Howard Slater explores the vicissitudes of popular unity, from the history of compromises by variously aligned popular fronts to recent struggles in which ‘internal populations’ and the repressed or absent bodies of left politics come to the fore
Your diaspora had begun
– Abdellatif Laâbi, Rue De Retour
The notion of a popular front has drawn so much suspicion in the past that its usage has almost been dropped completely from our political vocabulary. The historic example of The Workers’ Movement raised the materialised spectre of collaboration, compromise and the dilution of more heterogeneous radical intents through an adoption of the formalities of state politics. Did these endeavours to form popular fronts, an effort to massify, become one with the notion of a ‘historical compromise’? Whilst in Italy in the 1970s this phrase marked the willed vicinity of the Italian Communist Party to state power, could it not be said, reading this history backwards, that some form of ‘historical compromise’ came to mark the Workers’ Movement in general? A history of compromise with power as it was already instituted and hence a compromise with the forces of capital? At the parliamentary origins of the British Labour Party there was the Lib-Lab pact that got Kier Hardie elected as an MP; at the origins of the Communist Party of Great Britain there was a streamlining of the movement via the adoption of the Bolshevik Central Committee’s 21 points which enabled its legitimating membership of the Comintern.1
The historically accepted meaning of the ‘popular front’ is that of the Comintern’s urging of an alliance of left-wing movements as a means of combating the growth of Fascism through Europe. This led to the popular front government of France in 1936-1937 as well as the popular front of republicans, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, socialists and communists that descended into fatal factional infighting in the Spanish Civil War. Yet, regardless of Comintern policy, it could be maintained that this ‘popular front’ approach has been practiced at many levels throughout left politics and it is based upon bringing together an increasingly segmented left movement: a movement already dictated to by the capital induced division of the political from the economic in that the Workers’ Movement seemed always to be an uneasy alliance between political parties and sectionally orientated Trades Unions.2 Whilst anarcho-syndicalism tried to overcome such divisions – and, in the case of the pre-WW1 Triple Alliance of the Miners’ Federation and two Transport Unions, could actually be said to have challenged state power – it seems the aims of a ‘popular front’ have more usually been associated with the formalities of a left-democratic practice: amassing enough votes to be elected to power so as to work within the State apparatus and alleviate poverty and suffering through contesting and inaugurating laws.
So, suspicions fall upon the notion of a ‘popular front’ that can be seen, like most avowedly representational political practice, with its quantitative leanings, as a ‘compromise formation’. A compromise formation that informs politics in general as a mediatory site that responds to symptoms rather than deeper causes; a site in which lived experience and its diasporic effects has been beset by a debilitating formalism that could be said to have led to the seemingly unresolvable expression of at least two competing vectors: one towards enabling a ‘singular’ articulation and one towards enabling a general more ‘molar’ articulation. The benefit of a more recent conceptual language – in this case drawn from Deleuze and Guattari – enables us to see that the ‘party discipline’ of yesteryear and its continuation as insistent pedagogic persuasion, is, in some ways, about maintaining a fragile balance between these: a channelling and policing of singularities (seen as individualist) in a bid to attain a more politically efficacious homogeneity (mass expression).
Freud said of ‘compromise formations’ that they ‘are structures in the nature of a compromise between the repressed idea and the repressing ones’.3 In some ways it could be said that the very notion of an ego or of the ‘unified subject’ (for, instance, of ‘class consciousness’) is itself a ‘compromise formation’ that belies a constant state of infra-psychic civil war in its seeking to present itself as a coherent ‘popular front’ by means of the institution of a shared language as it struggles with the determinants of capitalist social relations. Our ability to speak politically at all, is, perhaps, itself a compromise between a repressed wish to say (repressed idea) and the language and the reception context (often ‘formally’ repressing) in which it can be said. Such an experience of ‘incomplete expression’ or the continued incidence of ‘inexpressibility’ not only, perhaps, acclimatises the subject to the popular front of formal politics (in which the inexpressible is neither seen as an issue of struggle nor even as political material), it also, almost in reverse, makes the subject ready to be segmented into sects in which it is felt that expression, a partial fulfilment of political desire, could be more complete, more singular. There is, then, a double bind in that the term ‘popular front’ could be seen to be seeking alliances between institutional entities so as to ‘massify’ and make political hopes more realisable. And yet these institutions themselves can be subject to an anxiety inducing compression. By means of their formal delineation of what is expressible they operate to suppress any possible singularisation, to keep the rejuvenating import of a (micro) politics of desire at bay.4
√ Politics ≈ Desire
