Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

sign at the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, 2010 (image source)

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A note by way of foreword, or forewarning. As I write on my “about” page, I am no expert in any of the subjects I blog about here. I write and publish these posts feeling confident in and not even particularly bothered by the probability that someone has written before and much better about the subjects I’m blogging about. Where that proves to be the case I actually do hope you let me know, though I can’t promise I’ll read or follow up (ars longa vita brevis and all that).

I think of this condition of motivated ignorance (more or less) as not accidental but rather essential to my blogging; it’s why I’m interested in writing (blogging) about one topic and not another in the first place. If a subject impels me to serious thought but doesn’t immediately and entirely reveal itself — no matter for these purposes or to me at this stage if my intuition is correct or not — I’m more likely to make a blog post of it. Another way of saying this is that for a topic to eventuate in a blog post it has to hold my attention at a middle distance — neither so short that I get tired of thinking about it after reading a few articles/writing a few sentences, nor so long that I end up mired in mounds of material and with an unwanted book project on my hands. (I’m thinking of an excellent talk I heard Marjorie Levinson give recently at the NASSR 2014 conference in Bethesda, MD, about a middle-distance mode of analysis as essential to understanding a literary genre such as lyric, if not the workings of genre as such.) The sheer volume of excellent “Bartleby” criticism I encountered in thinking about and writing this post threatened to tip it into a much longer project than I anticipated…I feel lucky to have escaped in under 3000 words.

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My aim for this blog post is simple: I want, as briefly as possible, to relocate the concept of resistance from the domain of the will to that of the (predominantly negative) affects. By rethinking the basis of political resistance I want to (re)claim as acts of resistance some mundane responses of irritation, aggravation, or intolerance — negative affects, “ugly feelings” as Sianne Ngai calls them, none of them especially lovable — occurring regularly in daily life and on the same spectrum, I argue, with more easily recognizable forms of political defiance. I hypothesize that resistance — like intolerance, to which it’s related — is not in the first instance a principle or creed or program, or even necessarily a fully formed idea. Rather, resistance is more in the character of an autonomic affective event, a somato-sensory occasion accompanied by at least minimal acknowledgement (perception) of the event. In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling — which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on. This acknowledgement almost always begins in rejection, a recoil or radical estrangement from circumstances judged to be intolerable. “Intolerance” is thus fittingly another name for this mechanism of rejection and recoil.

I describe resistance as springing from intolerance, essentially founded on intolerance, and want to explain what I mean in light of the fact that intolerance is not generally recognized as being among virtues the left seeks to cultivate. Indeed insofar as tolerance is among the core values of liberalism (and has been at least since Locke), intolerance is typically charged to the right as the sign of a benighted hostility to difference. Part of this blog post comes from my suspicion (intuition, strong feeling, whatever) that intolerance is a more interesting and politically productive response than that. (I’m obviously inspired here by Sianne Ngai’s effort in Ugly Feelings to “recuperate negative affects for their critical productivity” [3] — and at the same time share her caution against romanticizing these feelings too.)

…Now I’m almost too embarrassed to turn to this text in discussing political resistance, knowing as little as I do about it, the author, the scholarship, etc. But none of these limitations held (or ever holds) Žižek back, so:

Consider what is (in the U.S. at least) the canonical literary case for thinking political resistance, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and its hero’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s action is inaction, or as the narrator labels it, “passive resistance.” Beyond being an obvious and persistent source of trouble to the narrator of the story, Bartleby is troublesome to the principle of narrative as well, at least so far as fictional narratives are typically understood to feature characters who either act or are acted upon. An inert force at the center of the story, Bartleby occupies virtually the entirety of the narrative without becoming any more intelligible (to the Lawyer or to us) than he was from his first appearance in it.

Ironically for a story with such a profoundly arid main character, “Bartleby” has proven extraordinarily fertile for thinking the politics of resistance. The significance of the character and of Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street” to the Occupy movement in NYC and worldwide is well known and was well documented at the time (see for instance here and here). The bizarre career and influence of “Bartleby” has been just as prominently marked in contemporary fields and industries associated with the scrivener’s profession. No other literary work has remained so indelibly attached to the institutions of literary production and consumption. Melville’s title alone has spawned two major companies representing these spheres of literary consumption and production, respectively:, a massive, post-scribal electronic archive of the world’s classic literature, and Scrivener, the word processing program designed for authors.

