When the Arrivant Presents Itself

The Book Bloc, London, 2010. Chasing the Specters of Marx (Jacques Derrida, 1994). Image taken from:

"The effectivity or actuality of the democratic promise, like that of the communist promise, will always keep within it, and it must do so, this absolutely undetermined messianic hope at its heart, this eschatological relation to the to-come of an event and of a singularity, of an alterity that cannot be anticipated." Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, p. 65

A visual trace from a "book bloc"1, the mode of street action in which protesters marched wearing mock books as shields in the streets of Rome, London, and other cities in 2010, in defence of public universities and libraries, epitomises the spirit, or the spectre, of our time: a policeman raises his baton against a protester who carries a book sign of Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx. The list of the books that have been seen in the affective alliances of the book bloc include: Theodor W. Adorno's Negative Dialectics, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, and many other titles denoting a long chain of critical literatures and epistemologies. In the book blocs, people have taken to the streets to fight for critical thinking and public education, turning books into banners and shields against educational cuts and neoliberal regimes of university governance. But that uncanny image of the armed policeman chasing both the unarmed "spectres of Marx" and their concomitant literatures (i.e., social sciences and humanities) emerged to remind us that those recurring and floating (hence re-signifiable and reclaimed) spectres still haunt capitalism and its epistemes.

Derrida's Specters of Marx calls for a new reading and reappropriation of Marxism and its legacies. Like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who began their Communist Manifesto (1848) by invoking a spectre haunting Europe, which they called communism, Derrida started off his book by invoking ghosts – in the plural. What might this affective structure of spectrality tell us at this momentous historical time about embodied practices of critical agency that seek to make sense of our current predicament, which is marked by neoliberal and neocolonial rule? How might it relate to the return of communism in left discourses and imaginaries? And how is this return manifested in current political and theoretical work on radical democracy?

This essay is concerned with the agonistic body politics emerging in the anti-austerity protest sphere forming in contexts of the ongoing debt crisis. The question here is how the possibility for plural protest is activated within a regime of power that subsumes the political under the post-political and post-democratic discourse of market management. In recent years, new political collectivities and practices have been emerging and seeking to reclaim democracy from corporate power. Calls for "real democracy" (as opposed to market democracy) are emphatically articulated in the context of the anti-precarity movements. As was the case in different locales and forms of anti-neoliberal protest, from Puerta del Sol to Syntagma Square, and from Zuccotti to Gezi Park, the gatherings have implicated the condition of corporeal standing in public in ways that expose the omissions and foreclosures on which the space of the polis is constituted (Butler and Athanasiou 2013). What emerges as the connective tissue among several of these agonistic political enactments is the desire to defend the democracy that has been gained through past anti-authoritarian, anti-dictatorial movements (i.e., in Greece and Spain) and, simultaneously, the struggle for a democracy yet to be acquired and reclaimed from capitalism.


The spectre haunting the preamble of Communist Manifesto and Europe in the middle of nineteenth century had to deal with another, counter-revolutionary, affective and economic spirit (Geist): the materialised ethos or habitus of capitalism so famously described by Max Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally written in 1904) as "spirit of capitalism". Conversing with Marx, Weber examined the rational devices which became crucial to capitalist frame of mind, such as the calculation of profit and double-entry bookkeeping. Arjun Appadurai has shown how Weber's ideas on the spirit and magic of calculation constitute significant resources for understanding moral and discursive aspects of the recent global financial crisis (Appadurai 2011 and 2012). He argues that what he calls the "ghost in the machine", denoting the spirit behind capitalist ethos or habitus, must be sought within a wider and historically contingent calculative frame, rather than within the arrangement of the capitalist mechanisms and devices themselves. Jean and John Comaroff (2000) have prompted, in recent years, new ways of understanding the transnational spirit of capitalism, as they interrogate the enigmatic configurations through which "millennial capitalism" of the moment presents itself as the historical formation of salvation. The messianic, salvific, even magical qualities constitute fundamental features of the contemporary culture of neoliberalism.

