Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Notes against strategy and for Creole ghosts

May what I do flow from me like a river, neither forcing nor holding back, the way it is with children.
-Ranier Maria Rilke

I’ve been having some tentative conversations with the Democratic Socialists of America. They experienced a recent growth spurt, largely owing to changes in the political landscape since the Sanders insurgency in the Democratic Party and the election of Donald Trump. There is a growing sense, based on the demonstrated ability of the Democratic Party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, that something new is required. As a Christian, this business of seeking certain kinds of tactical alliances with the left, of which I am an alum, gets tricky; because the kind of Christian I am, along with a growing minority within the mass of all self-declared “Christians,” is living in a decidedly different metaphysical and epistemological universe from those on the left.

So these notes reflect some of my thoughts about how to translate those differences to make them intelligible to ourselves and our tactical allies. We ought to know in advanced where we diverge, or are likely to, and learn in advance how to navigate our differences across our occasionally fraught borderlines. But I also want to sketch out some thoughts on strategy, a term regurgitated frequently with every burst of energy or outrage; and while my status as a Christian inevitably informs my ideas on strategy, I put them out there as a practical matter applicable to all; and you can judge for yourselves whether they have any merit.


Boundaries, stories, and tools

I am a Christian; and inside the Christian story is another story about a Samaritan. It is not, as is commonly believed, a simple story about being a nice person to strangers, The Good Samaritan. It is a provocative story about two ethnically divided people who subvert a social boundary. When Jesus replies to the entrapping question put by the Pharisees bent on his destruction, "Who is your neighbor?", Jesus answers with a story that was, in that time and place, scandalous. Because the outsider, the enemy, the Samaritan becomes the protagonist, and transgresses the boundary of ethnos to re-situate ethos, announcing a new and dangerous freedom. But this subversion was not situated in a program or a principle; it was between two embodied persons, in a newly created I-Thou that shattered the boundaries assigning control, the gestalt that Jessica Benjamin describes as I-am-your-and-still-mine, and you-are-mine-and-still-yours. Any politics that abstracts love is still a politics of control. It has to begin at the place between us, not figurative, but embodied.

Ivan Illich said that when we make ourselves into loudspeakers, we destroy the place between us, between you and I, which is where the subversion of the Samaritan takes place. We set up a new boundary. Boundaries mark out frontiers, real boundaries, symbolic boundaries, imaginary boundaries. When I titled Borderline, this was the nub; and that boundary-thinking maps onto war thinking, and therefore male thinking. Bear with me through a few widely dispersed excerpts from the book. It might seem like I’m leading you through a bog with pockets of psychological and philosophical quicksand, but you can get a few peeks from different approaches into where I’m going with this boundary preoccupation:

Intimacy as danger

One of the psychological manifestations of this preoccupation with boundaries growing out of war-thought among men is male fear of fusion. Women constitute a danger to men, and that is the danger of fusion, the permeation of boundaries implied by mutual emotional surrender. The presumed weakness and irrationality of women is actually understood as a contaminant to men; and men police the boundary of this fear with control over women. Men may cross the boundary, in the same way a solider leaves his firebase to conduct an operation, but no one from the outside is allowed inside the perimeter. Intimacy is a form of danger—the danger that one might be found out, but also the danger of becoming vulnerable. Vulnerability is what war-making and war-making metaphors aim to minimize; and the coincidence of male fear of vulnerability and this imperative of war is one we can ill afford to overlook. (pp. 90-1)

Purity and pollution meets Descartes

Mary Douglas describes various cultural norms associated with purity and taboos, and she concludes that all societies have psychic demarcations—in fact, no society can be effectively constituted without some notion of outside and inside, of where there is order and what might threaten chaos. We must avoid a purely psychological critique of Descartes, because while anxiety is understood in the (post)modern mind as primarily a therapeutic issue, something that happens in an already Cartesianized self, epistemological crisis is social. This seventeenth-century epistemological crisis was characterized by the terrifying shifts of these boundaries; and Descartes was reinscribing a new internal-external, purity-pollution paradigm to recapture order from chaos.
 Descartes felt that he needed to re-ground conviction, but to do so he had to invent “the mind” as something that is “inner.” Bordo describes this invention in a chapter titled “The emergence of inwardness.” The fact that we now find this idea of the inward mind so unremarkable is a testament to the broad acceptance of Descartes’s episteme. (p. 131)

Freud’s wolf man and Benjamin’s tension

Macintyre said that Freud unmasked our unmasking as projections of ourselves. The context of his remark is the failure of modernity manifest in the emotivist self to establish any universally acceptable basis for moral decision-making, based on the incommensurable premises between contending rootless “individuals.” Said differently, society had become a collection of “discordant dispositions,” necessitating bureaucratic control. Freud’s accomplishment, according to MacIntyre, was to explain why the unmasking of one position by the other is seemingly interminable. There was no rational basis any longer for asserting a moral position. Each of us is the captive of preconscious desires in conflict with irrational but necessary superegos. MacIntyre goes on to say that Freud was mistaken in his belief that he had made some moral discovery, rather than creating an insight about the ramifications of the emotive self.
[Jessica] Benjamin’s criticism of Freud is based on Freud’s implicit acceptance of the Homo economicus—in Freud’s more feral version above, Homo homini lupus, a wolf man—a pure strategic being, trapped inside the boundaries of his redoubt, himself the subject and the world his object. Benjamin calls this approach to psychoanalysis intrapsychic, and against it she proposes a model of psychic life that is fundamentally social, between subjects, not between subject and objects. This approach is called intersubjective.
"The intersubjective view, as distinguished from the intrapsychic, refers to what happens in the field of self and other. Whereas the intrapsychic perspective conceives of the person as a discrete unit with a complex internal structure, intersubjective theory describes capacities that emerge in the interaction between self and others. Thus intersubjective theory, even when describing the self alone, sees its aloneness as a particular point in the spectrum of relationships rather than as the original, 'natural state' of the individual." (Benjamin)
The term intersubjectivity was coined by Jürgen Habermas. Benjamin’s thesis begins with the human need for recognition. Human beings have a need to belong. They need to be with other people, and they need to be recognized by them as well as granting recognition. Synonyms for recognition in common speech include acceptance, affirmation, validation, and love. Recognition is mutual. Both of us need to do it at once. For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa. Research with mothers and infants shows that this mutuality begins very early. Unlike the object-relations approach of intrapsychic analysis, the child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast or seeking warmth. The child and mother actually recognize one another. An infant in short order knows the sight, smell, and sound of his or her mother and takes pleasure in her presence beyond the mere satisfaction of appetites.
In this mutuality, psychic boundaries are necessarily permeable; therefore there is an element of vulnerability. There is also an element of self-assertion. Self-assertion exists in tension with the desire for mutuality when we simultaneously recognize another and want something from him or her. When that tension, or balance, is broken by the polarization of self-assertion and vulnerability between two people, the love that is constituted in mutuality—in fusion, as Hartsock puts it—gives itself over to a dynamic of domination. Benjamin emphasizes this dynamic in her study of sadomasochistic relations, when “the inability to sustain paradox . . . convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”
The “fit” that Illich describes in the encounter between the Samaritan and the robbed and beaten Jew (Luke 10:25–37) is that mutuality, which in the parable transgresses social boundaries, renders them permeable with love. It is the paradox that you are mine and still you, and I am yours and still me. Beck talks about love as the permeability of boundaries in the context of disgust psychology, saying, “Love is on the inside of the symbolic self.” This intersubjective dynamic creates a situation in which “the other plays an active part in the struggle of the individual to creatively discover and accept reality.”
Refusal to accept reality can disrupt intersubjectivity, and failure of mutual recognition makes acceptance impossible. Referring to Hegel, Benjamin summarizes this paradox as the simultaneous need for the “independence and dependence of the self-conscious.” In Hegel, this is a struggle to the death that leads to a master-slave relation, because in Hegel, as in Freud and Hobbes, mutuality is foreclosed by a view of the person as a strategic being. Benjamin allows for a tension between independence and dependence in which mutuality is possible. (pp. 239-41)

I gave the example of a military perimeter, and here you meet Michel De Certeau who is whispering in my ear (a lot) as I write these notes (We’ll be revisiting this further along . . . beware some redundancy):

In military parlance, tactics are a subset of strategy, not its opposite. In De Certeau, they are opposites. Strategy for the military relates to national or overarching objectives. Strategy is executed through various campaigns—the subset of strategy. Campaigns are further broken down into specific combat engagements, or battles. The techniques employed in the battlespace are called tactics, and the tactical level is a subset of the campaign. This can be represented visually as Strategy > Campaign > Tactics (> Techniques?)
A small unit—a modern light infantry platoon, for example—might be part of a counterinsurgency campaign in a certain region, which is part of a national strategy. Imagine this exemplary platoon on a long-range, dismounted patrol. To establish a patrol base to rest and plan, this platoon will establish a perimeter, a single, continuous boundary with an inside and an outside. A perimeter is formed when the members of the platoon face outward, establishing interlocking fields of fire. What that means is the sectors, observed by individual platoon members, overlap one another to create a kind of ring of death. If anyone enters into any member’s field of fire, that person is subject to be shot; and because every sector overlaps, that person will be fired upon from two locations. Everyone aims outward; no one aims inward. In the center of this perimeter, the command element establishes a little position in which to supervise, communicate, and plan. In military parlance, the security perimeter is a tactic, a technique employed at a specific place in the battlespace.
However, in De Certeau’s terms, this perimeter is a highly strategic action. Here is the crucial difference between the military’s use of the terms strategy and tactics and De Certeau’s; and we are going to adopt De Certeau’s use of the terms.
Strategy, for de Certeau, means a self-isolating calculus. That is to say, strategy begins with an enemy (even if that enemy is seen as a “target population” or, in business, a competitor or client) who is the object of your intentions, and upon whom you desire to impose your will. A strategist requires a place—some segregated dwelling for the strategy’s executors. Strategy requires a base of operations, some place that is on the inside—central to the execution of the strategy, and separated from the surrounding environment, everywhere that is not committed to the strategy but influences the strategy’s object, and therefore yet another part of the strategic calculus. Isolation is a strategic necessity.
[Enemy, or Target. Object of intentions. Desire to impose one’s will. Strategic redoubt (an isolated place marked Inside with all else Outside) (Subject-Object?)]
 Look at our notional light infantry platoon. Look at the actual headquarters for Monsanto, Lockheed-Martin, Yale University, the Vatican, or, sometimes, the suburban family. There is a barrier separating us, the insiders, from them, the outsiders. There is planning to impose our will on someone outside—a “target.” Institutions embody strategic logic [which is one reason to resist institutionalization in many cases]. We have built an entire edifice of business, teaching, medicine, transportation, food production, and politics based on the isolationist logic of strategy. Homo economicus is a strategic isolate. He is alone, competing with others for scarce resources, and he is suspicious. (pp. 87-9)


Boundaries are not first enforced by law, but in custom, and the customs (culture) is always based on a story. Feminist historian Carolyn Merchant said that every culture has an origin myth of some kind, as well as a set of stories it tells about itself. Here is the thing about culture, in particular, stories! Too many theorists and wonks fail to understand what every poor bastard trained in advertising already knows: Human beings are storied creatures. Baseline anthropology. You want to know how these different realms—from high theory to the mind of just one of us lonely, lonely people—communicate with one another, signal one another? Stories, zami mwen!

