Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Space is the Place

Presentation at ‘Is Black and Red Dead?’ Conference, The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, University of Nottingham (7-8 September 2009)

If, according to Sun Ra, ‘space is the place’, then what type of space is the place we want to be? From Hakim Bey’s mystical-Stirnerite ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’, to Alain Badiou’s post-Maoist invocation of ‘independent spaces’ subtracted from the State, from the ‘offensive opacity zones’ of the neo-Agambenian anarchist group ‘Tiqqun’, to Masteneh Shah-Shuja’s libertarian communist ‘zones of proletarian development’, the answer appears to be the ‘zone’, or its equivalent, as the space of liberation.

There is no doubt that the zone of resistance, or of liberation, has been a recurrent and attractive theoretical and practical trope. I want to suggest that this is because the zone appears to offer an answer to the central problem of any radical spatial politics: on the one hand, this politics must be rooted or grounded in a particular space to have traction; on the other hand, this politics cannot remained confined to a particular space, but must (potentially at least) spread out and develop across all spaces. The attraction of the zone is that it appears to answer both these needs: fixed but fluid, rooted but rhizomatic. Of course where the emphasis falls accounts for a great deal of the political diversity of these ‘zones’. Usually in Marxism the stress has been on the strategic recognition of particular privileged sites of antagonism linked to the socio-economic contradictions of capital: from Lenin’s call to strike at the ‘weakest link’ in the imperialist chain, to Tronti’s argument that the capitalist chain will break at the point where the working class is the strongest. In contrast, anarchists, in Antonio Negri’s characterisation, ‘have always refused to define a time or space as privileged moments of uprising … thinking that there are one or thousands of spaces and times of revolt.’ (2008: 144) And yet all forms of radical spatial politics, I would argue, must negotiate with the problem of this dual imperative.

While not denying the attractions of the ‘zone’, both theoretically and practically, as either a resolution to this problem, or, in a more Deleuzian sense, as a better way of posing the problem, I do want to consider here what might be elided or evaded in the invocation of the ‘zone’. In his discussion of radical spatial politics David Harvey inflects the tension I have noted by distinguishing between place and space. Place is correlated with particularity, and the mobilising and empowering effects of localised or materially-grounded identities (which can include class, minority, gender, or sexuality, based identities). This is contrasted with the wider and more fluid domain of space, conceived of as the more generic and global site of politics. As Harvey notes, place-based groups are ‘relatively empowered to organize in place but disempowered when it comes to organizing over space.’ (Harvey 1990: 303) However, even this relative gain in power is problematised in the context of the capitalist organisation of space: the ‘assertion of any place-bound identity’ states Harvey, ‘[risks] becom[ing] part of the very fragmentation which a mobile capitalism and flexible accumulation can feed upon.’ (Harvey 1990: 303) The desire to invest place with an aesthetic and political meaning as a site of resistance ‘meshes only too well with the idea of spatial differentiations as lures for a peripatetic capital that values the option of mobility very highly.’ (Harvey 1990: 303) Instead of drawing an immediately pessimistic conclusion from this critique, can we find a more fine-grained understanding of the potential pressures on any existing or prospective ‘zone of resistance’?

I want to refer to one comparatively under-discussed staging of this problem of radical spatial politics: the work of Ranajit Guha. One of the founders of the Gramsci-inspired school of Subaltern studies, Guha is concerned to recover peasant insurgency in colonial India from, to use E. P. Thompson’s famous and felicitous phrase, ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ (Thompson 1991 / 1963: 12). Contrary to the usual teleological historiographical models, whether colonialist, nationalist, or Marxist, Guha argues that this particular form of peasant politics ‘was by no means archaic in the sense of being outmoded’ (Guha 1982: 4). In spatial terms Guha rehabilitates the reliance of peasant mobilisation ‘on the traditional organization of kinship and territoriality’ against the abstract ‘national’ spatiality of elite mobilisation (Guha 1982: 4). Guha, however, is still haunted by the constraints of this form of mobilisation, noting that: ‘the numerous peasant uprisings of the period, some of them massive in scope and rich in anti-colonialist consciousness, waited in vain for a leadership to raise them above localism and generalize them into a nationwide anti-imperialist campaign.’ (Guha 1982: 6) Leaving aside the question of leadership, no doubt crucial to the disputes between anarchists and Marxists, here I want to focus on the spatial coding of the problem. Again we can see the tension between localism as the condition for radicalisation, and localism a constraint on radicalisation.

