Encounters on the Aventine

Brian Lovell

The plebeian secession to the Aventine Hill in 494 BC appears in Jacques Rancière’s article ‘Introducing Disagreement’ as a metaphor for a particular mode of democratic enactment. To Rancière, the secessio is emblematic of “the symbolic institution of the political in the form of the power of those who are not entitled to exercise power” (2000, 124), a democracy which embodies “the power of the people with nothing, the speech of those who should not be speaking, those who were not really speaking beings”. Gathered on the hill, so Rancière’s version goes, the masses demanded a treaty with the patricians:

“The patricians responded that this was impossible, because to make a treaty meant giving one’s word: since the plebeians did not have human speech, they could not give what they did not have. They possessed only a ‘sort of bellowing which was a sign of need and not a manifestation of intelligence.’ In order to understand what the plebeians said, then, it had first to be admitted that they spoke. And this required a novel perceptual universe, one where – contrary to all perceptible evidence – those who worked for a living had affairs in common with free men and a voice to designate and argue these common affairs” (2004, 5).

Rancière’s emphasis, then, is on the plebeians’ demand to be heard and to be recognised. For Maffesoli, in whose work the image of the Roman walkout has for some time been a regular leitmotif, the reverse is true. Certainly for him, as for Rancière, the metaphor denotes an expression of power on the part of those unentitled to exercise power. What Maffesoli’s secessio shows, however, is that the root of this power lies not in demands of any treaty with the patricians.

Maffesoli uses the metaphor of the secessio to illustrate the relationship between the mass of the populace and the institutions and diktats of power in contemporary society. Essentially his claim is simply that denizens of postmodernity pay lip service to the edicts of power (moral, political, etc.) and then go about their lives regardless. Put simply, in the words of Robert Downey Jr., “Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the fuck you were gonna do anyway“.

The authorities need not demand any more since this dissent is not ‘spectacular’; it is not meant to be, and it is not conceived either as tactic or as a model to be emulated. It is merely an expression, under the necessary cover of ostensive submission to the established order, of “a force of resistance, that of aloofness or that of dropping out, not causing a stir but expressing itself in a thousand little ironies, versatilities and revolts that come to light regularly in societies called democratic” (Maffesoli 2004, 209).

A quiet conciliation then; multiple little ‘escapes’, tricks used day-to-day to make life bearable. We might note similar observations by Michel De Certeau, who talks of “tricks in the art of doing” that enable those subjected to the constraints of urban existence to “deflect them, to make use of them, to contrive through a sort of everyday tinkering to establish their own décor and trace their own personal itineraries” (Augé 1995, 38).

This is not deliberate subversion, and the disaffection it reflects has nothing to do with ideology or political goals. The secessio is simply “culture expressing a collective experience that […] thumbs its nose at any and all moral, political or economic imperatives issued by power in the abstract and overarching sense” (2004, 209). But Maffesoli clearly imputes to this ‘opting out’ a function more ‘radical’ than first appearances might suggest: we are speaking here, he emphasises, of “popular culture in the strongest terms, as “something that founds or creates society” (ibid.)

Several authors (Maffesoli included) note a consonance between the postmodern tribes and Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, a claim that can be taken at face value to suggest a political aspect to this mass withdrawal that goes beyond straightforward apathy. The secessio reinforces a conception of the postmodern social dynamic as in some sense a systemisation of ‘disappearance’ – as Bey observes, “a logical radical option for our time” (1985/2003, 127). After all, “why bother to confront a ‘power’ which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation?” (ibid). Why bother to attack power head on, and thereby bring upon oneself the violent retaliations that will inevitably ensue? And for that matter, why bother to involve oneself with the self-righteous technocrats of revolution who have carved their life lie out of the business of revolt? The secessio expresses an unspoken realisation on the part of the mass of society that “the best and most radical tactic will be to […] withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear” (ibid. 100). Although not conceived as such, the tribe assumes the character of tactic of disappearance: a revolt that does not engage directly with its antagonist, but rather “liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen” (ibid 101), enabled by the state’s privileging of simulation over substance to occupy these territories covertly and go about its business largely unmolested.

