmentality. Secondly, it requires
a certain breach in politics, that is, in
the politics of the moment, the ways in which the
politics of the moment is not able to
legitimize itself. And thirdly, it requires a
certain breach in hegemony, that is, a breach in what
Gramsci would call common sense or what I increasingly
am calling the regularity of the everyday norm. In therefore thinking about
the shift of disobedience as a form of radical
political action, I want to make a general
statement about the conjuncture in which we live. I don’t want to give a talk
on this, so what I want to do is reduce some of these
things to a set of theses. And then we can
take it from there. Thesis one. Human life today– and these
are all general statements and therefore subject
to critiques, et cetera. But it is, I think, important
just to put them on the table, and then we can discuss them. Human life today
has become saturated with the figure of the homo
economicus, homo economicus as modes of life governed
in fact by a certain kind of neoliberal ideology. In this what I’m arguing
is that neoliberalism is not simply a matter
of political economy but is also a fundamental
ideological force. And that fundamental
ideological force is about the creation
of subjectivities. So that’s my first argument. The second– and we can
see this in many ways and we can talk about this. Thesis two. At the core of this
form of life is a certain kind of understanding
of individual freedom in which freedom is essentially
understood as freedom from. And here I’m just paraphrasing
[? Ia ?] Berlin’s ’60s lecture. And it is understood
as a freedom from, but understood as
a central drive. This particular form of
individualism, I would argue, really revolves around
questions of choice, and then choice is
collapsed into freedom. And I think that
one has to think through very carefully the ways
in which we have been thinking about freedom in the
last 20, 30, 40 years, and how it has actually in
the popular mind becomes collapsing not just in a
certain form of consumerism– i.e., how many soaps
you’re going to buy or et cetera, what tooth
paste you’re going to have and so on and so forth and
that sort of business– but really has collapsed
into just this choice. What choice do you have? And that what is
fascinating is even to think about the
African American struggle and to think about
the ways in which, at a certain moment in
the early 21st century, the Madison Street or
advertisements can now come and essentially
argue that African American and the black
freedom struggle, which has a long genealogy,
really now ends up in just choice. So where can you choose to live? Which you still can’t
because of segregation. But what about what
car you can have, what hairstyles you
can wear, what makeup and so on and so forth. And now everything–
the equation of choice or the collapsing of freedom
around questions of choice and circling around
individualism– not individuality,
but individualism– is in my view another thing
that we need to think about. Third thesis is the
creation of what I call a bios politicus, that
is, moving beyond Foucault’s notion of the biopolitics and
to essentially think of the bios as ways of life. And thinking about the
bios as ways of life is to think about therefore
the ways in which power has to [INAUDIBLE]
imperial power, but power has to create a
certain kind of subjectivity. My argument around this
business of ways of life and the creation of
certain subjectivity, it draws actually
from my understanding of the colonial problem,
or what some people would call a colonial problem. And that is the ways in
which colonial power had to operate at certain
moments of its history to actually create
subjectivities. In other words, colonialism
operated by might is right. We all know that. Knocks people on the head. Without might is right,
it doesn’t operate. It doesn’t have a certain force. But if you follow closely– and
here I’m thinking particularly of the British
colonial project– if you follow closely
that particular project, and after the emancipation of
slaves in the so-called British Empire after 1838, you would
begin to see a distinct shift in colonial policy, particularly
coming out of University at Oxford and the way– And then there was what I call
a revolving door between who had the best theory
about solving the colonial problem at Oxford. Chairs were given
in this, in what was called political economy. And then those persons end
up in the colonial office as secretary. So those of us who
think that sometimes the academy and politics
are far distance, you should probably
think a little bit more. But the ways in which– what is interesting is
to read these accounts, all these particular lectures
given by these persons. And one of my favorites is a
man called Herman Melville, who became colonial
secretary and who had a chair in political
economy at Oxford. And the heart of
that argument runs as follows, that essentially
the slaves were– the people who were
no longer slaves now had to be considered as
a new category of persons. And that, secondly, if
they were considered to be a new category
of persons, the issue was going to be, how
would we rule them as subjects, not as citizens? And therefore there
then developed a set of arguments about the
technologies of rule for these people, to
