Monday, October 15, 2012

Revolts in the Linguistic Arts :: Babel // GaGa // Spin


"Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there...insurrection is not like a plague or a forest fire -
a linear process that spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations...taking on more density"

The Invisible Committee, the Coming Insurrection


Kill the DJ

"Shoot that fucker down"
Green Day, Kill the DJ, Uno!

I've been "Cruising the Ruins" the last couple weeks and thought it'd be a good time to replay some moves that resonate with me. The playlist samples significant tracks that played through (1) the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, (2) J.Jack Halberstam's week of residence at the George Washington University, which included the release of his new book, GaGa Feminism, and (3) the Red & Blue parties' attempts to 'stay on message' in the last month of their Presidential campaigns, seen through my time as a Fellow for Obama for America.

That politics should manifest as sound, here as noise and there as music, perhaps should not be surprising as the Invisible Council argues in their manifesto, The Coming Insurrection. Revolutions do not proceed as a particle or as a wave, but through resonance. Across a wide field, different structures begin to quiver, shake, and break in response to a common frequency. Like nodes of percussive force these vibrations compound as they transform the shape of the field.

For this reason, entities such Babel, GaGa, and Spin politics repeatedly call for us, as Halberstam contends, to "reject the form as well as the content of the messages we receive;" put another way, we must "kill the DJ" that has been "killing you to death" with the same ol' shit that just isn't working for us.

Now, there is an apparent disjuncture between a movement of academics, a movement of pop-culture, and a movement of State politics which I do not intend on masking over with a common sonic theme or a shared moment, but instead I hope to play their trajectories off each other so as to demonstrate how similar politics of noise can be used to mobilize in very different directions.

There is value to observing that in a sense-saturating environment where the message of the powers-that-be become increasingly emphatic & desperate as their offers continue to contain less & cost more, across the socio-political landscape there is a shared chorus of noise. While articulating alternatives for "what comes after," there is at very least a common rhetoric that the falling and failing industry needs to be torn down; the soundtrack of our lives is transforming too quick for the DJ's old and ineffective equipment. Pull the plug and let's make our own noise.



"You've done enough, go start a Ruiners Club. Oh wait, you'd probably ruin it."
"Well, then I'd be doing a pretty good job, because its a Ruiners Club"
Community, NBC, Season 3: Biology 101

Maya Angelou is a wonderful and prolific poet, but for the most part I can usually only remember one thing she ever wrote, "people may not remember exactly what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel." It is a truism that I take seriously in my work, but it does seem more fitting advice for theater, poetry, or music than for academics. That said, what I took away from "Cruising the Ruins," Babel's 2nd Biennial Meeting, is a certain resonating affect.

Or, in another voice, a certain affective mode of resonating in scholarship.

 To clarify: "I define affect without necessary restriction, that is, I include the notion that affect is something not necessarily corporeal and that it potentially engages many bodies at once, rather than (only) being contained as an emotion within a single body. Affect inheres in the capacity to affect and be affected." (Mel Y Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect)

Like resonance --- sympathy, collaboration and synaesthetics became battle cries and through-lines that played throughout the conference. The collective invited and performed this resonance in the panels, plenary talks, and after-hour activities. Scientists, artists, and academics shared a stage and conversed, as on the first night when Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton pooled their time, so they could sit down and ask each other questions.

The first inquiry out of the stables came from the sciences, asking the humanities: "what question are you trying to answer?" --- a vital thing to wonder, but not one that someone in the humanities would likely ask; we are more interested in developing questions and answers are usually incidental, or valued chiefly for what they opened up. The sciences, through Elkins-Tanton, reflected on its own affective trajectory which unadmittedly bases itself on candid curiosity and emotion which it then has to cover over. The humanities, through Cohen, then admitted that despite "affect" being a very loaded term in the humanities, is usually something that we have to analyze away or justify and so rarely get to revel in. Both took a moment to consider, along with the others in the room, the resonance of this need to over-perform a "getting things done" aesthetic and left ourselves open to alternatives.

