Intimate Crises of AIDS

23 March 2013
We intend this piece from a member of the Queer (in) Crisis collective to generate discussion about contemporary responses to the ongoing AIDS crisis.
I recently came across Adam Mars-Jones’s collection of short fiction titled Monopolies of Loss, a series of stories that write through, around, and inside the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.  One story in particular—“The Changes of Those Terrible Years”—left me feeling empty—which was, maybe, the author’s intent, and I do not mean to suggest that Mars-Jones is somehow to blame in this.  But I can’t shake the feeling that the story and I failed to communicate, so to speak.
I have encountered the argument that AIDS, for those affected, is incomprehensible, an experience that does not make sense.  Reading Mars-Jones, though, I noticed that my unease arose from something apart from the absurdity of crisis.  This feeling, too, isn’t just a one-off for me—my encounters with Sarah Schulman and her work have instilled in me a similar sense of lack.  She argues in Gentrification of the Mind that this feeling of disconnection is endemic to my generation and an emerging homonormative gay culture—through which neoliberals use the promises and banalities of gay marriage to disguise ongoing crises of AIDS in queer communities.  But even her emphasis on activism—on the anger I should have over AIDS—is itself alienating.  Why, for me, does this legacy of queer activism feel so distant?  Or am I not queer, because I have not suffered firsthand?  For I have no experience of AIDS—no experience, that is, in the way Schulman might define that word.  I am not HIV-positive.  I know no one who acknowledges to me that they are seropositive.  None of my close friends or family has died from AIDS; for that matter, very few of them have died for any other reason.
What, then, is my orientation toward AIDS?  My experiences of AIDS are always half-experiences, since this thing is both massive and spectral, something that haunts both the theory I study and the sex I engage in.  For Schulman and Mars-Jones, it seems, there is never a question of knowing or experiencing AIDS itself—rather, their emphasis is on the incomprehensibility of that knowledge and experience.  They speak with an authority about “the” AIDS crisis that suggests, if not an ontology of AIDS, at least a language for it.  They seem to understand what AIDS does, if not why.
But for me, these are things I have never understood, things I still don’t understand, and for which I have very little language.  My experience of AIDS is one of not knowing, one of not experiencing, but one that is inescapably tied to AIDS nonetheless.  As an adolescent my parents warned me about what they called the risks of promiscuous, unprotected sex, though they never named this disease.  At that time, too, I had only the vaguest idea of what sex is, or could be—only that they meant something apparently unspeakable or unexplainable.  Of course, I was free to ask as many questions as I liked, my parents told me.  It was an admirable performance of liberal tolerance for discussion.  But, of course, the problem with asking questions is that I must know how to formulate them.  HIV and AIDS were only ever things I overheard:  I could only read a bit of medical discourse about sexually-transmitted disease and compare it to an historical narrative about the 1980s, or a news report about AIDS funding and research.  All this without knowing, really, what I was reading.
Since then, and since I have learned—very slowly, very confusedly—about histories of AIDS, it has become something that haunts.  Every sexual encounter I have is, increasingly, an encounter with a very intimate, immediate sense of risk that I must inflect into questions about seropositivity, about which sex acts I should participate in, about which precautions are useful (or practical, or available), about whether we should fuck it anyway, and how—again—to ask these questions and make these decisions.  Every sexual encounter is a series of small, intimate crises, small only because they have become so ordinary.
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The Crisis of No-Crisis: Queer Lives and Student Occupations

22 March 2013
This piece was submitted by Aaron Day.
“The really practical statesman does not fit himself to existing conditions; he denounces the conditions as unfit.”  –  G.K. Chesterton
What does it mean to be Queer today and living “outside” of crisis?  Here’s one thought experiment.
First, let us consider the basic interpellation of subjects both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of crisis.  Inside a crisis, as in a car-crash or watching as a toilet over-fills, the spontaneous imperative is always un-meditated action.  This means that not only do we act out of the drive of an impulse, but that we foreclose any potential anxiety in the place of narrativised certainty:  “I cannot think about this. I must do something.”  We can hypothesise that what triggers this response is therefore nothing ‘rational’ or considered but, rather, a discharge of anxiety.  Crisis is, by its nature, the irruption of some traumatic, irrepressible kernel into our complacent everyday lives that we cannot effectively integrate—that ineffable x which must be ‘dealt with’ at no matter what cost.
Outside a crisis, or even ‘looking into’ a crisis, the subject’s position to this x is a lot different.  When the first plane struck the first tower on 9/11, the predominant reaction of witnesses in the adjacent second tower was not to react or to panic, but to continue working as though nothing at all had happened.  It was as though, even in the unbearable witness of potential danger, the average subject still could not effectively associate the symbolic efficacy of ‘the workplace’ with its disturbing negation ‘out there.’  And is this not the very position of the Queer subject today, who, even in witness to the deaths and exclusions of hundreds of thousands of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people on a daily basis, framed through news reports, social media, and statistical research, still cannot effectively bring themselves to stage a unified opposition?
