Where angels fear to tread: Badiou, Zizek, and les événements

The concept of ‘event’ has become a hot topic in certain strains of cultural and political theory, inflected by the thought of Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and others. It’s meant to be a figure for the surprising, unforeseen, ruptural, and, perhaps, the relation of the ‘exciting’ to the more routine, entrained, predictable. It’s also become, in some usages, a smart way of keeping alive a messianic fantasy of political revolution.

It’s been fun, given all the talk of ‘the event’ in theory-land, to see so many of the leading figures of ‘Continental Philosophy’ expound on the political events sweeping North Africa and the Middle East these last two months. Because what is notable is how many of these commentaries manage to find exactly what they want to find in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya – even if it’s confirmation of the pure contingency of ‘the event’.

So Alain Badiou has found confirmation of his own version of communism, replete with Orientalist flourishes about ‘Eastern winds’; Hardt and Negri had a nice piece in The Guardian, in which these events were all about the multitude, leaderless movements, and horizonality; Peter Hallward is one amongst a number who are inscribing these events into broader narratives of a revolt against neoliberalism. From a somewhat different position within contemporary Franco-philosophical scene, Andre Glucksmann is less sanguine.

Zizek’s interpretation of the uprising in Egypt is my favourite: “The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran’s Khomeni revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.” This is a brilliantly self-aggrandizing assertion, one that underwrites the arrogation of interpretative authority to a cadre of bombastic universalists who don’t have to worry about what they do and don’t know about other places!

The projection on these worldly events of current theoretical perspectives has been a feature of lots of the commentary over the last month or so. It’s perhaps most obvious in the ongoing debate about the role of new media like Twitter in triggering and spreading political rebellion – where debate has oscillated between those who over-state the importance of new media, and those who dismiss this aspect. Jay Rosen has already analysed the rhetorical positions in these debates, which might be read as one moment in broader contemporary cultural debates about social technologies, wonderfully dissected by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker last week.

Amongst all this reflection, the best commentary I have found has been on the SSRC website, which contra Zizek, has provided lots of well-informed discussion by people who know about the region, including voices actively involved in these struggles (Noel McAfee at Gone Public has also provided useful links to regional voices). A couple of things stand out from these discussions – one is a more careful understanding of the secular qualities of these movements, discussed by Seyla Benhabib and John Boy for example; and the other is the importance of nationalist registers to these movements against authoritarian regimes. In both respects, the know-nothing universalism of Badiou or Zizek is revealed as somewhat limited in its analytical purchase. The best way to learn from these events, the welcome challenge presented in the commentaries by Badiou and Hardt & Negri, is to listen to people who know what they are talking about. That’s always a good way learning something you didn’t already think you knew.

Theory in the streets

A feature of much of the instant commentary on political events from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya has been a focus on those aspects of these processes that can be grasped even if you don’t know much, if anything, about these places. This is partly what is going on around all the discussion of the role of new media in facilitating and translating contestation across the Middle East – this is the aspect of these events can is familiar even from a distance. Indeed, it’s the aspect that makes these events accessible in new ways, in certain respects, while occluding aspects that are not so amenable to being communicated through these mediums.

So, rather than focus on what is most comforting about these events – the degree to which they might confirm a certain predisposition amongst a digitally wired intellectual strata of the importance of being digitally wired, I wonder if there aren’t things about them that might unsettle received wisdom. I wonder in particular if they might unsettle at all any of the conventions of contemporary ‘Theory’? This might appear a rather obscure concern, but it’s been interesting me this week as the figure of Gene Sharp, political theorist of non-violence, has been profiled in a range of after-the-fact reflections on political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt in particular.  Sharp was mentioned in a New York Times article about these revolutions, and was then the subject of a follow-up profile. Interviews and blog notices about his influence  in shaping the non-violent strategies of protestors and with links to key publications have followed.

I particularly liked the blog posts which wondered aloud who Gene Sharp was, since he doesn’t seem to figure in a canon of contemporary political thinkers. In fact, Sharp is often a focus of attention when non-violent political action shakes more or less dictatorial, more or less authoritarian regimes around the world – he is credited with influencing non-violent political movement from Burma to Zimbabwe, Iran to Eastern Europe (there is an ultra-leftist riff on the blogosphere that Sharp is just an agent of the CIA, on the grounds that the events in which his influence is so often found tend to be supported also by the US government or US-based democracy promotion programmes).

