Thoughts on meaningless political action

Craig Willse
Eating the translation

Always a parasitic relation, translation draws from (devours) that which it incorporates into a new entity. We should not accept the idea that translation is a direct process of exchange between fixed, discreet and equal matter (like languages). Rather, translation is a process of rendering equatable, a traffic in difference that erases difference. Translate, translate. Karl Marx offers a description of translation when he discusses commodification, using an example of iron and corn. The incommensurate use value of each is displaced within capitalism by an exchange value that allows us to imagine a certain quantity of corn as being equal in value (translatable) into some quantity of iron.

Starting a discussion about the untranslatable (the meaningless) of politics with an anti-capitalist analysis is no accident. Like a concern with language, a concern with capital runs through my thoughts because that is part of what I’m struggling against and also because I have no choice. Capitalism saturates everything—this language, these resistances, a possibility of writing, the production of the book you hold within your hands right now. A parasitic system with no outside, capital eats us/itself. This system of total translation into capital some have called real subsumption.

In this piece, then, I am concerned with capital’s absorption of not only our labor power but all our time (leisure as well as work) and our very bodily matter (recall how once organs or tissues could not be paid for through a credit system we call health insurance). This total translation means that we don’t always recognize the historical conditions of capitalism, but rather take life within capital for granted; some forms of translation operating within an informatics of domination (as Donna Haraway terms it) can seem to smooth our flow across fields of capital or power. The euro, which has universally raised the cost of living for those subject to it, is an example of such translation. (Some) bodies move more easily across (some) national borders because local currency no longer needs to be translated (converted). Something, as we know, is always lost in the process of translation. Changing money from one form to another, this conversion (convection) loses value (energy). The euro seeks to close money up so its energy is conserved (to be, of course, multiplied) and in financial transactions between the Netherlands and France, nothing, it seems, is lost.

But money is both material and illusory. Illusory in the sense that it masks the materiality of its own production, posing as self-contained and self-reflexive when in fact money (like its cousin-virus, language) is always translated wrong, never transparent. The loss then may not be value (energy) between the guilder and the franc, but instead this instance of global capital’s concentration and centralization eats the most likely irretrievable energy of populations whose body parts now carry and transmit this new virus, the euro. The translation (conversion) covers itself up, its losses not recognized as such.

Politics after science

Can we pose a politics against capital’s consumption of ourselves that recognizes these acts of translation and their hidden histories? What does this lesson about money suggest for a consideration of translating meaning (ideology, truth) within politics? Political theorists have argued for a long time about the relationship between ideology and materiality. Avoiding origin stories, we don’t have to make an argument about a primacy of one over another, but I do want to suggest that no direct translation exists between the two. What we think or what we believe or what we know will not manifest directly in what we experience or what we are.

Any of us involved in left or progressive or (hopefully) radical politics in these past years have experienced the trite and too-convenient accusation made by the U.S. media: there’s no message or meaning to our protests. The diversity of, for example, signs at anti-capitalist uprisings is taken as an incoherence (meaningless-ness) rather than an evidence of the dangerously mobile coalitions brewing worldwide: environmentalists, labor activists, students, queers and transgenders, local residents, anarchists, faith-based organizers all jointly participating in events understood to be broad enough to touch on issues central to disparate identities, and urgent enough that new political alliances be made.

Many of us have been frustrated with the obstinacy of this brain-dead “analysis” that is really a refusal of engagement. Many of us also have rejected the taken-for-granted significance of how corporate- and/or government-controlled media reports our activism. I want to consider for a moment how this argument about the importance of the media unfolds. There is an assumption that the “spreading the word” the media can apparently accomplish will work towards building a movement. Why is this assumed? Under this lies another assumption that the lack of participation in resistance to neoliberal/neofascist military regimes results from a lack of understanding. If people knew the truth (if the meaning translated) of what was going on, they’d react/act. The “people” here is itself a translation, a stand-in for an imagined population of goodhearted, middle-class social actors. A science of politics: media exposure (truth) provides a catalyst (energy) for the social transformation of “the people,” and the media blackout produces a cancelling-out effect.

I want to challenge this argument, and I want to expose what I think is its investment in a politics of morality that I believe is outdated and ineffectual. The enlightenment equation (translation) of science/truth/politics must be thrown out the window. We must ask ourselves what to make of the day-to-day contradictions in New York tabloid headlines over the past year: Osama Dead; Osama Found on the A Train; Saddam Captured; Saddam Masterminds Attack in Gaza Strip; Osama and Saddam in Hiding Together; Osama Captured; Saddam Dead. Does anyone know what’s become of these transglobal manhunts? Does anyone think the life or death of one or two individuals will impact the current world order? The blatant untruthfulness of these headlines does not matter; a rather self-interested virus, the news media hosts upon and multiplies itself with headlines meant to generate more headlines. When reports started surfacing (unsurprisingly) that no nuclear weapons were being found in ravaged Iraq, who cared? Did it matter? Where was the surge of moral outrage? Where was the taking to the streets that we were promised? When from one day to the next, the justification for a war shifts or disappears, but the war itself grows on—what politics is this? What difference is made by the truth or the moral?