In psychoanalysis, this apparent cognitive dissonance between signified danger and subjective inaction is generally referred to as disavowal (‘I know very well, but—’).  The disavowing subject “knows very well” what is going on, and even what the presumed consequence of x is, but still chooses to “act” as though they do not really believe it.  So the position of the Queer “out of crisis” is just this:  I know very well what the crisis is, but still I cannot really act like I know.
This “acting” in opposition to “knowing” can be extrapolated, I claim, as the general status of performativity in ideology today.  By this token, the ideological performative presumes the structure of disavowal because it “knows” what causes social injustices, imbalances of power, and widespread inequality, but still cannot bring itself to “act” as though it knows.  For example, I know very well that my peaceful, tranquil life lived outside of poverty and dejection is only the necessary obverse to the very conditions that make poverty possible, but because of the complex social web in which I find myself caught, and my every day duties and responsibilities, I cannot reasonably ‘sacrifice’ my own privilege for the equality of others.  Ideology today is thus the mask of social complexity invoked to ‘naturalise’ causal states of being—the causality of any particular trajectory painted as the only trajectory at all possible.  This performativity, in general, insists on an overdetermined state of realism as a way to defend the status of its prevailing symbolic background (e.g., ‘it is unrealistic/too radical to demand nationwide reform of institutional poverty because we’re always going to have poverty’).
The question this all brings us to bear of course is, how then do we break the deadlock of disavowal?  The answer isn’t so simple as to “expose the truth” as some frustrated Queer radicals might proffer.  As we have already established, people generally already “know” the truth, and they might even be appalled by the truth, but still they do not “act.”  The answer lies firmly, therefore, in this acting itself.
The recent and on-going student occupation at the University of Sussex runs into the very problem at the heart of this deadening performativity.  However, the lynchpin of this problem is not so much that the students involved are not doing ‘enough’ to provoke real change to the imminent outsourcing of the University’s labour, but that the performative conditions for this outsourcing of labour have always-already been marked as causal determinations, naturalised ‘as givens’ by their complex and ‘out of hands’ manifestation.
It is thus because we protest ‘as students’ against the tyrannical hands of the inscrutable Big Other that our efforts to disrupt and sabotage these on-going changes can only ever be re-doubled as hysterical provocations, of ‘proving’ the very power that the Big Other has over us to effect its own agency.  Our very acting out from the predicated position of the disenfranchised voice is what gives the prevailing ideological infrastructure its elasticity to effectively silence us; the guise of tolerance functions as a performative sublation.  This is why we moved so quickly from standing in as a threat to the established order to being ‘welcomed in’ to ‘join the debate’—pushing the agenda for real change into food for thought: de-caffeinated, easy-to-stomach politics.
The performativity of Sussex occupy is thus compounded by the “knowledge” at the heart of its manifestation alongside the inability to effectively “act” this knowledge without it being somehow neutered or ‘swallowed by’ the causal trajectory of the outsourcing itself.  While undoubtedly we can mark this as a hysterical position on the part of provocation between ‘the occupiers’ and ‘the establishment’, when it comes to the precise organisation of this resistance, a slightly different discursive dynamic presents itself.  This difference can be determined by the locus of knowledge (S2) on Lacan’s graph illustrating the Discourse of the University:
As fitting as its name might be for this instance, the fundamental abstraction at stake in this discourse is the excluded/disavowed position of the Master-Signifier (S1) relative to the production of the barred subject ($) in the mediation of knowledge.  As Slavoj Žižek identifies, “the constitutive lie of the university discourse is that it disavows its performative dimension, presenting what effectively amounts to a political decision based on power as a simple insight into the factual state of things.”  This means that when I go to the doctor, I see myself addressed not by a master who knows (S1), but by ‘knowledge itself’ (S2) to determine the symptoms of my ailment.  Of course, the necessary obverse to this truth is not that I am simply the object-vessel (a) into which this knowledge subjectivises me, but that I am all the same an anxious, hysterical character addressing the doctor as a Master, demanding reassurances to my wellbeing.
The disavowed “knowledge” at the heart of the Sussex Occupy movement is, along these lines, the performative truth of realism that causes its protestors to foreclose their narrativised places in this struggle.  Lacan, famously, to his students involved in the radical movements of the 60s rebutted, “What you are looking for as revolutionaries is a new master—you will get one.”  Today, the story is no different.  What we as Sussex occupiers are looking for is charitable reassurance that our oppressors are plastic enough to ‘accommodate’ the very crises they bring to our tables.  In short, we want new versions of the same old Masters.  Through the management’s commodity-driven embracement of its student body’s outrage, what we are getting back is simply the dark mirror to our own self-hystericization.