When the advertiser encounters you, he or she doesn’t make a direct approach, “Buy this shit and it will reduce the number of acne spots on your face.” You get a story about someone, like you somehow, who is ashamed (a tear) because you are not pretty enough (you don’t belong), with those spots (gasp); but wait! Redemption is on the way! Our Majik-Schit Spot Cream! Our sad character gets determined, applies the cream. Next thing you know, he or she is laughing and playing volleyball on the beach (I belong again!). George Washington chopped down a fruit tree and demonstrated remorse and honesty, and went on to become the leader of the World’s First Free Nation. Man is a beast, and has to be tamed; or man is a beast and must be let loose to kill a worse beast. Conquest narratives about civilizing natives, tearing open nature for her secrets. All stories!

Like the Roman fetiales, stories “go in a procession” ahead of social practices in order to open a field for them.
-De Certeau

What I missed as a Marxist—and I say this with the intent of conversing with Marxists and other socialists, as well as fellow Christians—was our too speculative association, almost mechanical, of social structure to personal consciousness. We moderns/Marxists had little tolerance for the mysterious, and so the mysteries that remain in the eco-semiotic netherworld between society and person were conveniently papered-over with bad generalizations and no small amount of wishful thinking. We seldom hear Marxists talk about humans as storied. We’re on about production! The whole notion of stories—creatures that can go renegade on you—runs counter to the encompassment attempted by our many reductions, our number crunching, structuralist schemae, articles of faith. What modernity and Marxism have in common, which I have had to take a hard look at since my own conversion, I that urge to nail everything down linguistically. Stories, unless they augment a political project, have no “value.” In fact, the share premise of modernity and Marxism is that we have no story (even though Marx himself tells a story with enormous historical sweep that begins before writing and ends in technocratic Utopia). This is an article of faith among liberals, too.

America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom.
-Stanley Hauerwas

Stories manifest themselves through tools.

That was abrupt. Okay, back to the bridge that joins cultural structures to personal consciousness. “Tools” is shorthand for all the stuff we make to make the stuff we make. The built environment is included. But just begin by thinking about reading and writing (a field of scriptural dominance). But think also about what happens to bodies in stories. Jesus nailed to a cross. The police procedural show that ends with the “perp” in handcuffs. The Western movie. Where everything is finally resolved with guns. If you visit a history museum, you will be confronted with old clothing and tools. Tools, technologies, architectures, these mediate our relations to each other and the cosmos, and as Hornborg has shown, tools/technology/architecture is not and has never been “inert.”

At the beginning, there is a fiction determined by a “symbolic” system that acts as a law, and thus a representation (a theater) or a fable (a “saying”) of the body. That is to say, a body is postulated as the signifier (the term) in a contract. This discursive image is supposed to inform an unknown “reality” formerly designated as “flesh.” The transition from the fiction to the unknown that will give it a body is made by means of instruments that multiply and diversify the unpredictable resistances of the body to be (con)formed. An indefinite fragmentation of the apparatus is necessary in order to adjust and apply each of these sayings and/or types of knowledge about the body, which work as unifying models, to the opaque carnal reality that gradually reveals its complex organization as it resists successive efforts to modify and control it. Between the tool and the flesh, there is thus an interaction that shows itself on the one hand by a change in the fiction (a correction of knowledge) and, on the other, by the cry, which shrieks an inarticulable pain and constitutes the unthought part of bodily difference.
 As the products of a craft, and later of an industry, these tools multiply around the images which they serve and which are the empty centers, the pure signifiers of social communication, “non-entities”; the tools represent in concrete form the tortuous knowledge, sharp sinuosities, perforating ruses, and incisive detours that penetration into the labyrinthine body requires and produces. In that way, they become the metallic vocabulary of the knowledge that they bring back from these expeditions. They are the figures of an experimental knowledge won through the pain of the bodies that change themselves into engravings and maps of these conquests. The flesh that has been cut out or added to, putrefied or put back together tells the story of the high deeds of all these tools, these incorruptible heroes. Over the span of a life or a fashion, they illustrate the actions of a tool. They are its human, ambulatory, and transitory stories.
-De Certeau (p. 145)

The chicken is the egg; and the egg is the chicken. Environment and person are not one acting on the other, but mutually constituting. We are incalculably determined by the circumstances of our lives, especially the built environment. (Tactics is what we do inside that circumscription, and it recursively determines the environment that guides and directs us.)

The story many on the left adhere to is The Story of The Revolution.

“Revolution itself, that ‘modern’ idea,” says De Certeau, “represents the scriptural project at the level of an entire society seeking to constitute itself as a blank page with respect to the past, to write itself by itself (that is, to produce itself as its own system) and to produce a new history (refaire l'histoire) on the model of what it fabricates (and this will be ‘progress’). It is necessary only for this ambition to multiply scriptural operations in economic, administrative, or political areas in order for the project to be realized.”

Control and conquest are boy stories, and there is more than a little control and conquest going on in The Story of The Revolution. It’s called liberation, but there is blood and obedience in there, too.

What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.
-De Certeau

[N]ormative discourse "operates" only if it has already become a story, a text articulated on something real and speaking in its name, i.e., a law made into a story and historicized (une loi historiee et historicizee), recounted by bodies. Its being made into a story is the presupposition of its producing further stories and thereby making itself believed. And the tool ensures precisely the passage from discourse to the story through the interventions that incarnate the law by making bodies conform to it and thus make it appear to be recited by reality itself. From initiation ceremonies to tortures, every social orthodoxy makes use of instruments to give itself the form of a story and to produce the credibility attached to a discourse articulated by bodies. (De Certeau, 149)

From clothes to the glasses I'm wearing to the computer I type on, to CAT scans and nightsticks, laws and norms are etched onto or worn on the body, conforming it to the story.

From the inside or the outside, they correct an excess or a lack, but in relationship to what? As in the case of removing the hair from one’s legs or putting mascara on one's eyelashes, having one's hair cut or having hair reimplanted, this activity of extracting or adding on is carried out by reference to a code. It keeps bodies within the limits set by a norm. In this respect, clothes themselves can be regarded as instruments through which a social law maintains its hold on bodies and its members, regulates them and exercises them through changes in fashion as well as through military maneuvers. The automobile, like a corset, also shapes them and makes them conform to a model of correct posture; it is an orthopedic and orthopractic instrument. The foods that are selected by traditions and sold in the markets of a society also shape bodies at the same time that they nourish them; they impose on bodies a form and a muscle tone that function like an identity card. Glasses, cigarettes, shoes, etc., reshape the physical “portrait” in their own ways. Is there a limit to the machinery by which a society represents itself in living beings and makes them its representations? Where does the disciplinary apparatus’s end that displaces and corrects, adds or removes things from these bodies, malleable under the instrumentation of so many laws? To tell the truth, they become bodies only by conforming to these codes. Where and when is there ever anything bodily that is not written, remade, cultured, identified by the different tools which are part of a social symbolic code? Perhaps at the extreme limit of these tireless inscriptions, or perforating them with lapses, there remains only the cry: it escapes, it escapes them.
 From the first to the last cry, something else breaks out with them, the body's difference, alternately in fans and ill-bred, intolerable in the child, the possessed, the madman or the sick—a lack of “good manners” . . . Economic individualism is no less effective than totalitarianism in carrying out this articulation of the law by means of bodies. It just proceeds by different methods. Instead of crushing groups in order to mark them with the unique brand of a power, it atomizes them first and multiplies the constraining networks of exchange that shape individual units in conformity with the rules (or "fashions") of socioeconomic and cultural contracts." (De Certeau, 148-9)

Our new stories, our proliferation of stories, is a productive industry now. Stories have become products, fleeting simulacra that have to be replaced like outdated commodities. The folktale is done by Disney. We live in the age of highlight-and-delete. Chris Hedges said we are bombarded now with "electronic hallucinations," a choleric account, but the stories still have meaning. They say work and buy, buy and work, and all will be well. Your loneliness will be repaid with products.


The American Western as a formative story

I’m working on a book. About violent women in film. One chapter is being composed on Jane Got a Gun, the perfectly awful Western starring Natalie Portman released in 2015. I’m going to paste in an excerpt here, not to be a spoiler (I disclose no endings), but to unpack a particular story that (mainly white) Americans tell themselves about themselves. It involves boundaries, but also frontiers. The difference between a boundary and a frontier is glaring in some cases, subtle in others. The nearer to a frontier, the greater the impermeability of the boundary. In political economy, the frontier is the freshest (and therefore rawest) point of exploitation, the edge of the next wave of plunder to keep capital in motion, every accumulating. The frontier is, by definition, the Next Object of Conquest. And this genre also exemplified something called “frontier masculinity.”

Just as Star Wars originated as a Japanese film about Samurai (by a Japanese filmmaker influenced by Westerns), the American Western film traces its origins to Medieval mythical romances featuring the Knight Errant.[1] The formula, which frequently includes a Damsel in Distress trope, is overlaid onto “dime novels”[2] of the mythical moving frontier of the United States’ westward expansion. Then it jumped into moving pictures in 1894, originally recorded by and for a carnival called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.[3] This was followed in the twentieth century by the increasingly popular Western pulp novels of Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, and others.With film reaching even non-readers, however, the mythology was firmly fixed in the American social imaginary. The United States was troubled by the legacy of the Civil War, a split that was only partially healed when masses of Southern and Northern soldiers went to the trenches together during World War I. The narrative that filled that space (the latter nineteenth century) was the idealized white narrative of westward expansion. In keeping with the knight errant theme, our heroes were almost always armed and riding a horse.
 Like all genres, the Western has been adapted for each succeeding zeitgeist. From a fictionalized American pre-WWII progress myth, it was transformed into war propaganda, then social criticism, then anti-communist allegories for the Cold War, then antihero narratives for the sixties and seventies, and most recently into a handful of liberal/post-feminist stories.[4] Film Westerns first won their popularity during the Great Depression, when mass unemployment created a crisis of masculinity among American white men.[5] [EXT] In the United States, Hollywood was mobilized as a palliative. Chirpy movies with happy endings became a major film entrée. Westerns were most popular with men and boys. The Western hearkened to American mythical frontier masculinity, portrayed by “virile” men—heroic, autonomous characters who dominated women, land, animals, and savages, a story of mastery and control as the antidote to the vagaries of the Great depression.
“The hero’s triumph over the wild things dramatizes the mastery of the patriarchy,” writes Margery Hourihan. Virility breaks down the resistance of all things passive—and we see in many films, as well as in bodice-ripper literature, how the female lead nearly swoons before the masculine mojo of the leading man.[/EXT][6] When the war came, of course, Westerns were displaced by war films; but when the war ended, Westerns became the Cold War favorite in the U.S.[7] In 1947, major American filmmakers did fourteen Western movies. In 1948, they did thirty-one. By 1956, they were up to forty-six a year. From then until the early seventies, Westerns were consistently the most popular film genre in the U.S., netting a third of all American moviegoers.[8]
[EXT]The postwar Western movie had several archetypical storylines: the town-tamer, the cavalry and the Indians, the revised outlaw, the gunfighter, the High Noon showdown, and the good man with a gun. The Western genre gave each of these narratives a wide “mythic space” in which to tell these differing stories. Cold War Westerns all had some defining borderline, whether it was a river, a fort’s palisade, a street, a fence, or the (fragile) boundary between civilization and wilderness, or savagery. A hero or protagonist had to cross those borderlines and by transgressing them “reveal the meaning of the frontier line” as he entered the dark side to protect the good side. Sometimes, after we were schooled in the psychoanalytic wolf-man, as the protagonist dealt with the “darkness” across the border, he also dealt with the darkness within himself. It is always a he. In the Western, the audience was to understand the boundary that separates their past from the viewing present, and therein they understood this to be a tale of progress. Last but certainly not least, there was a resolution, a “regeneration” accomplished by male violence . . .
“A cowboy will not submit tamely to an insult,” said Theodore Roosevelt,[9] “and is ever ready to avenge his own wrongs; nor has he an overwrought fear of shedding blood. He possesses, in fact, few of the emasculated, milk-and-water moralities admired by the pseudo-philanthropists; but he does possess, to a very high degree, the stern, manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation.”     Women in the Cold War Western were portrayed as either markers of civilization and domesticity or threats to manhood—sometimes both at the same time. “While the essential qualities of womanhood that tie women to domesticity are nostalgically honored in Westerns,” writes Edward Buscombe, “femininity as a social force is represented as a threat to masculine independence and as the negative against which individual masculinities are tested.”[/EXT][10] 
In breaking with the Cold War motifs during the seventies, Westerns kept a good deal of the machismo, but dropped the ethical artifices, like the “spaghetti westerns,” or they tried to become edgier (with sex especially, Hollywood’s go-to for increasing market share) with more “modern” sensibilities (usually portrayed by revising mythical hair and clothing fashions, or thumbing their noses at “virtue”). McCabe and Mrs. Miller come to mind. Recent attempts at “Western realism,” like the Deadwood series, have constructed detail-fictions around historical “facts,” and to make sure we know they are “realistic,” they have plenty of nudity, sex, and bad language, including inserting the term “cocksucker” into every other sentence for almost every character in the series, including the Chinese.[11]

