Talking Back with Retort

Share this post...

Submit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn
Interview with Retort
by Iain Boal
The text of this interview with Emilien Bernard, who reviewed Afflicted Powers in the French edition published by les Prairies Ordinaires. The interview will appear in the French online journal Article XI.

Who are the people composing Retort? When and how was this collective born? What type of actions do you usually launch?

Retort is a gathering of antinomians based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We are not a collective, we have no explicit program; we are a motley crew - writers, artists, teachers, artisans, scientists, poets - joined in a web of sustaining friendships, who share an antagonism to the present order of things.
We have been meeting on a regular basis for the last two decades, for the most part to eat and drink together - we happily confess to that - but also to discuss politics, history, aesthetics, and the terms and tactics of root-and-branch opposition to capital, empire and the various versions of barbarism currently on offer. 
There is a deep appreciation of old cafes and city taverns competing with a tendency to favor the open air - rambles, the back country, tidepool picnics, wild swimming. We have produced broadsides and pamphlets for particular occasions, and from time to time we also organize more public events - readings, conviviums, evenings of film, and so forth. There are collaborations of many kinds within the milieu.

The name Retort acknowledges that we are engaged in a wider conversation whose terms and assumptions we reject, and that we stand on ground, rhetorical and otherwise, not of our own choosing. We are forced to spend much of our time - far too much - in rebuttals, demurrers, rejoinders. In a word, retorting. The name gestures to an obscure non-sectarian 1940s journal of that title, which at first we thought seriously about reviving. It was edited and published out of a cabin in Bearsville, a hamlet near Woodstock, New York. 
Retort's printing press had belonged to the eloquent Wobbly agitator Carlo Tresca before he was assassinated on the streets of Manhattan, perhaps by agents of Mussolini. The journal Retort was anti-statist, anti-militarist and published essays on art, politics and culture. Poetry too - the first issue published the Kenneth Rexroth poem that begins "Now in Waldheim where the rain/ Has fallen careless and unthinking/ For all an evil century's youth, / Where now the banks of dark roses lie..." Retort Press also published Prison Etiquette: The Convict's Compendium of Useful Information, compiled by war resisters, specifically those imprisoned for refusing to collaborate either with the state or with the Anabaptist "peace churches" who had agreed with the US government to self-manage the rural work camps for conscientious objectors.  Finally, a retort is the alchemist's vessel that ferments, distills, transforms. It's fragile, it needs fire, there may be problems with the underlying theory, but there's occasional magic.

2. How came the idea of writing such a book?

Afflicted Powers emerged out of a broadside entitled "Neither Their War Nor Their Peace", produced by Retort for the anti-war demonstrations in the spring of 2003. The broadside was written in a hurry, with the purpose of challenging the slogans we knew would dominate the marches - namely, "No Bood for Oil" and "Peace".  Tens of thousands of the broadsheet made their way around the planet, and we had a very strong response asking that we elaborate what was, for obvious reasons, compressed and rhetorical. We intended to produce a pamphlet that we would distribute through our own networks, but it grew into a manuscript eventually published in London by Verso. The tone of Afflicted Powers bears the marks of its origin as an intervention on the streets; one reviewer called it "venomous and poetic" - no higher praise.  Chomsky accurately described the book as "part analysis, part manifesto", and we were cheered that Harold Pinter wrote of Afflicted Powers: "A comprehensive analysis of America's relationship with the world. No stone is left unturned. The maggots exposed are grotesque."

3. Al Qaida wanted the victory of Bush in the 2004 elections because his action "was full of force rather than wisdom". In 2008, leaders of Al Qaida said they wanted the election of McCain for quite the same reason (with a conservative,  America remains the "perfect enemy"). So was the victory of Obama a defeat for Al Qaida?