Another mirror this organisation holds to its own discourse comes through in its emphasis on the ‘breadth’ and variety of its speakers.  Because such a discourse bears no extrinsic Master-Signifier (no singular, reductive, affirmative voice) it is forced to carry the democratic ‘multiplicity’ of many voices all at once engaged in a neutralised ‘network’ of general causes.  This is what we get in the shape of ‘debates’ and ‘discussions’ held in the event of the occupation itself.  This is why the Master-Signifier (S1) on Lacan’s graph holds the place of the barred/disavowed position.  Because we cannot formulate for ourselves a unifying cause of exclusionary action, any action we do endeavour to take is destined to be subsumed by the common, prevailing causality.  By this same token, imagine if slaves in exile (in any crisis, even) were to publicly hold democratic seminars in order to discuss the various complexities, contingencies and conflicts of their imminent emancipation.  The problem is thus not the organisation or the action of the protest—the problem is informing this organisation, calcifying this action.
Forging the Act (a Defence of Paranoia)
“On the crest of progress, we can’t balance on the wave / If the measure of success is only tallied in the lives we save.”  –  Bad Religion, “Crisis Time”
As Queer voices go, the theoretical struggle today is more and more a matter of inclusion, multiplicity, and complexity.  As an unrepentant Lacanian, I am all too often accused of over-reliance on reductive terms in my analysis.  I exclude often necessary contingencies from what I am talking about, focusing more on universal theory than on the complex detail of reality.  I am abstract, one-sided, and dogmatic.  Nonetheless, against the fashionable sway of post-structuralism, I remain steadfast to my position.  If the symbolic role of the Master-Signifier can teach us anything it is that exclusion is always the name of the game.  And crisis, as we have no doubt established, is the same principle.
Eve Sedgwick, in her essay on paranoid and reparative reading, talks about a suspension of “strong theory” in favour of the potential for lapses, surprises and transformative errors of localised affect theory.  Sedgwick’s critique points the way towards a less anticipatory, self-annihilating paradigm, towards something that can properly accommodate the exclusions and complexities of the structured ego—reiterating the very Queerness in Queer lives.
My argument, however, is a defence of the ‘paranoiac’ Queer position over these more flexible, less anticipatory paradigms.  As already outlined, the general problem with an always-open discourse is not that the Master-Signifier is absent (as such a discourse would only be ideal), but that it is always somehow disavowed or obstructed from view, allowing it to continue shaping our views unchallenged.  In trying to ‘understand’ what a garden is, for example, the “weak theory” Sedgwick proposes aims to analyse every blade of grass and every worm and soil grain at hand—not to get the ‘big picture,’ but to become intimately familiar with what’s really out there.  The problem with such an analysis, of course, is that in order for it to work we must have a minimally pre-established framework for what constitutes the exact boundaries of a garden worth analysing.  This performative disavowal is a failure to acknowledge the subject’s eternal entanglement in the signifiers ‘garden’ and ‘not garden’ that make a close inspection palpable in the first place.  And today is no different:  we critics of ideology hinge our every idea only on the predicated ballpark boundaries that call for a ‘reformation’ or a rehabilitation of present-day capitalism.  Thus it comes as no surprise, with all irony intact, that Sedgwick’s critique of strong theory must fall back on the very minimal-framework ‘strong’ paranoiac classification (of numerical listing the features of paranoia) it attacks.
So my question is both naïve and crucial:  why not paranoia?  The paranoia I am talking about, of course, is not the paranoia of a specific object (as in the racist or homophobe, whose ‘fear’ of the intrinsic values of the Queer or the Person of Colour is constructed like a fantasy), but of the paranoia informed through the affect of anxiety.  Contrary to the fetishist fear, paranoiac anxiety holds only the negative-object of the Real in its grasp—or, that is to say, out of its grasp.  This empty void ‘stands in’ for the un-representable kernel of the subject’s own symbolic displacement in the symbolic order.
A general paranoiac in this case is performative in the purest sense.  This anxious subject reasonably looks both ways before crossing the road—not because the road is secretly “out to get him,” but rather, because he knows full well that the road holds no specific desire either way.  The subject also pre-supposes (anticipates) some general, universal structure that makes ‘garden’ a translatable phenomenon, even in knowing that the garden is never really in-and-for-itself enough to represent this structure.  The garden and the road both desire nothing from us, and yet it is as though their symbolic displacements are enough to make our affective relations to them palpable.  In the interpellation of subjective reality, it is this appearance of the fiction, I claim, that is most crucial to our understanding and acting upon ‘socially constructed’ phenomena.  A paranoiac—because of his openness to a specific discursive universality—is altogether more prepared to “act” when it seems that this world is out of joint.
Urging to the victims of the second tower in 9/11 that a “second plane might strike” would of course have been a paranoid position par excellence, but it is, of course, a paranoia informed by an anxiety that tells us more about the traumatic unpredictability of the Real than any standard appeals to rationality could.  As Lacan is constant to remind us, anxiety, because it is the only affect without a symbolic attachment, is the only emotion “that does not deceive.”  By this token, Stephen Grosz in The Examined Life explains how paranoia is not only a defence mechanism against suffering, but is also an effective tool for “preventing a catastrophe.”  Paranoia is the subject’s way of expressing disconnectedness and indifferent rejection from others, transforming this anxiety into its symbolic inversion—it is not that I am being ignored by the other, but that the other is ‘like’ a conspirator against me.