change their subjectivity, to make them into
something else. And the way some
of us have called it is that what
you had to create was the Christian black– a Christian, respectable black. That is, a person
who was particularly a male figure who
would go to church and not practice any more
Afro-Christian things, who had married and would have a
certain domestic arrangement, and who would dress the
certain way and so on, and what he or she had to wear. And in fact, there’s a book
being published by Duke, which a group of us have been
trying to think about this and should be out in May,
trying to think about this, called Victorian Caribbean,
in which we think a lot about the actual ways in which
people were dressing– what people wore at weddings,
what people wore to school, et cetera– as a way in which a certain
subjectivity was actually being formed. And it is therefore
this technology of trying to form
subjectivities, of making people now who
are no longer slaves, but making them subjects. But yet they are not citizens. It is therefore this
attention to subject formation which Foucault makes so
clear in Subject and Power. It is that attention that
I would want to argue is important at this
particular moment. So thesis five,
following from that, is as follows, that if
the operationalization of a certain kind
of governmentality is around the power
in which we have to create new
subjectivities, then I would want to suggest that
in such an operation of power, ideology works as fantasy. And it is this understanding
of ideology working as fantasy, if I could spend a minute on. Because I would want to suggest
that what you are looking at is a way in which these
subjectivities are formed around a certain
kind of set of ideas, around a certain
[INAUDIBLE] of ideologies. But this ideology
is not in the way we used to think of
ideology in the Marxian or even in the Gramscian sense,
that it actually has become a certain kind of fantasy
and becomes therefore more difficult to dislodge. It is not therefore, let me
show you the right thing. Or even, let me
or let you engage in a certain form
of struggle that will then dislodge you from
that certain subject position. In that, fantasy operates
in a different way. So I would want to, for example,
suggest to you that anti-black racism, which is at the heart
of the authoritarian populist project in this country– so we’re talking about Trump. And I just picked
up a book yesterday written by a very famous
historian, who I will not name, who is writing a lot about
populism in the United States and Europe. And I read it very
quickly last night because I was actually
looking for an argument, a historical and
political argument that would try and understand
populism and its relationship to forms of anti-black racism. And I saw no such argument. What I saw were people saying,
yeah, this was xenophobic, yes, there was racism,
and so on and so forth. But to understand
authoritarian populism, in particular its
American variety, is to understand certain ways
in which populism emerges in the late 19th century
in this country, the debate in the populist movement between
the Colored Farmers’ Union, with one million black people
at the end of Reconstruction, and the Farmers Alliance,
both having a set of ideas about agricultural reform,
but the Farmers’ Alliance making a case for– what? For segregation in
the movement itself, arguing that all organizations
need to have that. And so you then have
to ask yourself, at what moment does a certain
kind of populism become defeated by anti-black racism? And how that then
re-emerges in this country and becomes the ground
fantasy in which– what? In which a certain kind of code
can always be spoken without you seeming to be racist. You just have to speak in code
because the fantasy has already constructed the
code and constructed the ways in which
people then think about themselves and their
certain subjectivities. If that is so, then my
argument is really this. Firstly, that in such a
context, one has to think about, what does a radical
political practice look like? And if one begins with
thinking through the business of the self, then
I think that it is important to understand
that the self then has to begin to understand
that it has to dislodge itself from a certain
regulatory activity that has become part of
itself for hundreds of years in this society. That’s the first thing. Secondly, I will want to
argue that as the self has to do that, then it has
to think about questions of disobedience. But it has to think about
questions of disobedience as a way in which it confronts
the customs and the conventions of both rule and
ideological fantasy. And here what I’m talking– I would just say how I
came to this position. Mr. Trump has been in office
for what, 11 months, et cetera. What is clear to me,
and I was part of this, is that there are protests. But what is also clear to me
is that any kind of holding back has not to
do with protests, but actually has had to do
with inter-party squabbles or has had to do with the
conventional politicians, liberal politicians,
trying to hold back what they see, something
they don’t necessarily agree with that. And therefore the
question that strikes me is not that we
shouldn’t have protests. I’m on the street, yes. The question to me,
therefore, is that what do you now need to do? What other forms