Surely not. Obama's victory was, no question, a domestic defeat for America's white supremacists at the level of the symbolic economy. It was also a rebuff to the military caste that McCain embodies. Much of the US officer corps has been drawn, since the early days of the republic, from migrant Scots-Irish protestant stock, who have also overseen a lot of the dirty work for English imperialists. On the other hand, if the leaders of Al Qaida now believe they need a conservative in the White House to constitute "the perfect enemy" - and we don't think they are that foolish - then they have been watching too much American television. Or maybe too little.  After all, Obama has publicly committed himself on TV to expanding the war in Afghanistan, and if necessary to bomb Pakistan without consultation. Even Bush baulked when he heard that remark during the 2008 campaign. Never underestimate the extremism of liberals - historically, the global death-count under liberal regimes swamps even the bloodbaths instigated by state-communists, fascists and the gallery of tinpot tyrants.  Crucially, of course, vis a vis the Middle East and the Islamic world, Obama has already sworn fealty to the Zionist state.  And Obama knows perfectly well that, with respect to Israel, if you will the means, you will the ends. Full-spectrum ethnocide, now under way in Palestine.

4. In Afflicted Powers, your analysis gave a lot of space to the concept of "spectacle", which was first theorised by the French intellectual Guy Debord.  And when I think about Barack Obama, he is a representation of spectacle if ever I've seen it, but in a "good way", not far from Hollywood.  After being defeated in Iraq, does American imperialism need to adapt its image, to "smooth" it, in order to be able to continue its work? Could Obama be a factor of change on this question? Will he progressively disengage the USA from the war? Close Guantanamo and some of the other military bases all over the world?

First, Obama is fully within spectacular politics - how could he not be?  Consider the staged shots straight out of the Leni Riefenstahl album, the 'rising sun' campaign logo reminiscent of the hinomaru flag that was banned for its militaristic associations during the US occupation of Japan, the young Muslim woman hustled offstage by handlers at an Obama rally for wearing a headscarf, and so forth.  Torturer-in-chief Rumsfeld once fretted and frothed in front of the Washington Press Club about the difficulties of managing the state's business in a world of cell-phone cameras, the internet, a 4-hour news cycle, and Al Jazeera.  He produced his own - vulgarized, to be sure - theory of spectacle.  Our book is precisely about the contradictions of military neo-liberalism under conditions of spectacle produced by the new image-machinery.  There will, of course, be certain changes under Obama - especially in the organization of appearances. For example, Guantanamo, the unacceptable face of state torture, will be closed; the gulag will persist, and the military may even be expanded under Obama.

Also, we think it important to resist the simplicity of your phrasing "After being defeated in Iraq".  As we argue extensively in the chapter of Afflicted Powers titled "Permanent War" (which, regrettably, does not appear in the French translation), there are many ways in which the invasion and occupation of Iraq served neoliberal, and particularly American, interests even though in other ways it proved a debacle.  These arguments, about the unfettered use of force, the imposition of hegemonic will, the establishment of military outposts, etc., might be summed up in the expression "The U.S. state and its capital clients were able to do what they wanted, even if they were unable to get all they wanted."

5. Since September 11, 2001 those who were the specialists in "spectacular" manipulation know that they are vulnerable. Their enemy learned how to act on this terrain, and are much more efficient (in a nasty way) than anyone ever thought possible; 9/11 is proof of this. The reaction of the US administration was mainly military (wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, threats against Iran, Syria, North Korea...). How will they react if the "enemy", Islamic revolutionaries, continue to act in this direction? Will they follow this path?

Given the history of the US, it's a fair bet that a second attentat would produce once again a very violent response from the American state, and would be supported by the significant jingoist element of the population. We venture two predictions - first, that in any further military adventures abroad the casualties will as usual be overwhelmingly non-combatants, and second, that on the domestic front, in the heimat, there will be further assaults on civic freedoms - on privacy of correspondence, habeas corpus, the right to assemble, the right to the city, and so on. Of course, these have always been regularly and significantly breached, which will hardly be news, for example, to those Americans routinely stopped for "driving while black." As to future state policy, whatever the degrees of belligerence within the ruling clique, the crucial point is that the empire's strategic apparatus is "always teetering in the direction of military intervention", no matter what the Obama administration pronounces about "smart power diplomacy" as their chief weapon.

6. One chapter of your book deals with the emergence of Islamic revolutionary terrorism, people who learnt how to use the technics of modernity and the power of images. Of course, you reject en bloc their methods. But at the same time you seem to say that they are the only ones who were able to really destabilize American imperialism and the figure of capitalism. Do you think that western opposition to the "way the things are" should be inspired by some of the analysis of the Revolutionary Islam?

