Collectives

kəˈlɛktɪv

adjective

done by people acting as a group.

“a collective protest”

noun

a cooperative enterprise.

“the anarchist collective and bookshop”

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“When in doubt I’m told, write what I know. So I peel my eye to the moment, my love of it. I wake from a dream about running I interpret as the desire to get there.”

Layli Long Solidier, Whereas

 

I’ve been thinking about collectives. I wanted to post something because I was teaching a ‘writing for the social media’ seminar in Freiburg & thought to do an assignment w/ my students. Then time got the better of me, weeks later the seminar’s over, the creature in the White House continues to spread nightmare, the news more foreboding, and I’m back in Athens.

So collectives — a way to manage something together; Hannah Arendt in a late interview was talking about the power of the ‘we’ in “Eichmann was Outrageously Stupid” — that he represented “a new type of criminal,” the functionary who wants “to go along with the rest,” so not evil in the classical sense of the fallen angel with Iago-esque vengeance. But more like a machine. And this is where Arendt’s famous notion of the banality of evil comes in. Though the point of the human is that it isn’t a machine. Nevertheless, this is the reality: Eichmann as representative of “a very dangerous gentleman” who wanted to say “‘we,’ … wanting-to-say-we like this were quite enough to make he greatest of all crimes possible. The Hitlers, after all, really aren’t the ones who are typical in this kind of situation — they’d be powerless without the support of others.” Arendt describes this kind of “going along” is what “involves lots of people acting together —” that this is what produces power. “So long as you’re alone you’re always powerless.”

So collectives again — they can go both ways, or in Arendt’s words, “This feeling of power that arises from acting together is absolutely not wrong in itself, it’s a general human feeling. But it’s not good, either. It’s neutral… simply a phenomenon,” so I think of all those following orders, caging minors, building camps, of the debt/loan experiment that leached Greece so it could stay in a union of European states — these groups with their ideas and purposes for a system, whether of law, ideology, economy or a mélange of these, meant to keep or put in place a mechanism of power… maybe this is what I want to write about, of the bodies caught in mechanisms, the body as threshold.

When in Freiburg I lived in a collective where I shared time and meals but didn’t always have the language to say the things I wanted to because I don’t speak German. I also spend time with refugee families and have learned language is broader than the merely literate as communication is achieved in multiple ways that include how we move our bodies, touch, gesture, sing. Layli Long Soldier has Arthur Sze’s words as an epigram to the beginning of Whereas “No word has any special hierarchy over any other” and I think yes but also that it’s been precisely the ability to prioritize meaning according to specific interests — such as following orders in the Eichmann sense, upholding DT’s “Muslim Ban” in the legal discursive sense — that sabotages and redacts the singular body and its singularity of experiences.

Giorgio Agamben talks a lot about biopolitics, a term first used by Michel Foucault; this “growing inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms and calculations of power,” is discussed in Agamben’s theorizing of “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern” or “… as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern.” He points out, “What happened in the camps so exceeds the juridical concept of crime that the specific juridico-political structure in which those events took place is often simply omitted from consideration.” Rereading Agamben is helpful if chilling. He suggests that we take a step back to look rather coldly (in the Yeatsian sense … “Cast a cold eye…”?) And ask the question: “What is a camp, what is its juridico-political structure, that such events could take place there? This will lead us to regard the camp not as a historical fact and an anomaly belonging to the past (even if still verifiable) but in some way as the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living.”

So “the hidden matrix” of a collective might be anything from FB telling me “Community means a lot” and “What we do together matters” as they file away my data, and tell me how many times I’ve clicked on the heart emoji for love, to DT’s wish for a Midas touch on everything he can get his hands on. Once exposed perhaps a matrix can be taken apart. As Arendt reminds us it takes functionaries to keep systems in place. But there is also the molecular level. I love the expression and sound of “molecular.” Molecular as in atoms and their production and behavior in relation to the chemistry of bonds that, to continue the metaphor, cluster to make larger elements of themselves. As bodies, as with living cells, we are not predictable in the way machines can be programmed to be. I think this is our hope anyway.

 

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About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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