In the current issue of Philosophy and Rhetoric, Kelly Happe has an interesting paper interpreting Occupy Wall Street (or at least the Zuccotti Park component) as an example of cynical parrhesia. In a time when all expression is always already co-opted by neoliberal capital as a source of surplus value (this point has been canvassed extensively by the autonomist Marxists as “complete subsumption,” and I’m going to take it for granted here. I summarize it here in my discussion of Hardt and Negri’s Empire), it becomes hard to know what kind of speech would count as protest. Anyone who has seen the branding of Che Guevera T-Shirts has some idea what the problem is. It’s also one that has been very difficult to address; in Empire, for example, which lays out the problem quite clearly, we are offered the somewhat discouraging example of Coetzee’s Michael K, a character who drops out and nearly starves to death in caves.
Happe’s move is to suggest that Occupy succeeds in avoiding cooption by way of its rejection of politically expressive speech. As she puts it, “what is striking is the time and space devoted to the material culture and everyday life of public, communal living. Indeed, in the various accounts of the Zuccotti moment of Occupy, the radical imagination is inseparable from the otherwise unremarkable practices of day-to-day living in an encampment” (214). That is, it is in the rejection of symbolic and explicitly “political” speech that Occupy evades neoliberal cooption. Such speech, she proposes, is a good example of the sort of ethical parrhesia that Foucault recounts in the ancient Cynics. For the Cynics, it is precisely the extent to which their speech is unintelligible to politics that makes it radical, suspends its subsumption into the political apparatus, and presents the contingency of a new way of life. Happe writes:
“The Cynic mode of life allows for is ethical parrhesia, which, as opposed to political parrhesia, or a kind of truth telling possible only when one conforms, implicitly, to structures and conventions of intelligibility, requires the suspension of the properly political in order to make way for the ethical transformation of the self. Whereas Socrates’s life was lived in such a way as to accord with the content of his speech, the Cynics were engaging in practices for which the particular content of speech could not be known or anticipated in advance” (216)
“Parrhesia, in this formation, is not exercised for the purpose of creating or expanding otherwise properly political spaces in order to include more voices and perspectives. It entails, rather, a radical risk taking, the relinquishing not only of what are established conventions and norms but also ‘needs.’ The only guarantee for such risk taking is the opening up of the space of an ‘other’ life” (216).
In sum, “the only demand possible, which is to say, the only demand that could have any success in questioning the current mode of production as an end in itself, is the demand to feed those present in the park” (220). Happe is exactly right to emphasize the radical difference between political and ethical parrhesia in Foucault’s account. The distinction is underplayed or ignored in a lot of commentaries, and so the emphasis she gives it is important not just for the work it does in her paper, but for drawing attention to the distinction. I also think Happe is right to emphasize the importance of recovering aleatory and chance encounters in any resistance to neoliberal biopolitics, which persists substantially by turning the aleatory into manageable risk. And the sheer police violence with which OWS was faced suggests that she is correct to say that the demands of Occupy were fundamentally unintelligible to neoliberal capital.
I remain skeptical about the efficacy of ethical parrhesia as a form of resistance today, but what I would like to emphasize here is the sense that Happe’s analysis can help us think through what is otherwise a complex but troubling emphasis on the camp in Agamben. To recall from Homo Sacer, Agamben essentially generalizes from the Nazi concentration camps to declare that the “essence” of a camp “consists in the materialization of the state of exception;” as a result, “we must admit that we find ourselves virtually in the presence of a camp every time such a structure is created” (174). In this regard, he proposes, the stadium at Bari where the Italians herded illegal Albanian immigrants, the track where the Vichy herded the Jews before deporting them, and the place at airports where foreigners asking for refugee status are detained must “all equally be camps,” because they are all places where “the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign” (174). The camp, in its turn, presents the essence of modern politics:
“In this light, the birth of the camp in our time appears as an event that decisively signals the political space of modernity itself. It is produced at the point at which the political system of the modern nation-state, which was founded on the functional nexus between a determinate localization (land) and a determinate order (the State) and mediated by automatic rules for the inscription of life (birth or the nation), enters into a lasting crisis, and the State decides to assume directly the care of the nation’s biological life as one of its proper tasks” (174-5).
I confess to being deeply troubled by the politics that seems to emerge from Agamben. For me – and I claim no particular originality here – the problem is rooted in his formalism, which manifests itself in too many sweeping statements about the essence of modernity, sovereignty, and so forth, statements that seem to float a little too far above the reality they purport to describe. For example, his adoption of Schimtt makes him unable to see the violence of sovereignty as anything other than arbitrary. In an abstract sense it is – but, as Falguni Sheth points out, it’s very easy to predict who’s usually going to be on the receiving end of arbitrary sovereign violence (hint: it’s not the rich, white people). The flip side of this is that Agamben tends to lapse into passivity, because all actions become wrong in the current metaphysical juncture. When discussing camps, he also tends to flatten out the differences among those in camps, presenting them all as passive victims of power. Most egregiously is the figure of the Muselmann; “mute and absolutely alone, he has passed into another world without memory and without grief” (185). Bare life becomes an almost metaphysical condition, and one that necessarily incapacitates all those in it. I’ll let Negri make the complaint against this procedure, because he expresses the rhetorical problems of Agamben’s position particularly clearly:
“I believe that the concept of naked life is not an impossible, unfeasible one. I believe it is possible to push the image of power to the point at which a defenseless human being is crushed, to conceive of that extreme point at which Power tries to eliminate that ultimate resistance which is the sheer attempt to keep oneself alive. From a logical standpoint, it is possible to think all this: the naked bodies of the people in the camps, for example, can lead one precisely in this direction. But this is also the point at which this concept turns into ideology …. Isn’t this the story about Power that Power itself would like us to believe in and reiterate? Isn’t it far more politically useful to conceive of this limit from the standpoint of those who are not yet or not completely crushed by Power, from the standpoint of those still struggling to overcome such a limit, from the standpoint of the process of constitution” (In Praise of the Common, 155).
