Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Non Compliance?

Just last week in London, I had a strange and jarring experience. I was waiting for someone in Trafalgar Square and decided to sit on a wall just below the “fourth plinth” (where the Yinka Shonibare piece ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was on show.) After a few minutes I was approached by two men in semi-official looking jumpers and peaked hats. They asked me, politely, if I would mind getting down from where I was sitting.
“Yes I would mind”
I said.

They asked again politely; and again I, also politely, declined. I gave my reasons: that I was doing nothing illegal, or in any way offensive and that I didn’t want to move. I then asked them who they were and was told that they were employed by “GLA.” (I later found out that this was the Greater London Authority who had contracted the private company Chubb Security Personnel Limited.)
“So, you’re not police, you can’t arrest me then.” I said.
“Well you see sir, it’s a health and safety issue. We’re just doing our job.”

This back and forth went on for a little bit longer, during which time they remained calm, polite yet insistent whilst I became increasingly upset, irrational and incoherent. It ended with me getting down and shouting swear words at them as they laughed and walked off. My miniature protest and attempt at non-compliance had been utterly inconsequential. It had been a pointless, petulant bluster of inchoate impoliteness that had no effect whatsoever.

A few moments later I saw them chatting with some adults and taking photographs for them of their kids clambering over the lions down in the square.

I had found the intervention of these “Heritage Wardens” threatening and troubling and had been unsettled by the whole experience. (I'm not the only one and you can see one of the guys who approached me at work here.)

The claim that it was a health and safety issue seems to point to what’s at stake; because it’s in the regulation of the body, specifically, to which the concerns of health and safety are directed.

It was my body that was precariously balanced on the classical balustrades; and it was that which was being challenged. I think this is what I was hinting towards in the last post when I suggested that bodies can migrate between and disrupt different (and closed) social systems.

Husserl puts this as the body being involved in a thingly nexus:
We have seen that in all experience of spatio-thingly Objects, the body ‘is involved’ as the perceptual organ of the experiencing subject.” (Ideas II, § 36)

There are at least three implications to this involvement in a thingly nexus.

First we might think about how a nexus of things might be conceived of in terms of systems – a system of objects perhaps (although with qualifications to Baudrillard’s account.)

Second, when demands are made of me, or infringements, then they are enacted both within this system of objects and on the surface of my body. (The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration.(Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History)

And third the body is also transcendent, or at least quasi-transcendent. Clearly this is Merleau-Ponty’s well known insight in The Phenomenology of Perception (especially part 1). But, crucially, this is also what Husserl means when he says that that the body is constituted in a “double way”, as physical matter and as “sense”. This doubling means it can resist. It is coiled up with a potential to disrupt the easy flow of capital and information within social systems. And hence, it forms the origin of a politics. This would mean, then, a politics that is grounded in what Husserl calls the “physical-aesthesiological unity” of the body. He says of this unity:

In the abstract, I can separate the physical and aesthesiological strata but can do so precisely only in the abstract. In the concrete perception, the Body is there as a new sort of unity of apprehension. It is constituted as an Objectivity in its own right, which fits under the formal-universal concept of reality, as a thing that preserves its identical properties over and against changing external circumstances.” (Ideas II, § 40)

To make a leap – it is a critique of politics that are abstract which forms the basis of Zizek’s critique of the “lost causes” of liberal politics. In this section his focus is Simon Critchley:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil (since they also know it that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude is easily acceptable for those in power: "so wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in ~ unfortunately, however, we live in the real world, where we are just honestly doing what is possible"), but, on the contrary, to bombard those
in power with strategically well-selected precise, finite demands which
cannot allow for the same excuse.” (Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, pg. 349-50)

Which when I read it recently (he is particularly critical of Critchley’s defence of humour as an ethical and political strategy of desublimation) immediately reminded me of that great exchange in Manhattan:
“Man: ‘I heard you quit your job?’

Isaac: ‘Yeah, a real self-destructive impulse. You know, I want
to write a book, so I, so I ... Has anybody read that
nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? I
read this in the newspaper, we should go down there, get
some guys together, you know, get some bricks and
baseball bats and really explain things to them.’

Man: ‘There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed
page of the Times. It is devastating.’