Is it, then, a matter of ‘investments’ of psychic energy, of political desire, as we enter any form of ‘popular front’ (even the diaspora of our ‘own’ infra-psychic struggles)? Outside of transcendental purism and the narcissistic investments that sustain it, there is, then, the choice of which ‘compromise formation’ best suits us, which collective expression best speaks what we feel and believe. In which grouping do we feel that our desires will be best met and intensified? In which grouping do we feel the scope of our speech could be respected, heard and encouraged? Which grouping do we think can make a difference? These may be elements of subjective life (being recognised, being appreciated etc.) that seem miles away from formalised politics, but, if we are tempted by Félix Guattari and his ideas for a ‘micropolitics’; if we offer that in the desire for politics there is a politics of desire, then this factor of ‘incomplete expression’ is not without relevance. If we take credence of its tensions and give it a space, it could not only dynamicise our desire for singular expression with our desire for a more ‘molar’ articulation, but it could maintain and enhance these levels of desire and make room for the ‘full speech’ of a more processual expression: a ‘populous front’ through which our ‘sequential self states’ as Christopher Bollas has it, are included too; included as becomings seeking apposite forms.5
Maybe it’s no surprise that the notion of a ‘popular front’ has been unpopular. It may have helped achieve some power-access for elements of the Left (i.e. the Respect coalition), it may have, as with the anti-cuts demo of 30 November 2011 brought together disparate sectional interests under the ‘popular front’ type banner of public sector workers. But, at some level, its unpopularity may reside not just with its being a ‘compromise formation’, but with the dissatisfaction of an ‘incomplete expression’ that seems part and parcel of political activity. That the cuts that followed on from the bank bailouts effect a vast swathe of the population still remain an insufficient politicising factor seems due to the way the opposition to them required a de-subjectified political language, an economic language. Such ‘languages of power’ as these, with their desire-free objectivity, with their lack of responsiveness to the different facets of our emotional experience can be encountered as meretricious, amputative and dis-intensifying. Resulting from a formal bourgeois education these ‘languages of power’ may train their bearers in political positioning and historical comparison, but a wider intuitive suspicion falls upon them as ‘incomplete expressions’. Their very incompleteness, the lack of responses to the emotional effects wrought by impoverishment, make such languages contiguous with bourgeois modes of communication: persuasion (c.f. rhetorical argument) and obligation (c.f. duty). Such languages, it seems, are designed to occlude the expression of a deeper level of suffering and, in their dogmatic dis-impassioning, make sure that desires are kept private. These latter, whilst seen as ‘personal’ and politically ineffectual, are nonetheless a dynamic outcome of the individuation processes of capital (production of subjectivity) as these are maintained by social relationships reified by the value-form.
A factor in the reproduction of such reified social relationships maybe lies in how we defend against our own ‘internal populations’; the internal social relations of our componential and infra-psychic selves as these have been layered down through sensual experience and past identifications. Without such access to the ‘internal populations’ that form what could be called our social psyche we are left with the self (and the ‘political subject’) as a ‘general equivalence’, as an embodiment of the ‘value form’, rather than the self as an envelope of ‘internal populations’ aiding in a populous ‘becoming-singular’. If, as Marx urged, ‘men must make their own social relations’, then such a revolutionary endeavour is nigh on impossible if much of what in-forms those social relations is subject to the ‘languages of power’ and their being bolstered by ‘incomplete expression’ that has the effect of suppressing what it is possible to do, what it is possible to propose. Political languages and their formalised propositions for forms of action that can only be carried out by ‘unified subjects’ step in here as mediations of bodily sufferings be they ones of hunger or depression, or, in the case of manic-activism (or manic theorising!), as an intellectual defence against what psychoanalysis calls ‘dangerous internal objects’.6 For Colectivo Situaciones the drawback of these political languages of power is that they are imbued with ‘relations of representation’ (identities) that take precedence over ‘relations of expression’ (singularities). This has ramifications for any desiring politics that attempts to grapple with reified social relationships in that, as they put it: ‘representative paths reduce the totality of the experiential multiplicity of the struggle’ and erase the ‘radical singularity of each situation’.7
Man Aged Language
With such musings in mind, then, could it be time to re-articulate the notion of a ‘popular front’ as an ‘experiential multiplicity’, a populous front? Could such a re-think help in overcoming the ‘relations of representation’ that dominate politics and that, by means of dis-arraying ‘languages of power’, relegate so much of our (emotional) experience to the status of an incommunicable taboo? Would this mean that we enter into a ‘compromise formation’ with our deeper levels of suffering (our dangerous internal objects) as well as with our subjective desiring elements, our produced selves?8 Could it be that the protests and struggles of recent times (from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement) are a form of ‘populous front’ that are bringing with them a ‘trans-national’ and heterogeneous political practice that enable the expression of both psychic diasporas and cultural differences?9 Could it be that these protests are ‘popular’ to the extent that, numerically, in being supported and led by more and more young women they are of a size and, furthermore, that this presence of women reconnects at least two ‘fronts’ that parted ways with the critique of political machismo in the early ’70s?10
