The Non-Event

In my last post I argued that the recent protests in Brazil should not be dismissed as mere spectacle, as reducible to a spontaneous affective disorder of transitory anger or festivity. They are not Carnavalesque. Rather, no matter how long they last, they have already succeeded in politicizing space, creating new places of political activity in Brazil. I would further argue that the kind of political arena that has been created is relatively new. It is a physical manifestation of network power — the hybrid formation of affective social networks between subjects and their networking machines. This yields non-subjectivity: a political object (with demands!) that fills the street and cannot be pushed around.

Today we have news that this political objectives has achieved some measure of success in having its demands redressed.  As reported in the Washington Post:

President Dilma Rousseff proposed a wide range of actions to reform Brazil’s political system, fight corruption and improve public services — all demands angrily asked for by the millions of protesters who’ve taken to the streets the past week.

In a meeting Monday with four leaders of a main group behind the protest movement and later with governors and the mayors of 26 capital cities, Rousseff shifted some of the burden for progress onto the back of Brazil’s widely loathed congress — in particular, in calling for a plebiscite on political reform that only lawmakers have the authority to call.

Rousseff told the governors and mayors that the government would allocate $23 billion for new spending on urban public transport, but she didn’t provide details on what the new projects would be. The four leaders of the free-transit activist group that launched the first demonstrations more than a week ago said she also gave them no concrete plans.

This news comes on the heel of a spate of articles, mainly in the corporate US press, warning readers not to take the protests seriously at all. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady opines that if Dilma succumbs to the temptation to negotiate with the protesters, that Brazil will surely “sink back into the 1970s” rather than continue its “decades-long evolution toward democratic capitalism.” The protests are not truly popular according to O’Grady, but are the work of “hard-line leftists.” Never mind that 2 million citizens have participated directly, indicating that other Brazilians many times over also support them but have not joined. By way of comparison, has any Tea Party rally drawn that many people? And yet the Tea Party continues to be seen by the likes of the WSJ as a “successful” popular uprising. O’Grady’s “analysis,” such as it is, makes absolutely no sense. The military governments of the 1970s were the pro-capitalist advocates of “evolution” or progress toward “democratic capitalism” — an oxymoronic dream of the military rulers that they were “preparing the nation for democracy.” O’Grady frets that Dilma’s government is fettering the hands of global capital markets which — it goes without saying, of course! — should always remain unfettered. She then paraphrases Margaret Thatcher (!!) that “those who stand in the middle of the road get run over.” Well, at least she’s honest in stating that global capitalism’s goal is to murder anyone who stands in its way.

O’Grady’s op-ed is only slightly more intelligent than the article Christopher Dickey ran in the Daily Beast. Dickey begins by quoting French “historian,” Dominique Venner — an avowed Fascist, mind you, who recently protested France’s adoption of gay marriage by blowing his head off with a pistol at the altar of Notre Dame cathedral.

“The effervescence,” Venner wrote, “is not the revolution.”

By this Dickey attempts to reduce the manifestações to mere fizz:

You see that in Brazil right now, where a million people turned out to protest Thursday. There was violence, sure, and one person died, but there was samba, too, and the kind of adrenaline rush that comes from massive collective excitement. A lot of people find the effervescence fun in its early stages. But as Chairman Mao famously said, a revolution is not a dinner party. Effervescence doesn’t become a revolution until it’s organized and led by a party or a person, and then things start to get really serious and can get really ugly.

Movements like what has gone on in Brazil, or the Indignados in Spain, or Occupy in New York, or Gezi Park in Istanbul, none of these have any political “force” (his term), because they have not succeeded in translating themselves either into political parties within the established system or full-blown revolutionary insurrections. So evidently the only options a movement have are: 1) To be bought out by corporate interests, just as happened to the Tea Party (the only “success” Dickey cites); or 2) Start a war and wait for the drones to start firing missiles at your head.