How the media represents politics or activism should not be our only concern, but also how activists represent (translate) our politics among ourselves. If language (like money) masks its own translation, eats its losses, hides the conditions of its own production—then we can understand how the political meaning of an act is never fully contained in or expressed by that act. Its meaning is not fixed, transparent or necessarily communicable. This meaning (energy) cannot be agreed upon (captured). Rather than fight for a right or true politics, we might purposefully engage this impossibility, with an understanding that we cannot determine the meaning of our own acts. It is a giving up of intentionality and the scientific method, a giving in to a politics motivated not by truth or morality but perhaps by love, desire, restlessness, humor, hope, inventiveness, impulse.

Record. This past May, a small scandal rippled out of New York City, making in turn some indentations in transglobal atmospheres. At a talk at an alternative for-profit bookstore, Italian Disobbedienti leader Luca Casarini found himself greeted with a pie-in-the-face. Casarini’s U.S. fan base is not mirrored at home, where he has been criticized for political tactics contrary to his anti-authoritarian claims. As stated in a communiqué put out by a member of the Biotic Baking Brigade behind the creamy intervention: “Their recipe does not make for a tasty soufflé, as the non-Disobbedienti ingredients in the movement do not appreciate having their flavors glazed over. The Disobbedienti do not enter into coalitions as equals but instead seek to take over already established centri sociali (squats), showing no regard for local tastes. Once in power, Casarini proceeds to serve up huge portions of unleavened authority and overcooked testosterone, in contrast to the much healthier North American radical diet of direct democracy and consensus process.” This text itself was an intervention into online and other debates that followed the incident, alternatively chiding the Brigade for its inappropriate or meaningless or destructive or offensive or pointless action; or explicating how the act was none of the above. We should not then take the communiqué as coterminous with the act, the act that stands “alone” as well as interfaces with the communiqué and other statements it in part generated. The pieing of Casarini, meant to interrupt a moment of his reification within a global traffic in cultures of resistance, threatened precisely due to its intranslatability, which is not to say incoherence or pointlessness. Pieing, normally reserved for heads of state or recently embedded (ideologically if not physically) TV reporters/spokespeople, here challenges with its inappropriateness, misplacedness—its bad translation into an unexpected scene, an activist preaching to the converted. Pie, meaning, anarchism, leader, infighting—these terms get thrown off in the tail winds of the trajectory or line of flight of the pie. In their debates, anarchists around the world replicate (modify) this virus, generating their own translations, making politics.

Some readers will criticize me (rightly) for deploying an obscure or obtuse language. For being too academic or too theoretical; hell, for being theoretical at all. But such a critique believes in a myth of a common language, or a scientifically precise language with no gaps or flaws. This language, like all languages, is mistranslated and also nonetheless transmits something along the way. What language isn’t obscure or obtuse? A standard English that good missionaries and soldiers over centuries have killed people for refusing to speak? The common slang of middle-class white kids that gnaws off the cultures of urban youth of color? The everyday words of newscasters who lie between clenched teeth, or smile through endorsements of mass murder in Iraq? What language is not a violence, is not an erasure, is not public relations for domination? We don’t get to have that language we dream, a language that perfectly states our hopes for justice, that clearly communicates for all people in all places, that says things right and says nothing else.

And I’ll say this: our wish for a common language that makes sense, our wish for an activism with the right message, our wish for a truth that will set us free: these are dangerous desires. I like danger and I like desire, but I must remember how both are bound up in our submission to control. In struggles for the right meaning and the right language, we should not be surprised to find the play of uneven power along lines of gender identity, race, ethnicity and class. Science (whether in medical practice or in political theory) is always a practice of eviscerating bodies, turning them inside out to make them bear a truth that they are said to reveal: see! The guts fall out and the blood stops pumping, just like we said it would!


Sitting in a small and sunny Moscow apartment, I am typing up what have been messily hand scrawled notes. The notes I’ve carried with me on cars, trains, buses and boats. I wrote them sitting in the window of a legalized squat in Amsterdam; sitting at a picnic table in front of another legalized squat, this one in Berlin, waiting for the cheap-folks dinner to be served; at a café in Copenhagen across from a boy also writing, his arms covered in Sharpie code. All places shot through with money and struggles for and against it. All places where I didn’t speak the language and where I’ve spoken with people in a compromised English. By compromised I don’t mean to suggest lesser. I mean a compromise, a working through in which we come up with a vocabulary or set of expressions or hand signals that serve our desire for communication across language gaps. A clever virus that mutates and adapts, subverts antibodies or draws them into a new configuration. Can’t our politics be like this: not a fight for the right politics (language) but a compromise, a continual negotiation and making up as we go along, testing and trying things out, giving up some things quickly and other things not at all? Maybe our politics can be like this, this made-up language that is something like a hot make-out session—mouths and fingers guessing at one another, pressing light then hard, feeling out for a pressing back. Sharp twists of flicking tongues, eyes and breaths noisily filling gaps better than any words, could do. Listen. If the world is going to end—and I think it is—let’s go out this way. I’ll give up on being right if I can find some people with whom to be surprising, turned on and messy.

Reading List

Rosi Braidotti, Pheng Cheah, Patricia Clough, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Richard Dienst, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, Chela Sandoval, Steven Shaviro, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Monique Wittig.