[1] All genres that feature weaponized phalluses, whether guns, light sabers, or swords and lances.[2] Fictionalized accounts of actual people: Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, et al, many of them petty criminals (including the law enforcement officers) more interested in inflating their reputations than anything else.[3] Yes, American popular culture did assimilate its main ideas about a period of history based on the racist productions of a carnival barker. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) was himself a great admirer of William Sherman, who called for outright Indian extermination, and of George Custer, whom he saw as a white martyr. Cody’s show, usually billed alongside military tournaments, reenacted “battles” between white men and Indians that emphasized Indian savagery and white nobility.[4] Like The Quick and the Dead, The Ballad of Little Jo, Bad Girls, Gang of Roses, and The Missing.[5] Men, who in the postwar era were encouraged to see themselves as providers for their families, were either cast adrift on the job market or forced into working conditions they would not have heretofore accepted. Unemployed men found their wives less subject to them, especially when the wives were finding spot work unavailable to men. Children listened more to their mothers than their fathers. Drunkenness was accompanied far more frequently by men physically attacking their wives; and for many men the “pansy” became a target for their violent insecurities. Active widespread homophobic violence came to the fore for the first time in the United States during the Great depression.[6] Goff, Borderline, 316.[7] Westerns supported the peculiar military adventure in Korea in as much as they inscribed racialized and militarized boundaries between civilization and threat. The popular Marine Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller—a good friend of Western film director John Ford (Fort Apache, Rio Grande, et al.)—gave a speech to his troops in Korea, exhorting them to write to their families about getting “harder” for America: “Tell ‘em there’s no secret weapon for our country but to get hard, to get in there and fight. “ want you to make ‘em understand. Our country won’t go on forever, if we stay soft as we are now. There won’t be an America—because some foreign soldiers will invade us and take our women and breed a hardier race.”[8] Ibid., 367.[9] Roosevelt was a huge promoter of the frontier masculinity myths, a man obsessed with proving his own masculinity, and a strong supporter of U.S. Indian removal policies as well as imperial expansionism.[10] Ibid., 368-9.[11] There is plenty of what some call gender-bending (Calamity Jane, e.g.), and some even call the series a critique of masculinity. I am skeptical of this claim, and only note that the series was wildly popular among males, young and middle-aged, because it (again!) presented a world where men could prove themselves openly and unapologetically through violence and misogyny, albeit without the encumbrances of virtue. In this way, it reminds me of extreme sports, where the virtue of courage is separated from any meaningful application that would make it virtuous. The expression of violent masculinity is unencumbered in Deadwood by the traditional Western’s emphasis on guarding the border between civilization and barbarism, or protecting good women from bad men and savages.

We’ll be back to frontiers further along, using a (very good) Marxist analysis by Jason Moore.


Self-isolating calculus versus making bricks

Strategy is a con game, unless you’re the most powerful con. Even then, the assumptions of a strategic orientation will undermine you by and by. As a former soldier, but also as a writer, I am a strategic being. I cannot resist the self-isolating calculus of strategy, because I am habituated to it, and because writing itself is a strategic enterprise; I conquer a bit of space with words that have already excised most of reality, and I do all this with a social purpose—I want it to persuade you to do things I want you to do. This will make more sense in a few minutes.

Strategy is defined variously as: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim; the art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle; a plan for military operations and movements during a war or battle. Plan. Art. Plan.

Military. The roots of strategy are in war; and given that war has always been a largely male enterprise, one that transcends in its basic essence various historical periods and regions, strategy is a “masculine” orientation, an orientation that shares its conceptual coordinates with other aspects of “masculinity” and therefore with patriarchy as well. Just sayin’, because it’s become a habit now to see how a thing is gendered. A beneficial habit, speaking for myself.

In the military, strategy has a slightly more specific meaning from the dictionary definitions above, because strategy is placed within a hierarchy of planning and actions, which can be divided into three: strategy, operations, tactics, which correspond to war objectives, campaign objectives, and battlefield objectives. For our purposes here, however, we need to supplement these sterile definitions with some insights from Michel De Certeau, who, in looking at everyday people in everyday life, came up with a division between what he called “strategy” and “tactics” which is helpful in understanding why actual strategies seldom work.

De Certeau, who some call a practice theorist, was one of Lacan’s buddies, among other things, with a strong interest in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and as a Jesuit, in mysticism. In the US, he is hardly known, but in France he was a well-known cultural critic. His most oft-repeated Bible verse was “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” from I Corinthians; and his training as a Jesuit—an order that was founded on practices borrowed from military organizations—he was deeply curious about institutions and power, yes, but more specifically about strategy and tactics.

I call a strategy a calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. . . . Every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.” A Cartesian attitude, if you wish: it is an effort to delimit one’s own place in a world bewitched by the powers of the Other. It is also the typical attitude of modern science, politics, and military strategy. (De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, 35-6)

Foucault’s theses on power figure heavily into De Certeau, particularly the bits on dispositifs, the apparatuses of power, the “species” of power. De Certeau’s book (linked above) intends to look past the door opened by Foucault for something more granular and situated.

From this perspective, De Certeau drew a new line, one between strategy on one side and tactics on another. But De Certeau juggled the meanings a bit, referring to tactics not as a subset of strategy, but as it’s opposite. He challenges the structuralist Bourdieu about Bourdieu’s overdertemination of habitus-capital-field triad, in Cartesian terms, the environment; showing all the ways that everyday people in their everyday lives exercise a good deal of authentic agency, but that this agency is exercised (“tactically”) in the full light of the knowledge of those agents’ lack of power, in full recognition of their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, even foolishness. De Certeau restores selfhood to “subjectivity,” through a study of people Gramsci called “subalterns,” those who are alive and awake (to varying degrees) but who are excluded and-or denied by power. We may not have power, but we certainly do have, and do exercise, agency.

Strategy (the self-isolating calculus) is part of a space-over-time epistemology, with the strengths and limitations of the epistemologies of science and statistics, of efficiency, visual hegemony among the senses, grammar, production, and antibiotic control. Reduce complexity in time-space to a graph, so we can contain it on the two-dimensional space of a page. So sly in its dominance is the encompassing epistemology that we, like fish, remain unaware that we are surrounded by its waters. What remains invisible, apart from and in spite of the water, because it cannot be encompassed, is tactical.

The tactical is everywhere, so thoroughgoing and transhistorical that it can almost be called an anthropology. Tactics, in De Certeau, mean something like what are called “hacks” now. He describes the tactic as “action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.”

You can’t implement strategies, not really, unless you have already appropriated the power, the autonomy, that is only available by controlling a control-space with enough resources to control substantial aspects of the surrounding environment. Descartes would be proud. Control-space is the strategic redoubt, the fortress or base camp or offices of the general staff.

The strategic redoubt is based first on the power to build castles, fence off terrain, establish checkpoints, and exercise material control of some kind over the exteriorized environment. And it is doable, to an extent. Anyone attempting unplanned and unauthorized entry into the headquarters of the NSA, Dyncorp, Monsanto, Citibank, Searle, or Fort Bragg will experience that self-isolating capability quickly and directly. That said, no one has control over that exteriorized environment. Power is maintained through the fiction of its own power and by strategic (meaning here “having an impact on the whole”) leverage. Without that power, without the ability to mobilize resources (requiring money), without that strategic leverage—this applies, for example to DSA, even if it grows to 100,000—the prerequisites for the employment of strategies do not exist, and the delusion that they do will have you playing their game by their rules again and again and again.

Leftists in the United States do not have the power to play at strategy. Failure to recognize this fact leads to many errors, because the entire project is built on the sand of this basic self-delusion. Toddlers are not strong enough or experienced enough to run road crews or operate barges or administer intravenous infusions. Under supervision, they can harvest mushrooms. The American left is still at the mushroom stage; and to grow up it will have to figure out why we are the veterans of so many failures.

We punch above our weight; and we never get bigger because we have an eating disorder called sectarianism (more on that later). Power has its disadvantages, but lack of mass is not one of them. Look at the distribution of wealth and you get a pretty good picture of the distribution of power, because monetary wealth is modern power. The main disadvantage for Big Power is that it is too big to sense and respond to the day-to-day.

There is a pretense by power, by power, of deep discernment and the swift employment of intimidation and force, their control—while it must always be acknowledged—is part self-deception (self-isolation creates it), part plain unruliness of the real apart from systems and theories, and part bluff. Power operates through a bluff that is internalized by colonized subjects (we are every one colonized subjects), that Gramsci describes as hegemony. The bricolage (“brick-making”) of everyday tactics flourishes within the grids of power, operating in all those uncontrolled and unmonitored cracks.

Strategy, attempted by the weak (that’s us, btw), is a delusion nesting inside the prior acceptance of the modern technocratic episteme, a product of our incessant theoretical abstraction, the creation of convenient explanatory fictions. The left is as guilty as the most reptile-minded capitalist. “The individual” is a fiction. “Society” is a fiction. Everywhere and nowhere is where you can now find everyone and no one—us, the anthill of technocratic society. Whether understood as the “mob” (by the right) or the “masses” (by the left), this leveling, encompassing abstraction around us becomes representative of what is outside the strategic redoubt, what is subject to manipulation, for our own protection, or for its own good. Strategy's “self-isolating calculus” begins and ends with this vain attempt at control, at the epistemological appropriation of everything, at totalization. The lonely speaker who excoriates the lonely mob or appeals on behalf of “the people” already asserts his or her self-appointed privilege (and separation from) the undifferentiated mass, whereupon we can excuse ourselves with irony. We are strategic thinkers by habit.

Strategic power—which presupposes some threshold of real capacity—is impossible to break head-on, though it can come apart on its own. Does anyone seriously have some realistic plan, for example, to end generalized money-dependency? Once you’ve got that, power is a direct function of who has the most, because money gets Every Damn Thing, from pies to spies. Universal exchange equivalent (universal ecological solvent)—the worst you can imagine from the contradiction between use-values and exchange-values. And yet, it is inescapable. The problem becomes when we strategize about the impossible—which is that we can engineer an escape.

(Tactical note: If strategy requires an enemy, an object upon which to impose a will, then what happens to a strategy when there is no visible enemy? We’ll discuss “ghosting” soon.)

Tactics? These are any “action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.” The tactician is not necessarily at war. In fact, the vast majority of us are engaged in “deep play,” as we participate in a game that is not for fun and has shifty rules. The cultural critic is closer to this than the sociologist. We are not decisive, but equivocal. We pass through filters.


