ON THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF GIANT PUPPETS:
broken windows, imaginary jars of urine, and the cosmological role of the police in American culture – by David Graeber (2007)
heard about it here:
Ben Reason (@breasy) tweeted at 6:37 AM on Sat, Jun 06, 2020:
Couldn’t sleep the other night so read “On the phenomenology of giant puppets” by @davidgraeber insightful as ever about the police, protest, order and freedom (and puppets).
36 page pdf from libcom: https://libcom.org/files/puppets.pdf
I think it’s fair to say that if the average American knows just two things about these mobilizations, they are, first of all, that there are often people dressed in black who break windows; second, that they involve colorful giant puppets. I want to start by asking why these images in particular appear to have so struck the popular imagination. I also want to ask why it is that of the two, American police seem to hate the puppets more. . Cops hate puppets. Activists are puzzled as to why..
this essay is not so much about the particulars of police, or activist, psychology as what the Annales school historians liked to call a “structure of the conjuncture”: the peculiar—and endlessly shifting—symbolic interactions of state, capital, mass media, and oppositional movements that the globalization movement has sparked
Why puppets? Why windows? Why do these images seem to have such mythic power? Why do representatives of the state react the way they do? What is the public’s perception? What is the “public”, anyway? How would it be possible to transform “the public” into something else?—is to begin to try to piece together the tacit rules of game of symbolic warfare, from its elementary assumptions to the details of how the terms of engagement are negotiated in any given action, ultimately, to understand the stakes in new forms of revolutionary politics. I am myself personally convinced that such understandings are themselves revolutionary in their implications
Hence the unusual structure of this essay, in which an analysis of the symbolism of puppets leads to a discussion of police media strategies to reflections on the very nature of violence and the state of international politics. It is an attempt to understand an historical moment from the perspective on someone situated inside it.
There is a widespread perception that events surrounding the WTO ministerial in Seattle in November 1999 marked the birth of a new movement in North America. It would probably be better to say that Seattle marked the moment where a much larger, global movement—one which traces back at least to the Zapatista rebellion in 1994—made its first appearance on North American shores. Nonetheless, the actions in Seattle were widely considered a spectacular victory. They were quickly followed in 2000 and 2001 by a series of similar mobilizations in Washington, Prague, Quebec City, and Genoa, growing in size but facing increasing levels of state repression. September 11th and subsequent “war on terror” changed the nature of the playing field, enabling governments to step up this repression quite dramatically, as in the US became clear in the extraordinary violence with which police tactics confronted protestors during the Free Trade Areas of the Americas summit in Miami in November 2003.
The movement’s disarray was not simply due to heightened levels of repression. Another reason was, however paradoxical this may seem, that it reached so many of its immediate goals so quickly. After Seattle, the WTO process froze in its tracks and has never really recovered. Most ambitious global trade schemes were scotched. The effects on political discourse were even more remarkable. In fact the change was so dramatic that it has become difficult, for many, to even remember what public discourse in the years immediately before Seattle was actually like.In the late ‘90s, “Washington consensus”, as it was then called, simply had no significant challengers.In the US itself, politicians and journalists appeared to have come to unanimous agreement that radical “free market reforms” were the only possible approach to economic development, anywhere and everywhere. In the mainstream media, anyone who challenged its basic tenets of this faith was likely to be treated as if they were almost literally insane.Speaking as someone who became active in the first months of 2000, I can attest that, however exhilarated by what had happened at Seattle, most of us still felt it would take five or ten years to shatter these assumptions. In fact it took less than two. By late 2001, it was commonplace to see even news journals that had just months before denounced protestors as so many ignorant children, declaring that we had won the war of ideas.
What’s critical for present purposes is that all this became a problem largely because the initial movement was so successful in getting its message out.
I must, however, introduce one crucial qualification. This success applied only to the movement’s negative message—what we were against.
If there was one central inspiration to the global justice movement, it was the principle of direct action. This is a notion very much at the heart of the anarchist tradition and, in fact, most of the movement’s central organizers—more and more in fact as time went on—considered themselves anarchists, or at least, heavily influenced by anarchist ideas. They saw mass mobilizations not only as opportunities to expose the illegitimate, undemocratic nature of existing institutions, but as ways to do so in a form that itself demonstrated why such institutions were unnecessary, by providing a living example of genuine, direct democracy. The key word here is “process”—meaning, decision-making process.