of protest, what other forms of
political action one now needs to think
about to do that will– use the word “disrupt”
in quotation marks– but will actually
disobey what is there. In other words, the point
I am trying to raise is that we need to
think about disobedience and political disobedience
as a form of political action that will, in my view, create
the possibilities of something else. And therefore what
I am saying is that to think
about disobedience, therefore, is to think about
a certain form of refusal, not for us to go off into some
space where a few of us say, OK, I ain’t living here. I have friends,
quite frankly, who have left this country,
have gone back home. Some people aren’t
even my friends, but I give you Wole Soyinka
has packed up and said, I ain’t staying here,
and he has gone back to– he’s gone to South Africa. So that there are people
who are doing that as a certain kind of,
I will not live here. Not all type of
people can do that. Those of us who are
noted intellectuals can pick up and do
whatever we want. But ordinary people
can’t do that. So the question that
faces us, in my view, in thinking about
politics in the Trump era and thinking analytically, is
what then do we need to do? What forms of action
are we talking about that we should encourage? Or what forms of action
can bring the kind of shift that we need? And I think I’m arguing for
certain forms of discipline. In other words, radical politics
does not, in this period– or this conjuncture,
to use that word– does not necessarily
begin in the way Jacques Ranciere says it,
when the par of no part speaks, that radical
politics actually may begin with the
questions of refusal, may begin by us
saying no, may begin by us saying no and positing
with all radical imagination alternative epiphanies
of possibilities. To do so, though, is to actually
act in concert with others. We are at a juncture,
I would argue– not of a kind of
representative sovereignty and therefore conventional modes
of politics that might suffice. We are in a space– not just in this country, but
elsewhere, I would argue– not just in a
Arendtian dark times, but we are in a space, a
particular political space and a political conjuncture
when, I would argue, human life on the
planet is threatened. And I’m not just talking
about climate change. That’s there and
that’s something that one needs to think
about, and actually we also do disobedience around that. We are not perfect beings,
and we will never be. But I think that at
this moment there is the necessity in our
social world to actually do and to make something else. And to do that, I think we
start with a certain refusal and to think about
disobedience and its forms. Thanks. [APPLAUSE] LEELA GANDHI: Questions? Comments? I’ll keep a queue. Let’s start with
Nick, and then Zahid. ZAHID R. CHAUDHARY: So my
question is for Anthony. And I want to thank
you for finally putting the issue on the table. We sat here all day,
and we’re finally talking about what we’re going
to do about this situation. I thank you for that. I think it’s really
important that we don’t leave this
room before we have that conversation seriously. I wanted to ask
you about how you feel about what nonviolent
civil disobedience means in a regime where the
kind of practice that King and his generation trained
for and put into practice, of making the suffering body
visible through national media to the legislature,
clearly doesn’t work. That clearly doesn’t work. We can be beaten up all
day long by the cops and they’ve really not
got to worry about it. But we do have some clues. We know that we need to
say Black Lives Matter. We know that water is life,
that no human is illegal, that no human is property. These seem to be
places we can start. But what I’d be
really curious to hear you think about a little
bit is what your sense is of the actual forms of
action that you believe, in this moment right now,
which all of us are talking about I think in meetings
and in our collectives and in the work that
we’re trying to do– Where should we be
putting our bodies? What should we be
doing with our voices? What kind of gesture counts? What’s enough? What’s too little? This is a lot to ask you, but
you put these theses out there. [LAUGHTER] And I want to hear what
you have to say to that. ANTHONY BOGUES: No,
thanks for that. And I know that this would– when I finished writing
this two days ago, I knew it would invite
these kind of questions. And thanks. And this is what I would say. Firstly is that what
I am trying to do is to think about what– sorry. What drove me to
this is to think about protests and
the normal marches and so on that we
have all had and which I’ve participated in some. And in trying to think, OK,
it’s like it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain legitimacy. There’s a certain way
in which it is accepted. So the police who say, you go
over there, you go over there. You spend two days. Some of us may
get a little angry and throw some bottles,
et cetera, et cetera. But then that’s it. And then the debate
would be, yes, everybody has the right to protest. Although some
conservatives would say, yeah, but some people
are troublemakers. But there’s a
basic understanding that everybody has
the right to protest, even if Trump and Bannon
have a skewed view of this. And so it strikes me therefore