As the weekend unfolded, the cruising and ruining continued, and the turn from articulation to noise, a kind of Babel way of moving-speaking was performed as bodies threw themselves into the various invitations opened up at each panel and meeting of the collective. Like the events at a club or a strange meeting, the exact words and cause/effect of things have become a bit clouded over, but in many ways, I can be more reflective on Babel by embracing this messiness.

Thus, another voice echos from notes & impressions paraphrased in my notebook:

Session 1: the Inter-Disapline of of Pedagodgy: "Become curiouser" (Jamie Taylor)
5: Going Postal: "Motion is story. It keeps going. Don't look back" (Emily Russel)
6: Digging the Ruins: "Do we become, enter or mimic texts?" (Shyama Rajendran) 
9: Impure Collaborations: "We are the reason we do what we do" (Collective voice)
14: Ecomaterialism: "I'm overwhelmed by our usefullness to others" (Karl Steel)
16: Synaesthetics: "A drink can teach us more than we hear" (Allan Mitchel)
18: Parts, Wholes, & the New: "I am a biosphere and meeting place" (Deirdre Joy)
24: Wild Fermentation: "Conferences are a kind of drinking game" (Presiders)

Instead of speaking in one voice or continuing to build our ivory tower to the heavens, we in Babel have come to revel in playing in, living with, and working on the ruins, letting the confused sound of many voices speaking resonate through stones, air, waters, abysses, fire-sides, icy-caverns, &  post/human  bodies.

Thus, I find more voices echo impulses & manifestos, Babbling in my body:

"We can create our own work / live in our imagination / be things that don't exist yet / leave things behind / believe in things and hold them close / fuck job titles / reject premises / birth worlds / use other measurements / dress cute / value differently / laugh, a lot / drink too / talk to penguins / get hurt / ignore the dooms-dayers and whiners / hope / revel in poverty / be an academic from anywhere, including outside the academy / pay prices / commune with rejects / live & die & transform with glory and love / smallness = preciousness / fail, fail again, fail better / bring the sciences and the humanities into each other / make scholarship personal / make scholarship friend-oriented / make (nonhuman) friends."

In yet another voice, Babel and the conference carries with it the echos of not only affects, invitations, and sounds but the notes and person of Eileen Joy; who, more than ordering and carrying the amplified density for this kind of revolt into the world, took the courageous step to make the ruins and noise personal so that we come to meet it personally and receive the gift of presence that we might too feel and resonate together. An echo of thanks for all those things that opened up, carried on, and added their own density to the collective din of academics working at play.

Refrain: Babbling isn't giving up the tower, but loving it enough to play in its ruins.




"The markers of this new form of politics, in addition to the lack of a clear agenda or list of demands and the strong presence of a clear belief in the rightness of the cause, display an unusual mix of whimsy and fierce purposefulness, ludic improvisation and staying power, passive resistance and loud refusals."
J. Jack Halberstam, "GaGa Manifesto", GaGa Feminism 

On day one of Jack Halburstam's residency at the George Washington University (GWU), the release of his book GaGa Feminism, he admitted to only ever having heard a handful Lady GaGa songs. Going Gaga, for him, is about so much more than Lady GaGa or her music; in fact, GaGa, as a person, Halberstam contends, may be least "gaga" in her music. It is about marking a moment and a movement in politics which we can witness and participate in.

Going GaGa is, however, about aesthetics, just as much as activism. "Reject not only the content, but the form of the message" Jack concluded on his last day at GWU, with his talk, Going GaGa: Anarchism, Noise, and the Wild. It runs through Punk, the screams of women, Yoko Ono, drag queens, Queen, David Bowie, Lady Starlight, Grace Jones, Emma Goldman, Shulamith Firestone, Marina Abramovic, Ari Up, the Slits, and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Specs. Through "lively objects" and embodiments that retreat and refuse human understanding, we can not only survive the collapse of social-institutions but thrive in the confusion of their fall.

"To go gaga" Hablerstam clarifies, "is to be loud in a world of silent collaborators, to be crazy in a room full of nice and normal people, to be unpredictable in a world of highly structured systems of meaning" (J. Jack Halberstam, GaGa Feminism ). 

