Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

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

<meta blogging/>

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.

</end meta blogging>

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: bartleby.com, 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 bartleby.com]:

“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.

“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