How we read Bartleby’s peculiarly inert force in Melville’s story, and thus the unique power of his passive resistance, will of course depend to a great extent on how we read the declaration “I would prefer not to.”  Here is how Leo Marx describes Bartleby’s famous phrase in his influential 1953 essay [JSTOR link], by most accounts a watershed for modern readings of Melville’s story:

“‘Prefer’ is the nucleus of Bartleby’s refrain, and it embodies the very essence of his power. It simply means ‘choice,’ but it is backed up…by will.” (621)

Marx reads in Bartleby’s phrase, in his preference “not to,” an exercise of choice backed by the faculty of will — choice and will implied here as granted by nature to autonomous human beings, and to a minimal degree at least protected by law. Standing at the head of a mighty stream of modern criticism on and political appropriations of Melville’s classic tale, Marx unfolds from Melville’s story and from Bartleby’s famous phrase all the nascent terms for understanding political resistance in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Choice, will, agency, reason, defiance — these are qualities we typically ascribe to acts of political resistance; even today these terms seem to structure our understanding of politically resistant action and personhood.

But though choice and will are undeniably compelling and commendable qualities, they are explicitly not the terms Bartleby offers to describe his act of resistance. That these are not Bartleby’s terms is plain from a brief early exchange with the narrator [for the text of Melville’s story see the version freely available online at]:

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

Žižek’s 2006 assertion [pdf article link] that Bartleby’s phrase needs to be taken literally is both eminently commonsensical and obviously also a gesture in sympathy with the unsettlingly radical conservatism of Bartleby’s quiet protest — both in general and in this particular case against the Lawyer’s slippage from “preference” to “will.”

In “Bartleby,” the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” is precisely not an expression of willful action and heroic defiance. Instead, the story invites us to think of resistance as taking origin in some poorly defined and understood though powerfully and clearly felt affective response. Resistance is in this sense something closer perhaps to an instinct or a “gut reaction” than to a considered opinion or belief. Bartleby’s paradoxically negative assertion is founded on a judgment, as civilly expressed as possible, of disaffection, distaste, disgust. Intolerance of this sort is typically understood as a form of protest at the bodily level, a physical aversion to and rejection of certain objects or stimuli, food or noise or light, etc., as in the widely reported condition of lactose intolerance. “Intolerance” and related terms — disgust, revulsion, aversion, resistance — is often applied to forms of jointly physiological and ideological response. These autonomic operations of the limbic system, spasms of amygdalic or epiglottal refusal and recoil, cut across and communicate between these separate domains.

What I want to emphasize here is resistance’s orientation in the regions of the gut, linking the mundane complaint of lactose intolerance (say) to more vividly particularized forms of resistance and recoil such as Cayce Pollard’s aversive physical reaction to certain brand logos and icons in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Following Ngai’s lead, Aaron Bady observes the “peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect” in “Bartleby.” What gives these ugly feelings their peculiar efficacy is that they communicate with perfect clarity and precision without the subject’s ever once appearing compelled to make them intelligible. As with complaints of the body, one may not know the cause of upset but know very well from the fact of upset that something is deeply not right.

Physicians describe digestion as an autochthonous system of the human body, operating synchronously but not isomorphically with the workings of the brain and central nervous system. The gut-mind is capable in other words of “thinking” and delivering with clarity and authority conclusions that the mind-body may not (or not yet) be able to reach. The connection of these kinds of autonomic somatic response to Melville and “Bartleby” is not far-fetched: Ralph Savarese has a 2003 article [article pdf link] illustrating in “Bartleby” and “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (another story from 1853) Melville’s extensive engagement with contemporary medical texts that tie the pains of dyspepsia and other digestive complaints to the social ills of modernity. Resistance, like intolerance, is a potent reminder that while some things can be swallowed or stomached, some things simply can’t.