What is interesting, theoretically, about Sharp’s analysis of non-violent political action, which informs the practical strategies picked up in such diverse contexts, is a conceptualization of power as being based on consent and obedience, not premised on violence. This might sound familiar – it is a Gramscian shibboleth to contrast coercion and consent after all. But in Sharp’s work, it is the basis of a pluralist understanding of the different ways in which power structures seek and secure consent – without reducing all of these to some fundamental substance in violence and coercion. It’s this difference between power and consent that underlies Sharp’s strategic understanding of the potential of non-violent action, which has clear resonances with Arendt’s account of concerted public action, as mobilising a fundamentally different register or mode of action than that of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The sense that power is not reducible to violence is also found in Arendt, even in Foucault. But its remarkably common in contemporary political theory and cultural theory alike to elide this difference, and to presume that in fact violence is the substratum of all power relations, or that apparent consent is really just the product of manipulation and manufacture – i.e., just a cover for coercion, which is not, one might suppose, what Gramsci was actually getting at. The failure to think through the political implications of the fact that consent has to be won is the focus of Michael Bérubé’s book The Left at War, and John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy, great books which seriously think through the limitations of conventions of current theoretical genres in light of the spiralling politics of violence of the last decade.

The influence of Sharp’s work, and the examples of non-violent political action with which his name is often associated, is a powerful rebuke to the metaphorical over-inflation of ‘violence’ in so much contemporary theory, whether in notions such as ‘symbolic violence’, or the ontologization of violence that runs from Sorel through Fanon to Agamben. It also stands in contrast to the current excitement around The Coming Insurrection, the anarcho-communist text that has become central to the case of the Tarnac 9 (0r 10) in France since 2008, and garnered lots of attention, and a translation with Semiotext(e), as a startling new and original conceptualization of the ‘politics of neocommunism’, as one contribution to a renewed Marxism-beyond-class (what would be the point of Marxism without class?). Interpreted by the French authorities as a manual for terrorism, it’s also been described as ‘elitist revolutionary strutting‘ and identified as really just a symptom of the absurdities of a failed lineage of left theory. It’s certainly odd to find a text which identities a new subject of political revolution – ‘youth’ – but has recourse to such a resolutely middle-aged, crotchety analysis of generalised alienation. It is also notable, in contrast to the theory of non-violent political action currently being enacted in the world, how far this style of political analysis depends on drawing symmetries between the modes of action of ‘the powerful’ and those who challenge them – the theoretical significance of the rhetoric of war, attack, and confrontation in this document lies here, I think, in this moral and political failure to be able to think of politics outside of a logic of mimetic hostility. And of course, whereas Gene Sharp’s name keeps coming up when it is realised that non-violent political action is strategic and organised, the analysis of a communism-to-come that is a purely immanent resonance with the current system requires no attention at all to the hard work of political action.

How did that happen, and what happens next?

Three interesting blog posts which help put events in Egypt in context, in different ways, and without overdoing the social media angle: from African Arguments, a good discussion about the background and possible trajectories of political contestation in the Middle East and North Africa; from Gone Public, a post on the prospects for democracy in Egypt, and mentions the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy, which provides academic analysis of the dynamics of democratisation in the region; and a fascinating post from The Monkey Cage which refers to a report on the planning behind the demonstrations in Cairo, including the importance of leafleting to the mobilization of residents of working-class areas.

‘From the blogosphere to the street’

Continuing the theme of how to understand the role of new media in helping to explain events in Egypt, the SSRC’s Immanent Frame blog site has two new excellent pieces by anthropologists, which place these practices in broader contexts, written by Charles Hirschkind and Farha Ghannam. Read together, they do a nice job of emphasizing two things: how new media practices like blogging are embedded in wider media ecologies, relating to and reconfiguring other media forms and practices, particularly of news making; and the important relationship between these reconfigurations of media publics and the politics of occupying and contesting urban public spaces.

What do ‘media’ do?

Following my post on the reporting of events in Egypt, Alex Marsh sent me a link to this think-piece by BBC correspondent Paul Mason, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which seeks to draw some general lessons from recent protest events in places as diverse as Greece, Ireland, North Africa and the UK. The piece has since been published in The Guardian, and has attracted some attention, not least as indicative of a BBC policy of encouraging journalists to engage in more detailed discussions via blogging.

