Enigma of revolt: Kafka on Occupy

Every once in a while Adbusters, the self-proclaimed ‘culture jammers’, have an article worth wading through.

This one, by Andy Merrifield (author of Magical Marxism), offers a sort of dual take on how critiques and conceptions of the world affect what appear to be concrete possibilities for action.

It ranges from the suggestion that Marxist critiques of contemporary capitalism have never been more apt to the suggestion that it is Kafka, not Marx, who best understood the constraints of revolt against the union of capitalism and state bureaucracy.

The analysis gets a bit lost once Merrifield tries to link things up with Occupy, which is not too surprising given the diverse forms and aims different groups and individuals claiming that banner held.

The driving premise of the article could be stated much simpler: there has been a slow removal of the shared metaphysical lampposts formerly lighting the way for engaging with, and acting on, the shared institutions of social life. Peter Brown, at McGill University has described this situation as one where there are ‘metaphysical orphans’ whose progeny go on despite the parenting ideas having died or been abandoned. His view is that economics and contemporary political economy is this sort of orphan since the background assumptions about the earth, ‘natural resources’ and the creation of material wealth don’t fit with the way the world works. Nevertheless, the economy marches on.

For my part, I’ve been a big fan of Kafka since I read the opening line of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”

But while Merrifield’s article throws down the requisite theoretical hashtags to try and motivate an understanding of both our own scope of actions and our affective relationship to the social systems of which we are a part, in the end it doesn’t seem to me to get it done. His main suggestion is that we try to theorize about how the ‘flows of revolt’ operate because there are flows of commodity chains, and the political systems that support them, going on around us. But then, rather than point towards an alternative, he suggests we have been stripped totally bare of guideposts for action. His words are that we live naked lives. That seems a bit of a stretch, if not an outright refusal to acknowledge that human life is embedded in some remarkable and resilient ecological relationships with other humans, non-humans and larger biophysical systems. And this is to say nothing of the relationships between other things that have nothing to do with us at all. In a recent post at Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant takes aim at this underlying anthropocentrism.

My final take on this article is that Merrifield would have done better to follow Vaclav Havel’s advice regarding what sorts of ideas can inspire a bit of action under new, alternate frames (which I think is what Merrifield wanted Occupy to be, or at least represent).

Havel said this: “What makes…the Gaia Hypothesis so inspiring?…the awareness of our being anchored in the earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme. This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions.”

One last thing, according to Graham Harman Bruno Latour will be lecturing on the Gaia hypothesis this year at the Gifford Lectures.

And the trivial sign-off: James Lovelock propelled the Gaia hypothesis in the latter 20th century. According to Wikipedia he also invented an electron capture device that was critical for understanding the role of CFC’s in the atmosphere and the effect they have on ozone depletion.