This notion invites comparison with contemporary theories of exodus-style politics. In his 2008 book Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley identifies a politics conceived as “the praxis of taking up distance with regard to the state, working independently of the state […], the construction of new political subjectivities, new political aggregations in specific localities, and a new dissensual habitus rooted in common sense and the consent of those who dissent” (2008, 112). But ‘activism’ of whatever hue, and the slavish and conformist ideological identification that goes with it,is firmly inscribed in the ‘order of legitimacy and domination’; it is the realm of the ‘individual’, conducing to closure – the ‘demonic thou’ referred to by Martin Buber: the Thou that responds with It. This is the inevitable product of the ‘compulsory morality’ of ideology, mirrored in the establishment and strict policing of boundaries that serve to close off all but instrumental, monological channels of communication with an outside. So much for the ‘activists’. In general, however, we may concur with Maffesoli on the issue of the saturation of the subjectivity of the subject in postmodernity, that is, the superseding of this kind of ‘individual’ by the ‘person’, embodied for Maffesoli in Robert Musil’s figure of the ‘man without qualities’. Musil’s protagonist, Ulrich, expresses the essence of this ‘person’, eschewing an instrumental rationality resting on a univocal analysis of reality. Ulrich embraces freedom, lives for possibility and creates his own perspective and meaning, attaining consciousness through interaction with persons of like kind. The ‘individual’, the activist (en-soi) – ‘into’ its ‘radical politics’ – by objectifying itself rejects its own freedom, wrapping itself in the illusion of the special being it has created for itself. (Ulrich, incidentally, stands serious comparison with Jünger’s anarch: a pour-soi, as against the anarchist [en-soi]; it is worth noting that Maffesoli’s ‘Treatise on Style’ is prefaced with an epigram from Jünger). In the apparent weakness of the ‘man without qualities’, then, lies a particular strength, an empowerment deriving from its capacity for the aleatory (puissance) that prevails, in a very specific way, over constituted power (pouvoir).

* * *

In speaking of the tribal form as a whole then we are speaking, in effect, of a “radical culture of disappearance, partly unconscious but partly conscious” (Bey 1985/2003, 127). The dynamics of this culture suggest a kind of ‘substruction’, marked by the conjoint processes of exiting and the creation of new realities. Viewed on the micro-level through the lens of Musil’s creation it is clear how this formation derives horizontal motion. Maffesoli portrays the defining ‘interpersonal’ of postmodernity as being of transcendence through relation, or “immanent transcendence constituted by the feeling of belonging, by shared passion or by a quasi-mystical sense of correspondence to one’s surroundings” (Maffesoli 2004, 204). One knows the other not as an abstraction, that is, not as an ‘individual’ who “separates himself from nature and distinguishes himself from his neighbours, and makes of this separation and distinction the basis of a […] logic of domination” (ibid). Rather, implied in the communal ambiance of the tribal habitus is an intersubjectivity issuing from “a knowledge and acknowledgement lived by someone in a community framework: that of a group, a tribe, of elective affinities (ibid. 204-205). The intensityof the moment provides “self-fulfilment through a ritual of communion transcending the limits of the small self, hemmed in by time and all of its constraints and contingencies” (ibid. 202).

Buber’s notion of ‘betweenness’ is strongly hinted at in this perspective on how contemporary communal relations operate. If there is a similarity it is not surprising given Maffesoli and Buber’s shared intellectual lineage. Simmel’s interactionism was a major influence on Buber’s notion of das Zwischenmenschliche, a fusion of interaction and transcendence in a transcendent experience attained through reciprocal intersubjective communication; this relation is a liminal space (Lat.: līmen: ‘threshold’) suggesting in the transference of I-It (subject-object) to I-Thou (subject-subject) something transformational. For the ‘man without qualities’, unburdened by ideological commitment, the relation between I and Thou can be direct, unmediated by the intervention of any system of ideas. The dialogical fuses with the political in a ‘we’ that takes on the form of a social weapon: a ‘we’ opposed to sovereignty, that has neither reason nor inclination to seek any treaty with any patrician.

Similarly to Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of a God emergent as process, Buber’s of a God emergent in the between of a relation sees God as not ‘here’, but as emergent ‘here’ through relational process; divinity shifts to a plane distinct from theism, deism or atheism, but rather to existence as process of relational emergence, a notion of which strong undercurrents can be felt both in Maffesoli’s portrayal of the tribes and Bey’s of the TAZ. “Whenever there are two, then Hermes arrives. He’s the third. He is communication, he is the secret; the guest […] That’s the ‘magic’ of the TAZ. It’s the third, the uninvited guest” (Bey n.d.). We are speaking, then, of a kind of interactional vandalism on a grand scale; at a push we might call it a ‘Hermetic vandalism’ (“Hermes – the Angel – the medium is the Messenger”, that emergent in a relation which breaks down the “crystal of separation” [Bey 1993]).

If social systems are systems of communication, as is a fairly widely-held notion in complexity and systems theory, disruptions of the normal workings of the system can be said to act in such a way as to combat the political (pouvoir/constituted power) through reciprocity and relation (puissance/constituent power); hence, popular culture, in a strong sense, as “something that founds or creates society”. This ambiance, rejecting any aspiration towards the eschatological perfection of the world and instead invested wholly in the present of human togetherness, brings the utopian into the realm of the ‘topian’: the focus is on the fissures in the existing order: the domestic; the emotional: “little utopias – be they sexual, religious, cultural, musical or otherwise – in the little interstices of existence” (Maffesoli 2004, 20). Utopia is thus no longer ‘outside of place’, but occurs in the ‘betweenness’ of relationships, whether with the other, or with the spaces one creates or recuperates: the transmutation of monological to dialogical in immediacy: the ‘immanence of the sacred’.