This is further cashed out in Guha’s later monumental work Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983 / 1999), which, in a chapter titled ‘Territoriality’, specifically takes on Marxist criticisms of the spatial confinement of peasant politics. In particular he rejects Engels charge, made in The Peasant War in Germany (1850 / 2002), that the defeat of the German peasants was specifically the result of their ‘stubborn provincialism’ (in Guha 1999: 279). In contrast Guha asserts ‘territoriality as a positive factor of rebel mobilization’ (1999: 305; my emphasis). Territoriality composes two overlapping axes of mobilisation: one based on common lineage and the other on common habitat. Peasant mobilisation operates spatially in terms of the identification of colonial power and its native protégés as alien, and this definitional act can either be negative – defining space in terms of the otherness of the alien – or positive – defining conflict in terms of the self-identity of the insurgents (Guha 1999: 281). Through a series of detailed historical reconstructions Guha emphasises the motivational power, and political dimension, of local struggles in which familial and ethnic ties overlap with that of spatial determinations.

He also raises the question of the articulation between a spatial politics and temporality, noting that: ‘A correlate of the category of space was a sense of time.’ (1999: 291) The ‘rootedness’ of peasant insurgency expresses a particular temporal politics, which is, as Guha states:

Expressed in its most generalized form as a contrasted pair of times (then / now), a good past negated by a bad present, its function was to endow the struggle against the alien with the mission of recovering the past as a future. (Guha 1999: 291)

Holding on to a particular territory becomes coded as holding on to a particular time – the ‘good past’ – but now refigured as a possible future. The reappropriation of past and future time is therefore staged through the spatial reappropriation of territory. This second point is crucial to Guha’s argument. It is vital for him to resist the usual model of such peasant insurgencies as resolutely backward looking, and so archaic. Instead Guha insists that: ‘The domain of rebellion extended thus in both directions [past and future] from the subject’s locus in an embattled present.’ (1999: 294) In exactly the same fashion as the question of spatiality, temporality also has to be re-thought to avoid the sense of confinement and archaism usually invoked to dismiss such insurgencies.

Confinement in a particular place, whether spatial or temporal, is resisted by Guha’s insistence that the two axes of territoriality – ethnic and physical space – do not completely overlap (Guha 1999: 330). It is this spatial difference that produces the expansive drive of peasant insurgency as it comes to fill in these ‘gaps’, creating the capacity to enlarge and define a wider domain of insurgency – a kind of expanding zone of insurgency. It is the non-coincidence of place and space, the very fact that territoriality is permeable and dis-located, which makes possible a non-archaic radical spatial politics. And yet, once again, Guha is forced to note the limits of such insurgencies in the context of later militant mass movements, writing that the peasants can only attain a ‘fragmented insurgent consciousness’ (Guha 1999: 331). The fragmentation of consciousness is mirrored in the spatial fragmentation in which the rootedness of territoriality eventually blocks the connection of insurgents in space, and blocks a generic or unified consciousness that can transcend territoriality. Contrary to Guha’s express intention, it appears that localism has its revenge, and these insurgencies remain merely prefigurative of later national or global insurgencies.

We could argue, however, that Guha’s problem does not lie with the object of his research, but with his inability to give-up on his residual Marxist commitment to historical teleology. Regarding the proletariat as the true generic subject of history, and the only subject able to universalise itself spatially through the immanent rupture with the ‘false’ universality of capital, Guha can still only leave the peasant insurgent as a prefigurative moment. In Provincializing Europe (2000) Dipesh Chakrabarty aims to radicalise Guha’s work by freeing it from its residual teleology. The refusal of such teleologies, and their correlation with privileged carriers or bearers of history, allows us to free spatial and temporal difference from metaphysical and political subordination.

What is interesting is that Chakrabarty does not, at least initially, simply abandon Marxism. In fact, he argues that the question of spatial and temporal difference is posed within the horizon of capital and, more particularly, within our conceptualisation of capital as a spatial and temporal order. We can regard such differences as: (1) inevitably overcome by capital in the long run; (2) negotiated and contained within capital; or (3) produced by capital (Chakrabarty 2000: 47). In each case difference is essentially tractable to capital, and this produces a narrative of historical progress or development. It is just this conception that Chakrabarty contests by ‘show[ing] how Marx’s thoughts may be made to resist the idea that the logic of capital sublates differences into itself.’ (2000: 50)

Contrary to the usual conceptions of Marx’s thought as irremediably ‘stagist’ and teleological Chakrabarty insists that ‘Marx … does not so much provide us with a teleology of history as with a perspectival point from which to read the archives.’ (2000: 63) Unpacking this statement Chakrabarty distinguishes in Marx a history posited by capital itself as its precondition, as universal and necessary, which he calls ‘History 1’. This is opposed to ‘History 2’, which is composed of the antecedents of capital, but they are encountered by capital ‘not as antecedents established by itself, not as forms of its own life-process.’ (Marx in Chakrabarty 2000: 63) In this case we can distinguish historical differences that lend themselves to the reproduction of capital and those that do not. Chakrabarty summarises the result: ‘Marx accepts, in other words, that the total universe of pasts that capital encounters is larger than the sum of those elements in which are worked out the logical presuppositions of capital.’ (2000: 64)

