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Left Behind: The Rapture

By Charles O'Brien

Michael Berube, The Left at War, New York University Press
The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotexte
Tom McDonough, ed., The Situationists and the City, Verso

The three works under consideration here – the first, a survey of assorted leftist interventions from the past couple of decades, the second, a political sensation from a couple of years ago, the third, an assemblage of texts from the 50s and 60s – have nothing to do with anything in the news now. But, taken together, they tell us enough about where we are. It isn’t good.

Michael Berube’s book is clearly occasioned by the Great Debate on the left over the Iraq War (the debate consisting largely of furious takfiri denunciations of those who have strayed from orthodoxy). But the book has broader, Jamesonian aspirations. So, for instance, we are offered a long discussion of Stuart Hall, and disagreements over the Kosovo war are gone over. It begins with a little Obama-ite triumphalism. The introduction starts:

“This is, I hope, an untimely book.”

Alas, no. Or if it is untimely, it is not because it is classic, purged of the purely topical, rather, it is untimely in a why-are-you-telling-me-this sense. The book is full of such sentences as “the collapse of the American news media must be seen in this context,” and “Chomsky has drawn fire longer than either Said or Foucault, and on more fronts, but he is not iconic for that reason alone.” The nub of the book, though, appears right up front: the aAcknowledgements.

“Writing this book has been a thoroughly collaborative enterprise for me,” he begins. Such Grammy-speak shall not be tolerated. The book is all him. The second sentence:

Chris Robinson, a brilliant assistant professor of Political Science at Clarkson University

But it is not clear whether he is brilliant and an assistant etc. or brilliant for an assistant etc., and of course, we can only take Mr. Berube’s word for it either way.

(and like me a lifelong fan of the New York Rangers)


read the first complete draft of the book and offered a ten-page critique of everything I’d written to that point.

Thank me later!

The adventure continues:

Bruce Robbins, Cary Nelson and Danny Postel read the second complete draft and gave me the confidence to start the third.

How they did that he doesn’t say, and I’m not sure such modernist hijinx in the narrative serve him very well here:

Matt Burstein, assistant professor of philosophy, at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnston, generously offered to read the recent drafts as well, even though he was juggling four classes a semester.

Full stop, as the plot thickens.

He too responded with a ten-page critique of everything I’d written;

It’s getting kind of hectic.



it was he who suggested the term “Manichean Left,” and I have taken the suggestion.

Later in the book, Berube tells how he came to adopt the term “Manichean Left.” He considered, and rejected, other terms to characterize the other, disfavored left. The “academic left,” for example, wouldn’t do. (For one thing, it would have to include Berube himself.1) The “Manichean Left,” in his account, sees everything in stark, black-and-white either/or terms, so that if a Clinton is wrong, a Milosevic must be right. Forget that there’s already a perfectly good term for the phenomenon, recuperation. Berube doesn’t explain why he needed just this term, “Manichean,” with all its theological specificity. The all-black-or-all-white perspective might have been caught by the term — “checkerboard left,” which would have evoked just the right memories of dead time. Or the “digital left” summons up the picture of a slightly malfunctioning cyborg with random issues of The Nation on its hard drive. The term “Manichean Left” would be indefensible except that it excites an imagination avid of better names.

Amanda Anderson and Eric Zimmer read the third draft and let me know how to tweak the fourth into its currentform;

Would that, I wonder, be the book in my hand?

Ben Carrington read the Stuart Hall chapter and festooned the margins with incisive and instructive notes;

But not, I’d wager, “Exterminate the brutes!”

Christopher Lane gave me invaluably stringent feedback on a talk I delivered just as I was mapping out the plan for the book;


and Larry Grossberg read the Stuart Hall and cultural studies chapters with a characteristically keen eye.

A dead eye would have been preferable.

He goes on to thank “my listeners and interlocutors” at a long list of places. He is “especially grateful” to a short list of fifteen individuals for their “kindness, hospitality, intelligence and dialogism.” He thanks Leo Casey for three things. First come the “many online conversations.” Next come “our long talks in a Park Slope coffeer shop in the dark days of 2002-3.” And then, for “sending me his work on Schmidt, Hobbes, Dewey and Gramsci.” It’s like the Twelve Days of Christmas, but tighter.

Memorably — at least to me — he thanks Michael Walzer:

To Michael Walzer, I owe a simple debt of gratitude: after mistakenly identifying him as a supporter of the war in Iraq in a Boston Globe essay of September 2002 (indeed, just before he published an essay in which he concluded that “the administration’s war is neither just nor necessary”), he responded not by telling me to get a clue but by graciously inviting me to write for Dissent.

And here I discover just how immune I am to the Berube magic. In marked contrast to his experience with Michael Walzer; there’s this. At First’s website, I broke the story that Walzer turns up for about twenty minutes in the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter sex tape. Because I considered the story poorly sourced, I soon deleted the post (in fact I had simply made it up). In my case, though, far from soliciting contributions from me for Dissent, Mr. Walzer has maintained a stony silence.

Berube continues:

I did not have a chance to start working seriously on [this book] until the National Humanities Center offered me an Assad Meymandi Fellowship for the month of March 2006. Some year-long Center fellows asked me what I could possibly do with a mere month of fellowship time; I can now tell them that I had four glorious weeks in which to read from morning until night, collect my thoughts, make my notes, and even - sometimes – sit in silence. I had not realized until I arrived in the Research Triangle (North Carolina) that I had never at any point in my adult life lived alone; but I can say with gratitude that the experience of sitting in silence and thinking after reading eight or ten hours is really quite extraordinary.