* * *

The assertion that non-alienated experiences can issue from the inherently alienating domain of consumer capitalism might seem paradoxical, even ridiculous, but the claim to be living an alternative existence while using tools provided by one’s opponents to do so is hardly untenable. In some cases it may prove a mortal contradiction (one thinks of the fate of various intentional communities of the 19th and early 20th century), but it does not represent an irreconcilable one. Following Buber (cf. Landauer, Foucault, Holloway and others), it is that territory where power-to is reclaimed that opens space for meaningful transformation. The relational deterritorialisations constitutive of the tribal sociality can on this view be seen as corrosive of the arborescent structures of the patrician order by diverting creative energy away from them and replacing them from beneath with acentred networks of open communication. The existential communitas of the subterranean centrality thus assumes a disruptive character, the ‘territory of the moment’ created beyond the gaze of authority the evanescent opportunity for creativity in which lies empowerment.

But those on the Aventine must necessarily engage in transactions with the patricians, and through these transactions conditions are provided for the reintegration of experience. Stevphen Shukaitis rightly reminds us of the naïveté of assuming that spaces can “magically be created ‘outside’ of capital” (Shukaitis 2009, 25), and indeed in a structural sense this is not what the secessio does. Ending one’s dependence on an external environment is never an option – always on one side one is contiguous with that which one rejects – but those little utopias instantiated in consumer tribes by their very nature directly depend on this contiguity. Shukaitis suggests that the Situationist notion of recuperation opens up possibilities for “a politics continually reconstituted against and through the dynamics of recuperation: to keep open an antagonism without closure” (ibid.). This can be used for what we are discussing here, effectually expressing the way in which the secessio interacts with its context, simultaneously disrupting its social environment, diverting aspects of it into new and unexpected differentiations, and maintaining the conditions through which it may be reintegrated.

In other words, a double articulation is at work whereby the two dimensions are simultaneously connected yet autonomous, with neither one determining the other. An exchange relationship persists, through which all kinds of elements from an otherwise undesirable exterior can be recuperated and incorporated by those on the hill, since they are used, in the final analysis, against that very exterior.

The asymmetry inherent in the struggle for the reclamation of power-to (puissance) from power-over (pouvoir) distinguishes the resistance of the man without qualities from the classic notion of ‘counterpower’. In this double articulation the obliqueness of plebeian interactions with the patricians reveals itself as a kind of Taoist display of Ulrich’s apparent ‘weakness’ prevailing. The engagement and disengagement of the two articulations gives rise to motion: on the one hand the virtual becoming provides constant novelty, and on the other the inescapable actuality of context provides an independent constant. When the interstitial achieves a large degree of autonomy and is at the same time able to connect freely with those elements of the outside that it needs to incorporate into itself, filtering and processing information from its context and recuperating what it deems necessary, a transformative force is at work. Effective maintenance of the ability to connect and disconnect at will ensures that management of cross-boundary exchange remains to the plebeian’s advantage. A plane of immanence is established whereby the occurrence of events that can be connected to and incorporated is encouraged, and in which they can be incorporated so as to provide necessary sustenance without becoming a determining force.

* * *

All of this points to a certain utopian episteme, certainly distinct from the perfectionist macro-utopianisms of modern political doctrines but also, more subtly, from those of a Jamesonian “misfits and oddballs” type. This is a utopianism – and perhaps even the ‘ism’ is no longer really applicable here – which echoes a notion Ruth Levitas finds in the work of Ernst Bloch. Bloch’s docta spes, Levitas argues, embodies a “move from abstract to concrete utopia: a move from wishful thinking, and the expression of desire, to will-full and instrumental action […] – as [Bloch] puts it, ‘the hinge in human history and its producer’” (2008, 43). This appreciation of ‘utopia’ as something real and transformative rather than merely an abstract compensatory or critical idea rehabilitates it as a “methodological organ for the New, an objective aggregate state of what is coming up” (Bloch 1986, 5). The territory of the tribe is the living fabric of the present, and here, through the lived intensity of everyday creation, it proves itself ‘champion of asymmetrical combat’, the autonomous zones it incubates striking obliquely but constantly at structures of control: at ideas; language; concepts; constructs; intellectual monoliths of every kind. Thus, to paraphrase Bey, the plebeian conquers without being noticed, and then moves on; that he remains unheard and unrecognised is not a weakness; his very strength lies in that part of himself beyond the understanding of the patricians; out of earshot; beyond their ability to see.

Secessio Vol.1 No. 1, Spring 2012


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