Saturday, March 10, 2007


What Do Cyborgs Want?

(Paris, Suburb of the Twentieth Century)

In this "Xerox degree of culture" that has come to be known, for reasons as paradoxical as they are historical, as post-modernity, what we notice first – because it so loudly and vigorously calls attention to itself, like the stereotypic masochist begging "Beat me, beat me" – is the self-flagellation of theory. We have seen the dispersal of theory, as with the grand diaspora of post-structuralisms, theory posed against theory itself, sometimes for very different reasons, theory sealing itself off and declaring its sole horizon to be a critique of the history of itself, theory that wills itself to become what it once took for its object or Other – this is particularly visible in those sophomoric critical texts that imagine themselves to be art –, and we have even seen theory that is apparently willing to erase its own characteristic feature of the critical gesture, that fundamental distantiation which is the presumption of all analysis, until it slides over from a critique of high culture, so-called, into becoming simply one more wavelength among many in the limitless spectrum of mass culture, a move by which the theoretician is transformed into a kind of celebrity, a talk show host for ideas, perhaps, or a standup comic on the new vaudeville circuit of college conferences, but a person who is most certainly subject to the rules of the game of celebrity far more absolutely than to any for the game of theory. Much of what makes the work of Jean Baudrillard interesting, even fascinating, and which has enabled it to remain resilient over these past three decades, has been a willingness on his part – knowingly and even laughingly, since humor is as much a part of his repertoire as is insight – to occupy so many of these incommensurable positions. Baudrillard is, to follow his own metaphor, the grand drag queen of theory. He gives us theory at its most provocative, at its most pornographic. He is, in some sense, our own Cicciolina, that Italian representative who, it has been alleged, sometimes urinates on the spectators in the front rows of her naked entertainments. What will Baudrillard say next? How can we not hear, whenever he asks that question, "What are we going to do after the orgy?" the real question: what are we going to do after this talk? Baudrillard, at least at one level, is the orgy. Or at least would like to be. No wonder he says that sex is no longer of much interest.

So to be asked to follow Baudrillard, to respond, is a little too obviously a set-up. Here he is discussing, amid much else, the disappearance of art...and I'm a poet. Here he is, the maverick apotheosis of the theoretical, that most critical and academic of discursive formations...I'm still a poet. (Even worse, my terminal degree is from a high school: I'm an unlettered poet.) Here Baudrillard is talking beyond politics, toward what he calls the transpolitical, and I'm a longtime political activist, a veteran, respectively, of the anti-war, prison and tenants' movements, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, part of the collective that publishes Socialist Review and until one month ago the executive editor of that publication. There is even a generational angle here: Baudrillard, after all, is just two years younger than my father. It's all too perfect and Oedipal a match. So if I decline to slay Baudrillard today, in the way that every response to a keynote speech is a form of ritual public disembowelment, Baudrillard posed as the bull and I as the matador, the way I once watched Arthur Kroker slay Fred Jameson in Lawrence, Kansas, I hope you will forgive me. Frankly, I have a larger target in mind: the problem of the transpolitical itself.

But it is impossible to approach the horizon of the transpolitical without considering the context within which it first comes into view. It is significant not only that this first sighting should occur within theory, nor even within theory of a certain type, but specifically within theory inscribed under the name Baudrillard. As the translators of Baudrillard's books have learned, whenever they have sought, without success, to locate the precise quotations that ornament and substantiate his arguments, the most distinctive methodological feature of his work – beyond even its reliance on metaphor, that old structuralist gambit, and his weakness (somewhat held in check tonight) for incredible, amazing, unprecedented, unbelievable intensifiers – is a flagrant and unparalleled sloppiness. At least that which appears to be a callous disregard for the documentable and the defensible. There is no graduate student in the United States who is going to be able to get away with playing anywhere nearly so fast and loose with details and critical terms in his or her orals or dissertation defense. As the saying goes, "Kids, don't try this at home."

Here, we find its most glaring instance in Baudrillard's conflation of two radically opposed conditions: transvestitism and transexuality. Transvestitism is more or less the practice he describes and what is apparently intended by these terms. In contrast, transexuality need not entail any such liberatory movement on the part of its experiencing subject. Phenomenologically, the transsexual's principle state seems to be a condition of horror, of the self trapped within a body that is explicitly and profoundly Other. The gendering of this experience may very well be a social construct specific to the codes and history of Euroamerican culture. The tragedy of many transsexuals is that this sense of otherness and horror is often not resolved by surgery, and that the suicide rate among post-operative transsexuals is quite high.