Mason’s piece treads between a focus on ‘technology’ and a more interesting discussion of some of the sociological aspects of this range of events – the emphasis on the role of young, relatively highly educated people is surely correct. There is an inevitable journalistic emphasis on the newness of all of this, and the default assumption remains that this is really a story about how ‘technology’ transforms the conditions of political action. The geographer Tim Unwin has a list of various reports that address what he himself calls “the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet” in shaping political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt,  and beyond. His last comment is important: “Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.” A certain view of the potential of digital communications is no doubt an important part of the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of contemporary activism. Likewise, Mason’s think-piece refers in passing to how “activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri”. I’m not so sure this necessarily means “they have a better understanding of power”, but in so far as it is true, it does certainly mean they are likely to have a particular, well-formed view of how power operates, for better or ill. But it seems to me that both of these aspects of activist self-understanding – of ‘communications’ and of ‘power’ – are more interesting if they are understood as internal dimensions to this form of organisation, without requiring anyone to affirm the ‘objective’ validity of either of these views of how political action unfolds. The focus on the importance of new media in much of this reporting and commentary allows a narrative framing in which politics is rooted in a generalised but unformed sense of ‘grievance’ rooted in ‘poverty’ and ‘oppression’ which is then given expression by new communications opportunities – Manuel Castells neatly summarises this narrative in his comments on all this.

In short, there is a particular concept of the mediating work that ‘media’, old and new, perform in much of the commentary on the role of social media and digital technology in contemporary politics – they can be ascribed so much importance by virtue of being attributed a merely mediating function. Amongst other things, what disappears from view from this perspective is the different practices that different communications technologies help to configure – twitter and facebook are playing different roles in contemporary events in the Arab world to that played by Al-Jazeera. While much of the commentary out there is about how new media changes how politics is done, my sense is that the real imperative behind much of this kind of commentary is the attempt to understand the changed conditions under which news is made, and indeed, the changed conditions under which academic expertise about complex situations can be articulated in real-time (and there might be interesting elective affinities between certain self-understandings of activism and the focus of media reporting on individualising effects of new media).

For an antidote to some of the more detached commentary on events in Egypt and Tunisia, there are some interesting debates going on amongst anthropologists, which provide much more depth of understanding than is found in much of the technology-focussed discussion. There are a couple of more circumspect reflections on the role of media in these political eventsOne of these pieces makes the point that the focus on the new mediums of political change is a recurrent feature of reporting and commentary on these types of dramatic political events: “This is an evergreen story…The interest that’s focused on social media now, ten years ago was focused on web portals, before that it was focused on email and list-serves, before that it was television.” And in this respect, there is an interesting archive of reportage and commentary on the protests around the contested Iranian election in 2009, described by some as a ‘twitter revolution’, which two years on is an interesting case-study of how the global news narrative of politics as technological expression unfolds and then unravels over time.

Democracy Live

I came across an interesting theory blog the other day, called GonePublic, which belongs to Noelle McAfee, and focuses on links between philosophy, political theory and contemporary public life. She has a new book out, which I had not come across before, called Democracy and the Political Unconscious, which I haven’t yet read, but which sounds interesting in its emphasis on the relationships between collectively felt trauma and the challenges of building and sustaining democratic cultures. Her site also has a link to a recently published collection, Democracy in What State?, which includes contributions by some of the grandees of ‘continental-style’ political philosophy – Ranciere, Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, Nancy. Should make interesting reading, given the decided ambivalence about ‘democratic’ values one might impute to at least one or two of these thinkers. And while I am on the subject of things I haven’t read properly yet, there is also an interesting looking essay in Political Studies by Andy Dobson on Democracy and Nature, that thinks through the relevance of Latour’s provocations about nature and democracy by emphasising the importance of practices of listening as well as the well-trodden emphasis on speaking in recent democratic theory.

I stumbled across these references a week or so ago, and remembered them this week while finding myself watching a lot of day-time television, in that zonked-out, sleep-deprived way that one does in the first few days after the birth of a new child. We have sat glued to images of protest and violence in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. I wonder which, if any, of them would be most helpful for understanding what is going on there. Between them, these theoretical works look like they cover the shared terrain of cutting-edge democratic theory these days, which revolves around a couple of intertwined issues: how best to think of the mediums of inclusive democratic politics – in terms of deliberating, representing, and/or other modes of more or less embodied action; and how to square these images of how democratic politics should be best practiced with a more worldly acknowledgement that democracy is rarely founded democratically, but is shaped at its origins often by violence, trauma, and suffering. Of course, there is a style of theorising about ‘the political’ that presents these two sides as standing in a starkly contradictory, or aporetic relationship, so that democracies are always tainted at source by foundational violence. This serves as a way of reconfiguring some quite old-fashioned images of messianic revolution with ideals of democratic politics. Alternatively, there is an Arendtian vision in which the sorts of street protests going on in Egypt this last week or so are examples of a mode of collective, public action that is constitutively opposed to violence and yet is the very source of democratic energies.