Of course, too much trust in judgments issued from a subjective point of view leaves one open to charges of solipsism based either on ignorance (as in the case of intolerance) or on the unexamined privilege of those who enjoy the liberty to consult, speak for, and act on their own feelings. Charges of snobbery, egotism, or privilege-blindness may be true enough in these circumstances, and are in any event inescapable when judgments are made from a partial (particular, embodied, human) standpoint. The Lawyer early on compares Bartleby’s behavior to that of “the meddlesome poet, Byron” — the implication clearly being that Bartleby’s resistance, his “prefer[ence] not to,” is of a lordly character, aristocratic in temperament and behavior, as if directly patterned after the mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know poet himself.

But the charge of egotism seems somewhat beside the point here too, in Bartleby’s case as in Byron’s. After all, the stomach may function as the condition of mindedness — as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, one can’t do anything properly if the stomach isn’t satisfied and in good working order — but is not itself “minded” at all. Many of Byron’s protagonists, his Childe Harold and Don Juan and Sardanapalus, are epicurean characters for whom bodily and especially stomach upset is the marker of deep-seated political complaint, even or perhaps especially in circumstances where it is only peripherally perceived in these terms by the complainant. The hero Sardanapalus says, ” I hate all pain, / Given or received.” Whether this position can be made a basis for substantive political action is a question held in suspension and openly debated to the play’s tragic end.

For Byron (as later, in Savarese’s account, for Melville), the monism of body and world is principally inscribed through the digestive organs. Indigestion is Byron’s figure for the body that registers and reacts against social ills and excesses, including those of the individual. In a late canto of Don Juan, indigestion gives the lie to the philosopher George Berkeley’s fantasy of “universal egotism”:

For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question (11:1-13)

Byron does not disclose *what* question or what sort of question, exactly, proceeds from indigestion; in putting the stomach and mind in a relationship of continued mutual “perplexity”, though, he makes clear that our mental “soarings” remain responsive and ultimately answerable to thought’s material ground.

I’m fascinated by but not especially invested in declaring a side in current philosophical debates about whether powerful emotions such as disgust have a propositional content or depend on prior ideas or beliefs. (For a good summary account of these debates, adjudicating carefully between opposing viewpoints, see Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust, chapter 1.) Like Ngai, I’m interested to think in more pragmatic terms about how everyday responses of disgust, recoil, and intolerance could be more widely reclaimed for political thought and action. To ask how irritation, exasperation, and intolerance might give new energy to political resistance is to revisit more explicitly the agenda of an older generation of critical theorists too. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” his contribution to the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr. (1965), closes with the extraordinary assertion that the left should make available for politics not less intolerance, but more. Where the ideology of tolerance fortifies rather than upsets the status quo, Marcuse reasons, the cultivation of informed and “militant” intolerance is an essential facet of resistance. Marcuse calls in the 1968 postscript to this essay for “minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which toleration destruction and suppression.” Marcuse finds this militant intolerance to be an action of the minority, heroic virtually on that basis alone. It is an exercise of political will, the expression of an irresistable impulse to seek freedom wherever people are unfree.

Affect theorists have in the last decade made considerable progress toward understanding how a range of everyday, mostly involuntary affects including anger, dissatisfaction, and depression might differently ground a politics in theory or practice. The more recent work of Ngai and others enters productively into dialogue with the tradition of left cultural criticism to which Marcuse’s work obviously belongs. (See, in addition to Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint; Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Czetkovich’s scholarly-activist work on depression as a public and political feeling; Rei Terada’s work on a condition she calls “phenomenophilia,” the perverse attachment to transient perceptual phenomena, in Looking Away). More in line with this recent work, my notes here don’t make a call to action outside the potentially momentous acknowledgement of many actions already underway — forms of resistance more voluptuary, intolerant, and far more widespread than one might expect. Think of the most everyday revulsions and distastes — the daily irritations, effusions of biliousness, splenetic episodes — that punctuate a normal day: rush hour traffic, terrible drivers, oblivious pedestrians, the press of bodies on the street or public transport; interminable lines; bosses, toadyism, manipulators, assholes generally; some idiocy or other on the internet; frustration at one’s own body and physical appearance (often a submerged complaint against the fashion and beauty industries and the impossible standards they support). Think of all the things one would prefer not to do, and surely wouldn’t do if not doing so didn’t (as it did for Bartleby and many Occupiers) carry the threat of certain punishment and reprisal. The condition of being repelled by the world is not an exception any longer, but the rule — “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” The consensus generated from this great seething irritable mass may be the unacknowledged (possibly unacknowledgeable) ground for more particular individual acts of resistance and rebellion that are more readily identified as acts of political resistance and disobedience, whether civil or not.


