Political Power and the Kings Magic – Graeber and Lacan

April 21, 2009

short passage ( which expands the point of power’s symbolic base in my previous post)


(Tate Britain, Saturday 19 January, 2008)

by David Graeber
It is the peculiar feature of political life that within it, behavior that could only otherwise be considered insane is perfectly effective. If you managed to convince everyone on earth that you can breathe under water, it won’t make any difference: if you try it, you will still drown. On the other hand, if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were King of France, then you would actually be the King of France. (In fact, it would probably work just to convince a substantial portion of the French civil service and military.)
This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence. No king would openly admit he is king just because people think he is. Political power has to be constantly recreated by persuading others to recognize one’s power; to do so, one pretty much invariably has to convince them that one’s power has some basis other than their recognition. That basis may be almost anything—
divine grace, character, genealogy, national destiny. But “make me your leader because if you do, I will be your leader” is not in itself a particularly compelling argument.

In this sense politics is very similar to magic, which in most times and places—as I discovered in Madagascar—is simultaneously recognized as something that works because people believe that it works; but also, that only works because people do not believe it works only because people believe it works. For this why magic, whether in ancient Thessaly or the contemporary Trobriand Islands, always seems to dwell in an uncertain territory somewhere between poetic expression and outright fraud. And of course the same can usually be said of politics”


also the Lacan and the Crazy King thing, from  “Everything Politics is, Chomsky is not”  by Henrik Jøker Bjerre

This is why Lacan famously stated that the madman, who thinks that he is a king, is no crazier than the king, who thinks that he is a king. In as far as the king identifies with his symbolic mandate to such a degree that he doesn’t see that that is all it is, or in other words: in as far as he believes that there is no difference between his position of enunciation and the content of what he is (described as), he is as crazy as the madman. Another Lacanian paraphrase of the cogito could thus be: “I don’t think, therefore I am (the king).”


Laughing all the way to the Bank, and eating a Banker – Notes on Subversive Humour and Impossible Violence

April 17, 2009

Events at the G20 protest in London simulate the possibilities of violence as an activist strategy that can step out of the trappings and co-optations of the binaries set up by the media-police. How can the symbolic mechanisms that prop up a hegemonic order be effaced? A partial, potential strategy is not one of opposition and realizable violence, but of and through intrusion and subtraction, which has the effect (not for the dim-witted) of defacing the symbolic order on which capitalists social power bases itself. It is a subtractive comic stance from which an impossible violence can be waged.
A suspiciously hip protesterA suspiciously hip protester

One of the pictures on the Guardians G20 gallery shows a suspiciously, rather hip protester in the act of hurling a monitor into the already broken RBS branch . Surrounding him is an amphitheater of journalists, lined up with cameras held over their heads, their clicking drowning out the sound of glass breaking, as Charlie Brooker noted in his newswipe. It seems that every newspaper send a cameraman, or all the freelance photographers of London were seeking out the money-shot of a masked protester breaking property defended by the law. This fixation on violence fixes the protesting on the street and co-opts it as a binaric oposite to the liberal-pacificst Order. This narrow inter-play precludes violence in its symbolic dimension. The images of skirmishes only include violence as grievous bodily harm or assaults on property:  “Journalists have a fairly idiosyncratic definition of “violence”: something like ‘damage to persons or property not authorized by properly constituted authorities’. This has the effect that if even one protestor damages a Starbucks window, one can speak of “violent protests”, but if police then proceed to attack everyone present with tazers, sticks and plastic bullets, this cannot be described as violent.” (Graeber – Giant Puppets). Street Violence is condemned and easily neutralized by police violence in return.

Although this problem emerges from the strategy of the protesters on the frontline too. Their violence is a realizable violence, hurling a stone at the police or smashing a window, which folds into and reinforces the police-state’s representation of protest. The ‘Reclaim the Streets’ slogans are repetitive, predictable & waning. They are slogans of territorial occupation and usurpation “Whose streets, our streets”, which operate only in their immediate spatiality, and operate with an idea of politics as presence & declarations & as acts of reclaiming. This demarcation of the sphere of political action as delineated by the slogans during the protests, leads to a closure of reference points for attacks. They’re hysterically shouted at the police men, and are futile in a historical and strategic sense. The Big Other does not hear them. What message can assault and suspend it then?