Creolism, delinquency, and tactical agility

Creolism is “the art of being in-between,” of fusion, what Gloria Anzaldúa called mestizaje, living on borders . . . which subverts them. The Creole lives in a mixed society, on a boundary that is subverted by mixture. Society is creolizing in spite of itself, as a function of our uprootedness and imposed mobility; so the question is, what tactical advantages accrue in Creole culture. The answer is, among other things, tactical agility, which makes an ally of the unexpected.

Strategy ignores the unexpected as inconvenient, a form of externalization which is often its downfall. Creole practice is complex, discernable almost exclusively to its practitioners, defying categories. It glitters on the inside and is opaque from the outside. It adds exponentially to one’s bag of tricks. Creole hacks. People “making do” on boundaries, borderlines, until they go from being people to A People. A People that builds tunnels and footbridges to cross barriers. You're different and weird, and so am I, so let's deal with it and make bricks together. Us delinquents.

If the delinquent exists only by displacing itself, if its specific mark is to live not on the margins but in the interstices of the codes that it undoes and displaces, if it is characterized by the privilege of the tour over the state, then the story is delinquent. Social delinquency consists in taking the story literally, in making it the principle of physical existence where a society no longer offers to subjects or groups symbolic outlets and expectations of spaces, where there is no longer any alternative to disciplinary falling-into-line or illegal drifting away, that is, one form or another of prison and wandering outside the pale. Inversely, the story is a sort of delinquency in reserve, maintained, but itself displaced and consistent, in traditional societies (ancient, medieval, etc.), with an order that is firmly established but flexible enough to allow the proliferation of this challenging mobility that does not respect places, is alternately playful and threatening, and extends from the microbe-like forms of everyday narration to the carnivalesque celebrations of earlier days. (De Certeau, p. 130)

Reality arrives as revelation, but things are revealed in many languages. Creoles speak more than one language. They are standpoint hoppers. When you only speak one language, i.e., Scientism (a highly strategic language), you are limited by your language’s standpoint deficit. Langue and parole, as Saussure described them, are language and speaking. Language is the chessboard and the rules, beyond out intervention. Speaking is how you play this game, now. Rules are universal-always, and play is local-now. How to act in the Now.

Before you act, you will decide. Before you decide, you will orient. Before you orient, you will observe. The more complex, nuanced, and flexible the forms of observation (not simply reduction), the more precise the orientation. Precise orientation improves the quality of decisions, which are then finally proven (or not) in action. It’s a loop, a decision-action cycle with an operator—orientation—that can adapt to changes in mere seconds. Quite formidable, this feedback loop we use. The speed with which we employ it, combined with its adaptability.

It has a name; I’m not making it up. It's called the "Boyd Loop," after Colonel John Boyd, an aerial combat theorist, who “creoled” Gestalt psychology, game theory, cognitive science, and chaos theory together into a theory of “tactical agility.”

Boyd was kind of a nut, actually, but he also happened to be a kind of genius in the process. The reason he never received his star was likely related to the abruptness of his manner, his combativeness in personal relationships, the fact that he lived like an ascetic.  His first job in the Air Force was teaching occupied Japanese kids to swim right after the end of the Second World War. Odd duck doesn’t even begin . . . He and a mathematician named Thomas Christie wrote the Energy-Maneuverability Theory of Air Combat. Unlike many of the tactical innovations in warfare, which fail far more often than they succeed, Boyd's innovations are the most efficacious instrumental factors in the design and employment of today’s war planes.

Boyd boasted, and backed it up, that he could defeat any opponent in one-on-one air combat, with him starting at a tactical disadvantage, within forty seconds. Earned him the nickname Forty Second John. He wasn’t just using the Boyd Loop, something we all do to one degree or another every day; he was using it in pursuit of his main tactical objective—to disorient his opponent long enough to “break into his decision-cycle,” that is, to force the opponent into responding to your moves, and not you to his. (These were all male pilots then.) Chaos, for Boyd “chaos” in the mathematical sense, becomes an ally. No will can be asserted when one is disoriented and-or reactive (as opposed to proactive).

Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one's current mental perspective
Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one's current mental perspective
Action: the physical playing-out of decisions (Wikileaks)

Obviously, given that this loop involves a decide-act clause, the smaller the group—one being the smallest—the greater the speed of decision-making. That’s why Forty Second John kept shooting down his buddies in simulated combat, even when he gave them head starts. One-on-one.

But when it’s 100 on 1, if all other factors are equal, the 100 cannot make and enact the same kind of decision as the 1 in as short a time. Nonetheless, the 100 will probably prevail by dint of numbers. Somewhere between one-on-one and one-on-100, there is a Golden Mean, a threshold where the speed of decisions affords exactly enough advantage to win or survive an engagement against a stronger opponent. That’s what you call The Line. Stay up to or behind the line, and your tactics succeed based on the agility with which you Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, Rinse and Repeat.

The most centralized and absolutist of large institutions, the military, are precisely centralized in pursuit of the shortest possible decision-action loop. The Principle is Unity of Command, but the (purpose) Principle is Seize and Maintain the Initiative. They recognize how hobbled they are by size, scope, and complexity in the race to decide and act quicker than everyone else, to force the other side to react to them instead of our being forced to react to them.

Disorientation is the crux. First, fly into the sun and blind them.

Tactical agility, in the Boydian sense, implies a recursive cause-and-effect between detailed observation and accurate orientation. Preconceptions, wishful thinking, reliance on luck, these are all the pathways to destruction, because they interfere with the most direct evidence available to us of how things are: observation. That’s what local is. And if it’s local on a borderline, it’s Creole.


Strategic-level thinking, butterfly effects, frontiers, and localism

Strategic-level means something that has a really big butterfly effect. Bin Laden’s coordinated attack on September 11, 2001, used commercial aircraft as guided missiles to attack three practical as well as iconic power centers—financial, political, and military. The intent was to destabilize the United States by drawing it into an interminable conflict. It may be, in terms of bang for the buck, be the most successful strategic-level strike in history. The United States’ empire’s military apparatus, costing billions of dollars a day and millions of broken, displaced, and lost lives, has been permanently mired down in Southwest Asia now for one and a half decades. It wasn’t a strategy, and required no strategy for follow-up. It was a tactic. But it had strategic (level) ramifications!

It’s a strategic (level) analysis, not self-isolating, but strategic with regard to scale, that capital accumulates decisively and inevitably at what Jason Moore calls frontiers. So frontiers, where Creolism happens, are where the action is, politically speaking. Frontiers are where capital is knifing away for its “four cheaps,” as Moore (a geographer, by the way) calls them. (1) Cheap food, (2) cheap labor, (3) cheap energy, (4) cheap materials. That’s where the action is (and that is where your future leaders are). Accumulation happens along the frontiers, because economic “expansion” is necessarily expanded extraction, the operative word being cheap. These prices go up? Profits fall. Zero sum deal.

Ripples from these frontiers are big ripples, big butterfly effect. Again, not arguing for strategy as self-isolating calculus, but this is an appropriate focus for strategic-level orientation. What is actually going on at the frontiers? Who has what butterfly effect? You may not be able to turn butterfly effect into a mathematical formula, but it can be mapped, like the contour line on a topographical map, racing its hyperserpentine way across the grid, and somewhere joining back to itself, giving us something from which to infer . . . there, that is a hilltop, that a draw, there an intermittent stream. If you want to know more, though, you have to visit the place.

Frontiers are explained away as stories of adventure, starring white-father heroes, guarding the boundary between civilization and backwardness (the ultimate sin). That’s the progress story, the cowboy Westerrn. The right wants to conquer and extract. The left wants to develop and modernize. Same game. The progress story is an inescapably imperial story. Localism is an antidote to this urge; but it is also the only means by which tacticians can genuinely orient themselves.

Local is not measuring food miles. Anyone can put up a grid. Localism means intimate knowledge of one’s place. In Costa Rica, where we lived for a short time, postal addresses are descriptions. Our address was “Grecia, Barrio la Trinidad, second house on the right after the bridge.” In San Jose, there was a huge tree near one of the plazas, and one’s address might have been “a hundred meters east of the big tree.” Then the tree became diseased and dangerous, so the city had it cut down. The same address changed into “a hundred meters east of where the big tree used to be.”

Strategy is assimilation into the praxis of power, and tactics are “the opacity of a ‘popular’ culture . . . a dark rock that resists all assimilation.” It is Creole, agile, the realm of jokers and tricksters, dumpster divers and guerrilla gardeners, salvage-monkeys and re-purposers, graffiti-artists, voodoo and jazz and ghost dancers. (Why do you think Giuliani’s police-state was inaugurated with a war on graffiti?) It stays one step ahead of power, cutting its losses by abandonment of the co-opted and the constant game-like invention of revised language. Like a lizard with a detachable tail. Creole agility, tactical slippery-ness, is the ability to let go of the thing power has grasped and grab another before power can transport your old thing into its laboratory and redefine it within its own epistemology, language included. In the army, we used one-time pads to communicate, codes that changed each day, so by the time anyone broke the code the information was obsolete.

“This is the logic of production,” wrote De Certeau, “ever since the eighteenth century, it has engendered its own discursive and practical space, on the basis of points of concentration—the office, the factory, the city. It rejects the relevance of places it does not create.” And these are the unseen fissures in the rock. This is the blind spot of power. This is where we make bricks, where we haven’t been placed onto a grid and captured through classification. Bourgeois power, with its scientismic minions, has a peculiar form of myopia. Its “observation grasps only the relation between what it wants to produce and what resists it.” This resistance cannot be 90 percent, with the unseen at 10 percent. Strategies create this error, because they require the enemy's participation. Like an iceberg, let the visible resistance be ten percent (being underestimated is always an advantage); and let 90 percent of the work be done inside the camouflage of productive and legal irrelevance. And never forget humor. The powers have no sense of humor, because play is dangerously uncontrollable.

Sly as a fox and twice as quick: there are countless ways of “making do.”
-Michel De Certeau 

The game-like character of tactics (and creolized tactical agility) allows for countless combinations (no two soccer games every proceed the same way); but what gives power its ability to dominate is our own failure to abandon the very games over which power has already established domination. The success of asymmetric warfare in recent decades has stemmed precisely from the refusal of weak actors to play on the spaces and with the rules provided by the strong actors. De Certeau said that Order is thus tricked by Art.

City level and smaller! Forget the big. Become a rhizome. Instead of big, become ubiquitous.


Tactics and leadership

I don’t want to leave the impression of lifting up The Tactic as somehow inherently “revolutionary.” People who count themselves as “revolutionaries,” unfortunately (I was one), are always on the lookout for that alignment of the stars, that magic bullet, the critical tuft of yarn we can pull that will unravel our enemies and usher in the Rev. The Tactic ain’t it. The field upon which tactics is not constructed by the tacticians. The field is still governed by scarcity (in particular, the scarcity economy of money) and the manifold grids and technologies ramifying out of scarcity to protect and reproduce it. If tactics are an anthropological fact, we have to bear in mind that anthropology has no space for accounts of virtue and vice. Guerrilla gardening is not the same as peddling heroin on the street. Both are tactical. Context is everything. Foucault is postmodern. So was Osama bin Laden.

What makes the tactic politically important is its reduced visibility to the observations, orientations, decisions, and actions of power, upon whose field the tactic plays (but under the grass, like unseen roots). The mall has all kinds of well-documented (captured, encompassed?) significance; but it also makes for a perfect counter-surveillance route or a place to disappear. In nature, mimicry, camouflage, misdirection, concealment in the fissures or the heights. Tactics fly under the radar, where power cannot act without deciding because it cannot decide without orienting because it cannot orient on what it does not observe . . . accurately. And the tactician? She needs no all-encompassing, all-capturing, all-controlling theory. These are a hindrance to her. She is attending to the details at hand, constantly revising that old military tactical “situation” formula: what am I trying to do (mission), who is a danger to me (enemy), where am I (terrain, geography), what assets to  I have (troops available), and how much time?