Is this not the very truth of the paranoiac Queer subject today?  As time and time again we Queer theorists have observed, our lives are no longer simply the focal point of some collective and intentional cabal “out to get us.”  It may be more accurate to say that we are now more ‘tolerated’ than ever, and maybe even loved—that others do not desire to see us dead, but rather that they simply do not care.  But it is precisely within this ‘not caring’ itself, in this very lack of a specific desire for us, that we find ourselves more and more the victims of non-subjective, systematic violence.  We are the victims of passionate indifference.
And the same holds true for the students of the Sussex occupation:  the uncanny truth is that the management simply “doesn’t care” about us.  This is precisely why I claim that the performative imperative must always be a full embracement of paranoiac disavowal:  we “know” very well they do not care, but this makes it all the more crucial to “act” like we do not know.  By this inversion, we not only ‘fill in’ the empty contents of the other’s desire with the necessary Master-Signifier, but we stage for ourselves a reliable and uniform framework within which to act against this void of an unreality.
Our goal as activists and as Queers “outside of crisis” is thus quite simply to ‘act as though’ there were a monolithic crisis at stake, even if it’s more complicated than that.  This is the only way to break the deadlocks of ‘gentrification’ and re-invigorate the Queer scene with the urgency necessary to stage its own emancipatory politics.  The key to overcoming performative disavowal, therefore, is to target it with its formal negation; whereas the university discourse’s disavowal is the Master-Signifier that elevates the entanglement of power structures to the sublime status of ‘reality’, the disavowal of the Master’s discourse is the barred-subject itself, allowing the naïvely impassioned occupier/Queer to ‘fall into’ (rather than ‘step outside of’) the very causes he strives to make manifest.
What Sedgwick neglected to realise in her critique of paranoia is that it is not the ‘skeptic’ or even the open-minded precariat whose conscience is more in-tune with the lapses, errors and mishaps that make transformative politics possible, but it is rather the single-minded idiot whose world is constantly shaped, ‘proven by’ and altered by the objects they ‘leave out,’ who stands to triumph and actually effect a reliable change to the predominant ideological regime.
Paranoia is thus about more than anticipatory bias and circular reasoning, it is about taking indifference personally, and about navigating oneself within the performative entanglements crisis presents.  Without at least a half-way paranoid position, and without the efficacy of the Master-Signifier this entails, protests such as the Sussex occupy movement can only ever hope to be successful in their partial ‘negotiations’ with the very causality they struggle to erase.  Even if the occupiers are successful in their hysteria, and if the whole operation to outsource labour is called off, the remaining residue is the very power-imbalance that put outsourcing on the agenda in the first place.  Things can only change in these conditions so that they do not really have to change.
To this end, Žižek provides us the co-ordinates for constructing a Master-Signifier that not only tells the truth, but in effect, tells us the truth only insofar as it constructs a symbolic fiction:
A phenomenon can thus tell the truth precisely by presenting itself as a lie, like the Jew in the Freudian joke often quoted by Lacan:  ‘Why are you telling me you are going to Cracow when you’re really going to Cracow?’ (telling the truth represented a breach of the implicit code of deception which ruled the relationship:  when one of them was going to Cracow, he was supposed to tell the lie that his destination was Lemberg, and vice versa).  –  Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 224
It is precisely the “implicit code of deception,” as such, that can hope to calcify all contingent causes into a narrativised whole.  Solidarity starts with the structure of a fiction—a veil of antagonistic sublation that proffers to tell the truth of social misrecognition.  Queers today, therefore, must take an uncomfortable leaf from the bigots and the right-wingers that carry this ‘honest lie’ to its bitter end.  The truth of this deception comes through precisely because it resists vulgar re-constructions of ‘social reality,’ favouring instead the affective conditions that make the lie a symbolic possibility in the first place.  If, for example, we want to talk about an Epistemology of a closet, what better strategy do we have than to insist that the closeted queer position is the only authentic identity in a world that systematically excludes it as an excess?—that ‘coming out’ as a narrative fiction itself only ever runs complicit with the disavowed lie of Queer Solidarity and equality bolstered by neoliberal hegemony?
The title of this essay takes an aphoristic page from Rancière:  today’s crisis is what I call the ‘crisis of no-crisis.’  It speaks of the crisis buried in what is yet implicit, unspoken and haunting.  Even if we “know” what this crisis is, we cannot “act” as players within it.  And worse still, even if we really are within the crisis, we cannot help but want to dissociate.
When Queers and when students want to talk about crisis as systematic and caused by more than proximate, contingent phenomena, we are all the time patronised back into a ‘reality’ bearing the uncanny shape of a fiction.  The general reaction is, of course:  “what about these real crises?” and we are shown the same precarious faces of ‘charity’ and ‘aid work’ compelling us to return to the deadlocks of disavowed capital investment.  The ‘real crisis,’ in this case, tells us only to react out of helplessness: act so that you do not have to think about what caused this.