that protest then becomes normalized in such a situation. And therefore, what
then do you need to do? And you put it right. Where then do you put your body? What is the kind of gesture
that you then need to make? And it struck me that– I’ve been going back to some
American political traditions, both black and conventional– that this idea of disobeying,
of what Ida B. Wells calls troubling the waters,
of making sure that your body and your actions
and so on disrupt the norms– and I’m using that word
in quotation marks, “disrupt” the norms. Do not necessarily
obey the laws. That makes a point that it
is not business as usual. This is the point. One of the things about the
South African things, and I came here and people were
talking about it, is that– and I spent a lot of time
there, and I have a lot of arguments with folks there. But one of the things that
those kids were trying to do is to say, this is
not business as usual. So we have disagreement of
them burning down artwork. I teach, I work on arts,
so may have a disagreement. But they were making the point,
this is not business as usual. How do we make the point that
this is not business as usual? And that’s where I am. So I can’t say to you, I think
we should do a, b, c, d, or e. I actually think that’s a
set of collective discussions that people need to have
to think about this. All I’m trying to say is,
let’s put on the table it’s not business as usual. And if we’re putting
that on the table, then the question
of disobedience becomes central to it,
and how you carry it out. Not in the way that King and
other folks, or even the SNCC people did in the
Southern Freedom Movement, what we now
call the Civil Rights Movement mistakenly. We have had hegemonized
it and so on and given a certain narrative. And I would just end on this. They came to that form by a set
of experimentations and debate and discussion. It wasn’t one person. Some of us are doing a thing
on Rosa Parks at the moment, bringing her house
here and so on. And that has led me to
meet a whole set of people and talk to people
in the movement. And it becomes
clear that– what? That this wasn’t something
in one person’s head. It was a big discussion,
big quarrels, big fights, about,
well, can we do this? How should we do this thing? And so on. With some of the most profound
arguments, quite frankly. And so my call would be for that
kind of discussion and debate, of trying to put on the table,
it’s not business as usual. What do we do? And also, let me just– sorry. Also, don’t then find ourselves
in another conventional term. So that, for example,
there are friends of mine, academics and
colleagues, who say, we’re in fascism. We’re in fascism. And I said, whoa,
hold on a minute. So in other words,
part of trying to say it’s not
business as usual is to think hard and
concretely about what is the moment that we are in. The hardest intellectual
political work to do is not the historical analysis. That’s what we are trained to
do, and the philosophical one. That’s what we are all in
this room trained to do. Hardest analysis is,
what is this moment? LEELA GANDHI: Zahid? ZAHID R. CHAUDHARY: Yeah, this
is just a question for Ben. I was intrigued
by your statement early on, which I’m about to
mangle, so you can correct me. But it seemed to me
that the emphasis that you were placing in your
thinking about disruption was on subjectivity. You made a statement
about this categorically. And I wondered about
scale, because it seems to me that disruption,
when it affects world historical events or it
affects large communities, it’s often not
about subjectivity. And it seems to be
happening at a scale that is not the subject. And so I was wondering
if you could make some of that bridge for me. I just wanted to invite you
to say more about subjectivity and why you want
to emphasize that. BEN PARKER: Thank you. I certainly didn’t mean the
subject as the individual. i brought in for a second Hegel
as just an instance of someone for whom the subject
is not the individual. Lukács I mentioned also. I think the position that– Badiou is another person. So the position that
Badiou has arrived at in his most recent, hot
off the press works is he says humanity must
determine itself. So it’s a sense of– I said I was thinking that
for Hegel, Lukács, Badiou, there’s a normative sense
of self-consciousness as negativity, the negativity
of self-consciousness. But there is in that
that self-consciousness is able to determine itself. Lisa is not here right now,
so I can mention freedom. There is the freedom to realize
a subject at that magnitude. And I’ll just explain
what I mean by that. Obviously, under
capitalism, no one has any determination
of will at all. Let’s say we had a
completely planned economy. I’m not advocating
for this, but that would be conscious
determination, a planning in some even Stalinist way. That would be a
self-conscious determination. And it’s plain, under
capitalism, no one has that. We’re subject to forces that
we don’t have control over. And Badiou in speaking
of that subject at the level of humanity
intends something like, ultimately, a
self-determination at that order. Does that make sense, though? I feel like– ZAHID R. CHAUDHARY: Yeah. No, that’s helpful. But I just wonder whether
for Hegel the negativity that constitutes the subject as a
