Thursday, November 17, 2011
Following Up on the Double Negative
This is a different kind of post: a response to Jerry Z.’s response, which is broken into 4 comments on the previous post below, the resonances of which help to bring out the theoretical dimensions of the situation that Birgeneau’s language symptomizes. (The quotations all refer to Jerry's comments.)
(1) I’ve been interested in the “strange neither-positive-nor-negative realm” of the double negative for a long time. One of the earliest posts on WWD (written when I was very uncertain what I wanted posts to look like) deals with J.L. Austin’s idea that the real is signaled most persuasively by the double negative of the not unreal. The appelation “real” is redundant and defensive—itself negative—except when it distinguishes X from something being passed off as X. So, I don’t think that saying that something is not-not something else merely dissimulates alternatives that would otherwise be clear. Rather, it virtually admits that what counts as reality is always something that’s being decided socially, through representations. This realm is strange because such moments are like lucid dreaming, when what had seemed static and thinglike becomes dynamic and the fluidity of everything is illuminated. If we followed this line of thought it would eventually lead to a metaphysical argument about the inextricability and codependence of representation with the ability to think beyond it. On the local level, this is to say that Birgeneau backed himself out of the world of social fact (the “yes-or-no modality of violence and its absence, or whatever”) and into the zone of indetermination from which social facts arise and where they go to die.
(2) JZ recognizes as a recent phenomenon the “incapacity to think the changing conditions of politics as such” reflected in this kind of language: “the sense of simultaneously feeling like one cannot do anything but attempting at some kind of tentative action, is becoming more and more congruent with the terms of politics itself . . . . The conditions of this new formulation of political agency . . . is a figure of political agency as non-agency, not a kind of resistance but a kind of reaction.” As a figure (and I think we’re now talking about figures, not about metaphysics, and with no direct cause and effect between them, just a resonance), the realm of the not-un is associated with being between what you don’t want and is “already broken” and something you can’t and maybe don’t want to name and which you can’t exactly “do”: with (now I paraphrase/rephrase/double back) wanting the not-“already broken,” the not-false. I recognize this, too, as a good description of what a lot of people are experiencing and don’t want to be hurried out of. (A reference point here is Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, which keeps this particular space open.) It’s encouraging that this kind of space, formerly experienced or typed as intolerable, seems to be getting experienced (if wearily) as tolerable and more than tolerable. It’s interesting to think of the incapacity of the police to feel they know what they’re doing—they’re officially “confused”—as a reflection of the indetermination that is the mode of occupation.
(3) Bringing in the inability not to act (where “act” is understood to be qualified, shot through with incapacity) suggests that, as the not-unreal is the powerful form of “real,” inability not to act is the powerful form of “act” (here the reference point is Kant’s Second Critique, as Jerry implies; for  above it is the First Critique). Revolutionary theory takes up this thought whenever it assumes that the people will act only when they literally can no longer not act. Jerry’s associations to the nonhuman and the natural, the automated or spontaneous reaction, inflect this thought. That “the police are allowed to be violent not because they are claiming a kind of sovereign right but because they have been provoked into it” shows that there is no particular political valance built into this figure; the logic in which the double negative is stronger appears in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary discourse, in revolution from below and from above. Birgeneau’s and police statements applied while denying it, asymmetrically, to protesters. In the memo, protesters “choose to defy the policy” of banned encampments; within that choice, some further “chose to obstruct the police by linking arms” while others “chose to be arrested peacefully.” Additionally, “tens of thousands . . . elected [!] not to participate.” The administration and police, on the other hand, were “required” by their own policy to “forcibly remove tents and arrest people,” while the policy itself was “born out of past experiences that grew beyond our control and ability.” These past experiences have made them realize that they “are not equipped.” We could reply by saying that if the protesters had choices, the administration also had choices, recently and in the past. And we could also say that the administration is refusing to credit the fact that, given their own policy, born out of their own “past experiences,” the people who “chose to obstruct the police” felt they had no choice but to link arms. “The protests and its violence/nonviolence/non-non-violence becomes a kind of swirling vortex of non-agency, where the conditions for action always originate in the actions of another . . . . it seems here that violent or not, violence, when it occurs must always be framed as a kind of ethical reaction to a situation that is always-already outside of one's grasp. that is, not even the state has a legitimate claim over a proactive violence anymore.” This is both a description of conditions and a critique of sovereignty (<--allusion to the seminar taught by my friend Dina al-Kassim).
I totally agree with the implication (?) that there is some kind of slight of hand or slippage between the consciousness of the not-already broken, the not-false, which occupies (literally) the strange realm of decomposing social fact, on one hand, and the automaticity, returned spontaneity, and immanent if not sovereign action that would infuse the inability-not-to-act, on the other. On my reading, this slippage is not there in Kant, and thus perhaps doesn't need to be there if we're careful. Kant doesn’t say that you are ever unable-not-to-act; he says that you are unable not to know how you want to be acting, which is, in his view, how you ought to be acting. On my reading, getting a sense of what you are incapable of wanting (which will always be multiple) does not in and of itself close the interval to make an outcome inevitable (a logic that tends to make whatever is currently happening seem inevitable), but only moves it explicitly into the realm of indetermination so that the next act can be “free.”
[*The scare quotes mean that I don’t mean this in an absolute sense; rather, this is what counts as “free” to me and I think it deserves the word.]