‘The crisis of no-crisis’ is different insofar as it takes a bold step into the readily paranoiac position of someone who believes “there is more to it” than what charity demands.  The paranoiac bears the insignia of a Master-Signifier informing his actions and compelling him to stand as an equal opposition to the Big Other.  This is not to simply decry that the Big Other is a farce, or that charity is unhelpful, but that there is a more productive and consistent Universality worth talking about.  There is another story worth telling.
Stephen Grosz claims when the subject cannot speak of their trauma, and cannot give voice to the afflictions and spectres of their past, it is trauma that speaks through them, emerging in the form of a symptom.  Today, Queers and Student occupiers can only speak from the ‘symptomatic’ angle of their own exclusion/disavowal from the symbolic order.  We see ourselves only from the hysterical position of the desire of the Big Other, asking:  “what am I to them?” and “how can I change them?”  It is today, I claim, that we must angle our struggles differently—like patients “working through” the traumas of their pasts, the subaltern must speak on its own terms, discover what longings are still repressed, bring them out, and finally, stand for them.
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Solidarity poem to the occupation

Nat Raha responds to the Sussex occupation and the QIC article on occupation as dead end.
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Am I not queer enough?

12 March 2013
This piece was submitted by Joe Parslow.
As someone who reluctantly inhabits almost every part of the normative position, queerness has become an unreachable location of difference for me.  More than that, however, it is almost a site that I strive for as a means by which to prove that “I HAVE SUFFERED TOO!”
Often when reading, writing, thinking or talking about queer, queerness, and being queer, I am confronted with stories of pain, hurt and suffering, but also perhaps a sense of having found a space in which to challenge—or transcend[1]—that suffering.
And amid these narratives of suffering (and transcending) I enter—as, I think, do many young gay-indentified persons—as a reluctantly middle-class, white, male homosexual with a sense of entitlement to an identity that is something more than just “gay”, and I am confronted with a sense that I have not suffered enough.
This is not a criticism of those narratives of suffering (and transcendence), for those narratives which expose homophobia, experiences of HIV/AIDS and the conflicts in the life of someone who has grown up “sideways” (to borrow from the title of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s book) have an intrinsic value.  It is more a comment on certain assumptions about the life of a young gay male today.
At the risk of sounding like a moody teenager who is trying to prove that his life is difficult too, I do think that it is fair to suggest that one does not have to look far in order to find a criticism of gay youth today as being unconnected to, and disinterested in, the history of homosexuality, the battles for liberation and the horrific experiences of HIV/AIDS.  Being produced both vocally and silently alongside this idea is the thought that life for gay youth today is always easier because the fights have already been fought.  Paul Burston’s reported answer, “There isn’t one,” to David Hoyle’s question, “What is the relationship of gays in their twenties to the gay activists of the seventies and the eighties?” pretty much sums up this idea.
And to a certain extent I agree.  Firstly, I don’t think it is obscene to suggest that life for a majority of gay youth (from coming out to acceptance by family, friends, and colleagues as well as acceptance more generally in society) has been made easier by the fights fought in the past.  On top of this, one only has to glance at mainstream homosexual (particularly gay male) culture and stare into the maw of the beast that provides us with, variously but not limited to, Grindr, The G-A-Y Brand, soft-core pornography in the form of gay magazines such as Boys, pride parties, and Playing It Straight, to see that the homosexual position (and by this I mean claiming homosexuality as an identity) has lost a certain visceral energy, a political momentum, a radical potentiality.
By “radical potentiality” I mean, at a basic level, social and political awareness and action, an awareness of the cultural and political history of homosexuality.  However, far more than this, I mean a heightened state of political awareness and a potentially powerful subject position which has ramifications for the entire way that you live your life.  A subject position which is still fighting, a social and political need to stand up, a being on the edges of acceptable social and political action and a disclaiming tool which is more than just, to refer to Butler, a ‘politically efficacious phantasm’[2], but is rather a social and political tool which demands to be heard and seen.
And so as a young queer who is caught between modern mainstream incarnations of homosexuality and a history which demands a certain affective engagement in pain and suffering—as well as being a young queer who is part of a large group of similarly minded queers who are still angry, who do not want to get married, who know their history and are aware of the fights, who still maintain some of that undirected sense of anger which propelled their cultural ancestors to throw the ashes of their friends and lovers on to the lawn of the White House—as this kind of young queer, where is my radical potential?
If we truly are living, as Sarah Schulman claims, ‘in a period like the present where there is no real activism…’[3], what form does radical action take?  Where is the radical potential, political activism and fight for young queers who have grown up in a world which is told that the fight is over and everything is okay now?
Further to this, where is the radical potential for young queers who have not necessarily had to care for and cremate their friends and lovers because of the neglect of the state?  Who have not necessarily had to battle daily against systematic and subjective homophobic violence?  Who have not been abandoned by their families?  Where is the radical potential for those who appear to be sitting comfortably at the table, but who feel that, to use Sara Ahmed’s metaphor, the chair in which they are sitting is definitely not moulded to their shape?
For the young queer who, despite everything, “fits in”, what is there left to do?

[1] The word transcending sits much more comfortably with me than others such as “recovery” or “overcoming”.
[2] Butler in Abelove et al., 1993:  307/8.