No assassin, no propagandist of the deed, ever matched the impact of the aviators who struck the World Trade Center in 2001, though whether the consequences would be seriously destabilizing for the hegemon or might lead to real strategic failure, well, we were from the outset skeptical. Certainly, the event signaled the arrival in the heartland of global capital of a new model vanguard, managing a kind of d√©tournement of the apparatus of modernity. Remember that the planes which Atta and his crews refunctioned as missile-bombers actually originated as weapons of mass destruction. The Boeing Corporation took the old bombers used to create firestorms over European and Japanese cities during the Second World War and redesigned them for purposes of mass tourism and corporate air travel in the 1960s. Atta himself was an urban planner (in Cairo and Aleppo) disgusted with the disneyfication he saw coming in the wake of the failure of secular national development in Egypt and the Third World. He was right; Dubai is one face of neoliberal globalization, megaslums another. At the same time it is necessary to acknowledge al-Qaida's love affair with image-politics. Even in its rejection of the West, the Islamic vanguard displays a mastery of the virtual and of the new technics of dissemination. This is one aspect of the current moment's mixture of atavism and new-fangledness that those in opposition to both Empire and Jihad, which we regard as two virulent mutations of the Right, must take very seriously.  Absolutely seriously, not because of the mayhem that follows in their train, or not only that, but because the revolutionary vanguard of Terror speaks like nothing else to the truth of modernity, in ways that no idiom of Reason dares to. That is why we say that it is at the level of modernity itself that a strategic Left critique must be framed. Tactically of course we need an anti-capitalist programme that links commoners of the north and south, that campaigns to shut down the imperial base-world, and that blocks fresh rounds of enclosure and primary accumulation.

7. I know that some chapters of the original book are not present in the French edition. What were they dealing with?   

Afflicted Powers has two chapters not included in the French translation. A chapter entitled "Permanent War" argues for the centrality of militarism to any analysis of the contemporary world picture and the role of the US. We review the historical record of  the relentless belligerence of the US state, in order to skewer claims about the purported difference between a state in the hands of a "war party" as opposed to a "party of peace" and diplomacy. It is followed by a chapter entitled "The Future of an Illusion" which tackles the relationship between the US state and the state of Israel, and attempts to break the almost total silence about its genealogy and dynamics, and the role of that relationship in the current imperial moment. We argue that Israel is not only a "failed state" in IMF terms, and certainly no longer a strategic asset, but even as a mirage/mirror in the desert it is now a failure, indeed a serious liability for the managers of empire.  At the level of spectacle it has turned disastrous; images of orange groves and "making the desert bloom" have been replaced by the bulldozing of olive groves, and now by scenes of the wholesale slaughter of innocents in Gaza, who this time did not even have the miserable option of becoming refugees.

We are delighted that Les Prairies Ordinaires have published the book in France, and we understand the demands of format requiring certain excisions.  Even so, the argument of Afflicted Powers is precisely about the new complex conditions in which brute imperial interests and geopolitical struggles have collided with fresh developments in the machinery, production and management of the image-world. By omitting two chapters our case (for francophone readers) is in important respects left incomplete.

8. What about Americans intellectuals? Except for Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, are there other "voices" who play a large role in opposition?

The figure of the oppositional public intellectual in America more or less disappeared during the anti-communist witch hunts of the Cold War, partly through the destruction of careers, partly through the choking off of access to the fourth estate. Chomsky's essay, "The  Responsibility of Intellectuals", printed as a special supplement to the New York Review of Books, made him notorious as a critic of the Vietnam war but by the time it was published in 1967 Chomsky was safely tenured at MIT thanks to his path-breaking work in mathematical linguistics, funded by the US Navy and the Army Signal Corps.  The burst of antinomian energy that flared here in the Bay Area in the 1960s, captured in the voices of Huey Newton and Mario Savio who articulated the demands of the Black Panthers and the Free Speech Movement, was soon snuffed out or suppressed. The handful welcomed into the new model multi-cultural academy were beneficiaries of those struggles, but black radical voices like Angela Davis, Adolph Reed, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore are occluded from the mainstream media. The underground presses of the counterculture were either closed or normalized by the mid-1970s.  Public discourse since then has been dominated by the agenda of conservative and neoliberal think-tanks, established in direct response to the events of the late sixties. The reaction set in and Chomsky, for example, found himself excluded from the pages of the New York Review of Books. Likewise his fellow anarchist Howard Zinn, who taught at Boston University across the river from MIT.  Although hugely popular with young students who flocked to his lectures on civil liberties, Zinn was perennially harried and humiliated by the university administration in an effort to oust him. Zinn gained national recognition very late, following the extraordinary success of his textbook A People's History of the United States, which continues to sell 100,000 copies a year. Ironically, the marginalization of critical voices in America means that the ongoing collapse in circulation of major newspapers and magazines is not having the consequences it would have, say, in India.