In his genealogical study of the question of why power in the West has assumed the form of oikonomia, Giorgio Agamben (2011) has pointed to the "mystery of the economy", in addressing the relation between economy and glory, or between power as management and power as ceremonial habitus. In contemporary democracies, the "two paradigms" – namely, "glorious" power and the administrative praxis of economy – become indiscernible from each other. This co-belonging, or strategic conjunction, has also been traced by Yannis Stavrakakis (2012), who argues that the predicament of the current crisis calls for a renewed analysis of the "spiritual" perspective, and, in particular, the "two spirits of capitalism": namely, the spirit of "ascetic prohibition" (the classical bourgeois virtue of saving, self-control, asceticism, and patient retention of jouissance) and that of "commanded enjoyment" (the consumerist incitement, the duty to enjoy through spending and consuming). What appears as an ethico-political battle between two incommensurable and competing paradigms (i.e., "austerity" and "spending"), works to conceal and disavow a relation of mutual contamination and engagement.

Surely, there have been new forms of financialisation, governmentality, and securitisation which mark what Naomi Klein (2008) has called "disaster capitalism". However, these shifts ought not to be perceived in terms of linearity and succession. The liberal-capitalist spirit of compulsory happiness (Ahmed 2010) and "cruel optimism" (Berlant 2011) is still with us, either as a lure for a future of upward mobility and security compensating for the massive despair of post-Fordist austerity or as a lived reality for the classes profiting from the prolonged and normalised state of crisis. Abundance was never sustainable for everyone as much as current neoliberal austerity is injurious for most people but a profit opportunity for others. The current crisis of late capitalism, as allowed to happen and become ordinary by the dominant structures of neoliberal governmentality in order to turn into an object of management through "reforms", puts into crisis the bipolar conceptualisation of the relation between the liberal-capitalist spirit of "good life" and the neoliberal management of crisis; or, put from a Foucauldian perspective, between sovereignty and governmentality; or put in somewhat different epistemic terms, between what Lash and Urry (1987) had called "organized capitalism" and what became later known by the appellations "late capitalism" and "neoliberalism", signalling an agenda premised upon the management of crises. Neoliberal governance for the "free markets" entails the upward redistribution of wealth and thus demands the dispossession of bodies, spaces, rights, common resources, and livelihoods. For the free market and consumer fantasies and profits to be enjoyed by some, others must be rendered cheap reserve labour – utterly exploitable, dispensable, and disposable. The accumulation of wealth enabled by the expansion of the "free market" not only necessarily implies and precipitates but also obscures normalised cultures of social suffering, abjection and exclusion. Our present predicament has revealed what was always the case in capitalist history and its colonial, postcolonial and neo-colonial corollaries: rather than representing the "benign" face – or, spirit – of capitalism (purportedly opposed to the scorching moment of neoliberalism), grand narratives and politics of progress, prosperity, "good life", accumulation, "protection" and regulation of labour, universal human rights, and entitlement are intertwined with structural forces of injustice, upward redistribution, exclusion, war against labour, impoverishment, and the biopolitics of racialisation and heteronormativity. It has now become rather impossible to continue resisting the acknowledgement that this coupling is not so odd, after all.

In his lectures at the Collège de France (1978-1979), which were published under the title The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault addressed this complex amalgam of different, yet consonant, capitalist spirits: "[T]he liberalism we can describe as the art of government formed in the eighteenth century entails at its heart a productive/ destructive relationship with freedom. Liberalism must produce freedom, but this very act entails the establishment of limitations, controls, forms of coercion, and obligations relying on threats, etcetera" (2008, p. 63). In the context of his genealogy of power, he has argued explicitly that sovereignty, discipline, and governmentality work in a triangular intertwinement. As he pointed out in his lecture on "Governmentality": "[W]e need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality, one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has as its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security" (1978, p. 102).2 It is in this perspective that Foucault took neoliberalism to be a "new" regime of truth and mode of governmentality, which makes economic activity – especially in its forms of investment, interest, and competition – an all-encompassing matrix of social and political relations (2008). He summarised the neoliberal way in which people are made subjects thus: "Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself" (2008, p. 226). Neoliberal governmentality is about rendering economy dominant and pervasive rationality, and, significantly, subjecting all modes of the political, including subjectivation, to this domination (Brown 2003). In operating on desires and aspirations, along with coercion and control, neoliberalism "makes live" by saturating the field of possibilities for living.