[3] Schulman, 2012:  12.
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thoughts on the sussex occupation as dead end

(find below the final article built from the previous blog entries)
Members of the Queer (in) Crisis collective question the Sussex occupation and demos as empty forms and traditions, and discuss how to maintain the toxicity of protest.
The current occupation at Sussex University is in its fifth week, with no signs of ending. The management remains comfortable with its presence and unwillingness to force an eviction. In a recent interview Sussex University Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing stated the following:
I respect students’ right to voice their opinions, and we always have done, and Sussex has been a place where people have been critical of a whole range of issues from management to government. Providing protests are peaceful, providing they’re legal, and providing the students are safe we have freedom of speech here and we allow people to express their views … . If it wasn’t [legal and safe] we would have taken action to bring it [the current occupation] to a close, and we’ve done that in the past when we have been concerned about legality and safety.
Like Farthing, it is possible to read this occupation as the continuation of a tradition of particular modes of activism at the university. Occupation has established itself as the predominate and normative tactic for student protesters on campus. Over time, this form of action has depreciated in significance, becoming a deradicalised and safe expression of student criticism. Perhaps the occupation is now a legitimate form of protest, expected, even welcomed. To what extent is the current occupation permitted, and to what extent does that permission manifest itself as neutralization?
Over the last few years, occupation as a tactic has increased sharply, spreading memetically between differing struggles. While the occupation initiates the visceralities of communality, providing a space to imagine alternative ways of living and practicing, its suitability and political efficacy for this particular crisis are in doubt. The recurrence of occupation at Sussex has resulted in a process of normalization. It is diluted by liberal accretions to the point of semantic satiation, with each repetition reducing the anxieties and intensities of the form. In an article exploring Tahrir Square as meme, The Deterritorial Support Group (DSG) state,
The tactic [of taking squares] also becomes problematic when the form of the protest, the driving force of the idea of “the Square” starts to become its content; when “taking the space” replaces any discussion of what is being attempted, what aims are and what processes are fit to achieve those aims… . This is a key component in the life of a meme– the content is emptied out of the meme until all that remains is a self-reflexive closed network, relevant only to those who already understand, incapable of communicating new ideas or pushing for change.
Without a critical engagement of the processes fit for our aims we cannot hope to achieve those aims. The occupation does provide a venue to consider modes of political engagement and participation, such as consensus-decision making and what one participant recently described as, ‘innovative forms of leadership (apersonal, horizontal, with multiple heads, random selection, and regular swapping of roles)’. However, as DSG warn, when those processes become ends in themselves, ‘A self-congratulatory atmosphere ensues, with the very simple task of making decisions equitably becoming seen as a “victory” … rather than a basic component of non-coercive human interaction’.
Sussex University has always been at the forefront of student activism. However, this expectancy comes with its negative aspects. In what ways does the immediate concern to take action arise out of a sense of historical responsibility to the University’s so-called traditions, invented as they are?

Protest by Sussex students in 2010…

We suggest that the performance of particular forms of action at the university is determined by an intellectual and culturally left-wing university climate that fosters liberal inclinations and encourages “radical” experimentation. This climate favours a particular aesthetic which, practiced and emptied of content over generations, produces actions such as the current occupation. These lack a critical interrogation of the particular resonances of the form and its efficacies. The actions of past students within these traditions and cultures inflate the symbolic value of the occupation as form, while current students replicate forms of action conducive to an aesthetic and coherent student ‘Sussex’ identity that distorts the meaning of legitimacy. Without content, this form of action is easily tolerated and there is no need for management to bring it to a close.
The occupation is compromised. It is no longer dirty but sanitized and management is immune to its effects. It is predictable, can be forecasted and monitored, maintained and tolerated. (Similarly, students can tolerate this interruption on the ordinary progression of their lives as a productive experience without risk). The occupation as form is no longer unmanageable but is employed as a prophylactic agent within the university body. The toxic content of the campaign against privatisation’s aims is reified by the form of the occupation, as a symbolic value profitable for management. We could even call this a process of real subsumption within the social or university factory.
Let us expand on this notion of toxicity. The current occupation is the manifestation of a conflict between members of the university body and the regulatory administration. A particular group of students and staff have taken a position that threatens the ordinary processes of capital; they have become toxic. Toxins are threatening entities that exist outside, and they are threatening because of their capacity to cross the boundary between outside and inside.
The discourse of capital invokes the notion of the toxin—consider the phrase “toxic assets”—to describe financial assets for which there is no longer a functioning market. By this we mean, these assets are still within the market but have diminished in value so much that they exist outside productive processes of exchange. They no longer exist as capital. During the “financial crisis” of the early noughties, people were being “allowed” to remain in homes on which they had stopped paying the mortgage while banks were sitting on the foreclosure process. These subprime mortgages remained tradeable assets on the financial market. However, when those evicted homeowners  remained in their recently foreclosed homes, they did so ‘in occupation’. At this point the asset became toxic.
