FTH: The Savage and Beyond

Howard Slater
Howard Slater grasps at the August riots as the appearance of an ‘unrecognisable demos' which challenges the very ability of capitalist democracy to include or contain the language and acts of its subjects

One carries in public affairs the spirit of the sales counter
- Pierre Leroux (1834)

The consonants F, T and H, in that order, form a trilateral root meaning fissure, chink, opening...
- Jean Genet (1986)

1. One thing can be said with a modicum of certainty: the recent riots of August 2011 were political. What can be meant by political in this instance? Well, maybe something as straightforward as taking action in the street, getting beyond the idea of a ‘neutrality of living'.1 It's a form of such neutrality that informs those accusations that have it that the riots were ‘apolitical'. These accusations more or less come from a political state (and those professionally invested in it) that proffers an idea of politics as the maintenance of a ‘neutrality of living', as the embodiment of rational common sense, as the legislative thrust of a protective equilibrium. If, as many of the riots' detractors maintain, these actions that overspilled the boundaries of ‘civil society' were not political then we have further reason to surmise that politics for such as these is a technical managerial affair: the management of libidinal and economic energies into a steady state; the making legible of all action into recognisable ‘civil' forms.

2. The next step, then, was to brand the rioters as criminals and to see in the rioting a mass outbreak of criminal opportunism. Such labelling brings the ‘overspill' into an understandable civil remit and makes exemplary retaliation possible. Anything else is unconscionable for those who sit comfortably upon us. So, to link the ongoing austerity cuts to the riots as some liberal politicians did, is seen as an outrage, as a breach to the morally consensual re-establishment of ‘civil peace'. This civil peace is however, informed by capitalism's ‘naturalisation' within the state as it creeps beyond a simple integration - that could be echoed by a discipline going by the name of ‘political economy' - towards a takeover of the state political realm - that could ring out in such a phrase as ‘corporate governance'. It is maybe possible, then, to consider the increasing role of the state as an indicator of a corporate takeover - ongoing welfare cuts, bank bailouts, effective corporate lobbying etc. - that makes politicians ‘instinct' with capital and dictated to, in the moments immediately preceding the riots, by the fear of ‘sovereign debt'. Thus they are dictated to by a form of corporate para-political power that wields abstract measurements of a state's wealth and economic standing over and above even these states' belief in a mythic ‘democracy'.

3. The moral outrage of the governing political administrators at this disturbance of ‘civil peace' is, then, illustrative of a kind of ‘political theology'. Their god is now capital and those blasphemers against value, property and the entrepreneurial form are sent off to a purgatory of incarceration and classification. In this theocracy it makes perfect sense to jail a youngster for nicking a bottle of water because the greater crime, beyond that of thieving the object itself, is the blatant disregard it shows for surplus value and the exchange value embodied in money. Likewise robbing for the sake of it not only shows up the worthlessness of these commodities - a disrespect for the commodity as much as an indicator of greed - but it is a kind of people's auto-reduction to the ‘naturalised' criminality of ‘markup', ‘profit margins' and welfare ‘bribes'. Of course part of the moral outrage stems from the extent and ubiquity of the looting and this outrage must, by self-preservatory necessity, be blind to the ‘oversignification' of the riots that, in their very chaos, appear as a kind of ‘deforming' mandate that, weirdly enough, complements the politicians presiding over a foreclosure of a by now financialised politics.

4. This ‘oversignifcation' is polysemic noise and it is enigmatic to the turnkeys of capital who, seeing the ‘neutrality' of their governmental and ideological forms retaliated against, are set adrift before what Miguel Abensour might call a ‘political moment': ‘the moment most liable to gain an excessive meaning, to go beyond the meaning proper to it'.2 The meaning deemed ‘proper to it', as usual, is criminality, but the excess of this meaning should take in the relationship between crime and poverty, between abandonment and rage, between hope and despair (all inadmissible in a court of law). That the riots are a political moment does not mean that those who participated in them face the political state as an homogeneity; they are not consciously proletarian though a majority are working class (or even part of the ‘surplus population'); they are not all gang members or linked in varying degrees to a more organised crime set up; they have not all been stopped and searched; not all been in prison etc.3 The move to deem all who participated as ‘criminals' - as if to suggest all those who carry convictions are the same ‘type' - is just as much about the refusal to see the politics in hope and despair, in abandonment and rage as it is a refusal to see the politics in poverty. Whilst this latter has a long tradition it is a tradition that, on the whole, has, like the political state, not taken in the affective dimension which were it to do, may have led to a less meaning driven capture of the riots; to a ‘thinking emancipation otherwise'; towards a re-forming of ‘political links' as relational.4

