AtHQ: Dangerous Ideas – Jeff Kinkle

‘A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.’ Max Horkheimer

The underlying theme of my provocation today will be the idea of provocation: its relevance, effectiveness, and even possibility. My initial idea was to do something with the Situationist’s text ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ (1966). I first came across this text – the first text from the Situationist International I ever read, or remember reading – at a point during my BA in Politics at which I was completely disillusioned and bored. It pinpointed many of the frustrations I felt with my program, school, classmates, professors, and myself, and formulated a political way of understanding my disillusionment and boredom, as well as a ‘program’ for reactivating my engagement with the political. As such, however, I associate the text so strongly with a particular feeling of teenage angst and youthful naivety that it is today difficult for me to engage with. Reading it again recently I felt slightly embarrassed. The authors’ attempts to provoke their imagined readers seemed so anachronistic as to be almost cute and endearing. Still, working with the Situationists entails at some point considering whether or not one is utilizing radical politics for careerist ends, devitalizing them in the process. This is something I still haven’t resolved completely and this is part of the reason why I think it’s worth going back to this text, even if I risk getting trapped in a morass of hackneyed discussions about ‘genuine’ radicality, recuperation, and denouncing the so-called radicals funded by the state.

According to its dictionary definition a provocation is: ‘action or speech that makes someone annoyed or angry, especially deliberately.’ ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ was clearly intended as primarily a provocation (rather than as primarily a nuanced, scholarly essay), and according to the Situationists and their legend it was an enormously successful one, ultimately leading to May ’68. The text was written after a group of pro-Situationists managed to get elected to the presidency at the University of Strasbourg Student Union and contacted the Situationists asking advice as to the best way to destroy the university. Debord gave Mustapha Khayati the task of writing a pamphlet (in discussion with the students) that would ‘provoke an extreme response, possibly even violence, from the university authorities.’ The Student Union spent their entire funds on printing ten thousand copies of the pamphlet in a fancy jacket, its full title being ‘On the Poverty of Student Life, considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual and especially intellectual aspects, with a modest proposal for its remedy’. This was part of a chain of orchestrated events in which the entire authority of the university was challenged, with revolutionary tracts being put up on walls and distributed and students throwing tomatoes at professors.

The text itself is a denunciation of the figure of the student (the most universally despised in France after the priest and the policeman) and the university. ‘The university has become an institutional organization of ignorance; “high culture” itself is being degraded in the assembly-line production of professors, all of whom are cretins and most of whom would get the bird from any audience of highschoolers.’ Its main purpose is to train white-collar workers, despite whatever delusions the professors and students harbor. ‘Being a student is a form of initiation,’ both in that they are being trained for a future in an office and given the time to groom their identity as a consumer. The situation is not completely hopeless as the Situationists point to a small percentage of students that have understood the system and exploit it accordingly, getting grants while spreading the seeds of sedition, and making ‘no secret of the fact that what they extract so easily from the “academic system” is used for its destruction.’ ‘The student cannot revolt against anything without revolting against his studies,’ they conclude, and a revolt against their studies is the first step towards a total rejection of the society that requires these studies.

The pro-Situationists from the Student Union were ultimately brought before a judge who described them as ‘scarecely more than adolescents, lacking all experience of real life. Their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political, and economic theories, and bored by the drab monotony of everything life, they make the empty, arrogant and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments on their fellow students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy and the governments and political systems of the entire world. Rejecting all morality and constraint these students do not hesitate to commend theft.’

The Situationists write in a later commentary on the events surrounding ‘On the Poverty of Student Life, ‘We want to make ideas dangerous again.’ For me, today, the ideas in ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’ do not feel particularly dangerous however. It may still be relevant enough to inspire (as it did for me nearly ten years ago), but it is difficult to imagine it helping spark a chain of events that would lead to anything the slightest bit similar to the ‘Strasbourg scandal’, let alone something like May 1968.