Let us now go back to the "emergence" of protesting assemblies despite and against police brutality and power abuses. And since I began this essay by gesturing towards a moment of collision of state violence with Derrida's inherited spectres of Marx, let us consider how the communist actuality is reanimated by the tenor of the deconstructive project: an interminable (but not necessarily indeterminate) oscillation between possibilities, construed as "the effectivity or actuality of the democratic promise, like that of the communist promise". One such space of possibilities is the university: a space where these and other texts might be read and re-read, construed and destabilised, imagined, archived, "disseminated" (in Derrida's sense), and, ultimately, as the book bloc shows, embodied and re-enacted. When we wear our books and their bodies of matter to defend in public and with others public higher education and libraries, either with or despite the intentions of these books' authors, we perform this possibility. This is the vouloir-dire, the authorial or textual intention, of the book bloc. This is also why the Specters of Marx, Gender Trouble and A Room of One's Own take to the streets and clash with the security forces. And this is why the students-members of the collectivity "Left Unity" of Panteion University in Athens, Greece, decided to symbolically "block" the (empty) office of the Minister of Education and professor at their university with piles of books, in November 2013.3

In Greece, the public university has been turned by the government into a "privileged" site for advancing the project of terrifying, disciplining and subduing a people already economically exhausted. In November 2014, the riot police brutality, using batons, flash-bang grenades, teargas, chemicals, and sexist hate speech, against a peaceful demonstration of students marching to commemorate the 1973 Students' Uprising against the dictatorship evoked memories of that military regime, when soldiers and snipers fired against unarmed protesters and a tank pushed down the door of the Polytechnic School where thousands of students and workers were protesting against the military dictatorship.4 That uprising opened the road for the fall of the Junta in 1974. Today, a whole army of riot police are deployed to "guard" the demonstration commemorating the Students' Uprising of 1973. Autarchy is brought back by means of neoliberal governmentality. Despite the anti-state rhetoric of neoliberalism, which preaches the reduction of the state in favour of extensive economic liberalisation, state power is indubitably enhanced and exacerbated under neoliberalism in order to safeguard capital redistribution through privatisation and market economy. The state withdraws and gets more involved, at the same time. The capitalist attack on democracy, which is emblematic to neoliberalism, is akin to what Nicos Poulantzas, a brilliant theorist of fascism, had called "authoritarian statism" (1978/ 2014).

The loss of (the critical possibility for) public and democratic higher education in these autarchic neoconservative and neoliberal times is a loss which I cannot simply call my own, even though I might "wear" a specific title, as in the book bloc, and point to a certain genealogy of thought. It rather signifies the collective loss of a public space for animating the possibility for critical reading, thinking and acting. This possibility has everything to do with the ways in which these books have come about and been put together. If these "books", those that are taken to the streets to defend the possibility for existence of all books (present and absent), may seem to point to distinct and unified wholes, as well as to distinct and established authorial signatures, they performatively intervene in the field of material and affective infrastructures – i.e., labour relations, resources, supports or lack thereof – that have designated these books' conditions of possibility (and impossibility).

I am interested here in the contestation at the heart of loss (loss of public education, loss of democracy): in other words, the processes by which embodied subjects, simultaneously produced and foreclosed via multiple regulatory schemas, return to the space of their erasure and in varied contexts of unevenly distributed affectability. To pose the question of contestation today is to engage with genres of crisis and critique that inflect critical political subjectivities in our late capitalist times; a moment which is increasingly defined by the authoritarian biopolitics of neoliberalism. As the intimate public of the book bloc enacts in protest, the growing corporatisation of higher education in Europe and round the world is premised upon a conception of knowledge as commodified property and a measurable commercial asset that needs to be immediately available to the entrepreneurial agendas of global elites. As the university turns into an area regulated by market standards, its corporate governmentality makes sure that the University is accountable to these business elites through regimes of knowledge commercialisation and quantitative assessment. Any other future for the university is considered impracticable, non-viable, in a word, impossible. These protesters, however, envisage and actualise an alternative future, uncommodifiable and unconditional, for the university. In doing so, they also make intelligible and sensible an alternative to the present.

Art Attack per il tuo Book Bloc, video, 2min

This is not to downplay the university's institutionalised effects of power sedimentation; universities have always been places of entrenched authority, privilege, and hierarchies. My point here is to ask what kind of critique could be articulated to make sense of, and to make a claim for, alternative humanities (in both senses of the word: both alternative to "high culture" as the essence of humanism and humanity, and as an alternative configuration of what counts and matters as human). What is there to be reclaimed, then, when precarious bodies and books assemble in a crowd laying claim to the public at this moment marked by the neoliberal abandonment and corporatisation of the public? In a similar vein, how might we rethink and mobilise this biopolitics of routinised effacement and disposability as a performative resource for agonistic political engagement?