Did it ever occur to him to quit his job?


The Coming Insurrection
is best known for one resoundingly negative review. The government of France arrested the authors, who call themselves collectively The Invisible Committee, on terror-related charges. The book has been unfortunately compared to the writings of the Situationists. In fact, it has a distinctly pro-Situ flavor. What it most resembles, though, is the work of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt. It is this year’s Empire and Multitude. That it is much shorter lends it a spurious credibility. It lumps together riots in Greece, car-burnings in Paris, and the siege of Fallujah. 1968, whatever it meant or didn’t mean, was a global moment. 2007, when this book was published was not, and most people will have trouble tying any specific event to that year. The depth and/or extent of The Invisible Committee’s solidarity with the insurgents in Fallujah can be easily gauged. When the cops came to the village of Tarnac to arrest our authors, there were no charred human remains decorating the outskirts of the village.

Here are three passages:

(1)The generic name apache has for the past few years been a way of labeling all dangerous individuals, enemies of society, without nation or family, deserters of all destinies, ready for the most audacious confrontations and for any sort of attack on persons and properties.

(2) [From a description of the burning of the Paris Hotel de Ville in 1871]. Never could I have imagined anything so beautiful. It’s superb. I won’t deny that the people of the Commune are frightful rogues. But what artists! And they were not even aware of their own masterpiece! I have seen the rivers of Amalfi bathed in the azure swells of the Mediterranean and the rivers of the Tanghoor temples in Punjab. I’ve seen Rome and many other things. But nothing can compare to what I feasted my eyes on tonight.

(3) The life of the police agent is painful; his position in society is as humiliating and despised as crime itself. Shame and infamy encircle him from all sides, society expels him, isolates him as a pariah, society spits out its disdain for the police agent along with his prey without remorse, without regrets, without pity… The police badge that he carries in his pocket documents his shame.

These passages, from 1807, 1871, and 1842 respectively, are, by far, the liveliest prose in the book, and none has anything to do with a coming insurrection. The Invisible Committee’s own writing is leaden, uninspired and uninspiring. The trouble is not just with the translation. Much of the book is orders of the day, advice you’d be well-advised not to take. And the deficiency is not just a stylistic one. The book is mired in what’s-being-talked-about, and three years on, isn’t quite anymore. A book with these aspirations should have been bursting with the future in the present. Instead, a present already gone has drowned out everything else.

The Situationists in the City is a gorgeous-looking book, all solid gleaming steel, a little too pretty, even, for it own good. The book is well-edited, too, with an unintrusive thirty-page introduction, bibliography, and index. The rest of the book is original Situationist texts, in new translations, with quite a few illustrations, reproduced from the original publication. Most of what’s in the book has been available, here and there, for years.. These particular texts are grouped around the theme, “urban planning” (madly euphemistic for what these guys had in mind). Since just about anything they wrote might be covered by the term, it is really just another Situationist collection, but it’s good to have even the familiar stuff. From a letter to the Times of London protesting the clearance of London’s Chinatown:

The disappearance of pretty girls, of good family especially, will become rarer and rarer after the razing of Limehouse, Do you honestly believe a gentleman can amuse himself in Soho?... … Finally, if modernization appears to you, as it does to us to be historically necessary, we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasm into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions.

From an essay by Debord, “Theory of the Derive”:

An insufficient distrust of chaos, and of its always reactionary ideological use, condemned to a dismal failure the famous directionless ramble undertaken in 1923 by four Surrealists, starting from a city chosen by lot; walking in the open country is obviously depressing, and the operations of chance are poorer than ever there. But mindlessness is pushed much further in Medium (May 1954) by one Pierre Vendryes who believes he can compare - because they all partake of the same anti-determinist liberation - this anecdote with some probability experiments, such as concentric aleatory distribution of tadpoles in a circular crystallizer, to which he adds the last word by specifying: “of course, such a population must not come under any controlling influence,” In these conditions, the prize really goes to the tadpoles, who have the advantage of being “as stripped of possible of intelligence, sociability, and sexuality;” and consequently “truly independent from one another.”

From “Geo-politics of Hibernation,” an essay on, among other things, fallout shelters:

The root of the reigning absence of imagination cannot be understood if one does not have access to the imagination of absence - that is to conceiving what is absent, forbidden, and hidden, and yet possible, in modern life.[2]

This is not a theory without links to the way people handle life; it is on the contrary, a reality in people’s heads, still without links to theory. Those who taking far enough, “the cohabitation with the negative,” in the Hegelian sense, recognize explicitly this absence as their principal strength and their program, will make appear the only positive project that can tear down the walls of sleep and the measures of survival and the bombs of the last judgment, and the megatons of architecture.

All this appears in a volume classified on the back as Art/Architecture, not what the original authors had in mind. It might as easily have been Cultural Studies, or Media. On the copyright page, we find “Translation and Introduction, 2009,” where the original authors absolutely abjured the notion of copyright. There is also a dedication to “Tim Clark,” the noted art historian and one time member of the Situationist International.[3] The existence of this book is a testimonial that certain fires have died down or been extinguished. Reading these texts, it all feels so long ago - it is made to feel so long ago. What’s left is the need to do better.


1 He didn’t order the grilled cheese either. Here’s why:

2 “absence” is Ken Knabb’s translation. McDonough uses, less happily, “lack.”

3 Himself subject of an extended critical appreciation in 2005 at this website.

From October, 2010

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