Realizable violence, completely misses the target, if the target is the symbolic order that attempts to structure our perceptions of hegemonic categories as stable. The Red Army Faction apparently indulged in some exploratory torture of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a former SS officer and industrialist. In this situation of carnal vulnerability, or on a much larger scale the Khmer Rouge, it is clear the bourgeois cannot be killed. To ordinarily perceive capitalism as a property of things or of people in themselves misses the, in rather spooky terms, the supersensous phantasmogoric ectoplasm, on which the machinations of the capitalist economy operate. In Marx’s terms these are the social relation of production which is the abstract couplet of concrete activities within capitalism. To start targeting the former, if it can make sense, an apt strategy, or its secondary effects, would move beyond only honing in on the identities emerging from alienation that political economy masks us with: ‘the capitalist’the worker’ ‘the consumer’. More or less one can’t “Smash Capitalism” or its incarnated agents as another slogan exclaims. To get to the point, and to sharpen our target, we can even quote from the Communist Manifesto “To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production…Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power.”

The long tradition of rioting and storming contained in it a momentum for an actualisable, realizable violent usurpation and infliction of bodily pain, which as strategy here in Europe is rather passe’. A subversive strategy in the space of the streets could be performed as an “impossible violence” that can therefore exceed the confines of momentary acts of realizable violence and affronts the socio-symbolic underpinnings that enable the power of the ruling classes to flow. Of course money and the police are the pillars of bourgeois-bureaucratic rule. But this monetary-military power, that compels workers to work for them and forces dissenters into their police vans is the acknowledged basis of their power. The ruling classes have the monopoly, both monetary and in the use of physical violence. A critique that reveals this as the source of their power (like the themes of inequality, billionaires and police-repression highlighted by demonstrators) seems to misfire, since they and everybody else knows this very well. Even the ideological legitimacy of their bourgeois values comes from this: the wealthy classes are responsible for prosperity, and the big-spending state for protecting property.

The anarchist Anthropologist, David Graeber, makes a distinction between social power based on the ability to act directly on others, and the power arising from the ability to define oneself which can convince others how they should act towards you. The first is rooted in money, or to be more inclusive in capitalist-bureaucratic (or monetary-military) monopolizations of weapons of coercion. The second has its centrifugal core in their social status of production from which spin and spew out their symbolic power. This power is based on insignia, symbolic codes that structure our perception of them, and signal us to act with deference and respect. Even in our binary opposition and critiques, in which the contours of their power are retraced, we acknowledge and reproduce its format and therefore contribute to its stability. An opposition that sustains its enemy, as a sinister conspiratorial figure, and by erecting itself as the opposition, allows the enemy, through the media, the conditions for its own legitimation, securing law and order and wealth production, as opposed to “unproductive rioting”. To deface the character masks of capitalism, a strategy that can tear the symbolic identities of their social status (the Banker, the Politician) could be attenuated by a comical analytical stance that intimates their spectrally objective underpinnings. For example:

Chris Night, the Communist Anthropologist at the University of East London, who let it slip that he might accidentally hang a banker, or start gnawing at a bankers leg rather than get a sandwich if he gets a little bit peckish ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2009/mar/31/g20-protests-chris-knight ) exemplifies this effect emerging through impossible Violence. It remains outside the trappings of the binaries of the media-police (atleast for the viewer since the media took it literally… that he was actually planning to hang a banker, grab a person in a suite coming out of the office, and throw a rope over the nearest lamppost, while the 5000 police people stand by) but is still present on the streets and in streams of dissemination.