Asymmetry exposes the weakness inhering in strength for the strategist (the real Strategist, with enough power to bulldoze the most apparent outliers, not some organizer from a sect). De Certeau points out that Clausewitz encounters this conundrum in his treatises on strategy:

[A] tactic is an art of the weak. Clausewitz noted this fact in discussing deception in his treatise On War. The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception: it is dangerous to deploy large forces for the sake of appearances; this sort of "demonstration" is generally useless and "the gravity of bitter necessity makes direct action so urgent that it leaves no room for this sort of game." One deploys his forces, one does not take chances with feints. Power is bound by its very visibility. (emphasis added) In contrast, trickery is possible for the weak, and often it is his only possibility, as a "last resort": "The weaker the forces at the disposition of the strategist, the more the strategist will be able to use deception. I translate: the more the strategy is transformed into tactics.
Clausewitz also compares trickery to wit: "Just as wit involves a certain legerdemain relative to ideas and concepts, trickery is a sort of legerdemain relative to acts. This indicates the mode in which a tactic, which is indeed a form of legerdemain, takes an order by surprise. The art of "pulling tricks" involves a sense of the opportunities afforded by a particular occasion. Through procedures that Freud makes explicit with reference to wit," a tactic boldly juxtaposes diverse elements in order suddenly to produce a flash shedding a different light on the language of a place and to strike the hearer. Cross-cuts, fragments, cracks and lucky hits in the framework of a system, consumers' ways of operating are the practical equivalents of wit.
Lacking its own place, lacking a view of the whole, limited by the blindness (which may lead to perspicacity) resulting from combat at close quarters, limited by the possibilities of the moment, a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power. (De Certeau, p. 39)

Bourdieu’s habitus counts here—fields of action, rules of each field, bodily comportment, and subversion - ways of standing, speaking, walking, sitting . . . note the fear on the faces of Wall Street Alphas during Occupy when confronted outside their field, on the street, by those who, if encountered within their strategic redoubts, would have taken on the postures and speech of contempt and dominance. How discomfited are the powers when confronted with, e.g., a working class black woman who can “out-speak” them and hold her own in debates, who challenges their claim to “expertise.” Disorient them. They are postmodern in the most debilitating sense, and already ripe.

Transferring leadership from strategists to tacticians will be risky; perhaps the strategist won’t allow it. That is the nature of strategy. An organization of 25,000 people (DSA) is not a movement, but there ought to be a fair number of tactical leaders that could be gleaned and developed out of it—a tactical cadre of sorts, broken into local cells that enjoin hundreds of quasi-independent tactical projects, coming together only certain occasions, like national elections. Locally led!!!

Visibility and leadership are not nearly the same thing. And now I am going to be abrupt about something.

No group of people is more ill-qualified to “lead” political insurgencies than academics. I love academics, and count many as friends, and I use their valuable productions all the time (though perhaps in ways they did not intend). But this is a group, with some exceptions, that is most thoroughly schooled, or disciplined, in the epistemologies of control: of grammar, of scheduling, of categorization and taxonomy, of encompassing abstraction, of compartmentalization, and of institutional pecking orders. Perhaps the worst-qualified among them are the leftists and progressives, who’ve grown fonder of their schemae with each battle to protect them from competing schemae, as the Academy has increasingly succeeded in rooting out any whiff of (gasp!) Marxism. The cold war within the Academy has ossified and uglified academic language and practice, such as it is, until it has become self-marginalizing.

But what should we do? Follow, pay attention, work locally, and learn.

The other group that is uniquely unqualified for real leadership are already becoming the politically "qualified" through the incubators of civil society, professional organizations yes, but even moreso the media, government, and “non-profit” non-governmental organizations. It is their incubation in this haute petit bourgeois class bubble that most disqualifies them as leaders, and yet their priorities—especially policy—will take precedence over every other field of endeavor or struggle, because that is all they know how to do.

In both cases, we have people who form almost erotic attachments to their towns and bedroom communities and cities—the simulacra of them, the aesthetics, skylines, cute commercial strips where the extravagant playacting at relaxation which covers the exchange of money until the panhandlers show—and have little contact with the people (practitioners) who live and labor beneath the facades. The petit bourgeoisie does not have the practical intelligence to lead; and it still thinks management is a practice. They naively believe in “non-profit socialism,” the transformation of society by NGOs consuming forests of paper and designer coffees, grubbing for cash from the pool of Big Funders . . . the economy of scarcity they can’t admit that keeps them inside the lines.

When the “observer” is sufficiently enclosed within his judicial institution, and thus sufficiently blind, everything goes fine. The discourse he produces has every appearance of holding together.
-De Certeau

The world needs academics, especially as cultural critics and researchers (their true fortes), even the activisms of the haute middle class and its bohemian posses surrounding "civil society." But they need to step aside as leaders, vacate those spaces, let things collapse a bit and re-emerge organically. Right now, wittingly or not, they siphon talent off of communities and isolate it within their strategic schemes, neutralizing it or setting up future leaders for cooptation. More importantly, the gifts that are there are wasted, blood and sweat and time poured into salaried strategic delusions, that could be operating under the radar and to far greater actual effect (we have to learn the difference between reality and simulacrum). This fraction's visibility in movements, and their apparent ability to suck movements into their vortex, is created by The Professional Organizer, the paid-with-benefits activism of the 501(c)(3) universe, that affords them the time and resources necessary to be "out there," networking, 40-60 hours a week, on the clock. This is an ecological problem, the introduction of a fabricated niche within which this one species can have an overwhelming and often disruptive impact on the biome.

This is the stratum that has so distanced itself, through education-as-product, education-as-indoctrination, from vernacular thought, language, and practice. With certain exceptions, they cannot allow themselves to see miracles or spirits or demons, the Jewish "strangeness" of Jesus—the most utterly subversive kinds of alternatives to modern epistemologies of control—and in fact will spend a great deal of energy attacking them, because ultimately it is not control or even efficiency they resent, but the fact that they themselves have not been assigned to direct control and efficiency in the name of the apotheosis of Science. They are still, as Audre Lorde might say, inside the master’s house and chattering away, growing agitated when the street transforms “isn’t” into “ain’t” and “conversing” into “conversatin’.” They understand at some pre-conscious level that grammar—as the sign, the vaccination scar of Education—reflects the degree of control their own class exercises, and the ungrammatical reflects the limits of that power. “Proper” is the root of “proper-ty.”

Non-profits, NGOs, and the rest are part of our terrain; and there are goods that can be gleaned from them. I worked in one for quite some time as an organizer, for which the control-freakery I learned in the military uniquely prepared me; and while my “organizing” was as disruptive as that described above, we did also create an extremely valuable and searchable state campaign finance database that was available to everyone for research. It’s not evil; it’s that this is not the incubator for tactical leadership, because this milieu is marinated in the strategic delusion and its incessant and deceptive cheerleading approach to politics. There are, of course, exceptions to this—a few people willing to confront their denial and imagine that whatever happens, it won’t be “bringing those below us up to our level,” but that justice is not possible without our own level being brought low. It really is a zero sum game.

Its episteme is unsuitable for good tactical leadership, which must be practical well in advance of any ideology. I don’t care if you can quote The Great Theorist. Can you entertain children? Can you hack a computer? Can you thrift shop? Can you fix a pump? Can you monkeywrench a trackhoe? Can you build a toilet? Can you cook and organize a potluck? Does our politics recognize and respond to the animal loneliness that has taken up residence in late modern subjects . . . all of us? Are you versed in any actual practices which develop the virtues of a good leader? Patience, humility, listening, apprehension of limits and one’s own prejudices, admission of error and ignorance, prudent courage, compassion, wise judgement, selflessness, local knowledge? Love?

The petit bourgeois ideologue believes that she or he is magically immune to the same forces it believes prevents everyone else from becoming like the petit bourgeois. “This image of the public is not usually made explicit,” writes De Certeau.

It is nonetheless implicit in the “producers” claim to inform the population, that is, to “give form” to social practices. Even protests against the vulgarization/vulgarity of the media often depend on an analogous pedagogical claim; inclined to believe that its own cultural models are necessary for the people in order to educate their minds and elevate their hearts, the elite upset about the “low level” of journalism or television always assumes that the public is moulded by the products imposed on it. To assume that is to misunderstand the act of “consumption.” This misunderstanding assumes that “assimilating” necessarily means “becoming similar to” what one absorbs, and not “making something similar” to what one is, making it one’s own, appropriating or reappropriating it. Between these two possible meanings, a choice must be made, and first of all on the basis of a story whose horizon has to be outlined. “Once upon a time . . .” (De Certeau, 166) 

The petit bourgeois believes in scriptural dominance, the power of the written word to transform the world into “our” likeness. They want to write the new story, then write it into law. They pay lip service to Marx, of course, in the proper settings, but they have become Hegel again, believing the idea—in writing, which requires the world to be literate to be transformed—determines the practice, Hegel’s assumption that Marx reversed. The petit bourgeois wants to discipline the body, too, to capture the body with the written word. They settle arguments by saying, “You have to read this book!” Education is the most important product in making everyone else like us.

This blinds them to the reality that people are not living in a state of pure hegemony, that people are “making do,” even subverting norms, in ways that are invisible to Starbucks theoreticians, in ways that evade capture by the academic text. They are already tactical. Do you know what they already have in their bag of tricks? Failing some test or another in ideological call-out culture (a toxic atmosphere that means crib death for movements), then, there is nothing “they” can teach “you”?

My “revolutionary” friends and I were always on the lookout for the leaders, but when we spotted them, we wanted to convert them first, then stand them up as soldiers. This is still the (masculinized!!!) approach of the many faceted left. They have (I had) a martial worldview. Pump up the outrage, prepare for a fight, “build” for the movement/revolution/future, and magically somewhere somehow we can effect a transfer of power and all will be well. Two problems here: first is that this approach is probably a historical one-off where it has worked (and always been reversed or transcended--all was not well), but it mostly fails, and second, related to the first, most people do not want to be soldiers and they don’t want to fight. Talk like that rightfully scares the shit out of them . . . in a time of mounting anxiety? Who is drawn to people who make them feel afraid?

Women, in particular, with a few exceptions, are not comforted by or attracted to the prospect of “a fight,” the prospect of (mostly male) violence. Not because of some feminine essence, but because every woman has in her own life seen plenty of examples of male aggression, intimidation, and violence; and it ain’t pretty. Alpha males boasting how they want to “punch fascists” are already setting up the “post revolutionary” order, which women wisely suspect. The single most frequent victims of male violence are, after all, women. Don’t do this shit, or talk about guns (fergodsake!), then ask, “Why don’t we have more women in the movement?” Angry white guys, by the way, are not particularly comforting to a lot of other folks as well.

I wish there were a better appreciation of our animality, our vulnerable and ultimately doomed animality. We get confused, lost, hurt, sick, disabled . . . dead in the end . . . but even in those blessed interstices of life where things are going “pretty well,” that vulnerability is all around us like yellow eyes around the campfire. This is where we really live. Make of it what you will. The politics of war is the logic of war; and the logic of war is to retreat from all forms of vulnerability. And so, again, death has the last word. We don’t need leaders who will win wars. We need leaders who can make peace, seek truth, visit prisoners, wash feet. This is, of course, foolishness, as any "warrior" can (and will) tell you.

You gotta give people something that is not war. It's not just scary; it is irresponsible.