Differently put, my question here is how bodies, knowledges, and possibilities present themselves in their erasure. While people are forcefully relegated by market logic to the status of disposable bodies, new modes of agonistic embodied citizenship have been emerging and enduring. The challenge is to explore the political performativity of critical agency beyond the standards of privative and self-willed individualism (i.e., homo economicus) and in terms of collective dissent that works to displace the preconditions by which the normativity of the political is produced and sustained. So how might we think together a politics of emergency and a politics of emergence? (Honig 2009). And how might we think emergence without reasserting the banal terms of wilful subjectivity set by liberal imaginaries? The figure of the emergent resonates with Derrida's notion of arrivant, which involves a mode of being disposed outside of oneself and towards others, even beyond the dominant terms of presence and contemporaneity. In this regard, it indicates the moment of the possibility of an impossibility: in my understanding, not in the sense of some ethereal ontological state of the not-yet, nor in the form of the miraculous event or last judgment, which supposedly exceeds (and is liberated from) discursive limits; but rather in the sense of ongoing agonistic eventualisation, which involves affirming possibility here and now and letting the impossible form the horizon of continuous agonism and infinite justice. Let me note at this juncture that "horizon" denotes both an ever-negotiable demarcating limit and an enabling opening of creative possibilities. It is at this horizon of tension and possibility –or, limitation and promise – that the political implications of the persisting and unremitting possibility of impossibility might be traced.

Thus understood, the possibility of impossibility manifests the political performativity of becoming-possible or making-possible (instead of being-possible or being-impossible), which does not succumb to the Realpolitik logistics of managerial implementation and remains accountable to the aporetic trace and structure of the arrivant. The problem then would be how to seek out the possibilities for thinking the political beyond the epistemes of bourgeois ideology and liberal governmentality; and the possibilities for thinking subjectivity beyond the established onto-epistemologies of the sovereign and self-willed human subject (i.e., white, male, heteronormative, able-bodied, colonising, capitalist, and property-owning). The withdrawal of the "authentic" subject position of western metaphysics becomes the spectral condition for engaging with the subject as constituted and deconstituted by various norms of intelligibility and forms of subjection and abjection, which are not immediately disposed to the subjects' grasp. Taking up such a line of investigation might help make us attentive to the manifold ways in which "emergence" emerges within power relations and might work to complicate the unexpected, the dissonant, and the subversive. The necessary question here is how it could be reclaimed and activated as a trans-formative critique of the fixed totality and propriety inherent in states of emergency that structure our present governmentality.


In reading Hannah Arendt's conception of the polis's enactment as a "space of appearance" (1998/ 1958), Judith Butler (2011) has argued that, in laying claim to the public, collective actions reconfigure the matter of the body politic. As she puts it: "We miss something of the point of public demonstrations, if we fail to see that the very public character of the space is being disputed and even fought over when these crowds gather" (2011). As Butler implies, a transformative social poetics and politics of emergence is already at work – put to work – in the political performativity of plural protest within and against regimes of power that deplete certain livelihoods in the name of the "emergencies" posed by the unmarked universal of economic management. "Emergence" is already at work, as the streets, the squares, and other public sites become spaces of anti-neoliberal and anti-fascist contestation. This is a matter of life and death, especially for those discursively marked as abject, de-realised, illegible, and unliveable bodies. As protesting the neoliberal regime of knowledge and power might work to unsettle the norms that regulate who is admissible to established spaces of intelligibility (including the space of public assembly), a possibility for a new configuration of the body politic is thus activated.

Carl Schmitt, the jurist of the Third Reich, theorised sovereignty of "the people" as constituent power: "People is a concept that becomes present only in the public sphere. The people appear only in the public, and they first produce the public generally" (2008/ 1928, p. 272). The reconfiguration of the "we, the people", however, when no such space of intelligibility is in place in the existing order of things, performs a tenuous self-designation to which one does or does not belong, from which some of "us" are left out, and to which "we" are interpellated in ambivalent, melancholic, injurious even, ways. The performativity of "we, the people" is contingent upon all the trepidations, uncertainties, and impossibilities that mark this "we" and manifest the power relations determining who the "we" is. So the political performativity of the body politic involves an ongoing reenactment of the incommensurabilities, injustices, and desires that this divided "we" incites. It displaces, again and again, the terms that determine who can be denominated as a "who" in the existing domain of public appearance and relatedness. In this sense, the body politic occasioned by these public assemblies does not present itself as an unconditional and monologic arrivant, but rather emerges as an endless supra-individual and trans-subjective modality of political agonism, which might rearticulate and undo the established power/ knowledge matrices regulating which – and how – bodies are made to appear, endure, matter, and act as "we". This is about conceptualising the body politic (or the demos) as a critically dispossessed state of relatedness rather than as an unlimited positivity of human action premised upon the disavowal of contingency and negativity.

