We, the Feared, Unnamable
It was everywhere — a gelatin — a slime — yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes — and a blemish. It was the pit — the maelstrom — the ultimate abomination.
H. P. Lovecraft
The ontological condition of post-industrial societies is that of massified collectivity; fragmented, unselfconscious, this “serialized collectivism,” as Jean Paul Sartre insists, is constituted, from “within the ordinariness of everyday life.” (1) By contrast, from the moment the collective calls out to itself from the shadows a new, political subjectivity is born. And along with the arrival of politics, appear police.
“The Court agrees that, as written…
According to philosopher Jacques Ranciere, the essence of the police is not found in specific, overt acts of repression. It is not found in any particular branch of law enforcement. Rather police order defines the border between what is visible and invisible, what is sayable and unsayable. Ranciere insists this distribution of the sensibletypically precludes the emergence of politics. Here politics is understood as the sudden, subjective realization that all are equal, even those unseen and unheard. This political collectivism deliberately sets out to “redistribute” the predictable distribution of the sensible.
What is it about collectives and the police?
Driven by an apparent need to name, index, to neutralize the anomalous collective body, those charged with managing social conformity always go too far. They abandon constitutional mandates, hatch schemes, invent phantoms...
In 1970 film-star Jean Seberg became the target of a government orchestrated smear campaign that was really aimed at the rise of black nationalism. FBI agents planted a fictitious gossip story in the Los Angeles Times alleging that Seberg, who was married and visibly pregnant, was carrying the child of someone in the Black Panther Party (BPP). Like other white artists and intellectuals Seberg provided financial supported to the BPP. In a declassified memo agents mused that “Seberg's plight could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public.” They go on to assure FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that they would take the “usual precautions” to “preclude identification of the Bureau as the source of the letter if approval is granted." Nine years after Seberg’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage the star of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless took her own life. (2)
After 911 the unnamable took on a new appearance.
In February of 2003, former University of South Florida Professor Sami al-Arian was arrested and charged by the Department of Justice (DoJ) for allegedly supporting terrorist organizations abroad. A Palestinian computer scientist and outspoken critic of Israel policy, al Arian once had his portrait taken with President Bush Jr. In 2005 a grand jury acquitted him of all primary charges. Several jurors described the case which lasted six months, involved eighty government witnesses and presented four hundred intercepted phone calls, as one based on hearsay and flawed evidence. (3) But because the jury remained deadlocked over several minor indictments, al-Arain has remained in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement. Eventually he was offered a deal: Plead guilty on one minor count, and in exchange the government would dismiss all remaining charges. Once the required sentence was served, he would be deported. Reluctantly al-Arian accepted. The judge sentenced him to fifty-seven months in prison, the maximum punishment. Subtracting previous time served, his incarceration was to last only another nineteen months. Nevertheless Professor al-Arian, a diabetic, is now on a hunger strike after facing a seemingly never-ending series of extensions to his incarceration brought on by the government’s repeated desire to have him testify in other cases against his will. (http://rmf.net/cockburn03032007.html)
Still more recently, seven men, all black and from an impoverished Miami neighborhood, were accused of plotting with al-Qaida to blow-up Chicago’s Sears Tower. Arrested in 2006, the so-called Liberty City Seven are being held on no other evidence than the testimony of a planted FBI informant who befriended the men. Nevertheless, the case has twice gone to trial and both times resulted in a mistrial over deadlocked juries. As one of the defense attorneys observed, "This [case] is about justifying the unjustifiable,"
…The indictment is insufficient on its face.”
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v. STEVEN KURTZ:
The case brought against Steve Kurtz was similarly constructed to justify the unjustifiable, to police the unnamable.
At the time of his wife’s death, Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) were finishing work on several projects. One of these, “Marching Plague,” involved the history of biological weapons. The other project, “Free Range Grain,” was a do-it-yourself DNA-extraction laboratory for testing the normally hidden presence of genetically altered genes, or trans-genes, in store-bought groceries. Exposing the lack of government oversight into the secretive, anti-democratic agendas of the biotechnology industry has been a preoccupation for the nine year-old art collective for the past several years. Through installations, performances, educational lectures, and a series of widely distributed brochures, Critical Art Ensemble has transformed a culturally-based practice into a full-blown public critique of government and corporate malfeasance. “Free Range Grain” was to have been part of The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere, an exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) on view from May 30, 2004 to March 2005. Instead of CAE’s art installation, the museum displayed text panels explaining the absence of the group’s art. On the afternoon of the exhibition’s opening FBI agents served several CAE members and collaborators with subpoenas. By June, a total of nine people were called to appear before a Grand Jury, although neither the FBI nor the Attorney General would make public the reason for their probe. It was, however, evident from the wording in the subpoenas. Steven Kurtz, and a former colleague from The University of Pittsburgh, geneticist Robert Ferrell, were being investigated for violating U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter10, Sec. 175: Prohibitions with Respect to Biological Weapons.
