Resonance, representation, revolt

There are probably a thousand things to say about the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, and I think concepts such as resonance nicely capture their effectiveness, novelty, and rapid expansion. But what also strikes me about the revolts is an “older” problem, that of representation, for lack of a better term. The difficulty for so-called totalitarian states — a terrible label, I know, mostly because of the orientalist assumptions behind it, but if used strictly it is descriptive — is that by banning or limiting independent movement(s) and making all institutions coterminous with the party/leader, there are no substrata to draw from when the people become ungovernable. Of course, organization exists, but totalitarianism makes it exist in the margins, in forms that can’t be transformed into governance.

It’s this inability of organization to jump the gap between modes of marginal creation and democratic capture that movements can use to their advantage. Of course the moment can just as easily be decided by restoration with a different face, but as the Egyptians have taught us, the insisting on a single demand, which is nearly the same as making no demands at all, can hold open the gap, the moment of undecidability, so that no forces of reterritorialization can step in. It’s fragile maneuver, filling the space with the barest of anything, and can be difficult to maintain when the crisis wanes or shifts (as the Egyptians are finding out now under military rule), but delaying the imposition of representation makes governability and statecraft much more difficult. And that marks the difference between revolt and revolution.

3 thoughts on “Resonance, representation, revolt

  1. I found this striking as well.

    Sometimes it is hard for me to square the demand for democracy in the midst of ungovernability. But after watching a great Al Jazeera film on Tiananmen, I think it’s finally making sense — the shallow sense of democracy embraced by a people not looking for the stupid proceduralism of parliamentary procedure or the corrupt cycles of electioneering. You can find it on Youtube under the title “It happened in Tiananmen Square”. [and of course, this ‘shallow democracy’ goes back to Ranciere/Agamben, I guess…].

  2. I think Ranciere’s democracy is as shallow as it gets. It’s more-or-less an analogue to Critchley’s infinitely demanding. Here’s something I’ve written on it:

    The rising popularity of Ranciere’s axiomatic politics deserves comment. According to Ranciere, a democratic politics can be levied on behalf of “the part of those who have no part” (14).

    Sharing an idiosyncratic early-modern definition of ‘police’ with the likes of Hegel and Foucault, Ranciere argues that most of the state administration that currently counts as politics is merely policing. For Ranciere, politics proper is actually quite rare, it only happens when an event so fundamental that it undermines the policing order occurs.

    Politics only occurs when these mechanisms are stopped in their tracks by the effect of a proposition that is totally foreign to them yet without which none of them could ultimately function: the proposition of the equality of anyone and everyone. (17)

    And at the heart of that event is the axiomatic presupposition of the equality of all speaking beings. The result is a whole series of effects given the impossibility of democracy based on the idea that democracy is not a type of society but an axiom that can never quite be fulfilled. Mapping it back onto Deleuzo-Guattarian terms, the democratic axiom of equality immediately challenges rigid lines which are always organized to binary machines of separation (you are black or white, if not, mulatto – you are male or female, if not, you are a transsexual). Rather than just the liberal addition of axioms, as per Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of recuperation, Ranciere proposes an axiom that is impossible to meet. The impossibility of equality accompanied by a perpetual deferral to the cessation of authority found in contractarian liberalism, which is only possible under full democracy.

    The reason this is relevant for ungovernable spaces, is that they represent the part of those who have no part, par excellence. And rather than having to rely on positive formulations of positive identities (discussed earlier in terms of development specialists vs. Afrocentrists, but also played out in any number of disputes like the Negritude movement or the many waves of feminism), but through action – “to engage in the presupposition of equality is at once to reject one’s classifications—politics declassifies—and to create oneself as a subject: an actor with no name other than that of being equal” (May: 30). The only principle that has to be proposed is the axiom of equality. And as Todd May has argued, is consonant with a wide range of political and philosophical forms, most notably post-structuralist anarchism. And while this doesn’t provide a thick description for the social arrangements, it does provide a political ethic that is grounded in action and solidarity.

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