This book comes out in October, and while on social media the title will doubtlessly inspire a lot of cheap jokes at Žižek’s expense, I’m curious to learn whether it has anything to say about the embodied politics of the “recoil” I describe here.

Lucky beggars


So a Chinese multimillionaire invited “1000 poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in Central Park with the promise that each would receive 300 dollars. Far short of the 1000 invited actually made it into the event venue: an estimated 200-250 were at the lunch (with many more in line left outside), and, surprise, nobody received a dime.

Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao performs magic tricks during a lunch he sponsored for hundreds of needy New Yorkers at Loeb Boathouse in New York's Central Park

Mr. Chen performing magic tricks for the audience in Central Park. (“Surprise! There’s nothing there!” [source])

The multimillionaire in question, Chen Guangbiao, introduced plans for this “charity luncheon” by running a full-page ad in the June 16 New York Times (below). The invitation was issued to the “poor and destitute” — a phrase that seems tautologous until one remembers the distinction, once in regular use and made popular by Jeremy Bentham, between the indigent and the “merely” poor. Chen wanted his philanthropy to reach only the most bad off, those who had nothing — as opposed to, say, the single working mother. (The article about the luncheon episode that ran in the Times this week does not link to the original advertisement.)

Chen ad NYT June 16 2014

Who could not have foreseen that this ill-conceived and thoughtlessly executed scheme would be a flop? One vexing and as far as I know under-reported aspect of this stunt is how the Times in effect gained twice from this situation: once in running the ad of a clown or madman or both, and a second time in covering his antics.

In any event the number of major news outlets covering the luncheon, microphones and cameras at the ready, suggest that Chen’s exercise in philanthropic self-promotion could have been served without paying a cent. What were all the reporters hoping or expecting to see at the event? Were they there to witness the train-wreck that would inevitably unfold? Or — a possibility maybe even worse to contemplate — did they show up to capture the exultation and gratitude, the rapturous looks on the faces of the individuals who gained entry to this odd spectacle and collected their promised $300?

The recurring image of society’s poorest somehow also blessed by fortune has it seems an irresistible attraction. The lucky beggar comes up so often and resides so durably in the public imagination that it is hard not to see this entity as serving the function of wish fulfillment. This figure escapes the common (also fictive) distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; instead, it reflects a universe that is theoretically indifferent, in which rewards are handed out through luck alone. (In the universe of the lucky beggar, impoverishment by chance may be implied but certainly isn’t specified.) Success and failure are distributed randomly, and the condition of having or wanting money simply happens by happy accident — as if poverty is not, for many minority, rural, and other populations prepared and in cases virtually assured by the economic mechanisms that ensnare them. The lucky beggar sustains a fantasy, perhaps, that beggars would be so lucky that beggary or even poverty itself would cease to exist. Yet it also welcomes an “it could happen to anyone” mindset that may rather sustain than alleviate poverty in the long run.

Late in 2012 the “Lucky Beggar Wallet” was introduced for sale by CB2, the hipper and more affordable branch of the Crate and Barrel retail empire. CB2’s ad copy read: “Inspired by the iconic blue and white coffee cup often seen in the hands of New York City panhandlers, this quirky wallet begs to be seen.” The wallet was quickly pulled after public complaint, though it remains for sale online.


The Lucky Beggar Wallet episode has in common with Chen’s exercise in self-promoting philanthropy more than its spectacular misdelivery; both posit the same imaginary figure. In each case the failure to launch of these schemes became a newsworthy item in its own right — as if the potency of the lucky beggar fantasy extends to feelings of disappointed expectation at being deceived. (Disappointment may indeed be as intrinsic here as the incitements of illusory promise; Pity would be no more.)  A seductive but prohibitive fiction, the lucky beggar is an appealing prospect but also mostly banished from sight. Perhaps what America finds intolerable in this figure is not its patent falsehoods but its kernel of truth: that with so few sources of security available, anyone who has “made it” today can only consider themselves the beneficiaries of blind fortune (lucky beggars, of a sort). That poverty is no longer exceptional, but ordinary. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


*Thanks to @hystericalblkns for first bringing the Chen story to my attention.

