Public Corporeographies, Part I – by Josh Newman

Whoever can conquer the streets can conquer the State!

–       Joseph Goebbels (1931)

The next last battle for which we[i] are readying will be fought, like many that came before it, on the streets. It’s not likely to be televised, as football progeny Gil Scott-Heron rightly predicted—so there’s no need for us to go looking on FOX News or the BBC to find it. It may or may not involve acts of physical violence—a distinction, which Baudrillard imagines, will be of little consequence.

What will matter, and what we will need to be present for—to help enact and to transcribe—will be a change in tempo; subtle or (hopefully) spectacular interruptions to the public rhythms of everyday life.

We’ve seen it before. On the streets of Montgomery and Birmingham, at the Battle of Blair Mountain, in Detroit, Watts, and Chicago. We see it now in Zuccotti Park, in Tahrir Square, in Tripoli, at the Gaines Street Commons, and on U.S. college campuses from Florida (e.g. FIU) to California (e.g. UC Davis). And although we tend to overcomplicate and over theorize it, these flashpoints in history—by the very nature of being disruptive—remind us of a simple “rhythmanalytic” truth: order is established by the organization of space, time, and bodies.

If we concede that the body is always already placed (in spatial and temporal ways) within and against the dominant architectures and rhythms of power, then we might also surmise that on most days and in most places, the body—by way of banal conductions[ii] of its conduct—is turned against itself as it moves in cadence with the geographies that render it docile; complicit in its own spatio-temporal subordination.

However, this is not, and can never be, our end. The order of things is not fixed. Change (or disorder), in a Hegelian sense, arrives through the synthetics of disestablishment and reorganization.

On the contrary, the dominant system is always about to be turned upon its head. For stasis breeds disquiet. Inertia is the lifeblood of revolution.

As the urbanist philosopher Paul Virilio (2006) once said, “The time has come to face the facts: revolution is a movement, but movement is not a revolution” (p. 43). This quote, of course can be read two ways. The pessimists among us will take this to mean that revolution is merely an extension of the body politic, sped up. The optimists and I, however, might read it slightly different, such that: movement, indeed, is not a revolution; but revolution a movement can make. The distinction here is that moving acts spawn deviation from established patterns and pathways. While all movements are anchored to the politics of history (and a history of politics), the location and trajectory of any given movement is never the same; nor is its course ever set outside of the boundaries of history.

In short, how and why we move are at each bound to, and yet constantly deviating from, existing movement formations.

 

On the Street

Where, then, will these transformations through movement materialize? As I said before, I don’t think we will find revolution on the television. And despite promises of internet-based liberation and technologies of communicative action, it likely won’t spread through cyberspace.  Of course, given recent social media-orchestrated uprisings in the Middle East and elsewhere, the case can be made that the internet provides the an important medium for creating social change. I would argue, however, that the Internet was merely a (albeit important) technology for mobilizing resistance; but without bodies, on the streets, suffering and making themselves and their bodies vulnerable to the regimes of oppressions they sought to confront, much of this change would have never materialized.

Thus, I believe the street to be a transcendental political stage. The street, and other public spaces where governmentalities intersect upon and through technologies of the embodied self—where the physical body, material and symbolic space unite, and public and private lives are laid bare—is the locus the bleeding business that is to be done. It is where we’ll find the body, imposing (and imposed), suffering (and suffered).

In his various works, Virilio argues that unlike the chaotic ideological contestations native to the battlefield or the proletarian malaise unique to the factory, the street has become modernity’s most choreographed, dramaturgic public space. The perfect balance of structure and speed, the street is transformed into a spectacle of modern governance. It is public in its orientation and in its creation; in its access and in its passage.

The street reconciles many of modernity’s contradictory logics. It is a place of resistance and of conference. Regarding the street and capital relations, Virilio writes (1977/2006): “the revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words a producer of speed” (p. 29).

In Goebbels’ Germany, or in Virilio’s Paris a few decades later (e.g., 1968), or in the contested roadspaces of the late-twentieth century U.S. South (e.g., suffrage marches, Freedom Rides, bus boycotts, immigration, and LGBT Rights protests), roadway movement offers the perfect paradox of freedom (of inhabitancy, of occupation) and control (signified, automated, and practiced regulation). On the one hand, the State surfaces as fundamentally inhibitive convener of street autonomy: “the political control of the highway, aiming precisely at limiting the ‘extraordinary power of assault’ that motorization of the masses creates” (Virilio, 1977/2006). Of course the “motorization’ which Virilio evokes in the first instance refers to auto-mobile vessels. Yet, perhaps more importantly, it simultaneously alludes to the automating processes these machines generate. Whether in a car or on foot, the ‘freedoms’ enlivened by public transportation spaces concurrently bring with them limitations and routinizations; who moves when and where, who moves quickly and who moves slowly. “No more riots, no need for much repression; to empty the streets is enough to promise everyone the highway” (p. 49).

On the other hand, the superstructural apparatus is enabling, providing the asphalt canvas for physical and ideological mobility. The promise of mobility and free movement keeps us (moving). It reminds us that as individuals in a free society, we are limited only by the architectures of geometry and imagination. We act out our lives, indeed our very passages through this world, on the street. And while this mythology of freedom can be made into oppressive currency, it is not theirs alone to orchestrate. This is where Althusser, in all his wisdom, falters. Although it might hurt, we can move our bodies into and out of these rhythms of production, domination, and oppression. This is a point I will return to at the end of Part II of my entry.


[i] This collective “we” to whom I am referring here are those of us committed to a post-enlightenment humanist tradition and pursuant of social justice, equity, and plurality through our writing, our research, our advocacy and activism, and or daily bodily encounters.

[ii] This is a word play marrying together 1) Foucault’s notion of “the conduct of conduct,” where he describes the ways in which body governance is organized and proliferated by the state or the ruling elites, and 2) the physiological notion of “conduction,” whereby energy is transferred through the physical body (verves, tissues, etc.). Here, then, I am suggesting that in much the same way that we might conceive the of energy transfer in thermodynamics, we can see that bodily conduct is constructive of the conditions of material production, of social production, of the governance systems serving both, and of the metabolic structures accordant to these systems.

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