kind of disruption, it seems– the negativity that constitutes
the subject in Hegel would seem to me the order of
the day, and not disruption but rather– anyway, we can talk afterwards. BEN PARKER: Yeah. I don’t think so. ZAHID R. CHAUDHARY: Yeah. OK. LEELA GANDHI: So I have
Akeel, Lubabah, and Joe. AKEEL BILGRAMI: So I
have a different question for each speaker. Is that too indulgent? LEELA GANDHI: [INAUDIBLE]. AKEEL BILGRAMI: Sorry. So Ben, I was wondering if
the kind of thing disruption is isn’t the one that’s
wrought on subjectivity by, say, Badiou’s notion of
an event, decreation. I wonder if much
of what’s driving that notion of disruption in
Badiou, but others as well who might, is precisely
to say something that’s not of a piece with
what Hegel and Marx say. Because it’s very important for,
say, historical materialism, and the more idealistic
version which it inverts, that its transformation comes
from an internal dialectic, which is deliberate. There’s a contradiction, and you
deliberate your way out of it to new transformed
subjectivities. But a disruption isn’t that. It isn’t part of an internal
dialectical narrative of that kind. It’s really more like
the shift in episteme or a Kuhnian paradigm shift
or something like that. So in a way, it’s
precisely defined as being different from
the Marx-Hegel conception of transformation. Is that correct? BEN PARKER: That’s
exactly correct, yes. What I wanted to say– AKEEL BILGRAMI: Good. Nothing like a
straightforward answer. I don’t want– [LAUGHTER] BEN PARKER: That’s exactly
correct about Badiou. I wanted to end by
talking about Badiou. The end of the paper,
I say what we need is– I criticize him
precisely for being an ultra-leftist in this way. He pulls his subject
and his event, I think, insufficiently
from a material dialectic. And again, Lisa
isn’t here, but what happens in the end of her
talk was very much congenial to what I intended,
which she went so deeply into the specific
differences of how migrants come about– hydroelectric dams, displacement
by military installations, all sorts of different
specific formations of a possible subject. And it’s not stages
of the dialectic there, unfolding in
their timeless order. But I’m much closer
to that than what Badiou is talking
about, because Badiou, it seems un-derived to me. So does that answer
your question? So I would like to be
closer to Hegel and Marx than Badiou is precisely
on these grounds. AKEEL BILGRAMI: I see. OK. So Anthony, I’m
curious about the way you formulated the
moment of disobedience as announcing a recoil
from business as usual. And I’m just wondering if– So let us say, as
in many cases– King, Gandhi, and
others– that disobedience is to laws that are unjust. Let’s take a case of unjust
laws or oppressive laws. And one question that
I was curious about is whether there’s any sense
on your own part in the passage of your argument as
to whether its goal is something deeper than
replacing it with other norms. There are laws that
you disobey because you find them oppressive or unjust. But in some sense,
it’s not merely to replace them with other
laws, but to resist the idea that something
like laws is where the truth lies, that
is, resist the very idea that the law carries. So you’re seeking a
higher tr– “higher” is just invidious use of– I don’t mean higher. But you’re seeking
something of a deeper kind, so that we are not simply
given the impression that what’s bad in us can
be just made better simply by better laws. Politics is a deeper
business than that. ANTHONY BOGUES: Yeah. No, I agree with you. And what I’m trying
to work through is to think about the
relationship of disobedience to questions of freedom
and freedom practices. So that I’m not trying to
think about the question of law alone, which is why I said it’s
a morally unjust law or so on. And then, OK, we say,
let’s disobey it, and hopefully we get a
better one the next time. That’s not what I’m trying. I’m trying to think
about the ways in which, at this specific moment,
disobedience calls forth a certain questioning
of self and society that will allow us to think
about questions of freedom in a different way. That’s what I’m trying
to think through. Because I’m arguing that the
ways in which we constitute our subjectivities and our self,
its relationship to freedom, is one that is, quite
frankly, a certain kind of narrow conception of freedom. I don’t want to say
it is not freedom. I don’t get into that
kind of analytical game. But it narrows our
particular conception of ourselves and of life
and what is possible. And disobedience might
open up a different way for and different passages
for us to begin to think through different
things at this moment. That’s all I’m trying to say. Thank you. LEELA GANDHI: Now Lubabah. LUBABAH CHOWDHURY: I have two
questions, if that’s all right. But the first is relating
back to the discussion about protests that we
were having earlier. And I guess thinking about– I guess I’m not convinced
that the protest is no longer a useful political
tool, because I guess I would like to hear a
little bit more about, what is the purpose of protest? And also, what do we mean when
we say nonviolent protest? Because as just the events of
the past 11 months have shown, nonviolent protests
are incredibly violent for some people. And people have died. And so can we really say