Key here would be to recall that the women’s liberation movement (WLM) was keenly aware of the downsides to ‘relations of representation’ and, with such free spaces as consciousness raising groups, did place a stress on wresting a ‘means of expression’ from a male dominated political language. But crucially this wresting of the ‘means of expression’ included a lifting of the communication ban from emotional experience and ameliorated the off putting ‘incomplete expression’ associated with the neutralising exclusivity of ‘languages of power’. Did such an approach, with its accent on challenging a male-centric language, with its attentiveness to ‘internal populations’, with its embracing of ‘dangerous internal objects’, help in popularising the women’s liberation movement? Could such a move be informing today’s protests? True to any political expression these questions sound rhetorical. But any re-use of the mutable term ‘popular front’ should maybe not disavow the incomplete expression of the ‘subjective’ and the ‘micropolitical’ so as to ensure that a form of relations led by practice comes to light that, as the Inoperative Committee of NYC wrote, could enable us ‘to see each other for the first time as not who we are but how we exist’.11
Perhaps what the Inoperative Committee are suggesting here is that under the confines of ‘languages of power’ what we present to each other as our ‘self’ may not be the whole story. Further, how we exist within capitalist social relations (with their deep psychic roots) modifies and impacts not only upon the ‘popular front’ of our self-presentation, but upon the manner in which we relate to each other in collectives and, of course, inter-collectively. That capital, in its dictatorial phase, is increasingly being recognised as a threat to the basic means of existence, that it is dehumanising, may well be a spur to a re-examination of what, beyond creeds and correctness, it is to be ‘human’. So, if we take the tortuous existential maxim of ‘hell is other people’ which, to a degree, is conditioned by the maximal individuation mechanisms of capitalism (the isolate of a psychical core which at its extreme is the suicidal impulse), then any collaboration however small is itself a ‘popular front’ and, with due recognition of the sexual politics discussions of the WLM, matters of love relationships (as a crucial area of subjective life) come to the fore to temper the garnered sublimations of discourse and positioning. That a ‘love for humanity’ may be at the root of left politics is more or less as ‘inexpressible’ in the political sphere as are the complications of love relationships. What these latter reveal to us of how we have been produced as insecure, dependent and needy subjects is eminently political, but these potential insights into capitalism’s affective incursions remain ‘privatised’ at the level of the repressed.12
Is there not, then, something in suffering and the struggle to exist, the struggle to love, that can bring us together to a place, neither public nor private, that seeks to overcome the way that, to echo artist Lygia Clark, we keep our sensitivities to ourselves. Would such an ‘overcoming’, brought about by a response to suffering in its different forms, permit us to actually settle together with these singularising differences; see it, through the experience of our and another’s bodily pain, as a difference that enables our becoming and the becoming of a ‘populous front’? Have our sensitivities been ringfenced by the ‘private sphere’? Is it not that such differential modes of suffering as these (material, psychical etc.) as well, despite the odds, our ongoing ‘desire to desire’, is it not that these can lay out what Félix Guattari has termed ‘unconscious passageways’ between each other and between groups rather than our being perpetually compartmentalised into separable practices with separate creeds and private desires?13 The dotted lines of such passageways would maybe encourage the formation of a ‘populous front’ against psychic repression, a popular front between the conscious and the unconscious (revelatory of ‘internal populations’), which could surmount the self-imposed embargo upon the ‘inexpressible’, upon the expressions of discomfort, dissension and suffering as being necessarily divisive, egotistical and solidarity-threatening. As Guattari puts it, we have to find ways to ‘remain antagonistic and yet function together’.14
Other potentials come along with the sketching out of these ‘unconscious passageways’. Potentials that do at least help to dynamicise the ‘compromise formation’ away from its being a matter solely of a ‘repressed idea and a repressing one’. For instance in traditional left collectives there has been the repressed idea of ‘individuality’ versus the repressing one of the ‘collective’. In the time of the historic ‘popular front’ the term for the first was ‘bourgeois individualism’, but with access to ‘unconscious passageways’, or one could say, a sensitivity to group dynamics, there could be, instead, a renewed ‘compromise formation’, in Guattari’s parlance, between ‘singularities’ and the ‘collective assemblage of enunciation’. Singularity, as revealed by the unconsciously introjected determinants of subjectivity, the multiple identifications and the levels of individuation (i.e. Guattari cites the biological, sexual and social levels) that we undergo, reveals the self as a precipitate of components and of conflictual processes of individuation. The ‘assemblage of enunciation’, in a sense replacing the political groupings of old with an open and mobile context for the expression of subjective life, is itself a popular front and I feel it is Guattari’s term for a grouping of individuals who see themselves as singularities in struggle with how they’ve been produced (their individuation), which necessitates a recourse to different registers of expression; not just ‘ideas’ couched in the the ‘languages of power’.15
