Below is an excerpt from a book-in-progress I’m writing with friend and colleague, Jennifer Correa, entitled Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Difference and Distance. In the book, Jennifer and I want to first ground the concept, affective labour, through four ethnographic case-studies, demonstrating how affective labour is employed to assemble differences and distance among and between social groups. Toward the end of the book, we want to consider how affective labour is, and can be, manipulated toward more radical, progressive ends. The excerpt below is derived from that chapter. Jennifer and I welcome any feedback!
from Chapter 5: Affective Labour and World Building–Toward a Theory for Radical Change
Affect, and its manipulation, circulation, and distribution as part of hegemonic articulations on the part of neoliberal, neoconservative establishments has, we hope, been quite clear to this point in our book. However, we want this chapter to provide our readers with a hope for how we might envision the role of affective labour in a radical democratizing project. What role does, or can, affect play in a ground-based populism that resists privileging any one subject position over others?
In 2012, for the 7th Berlin Biennale, a bi-annual event aimed at establishing an “open space that experiments, identifies, and critically examines the latest trends in the art world, the event featured a proposed project by Czech artist Martin Zet that would make use of Thilo Sarrazin’s Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab (Germany Does Away with Itself). Sarrazin’s book, widely regarded as anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist, was nevertheless the most successful work of political non-fiction by a German author since World War II. Zet proposed collecting as many copies as possible from the German public to first display them at the 7th Berlin Biennale, after which he vowed to “[recycle] them for good purpose.[i] A media frenzy unfolded, in which Zet’s promise to get rid of the books fueled a collective imaginary in which ‘git rid’ became interpreted as ‘burning books.’ In a comment on the project, Chantal Mouffe wrote the following statement:
I think Martin Zet’s project is a legitimate initiative. He is curious to know what is the opinion of those who bought the book. Asking them to donate it is to give them the possibility to express that they disagree with its content. The artist has a right to do it and it is a democratic act. What should be avoided is to have only moral denunciation of the book without a serious discussion. I see this art project as a way to give an answer to Thilo Sarazzin in visual terms and as a proposal for an agonistic discussion. I find problematic that a lot of people just dismiss the book without asking what it touches in the German public? What makes it such a bestseller? If there is very little response to Zet’s call, does it mean that the book is treated very seriously by the readers? It will be interesting to see what happens. We should also wonder why some people see flames in the call for collection of second-hand books? What are the first reactions to this project tell us about the psyche of the German society at the moment? I would never have thought about burning the books seeing the recycling sign. It rather suggests reusing it to publish something different. It recalls a strategy of situationist detournement. To see flames has more to do with the German psyche than with the actual meaning of the project Martin Zet plays on affects. People on the left very often ignore the role of affects. In contemporary politics unfortunately only right-wing populist parties try to mobilise citizens through emotions. Why shouldn’t the left also address them? Affects and passions are very important driving force in politics and they can also be mobilized in a progressive way. There can be a passion for equality and there can be a passion for justice. This should be an important field of intervention for critical artistic practices.[ii]
In the latter half of the quote, Mouffe makes clear the role affects and passions do play in hegemonic projects led by those on the Right, and what role they might play for progressive causes. Equality and justice are not just discursive, they are pre-discursive, a condition of affect not atypical for Laclau, Mouffe, their students, and more recent contributions by other scholars within the critical affect studies tradition.[iii] Returning to Laclau and Mouffe’s definitions from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, we might think of affects as types of elements: those differences “that are not discursively articulated because of the floating character they acquire in periods of social crisis and dislocation.”[iv] If we acknowledge the openness of the social, or the “constant overflowing of every discourse”, affects would be those forces that have yet to be articulated into partially fixed meanings. They are the literal and discursive power to both articulate, and disarticulate, discursive structures—to provide coherence or rupture, hegemony and insurgency.[v] Their role in the ongoing project of radical democracies is in the power of affect to expand the chains of equivalence through cathectic investments in the commonality of differently located subject positions, or intersubjectivity. As Laclau stated in a 2010 interview, “There is radical democracy whenever there is a widening of popular interventions in the public sphere on the basis of the expansion of equivalential chains of democratic demands around a hegemonic popular core.”[vi] The theory of hegemony put forward by Laclau and Mouffe, and modified over the past thirty years in social and political thought, is a strategy. It entails a “performative agency of ideological interventions that is capable of quilting contingent field of differences and providing precarious regularities of social order.”[vii]
What does this look like in practice, however? If our case studies delineate how affective labour is used to assemble difference and distance to the benefit of white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and nationalism, are there identifiable projects for radical democracy taking place, where affect is centered, that might give us insight into how this can be accomplished? How, then, rather than eliminating difference and distance, can they be disarticulated from their current hegemonic expressions and reorganized through a logic of equivalence centered around a populist core?