that a peaceful protest is ineffective in
recognizing the fact that the regime we live under
now is not business as usual? And then the second
question I had was I think about the time
in which we are allowed to name our present moment. I guess Professor Bogues, I
was curious about your comment about fascism. And you seemed to
express some reticence as to name our moment
as a fascist moment. And I feel like I had
a lot of discussions with colleagues, with
other academics who in the wake of the
election seemed hesitant to name this
particular moment a moment of white supremacy and
ethno-nationalism and fascism. And I guess I don’t see the
political efficacy of waiting when it seems to be
something that’s very clearly transparent to some. So if you could speak
to those two questions. ANTHONY BOGUES: I
think that it’s not a question of political efficacy
of waiting to name something. It is whether or not the
thing that you are naming is actually politically– allows you to politically
analyze what it is properly. And I actually think
that the business of naming what you are under
is a central political task. It’s not something
that is academic. And if you get it
wrong, you actually develop wrong political
tactics around it. One of the tendencies we
have in America and elsewhere is that a regime that
looks authoritarian, we immediately reach for
a historical authoritarian description of it. Professor Meeks can
testify to this. When we were both in Jamaica
and a right wing regime was appearing– we were a little younger then– we were all saying that this
regime is going to be fascist. And both of us had reason to
say that, because both of us lost our jobs because
of our politics and were told we couldn’t work
in that country again. And we therefore had
right to say this is a certain fascist regime. But it also surprised
us, if we’re honest, that over by two,
three years there were things that were
happening that did not fit the actual model
that we thought. And what that taught me as a
political thinker and theorist, and then an activist, is
how to name something, how to name something
without reaching back for historical things, using the
history to make me understand how I may get there,
but also beginning to understand a deeper
history of a specific moment. And I would argue that
this moment is a moment of authoritarian populism. And it is a moment of
authoritarian populism in which white supremacy,
and I’ve said it, and anti-black racism is the key
mobilizing factor that operates as a fantasy for codes. So you don’t have to say
you are racist or anything. You just have to
say certain things, and everybody knows in
your head that you’re meaning you have
anti-black racism, or you mean the
migrant or so on. And so that we have,
in thinking about that and as the moment unfolds, if we
are political activists and so on, or thinkers,
then in my view one has to map it very,
very, very carefully. Six months from now
or a year from now, certain things may
happen and I may say, OK. But I don’t think you are in
the moment of a fascist thing. You are in the moment of
authoritarian populism and set up a
political regime that will move in
authoritarian directions, as I’ve already shown
that they’re moving in authoritarian directions. And what is then
interesting is that, when you think about that,
who then are your allies? Who are you going
to politically help to mobilize around
certain things? I also think there’s a
deeper question, which I was trying to get at,
which is the question of the kind of subjectivities
that are formed. And what is the politics
of that subjectivity? That’s my response
to the second part. The first part about
protest is this. I am not saying
protests must stop. You ask me to come on a
march tomorrow, I’ll come. My point is, can
we look at protests and see how it might be
normalized, in other words, how it might be accepted
by the status quo? Even if people complain,
but that they say, OK, you have a right to protest. And that if it
becomes normalized as part of a so-called liberal
tradition that is now changing itself into an
authoritarian regime, then do we not then have to
think, beside protest, what else must we do? That’s all I’m saying. What else must we do? Because you can– [LAUGHTER] You know what? I can remember who
said it, but you can have a situation where you
march today, I call you back in, you march tomorrow. I call you back in. You march a third day. I call you back in. We ourselves who are
marchers feel good. But if you just
reflect on what’s the configuration of power and
how power has moved itself, you then realize that you are
marching for a whole month and not much has shifted. And it is not against marching. It is not against
protests at all. It’s just a call for
saying, we are in new times, we are in a new
movement, and we might want to think about new
methods of political action. And again, I don’t come
from this by just think– I come to this by
reading very carefully what it is, the
debates and so on, that happened in the so-called
Civil Rights Movement. What is the form of action
were people following? Why did they then move to
certain other forms of action? Because certain things
were not working. And somebody said, listen,
let’s try and do something else. So a certain pragmatic
realism, in my view, to think through some