These different registers of expression inform the differing means of practice and they in turn are informed by how we have been produced as subjects. In some senses the traditional idea of antagonistic contradiction was one that somehow lay ‘outside’ the protagonists (worker vs. capital, slave vs. master etc.) However, capital’s intensification of the production of subjectivity has led to an endocolonial state in which the contradictions pass within us and are silently registered in our ‘intra-psychic’ struggles.16 What a material recognition of the ‘unconscious passageways’ could bring to light, then, is the repressed material of these ‘internal contradictions’ which, if they remain at the level of ‘antagonism’ (as markers of absolute difference) are a hindrance to the formation-recognition of a ‘populous front’. These unspeakable and inexpressible internal contradictions, whose painful and conflictual dynamics are a marker of singularity, are maybe elements of the repressed that distance us from our own sense of singularity (dynamic of internal populations), from each other and from our accessing different registers of expression (including the expression of suffering). They short circuit the ‘unconscious passageways’ and proffer the mediation of organisations and formalised ideological positions as a stand in and as a further repressing of the repressed.17 To bring this repressed content to light would not only reveal the psychic impact upon us of ‘reified social relations’, but maybe, to echo Roland Simon, reveal further how a ‘populous front’ could form from discerning how we ‘are related to each other by different contradictions’.18
In the days of the Arab Spring, Syntagma Square, the Occupy Movement, the public sector strike and the education struggles we were witness to a renewed ‘popular front’ of sorts. A ‘populous front’ that brought together different levels, forms and registers of protest. It was interesting to note that in Athens many sectors of the left viewed the initial Syntagma Square assemblies with suspicion. The spectre of nationalism, inaugural in the historic popular front of Soviet Policy, was off-putting and, however briefly, seen by some as a definitional overcoding of the assemblies. Yet, re-reading some of the initial statements made in these assemblies and the reported suspicion of a political hijacking of them, it is interesting to note that many of these statements were directly ‘affecting’ expressions of suffering that seem to be uttered in defiance of the ‘languages of power’. The ‘public intimacy’ that was maybe witnessed in Syntagma, and doubtless in North Africa, seemed to not only outmanoeuvre the Left but, moreover, in an echo of the catalytic cahiers de doleance of Revolutionary France, it perhaps recast an individual expression of suffering within the form of the collective assembly as the formation of singularities within a ‘collective assemblage of enunciation’.19 In such assemblages as those at Syntagma Square could it be that the repressed idea of the ‘individual’ no longer met the repressing idea of the collective and the double-bind of leftist politics was loosened just as the ‘compromise formation’ associated with the ‘popular front’ was dynamicised: the anonymous articulations of Syntagma Square were enabled to be both ‘singular’ (individual) and ‘molar’ (collective) at the same time. Such a simultaneity, abandoning the strict chronological compartmentalisation that comes with the ‘unified subject’ of representational politics, could itself be seen as a loosening up of the repressed will to speak; a will that does not necessarily follow blindly a bourgeois use of language. That use of language, as a matter of course, seeks to convince, induce obligation and fix us as the irrevocable ‘subject of the statement’. As artist-therapist Lygia Clarke has mentioned: when ‘we are opening on to the anonymous work whose signature is nothing but the participant’s action’, then, there is nothing supplementary to the given of the statement. There is no need, within the collective assemblage of enunciation, to either have the last word or needlessly assert the self as already collective.20
That the accent at this first assembly was on a direct and unmediated expression of suffering perhaps helped in the formation of a ‘populous front’ that did not rely solely upon ideas and on a fitting political subject, but made a relational context for an improvised sharing of species suffering (affectability).21 This has been a submerged current of the left. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, writing in the 1970s, expressed a ‘need for solidarity that can be grasped with the senses’ and, in a different register, the poet Abdellatif Laâbi, wrote: ‘Adwah. I’m sorry. I’m revealing myself as I truly am. I don’t spin fantasies to enhance my correctness or my ‘normality’’. This ‘grasping with senses’ and ‘revealing myself’ is tantamount to the formation of another ‘unconscious pathway’, in that these denuded practices are more or less a mode of chipping at the distrait of repression (our psychical loyalties to capitalism). The sharing of such a practice in a ‘collective assemblage’ like that of the initial Syntagma Forum is directly affecting and inspiring of solidarity. In these moments the ‘presentational level of the self’, that could figure as a ‘compromise formation’ covering over intra-psychic conflict, has been practically (albeit momentarily) discarded, and, along with it, a mode of politics that is more akin to a continuation of reified social relationships.
