Friday, August 11, 2006

reach out and touch someone

a friend told me recently about a notice affixed in a public washroom stall: "please don't 'hover.' there are more germs on a public telephone handset than a toilet seat." the notice, i suspect, will have little impact on washroom etiquette, but just might turn a few people off public telephones.

toilet seats and telephones: the most quotidian and frequent forms of touch take place surreptitiously. in the exchange of germs, the bodies of strangers embrace intimately as lovers. violently divided and reunited in so many ways, the world is always already an assemblage of singularities on a molecular level. no wonder biology is so rich with metaphors for anti-capitalist politics.

deleuze and guattari remind us that the (separate) organism is ontologically derivative. it is the product of a reiterative circumscription of corporeal boundaries, an imaginative enclosure lived, nonetheless, as real effects. the organism is an “order” in two senses: it segments and organ-izes an inherent biological indeterminacy, and it exists as a forceful command. “you will be organized, you will be an organism, you will articulate your body – otherwise you’re just depraved.”

the organism is subverted continually. sometimes, as with lovers, it is unmade intentionally (if only slightly). sometimes, however, the intention is the opposite. what is it, for example, that repulses us about public washrooms and public telephones? who is it that we’re afraid of touching? i can only speculate, but it seems to me that social divisions like class, race, gender, and sexuality can serve as the material with which corporeal boundaries are fortified. why else would the washroom be such a potent site of social inclusion and exclusion?

what’s my point? pulling a thread from the tangle i’ve made here, i want tentatively to suggest the relevance of “touch” to anti-capitalist politics. that the neoliberal war on everything at all public is concomitant with an intensifying process of social isolation indicates, to me at least, that the aversion toward the “public good” is experienced intimately, as well as intellectually.

we recline from the touch of others. the problem of public telephones (shared with who-knows-who?) is resolving itself with the proliferation of personal cellphones. there is no solution, as yet, for the problem of public washrooms. in this context, the old at&t slogan, “reach out and touch someone,” seems particularly anachronistic. no corporation would suggest such a thing today. and yet, without inviting nostalgia, it might be worthwhile to contemplate what it would mean, today, to heed the old telecom’s advice.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Public Acts: Touch and the multitude

Through a series of readings and discussions, An Ungrammatical Multitude has been grappling with the challenges that the notion of multitude introduce to common understandings of subjectivity and action. Thanks to Christine's project Public Acts, we have stumbled upon the idea of touch as a valuable heuristic to continue thinking through these important themes. For what is a multitude without touch? Touching is an action, but one that complicates individualistic notions of constrained agency. Non-physical touch, which must be bracketed in order to imagine the multitude's constituents as singularities, precedes the will to be one or many; materialised touch, in turn, defies in a strict sense the monologic separation between toucher and touched.
Public Acts invites us to reconcile the politics and poetics of this everyday act/term. We wish Christine all the best with her project.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Thoughts on "touch"

We met today (August 4, 2006) to discuss the term "touch" as part of our participation in Christine Shaw's project, Public Acts.

In typical Ungrammatical Multitude style, our conversation ranged far and wide, considering the term in various ways as well as mulling over several possible courses of action. We considered hosting events (e.g. discussions, parties) as well as engaging in different types of actions (e.g. guerrilla gardening, "flash-mob hug-ins") .

In the end, perhaps Sebastian put it best - our inability to come up with a concrete definition of the term or agree on an event of some sort demonstrated that our collective is not at a stage where we are prepared to speak with a single voice, even if only for the moment it takes to write a short article.

That said, our discussion did end with a plan of action: to write short entries as individuals regarding the term "touch" over the course of the week. Please add your thoughts as comments to this posting.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Touching questions

When does touching begin? Yesterday, when Christine was presenting her project, one of our first reactions to the idea of touching was to touch each other with one hand--perhaps the most stereotypical and general representation of touching any person comes up with. But what was our sense of touch doing a minute before that? Were we not touching things? Were we not sitting, and therefore touching, the chairs? We were touching lots of things: the table, the beer glasses, the coffee cups, our clothes, etc. While we were touching all these things we were deciding not to touch each other and the other people at the bar. Most surely, this decision was unconscious. But it was still some kind of decision. What do we touch while we "think"? Isn't touching part of thinking all the time (at least in the form of a decision not to touch)? If we can conceive touching in this way, then we will agree that thinking "with the head" is only a part of a more comprehensive idea of thinking, one that involves the entire body. Thinking, in this sense, is all the time thinking with the body. And we, as people trained to "think with our heads," know this from experience. When we are saddened by something that happens in our daily life (something that causes us anxiety, or perhaps the boredom of the daily routine, or a sudden event that makes us feel that we are condemned to repeating meaningless 24/7 jobs for the rest of our lives) we are not as capable of doing our "head thinking" as days in which an event happens that puts us in a good mood. Our experience those disruptive events always involves a form of touching: touching the chair from where we watch television, avoiding the uncertainty of proximity to others that presupposes talking to other people, etc.