I watched a leftist youth organizer once congratulate a teenage white bike thief on his “resistance” (because it was stolen from Walmart, The Enemy) as black kids watched the organizer give the thief his approval. But there is a big difference between what happens to the white kid who gets caught and the black kid who is then tracked for lifelong capture in the criminal justice net.

It is not brave to ignore the vulnerabilities of others, especially if what you are saying you want to do might affect them. When men hatch their little macho schemes, do they take into account how they might affect women and kids? It’s externalized, because if you’re down, you’re “militant.” (I know that as a former drunk, I can’t stand drunks. As a former phrasemongering sloganeer, I have no patience left for phrasemongering sloganeers. I spot it cuz I got it.) But, really? That’s what we want? To be intimidating? Because in case you haven’t figured it out, we need more people on our side to do the good things we claim we want to do. Few solid relationships are begun with “You suck!” or “You embody pure evil,” or, “I want to kill you.”

Now you can rebut me with the outrage of the day. I guess, as a former soldier, I have enough outrages under my own belt to see the value of redemption, mercy, forgiveness. I went to a conference not too long ago, where a macho shithead who offered the adventurist left his military training program stated that his first rule is, We Never Forgive. "Congratulations, asshole," I found myself muttering. "Go home and play war in the woods."

Maybe the first encounter with that Trump supporter, if you are a white person like me who is swimming in a sea of post-rural nationalism, should be to help out when his mother breaks her hip instead of arguing with him at a town meeting. They think they are right. Everyone thinks he or shee is the Good Guy. And they don’t find you trustworthy. Before you can be the one who convinces them they are wrong, you have to have won their trust. No one takes guidance from people they don’t trust. You have to get to know them, only if it is safe for you, even if they are—according to your own purity code—tainted. Winning, if we are talking about some genuine popular democratic aspiration, is measured in conversions, not body counts.


“There are now too many things to believe and not enough credibility to go around.”
-De Certeau

No one notices the moisture infiltrating the fissures in the rocks; then the freeze comes, the moisture expands, and the rocks are fractured. This is how the Sanders campaign burst onto the scene, unexpected, because the statisticians and experts didn’t “see” the moisture hiding there. They missed the infiltration, because it was invisible, like the tactics of everday life. The stone is fractured, and it won’t be put together again. All that remains now is to re-infiltrate the new fissures and break it again. The greatest disadvantage of power is self-delusion about the extent and depths of its control, an outgrowth of the limitations inhering in its own epistemology. It quite simply cannot grasp heterogeneity apart from its own categories and taxonomies. The weak can take advantage, but only to the extent that they themselves escape the epistemes of power.

The sectarian left grew restless and angry, because the Sanders phenomenon queered their own calculations. Standing outside the rock, armed with its Ideas, it couldn’t account for it with its own formulas, so it had to be an aberration. After all, what is supposed to happen when the (mapped) masses shrug out of their sleep is they will See that the Revolutionaries were right about everything all along, and they will rush to become like them. And with nothing but ideas, and no account of bricolage or unpredictability or the fact that their ideas failed to penetrate society sufficiently to make what had happened intelligible, they reduced everything until it refit the formulae. “Sanders is a sheepdog.” “Social democrats are bad.” “Nothing short of war will work, and we are your future Generals.” Mantras. Re-upping our revolutionary bona fides.

Captives, all, these sects and remnants of sects, of the delusions of scriptural dominance. De Certeau says, and I find myself agreeing, that what is now The Western Left emerged in the void left by the Church with the rise of the modern nation-state, a church that itself has long been the captive of power games, First the church changed charity from a personal virtue into an institutional mandate; then the left adopted the inherited institutional (strategic) mode.

Whatever may have been the case in the past, we can see, if we leave aside excessively facile (and apolitical) remarks about the psychosociological traits characteristic of all “militancy,” that there is vis-a-vis the established order, a relationship between the Churches that defended an other world and the parties of the left which, since the nineteenth century, have promoted a different future. In both cases, similar functional characteristics can be discerned: ideology and doctrine have an importance that is not given them by those in power; the project of another society results in discourse (reformist, revolutionary, socialist, etc.) being given the primary role over against the fatality or normality of facts; legitimization by means of ethical values, by a theoretical truth, or by appealing to a roll call of martyrs has to compensate for the legitimacy that can be claimed by every power through the mere fact of its existence; the techniques of “making people believe” play a more decisive role when it is a matter of something that does not yet exist; intransigencies and doctrinal vetoes are thus stronger than in places where the established power permits and often requires compromises; and finally, by an apparently contradictory logic, every reformist power is tempted to acquire political advantages, to transform itself into an ecclesiastical administration in order to support its project, to thus lose its primitive "purity" or change it into a mere decoration of the apparatus, and to transform its militants into officials or conquerors. (De Certeau, p. 154) [Strategic!]

The established church found itself defending God; but as Theologian Stanley Hauerwas tells us, if you have to defend it, it’s not God. The established left defends Ideas from heresy. If your idea has roots in actual practice, it won’t require a defense. (Hauerwas says that the church, i.e., the gathered disciples, is a tactic, not a strategy. Exceed that weakness, that vulnerability that is presupposed in love, and reach for strategic power, and already the church is sinful. We are the church, the gathered disciples, when we stand among the weak, when we answer power [dangerously sometimes, got pretty dangerous for Jesus] with love.)

Being separated in practice means our ideas, reflecting our practices, fragments us ideationally into "individuals" (a social and legal abstraction) who possess certain "opinions." Given how specialization has distorted ideas through practice, it seems unlikely that the assertion of "correct" opinions can provide the foundation of any actual solidarity, any mutuality. Practices are self-correcting. As Schatzki wrote that practices constitute people's "horizons of intelligibility." Beyond that, the air is thin and speculative.

I fish. A practice. If I fish with you, then we may disagree on the best depth, structure, baits, presentation. But what is correct will respect neither opinion. We will both find out, through trials and failures (failure is essential to learning and should be embraced), what the “correct” answers are. Some things we do will put fish in the boat, others will not. (And we are habituated into virtues in the practice—patience, temperance, attention to detail, willingness to accept failure, willingness to accept instruction.)

As one who speaks Marxist, I know to look for the “contradictions,” the unsustainable mismatches, the “opposition internal to something with an event, process, a person, a thing which is pulling it in rather different directions and an unstable internal dynamic; an opposition which is internal”. (Harvey) There is a contradiction between the mass aspirations of the left and its practice. Especially among the sects, where half our time is spent engaging in tactics that are decades old and ossified and the other half spent protecting points of view. In a milieu where the left is so incredibly small (even still, though it is growing), with each sect headed up by its own theologian, the competition for those few potential recruits—who are co-located with our intrepid would-be Lenins at every public event—compels This Sect and That Sect not to emphasize what they have in common, but what their differences are; and so the would-be recruits are witness to the weird spectacle of revolutionaries without followers engaging in protracted and outrageously speculative and arcane arguments with other revolutionaries, who likewise have hardly any followers. This is based on the contradiction between claiming to be historical materialists, but remaining in our hearts (and practices!) historical idealists. We build general staffs, then, with the few remaining, for which there is no actual army.

And we spin out hypotheses about why we remain so small. Speculation mounts on speculation, and selective evidence is marshalled to the cause. The greatest upwave on the left since the Wallace campaign appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and it is attacked for its ideological impurities (which was not the point), attacked for emerging from within the Democratic Party (which was not the point), and explained away using the same hoary formulae and slogan-mongering we’ve heard for forever (missing the point entirely). The leftist sects, with few exceptions, think self-criticism is confessing your impurities to other sect members, not going back to their own most precious convictions and purity codes, and subjecting them to dispassionate and rigorous analysis. It was never about Sanders, even though, of course, there was an alignment of the stars that included his shambling, roughed-up, Brooklyn-transplanted, irascible grandad persona. Because most people can’t or won’t follow discourses like this blog post or the all-male interventions of Marxmail or the various sacred texts, they have been exposed to enough media to become savvy in it—especially young people—and they could spot the tight stage management, air-brushing, and careful evasions of Secretary Clinton from a mile away. She was everything about my generation that Millennials didn’t like. They grew up hearing about their bright futures in the Greatest Country in the World, and ran into a gray fog of stagnation, debt, and shopworn hypocrisy. They knew, intuitively, that Clinton was pissing on their collective leg and telling them it was raining. Then a guy comes along and says “debt relief,” “free college,” “free healthcare,” and “public works jobs,” when this stuff has been systematically burned out of public discussion, and it may not be “radical” enough for the sect’s poseur manifestos, but it sounds pretty damn good to them.

Now the sectarians want to tell those people how misinformed, how colonized, how stupid they are, and at the same time to recruit them, indoctrinate them, and stand them up as soldiers. Because only they are ideologically fit to lead. Growing left, my appeal to you. Don’t be infected by this. I had two ongoing discussions during the presidential primaries; one with someone who would work on the Stein campaign afterwards and another who was going to put on a gas mask and vote Clinton—both Bernie supporters. There was never any resolution to this debate, because the two sides began with entirely different and incommensurable premises. MacIntyre describes this phenomenon writ large in After Virtue—the great moral contradiction of pluralized modernity—where no question can be settled, leaving power in the hands of bureaucracies. The three of us were simultaneously concerned that if and when Sanders lost, there would be an outbreak of furious name-calling between those who chose to vote Stein and those who chose to vote Clinton. And all three of us agreed, even though we knew we would end up on two sides of this, that the time to begin treating each other with mutual respect, in spite of differences, was during the election; because the day after the election, the Sanders-Stein-Clinton questions would disappear, and we all anticipated the importance of post-election unity between former Sanders-supporters. We were all veterans of the sectarian left, too.

But the war mentality broke out. It’s easier to declare someone an enemy than to sit respectfully with disagreements. If you are not with us, you are against us. Let’s fight. Now the right is finding its feet. So we’d better quit fighting, and fast. The best way to do that is through practical efforts. Moreover, the best way to do that is to dispense with cheerleading and the struggle for visibility, and focus our efforts on an enormous grab bag of tactics . . . especially ghost tactics.


Long-term thinking cannot thrive as futures become even more opaque. We can’t even predict weather patterns any more. Everything is being dislocated. I suspect it will get worse before it gets better. The threshold for real strategic capacity is being shrunken and concentrated. But for tacticians, as opposed to strategists, the opacity of the future can be a powerful ally. The late capitalist culture of “flexibility” is a symptom, too, one that is exported to the poorest, but a culture that is riven with opportunities for tactical actions, with hiding places for ghosts.

Dispersion versus integration (Theodor Schatzki’s distinction, which I am playing a bit loose with)—dispersed practice can evolve into integrated practice, and at some threshold, the integration of formerly dispersed tactics can be integrated sufficiently to propose “strategic orientations” or strategic outcomes (without the self-isolating calculus of strategic practice).

Foucault, in describing “governmentality,” highlights how passive governance is accomplished through technologies, but even more substantially, by the built environment, which determines our practices. As the 12-steppers say, “You’re not gonna think your way into right acting; you gotta act your way into right thinking.” That’s actually a very Marxist thing to say, but a Thomist one, too. The built environment determines to some degree every single thing you do or anyone else does. So. Can we change the built environment? Under the radar?

In Jackson, Mississippi, recently, a long term ghosting project suddenly took on a political face. A lose assemblage of various projects under the unthreatening heading “Cooperation Jackson” (remember that the great struggle for the African American franchise began with the Montgomery Improvement Association) included community farms, co-ops, small cultural centers, and local “people’s assemblies. This year, they provisionally won the city government. Ghosting includes those actions taken under the radar, especially anything that resists or begins to reverse commodification. Power is not exercised by what it makes you think. It is exercised by what it makes you do.