…In concluding our previous chapter on the affective labour of state-based violence toward black and brown bodies in urban America, we briefly touched upon the emergent #BlackLivesMatter movement as a contemporary example of a populist core articulating itself vis-à-vis the expansion of a chain of equivalents: from three black women, two of whom identify as queer, a movement emerged largely through social media that expanded to include not only the specific issue of police violence toward men and women of color, but also to institutional racism as it plays out within the realms of housing, the criminal justice system, and even public schooling. Though still an emergent movement, we believe the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice represents one unique case study from which social theory, and social movement organizations, can better understand the power of affect in the production of democratic reform.
Recall from the previous chapter how Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the movement, described its origins: “When we began, #BlackLivesMatter was a series of social media platforms that connected people online to take action together offline.”[viii]. How members were mobilized, however, is key. For the founders, #BlackLivesMatter refers to “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”[ix] As the riots in Ferguson, Missouri in August and September of 2014 unfolded, #BlackLivesMatter expanded its chain of equivalents, drawing in not only other men and women of color, but the internet hacktivist group, Anonymous, infamous for, among other things, its vocal role in the Occupy Wall Street movement against global wealth inequality. Both of us recall, with amazement, how, as militarized police rained down teargas and rubber bullets upon protestors, young and old, men, women, and children, night after night, social media became a serious platform through which other movements around the world could connect to the events in St. Louis. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, using the #BlackLivesMatter and #MichaelBrown hashtags, began circulating information on how best to treat, and prevent, exposure to teargas. The global network of Anonymous became a significant resource, shutting down the computer systems of the Ferguson police department, its city hall, and even ‘doxing’ the Ferguson police chief and other officers in the department.[x]
Following four days of heavy-handed police violence toward protestors in St. Louis, much of which played out on national television through major network coverage, a National Moment of Silence was organized for the evening of Thursday, August 14th of 2014. The moment of silence began as a simple conversation on August 10th, between New York City social worker and community organizer, Feminista Jones and another user on Twitter on how best to demonstrate solidarity following the death of Michael Brown. During their conversation, Jones stated, “I think we should have a national vigil for #MikeBrown and all recent victims of police brutality. Same day. Same time. Every city we can.” Using the hash tag, #NMOS14, information rapidly spread, and by August 14th, massive moments of silence had been organized in nearly every major city across the United States.[xi] Importantly, the moments of silence were not just relegated to large, urban cores where police violence against communities of color is most typical. In Oxford, Mississippi, where JT lives and works, a University of Mississippi student from the St. Louis area organized a moment of silence on the downtown courthouse lawn for that evening. Standing in a circle, with a reported 60-70 other black and white women, men, and children, participants raised their hands as a gesture of non-violence and in solidarity with Michael Brown, who it was claimed yelled “Hands up, don’t shoot!” before being gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson.