Now I don’t know very much about Egypt, and am not inclined to over-interpret events there just for the sake of theoretical point-scoring. But watching these events, distracted by more real personal events and from a distance, I have been struck by how at times like this what you really want is contextual, social-scientific forms of analysis rather than interpretative political theory.  And, it’s also useful to have some sense of how things might be theorised by those more familiar with these contexts than the usual theory-suspects.

One of the riffs this past couple of week about Egypt, and before that about Tunisia, has been about the importance of social media like twitter and facebook in coordinating the protests and collective mobilizations that have shaken authoritarian regimes. To a large extent I think, this sort of emphasis is really an index of a culture of journalism that doesn’t know very much about the places where dramatic news events often take place, and is therefore forced to fall back on a familiar narrative line. Malcolm Gladwell has a neat little blog post on this theme here, in which he points out that the fact that the fact that events in Egypt have been partly shaped by the use of new media might be far down the list of relevant factors worthy of attention. His point is that the fascination with the mediums through which contemporary collective action is made possible, with the ‘how’, tends to distract attention from the content, from the ‘why’ of such action. There is a kind of flattening effect of this sort of news narrative, in so far as it makes political revolutions in Tunisia just another version of half-hearted online petition exercises led by government in the UK or the latest smart viral marketing campaigns of this or that underground pop song. The focus on the medium is not only exaggerated, as Gladwell suggests, but tends to obviate the need for any deeper analysis of why political events like this take place at all – I have actually learnt very little about Egyptian politics after a week of watching blanket news coverage from there.

Of the things I have had time to read on this issue, I enjoyed this piece on why the narrative that paints Egypt in 2011 as potentially a re-run of Iran in 1979 doesn’t hold up really helpful, precisely because it provided a basic outline of the social and organisational context in which these events are unfolding. It reminded me too of an old media studies analysis of the importance of tape cassettes to the Iranian revolution. Maybe each political revolution has its own  iconic ‘new media’ technology?

And the cassettes example isn’t as old sounding as it may appear. The anthropologist Charles Hirschkind has a detailed ethnographic account of the importance of taped sermons in shaping contemporary Islamic public spheres, in The Ethical Soundscape. One reason why this account resonates is that it reminds us that there is more to ‘media’ than just communicating – the ongoing importance of this media technology, in Hirschkind’s account, lies in the practices of self-sustained by a culture of listening, of being devout, of cultivating a particular spiritual and public ethics of life.

Hirschkind’s account of the practices of contemporary public life in Islamic societies like Egypt and Iran suggests a much more nuanced understanding of ‘public space’  than one often finds in spatial disciplines like geography or urban studies, which have a tendency to fetishize ‘real’ public spaces. I suppose the centrality of Tahrir Square to the events in Egypt in the last week might seem to confirm this emphasis. But I wonder. This seems to be an example of a struggle of over a specific site, as a symbolically important location rather than a site of real power, the control of which projects or reaches beyond its coordinates in space. A year or so ago I listened to a talk, at a workshop in Rome on political agency, by the Egyptian academic and activist Heba Raouf Ezzat, who talked about the vibrant but furtive quality of the political public sphere in Egypt. She recommended the work of Asef Bayat, who has written about new ‘post-Islamic’ social movement politics and the ordinariness of political action in the Middle East. Bayat has also written about the figure and reality of ‘the Arab street’, which he reconstructs as a complex of ideas and practices about the force of popular opinion, the fragility of state power, and the calibration of formal political processes to material conditions of life (what Africanist political theorists might call ‘the politics of the belly’). Bayat has updated this analysis of the new Arab street in the last week in relation to events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Between them, these sorts of analyses of the spaces of  political action are helpful in indicating the extent to which democratic energies might be understood as urbanized in certain respects without forcing one to fetishize a particular romantic image of the city as the scene of political life. There is an urbanity to the movements for change in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere, it seems – in so far as they are peopled by labour activists, and professional classes, by women’s organisations, as well as by varieties of religious activism which are resolutely modern in their concerns and maybe often even ‘secular’ in their form. And it seems too there might be something resolutely urbanized about the ‘conjunctural’ factors at work in these recent events – the central importance of economic grievances over unemployment and food prices is indicative of the interplay between spatially extensive infrastructures of provisioning upon which contemporary urban living on the scale of a city like Cairo depends; and more contained, lived and shared experiences of stunted citizenship.