This ‘denuded’ aspect that ensures that communication is encouraged to be opened up through ‘unconscious passageways’ as much as proceeding from a conscious political positioning seems to shift the political terrain towards that of ‘affectibility’, toward the ‘unthought known’, rather than towards the ideolects of the thought known, of abstract knowledge.22 Colectivo Situacionnes have given expression to something akin to this in terms of what they call the crisis of ‘political subjectivity’. This latter ‘separates itself physically and affectively from the situation, taking the situation as an object and linking to it in a purely analytical fashion’.23 Such an operation, in line with bourgeois modes of learning and expression could, at its extreme, be said to be inducive of ‘textual psychosis’. The drive to know in order to have a correct understanding seems to result in disabling any immersion of the body in a situation, which in turn, reduces the possible affectability of that body and the possibility for any commonality which the radical intelligensia often strive for. That the intellectual’s bodily presence is removed from a situation seems indicative of a moral transcendence that is the by-product of only linking to the situation by means of an ‘abstract knowledge’. This reduction in affectability could then play itself out not only as a removal from a common plane of immanence (the ‘situational present’ as Colectivo Situaciones may call it), but as an increasing distance between what is called the ‘statement of the the subject’ and what is called the ‘subject of the statement’. Any fidelity between these two would require a form of being conscious as much of the body and its affectability within any given situation as it would some pure union of abstract knowledge and perfect enunciation.
With the struggle for the means of expression, often disavowed by the radical intelligensia, we may be in the vicinity of an arousal of self-consciousness. In the past and with the historical popular front it could be said that ‘class consciousness’ was the predominant binding factor and that this was, as Murray Bookchin argues, posed against self-consciousness.24 This latter, associated with ‘individualism’, may have a different potential meaning under the terms of our being ‘raw material’ for the ‘production of subjectivity’. Under these ‘endocolonial’ conditions coming to ‘self-consciousness’ could be just as full of struggle as class consciousness: the coming to self-consciousness could actually entail the dispelling of illusions, the examination of self-images, the sifting out of capitalist ‘individuation’ processes and the ‘integration’ of the countless ego-precipitates of our ‘internal populations’ (i.e. diasporic social psyche). And so, with capital’s domination being as much psychical as material, with, as Guattari is keen to point out, the different levels of capitalist individuation that we undergo, the ‘popular front’ could well now figure as a form of collective coming to consciousness, a common plane of immanence, that is ‘bringing about mutations in the unconscious social field independently of the discourses held by separated groups’.25
The ‘discourses held by different groups’ (or person-groups) may well figure within the rubric of the ‘division of labour’ as forms of separation, as blocks that, in keeping to the disciplinary confines of bourgeois culture, constantly reinforce the in/out of those groups and thereby disable the ‘unconscious passageways’ between groups and discourses. A black power militant like George Jackson could write: ‘I don’t consider myself a writer, an intellectual, really none of those things that can be isolated...’, which, when set against his support for Huey Newton’s urging of a ‘popular front’ in the late ’60s, is illustrative of the Black Panthers’ keen awareness of the bourgeois control paradigm of ‘divide and rule’.26 This pitfall of an isolation that extends to intra-psychic division (denial of the social psyche) seems to find its antidote in what Jackson refers to as a ‘common need’ and an ‘allied effort’. The creation of allies is then akin to the formation of social relations other than those relations that are determined by the value-form and this necessitates a resistance to being dominated by discourses that in themselves carry the remnants of ‘divide and rule’ techniques; remnants that come to light as the ‘unconscious passageways’ are traversed. The lack of ‘demands’ that’s been remarked of the Occupy movement is maybe a means by which this form of ‘allied effort’ came to elude either being captured by any one political grouping or presenting itself as conventionally ‘political’. For ‘demands’ carry with them the potential to ‘divide and rule’: some are satisfied and others are not.