As a way of resisting institutions or surviving them, going gaga is a great way of affirming modes of being in the world that are coded as unreadable by the system. Halberstam pushes this further, however, and sees this method of becoming-noise as a way of becoming-weapon; instruments of war that can overthrow not only the established order but the very society that would have such order.

"I am using my GaGa Manifesto" declares Halberstam, "to push us further into the crisis, into the eye of the hurricane, deep into the heart of nonesense... In a crisis, in this crisis, don't remain calm, get agitated and add to the chaos...Do not remain calm, do not look for the nearest exit, do not stick your head into the sand; do agitate, do make things worse, do run screaming through the street, and do refuse to return to business as usual" (J. Jack Halberstam, "GaGa Manifesto").

At this point, I must question GaGa-ism further: While certainly we continue to transform and transform (you might say "queer") society and a complex of institutions, and will do well to use noise and use our opponent's own energy against them, I worry whether a full rejection of articulation is possible or desirable.

I feel Halberstam's articulation of GaGa works best to open up alternative modes which participate in chaos but do not live there (indeed can anyone?) His examples likewise speak against the anarchist utopia, which he denies positive existence but which such a project is hard to extricate from its promise. One such example, which I dwelt on, was the gesture to the Occupy Movement, as a way of going gaga by not following the prepared script of protest: "They don't want to present a manifesto, they actually are themselves the manifestation of discontent. The 99 percenters simply show up, take up space, make noise, witness" (J. Jack Halberstam, "GaGa Manifesto"). 

However, in this too we have seen compromised and utilized by different States both to tear down unions and justify the use of extraordinary measures. Will noise and has noise already become a kind of code? This is all well for those that can survive without such organized community support? Can you avoid announcing anarchy without consistently using the tools of the State?

Likewise, the choice of Lady Gaga as a symbolic anchor for the argument I feel functions better than Halberstam may credit it. While certainly the title track and video "Born this Way," plays into a horribly problematic neo-liberal fantasy of fixed identities which just need to be made visible and integrated, but GaGa hits and misses. In her music also, GaGa is still playing with what it means to go gaga and be filled schizophrenically with revolting noise:

"I’m a bitch, I’m a loser, baby, maybe I should quit.
I’m a jerk, wish I had the money, but I can’t find work.
I’m a brat, I’m a selfish punk, I really should be smacked....
I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it.
Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this.
I’m a nerd, I chew gum and smoke in your face, I’m absurd"
Lady Gaga, Bad Kids

If Going GaGa means a continual refusal of the "the new normal" or "the return to normal" then we can  see the appearance of a GaGa Feminism in society as evidence that queer politics of noise has become a visible and formidable agent. For this reason I am all the more wary because this refusal, this embrace of noise, can be as much a weapon of the State as the new normal; there are moments that the tea-parties and the occupiers appear as hideous mirrors of each other in creating the political dissonance I will now explore: Spin.



"Kill the party with me and never go home"
the True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, MCR

Over the last few weeks, I have been working as an Organizing Fellow on the Silver Spring, Maryland team of Obama for America. Personally, I was expecting to be further disenchanted by politics as a result, but the journey so far has surprisingly left me about where I began. Like going for a walk around the block, you get to see things from different angles, becoming affirmed in many suspicions and some hopes, even if you don't travel too far. Most people I talk to in the organization and outside it (in all stripes and colors of political affiliation) are playing very similar music, being disoriented by and taking advantage of the same noise: Spin.

Now, one of my most favorite phrases and maneuvers comes from the television drama, the West Wing, which is "reject the premise of the question." Determining the premise at hand is for me what the game of politics, especially State politics, become about winning; i.e. it is not about winning any specific contest or wit or policy which is presented to the public, because it is either readily apparent (baring unexpected events) which side will win on a given test, but rather it is about getting your choice of contest made the dominant discussion.

If Red is good at chess. If Blue is good at checkers. Red does not want to play checkers, because he will probably lose. Blue does not want to play chess because he will probably lose. Both will try to get the other to play his game, and whoever can win that fight will have already won the game. Likewise, neither want to play scrabble, which each are equally good at or boggle which neither have played before; they don't want there to be an actual contest or chance of losing.

