A quick and slightly mischievous, slightly grouchy, slightly whatever response to a talk given by Jack Halberstam and written up here.



1. If in that city police rounded up mollies, queens, half-boys with a compact smuggled in their back pocket, if smuggled thus because unable to purchase; if, in that city, police also waited smiling next to the urinal, if in that city police also smiled at you from across the interview desk for the job you need; if under that sign we remember, we ask these questions.

2. If asking questions about the goods of survival isn’t posturing; if (only if) we remember the question of survival/extinction is also a question of timespans: minutes, days, weeks, years, centuries, aeons. If timeframes matter.

3. If we perform thus this intellectual operation: if we take unpromising raw materials (pets, Monty Python, humanism) and then move them around like objects in a shell game; if by means of prestidigitation we make the chain of meaning reproduction=(…)=ownership; if we hope that our audience marvels at our handiwork rather than asks simple questions like, is this true.

4. If in fact we are talking about the law of property rather than any law intrinsic to ‘humanism’; if in fact we are talking about inexorable valorisation rather than reproduction; if the blurring of these categories matters.

5. If the most blurred category in Halberstam’s work is ‘We’.

6. If the choices offered by JH are between anathematising beauty or clutching it in the face of doom; if portraying the totality of critical possibility thus we have already anticipated for our audience a proper mode of response, hard-nosed hard-bodied hard-minded anathematising joy or pansyish deluded sentimentalism; if we admit at no point the possibility of our response remaining out of our control.

7. If response is the wrong word here.

8. If we wonder ungenerously what the salary and stability is on which one can think sterility unexistence; if the death drive is only thinkable on the international jet or conference panel; if yes these are questions tired to ask but less tired when my bank balance has so often a minus sign in from of it.

9. If there is futurity and futurity; if the future has a habit of arriving anyway.

10. If this word redemption is continually used but with little sense of what it might mean save a generally bad thing to want to do; if I were offered the possibility of an absolute redemption would I take it (yes)

11. If in fact we are going to talk about things in term of a queer position then we reaffirm the reflexive humanism so apparently reviled by JH et al; if we can simply flit between this that and the other position then at root we still have the obstinate general human, who may take any position; if this is the reason so much contemporary queer theory reads like a humdrum exercise in formulaic ‪#‎makeuthink‬; if this reversal that reversal this counterorthodoxy; if oh dear here comes Edelman again fucking Freud’s corpse; if yes Lee dear it does make you terribly cool.

12. If of course we have been engaged in a polemic against the strictures of biological reproduction and the heterosexual family since the beginning, if that has been the project from day one; if the counter to this is really a matter of really choosing ‘anti futurity’ and ‘antireproduction’ then this is not something you can merely put on college seminars but instead desire an extended death in a really very boring orgasmic haze; if the question isn’t actually non/futurity, but our reproduction versus theirs; if ‘ours’ might include reproductions other than the biological or heterosexual; if in fact it must.

13. If (sidebar) if all of this Edelman stuff is not itself apolitical, depoliticising; if despite our best attempts to rescue from its fascinated mirror gaze a viable queer politics such an effort is tendentious at best; if the opposing categories [reproductive, responsible, quasihetero, imperialist] [antireproductive, authentically queer, self-valorising, destructive] are not themselves bad categories; if Edelman mobilises a panoply of possible image-choices in the service of this distinction; if it is then surprising how under-control the uncontrollable is for Edelman, if it is then a matter of wearing the cooler intellectual clothes, if yeah man zombie politics, if yeah the queer is like death man. If in this there is no apparent terror, if there is in this no lack of control, if there is in this a studied dissidence.

Grief & Reason


Some months ago, a friend and former lover killed himself. Some weeks after that, another friend died very unexpectedly. Since then I have been trying to think about that kind of death, and think through grief, through various lenses, especially through politics and literature. I finally put some of this online in an essay here: http://piercepenniless.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/on-grief-and-reason/ Please, do read it. It is long, but hopefully worthwhile.

Part of the reason, as I said in the piece, was to communicate some of that thinking around the limitations and difficulties of grief, as well as believing that thinking honestly and writing truthfully might be the best possible memorial. I hope too that giving it some sort of final form might loosen the grip of the apraxia that has seized me since. As part of that, I will be trying to write and publish more – not, I think, on this directly – and perhaps in forms less immense.