Although it might denote democratic popular sovereignty, critical agency is thus understood in terms of non-sovereign, counter-heroic, anti-self-aggrandising, even melancholic, political desire of the demos and in the demos to unfix and displace the terms of everyday despair, such as those related to current neoliberal injustices in their intersections with racism, neocolonialism, and heteronormativity. As the recent anti-neoliberal public gatherings and uprisings have manifested, it is the ordinary practice of standing in public with others that actualises the living register of the political. Such an account of unfinished, unfinishable and reanimated political agency as "re-emergence of the demos" (Brown 2013) resists the drive to set up the desiring subject as situated prior to subjection, including the liberal, colonial, racial, and phallocentric matrices of desire. It also resists the propensity to conceptualise "agency" as a capacity or quality that one might or might not "have", in ways akin to the model of possessive individualism. Instead, it brings together, in an uncanny and disquiet way, negativity and affirmation, active and passive, finitude and action, division and relatedness, as well as the traumas of abjection and the promises of radical resignification. Desire, as an affective and political event, is not situated prior to the world, as in Hegelian metaphysics, or prior to repression, as in the Lacanian perspective, but rather is produced by power workings that precede and exceed the subject. As Judith Butler has developed throughout her multilayered work, desiring subjects are always already incomplete, not self-identical, and "ek-static"; passionately attached to power relations; outside themselves, in social and psychic terms; other to themselves and affectively implicated in the lives of others. In this account of "subjects of desire" (Butler 1987), critical agency draws from the regulatory power that compels and enables it, not in a mechanistic manner, but rather in a performative process of subjectivation which remains susceptible to various sorts of dissonances, deferrals, and expropriations.

In texts ensuing from the speech she delivered at Occupy Wall Street in October 2012, Judith Butler (2013) has explored the phrase "we, the people" as an illocution, that is, as an utterance which provokes action: a speech act fundamentally related to the physicality of bodies actively making their appearance in the public. Either as anti-neoliberal protesters, or as transgender in a transphobic environment, or as criminalised sans papiers, these assembled bodies, vulnerable but also dissenting, enact a form of political exposition. Consequently, as "the people" assert the right of assembly, they re-invoke and re-formulate the question of who decides who "the people" are. This is what seems to be at stake in the current critical practices emerging despite and against the embedded norms and forms of ongoing crises that wear us out: enacting "we, the people" in order to make justice thinkable and possible again. So instead of just waiting for the arrivant, we need to relate ourselves to that which is taking place in the thick of the ordinary. Through emergent gestural, affective, aesthetic, and political genres, the question that haunts our political imagination and bodily enactments is how we rehabituate and share our present for living otherwise. Would such defence of the possibility for justice be named democracy? Would it be named communism? Regardless of the name that this agonistic engagement might assume, it encompasses a multitude of shifts, practices, relations, counter-discourses and bodily enactments, which point beyond the liberal and neoliberal logi(sti)cs of accumulating capital and poverty and against the recurring fascisms and racisms. It reclaims and resignifies the collective space for engaging with the political, with others, and with oneself, in ways that make justice thinkable and possible.


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1 — The book bloc was invented at La Sapienza University of Rome in November 2010, as a practice of public demonstration against Silvio Berlusconi's education reforms. Book blocs also appeared and marched on the streets of Genoa, Milan, Madrid, London, Manchester, Berkeley and Oakland (USA), and other cities during the following months.

2 — Wendy Brown (1992) has offered a nuanced understanding of this Foucauldian genealogy of the sovereignty-discipline-governmentality triad by showing how liberal state power operates in (mutually constitutive) gendered, classed and racialised ways.

4 — For more information, see: (viewed 19 November 2014)

Students protesting in Sheffield as part of a national campaign against increased tuition fees and cuts in education funding. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian. Image taken from:
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Students protesting in Sheffield as part of a national campaign against increased tuition fees and cuts in education funding. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian. Image taken from:
The Book Bloc, London, 2010. Chasing the Specters of Marx (Jacques Derrida, 1994). Image taken from:
Posted 25 Nov 2014
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