Much more serious for the voices of opposition is the implosion of independent bookshops and the network of spaces for reading, gathering and discussion. Enthusiasts of the virtual life are apparently so fixated on their screens or perhaps their heads are stuck so far up the blogosphere that they have not noticed the hollowing out of city neighborhoods or what remains of public space. In the circumstances, therefore, it is hardly surprising that critical voices are to be found circulating mainly on the internet.  A few break out of the ghetto; Mike Davis and Naomi Klein come to mind because they combine trenchant analysis with serious research. They command attention because investigative journalism is more or less dead. Below the threshold of a certain kind of public notoriety, there is a much longer list - it would be invidious to pluck out a few names - of those whose thought and work is helping reclaim the past and forge tools to clarify and theorize the current situation.  And of course there may be some writings whose instrumentality, whose time as a weapon, lies a little in the future.  A goodly representation of such "other voices" can be heard by going to the online archive of "Against the Grain" [<>], a program of broad-ranging and deeply researched interviews aired on Pacifica Radio, the only independent broadcasting network in the US.  Pacifica has struggled since its founding in 1946 to survive in a hostile political environment; now publishing in general is on the rocks, so we are greatly indebted to the courageous and tireless efforts of small outfits like Autonomedia in New York and AK and PM Press in the Bay Area to continue providing a platform for radical voices.    

9.  You seem to have been really impressed by the manifestations against the Iraq war of February and March 2003, not only in the United States but all over the world. For you, there was at that moment a "multitude" which began to stand up against American military neoliberalism. Six years later, is this "multitude" still growing? Are you still optimistic? 

We were never optimistic. We did, however, want to insist that at a moment that is normally the state's finest hour - the hour of mobilizing for war when it whips up an attack-dog unanimity compounded of fear, aggressivity and xenophobia - millions of people simply refused to believe what the warlords were telling them and attempted to stop a war before it had begun. Unsuccessfully, of course; the anti-war movement, as we argue in Afflicted Powers, quickly ran aground, firstly because the ubiquitous slogan "No blood for oil" covered real confusion about the relation of the US to the political economy of global oil - a complex business, to be sure.  And secondly, because marching and organizing under the banner of "peace" is predicated on a misunderstanding of the dynamics of militarism and modernity. Nearly a century ago, Randolph Bourne foresaw the ominous fact that with a standing army, an income tax, and an industrialized warfare sector, the state needs only a Gramscian tacit consent or obliviousness from its population. Peace as an oppositional frame is bound to end in demoralization and bewilderment, if only because the reality is that under current conditions peace is war by other means. The peace of the "peace process" and "pacification".  The peace of cemeteries, of the kind they are digging today in Gaza.

As for "multitude", we do not subscribe to the lately popular view proposed by a post-Leninist Franciscan tendency that, just as the steam engine of the Victorian factory produces a self-conscious proletariat, so the networked computer produces a neo-Spinozan multitude that will be the gravedigger this time. This millennial phantasy is the flipside of the breathless cyberhype generated in the PR mills of silicon capitalism for the consumption of Wall Street. Still, it is true that out of the shambles of failed states, IMF shock therapies, and neoliberalism's new round of global enclosures, a non-vanguardist movement of movements is slowly coming into being. The sites and modes of resistance are - have to be - as motley and protean as the sites and modes of the new enclosures. The time of nostalgia for the factory gate, for fetishizing the point of production, is long gone.  The urgent and necessary task is to connect the struggles at all points, north and south, in the circuits of capital - at the points of production, reproduction, consumption, and expropriation. That means, for example, perceiving and then articulating the interests linking the landless commoners of the Movimento Sem Terra in South America, the Norwegian biologists trying to insert genes not into other lifeforms but into their ecological context at different scales, and the open source movement here in the Bay Area challenging the very category of "intellectual property" as the form of enclosure driving GM agribusiness and the biofuels fiasco.  Quite apart from the practical problems facing horizontalist, transnational networks like the G8 resistance or the World Social Forum, there is hard theoretical work to be done. At the conceptual level, if the commodity form has its metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, what we are calling "common form" also has its philosophical conundrums, which urgently demand our attention. We need to listen to the planet's surviving commoners, and to enlist the help of anthropologists and historians of commoning, usufruct and coincident use-rights.