On ‘structural’ oppression


Phrases often take on lives of their own. I noticed this when reading a social media conversation where a queer friend said to a straight person “you do not experience structural homophobia, so…” It got me thinking about what that ‘structural’ is doing in that sentence. The ‘structural’ has migrated there from other discussions: people use it to prefix conversation about various types of oppression, usually to claim something about the way society works. It most often comes into play when not talking about directly violent elements of oppression, but those that are less perceptible outside its dynamic: e.g., implicit social threats of violence, rights to employment, covert and unconscious examples of homophobia, or sexism, or racism. I think it is meant to underline the actual reality of these experiences of oppression, and its permeation through the social fabric.

But, yes, these phrases go wandering, take on lives of their own, grow other implications. Why is the ‘structural’ prefix so popular? It is presumably part of a claim that phenomena such as differentiated employment or access to healthcare are not simply neutral features of the world ‘as it is’, but are politically distributed. But this ‘structural’ dimension of social experience is only intelligible to us comparatively, and collectively. Therefore, while it is strictly accurate for my friend to say to his straight interlocutor “you do not experience structural homophobia”, it is equally true for me to say: neither do you. You experience homophobia: its ‘structural’ element arrives in collective appreciation of its common logic with other experiences. That is to say, there is no dividing line between the structural and the incidental: all homophobia, and all oppression, is structural in that it is patterned by a particular social logic.

The reason I think this is important, and that it is important to insist on the collective dimension of social experience, is that the prefix ‘structural’ can be used to exculpate and disempower. It can give rise to the kind of argument that states there are no ‘winners’ from oppressive social structures. This, it seems to me, is an error in reasoning. What it suggests is that patriarchy, or heteronormativity, actually traumatises all human beings (this argument is rarely deployed for white supremacy, the historical reason being hopefully obvious.) This may in fact be true: but it is certainly easier to deal with a traumatised subject-position in one’s slippers, in the armchair, as one’s wife sweats over a hot stove in her 15th consecutive hour of work. It is rather like saying capitalists are also losers from capitalism, as they have to degrade and destroy life to make a profit. There patently are winners from oppressive social structures. That is why they exist.

Why does this argument come about? It is an individual argument: it comes from looking at the individual consequences of social dynamics rather than the way they affect groups, or classes, of people. Doesn’t an insistence on the social, or structural, dimension of oppression in fact suggest that there must be winners and losers? Further: it is equally important to conceive of an anti-oppressive politics as extendable beyond the individual: that is, it is a political rather than personal project. I mean by this that it is legitimate to try to challenge and eliminate personal prejudices in oneself, but that a political project has to go beyond this, to identify the social logic that imparts these prejudices in the first place, and articulate a politics that seeks to destroy them. Again, it seems to me this requires thinking beyond our immediate experience, about why our social order might need to create interior externalities, or classes of people becoming ‘surplus populations’, or rely on unpaid work in the form of social reproduction. As such, ‘structures’ are constructed (but materially real) social norms that appear to take on a seemingly immutable presence outside of the subject: but they are nonetheless constituted by and dependent on human action, and can therefore be changed.

A (very) quick note for the UKUncut crowd

I had been hoping that UK Uncut would use today’s apology by the Met police commissioner to talk about the wider implications of police violence and access to justice. Obviously I’m glad that people have managed to take the Met to court and wrung both money and an apology out of them, but I dread the inevitable framing of this as the police being ‘called to account’, or the facts of the case being used to bolster the argument that the police just need better training with their weapons, or a reminder of their putative ‘public role’. UKUncut have a kind of access to platforms of public speech most people affected by police violence don’t, and it strikes me as simply *wrong* not to use those platforms to draw out the links between forms of police violence.

It might even be good to consider that while these activists have got their apology, many, many justice campaigns find it difficult even to win acknowledgement, let alone an apology, from *either* the police or the laughable IPCC. It would also be good to think about the differing distribution of justice and access to lawyers that obtains in these case, that this has to do with race, class, and what gets recognised as ‘protest’ or ‘political speech’ – and why the Met might be *willing* to apologise (to whom, for what, and in what framework.)