Liberation and flight are moves within a game that might be conjoined, as they were for Afro-American slaves moving north along the underground railroad, but they are not identical. The flight of Kampucheans from Pol Pot's killing fields into the inner-city ghettoes and minimum-wage jobs of North America, like that of Palestinians a generation ago from their homeland into the camps of Lebanon, can scarcely be called liberation. Like the parallel concept of speed, that fleeting state which is perhaps best analogized to the phenomenon of acceleration in an already moving vehicle, there can be no representative instance of the pure condition. Purity is a methodological fiction. Like silence, whether in the desert or in an anechoic chamber, it does not exist: the perceiving subject is perpetually stuck with the roar of the blood vessels and the whine of the central nervous system. As recent developments in the theory of superconductivity ironically reveal, even something such as electricity is organized not around the free flow of electrons, but rather as a series of practical responses to the problem of resistance, the impure. At the level of generality that is necessary for Baudrillard to deploy them, categories such as transvestitism never exist. This world is composed only of particulars.

This flagrant disregard for facticity drives Baudrillard's detractors bananas. It counters the fundamental positivism and fetishization of the empirical that lies at the heart of the orthodox academy's concept of professionalism. Thus, in North America, where the traditional left, in both its social democratic and Marxian modes, has been historically centered in and around the social sciences, a domain virtually constructed around its anxiety over the notion of a fact, much more energy has been expended in fighting off the ideas of Baudrillard than in listening to them. Sometimes the sheer anger behind such responses is amusing. Recently, at Socialist Review, we received a submission of a review of Baudrillard's most recent scandal, America. This review was simply an excerpt from Mark Twain's journals of his travels to France in which the French are reduced to those barbarians who taught Native Americans how to scalp their enemies.

But it is often more useful to ask ourselves just who is being offended and why. For Baudrillard's cavalier attitude toward his verbal chess games of abstraction, characterized by hyperbole, the broad stroke and the sweeping gesture, is certainly no accident. As computer programmers like to say about peculiarities in software, "that's not a bug, that's a feature." This in fact may be Baudrillard's peculiar genius, and his greatest methodological gift. Here is a strategy for escaping, however imperfectly, the filters and blind spots inherent in those discourses that are constructed upon the disciplinarity that is at the heart of empiricism. Forever held in check by their fear of the impure, which they conceive of as allegiance to the empirical, and even, at its most pathological, to quantification and statistical significance, these discourses can only proceed incrementally, anchored in the framework of previous positions. It's a narrative mode that aspires to hypotaxis – this is why impurity is so threatening – and the teleological function is structurally implicit within it. This is why paradigm shifts are registered as such deep shocks to the system that the vocabulary of revolution is invoked. It is a negative definition of rigor and Baudrillard simply abolishes it.

In fact, even Baudrillard is not yet entirely free of the dubious vestiges of theory's pseudo-scientific rules of discourse, where simplicity and grace are taken for virtues rather than as mediations. Thus, here, we perceive a felt need to carry the prefix trans over several fields of evidence – the transpolitical, the transaesthetic – where it might have been better to have focused the model of transvestism per se upon that distinct sub-category where, typically, males dress as females while consciously foregrounding elements of their masculine gender by retaining beards or wearing lowcut gowns calculated to reveal massive tufts of chest hair. The theoretical term for this is radical cross-dressing, although its practitioners in San Francisco just call it gender-fuck.

The advantage to Baudrillard's method is that it is structural, in the best sense of that term, and proceeds from the broadest and most general features, that domain which is most apt to remain occluded if not outright invisible when approached from any other direction. Baudrillard's term for it is fractal, and his analogy of the hologram cagily presents a perspective that can only operate from above and outside. This perspective is what so often gives Baudrillard's texts their eery air of rightness even when the reader knows full well that massive amounts of evidence, impurities, could be marshalled together to counter this or that assertion. It is this structural view that enables Baudrillard to perceive and identify the transpolitical.

Marx certainly understood that the bourgeois state, in particular, was an instrument of capital, and not the other way around, just as he understood also that the state itself was not an absolute, a given of nature, and could at some future point wither away. What Marx seems not to have foreseen, however, is the possibility that, in some utterly critical sense, the state might wither prior to the abolition of capital. At the level of the political, many (if not all) of the effects that we have come to know as postmodernity can be traced to this radical reformulation, this redistribution of power out of (and away from) the body of the state back into a civil society that has itself been technologically internationalized and radically reconfigured.

This is the subtext of a statement such as, speaking of our present world, "it is utopia realized," and this is why Baudrillard can make such a bald and bold assertion, even in the face of famine, wars, Chernobyl, Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez. The state is withering in the precise sense that its scope no longer defines the outer limit of power. That this is happening even as state budgets and the absolute number of personnel increase, and at the same moment when computerization dramatically expands the surveillance capacity of governments, is what is lost whenever we approach this problem from within. Yet Reagan and Thatcher have managed to role back the welfare state in the U.S. and Britain. Deregulation has ceded large domains of agency and initiative away from the public sphere. Socialist, or at least social democratic, governments from Australia to France have found themselves forced, often against their own will, to replicate many of these same shifts. This is especially poignant in those nations, such Spain and Greece, where the socialist party out of power once took positions that today ring with the nostalgic tones of ultraleftism. In many of these states, socialist governments have learned the hard way that nationalization of the means of production is politically unenforceable and is thus reduced as a strategy to little more than the government propping up certain failing industries. Further, the technological transformation of commodities production over the past two decades has created such a disparity in available goods between the so-called capitalist and communist blocs that the Soviet Union, China, and several of the Soviet client states, in the name of increased production through economic decentralization, have been forced to attempt to reinvent capitalism itself. The subsequent civil unrest in both those nations demonstrates not only how volatile this process is – it may get far bloodier in the future – but serves ultimately as an index, whatever reversals and convolutions may still lie ahead, of the retraction of the state even in total societies. It is in this light that the projected confederation of the European Economic Community in 1992 seems little more than a nostalgic attempt to hold the future at bay by inventing a new level of statehood that seeks only to retrieve a degree of national agency that no longer exists. Finally, basic social problems have emerged, of which acid rain and the greenhouse effect are but the first signals, against which national action, by definition, can only be partial and inadequate.

For those of us who have been a part of the traditional left, these events pose an ironic and most unpleasant question: What is socialism? In the First World, it would seem that the answer is that it is the stage between capital and capital. In the Third World, we might substitute feudalism for the first of these two bracketing periods, but the final term remains the same. The condition, as Baudrillard might put it, would appear to be fatal.

Not one of the notorious shortcomings of capitalism are in any way resolved by this historic shift. If anything, freed of many constraints, these can be anticipated to become even more dire in the future. If American tobacco farmers find a declining market at home for their lethal products, they simply increase their advertising in France, Hong Kong or Africa, just as the producers of infant formula did before them. Union Carbide has demonstrated quite well how national borders can protect a corporation unfortunate enough to have a Bhopal. The total cost of the Exxon Valdez disaster, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will absorb only a few weeks' worth of net profit, not enough to even impact Exxon's price on the stock market. Factor in insurance coverage, tax write-offs and price increases, and Exxon actually stands to net over $100 million on this single event.

The great failing of the left, particularly in North America, our enormous crime of negligence, has been our inability to conceive politics beyond the horizon of the state. Even the Trotskyist workplace organizer, disdainful of all electoral strategies, is entirely encircled within a trade union practice whose commission ends at the border. Because we have conceived of politics as defined in a classical and historic fashion, as the public sphere of the polis, we have failed to sufficiently recognize the state as an instrument of power. Where once it served to protect capital by providing a wall of nationhood around its markets, now it serves a very different function: to limit the potential of anyone, including the state, to threaten capital.

Nations now operate very much the way suburbs once did, as a limit to individual and public will. Much of the original impulse behind these ex-urban hamlets was not in any idealization of the rural, simpler life, but as a mechanism for spatially separating classes, races, and, most especially, tax populations. Particularly when unincorporated, suburbs could not place the same infrastructural demands on their inhabitants that were the acknowledged necessities of the city. Many of the first planned communities of California and elsewhere contained explicit language in their deed restrictions as to the racial composition of future tenants. Piedmont, California, for example, is a white enclave of vast wealth, surrounded on all four sides by Oakland, yet legally distinct. The power relations at the heart of suburbanization were initially so naked that residents of Piedmont were permitted to run for political office in Oakland (although not the other way around), and for decades the white mayors of this black majority city were residents of that suburb. It is no accident that the subnational geopolitical unit that best corresponds to the internationalization of capital in the postmodern period should be the suburb. The suburb is first of all a political form.

The totalization of power implicit in nuclear capability is just one of a number of causes that have metamorphosed nations into just such suburbs. Power is elsewhere. The question of dating, of whether this transformation, Baudrillard's "real" orgy, first came forth from its cocoon in August, 1945, in the air over Hiroshima, in Vietnam and Algeria a decade later, or perhaps in the streets of Paris, Prague, Saigon, Mexico City, and Chicago in 1968, is an issue for obsessives. Stalin's worst excesses, after all, can read as attempts to impose from above that which was already no longer strong enough to sustain itself from within. Yet, as we know, this evacuation of power from the state is in no way accompanied by a lessening of the presence or effects of power. If this is what inadvertently generates the confusion we see on the part of those who, like Jameson or the Frankfurt School partisans, cannot truthfully imagine the one without the other, at least not in this configuration, it accounts also for those others who, like Jean-François Lyotard, celebrate the present simply because it is here. The rise of French theory itself may have much to do with the fact that this evacuation may well be more perceptible, more readily felt, from the vantage point of that city Walter Benjamin once called "the capital of the nineteenth century." The history of the present, however, forces us to reconceive this project of theory, even to offer it a new title: "Paris, Suburb of the Twentieth Century."

Long before postmodernity, the United States found itself structurally predisposed toward a regime of decentralization, situating political power in Washington, capital in New York, and information in Boston. The very name we give this nation says it all – it is not a description but a desire, a wish for the impossible. What has traditionally been interpreted as a history of the expansion of the American state, from the Federalist Papers through the Civil War to the New Deal and Great Society, can just as easily be read as a sequence of operations aimed not at coalescing and empowering a national union so much as of holding off a far stronger pull in precisely the opposite direction, toward dissolution and dispersal. In California, we have arrived at a society of suburbs whose urban centers are, at best, mere formalities.

If the problem that faces us today is how to recognize and live with the consequences of this transformation, French theory, precisely because it is so suburban, so conscious of the decline and loss of centers, has presented many valuable hints and suggestions. Baudrillard's advantage over Foucault (the first volume of whose History of Sexuality has been offered to us today not so secretly in the red dress of transvestitism) is that, where Foucault's focus was on the micropolitical, transcribing the concretion and dispersal of authority, Baudrillard's perspective, that of the hologram, has been at the level of the macro. Like Jameson, Baudrillard is – and I will use this term positively one more time – a structuralist. Unlike Jameson, however, Baudrillard is not nostalgic for structure. In this disjunction, Baudrillard replicates, at the level of methodology, what is by now a familiar dispersal of power. Here is the real scandal, the hologram from hell, and it is one from which we can extract clues toward political, cultural and aesthetic practices that extend beyond what Baudrillard himself seems prepared to suggest.

At the level of the individual, the corollary of this evacuation of power from the state, accomplished at least partially by its totalization of lethal force, has been the devolution of the subject from an ego toward an ensemble of destabilized and competing subject positions. Those leftists – still a minority – who are even willing to publicly acknowledge this transformation respond to it by trying to imagine methods for reversing this process. Thus Chantal Mouffe turns to the concept of citizenship without addressing how this might be possible, post-polis, in the epoch of the transpolitical. The dream, which Mouffe shares with such radically different leftists as Stanley Aronowitz and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Michael Harrington and Mike Davis, is to reconstruct this mourned-for coalition, even if it is only a coalition of the self. The slogan of this politics, which might be rephrased as "The Subject United / Shall Never Be Depleted," is notable mostly for the vast quantities of evidence to the contrary it so militantly ignores.