10.  In the foreword to the French edition, you assert that the concept of Europe thought of as a pole of opposition to the American hegemon, is a delusion. For you, Europe is more or less aligned with US power and with military neoliberalism. Since the election of Sarkozy, France seems to be more and more attracted by "Atlanticism" and alignment with the US.  Is this a confirmation of your point of view? Is the whole of Europe a tool of American strategy? 

Not merely "delusion" but serving a role within the spectacle of false opposition. This spectacular imagery permits those within Europe, who might otherwise be forced to admit - and some, perhaps, confront - their states' willing complicity with U.S. military neoliberalism and full participation in the wider neoliberal project within Europe itself, to pretend that such deep and unwavering collusion does not exist. This is not to argue that Europe is a "tool of American strategy" but instead that European states are full partners with the U.S. in capital's global - sometimes military, sometimes not - strategies.  Sarkozy's "Atlanticism" - this, of course, was Blair's term, too - is just another painted wooden figure on the carousel of European self-representation. Schroeder and Merkel, Chirac and Sarkozy, Blair and Brown, Berlusconi and Prodi, Simitis and Karamanlis: regardless of which one rides the painted horse, the carousel goes nowhere. Not one of these European states has engaged in any meaningful opposition to American militarism while each has relentlessly pushed forward its own - and the EU's - internal neoliberalization. It remains the work of people in the streets to provide actual resistance to both militarism and internal neoliberalization, as the insurrectionists in Greece have recently shown - not only by their willingness to battle in the streets but also by their specifically targeted actions, including ongoing protection of migrants and the blockading at the port of Astakos of U.S. arms bound for Israel.

11.  There is something in your book that is quite unusual in political writing: like the situationists, who seem to exercise a great influence on your analysis, you use the power of poetry to express your ideas - no doubt the recurrent citation of Milton in the book is an illustration of this.  In general, the theorical background of your work is quite extensive. From Marx to Guy Debord, Burke to Polanyi or Milton, you seem to refuse to structure your work in any one way. Is it something that you intended, this multiplicity of approach and reference? How important is it for you to refer to literature? Is it a way to refuse the boredom of most political books?

Part of the answer obviously lies in the fact that it is a collaborative project, with the wider group in active material support of the four authors, each of whom brought their particular experience and body of knowledge. Of the quartet who sat down to draft and write Afflicted Powers two are historians, and the other two are historically minded. It is no doubt the d√©formation of the historian to raid the lumber-rooms of the past, but frankly we cannot imagine having embarked on such a project without the assistance of Rosa Luxemburg, Randolph Bourne, or Hannah Arendt. And unless Nietzsche were to hand, a critique of modernity would be far more difficult to frame. Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbes were an essential part of the analytic toolkit. Milton, who helped to forge a radical, political idiom in the revolutionary decades of the 17th century, gave us our title, and was an abiding inspiration, not least because his great poem was written in the face of defeat.  And of course the indelible line of Tacitus, "They make a desert and call it peace" speaks to us across the centuries. Much of the work of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the historian of ancient Greece, was concerned with state violence and the assassination of memory, which is central to the spectacle. He was inspired by a line of Chateaubriand which he found transcribed in his father's diary before deportation to Auschwitz: "Nero triumphs in vain, as elsewhere in the empire Tacitus has already been born."

You are right about the boredom induced by political books. Hey, what is not boring? The entertainments of modern life are three parts narcotic, and modernity in general is one vast repetitive stress injury.  Nevertheless we seem to be on the threshold of interesting times, and there is reason to listen up. It is, we argued, a moment for fresh concepts as well as the ruthless reworking of old concepts in the light of the new and nightmarish terrain.  Look out for some fresh decoctions and ferments from our laboratories in the Bay Area.  Without being optimistic, we are heartened by signs everywhere of people beginning to reassemble their afflicted powers, and - who know - confederating to offend the enemy. 

Share this post...

Submit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn