Wednesday, November 23, 2011


An article from today's NYT addressing the use of pepper spray in efforts to repress protest closes with a comment from Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson: "we are in the age of pepper spray, not the age of real bullets." The claim is a curious one and, however well tempered it may appear, the message it discloses is rigidly clear. Participants in this moment of defiance should be grateful police are equipped with industrial-strength instruments of repression like pepper spray, tear gas, beanbag rounds and flash grenades rather than "real bullets." If we abide by this logic then Scott Olsen and other injured activists can be gingerly bracketed out of the conversation as collateral damage. 

In any case, I can't help but wonder if the tear gas used against protesters in Oakland was, like the endless stream of CS canisters deployed by soldiers to disperse the tens of thousands gathering again in Tahir Square, also manufactured in western Pennsylvania by Combined Tactical Systems, a company whose self-flattering domain name ( further suggests our civilization has indeed advanced beyond the savage age of real bullets. Repression, torture and suffering should always be preferable to death and, as millions in Greece and elsewhere continue to bravely demonstrate, the illimitable reduction of living to bare survival builds character. Capital is a lightening rod that cannot be spared to spoil.        

Reasonably early on in the first book of The Prelude there's a phrase that never fails to suspend me in awe: "I was a fell destroyer." Fell as field or fen; earlier hill, associated with the northwest of England (cf. Cursor Mundi, Cotton Library version, circa 1300, easy pickings from the OED: "Moyses went vp-on þat fell, and fourti dais can þer-on duell"). At this juncture in the poem the narrator is not yet nine years old, the age at which Wordsworth himself would have been enrolled in Hawkshead Grammar School, Cumbria where he "was transplanted" after his mother's death. The poem goes:

                                In thought and wish
That time, my shoulder all with springes hung,
I was a fell destroyer. On the heights
Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied
My anxious visitation, hurrying on,
Still hurrying, hurrying onward; moon and stars
Were shining o'er my head; I was alone,
And seemed to be a trouble to the peace
That was among them. 

That one could imagine their own childhood self as a site of disruption, a "trouble to the peace" among the moon and stars. In this instance I'm not sure how to take the assertion "I was a fell destroyer." Alone in a field setting small game traps one by one — and later stealing birds caught in traps set by others — a child no older than nine is cast as a nuisance to the cosmos. The passage can be taken lightly, read as a lighthearted boast, a way of saying, "Yes, I too was a mischievous kid." But the passage is more than this, the assembly of its lines disclosing an astounding force reasonably commensurate with the wild expenditures of childhood energy they address. "I was a fell destroyer." This means much more than mischievous. This is ominous. A threat. Beyond field and hill, the word "fell" is also associated with animals, their skin and hide, their feathers and hair (cf. the late medieval poem Richard the Redeless, where the clothes of Richard II become a prop for critiquing surfaces: "his ffelle to anewe"). In Wordsworth's usage of "fell," at least here, the child appears to be a destroyer of surfaces, of fields and hides, such that the cosmos under which these surfaces reside is itself shaken by the force of this child's living. And I now recall David Harvey saying in one of his lectures on Capital that young children are perhaps the sharpest dialectical thinkers; the contradictions that we, in our wisdom, have long since learned to accept, appear confusing to children and worthy of inquiry against the brow-beating belligerence of common sense. To break these surfaces. Tear gas, pepper spray and beanbag rounds don't break the surface; they generously permit us to continue enduring a largely unbearable surface. But to be so permitted without formal permission is to acknowledge no permission at all; it is instead to engage in the necessity of an essential taking, to break these surfaces, to imagine oneself as a destroyer of this.