Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Explosive displays of rage on the streets in various UK cities have kept astounding pace with the volatility of global financial markets. However accidental or not, the doubled character of this strikingly irrepressible and somewhat inexplicable volatility offers itself as a signal confluence, a juncture where the chaotic fluctuation of abstract value nakedly intersects with the unpredictable spontaneity of concrete violence.

Considering the confluence of forces that gave rise to the UK riots, Cris Cheek writes in an Aug 10th message to the Miami University UK Poetry list: "many things are converging in this moment in England (it seems to me). a lower than usual credibility for the police in the wake of News International and anti-cuts kettling, let alone the shooting of Mark Duggan . . . a diffused sense of fragility in financial systems . . . a specific sense of immanent cutting back in welfare state provision . . . it's summer and hot and people are bored and frustrated and those who can afford to are off on holidays . . . disillusion with all existing political parties . . . perhaps a sense that if the nation state is increasingly marginalized (if the benefit system goes and traditional law and order is broken and one's name is taken in vain and one's wages are taken for conflicts one has no connection to and does not condone . . .) then what other affiliations and resistance networks are desirable and sustainable . . ."

Friday, August 5, before news of S&P's downgrade of the US credit rating sent financial markets spiraling out of control, and well before the Tottenham vigil for Mark Duggan gave way to pandemic rioting throughout the UK, Sean Bonney posted "Letter on Riots and Doubt" at Abandoned Buildings:

Anyway, I’ve totally changed my method. A while ago I started wondering about the possibility of a poetry that only the enemy could understand. We both know what that means. But then, it might have been when I was walking around Piccadilly looking at the fires, that night in March, my view on that changed. The poetic moans of this century have been, for the most part, a banal patina of snobbery, vanity and sophistry: we’re in need of a new prosody and while I’m pretty sure a simple riot doesn’t qualify, your refusal to leave the seminar room definitely doesn’t. But then again, you are right to worry that I’m making a fetish of the riot form. “Non-violence is key to my moral views”, you say. “I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill”, you say. But what about that night when we electrocuted a number of dogs. Remember that? By both direct and alternating current? To prove the latter was safer? We’d taken a lot of MDMA that night, and for once we could admit we were neither kind, nor merciful, nor loving. But I’m getting off the point. The main problem with a riot is that all too easily it flips into a kind of negative intensity, that in the very act of breaking out of our commodity form we become more profoundly frozen within it. Externally at least we become the price of glass, or a pig’s overtime. But then again, I can only say that because there haven’t been any damn riots. Seriously, if we’re not setting fire to cars we’re nowhere. Think about this. The city gets hotter and deeper as the pressure soars. Electrons get squeezed out of atoms to produce a substance never seen on Earth. Under such extreme conditions, hydrogen behaves like liquid metal, conducting electricity as well as heat. If none of that happens, its a waste of time. Perhaps you think that doesn’t apply to you. What inexhaustible reserves we possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms, in the nightmare of their lives as slaves to the rich. Don’t pretend you know better. Remember, a poetry that only the enemy can understand. That's always assuming that we do, as they say, understand. Could we really arrive at a knowledge of poetry by studying the saliva of dogs? The metallic hydrogen sea is tens of thousands of miles deep.

While not falling into the claptrap of reading this statement retroactively as an overzealous endorsement of the rioting that now continues into its sixth day, the timing of the letter's publication is undeniably canny and worth acknowledging. Bonney's critique of riot as act and form is remarkably prescient, particularly when he writes: "The main problem with a riot is that all too easily it flips into a kind of negative intensity, that in the very act of breaking out of our commodity form we become more profoundly frozen within it." Rosa Luxemburg comes to mind, the extent to which the riots in the UK appear to reside hopelessly outside her utopian dialectic of spontaneity and organization. Bonney addresses the shortcomings of riot and warns against a fetishization of riot form, but his critique stops short of a wholesale rejection of riot, instead insisting on the absolute necessity of grasping the potentialities contained within the changing states of properties in flux (elemental and commodity, chemical and human). Otherwise, "its a waste of time." The tenor of the letter feels far more speculative than prescriptive but it somehow escapes a debilitating skepticism.

Photo: "Dalston Occupation" by Sean Bonney. Adapted as the cover for HAX

Likewise apropos, Francis Crot's HAX, a book I had the honor of publishing and which arrived, like Bonney's letter, on Friday, August 5. HAX is the London borough of Hackney and the cover of the book features a photograph by Bonney of a Hackney street corner, the intersection of Dalston Lane and Roseberry Place. The structures in the photograph have since been leveled to make way for a Crossrail Station in advance of the 2012 Olympics and, in anticipation of their demolition, the banner from the rooftop in the photograph reads, "Support the Occupation." In the wake of this week's riots, the words ring differently. The opening epigraph of HAX, culled from David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, similarly feels different, even chilling, in the wake of the riots:

"[...] 'utopia' first calls to mind the image of an ideal city, usually, with perfect geometry — the image seems to harken back originally to the royal military camp, a geometrical space which is entirely the emanation of a single, individual will, a fantasy of total control [...]"