If we are determined to play war, let’s play it without a human object. Let’s call the Enemy commodification. How do you fight commodification tactically? This process that rips open the earth, encloses land and minds, perverts our natural human inter-dependency into something ugly and sinful along an axis of domination and subordination. If we are tactical, we always want to ask first, "Can we do this under the radar?"

With what small secret mission can we slip in, free a prisoner or two, and slip away without a shot fired? We don't want action heroes and egos. We need ghosts, a million ghosts re-purposing things on the sly. Blended-in, unremarkable, always precautionary, intentionally plain, not-quite-visible, quiet, calculating ghosts. Ghost legions broken into ghost battalions, broken into ghost companies, then ghost platoons, ghost squads, ghost teams, working with their hands, re-purposing the cells of a changed infrastructure. These are growers and salvagers and tinkerers, and more generalist than specialist. It's a ghost attitude. You talk for a while with the person who fixes your car or chainsaw and you buy local eggs and you carry a mental map around with you of where you dwell; but you remain unremarkable, not meriting suspicion. No one thinks much of your hobbies, or the local land trust to which you may support, or knows you go to those meetings, and there's nothing particularly controversial about that thing you want where people can keep hens inside the city limit.

Writing is the object of an impossible attempt at enclosure. With the internet, whoa my! You can’t control that . . . and if you do, you get that nonviolent jui-jitsu, an unmasking of the real nature of power, long turned invisible by the Magic Ring. What is our status? They are strong; but they are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Do with that as you will. Bordieu said each practice has its proper place. What of when one practices in an improper space? Do with that as you will. De Certeau calls the gift economy a diversionary tactic, one that will be counted by power as waste, subversion of profit, or a crime against property. Note how Food Not Bombs groups, usually young anarchists, are bullied off the street by cops. Their presence hardly disrupts the actions of the surrounding society; but they are creating improprieties of space, abjections, disruptions of the symbolic order. They unmask power, who like a baboon ascends a tree to show its dominance, not realizing that from the ground all we see now is his big red ass. Tactics depend on circumstance, and so they are countless. Every circumstance is an opportunity. Do with that as you will.

Localization is concentration. Compare two groups of ten. One spends eight hours a day for six months planning and coordinating a national “action.” One spends eight hours a day for six months organizing an urban agriculture project (a Creole ghost). Which is the most visible? Which draws the most attention from power. Which has more to show afterward? Which has the basis for continuing their project? Who has something tangible to defend and close enough to defend it?


Christians and leftists

We stand across from one another with suspicion. I hope we can build some bridges, or dig some tunnels. I hope I can make non-Christians understand that the most visible “Christians” on the right represent a form of apostasy. There are few things more subversive—though this subversiveness is not a raison d'etre—than fealty to a vulnerable God. It is not only anti-masculinist, and therefore anti-war; it destabilizes the very ground of power.

We just mentioned food and dependency. Let’s look at Jesus’ temptations, where bread and dependency are recognized as a species of power.

Power is visible in three ways in the story of Jesus, when he is confronted in the wilderness by the Tempter. The Tempter says, “I can turn stones into bread.” The Roman Empire that controlled that place then pillages the margins of empire to ensure sufficient bread for the citizens who were their political base. Jesus say, “Not today. Not ever.” So the Tempter comes back with a second offer. “You can be thrown from a high wall (a form of execution) and land at the bottom like a butterfly.” You can be immune to justice. Impunity is an aspect of power. “Not today. Not ever,” says Jesus; so the Tempter just lays it out: “Dude, I can make you king of all the kings, give you absolute political power . . . one catch, you do as I tell you.” The power of states and armies. It’s all there. Jesus says, “Not today. Not ever.” For a human being, at least, it appears the Tempter sees this as the upper limit of human desire—power. But you have to worship the Devil to exercise it. Worship Power, you worship the Devil.

Strong words, with astonishing implications. When a person who knows this story is navigating the Game, that Serious Game of life, that journey, the story gives her or him guideposts to get through some pretty treacherous stuff. Because at one time or another, even and including those of us victimized by power, we are all subject to its temptations. And by that I don’t mean some ethereal metaphor of power (Oh, I feel so empowered!) but the practical power exercised over most people by a few, by people who profit from the objectification of others or people who fear the uncertainty of any change.

We are actually supposed to be on the side of those who fear the uncertainty of any change, and not just because their fears may be well-founded. But just as importantly, when you can and do exercise this form of power—of “utilizing” people—you (and I) are always, always, always degrading the self. With every compromise, and compromises are inevitable, a bit of our moral edifice crumbles. The worse the things are that you are compelled to do, often complicit in power as a subaltern (Gramsci’s word), the worse each of us becomes as a person. If you do bad things, you will become increasingly bad. We act our way into our thinking.

This is one reason certain Christians—like me—never recommend violence; because apart from its seen and unforeseen consequences, it degrades the perpetrator. When we encourage someone to commit violence, we are asking them to degrade themselves. The little boy gets a BB gun and shoots it like he saw on TV. He shoots at a bird, and lo and behold he hits the bird. The bird drops dead. The boy picks up the bird, still warm and soft and quivering, and he recognizes the magnitude of his act, which he couldn’t imagine before he did it; and he is overwhelmed with regret, sorrow, and horror at himself. Then other boys and men shame him out of his shame to make him hard. When you even hint at killing other human beings, what are you really asking?

Acting charitably to others is perhaps the hardest idea for Christians; so it is the directive we lawyer our way out of with some frequency. People get start-overs, no matter what. There are well-tested Christian ways to screw up this general amnesty thing among Christians ourselves. That puts real limits on what we ought and ought not to do as we ourselves navigate our crumbling, lonely, technical metropoles by making bricks. Roughly summarizing, it precludes us from participating in acts of physical or psychological violence against anyone . . . ever. For us, some of us at least, this is a boundary like the one around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Violence, for us, is inside that circle of signs that says, “Do Not Enter. – God” “Touch at Your Peril.” Peril - perdere - destruction and loss. Loss. You will be lost to God. That’s a big deal, the biggest. Christians—the ones like some of us who might show up at a DSA meeting—who are making tactical alliances in the world (I am a socialist of some kind, there have been plenty of Christian socialists) will be allies until you break out that firebomb or gun or club. Then we are gone. Too much at stake, beginning with the moral hazard, which affects you, too. Do violence and you will become it. Virtue and vice are acquired through habituation. Habituation is acquired through practice. You are what you practice.

I know I wore out the “beliefs and practices” bit in my accusation that Marxists were reverting to Hegel, but I need to say something here about belief, again with Michel De Certeau whispering in my ear. Belief “systems” (God, I hate this sterilized language!) are not  some simplistic assent to a set of propositions. Most belief is protean, provisional, and promiscuous. The same vague set of beliefs might lead one person into seclusion, another into into charitable actions, and another one to war. An advertiser can create an insecurity in others—a belief that something is too pathological to overlook—in order to persuade someone to buy the thing that claims it can cure what ails you. Practices alter belief all the time. I believed it was fine to cross that lot, until I encountered the bad dog . . .

Where Western belief had its institutional basis once in Christendom’s church has been transferred to political organizations. They just shifted the boundaries from one to the other. If God’s not handy, we can worship progress, build heaven on earth. Speaking as a Christian, maybe to some who are not, that’s our confession. We did the power thing. Turned out really badly. Probably will for you, too. You can see, can’t you, that this is not where Christians of the sort who make alliances with the left want to go; because we remember, in a manner of speaking.

Ivan Illich pointed out the ways in which the church, institutionally perverted, is the parent of modernity. The idea that we are dealing with something altogether new beginning with the Enlightenment is unfounded. The witch trials didn’t ramp up during a period of church hegemony throughout Christendom, but during massive upheavals, including the Reformation, cheered on by the Fathers of Science. Modernity is not anti-Christian, it is a perverse form of Christendom’s Christianity, one that has been, from right to left, a war on subsistence, on the vernacular, in order to re-forge humanity on a new technocratic basis. Control, control, control. Modernity did not go from bad to better, but from bad to very much worse; and I say that as someone who does not believe we can “return to the past.” Here we are.

As far as I can understand, I live in a world that has lost the sense of good, the Good. We have lost the certainty that the world makes sense because things fit together, that the eye is made to grasp the sunlight, and is not just a biological camera which happens to register this optical effect. We have lost the sense that virtuous behaviour is fitting and appropriate for human beings, and we have lost it in the course of the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries with the rise of the concept and the experience of value. Good is absolute: the light and the eye are simply made for each other, and the unquestioned good is deeply experienced. But once I say that the eye has value for me because it allows me to see or orient myself in the world, I open a new door. Values can be positive but also negative, so the moment I speak, in philosophy, about values, I assume the existence of a zero point, from which values rise and decline in two directions. The replacement of good by the idea of value begins in philosophy, and is then expressed in an ever-growing economic sphere within which my life becomes a pursuit of values rather than a pursuit of what is good for me, we can only be another person . . . Evil is the opposite of good—it’s not a disvalue or a negative value—and sin is a mysterious aspect of evil, a personal offence of God which is intelligible only in the light of the new freedom exemplified in the Parable of the Samaritan . . . the replacement of good and evil by value and disvalue has destroyed the basis on which sin was predicated, because sin cannot be connected to negative values. (Illich, Rivers North of the Future, 62-3)

Non-Christians reading this will scratch their heads. We operate, epistemologically speaking, differently; ontologically, phenomenologically, differently. It’s not that we want to return to the pre-modern, but that whatever is post-modern will need some of the things that were lost in the vandalism that accompanied modernity’s birth.

We have a common grandparent, Christians and the left.

This complex ebb and flow, which has made the transition from the political to Christian religiousness and from the latter to a new politics has had as its effect an individualization of beliefs (the common frame of reference being fragmented into social “opinions” or individual “convictions”) and of movements among beliefs across an increasingly diversified network of possible objects. The idea of democracy corresponded to the will to manage this multiplication of convictions which had replaced the faith that had founded an order. What is striking is that by breaking up the ancient system, that is, the religious credibility of the political order, Christianity finally compromised the believability of the religiousness that it detached from the political; thus it contributed to the dis-crediting of what it had appropriated to itself in order to make itself autonomous, and made possible the ebbing away of these beliefs in the direction of political authorities henceforth deprived of (or liberated from?) the spiritual authorities that had formerly been a relativizing as well as a legitimizing principle. The return of a “pagan” repressed was thus affected by this decline of the “spiritual.” The erosion of Christianity left an indelible mark on the modern age: the “incarnation” or historicization that in the eighteenth century Rousseau already calls a “civil religion.” To the pagan state, which “made no distinction between its gods and its laws,” Rousseau opposes a “religion” of the citizen, “whose articles of faith it is for the sovereign to determine.” [Constitution worship] “If anyone, after having publicly recognized these very dogmas, conducts himself as if he did not believe in them, let him be put to death.” This civil religion of the citizen was distinguished from a spiritual religion of man, the individual, asocial, and universal religion of The Creed of a Priest of Savoy. This prophetic view, far less incoherent than it has been said to be, already articulates the development of a “civil” and political dogmatics on the radicalization of an individual conscience free from any dogma and deprived of any powers. Since then, sociological analysis has verified the accuracy of this foresight.
From the time of the Enlightenment on, belief is reinvested in the political system alone, in proportion as the “spiritual powers” which had guaranteed the civil powers in Antiquity and had entered into competition with them in the Christian West lost their previous positions, and became scattered or miniaturized. (De Certeau, 182-3)