of the questions. I hope you get what I’m saying. LEELA GANDHI: Do you
want to respond, Ben? BEN PARKER: Yeah. Thank you. I’ll respond also generally. I had some questions for Anthony
that I will take this chance. About something that many
people have spoken about today, about neoliberalism, I
think capitalism in general, it’s hard to have a
disobedient protest. I think this goes back to an
earlier question about laws, about justice, that
you were asking, which is, I can say that
the Constitution is written in hell. I can disobey certain
very specific laws. If I was morally in
favor of jaywalking, I could jaywalk and be arrested. And so this would
concretize that. But in the new tax
bill that’s for all I know been passed
right now, there’s a terrible clause
about the tax rate for pass-through corporations,
pass-through entities. How on Earth can I
disobey that law? So to me, that’s the worst– one of the worst things
that’s going to happen, is millions of dollars,
billions of dollars will be shuttled
from the social, essentially, into the 1%. That’s not something
I can disobey as a– I don’t even really
know if it involves me as an individual at all. So this goes back to the
question of an individual. If that’s a law that pertains
to corporations, I can neither– I could protest it, I suppose,
but I can’t disobey that law. I find it to be
abhorrent, but it’s not in the same plane of existence
as obedience or disobedience. I in fact can’t
even obey the law. I can neither obey or
disobey the corporate rate for pass-through entities. SPEAKER 7: Ben, I
think actually you can make yourself into a
pass-through corporation. LEELA GANDHI: Say that again? SPEAKER 7: I think that
Ben can make himself into a pass-through corporation. And then Brown University
will pay your corporation and you will pay
a lower tax rate. That’s what’s going to happen. It’s not for IBM– [INAUDIBLE] it’s bankrupt. It’s not for Apple and so forth. It’s for people who will
do that to themselves. BEN PARKER: So that would
be obeying it, though. SPEAKER 7: Well, but
then, what if you– well, when said
you couldn’t do it because it had nothing
to do with you, but we could go on a tax strike. People have in the past,
most recently from the right, refused to pay their taxes. LEELA GANDHI: I’d like
just to offer [INAUDIBLE].. BEN PARKER: Oh, OK. If I may finish the– and the other question
I had was about the way that obedience and
disobedience falls into the same kind
of voluntarist aspect that I was criticizing
in my paper. So instead of looking at
the specific negativity, the specific conditions,
the specific consequences, the specific kinds of subjects
that are being produced by capital, and
saying, what new forms are there and new subjects
and what can they do? To me, disobedience
suggests a sort of subject possibly
plucked from the air. So those are my two comments. LEELA GANDHI: Thank you. I might just actually take
three quick questions. SPEAKER 7: You can skip mine. LEELA GANDHI: No, no, we have– SPEAKER 7: I know,
but basically they’ve been asked in some form
or another, so skip it. LEELA GANDHI: Very well. Well, then I’ll just take
two questions together from Sara and Claire
and give our speakers a chance to respond
before we close shop. SARA GUINDANI: Thank you to you
both for your inspiring talk. Sorry for my English, but
it’s 1 o’clock in my mind and so it doesn’t help. Anthony, one question for you. SPEAKER 9: You still
have to talk louder. SARA GUINDANI: Sorry? SPEAKER 9: It’s not your accent,
it’s how loud you’re talking. SARA GUINDANI: OK. And you made me think
about one Sartre phrase. I said it in French. He said, [SPEAKING FRENCH]– “Commanding and obeying
is the same thing.” So I think that is something
quite useful for our project of political lexicon. Because, as you said,
it seems that obeisance and dis-obeisance are really not
in the same semantic network. They are not just the
passive and the active voice of a same action. It’s something radically,
ontologically, essentially different, dis-obeisance. And I was wondering if you
see a link, a relationship, with the question of desire. Because you talked about
freedom, and the question freedom is not just
having a choice. So I think it could be
interesting to explore this possibility. LEELA GANDHI: Finally
a question from Claire. CLAIRE BRAULT: I think actually
my question might echo yours a little bit, so it’s good. And I’m going to chop off the
part that you already asked, I guess. So this simple question
that I would add to this would be, I find the
provocation to think about disobedience in
addition or beyond protest quite important. But I was wondering
to what extent– and this is really
an open question, and I don’t have a firm
position myself on it. I’m just wondering
what your thoughts are. In the last decade
or so, it seems like more and more, in the
US, in France where I’m from, protest is actually often very
quickly a form of disobedience because the
regulation of protests are more and more strict. And so to what
extent that boundary between the two, what work
does it do to distinguish between the two still? And I’m thinking, for example,
of the Women’s March last year. I went to the one in Boston,
and the Boston Commons were completely packed. There were so many more people– And I think the
organizers were actually counting on the numbers