Where I am trying to get at is that our thinking about touching is incomplete if we try to make touching objective, an object of research, or something that we can explain by putting our hand on the arm of the person who is sitting beside us. Because when we contemplate that object we call "touching," when we isolate it from thinking, we forget that we are touching while we think. I believe a way to approach the issue of touching for the purpose of our 'public act' without forgetting that we are touching while we think would be to acknowledge all the time the fact that the body thinks and that there is no thinking that involves the mind alone.

It is relevant here to remember Spinoza, who said that "nobody knows what a body can do." If we do not know what a body can do, we cannot know what it will think. No specialist in "thinking with the head" can anticipate what a body is capable of thinking, let alone the bodies of a multitude of people.

How does this relate to the multitude? I would advance a few hypotheses that we can discuss later: If we define the multitude as a collection of singularities involved in a political process, we have to acknowledge that the multitude thinks. Its politics is already thinking. Nobody thinks on behalf of the multitude. The thinking of the multitude is inseparable from its bodily activity, which includes all forms of touching. The thinking of the multitude cannot be reduced to instances of conversation or communication for the same reason that the thought of a person cannot be reduced to mental activity.

But if touching is part of thinking, then nobody can think on behalf of other people for the same reason that touching is something that cannot be transferred. (This does not mean that the individual self is the centre of touching. Because touching involves multiple simultaneous sensations, it is not possible to find a centre for it) Each singularity of the multitude --let's say each person-- thinks on his or her own behalf for the same reason that nobody can touch on somebody else's behalf. Representation presupposes that the interests of a group can be aggregated and transferred to a representative body or person. In other words, it assumes that the thinking of a group can be isolated and separated from the touching of each of its members. The thinking of the multitude cannot be represented. Or, the representation of the thinking of the multitude must not be confused with its actual thinking, which is inseparable from the action of the multitude.

Monday, July 10, 2006

public acts

Today we met with Christine, who's interested in our getting involved in her collaborative project Public Acts 1-29. Check it out. Our part would be Act 13. Touch.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Malgré Tout manifesto now online

The manifesto of the Malgré Tout collective was one of our first readings. It finally found a home here. The name of the collective will be familiar to those who read the manifesto of the Network of Alternative Resistance, signed, among others, by Malgré Tout, Madres of Plaza de Mayo, and El Mate, the student organization at the faculty of social sciences of the University of Buenos Aires that gave birth to Colectivo Situaciones. Malgré Tout will also be familiar to those who have become acquainted with the work of Miguel Benasayag, the philosopher who was, before his exile in Paris, a member of the Guevarist PRT-ERP in Argentina.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The multitude in the imagination of the founders of PR

Just to get things going once again on the old blog, I revisit a recent entry from Jon's blog dealing with his toughts on the Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics. Not knowing where to start, I'm posting an excerpt from an interview with Stuart Ewen by David Barsamian, which appeared in the May 2000 issue of Zmag (also available here) :

DB: One of the early public relations spinmeisters, Ivy Lee warned that “the crowd is now in the saddle. The people now rule. We have substituted for the divine right of kings the divine right of the multitude.”

SE: Ivy Lee was a journalist who came from a conservative Southern background and was very religiously attached to private wealth, and so from around 1904-1905 on he moved from being a journalist to telling the story of business. Ivy Lee was the representative of the railroad industry and of Standard Oil. He spoke for some of the most powerful interests in the society. When he went to them, he said, Look, you’ve got a situation where ordinary people assume that this is a democracy and that their concerns matter. If we don’t start behaving, or at least producing a story that speaks effectively on our behalf, the people are going to grab our power from us. So the history of corporate PR starts as a response to the threat of democracy and the need to create some kind of ideological link between the interests of big business and the interests of ordinary Americans.

Interestingly, 1904 was the year when the Olympic Games first came to the US. Coincidence?