Obviously, I don’t like being the rain on your parade: I celebrate all actions against the police. But it seems increasingly obvious that to consider policing of protest exclusive of other kinds of policing obscures the actual operation of policing in practice. This is not advanced stuff, I think, it does not require extensive study. But I think it would be good, for instance, if UK Uncut people were also tweeting, sharing and turning up for things like this: http://londonagainstpoliceviolence.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/support-d-tsg/

James Baldwin: Occupied Territory

I’ve just spent a few days away. Throughout, the collected essays of James Baldwin have sat in my bag like a rock. While I was travelling out, this essay – ‘A Report From Occupied Territory’, first published in The Nation in 1966 – was on my mind, as the brutality in Ferguson was unfolding. It is an essay that begins with police violence, the kind of violence free from restraint or fear of punishment that characterises police executions of young black men today, the confidence in institutional protection, and the untroubled laziness of the standard police fit-up job. It has not ceased to be on my mind since:

Finally, someone would say—we would probably have arrived at the salad—“say, Jim, what’s going to happen this summer?”

This question, translated, meant: Do you think that any of those unemployed, unemployable Negroes who are going to be on the streets all summer will cause us any trouble? What do you think we should do about it? But, later on, I concluded that I had got the second part of the question wrong, they really meant, what was I going to do about it?

Then I would find myself trying patiently to explain that the Negro in America can scarcely yet be considered—for example—as a part of the labor unions—and he is certainly not so considered by the majority of these unions—and that, therefore, he lacks that protection and that incentive. The jobs that Negroes have always held, the lowest jobs, the most menial jobs, are now being destroyed by automation. No remote provision has yet been made to absorb this labor surplus. Furthermore, the Negro’s education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education, which is but another way of saying that he is taught the habits of inferiority every hour of every day that he lives. He will find it very difficult to overcome these habits. Furthermore, every attempt he makes to overcome them will be painfully complicated by the fact that the ways of being, the ways of life of the despised and rejected, nevertheless, contain an incontestable vitality and authority. This is far more than can be said of the middle class which, in any case, and whether it be black or white, does not dare to cease despising him. He may prefer to remain where he is, given such unattractive choices, which means that he either remains in limbo, or finds a way to use the system in order to beat the system. Thus, even when opportunities—my use of this word is here limited to the industrialized, competitive, contemporary North American sense—hitherto closed to Negroes begin, very grudgingly, to open up, few can be found to qualify for them for the reasons sketched above, and also because it demands a very rare person of any color to risk madness and heartbreak in an attempt to achieve the impossible. (I know Negroes who have gone literally mad because they wished to become commercial air-line pilots.) Nor is this the worst.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

They thanked me. They didn’t believe me, as I conclude, since nothing was ever done. The summer was always violent. And, in the spring, the phone began to ring again.

Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

The full essay is available at The Nation. I urge you to read it.

Gillian Rose in the death camps


I have been thinking a lot of two of Gillian Rose’s essays lately, the two that open her last collection of essays, Mourning Becomes the Law. Both deal in different ways with the holocaust, mourning and political community, and they arose from Rose’s work on a Polish committee to determine the future of Auschwitz. The essays (‘Athens and Jerusalem: a tale of three cities’ and ‘Beginnings of the day: fascism and representation’) are both attempts to tackle what Rose names as ‘holocaust piety’, the treatment of the holocaust as an unrepresentable, unthinkable phenomenon of evil outside of history.

I’ve been thinking of Rose because of Elie Wiesel’s revolting advert accepted and printed by the extraordinarily craven editorial team at the Guardian. Wiesel, whose work is foundational to holocaust literature, is probably the greatest proponent of the uniqueness of the holocaust, and actively resists the idea any but a narrowly-circumscribed set of lessons may be drawn from it. Understand that in tackling this notion, Rose is neither denying the holocaust, nor diminishing its horror, but arguing that – however terribly – the holocaust may and perhaps must be comprehensible, that the work of mourning it can be completed.

To argue for silence, prayer, the banishment equally of poetry and knowledge, in short, the witness of ‘ineffability’, that is, non-representability, is to mystify something we dare not understand, because we fear that it may be all too understandable, all too continuous with what we are – human, all too human.”