Isaac: ‘Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but
bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the

Woman: ‘Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical

Isaac: ‘No, physical force is always better with Nazis. Cos
it's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.’
(Woody Allen – Manhattan)

It’s hard to satirize a guy in shiny boots. And ones in a jumpers and peaked hats too. We need to think about what forms of non-compliance are most appropriate. And it’s my guess that swearing and sculptures are equally inconsequential.


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  2. Frank's comments on the last post "that is the living" also seem relevant to this too.

  3. Mulling over a conversation I had last night with Frank (where has your comment on this post disappeared to?) in the light of Simon Critchley’s talk on the Faith of the Faithless in the Unitarian Church, Dublin, got me thinking about infinite demands, compliant bodies and discourses of liberation. Frank and I were talking about Critchley’s comments on David Hume’s concept of “opinion”. What I took from Critchley’s reading of Hume was that “The Law” or the laws by which we, the masses, the ‘Publik”, live by are laws conceived by the few (the elite, the government, the privileged) whose affects are felt by the many. Hume, if I understood Critchley correctly, called this Law, or these laws, “opinion”. And this seems to suggest that the law as “opinion” is not universal or necessary but is, rather, contingent and this contingency is an edict formed by the few but imposed upon the many. The suggestion seemed to be that if there is contingency in The Law — because The Law is neither universal nor necessary — then there is agency.

    It seems to me that the Law, which Hume calls “opinion” is no longer merely enforced on the masses by the few. Now, the Law is internally regulated by the masses. Let me illustrate by way of a couple of examples. A few months ago I was sitting in an airport bar next to a very nice mother and daughter. Later the mother and daughter were standing behind me waiting to board the same Ryanair flight back to Dublin as me. I overheard the daughter tell her mother that an old lady had turned up at a previous flight she had been on and the elderly lady had been fined, and then made get off the plane and put her luggage into the hold because her suitcase was too big. The daughter did not tell her own mother this story with mortification for the elderly lady, but with glee for her public shaming. This made me think. Having flown with Ryanair many times, I have never seen anybody put into this position. We have successfully internalised Ryanair’s fascist policing of our luggage to the extent that we go prepared with the smallest, lightest bag money can buy: we self-regulate. When we don’t self-regulate, like the older lady, we risk inviting the scorn and disapproval of our fellow passengers. We have truly been colonised because we have internalised the law of the corporate coloniser.

    Another instance. Recently I was waiting in a queue at my local Spar shop, like a cow waiting to be milked. Two tills, one queue always, in that particular shop. One guy, just proceeded straight to the second till bypassing the queue. It wasn’t that he didn’t see the queue, he saw it and deliberately ignored it. Suddenly I felt like a particularly stupid cow but his actions made stupid cows of us all, stupid cows for being so obedient. Well, that really got my goat up. I thought the man behind the till might gently remind him that there was a queue, he was the one, after all, with authority over the situation. Not a word, from him or from anyone else. So, I walked over to him, and very politely said, “Excuse me, there is a queue just over there, you probably didn’t see it”. Civil, generous enough, given the circumstances, I think. He replied, shouted in fact, “I DON’T GIVE A FUCKING SHIT!”. Even if I was a bit of a stupid cow for standing in the queue, docilely, in the first place, I didn’t deserve this violence, it was shocking. But what was more shocking is that no-one, not one person, said a word. Everyone looked away. Was I the one who was expected to be ashamed for daring to step out of my given place? My little rebellion was hardly an anarchic radical act, of no real political consequence, maybe of consequence to no-one except myself, in a very little, almost nothing, personally political kind of way.

    continued on second post

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  7. So, I was thinking about all of this last night and chatting with Frank, thinking about “opinion”, agency, infinite demands, the translation of these demands from the sphere of personal responsibility to the sphere of public responsibility and the meeting point between personal and public politics. In an interview with Seferin James, ‘Infinitely Demanding Anarchism”, published in ‘Impossible Objects’, (Polity Press, 2012), Critchley remarks that he is trying to:

    Now Levinas is my guilty pleasure. Levinasian ethics is an ethics of subjection, where the subject is subject to the unfulfillable demand of the other; a seductive thought indeed. The problem, for me, with Levinas, and with ethics as it is thought in general, is the translation or transition from a personal ethics of responsibility to a public ethics of responsibility and accountability (I’m certainly not the first person to be so concerned). In other words, the problematic is the translation from a personal ethics to a public ethics, in which case ethics becomes a sort of quasi-politics. One of the ways that Levinas handled this problem is by claiming that an ethics of infinite responsibility is a private first ethics, pre-ontological, prior to morality, prior to the political. In conversation with richard Kearney, Levinas remarked:

    ‘ethics cannot itself legislate for society or produce rules of conduct whereby society might be revolutionized or transformed. It does not operate at the level of the manifesto ... When I talk of ethics as disinterestedness I do not mean that it is indifference; I simply mean that it is a form of vigilant passivity to the call of the other which precedes our interest in Being’

    ‘By morality I mean a series of rules relating to social behaviour and civic duty ... Morality is what governs the world of “political interestedness”, the social interchanges between citizens in a society. Ethics, as the extreme exposure and sensitivity of one subjectivity to another, becomes morality and hardens its skin as soon as we move into the political world of the impersonal “third”.’
    Richard Kearney ‘Debates in Continental Philosophy: Conversations with Contemporary Thinkers’, Fordham University Press (2004), p. 80. Fair enough, so far, so good, insofar as a distinction is made between an ethics of the personal —the relation of the individual to the infinite demand of the other — and morality as a pragmatic code which is political. But the ethical subject, prior to interest in Being, is also a being who must socially and politically engage and it is in the sphere of the political that a moral shadow falls upon Levinas’ ethics of responsibility. On 14 September 1982, a bomb was discharged in East Beirut in which Bashir Gemayel and twenty six others were killed. The Israeli’s responded by occuping West Beirut and they tolerated the Phalangists. To cut a long story short, the result was several hundred were killed in the Sabra and Chatila camps over a period of nearly two days with no intervention by the Israel Defence Forces. Two weeks later Shlomo Malka invited Levinas onto Radio Communaut√©, alongside Alain Finkielraut, to discuss Israel and Jewish ethics and responsibility. Levinas’ responses were a bit shady to say the least. Levinas touches upon the responsibility towards all others (his ethics as first philosophy) and then he says:

    1. Sorry the Critchley quote is:

      'Replace an idea of anarchism based on the idea of freedom, a humanist idea of individual freedom, with an anarchism of responsibility ... It's to try to show that the core of anarchism is not so much an idea of freedom but an idea of responsibility ... What my argument against autonomy, a certain model of autonomy, is about is an idea of conscience. The "dividual" in my parlance, is a way of thinking about the way that conscience structures and breaks apart what it means to be an individual ... I'm not giving up on an idea of individual autonomy. I'm trying to radicalise it, deepen it, through an experience of heteronomy being called into question. If you like, the Levinasian and Derridean subject is more responsible than its individualistic, autonomous predecessor and autonomy is not a question of giving up. It becomes, as it were, exacerbated, radicalized, in a way' (Simon Critchley Impossible Objects", Polity Press, 2012, pp. 73-74.

  8. “ I have always thought of Jewish consciousness as an attentiveness which is kept alert by centuries of inhumanity and pays particular attention to what occasionally is human in man”

    Levinas seems to be suggesting that by virtue of their suffering the Jews become, de facto, ethical.
    This concerns the co-respondent Jew, Alain Finkielraut, who responds that the Jews, since anti-semitism has marked them out as the “other”, have a propensity to think of themselves as “the absolute victims, the insulted and injured of history, trapped between an ordeal that has led us to catastrophe” the result of this thinking is, Finkielraut suggests, is “perhaps we have no responsibility towards the non-Jew?’. He questions the Jew as de facto ethical. Levinas replies, ‘My self, I repeat, is never absolved from responsibility towards the Other. But I think I should also say that those who attack us with such venom have no right to do so, and that consequently, along with this feeling of unbounded responsibility, that there is certainly a place for defence, for it is not always a question of ‘me’, but of those close to me, who are also my neighbours, I’d call such a defence a politics, but a politics that is ethically necessary.”

    Now, is it just me or is there a confusion going on here between personal ethics (as responsibility), public morality and political authority for action? In my opinion, there is something decidedly fishy about the state of Israel with regard to its territorialising of Palestian lands. So, when Levinas starts talking about “neighbours”, I start to get a little uncomfortable. There is an “us” neighbours at work here, as in “us” Jews. But there is another neighbour in this history Israeli neighbourliness, the Palestinian. When Levinas alludes to a “politics that is ethically necessary”, according to the previous distinction I quoted, shouldn’t that be a “politics that is morally necessary”? For me, whether founded on an ethics or morals by anyone’s standards, Levinas’ politics is distinctly dodgy.