How does the asset metaphor work when considering the current occupation of the Conference Centre at Sussex University? Students in occupation should be considered evicted homeowners: by refusing to leave the metaphorical foreclosed home, they prevent the forced sale of the home itself, which makes the asset toxic.
Instead, however, the students in occupation are the very asset that is being sold. The occupation has been reconfigured in terms of symbolic capital. The university transforms student activism into symbolic capital that is then used to leverage potential investment by future students. With the increase in fees, the university’s potential for political prestige is materialised as more money in the back pockets of the administrators. Our intimate crises become tradable cash prospects.

The postcard back of the previous picture, distributed at 2012 Graduation ceremonies

Let us not be mistaken, the occupied space is a loan. In this case, in what sense is it not performing?
Management have loaned the occupiers the space in order that they further the image and credence of the university through practice—let us call this an investiture in a credit-debt contract. This credit-debt contract is then sold on to potential new students, or those about to invest in the university, as an unreality or an action stripped of meaning.
The actual space, or the conference centre, exists as collateral in this production of symbolic capital. How can we realise the potential toxicity of this credit-debt asset? How can we make this a crisis for prospective students?
We must actually win whereby student activism as an asset becomes toxic. We propose that occupiers stop acting symbolically with respect to the occupied space or occupation—occupiers must demonstrate an inability to pay back the loan under the terms set. We must occupy a foreclosed space by refusing any symbolic value. By that we mean an immediate end to the symbolic meaning of the occupation and a return to its material basis. While the space is being used for great things such as teach-ins, etc., it is paying on its loan by contributing to the political prestige of the university’s image—its toxicity is merely a potentiality.
To what extent is it helpful to think of the management as invested in the political traditions and reputations of the university? Do not imagine that the university body exists for management as anything other than a bullet-point in their curricula vitae, or securitisation on their escalating mortgages. Management is continuing to extend the terms of the loan. The VC has openly accredited the occupation to the university’s legacy of radicalism, invented as that is. The administration refuse to recognise loss; there is zero political will for open acknowledgement of toxicity, and thus toxicity remains a potentiality.
This management of crisis always threatens to become the crisis of management themselves. A toxic asset is an asset in crisis, positioned just at the edge of liability. Toxic assets always stand on the edge of death, where death occurs as the loss of capital, or capital’s loss. Management are managing their own death; they are lying about the value of the occupation—meaning is being stripped from action. When we push the boundaries of this form they are quick to reconfigure themselves to contain us. Tradition and reputation occur as a process of recuperation. As UC President Mark Yudof once said, ‘being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery…’. The political tradition of the university’s dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the current student “activists”. Our political actions have been commodified and our activities become dead labour.
An example of this dead labour is the production of symbolic value in the demo. The demo works in the mode of the spectacular as a symbolic demonstration of presence and solidarity. The value of the demo lies in a distinct aesthetic amenable to the university’s branded image. This aesthetic is moulded by appeals to media representation. Building for demos becomes a constant and laborious process of production. The demo belongs in the realm of the image: all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.
The occupiers are particularly reliant on the demo form and this is telling. They insist on attributing to the demo a determinative or permissive quality that limits the possibility for action after it. For the occupiers, all action must occur as a result of the demo because actions can only be justified by the quantitative demonstration of support at the demo. This promissory quality stems from a privileging of the quantitative element itself, as a liberal populism. Larger numbers also dilute individual responsibility and accountability for actions and their potential ramifications.
The demonstration of solidarity at the demo itself manifests as a form of patriotism. The soft nationalism of chants, such as “Sussex united, will never be defeated,” provide confidence for the occupiers in their actions; this implies that the occupiers are invested in a university community conceived as a university-homogenizing sovereign with a coherent and stable identity that they can always rescue from corruption. Attributing to the university community a sense of homogenized sovereignty allows the occupiers to consider it as subject to external and coercive forces. The form of the demo reinforces this construction by becoming a form of ‘three-dimensional lobbying, or a moral pressure’ generated by numbers.
To some extent management find it politically expedient to leave their status as “enemy” unchallenged. Not only does this prompt a kind of cathartic form of protest, one without material results, it also reinforces the perceived value of the demo itself. It means that there is no critical acknowledgment by heuristic individuals of their own implication in the production and reconstruction of neoliberal economies. The actions of the occupiers are not infallible.
The demo becomes a form of protest that management can recuperate: like the occupation of Bramber House, the demo is not toxic. Perhaps our goal is to produce a state of intoxication—to shift the ordinary perception of modes of protest by increasing our critical concentration. To reiterate, we call all those in the occupation to reconsider how their political actions on-campus are valued. It is time to move away from the chauvinism of demos and the stagnancy of the occupation. Refuse image. Become unmanageable.
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In reply to Queer/Toxic

12 March 2013
Some thoughts on the occupation as dead end:
By way of linking toxic assets to occupation, we can think of evicted homeowners as occupying their recently foreclosed homes. At this point the asset is toxic. Prior to this, people were being “allowed” to remain in homes where they had stopped paying the mortgage and banks were sitting on the foreclosure process. To what extent is the occupation permitted or allowed, and to what extent does that permission occur as neutralization? How does the asset metaphor work in this instant (the current occupation of the Conference Centre at Sussex University)?