De Certeau believes that the void left by the established Church was replaced by the political left, who can spin out doctrines, articles of faith, and dogma as effectively as a herd of Bishops. What does he mean “scattered or miniaturized”? Well, we were talking about belief. What do we believe is real? De Certeau knew Lacan, and The Real has a special significance for them. Whatever it is, it must be disciplined by language, captured by language, controlled by language. De Certeau was formed as a Jesuit, so he is familiar with the first use of the term “militant.” The Church Militant, organized as for war, long preceded today’s political “militants.” And so he breaks down the left’s political militancy. (Lo-o-o-o-ng excerpt here)

The distinction—today archeological—between the temporal and the spiritual as two jurisdictions, nevertheless remains structurally inscribed in . . . society, but it is now within the political system. The place that was formerly occupied by the Church or Churches vis-a-vis the established powers remains recognizable, over the past two centuries, in the functioning of the opposition known as leftist. In political life as well, a mutation of ideological content can leave a social “form” intact.
One index of these transitions that displace beliefs but preserve the same structural schema, would be the history of Jansenism: a prophetic opposition (the Port-Royal of the seventeenth century) is transformed into the political opposition of an “enlightened” and parliamentary milieu in the eighteenth century. There one can already see that an intelligentsia of intellectuals (clercs) or notables replaces the opposition that a “spiritual” power supported against (or on the margins of) political or “civil” authorities.
Whatever may have been the case in the past, we can see, if we leave aside excessively facile (and apolitical) remarks about the psychosociological traits characteristic of all “militancy,” that there is vis-a-vis the established order, a relationship between the Churches that defended an other world and the parties of the left which, since the nineteenth century, have promoted a different future. In both cases, similar functional characteristics can be discerned: ideology and doctrine have an importance that is not given them by those in power; the project of another society results in discourse (reformist, revolutionary, socialist, etc.) being given the primary role over against the fatality or normality of facts; legitimization by means of ethical values, by a theoretical truth, or by appealing to a roll call of martyrs has to compensate for the legitimacy that can be claimed by every power through the mere fact of its existence; the techniques of “making people believe” play a more decisive role when it is a matter of something that does not yet exist; Intransigencies and doctrinal vetoes are thus stronger than in places where the established power permits and often requires compromises; and finally, by an apparently contradictory logic, every reformist power is tempted to acquire political advantages, to transform itself into an ecclesiastical administration in order to support its project, to thus lose its primitive “purity” or change it into a mere decoration of the apparatus, and to transform its militants into officials or conquerors.
This analogy has structural grounds; they do not directly involve a psychology of militancy or a critical sociology of ideologies; but rather they involve first of all the logic of a “place” that produces and reproduces, as its effects, militant mobilizations, tactics of “making people believe,” and ecclesiastical institutions in a relationship of distance, competition, and future transformations with respect to the established powers.
The transition from various forms of Christianity to various forms of socialism through the mediation of “heresies” or sects has been the object of many studies, which themselves operate the very passages they analyze. But if these transitions transport vestiges of religious belief in the direction of new political formations, one cannot draw the conclusion that these vestiges of abandoned beliefs make it legitimate to see anything religious in these movements. One is forced to draw that conclusion only if one makes the unjustified assumption that the objects believed are the same as the act of believing (emphasis added), and that, as a corollary, there is something religious about every group in which elements that have been religious are still working.
Another analytical model seems to be more in tune with the realities of history and anthropology: Churches, indeed religions themselves, would be not so much referential unities as social variants of the possible relations between the act of believing and the objects believed; they would be, on this view, particular historical configurations (and manipulations) of relationships linking the (formal) modalities of believing and knowing with the (quasilexical) series of available contents. Today, the acts of believing and knowing are distributed otherwise than in the religions of earlier times; believing no longer modalizes what is believed according to the same rules; in short, the objects to be believed or known, their mode of definition, their status and their inventory have been largely changed and renewed. Thus one cannot isolate and inscribe in a continuity two constellations of “beliefs” by merely noting that they have in common an act of believing, an element that is assumed to be invariable. (emphasis added)
In order to analyze the relations between speaking and believing in the new, political and militant variant presented by leftist parties in a place still historically determined by the role earlier played by the Churches, the archeological perspective must be given up. We must locate the modes in which believing, knowing, and their contents reciprocally define each other today, and in that way try to grasp a few of the ways believing and making people believe function in the political formations in which, within this system, the tactics made possible by the exigencies of a position and the constraints of a history are deployed. This approach to the current situation can discern in it two mechanisms through which a body of dogma has always made itself believed: on the one hand, the claim to be speaking in the name of a reality which, assumed to be inaccessible, is the principle of both what is believed (a totalization) and the act of believing (something that is always unavailable, unverifiable, lacking); and on the other, the ability of a discourse authorized by a “reality” to distribute itself in the form of elements that organize practices, that is, of “articles of faith.” These two traditional resources are found again today in the system that combines the narrativity of the media—an establishment of the real—with the discourse of products to be consumed—a distribution of this reality in the form of “articles” that are to be believed and bought. It is the first that needs to be stressed, the second being already quite well known.  (De Certeau, 184-5)

So what is he talking about? Distributable realities?

Our whole conceptual aramentarium is based on the belief that, “Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” For that, it has to be mapped, cataloged, converted to numbers or binary code, placed on a grid, and dissected with specific vocabularies. And so, with an abundance of information, we have lost any anchorage for belief. We have miniature, scattered belief(S), plural; and in response to liberalism’s implicit claim that there is no ultimate ground, so the left challenges liberalism dogmatically, implicitly asserting a ground, even when they cannot describe it.

This reversal of the terrain on which beliefs develop results from a mutation in the paradigms of knowledge: the ancient postulate of the invisibility of the real has been replaced by the postulation of its visibility. The modern socio-cultural scene refers to a “myth.” This scene defines the social referent by its visibility (and thus by its scientific or political representativeness); it articulates on this new postulate (the belief that the real is visible) the possibility of our knowledge, observations, proofs, and practices. On this new stage, an indefinitely extensible field of optical investigations and of a scopic drive, the strange collusion between believing and the question of the real still remains. But now it is a question of what is seen, observed, or shown. The contemporary “simulacrum” is in short the latest localization of belief in vision, the identification of the seen with what is to be believed—once the hypothesis has been given up that claimed that the waters of an invisible ocean (the Real) came back to haunt the shores of the visible and to make them the results, decodable signs or deceptive reflections, of its presence. The simulacrum is what the relationship of the visible to the real becomes when the assumption crumbles that an invisible immensity of Being (or of beings) lies hidden behind appearances. (De Certeau, 187)

And so we have “reality-values,” based on the relative efficacy of competing discourses, each gridding “reality” between accounts of what is believed and anticipated (a program) and who stands in our way (enemies). The loss of that anchorage, The Good, has made the strategic—which was always a temptation, especially in the world of men—into something inevitable. The very terms of our thinking is now a Cartesian fortress, a self-isolating calculus, and we are all in uniform, whether that uniform is a soldier's blouse or a lab coat. We have lost all other conceptual coordinates. The Real is tamed and re-established by citation, which serves as a kind of ammunition. Unless you are deviant. Unless you are Creole.

To be a Christian, says my experience so far, is to be on one’s deathbed. That terrible distillation of meanings and purposes and the bottomlessness of The Real is the crux of our story (pun intended). Be ever mindful of death. De Certeau describes the deathbed as a point of staggering deviance. “What is this all for?” confronts us with a black hole of a question. Possessions and simulations are laid bare, empty. Then we are reprieved, one way or another. The person on her deathbed suddenly rallies; but we cannot un-remember that horror vacui; death has already kicked us in the teeth. And so she becomes an abjection—a disruption of our symbolic universe, a witness to something we don’t want to see. De Certeau described how a dying patient is left to “rest and sleep” by the nurses and technicians, when this really means, even alongside altruistic motives, this dying thing is quiet now, so we don’t have to “bear the uttering of anguish, despair, or pain.” The patient rallies. Lazarus is back from the dead; but Lazarus will die again, as we all shall. And when we die, we die Now, erasing the struggles, simulations, and possessions. Erasing their meaning. De Certeau says, then, that deviance is being the dying patient in a hospital—whose mission is the “conservation of life” (at all costs?). That’s why we hide the dead now, zone them away from residences and commerce. Utopia (especially a consumer Utopia!) has no place for the dead. Disability (which we can no longer call that), disease, madness, aging . . . all these vulnerabilities are redefined or shoved out of sight. Vulnerability is not compatible with strategy.

Imagine the tenor of political conversations around a deathbed.

The immoral secret of death is deposited in the protected caverns reserved for it by psychoanalysis and religion. It resides in the vast metaphors of astrology, necromancy, or sorcery, languages that are tolerated so long as they constitute areas of obscurantism from which societies of progress “distinguish” themselves. Thus the impossibility of saying goes much further back than the moment when the speaker’s efforts are cancelled along with the speaker himself. It is inscribed in all the procedures that quarantine death or drive it beyond the limits of the city, outside of time, work, and language, in order to protect a place. (De Certeau, 194)

We have to build a wall separating Life from Death.

An institutionalization of medical knowledge produced the great utopia of a therapeutic politics embracing all the means of struggling against death’s operations within the social space, from schools to hospitals. Its general transformation into a power gave a “medical” appearance to an administrative apparatus charged with healing and, still more, with organizing order as a means of prevention.
This prophylactic campaign was supposed to caulk up all the cracks through which the enemy slipped in. It inscribed the schools themselves as a particular sector of a “medical police”; it invaded the realms of private life in order to fill up, by means of prophylactic measures, all the secret and intimate passageways that were available to illness; it established hygiene as a national problem in the struggle against biological woes. (De Certeau, 196)

Strategy! Death—an inevitable and essential part of living write large—is now a disease over which we seek dominion through the cure. The impossibility of that quest is a source of profound abjection, even shame. Strategy cannot tolerate the mystery of bodies.

Christians who make tactical alliances with the political left may share practices, but epistemologically, we’re quite a distance apart. We’ll come up on you with some strange sounding stuff, like grace and sin. Worship power; worship the devil. That’s in the Bible.

Hygiene, medicalization, eugenics, the disease-ification of wrong . . . these have all to one degree or another insinuated themselves into the thinking of the left, from the very beginning.

The impulse of the social engineer. We might be with you in tearing down this old building, but we might become deviant when you talk so confidently about “building the future.” We don’t know if you are serious, in which case we’ll have nothing to do with this kind of power seeking, or if you are cheerleading, in which case we have to point out that manipulative speech is manipulation, even if it is part of a strategic purpose.

The Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral warned the left against this: “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.”


  1. Wow, a lot to digest here. I wasn't aware of your conversion. I am not and never will be a Christian, and it strikes me as a strange religious choice for opponents of empire, but I appreciate the study and thought you have put into it. i need to read and re-read this in greater detail. Have you read "The Burglary" about the associates of the Berrigans who broke into the FBI offices in Media PA and whose action (pursued by corporate media under the FOIA) resulted in the exposure of COINTELPRO? You also might want to think about Phil Jackson and the triangle offense in pondering the Boyd Loop, because what you describe seems to apply precisely to Michael Jordan or Koby Bryant in an NBA game as to one-on-one fighter pilot simulators. Anyway, thanks. I would like to continue a discussion with you. I am no longer a Marxist for some similar and some different reasons, and I really want to "get" what you are saying about strategy and tactics, although I think I disagree that "revolution" is about creating a "blank page".

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  3. Spent most of a day, between distractions, reading this. Not the first time with your stuff, Stan.
    Well worth it, except . . .
    Time (& life) are short. There's too much to read.
    I understand that this post was a distillation of much. Maybe you've boiled down a Jesuit-feminist-postmodern-postmilitary library to the length of Clausewitz. No small achievement & thanks for that.
    And we still need it down to the length of Sun Tzu.
    Or maybe Luke 4.

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  5. Very nice post.really I apperciate your blog.Thanks for sharing.keep sharing more blogs.


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