ugh – democracy – et al
Direct action is a form of resistance which, in its structure, is meant to prefigure the genuinely free society one wishes to create. Revolutionary action is not a form of self-sacrifice, a grim dedication to doing whatever it takes to achieve a future world of freedom. It is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free
but if we were already free.. why would would feel the need to do consensus decision making.. et al
journalists have a fairly idiosyncratic definition of “violence”: something like ‘damage to persons or property not authorized by properly constituted authorities’. This has the effect that if even one protestor damages a Starbucks window, one can speak of “violent protests”, but if police then proceed to attack everyone present with tazers, sticks and plastic bullets, this cannot be described as violent. In these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that anarchist media teams mainly end up doing damage control
One can now begin to understand the environment in which images of Black Bloc anarchists smashing windows, and colorful puppets, predominate media coverage. “Message” is largely off-limits. Almost every major mobilization has been accompanied by a day of public seminars in which radical intellectuals analyze the policies of the IMF, G8, and so on, and discuss possible alternatives. None to my knowledge have ever been covered by the corporate press. “Process” is complicated and difficult to capture visually; meetings are usually off-limits to reporters anyway. Still, the relative lack of attention to street blockades and street parties, lock-downs, banner drops, critical mass rides and the like, is harder to explain. All these are dramatic, public, and often quite visually striking. Admittedly since it is almost impossible to describe those engaged in such tactics as “violent”, the fact that they frequently end up gassed, beaten, pepper-sprayed, shot at with plastic bullets, and otherwise manhandled by police provides narrative dilemmas most journalists would (apparently) prefer to avoid. But this alone does not seem an adequate explanation.
on direct action going avery corp property – not individual property or humans
n30 seattle black bloc: ‘When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exorcise that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us. . Broken windows can be boarded up (with yet more waste of our forests) and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.’
Property destruction is a matter of taking an urban landscape full of endless corporate facades and flashing imagery that seems immutable, permanent, monumental—and demonstrating just how fragile it really is. It is a literal shattering of illusions.
A giant puppet is the mockery of the idea of a monument7 , and of everything monuments represent: the inapproachability, monochrome solemnity, above all the implication of permanence, the state’s (itself ultimately somewhat ridiculous) attempt to turn its principle and history into eternal verities. If one is meant to shatter the existing Spectacle, the other is, it seems to me, to suggest the permanent capacity to create new ones.
they represent the ability to start to make ideas real and take on solid form, to make our view of the world into something of equal physical bulk and greater spectacular power even to the engines of state violence that stand against it. The idea that they are extensions of our minds, words, make help explain the use of the term “puppets”. They may not move around as an extension of some individual’s will. But if they did, this would somewhat contradict the emphasis on collective creativity
PART II: SYMBOLIC WARFARE ON THE PART OF THE POLICE
Anarchists, as I’ve said, avoid designing their strategies around the media. The same cannot be said of the police. It’s obvious
This essay thus ends where it should perhaps have begun, with the need to thoroughly rethink the idea of “revolution”. While most of those engaged with the politics of direct action think of themselves as, in some sense, revolutionaries, few, at this point, are operating within the classic revolutionary framework where revolutionary organizing is designed to build towards a violent, apocalyptic confrontation with the state. Even fewer see revolution as a matter of seizing state power and transforming society through its mechanisms.On the other hand, neither are they simply interested in a strategy of “engaged withdrawal” (as in Virno’s “revolutionary exodus”), and the founding of new, autonomous communities. In a way, one might say the politics of direct action, by trying to create alternative forms of organization in the very teeth of state power, means to explore a middle ground precisely between these two alternatives. Anyway, we are dealing with a new synthesis that, I think, is not yet entirely worked out.
Police see themselves as engaged in a war largely without rules, against an opponent without honor, towards whom one is therefore not obliged to act honorably, but in which victory is ultimately impossible.
States have a strong tendency to define their relation to their people in terms of an unwinnable war of some sort or another. The American state has been one of the most flagrant in this regard: in recent decades we have seen a war on poverty degenerate into a war on crime, then a war on drugs (the first to be extended internationally), and finally, now, a war on terror. But as this sequence makes clear, the latter is not really a war at all but an attempt to extend this same, internal logic to the entire globe. It is an attempt to declare a kind of diffuse global police state.
To put it somewhat glibly: just as the structure of violence most appropriate for a political ontology based in the imagination is revolution, so is the structure of imagination most appropriate for a political ontology based in violence, precisely, terror.
In other words, police can be heroes in such movies largely because they are the only figures who can systematically ignore the law. It is constituent power turned on itself of course because cops, on screen or in reality, are not trying to create (or constitute) anything. They are simply maintaining the status quo.
In one sense, this is the most clever ideological displacement of all—the perfect complement to the aforementioned privatization of (consumer) desire. Insofar as the popular festival endures, it has become pure spectacle, with the role of Master of the Potlatch granted to the very figure who, in real life, is in charge of ensuring that any actual outbreaks of popular festive behavior are forcibly suppressed.
It seems to me it is best seen as a way of managing a situation of extreme alienation and insecurity that itself can only be maintained by systematic coercion. Faced with anything that remotely resembles creative, non-alienated, experience, it tends to look as ridiculous as a deodorant commercial during a time of national disaster. But then, I am an anarchist. The anarchist problem remains how to bring that sort of experience, and the imaginative power that lies behind it, into the daily lives of those outside the small autonomous bubbles they have already created. This is a continual problem; but there seems to me every reason to believe that, were it possible, power of the police cosmology, and with it, the power of the police themselves, would simply melt away.