Image: Ibrahim Mohammed El-SalahiHuwa, 2000
The lack of ‘demands’ may be indicative of a ‘mutation in the unconscious social field’ in that, beyond any platform or unifying discourse, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement seemed to be presenting an ‘enigma’; something ambivalent that both eludes the commonly held syntax of politics and severs the ‘languages of power’ from its identification with ‘political subjects’. It is not so much a matter of telepathy that brings people to this form of protest, but a response to the way that politics itself is being outflanked by capitalist financial institutions (the ever present dictatorship of capital). In a manner akin to the outflanking of Trade Union diktats and control of workers struggle, the Occupy movement was perhaps turning its back on political representation (another route to ‘divide and rule’) and becoming instead a marker of transversality: ‘continual movement from one front to another’.27 That the unconscious knows no ‘specialist divisions’ and is in a sense the guarantor of our being ‘free to roam’, means that these ‘crossings’ between places and discourses, these fusions of militant practices (encampment, squats, forums, marches, music making, communal kitchen etc.), are effecting ‘mutations in the unconscious social field’ not simply for those who support the movements, but for those becoming self-consciously pre-disposed to protest. Such a proliferation of forms and practices encourages the inclusion of other practices. The ‘mutations’ become ‘mutations’ of the subject as it is produced into producing itself – a ‘generative mutuality’ leading, hopefully, beyond the ‘political subject’.28
No Body There
Such a ‘populous front’, that is in a certain sense ‘without a head’ or a ‘particular face’, seems to evoke the heterogeneous groupings and collectives that are outlined by E.P. Thompson in his Making of the English Working Class. That this book is set in the years after the French Revolution also provides the parallel of a monarchic squandering of wealth amidst generalised suffering akin to the bank bailouts of 2008 and their effecting of a more inclusive impoverishment. It is also interesting that the groups he mentions – the Black Lamp, the Luddites, London Corresponding Society – did not accompany their actions with manifestos or credos. They did not use the ‘languages of power’ and the absence of such ‘totalising discourse’ could then perhaps be indicative of their protest as being one of non-excluding ‘bodies’; a mutuality of custom rather than dogma. So, with the encampment at St. Paul’s we not only saw a collection of bodies (almost a ‘sensorium’) living together in close vicinity we also saw that, instead of one unifying discourse taking precedence, there was a daily convening of a heterogeneity of discourses that marked a ‘shift in interlocutor’.29 This could have had the effect of making the St Paul’s Occupy encampment into a consciousness-raising practice rather than as the formation of a political demand made by ‘political subjects’. Such an accent upon the nearness of each other, the concomitant production and reproduction of social relations as well as the co-research accent through exposure to different interlocutors had the feel of not exacerbating the negative. These practices are maybe what made this ‘populous front’ opaque to some sections of the left that not only uses its own reified structures as a socialisation apparatus but, which, along with this, can seem to inject a form of psychosis (reified relationship) into its politics.
For Klaus Theweleit, in his study of male fantasies, a key form that this psychosis takes is a de-cathecting of the body. An unquestioning use of ‘languages of power’ serves not only to separate the radical intelligentsia from the ‘body of the people’, but from their own bodies as well. Such a separation mechanism, a means of distancing and replacing the distance from others with fantasies of knowledge can, at best, be called idealism, but at its worst it could go under the rubric of ‘textual psychosis’. Theweleit offers that a key aspect of this political psychosis is that the ‘the body-ego is contained in a number of external social or organisational egos: nation, troop, party’.30 Yet, it could be added, so too is the body-ego potentially projected into books, meetings and committees, and, it could be interestingly conjectured, into the formulation of ‘demands’. For Theweleit an ego that is dependent upon external support is a fragile ego that needs a ‘larger social formation to guarantee its boundaries’. It may be a little far fetched to extrapolate from this that there is, within the totalising discourses of leftist theory, the same function of an exteriorisation of the body-ego. Nonetheless, it is not without interest to see that such an exteriorisation is, so Theweleit maintains, what, through the valorisation of ‘larger social formations’, furthers the ‘de-differentiation and de-vivification of living life’ which, he maintains, is a key facet of psychosis.31That the ‘languages of power’ also add to this de-vivification (encouraging as they do a stolid lack of fit between abstract ideas and bodily expressivity) would maybe come to figure ‘textual psychosis’ as an effect of the disembodiments that arise when the reified abstractions of discourses are taken as exterior ego supports, as surrogates for a ‘subjective life’ the ego cannot bear (or simply represses in the name of the ‘collective’).
This ‘larger social formation’, the aim of the historic ‘popular front’ and the paradigm of politics itself, is a means through which our diasporic selves, our singularities and their collective becomings are thwarted to the degree that they become subject, through ‘languages of power’, to the psychotic tendencies harboured in mass movements. Not only were the institutions of the popular front arranged on hierarchic lines and drawn into the numbers game of capitalist democracy, they maybe came to figure as ‘external drives’ that sought the investment of our political desires. The bid to become ‘mass’ had an homogenising function and with this came the removal of any pleasure in revolt. The ‘de-differentiation and de-vivification’ that Theweleit speaks of is tantamount to the dangerous suppression of bodies-of-desire that became readied for re-channelling as, at a relational level, the projection of the negative self-object into other groups which undercuts any chance of an ‘allied effort’ (unconscious passageways are not only blocked but actively elided as no-go zones). So, the gradual formation of the working class political parties signalled the end of the ‘molecular mass’ (Theweleit) of those myriad of groups that E.P. Thompson describes. These may well have been more akin to impermanent ‘collective assemblages of enunciation’ in that they maybe enabled the means of expression to be won at a time before the means of production came to be the predominant focus of the workers’ movement.