Let us consider this occupation in terms of symbolic capital. The university transforms student activism into symbolic capital that is then used to leverage potential investment by future students. With the increase in fees, the university’s potential for political prestige is materialised as more money in the back pockets of the administrators. Our intimate crises become tradable cash prospects. How can we damage the brand?
If the occupied space is a loan, in what sense is it not performing? Management have loaned the occupiers the space in order that they further the image and credence of the university through practice—let us call this political investiture. This credit-debt contract is then sold on to potential new students, or those about to invest in the university, as an unreality or an action stripped of meaning. The actual space, or the conference centre, exists as collateral in this production of symbolic capital. How can we realise this potential toxicity of this credit-debt asset? How can we make this their (management and/or prospective students’) crisis? Either we must actually win whereby the assets become toxic, or we stop acting politically in this space at all—we demonstrate an inability to pay back the loan under the terms set. We occupy a foreclosed space. By that we mean an immediate end to the symbolic meaning of the occupation and a return to its material basis. While the space is being used for great things such as teach-ins &c., it is paying on its loan by contributing to the political prestige of the university’s image—its toxicity is merely a potentiality.
To what extent is it helpful to think of the management as invested in the political traditions and reputations of the university? Do not imagine that the university exists for management as anything other than a bullet-point in their curricula vitae, or securitisation on their escalating mortgages. To what extent is the conference centre occupation performing as an asset, and why does management continue to extend the terms of the loan? On the one hand, the VC has openly accredited the occupation to the university’s legacy of radicalism, invented as that is. The administration refuse to recognise loss; there is zero political will for open acknowledgement of toxicity, and thus toxicity remains a potentiality. On the other hand, this management of crisis always threatens to become the crisis of management, those in Sussex House. A toxic asset is an asset in crisis, positioned just at the edge of liability. Toxic assets always stand on the edge of death, where death occurs as the loss of capital, or capital’s loss. Management are managing their own death; they are lying about the value of the occupation—meaning is being stripped from action. When we push the boundaries of this form they are quick to reconfigure themselves to contain us. Tradition and reputation occur as a process of recuperation. As UC President Mark Yudof once said, ‘being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery’. The political tradition of the university’s dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the current student “activists”. Our political actions have been commodified and our activities become dead labour.
To reiterate, we call all those in the occupation to reconsider the value of their political actions on-campus. It is time to move away from the chauvinism of demos and the soft nationalism of “Sussex united”. Stop grandstanding in general assemblies. Refuse image. Work silently.
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Queer/Toxic (addendum to the discussion at Sussex Occupation)

5 March 2013
The discussion of queerness and toxicity at Sussex Occupation was generally unscripted; as an attempt at summary, these notes are not comprehensive.  Please note that many of these observations and arguments about toxicity are drawn from or draw upon Animacies, by Mel Chen.
“Toxicity’s coextant figure is immunity; to be more precise, threatened immunity.”  – Mel Chen, Animacies
The discourse of capital invokes the notion of the toxin to describe—perhaps to quarantine—those segments of the consuming population that do not, from the perspective of those in whom capital is concentrated, consume properly.  (Consider the phrase “toxic assets”:  the concept is linked to the commodified credit debt and subprime mortgages traded by financial institutions, especially during what is called the financial crisis of the late 2000s.)  To think of toxicity in a generalized way, we might think of space.  Toxins are threatening entities that exist outside (a body, an environment, an institution, etc.), and they are threatening because of their capacity to cross the boundary between outside and inside, or to penetrate.
Queerness seems always to be implicated in notions of the toxic.  Queer itself arises from the AIDS crisis of the 1980s—a crisis over a virus which is a kind of toxin, and a crisis linked discursively to queer bodies and sexualities.  According to one poll, a majority of the US public in 1985 favored quarantining seropositive people; a majority also supported criminalizing sex with a seropositive person.  Both of these responses to HIV/AIDS suggest the reciprocal relationship between toxicity and immunity—bodies (materials, assets, etc.) defined as toxic threaten comfortable subjects by disturbing or complicating constructed boundaries and immunities; simultaneously, the response by those whose immunity is threatened is to further shore up these boundaries, to contain the toxic bodies (materials, assets, etc.).
Mel Chen discusses “immunity nationalism,” a kind of xenophobic discourse of nationhood that locates and externalizes toxins in foreign bodies and institutions.  Perhaps we can also apply this notion of immunity to the university’s plans to outsource, and to larger neoliberal trends in the concentration of capital and liberalization of politics.  If this occupation situates bodies inside a space connected to the administration of the university, those bodies operate as toxins.  Simultaneously, the university may move to neutralize or quarantine these toxic bodies—that is, the university may seek to comfortably manage the occupation.  Perhaps our goal is to produce a state of intoxication, so to speak—to make the administration constantly uncomfortable by complicating the neoliberal boundaries between public/private spaces (or, maybe, between student/nonstudent spaces).
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