The student organizer, in describing the event and his inspiration for organizing it, stated, “I just want to tell everyone in Ferguson to be strong and stand up for their rights in the face of brutality – and be safe. I want to tell the police that this kind of militarization is not acceptable in any way, and black lives are worth just as much as all other lives.”[xii] Another student from Tupelo, Mississippi stated she attended the event because “I am against police brutality, and I’m against the things going on in Ferguson, Missouri, right now. I think anything I can do to speak out against that, I should do.” Meanwhile, the executive director for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi also attended, declaring, “We’d like to stand with the victims of police brutality, with folks in the city of Ferguson who are hurting and hoping for answers and justice. We just want to declare our oneness with humanity (emphasis ours).”[xiii]
If, as we noted in the last chapter, political subjectivity is born from the condition of unassimilability to the state as a result of it being the target of state power, then we might consider how political intersubjectivity, that is, the relations between political subjects of the state, is also born of the same condition. Unassimilability, as a discursive and affective condition (one feels one’s sense of place in a racialized, classed, and sexed system), becomes the nodal point through which chains of equivalence are articulated and expanded. The absence of place-ness, felt in the realization of one’s body being ‘out of place’, becomes the empty signifier through which concepts like ‘justice’, ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, and ‘community’ overdetermine. The recognition of unassimilability, attained through the real and discursive violence upon bodies by state apparatuses, becomes the point of cathectic investment among politicized subjects. That investment, however, is not something that becomes directed toward the interior of political subjectivity—it becomes harnessed, and directed outward, creating those intersubjective relations so important for creating and sustaining broad-based movements, and for creating a hegemonic populist core. Fear, anger, rage, along with hope, compassion, and our ‘oneness with humanity’ are outwardly expressions that circulate, and in their circulation, they become powerful, producing new ways-of-being among one another.
[i] See http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/allgemein-en/%E2%80%9Cdeutschland-schafft-es-ab%E2%80%9D-germany-gets-rid-of-it-%E2%80%93-book-collection-campaign-17487
[ii] Chantal Mouffe, “Comment by Chantal Mouffe – Berlin Biennale,” accessed July 17, 2015, http://www.berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/comments/comment-by-chantal-mouffe-17542.
[iii] Jenny Edbauer Rice, “The New ‘New’: Making a Case for Critical Affect Studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94, no. 2 (May 1, 2008): 200–212, doi:10.1080/00335630801975434; see also Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley, eds., The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, 1st Ed. edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007); Patricia T. Clough et al., “Notes towards a Theory of Affect-Itself,” Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization 7, no. 1 (February): 60–77; Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, First Edition edition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2002).
[iv] Howarth, Norval, and Stavrakakis, Discourse Theory and Political Analysis, 7.
[v] Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony And Socialist Strategy, 99.
[vi] Glynos and Stavrakakis, “Politics and the Unconscious – An Interview with Ernesto Laclau,” 241.
[vii] Rafal Smoczynski, “Naming And Affect. Ontological Function Of Ideology In The School Of Essex’s Discourse Theory,” Educação E Filosofia 25, no. 50 (2011), http://www.seer.ufu.br/index.php/EducacaoFilosofia/article/view/13368.
[viii] Pleasant, Liz. May 1, 2015. “Meet the Woman Behind #BlackLivesMatter—The Hashtag That Became a Civil Rights Movement.” Yes! Magazine. Accessed June 18, 2015 (http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/make-it-right/meet-the-woman-behind-black-lives-matter-the-hashtag-that-became-a-civil-rights-movement).
[ix] Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza,” The Feminist Wire, accessed July 17, 2015, http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.
[x] Doxing is a tactic often employed by hacktivists that entails leaking private information about individuals to the public. This information includes everything from home addresses, to banking and credit card information, to sealed legal documents.
[xi] Michelle Broder Van Dyke, “Protesters Rally In Cities Across The U.S. In Solidarity With Ferguson,” BuzzFeed, accessed July 17, 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/mbvd/protesters-rally-in-cities-across-the-us-in-solidarity-with.
[xii] Errol Castens, “Moment of Silence against Brutality Held in Oxford – Daily Journal,” Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, accessed July 17, 2015, http://djournal.com/news/moment-silence-brutality-held-oxford/.