Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Barack and Roll

By Keir Milburn


I find it hard to write about Obama.

It’s not that I haven’t been paying attention. The US election is undoubtedly important. Indeed it’s possible that the name of the next president will become forever linked to a certain epochal transformation. We are, after all, in the midst of several related crises, not least the credit crisis that has been rumbling on for more than a year but also the food crisis, the energy crisis and the climate change crisis. To me this seems to involve the playing out and the coming to a head of the contradictions of thirty years of neo-liberalism. As such the next few years might well bare witness to the emergence of a new regime of regulation. Either Obama or McCain will play an important role in this process, but neither we nor they have much idea what that role will be. Indeed we can’t be sure how the crisis will play out, or what shape of this new model will take. And if we want to think about what that ‘change’ will consist of, then scouring Obama’s policy statements might be one of the least interesting or illuminating ways to go about it. So what do you write about Obama?

There is of course another aspect of Obama that we can talk about and that is the affect that his candidacy has produced and the ‘movement’ that has developed around him. Rather than second guess policy, we could speculate on the potential affective and symbolic consequences of him coming to power. This is all important stuff, yet I also find this hard to write about it for the simple reason that I don’t feel it. The affect of hope hasn’t grabbed me and so I find it hard to relate to. I do want to think and talk about the way a figure can come to stand in for complex processes of social change. Of how a mediatised personality can become a screen upon which people can cast their desires. About how an individual can play a role in the development of a new common subjectivity – allowing developing subjectivities to recognise each other. Or how they can embody and amplify a changing sensibility.

My problem is, I’m just not sure if any of this is happening around Obama. It’s certainly not happening for me. And to be honest, I’ve never had anything like this experience with any political figure. So it’s hard for me to talk about Obama in this context, but I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps I should just talk about something else and see if there is any overlap.

In 1982, French philosopher and activist Felix Guattari visited a Brazil just coming out of military dictatorship and in the midst of an explosion of political vitality. The book that Suely Rolnik produced with Felix as a record of the trip has just been translated into English and published as Molecular Revolution in Brazil. The book includes a conversation between Guattari and Lula, the then leader of the Workers Party and current Brazilian president. Guattari’s remarks that: “The role that Lula is performing in the media is very important, because nowadays one can’t consider the struggles at all the levels without considering this factor of the production of subjectivity by the media.”

Towards the end of the book, Rolnik calls Guattari a “becoming-comet” and I want to suggest that this is a useful concept in thinking through not just the philosopher/activist but also the mediatised figure. The image that the concept brings to mind is of active forces gusting through and animating different bodies. Guattari as becoming-comet suggests there is an element of his subjectivity that starts blazing when it comes into contact with active forces. So lets think about what the diagram of a becoming-comet would look like.


Comets can’t actually be seen when they are moving through the stillness of the outer solar system, but when they come within the influence of solar heat and wind they burst into visibility. In fact it’s the comet that makes those active forces visible.

We can only see such forces in their effects on bodies. And at certain times particular bodies have the right affects to make visible particular forces. Guattari in Brazil might have been one but the concept also made me think about Johnny Rotten from the punk band the Sex Pistols. That’s because, while political leaders have generally left me cold, I have experienced, the role in transformation that mediatised figures can play in other spheres. And Punk is a good example.

At certain points the creation of new subjectivities seem to become embodied in a particular subject. And these new subjectivities can be transmitted, even if in a reduced and flattened form, through the media representations of this figure. There’s no point denying this possibility. With the example of punk this flattened image is picked up and reworked as it is imported into new contexts. In fact the whole history of pop music is based around these dynamics of imitation and innovation.

By thinking about this through the concept of becoming-comet we can avoid mistaking the body for the active forces animating them. We can avoid isolating the individual from its field of relations. After all, these forces move on or change direction and effect. The body of the becoming-comet might, in turn, stop being receptive or be unable to find the right affect or combinations to detect those forces. Then all you are left with is the burnt out husk, a mere cinder of what was. Such is the present day John Lydon trapped in a caricature of his younger self, not the vital embodiment of the emergent common that he once was. Isn’t it better to become a comet rather than become a star? The comet is animated by the active forces it comes into contact with, whereas the star has pretensions to luminosity – as though it generates its own light independent of the bodies around it.

There’s one last aspect to this diagram. Comets have historically been seen as the harbingers of doom, but perhaps that’s just a way to talk of them as the harbingers of change. Becoming-comets accompany momentous events.

Perhaps then we can look to the epoch shifting events of the mid- to late-1960’s and the accompanying changing attitudes of both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King as examples of the becoming-comet effect in political leaders. Watching recent 40-years-on programming about these two figures it’s striking just how much they had adopted the language of the movements of the day. The people, the poor, the youth. When we look back at the changes in their trajectories we can see how they became influenced by the active forces that were blowing through society. King began widening the concept of equality to include economic justice with his ‘Poor People's Campaign’. Bobby came out against the Vietnam war and ran a presidential campaign professing concern for the poor and disadvantaged. We might still say that the more Obama functions as a becoming-comet rather than a becoming-star then the more open he’ll be to popular forces and social movements.

Who knows whether any of this could survive the disappointment that would follow an Obama presidency bound by the constraints of the Washington beltway. The shooting of MLK and RFK within two months of each other means they provide no guide as to whether the comet effect can survive institutional office. What is clear though is that the greater the magnitude of active forces blowing through a society, then the greater the likelihood that they’ll affect bodies and reveal comets. It’s to the amplification of active forces that we should dedicate our efforts.

Biog: Keir Milburn is currently finishing a PhD at Leeds University. He is a member of the collective writing project the Free Association and an editor of Turbulence: Ideas for movement.

1 comment:

andreh said...

Hi! Here in Brazil Guattari is a very known author. I see that you are a Leeds University student, so could you tell me if it's the same in Britain? Thanks