Reading the Pope, reading the present

signs of the times

The Vatican released this week Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospels”).  The exhortation is the first of Francis’ papacy.  It’s a doozy — and not only for being the most widely-read essay with more than 200 endnotes.

From this lengthy document, a relatively small segment of the exhortation (paragraphs 53-60, of 288 in total) have so far attracted the most attention in the English-speaking world. These remarks concern the “tyranny” of unfettered capitalism, the exploitative nature of “trickle-down” economic theories, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the increasing problem of global poverty. Much of the press reporting on the Pope’s exhortation has focused on these arguments. (See for instance articles from The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and Salon.)  The Pope’s remarks on economics have invited many inevitable comparisons to Marx — by Rush Limbaugh, among others — as well as some to less inevitable entities (Karl Polanyi, for instance, or the Oberlin College Newspaper).

The Pope’s assessment of the crises of contemporary capitalism has scandalized some and gratified many others who are glad to see the Pontiff attend to matters of present and widespread concern. Though not a Catholic, I too am engaged by the Pope’s words. I am just as fascinated by the passage that precedes these by now well-known paragraphs on the depredations of unfettered capitalist growth. Paragraphs 50 and 51, which introduce the second chapter of the Pope’s exhortation, are less newsworthy than the paragraphs that follow, though to my mind they are no less remarkable in constituting a reflection on the necessity, challenges and paradoxes involved in reflecting on the present time.

The preamble to Chapter 2 of the exhortation, “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment,” opens with an appeal to consider the situation of contemporary life — “the context in which we all have to live and work” (50). “We” are thus brought to the scene of crisis itself, and to the condition of being “amid” this crisis, rather than a passive witness to it.  The position of immanence that Francis urges parishioners to assume is consistent with a now-famous statement from the previous paragraph: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49).

Paragraph 51 continues in this vein by emphasizing the necessity of attending closely to “present realities”:

It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.”  This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.  (51)

Francis prepares the ground for the argument to follow with this call to the “analysis of contemporary reality.” The implication from the warning at the end of this passage is that the agents most clearly responsible for “present realities,” those in other words most committed to the untrammeled expansion and consolidation of wealth, the triumph of free market ideology, the multiplication of capitalism’s externalities in the continued destruction of the environment, and so on, are also those least invested in undertaking such an analysis. Francis thus shares with thinkers from Nietzsche to Agamben the idea that to be contemporary is to be at once in sync and out of step with “present realities.”  The “analysis of contemporary life” requires some measure of distance from present time; in essential respects it is, as Nietzsche reminds us, an untimely [Unzeitgemässe] endeavor — “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time.”

As it happens, the call to contemporaneity and to the consideration of “certain present realities” has a long history — both in the Papal tradition and elsewhere.  The “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times” refers, as Francis’ note informs us, to the 1964 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam (1964). In this text, Paul endorsed his predecessor Pope John XXIII’s program of Aggiornamento, a “bringing-up-to-date,” as “the guiding principle” of the Catholic church, as well as “the aim and object of Our own pontificate.” In the encyclical Paul VI urged the Church “to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times” (50).

The appeal to the “signs of the times” was one of the rallying cries of the Aggiornamento, calling the priests and laity to consideration of the modern world.  “Signs of the times” has been a phrase regularly invoked since the days of Pope John XXIII — Francis being here no exception.  The phrase is famously associated with its usage in the pastoral constitution of Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes (1965):

the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.   (4)

The Papal use of the phrase has its origin in the gospel of Matthew (16:3), where Jesus upbraids the Saduccees and Pharisees for being better acquainted with meteorological portents than with those of greater and more lasting significance currently passing on earth: “O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” (KJV).  

