Notebook (state of exception)

August 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

He works (he puts the word in scare-quotes), at the moment, near Blackfriars. Most of the people he works with live in Dalston, Hackney, Peckham. A couple of afternoons he’s heard distant sirens & choppers in the office. People have shown photos of burnt buses & wrecked shop-fronts on IPhones, described near-misses where they came home just before or after disorder broke out or died down. The rest he knows from the constant BBC News streams on one tab, from Twitter on another. When he walks to work – along the south bank or over the bridge at Waterloo & past Somerset House – & the sun is out, the river wind whipping his hair, & he’s caught in the quiet of a just-waking day, he almost feels liberated – as if he breathes easier. He keeps a postcard of Pissarro’s Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, next to the desk where he writes: smoke drifting through a sky blue but for a few daubs of cloud, over a road empty save for three figures in the foreground, snow shoveled to the sides. In his imagination, he could live there: quiet, seclusion, the freedom of a winter morning. Only a mile or two to the north-east, in Lewisham, there was mass unrest earlier in the week.

People talk about the deathly quiet of the contested areas, as word went round ahead of each outbreak of smashed windows & stolen goods, & after as the smoke drifted through streets now littered with drifts of broken glass. He has a long commute, & feels it: when he gets home it’s usually almost night, & the town is quiet; the only ones about are the sweaty patrons of his local, & the south Asian guy who runs the cornershop nearby. On the edge of sleep, he hears sirens & a helicopter a few blocks away, perhaps, & wonders how many nights, in the ‘awkward years’, he spent awake in this town, watching a still street under a sodium glare.


He keeps thinking of Chile – under Allende, under Pinochet. He had a row with N., who endorses the plan to dispossess & kill those involved in the riots. Of course, there’s a useful logic to it: the homeless & the dead don’t riot. To riot is the last act before the end of expressive possibilities, before the total dispossession of voice: “the language of the unheard”. In Pinochet’s Chile, the economic situation was much the same as he sees in the papers now: a totally privatised economy, economic inequality of a huge factor between the working majority & the small minority of businessmen & generals at the top of the regime the gestation of slums & shantytowns fringing the cities, receiving stern & constant attention from the police force, institutionalised racism against indians and blacks. Unemployment was frequently around 25%, sometimes 30%. In Pinochet’s Chile, as in Franco’s Spain, there were no riots. ‘Underclass’ is an appropriate term in this case: a police & intelligence service vastly funded whilst the rest of the public economy was gutted squashed the problems beneath visibility – in secret prisons, improvised graves, favelas.

At home, he looks up two quotes. “Absurdly, the fascist regimes of the first half of the twentieth century have stabilised an obsolete economic form, multiplying the terror needed to maintain it now that its senselessness is blatant… Now, objectively threatened, the subjectivity of the rulers and their hangers-on becomes totally inhuman.” “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism.”

He went to school with the kind of people now referred to blithely as ‘chavs’; they were the ones who mostly bullied him. One of them, a black-haired boy he knew from primary school, lived in a small, jerrybuilt sandy-brick terrace, a mini-estate, at the end of the alley near his house. Most of the households in the area fell under that label. Binge-drinking, glue-sniffing, dalliances with the denizens of the neighbouring girls’ school: all were their activities during the last year of secondary school. He’s fairly certain another, who left before he did, ended up doing time for something. The boy wore imitation Burberry caps, Umbro trackies, fake gold chains, smoked & spat. His parents, from tiny New Forest villages, had stable but enervating jobs, were obsessed with respectability, as if anyone in their part of town knew or cared what other families did. If it weren’t for this small fact, he knows, he could just as easily have been one of those waiting for the Giro & picking Saturday night fights with the police.

It’s bare life: no better phrase. He remembers the sense of exclusion, self-disgust, that marked his adolescence: the knowledge that others receive riches, friendship, knowledge, love, prestige, as if by some kind of magic. Commodities, & the bodies they annexed, taunted him. In his diary he wrote that he was someone who could – and probably would – be killed with impunity (whether by his own hand or not hardly seemed to matter). It was the world going along in its routine, unquestioned way, that nearly killed him. To restore that world to its usual, seamlessly functioning state, is the aim of those calling for the ‘restoration of order’, the deterrence of further violence by the engendering & extension of a poverty – a violence committed against human beings simply by their existence, their world being structured in such a way as to destroy them – built into the social order as it now exists.

Buying fruit from the stall at Temple tube, he looks at the bizarre post-with-map he uses to navigate. The glass has been smashed, held together with duct tape. Around him, the suits still stride to their destinations, with less enthusiasm than was their wont. He wonders when the next time will be he gets paid to work, & what the news will bring.


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