5. The outrage of the political class meets the enragement of those subject to austerity, and whilst they are not an homogenous mass, could it be said that, speaking a ‘language of acts' (Pasolini), those out on the streets formed an ‘horizon' for the political state as well as for us politcos; and became a form of ‘unrecognisable demos'.5 No longer an ‘idea as subject' (a definable gender, class or race) these crowds, often called upon to ‘participate', return the loaded inveiglement to speak with a language (as often a blasé beat as a gestural scream) that is untranslatable into the language-norms that would seek to bestill it as ‘criminal', as ‘proletarian', as ‘underclass', as ‘materialistic'. Not fighting for a cause, but fighting against causes, against a dimly perceivable - but all the same felt - overdetermination of their lives by, well, in the immediate past, austerity measures caused by the bank bailout. Not fighting as a ‘body' but fighting for the body, fighting the pressures felt by bodies in the form of abandonment, hunger, desire, aggression, alienation and stoic hopelessness. In Tottenham, that the family and friends of a police murder victim were ignored after requesting to be heard out is an indication of a callousness that comes along with capitalist social relations: the ‘correct channels', the strict form of even a verbal exchange, could not be ‘exceeded'. So these non-relations began to be ‘exceeded' (de-linked) by an at times vicious secession from those very channels; a secession away from the ‘policed' language of politics towards appeasing the demands of instinct for which there is maybe no language except the ‘language of acts'.

Tronikhouse - The Savage and Beyond
Image: Trokikhouse, 'The Savage and Beyond', 1991

6. Yet instinct, such as rage, is not apolitical. The sexual instinct, the appeasement of which is often negotiatory, a form of communication, is political to the degree that this ‘negotiation' of drives and their timing, their relationality, is political. Rage, present in muted form as the aggressive component of the sexual instinct, is a similarly political moment by means of its modulation of transgression and negotiation. So, like the sexual instinct, rage doesn't just come from anywhere (again the criminality tag helps the forces of ‘civil peace' to occlude the affective dimension), but its causes are a manifold layering of experiences through which a person comes to feel affronted, neglected and unwitnessed (not negotiated with). When these forms of emotional deprivation (lack of care) meet a situation of poverty and the pressures of material survival through which living horizons and future possibilities are extremely foreshortened, then, in some circumstances, when it is felt there's nothing to lose and nothing to live for, rage can stalk the social psyche. So rage, it could be said, comes to be expressive of a lack of hope, a lack of hope that cannot be countenanced or communicated because until the circumstances provoking its enragement are met, this rage exists as immanent.

This may well go some way toward getting a handle on some of the acts of ‘concise violence' witnessed in the riots - the burning of inhabited buildings, the hit and run, the assault and subsequent death of a pensioner.6 Even the more embittered revolutionaries would find it hard to condone such ‘savage acts', but it is maybe that writers like Pasolini and Genet, who embrace, neigh love, the ‘savage' and the wilfully abject in its human form, maybe it is such writers as these who seek and accept something else in this rage. Both Genet and Pasolini often get impatient with knowing, as many politicos know, that rage can arise at the sight and feel of exploitation, can come from a conscious felt sense of alienation from the economic and political system, can come from the actions of the police. They sense, too, that both the enraged and the outraged can experience a ‘blackout', a short circuit as impulses takeover. Perhaps this impulsiveness is what comes over when we see footage of folk tearing at the shutters of inconspicuous shops and, as one eye witness described, scrambling in a heap fighting over a spilled tray of looted jewels. And yet, even in these moments Pasolini, for one, would spare the rioters an empathic hearing and spare us too the trap of our ideolectual urge: they ‘appear not only without any logical goal but without even the shadow of an idea: merely expressing with all its strength the general disquiet and restlessness - the anxiety, in fact'.7

