[lbo-talk] puppets

shag carpet bomb shag at cleandraws.com
Fri Dec 23 05:15:16 PST 2011

here, this is for chuck, on the puppets. And before I forget, Carrol, the mockery of the puppets is just common among mainstream media, as well as among Democrats, Pwogs, and some on the left. They assume it's just inspired by silly kids who don't think about what they are doing, have no analysis or theory (or, rather, have bad analysis and theory). Typically, the complaint is that puppets don't attack capitalism or the state (or whatever is being protested) so it seems like a big wasted effort. If these folks were CinC's, they'd never have boot camps, war games, or USO concerts. heh.

Graeber also points out that the police who actually "hate" the puppets, for reasons he explains in this chapter.

The following snippet is for chuck:


One could even say that in a sense, the Black Bloc appear to be the latest avatars of an artistic/revolutionary tradition which runs at least through the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists (the latter by far the most popular theorists in American anarchist bookshops): one which tries to play off the contradictions of capitalism by turning its own destructive, leveling forces against it. Capitalist societies—and America in particular—are, in essence, potlatch societies. That is, they are built around 1,004 adults, 32.9% said they were proud of the protesters, while another 31.2% said they were wary. Another 13.2% said they were sympathetic and 15.7% irritated and 6.9% said they were unsure.” Considering the almost uniform hostility of the coverage, the fact that a third of the audience were nonetheless “proud”, and that less than one in six were sure their reaction was negative, is quite remarkable. 22the spectacular destruction of consumer goods. 25 They are societies that imagine themselves as built on something they call “the economy” which, in turn is imagined as a nexus between “production” and “consumption”, endlessly spitting out products and then destroying them again. Since it is all based on the principle of infinite expansion of industrial production—the very principle which the Black Bloc anarchists, mostly being highly ecologically conscious anti-capitalists, most vehemently oppose—all that stuff has to be constantly destroyed to make way for new products. But this, in turn, means inculcating a certain passion for or delight in the smashing and destruction of property that can very easily slip into a delight in the shattering of those structures of relation which make capitalism possible. It is a system that can only renew itself by cultivating a hidden pleasure at the prospect of its own destruction. 26

Actually, one could well argue that there have been two strains in twentieth century artistic/revolutionary thought, and that both have been entangled in the—endlessly ambivalent—image of the potlatch. In the 1930s, for example, George Bataille became fascinated by Marcel Mauss’ description of the spectacular destruction of property in Kwakiutl potlatches; it ultimately became the basis for his famous theory of “expenditure”, of the creation of meaning through destruction, that he felt was ultimately lacking under modern capitalism. There are endless ironies here. First of all, what Bataille and subsequent authors seized on was not, in fact, “the potlatch” at all, but a small number of very unusual potlatches held around the turn of the century, at a time marked both by a rapid decline in Kwakiutl population, and a minor economic boom had left the region awash in an unprecedented number of consumer goods. Ordinary potlatches did not normally involve the destruction of property at all; they were simply occasions for aristocrats to lavish wealth on the community. If the image of Indians setting fire to thousands of blankets or other consumer goods proved captivating, in other words, it was not because it represented some fundamental truth about human society that consumer capitalism had forgotten, but rather because it reflected the ultimate truth of consumer capitalism itself. In 1937, Bataille teamed up with Roger Callois to found a reading group called “The College of Sociology”, that expanded his insights into a general theory of the revolutionary festival: arguing that it was only by reclaiming the principle of the sacred, and the power of myth embodied in popular festivals that effective revolutionary action would be possible. Similar ideas were developed in the ‘50s by Henri Lefebvre, and within the Lettrist International, whose journal, edited by Guy Debord, was, significantly, entitled “Potlatch.” 27 Here there is of course a direct line from the Situationists, with their promulgation of art as a form of revolutionary direct action, to the punk movement and contemporary anarchism.

If Black Blocs embody one side of this tradition—capitalism’s encouragement of a kind of fascination with consumerist destruction that can, ultimately, be turned back against capitalism itself— the Puppets surely represent the other one, the recuperation of the sacred and unalienated experience in the collective festival. Radical puppeteers tend to be keenly aware that their art harkens back to the wickerwork giants and dragons, Gargantuas and Pantagruels of Medieval festivals. Even those who have not themselves read Rabelais or Bakhtin are likely to be familiar with the notion of the 25 Probably the destruction of productive capacity as well, which must be endlessly renewed. 26 It might be significant here that the United States’ main exports to the rest of the world consist of (a) Hollywood action movies and (b) personal computers. If you think about it, they form a kind of complementary pair to the brick-throughwindow/giant puppet set I’ve been describing—or rather, the brick/puppet set might be considered a kind of subversive, desublimated reflection of them—the first involving paeans to property destruction, the second, the endless ability to create new, but ephemeral, insubstantial imagery in the place of older, more permanent forms. 27 Some of this history is retold, and the story brought forward to Reclaim the Streets and the current carnivals against capitalism, in an essay by Gavin Grindon called “The Breath of the Possible”, to appear in Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation, Collective Research” (David Graeber and Stevphen Shukaitis, editors), AK Press, 2006. 23carnivalesque. 28 Convergences are regularly framed as “carnivals against capitalism” or “festivals of resistance.” The base-line reference seems to be the late Medieval world immediately before the emergence of capitalism, particularly, the period after the Black Death when the sudden decline in population had the effect of putting unprecedented amounts of money into the hands of the laboring classes. Most of it ended up being poured into popular festivals of one sort or another, which themselves began to multiply until they took up large parts of the calendar year; what nowadays might be called events of “collective consumption”, celebrations of carnality and rowdy pleasures and—if Bakhtin is to be believed—tacit attacks on the very principle of hierarchy. One might say that the first wave of capitalism, the Puritan Moment as it’s sometimes called, had to begin with a concerted assault on this world, which was condemned by improving landlords and nascent capitalists as pagan, immoral, and utterly unconducive to the maintenance of labor discipline. Of course a movement to abolish all moments of public festivity could not last forever; Cromwell’s reign in England is reviled to this day on the grounds that he outlawed Christmas. More importantly, once moments of festive, collective consumption were eliminated, the nascent capitalism would be left with the obvious problem of how to sell its products, particularly in light of the need to constantly expand production. The end result was what I like to call a process of the privatization of desire; the creation of endless individual, familial, or semi-furtive forms of consumption; none of which, as we are so often reminded, could really be fully satisfying or else the whole logic of endless expansion wouldn’t work. While one should hardly imagine that police strategists are fully cognizant of all this, the very existence of police is tied to a political cosmology which sees such forms of collective consumption as inherently disorderly, and (much like a Medieval carnival) always brimming with the possibility of violent insurrection. “Order” means that citizens should go home and watch TV. 29

For police, then, what revolutionaries see as an eruption of the sacred through a recreation of the popular festival is a “disorderly assembly”—and exactly the sort of thing they exist to disperse. However, since this sense of festival as threatening does not appear to resonate with large sectors of the TV audience, the police were forced to, as it were, change the script. What we’ve seen is a very calculated campaign of symbolic warfare, an attempt to eliminate images of colorful floats and puppets, and substitute images of bombs and hydrochloric acid—the very substances that, in police fantasies, are likely to actually lurk beneath the papier-mâché façade.


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