(‘Beginnings of the day: fascism and representation’ in Mourning Becomes the Law, p.43)

In both essays, Rose takes aim at something that seems unthinkable for the partisans of ineffability: in the first essay, that Auschwitz may have been intended as the foundation of a great city, as well as a death camp; in the second, that representation (or, as it develops, the critique of the critique of representation) may be an integral part of understanding and mourning the holocaust. In both these essays, written toward the end of her life, Rose is more a radical Hegelian liberal than a marxist, and wants to defend theoretical reflection and critique against stasis and effacement; it is important, however, to note that Rose is attentive to the formal impact of representation, about the secret predatory core of sentimentality. In many ways, what she starts from is an insistence on the difficulty of it, a challenge unmet by either sacralisation or sentimentality.

But what is most striking is the way in which Rose’s thought anticipates a generalisation of historical incommensurability as an article of faith across right and left. Rose detects in this fear to ‘relativise’ a deeper fear ‘that we would then be part of that relativity without there being any overarching law determining our participation.’ (p.35) That is, as Rose remarks later, our implication in history forbids easy sentimentality (the revolting sentimentality of Schindler’s List is hauled within the long range of her contempt), because no clear boundary can be drawn between modernity and the death-camp. ‘Instead of emerging with sentimental tears, which leave us emotionally and politically intact, we emerge with the dry eyes of a deep grief, which belongs to the recognition of our deep grounding in the emotional and political culture represented’. (p. 54)

This logic of incommensurability, the defence of the particular over any universal, extends these days well beyond the holocaust, although it is clearest here. It extends to a kind of general logic of trauma, which admits of no comparison and of no completion to mourning, instead proffering an eternal reinscription of the horror. Rose resists the kind of psychologistic, anthropomorphising explanation that attaches itself in particular to commentary on the Middle East, but she does suggest that closing off the shoah from history and reason is itself a block to full, political mourning, of the kind that leaves us no simple catharsis.

It is possible, according to Rose, to think wrongly about the holocaust, even for those who survived it directly. She might suggest that the refusal to think the holocaust fully, to close it off from critical rationality, representation, finitude, is a strategy to survive surviving. Nonetheless, it is precisely because it may admit of no parallel, that the tacit participation of an entire society is unthinkable except as a unique moral evil outside of history, that the possibility of its emergence again remains with us. Its evil is very much historical in that sense. Rose confronts ‘holocaust piety’ with what she calls ‘holocaust ethnography’, that is, a call for a mourning against silence and ineffability. There have rarely been better times to raise one’s voice.

Will recent events force OJ to rejig the central thesis of his next book?

Will recent events force OJ to rejig the central thesis of his next book?

Possible Futures

On Thursday, we interviewed David Harvey for Novara. We were discussing his new book – 17 Contradictions and the End of Capitalism – and you can listen to the conversation on the link above. I wanted to take up some of the ideas that were left in my head after reading the book. These aren’t quibbles about Harvey’s presentation of Marx – though there is ample room for such discussion, and I don’t think that’s merely scholasticism – but ideas arising from the end of the book. This is probably the most explicitly political book Harvey has written for some time, and it is its final chapters that interest me. He writes of three ‘dangerous’ contradictions – endless compounding growth, ecological disaster, universal alienation – which might spell ruin not just for capitalism, but for human beings, the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’ of the Communist Manifesto. In opposition to this he offers a defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ and a reflection on violence drawing from Franz Fanon, as well as seventeen points to frame political practice drawn from the contradictions he outlines.

Many of these points will be familiar to communists of any kind: production for human need, power over production vested in local assemblies, dissolution of class society. Some will be couched in unfamiliar language: a zero-growth society, diversification of ways of living. Some might require more elucidation: demonetisation but assurance of circulation of use-values. But they are an explicit call for urgent political action, when there are few of Harvey’s prominence willing to commit to explicit calls for revolutionary political action – which is what these polite and sensible points would require.

Some of this commitment comes from the qualified defence of a ‘revolutionary humanism’ Harvey articulates at the end of the book. It is a partial rejection of the Althusserian anti-humanism that has dominated much contemporary Marxist thought, while also rejecting appeals to a transcendent human essence, or a sentimental humanism on which cross-class and pacifist strategies rely. Harvey’s sensitive use of Fanon to reflect on the political uses of violence – but also its consequences for those who deploy violence – are especially timely when sporadic calls for terrorism emerge as a response to the seemingly immovable behemoth of austerity laying waste to social life. Political violence of the oppressed against oppressor may be necessary, or justified, but eagerness to embrace it can occlude the ways in which violence can degrade and destroy those who employ it, even justly.