How do you go about refusing to play one game and baiting the other into play your game? National politics has many moves, but the one that interests me here is Spin. Spin, as its name suggests, is not just about giving  things a new direction but also about making people dizzy. Spin is 70% confusion and 30% collusion.

"I can't hear a thing on the radio, I can't see a thing in the video, in stereo, in this static age" sings Green Day in the last album, 21st Century Breakdown. Most of political spin is about over-saturating the media with nonsense, so as to misdirect the public away from X issue. If the Blue team is getting cornered on an unfavorable topic, send the vice-presidential candidate out there to make some ridiculous gaft to change the story of the week, if not the story of the day.

This is not to claim that the public and the media are not suspicious to this sleight of hand (all though they are often intentionally or unintentionally complacent), but they do buy into it if it gives them a good show. The best spin is not about suspending disbelief but about getting people to want to believe, and this again is best done by not being too specific or straight forward.

These are the psycho-social "spheres" we create for ourselves, argues Peter Sloterdijk in his recently translated work, Bubbles: Spheres Volume 1. This book has been a companion of mine over the last several "dry-runs" for election day, and while I am disturbed by the progressive, dualistic, modern-brand of humanism, it resonates strongly with much of the noise and rhetoric I hear on the campaign trail. "People no longer want to receive ;their inspired ideas from some embarrassing heavens; they are supposed to come from the no man's land of ownerless, precise thoughts. Through their lack of a sender, they permit the free use of the gift. The inspired idea that delivers something for you remains a discreet visitor at the door" (Sloterdijk, 31). People want to be able to claim their gifts as their own, as a gift without a sender, and those that want to direct them are willing to disappear into the noise, so long as the chain of gift-giving keeps on moving.

Indeed getting people to "buy in" to the spin and join in the noise making is key to rallying the public. At a certain point ideas will appear as originating in them which has been delicately planted and workers will continue down a program of dissonance out of a desire to see their investments through "to the end," and double down on their investments as a result. The move is to move more and more into a shared "we" identity.  "We are what we are, without separations...this space of happiness, this vibration, this animated echo chamber. We live as intertwined beings in the land of We" (Sloterdijk,  51)

Volunteer organizations depend on this sort of rhetoric, continually trying to escalate the involvement of a participant; securing their agreement to return to help before they finish their current work. Paid jobs, especially those with stock options, work on the same principle of getting the workers to invest in the company, remain loyal and thus seek its best interest out of a bonded self-interest. Compounded by several different intertwined organizations (the State, jobs, healthcare, insurance, bankers, autoworkers) and we become so overwhelmed by the noise of their combined investments that we surrender ourselves to them out of habit -- feeling no sense of escape. "Where are we going? Always home" (Sloterdijk, 56).

Political ideology, once it has disoriented us through its noise and spin, pushing us to the point of desperation, offer us a way of escaping into a sense of order. Indeed, the disorientation and the reorientation are all apart of the same act. This is not to say that we ever return to the same world or State/state that we left behind. No, the game of spin is not to keep things the same but to keep things running.

This is not to say that politicians are always dishonest, but that spin politics depends on us never arriving at what we want, and making that desire, motion, and investment (as well as the noise which produces and operates it) the self-sustaining source of our drive. "Every social form has its own world house....under which human beings first of all gather, understand themselves, defend themselves, grow and dissolve boundaries. The hordes, tribes and peoples and the empires all the more... are forced to place above themselves, by their typical means, their own semiotic heavens from which character forming collective inspirations can flow to them..."Through their gods, their stories, and their arts, they supply themselves with the breath --- and thus the stimuli --- to make them possible" (Sloterdijk, 59).

What the psycho-social calls desire and fantasy, I have here analogized with noise and spin. I do so to demonstrate not only how revolts or the inarticulate in the linguistic arts are not only weapons to fight the State but weapons the State has been using for some time to perpetuate itself. To say that in noise we might live is a bit utopian, we already live in noise; we have no where else to run.

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