Writers like O’Grady and Dickey fundamentally fail to understand the nature of network power exercised by these new political objects. However, it is also important to note that thinkers on the far-left have also misunderstood the situation. Several days ago, Alain Badiou published an open letter to the protesters in Turkey. In his typically Messianic fashion, Badiou feels that the Gezi protest signal “the rebirth of History.” That is to say:

The whole prob­lem is whether this cour­ageous upris­ing is cap­able of open­ing the way for a genu­ine his­tor­ical riot. A riot is his­tor­ical — as was the case only in Tunisia and Egypt, where the out­come of the struggle has still not been determ­ined — when it brings together, under shared slo­gans, not just one but sev­eral poten­tial act­ors of a new revolu­tion­ary polit­ics: for example, in addi­tion to the edu­cated youth and middle class, large sec­tors of working-​class youth, work­ers, women of the people, low-​level employ­ees, and so on. This move bey­ond the imme­di­ate riot toward a mass protest move­ment cre­ates the pos­sib­il­ity for a new type of organ­ized polit­ics, a polit­ics that is dur­able, that merges the force of the people with the shar­ing of polit­ical ideas, and that thereby becomes cap­able of chan­ging the over­all situ­ation of the coun­try in question.

The protests, in other words, hold forth the promise of becoming a miraculous Event, through which people of all classes will be united as One so that History will be redeemed from itself. What Badiou desires is that the “immediate riot,” which does not yet make historical sense, translate itself into some political form that does make sense. And one must suspect that Badiou seeks a new Chairman Jesus Mao (there, I said it!) who would be capable of retroactively translating the Event into the One Historical Future. This argument is not that far from that of Dickey, who also quotes Mao in his article, that a political movement is not effective until it forms itself as an institution with an institutional leadership. This argument misses the point entirely.

As I wrote several years ago in my article, “Unicity,” the world order in-formation is one of information: that is, it is composed of various densities of informational network traffic. Information is not a “thing,” as in a static object, but rather it is movement. Certain densities or “knots” of network traffic, which I dubbed exones, are instantly translatable from anywhere and to anywhere on the network — they “make sense” across the web. Other network knots, which I called intrones, are no less informationally rich, but are untranslatable and don’t “make sense.” The exone and the introne are not to be understood as stable places. They are not zones that one either lives in or does not live in. They are somewhere between an inhabited space and a state of being. One may be simultaneously exonic and intronic in various proportions. However, at times the introne will co-opt the translatability of the exone in order to disrupt it some fashion.

The manifestações, as well as Occupy, Indignados, Gezi, #YoSoy132, are all manifestations of the introne. They are massive knots of untranslatable information that have decided block specific flows of information translating across the exone — capital flows, political facilitation of capital flows, international soccer, what have you. The fact that they do not make sense to professional journalists or professional philosophers is perfectly reasonable — they will never fit into the pre-formed categories or institutions of the exone. This “decision” of the introne is not sovereign, because it is not the decision of a sovereign subject, it is not subjective. It is that of a non-subject — the political object. And here it is important to recall that “translation” not only means the conveyance of meaning from one code to another, but also the moving of an object from one location to another. The political object of the introne is one that cannot be moved from its site. It cannot be pushed around by the political or economic powers that be without a massive application of force. It is untranslatable!

As a density of untranslatable information, however, the political object is not quite objective. In other words, since all information is flow — even noise is flow — an informational object is never permanently stable as an object. Moreover, I would tend to the think of the “political object” as a transitory formation of a non-subject (a political entity neither subject nor object). The political object in this sense is a true “uprising” in the following sense: it can rise up as a blockage (no meio do caminho há uma pedra), dissipate, and rise up again later, making political gains as it ebbs and flows.

To the likes of Mary Anastasia O’Grady, then, I say: Those who stand in the middle of the road occasionally get run over; but more often than not a car will be totalled if it smashes head-on into giant boulder, há uma pedra! And to the likes of Alain Badiou, I say: Abandon all hope for the Event! The entrance of network power as a political object does not herald the future. It is thoroughly present as data processing, informational flow. In short, a Non-Event that is here. And here. And here. And here. And

One thought on “The Non-Event

  1. Hi Justin, great post and I look forward to reading your “Unicity” piece. But I’d like to defend Badiou here. For him an “event” marks a rupture and the appearance of what didn’t exist before. Or to use Ranciere’s language, an event “interrupts” the repetition of the same. The Brazilian protests do seem to mark a (soft) rupture or an interruption of sorts, in which previous flows have been altered and forced to follow new channels and rhythms. And the appearance of huge multitudes on the streets, indeed, created something that didn’t exist before. So I think that Badiou and Ranciere as thinkers of rupture and interruption are important here. While I agree with your emphasis on affirmative flows, the protests in Brazil are also charged with negativity, rupture, interruption, which were pretty clear in the violence they faced by the police. Cheers

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