Throughout the text there are signposts to a way of thinking about capitalism that admits the centrality of the capital-labour relation, but which understands its embededness in other forms of distinction (gender, race, social rank) intrinsic to capitalism as a social system. Alongside this, there is a warranted skepticism toward pedlars of revolutionary nostalgia, for whom the formations of particular historical moments – most often 1917 – provide the unalterable blueprint for social change. A call to attentiveness to the real conditions of the here-and-now that goes beyond mere lip-service is welcome, as is the basic optimism of the final chapter: that changing the world, as well as changing the fundamental experience of human life is possible.

There is naturally a hesitancy among communists to get lost in making blueprints for a new world – even if we did, we would consign them to the fire in the very act of making it – but I think Harvey is right that we shouldn’t hesitate to say, even specifically, things could be run better than this. In doing so, we can also go beyond the apophatic not-this that is so frequently the seed for political action. ‘Utopianism’ has a bad name, and sometimes for good reason, but for all of Marx’s justified excoriation of the disparate social theorists grouped under that heading, the impulse to think a better world has long nourished the working-class movement. Perhaps the answer here is not a consolatory dream of a better world (an ‘abstract’ utopia) but the demand and action to make it concrete.

Harvey and I likely differ in political methods: I know he has defended the party method in theory at times. I think there is likely a congruence between method of making change, and the kind of world that results, and the kind of human beings that come to populate it. That kind of argument can seem like the worst kind of abstraction in a moment in which the forces of social change seem at their weakest, but if anything, reading Harvey’s book renews for me the conviction that it is vital to put into practice these beliefs: it is no use being right after the disaster.

Throughout the book Harvey draws from multiple theorists within and without the Marxist canon. He often returns to Lefebvre, whom I have been rereading, who is probably the most acute theorist of alienation, even of alienation within political ‘radicals’ themselves, which may take the form of an all-encompassing cynicism, a perverse conviction that barbarism and the destruction of all social life is now utterly inevitable, or a bloodless fear of standing behind things they claim to believe. (And in Lefebvre, this was never an argument for abandoning thought or pretending it’s trivial.)

Basic fears about futurity aside – its tendency to suborn current suffering for a future perfection never to arrive, its quasi-religious role as consolation for the secular – I don’t think we should leave the future completely void. The answer is not in feeble rearrangement of cutlery on the bloodied dinner table, but to stake a claim to a far greater, unalienated life than can exist under capitalism. As far as I’m concerned, staking that claim cannot be made purely in the realms of theory, but through action – and it is through the two together that the possibility of surmounting alienation can be glimpsed. 

I do not want to say exactly that this is a hopeful book, because we seem currently so very far away from instituting anything like its demands. But it is an urgent one: I hope it can impart some of that urgency to its audience. Since reading the book, I’ve had this line from Lefebvre in my head. It’s one with which Harvey would doubtless agree:

It is no coincidence that Marxists repeat the word ‘concrete’ so frequently. Adversaries of Marxism refer ironically to the exaggerated and excessive use of the word (Malraux, for example, apropos of the Communist Pradas in Days of Hope); but talk of the ‘concrete’ is only truly ridiculous when it becomes an abstraction itself, an automatism. (Which in fact is what happens when people who believe they are acting and thinking dialectically stop looking at everyday life, stop learning from it, stop searching for its deeper significance. This is treachery, self-betrayal: in their mouths the dialectic reverts to being just so much metaphysical waffle; they become congealed in their own mystical speechifying about movement and history; they talk about the ‘concrete’, but they end up being more abstract than anyone!)

Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life vol.1 (Verso, 2008), p.183

I wrote this short response to Owen Jones’ article on police abolition in the Guardian. Do give it a read. It is probably slightly longer than most of the Novara Wire articles, but still short. I didn’t go in to the concept of ‘discretion’ applied to police officers, though I think this is essential in understanding the immediate experience of police on the streets. The list of scandals in the penultimate paragraph could be multiplied several times over without much effort; following the major scandals there is often talk of reform, even wholesale reform. What follows from that talk is, however, usually cosmetic.

(Source: novaramedia)

Tags: ACAB


This is one of the few books that has made me – along with everyone I know who has read it – weep. I think it’s tremendously important, and I think more people should read it. The above passage is pp.46-8, in Sarah Schulman, Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)