    However, what all of this throws into relief is the problematic move from personal ethics to public morals, and from personal politics to public politics. The problem between ethics and politics seems to hinge on the move from intent (ethics?), on the one hand, to action (politics?), on the other. One of the issues that was raised, but cursorily debated, at last night’s public lecture was: How and under what circumstances is violence justifiable? But this issue this raises more problems. When we talk about violence, of what do we speak? Is violence only a violent act by the hand, by the sword? Or is violence also enacted through the word? Is violence enacted by speaking or by silencing? (see Judith Butler http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n16/judith-butler/no-its-not-anti-semitic ). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, I think, would claim a violence in silencing, the subaltern other is further violated and, effectively, domesticated, when others speak on her behalf.

  9. So, to return to the notion of “opinion”, raised last night. If opinion means contingency and, therefore, the possibility of agency, all well and good. But as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out to Jean-Paul Sartre with regard to his concept of radical freedom, not all people are equally free. Critchley claims that he is ‘not giving up an individual autonomy’. He is trying to ‘radicalise it, deepen it, through an experience of heteronomy being called into question’. Heteronomy is ‘1. The state of condition of being ruled, governed or under the sway of another’. Heteronomy can be ‘being under the sway’ or it can be ‘under the influence of domination’ as in: ‘2. The state or condition of being under the influence of domination’. That which holds sway or dominates can be a ‘military occupation’, or ‘a person, entity, force’.

    And so, with the word ‘heteronomy’ we re-encounter the problem of moving from or between the personal to the public again. Either a system or regime, a government, or even a corporation (going back to my Ryanair story) but also an individual (the Spar shop), can cause one to be in a subjected heteronomous state. To be more responsible is, for Critchley, to be less individualistic, less autonomous. There was no radical public or communal action forthcoming from the Ryanair passengers or the Spar shop customers.

    If heteronomy can work on both the plural and the individual level of subjection, how does one negotiate an ethics of responsibility that is not only personal but also political, not only political but also personal? If there is a disjunct, which I suspect there is, between personal and communal or public responsibility, then these are the spaces that ethically, morally and politically, we need to negotiate with the utmost care in order to protect and give a voice to the silenced, the less free.

    If Beauvoir is right and freedom is not absolute but is tempered by facticity — of location, of geography, of status, of sex and let’s not forget financial status — then can personal responsibility be absolute? If we are not all equally free, how can we all be equally responsible? Here in Ireland, with the economic bail-out, the sins of the fathers will be visited on the future sons and daughters for it is not only us but the future generations who will have to bear the brunt of the massive financial cock-up that occurred in this country. The masses have had to take responsibility for the irresponsibility of the few. Throughout history we have not seen a personal ethics of responsibility translate into a responsible politics for all. History may have taught us that the privilege of the few is, in fact, partially built upon the responsibility that the less free, and the less responsible, have taken on their behalf. Responsibility must be accompanied by accountability.

  10. The relationship between personal ethics and public morality and between public morality and politics should be fraught, it should be one of necessary precarity and it is precisely within these dynamics, in the dynamic of not being equally free, that our negotiations have utmost import. Thinking the relational dynamic between the personal and the public is precisely where I begin to get nervous. But I believe, that anxiety, and a certain circumspect suspicion, should be insisted upon in the face of public responsibility, otherwise my public responsibility may well end up being the cross upon which I publicly perish.

    Social living of any kind involves consensus but should permit dissent. Every society is a form of religion, and morality, because being in society is dependent upon an adherence to certain codes. The authority of these codes that govern public behaviour needs to be constantly debated and contested, individually, communally and publicly. But in the communal and public contestation we all need to be vigilant, as aware as we possibly can be of the positions and privileges from which we speak, aware as we can be of the impositions and assumptions we may be making on behalf of speaking for others. It is in relation to the notion of the public or the communal that we need to be most stringently ethical. We can never assume that our own ethics are ethical or responsible enough, here I agree with Levinas. Where I have a problem is moving the sense of personal responsibility into any public arena as the potential for corruption— in the service of some “common good”, which is nearly always the good of some common few — is always a possibility.