To attend to the “signs of the times” is at once, then, to scan the present and to anticipate the future. In the Catholic context, the exhortation to scrutinize the signs of the times connects the activity of reading the present to the venerable traditions of the past too (both recent and ancient).  Francis recovers some of the original urgency attached to the activity of discerning the “signs of the times” by referring to the threat of “dehumanization,” and insists on its being the responsibility of all. Notwithstanding the disclaimer that the Pope’s task is not to provide a comprehensive “analysis of contemporary reality,” the necessity of attending to the signs of times turns even the leader of the Catholic church into a bit of a sociologist. At the same time, Francis is frank (sorry) about the limitations of such analysis:

Today, we frequently hear of a “diagnostic overload” which is not always accompanied by improved and actually applicable methods of treatment. Nor would we be well served by a purely sociological analysis which would aim to embrace all of reality by employing an allegedly neutral and clinical method. What I would like to propose is something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment.  (50)

The condition of “diagnostic overload” is one remarked upon in the present by many well outside the Catholic faith. Academic readers may associate the Pope’s caution with similar assessments of the forms and disciplines of “sociological” critique in the university — among others, with Bruno Latour’s assertion that the explanations furnished by critique have, as in the title of his well-known essay, “run out of steam,” outlived their usefulness, and so need either to be reinvented or discarded entirely. I am reminded of a brilliant and beautiful remark by Lauren Berlant about the limitations of the kind of critique that humanists frequently carry out: “The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.”

Francis’ reflection on the limitations of “sociological analysis” and on the conditions of contemporary life urges us think anew about what happens when we train the eye of criticism on the “signs of the times.” If the principle of “evangelical discernment” does not seem quite adequate to the purposes of scholarship and social criticism in a secular age, I would not quite wish to resort to the luxury of condescension either. The effort to renew the project that Foucault named “the history of the present” will need — has always needed — more than “an allegedly critical and clinical method” is capable of providing.  What methods will arise in its place may still need to be worked out.

“Simple and complex and kind of magical”: the rolling jubilee

Strike Debt red square

[T]he event is neither substance nor accident, neither quality nor process…And yet it is not something immaterial either; it is always at the level of materiality that it takes effect, that it is effect…Let us say that the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.

– Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse”

The Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt launched November 15, 2012, celebrates its one year anniversary today.  Its founding on this day marked the first year anniversary of the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.  The anniversary of the movement has been widely and justifiably celebrated this week, here and here and (by one of its architects, Astra Taylor) here.

Reviving the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jubilee, in which debts were periodically canceled for the community, the Rolling Jubilee represents an innovative and highly successful project in mutual aid. Astra Taylor calls the Rolling Jubilee concept “simple and complex and kind of magical.”  Working through the secondary debt market where “distressed,” unpaid loans are bundled and typically bought by banks and collection agencies for pennies on the dollar, the Rolling Jubilee has, with $400,000 in donations, purchased and canceled nearly $15 million in medical debt.  The money travels from unknown benefactors to recipients whose distressed debt happens to be included in the bundled loans that are purchased by the Rolling Jubilee.  By these means, almost 2700 people so far have had their debt burdens lifted.

Like most or all charitable projects, the Jubilee concept is simple at its core. Part of what makes the Jubilee “complex and somewhat magical” has to do with the advanced nature of the market systems in which it participates. With origins in ancient religious practice, the Jubilee intervenes in the complex credit mechanisms of 21st-century financial markets. Most charitable acts , moreover, involve a simple donation from one hand to another. But it is difficult to say precisely where or in what event the Rolling Jubilee consists (this is one reason why it is a Rolling Jubilee, defined by its ongoingness). Is it in the collection of donations from thousands of people? in the purchase of bundled debt from the banks? in the notification of those whose debt has, at random, been abolished?

This last stage, in which the beneficiaries are notified that (a portion of) their medical debt has been canceled, is often taken to be the highlight of this complex process. (To mark their anniversary today, the Rolling Jubilee has announced another major debt buy, in Austin, Texas.) The letter that Strike Debt sends to debtors on this occasion bears a simple subject line: “Balance Abolished.”


Matthew Yglesias asked in an article for Slate whether the money that went to abolishing the distressed debt would not be better given as cash to the needy.  Setting aside questions about the financial efficacy of its model, however, it is not difficult to perceive that the Rolling Jubilee operates on an altogether different principle than that which Yglesias proposes as a potentially better alternative.  For the abolition of debt is neither a gift nor a charitable donation, not exactly.  Debt abolition “merely” removes an pre-existing obligation.  Something has not been given, therefore, so much as it has been taken away; more precisely, what is given is the taking away, the removal of a debt burden.  In the YouTube video that Strike Debt produced to promote the campaign, one of the participants in the Rolling Jubilee describes its action in these terms: “Instead of collecting on the debts we buy, we’re going to abolish it. Poof.”  As Auden famously describes the action of poetry, then, the event of debt abolition “makes nothing happen.”