7. Impulsive? How far does anxiety inform the impulsive? Even so, what can we possibly expect? For Bernard Stiegler, coupling the ‘structurally short term' effects of fictitious capital to the lust of the drive for appeasement of needs (instant gratification), capitalism has become drive based: ‘novelty is valorised at the expense of durability, and this organisation of detachment (unfaithfulness/infidelity) contributes [...] to the spread of drive-based behaviours'.8 Whilst this could possibly gloss some of the more gratuitous looting in the August streets, it also sets this looting against a backdrop of speculative greed and ‘instant returns' on investments of the glorified criminals in the banking sector. The very cuts whose blade could have been close to a riotous skin are themselves short termist and the deregulation, in a wicked inverse, was extended to the deregulation, the temporary de-forming, of the law of the land. So, was it that high streets became the site of an anxiety informed ‘language of acts'? Did they become the scene for a dissociated revenge of dissociated consumers? Was the libidinal energy so sought after by the window displays returned to them as a ‘quick fuck' minus the time of desire? Was it a political indicator that, for some bordering on many, there is no ‘neutrality of living' when life itself is no longer guaranteed and relationships are full of hard to express anxiety? Was it that the broadcast effacement of such neutrality has to be called ‘greed' in order to ground it in capitalist culture, but, at the same time, remove the desperation of poverty from purview and, furthermore, discredit any claim it may have to inhabit the political?

8. Just as capital is intermittently faithful to those who can pay, so too the semi- detached state is not faithful to all its ‘subjects'. The resultant evacuation of the political by those learning about their own abandonment is more like an enforced withdrawal. They are barricaded out by a wall of ‘political formalism', procedure and financialised jargon that excludes them. Pasolini again:

The communicativeness of the world of applied science [i.e. politics], of industrial eternity, presents itself instead as strictly practical. And therefore monstrous. No word will have a sense that is not functional [...] the autonomous expression of a ‘gratuitous' sentiment will be inconceivable.9

And so, maybe it could be said that many of those who were out on the street in an active anti-form way in August are amongst those who are neither admitted nor desire to be admitted into the political realm but who, speaking a ‘language of acts' respond to the ‘monstrosity' with the enaction of an ‘unrecognisable demos'. Such a demos, as Abensour would maintain in his musings about what the young Marx meant by ‘real democracy', is this fissure through which the political state is ‘reduced' from its position as ‘the moment of the political', the dominant instant of the political that keeps the ‘other realms' of life subordinate and silent; deems them apolitical.10 The riots, then, with their ‘language of acts', their amassed expression of social insecurity, posed a challenge to the authority of the political state in its mission to maintain homogeneity and police the uncontainable overspill. They posed a challenge too to those for whom a certain social opacity and indeterminacy are similarly anathema.

Such a temporary loss of civil foundations and the move into the streets of an indeterminate body of people displaying an acute restlessness, an at times ‘kamikaze' flouting of the law and a need to be heard in their painful grievance is reminiscent of Claude Lefort's ‘savage democracy'. That which, in the guise of the rageful ‘raw being' of the sans-culotte of the French Revolution, marked a founding moment of the modern western political state.11 Moreover, as Abensour informs us, the ‘right to insurrection' was deemed to be a ‘democratic right' back in these days and, he adds, up to the Paris Commune. That this history, and indeed the events of the Arab Spring, are kept at an ineffectual distance from most western political states, is indicative of the reification of ‘democracy' that can admit of no further instituting ‘discrepencies'. The dream of the rational state as the ‘organising form that passes for the whole' now has capital as this organising form and as a result politics, in the form it is now practised (affectless and technocratic), seems more and more to be revealed as the language of a ‘pseudo totality'.12 The ‘neutrality of living' becomes asphyxiated in its own forms of empiricised communication and the ‘non-totalisable' human becomes thwarted and ‘renditioned'.

9. As it could be heard from Tahrir Square so it is heard from the London prisons that ‘our voice has been heard ... we are not animals.' That voice may be indiscernible to some, to others, as a ‘criminal' voice, it should not be heard and it should be stripped of its ‘rights'. But it is a voice that, held in reflux by a structurally informed muteness, may well be speaking the ‘language of acts' and seeking to be expressive of affect rather than being ‘educated' to speak that language that Jean Genet complained about in the 1940s: a ‘language of words' that are ‘weighed down with precise ideas'.13 This weight of the determinate, this exchange value of expression whereby affect (a proto-meaning in itself) should be forfeited for precision with the resultant reward of entry into ‘civil society' and its politics, is in itself a bottling up of the ‘overspill' of affect and a surplus humanness that engenders the ‘savage' as a moment of the ‘species-being'. Pasolini and Genet, with their ‘telling inarticulacy', well understood this ‘language of acts' as a somatic and poetic embodiment, a flouting of the dictatorship of the ‘formal universality' of state sanctioned modes of language. Genet writing of his time spent with the Black Panthers in the early '70s says: ‘the force of what was called Panther rhetoric or word-mongering resided not in elegant discourse but in strength of affirmation (or denial), in anger of tone and timbre'.14 Such ‘word-mongering', ringfenced as ‘aggressive', and ignored as ‘rageful', may well be, in Abensour's view, an instance of an imprecise ‘savage democracy': a political moment in which we can playfully create one another and in which passion as a relational link is once more given a space in contradistinction to a reified democracy. This latter cannot countenance that its ‘subjects' are filled with the discrepencies, contradictions and discords of an uncontainable species-life that, in its ‘telling inarticulacy', seemed, in August, to bring into view an experience of the wobbling of those very institutional foundations that are charged with maintaining ‘civic peace'.