But the means of expression are never won outright and their crucial role as a factor of production seems to imply that for any popular front to become a populous front, then, as Bookchin and Raoul Vaneigem have both mentioned, the struggle for the unconscious (and its ‘passageways’) cannot be left off the map. Such a struggle would be premised upon our far from ideologically correct ‘internal populations’ seeking a form of expression as much as it would be informed by a further reiteration of the hitherto understood forms of ‘political subjectivity’. This has been one of the lasting fruits of some elements of the women’s liberation movement. Not only did it endeavour to bring to light a ‘politics of desire’, a profiling of political desiring investments and their extension to the reproductive sphere, it also ‘spoke the language of pleasure... not that of demands’ as well as providing a non-paranoiac and safe space for the flipside of this: the languages of anxiety and fear, the languages of belonging and exclusion, the languages of personalised responsibility and collective absolution.32 Such an avowal of the ‘actual experience of subjective life’ (what George Jackson called ‘a diagnosis of our discomfort’) foresees the crisis of political subjectivity that has been brought about by the dictatorship of capital and its endocolonial effects. A way out of the ‘compromise formation’ towards a populous front could well be about recognising the ‘incomplete expression’ of political languages,about working towards discerning ‘unconscious passageways’, seeking out differentiating interlocutors and collectively expressing common sufferance and intra-psychic conflict.33 These may not only be the ground of a renewed cahiers de doleance that seems to have been collectively expressed in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, but a means of working with heretofore depoliticised materials and bringing subjective processes inflected with the value-form to the surface. Was it that such material found a mode of expression in the repeated calls for ‘dignity’ that, in 2011, could be heard from the Magrheb to the Mashriq?34
Howard Slater <howard.slater AT googlemail.com> is a volunteer play therapist and writer who lives in East London
Written March – June 2012
Revised June/September 2013
1 It maybe should be noted that certain celebrated left wing militants such as John Maclean and Sylvia Pankhurst had their entry into the Communist Party of Great Britain disbarred.
2 One could add that the division between the productive and reproductive spheres was a further ‘in-built’ means of blunting The Workers’ Movement which, with all due respect to the historical context of the ’30s, may only have become explicit after the rise of the women’s liberation movement of the late ’60s.
4 When Lacan says that ‘to think the subject as unified requires that we silence or hide a great array of the actual experience of subjective life’ he is maybe hinting at the ‘unsilencing’ that would be formational for a politics of desire. See Campbell Jones, ‘What Kind of Subject is the Market’, New Formations, No.71, 2011, p.138.
5 Christopher Bollas, Becoming A Character, London: Routledge, p.29. The idea of a ‘political subject’ with its ramifications of having arrived at ‘political consciousness’, leaves very little room for ‘becomings’, for a political use of the ‘complex dialectics of identifications’ (J.B. Pontalis) that form us, which, if their dynamism is not repressed under say, the rubric of the ‘political subject’, have the effect of pre-disposing us to collectivities in that we are already ‘multiple’. That this facet of human self-experience is often overlooked is a key means in our continually reproducing the frigidising duality of individual vs. collective.
6 These ‘dangerous internal objects’ could as well be named as ‘feelings’ or ‘affects’. They are dangerous for several reasons: at the outset they may very well be informed by the individuation processes of capital and so they are dangerous simply because of the pain and sufferation caused by their incomplete expression (c.f. taboo); that we seem to lack the vocabulary and context with which to express these ‘dangerous internal objects’ means that they become a threat to the (politico-rational) self-image; from this, in the context of political groupings, they are dangerous in that they lead to aggressive projections onto others (what Bollas has referred to as the creation of the other as a ‘negative self object’).
7 Colectivo Situaciones, ‘19& 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism’, Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, p.163.
8 To a degree is it not that us left intellectuals have to ‘break’ with ourselves rather than break with our projected selves (the little bits of our disavowed past) that are embodied in ‘political opponents’.
9 Hamid Dabashi speaks of the trans-national Arab Spring as a ‘popular protest’ with ‘popular participation’ and crucially that, for him, the will to resist is marked by a ‘shift in interlocutor’ away from the colonial/post-colonial refraction. Such a shift of interlocutor marks, in the context of this piece, a move towards loosening the unsayable and forging affective (and formerly unconscious) connections as a ‘populous front’. See Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring, London: Zed Books, 2012, p.75.
10 For a brief account of the role of women in the Arab Spring see Hamad Dabashi, ibid, pp.182-192.
11 See Inoperative Committee, ‘Preoccupied: The Logic of Occupation’, http://libcom.org/library/preoccupied-logic-occupation, 2009. Such a shift from ‘identity’ to ‘being’ opens up the fractures of the ‘unsayable’ and hints at a form of relation that can hold the vulnerabilities of ‘how we exist’, the suffering of subjective life.