It came as no surprise to those who knew Kurtz and the work of CAE that once the Grand Jury met, all charges of bioterrorism were dropped. But the case did not end. The government pursued Kurtz and co-defendant, the scientist Robert Ferrell, on charges of mail fraud and wire fraud involving the purchase of $256 of harmless, and easily obtainable, bacteria samples for one of CAE’s art projects. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, the maximum penalty for these charges increased from five to twenty years in prison. Tellingly, the fraud charges were brought by the federal government even though the alleged “victims of fraud”––American Type Culture Collection who supplied the bacteria, and the University of Pittsburgh, through which the material was purchased ––never filed a complaint or alleged wrongdoing
Re-establishing order may simply amount to super-imposing recognizable forms of representation over those that appear troublingly vague. One New York art dealer having trouble selling the work of a youthful artists’ collective solved the problem by inaugurating a series of solo exhibitions for each group member. After establishing their individual talent in the eyes of skittish collectors his plan was to then let then resume being a “collective.”
Given the radical shift in the social, political, and economic landscape since the 1970s, the representation of collectivism as an essentially entrepreneurial project is not surprising. What once appeared to be a topography of radical difference separating labor/capital, us/them, oppressed/oppressor, has given way to an equally radical horizontality made up of too many micro-political elements. Many factors contribute to this leveling, including the numbing shadow cast by the failed insurrectionary uprisings of 1968 and afterwards. In the aftermath of what Paul Virno called “the first revolution aimed not against poverty and backwardness, but specifically against the means of capitalistic production, thus, against wage labor,” mainstream economic and political power reorganized itself in unexpected ways. Rather than go the route of overt repression it chose instead unreserved access to pleasure: control through consumption, and the more meaningless the consumption the better. The “Great Refusal,” as Marcuse described the 60s, was incorporated into the social factory. Our so-called jobs can be done from home, from portable electronics in a car or plane, and all the time we listen to our favorite music while answering personal emails or surfing the net. “Freedom” is the ability to ignore the majority of the world’s population, from those who continue to work in sweat-shops building our computers and cell phones, picking our vegetables, or stitching together our blue jeans, sometimes in conditions of modern day slavery, to those many who have simply become irrelevant, who move about looking for work from country to country, or who have resigned themselves to life in desperate border towns and refugee camps. The state is no longer the locus of power and identity. Political and economic power is today privatized (with the mostly invisible backing of a highly militarized state apparatus that is itself increasingly privatized). And given this state of apparent statelessness it is not surprising that political activists no longer aim to seize government institutions, but instead appropriate or redirect the power of corporations, including their collective sway over mass consumption.
Developing or appropriating a corporate brand appears to be the only way to focus meaning today. When Critical Art Ensemble plays the amateur public scientist by experimenting with Monsanto’s transgenic seed stock, they are not merely challenging the corporate monopolization of our food supply, they are actively, if temporarily, redirecting Monsanto’s power against itself. What is promising about such tactical, and ultimately pedagogical, actions is that they sometimes force mainstream institutions to respond, thus proving the vulnerability of what appears to be an unshakable power. (Legal threats against The Yes Men by the WTO and the DoJ’s case against Kurtz and Ferrell are two tell-tale illustrations of this reaction.) It also points to the possibility of democratizing social productivity, turning it away from private ownership. What is sobering however is that contradiction and negation no longer animate the field of radical politics in the age of enterprise culture. Militant cultural activism is evanescent today. Marked by temporary interruptions and redefinitions of power, radical change most often focuses on intervening at the local level. The police meanwhile begin with the local but move towards the sphere of the generalizable and comprehensive.
Alan Sekula has described the way photography developed in tandem with pseudo-scientific theories about the physiognomy of the poor, the working classes, and the insane. Detainees arrested for petty crimes were photographed and these images placed in a retrievable archive. Petty criminals, drunks, prostitutes, the mentally ill, and the merely destitute were visually evaluated by criminologists looking for signs of deviancy such as a sloped forehead, conjoined eyebrows, or lobe-less ears. What the police archive made possible was a typology of the underclass as a constructed collective, a monster made out of so many mismatched body parts. But this instrumentalization of the archive works in both directions. The collective “thing” can also be produced from below.
Imagining a position outside the merely reflexive collectivism of everyday life requires embracing one’s own redundancy. This is especially true of artists. Think of the seemingly endless glut of artistic labor that according to Carol Duncan make up the “normal condition” of the art world. The self-organized artists’ collective casts a spell over this superfluousness.It is a charm, a speech-act. “We are always, already collective.” And what it conjures is an opening onto politics.
Is it any wonder then that collectivism is demonized as abject, as unnamable? All the while the collectivism of market oriented group-think is embraced by mainstream culture. What makes the FBI’s special attention to the dangerous, unnamable collectivity of CAE so compelling therefore, is that it can help us call attention not to the numbing spectacle of corporate collectivity that surrounds and interpolates our everyday experience.
Meanwhile, those artists who speak, write, study, who ask questions and who refuse to remain in their place complicate the maintenance of police order. The investigation of Kurtz may have been initiated by the premature death of his wife, but what fueled the DoJ’s interest was a handful of artists scattered about the U.S. committed to politically-engaged collective work. This is the hidden, internal relationship between police and the collective.
Special thanks to Lucia Sommer for her insights and editing, the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest editors, and Todd Ayoung for inspiring my title and theme.
Gregory Sholette, 6/11/08, NYC.