10. Despite their ‘criminal' tag, those taking part in the riots formed an opaque body that academic research will now be charged with making transparent. Is this opaqueness, infuriating to the political state, not the very auto-conflictual opaqueness of species life? How often can we be said to be transparent to ourselves? Moreover, is it not an opaqueness through which the enigma of the self and the enigma of the social can no longer be solved accept as a ‘language of acts' that entails the abandonment of forms of ‘ideality' that have blinded us to the (albeit risky) ‘instituting' power of species-being? As Abensour adds in his musing on ‘savage democracy': ‘Every social manifestation is in the same movement a threat of dissolution, an exposure to division and to the loss of self, as if every manifestation were inhabited [...] by the threat of its own dissolution'.15 The riots may well have brought into purview this threat of dissolution of the political state and its ‘precise words', they exposed us to division but in so doing they exposed us to divided selves, to a ‘self-discrepency' between, say, condoning the most savage acts whilst feeling an optimistic excitement at the breach they formed in the ‘neutrality of living'. The riots could be said to highlight such schizo states; states in which the contradictions of living become ‘felt contradications' that not so much bypass thought as bring it into relation with instinct. So, maybe the affective experience of the ‘savage' that the riots permitted could get us beyond a reified democracy whose rationalist ‘pseudo totality' demonises our ‘savage' selves and thus, in line with the myth of productive progress, removes a key facet of our indeterminate species-life and makes us, by means of such devices as guilt, ready to be produced as the financialised subjects required of the political state.16

11. This notion of the ‘production of the subject' may well figure the riots as a form of ‘human strike'. Not only in the suspension of the ‘human' in favour of the ‘savage', but as a retaliatory strike against the very apparatus of the production of the subject through such institutional dispositifs as the education system. For Pasolini, who consistently and painfully spoke of the genocide of the working class, the political state had become ‘the new production (production of human beings)'.17 Maybe this could take on an added resonance in that the increasingly noted failure of capital to reproduce the working class leads to a necessity for the subject to be produced elsewhere than the site of wage labour. This hiatus, this dissolution of the working subject and the incursion of state-led control into the ‘bodies' of its subjects, marks a further opaque void for the political state as well as the traditional left. The regulatory mechanism of wage labour is absent for many, perhaps more so for those who were out on the streets in August. Just as the looting, then, flouts the law of the wage relation, so too does the latter's absence remove a main social identifying pole. That for some this is to be welcomed (ne travaillez jamais), for others it may be an instance of the ‘loss of the self' when the ‘self', under the value-form of capital, is encouraged to identify with the various roles that wage labour allots. The ‘meaning of life' is bound up with work but its absence throws us back on a kind of ‘savage' survival and an equally savage interrogation of what it is to be human (a social individual) without the capital-imposed definition of life as a life of wage labour.18