on Facebook, but most– I didn’t register. Many people didn’t register. And we got trapped in
the Boston Commons. And many people left
the march because they were feeling overwhelmed. I was with someone
who was pregnant, and she didn’t want
to get stuck there. But I was baffled by the
fear that the organizers and many protesters had to just
not respect the course that had been set, just
disobey the plan and the police that was
there, that was by very far outnumbered. So I’m just wondering
at what point disobedience and
protest come together, and what might that do to our
thinking about this together. Thank you. LEELA GANDHI: So if I just
might first [INAUDIBLE] and then [INAUDIBLE]. ANTHONY BOGUES: Yeah. Thanks very much. Let me respond quickly to
Ben to say that, for me, neither obedience
nor disobedience are voluntary stuff, things. Obedience in late capitalism
is about the capturing of desire and imagination
to create subjectivities. It is a self– is a
illusion self-regulatory. But it is all power has
already constructed and created a certain terrain on
which you operating. That’s not voluntarism. Disobedience, in my view,
is also not voluntarism. In fact, it is actually calling
upon yourself and others. Because I don’t believe in
individual disobedience, although that’s possible. It is calling upon
self and others to engage in a certain action. And I think, as I
tried to respond to a colleague question
two, three questions ago, it is not just about
disobeying the law. This is what I was trying
to get us to move from. We think of disobedience
only in relationship to law. I’m trying to think
about disobedience as a political act that
is about breaking norms and conventions, not just law. So that the law may actually
be “just,” quote-unquote. But the ways in which
we have been ruled is a way that thwarts
any kind of movement to an understanding of
freedom, in my view. And I don’t use the word
emancipation deliberately, for all sorts of reasons. But it is about trying to
create freedom practices. And if it is about trying
to create freedom practices, that to me requires a
certain voluntarism. But it also
requires, in my view, a certain kind of
understanding of the social and working together
that, in my view, is something that
we haven’t done. It is what I like to call create
working in common association. In relationship to this
business, to desire, you’re absolutely right. To put the argument
very simply, and which is why I ended up on
the radical imagination, is that my feeling is that the
ways in which neoliberalism made capitalism work is
actually to capture desire, and therefore the imagination,
and therefore to say nothing is possible. Because if you can’t
think outside of that box, the faculty of
imagination does not think outside of the
certain kind of convention in which we are in, then
there is nothing possible. You don’t have to
hit us on the head. You just know that we can’t
do anything else, so therefore let’s just continue
and, what I like to say, let’s have wine and drink and
we all be happy if we can. So the question of
desire for me is absolutely essential
at this point in time. And I think that
we have to begin to understand that late
capitalism and neoliberalism has moved from just trying
to think through questions of exploitation,
and therefore we have a proletariat and questions
of creating ghettos and so on. It does all of those things. Foucault made it very clear. It does all those things. But I would argue it
does those things plus. And the plus is to try
and think about the way it operates in the
world today and trying to create these new
subjects, quite frankly, no matter where we are. So yes, desire is critical. Yes, I agree, there is a
relationship between protest and disobedience. I kind of split them so
that 20, 25 minutes I was thinking through that. I split them, but
I also want to– I split them because I
realize that process also requires disobedience. So you disobey a police officer
and you do certain things and so on. But I want to call for a
more deeper thinking around, how can we disobey the norms
and conventions of the life that we have been
called to live, of the kind of subjectivities
that we have been– subjects that we have been formed? And what does that mean to
do that in a collective way? And I don’t have the answer. But I’m trying to think through,
is there a possibility of that? And also, I am not saying
that then creates revolution. It may not. I don’t know. What I do know is
that what I think is that we have to begin to
think about how to resist what has become of us. In other words– let
me put it another way. We are, in my view, what I
like to call modes of life. And those modes of life have
turned us into something else. The question, in my
view, is, what then– it’s not just an
epistemic question, as some of my friends
and mentors think. What then do we need to do to
think about alternative modes of life on this planet? That to me causes certain
kinds of disobedience. And what then happens
after that, I don’t know. Thank you very much. LEELA GANDHI: Ben, do have
a 10-second sound bite? [LAUGHTER] Very well. Then please join me in thanking
our speakers for a won– [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 11: How are you doing?

Maurice Vega

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