The surprise is, as Chakrabarty notes, that Marx’s own examples of History 2 are money and the commodity. The reason for this counter-intuitive selection is that money and the commodity, as relations, can exist in history without necessarily giving rise to capital. In fact, capital had to destroy the previous forms of money and the commodity to subsume them to its own reproduction. History 2 is not a separate and alternative history to capital’s History 1, in the style of a communist version of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962). Instead the plural moments of History 2 ‘inhere in capital and yet interrupt and punctuate the run of capital’s own logic.’ (Chakrabarty 2000: 64) They can never be fully subsumed in History 1, but exist as its constant interruption. In this way historical difference and, we could add, spatial difference, ‘writes into the intimate space of capital an element of deep uncertainty.’ (Chakrabarty 2000: 64)

While Marx’s more teleological moments conceal this uncertainty, Chakrabarty excavates History 2 as the means for an immanent critique of the teleological narrative of capital. Chakrabarty argues is that difference is neither external nor internal to capital, but ‘lives in intimate and plural relationships to capital, ranging from opposition to neutrality.’ (2000: 66) This intimacy does not simply equal alignment with capital, along the lines of a teleological historicism of subsumption. Instead, alignment is the labour of capital, produced through its own disciplinary matrix. The despotism of capital is a work of real abstraction that signals a dependence on History 2, but also its over-coding or re-territorialisation as History 1. Chakrabarty also insists that we should not simply think of History 2 (or plural History 2s) ‘as precapitalist or feudal, or even inherently incompatible with capital.’ (2000: 67) Such a position might appear to be anti-capitalist, but leaving History 2 spatially separated from capital would only have the ironic result of confirming capitalism as internally coherent, as absolute and inescapable Weberian ‘iron cage’. What I want to take more seriously, especially in relation to the zone, is how, to quote Chakrabarty, ‘the idea of History 2 allows us to make room, in Marx’s own analytic of capital, for the politics of human belonging and diversity. It gives us a ground on which to situate our thoughts about multiple ways of being human and their relationship to the global logic of capital.’ (2000: 67)

To conclude, the attraction of the zone as a site of resistance lies in the fact that it incarnates an actual territory of politics in the face of the hegemonic ability of capital to re-organise social, economic, and political space seemingly at will. It is this effect, I would argue, that has drawn so many to it from opposed and antagonistic political orientations. Its problem is that it appears to always risk succumbing to the historical irony of becoming merely another site of capital, precisely because of its resistance and inventiveness. Such a conclusion courts cynicism, of the kind Christopher Connery has described as ‘always-already cooptation’ (2007: 87), in which resistance is not only recuperated after the fact, but recuperated in its becoming. Capital wins the game in advance, with every move against it inscribed within its own unfolding.

I am suggesting that the virtues of Chakrabarty’s position are first that it refuses the consolation of valorising the zone as radical per se, as the automatic incarnation of History 2. As Marx’s own examples indicate History 2 might not always be the obvious moment of resistance, and it would have to be form of resistance that can negotiate its own intimacy with History 1. Second, it would also refuse the automatic assumption that all such zones are already fatally contaminated by capital, mere ruses of real subsumption. Instead, to think the spatial politics of the zone requires the politicisation of the intimacy of History 2 and History 1. Without this thinking we are left with either abandoning the zone as irremediably contaminated by capital, or positing it as uncontaminated outside. In either case the result is the same: we confirm capital’s own fantasmatic self-image as a total temporal and spatial order, and leave radical politics with only consolatory and symmetrical fantasies of inexplicable and yet somehow total revolution.

Badiou, Alain (2008) ‘“We Need a Popular Discipline”: Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative’, Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese and Jason Smith, Critical Inquiry 34: 645-659.

Bey, Hakim (1985) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone (New York: Autonomedia, 1985).

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Connery, Christopher Leigh (2007) ‘The World Sixties’, in Rob Wilson and Christopher Leigh Connery (eds.), The Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era of Globalization, Santa Cruz, CA: New Pacific Press. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, pp. 77-107.

Deleuze, Gilles (1991) Bergsonism [1966], trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, New York: Zone Books.

Guha, Ranajit (1982) ‘On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India’, in Ranajit Guha (ed.) Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp.1-7.

Guha, Ranajit (1999) Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India [1983], Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Harvey, David (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

Negri, Antonio (2008) Reflections on Empire, trans. Ed. Emery, Cambridge: Polity.

Shah-Shuja, Masteneh (2008) Zones of Proletarian Development, London: OpenMute.

Thompson, E. P. (1991) The Making of the English Working Class [1963], London: Penguin.

Tiqqun, (2008) How is it to be done?, Support the Tarnac 9: site of the US support committee for the Tarnac 9. PDF.

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