As Abensour is quick to point out the ‘savage', as Lefort uses it, is not the return to a state of nature, but a baseline in the forecoming of ‘species existence, the advent of human existence', a socialised nature that must admit of ‘other realms', those other disavowed areas of species activity that should not be compressed out of existent expression by the political pseudo-totality of a reified and financialised democracy.19 The inadmission of the ‘savage' to the demos is of course one sided. The savagery of financial capitalism is, perhaps due to its level of abstraction and its ultra-sublimated mechanisms, admitted poll position (the mechanisms of both are a snug fit). But the ‘beyond' of such savagery is, as Pasolini mourns, nothing less than a genocide, nothing less than the sacrifice of ‘raw being'. An element of this ‘raw being' was sacrificed to the law courts in the weeks after the riots. It had no ‘idea' to defend itself with, only ‘gratuitous sentiment' and the ‘language of acts' that disqualified it from the polis and made its ‘unrecognisable demos' truly opaque. Its sudden speed of arousal left us aghast and, at times, thankfully speechless. Theory, always playing second fiddle to praxis and affect, comes in to temporarily save us: ‘The "ceremony" of the political should be converted to the species-life of the real and total being of the demos [...] that in its people-being belongs at once to the political principle and the sensualist principle'.20 There is, then, some urgency in at least revealing the pseudo-totality of politics to its affectless practitioners (who, as Pasolini maintains in his intervention at the Radical Party Congress of 1975, ‘live their rhetoric with a total absence of any self-criticism').21 Such a pseudo-totality, the happy enterprise of unreflexive selves in an unquestioning relation to the ‘all' of their knowledge, creates a politics without the sensual and savage component of species life.22 It is a stunted totality passing for an ad hominen practice: the remainder that could well overspill the totality with its ‘savage democracy' goes by unnoticed and so too does the ‘can-be of the self-contradicting'.23 Pasolini and Genet had already begun to speak of such an impossible being as a becoming. Beyond the love offered by them to the ‘people-being', their love of the remainder and the remaindered made them hopeful that a ‘politics of anxiety', a politics premised upon an acceptance of both the savagery of species-life and the radical surprise of indeterminancy, would go some step towards blasting up this lifeless ceremony that passes as politics.

Howard Slater <howard.slater AT googlemail.com> is a volunteer play therapist and sometime writer. His book, 
Anomie/Bonhomie and Other Writings, will be published by Mute Books in January 2012


Tronikhouse: ‘The Savage and Beyond', Incognito Records (1991)

The Pop Group: ‘Thief of Fire', Radar Records (1979)

Newham Generals: ‘Things That I Do', Dirtee Stank Recordings (2009)

1 Miguel Abensour, Democracy Against The State, Cambridge: Polity, 2011, p.34. Much of what follows is informed by this book in which Abensour conducts an exploratory reading of Marx's Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.
2 Ibid, p.57.
3 For a take on Marx's concept of ‘surplus population' see ‘Misery and Debt - On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital', Endnotes II, April 2010.
4 For ‘thinking emancipation otherwise' see: Abensour, op.cit., p.vii.
5 This ‘language of acts' is maybe far distant from a rhetorical and more acceptable ‘speech act', it is an embodiment, perhaps in this instance, of a spontaneity (itself conditioned by affective layering?) that subtracts from a ‘higher' yet blunted rhetorical explanatory plane and becomes expressive of a suffering (phôné) that is too ‘savage' for the demos and hence ‘unrecognisable'.
6 The phrase ‘concise violence' is Genet's, see: Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, London: Panther, 1965, p.248.
7 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio, London: Secker & Warburg, 1997, p.436.
8 Bernard Stiegler, Towards a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge: Polity, 2010, p.83.
9 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2005, p.34.
10 Abensour, op.cit., p.92.
11 Ibid, p.102-124.
12 Ibid, p.60. John Holloway puts it: ‘The state, by its very existence, says in effect, "I am the force of social cohesion, I am the centre of social determination."' See John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, Pluto Press, 2010, p.133.
13 Jean Genet, op.cit., p.72.
14 Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, New York Review Books, 2003, p.56.
15 Abensour, op.cit., p.104.
16 Such musings could be read as ‘primitivist' if we were to believe that our ‘indeterminant species life' is not stock-full of social determinations and conditioning that it is risky to express. The risk emanates from at least two sides: the academic left's wariness of the ‘irrational' and the political state's fear of the unraveling of our capitalist conditioning.
17 Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lutheran Letters, London: Carcanet, 1981, p.109.
18 Becoming a ‘social individual' is itself traumatic (savaging our self) when subjects are produced/taught to identify as individuals and have proprietorial conditions of worth. See for instance Lacan's formula: ‘I is a fortress' cited by Catherine Clément, Syncope: A Philosophy of Rapture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p.122.
19 Abensour, op.cit., p.73.
20 Ibid, p.71.
21 Pasolini, op.cit., p.121.
22 In some senses the Consciousness Raising Groups of the ‘70s Women's Liberation Movement were forums for just such a critique of the pseudo-totality and for an interrogation of the place of (a remaindered) gender within capitalism.
23 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope Vol.1, MIT Press, 1995, p.225.