As a teacher and scholar of poetry, I encounter many instances of this strangely agencyless agency, both in the poems we read and in the minds of those who engage with them.  Maybe I am attracted to the Jubilee because it operates in a similar way, “simple and complex and somewhat magical.”  Maybe I am attracted to both for the way that they make visible something about the occult and insufficiently understood nature of events themselves.

In “The Order of Discourse,” Foucault describes the event as having effect on both material and immaterial planes.  Just as the historical event must be seen at once as a singular phenomenon and as part of processes of much longer duration, so does the event considered in itself appear to be a divided and contradictory thing — something not entirely present as positive substance, but whose existence and material effects are beyond doubt.  It is for this reason, Foucault insists, that “the philosophy of the event should move in the at first sight paradoxical direction of a materialism of the incorporeal.”

The Jubilee is consistent with an understanding of the event as operating on jointly material and incorporeal planes, with effects (however obscure) in both domains.  Perhaps we cannot say exactly what it is; but it is not nothing either.

That the Rolling Jubilee “makes nothing happen” is often adduced as a point against it. Those skeptical of the Jubilee model observe (here, for instance) that the amount of debt abolished does not come close to any statistically significant figure; it is not so much as to make a dent in the nation’s multi-trillion dollar debt burden.  Not amounting to much, the event of debt abolition is, however, not nothing. The Rolling Jubilee has so far relieved a debt burden for thousands of Americans.  Perhaps more important than this, the disappearing of debt has made widely visible as never before the secondary debt market and the predatory mechanics of debt collection.  “[S]imple and complex and kind of magical,” the Jubilee is an exemplary (historical) event in that regard.  As the movement marks its one year anniversary, I am eager to see what nothing it has still to make happen.

You can donate to the Rolling Jubilee here.

November 15, 2013

A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium


Yesterday I attended the Adjunct Action Symposium (the symposium theme, “Higher Education in the New Economy”), held at the Boston Public Library.  This was the second such event in 2013; the first was in April, under the high ceilings of Boston’s JFK Library.  The crowd was somewhat smaller than in Spring, but still big enough at its peak to fill a large conference room in the basement of the Library.

The atmosphere at this event felt somewhat different to me from the last time. If in April the room was suffused with the exciting sense of possibility, with new connections made and plans being hatched, yesterday’s meeting was quieter and more focused. Begun in the wake of the April meeting, union organization is now well underway at several Boston-area campuses. At Tufts, adjuncts won a recent resolution to organize by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Bentley, a four-year business college in Waltham, also recently voted on a resolution, though the outcome there was less promising:  the resolution to unionize on campus lost by 2 votes (98 for vs. 100 against).  With some 1400 adjuncts, Northeastern University was described by someone as “the jewel in the crown” of adjunct organizing in the Boston area – which probably also explains why Northeastern administration has hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to prevent a union from being formed on its campus.

One hears a litany of all-too-familiar concerns at these events: about the economic burdens of adjunct life: the exorbitant cost of living in the Boston area; the skyrocketing cost of health insurance; the challenge to keep groceries in the fridge and bills paid. The pressure of student debt is a persistent topic of concern (as it obviously is too for the vast majority of the students that adjuncts encounter in the classroom). Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers. 

As pressing as are the bread-and-butter issues of economic survival as an adjunct, one hears more at these events about the considerable emotional burdens of life as a contingent faculty member: the exhaustion of the “road scholar” who has to divide his or her time between two, three, or more different schools; fear and anxiety associated with the precariousness of the economic situation, of employment at will; feelings of shame, the persistent sense of not having succeeded at what is essentially a lottery, not primarily a system that rewards merit; uncertainty about how to deal with the material conditions of one’s own employment – whether (for instance) to speak frankly to the students about the contingent status of one’s employment; feelings of invisibility – to administration, to tenured faculty and to each other. “Adjuncts are spectral figures,” Doug Kierdorf, a historian at Tufts said, often disconnected from the life of the university. These are symptoms hardly unique to contingent employees of the university, of course, but they are felt as acutely by this group as by other members of a growing contingent, casualized, just-in-time labor force in America and elsewhere in the world.