A second epigraph appearing later in the book is taken from Sean Bonney's Black Water and reads, "hackney declare's WARR on tha city -- ." As a whole the book is an overdetermined instance of overcrowding or, perhaps more accurately, crowd out; a composite of conventionally set type against scanned images, typewritten passages, drawings, handwritten notes and missives, heavily annotated spreadsheets and documents. Crowd out (economics) = any reduction in private consumption or investment triggered by an increase in government borrowing or the fluctuation of unstable floating rates of exchange.

While as a book HAX is in many ways a fixed print object, Crot has constructed a web-based adjunct to the book that extends the work, lending itself to contingency and instantaneity, absorbing into itself the guerrilla excesses of riot. As overdetermined as the book, the HAX site includes fragments from messages to various lists, photographs, video clips, passages from blogs, lineated comments and verses, ripostes to various pundits and bloggers, links and other digital ephemera. One passage in quotes and attributed to "dh" (likely Danny Hayward) reads:

‘Senseless’, by the way, was a word first used to describe corpses. In the face of all this it seems to me that our first task has to be to identify every manifestation of intelligence and guile in every smashed shopfront and every last looted shoelace and nappy. How galling is it to think that the sum total of human passion and social solidarity might be leveraged against capital only to reinstall us in the position we occupied five years ago; and doesn’t the knowledge of what it was like five years ago (of the illimitably vacuous and poorly paid and insecure and atomising service sector jobs and the same old circus of morons on the television, justifying the slaughter and scourging the idle) become even more corruptly unbearable when it becomes not the knowledge of actual life but instead a horizon of return, a goal to be won through a massive expenditure of collective energy and desire? Isn’t the British capitalism of the self-aggrandising boom era in fact worse from the perspective of 2011 than it was at the time? For so many of us this must be so incontrovertibly true, but I haven’t yet seen anyone suggest that it might be on the minds or in the hearts of the male and female teenagers tearing their way down high-streets all over this fucking country, because so much of even the most ‘sympathetic’ writing of our journalist caste (that obnoxious eighteenth century term) is lividly insistent on treating these ‘underprivileged’ masses as bovine delinquents, capable of passively suffering and instinctively resisting, stuck in a perpetual present, lowing in touching, idiotic pain, and not at all different from the cattle in the slaughterhouse at the beginning of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality.

Another comment culled from Evan Calder Williams' blog Socialism &/or Barbarism quotes from an August 9th post titled "An open letter to those who condemn looting," the passage more or less congruent with Hayward's statement. In part two of the letter, posted separately earlier today, Williams remarks:

What is happening in London of late has been a lot of destruction. Buildings and cars have been smashed and burned. Nothing is being constructed. There is not a blueprint, plan, or program. One speaks of social negativity, and it shows itself in the destruction of a portion of what exists. It indexes a hatred: a hatred of police, of a city that keeps them shunted off to the side, of windows that guard things that cost too much too own, of being told you need to make your own way and getting arrested when you try to do so, of all those who look suspiciously at them when they pass because they wear hoods and have dark faces.

But this is not negation as such, even as it is part of the process of it. Negation, rather, is the removal of the relations that sustain a given order as it stands. Relations like property, law, and value. It is not obliteration, not a razing to the ground, but the placing of all under doubt and critique, often of a very material order. (Property shows itself highly resistant to arguments, no matter how well-worded.) It is an acid bath: privileging nothing, it removes the consistency that excuses the existence of things to see them as they are, see what stands, what falls, what has long been poisoning many.

The clear distinction Williams marks between "a razing to the ground" and "the placing of all under doubt" refers us back to Bonney's statement on riot and doubt, where the radical doubt ensconced in riot form trumps reductive accusations of criminality and vandalism.

The naive imagining of the riots as a consciously motivated form of anti-capitalist insurrection seems somehow as wrongheaded as the opportunistic reduction of these riots to baseless violence by mainstream journalists and government officials. But as Williams insists, the riots offer, if nothing else, an index, a metric, an invitation to not knowing against the self-assured, hyper-confident hand of law.

Somewhat lazily, I'm reminded of the 1992 LA Riots catalyzed by the acquittal of five police officers responsible for beating Rodney King into critical condition following a high speed chase. The language and logic deployed by US media during these riots was almost precisely the same as that deployed in mainstream comments on the UK riots. Indiscriminate violence. Thuggery. Opportunism. Senseless destruction. Pundits unabashedly mocked rioters for looting and setting their own neighborhoods ablaze (I recall more than a few journalists asking, "Why not take it to Hollywood?"). Catalysts are not a cause but an occasion, an invitation, an opportunity. The expectation that displays of rage should somehow maintain a fidelity to the trigger than ignites rather than the conditions that create seems, at best, hopelessly misinformed. And the expectation that such expressions of rage can be adequately understood through normative or dominant forms of reason are likewise foolish. Crot: "The city today lives on its nerves."