What the emergence of the transpolitical suggests, however, is that the impulse to unite may itself be a significant problem, conditioned as it must be by a principle of organization that can only reproduce a narrative of hypotaxis. All fantasies to the contrary are simply predicated upon a universal citizen whose features are arbitrary (or not so arbitrary) extrapolations of a specific subject, against which everyone else is relativized into a subaltern position. Those political programs, such as syndicalism, that appear to evade this trap through a rejection of the party as their institutional expression merely reinvent it in the guise of their opponent, which is, whether it is called capital or the state, invariably caricatured as a monolith. Yet we know that even the multinational corporation is every bit as unstable as money or as the self. Entire industries are broken apart, reformulated, shipped overseas, brought back, reconstructed, technologically transformed, and dispersed all over again. Inside individual organizations, between the critical tacit knowledge of the shopfloor worker, the turf-jealous sectors of middle management, the often strained relations between CEOs and corporate boards, and the external threats of hostile takeovers, power can never flow freely in any direction. It is always impure, clotted, ambivalent, filled with resistance. Within this reality, we are asking the wrong questions. What we need instead is a practice that reconceptualizes power itself. Our goal and motivation cannot be to "overthrow" it, because we will ultimately never locate the real it to be overthrown.

As Donna Haraway once phrased this issue, we must become cyborgs, not just transvestites. We must move beyond gender-fuck as a strategy, beyond even species-fuck, to power-fuck itself. Our struggle is not for unity, but with unity. The problem we are confronted with is how to neutralize the lethal effects of power without reconstituting it elsewhere. Confusing power with the polis will leave us incapable of even approaching either side of this equation. The very real possibility is that this project is impossible, an oxymoron, for power will not go away. Perhaps what we should be seeking instead is the perpetual destabilization of power, the war of the flea. Politics then would shift away from a teleological practice toward a process of perpetual resistance, one whose integrity is no longer defined by a goal. We need a politics without goals. That is the cyborg lesson of the transpolitical, a politics of perpetual motion, no more stable than mercury on a mirror; in the hypotaxis of this talk, that is the topic sentence.

This does not mean an end to resistance, an end to movements, an end to strategic organizing in coalition form, or even an end to identifying the state as a vital mediating concentration of authority. But it means directing every action, and each movement, not into a master narrative, however noble, but towards anti-narrative itself.

At the level of aesthetics (you knew I would end here – this talk is a narrative, a use of power in the act of perpetual resistance, power aimed against power), the aestheticization of everything via media, advertising and subcultural style destabilizes each artistic practice. This may well be the end of aesthetics as we have known it, but it is certainly not the end of artistic practice, whose political function and potentiality is now open to contestation in ways that are still unfamiliar and may even be wholly new. The question confronting poetry is not what is the best poem, nor even the best poetry, but what are the social roles of the poem and how can these be raised to the level of consciousness so that the power relations upon which poetry itself is constituted become perceptible and vulnerable to challenge. The poem as high art versus low art, the poem as an expression of a Self (that reified subject), the poem – and poet – as the antithesis of theory, the poem as beautiful language, the poem as difficult symbolism, the poem as direct speech, the poet as academic, the poet as drunk, the poet as bohemian, the poet as mystic, the poet as avant-garde, as effete or as macho, the poem as anything other than a research laboratory for verbal effects that can be deployed a generation later in advertising: the social role of each poem is the political content of any such text. And there is no single correct answer, ever.

What is manifestly a disaster in any artistic or cultural practice, for the practitioner as well as for their audience, is a process that seeks stasis. If we say that a certain kind of poetry which attempts merely to preserve the traditional status of the poem is lifeless, or if we make the same allegation about a practice of painting that has become entirely subservient to an economy of galleries, it is because these seek to freeze the relations of power in which they find themselves enveloped. Such work is death through inertia, a culture of agoraphobia. Yet even these, we must remind ourselves, are modes of impurity. How ironic and wonderful: we could not exist without them.

Against the culture of agoraphobia and stasis, however, we must pose a counter-praxis of paralogy, Lyotard's term for the perpetual differentiation of the academy, for the need of each scientific or cultural worker to articulate a position that is defensible precisely because it has not previously been occupied – for each tenure a new idea, a grid of potential information that totalizes and reduces thought to a sequence of moves along an infinite grid. Here, however, we must propose a leap, not in faith but in practice. And Baudrillard's career itself presents us with an excellent model. If we identify freedom in the transpolitical universe as residing primarily, and perhaps entirely, in the interstices between points within a destabilized field of power, perpetual resistance requires us to carry paralogy to a new level. Paralogy's potential lies not in locating new points within the grid of the game, but between games, so as to make gaming itself visible, simply a grid of a different order, with all the same pockets of power and lethal force, to call even this into question. It is in this sense that Baudrillard-the-scholar, like Cicciolina urinating upon her fans, presents us with a model for cyborg politics.

Missoula, MT, 1989

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