A symbolic attack of impossible violence can step-over the cordon of bashing police men. An impossible violence, is so grotesquely overdrawn that it permeates out of the binaries of street-skirmishes & the media, into the symbolic order, such as into the figure of the overlord banker. So Chris Knights ‘threat’ to gnaw at a bankers leg when he gets hungry, is subversive because it is an image that crawls its way into the category, and gnaws at it. The humorous rather than the violent element is responsible for dividing the image of the unitary power of finance, for inserting a space of critical reflection. It has an undermining presence, dislocating the position of the banker and forcing it into a more vulnerable positions, where it can be mocked, and in a first maneuver exposed for their petty materiality as embodied in the fleshy leg or dismembered bloody hand at the end end of a pin-stripe sleeve, that Chris Knight’s “Festival of the Dead” Procession costumes contained. Since it is a symbolic assault that splits the categories of mastery in the Symbolic Order, by lodging itself within, it remains after the protest, humorously clinging onto the figure of the banker, constantly revealing its vulnerability by having effaced the confident strut of the baron. But it is in the second maneuver where a further, secondary effect can be found in this strategy of subversive humour. This effect goes beyond revealing the bankers petty bodies, beyond the simple intrusion of corporeal or economic material reality. This strategy is not a blockade, an autonomous alternative space or a physical attack that can hinder capitalist spurts. By ‘allowing’ the capitalist to continue, this strategy can merely suggest the mechanisms of its reproduction, by revealing how the bankers continue to strut in the pace of their supremacy after having been symbolically tripped by their defacement (see ‘the universal-at-work chapter in Zupancic, 2008). The Guardian reported on some personal testimony of a few bankers: “The riots, they said, were only a minor inconvenience: “We’ve been in this morning, made a lot of money and now are chilling out”” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/02/bankers-betting-protesters-g20).
This is what is actually funny, that after the pompous baron slips on the banana peel he is up again and walking around arrogantly, firm in “the belief of his own aristocratic Self” (Zupancic: 29-30)
“The process of joking is not only “work done with the help of the Symbolic” (condensations, displacements, playing with homonyms, and so on) but always also something that displays the “Symbolic at work” (Zupancic; 143). A bad example, from the placards at the protest “Banker rhymes with…?”. There could be better ones.

From Chris Knights performative strategy can be intimiated that the source of their efficiency exceeds their material presence, such as the banter of bankers about poker-nights and stocks over a starbucks coffee. This is revealed because of the comic stance this maneuver provides, whose effect is a distance, from which perspective we can witness the functioning of symbolic structures, as the absurdity of the individual banker who assumes and continually inserts him or herself into the position of an ordained invincibility. It scathes this symbolic order on which social power rests, through this subtraction (from symbolic hierarchies and binaric media representations). This stance then enables a subtraction, that like in the image Zizek used in the Conference “On the idea of Communism” consists of pulling out a a card from the house of cards, which leads to the crumbling of the whole structure, only from that distanced stance of course. This is a strategy unlike the declarations of temporary autonomous zones, that remains a green patch within the social order, that like Robert Owens utopian villages can idyllically co-exist and not fundamentally challenge the ruling symbolic order.
The question is then how to come up with tactics that efface social power, not by opposition, but by intrusion and subtraction, which has the effect (not for the dim-witted media) of delegitimisng the symbolic order on which the capitalists social power is based. Something like this seems pressing, because the uncanny, gruesome puppeteering can bind the opposites of Violence and Humour. This can side-step mediation through the news, which propagates the liberal myth of the feckless consciousless agitator, of the violent ones, the few trouble-makers who wreak havoc and ruin it for everyone else, those are the true ‘people’, who are peace-loving, and as the media reported share a joke and their organic cookies with police men. In this ideological deadlock the possibility for harming the police-state order is foreclosed.

David Graeber, 2003 Chapter 3 – Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value

David Graeber – ON THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF GIANT PUPPETS: broken windows, imaginary jars of urine, and the cosmological role of the police in American culture

Jacques Ranciere, The concept of ‘critique’ and the the ‘critique of Political Economy’

Alenka Zupancic, 2008 – On Comedy: The Odd one In