What ideas are dangerous today? Some police agency found it necessary to have a policeman (or agent of some type) watch Sukant Chandan at the Why Mao? Why Now? conference last year, but I don’t think anyone here was particularly provoked (or inspired for that matter). What could ‘provoke an extreme response, possibility even violence, from the university authorities’ (or from John and Scott)? What could even make the majority of this room angry? In his controversial essay Pacifism as Pathology (1986, republished as a book in 1998), Ward Churchill attacks pacifism, not simply as a well-meaning, perhaps beautiful but ultimately ineffectual, strategy but as a racist pathology. Pacifism, or rather the pacifism adopted by most activists in the US, is racist in that relies on people in the third world, or the most repressed sectors of the ‘home country’, to put their bodies and lives on the line while the Western pacifist activist risks almost nothing. Futhermore, all of the victories it has claimed are actually, at least to a large extent, the result of violent resistance (civil rights movement, Vietnam). He claims that if one wants to gauge the threat a particular movement, group, or technique presents to the status quo, one of the things one can look at is the effort the state puts into the surveillance, infiltration, or repression of the given movement, group, or technique. While this is an oversimplified version of a possibly problematic argument, it is certainly a way in to beginning to think about the Headquarters we think we are Attacking and the manner(s) in which we do so. Just as Churchill writes that is laughable to think that one of the pacifist hallmark’s: the allowing yourself to be arrested in a staged photo-op in cooperation with the police, is revolutionary by any means, one could argue that it is laughable to think one is Attacking the Headquarters in any meaningful sense while being funded by the state.

Churchill is particularly interesting because he was recently fired in June 2007 for ‘research misconduct’ from the University of Colorado after a protracted battle. Churchill was a professor of Ethnic Studies with a particular interest in Native American issues and has done a great deal of research on COINTELPRO and the American Indian Movement, among other things. The day after 9.11, Churchill published an essay that later became a book called ‘Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens’. As the title suggests, Churchill argued that the attacks were not only a consequence of US foreign policy, unintended yet inevitable blowback, but that the US got what it had coming so to speak. ‘On the morning of September 11, 2001, a few more chickens – along with some half-million dead Iraqi children – came home to roost in a very big way at the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center.’ Most provocatively, Churchill claimed the civilians who died in the towers and in the planes were ‘little Eichmanns’. He writes, ‘As to those in the World Trade Center . . . they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly.’

Obviously these claims provoked an angry reaction and calls for Churchill’s job, if not his head, came from across the political spectrum, led by Billy O’Reilly and Fox News, the Republican and then Democratic Governors of Colorado, and Marc Cooper at the left-leaning weekly The Nation. Churchill clearly crossed a line in openly questioning the ‘innocence’ of the attacks victims, but in the aftermath of the attacks it should be kept in mind that putting the attacks into any historical context was considered unpatriotic, as saying the terrorists were motivated by anything other than envy, a hatred of freedom, or even repressed homosexual desire (The Looming Towers) would lead inevitably to the claim that the US deserved it. This is quite interesting in that it is not only the radical fringes of the social sciences whose ideas are considered dangerous but basically any social science in general that doesn’t merely regurgitate official claims.

I am not sure what kind of consequences this might have for the type of research we do, or might do, at CCS. Writing friendly grants and then using the money to ‘spread sedition’? Courses in small arms or seminars on learning chokeholds with fisherman’s thread alongside Sun Tzu and Machiavelli? The swarm and the urban guerilla? If concepts are like makeshift weapons that a convict might tuck into his belt while fleeing, it is clear that neither is anything inherently dangerous, nor are they ever safe: both Hamas and the IDF might read Deleuze to help them fight in Gaza (as Eyal Weisman has demonstrated). So it clearly is not only about the ideas the Centre teaches or claims to espouse but the manner in which we deal with each other, our students, and the outside world. It is also obviously facile to say we should be engaged with research the state wants to ban rather than fund, but in the very least it should lead to an open, honest discussion (like the one we are having over the next few weeks) about what we think we are doing, what role we think we are playing, and what risks are involved. The fundamental questions to which I still don’t myself have answers are what is a headquarters, which Headquarters do we want to attack and for what end, and how can we go about doing so?