12 Class struggle positions would ‘rightly’ reject the Christian slush of this ‘love of humanity’ in favour of a love for some sections of humanity – the working class. This may allow for murderous hate (‘who is to be shot?’) but there is still this perverse taboo on setting emotional language (‘love’) free amidst the public language of politics. Yet ‘love’ itself needs to be deconstructed: Deleuze gives us a clue: ‘non-oedipal love is pretty hard work’ as does Guy Hocquenghem: ‘we want to be rid of sexual segregation’. See also Gherasim Luca and his surrealistic attempt to re-invent love.
13 Félix Guattari and Suely Rolnik, Molecular Revolution in Brazil, New York: Semiotext(e), 2008, p.107.
14 Guattari and Rolnik, ibid, p.237. In a similar vein Paolo Virno has mentioned that ‘nowadays it is all about finding the relation between the highest degree of commonality and the highest possible degree of singularity’. See Open Magazine No.17 – A Precarious Existence, 2009.
15 Guattari and Rolnik, ibid, p.434.
16 For an unpacking of this compacted sentence see my ‘Anomie/Bonhomie: Notes Towards the Affective Classes’, in Anomie/Bonhomie & Other Writings, London: Mute, 2012, pp.71-136.
17 Is it that these unconscious passageways are at least recognisable and kept open through love relationships that are, nonetheless, maintained as ‘autonomous’ from politics. An undue pressure is then placed upon an idea of ‘love’ as a sanctified private sphere, as the site to act-out the internal contradictions and the intra-psychic struggle?
18 See Roland Simon, ‘Gender Distinction, Programmatism and Communisation’, http://libcom.org/library/gender-distinction-programmatism-communisation
19 On ‘public intimacy’ see Lauren Berlant, Gesa Helms and Marina Vishmidt, ‘Affect & the Politics of Austerity’, http://www.variant.org.uk/39_40texts/berlant39_40.html
20 For the report of the First Assembly at Syntagma Square of 26/5/2012 see http://www.metamute.org/community/your-posts/updates-greek-squares-and-peoples-assemblies.
21 Gilles Deleuze’s book on Spinoza grants us a means of seeing this ‘species being’ as a ‘plane of immanence’: ‘what is involved is no longer the affirmation of a single substance, but rather the laying out of a common plane of immanence on which all bodies are situated’. That these common bodies are made ‘immanent’ by means of their affectability (‘being will be defined by their capacity for being affected’) militates against any ‘single substance’ taking precedence over the ‘self’. Such a ‘single substance’ and its form-of-consciousness is that which hereto defines the political as the ‘already-played out’ rather than that which can pack a singularising surprise: ‘no one knows ahead of time the affect one is capable of’. See Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza, Practical Philosophy, USA: City Lights, 1988.
22 On the ‘unthought known’ see Christopher Bollas, Shadow of the Object, London: Free Association Books, 1987, p.233.
23 Colectivo Situaciones, ibid., p.98.
24 See Murray Bookchin, ‘Spontaneity and Organization’, http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-on-spontaneity-and-organisation
25 Guattari & Rolnik, ibid, p.71.
26 George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, USA: Bantam Books, 1972, p.232.
27 Guattari and Rolnik, ibid, p.257.
28 At times the strength and openness of collective practice as a ‘generative mutuality’ is more affectingly experienced in ensemble musical practices, see: Fred Moten, In The Break - The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p.55-59; George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
29 Dabashi, ibid., p.75.
30 Klaus Theweleit , Male Fantasies, Volume II, UK: Polity Press, 1987, p.223.
31 Ibid., p.212.
32 Sonogram of A Potentiality, Petroleuse Press, 2011, p.86. This chapbook revisits some of the more militant voices of Italian Feminism of the ’70s and ’80s and coins the term ‘ecstatic feminism’ for those ideas and practices that have escaped representational capture.
33 In a moment of re-assessment an anonymous group of Italian Feminists spoke thus: ‘The questions we should have been asking both them [women detainees] and ourselves [militants] were much older... why am I writing to you? Why am I your sister? Who are you? What do you still want to do with your life? What can you still do with it? Is it right to experience love the way you (or I) have experienced it? Perhaps there is some other way...?’. See ‘Pushed By The Violence of Our Desire’ in Paola Bona and Sandra Kemp (eds.), Italian Feminist Thought, London: Blackwell, 1991, p.307.
34 Hamid Dabashi, ibid., p.127, ‘Dignity is not a political matter. Dignity is a moral virtue that had now become a political force – a non-political term entering the political domain has catalytic power...’