In other words, even at its best, Agamben’s analysis risks becoming mere logos. Or, in Foucauldian terms, we’re missing the toolbox. Against this background, what Happe shows is that Occupy can be read as the resignification of the camp. If such a resistant resignification is possible, Agamben’s analysis reaches its limit: it is not just that those in a camp can express agency, it’s that the camp doesn’t play the role he says it does as the universal signifier of our political condition. From a place of police brutality and exception, Occupy’s camp becomes a place of communal living, a place that radically excludes police (I realize that the situation is more complicated than this because both of local ordinances about camping, and property rights, especially at Zuccotti. I’m sticking with the simplified, blog-post version for now. I will say that the violation of property rights is an important progressive strategy, as masterfully illustrated in this book (my summary/review is here)). At the same time, the camp offers nothing of value for capital to extract and turn into surplus value.
To be sure, at first glance, the resignified camp and its routines of sustenance might seem to answer to Agamben’s claim that “this biopolitical body that is bare life must itself instead be transformed into the site for the constitution and installation of a form of life that is wholly exhausted in bare life and a bios that is only its own zoe” (188). Happe’s interpretation of Occupy as parrhesia suggests that this initial appearance of compatibility is misleading because whether or not expression is parrhesiastic is extraordinarily context-dependent. This context-dependence cuts both ways, and it would certainly be wrong to uncritically celebrate camps.
That is, the camp can be a space of radical possibility as Happe describes it if (and only if?) this possibility throws back the truth of contemporary capitalism back in its face. That, at least, was what Foucault said the original cynics did: to the philosophers who claimed to eschew all social conventions, they actually eschewed all social conventions. Foucault: “under the slogan of the unconcealed life, traditional philosophy basically assumed or renewed the requirement of propriety; it accepted its customs. Applying the principle of non-concealment literally, Cynicism explodes the code of propriety with which this principle remained, implicitly or implicitly, associated. This is the shameless life” (Courage of Truth, 255).
Here, if modernity is about “dislocating localization” (Agamben) or “creative destruction” (Schumpeter, usually cited in a celebratory way), Occupy calls the bluff. Neoliberalism destroys the traditional localizing structures of the citizen-subject (by depriving him [sic] of his rights) and the kinship structures of the family (by turning everyone into economic subjects first), but then leaves everyone very precisely localized in global networks of surplus value extraction and the exchange of commodities. Occupy then shows the hypocrisy of declaring everyone free from oppressive structures, but then marking them indelibly and unavoidably by unfree economic choices. By refusing this economic location (or by explicitly putting oneself on the ground on Wall Street), Occupy shows how the claimed freedom of finance capital is anything but. If capitalism puts everyone in a virtual camp, then fine: live in a real, material camp, right here, in the heart of finance capital!
If Happe is right about this resignification, it shows that camps can, under certain conditions, present a positive biopolitics. If the camp is the virtual one of cognitive capitalism, then it makes sense to make an actual camp as an act of resistance, because the material camp of Occupy is defined by its own mobility and purposelessness. At the same time, insisting on the materiality of the camp constitutes a refusal of the commodity circuits of cognitive capital, where every desire can only be expressed through the structure of a brand loyalty – even, increasingly, food. Although it wasn’t going anywhere until forced, Occupy also didn’t have a telos: it was constructed as an aleatory event, and could be deconstructed. Indeed, Happe cites precisely the (one wants to say: rhizomatic) reemergence of Occupy in the “most tangible ways possible: hurricane disaster relief, occupation of foreclosed homes, and debt relief” (220) as evidence of its success.
Happe emphasizes just how radically new the way of life presented in the camps can be, but here I think some caution is in order. The claims of radicality seem true, but only to a point: to the extent that the camps present something completely new, their value as parrhesia diminishes, and they veer toward the abstract negation of Agamben’s camp. In a sympathetic interpretation of Agamben, Sergei Prozorov suggests that, “to this reduction [of which camps are exemplary] of bios to bare life (zoe as bios), in which biological life is posited as a political task, Agamben opposes a politics without tasks, a politics contained in the sheer experience of existence (bios as zoe) that does not strive to attain any identity or realize a vocation” (346).
But tasks are inevitable, even if identity and vocation are not. We need to feed those present in the park.